Jacob's Ladder

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Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Children, it would surprise me very much if you had not once been disciplined by your parents. Oh, indeed I would be amazed if you told me it had only been once, and not many more times than that. Now, if you are older, and have learned good behavior, it may have been so long since you were corrected that you can barely recall even a handful of actual spankings or other like punishments. But that is no matter, because even when the memory of the event grows dim, you still retain the knowledge that doing wrong brings misery.

But not only do you suffer, you also know something else—you remember that those sinful actions grieve your parents. And if you have a sense of shame, then fearing your disgrace in the presence of the parents you love and wish to please is an even stronger desire, keeping you from doing wrong. Now parents, if you are like me, then you wrestle with the matter of respect vs. fear. I want my children to have a reverence for their mother and I, but not a nervous terror. Part of preventing that comes from having clear guidelines the little ones understand, and consistency in enforcement. Their fear should arise when they know they have violated standards of conduct that they were never in any doubt about—either what they should do, and the rightness of the obedience.

You may possibly be doing something right if, when caught in a sin, your child does not bolt from your presence. They rightly fear the rod of your anger, but what they really want is a restoration of the right relation, the embrace of an unfailing love. But you children know that the only path to your mother’s tenderness again, to your father’s hug, lies through accepting the hard consequences of sin. Now those consequences aren’t always a quick paddling, a few tears, and admission of guilt, followed by mother’s kiss, verbal assurances of love, and a short prayer to God. The older you get, and the more serious your sins become, the process of putting wrongs back to rights can take some time. [Bible=story of sin consq.] Whether the discipline is short or long, your attitude toward the disciplinarian will partly determine the effectiveness of the lesson.

Which brings me to my burden of this message: If you are God’s elect then even in the midst of discipline God’s presence will comfort you. What we observe in this passage is the dawning of an awareness in God’s elect that though he was being sent away—away from Isaac, the head of the covenant family; out of the blessed shelter of the tents of Isaac; exiled from the Promised Land—yet the God of Promise was not casting him adrift, to wander for a while until, perhaps, maybe, he had found a wife among his distant relatives, though he was penniless, and his hostile brother was minding his future inheritance. God wasn’t simply waiting at Beersheba for him to wend his way back home again, if he survived his ordeal. To Jacob’s amazement God, he found, was still with him.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see these things come from the text itself. The passage I divide into two parts: 1) vv. 10-15 God Reveals Himself to His Elect; vv. 16-22 The Elect Responds by Faith in God.

I. God Reveals Himself to His Elect
Let me begin by answering a question you might have. “Why do I keep referring to Jacob as “God’s elect”? 1) The story of Jacob has a great deal to do with the doctrine of election; Paul’s inspired commentary in Romans 9 is absolute proof of that; and God’s purposes in election converge on the Seed of Promise, even the Lord Jesus Christ, who Isaiah refers to as the Elect One (42:1). 2) In many ways Jacob is prototypical for the nation that will spring from him; God refers to them as “Israel, mine elect” (Is. 45:4), even many times as his “chosen” people; Moses in writing and preaching this material to Israel is showing them how akin they are to this father of theirs—unworthy of God’s mercies, yet beneficiaries regardless. 3) When I refer to your father Jacob as God’s elect, I am providing you with a point of contact, of identification with him; what is true of Jacob as God’s elect is generally true of his other elect, to which band you have biblical assurances that you belong (if you are a believer).

Now, this particular hour of Jacob’s life is really a kind of “conversion moment” in his life. I do not mean that Jacob had never been called by the Lord prior to this moment. When, in his covenant home, Isaac had discoursed on the Lord, God of Abraham and of himself, Jacob was being outwardly called, and there must have been some secret workings on his heart during all those years. But this moment, I believe, is Jacob’s moment of effectual calling. Here God reveals himself to Jacob in a personal and saving way. It is an inward call, for it is in his spirit, in a dream, that Jacob sees the Lord, and hears his voice. Look carefully with me at the passage.

v.10 “Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran.” So begins the first of three major dislocations in Jacob’s life. We think nothing of hopping in a car and driving a hundred miles. On the miraculous highway system, at 65 MPH, such a trip is barely an hour and a half. I say miraculous because we traverse rivers and mountain ranges and deserts in a day. I’ve personally driven 900 miles in one 16 hour marathon. One map gave me a straight-line distance of 600 miles from Beersheba to Haran. I checked out some distances from Akron to some major cities. How long would it take you to walk from Akron to Des Moines, IA? That’s about 600 straight-line miles, and on the miracle of modern freeways it’s nearly 700. Now let’s suppose you are Jacob, have no transportation, no map or compass, no bank-card, no companions. You’re no outdoorsman, because you preferred to live in the tents, remember?

