In calling attention to the life and character of Jacob, my object is to help young disciples to study the Bible.
One of the greatest mistakes made by people who attempt to study the Word of God is that they have no system about it. They take up the Bible, and read a chapter here and a chapter there, and then take a glimpse of a man’s life, perhaps the beginning of it, or the middle, or the close, and they are all the time getting into darkness and trouble, and say they do not understand the Word of God.
When You Read the Bible, Read the Whole Story
Now, one way to read and study the Bible is to take up the life of one of these characters, because if it were not important that we should read their whole life, the Holy Ghost would not have had it recorded. It has been recorded for our profit; and if we take up the Bible and read a part of a man’s life, and do not follow it out, we shall not understand it.
The way to read the Epistles is to read a whole Epistle at once. If you have only time to read a chapter or two, go to the Psalms or Proverbs. But you cannot understand much about the Book of Ruth, or the Book of Esther, for instance, by reading one chapter. You must read the whole book in order to understand it.
One chapter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians cannot be understood unless you read the whole Epistle. If I write a letter, and the person receiving it takes out the middle of it, and does not read the beginning nor the end, and then complains that he did not understand it, there would be no one to blame but himself. And that is being done constantly with the Word of God.
Perhaps there is no character of the whole Bible, unless it is David, that people stumble over more than the character of Jacob; they say that a great many things that Jacob did were wrong, and that God sanctioned them. That is a mistake which is being constantly made.
If they would take the whole life of Jacob, the beginning and the end, and read it through carefully, they would find how God dealt with Jacob, and how he punished him according to his ways. And you will find that Hosea gives us the key to Jacob’s character and to his life,
“The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds.” (Hosea 12:2 ESV)
As you read his life you will find that idea running all through it. God will punish Jacob according to his ways, and according to his doings will he recompense him.
Jacob Was Always Making a Bargain
Jacob was a man who always had an eye to his own advantage. He always wanted an agreement, so that he might get the best of it. But very often people of this kind do not get on any better than others.
We see this in the parable of the laborers sent by the householder into his vineyard,
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning, he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon, he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16 ESV)
Those that he hired first made a bargain. They would not go out in the vineyard and work until they had made a bargain. They wanted to know how much they were to get.
Now, mark this, wherever you find professed children of God, who are all the time making bargains with the Lord, or wanting to, you will find they come out poorest after all.
Those other men went to the vineyard. They trusted the good man of the vineyard, and they got on a good deal better than the men who made a bargain. “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?'” (Matthew 20:13 ESV).
Jacob was one of the men who are always making a bargain.
Jacob Walked by Sight, Not by Faith
He could trust the Lord as far as he could see him, and no further. He was one of these earthly-minded saints, who are all the time walking by sight and not by faith.
If you want to get a sharp contrast between two men, take Jacob, and then take his son Joseph. One walked by sight, and the other by faith.
If Jacob had had to go through the trials that Joseph had, he would have complained, and thought his journey had been a very hard one. And yet how much better Joseph got on than Jacob!
Remember That We Can Be Like Jacob
I believe that the lives of these men have been recorded for our profit. Not that we may, as some people do, hide behind them and say that God justified their sin; but that you and I might profit by their mistakes, and not fall into them ourselves.
Do not think I am bringing up the life of Jacob and his failings, that it may ease our consciences and justify ourselves. But I want us to remember that many of us are very much like Jacob.
Who Are the “Jacobs” Today?
Where you will find one Joseph now, and one Daniel, and Joshua, you will find five thousand Jacobs. The church is full of Jacobs at the present time; and a great many people seem to think they get on better if they are worldly-minded. They think it is a sign of prosperity if they can only secure the good things of earth, and yet get to heaven.
That is about as high as most people get. They just barely get to heaven, and that is all. But they want to have a good time down here upon earth and make the most of this world. I am afraid that Jacob started out with something of that idea, and he had a rough journey—a perilous voyage.
It is a good deal better to be out and out for God, and to walk by faith, than it is to walk by sight, and be all the time making bargains with the Lord.
