In Genesis 13 we find Abraham raising an altar, when separated from Lot, and in the land. There God appears to him, but not now, as at the first, to bring him into the path of faith; he is in the path of faith and brought into the place of promise, and He gives him a clearer knowledge of the extent of the promise - "Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. . . . . . Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee." Here is a great principle as to separation from the world.
We will now consider another altar - that raised by Jacob, on his recall to Beth-el, and a little compare this with God's wrestling with him, when be came out of Padan-aram. There was no altar there.
The history of Jacob is the history of one in the favour of God, but disciplined in a failing walk, and through failure, the faithfulness of God being evidenced throughout all his failures and wanderings in his attempts to bring about the blessing in a carnal way. Just the result of this is seen in his interview with Pharaoh. (Gen. 47) He goes into the presence of the great potentate of the world, and, without any hesitation, blesses him, whilst at the same time giving a very sorrowful history of his own life. There is most evident superiority in the presence of the world; but, putting himself in comparison with other saints, his own life has been a sad one - few and evil his days. The moment a saint is put in contrast with the highest potentate in the world, he is the superior. It is very lovely to see this lowliness, the result of his "few and evil" days. The saint may have to confess before the world, to his own shame, yet there cannot but be, where the soul is in communion with God, the consciousness of blessing.
As to Jacob's character, he was most assuredly a believer, and, what is more, a believer who valued God's promises. Esau, was not. (Scripture speaks of him as a "profane person.") Jacob valued the promises. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. But we do not find in Jacob this character of faith - confidence in God to bring about the promises. Therefore, whilst he values the promises, he uses fleshly means to obtain them; he reckons upon human policy, instead of reckoning upon God. There is blessing in the end; but God could not approve his conduct; and, in the dealing of God's government with him, with the measure with which he has meted, it is measured to him again; he is himself continually the object of similar deceit. He tells Laban, "In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times." (Gen. 31.) Cheated about his wife, wronged as to his wages, a wanderer from his father's house, and slave to Laban, through acting in a deceitful way, instead of leaving the accomplishment of the blessing to God: in all this we discern actual discipline because of evil.
When once fairly under the rod of discipline, God chastens him, makes him feel the rod, but supports him under it. And it is thus always with "the Father of spirits." He chastens, He disciplines; but the moment He has put the soul under discipline, it is, as with Ephraim, "since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still." When lying down at night, with the stones of the place for his pillow, Jacob dreams: "And behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." (Gen. 28)
He was always using deceitful, human means to gain his ends, as in regard to the birthright and the blessing, so too with respect to Laban's flock. (Gen. 30)
After a certain time he finds he cannot remain with Laban, and, bidden of God to return to the land of his kindred, he steals away. Laban pursues; but God intervenes, and (if he would) he cannot do him hurt. Jacob sets up a pillar of witness. (Gen. 31)
When he fled from the face of Esau at the first, he saw a vision of angels, and was declared to be the object of God's favour. So here, it is the same thing. At Beth-el he had set up his pillows for a pillar of memorial, and poured oil upon the top of it, and vowed a vow. Yet it is after that he goes through all this discipline.
No longer able to stay with Laban, the Lord appears to him again, and, in bidding him return to the land of his fathers, tells him, "I will be with thee." Further, the angels of God meet him on his way, and he names the place where he has seen them, "Mahanaim," i.e. "two hosts." (Gen. 32.)
But Esau is about to meet him; and still there is the same character of unbelief. In place of remembering God's word, "I will be with thee," and the fact of God's host having met him, he has recourse afresh to fleshly expedients, in order to "find grace in the eyes of," and to "appease" "my lord Esau." To faith, had there been four thousand men with Esau, instead of four hundred, what of that?" "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Besides, what right or title had Esau? But we put ourselves under the men of the world, when we use worldly, deceitful ways in our dealings with them.
Still, the Lord meets him in mercy.
He sends over band after band of substance and servants, then children and wives first, and remains himself behind. "And Jacob was left alone." Sad picture of a person not walking with God! Rescued from the pursuits of Laban, encouraged by the promise of God to be with him, and by the sight of God's host at Mahanaim, all this had not put courage in him; and why? his heart was not with God. There was this fleshly principle, and God must take the matter into His own hands. If He rescues Jacob from Esau, He must have to do with Jacob Himself.
Jacob had vowed, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God." And now he says, "O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children. 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." Still, he does not know how to trust God.
You see a person loving the Lord, valuing His promises, a saint of God, chastened continually, and yet the flesh not broken down; God must bring him to the point of wrestling with him Himself. See Peter. The Lord could say to Peter, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven;" again, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you;" and again (when washing Peter's feet), "Ye are clean, but not all, for He knew who should betray Him; therefore said He, Ye are not all clean." Yet, as it regards Peter, where was he? really loving the Lord, but not having the least thought of what the flesh was; and he is therefore put through sifting - "Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted strengthen thy brethren." (Luke 22:31, 32.) But he is sustained through the sifting - "I have prayed for thee."
