9 Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’:
10 “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.
11 “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.
12 “For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'”
We can learn a lot about prayer from reading the prayers of the Bible–and there are a LOT of prayers in the Bible. We can learn from Abraham’s conversation with God to try to save Sodom. We can learn from David’s many prayers. We can learn from Daniel and Isaiah and all the prophets. We, of course, can learn from our Lord Jesus Christ–not just the Lord’s Prayer but all the other prayers He slipped in throughout His time with us. We can read the epistles and see the prayer language of Paul and Peter, James and John, as they prayed in their letters for the congregations of God’s church. And yesterday as I was reading about Jacob, I found some more language for my prayers.
I find that the more I read Scripture, then the more that Scripture works itself into my prayers. I reflect upon who God is and what He has promised, and who I am and what I still need to live more like Christ, and I find these things in the Bible. Today’s verses from the book of Genesis remind me of those very things.
The first thing that we see in Jacob’s prayer is that he acknowledges who God is in relation to himself. The Lord is not some distant, foreign being, not a deity with no place in the reality of Jacob’s life. On the contrary, the Lord is the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather, the same One who sat down with Abraham, the same God who blessed Isaac, the same God who appeared to Jacob in a dream–and the same God who would soon wrestle with Jacob by the stream. (Genesis 32:22-32) The Lord is a very personal God, someone involved in the lives of those He loves and those who love Him. He is a Lord who speaks to us, who encourages us to make peace and to enter into His blessings. It is to this personal Lord that Jacob humbly spoke that day.
It took a long time to bring Jacob to the kind of humility he displays in this prayer. From the beginning of his life, Jacob was a schemer and con man, constantly trying to get the upper hand through cunning and deceit. But love and faith and family life had mellowed the man who had run away from his brother Esau’s wrath. He’d had visions of angels and had heard the voice of God, and he had fallen in love with Rachel and suffered long under his father-in-law’s own deceit. Now, twenty years later, Jacob knew the Lord and knew his own place. He was returning, humble and penitent, to face the judgment of his brother. He knew that the blessings he had were not his own, that the Lord had built him up from nothing and begun to keep the promise that Jacob’s descendants “shall be as the dust of the earth.” (Genesis 28:14) And so he stood before the Lord and acknowledged that he deserved nothing that the Lord had given him.
17 But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,
19 “‘and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'”
Like the Prodigal Son, Jacob was humbly returning to his family, hoping for little more than forgiveness. Like David in later years, Jacob came before God and spoke of his own unworthiness, and acknowledged his own and his family’s need for God’s protection, provision, and deliverance. (1 Chronicles 17:16-27)
While Jacob prayed for deliverance from his brother’s hand, it is very clear that what he really sought was to be saved from the punishment for his own sins. He knew he had wronged Esau, and he acknowledged that when they finally met again:
Genesis 33:3-4, 8-11
3 Then he [Jacob] crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
8 Then Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company which I met?” And he said, “These are to find favor in the sight of my lord.”
9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”
10 And Jacob said, “No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me.
11 “Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” So he urged him, and he took it.
To Jacob, the forgiveness of his brother was like the forgiveness of God, for plainly Esau’s attitude was a blessing from God. In his prayer, Jacob did not seek the safety of avoiding punishment, he sought God’s forgiveness for past sins. Jacob wanted “shalom,” the peace of God, and that peace is not simply a lack of conflict but an embracing calm, an assurance of future harmony and grace.
The final words of Jacob’s prayer are actually God’s words: “I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” Jacob was repeating God’s own blessing, God’s promise of prosperity and mercy. With words spoken from God’s own mouth, Jacob laid claim to the promise of God’s grace. It isn’t as if God needed reminding of His own promises, but by using the Word of God, Jacob was cutting through all the haze and hazard of his own desires and getting to the heart of God’s will for his life.
Jacob’s prayer is a simple thing, really. He speaks of his personal relationship to this God of his fathers. He acknowledges his own sinfulness and his need for redemption and forgiveness. And finally he speaks the Word of God to remind himself of the blessings due the penitent sinner who loves and seeks the Lord God. It is simple and direct, a lot like another prayer said two thousand years later:
9 “In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 “Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 “Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
13 “And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
There it all is again: our relationship to God, our seeking His provision and forgiveness, our desire for His protection, and our need for the blessings only He can provide.
Yes, we can learn a lot from the prayers of the Bible. They help us to remember who God is–His power and grace and majesty, His role in the lives of our forefathers, His place as Creator, Redeemer, and Righteous Judge. Those prayers help us to remember our own sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy and His redemption from our sins. The prayers of the patriarchs and prophets remind us to bow down humbly before the throne of grace and seek the true peace that only God can provide. And by seeking these prayers in the Word of God, we learn to use His Word in our own prayers, praying with the very voice of God to enact His blessings in our lives.
1 A Prayer of David.
Bow down Your ear, O LORD, hear me;
For I am poor and needy.
2 Preserve my life, for I am holy;
You are my God;
Save Your servant who trusts in You!
3 Be merciful to me, O Lord,
For I cry to You all day long.
4 Rejoice the soul of Your servant,
For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
5 For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.