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The ways of providence are more abundantly and clearly illustrated in the case of Jacob, than in that of either Abraham or Isaac—not that the operations of providence were a whit more actual, frequent, or signal in the case of Jacob, but that the incidents of his life are more varied, and the record more extensive; and, therefore, the exhibition of God’s guiding hand more manifest. As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, so in the case of Jacob, there is a large element of open vision, and visible divine interposition, in the shaping of his affairs; but, as in their case, so in his, the present series of chapters must leave such features out of account, as the object is to bring into notice those points in their case which may have a parallel in these days when, for a season, open vision and visible interference are suspended.


            The key to his whole experience is to be found in the expression he made use of in his old age, when blessing the sons of Joseph in Egypt:

“God who fed me all my life long to this day; the angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads” (Genesis 48:15-16).

The superintending providence, which waited on his steps, and directed his way, giving his affairs an intelligent bent this way and that, as occasion required, consisted of an angel’s volitions, in harmony with the testimony adduced in the second chapter, that the Father’s designs are carried out in their details by the angels; and that, where the angels do not operate, providence is not at work but affairs are left to work themselves out on natural principles. Yet the angelic operations are not known or discernible except the case call for visible manifestation. Apart from this, the results induced by them appear mere effects of nature, as when Balaam attributed the restiveness of the animal he rode to the creature’s perversity, till his eyes were opened to the angelic cause (Numbers 22:31-34). The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him; this is testified (Psalm 34:7); consequently, those who fear the Lord may go forth with courage, careful only to do so in faith and well-doing, and not seeking to discover the angel’s hand, which they cannot do. Keep the commandments, and trust though you do not see.

                        “We walk by faith and not by sight.”

In due time, the veil will be taken away: then shall we know, even as we are known, and take open part with the legions of angels who will openly cooperate in the mighty work to be done when they escort the Lord, in their thousands, to the earth (Matt. 25:31; Rev. 5:11).


            The first matter in which providence is markedly visible in the history of Jacob concerns his relations with his twin brother Esau. These are, in many points, peculiar, and deserve attentive consideration. Before the children were born, God told Rebekah (Genesis 25:23) that they were the beginning of “two manner of people,” and that the elder would serve the younger. As it turned out, Esau was the first born, and therefore the elder. According to the law of primogeniture (which has been in force from the earliest antiquity, though not in its monstrous Gentile form, which dismisses the others without a portion), Esau was entitled to priority in rank and inheritance; but this natural order was set aside in the intimation that the elder would serve the younger. Of the domestic incidents in the lives of the patriarchs, Paul says: “which things are an allegory” (Gal. 4:24); that is, they bear the impress of the general plan on which God is working out the redemption of the world. An analogy runs through all. The plan roughly stated, is this:

                        “First, that which is natural; afterward, that which is spiritual.”

Adam first, Christ second:

                        “And the elder shall serve the younger;”

For Christ (the younger in point of appearance on the scene) is to have the dominion, and the old man will come into subjection. But there is a moral analogy inside that of the chronology. Esau had the priority of birth, but he was not the sort of man with whom the covenant could be established. When it was ordained, before the birth of the children, that the elder should serve the younger, respect was had to what they would turn out to be when they grew to be men, which was known to God; for,

                        “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning.”

God made choice of Jacob in preference to Esau, because Jacob was more suitable to the spiritual objects contemplated in the election. True it is, as Paul says in his comments on the case (Romans 9:11) it was—

“That the purpose of God, according to election, might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.”

Nevertheless, this purpose operates in harmony with God’s moral attributes. He does not choose an Abraham to act the part of a Pharaoh, nor a John to stand in the place of a Judas. Esau turned out to be a purely natural man, delighting in the objects and exercises of nature, without reference to nature’s Constitutor; while Jacob had a lively recognition of God.

“The boys grew, and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27).

This plain man, dwelling in tents, turned out a worshipper of God; while the out-of-door pursuer of the prey was only a lawless lover of nature. Though the two were the subjects of prophetic appointment, it was not without a reason that it was afterwards written:

                        “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated (Romans 9:13).


            But the difference between the two was not fully manifest while they were at home together. Esau, as the elder, had the birthright, and—

                        “Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his venison” (Genesis 25:28).