Jacob Was Favored by His Mom
Now, his name means—a deceiver, a supplanter. The beginning of the trouble was perhaps with the father and mother. We are told that Rebekah loved Jacob, and Isaac loved Esau; where there is partiality in any family there is always trouble. Jacob, whom she loved, left, and she did not live to see him return.
God Met Jacob
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17 ESV)
We very often hear that quoted in our meetings. Men come into the church and say, “This is the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” When people come into the house of God they put on a sober appearance, and they act as if there was something very strange about the house of God, as if it was the gate of heaven.
But let us bear in mind that every place ought to be holy to a man of God; that in every place we ought to be true to God.
Now, I would not say a word to detract from the holiness of the house of God. But let us bear in mind that every place ought to be holy to a man of God; that in every place we ought to be true to God. We ought to be as true to him in our place of business as we are in the house of God; and when Jacob said, “This is the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17 ESV), he was under the canopy of high heaven. That was where God met him.
Remember That Every Place Is Holy
And God will meet us in the street as well as in a place of worship. He will meet us at home. People come together and say that where two or three are met in his name, there will he be in the midst of them.
But he is also with us in our closets. We are told in another place to go into our closets and shut the door. Any place where God is present is holy, and this putting on another air and a sanctimonious look when we come into the house of God, and laying it aside when we go out, and falling into sin again, thinking that it is going to be acceptable to God if we go to church every Sabbath, is all wrong.
Every place ought to be holy to a true child of God.
Jacob Bargained with God
So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:18-21 ESV)
This is Jacob’s response to the promise God made from the top of that ladder. He said that he would be with him; that he would make his offspring like the dust of the earth; that he would never leave him; that he would bless him, and that he would bring him back again, and that he would give him a good title to all that land; that the whole country should be his and belong to his posterity.
Jacob answers, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” (Genesis 20, 21 ESV). You see he was making a bargain.
Instead of being content with that glorious covenant which God had just made with him, and entering into that promised land, and taking God at his Word, and thanking God for what he had done, he gets up and puts that “if” in. “If God will give me enough, and bring me home safe, then you shall be my God.”
He wanted to make a bargain right there with the Lord, the first thing he did after the God of all grace had met him and spoken to him such wonderful things and told him how he would bless him and exalt him to heaven. Think of this great privilege! Yet he could not see anything beyond this life. He was really world-minded and could not rise into the high state that God wanted him to.
Jacob Got Cheated
Now, we find that he goes down to Haran, and stays there twenty years. Take note, he had gone away with a lie on his lips, and he goes to his uncles, and begins to make sharp bargains. But any man who has been to Bethel and got his conscience quickened is no match for the world; and Jacob got cheated every time.
He worked seven years for his wife, and then he got deceived, and another woman was married to him; and then he has to work seven years longer for the woman he wanted (Genesis 29:15-30). You see he was paid back in his own coin.
He lied to his aged father; and now his uncle is lying to him. He deceived his father; and now he is being deceived. Instead of working seven years for Rachel, he worked fourteen and his wages were changed ten different times. After being there twenty long years, if you will read his life carefully, you will find that he did not make anyone much better, nor had he much influence over his uncle Laban.
God Kept His Promises to Jacob
After meeting God at Bethel and receiving such a promise, he could have afforded to be very generous—he could have afforded to leave himself in God’s hands and let God plan for him.
But instead of that he begins to plan for himself, and he was trying to drive sharp bargains with Laban, and he got cheated every time. You do not hear of his having an altar there, or of his giving one-tenth of his goods. But, after he had been there twenty long years, one day the God of Abraham appeared to him and said,
“I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.” (Genesis 31:13 ESV)
God had not neglected his promise, nor broken his vow. If God was as forgetful as you and I are, I do not know what would become of us. Think of all the vows you have made; think of all the promises that you have made before God and broken.
Have You Vowed Your Life to God?
Have you promised God that you would love him and serve him, and become his child? Have you promised a dying mother, or a dying child, or some loved friend, at the dying hour, that you would turn your face toward heaven and live for God?—and ten, fifteen or twenty years have passed, and that vow is still unkept: it is a broken vow!
