For the LORD will restore the excellence of Jacob Nahum 2:2a
A wilderness is anywhere that’s uncultivated, uninhabited or undisturbed by human activity. Metaphorically it is a bewildering situation. As it turns out, Scripture has a lot to say about the wilderness and what happens there. For some a lot of wandering happens. For others, like Elijah, transition to the next thing begins in the wilderness. Sometimes, like with Jacob, a time alone and separated can bring restoration.
You can read the details of Jacob’s life beginning in Genesis 25. You’re probably familiar with the major events. Jacob gets the blessing and birthright from Esau in a couple of shady deals. He runs for his life to his uncle Laban’s place where he spends the next twenty years. While there, he marries two wives, takes on two concubines, has a big family, and amasses quite a fortune in livestock. He senses a shift in attitude with father-in-law/uncle the rest of the family, so he packs up and slips away.
Restoration with Laban
Laban finds out and takes out after them, catching up to Jacob and his party seven days later in the mountains of Gilead. A wilderness. The very name means raw or rugged.
In Genesis 31, Jacob and Laban had a very frank exchange. Jacob vented his anger at Laban’s taking advantage of him and his labor. But at last the two men make a covenant, the covenant of Mizpah. “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. Genesis 31:49. Along with that was a promise from each man never to harm the other. With the relationship restored, Laban got up the next morning, blessed his family and left.
But Jacob had more restoration ahead of him, particularly with his brother Esau. That would happen at a wilderness at Mahanaim near the Jabbok River.
Restoration with Esau
The last words Jacob had heard from his twin brother were a very angry death threat. Now as Jacob passed ever closer to Canaan, word would surely get back to Esau. Jacob made the first move and sent messengers (with lots of gifts) to Esau. Esau responds that he will come out to meet Jacob . . . With four hundred. Genesis 32:7 says Jacob was terrified and distressed by this news. Jacob makes preparations but then he prays, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him,” Genesis 32:11. This is the first recorded prayer for Jacob since he left home back in chapter 28. But then night falls . . .
Restoration with the covenant-keeping God
Yes, Jacob had prayed to God, but he wasn’t confident God would answer it, so he devised a plan of just how they would meet Esau and he rehearsed it with all his servants. He sent his wives on ahead with the servants and he was left alone. At night. In the wilderness.
In Genesis 32:24 he begins an all-night wrestling match with a man who was clearly more than mortal. (My son was a wrestler in high school. I can’t imagine the stamina and strength necessary to wrestle all night. And Jacob was an old guy by now.) Jacob had been wrestling, scheming, working his whole life to obtain something God, in grace, had already promised him.
The wrestling match proved that his way would never succeed. It was when Jacob let go that the blessing was pronounced. Later, in verse 30, he marvels “I have seen God’s face.” Perhaps literally, but to see His face is to have His favor. Jacob finally understood God’s covenant blessing irrevocably rested on him.
The next morning, Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him and the tears flowed (33:4). Jacob’s prayer was answered. The relationship was restored. The next time we see the brothers, they have come together to bury their father, Isaac in 35:29.
So after a lot of narrative, let’s look at some application. Time in the wilderness can underscore and provide the opportunity for restoration. Do we have relationships with others that need mending? What about our relationship with God? Have we paid Him lip service while wearing ourselves out trying to do everything? Are we trying to earn His blessing and His favor when He has already given it?
What needs to be restored in your wilderness time?
Jacob isn’t the only one who learned some lessons in the wilderness. Next week we’ll see more about how time in the wilderness can be a time of instruction.