A long journey, a hard pillow, a guilty conscience, a heavy heart. These are the things that make men dream. It had been 2 days since he had left home— Esau seething in the background - Rebekah weeping - Isaac waving goodbye. 2 days on a journey of 800kms. Jacob is on his way from Beersheba to a place called Haran. To get there you traveled north, then east across the Jordan River, then north again toward Damascus, then east, then a sharp turn north for the final leg of the journey, crossing the Euphrates River, finally arriving in Haran, which was located not far from the southern border of modern-day Turkey.
Rebekah’s plan was simple. By sending Jacob to Haran, she was putting him in a safe place for a few months until Esau’s anger passed away. Then she would send word for Jacob to come home. She hoped that her son would marry one of his relatives in Haran and eventually return home, bride in hand. It was a good plan, and in fact it came to pass, but not exactly as Rebekah envisioned.
On the Road to Haran
Jacob has been on the road now for 2 days - 2 days to think. 2 days to wonder what might have been. He left home so quickly. It wasn’t the beautiful send-off he wanted. No, he hurried out of town lest Esau should decide to take matters into his own hands. Jacob was running for his life, relationships broken, family ties destroyed.
Now on the evening of the 2nd day, Jacob stops for the night. On a hillside strewn with rocks and boulders, Jacob made his bed. In the gathering darkness Jacob rests his head upon a large, flat stone. I imagine he had a hard time sleeping that night. I wonder if he thought about his family - his aging father - waving goodbye to his mother - Esau’s pledge to kill him?
As the stars came out, Jacob realized that for the first time in his life he was truly alone. “How did this ever happen to me?” Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, bearer of the promise of God, now running for his life. How did it happen?
A Stone Pillow
He only had himself to blame. He was the one who cheated his brother - lied to his father. He was the deceiver. He was the one who broke up his own family. “Jacob, you fool. No wonder you sleep uneasily tonight. No wonder you dream strange dreams. Your heart is heavy because your conscience is guilty. Your hands are not clean. No wonder you can’t sleep tonight.” Jacob got what he wanted. That night alone, he could only reflect on the terrible price he paid for the thing he wanted so much.
He drifted off to an uneasy sleep. While he slept, he had one of the most famous dreams in history. v. 12, 13 - God had never spoken to Jacob before. To his grandfather Abraham—yes. To his father Isaac—yes. But to Jacob—no. For his whole life he had lived on the borrowed faith of his father and grandfather. He was raised in their faith, was taught their faith, knew their faith, and even believed their faith, but he had never had a personal experience with the God of his father and grandfather.
God now speaks to Jacob at the moment of his desperation. Even his deception and trickery was used by God to bring him to this precise moment in life. Now that he is running for his life, now that he is leaving the Promised Land, now that he has disgraced himself, now that he finally reached the bottom, at that exact moment, God speaks to Jacob.
Stairway to Heaven
In his dream Jacob saw a stairway descending from heaven to earth. This stairway is resting on the earth right where he happened to be. On the stairway Jacob saw the angels of God going up and down the stairs. Not many people in the Bible ever saw angels. But here and there, at certain critical moments in history, God allowed a few people to see his angels at work. It’s as if God would draw back the curtains at a crucial moment to let someone see the angels of God at work behind the scene. Jacob is one of those lucky few.
What are the angels doing? They are taking messages from earth up to heaven and messages from heaven down to earth. They report to God concerning the situation on the earth. They also carry out God’s will—answering prayers, giving guidance, providing protection, fighting for the people of God, fending off the attacks of Satan. At the top of the ladder stood God himself. Jacob at the bottom, God at the top, a stairway filled with angels in between. What does it mean?
“Is God Too Busy to Help You?”
There was a reason why Jacob was a cheater. He cheated because he thought God was far away from him. He has the same picture of God that a lot of people have today—a God in heaven who wound up the universe like a giant clock, set it running, and then busied himself with other things. To Jacob, God was too big, too almighty to ever be concerned about someone like him. It wasn’t that Jacob’s view of God was too small. Not at all. Jacob viewed God as entirely transcendent, so far removed from the earth that he had no time to worry about the details of human life.
We all feel that way sometimes. “Maybe God loves me, I know the Bible says he does. But’s it’s a big world, and everyone’s got problems, and he’s got to take care of 6 billion people. How can God have time to worry about me?”
That kind of thinking leads to a faulty conclusion. If God is not personal, if he’s not concerned about your life, then you are left pretty much on your own. After all, you’ve got the rule book, you’ve got the 10 Commandments, but after that, it’s every man for himself. Nobody is going to take care of you but yourself. That’s just the way life works.
It sounds appealing, and can even be made to sound spiritual. That’s the way Jacob had lived for all these years. He cheated because he thought God either didn’t notice or didn’t care or was too busy to help him out. So Jacob consistently took matters into his own hands. Jacob reasoned this way: “If God were here, I wouldn’t have to do things this way. But God’s not here. So I’ve got to take care of myself.” But Jacob is wrong.
