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Set Your Eyes on the Mercy of God | Genesis 33:18-37:1

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

1) The Lord is merciful to his people when they are slow.

2) The Lord is merciful to his people when they are sinful.

3) The Lord is merciful to sustain his people.

Set Your Eyes on God’s Mercy

Genesis 33:18-37:1

December 31, 2023

When it comes to God’s mercy, do you find it shocking or do you expect it? There is a helpful story that can frame this question for me from Luke 7:36-50. In that passage, a pharisee named Simon invites Jesus over for a meal. After he is there, a woman of ill-repute enters and begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and her tears, then wiping his feet with her hair while she also kisses his feet. Simon, the host, is scandalized and thinks less of Jesus for this event. After all, Simon thinks, if Jesus was a prophet he would know how sinful she was and would not let her touch him.

Jesus, perceiving Simon’s thoughts, tells him a story about two debtors. One owed a money lender 500 days of wages and the other owed him 50 days worth of wages. The money lender, though, forgave both debts. “Who,” Jesus asked Simon,” would love the money lender more?” Simon correctly answers that the one who was forgiven more would have greater affection for the money lender. “You’ve answered correctly,” said Jesus. Then he looked at the woman and pointed out to Simon that while he had failed to supply Jesus water to wash his feet, to greet him with a kiss, and to offer anointing oil for his head, the woman had gone above and beyond in supplying these things. Why did she do this? Because she had been forgiven much.

The takeaway from this story isn’t that Simon didn’t need as much forgiveness as the woman did. The reality is that they both needed forgiveness, she just realized her debt and Simon did not. Thus, Simon, who thought he was well, did not seek out the help of the great physician while the woman did. 

One of the key differences between the woman and Simon was not their sin but where they were looking. The woman stared at Jesus, perceived her sin, and rushed to her merciful Savior. Simon stared at the woman, perceived her sin, and rushed to judgment of Jesus for not noticing how sinful she was. 

In hearing that story, to whom do you find it easier to relate? Are you someone clearly in need of a Savior? Or are you clean enough to lull yourself into a false sense of righteousness? 

Over the last few chapters in Genesis, we’ve looked at how salvation comes by God’s mercy and not man’s efforts or scheming. When we are thinking rightly, we rejoice in the fact that salvation comes apart from our own works and depends completely on God’s mercy. 

But we aren’t always working rightly. Sometimes, the idea of salvation by grace alone can make us recoil a bit. Why? Because it diminishes us even as it exalts God. 

One question alone can show us if we are thinking rightly about God, ourselves, and salvation:

Do you deserve hell? 

When we aren’t well, we recoil at saying “yes.” You might say it because you know theologically it is the right answer. But do you really think that you are that bad? Do you recoil at the thought that all people deserve hell? That sin is so horrible, and you are so sinful, that in order to have eternal life and to escape the wrath of God, the perfect Son of God had to die as your substitute? 

If you do, that is a clear indication that you, like Simon, have your eyes on others and compare yourself to those who are “worse” sinners than you. If such thinking continues, then the gospel goes from beautiful to offensive. Because, if you think your debt is small, you won’t love the one who forgives it. 

Genesis 33:18-37:1 is meant to lead us to marvel at God’s mercy toward his chosen people. What is reiterated in these chapters again and again is how wicked God’s people are and how merciful and gracious God is to them. Let’s dive in to see how. 

Point 1: The Lord is merciful to his people when they are slow

Genesis 33:18 picks up where we left off last time. Jacob had just returned to Canaan, the place he had fled 20 years before because his brother Esau threatened to kill him after he cheated him out of Isaac’s blessing. Upon this threat, Jacob fled, with his parent’s approval, to the homeland of his mother Rebekah in order to gain a wife. Before leaving the land, God appears to him in a dream and promises to give him the blessings of Abraham—land, descendants, prosperity, and protection. Jacob responds by saying, “We’ll see. But if you do this, then I will certainly serve you.” Not exactly a humble answer. While outside of the land, the Lord humbles Jacob over that 20 year period and changes him. He experiences God’s protection and deliverance, not only from Laban but also from Esau.

