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THE ANGELS OF GOD
‘The angels of God.’
To the Christian, to the member of the Church of England, with his Prayer Book in his hand, there is a prayer in which we speak to God and recall the existence of a world unseen around us, and beyond us a great realm, the realm of holy souls, the angels and the archangels of God. Some of us, with our Churchman’s Almanack in our hand, look up the passages of Scripture, or at least one of the passages set down for this day, and as we read the passage about Jacob and the angels, our thoughts go out from the littleness of man’s little world to the greatness of God’s great world, and go from the little number of men and women of God to be seen on this globe to that immense army of holy souls made perfect in God, His angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and to the hosts of heaven; and we feel that our thoughts are lifted up rather than kept down, our imagination is made stronger, we live for a few seconds in a bigger world than that in which we are living from day to day while it pleases God that we should remain here on earth.
I. All the Company of Heaven.—It is not the custom in this day to think as much about this unseen holy existence as men did in days that are gone. It is impossible for us to read the Holy Scriptures without constantly observing that those who lived in the days of the writers of these sacred books very fully believed in the existence near about them of endless holy beings belonging to God’s unseen kingdom, holy souls serving God either in worship or in ministration to the sons of men. In the Book of Genesis we read of Jacob and the angels. Passing on to a later stage, we read of the ministration by angels in the times of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and, not to multiply instances, we can readily recall the words of the Hebrew Psalmist when he speaks of the angel of God tarrying round about those of the sons of men who fear God. Passing to the New Testament, we can think of the appearance of angels to minister to One no less great than the Son of Man at the end of His temptation, to minister to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane when His mind was overwrought with the greatness of the thoughts which pressed upon Him then; and we read of angels, too, appearing on the Resurrection day with their message of explanation of the things which the faithful disciples saw. But in our own day we do not perhaps realise quite so fully that there is ever about us, above us, this great realm of unseen things under the government of God, pure and holy souls, servants of the same God Whom we serve, and it may be that perhaps in thinking too seldom of them we miss an uplifting thought that we might otherwise have to help us in our religious life. May we not endeavour to see whether we cannot put some more thought about the great realm unseen into our minds? We are engaged in our acts of worship. There is that important service, the Lord’s own service, Holy Communion. It begins, as you know, with the words, ‘Our Father, Which art in heaven,’ in the great realm unseen, not distant from us in the ages of the future, but the realm unseen near about us, the realm of holy thought, the realm in which the souls of just men made perfect are dwelling, the realm in which angels and archangels dwell. ‘Our Father, in that heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come here on earth, as Thy kingdom is recognised there in heaven.’ And we pass on in that service to a point where we lift up our hearts to the Lord, and we say in our worship: ‘It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, everlasting God. Therefore’ we go on to say, ‘with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name; evermore praising Thee, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.’
II.—Joy amongst the angels.—Not only may we in our times of worship have our thoughts uplifted and imaginations warmed, our conception extended, by thinking of all the inhabitants of this great unseen world over which our God rules, but we can go out from our worship into the world of our daily duties in which we meet as men and women. We know well, as Christian men and women held down by their human infirmities, by the sins which they are continually committing, we can go out with the thought that not only may we in church worship, be linked with the holy angels of God, but we can go out with the thought that these angels are with us during the life we live day by day, taking cognisance of all the efforts we make to win other souls to God, and we go out with the assurance that there is joy in the presence of these angels of God when through the effort of ourselves or through the effort of any other believer in the Lord one sinner only repenteth. There are doubtless in this congregation many men and women who are trying somehow or other to bring influence for good to bear upon the souls about them, who have not yet felt the influence from heaven of God’s grace. To all those who are striving thus I would say dwell upon this thought, and we will in our times of worship let our hearts go out, away from our fellow-worshippers about us, into the presence of the great God, unseen, surrounded by untold hosts of heavenly beings, by the souls of those who have lived here and been perfected by the grace of Jesus Christ; feel ourselves in their presence before our God; and then, having worshipped with them at the throne of their God and ours, let us go with that inspiration into our daily life in the world, strengthened by the thought of the hosts with us compared with the few that can be against us, encouraged by the thought that not only our God, but they, too, are looking on and approving, and when, through God’s mercy, we are able to bring one soul into the fold of Jesus Christ we shall be bringing joy and opportunity of great thanksgiving among the angels of God in heaven. Let us be encouraged at this time by the thought of the greatness of the realm to which we belong. God, in calling us into His service and making us His sons, has not made us members of a small concern, not united us into a tiny family, but has given us a great birth-right, made us members of an immense kingdom. We profess in our creed our belief in Him as ‘Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,’ and as members of that great kingdom, as members of that immense family over which God rules and shows His love, let us go forward inspirited and ennobled, determined that, so far as our influence reaches, other souls shall get to know the greatness of this inheritance which has become ours. So may we be strengthened to be more happy and joyful in our own lives, more useful to those who are about us in the world, and thereby bring more honour, praise, and glory to our God.