“I Will Go With You!” v. 15
“Jacob, I’m nearer to you than you think I am. Although I am in heaven and you are on earth, there’s a stairway that reaches from me to you. My angels are constantly watching over you. They tell me what you need and I send them back to earth with my answers. I’m not very far away. In fact, I’m with you wherever you go. When you travel, my stairway travels with you. I was with you in Beersheba. I was with you when you tricked Esau. I was with you when you deceived your father. I am with you tonight. I will be with you in Haran. Everywhere you go, I will go with you.”
That in a nutshell is what this dream is all about. It’s a message about the nearness of God.
God reaffirmed the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac: I will give you this land. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you. I will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you.
“My son, I know who you are and I know what you’ve done. Nothing is hidden from me. I also know how frightened you are. Remember this: When you go to Haran, you won’t be going alone for I will go with you. When your time in Haran is finished, I will bring you safely back home again. You have my word on that.”
Think about it - at this point Jacob feels - Guilty about his past - Fearful of the future - Uncertain in the present. To all of that, God simply says, “I will be with you.” It’s a total solution to guilt, fear and anxiety. Through all of this Jacob is learning the lesson that there is no place he can go where God is not already there.
So many times we tend to limit our thinking to the fact that God is with me as I go through life. True, but that’s only part of the story. He’s not only with me now, he’s already way up the road ahead of me. While I am struggling with the problems of today, God is hard at work providing solutions for the things I am going to face tomorrow. He’s already there, working creatively in situations I have yet to face, preparing them for me and me for them.
It would be enough if God simply walked with you through the events of life. But he does much more than that. He goes ahead of you, clearing the way, arranging the details of life, so that when you get there, you can have confidence that God has already been there before you.
That’s the grace of God. He goes before his people. He’s at work in the future while we live in the present. That’s what Jacob is discovering in his midnight dream.
v. 16, 17 - Jacob discovered the omnipresence of God—that God is everywhere present all the time. That’s why he called the place where he slept Bethel—the house of God. In years to come Jacob’s descendants would build a vast temple in Jerusalem and that would be called the “house of God.” But no building—no matter how expensive—can contain the presence of the Almighty. When we call our church buildings houses of God, we simply mean they are dedicated to the worship of God. Some people think that God is more present in a building than anywhere else. Not so. What God is teaching Jacob is that anyplace can be a “house of God” for you if you meet the Lord there.
God is everywhere. Wherever you are, there God is. Wherever God is, there is a stairway to heaven reaching down from God to right where you are. You don’t have to have a “holy place.” Anyplace can be a “holy place” if you stop and listen to God’s voice speaking to you.
•God is with you whether you feel it or not.
•God is with you whether you know it or not.
•God is with you whether you see it or not.
•God is with you whether you sense it or not.
Jacob has just learned that God is always with his people. Our problem is, God speaks but we don’t listen. It takes tragedy, it takes failures, it takes financial setback, it takes heartache, it takes illness, it takes the collapse of our dreams—then at last we look up to heaven and say, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not.”
An Altar and a Vow
Our story is almost over. The next morning Jacob decides to set up an altar commemorating his remarkable dream. He called the place “Bethel”—house of God. Then he made a vow to serve God faithfully and to worship God on that same spot when he returned to the Promised Land. I think this is a great statement of faith. “Lord, I am taking you at your word. I believe you will do what you said and therefore I am committing myself to you wholeheartedly.”
Looking at this whole story, it stands as a statement about the nearness of God at the moment of our personal need. It’s a story about how close God is in times of deep desperation. It’s a story about how God reaches down to us. It’s a story of the grace of God finding us right where we are.
The Ladder From Heaven
In the NT, Jacob’s ladder is not a what; but a who. Jesus is the ladder to heaven. In the person of Jesus Christ, God has come down the ladder to join us on the earth. Jesus Christ is himself the stairway that leads back to heaven. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” He came down from heaven to earth so that we might have a way to go from earth to heaven. The Son of God became - The Son of Man - So the sons of men - Might become the sons of God.
Now that Jesus has come, we know that God can never be far away from us. He is the ladder that leads to heaven, he is the bridge that crosses the great gulf, he is the stairway that leads to paradise, he is the way to eternal life.
There are no guarantees in life—for Jacob or for us. Except this: God has said, “Wherever you go, I will go with you.” Jacob still faces 20 years of hardship in Haran—but he’s not going alone. Now he knows that God is going with him.
“Grace For People Like Me”
Bethel is the place of new beginnings. There’s a grace of God for cheaters - for liars - for thieves - for adulterers. Jacob’s ladder reaches all the way down from heaven, down to the bottom of the pit of your sin. And the minute you are ready to come clean with God, you can start climbing Jacob’s ladder back up to heaven.
Prayer - Lord Jesus, I need a fresh start. I need a new beginning. I tried to do it on my own and it didn’t work. Forgive me for thinking I didn’t need you. By your grace, I have learned that I cannot live without you. Lord, if you are willing, I am ready to start over again. But this time I want you to lead the way. Amen.