Lessons from a Limp

Bible Book: Genesis  32
Subject: Fear; Faith; Victory

I know for my generation, one of the most iconic of all movie characters is Rocky Balboa. Not counting the mistake of “Rocky V”, the “Rocky” films are some of my favorites. The thing about the all of the “Rocky” movies is that in the end, Rocky looks like the one who lost the fight. Both his eyes are purple and swollen shut, and he is covered in his own blood. Though his hands are raised in victory, even as shouts, “Yo, Adrian!” he always looks like he got the worst end of the bout.

Genesis chapter 32 ends with a similar image from the life of Jacob. The text says in verse 31, “And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.” The sun was shining on Jacob, and a new day of blessing had dawned in his life, but Jacob was ragged, bruised, and limping badly. The day and night before that sunny morning was no doubt the longest and hardest of his life, yet through the struggle of his experience at Peniel Jacob had learned some critical truths about himself and his God. He would limp all the way through the rest of his life, but there were some valuable lessons from that limp.

In this chapter we see some truths that Jacob was learning in his experience, and that we too must learn as we seek to follow our Lord Jesus. In the end we are reminded here that by God’s grace our greatest struggles can be transformed into our greatest blessings.

Notice with me the lessons we draw from this critical chapter in the life of Jacob. First of all, we learn here that:


Throughout this chapter there is the smell of fear. As Jacob leaves from his confrontation with Laban, he is heading toward another confrontation with his big brother, Esau. Twenty years before, Jacob had fled from his father’s house in order to escape the murderous rage of the brother he had cheated out of the family blessing.

The backdrop of this whole chapter is Jacob’s apprehension and fear of what might happen when he faces his brother again. Yet, Jacob’s fears should have been settled by the truth of the God who had promised to be with him wherever he went.

Like Jacob, at times we find ourselves fearful of what is before us, in spite of the God who always stands beside us.

Notice what we see about Jacob’s greatest fear in this text. First of all, notice with me:

A. The testimony from the heavens to Jacob

In verse one, the chapter begins by saying, “And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.” They didn’t just appear to him, but they met him – they greeted him on his way.

Verse 2 says, “And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.”

Jacob recognized this angel band as being God’s host, the army of the Lord. He then called the place “Mahanaim”, which means “two camps.” It seems as if Jacob was saying, “It’s not just me and my camp on this journey, but there is another camp traveling with us.” Heaven testified to Jacob that he was not alone. The journey he was taking was one God had ordered, and one God would oversee.

Like Jacob, as followers of Christ the journey we make through this world is not one we make alone.

Just before He ascended back into heaven, Jesus said to His disciples, “…lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:20)

The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the promise of our God as well. Hebrews 13:5 says, “…he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”

If you belong to Jesus, then right now you have the testimony of the Word of God that He is with you!

In 1897, a Methodist lady by the name of Mrs. Ludie Pickett penned the words of the hymn, “No, Never Alone”. The chorus says:

“No, never alone, no, never alone,

He promised never to leave me,

He’ll claim me for His own…”

At the preface of Jacob’s greatest fear was a reminder that he was not alone. Yet, as we look at this text, we see not only the testimony of the heavens to Jacob, but we see further:

B. The terror in the heart of Jacob

On the heels of Jacob’s meeting with God’s host, verse 3 says, “And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.”

Though Jacob’s message to Esau was Hallmark card sweet, the word that his messengers brought back was ominous.

Verse 6 says, “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.”

The four hundred men coming with Esau didn’t sound like a welcoming committee. In fact, one writer points out that this was the standard size of a militia in that day.i Recognizing that all he had was a lot of livestock and a brood of children, verse 7 says, “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed…” Terror filled the heart of Jacob. He shook with fear at the thought of what Esau might do to his family. Yet, we must ask, had Jacob forgot about God’s host? Had he forgot about the other camp that travelled with him?

How often are we just like Jacob? We have heard the testimony of the Word of God and the promise of Jesus to be with us, and yet some news from the world around us sends us into a fit of fear and worry!

I read about two explorers who were travelling through the jungle of Africa when they encountered a lion. One said to other, “Stay calm! Remember what we read in the book about wild animals! If you look a lion in the eye and do not move, he will turn and run.”

The other man said, “Sure, you’ve read that book, and I’ve read that book, but did the lion read that book?”