(1) ‘Who these angelic visitants were we cannot tell, but Jacob accepted their message as clear and definite for himself. They met him at Mahanaim. This may have been in a vision, as at Bethel, or the messengers may have appeared to him as they appeared to Abraham while he stood under the oak at Mamre.’
(2) ‘Something like that will happen to every man who goes on his own way,—not on the path marked out for Napoleon or Washington, but for him, plain John Smith. Not on the way chosen by himself against the will of God, but chosen by God’s will for him,—the straight, narrow, individual path to the goal of his own personal life. Yes, on that path God’s good angels will meet him! There he will encounter the angels of his household,—his wife and little children. There he will find his true friends. There he will meet his joys and his sorrows, his failures and his triumphs, his losses and his gains. There he will catch more than passing glimpses of the Divine presence that hovers about him always. Nothing is so sweet, nothing so satisfying, as to be in the “way” your feet were made to travel. Do not leave it for an instant.’
THE DIVINE ANTAGONIST
‘And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.’
There are two decisive and determining moments in the life of Jacob. The wrestling with the angel of the Lord was the second of these, even as that marvellous vision in the field of Luz had been the first. The work which that began, this completes.
I. In that ‘Let me go’ of the angel, and that ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me’ of Jacob, we have a glimpse into the very heart and deepest mystery of prayer,—man conquering God, God suffering Himself to be conquered by man. The power which prevails with Him is a power which has itself gone forth from Him. Not in his natural strength shall man prevail with God,—at the lightest touch of His hand all this comes to nothing,—but in the power of faith; and the after-halting of Jacob, so far from representing his loss, did rather represent his gain. There was in this the outward token of an inward strength which he had won therein, of a breaking in him of the power of the flesh and of the fleshly mind; while the further fact that he halted not merely then, but from that day forth, was a testimony that this was no gain made merely for the moment, from which he should presently fall back to a lower spiritual level again, but that he was permanently lifted up into a higher region of the spiritual life.
II. The new name does not, in the case of Jacob, abolish and extinguish the old, as for Abraham it does. The names Jacob and Israel subsist side by side, and neither in the subsequent history of his life wholly abolishes the other. In Abraham’s name are incorporated and sealed the promises of God. These evermore abide the same. Israel, on the other hand, is the expression not of the promises of God, but of the faith of man. But this faith of man ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes. Jacob is not wholly Israel, Israel has not entirely swallowed up Jacob, during the present time; and in sign and witness to this the new name only partially supersedes and effaces the old.
(1) ‘In times of trial we betake ourselves to God, and are justified in claiming His protection, so long as we can show that we are on His plan and doing His bidding. And it is in the agony of our dread that God achieves in us a revolution that dates a new era. Alone beneath the silent march of the everlasting stars, face to face with our hour of destiny, God draws near to search us and to show some wicked or selfish way which had alienated us from His gracious help. This must be exposed and dealt with and put away ere He can open to us all His hidden stores of help and deliverance. So the angel wrestles with us. At first we resist in the pride of our strength, but after awhile we are touched in the very sinew of that strength. It shrinks, and we are obliged to go from wrestling to resting, from struggling to trusting, from striving to clinging. Then we cry in an agony of desire, Thou shalt not go till Thou hast blessed as only Thou canst. It is so we conquer, and we who had before been Jacobs, schemers, cheats, become Israels, princes having power with God and man.’
(2) ‘ “ I will not let thee go, except Thou bless me.” If we should wrestle in that spirit with every incident and every accident, every person and every object, every angel and every devil, we meet in life, we should learn a wonderful secret. It would be that in each there is a sublime lesson and an eternal benediction. Try it. You are now facing some great disaster. Grapple with it, analyse it, ransack its secret, hunt for its concealed meaning. Say to it, “If it takes me ten years or for ever, I will not let you go until I see the part you were sent to play in my life.” You will find it. It will disclose itself at last. As surely as there is fire in every flint, there is blessing in every experience. There are some in which there are curses, and terrible ones at that. But even those, if a man grapples them as Jacob did, may be made to yield some blessing. Have you sinned? Choke it, throttle it, but see how evil it is, and learn to live righteously through your knowledge.’
