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 (Manna 74: Standing Firm)
Jacob's Pillars
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Jacob’s Pillars

Based on a sermon by Rong-Yu Ho—Singapore

In his life, Jacob erected a pillar on three occasions. These were built at different places—Bethel, Mizpah, and a place close to Bethlehem. These pillars not only commemorated God’s grace but critically symbolized new beginnings for Jacob. Jacob erected the first pillar as a runaway from home, the second as an exile who desired to go home, and the third as a new widower. These three accounts show us the progression of Jacob’s life, providing invaluable teachings for our journey of faith.


Jacob left home because of the favoritism practiced by his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac favored Esau, Jacob’s elder brother, while Rebekah favored Jacob. This led to a struggle for inheritance between Jacob and Esau. First, Jacob traded red stew for his brother’s birthright. Later, when Isaac wanted to bless Esau, Rebekah tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. Thus Isaac and Rebekah’s biased love for their respective favorites resulted in the tussle between the brothers.

In the end, both Jacob and Esau suffered. Esau, angered from missing out on his father’s blessing, resolved to kill Jacob. To save Jacob, Rebekah got Jacob to leave until Esau’s anger had subsided. In any case, Isaac also wanted Jacob to leave so that the latter could get a wife from Rebekah’s home.

Hence, Jacob left home and arrived at Bethel where he decided to stay for a night. On that night, God appeared to Jacob; he saw a ladder upon which God’s messengers ascended and descended. God, who was beside the ladder, blessed and promised Jacob:

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you. (Gen 28:15)

When Jacob awoke, he was in awe: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). This was such a new and deep experience of faith for Jacob that he took the stone that he had slept on, and erected a pillar. He then poured oil on the pillar, consecrated it, and named it Bethel—“the house of God.” He vowed then:

If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.

(Gen 28:20–22)

It is not difficult to see why Jacob was awestruck by this tremendous experience. He had been brought up to fear the Lord God. But in the comfort of home, God was just some vague presence. Now he was a scared fugitive needing assurance. And God gave this to him in a spectacular fashion. So God was not only at home, God was with him in this place! Immediately, the God of his father became a much more personal God.

This pillar of Bethel was a pillar of faith. Not only did it mark the beginning of Jacob’s experience of God, it would go on to be the symbol of his lifelong engagement with the Creator. Later in his life, whenever Jacob faced difficulties, God would remind him of this pillar that he had erected in Bethel.

Subsequently, Jacob stayed with his uncle, Laban, for twenty years. In time, Jacob realized that Laban had become less well-disposed towards him. God then told Jacob to leave (Gen 31:1–3). But when Jacob was about to go home, his daughter Dinah was violated by Shechem, a Hivite prince (Gen 34). Two of Jacob’s sons, angered by the violation of their sister, sought to avenge her by killing all the males of that city. This put Jacob’s entire family in danger because the native Canaanites and Perizzites then sought revenge. At this critical moment, God appeared.

Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother. (Gen 35:1)

Once again, when Jacob had come to the seeming end of his tether, God was there. God reminded him of the pillar in Bethel, even introducing Himself as the God of Bethel to remind Jacob of his experience there. For Jacob, this pillar of Bethel had remained with him throughout his life. In his twilight years, Jacob recounted to his son Joseph how the God whom he met at Luz had always abided with him.

The pillar that Jacob erected at Bethel was thus his pillar of faith, a pillar that cannot be taken away and a pillar that supported Jacob throughout his life, enabling him to worship God. It is also important for us to have such a pillar of faith, a pillar that represents our first belief, our true belief. It would be a pillar that represents our beginning and shall also be our end. When we face an impasse in life, we need to think of this pillar and remember that tests in faith are temporary. Recall how we first came to believe and take comfort that the pillar of faith we have erected will follow us throughout our lives.

Importantly, even as the pillar abides with us, we must abide with the pillar for life. This means holding on to our first belief and first love to the end. We must remember how we first resolved to serve Christ and maintain this zeal. Only then can we have a part in Christ.

For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. (Heb 3:14)


After twenty years at his uncle Laban’s place, Jacob knew it was time for him and his family to leave. However, he did not inform Laban of their departure. When Laban found out, he immediately pursued them. After catching up with his son-in-law, Laban virtually accused Jacob of kidnap and theft (Gen 31:26,30). Determined to prove his innocence, Jacob allowed Laban to search through all his possessions. Although Rachel, Jacob’s wife, had indeed stolen the household idols, her father Laban did not find these.

Feeling the injustice of having been unfairly accused, Jacob lost his temper. A frustration that had been suppressed for twenty years boiled over:

What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? … These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. … In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes.