Here was a situation of things requiring an interposition of providence to bring about a change in harmony with the divine purpose. It might be asked, Why was there such a situation? —why was not Jacob the firstborn and beloved? It is one answer to say that the allegory required that Esau, the rejected as typifying the human race in their first-Adam relation, should be first in privilege and first in the enjoyment of preferential regard; but a more comprehensive answer is that it is not for us to criticise the arrangements of the irresponsible and all-wise Possessor of heaven and earth. The situation was there, and had to be changed. The interest for us, as investigators of the ways of providence, is to watch how the change was brought about. First, as regards the birthright. The matter must have been the subject of frequent conversations between Jacob and his mother Rebekah—for two reasons: Rebekah knew, from God’s intimation to her before the birth of her children, that her sons were the heads of “two manner of people;” and she knew that the chosen people would be in the line of the younger, and that that younger was Jacob. She perceived the difference between the two growing boys, and with a clearer sight than Isaac, who was biased by Esau’s welcome and probably manly ministrations, “she loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). Loving Jacob, and knowing he was the chosen, and yet perceiving that the family birthright was in the possession of Esau, she must often have spoken of the matter with her son, as the subsequent narratives show them familiar and confidential with one another on matters affecting Jacob’s interests. What more likely than that they should suggest the desirability of inducing Esau to part with his legal privilege? The difficulty would be to carry out that idea. Their thoughts would be angelically stimulated in this direction. At all events this is what happened. On a certain occasion, Esau, returning faint and hungry from his favourite occupation afield, asks Jacob for some food, which, in the absence of precise domestic arrangements, he had prepared for himself. This is the opportunity for which Jacob had been previously prepared. It is also precisely the occasion to test and manifest Esau as the type of the class who sacrifice future well-being to present gratification. Some might say it exhibits Jacob in an unneighbourly aspect, and that he ought not to have seized the moment of hunger to extort a bargain; but ought rather to have unconditionally ministered to his brother’s need. The answer is, there is a time for everything, and that these men were in the hands of the special providence for the working out of a national purpose in their posterity, and for the development of a spiritual allegory, serviceable for all time. Esau’s character comes out, and he seals his own doom. Physical craving is more powerful with him than the perceptions of wisdom. For a moment’s gratification, he bargains away a position germinally containing countless gratifications in the future. He stands before us as a man swayed by his senses, and not by the dictates of enlightened judgment; and, therefore, as the type of the class who love the present world, and have not faith sufficient to practise that self-denial by which the birthright of the future age is preserved and secured.


            Jacob obtained the birthright cast away by his brother, thus completing the spiritual allegory of the transaction. The practical bearing of the case on present times is obvious. God put Esau to the proof by a common-place home incident, in which the hand of God was not visible. God may prove us by common-place incidents. The Spirit exhorts us:

                        “Let no man take thy crown.”

Esau illustrates the failure of this exhortation. He would not be aware of the issues involved. Crowns are lost and won in the common ways of life. The general habit of man is to look upon these common ways as insignificant—a view which puts people off their guard. The attitude of wisdom is to have our eyes open towards God in all our ways—in all these ways acknowledging Him, that He may direct our steps. It was part of the folly of Jerusalem bewailed by Jesus, that she “knew not the time of her visitation” (Luke 19:44). She looked upon Jesus and the apostles as common men, and their teaching as matters of debatable value. She discerned not in them the approach of God’s expostulation, invitation and entreaty. Her mistake is possible individually. God works in “divers manners” with the “sundry times.” He may come near to a man in the special instrumentality of His word brought to bear in an apparently unofficial, natural and common-place way. If there is no loving intelligence to discern, the visitation may be turned to hurt, and without our knowing that God has anything to do with it. Jesus intimates as much to the ecclesia at Sardis, saying,

“If, therefore, thou shalt not watch, I will come upon thee AS A THIEF, and thou shalt not know what hour I shall come upon thee (Revelation 3:3).           

Esau’s case is a fair illustration of God’s coming upon a man as a thief. He took away his birthright in a way, and at a moment, when Esau was unaware of the operation. God works still, and changes not. Our only safety lies in the attitude of constant watchfulness over our tongues and our hands, that word and deed may be in harmony with the will of God. Practically, this is to be accomplished in the daily reading of the word, and continuing instant in prayer. Pleasure and too much business, frustrate the operation of these, and leave us a prey to that insensibility and neglect in which we may fall from our stedfastness and lose our birthright.


            The transfer of the birthright from Esau to Jacob brought the situation more into harmony with the purpose of God; but there was a remaining obstacle. Isaac loved Esau, as we have seen, and this love prompted him to resolve on bestowing his parting blessing on his elder son. There was more in this than we can know. It might seem as if it were a matter of indifference what any man might utter, in the way of benediction, if the will of God were opposed to the blessing; but when we are dealing with men on whom the Spirit of God rested, and whose volitions may, to some extent, have controlled its effects, we are really dealing with the working out of the will of God by some hidden law which we cannot understand, as merely natural men, but which we may see quite into when we ourselves have passed out of the animal into the spiritual state, if it please God to grant us that great blessedness in Christ. At all events, it became a matter of importance that Isaac should be diverted from a purpose which was due to his likings, as a natural man, rather than to his understanding of the purpose announced to Rebekah concerning their two sons. Rebekah was herself made use of to frustrate Isaac’s intentions. Some say that if Rebekah had waited, God would have interposed in some other way to bring Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob. It may be so; but there is no intimation of this in the testimony. The crisis was at hand. Isaac called Esau, his eldest son, and said unto him:

“My son; and he said unto him, Behold here am I. And he said: Behold, now, I am old; I know not the day of my death. Now, therefore, take, I pray thee, thy weapons, take thy quiver and thy bow, and go out into the field, and take me some venison. And make savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless thee before I die” (Genesis 27:1-4).

Esau having received this express and interesting direction, went immediately out to carry it into effect. Rebekah was a witness to what had passed. She was greatly exercised by it. If Esau returns successful, as he is likely to do, the blessings which belongs to the younger will be obtained by the elder, in opposition to what had been told to her of the Lord before the birth of the children. She resolves to take upon herself the responsibility of coming between Isaac and the fulfilment of his intentions. Who shall say she was not stirred up to defeat a merely natural partiality of Isaac’s? She informs Jacob of what was pending, and directs him to bring to her two of the kids from the flock that she may dress them in the manner that his father liked. With these, she sends Jacob into the presence of his father, who was blind from age; and representing himself as Esau, his father having eaten, bestows upon him the blessing which was his by the divine purpose and the purchased birthright.

“Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee. Be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee. Cursed be every one that curseth thee and blessed be he that blesseth thee.”


            The only difficult feature of the case is the deception by which the blessing was diverted. Some easement on this point may be obtained by realising that God may do what man must not do if God forbid. To man it is a command, “Thou shalt not kill,” and to kill in disobedience of this, is murder; but God may kill without unrighteousness, as He says,

“I kill and I make alive. . . . Neither is there any that can deliver out of Mine hand” (Deut. 32:38).

To us it is sin to avenge ourselves, because of the command, “Avenge not yourselves”; but—

“Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? God forbid: for then how should God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:6).

He says—

                        “Vengeance is Mine: I will repay” (Deut. 32:43).

So on the subject of deception in all normal relations,

                        “God is a God of truth and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (verse 4);

But when circumstances call for it, He may, as a man without unrighteousness deceives a wild beast, to its capture and destruction, “send strong delusion” upon the perverse, “that they may believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11). On this principle we read,

“If the prophet (that is, the idolatrous prophet: see context) be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I, the Lord, have deceived the prophet” (Ezekiel 14:9).

And again in the parable uttered before Ahab by Micaiah, the prophet of Jehovah:

“There came forth a spirit and stood before the Lord and said, I will persuade him (Ahab, to go up to battle). And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, . . . Go forth and do so. Now, therefore, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets” (1 Kings 22:21-23).

Applying this principle to the case in hand, we may understand that God stirred up Rebekah to deceive Isaac, that Isaac might be defeated in the wrong use of the divine gift of blessing which rested upon him.


            The difficulty in understanding such instances, arises principally from our preconceived notions on the subject of “morality.” Human speculation, alias philosophy falsely so-called, has evolved the assumption that “morality” (as men speak) is a fixed element in the constitution of things; and to this “morality,” they have imagined God is as much subject as His creatures. The fact is—as the Scriptures reveal and nature accurately studied attests—that there is no such thing as fixed morality at all. The question of right and wrong is determinable in all things by the appointment of the eternal Creator. It is a simple question of what He has commanded. With Him is sovereign and irresponsible authority.

                        “None may say unto Him, What doest Thou?”

He may command a man to kill, and it is then sin not to kill, as in the case of Saul with the Amalekites; and righteousness to kill, as in the case of Samuel with Agag, on the same occasion; while when He chooses to command, “Thou shalt not kill,” he that even hates his brother becomes a murderer. This simple principle relieves the subject of the world of difficulty that human philosophy has created. It explains, too, how it is that the belief of the gospel is righteousness, and enables us to realise how unutterably out of the right way is the present generation, with all their educated contempt for the promises and the commandments of God.


            In these remarks, we have digressed somewhat from the general subject to which these chapters are devoted. Yet they have naturally arisen from the topics discussed, and may not be without use. The lesson of Jacob and Esau, as bearing on the subject of providence, is the same as we found in the prior cases: that besides the visible interposition of His power, God works by apparently natural circumstances in the execution of His purposes, and that the eye of an enlightened faith may discern His hand where unbelief sees nothing but mechanical chance; yea, mischance, untoward and evil occurrence. The further lessons in this direction yielded by the life of Jacob, we must leave for another chapter.

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