I share all of this again because verse 18 highlights the fact that God kept his promises to Jacob in Genesis 28:15 where he said to him, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you whenever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 

And verse 18 says, “And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan….” In other words, God kept his promise. And this promise keeping inspires further trust from Jacob. In verses 19-20, we see that he bought land, a clear sign that he believes God is going to give him this as an inheritance because he now wants to plant roots. Likewise, he erected an altar and called “God, the God of Israel,” clearly giving credit to God for his protection and deliverance. 

The Significance of the Altar

The altar that Jacob builds is significant not just as a sign of his trust of God. It’s location is also significant. When God called Abram to leave Ur, he trusted God and went to the land of promise. Upon entering the land, God promised to give the land to him and in response, Abram built an altar, expressing his faith that God would indeed keep his promise. Where was that altar? Genesis 12:6-7 tells us that when Abram first entered the land “he passed through the land of Shechem…he built there an altar to the LORD.” 

This is quite the similarity. But there is also a major difference between Abraham and Jacob. Abraham, when called by God, believed him and built an altar. Later, in Genesis 28, when God appeared to Jacob and relayed the same promises, Jacob’s response was, “We’ll see, God. But if you do what you say, I promise I’ll give you something nice in return: my service and tithes!” 

Abraham believed, Jacob bargained. 

Yet God was merciful and provided for them both because his mercy and kindness is never deserved or earned. Jacob has ended up in the same place as Abraham, albeit after 20 years of hard knocks, by God’s mercy. 

It’s Not the Journey, It’s the Destination

Have you ever heard the expression, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” That may be true of long car trips, but it isn't about life. Your eternal destiny—that is, your eternal destination— is very significant. What these verses relate to us is the exact opposite of that nice colloquialism: it doesn’t matter how hard your journey, just get to the right place. Jacob, by God’s mercy, has made it to the right place of trust and worship. In many ways, he is not like Abraham, but he still ends up like Abraham. Why? Because God is merciful to humble him and bring him to this place. 

This is a reality that can be offensive or relieving. Like the parable of the workers in the vineyard, if you think God is unfair to give to those who stumble more than you, then you are going to have a hard time swallowing how merciful God is. 

Here is a good test for you: do you think God owes you something? Do you think that God owes you because you’ve been obedient? You should have the bigger house, the bigger salary, the kinder husband, the more agreeable wife, more respect, less work, and on and on? 

Don’t you realize that every breath you take is a gift of God’s absolute mercy? Do you not know that, as John Bunyan wrote, “there is enough sin in my best prayer to send the whole world to hell?” 

But if this reality of mercy is not offensive, let it be relieving. Maybe you cannot help but feel your sin keenly every moment and you feel absolutely undeserving. Friend, let me assure you, Jesus says “welcome” to you. By faith in Christ, you come into God’s Kingdom not as a second class citizen but a son. You really can come in. You really are welcome, even if you are struggling and walking slowly on this path of faith.

But, you say, what if I sin? That's a good question, and it is what we see addressed next in this passage. 

Point 2: The Lord is merciful to his people when they are sinful

Chapter 34 is painful. It is a passage on rape, fear, anger, deceit, murder, and chaos. There are no heroes in this chapter. Let me rehearse for you the events and what it all means. 

The Trouble Begins

First, we must understand the situation. After settling near Shechem, Dinah, the daughter of Leah, went out to visit with the girls of the land. While out, she was sized by Hamor, the prince of the land, and he lay with her and humiliated her. But after this, he decided he was quite fond of her, so he spoke to his father and demanded that he get Dinah for his wife. 

Varying Reactions to Sin: Fear, Anger, Appeasement

After this, we see varying reactions to sin. Upon hearing what happened to Dinah, Jacob held his peace because his sons were out working. What could he do? The people against him are more numerous than he is. He desperately does not want to rock the boat because he has a lot of people he needs to protect. His fear makes sense, but it should be measured by God’s promise to protect him. Here, it isn’t.

When his sons returned, they were infuriated. And can you blame them? They value their sister, and this is good. But their anger needs to remained checked by God’s decree and God’s ways. As we will see, it is not.

Hamor, for his part, came and played the card of appeasement. He didn’t want any fighting, all he wanted was peace between the people. So here was an opportunity: let this marriage happen and it will open the door to other marriages, commerce, and peace. Instead of confessing wrong, he tries to turn it to his advantage. 

