Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire

Genesis 32:1-21 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’ ”

6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

9 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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.’ ”

13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’ ” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp.

INTRODUCTION

Way back in the 1900s (as my kids like to call it) I was heading east on I-96 on my way home from college. In the moment it took me to glance at a car passing me on my left another car pulled out right in front of me (at a very slow speed). In an instant I knew that I had two choices. I could either slam into the back of that car or try to swerve in order to avoid it. I chose the latter. I hit the brakes and pulled the steering wheel hard to the left, narrowly missing the car in front of me. What a relief, right?! Sort of. It was a relief in that I didn’t slam into the car, but in order to avoid it I turned so hard that I started sliding across the three rain-soaked lanes of interstate traffic. The solution to my initial problem was the direct cause of another—potentially greater—problem. In other words, as the old adage goes, I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Well, that’s exactly what happened to Joseph in our story for this morning. Having been commanded by God to do so, Jacob fled from his father-in-law (Laban) after being exploited by him for 20 years. But having also been commanded by God to do so, Jacob headed toward his homeland, which he’d fled from to avoid the murderous intentions of his brother (Esau). He too jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Because we live in a fallen, busted world this isn’t an unusual experience for us, is it? We often find ourselves stuck between two difficult options. What are we to do when this happens? That is, how do we honor God when we’re faced with two equally undesirable outcomes? As we consider God’s presence and Jacob’s response in this passage, we’ll get a few tips—a few things not to do and a few things to do. Let’s pray that we’d learn from both in order that we’d better know how to honor God with this kind of inevitable situation next comes our way.

AWAY FROM LABAN AND TOWARD ESAU

As the drama unfolds in our passage, we find Jacob making real-time decisions as he sought to obey God’s charge to lead his family from difficulty into difficulty. And in that, we find alternating examples of what to do and what not to do when we face challenges in our own lives.

Consider Genesis 32 with me, and therein the following five dos and don’ts when it comes to navigating hardship in faith: Do not fall into the lie of believing you are ever alone (1-2), do act with integrity (3-6), don’t be afraid (7), do pray and recite God’s promises and past blessings (12), and don’t trust ultimately in your plans and power (13-21). Again, let’s consider each together as they show up in our text.

Don’t fall into the lie of believing you are ever alone in hardship (1-2)

Take a minute and put yourself in Jacob’s shoes. Having just narrowly escaped the wrath of his father-in-law (having escaped the frying pan), Jacob was now forced to turn his eyes to what awaited him as he drew nearer to Canaan (his brother, Esau, the fire). God had commanded him to go and promised to be with him, but what a lonely, somber journey that must have seemed to be. In spite of God’s promise, I have to imagine it would have been easy for Jacob to believe the lie that he would have to face his brother alone.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt alone in a trial even while believing that God was with you in some sense? Have you ever known in your mind that God was there but struggled to truly experience His presence when you needed it most? It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into. As always, we need to be careful of reading things into the biblical narratives that aren’t there, but we also need to be careful of reading them as if they didn’t include real people with real struggles.

In the end, whether Jacob struggled with felling alone at the beginning of his journey or not, it couldn’t have lasted long, for almost immediately God revealed Himself once again.

1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

I’d like you to notice a few things. First, the language and encounter with heavenly beings in this passage—as Jacob returned to the land—is very similar to the language and heavenly encounter at Bethel in chapter 28—as Jacob left the land. God met with Jacob at His “house” and then His “camp”. The point is simple: God had never left Jacob. God was unwaveringly faithful to His promises.

Second, the text tells us that the angels of God met with Jacob only after “Jacob went on his way.” As always, we need to avoid reading too much into narrative, but it is significant that Jacob obeyed first. His father and grandfather experienced this type of responsive blessing of God as well when God provided a substitute sacrifice only after Isaac was on the alter. The point is simply that God’s grace comes when God determines to give it. We might wish it always came before our obedience (and in a very important sense it does), but it is not always so. And when it doesn’t, that’s its own kind of grace—perhaps in order that we might hear the same words from God as Abraham, the father of our faith, “for now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 21:12).

Third, God manifests His presence in greater and lesser ways at different times in our lives. Sometimes His presence is hard to detect and other times it is unmistakable and glorious. In this passage Jacob encountered God in the latter sense. The angels of God met him! What a gift this was to Jacob. Imagine how wonderful this would be in your darkest hour. How much comfort would that bring? How much courage would it instill?