Here the Lord meets Jacob alone. "There wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day" - this is not Jacob's wrestling with God in faith, as it is often said. "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." It is a wrestling in which all the strength of Jacob is put forth; and in the sequel, while he feels what it is to have his heart broken and his flesh withered, it can be said to him, "As a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." He gets a blessing: God calls him "Israel." Yet God refuses to reveal His name. Is He to reveal His name as a wrestler - a position into which He has been forced, so to speak, by Jacob? "Wherefore is it," He says, "that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there." There is no peaceful, quiet knowledge of God's marvellous grace. He is God's strong man, through the wrestling; but God must weaken the flesh. And He will pass the soul, where the flesh is not broken, sooner or later, through this discipline.
It was a blessing to get such a name as "Israel" - most marvellous grace, and get a blessing that came to a halting saint; he halted all the days of his life; and God refused to reveal His name. Not so in the case of Abraham. "I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect," He says to Abraham. "And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham." Here we find peaceful communion; and Abraham can intercede for others, instead of wrestling for himself. (Gen. 17, 18)
After this it is we find God saying to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there; and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother." (v. 1.) Here He begins, if one may so speak, to volunteer; and He passes over what we have been considering, as if nothing had happened. 'You had to flee' (He says) 'from the face of Esau, I promised you blessing; get back to this place, and there raise an altar.'
"Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: and let us arise and go up to Bethel: and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and who was with me in the way which, I went." (vv. 2, 3.)
Rachel had carried her father's strange gods along with her. (Gen. 31:19, 30-35.) Jacob remembers this now, though he had paid no attention to it before. Into what a mixed state had he got! One never knows how far we may go when we do not trust in God. But there is now the discerning of clean and unclean. That which results, after all the discipline, is the consciousness of the love and faithfulness that had followed him all the way which he went. "And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand," etc. (vv. 4, 5.)
Here he is, after all the discipline, after all the trial, worshipping God, as the faithful God who had answered him in the day of his distress, and had been with him in the way he had gone. The moment God had put him under the discipline, He said, "I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest." And Jacob says, 'He has been with me; yes, He is the God that, while we have failed in the way, has been with us all the way.'
"And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and He called his name Israel." (vv. 9, 10.) This is a great while after the wrestling. Jacob has got rid of all his strange gods, and he is meeting God where God can reveal Himself, and give him the new name of "Israel." He does it now as if He had never done it before. 'I know nothing,' He says, 'of the supplanter, you are now strong with God.'
"And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; and the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where He talked with him." (vv. 11-13.) That is just what He had done with Abraham.
He is not making him halt, not wrestling with him now. Nor does he hide His name now. 'That is the name,' He says, 'in which I can reveal myself in all peaceful confidence.' And He goes up from him.
Jacob has his "Beth-el." God had spoken to him from the top of the ladder, but now He comes down. "And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink-offering thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Beth-el." (vv. 14, 15.) It is not a half-fearing, half-worshipping, "How dreadful is this place," etc. He had been a "supplanter;" his name, as a man, was "Jacob;" but God will not give it him. "Israel" is God's name for him. He had taken advantage of his brother Esau, a rash, unbelieving man - not at all a lovely act; but the history gives the reason; he valued his father's blessing (prophetic blessing), yet he listened to his mother's advice; he hearkened to her, and went and feigned to be Esau. Now that was not trusting God. He who made Isaac bless him, and say, "I have blessed him, yea, and he shall be blessed;" He who made Jacob bless the sons of Joseph, "crossing his hands" (Gen. 48), was perfectly able to accomplish that which He had spoken. He has revealed Himself as "God Almighty," and Jacob is able to name the place "the house of God."
What results to us in instruction from all this is, that the Lord is dealing with us - not merely giving blessing in the land of Canaan, nor yet the joy consequent on that (that which he did to Abraham when separated from Lot), there is another thing, as it regards the way, our individual conduct, and individual character; namely, that thus the Lord deals with us, to chasten and break down the flesh, in order that He may manifest Himself in peaceful communion. When we are able to look at, and weigh things, as that we have had to do with God about them, in the knowledge that He was dealing with us in His faithful love, it is done in settled peace; but every idol is put away. We may, like Peter, have real love for the Lord, and be sincere; or, like Jacob, really value the promises; but where the flesh is not judged, there must be this breaking of it down. Sometimes it may be at the very starting, sometimes on a death-bed, sometimes through circumstances in the way; but, sooner or later, the flesh must be judged, whether it is judged quietly or judged painfully. In Jacob we see confidence in the flesh, a leaning on the flesh for the attainment of God's promises, and, in the way, all sorts of discipline, though there is blessing at the end. There may be a trusting the faithfulness of God about the promises - faith in the promises, joy in the promises, and yet, in place of leaning upon the power of God for their accomplishment, a use of unholy means which entail chastisement and sorrow: "Be not deceived," says the apostle; "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption." (Gal. 6:7, 8.)
"I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest." Jacob had this at the very outset; he had faith as to the end, and yet he could not count on God for the way. God's sufficiency and the good-for-nothingness of the flesh must be learned peacefully, if walking with God; painfully, if we were walking our twenty-one years in a carnal way. Jacob could not be at Beth-el in peace, until he had learned this lesson of "no confidence in the flesh." And he never had forced home upon his conscience until then the fact of his having false gods in his company (not that he loved idols). But there we see most peaceful, most happy self-judgment before God. The means God uses are very various; but the thing must be done. He cannot be at Beth-el with His child, until He has emptied him of confidence in the flesh.
The Lord give us to trust Him, not only for the end, but also for the way.