Four Pillars of Jacob
by Harry Foster
"And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel. Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel labored in childbirth, and she had hard labor. Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, Do not fear; you will have this son also. And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachels grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder." (Genesis 35:15-21).
This is the fourth and last of the pillars which were erected by Jacob in the course of his spiritual pilgrimage. There is no record of any space of time having elapsed between the previous pillar and this one. Whether there was such a period we have no means of knowing, but for spiritual purposes this pillar seems to follow immediately upon the third. In this it is very true to our own spiritual experiences. Bethel was the place where Jacob really entered into his vision of Divine purpose, and, as we have seen, this involved a tremendous transformation of his whole life. He entered into the spiritual realm of the house of God, receiving the promise that he should no longer be Jacob, but that his name should be called Israel. How swiftly following that great and glorious experience of Divine power came a mortal blow struck at the very heart of Jacob! He lost his dearest and best. This was the deepest death of all.
A Deeper Death Follows Bethel
How different are the Lord's ways from ours! When we have come to a new place of utter yieldedness to Him we expect to move easily forward into new experiences of wonder and glory; we feel that the death matter is forever settled and that now we shall be conscious only of life. Yet how true it is to our spiritual history as well as to Jacob's, that very soon after the great crisis of surrender to the Cross we are called upon to know a deeper experience of that death.
Rachel always brings out the noblest and most admirable side of Jacob's character. Jacob loved as not many men love, intensely and with all his heart; his is the outstanding love story of the world. He loved Rachel so much that he was not only willing to labour as a slave for seven years to win her, but the seven years seemed like a few days to him. After he was tricked by her father he devoted a further seven years of his life to labour for Rachel. He never changed in his deep devotion. When, on his return, he found himself approaching Esau he chose a special place of safety for Rachel at the very rear of the whole party. She was the dearest of all to him, his most precious. Nor did he ever forget the sorrow of her death. Many years afterwards, when at the time of his death he was blessing the two sons of Joseph, he broke into the glowing prophecy of their glorious future with the personal confession, "And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when there was still some distance to come unto Ephrath; and I buried her there in the way to Ephrath" (Gen. 48:7). Perhaps it was the outstanding memory of his life, for in a sense he buried his heart when he buried Rachel.
This is not a mere matter of sentiment, but conveys a deep spiritual lesson. This last pillar reveals how deep is the work of the death of the Cross in the life of the believer who is truly pressing on to the Lord's end. This is no longer his death to sin. It is something more than we normally mean when we speak of death to self, for that happened at Jabbok. We may have a great experience of laying all on the altar, which we think should be the end of dying, but there are still unknown depths of our being to which the Cross must penetrate; Rachel, the dearest and best, is yet to be buried.
We might imagine that this was just one of the common chances of life if it were not for the significant fact that it followed so closely upon the pillar at Bethel. Many children of God avoid such deep experiences simply because they never come to the place of utter yieldedness to the Lord. Jacob realized that this was a major crisis in his life; God had permitted the death, and had done so because He had a glorious purpose in view. After all, it is life, resurrection life and power, which we are seeking, and this can only be released by yielding to death. Resurrection life does not only mean that the Lord dies and I live, though in a sense that is gloriously true, but it means that my experience of such life is consequent upon my experience of His death. As Jacob moves on in his spiritual pilgrimage, not away from Bethel but in the power of Bethel, he finds that the Lord has reserved for him even deeper experiences of death, to the very breaking of his heart, only that out of them might come life in new fulness.
The apostle Paul passed through the same suffering. In the second letter to the Corinthians he tells of his own ministry resulting from deliverance "from so great a death." That is Rachel - not only death, but "so great a death." The end of the same letter tells of his "thorn in the flesh," the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, virtually explaining that his deep experience of the Cross, galling to the flesh, perplexing to the mind and bitter to the heart was the very ground of his fruitful ministry in the power of the Spirit.
Was Rachel's death just a cruel blow of fate? No! and this is where Jacob's pillar represents the triumph of his faith. On the one hand he lost that which was most precious to him, but that very loss made possible a new and fuller expression of the will of God in his life. His pillar announced that Rachel died here, but it also proclaimed that here Benjamin was born. The only place where Benjamin can be born is the place where Rachel dies.
Benoni or Benjamin?
Poor Rachel! She called his name Benoni, Son of my sorrow. This is the verdict of the natural heart. There is no question as to the bitterness of the death - the Cross is a bitter death. The two names given to this child, however, show that we may take up different attitudes towards the Cross. Self pity will draw attention to itself - 'Son of my sorrow' - and so miss the whole purpose of God in the matter, namely, that there should be raised a testimony to his glory. When that which is precious to us, or in us, is smitten by the death of the Cross we may permit resentment or perplexity to bring a dark shadow into our lives, being offended because of the personal loss. We may even refuse to accept this sentence of death on that which is precious to us, and so fail to go on unto the fulness of the Lord's purpose. Perhaps we are willing to die to sin, or to the world, or to the uglier forms of self, but when we are challenged with the loss of all things for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ we cry out against such a demand. It seems to our natural hearts that the fruit of such a death would be only sorrow and regret.
