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This dream deals with the supernatural, though in one sense all life is supernatural. And what happened to Jacob occurs again and again in your life and mine.
I. Jacob has deceived his father and defrauded his brother: he has fled his home. As he journeyed forward he came to the lonely and rugged hill of Bethel. The darkness overtakes him as he ascends, creeps like a shadowy ghost over him, and then covers with its deep shadow the whole of the mountain from base to summit; and so Jacob is alone in the dark night. Seeking suitable shelter, he takes a stone for his pillow, and, lying down, he is soon fast asleep, a tired, worn man. He dreams, and lo! in his dream the darkness has fled, and the whole air is lit up with supernatural glory, and the mountain-side is busy with supernatural life. The mountain is a great staircase, and ascending and descending upon it appear angel forms; while high up, as on a throne of golden splendour, he seems to see God the great Invisible: and wonderful to tell, he seems to hear a voice, the voice of the Eternal, and the actual words come floating down upon him with an infinite calm. 'I am with thee, and I will keep thee in all places where thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land.'
II. Dreams sometimes are evidences of the possibilities of our character. The dream may show the mental habit of thought, and the subjects which lie, if not nearest, at least somewhere within the heart of man. Dreams may be a warning to us all. A bad dream may be a revelation of our potential badness. It is the liberation of the evil spirit, the demon within a man. Our evil visions may be revelations of what we may be if left entirely to ourselves, and our good visions manifestations of what God means us to be, prophecies of what we might be, if living close to God in prayer.
III. Of course, from an humanistic point of view, the dream of Jacob gives us a glimpse into his character. He was far from being a perfect man, yet his dreams reveal to us that his failings were not of the essence of his life. His vision, too, was a new revelation to Jacob. It had entered the soul of Jacob and touched chords in his life which never more could be silent. This crisis marked a development in Jacob's character. Hitherto Jacob, though naturally spiritual, had been proudly self-reliant: he had complete faith in his own resources, cleverness, and strength; felt he was quite a match for most men, a match for life. He wanted to make himself, was going to be his own creator, and so in character he was at heart weak. A man who relies entirely upon himself is not at heart a strong man. Man's strength comes in the strength of his weakness. The moment a man submits his will to the Almighty he becomes a strong man, because he becomes part of God's will. The desert experience convinced Jacob of his need. It revealed to him something of his own nothingness and weakness and loneliness, and God's Almightiness and Strength and so he rises from his pillow of stone a stronger and wiser because a humbler man, and sets up his pillar of consecration while he commits the keeping of his ways to God, the great Guide and great Friend.
M. Gardner, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxvi. p. 268.
References. XXVIII. F. W. Robertson, Notes on Genesis, p. 101. XXVIII. 10-13. T. Sadler, Sunday Thoughts, p. 14. H. W. Beecher, Sermons, 1870, p. 643. XXVIII. 10-17. F. D. Maurice, The Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament, p. 100.
Jacob At Bethel
Dean Stanley tells us a story of a girl whose grandfather, not believing in the existence of God, had written above his bed, 'God is nowhere'. But the child was only learning to read. Words of more than one syllable were yet beyond her, so she spelled out in her own way what her grandfather had written, and it read for her 'God is now here'. It was the great lesson that Jacob learned at Bethel.
References. XXVIII. 10-22. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Genesis, p. 206. C. Perren, Outline Sermons, p. 257. S. A. Brooke, Sermons (2nd Series), pp. 231, 249. XXVIII. 11-16. S. A. Tipple, Echoes of Spoken Words, p. 201.
The vision of Jacob's ladder is God's response to two universal longings of the human heart a craving for a Revelation, and a craving for an Incarnation.
I. A Craving for a Revelation. 'Revelation is a necessity of our thinking mind, a need of our moral nature.' As a child is born with faculties of speech, yet speech lies dormant in the breast of the child until called into exercise by the words which he hears around him, so man was created to hold communion with God, but God must speak to man before man can speak to Him. God has spoken! Jacob's seed was the elected channel of the Divine communication. The 'angels of God' ascended and descended upon Israel. The vision was a prediction. Hosea says, 'God spake with us at Bethel'. But Divine revelation was the possession of one nation in order that from thence it might become the possession of all mankind. In 'thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed'. As the light of heaven is adapted to every eye, and the air we breathe to every lung, so the Word of God is adapted to the mental and moral constitution of every child of the human race.