Now, do you have some idea of the challenges that faced Jacob? I’ve been in the army, and I’ve done 20 mile forced marches. One day of that on roads and trails will make you sore for several days after. So how far do you suppose Jacob was getting in one day, on poor trails, or no trails, having to sleep and eat where he could, begging hospitality. We know from the place name he gave this location that when (v.11) “he came to a certain place,” he had traveled 60 straight miles from home. How many days took that stretch of the journey, 1/10 the uncertain distance? (He had no idea, I’m sure, how far to go or how far he’d gotten). One thing I am pretty sure of, at this point the reality of his situation had certainly time to sink in. Notice that God did not appear to him on the night before he left, or the night afterward. No, the Lord appeared to him after he was barely started on his trip, but far enough from home that he was no longer in any kind of comfort zone, and the wearying nature of the journey was making itself felt. “How far again do I have to go to get this wife? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

So here he is, out in the country, alone. Someplace called “Luz” is maybe several miles behind him, or beyond him, or to the east or west of him. But this place is just exposed. The sun has set, and darkness is no time to travel unfamiliar ground, unless you absolutely must. Even then, you better hope the moon is out. The text literally says, “and he took of the stones of the place, which he put at his head, and he lay down in that place.” Many modern commentators don’t think this means using a stone for a pillow. Again, I appeal to your own experience if you have it—not too many of us have used a rock for a headrest. It’s less comfortable than the ground. It seems more likely that Jacob was using the stone as the one piece of shelter he could find in all that desolate place, maybe as a wind-break; or so someone would have a less easy time smashing his skull and robbing his meager possessions with that slight protection.

In this context, then, of exhaustion, of fear, of exposure, of want, of the feeling of being cast out, and of mission-impossible, Jacob begins to dream. And this is no ordinary dream. The content of the dream is pretty simple. (v.12) Jacob beholds a ladder, or it would be better to conceive of this structure as a staircase, its bottom was on the ground, and its top in heaven, the dwelling place of God. And the angelic ministers of God were streaming up and down it, ascending and descending. And (v.13) “behold” it is a command, an exhortation to attend, take note of this, “The Lord stood above it,” as reads most translations. But I would have you take the marginal reading in many of your Bibles, which says, “above him, or over or beside him.” This passage is emphasizing the nearness of God to Jacob, as well as his authority and claim upon him. You should also consider that the Lord converses with Jacob, rather than calling out or down to him. This ladder or stair is not intended for angels, but for God, who has come down to his elect. As one commentator put it, in the Tower of Babel, men engage in an absurd attempt to build a stairway to heaven, one to which the Lord comes down, down to notice. But when God sets in his own stair, he does so instantly and effortlessly, and bridges the whole distance.

What he says to Jacob is his first direct revelation to him. And it is significant that in substance, what is promised largely confirms the blessing bestowed by Isaac, and reinforces its connection to Abraham’s covenant and promises. He begins with self-identification—he is the God of Jacob’s fathers Abraham and Isaac. Which is followed by references to both land and seed. [read] Furthermore, (v.14) the numerous quantity of descendants is emphasized, along with the special promise that the whole earth would benefit from God’s grace to Jacob and his seed. And at last, in verse 15, God makes particular and personal reference to Jacob in his present situation. “I am with you,” again emphasizing not his being in heaven, but his nearness to Jacob. He was “with” him in that lonely and inhospitable place. “I will keep you wherever you go.” The idea is that of guardianship and protection. As if he said, “you sheltered tonight behind a boulder; but though you did not know it, you have never been apart from my shelter and protection—nothing can harm you.”

