This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).
The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.
Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).
Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.
Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.
We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.
Last time, we looked at the story from Daniel Chapter 2 (see text here:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=ESV ) Daniel, his friends, and the entire court of magicians, sorcerers, wise men, and counselors of Babylon are under threat of death if they cannot tell the mighty Nebudchadnezzar the meaning of his dreams– dreams he refuses to disclose to them! The power and wrath of the king of Babylon is imposing. The threat is real and very dire.
But today, I want to look at the larger picture, just as Daniel was able to do so long ago.
Nebuchadnezzar looms large across all his empire– he is the supreme ruler, a despot, and a madman. But he is not God. Even as he strikes fear in the hearts of his counselors, he causes Daniel and his friends to seek help from a higher power. Already, the other learned men, sorcerers and astrologers have come to Daniel for help. Even though he is young, and a foreign captive, there is something about his character that has earned the respect of others in authority. Daniel could easily have become arrogant and proud. Or he could have folded under the pressure, knowing that he had no answers to give the king.
Instead, he did two key things– first, he asked for help from his friends. He asked for their support in prayer. Never discount the power of prayer– especially the prayers of others on your behalf. So often, we worry and wallow in our problems, waiting for God to work, praying in isolation and silent anguish. God wants us to seek His face; He wants to hear our prayers. But He also wants us to seek help and prayer support from those who are close to us. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked for support from His three closest friends. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+14%3A32-42&version=ESV) He went off alone to pray and pour out His deepest anguish, but He took His closest friends to “keep watch”. Daniel would face Nebuchadnezzar one-on-one, but he would not be “alone.” Not only would he know that God was with him, he would know that his caring friends were “keeping watch,” and providing faithful support. We should do the same.
In weight training, there is a practice called “spotting”, in which another person stands ready to help a weight lifter as s/he attempts to lift a heavier weight than normal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotting_(weight_training)) Daniel is preparing to shoulder a big weight. He expects to face Nebuchadnezzar, and, while he doesn’t know (yet) the content of the king’s dreams, he knows that they are disturbing and mysterious. Whatever he says to the king, however tactfully he says it, his life (and the lives of many others) may be at stake. Spotters “keep watch”, and offer to step in and help if the weight is too great to bear. In this instance, Daniel’s friends were there, ready to help. They were not required to step up and face Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. But their time will come soon enough! As Christians, we need to be prepared to be a Daniel– but we also need to be prepared to be a “spotter” for our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to “keep watch,” ready to step in with prayer, action, and faithful support.
Secondly, Daniel waited with hope and expectation. The Bible does not tell us what Daniel prayed before God sent His answer, but it does record Daniel’s response to God’s vision. And his prayer is not one of selfish relief– “Thank you, God for giving me what I need to save me from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar…”–instead, Daniel rejoices in God Almighty; the one who causes kings to rise and fall, the one who gives wisdom and who knows the future. It is this God Daniel has trusted, and this God Daniel will honor when he goes in to meet with Nebuchadnezzar.
Today, may we follow the good example of Daniel. Let’s share our concerns with others, and gladly offer to pray for each other, pray with each other, and “keep watch” for each other. And let us expect great things from our great and faithful God– even if we are living –and praying–under pressure!
In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )
First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.
Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.
We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.
The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.
No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.
When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.
Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.
But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.
But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.
In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”
Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.
There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!
It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.
No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.
I wanted to take a break from writing about Biblical characters and their prayers to revisit an important aspect of our prayer journey. Prayer can be formal, informal, structured, rote, spiritualized, meditative…it can be done silently, in tongues, standing, kneeling, or prostrated. It can be public or private. But it should continue throughout our days and years– it should be a natural and vital part of every day, permeating every event and activity.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we stop everything we’re doing and spend our lives in constant bowed-head, closed-eye prayer or reciting psalms and hymns instead of working, driving, eating, sleeping, and interacting with other people. But it does mean having a “prayer attitude”– an awareness that God is everywhere with us and closer than our next breath, ready to communicate with us– a readiness to share our every thought, and listen for God’s gentle whispered response.