‘WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN AM I STRONG’
“He said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except Thou bless me.’
Esau, with all his amiable qualities, was a man whose horizon was bounded by the limitations of the material world. He never rose above earth; he was a man after this world; he lived an eminently natural life. Jacob, on the other hand, was a man of many faults, yet there was a continuous testimony in his life to the value of things unseen. He had had wonderful dealings of God with him, and these had only the effect of whetting his spiritual appetite. When the opportunity came he availed himself of it to the full, and received from the hands of God Himself that blessing for which his soul had been longing. Notice:
I. He was thoroughly in earnest; he wrestled till he got the blessing.
II. If we wish to gain a blessing like Jacob’s we must be alone with God.—It is possible to be alone with God, even in the midst of a multitude.
III. Jacob’s heart was burdened with a load of sin.—It crushed his spirit, it was breaking his heart; he could bear it no more, and so he made supplication. He wanted to be lifted out of his weakness and made a new man.
IV. In the moment of his weakness Jacob made a great discovery.—He found that when we cannot wrestle we can cling; so he wound his arms round the great Angel like a helpless child. He clings around those mighty arms and looks up into his face and says, ‘I will not let thee go except Thou bless me.’
V. He received the blessing he had wrestled for.—As soon as Jacob was brought to his proper place, and in utter weakness was content to accept the blessing of God’s free gift, that moment the blessing came. He received his royalty on the field of battle, was suddenly lifted up into a heavenly kingdom and made a member of a royal family.
Canon Hay Aitken.
(1) ‘The victory came after Jacob was crippled. It was when the disabling touch came, when he felt his utter helplessness, when he could simply cling, that he prevailed. Second, it was a triumph of persistence. Helpless to struggle, he could still cling, and he clung till the blessing was given. The prophet Hosea ( Genesis 12:4) says: He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and made supplication to him. His words have become the proverbial expression of importunate desire. I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me. So the secret of success in prayer is twofold; on the one hand, to realise our own helpless; and, on the other hand, to hold fast until blessing comes. God lets himself be conquered by the prayer of humble and persevering faith. Very beautifully does Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, “Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,” sum up the teaching of the story:—
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer.’
(2) ‘What was this Divine blessing? Deliverance from Esau? Not at all. That was a secondary thing now. Jacob had learnt that there was a mightier adversary than his brother to dread: that sin incurs more fearful consequences than earthly retribution. Reconciliation with God—that was a far more urgent need with him, and it is a far more urgent need with us, than even reconciliation with a revengeful brother. And he blessed him there—on the spot, that night. The face of God, which his sin had hidden, was now revealed to him: i.e. he had the blessed assurance of forgiveness and acceptance. And without any definite promise of safety he could now go forward, calmly and trustingly, to meet Esau.’
(3) ‘The question has been raised as to whether the story should be treated as an account of a purely spiritual struggle. The answer is twofold. The original narrator did not understand it in that way: he believed in a real, physical wrestling, speaking and laming. But we, for our own learning, may apply the whole in the most spiritual fashion possible, following the lines of F. W. Robertson’s Sermon (First Series, Third Sermon), or drinking in what Dean Stanley properly called Charles Wesley’s “noble hymn”:
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee:
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.’
(4) ‘There was each morning during his first sojourn in the Soudan one half-hour during which there lay outside General Gordon’s tent a handkerchief; and the whole camp knew the full significance of that small token, and it was most religiously respected by all, whatever was their colour, creed, or business. No foot dared to enter the tent so guarded. No message, however pressing, was carried in. Whatever it was, of life or death, it had to wait until the guardian signal was removed. Every one knew that God and Gordon were alone in there together.’
A NEW NAME
‘No more Jacob, but Israel.’
I. The very twofold name of Jacob and of Israel is but the symbol of the blending of contradictions in Jacob’s character. The life of Jacob comes before us as a strange paradox, shot with the most marvellous diversities. He is the hero of faith, and the quick, sharp-witted schemer. To him the heavens are opened, and his wisdom passes into the cunning which is of the earth earthy.