And fourth, let this serve as a reminder that there is invisible spiritual realm every bit as real as everything we see. Sometimes, like here, God reveals that to His people and other times He keeps it hidden. The upshot for us is that like the chariots of fire in 2 Kings 6, there is always more going on than meets the eye and God is god over it all.

Grace, do not fall into the lie that you are ever alone in hardship.

Do act with integrity (3-5)

Fresh off his encounter with the angels of God, Jacob turned his face back to Canaan and his brother. Wanting to gain his brother’s favor, Jacob sent messengers ahead, promising a significant gift to Esau.

3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”

Unlike his struggle with Laban, Jacob’s struggle with Esau was a predicament largely of his own making. Jacob seems to acknowledge this in referring to Esau as his “lord” and himself as Esau’s “servant”. Therefore, Esau was (in some ways at least) rightly upset with Jacob.

Regarding Jacob’s scheme to acknowledge and atone for his deceit, we don’t have perfect insight into his motivations. Was he being humble, wise and innocent? Was he doing his best to faithfully avoid presumption (that his brother still wanted to kill him) and naivete (that there was no possibility of such a thing)? Had his encounter with God filled him with right hope and trust; and was this, therefore, an expression of those things? Or was the fear mentioned in the next section already driving him? Was this a faithless bribe? Again, the text doesn’t tell us definitively. It only tells us that this is what happened.

From this, there are two simple lessons that I’d like to share with you. First, sin has consequences. In Jesus we are forgiven and wholly acceptable to God. That is, by grace, through faith in Jesus our sins have been entirely dealt with on a vertical level. On a horizontal level, however, when we wrong others the effects can drag on, sometimes for our entire lives. This, then, is a call to be amazed by God’s grace, walk in righteousness, and be patient with others.

The second lesson comes from the fact that we don’t know Jacob’s motives. In other words, in these few verses we can easily see that the same actions can often flow from two different heart motivations. Are you ever tempted to do things merely to give them the appearance of righteousness? Do you ever try to disguise your lack of trust in God with “spiritual” language or “religious” talk? Do you ever present yourself as doing something with more godly motivation than you really have?

In other words, the lesson for the Church today is to be people of faith and integrity. It’s certainly possible that Jacob was attempting to faithfully bless his brother with his gifts and therein preemptively defuse an unnecessarily volatile situation. It is also certainly possible that his gift offerings were driven by faithless fear, and were therein nothing more than a desperate attempt at a bribe. If it was the former, Jacob’s actions were very much in line with Jesus words in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” If the latter, Jesus words just a few verses later apply, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

Again, the same is true for us. Let us fight to be people of faith and integrity.

Don’t be afraid (6-8)

Do you remember what we considered at the end of the first point (“Don’t fall into the lie of believing you are alone in hardship”)? We imagined how comforting and strengthening it would be for God to visit us as we walked toward hardship (as He had Jacob). But consider what actually happened when Jacob heard of Esau’s response.

6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

God had promised to be with Jacob in his obedience. God had even visited Jacob at the outset of his obedience. But at the first sign of conflict Jacob found himself “greatly afraid and distressed.” It is not hard to read negative things into the messengers’ report of Esau’s response, but it’s also not hard to imagine more of the effect of God’s visit remaining on Jacob. Don’t you imagine yourself as being braver than this so closely on the heels of a visit from God? Have you ever wished for the kind of visit Jacob received in a time of hardship? I have. And with it I imagined finding immediate comfort and future confidence. Not so here. What gives? This is critical…

Faith in God’s future promises, not in His past actions, is the key living without fear. Remembering God’s past faithfulness is a helpful tool to trust in His future promises, but it is not mainly designed by God to give present confidence. 1,000 past visits from God help very little in the present if we do not trust God’s promises now. In other words, God’s past grace is no guarantee of His future grace. It was great that God visited Jacob on the outset of his journey, but that in itself was not a guarantee that God would be with him once his brother and his 400 men arrived. On the other hand, Jacob did have several promises of future grace that he ought to have trusted in. God promised to be with Jacob throughout his journey to the Promised Land, to bless him, to do him good, to give him countless kids, etc.. Had Jacob rightly trusted in those future promises he would have been fearless.