I was reminded of this in a strange way just today, when my cell phone started ringing while I was working at church. Cell phones are everywhere these days, and that can be a great thing, or a curse. For many of us, the cell phone is within arm’s length 24 hours a day. Anyone with our number can contact us at any time. Likewise, we can whip out the phone to call, text, take photos, or check email any time during the day or night.
Today, when my cell phone rang, I ignored the call. I was busy with something I considered far more important. In fact, I was disappointed in myself for leaving the ringer “on,” instead of putting the phone on “vibrate” or “mute” mode. But I had to make a choice– leave what I was doing to answer the phone, ignore the call altogether, let the caller leave a message for me to deal with later, or answer the phone and try to do two tasks at once. I don’t like being interrupted by my cell phone, but I carry it with me, because I don’t want to be without the ability to call for help or to get an important message.
We don’t think of carrying our cell phones as an impossible burden. Each day we make choices to use this tool (for better or worse) to keep in touch with family, friends, clients, business contacts, and much more. Sometimes, we resent the way it intrudes on our life and other times, we let it get in the way of our life! In fact, we could (and some of us remember when we had to) get along without cell phones (and internet, and other technologies), but most of us choose to carry our phones wherever we plan to go. Why then, do we not choose to “carry” an attitude of prayer the same way?
God wants to be closer than our cell phone– there with us as we go through our days– ready for us to call on him, or “vibrating” to get our attention when He has a word for us. We don’t always have to be staring at our phone to have it handy. Just having it with us can make us feel more secure and confident as we face an uncertain situation. Similarly, having an attitude of “prayerfulness” will make us more aware of His presence as we face uncertain circumstances.
But we have to make sure that we don’t “mute” the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives, or let our prayer life get “drained” by busyness or lack of connection to power sources, like the Bible and Christian fellowship. Nor should we take the power of prayer for granted, grabbing it and stuffing it in our pocket or purse out of habit, without understanding that it is an amazing treasure and a lifeline.
Prayer is so much better than any cell phone, of course. God is never too “busy” to answer our call. There is no need for “cell towers” to get good reception. There are no monthly fees, connection fees, telemarketing schemes, “robo” calls or “phishing” scams. Prayer can’t get a cracked case or get “out of range”, or become obsolete after several years! And God wants us to carry on with our other tasks as we carry Him with us! We can lift up another person even as we are speaking with them or getting a text message from them. We can raise a prayer of thanksgiving even as we get the test results we were hoping for (or ask for strength when the results are what we feared). We can ask for forgiveness even as we become aware of our sin. We can ask for extra grace even as we are dealing with that difficult customer, or patient, or student.. God is always on the other end, waiting to listen and be part of the ongoing conversation of our lives!
For a blog about prayer, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing Bible study on the character of Jacob. But I think there is a huge connection. The stories in the Bible are powerful and important, not because of the human characters, but because, in them, we see how God interacts with a variety of His created people. And that can help us as we come to God in prayer.
When we begin to understand that the “heroes” of the Bible are often ordinary people who encounter Almighty God, we see that little has changed in the course of history. God still chooses to bless and challenge ordinary people– for their own good, and as a witness to others.
In today’s world, we often reverse the importance of the characters in our own stories. Christians talk about “my God” or “our God”, as though God belongs to us or serves us. But the Bible doesn’t speak in those terms. God is not “Jacob’s God” or “Solomon’s God” or “Queen Esther’s God,” or even “Israel’s God.” Instead, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of Israel. He is pre-eminent. God exists, rules, creates, and acts on His own terms, not ours. And He exists, rules, and acts universally. No person, group, or nation can claim that God blesses them because of who they are or what they have done. Thus, there is no African God or Caucasian God or Chen Family God, or Jean’s God, or Muscovite God, etc. There is only One God– but He wants to be the intimate and personal God of every person on the African continent, and in Moscow, and everyone named Shirley, Clarence, Chen, Smith, Martinez, or Klein. He invites each of us into a personal relationship, but He remains Holy and Unchanging and Sovereign.
The very same God who wrestled with Jacob wants to be your best friend. He also wants to be your King and Lord of your life. When we pray to “the God of Jacob”– we are not praying to “Jacob’s God”. We are praying to the very passionate lover of our soul. He just happens to be the same God who loved Jacob enough to take him through a series of adventures many centuries ago; the same God who promised never to leave him; the same God who blessed him and preserved him and made him the father of a great nation. Just think of what He’s waiting to do for and through you!