Yet if we are in the true succession of Jacob such an experience is inevitable. If we are really committed to the Lord for all His will in His house we may be sure that He will apply the Cross in this new and deeper way. "Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it" (John 15:2). The Lord knows how to choose that particular suffering which will purge and make more fruitful. It seldom seems like love to us, and, if we take it in the wrong spirit, may become the obsession of our lives. 'Benoni, Son of my sorrow.'
Jacob said No! He looked at the same child and said, 'No, not Benoni, but Benjamin' - Son of the right hand - the one who is to be the occasion of honour, power and glory. He does not say, 'Son of my right hand,' for he is forgetting himself and thinking of the glory of the Lord. The sorrow side is personal, it is my sorrow; but faith rises above that level. 'Son of the right hand' - may we hope that it is God's right hand? It is true that this pillar marked a grave, and it was thus known for centuries as a landmark on the borders of Benjamin. It was the pillar of Rachel's grave. But surely Jacob meant it for more than that. His grief was great, but this pillar spoke not only of his sorrow but of his hope. He raised this, as he had raised the other three, in token of his utter committal to the Lord in the matter, and of his assurance as to the faithfulness of God. 'Son of the right hand.' That is the glorious issue from so great a death so far as the man of faith is concerned.
The Way of Progress
Now the death experience will happen to us, but the pillar will not happen; it is our responsibility to set it up. The measure of spiritual progress is determined by our reaction to the test when it comes. Perplexity, unwillingness, self-pity, resentment? There are many ways of thwarting the purpose of God if we dwell too much on 'The son of my sorrow.' There is only one way of realizing that purpose, and that is by taking a stand in faith that this death is not unto death, but for the glory of God. It will produce the son of the right hand.
It is most significant that at that point Jacob is called Israel. Until then the name, had been a promise but was not applied to him in the narrative. God had said that he should be called Israel, but even after Jabbok, and even after Bethel, it is as Jacob that he is described as journeying on. At this last pillar, however, there is a change, for the account reads, "And Israel journeyed." Peter writes about giving more diligence to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10); I think that this is exactly what Jacob did when he raised his fourth and last pillar. He made sure of what God had called him, he made good his claim to be called Israel. The two pillars are very closely related in spiritual experience. Here is Bethel - that is like Sunday morning when we have dealings with the Lord, and feel that everything is settled and we are right with Him. Here is Rachel's Pillar - that is like Monday morning, when the matter is put to a practical test. It is our Monday mornings which count. Jacob became Israel not merely in meeting the Lord, in seeing the vision, in responding to it and being ready to die, but in a practical matter when the Cross smote him, even to the breaking of his heart. He said as he had said at Bethel, but in an even deeper way, 'Not what I am, O Lord, but what Thou art'; not 'Son of my sorrow,' but 'Son of the right hand.' 'Never mind my desires or ambitions, never mind what people think of me; it does not matter what happens to my things so long as Christ is glorified.' "And Israel journeyed."
It will be like that with us. We may respond to Bible teaching, may have a glorious experience of Bethel and may raise the pillar of our faith committal to the Lord, but it is when the whole issue is put to the test in practical life that we shall find that there is yet another pillar to erect before we have really entered in. "Make our calling and election sure."
The Way of Fruitfulness
"And Israel journeyed.'' Where did he journey to? It does not say, but it does say that the road was leading to Bethlehem. "In the way of Ephrath (the same is Bethlehem)." Now Bethlehem means 'The house of bread.' Jacob was right in the way to fruitfulness; he had not reached it yet, but this pillar was directly in the way. Ephrath means fertile, or fertility; it is the same thought. This is the way to fruitfulness. How little did Jacob realise when he set out for Bethlehem that before he reached there he would have lost his Rachel! In spiritual terms this matter of fruitfulness is the whole explanation of Rachel's death. The Lord deals thus with us because He is seeking to lead us into a large life of spiritual fertility. "Every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it." Unbelief will say 'The Lord is angry with me, I have mistaken the way and the Lord is against me.' Faith will say, 'No, not Benoni, Son of my sorrow, but Benjamin, Son of the right hand. I move on from this pillar into a fuller and more fruitful life.'
Christ the Way and the End
In closing I should like to make a few simple remarks about the whole subject of these four pillars.
In the first place, they are four, which means that they are universal; they refer not only to Jacob but to you and me. He had his experiences, and we shall have ours, but they are the same in principle. They were strange and sometimes painful to him, as indeed they often are to us. But God has the same glorious end in view.
In the next place, each one of them represented a positive act of faith on Jacob's part. God did so much for Jacob, but God did not erect the pillars for him; he had to do that for himself. Indeed, each one of them represented Jacob's response to the Lord, his committal of faith. After all, when you put up a pillar everyone knows precisely what your position is. You cannot go back on it, and you do not intend to do so. That is what Jacob meant. So the Lord calls us to realise that while He brings the vision to us and He alone can realise it in us, He does expect a wholehearted committal from our side.
And surely the last and closing point is the significance of the fact that when the fourth pillar was raised the road led straight on to Bethlehem; Bethlehem - royal David's city; Bethlehem - where Christ was born. All spiritual exercise which is truly of God leads directly to Christ. Anything in our lives, in our ministry, in our ambitions, our interests or our prayers which leads in any other direction - well, we don't want it, do we? Above all else we want the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.