(Gen 31:36–40)

Jacob was not some pampered rich scion who had found the work of shepherding too difficult. But Laban, his own uncle, has exploited him beyond reason. He was given little opportunity for physical rest or peace of mind. Laban even tricked him into serving fourteen years to marry the woman he loved, and another six years for Laban’s flock. In the process, Laban changed Jacob’s wages many times.

As everything Jacob said was true, Laban could only lamely reply, “These daughters are my daughters …” (Gen 31:43). To make partial amends, Laban then made a covenant with Jacob. To ratify the covenant, Jacob took a stone and set it up to as a pillar. Laban called it, “Jegar Sahadutha,” which means “heap of witness.” Laban wanted to ensure that his daughters and grandchildren were safe, and instructed Jacob to be faithful to his wives (Gen 31:50). Laban also did not want any more fights between them and so suggested that the pillar be used to demarcate their respective territories (Gen 31:52). In other words, this pillar separated Jacob and Laban; Jacob could now truly set up his own household. He would no longer be a worker or a sojourner under Laban.

Furthermore, the place was to be called “Mizpah,” meaning “watch” and “the Lord be our witness.”

May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. (Gen 31:49)

To Jacob, the pillar went beyond just delineating territory; it was the marker of separation between success and failure. As Laban himself confessed, he could have harmed Jacob. Had God not intervened to protect Jacob, Laban would have taken away all that Jacob had (Gen 31:29). Jacob understood that his well-being was the direct result of God’s preservation (Gen 31:42). If God had not appeared to Laban, he would have been left with nothing.

Hence, Jacob’s success really lay in the type of pillar that he erected between Laban and himself, as revealed in its name. Success and failure were equally likely outcomes. Had Jacob not looked toward God as his witness, he may have been deprived of everything he had gained; he would return home empty-handed.

God’s care of Jacob was in fulfillment of His promise to Jacob. At Bethel, God had told Jacob that He would be with him. So when Jacob was treated unfairly by Laban, God won back Jacob’s portion for him. Without God’s help, Jacob would have left Laban’s place as a failure.

The pillar that Jacob erected at Mizpah thus represented God’s watch and God’s judgment. God helped Jacob and was with him because he was the special chosen one of God (Isa 41:8,12–13). Today, God is also watching over and watching out for us, the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Even though we may face much injustice in life, all things are fair at Mizpah; we can find God’s judgment there. Even if we suffer loss, God will compensate us.

Knowing this, we must thus redefine “success” in life. Success is not about enjoying material blessings or wealth. A much more important possession is God’s presence, for if God does not abide with us, we can lose everything in a moment. Jacob knew very clearly that had it not been for God, he would have been a failure. We too must share this realization—only with God’s perpetual presence can our life be a true success.

Jacob’s name means “grasp” and in the first part of his life, Jacob plotted, deceived, and grasped to get what he wanted. But he lost whatever he gained. Only what God gave him became what he truly owned. We should not just use our two hands to grasp secular possessions, thinking that these are the absolute measures of success. Instead, we must remember the pillar at Mizpah and its precious lesson that true success can only be achieved if God is with us.


The final pillar was at Bethlehem. This pillar marked a sad period in Jacob’s life, as his beloved wife left before him. Jacob set a pillar on Rachel’s grave to remember the place where she died. He was bothered by the fact that he could not bury his wife properly. Two other people close to Jacob also died—Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (Gen 35:8), and Isaac, Jacob’s father (Gen 35:29). In fact, his other wife, Leah, had died earlier. To Jacob, all these were major sources of pain; hence, the grave and the pillar were his way of remembering.

All of us have experienced such moments of intense grief. But this is part of life—there is a time to weep and a time to laugh (Eccl 3:4). There are happy times but also sad times. We enjoy the sense of accomplishment from work and family, but we are sad when our loved ones leave before us. There is also a time to be born and a time to die (Eccl 3:2). We will not be on this earth forever. No matter how high we have flown in our careers and how much we own, in the end all we get is a “pillar”; the tombstone and a memorial for our relatives to remember that we had once been alive. But as a generation comes and another goes, would we even be remembered three or more generations on?

What is thus of the greatest importance is not how busy we are when we are alive, but what we have been busy over. For whom do we labor? If we do not labor for Jesus, then the tombstone we get at the end will not be worth much. Conversely, if we labor for Jesus, our death will be meaningful.
For what and for whom do we labor—these are key questions for our constant reflection; equally important, these are opportunities that we need to seize before we die.


Leaving home, returning from exile, and death—these were the significant moments marked by three pillars in the life of Jacob. At the end, what mattered most was the pillar of faith, i.e., the presence of God in Jacob’s life from the beginning to the end.

We too may have many milestones in our journey of life and faith. Most critically, we must all strive to have the pillar of God in our lives. Only then can we see the face of God.

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Author: Rong-Yu Ho