Continuing: “I will bring you back to this land.” God was declaring “I am no locally confined deity; whithersoever you wander cannot be outside my reach, and this Promised Land will be inherited by you. “I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” This doesn’t indicate that there was a point of completion regarding Jacob, after which God would be discarding him, but that the Lord would be with Jacob until Jacob could forever be with him. “I will never leave you, until I have insured that you can never leave me.” My dear friends, that is the revelation of God to his elect. It contains a promise God makes to men that if they should believe his Word—of their plight, of their woeful state under the curse, and then of the hope of grace, of salvation, and a new covenant of fellowship with him, then they will find after they have chosen and elected him that they had been chosen first of all by him. “We love him,” says John the Apostle of Christ, “because he first loved us.”

But if, if you say, “I will not go to Haran; the trip is too uncertain, too dangerous. I will settle in Luz, I will keep to the Promised Land. The ladies from here will suffice just fine. What is that attitude? “God promised to be with me, so he’ll be with me right here.” Oh, how often have you been presumptuous on God’s promises. You can’t see his blessings if you won’t obey! You are at worst revealing not the spirit of Jacob, but the spirit of reprobate Esau in your breast. And if you are one of God’s elect, you are only doing one thing: guaranteeing yourself greater grief, forcing yourself to endure an even longer period of chastisement. How long (!) it shall beuntil God’s presence in the midst of discipline will comfort you!

II. The Elect Responds by Faith in God
I mentioned already that this text is a “conversion” passage, one that begins and ends with one person who is very different at the end from what he was at the beginning. Consider again where Jacob began this chapter: being exiled from the Promised Land. Indeed, he was being sent back to the land of his ancestors to find a wife, and essentially to start his life over. He had taken away everything from his brother, proving who was the stronger, and in his greed he took the blessing as well, no more seeking it by faith than his brother had. But in the Providence of God, he truly got the blessing, the priceless spiritual inheritance which was his not by his deceitful craft, but by the predestinating election of God. Yet the price exacted by heaven was basically everything he had taken away from Esau.

God’s Promise was without repentance, and both the words of Isaac, and the Lord himself clearly indicated that the Promise awaited him on the other side of his exile. And we can note that this was a message very similar to the message God gave the Israelites who went into Babylonian captivity. From Jeremiah 29:
“4 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; 5 Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; 6 Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace… 10 For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.”
The physical tokens of God’s blessings would return in their good time, crowned by opportunity to come home to the Promised Land. Whatever was left of Isaac’s estate once Esau was done with it, would be Jacob’s on his return. But now, even before Jacob had got out of the Land, God had revealed himself to Jacob in a way he never had before, in a way vitally connected to the blessing that had been bestowed upon him. And for the first time, Jacob really tasted what the true wealth of Abraham and Isaac was—God himself. Such treasure would not be left behind for Esau’s use. For HE had to be received by faith alone. And God intended that Jacob should not leave HIM behind, so he needed the eyes by which to see him. He needed saving faith.

v.16 begins with Jacob awaking from sleep and the dream, perhaps still in the dark, and he is astonished. “Surely the Lord, Jehovah, is in this place, and I did not know it.” This he said, though he must have known that he was still in the confines of the Promised Land. This he said, though no doubt Isaac had proclaimed the power and omnipresence of Jehovah countless times in Jacob’s hearing. What could explain such ignorance other than unbelief? God could have met Jacob at any time and place of his divine choosing. But he chose this place and time, having made Jacob ready. When I say “meet” I refer to the fact that the ever-present God is specially or uniquely present at certain times and places. This is particularly true in revelation and worship. As Jacob encountered God, so we encounter our God, this same God, as we enter into the story in God’s written Revelation.

And when that Word is conveyed (whether in this story or in any other portion) by preaching of the Word in worship, we receive a double blessing—revelation, and the presence of God in worship. Wherever the church is gathered for duty, “there am I,” says Christ, “in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). So if we are truly worshipping in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23), not in any special mountain, but here, the Father-who-seeks (as John describes him) such ones will find us. God sets his ladder between eternity and this bit of time and space, and in every other faithful gathering of his people, and so brings heaven and earth together. This morning he spreads his table before us, and sits down to this sacrament with us, and gives his church a taste of his heaven. Again, in John 1:51, Jesus responding to the guileless Nathanael’s confession of faith, says “Truly, truly, I say unto you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus claims here to be nothing less than the personification of that which was symbolized by the ladder—the one connection between earth and heaven; “No man comes to the Father but by me.” Did you come this AM to eat with Jesus?

