And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.—Gen_28:16-17.
At two periods of his life Jacob passed through crises of spiritual experience, both of which received symbolical expression, here at Bethel, and later at Peniel. Though, if we take the indications of time literally, it was in his manhood rather than in his youth that he left his father’s house from fear of his brother Esau and went into the long exile at Padan-aram, we can scarcely, if we set the narratives side by side, avoid the conclusion that the one is intended to represent the conceptions which may come to youth, immaturity, inexperience, while the other reveals the tried and battered warrior in life’s battle, humbled, disappointed, somewhat embittered, and altogether perplexed.
The vision at Bethel is comparatively simple. Jacob had hitherto lived, in the shelter of his father’s home, a peaceful and industrious life, with little trouble, danger, or anxiety. But now, not without his own grievous fault, the peace was broken up, and he had become a wanderer. Yet though the wrench may have been great, and he could not have been without apprehension as he set forth on his lonely journey, he could have little actual knowledge of what might lie before him. The optimism of youth was not dead; life had hitherto presented no difficult or insuperable problem; his present undertaking might even lead to unexpected heights of success. So in a desert place, apparently near the Canaanite city of Luz, he lay down to rest, and in the night had a dream.1 [Note: Principal A. Stewart.]
He was in the central thoroughfare, on the hard backbone of the mountains of Palestine; the ground was strewn with wide sheets of bare rock; here and there stood up isolated fragments like ancient Druidical monuments. On the hard ground he lay down to rest, and in the visions of the night the rough stones formed themselves into a vast staircase, reaching into the depth of the wide and open sky, which, without any interruption of tent or tree, was stretched above the sleeper’s head. On the staircase were seen ascending and descending the messengers of God; and from above there came the Divine voice which told the houseless wanderer that, little as he thought it, he had a Protector there and everywhere; that even in this bare and open thoroughfare, in no consecrated grove or cave, the Lord was in this place, though he knew it not. This was Bethel, the House of God, and this was the gate of heaven.1 [Note: Dean Stanley.]
The Presence of the Lord
And Jacob waked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.
1. What Jacob saw in his dream was only the glorified presentment of the thoughts with which his mind had been filled during the day. The ladder, which was the scenic framework of his vision, may have been but the terraced hillside on which he had been gazing ere he fell asleep. All day long, as he had pursued his journey, the glorious expanse of an Oriental sky, one quivering, trembling mass of blue, had been above him, and as he had looked up with wonder and awe into its silent depths, deep questionings had beset him. Then as the twilight stole over the scene, and the stars peeped forth, the sense of mystery deepened, and the questions which had been urging themselves redoubled their solemnity and intensity. And so there rose within his heart strong yearnings; and those yearnings half articulated themselves into prayers. The vision was evidently a surprise. But he would have had no spiritual vision if he had had no spiritual desires. We see in the universe only what our moral earnestness prepares and disposes us to see. It is the pure in heart alone who behold the face of God. The spiritual revelations that we receive are but the sublimation and the fruition of our own spiritual struggles. Had there been none of those yearnings and longings in his heart towards a higher and a worthier existence, Jacob would have seen no angels. He already carried in his heart the key to that heaven through whose opened portals he was permitted to look—“Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.”
Thou hast been with me in the dark and cold,
And all the night I thought I was alone;
The chariots of Thy glory round me rolled,
On me attending, yet by me unknown.
Clouds were Thy chariots, and I knew them not;
They came in solemn thunders to my ear;
I thought that far away Thou hadst forgot,—
But Thou wert by my side, and heaven was near.
Why did I murmur underneath the night,
When night was spanned by golden steps to Thee?
Why did I cry disconsolate for light,
When all Thy stars were bending over me?
The darkness of my night has been Thy day;
My stony pillow was Thy ladder’s rest;
And all Thine angels watched my couch of clay
To bless the soul, unconscious it was blest.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Sacred Songs, 53.]
2. We are apt to cling to the old superstitious notion that in order to draw near to God it is needful to sever ourselves from life’s common duties and surroundings. But the Bible lends little favour to any such idea. Jacob’s vision was not granted to him at a spot that had previously been accounted holy. He was at Luz—an obscure locality to which he had chanced to come. “He lighted,” we read, “upon a certain place.” Nor was he engaged in any sacred observances. On the contrary, he was travelling on foot through a desolate region—a very prosaic and secular occupation. But it was in that place, and while he was thus engaged, that God drew near to speak to Jacob.
The same lesson comes again and again from the Divine revelations of which we read in Scripture. Moses was tending his sheep amidst the rocks and furze of Horeb, when God appeared to him in the burning bush and taught him that that mountain-side was holy ground. The disciples were standing half-naked in their fishing-boat, worn out with the long night’s fruitless toil, when they discerned some one standing on the beach; and the disciple whom Jesus loved said unto Peter, “It is the Lord.” Saul of Tarsus was riding on horseback through the fierce sunshine of the Syrian noonday, when that brighter light from heaven shone round about him.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]
When He appoints to meet thee, go thou forth—
It matters not
If South or North,
Bleak waste or sunny plot.