The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.
It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.
Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.
So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.
Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!
If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.
Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!
I love this story of Jacob, and it gives me a great deal of hope for many reasons:
Jacob got a new name. This is significant throughout the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets a new name, it indicates that he/she has a new nature, a new future, a new relationship with God. Jacob was named for all the worst of his character attributes– he literally came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-grabber” and “cheat”. But his new name, Israel, turns all of that on its head–Jacob “grabbed” hold of God and would not let go! He “struggled” with God, and God promised to be with him in all his struggles; to protect him, to bless him, to be on his side. When we come to Christ in faith, we may not get a new name, but we get a new nature, and a new relationship with God. Christ promises to be our advocate– he will struggle with us, uphold us, strengthen us, and bless us–all we need to do is grab hold of the grace that is offered!
God met with Jacob where he was– literally and figuratively. Sometimes, we meet someone who “struggles”– with every thing and everyone. Jacob had contentious relationships with nearly everyone in his life. He was accused, abused, cheated, hated, passed over, fought over, lied to, and aggravated. God didn’t come to him in glory and splendor– he came and wrestled with Jacob–down and dirty, gritty and unannounced. And when Jacob hung on and kept fighting, God let him. He even “cheated” by putting his hip socket out of joint to end the match. God could have showed up and overwhelmed Jacob with his glorious presence. He could have visited him as he did Abraham–stopping by for a meal and a visit. He could even have appeared in another dream. But he knew Jacob from the inside-out– he knew Jacob’s character and temperament; he knew Jacob’s fears and deepest needs. He grappled with a grappler, twisting and turning in sweaty combat. And when it was over, Jacob KNEW his God. He knew that God would not let go– would not send him away, would not let him sneak away in the middle of the night, would not destroy him. Instead, this God would hold him, struggle WITH him, and bless him afterward. I think we often forget that God is not just Holy and Awesome; he is not just a God who loves in a vague and universal way. God is very personal and intimate. He will engage with our doubts, our fears, our high-spirited, strong-willed natures, and he will embrace us with all the fierceness of death–even death on a cross.
God’s timing doesn’t always make sense, but it is always perfect. Jacob was leaving horrible situation, on the eve of a difficult confrontation with his brother, and, ultimately, on a difficult journey to reconciliation with his father. God didn’t need to give Jacob a pep talk, or a list of do’s and don’t’s. He gave him a new name and a new blessing to replace the past hurts and inspire Jacob to build a new life. Jacob was able to face his brother and father with renewed confidence that God would see him through.
Finally, it is in this story that God literally becomes “the God of Jacob” in a personal and profound sense. God still longs to be the God of __________”– fill in the blank with your own name! If you have been wrestling with God or against God, or just avoiding God, let this be the day that you receive the blessing of God’s grace. It’s yours for the asking. And likely, it will be less painful than Jacob’s encounter!
In the last post, we looked at how Jacob worked for 20 years for his corrupt father-in-law. Jacob has changed from the scheming young man who cheated his brother, lied to his father, and was sent away for his own safety. But that’s not the end of the story…
After 20 years of keeping Laban’s flocks, establishing his family, playing referee to his squabbling wives, and dealing with Laban’s greedy and capricious nature, Jacob is ready to leave. But we have a couple of curious incidents yet to explore in this relationship. In Genesis, chapter 30 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+30%3A25-43&version=NIV we are given a detailed plan by Jacob to develop and increase his flocks. Jacob outlines part of his plan to Laban, and Laban agrees. Jacob’s flocks will be speckled and spotted, while Laban’s will be “pure.” On the surface, it looks like Laban is getting the better end of the bargain, and, as Jacob points out, there will be no way he can “cheat” by claiming Laban’s animals as his. But Jacob’s plan has a couple of twists and turns.
As Jacob follows his plan, he ends up with the strongest and best of the flocks, while Laban’s flocks are weaker. Once again, Jacob uses a clever scheme to advance at the expense of someone close to him. At the beginning of chapter 31, we see the result– Laban and his sons are angry and resentful– they feel they have been cheated, and plan to retaliate. Jacob leaves in the middle of the night with his wives, children, and livestock, planning to return to his father in Canaan. Jacob explains to his wives that his “plan” was inspired by a dream in which God told him what to do to increase his flocks and then told him to return home. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A4-13&version=NIV
But is Jacob telling the truth? Has he really changed, or is this just another case of Jacob using his wits to get what he wants?
The Bible doesn’t give us direct confirmation, but indirectly, the story seems to back up Jacob’s statements. Though the Bible says that Jacob “deceived” his father-in-law by sneaking away in the night, and not telling him that he was going, it never says that he deceived Laban by separating the flock as he did, or by preparing to return to Canaan. Furthermore, when Laban pursues Jacob, God warns him in a dream to say nothing to Jacob (advice he quotes, but doesn’t actually take)! Laban also confessed (back in chapter 30) that, via divination, he has learned that he was blessed on account of Jacob.
Why am I taking time to dissect this relationship between Jacob and Laban a second time? What else can we learn from this story?
I think there is a great lesson about deception, and how it often backfires. But just as powerful, I think there is a lesson about how God looks beyond our actions to see our heart.
Laban was not only Jacob’s father-in-law– he was also Jacob’s uncle. They shared similar character traits– both were ambitious, clever, and driven to take advantage of any “edge” that might be to their advantage. God did not “choose” Jacob because of any of this– but neither did he condemn him for any of it. Instead, God appeared to Jacob, and Jacob responded in awe, worship, and obedience. God didn’t change Jacob’s nature; his drive to succeed, his innovation, his ambition. But he did change Jacob’s heart–Jacob didn’t leave his uncle in ruins, in spite of the treatment he and his family (Laban’s own daughters and grandchildren!) had received. Jacob used his cleverness to build a strong flock, but he also used it to prove to his uncle that he was not the liar or thief he had been labeled back in Canaan. Jacob listened to God in formulating his plans– both his clever plan to build the flock, and the plan to return home.
Laban, on the other hand, had seen the hand of God at work blessing him on account of Jacob. Years before, he had seen the hand of God leading his sister, Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He had seen how God had blessed his daughters. He even saw that his ill-treatment of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel led to a loss of God’s blessing. But at no time is there any evidence that Laban ever acknowledged God, worshiped Him, thanked Him, or obeyed Him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A14-55&version=NIV
In their final encounter, Laban accuses Jacob of theft and duplicity– Jacob confesses that he fears Laban, but then, he gives him a blistering rebuke. Laban’s response is a feeble argument that all Jacob has belongs (or should belong) to him– Laban! “All you see is MINE” (emphasis added). He also claims (even after God tells him to say nothing to Jacob) that he has the power to hurt Jacob. Laban is a controlling user– a bully and a manipulator. Laban is a powerful man who is ruthless in using that power to get what he wants. But all that power is not enough to challenge God– the same God who blessed Laban because of Jacob; the same God who warned him not to act against Jacob. The real power does not belong to Laban or to Jacob. Jacob has been learning this lesson–Laban never will. The most he learns is that Jacob will no longer be under his control and submit to his corrupt authority.
Perhaps you have been in a relationship with someone who is controlling and manipulative. Perhaps they have convinced you that they have all the power to keep you enslaved to their manipulation. There are two essential truths you need to remember:
God sees you. He sees the injustices done to you– and your response to them. He sees your heart– even when it is breaking under the weight of oppression. He asks that you trust HIS power and HIS timing as you are going through this deep valley. Abusers thrive on clever lies– that you can’t make it without them; that no one else will help you, love you, believe you…; that their actions are in your best interest…even going so far as saying that they are making sacrifices for you and that you “owe” them. Don’t let their lies overwhelm God’s truth–
God desires you to submit to HIM. Even when the road is tough and we don’t understand circumstances, God is making a way for you, just as He did for Jacob. God allowed Jacob to grow his flocks in spite of Laban’s crooked ways– He allowed Jacob to be both the agent of Laban’s success and the instrument of Laban’s downfall. Submission to God does NOT mean abject submission to an abuser or a manipulator. If God has shown you a way of escape (even running away without warning) or shown you a way to flourish under harsh circumstances– listen and obey!