And so it is for you and me. Our hope and help in our present trials do not come from God’s faithfulness in our past trials. Our hope and help today comes from God’s promises for today. Jacob seemed to understand this on some level—that his need was for future grace, not past grace—for the very next thing he did was to turn to God in prayer. And that leads to the forth lesson and the second “do” in the frying pan or fire.

Do pray and recite God’s promises and past blessings in hope (9-12)

Even though Jacob was gripped by fear at the news he’d received concerning his brother, and even though it seems as if his first instinct was to take matters into his own hands, the text also tells us that he did turn to God in prayer. Admirably, his prayer recounted God’s covenant promises, His unwavering faithfulness to them, and Jacob’s unworthiness of them.

9 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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.’ ”

God had commanded Jacob to return to his homeland. The result of Jacob’s obedience seemed to Jacob to be conflict with his brother (and his men). Consequently, Jacob’s prayer was a mix of desperation and confusion.

He seems desperate for God’s rescue from what he imagined to be imminent death (“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”).

And he seems confused at his current circumstances in light of who God is and what He had told Jacob. God is the covenant-making God of his father and grandfather, He had confirmed Jacob’s inclusion in the covenant by blessing him abundantly, He had commanded Jacob to go back to the Land, and he had promised to be with him, to do good to him, and to multiply him beyond counting. Jacob wondered, then, “How can this be happening to me in light of these things?” He did acknowledge that he wasn’t worthy of any of God’s blessings, but nevertheless God gave and promised them. Why go back on His word now? He was desperate and confused.

If only Jacob had added hope to his desperation and confusion, it would be an excellent model of prayer for us to follow. It is good to be honest with God about our thoughts and feelings. It is good to remember God’s past faithfulness and acknowledge our need God’s help in desperate times. But those things are only truly honoring to God when they are paired with real hope in God’s future promises.

Don’t trust ultimately in your plans and power (13-21)

Finally, then, Jacob did what he thought he could to appease his brother and protect his family.

13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’ ” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’

Jacob sent the presents he’d implicitly promised Esau through his first messengers—550 animals. The text tells us in no uncertain terms why he did so, that “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, an afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” Jacob sent the gifts in three waves to impress Esau and overwhelm him with generosity that he might spare Jacob’s life and the lives of his kinsmen. What’s more, as we’ll see in even clearer ways in the coming passages, Jacob was essentially telling Esau that he was willing to forsake the birthright and blessing that he’d stolen from Esau—to return them to Esau (which was a different problem).

Grace, Jacob’s actions serve as an important reminder that the history of Jacob’s children is largely made up of blessings they couldn’t have imagined and defeats they couldn’t have predicted. They won wars when they shouldn’t have; when they were outnumbered and out-equipped. The had food and water when they shouldn’t have; when they were in the desert and miles from any natural food or water source. And they grew in number and influence when they shouldn’t have; while they were enslaved and persecuted. On the other hand, they were routed by armies a fraction of their size, overcome with sickness when there had been none among them, and divided when everything on the outside was going their way.

Here’s the point: to do everything “right” (by worldly reason) without the grace of God is to fail every time, but to do everything “wrong” with the grace of God is to know nothing but victory. In other words, if God was on Jacob’s side, he could have offered Esau two grains of sand and he would have accepted them as the most precious things ever. But if God were not on Jacob’s side, he could have offered Esau the entire world and it would have rejected it as a mere trifle. This is the nature and necessity of God’s grace. God’s grace, not Jacob’s negotiation prowess was his hope. If Jacob were to be rescued, it would be because he’d received grace from God, not from his gifts. It doesn’t seem as if Jacob understood that here. But in the end, whether Jacob got it or not, we mustn’t miss it. We will live successfully (in eternal terms) by trusting in the grace of God, or we will live in (eternal) defeat by trusting in anything else.

CONCLUSION

21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp.

Well, what will become of this? Will Esau accept Jacob’s gifts or not? Will God be with Jacob as He said He would or not? You’re going to have to wait to find out the particulars. But you do not have to wait to hear again the ultimate answer. God would remain faithful to His covenant promises even as Jacob and his children came in and out of it. Indeed, God would remain faithful in love in such a way that He would send His one and only Son to die in the place of everyone who would believe in him. Jesus went out of the frying pan (the persecution of the world) and into the fire (the forsaking of God) in order that we might escape both forever. Glory to God. Amen.