Nor think, if haply He thou seek’st be late,
He does thee wrong.
To stile or gate
Lean thou thy head, and long!
It may be that to spy thee He is mounting
Upon a tower,
Or in thy counting
Thou hast mista’en the hour.
But, if He come not, neither do thou go
Till Vesper chime,
Belike thou then shalt know
He hath been with thee all the time.2 [Note: T. E. Brown.]
A Sense of Sin
And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place!
1. Fear was inherent in Jacob’s character.—It spoilt him in his early days, but he had manly stuff in him and he subdued it, and afterwards it was lifted into veneration of God. His present fear was caused partly by the sense of sin, partly by realizing the presence of the Invisible. No one who does not know God can feel himself touched by God without fear. If he feels Him only as a dreadful power the result will be superstition, but if he knows and loves Him the result is veneration. From that hour the love that casts out fear began to stir in Jacob’s heart. He began to realize, not an angry Being, but One who loved him and would care for him.
2. Jacob had sinned grievously.—He was fresh from an act of shameful deceit, seconded by several deliberate lies, and aggravated by the fact that his victims were his only brother and his aged father, now smitten with blindness and infirmity. Was a man, upon whose soul such sins lay hot and unrepented of, a possible subject for such a revelation of God as we read of in this chapter? Not unless all the laws of man’s relation to God were completely disregarded in the case of Jacob. From the very fact that God appeared to the patriarch with this gracious manifestation of Himself and promise of His favour, we conclude that Jacob must have had some contrition for his sin, that he must at that very time have been passing through the painful struggles of an awakened conscience. Jacob had sinned deeply; but he would have been a callous sinner indeed if he had had no pangs of compunction when he heard his father’s reproachful voice and his brother’s exceeding bitter cry. And now all the afflictions that had befallen him—his enforced night, his banishment from home, his lonely journey, the dangers by which he was beset—these afflictions had engraven deep upon his mind the solemn lesson that the devil’s wages are always very hard, and had worked in him that godly sorrow which leads to true repentance. Jacob, we might say, had been wrestling with God in the secret places of his soul, even as Nathanael had been kneeling before God under the fig tree when Jesus promised that he too, like Jacob, should see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending.
There is nothing that makes us seem farther away from God than a heartfelt sense of sin and self-abasement. But it is when a man is in the very depths of self-condemnation that the light of God’s countenance breaks upon him like the day-dawn following the night. Look at the Penitential Psalms. What a consciousness of sin is there; what a depth of genuine humiliation! And yet it is just when these psalmists are crying out of the depths that the assurance of Jehovah’s pardoning mercy and love springs up within them. For it is when hearts are broken and contrite that the High and Lofty One stoops down to visit them. Contrition and humility are the true foundation-stones of godliness, and the lower these foundations are sunk, the higher will the towers and pinnacles of the Divine Temple rise within the soul. Tennyson has taught us to say that “men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” And in the gracious counsels of our God there is a blessed provision whereby the very sins of the past, if truly repented of, may become stepping-stones to heaven—another Jacob’s Ladder, by which His children are raised above their sin and selfishness up the steep heights of holiness and into the very presence of the Father.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]
3. If ever a man needed a little merciful handling, this solitary and troubled soul needed it then. God is ever near to the souls that need Him most; and a man never needs Him so much as when he has sinned, for he is never so surely imperilled as then. So, through this man who has sinned, to all men who have sinned this incident speaks, and tells us that God appears in grace to a man who has done wrong, to prevent his doing further wrong, to show that he is not cast off, that from the sin into which he has fallen there is a way to God, and that heavenly influences descend even on the head of the transgressor. Not that his sin is condoned, not that he deserves the bright vision. Who of us would have any but a dark and terrifying vision if we had what we deserve? It is a vision of God’s grace that comes to this wanderer—a vision to assure him that God’s mercy persists in spite of man’s sin, and wills to save him from a further fall.
The thing that we dread is often the thing that brings God near. He is sometimes a theory and His comfort a poem, until darkness and solitude cause the soul to call out for Him. And I am giving the experience of some also when I say it was in the trouble into which sin plunged us that God first became a reality. It was then that we sought, and cried passionately, and found. There comes a shadow that no earthly light can pierce, and into it comes the light of God; and we have to bless the solitude and the darkness and the bitter penalty and consequence, because then, for the first time, God became real and near.2 [Note: C. Brown.]
The House of God and the Gate of Heaven
This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Let us pass at once from the story of Jacob and consider what lessons these words can bring us when they are used of a sacred building, a church. The vision of the patriarch reveals to us that the whole earth is the House of God, while particular places are chosen to emphasize the truth that there is now a continuous intercourse between earth and heaven, that already we are living in a spiritual world. Three lessons each Church presses upon us, and our life is hallowed and strengthened by remembering them.