For twenty long years Jacob seemed to have forgotten all about his vow at Bethel, but God made him the promise, and it was an unconditional one; and now God comes to him and says, “I am the God of Bethel; I am the God that met you at Bethel; arise, and leave this country, and go back to your own home” (Genesis 31:13 ESV).
God Protected Jacob From Laban
Now see how Jacob begins to plan. He had now a commission from high heaven to go. If he had been like Joshua he would have walked right out with his head up. But instead of that he begins to plan how he could escape and he stole away like a coward. While his uncle was absent, Jacob took his servants and all his cattle and his wives, and fled as if he were guilty of some great crime.
His father-in-law, when he heard of it, marshaled his servants together and went after him; but while he was fleeing away God interfered, and said to Laban the night before he overtook Jacob, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (Genesis 31:24 ESV).
God was going to protect him. God was going to keep his word. He had promised to do it, and Laban could not touch Jacob. God would not allow him to do so. And they met the next day, and Laban did what the God of Abraham told him to do, and they parted friends.
Jacob Planned According to His Own Understanding
After that difficulty had been settled, and Jacob had done right, and what God had told him to do, then the angels came out to escort him back, and he said, “This is God’s camp!” (Genesis 32:2 ESV). But instead of going right back, as God told him to do, he began to plan again to meet Esau.
You see he is all the time planning, planning, planning. There are a great many Christians of this kind now-a-days. They take themselves out of the hands of the Lord, and are all the time planning for themselves. Jacob then did a very mean, contemptible thing. He took the wife that he did not love very much, and some of his cattle, and sent them on before, thinking if Esau should come out to slay them that he would escape (Genesis 33:2). It was a mean, cowardly act.
Jacob Wrestled with God
But now God appears to him. After they had passed over one evening, and the hour was soon coming when he was to meet Esau, who threatened his life, he was alone, and the God of Bethel met him again.
See what took place, “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24 ESV). Now mark what it says, “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24 ESV). It is thought by many that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Jesus of the New.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:25-28 ESV)
Now, when did he have the power? When did he prevail? Why, it was when his hip was out of joint that he prevailed. Now, a man whose hip is out of joint cannot wrestle much. He is very weak, and a little child can throw him down then.
When we have no strength, all we can do is to hold on, and then the blessing will come.
Remember Our Fight Is with Our Flesh
And these men who are trying to work by the energy of the flesh, and to wrestle with God, and to force a blessing out of his hands, have a false idea of God entirely. God stands with his arms full of blessings. His hands are outstretched to the sinner, and he says, “Here they are; take them.” All this fighting is with man’s own self.
The Scripture says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24 ESV). Who are we to strive with? Not with the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper stands with the gate wide open, and he says, “Come in, come in.” But all the striving is with the flesh; it is with this old carnal nature of ours. When Jacob was weak, then he was strong, and then he prevailed; as a prince he had power with God.
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Genesis 32:29, 30 ESV)
Now, we might have thought that he would have been altogether different from that hour and some people tell us that he was; I suppose he was, because the Lord blessed him, and that is a pretty good sign.
Jacob Had Idols
But I think as you read on through his life, you will find that he had not got complete victory over himself, because the next thing you hear is that he is at Shechem, and he builds an altar there, and he calls it El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:18-20). There are a good many men down at Shechem now who have got altars there. They have got a religion, and will tell you that they would not give it up for all the world: but when a man tells you that he would not give up his religion, you may know that he has not much religion to give up.
When a man begins to stand up for my religion, as you very often hear, you may know there is something wrong. That is not what we want. We want them to change their lives, and a religion that does not save men from sin is not worth going across the street after. A religion of that kind is a mere empty form, and worthless. Jacob got to Shechem, and he built an altar there.
God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments.” (Genesis 35:1, 2 ESV)
You see, while he was at Shechem he had built an altar, and had got a lot of strange gods, too. Now, from the beginning of creation to the present time you will find that one of the things the God of the Bible will never allow is, that any God should be put before him; and yet here was Jacob, whom God had met at Bethel and blessed, now at Shechem, surrounded by a lot of idols.
