Wrestling Jacob

by Richard on October 23, 2007

Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

So begins my favourite but least sung of Charles Wesley’s hymns. I understand that Isaac Watts, himself an incomparable hymn-writer, regarded this as worth all the hymns that he had written. It is a marvellous journey into the scriptures, its 14 verses (!) weaving the story of Jacob wrestling God at Peniel with a rich variety of Biblical allusions and Wesley’s own experience of spiritual struggle and liberation.

Jacob’s struggle, and Wesley’s poetic commentary upon it, remind us that engaging with God is not simply a matter of ‘praying the prayer’ and walking into prosperity and blessing. As Kim, quoting the playwright Dennis Potter, reminded us in chapel today, “God is the wound, not the bandage.” Jacob leaves the stranger having been given a new name, a new life — but also a limp. Matthew Henry puts it this way in his commentary, “Wrestling believers may obtain glorious victories, and yet come off with broken bones; for ‘When they are weak, then they are strong’, weak in themselves, but strong in Christ”.

The struggle of the believer who wrestles with God is the struggle to know the God whose nature and name is Love. This is therefore always a struggle of faith, not despair. The fight may be hard, but our companion is the God who wounds only to heal and who has himself been wounded for our sake. The hands on which our names have been written (Isaiah 49:16) are the same that bear the marks of crucifixion, hands which lift us up and lead us home.

Written in response to, and with thanks for, a homily preached today in the University Chapel by Kim Fabricius

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


James 11.25.07 at 11:56 pm

This is one of my handful of very favourite hymns, though I don’t think I have sung it in the 40 years since I left school. I suspect it is not sung as much as it deserves because of its length, and because it is such a great work that it is hard to cut. At school it was sung to a most wonderfully stirring and emotional melody, that like all great hymn tunes invariably raised the hairs on the back of my neck even then as a cynical know all teenager, and now as a rather more sentimental middle aged man would undoubtedly make me weep. I have not heard that hymn tune either since leaving school.


Derrel Emmerson 05.31.09 at 1:08 pm

Richard, I was a pastor for 41 years. I have preached for longer than that and became a Christian in 1952. In all experience no hymn of Wesley’s touched me like this one. I first encountered it in 1959 when in seminary. The morning we sang this song in chapel I had a renewal experience much like Jacob at Peniel. I quite agree…of all of Wesley’s hymns this is my favorite and it is, as you said, the least sung

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