The Resolution

How is this all resolved? Jacob’s sons take initiative in a way that reminds us of Jacob. They deceive Hamor and Shechem by telling them exactly what they want to hear by saying that they do desire to be one people, but in order to be one people they must receive the covenant sign of circumcision. This is a wicked used of God’s covenant sign. What was meant to mark faith in God is now used by the brothers to take advantage of the Shechemites. As we will see, this is not an evangelistic move on their part. 

Hamor and his lot hear this and think, “Jackpot. These people are rich, all we have to do is be circumcised, and then we will become one people.” As he tries to sell this to all his people, he clearly has commercial gain in sight as he says in verse 23, “Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” 

So they do the deed and, after the soreness sets in at three days, Simeon and Levi, most likely leading others, go through and kill all the Shechemites and plunder all they have. 

How Should We Understand This?

What are we to make of this? These are the patriarchs of the 12 tribes, God’s chosen people, and they used the covenant sign as a tool to weaken and destroy a whole community. Not only that, they used it to take vengeance on Hamor by killing all of his people. That this is wrong is clear from Jacob’s immediate reaction in verse 30 and Jacob’s final words over Simeon and Levi in Genesis 49:5-7, cursing their anger and dividing them in Israel. 

Yet, they are not destroyed. They are preserved by the Lord. Why? Because they were better than the Shechemites? No, in this story they come out looking worse because they slaughter a whole people because of one man’s sin. They are preserved not because they are better but because God is merciful. 

Some people think that Christians believe they won’t go to hell because they aren’t as bad as others. If that is what you think, then you are wrong. Christians don’t escape hell because they don’t deserve it; they only escape hell because Jesus bore what they deserve.

Jacob and his sons are preserved from judgment because God spares them. Why? Because, as Romans 3:25-26 states, in his divine forbearance, God passed over former sins. This passing over didn’t excuse the sin, but looked ahead to the one who would bear the penalty of it, namely Jesus Christ. 

What this means for you

Listen carefully: you don’t receive mercy because you deserve it. By definition, you cannot earn mercy. It is the gift of God. Thus, no one can brag saying that he has earned God’s mercy and kindness. You cannot be like the pharisee in Luke 18 that thanks God for how good he is: that he fasts, gives to the poor, prays, and isn’t evil like other sinners. You must become like the tax collector who beats his breast and says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We do not and cannot command God to be merciful. All we can do is plea with God to be merciful. 

Your soul is sick if you think you deserve mercy. Yet, you need to remember that God loves to be merciful because he loves to be himself. This means that you can call out to God for mercy and he delights to be merciful. Have you trusted in Christ for a long time? Call out for mercy. Have you jumped headlong into sin and spent years running from Christ? Call out for mercy. 

He delights to be merciful because he delights to be himself. 

Don’t say its too late. You can start even now. What would that look like? It’s what we see next in the passage. 

Point 3: The Lord is merciful to sustain his people

At the end of chapter 34, Jacob and his family are in a sinful mess. What are they to do? Jacob, rightly, fears reprisals from the people around him. In his anxiety, the only thing that can relieve him is the sustaining power and mercy of God. This he receives. 

God Calls, Speaks, and Provides

In chapters 35-36, we see that God calls to Jacob, speaks to him, and provides for him. And when God calls, Jacob responds; when God speaks, Jacob believes, and when God provides, Jacob receives. Let me walk through each of these things.

First, God calls and Jacob responds. In this moment of anxiety and real danger, Genesis 35:1 provides the answer, “God said to Jacob, “arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” In this call, God is reminding Jacob of how he has protected him for the past 20 years. He can still trust God to do it now. 

In response, we see in verses 2-3 that Jacob immediately obeys and calls his household to put away the foreign gods, purify themselves, and change clothes. This is, in other words, a call for them to confess sin, forsake sin, and to put on new ways. It is repentance. He is leading them all in putting away the corrupting influence of idolatry that, it would seem, Rachel had kept with them from the land of Nahor. Likewise, by calling them to purity themselves, he is acknowledging that they are in a state of uncleanness because of their sin. Putting on new clothes is a symbol of walking in new ways as they put off idolatry and move away from sin. Their idols are then buried in the ground, dead to them. Then, as Jacob travels, the Lord puts a terror over all of the people so that they do not pursue or attack Jacob (35:5), thus protecting Jacob in his obedience to go. 