II. A Craving for an Incarnation. 'Let not God speak with us, lest we die,' is the voice not only of Israel but of humanity. No ancient religion is without the presentiment of an incarnation. The popular idea of Jacob's ladder is false. The vision was that of a staircase of rock. The Rock of Israel was to be no inaccessible crag, but a staircase, a means of communication between earth and heaven. This vision was the grand prefiguration of the coming Mediator who was to bridge the chasm between a holy God and sinful man. In the 'fullness of time' Christ came. The ultimate end of the Incarnation was atonement. 'Without shedding of blood is no remission.' The angels of God cannot ascend and descend upon the body of which Christ is the Head unless sin be removed. 'He put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.' Yet something more is needed for communion between God and man. Salvation is not merely pardon of sin it is renewal it is restoration it is a new birth a communication of a Divine life a new nature a new power.
III. The same Lord Who, on the Day of Pentecost, gave some Apostles and some Prophets and some Pastors and Teachers, has still Gifts for Men.
( a ) Every minister of Christ, every servant of the Cross, must be 'endued with power from on high' if he is to have any real success. 'Without Me ye can do nothing.' How did the Apostles receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost? It was vouchsafed in answer to prayer. 'Ask and ye shall receive.' Fervent, persevering prayer is the secret of holiness; it is also the secret of power and the prelude of victory. King Alfred has left a memorable passage in which he sets forth the ideas with which he assumed the charge of his distracted realm. He says it is above all things necessary for a king that he hath in his kingdom prayer-men, army-men, workmen. The King of kings needs these three classes of men in every age, and never more than now, and it is in proportion as we, the clergy, and you, the laity, are men of prayer we shall be men of war, bold in our assaults on the strongholds of Satan and the fortresses of sin, and also at the same time workmen needing not to be ashamed as we build up the temple of the living God.
( b ) The vision at Bethel is full of encouragement. Every vision of God, every opened heaven, first humbles and then strengthens, from the vision of Jacob's ladder, with the accompanying words, 'I will never leave thee,' to that revelation vouchsafed to the aged St. John in the Isle of Patmos, so dear to hearts fearful of falling into heresy and sin, in which the Apostle saw the stars, the angels of the churches, held and kept in the strong right hand of the glorified Lord. The heavens are opened today! The gift of Pentecost has never been recalled! The illuminating light of the Spirit is not dim; His fires of love are not chilled; the Sacraments are as valid today as when administered by apostolic hands; the Gospel is still the 'power of God unto salvation'. The final victory lies with the Cross of Christ.
The Return of the Angels
Genesis 28:12 ; Genesis 32:1
Wellnigh twenty years had passed away since Jacob had had his vision at Bethel. They had been years of hard and constant labour; they had been years of remarkable prosperity. No longer was Jacob an empty-handed fugitive, leaving his home for an uncertain future. God had been with him, and had advanced him wonderfully, and had blessed him in his basket and his store. And now he was a rich and prosperous man, master of herds and flocks innumerable, and with a host of servants at his call, ready to further him in every venture. There are men who prosper and who pay for prospering by never seeing the angels any more. They win their fortune, but they lose their vision, and so are they poorer than at one-and-twenty. But Jacob, for all his cunning shrewdness, was not the man to lose his hold on God; he had a heart that thirsted after God even in his most worldly and successful days. Now he was on his way home to Canaan, and as he journeyed the angels of God met him. This was the second time, for twenty years before had they not flashed upon his sight at Bethel? And what I want to do to-night is this, I want to take these two angelic visits, and to show you how they differed from one another, and how these differences have their meanings still.
I. First, then, the former angels were seen among the hills; but the latter upon the trodden highway.
We can readily picture the scenery at Bethel, where Jacob saw the ladder to the heavens. It was a place of wild and rugged grandeur, touched with the mystery of highland solitudes. At home, in the pasture-land of rich Beersheba, his eye had looked out upon the rolling downs. There was nothing sublime or awful at Beersheba; it was a sweet and satisfying prospect. But here it was different; here there were rugged cliffs, and rock up-piled on rock in wild confusion; and it was here among the hills of Bethel that Jacob had his first vision of the angels. It was a resting-place of highland grandeur, and the spirit of Jacob was uplifted by it. He was thrilled with the high sense of the sublime, as he lay down amid the loneliness of nature. But it was not amid a grandeur such as that that he had his vision when twenty years were gone he went on his way and the angels of God met him. He was no longer a romantic youth; he was a conventional and unromantic wayfarer. And the road was familiar, and it was hard and dusty, and there was none of the mystery of Bethel here. And yet the angels who had shone at Bethel, in the delicious hour of freedom and of youth, came back again on to the common road, where feet were plodding along wearily.
