"I will not let you go unless you bless me." (Genesis 32:26.)
Jacob and his company were travelling from Haran to Canaan, through the uplands of Gilead on the east bank of Jordan. They had to cross the River Jabbok, a tributary which enters the Jordan through a wild picturesque gorge a thousand feet deep, cut through the rim of the desert. To scramble or slide down the sides is like entering a hot-house. Something prompted Jacob to stay in the gorge alone; so he sent the company on ahead to ford the river—four wives, eleven sons and one daughter (the daughter is not mentioned!) with flocks and herds and camels. No, doubt it was a moonlit night—they would scarcely have attempted the ford in pitch darkness; and Jacob was there alone as the cries of the drovers grew fainter over the opposite bank. The river gorge was empty save for himself. "And there wrestled a man with Jacob until the breaking of the day."
A man? What man? He refused to give his name. Perhaps a devil? Perhaps an angel? Or was it one of those mythological creatures seen by the Old Testament prophets—a projection of some spiritual force serving as a representation or symbol? The Greeks had the same idea in the legend of Proteus, the Old Man of the sea. You held him tight while he wriggled and changed his shape from one form to another; but if you didn't let him go until he was exhausted he would eventually return to normal and answer all your questions. "And there wrestled a man with Jacob until the breaking of the day; and Jacob held him fast so that he could not get away." Imagine the weird wrestling match, all in the dark!
As dawn began to appear and the sun burst into the gorge with its revealing violence of heat and light, Jacob's assailant became desperate to get away. "Let me go," he cried, "for the day is breaking."
"I will not let you go," said Jacob, "unless you bless me."
Then the spirit asked: "What is your name?" "Jacob," he replied (meaning Supplanter.)
"You shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel (Prince of God), for as a Prince you have power with God and man, and have prevailed." Jacob then let his assailant go. And, as the sun mounted the sky, he crossed the river and climbed the opposite slope to rejoin the company; and he found himself limping on one hip.
To what extent is the story to be taken literally? Was it staged in the natural or spiritual world, or was it an allegorical dream? These questions will never be answered, and there is no need for an answer. The incident is recorded, and it finds a response in the hearts of all of us. Jacob wrestling all night, the nighttime of the soul, in the valley of the shadow, alone . . . it is true for me, and I expect for you also.
We are thinking, of course, of our temptation combats. Much of the teaching of the Scriptures centres on this subject, for temptation is the routine of the regenerating life. Without it we should never change or develop for better or for worse; we should stagnate. But under the stress of temptation we have the opportunity to progress, to add some new element to our characters, to grow. Temptations are our spiritual growing-pains. They come only to those who are on the move, and in particular to those whose general direction is towards the heavenly Canaan.
In order to be tempted, you must have already accepted some spiritual truth. You have an idea of what you want and why you want it, but this idea is not yet digested, it is still only in the external mind. To make it a part of yourself, you must practise it, try it out. A school teacher is not content merely to explain a principle in algebra or a grammatical construction in a foreign language; he gives tests and exercises and makes the student go on working at them until the point is driven home. It is the same in our progress towards the Holy Land. We make a good resolution in connection with some spiritual insight. Does this mean that we have profited by it? Not necessarily. The good resolution must be shaken to see whether it is firm. It "tries to get away" and we have to "hold on to it." This brings it inwards from our external mind into our hearts and lives. And so it almost always happens that, as soon as we have decided to make an improvement in our characters, a reaction sets in. We falter, we wonder why we didn't leave things comfortably as they were. After every exalted mood comes a depression. After every highland state, a deep valley.
Of course we are free to scrap our good resolutions, throw them into the river and go back to where we were. In that case we shall end up worse than we were, because our negative experience will have weakened our will and made us less determined next time. But if we remain faithful to our new insights, then they will effect a permanent change in our characters, and we shall be able to go on our way rejoicing.
It is only by this means that we can make spiritual teachings our own. We must hold fast to them, cling to them tenaciously although every present impulse prompts us to drop them, and although the higher ideals themselves seem to be struggling to shake us off and be gone. For only in the degree that we hold fas through the darkness of the night, through doubt, self-criticism and depression, will joy come in the morning.
Well, Jacob got his blessing. What was it? A change of name! "Not much of a blessing," you may say. "Anyone can change his name and not be any better off." But in the Word of God a name represents a quality, so that a change of name indicates a change of quality. That struggle at the ford of Jabbok was the turning point of Jacob's career. He was a different man after it. We easily detect the change as we read his story in Genesis. Previously he had been mean, calculating, cunning, sharp-witted. He would stoop to anything to make a gain. In all his jockeying with his uncle Laban you don't know which of the two you admire least! But now a new dignity seems to come upon him. He is no longer "Jacob, the supplanter," but "Israel, Prince of God." In his earlier character he could never have been the head of the Church on earth; only in his new character. The Hebrew people are never referred to as "Jacobites;" they are "Israelites." That change was indeed a very considerable blessing, to him and to the whole world. It gave us the spiritual Israel, which represents heaven on earth.
A successful outcome of a temptation struggle always brings this blessing of a change of name—of character. We start our adult lives as little Jacobs. Selfishness and cunning motivate us in most of what we think and say and do. And so we would continue to the end of our days were it not for a mysterious wrestling match somewhere in the darkness. Perhaps a succession of such battles. If you have not experienced this yet, you will do when you are ready. This is not a matter of driving evil away, a "get thee behind me, Satan!" It is rather a question of holding on to something—"I will not let you go." For in this story the adversary is not necessarily a devil; it may be an angel. One tradition has it that the adversary is God himself! I prefer to think of the adversary as representing "truth not yet our own." We must make it our own by proving that we really want it; by showing we are prepared to fight for it. We must convert truth into goodness, which will become our new motivation and driving force. No longer shall we try to "supplant" others, looking for profit in everything, which was the "Jacob" element. No longer shall we be anxious to be praised or thanked. We shall try to do good in every situation as a matter of course, whether anyone knows of it or not and whether we profit or lose. A new name? Definitely! "You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name." (Isaiah 62:2.) Will this imply a significant change? I am afraid so, with most of us. It is a change we must all undergo, if we are to become Princes or "Sons of the heavenly King."
At first as we assume our new character we shall probably find we are limping. We shall seem to be worse off. We shall need faith to keep us going. Faith is the moon which reflects the light of the sun in the nighttime. So, in your temptation combats, when only the moon of faith illumines the valley of the shadow; when your ideals, hopes, promises, resolutions and good habits seem to be slipping away, eluding your clutching hands . . . HOLD ON! Don't let them go until they have blessed you! Even though the temptation gets worse as dawn begins to break, HOLD ON to what you know is good, right, sane, healthy and true: even when they no longer seem attractive, and when evil and falsity seem alluring and beautiful and wholly desirable! "Prove all things," said Paul; "Hold fast to that which is good." Hold fast to the right, the honest and the pure, even when these qualities themselves cry out to be released. Then the night will pass, the new day will dawn, and your name will be completely changed. "He that endures to the end will be saved."