The Danger of Idols
And I think that is the weakness of the church today. When there was no strange God—it says in one place in the Scripture—when there was no strange God with Jacob, God made him ride on the high places of the earth (Deuteronomy 32:12, 13).
So I believe the weakness of the church today lies in the fact that we have these strange gods in our midst. We need not go to Japan, or to China, or to India, to find people with idols. I will venture to say we have not got to go a mile to find them. They may not bow down to the gods of Egypt, the gods of iron, stone and wood, that they have made with their own hands; but anything that comes between me and the God of heaven is an idol; anything that disturbs my communion with God is an idol.
Anything that comes between me and the God of heaven is an idol; anything that disturbs my communion with God is an idol.
I will venture to say there is many a professed child of God today who makes an idol of the card-table, who makes an idol of novels, of dancing, of the theater, of fashion, of self, of pleasure, of money. There are many who bow down to the golden calf today; and the reason why there is so little power in the church of God today is that we have got too many idols.
Now God says to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel” (Genesis 35:1 ESV). And the first thing he did was to put away his strange gods. He knew he was going to meet God in Bethel, and that he could not have his idols before him. That they had to be put away—that was the first thing; and they dug a grave there under the oak at Shechem, and they brought their idols and put them in, and buried them in that grave (Genesis 35:4).
I wish that a great grave were dug, so that we might take every one of our idols and roll them into it. What a blessing it would be! How the fear of God would fall upon the people! And men who are living in sin and rejoicing over their sins, and who are not ashamed to confess their sins in the street, or in their places of business, who are not ashamed to own that they are enemies of the gospel of Jesus Christ—those very men would begin to tremble. We never see the church putting away its idols and cleansing itself of its sins, but that the world will begin to inquire what they shall do to be saved.
The Danger of Formalism
We are living in an age of formalism.
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant… not loving good… having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:1-4 ESV)
Let us be careful that we are not simply empty professors. Let us see that we do not scheme, and build altars, saying, “This is my church; this is my religion; this is my doctrine; this is my creed.” Let us see that we have Christ in the heart; that is the main thing.
A man may be very religious and have no Christ. The world is full of religion. Religion is one thing, Christ is another. Let us see where we are. How many professed Christians there are who have gone to Shechem; they have moved down there and taken all their family; they have an altar there; and because it is fashionable, they go to church on Sunday morning; they like to get into society and have their sons and daughters do the same, and, therefore, they go to church.
The Danger of Going Our Own Way
But many of them are in the same condition that Jacob was at Shechem, with an altar, and at the same time with idols right in their own houses. After he had put away his idols he says,
“Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel. (Genesis 35:3-7 ESV)
Now in the sixteenth verse of that same chapter you will find that he journeyed from Bethel. In the first verse in the chapter God says, “Arise and go to Bethel and dwell there” (Genesis 35:1 ESV). That is plain English that God wanted him to stay there, not only to go and tarry for a night, but to dwell there, to live there; but he went from Bethel. He would not stay at Bethel, for he would not obey the voice of God.
Is not that the condition of the church now-a-days, drifting off to religion of forms, instead of staying at Bethel where God dwells? In the same verse it says he journeyed from there; and Rachel, his beloved wife, died (Genesis 35:16-21). Affliction came. And I believe one reason why we have so many afflictions and sorrows is because we will not stay at Bethel, where God wants us; we will not dwell there.
Jacob Also Played Favorites
The next thing you hear is that his sons have gone to Shechem to look after their sheep. And he says to Joseph one day, “Go to Shechem, and see how your brothers are getting on” (Genesis 37:13, 14). Now, of course, this may be imagination; it may not be true; but I can imagine they had gone to Shechem because the idols were buried under the oak tree, and they went there to get them back again.
You take your sons to Shechem, and you will find it is a good deal easier to take them down there than it is to get them out; it is a good deal easier to lead them into sin than to deliver them from it.