Now it seems to me that, if we are living wisely, we ought all to have an experience like Jacob. If we have had our hour at Bethel once, we ought also to have our Mahanaim. The man who climbs may have his glimpse of heaven; but so has the man who simply pushes on. And that is the test and triumph of religion, not that it irradiates golden moments, but that it comes, with music and with ministry, into the dusty highroad of today. We all grow weary of the routine sometimes. We are tempted to break away and take our liberty. But it was not when Jacob broke into his liberty that the angels of God met with him again. It was when Jacob went upon his way, and quietly and doggedly pushed on, and took the homeward road and did his duty, although seductive voices might be calling.
II. Again, the former vision came in solitude, but the latter vision in society. That is another difference to be noted between Bethel and Mahanaim. At Bethel Jacob was utterly alone. For the first time in his life he was alone. He was an exile now from the old tent where he had passed the happy days of boyhood. And at that very hour (for it was sundown) his brother Esau would be wending homeward, and his aged father would be waiting him, and his mother would be busy in the tent. It is such memories that make us lonely. It was such memories that made Jacob lonely. He saw his home again, and heard its voices; and it was night, and round him were the hills. And it was then, in such an hour of solitude, when he might cry and there was none to answer, that Jacob had his vision of the angels. Do you see the difference at Mahanaim? Jacob was not solitary now. His wife was there; his family was there; his servants and his shepherds were about him. And the road was noisy with the stir of life shouting of drover and lowing of the herd and now there was a snatch of song, and now the laughter of his merry children. At Bethel there was utter solitude; at Mahanaim was society. At Bethel there was none to answer; at Mahanaim there were happy voices. And the point to note is that the angels who flashed upon the solitude at Bethel came back again amid that intercourse.
III. There is another difference, perhaps the most significant of all. At Bethel the angels were on a shining staircase; at Mahanaim they were armed for war.
And so we learn the old and precious lesson that God reveals Himself just as we need Him. He never gives us what we shall want tomorrow; He gives us richly what we need today. Just as water, poured into twenty goblets, will take the different shape of every goblet, so the grace of God poured into twenty days, will fill the different need of every day.
G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 1.
Nearer, My God, to Thee
The Bible asks us to believe that God did occasionally reveal Himself through the vehicle of dreams. Of course it does not follow from this that God must continue for an indefinite period of time such a method of communication with the spirit of man. Many of the dreams recorded in the Scriptures were vouchsafed to individuals outside the covenant made with Israel, and with regard to the rest it may be remarked that they belong to a very early age when the knowledge of God was scanty and ill-defined.
I. While some of the Bible dreams sound the note of warning, others, including Jacob's at Bethel, are harbingers of blessing. An exile from home, he was not an exile from heaven; for in his sleep he saw the world that is not seen.
II. Hazlitt said: 'In Jacob's day there was a ladder between heaven and earth, but now the heavens have gone further off, and become astronomical'. But that is only true in the minds of those who have misunderstood the nature of God. There is no dethronement of man by any theory of astronomy, for he is neither less nor more man than he was before; he is still the creature of God's love.
W. Taylor, Twelve Favourite Hymns, p. 46.
Jacob's ladder, set up on earth, and reaching to heaven; what does it typify or represent but that new way of approach to God which is opened to us in Jesus Christ?
I. The fact that it is Jacob's ladder, that so early as his time God gave notice of a Mediator increases our reverence and admiration for His goodness. It shows how far back in God's counsels the great plan of man's redemption was prepared.
II. Like Jacob we sometimes in our judgment may light upon a solitary place. We must draw near to God, trusting to nothing but the merits and intercession of His dear son. 'He is the way.'
III. The particular promise that God made to Jacob. He renewed the covenant that He had made with Abraham, and promised that from him should spring the Messiah.
IV. The effect of this remarkable dream on Jacob. When he awakened his soul was filled with awe. It were well if something of this reverent spirit were to be found among worshippers.
R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons, Series iii. p. 58.
References. XXVIII. 12. J. W. Bardsley, Many Mansions, p; 20. F. Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 149. Bishop Woodford, Occasional Sermons, p. 242. J. B. Vaux, Sermon Notes (2nd Series), p. 66. XXVIII. 13. G. Matheson, The Scottish Review, vol. iii. p. 49. XXVIII. 15. H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 1921. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxvii. No. 1630. XXVIII. 16. J. B. Lightfoot, Cambridge Sermons, p. 300. J. Aspinall, Parish Sermons (1st Series), p. 269. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii. No. 401.
Jacob At Bethel
Jacob had his Bethel, and it came to him just at the moment when we should least have expected it, just at the time when he was smarting under the sense of his own sin, and loneliness, and outlawry. The King of Love Himself appears to him, and says: 'I will go with thee wherever thou goest'. Man's extremity is God's opportunity.
