And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
Jacob was a coward. When his mother hatched the plot to help Jacob steal Esau’s blessing, Jacob did not oppose for moral reasons; he only expressed concern out of fear of being caught. He then ran away when his brother began to plot his murder after the deception. Next, when Jacob finds himself in a polygamous marriage, he is bounced around by his wives, instead of lovingly leading his family. And when he desires to return to his father’s land, Jacob sprints away from his father-in-law, fearing that Laban would kill him.
In Genesis 32, Jacob is maturing in his walk with God, but he is still fearful. Now that he escaped his father-in-law, Jacob would eventually need to reunite with Esau in order to re-enter his father’s homeland. As Jacob feared, Esau seemed to still be angry at Jacob as evidenced by the 400 men traveling with him to meet Jacob. In response, Jacob divides his family, servants, and cattle into two camps, so that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. This was an sinful act of fear rather than faith, a predictable action from Jacob.
But then Jacob does something else. He prays. Perhaps Jacob prayed before this, but it is his first recorded time of coming to God for aid. It’s a sign of Jacob’s inching maturity, but it is also a great prayer from which to learn. It is an honest prayer of belief and doubt, where Jacob is desperately clinging to faith in the midst of great fear. The man with a demon-possessed child fought the same battle when he prayed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
We would do well to learn from the honesty of Jacob’s prayer. Take a moment then, if you will, to break down the prayer’s components with me, studying how we might continue to strive for Christ-like prayers.
1. Remember who God is.
Jacob opens his prayer by addressing its Recipient. Before we can ever pray effectively, we must first know to whom we are praying. Jacob lived in a time of vast polytheism, and praying to a god is quite different than praying to God. And he made this distinction by calling God by His holy name, the LORD. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of merely assuming that we are praying to the LORD, the God of Abraham and Jacob. Few people have carved out household gods today, so we think that the identity of God is presumed. Unfortunately, many pray to their own version of God instead of God Himself. They pray, but it is ultimately for their will to be done, not the will of the Father. In order to be certain that we are praying to the God (not our version of Him), we must submit our understanding of God to the Scriptures. Make a habit, therefore, of praying with the Bible open before you, allowing it to answer and guide your prayers to the Father.
2. Remember who you are and what God has done.
Next, in verse 10, we see Jacob acknowledging his dependence upon God and remembering God’s past provision. If remembering God’s identity is primarily important in prayer, remembering our identity is a close second. Jacob understood that he was the mirror opposite of God. The LORD is mighty in strength, but he was weak and frail. This is true for us as well. Until we recognize our utter dependence upon God, our prayers will never be effective, since we will continue to strive in our own strength.
It is also helpful to follow in the pattern of Jacob by remembering God’s previous provisions. Jacob left his father’s land with only his staff, and now he was able to divide his own household into two great camps. God had never left Jacob, but when preparing to meet his brother, Jacob needed to remember that truth all over again.
3. Ask for help.
Here is what we commonly think of as being prayer: asking God for help. As we have seen, prayer is more than making requests; however, bringing our supplications to God is certainly a crucial act of prayer. Unfortunately, it seems that on this matter we tend to fall into two errors, sometimes in the same prayer.
First, we treat God as our personal genie. This kind of prayer treats God as nothing more than a prayer answering machine. There is no real relationship. No true communication between God and us. We only talk to God in order to ask for what we need. Jesus answers this pitfall of prayer by giving us a model prayer to learn from. In that prayer, Jesus only spends one phrase asking for personal, physical needs. He gives the rest of the prayer to praying for God’s holiness, for God’s kingdom, for God’s will, for our forgiveness of sins, and for our deliverance from temptation. Bringing our daily requests before God is a crucial part of prayer, but it is still only a part of prayer.
Second, we can also trick ourselves into thinking that God does not want to hear our needs. As we consider God’s holiness and our sinfulness, it can be easy to wonder why the Almighty God would have time to listen to our miniscule needs, but that kind of thinking is entirely unbiblical. God desires for us to bring our needs to Him. Christ urges us to do so. And Paul gives a similar statement, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
God is not our genie, ready to grant our wishes at any moment; rather, He is our Father, who takes great care and delight in hearing and answering our needs.
4. Cling to God’s Word.
Jacob closes his prayer by clinging to God’s Word. The LORD promised to make Jacob’s descendants into a great multitude, so Jacob reminds God of His promise. This is important because it shows that Jacob’s faith in God was not unfounded. He was not merely wishing that God would protect him from Esau; instead, Jacob remembered God’s promise to him as the basis for his faith in God’s future protection.
Though today we may not encounter the audible voice of God nor His abundant financial provision as Jacob did, we have God’s promises laid before us on a daily basis in His Word. God may not promise us material riches, but “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) We may continually wrestle with our sin, but “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) We may often be weary, but Christ calls, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
The promises for us in God’s Word are multitude. Cling to them. In the long night of the soul, latch onto the Scriptures and cry out to the Father. For God is honored and glorified by such desperate and needy prayers.
Meditate on Jacob’s prayer of desperation to God. Do you pray only to ask God for help? Do you avoid requesting anything of God? Consider how to correct either pitfall.
Pray through Jacob’s prayer outline: remembering who God is, remembering who you are and what God has done, bringing your requests to God, and clinging to His Word.