Jacob is not merely amazed by the revelation of God, he is full of fear (v.17). “How dreadful” is this place! This is an appropriate response to an encounter with God. How nonsensical is it for churches to eliminate all dread from their worship? Where that is successful, neither will you find God there at all. Neither the prosperity-gospel types (Robert Tilton) , nor the popularity-gospel types (Joel Osteen), nor even the preachers who preach judgment against all society excepting those in their own pews and audience—God is not there! “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him” (Ps.89:7).

Jacob continues, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” I don’t think Jacob made the mistake of supposing that this geography was special, and therefore God used it. This place had a special significance to Jacob, because God had met with him there. By the Lord’s presence, he turned an ordinary piece of ground into a meeting-house, a house of God or Beth-El. It became, for the space of a dream, a gate of heaven. So, with the lightening of the sky (v. 18), Jacob rose up, and taking that boulder not from under his head, but which had protected him, and he set it up and anointed it, so in some way to mark the place of his dream, as a pillar, in some way (however small) reminiscent of the ladder or stair to heaven. He gave the place a name, “Bethel,” and when we read the parenthetical comment afterward, we should remember 1) that the significance of this event caused the place name of the nearby town to shift; and 2) that Moses (or even another prophet) is noting this information for the Israelites. The writers of Scripture, going back to Moses are concerned about the details. Because the truth matters in our faith. Ours is not just some feel-good religion, faith against facts, and the like. If what we believe isn’t true, then there is no point in holding tightly to it, or suffering for it.

We saw that Jacob was thunderstruck by God’s revelation, and also feared in reaction to what he experienced, and that reverence was so profound it led him to mark the place, and rename it—which renaming remained for future generations, a testament to the truthfulness of God’s Word. What I want us to see here at the close is that what follows, in the form of a vow, constitutes Jacob’s first recorded confession of faith. He began, “If.” This is not a challenge to God, or questioning his faithfulness. This is covenant formula. “If God will be with me,” which we can rephrase the vow-language and read it as “God, you’ve promised to be with me,” promised in verse 15.” “And will keep me on this journey that I take,” again the very language of the promise, verse 15. “And will give me food to eat, and garments to wear.” Jacob might have, as I said, in so short a time, have been near to abandoning this exile quest. Exhausted, hungry, exposed, he may have been ready to turn aside forever to Luz, saying in words similar to those of Esau on a previous occasion, “What good is this blessing to me, if I die!”

Instead, with the coming of the dream, and a new-found faith, Jacob resolves away from all reliance on earthly helps, at least any helps that might distract him from fulfilling his mission: to get to Haran and marry the right woman, that he should pass along the Promise to another generation. God will be his provider, and he casts himself totally upon the care of God. “And if,” he continues (v.21) “I return to my father’s house in safety.” This portion looks to the end, to a future which is completely unreadable, except for relying on the promise of the Lord, as again stated in verse 15. Furthermore, this verse closes with still another element of the “if” clause, although most of our translations insert “then”. But no, this is not a statement of “God I will hold you as mine, even as you do your part.” No, this portion belongs with the rest of the verse, and the previous. Thus, “And if the Lord will be my God,” which is this vow-taking way of saying: “Lord, I understand that you to be saying: you will be my God.”

Then (v.22) “This stone which I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house.” In these words, Jacob declares he will return to the place where he first encountered the God of his fathers, and make it a permanent place of worship for himself and his family. Abraham had Hebron. Isaac had Beersheba. Jacob would have Bethel. “And of all you give me,” in these words declaring that God was his all-provider, “I will surely give a tenth to you.” So, finding a principle that was first presented in Scripture in the life of Abraham, Jacob swears to God a token—a tenth or tithe—which represents his all. This is part of his promise to worship.

Faith and devotion, then, replace amazement and fear in the heart of God’s elect. Even pagans can experience amazement and fear when confronted by God. But in the aftermath, they sink back into the old idolatry if their hearts are not changed. What about you? We are a pilgrim people looking for the land of promise; our lives are a series of tests and trials. 1) Has God revealed himself to you; is he revealing himself to you? And 2) are you putting your faith in him? If you are God’s elect then even in the midst of discipline God’s presence will comfort you.
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