II. The character of Jacob is a form which is to be found among the Gentiles no less than among the Jews. There are in our own day prudential vices, marring what would otherwise be worthy of all praise. And that which makes them most formidable is that they are the cleaving, besetting temptations of the religious temperament. The religious man who begins to look on worldlings with the feeling of one who gives God thanks that he is not like them is in the way to fall short even of their excellences, ( a) Untruthfulness, the want of perfect sincerity and frankness, is, it must be owned with shame and sorrow, the besetting sin of the religious temperament. ( b) It is part of the same form of character that it thinks much of ease and comfort, and shrinks from hardship and from danger. Cowardice and untruthfulness are near of kin and commonly go together, and that which makes the union so perilous is that they mask themselves as virtues.
III. The religious temperament, with all its faults, may pass into the matured holiness of him who is not religious only, but godly. How the work is to be done ‘thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter,’ when thou too hast wrestled with the angel and hast become a prince with God.
(1) ‘It was in prayer specially that Jacob showed his princely character. What a nobility is attributed to prayer in this episode of Jacob’s life! What a description the text gives us of the royal attributes of prayer—that it sets in motion the sovereign agency which settles all human events! Jacob had in the midst of all his worldly sorrows and depressions a religious greatness. While to human eyes he was a dejected man, in the presence of God he was a prince, and prevailed.’—Mozley.
(2) ‘Now at last we have the answer to the question. Wherein is Jacob, the plain man dwelling in tents, superior to Esau, the skilful hunter? Jacob becomes Israel. The Supplanter, the Fraud, is changed by discipline and the fear of God into the wrestler with God, the man of Faith. Esau’s name was changed also. And the change from Esau into Edom, what did it signify? It signified his choice of the miserable mess of pottage for the magnificent birthright. He came home hungry from the hunting, and the smell of Jacob’s pottage was savoury in his nostrils, and he cried out like a great spoilt baby, “What good shall my birthright do me? Give me some of that red stuff there.” And so they called him Edom—Edom the red.
We see the difference between them now. Jacob has become Israel, Esau has become Edom. Jacob has given himself to trust in God; he turns now in his deepest trouble to God for help, and prays so fervently and so faithfully. Esau has gone to live in the hunters’ Arcadia, the land that is rich in venison, and open to the wild chase. Outwardly he is far stronger than Jacob. He can summon his four hundred warriors around him, and overawe his brother utterly. Really he is far weaker, for Jacob can summon God.
And yet at this very time, when we see the difference between these brothers clearly, Esau never looked so noble and so admirable: Jacob never seemed so mean-spirited and contemptible. Esau comes with his four hundred men, and Jacob bows in the dust before him, calling him Lord, and praying abjectly for mercy. Esau magnanimously forgets the past, and takes his brother to his heart. But Esau is Edom only, and the wild life will drag him lower and lower down. Jacob is Israel, and he has prevailed with God, and God is on his side for ever.
Never was it more clearly seen, the vast difference that God makes. It is the one word “God” that makes the Bible differ from all other books. It is the one word “God” that makes Jacob differ from Esau.’
‘And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.’
I. From the great conflict with sin none come off without many a scar. We may wrestle and prevail, but there will be touches of the enemy, which will leave their long and bitter memories. The way to heaven is made of falling down and rising up again. The battle is no steady, onward fight, but rallies and retreats, retreats and rallies.
II. The reason of our defeats is that the old sin of the character continues, and continues with unabated force, in the heart of a child of God. There are two ways in which sin breaks out and gains an advantage over a believer. (1) A new temptation suddenly presents itself. (2) The old habit of sin recurs—recurs, indeed, sevenfold, but still the same sin.
III. All sin in a believer must arise from a reduction of grace. This is the result of grieving the Holy Ghost by a careless omission of prayer or other means of grace. There was an inward defeat before there was an outward and apparent one.
IV. Defeat is not final. It is not the end of the campaign. It is but one event in the war. It may even be converted into a positive good to the soul, for God can and will overrule guilt to gain. He allows the defeat to teach us repentance and humility.
Rev. J. Vaughan.
‘ In a spirit of humility, Jacob at last returns to Canaan, but first must pass the moral crisis of his life. God grapples with him, and not until Jacob had tried, in vain, every means of self-defence does he yield wholly to God and become his man. Whether this interpretation of Genesis 32:24-32 as a spiritual struggle exhausts its significance is not easily dertermined. The writer apparently describes it as a literal wrestling of Jacob with God. Its importance, however, is due to the spiritual revolution which took place. The Jacob of the days that follow is another man. He is in the keeping of God, ready to confess his dependence, and patient under every dispensation. The consequences of his earlier deeds follow him, but he endures them.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 32". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany