5 lessons that Jacob’s wrestling teaches us about prayer


J.D. Greear:

Genesis 32 contains the fascinating story of Jacob wrestling all night with God. The whole wrestling match comes about in the midst of Jacob praying, and his physical struggle teaches us 5 lessons about prayer.

1. The blessings of God are released into our lives through prayer.

Before Jacob was even born God had prophesied that the blessing would be his and not his brother’s (Gen 25:23). But it was not until Jacob took it in a prayer-wrestling match with God that it really became his. He laid hold of the promise of God through a night of prayer.

The Bible is a book full of promises—3,000 of them! And while many of them apply to specific and unique situations, Paul calls all the promises of God “Yes” in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).  So in a Christ-centered way, every one of them is Yes for me and for you.

So do not simply read through your Bible. Pray through it! The Bible is our primary prayer book, so read through it and lay hold of the promises of God!

2. Sometimes the blessings of God are released in our lives through persistent prayer.

Martin Luther pointed out that the story of Jacob wrestling with God gives us a picture of wrestling with a seemingly hostile God in prayer. As another example of this, he mentions the story of the Syrophoenician woman who came to Jesus to get healing for her daughter (Mark 7). Jesus’ tells her that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Does Jesus actually want to send the woman away? No. He is going to heal her, but at first he appears hostile and indifferent.

What is going on here? God is not actually hostile and indifferent: the cross shows us loving and engaged he is! But Jesus is showing us that praying often feels like that. Why? God often appears hostile to test the strength of our faith in his goodness: “Like a child trying to push against the hand of a parent, the parent gives only enough resistance to test the resolve of the child. So God resists us in prayer, to see our resolve in his goodness.”[1]

3. The blessings of God are not obtained by our contriving.

At the end of this wrestling match, God asks Jacob for his name. He already knows the name, but he wants Jacob to admit it. When Jacob had stolen the blessing, his daddy had asked for his name, and he lied: “My name is Esau.” But now he tells the truth: “My name is Jacob. I’m a deceiver. I’ve tried all my life to obtain these blessings for myself by my own manipulation. Now I am repenting.”

So God gives him a new name, Israel, which speaks of God giving the blessing, not Jacob wresting it for himself. The blessing you are searching for is not going to come from more striving or deceiving. It comes by submitting. Winning the blessing only comes by losing to God.

4. God is himself the blessing that we seek.

God does not end the encounter with Jacob by assuring him that everything would be fine. He simply says, “Go to Esau. I am with you.” There is no promise that he will live through the next day. In fact, God has made Jacob limp, so he cannot even try to run away.

But Jacob got a blessing that was greater than earthly blessing: the restoration of relationship. Whatever you are searching for, I can guarantee you that it cannot replace God. Sometimes God withholds blessing you are seeking in order to teach you that, because a relationship with God is better than any of his blessings.

God may not promise you that you will get the job or the boyfriend or the healing you desire. But he promises himself. God does not always change your situation; sometimes he changes your identity. He changes you from a “Jacob” to an “Israel.” So you can say, even in the midst of the shadow of death, that God is with you, and that is enough.

The result of a night of prayer is not the resolution of all of your problems, but the restoration of your most desperately needed relationship.

5. We know that God hears us because he became weak for us.

Jacob should have been crushed, which means that God voluntarily held himself back. God became voluntarily weak.God feigned weakness to bring Jacob salvation, but centuries later, the full weight that Jacob deserved came down on Christ. As Tim Keller says, “Jacob held on at the risk of his life to get the blessing for him; but Jesus held on at the cost of his life to get the blessing for us.”

So we can be sure that he hears us. It may seem like God is not listening. But he is. The cross assures you he is. God cared enough to come down to Jacob and wrestle with him. God cared enough for us that he came down and took on our flesh, wrestling with our sin until it squeezed the life out of him. And now he has united himself to us forever and said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So press into him in prayer, and never, ever give up.

[1] Martin Luther, as quoted by David Steinmetz, prof of OT at Duke Divinity School, sermon given at Beeson Divinity School in 1996, “Calving and Luther on Interpreting Genesis.” Beeson Divinity School podcast, 10/9/12.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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