Jacob’s Journals of Grace
9. School of Suffering
Genesis 34 - 37
Life has a way of bringing us down, doesn’t it? Just when we think we’re riding a wave of success, it suddenly breaks, sending us crashing into the jagged rocks on the shoreline of hard reality. Life is hard. No one stays on top forever.
Important observation: We learn very little from success, but failure is a wonderful teacher. Ask anyone who’s gone bankrupt … or who has gone through the agony of divorce … or experienced the pain of losing a job … or watched a loved one die. In the dark moments of life, when time slows down to a crawl, when we sit in the waiting room while the minutes become hours, it is then that we begin to learn what life is all about. The rest is just fun and games.
1. Jacob’s Troubles
Not once … or twice… but 6 times over he faced serious personal suffering. Each occasion came unannounced and unexpected. Each one brought its own unique and deeply personal pain. Through it all Jacob persevered in his faith. He proved in his own experience those famous words of Job, “But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23: 10
All God’s children eventually enroll in the School of Suffering. No one is exempt. No one can transfer to another school. As his life drew toward its climax, we find Jacob facing a long series of personal crises—one right after another. All of them involve his family—his only daughter, his father, his wife, his oldest son and ultimately his favourite son. Jacob was a family man, and his personal sorrows came very close to home.
A. Family Crisis Ch. 34
The first crisis started when Jacob decided to settle near the Canaanite city of Shechem. v. 1 – 3 – This is the first case of date rape in the Bible. In retaliation Jacob’s sons deceived the Hivite men into being circumcised and while they were recovering, Simeon and Levi entered the town and slaughtered every male, plundering and looting as they went, and carrying off the women and children - v. 30, 31.
No one looks good in this episode. But it happened because Jacob dwelt too closely to the Hivites in the first place. Dinah was fascinated by the Hivite women, which is why Shechem noticed her. It’s a picture of what happens whenever believers begin to “love the world.” Our call is to be in the world but not of the world.
When we are in the world—that’s good. When the world is in us—that’s bad. Jacob’s family is now in crisis because he ignored that simple principle.
B. Three Deaths Ch. 35
Jacob returns to Bethel, builds an altar and orders his family to get rid of their idols. God speaks to him again and reaffirms that he will be the father of a great nation. He is also promised that he would inherit the land God had promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. All of this was God’s way of saying, “Jacob, you’re not perfect, but you are still my man. I chose you for a purpose and I’m not through with you yet.”
At this—the moment of great spiritual victory—the very moment when God once again speaks to Jacob, tragedy strikes: Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, dies and is buried at Bethel. Rachel dies in childbirth. With her last breath, she names her son “Benoni” which means “Son of my trouble,” but Jacob names him “Benjamin” – “Son of my right hand.” Jacob buried her not far from Bethlehem. Jacob’s father Isaac dies at the age of 180. He was living near Hebron and that’s where Jacob and Esau buried him – v. 29. This is the last time that Jacob and Esau meet. Earlier they had separated because of their father; now they had come together to bury him.
There is nothing remarkable in all of this, save the solemn reminder that if you live long enough you will attend a lot of funerals. No one lives forever. If you live to be 80 or 90, you’ll end up burying most of the people you know.
C. Reuben’s Sin 35: 21, 22
Here we have a shocking breach of family values. The oldest son sleeps with his father’s concubine. Let pass for a moment the trouble we have with the whole subject of polygamy. God permitted it even though it was never his ultimate will for mankind. Wherever you find polygamy, you eventually find heartache.
Jacob’s oldest son slept with a woman who belonged to his father. More than that, he slept with the mother of 2 of his brothers. We would like to know more … but the Bible is discreet as to the circumstances. It appears that Reuben gets away with it. All we are told is that “Israel heard of it.”
Dad knows what his son has done. He can’t forget the disrespect his oldest son has shown him. Years pass and the incident is forgotten. No one ever brings it up. Now Jacob is on his deathbed. In his dying moments, he calls his sons to his side and blesses them one by one—blessings that will indicate their inheritance and their place in God’s plan for many generations. He begins with Reuben the oldest—who should receive a double inheritance – 49: 3, 4.
There it is! He’s hasn’t forgotten. He knows his son … knows his strength, loves him as his firstborn, knows his turbulent and untamed nature. A wild, undisciplined man, he never mastered his own impulses. In spite of his greatness and all his admirable qualities, Reuben has dishonored his father. Jacob never forgot. On his deathbed, Jacob takes away Reuben’s birthright and leaves him with nothing but shame and humiliation.
D. The Loss of Joseph 37: 1 - 11
The story is so well-known. Jacob has settled in the Promised Land. All is well and at last Jacob seems to be at peace with himself. The long years of difficulty have given way to prosperity and some measure of happiness. Although his beloved Rachel is gone, Jacob can console himself that God has given him 12 sons.
Then one day there is trouble in the field. What begins with parental favoritism and sibling rivalry quickly escalates into envy and outright hatred. At length Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him and then to sell him into slavery. That done, they plot how to deceive their father into thinking that his beloved Joseph is now dead. They do it by taking the famous “coat of many colours” and dipping it in the blood of a goat. When Jacob sees the bloody coat he concludes that Joseph has been eaten by some ferocious animal. No one steps forward to tell him the truth.