1. A Church witnesses to the universal presence of God.—This universal presence of God is a most certain truth; yet for the most part our eyes are holden that we should not know it. We are unable to grasp the fulness of the fact. And therefore God meets our infirmity. In His love He gives us signs. He has been pleased from the earliest times to set His name here and there, in a stone, as at Beth-el, in a tent, in a temple, and now in a Church. Through the visible He helps us to see the invisible. A Church, then, does not bring to us anything new or exceptional. It witnesses to the unseen, the spiritual, the eternal, which is about us on every side. It shows God to us here because He is everywhere. It helps us to see what lies beyond the shadows on which we look. It encourages us to pierce beneath the surface to that which is abiding.
So sometimes comes to soul and sense
The feeling which is evidence
That very near about us lies
The realm of spiritual mysteries.
The sphere of the supernal powers
Impinges on this world of ours.
The low and dark horizon lifts,
To light the scenic terror shifts;
The breath of a diviner air
Blows down the answer of a prayer:—
That all our sorrow, pain, and doubt
A great compassion clasps about,
And law and goodness, love and force,
Are wedded fast beyond divorce.
Then duty leaves to love its task,
The beggar Self forgets to ask;
With smile of trust and folded hands,
The passive soul in waiting stands
To feel, as flowers the sun and dew,
The One true Life its own renew.1 [Note: J. G. Whittier, The Meeting.]
2. A Church witnesses also to the reality of man’s intercourse with God.—It is, like Jacob’s Beth-el, “the gate of heaven.” And so from very early times the words “Behold a ladder set up on earth, and the top of it reached to heaven” were recited at the consecration of Churches, and the first recorded promise of the Lord gives a permanent force to the vision of the patriarch when He said to the disciples, amazed that He had read the secret thoughts of Nathanael: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye shall see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” A Church, in other words, answers to the title which was given to the first appointed House of God, “the Tent of Meeting.” It is the meeting-place of God with man and of man with God. The thought is overwhelming. We are tempted to cry out with Jacob, when we realize what it means, “How dreadful is this place.” We recall the words spoken to Moses, “No man shall see my face and live,” or the confession of Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am undone … for mine eyes have seen the King in his beauty.” But the incarnation has changed our relation to God. In the Son of Man the glory of God is tempered to our vision. It is true that no man hath seen God at any time: that He dwelleth in light unapproachable, “Whom no man hath seen nor can see,” yet we have also for our assurance the Lord’s own words: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” not indeed seen God as God in His most awful majesty, but God revealed through the love of His Son.
Reviews of Miss Yonge’s life, and even of Mr. Keble’s, spoke as though their country lives must have been quiet to dullness, or at least that they produced no incidents useful for biographical purposes. To those who at that time were their nearest neighbours, their lives were wonderful examples of the self-controlled vivacity of high spiritual existence. The eyes of our elders were fixed on the holiest realities of Spirit, and in the services of the English Church they found the atmosphere in which they breathed most freely. Theology was to them a thrilling interest, and they moved and spoke and thought with unseen presences round them, not psychical or fancy-spiritual, but as realizing the angels round about the Throne and the solemn awe of the Throne.1 [Note: C. A. E. Moberly, Dulce Domum, 7.]
3. A Church assures us that we are even now living in a spiritual order.—This is implied in the record of the Patriarch’s Vision. The angels are represented as “ascending and descending.” Ascending first: earth, that is man’s home, is the habitual scene of their ministry. And again, St. Paul tells us in direct words: “God has made us to sit with Christ in heavenly places.” And again we read: “We have come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels in festal assembly … and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” Heaven is not distant and future, but here and now. And we habitually claim, in our Communion office, fellowship “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.” Life, in a word, is shown within our Churches under its spiritual aspect in all its critical vicissitudes. Powers of heaven are seen to mingle at each point with faculties of earth. We are impressively reminded of the greatness of life. If life is on one side the vision of God, it is on the other side the welcome of God’s gifts that they may be used in His service. It is from first to last a personal Divine companionship. The Church with its services is the sign and pledge of blessings answering to all our need, but then we are ourselves the living sanctuary: we live as knowing that the Lord is with us all the days.
Faith’s ladder pales not, Angels yet are found
All beauteous in calm and holy light;
Their silver robes have skirted many a cloud
Thronging the purple night.
Swift from the golden gates they come and go,
And glad fulfil their Master’s high behest,
Bringing celestial balms for human woe,
Blessing and being blessed.
And have not we sore need the faith to hold
Of the surrounding of the Angel bands;
Mid all earth’s dust to trace their steps of gold,
And feel the uplifting hands?
Ah! yes, I think so, then with firm believing,
With reverence, hail each soul’s celestial guest;
Till they shall come, God’s final will revealing,
To fold us into rest.1 [Note: Lyra Anglicana, 136 (God’s Angels).]
Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 74.
Barton (G. A.), Christian Teaching as found in the Old Testament, 112.
Brown (C.), The Birth of a Nation, 66.
Davies (E. C.), in Congregational Preachers, i. 21.
Hart (H. G.), Sedbergh School Chapel Sermons, 81.
Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, iii. 94.
Hook (W. F.), Sermons on Various Subjects, 152.
Krause (W. H.), Sermons in Bethesda Chapel, Dublin, ii. 108.
Lambert (J. C.), in Great Texts of the Old Testament, 1.