As believers, we have read the Book! What it says to us about the eternal, abiding presence of our God ought to be enough to settle our hearts and calm our fears, regardless of what we might be facing! We must learn, as Jacob had to learn, that the presence of God should always be enough to overcome our greatest fears!

Looking back at this text, we learn not only that your greatest fear is settled by God’s presence, but the second lesson we find here is this:


As we have seen, God has been working in the life of Jacob, and there has been real progress in the area of his faith. Some of that progress is visible in this chapter, but there is also plenty of evidence of the old Jacob as well.

As we look at these two sides of Jacob in this text, we are reminded of how often we too try to mix faith with flesh, and try to believe God on one hand, and work it out ourselves on the other. In the end, it is always best for us to simply rest in the promises of God and trust Him completely. Notice how this plays out in our text. Notice with me:

A. The dependence revealed in Jacob’s prayer

After Jacob hears the news that Esau and his men are headed his way, one of the first things he does is hit his knees in prayer. This is the first recorded prayer of Jacob in the Bible, and in many ways it is a model prayer.

For instance, notice with me the humility of his prayer. In verse 10, Jacob rightly confessed, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.” Jacob approached the Lord knowing that he was not worthy of anything God had done for him. At least for the moment, Jacob confessed that his only help and only hope was the grace and mercy of God.

Look also at the clarity of his prayer. In verse 11, Jacob just laid it all out. He prayed, “Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.” There were no wasted words; no beating around the bush. Jacob just came right out and confessed to God what it was he feared, and what he wanted God to do for him.

In this prayer, we see also Jacob’s security. His basis for asking God for help was what God had first promised him. In verse 12, he closed his prayer by saying, “And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”

This is the kind of praying we ought to do in the face of a crisis. It is humble yet bold, honest and yet trusting in the Word of God. If this prayer had been all that Jacob had done under the possible threat of Esau, we would have a wonderful model of how we ought to turn to the Lord in our troubles.

But, as we look further at this text, we see not only the dependence revealed in Jacob’s prayer, but we see also:

B. The doubt revealed in Jacob’s plans

Jacob had matured enough spiritually to seek the Lord, but he had not yet learned how stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.

Even before Jacob went to the Lord in prayer, he had divided his family up into two groups, hoping that only one of them would be lost if they were attacked. And then as soon as he got up from praying, he started scheming about how he might soften up Esau before he had to meet him.

Verses 13 through 19 tell of how Jacob took his livestock and sent them ahead in droves as gifts to Esau. In verse 20, he revealed that his plan was to, “…appease him with the present that goeth before me…” Though Jacob had asked God to intervene for him, he still felt like he needed to try to fix the situation through his own manipulation and wisdom.

Once again, how often are we just like Jacob? We pray and ask God to do what only He can, but our subsequent scheming and planning reveals that we really doubt whether or not He will handle it. We have a measure of faith, but we have an equal measure of flesh. We don’t really trust God enough to leave it in His hands. We try to get our hands into it as well. The reality, however, is that our faith is the greatest when we simply leave things to God and trust Him to take care of it without our input and interference.

The old writer, Griffith Thomas, says of this text, “If we express our needs in prayer, it is obviously unfitting to go on arranging and scheming as though we had never prayed.”ii

Once you give something to God, let Him have it! Don’t try to take it back from His sovereign hands and fix it yourself! You need God’s help, but He is perfectly capable of working without yours! Faith that simply waits on God is always better than faith that also tries to work it out for Him.

Looking at this chapter, we learn here that your greatest fear is settled by God’s presence, and that your greatest faith is standing on God’s promises. The third lesson we learn here is probably the most important one. That is this:


Jacob was worried to death about the prospect of a hostile confrontation with Esau. It turns out that Jacob would in fact end up in a fight, but not with Esau. The text tells us in verse 24 that, “…Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”

After everyone else had left, Jacob was suddenly jumped and found himself in a wrestling match with an opponent more fierce and formidable than Esau could have ever been.

There is an interesting word play in this text. Verse 22 says that Jacob was beside the river Jabbok. The word “Jabbok” means struggle and that is exactly what Jacob went through that night.

What we learn from this struggle is that Jacob’s greatest fight was not with Esau, but with himself and his relationship to God.

Notice this in our text. Consider:

A. The person with which Jacob wrestled

I love how R. Kent Hughes describes this scene. He wrote, “…[Jacob’s] heart seized as a hand fastened onto him – a powerful hand. Jacob was in the mighty hold of someone who seemed intent on taking his life. Jacob could see nothing. The assailant was silent and nameless…There came brief periods of labored breathing, and then renewed fury, gouging, pulling, butting. And then more rage – and more pain and thirst – and smothering frustration.”iii

Throughout that night, Jacob grappled with this unknown man, and fought for his life. But the text says that eventually Jacob realized that he was not fighting with just any man.