I. What makes our Bethel? Is it not the sense of God's nearness to us and our need of Him? The churches would all be full if the people felt their need of God, for this is God's house, and we want it to be the gate of heaven. Now, and here in God's house; we may look up into heaven and see there our Saviour, Who loves us with an everlasting love, and round about Him those whom we have 'loved and lost awhile'.
II. Before we leave Jacob, let us look at bis beautiful prayer to God, in which he vows a vow of obedience. This is the use of all Bethels that as God speaks to us we may make our vows back to Him. Church and churchgoing will do us no good unless we hear God speaking to us in the reading of His Word, and in the preaching, and in the prayers, and in the music, and unless, having heard God's Voice, we do our part and answer back and make our vows that God shall be our God. Will you do this, will you rejoice before God with this blessed vow of Jacob's, 'The Lord shall be my God'? Oh, it will help you so all through your life. This is the house of God; we desire that it should be the gate of heaven. You see sometimes little children pointing upwards, but the Book says that heaven is where God is, and if God is here then heaven has begun upon earth. If God is here, then His love is with us, and we shall grow more loving here and now.
References. XXVIII. 17. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons, (9th Series), p. 81. XXVIII. 19. J. Eames, Sermons to Boys and Girls, p. 155. XXVIII. 20-22. H. Allon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxv. p. 60.
Jacob's vow has been the preacher's theme in every age, yet its teaching for the Christian Church has never been more greatly needed than it is today. Permit me, therefore, to put before you a few thoughts on giving to God as suggested by our text.
I. How we can Give to God. God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, requires us to give to Him in return.
( a ) We give to Him when we give to those whom He has left, or made, poor in worldly substance. The widow, fatherless, unfortunate, incapable, even those who by sin and prodigality have brought themselves to want. As the father leaves little patches in his garden, and says to his children, 'I leave you to cultivate these; those are your little gardens,' so does our Heavenly Father leave, in those poor and needy ones, patches in His great garden for us to dress and keep; and he that 'giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord'.
( b ) We give to him when we promote the great purposes which He has at heart. An earnest man is so bound up with his purposes and work that they are, as it were, but a larger self. We speak of men 'embarking' in enterprises going into them as the pilot into his ship. The wind that wafts the ship on carries him upon his way. Christ is steering the ship of this world's destinies and those of individual souls to the shore of safety and purity and bliss, and to help to fill its sails is to waft on Christ Himself on His triumphal way. Give to promote Christ's cause on the earth, and you are giving to God.
II. The Motive Power. All motive power which constrains men to give to God is from God Himself.
1. A recognition of dependence upon God. 'All that Thou shalt give me.' 'What hast thou that thou hast not received?' Tenants of God, we owe Him our rent of cheerful giving.
2. Gratitude to God. 'All that Thou shalt give me.' How generous is that 'all'. 'We are always giving, giving,' said one. 'Not quite that,' was the reply, 'but we are always getting, getting.' He gives life and friends; He gave His Son; He giveth the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him. 'What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits?'
3. Imitation of God. As He gives let us give. Be the children of your Father, Who maketh His sun to shine and His rain to fall on the just and unjust.
4. Response to God. 'Of all that Thou shalt give I shall give.' God's giving to us is the seed which He sows in our hearts and lives, to bring forth from them the fair harvest of kindliness, beneficence, helpfulness. What could He do for His vineyard that He has not done? Surely a 'tenth' is but a small return for such bountiful sowing.
III. Practical Rules for Giving.
1. Seize special times of blessing for devising liberal things for God. It was just after Jacob had his wonderful and comforting vision that he made this vow. As the swift current of the stream tells of the height of the mountains in which it took its rise, so if we seize the time of signal blessing from God for opening a fresh spring of devotedness and beneficence, its bountiful and eager flow will be preserved far into the tame plains of our ordinary life.
2. Lay your plans and adapt your expenditure for giving. 'I shall surely give.' Out of my abundance, if I have it; out of my poverty, if that is my lot. As the ancient Greeks spilt a little wine from the cup before tasting it, as a libation to the gods, so let us provide first for God. The firstfruits. I may want pictures, books, delicacies, fine clothes, travel, sight-seeing, even ordinary comfort, but 'I shall surely give'. If you have no other luxury, make sure of the luxury of doing good.
3. Bring system to your aid in giving. Not to check your generous impulses; but still, as the groundwork, there should be system. System as the measure, which, after filling, the heart is free to shake and press together, and make to run over.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Genesis 28". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13