So Jacob sent Joseph down to Shechem; and while he was wandering in the field looking after his brethren, not being able to find them, a stranger came along and said he had heard them say they were going to Dothan; and Joseph went to Dothan, and when his brethren saw him coming, they said, “Here comes this dreamer; we will cut his dreams short now; he is going to make us, with our parents, worship and bow down to him” (Genesis 37:19, 20).
When Joseph came they had murder in their hearts, and they were going to slay him; but Reuben prevailed against them, and they threw him into a pit; but afterwards he was sold to some Ishmaelites, and taken down to Egypt; and they took off his coat of many colors (Genesis 37:21-32).
Jacob had the same failing that his father and mother had; he loved Joseph and Benjamin better than any of the rest of his sons, and that caused jealousy; and where there is partiality in the family it always makes trouble; it stirs up the old Adam in most of us.
Jacob Reaped What He Sowed
They took the coat of many colors and killed a kid and dipped it in its blood, and took it back again to the old man, saying they were afraid something had happened to Joseph; that they had found this coat in the field, and it looked very much like their brothers.
The old man took it and looked at it. You can see the gray-haired old man examine it. Forty or fifty years have passed away since he deceived his aged father, and his boys are coming back with a lie upon their lips. They are deceiving him, and, in their hypocrisy, they rose up to comfort their father when they knew it was a downright lie. That the boy had not been torn to pieces by the wild beasts, and that in all probability he was alive and well in Egypt (Genesis 37:12-36).
But for twenty long years the old man had to carry his great sorrow and burden. I can see him at night, lying upon his bed, and in his sleep, he dreams of poor Joseph torn by the wild beasts; he can hear the piercing cries of that loving son. Twenty long years Jacob had to reap.
Ah, it takes us much longer to reap than to sow.
Jacob told that lie (Genesis 27:19), and we now see him reaping it; we are not told that he confessed it to his father before he died, or even to Esau. And now we find that he is reaping just what he sowed.
And then you will see that when he got to Egypt, if you will turn over to the closing up of his life, he took down there a very strange testimony for that heathen king. I can imagine after he had been in the presence of Pharaoh and told what a hard journey he had had through life, the king would say, “I don’t want that kind of religion.”
Remember That Your Life Will Give a Testimony
And these earthly-minded Christians, who are trying to drive hard bargains with the world, and making the most out of this life—they do not win many people, nor have such a prosperous journey after all.
It is a good deal better to be right with God, even if we do not make money quite so fast; it is more profitable to have a clear conscience with God, and a mind void of offense, and to be poor in this world’s goods, than to have wealth that has been gathered in the way a great many accumulate their wealth—by working on Sundays, and by defrauding the poor, and grinding the unfortunate. Now, see what Jacob has to say,
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” (Genesis 47:9 ESV)
He says, “I have had a stormy voyage of it.” Surely such testimony will not win the king of Egypt to the God of the Hebrews. How unlike Daniel, who, by taking a firm stand when he first went to Babylon and doing right, living for the God of heaven and with the love of God in his soul continually, won that mighty monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, to the God of his people.
If Jacob had been true, he might have some sown good seed all through his pilgrimage. He might have stood before the monarch of Egypt and told him what a blessed journey he had had; how he had been able to serve the God of his fathers, and how the God of his fathers blessed him. But he says, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9 ESV).
How to Study Characters in the Bible
If you want to find out whether a man has really been successful and has had a glorious Christian life and a beautiful voyage through this world, you want to take his whole life, from the cradle, and follow him to his grave. That is the way to study the Bible; not to pick up a chapter here of one who left home with a lie upon his lips; how God met and dealt in grace with him; but you want to see also how God dealt in government with him.
God rides in a chariot of two wheels—grace and government—and the two roll side by side. You will find God dealing in grace and government with Jacob. That is the way he deals with all his children.
So let us be careful, and see to it that we are sowing good seed. And if we have told a lie let us confess it and ask God to take it away—root it out at once. We cannot afford to be deceitful; we cannot afford to rest in shams and profess to be what we are not. God wants honesty. God wants truth in the inward parts.