Assailed by fear and distress Jacob paces on the banks of the Jabbok river. He had arrived at a very narrow place—pressed and confined. His past was pushing forward to meet his future.
To his back is Laban. The father of both his wives. Jacob had been indentured to Laban as payment. For twenty years Jacob had labored and worked for his wives and livestock. Now, he has moved forward. And Laban is chasing him. Pursuing him.
Ahead is his brother Esau. Jacob had cheated, swindled, and robbed his brother many years before. For a brief moment Jacob can smell the stew. He remembers the moment he decided to manipulate the situation for his own benefit. He winces as he recalls the schemes and trickery. He remembers the false disguise he donned in order to be the head under Isaac's tremored blessing.
Esau and Laban represented all that he feared.
The walls of his being are closing in. His usurping actions have fenced him in.
Here is something quite new. Fear. Fear has Jacob wedged between a rock and hard place. He is distressed. His nightmares are upon him. All the scenarios he has played in his head seem to be fleshing out.
Fear does that to a person.
We fear the past...because we do know what it held. We are so afraid that it will reach through events and time and clamp its bony fingers around our arm. We fear that all of our past mistakes, poor choices, selfish ambitions or just our simple ignorance will catch up with us. They will all come rushing forward, pursuing us. We feel the threat—perceived or real. And we are afraid. Afraid of everything we value being taken away.
We fear the future...because we do not know what it holds. We see only the darkness and shadows of the unknown. We imagine details we can't view or control. We fear we will make more mistakes and poor choices. We wonder if we are beyond our ignorance or above our selfish ambitions. And then the future comes toward us. We feel the threat—perceived or real. And we are afraid. Afraid of what will be absent when we arrive there. Afraid that nothing of value is waiting for us.
This is the place that Jacob is. Between Laban and Esau.
The bank of the river is Jacob's present. Laban is behind him. Esau ahead. But it is here that Jacob wrestles a stranger all night. He wrestles with his ghosts. He wrestles with his phantoms. His paranoia. His own self-absorption. He battles all night long.
As daylight cracks the sky—Jacob will not let go. Tenacious and persistent he holds on to the man. In doing so he is injured. Jacob's hip is pulled from its socket. He will forever walk with a limp. But he still will not let go.
And he cries out as the sun sends its rays across the dark water of the Jabbok. He holds on with the last ounce of his strength and asks for a blessing. Jacob understands that he has been wrestling with more than a man. He has been wrestling with who he really fears.
The man wants Jacob to tell him his name. And Jacob spits out, "I am the usurper, the manipulator."
And the man says, “No more. Now your name will be Israel. You have wrestled with God and man and have overcome.”
In that moment Jacob, now Israel, understands that he has been in the presence of God. He has seen God and lived. Peniel. He names the place—Peniel.
His place of fear has become a place of revelation.
With Jacob we are on the banks of the Jabbok river. Wedged between the past and the future is our present. And we are in the presence of God. We wrestle with God here--not in the past and not in the future. God meets us in our present.
Jacob was afraid. Afraid of Laban. Afraid of Esau. Afraid that they would collide. Jacob was afraid to move either way. He was hemmed in. Struggling he tried to tamp down his fear. In this tight place Jacob finds himself facing God. He grapples with the Angel of His Presence.
What Jacob (and we) failed to see and understand was that God had already spoken to Jacob's past. He spoke to Laban. Gave him directions concerning Jacob. God laid the boundaries; he marked the parameter of Laban's encounter with Jacob. And Laban would not cross them.
Jacob also didn't understand that God had moved ahead and softened Esau's heart. Esau came forward and met Jacob with outstretched, welcoming arms. God had marked the boundaries and parameters of Jacob's future. God's plans (as cliché as this may seem) were to prosper Jacob...not to harm him. Plans to give him a hope and a future. Fear blinded Jacob to that truth.
We wrestle with God—in the tight, narrow places of our distress and fear we are wrestling with God. In the space between the past and future we meet God. Here and now.
All the things that Jacob feared he would have to face came true. All of them. The nightmares that had plagued Jacob for years were upon him.
But God met Jacob in the middle of his nightmares. There in the darkness...in the black night God met Jacob. God was with Jacob in the middle of his nightmares. And Jacob overcame them.
Meet me on the banks of the Jabbok.
Make room for me in these tight places.
I will tell you my name, and then you can change it.
Stand beside me in my nightmares.
Dispel my fear.
Help me to overcome even if I have to limp.
Reveal to me my Peniel.