The personal discipline of maturity requires conscious and intentional engagement of the grace of God, wrestling with angels—like Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord at Peniel (Genesis 32:30). Jacob wrestled with God, and the angel could not prevail against Jacob. This story provides a biblical model of faithfulness in this regard. We are to engage God and wrestle Him for God’s blessing.
Genesis tells us that the angel prevailed not over Jacob. The Hebrew indicates that the angel was not able, that he did not had the ability, that he could not prevail over Jacob in this sense, that he did not have the power to do so. The wrestling match was a tie. They wrestled all night and neither prevailed.
Then the angel said, “’Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed’” (Genesis 32:26-28).
Something quite odd happened here. Just prior to this “Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:25). This was a serious wound because Jacob would limp for the rest of his life because of it. So, what does it mean that this angel could “touch” Jacob’s hip and wound him for life, but could not prevail against him. Does it mean that the angel could not defeat Jacob? Unlikely. The angel was his superior in every way. So, how then are we to understand this?
Because Jacob had a major role to play in God’s plan, the angel, no doubt, had been forbidden to kill Jacob. This is probably what it means when it says he saw that he prevailed not. He wrestled Jacob, and was not allowed to kill him—but neither could he prevail against him. This likely means that Jacob was willing to fight him to the death, that Jacob would not give up. It is a statement about Jacob’s willingness to die to secure the Lord’s blessing. Jacob would not give up and the angel could not kill him in order to win.
How, then, was Jacob’s blessing secured? Jacob’s name was changed. Because names represented character in the Old Testament we must assume that there was a corresponding change in Jacob’s character that accompanied the name change. That change in character was a type of regeneration, a reconfiguration of Jacob’s personal identity.
This is borne out by the Hebrew meaning of the names involved. Jacob (yaaqob) literally means heel catcher, one who trips up others, and signifies a supplanter—one who wrongfully or illegally seizes and holds the place of another. The reference is to Jacob’s tricking his brother and father in order to receive his father’s blessing (Genesis 27), which would ordinarily have gone to Esau. The whole thing was actually his mother’s plot, but Jacob has gotten most of the credit/blame for it. At best we might say that Jacob had been an opportunist and not a man of principle.
Then the angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel (yisrael), which means “he will rule as God” (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary). After wrestling with God, Jacob’s character was to be caught up in God. This is quite significant. Jacob would from that day forward represent God and the rule of God. God would rule through Jacob. God would be in Jacob.
But we also must understand that the fact that people are to wrestle with God in no way suggests that people are superior or that they can actually triumph over God to secure His blessing. Not at all! Rather, like a father who wrestles with a child does not wrestle for the purpose of defeating the child, but as a method of training, exercising and developing skills and coordination, trust and intimacy. God does not wrestle with His children in order to defeat them, but to train them. By wrestling with God we learn about ourselves. We learn our weaknesses and inabilities, and strengthen our skills—and at the same time we learn, personally and intimately, about God. We encounter His strengths and abilities. This wrestling is important.
The key element regarding wrestling with God is that we must give our all, our best effort. We must be willing to die in order to receive God’s blessing, and we cannot fool God about our strength or our effort. If we fail to give our all, He will know. Jesus spoke of this dying to live (John 11:25), as did Paul (Romans 8:13, 14:8; Philippians 1:21) and Peter (1 Peter 2:24)