September 13, 1992
A long journey, a hard pillow, a guilty conscience, a heavy heart. These are the things that make men dream.
It had been two days since he had left home—
Esau seething in the background
Isaac waving goodbye.
Two days on a journey of 500 miles. Jacob is on his way from Beersheba to a place called Haran in a land called Paddam Aram. To get there you traveled north, then east across the Jordan River, then north again toward Damascus, then east to Tadmor, 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.
It was a journey backward in time for Jacob, backward because he was retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham who came from Haran to the Promised Land many years ago. But Abraham left behind him a settle-ment of people, a clan that grew and prospered over the years. So it was natural that Rebekah would think of Haran when she cast about for a safe haven for her wayward youngest son.
It was far enough that Esau wouldn’t follow him there.
Yet there was family there, so Jacob wouldn’t be alone.
All in all, Haran was a sensible suggestion.
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. In the meantime, 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
All of that was in the future when Jacob set out on his lonely journey to Haran. He’s been on the road now for two days.
Two days to walk.
Two days to think.
Two days to ponder.
Two 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 second day, as the sun sinks over the western horizon, Jacob stops for the night. He’s come to the outskirts of a city called Luz, a place unknown to him, a city filled with strange and possibly dangerous people. So filled with fear was Jacob that when he came to Luz, he dared not enter the city, even though night had fallen.
Outside the town, on a hillside strewn with rocks and boulders, Jacob made his bed. In that part of the world, night comes quickly. In the gathering darkness Jacob rests his head upon a large, flat stone.
I imagine he had a hard time sleeping that night. As he reminisced in his mind, I wonder if he thought about his family. Did he worry about his aging father? Did a silent tear slip down his cheek as he remembered waving goodbye to his mother? Did his face turn crimson in the darkness as he replayed his shameful deceit? Did a bullet of fear strike his heart as he thought about Esau’s pledge to kill him?
I’m sure he thought about all those things, and much more, as he tried to sleep on a rocky bed under the stars with a stone for a pillow. As the stars came out, and the strange sounds of night filled his ears, Jacob realized that for the first time in his life he was truly alone.
Did he not say to himself that night, “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 had only himself to blame. That much is sure. And I’m sure he didn’t argue that point at all. For he was the one who cheated his brother. He was the one who lied to his father. He was the deceiver. He was the scoundrel. 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 on the hillside, outside the city of Luz, resting his head on the stone pillow, he could only reflect on the terrible price he paid for the thing he wanted so much.
I pause to mention a point of some interest. They tell us that if you visit this area today, it doesn’t look much different than it did in Jacob’s day. Barren, strewn with rocks, it looks like a bleak moonscape. It was not the most likely place where a man would go to have an encounter with God. In fact, it’s the kind of place you might go if you were running from God.
At length he drifted off to an uneasy sleep. While he slept, he had one of the most famous dreams in history. Genesis 28:12 tells us what he saw: “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord.”
God had never spoken to Jacob before. For all the years of his life, God had never spoken directly to him. 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. To Jacob it was all second-hand reality.
The amazing point is that God now speaks to Jacob at the moment of his desperation. All that has happened is prologue. 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. C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure and shouts to us in our pain. Pain, he said, is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world. Now God moves to rouse Jacob even while he sleeps.
Stairway to Heaven
It happens in the form of a strange dream. In his dream Jacob saw a stairway (the Hebrew word is sullam. It can mean “ladder” but more typically means “stairway.”) descending from heaven to earth. The key point is that Jacob sees this stairway 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. It’s worth noting that not many people in the Bible ever saw angels. Most people lived their lives and never once saw an angel. 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 are heavenly couriers who 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. Just think about that. 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?
Let me answer the question this way. 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 vast, too magnificent, 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 5 billion people. How can God have time to worry about me?”
But 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 Ten Com-mandments, but after that, it’s every man for himself. So if you have to bend the rules, so be it. 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.”
“I Will Go With You”
But Jacob is wrong. The message of the dream is this: “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. And 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. And 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 about. It’s a message about the nearness of God.
In order to help Jacob understand it, God reaffirmed the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac:
1. I will give you this land. (13)
2. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. (14)
3. All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you. (14)
4. I will watch over you wherever you go. (15)
5. I will bring you back to this land. (15)
6. I will not leave you. (15)
If that seems unimportant, it’s only because we aren’t today where Jacob was that night. If you study these words carefully, it becomes clear that God is meeting Jacob at the point of his personal need.
Think of all the needs that these words address:
Shame: “I am the God of your father Abraham.”
Betrayal: “I am the God of Isaac.”
Loss of his homeland: “I will give you this land.”
Insignificance: “All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”
Loss of his family: “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
Fear of the future: “I am with you … wherever you go.”
Fear of Failure: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
As the saying goes, that’s as good as it gets. Jacob now receives the very same promise God gave his grandfather and his father. In addition, God promises to be with him while he is in Haran and to bring him back someday to the Promised Land. This is exactly what Jacob needed to hear on the eve of his journey to Haran:
“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. And when your time in Haran is finished, I will bring you safely back home again. You have my sacred word on that.”
Think about it for a moment. 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.
My Greatest Spiritual Discovery of 1992
Do you know what that truth is called? Until a few months ago I didn’t know it had a name. But just after I returned from Belize, I picked up a newsletter from The Caleb Project. It was an article about something called “the prevenient grace of God.” That means “the grace that goes before.” You might define it this way: “In every situation of life God is already at work before I get there. He is working creatively, strategically and redemptively for my good and his glory.” Wow! So many times I tend to limit my 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.
Think about it this way: 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.
Or to say it another way: While I’m living in Tuesday, he’s clearing the road for me on Friday. That’s what Proverbs 3:6 means when it says that “he shall make your paths straight.”
Or to say it yet another way: God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet! That blows my mind.
Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about that crucial meeting next week? Sleep well. He’s already there. What about that tough decision that looms up ahead of you? Fear not. He’s already there.
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 prevenient 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.
You Don’t Have to Go to Church To Meet God Personally
Suddenly Jacob awakens with a start. What time is it? Sometime after midnight. He rubs his eyes, stretches, yawns, sits up, and then he remembers. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Or was it reality within a dream? Thinking, pausing, pondering, he begins to put the pieces together in his mind. “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ’Surely the Lord is in this place, I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ’How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’” The phrase “house of God” in Hebrew is the word “Bethel.”
What was it that Jacob discovered? He 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 of brick and mortar—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.
You don’t have to go to church to meet God.
You can meet him on the freeway.
Or in a hospital waiting room.
Or at McDonald’s.
Or on a boat on Lake Michigan.
Or in a plane soaring over the Atlantic.
Or alone in a rocking chair.
Or riding a bus to school.
Or sitting on a park bench.
Or riding in your car.
God is everywhere. Wherever you are, there God is. And 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. Sometimes we have a deep spiritual experience, and we say, “I really felt the presence of God.”