Jacob would not be comforted. He truly believed his son was dead – 37: 35. Only those parents who have lost a child can fully understand the next sentence: “So his father wept for him.” Jacob has now reached the lowest point of his life.
First his daughter sleeps with a pagan. Then his sons butcher an entire town. Then his mother’s nurse dies. Then Rachel herself dies. Then his father dies. Then his son Reuben disgraces him.
Now Joseph is dead (or so he thinks). The pain is unbearable. How could God do this to him? How could God take Joseph away? He was only 17 years old. He was so young, so vibrant, so full of life and joy, the answer to so many prayers, the first son born to Rachel. So many hopes and dreams were wrapped up in that young man. Now he is dead and Jacob will not be comforted.
Years later, he will discover that Joseph is alive … but that’s another story. For the moment, when Jacob looks up at the face of God, he sees only the black clouds that mark the path of the man enrolled in the School of Suffering.
2. Our Consolation
Is Jacob unique, like Job, a man chosen by God to suffer in extra-ordinary ways? I think most of us have seen that Jacob is a man whose struggles are ours. He is intensely human. We see him struggling with the same things we deal with every day. What lessons should we draw from Jacob’s troubles?
A. No one is exempt from suffering
“Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” Job 5: 7 “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Acts 14: 22 “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.” Being a Christian brings many blessings, but it does not bring you an exemption from the School of Suffering. All God’s children spend time in the School of Suffering—whether we like it or not.
B. God uses suffering to teach you many lessons you couldn’t learn any other way
3 positive things happen when you go through hardship and difficulty—no matter what the cause: You slow down … and begin to think. You calm down … and begin to listen. You look up … and begin to learn. Why doesn’t that happen every day? Because we go so fast that we don’t have time to think about what we are doing. God has to slow us down, and often the only tool he has is suffering. It’s not that God isn’t willing to speak to us in the midst of life; we’re usually too busy to pay attention.
C. God is at work in your suffering to produce Christ-like character in you
“Tribulation produces patience; and patience, perseverance; and perseverance, hope.” Romans 5: 3 In the unerring wisdom of God, his saints are subjected to the fiery trials of life. What seems on this side to be all dark colours will one day come forth as the brightest colours of the rainbow.
D. Your suffering can never separate you from the love of God
“If God loves me, how can he allow this to happen?” In moments of great anguish we are prone to think that God has forgotten us. But it is not so. Does God still love you when your marriage breaks up? Does God still love you when your career takes a wrong turn? Does God still love you when you end up in jail? Does God still love you when your wife/husband has an affair? Does God still love you when the doctor says, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do"?
If you are a parent, you already know the answer. Do you still love your children when they get into trouble? Do you love your daughter when she lies in bed writhing in pain? Do you love your son when he loses his job? Every Mom and Dad knows the answer. Of course you do. If possible, you love your children even more when they are in trouble.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Romans 8: 35, 37
E. God intends that those who enroll in the School of Suffering should someday graduate Cum Laude: With Honour
The scene is the throne room of heaven. The time is somewhere beyond tomorrow. Multitudes are gathered. Friends and family members eagerly wait for the ceremony to begin. The angelic choir sings “Glory to God in the highest.” A massive chorus of men and women rise to sing “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” In come the dignitaries—Abraham and Isaac leading the way with Jacob limping behind them, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, the apostles James and John and Peter who was crucified upside down. Following them are the martyrs from across the centuries—men and women who paid the ultimate price for their faith. Look! There is Jan Hus who was burned at the stake. Over there is Jim Elliot who was killed by the Auca Indians. Hundreds and thousands strong, they march in one by one. Then at last a voice cries out, “All rise.” In comes the Lord Jesus Christ—clothed in pure white, dazzling in beauty. Look! He’s smiling. This is the day he has been waiting for. Now the names are called: “ . With Highest Honour. With Highest Honor. Milt Seifert. With Highest Honor. . With Highest Honor. . With Highest Honor. . With Highest Honor. With Highest Honor.” There is a pause as the Lord Jesus waits before calling the next name. Then he smiles. In the corner an old man stirs. He looks to be 90 years old. He walks slowly, carefully, unsteadily. “Andrew Pelzer. With highest honor.”
On and on they come—bright saints of God, entering into the joy of the Lord. On this earth they suffered in so many ways. No one had an easy passage to heaven. Some knew sickness, others broken dreams and others were abandoned and forgotten. But the Lord knew what they had done for him. And he never forgot them. No, not for a moment. Now they are entering into their eternal reward.
Oh, I want to be there in that day. I want to cheer for my friends and give a standing ovation for my loved ones. More than anything else, I want to live so that when that great moment comes, I can hear him say: “William Davies. With highest honour.”
Is it possible? Yes, God intends that all of us should pass through the School of Sorrow. But thank goodness, school doesn’t last forever. Those who stay in school and learn their lessons well will one day be greatly rewarded. In the end, no one will regret the sufferings of this life. The blackest moments will be transformed into eternal light and we will shine like the sun forever.