The story of Jacob’s ladder is well known by many who do not know the Bible. Jacob is depicted in song lyrics from Led Zeppelin to U2 to Rush to Huey Lewis and the News. Jacob is also a topic for motivational speakers communicating ones ability to climb the ladder of personal success because “the skies the limit”. The story of Jacob’s ladder has taken on varying shades of meaning and interpretation, which are a stretch from its original biblical context.
The story of Jacob’s ladder dream appears at the beginning of Jacob’s narrative. Jacob had just deceived his twin brother Esau by ripping off his birthright and lying to get his father’s deathbed blessing. Therefore Esau is out to get Jacob’s head and see him dead. So Jacob flees the Promised Land and the momma’s boy who once loved staying home was now driven from his home. He becomes a fugitive from his family fearing his brother’s ferocious rage.
The tension in the story rises as Jacob comes to a certain place at the sunsets. He spends the night out in the elements alone. Without protection in an unknown place Jacob finds a sandy spot to sleep with a rock for his pillow. The tension continues to rises as he nods off to sleep and dreams a strange dream about a ladder that the angels of God ascend and descend upon. God comes to Jacob in a dramatic dream in the middle of the night. For the first time in his life, Jacob encounters God.
How in the world is God going work with this guy?
At this point in Genesis, the covenant promises of God have been applied to the less than perfect people—from Abraham to Isaac to sinfully deceptive Jacob who stole both the birthright and blessing from his older brother Esau. Jacob possesses the covenant blessing, but lacks faith-driven relationship with God like that of Isaac and Abraham. Jacob is not a God-pursuer [worshiper, believer]; he is a man-pleaser and self-gratifier. For the first time, Jacob is not living under the faith of his parents, but begins his own relationship with God.
So how does he go from Jacob to Israel? From trickster and deceiver to a worshiper of God? From a total goober to a godly guy? Jacob is probably in his 70s, still living with his parents, mom still washes his whitie-tighties, and has her pack his lunch box with PB & J. He’s totally a late bloomer with no wife, no job, allowed to underachieve, enjoys being spoiled, and has inconstant God-following parents.
The story climaxes as Jacob sees God in his dream. And no, it wasn’t a dose of spicy chili the night before. God speaks to him and promises to be everything that He was to Jacob’s dad [26:3-4] and grand-dad [12:2-3; 15:1-6]. The God of Abraham and Isaac will also be known as the God of Jacob. The Lord not only extends patriarchal promises [i.e. land, descendants, and blessing] but also adds a special promise—His presence—that the Lord will always be with him [and Israel] wherever he goes. The symbol of His presence is the ladder in his dream, which connects heaven with earth.
If I were Jacob, I would have wet my pants seeing God, especially after his sinful escapade. Jacob should have been cursed for all his sin, however God has grace on him and blesses him. In holy fear, Jacob awakes from his dream awed by the Lord. The change in Jacob’s heart turning toward God arises in his commitment to tithe to God as an act of worship to God [cf. 26:25]. Above all it is God who seeks out a covenant relationship with Jacob, which is the pattern continued for all believers throughout human history.
How do we get from Jacob to Jesus?
As Jacob leaves the Promised Land, God promise to be with Jacob wherever he goes. This is an important redemptive theme that progresses throughout the history of Israel to those who follow Jesus.
As Moses is called out of Egypt—leading the Hebrew people to the Promised Land—God promises His presence [Exodus 3:12; Deuteronomy 31:6]. He proves His presence with a pillar of clouds by day, a pillar of fire by night, and His glory in the tabernacle. As Joshua carries the torch of Moses and enters the Promised Land, God assures His presence [Joshua 1:5]. God promises His presence with Israelites kings [1 Kings 8:57]. And when Israel is cast int0 exile God promises His presence with His people [Isaiah 43:2; 41:10].
The culmination of the promise of God’s presence came when He was born as a babe with human skin and walked among His people. His name is Jesus. He is also known by the name, “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” [Matthew 1:23; John 14:9-10; Colossians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 7:14]. After Jesus rises from the dead He promises His presence with His followers [Matthew 28:20; Hebrew 13:5] and His Spirit dwells in His people [Acts 2:33; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19]. On the last day, when Jesus comes again, He promises to dwell with His people forever in the divine Promised Land of His eternal presence [Revelation 21:3].
The promise give to Jacob by God was fulfilled when God brings him back to Canaan, when God returns the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and when God returns the remnant from exile in Babylon, but promise is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ the Son of God. The ladder Jacob sees in his dream is a picture of God promise “to be with you.” God is not absent from His creation or His covenant people. He is intimately connected with His creation. The ladder represents His mediation between heaven and earth. Jesus even makes this correlation between the ladder and Himself [John 1:49-51]. Jesus is the mediator between heaven and earth—God and man [1 Timothy 2:5; John 14:6]. Jesus is the ladder; He is the connection between heaven and earth.
The purpose of Jacob’s strange ladder dream was to get his attention. Once God got his attention, He promised to be with Him always wherever he would go. That promise would ripple to His holy people [Israel] and also in the Scripture later to His church. The promise of God’s presence is one of the most precious and assuring promises of the Scripture. This promise is meant to be a source of comfort for all His followers. God knows that His people sometimes feel forsaken. However, remember as Jesus said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]