Though Jacob never got his name, in the end he would testify that he had seen God face to face. The prophet Hosea would describe this wrestler as “the angel”, which seems to indicate the angel of the covenant, or none other than the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus. Either way, the One Jacob was wrestling against was none other than the very God he had prayed to earlier in this chapter.

Are you surprised to find God fighting against His own man? Does it seem strange that God would wrestle with one of His own people? The truth is that many times the best thing God can do for us is to fight us and conquer us. Sometimes God’s grace comes when He jumps us and knocks us to the ground.

Yes, He is a loving God! And it is precisely because He loves us that He sometimes has to put us in our place, and show us which one of us is truly the strong One. Sometimes God will hug you. Sometimes He will headlock you. Both are still God and both are still gracious!

What’s really remarkable is that Jacob fought back all night long. He did so because he didn’t realize it was God he was fighting.

Could it be that right now you are fighting something in your life, striving against it with all of your might, and you don’t even realize that the thing you are opposing is the strong hand of your loving Savior upon you?

With that, notice not only the person with which Jacob wrestled, but notice also further:

B. The position in which Jacob won

Look at the text with me. It says in verse 25, “And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.” In other words, when the Lord saw that Jacob would not give up, he simply touched Jacob’s hip, and completely disabled him. It is what one writer described as “crippling grace”.

Now Jacob can no longer put up any kind of fight. He is weakened and reduced to simply hanging on for dear life, and yet it was the crippling touch that seemed to finally open Jacob’s eyes. The Lord told Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said in verse 26, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Hosea says that Jacob “wept” this prayer. (Hosea 12:4)

Jacob had reached the point where he realized that unless God was gracious to bless him, he would never get anywhere in his own strength and abilities.

Now notice what happened next. In verse 27, God asks Jacob what seems to be a simple question. “What is thy name? And the answer came back, “Jacob”. With that answer, Jacob was doing more than identifying himself. He was confessing that he had been everything his name represented. He had been a cheat and deceiver, a schemer and a heel grabber. Do you see what happened here? God had won! Jacob had surrendered to the truth about himself and the overwhelming power of His God. And it was in that place of conquered confession that God said to Jacob, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

Jacob had been whipped, but he had also won! It was only when he had surrendered to the power of God that he could prevail by the grace of God!

Oh what a lesson there is for us here! It is not until we fall clinging in weakness to the feet of Jesus, confessing our inability to help ourselves and save ourselves that we are able to fully receive the blessing of His grace!

It is when we are weak that we find He is strong! It is when we are fully broken that we can be truly blessed! The greatest fight of your life is not with anything you might face in this world. The greatest fight of your life will be with yourself, and the struggle to submit fully to the mighty hand of your God!

The next morning, I imagine Jacob looked pretty rough as he crossed over the river toward his family. He was bruised, scraped, bloody, and limping badly. Yet, he was blessed more in that condition than he walked in full strength.

Believer, God may wound you. He may break you in a way that will mark you for the rest of your life. But through your crippling He will crown you with His blessing!

Our Lord Jesus was mortally wounded on a rough, Roman cross one day! In that midnight at midday, Jesus Christ battled hell itself until He finally cried, “It is finished!” and gave up His life.

Three days later the power of God raised Him from the dead and He walked out of the tomb very much alive and stronger than ever before. Yet, on His hands, His feet, and His side were the scars of the struggle He had fought!

Vance Havner once said, “Everybody wants medals these days, but nobody wants any scars.”

Let us look to our Lord Jesus and realize that by being submissive to the conquering will of our Father, though we may be wounded, there is a blessing waiting on the other side of the struggle.

May we learn the lessons of Jacob’s limp! Let us rest in the safety of God’s presence, rely completely on the truth of His promises, and most of all, let us surrender completely to His power, so that He can give us the blessing we could never get in our own power!


i Hughes, R. Kent, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2004), p. 398

ii Thomas, W.H. Griffith, “Genesis: A Devotional Commentary”, www.preceptaustin.org, accessed 3/23/12, http://preceptaustin.org/genesis_devotional_commentary.htm#32:1

iii Hughes, R. Kent, p. 400