God is merciful to make this call to Jacob and it is his means of sustaining his people. When you belong to Christ by faith, when you are his, he will not cast you out because of your sin, but he will cast out your sin. If you belong to Christ and you sin, don’t turn around and say, “God won’t have me now.” That isn’t true. He will have you, he just won’t let you keep your sin. In love, he will discipline you. In love, he will convict you. In love, he may even humiliate you. Just as I would not gently tolerate my child to play with poison, he will not gently tolerate his child to play with sin. 

Are you anxious and troubled because of sin? Listen to God and put it away. Bury it in the ground. Put off the old and put on the new. He is merciful to call you to this and strengthen you for it. Do it today.

Second, God speaks and Jacob believes. After arriving at Bethel, Jacob builds an altar to the Lord and then, in verse 9, the Lord appears before him and tells him things that he has already told Jacob before: his name shall be Israel and not Jacob, he is to be fruitful and multiply, nations and kings will come form him, and the land will be given to him and his offspring. 

Why would God appear to him and merely tell him what he has already told him? Similar to events like this with Abraham, God reiterates to confirm his promise. God did this to Abraham in Genesis 17 after Abraham and Sarah tried to bring about the promise by their own human effort. In that way, like now, confirming the promise is a comfort in light of failure and sin. 

Put differently, this confirmation tells Jacob that he hasn’t blown the promise of God with his fear and his sons anger. 

Isn’t that incredible? When you are God’s, his faithfulness is greater than your faithlessness. His grace is greater than your sin; his power dwarves your weakness; and his love makes up for your fickle heart. 

Jacob hears nothing new and he doesn’t actually need to hear anything new. In the same way, Christian, when you sin, you do not need to hear anything new. In fact, you really need to hear the gospel again and have it said by God to you, “You’re still mine.” It is no insult for us to repeat the gospel to each other again and again. If you feel insulted, then you need to hear it even more. 

Do you believe what God says about you? When you sin, does it seem hard to believe? Listen to these promises and dwell on them a moment. In fact, I want you to try to hear them anew.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:2-3, 10-13)

Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37)

“Therefore, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). 

“The saying is trustworthy, for: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:11-13). 

It is believing what God says to us that we are able to endure. Are you listening to what God says about you? Are you soaking it in? You will believe and think about what you hear, so what are you listening to?

Third, God provides and Jacob receives. God promised Jacob descendants and land. In the rest of chapter 35 and 36, Jacob sees God’s provision of these promises in seed form and is able to receive them. This occurs in the birth of his 12th son, which leads into the naming of his 12 sons in verses 22-26. The promise of descendants is clearly taking shape. Likewise, we read in 35:27-29 about the death of Isaac. At his death, Esau and Jacob bury Isaac in the hope of the resurrection. Then, chapter 36 gives the descendants of Esau. This chapter serves as an epilogue to the story of Esau as he now exits the narrative. This is significant because, at the death of Isaac, Esau is clearly depicted as exited the land of Canaan and leaving it completely to Jacob as an inheritance. Jacob alone stands in the place of Isaac and Abraham, receiving from God this provision of the blessing and covenant promise, as Genesis 37:1 makes clear in contrast to Esau. 

But even receiving these things is not without pain and trial. In the birth of Benjamin, his 12th son, Rachel dies. Likewise, Rueben, his first born, lay with Bilhah. In the midst of God’s provision, there is still death and sin. Yet, Jacob can endure because his eyes are looking toward God’s promise and walking in faith toward that promise. 

Doesn’t that just speak directly to us? We each await the promise of the new heavens and the new earth, but even now we also await and experience Jesus’ promise to build his church. As God provided the 12 patriarchs to form the people of God, he now provides the growth of the church. As Rueben sinned, we see the growth of the church also comes with the presence of sin. 

Like Jacob, we experience God’s provision through the church even as we still see sin and death around us. So, like Jacob, we must keep our eyes on God’s provision in the midst of these things but listening to his voice and believing what he says. 

Set Your Eyes on Christ

Where are you looking? How appropriate for us to conclude today by coming tot he Lord’s table. As we take the bread and the cup this morning, we are turning our eyes to Christ. He is the sure promise of God who answers “yes” to all of God’s promises. Our greatest need, which is forgiveness and deliverance from sin, is provided to us in Christ. As we take the Lord’s supper together, we receive him anew. If you are not trusting in Christ this morning, I plead with you to receive him. Do not delay another day. Listen to his voice, believe what he says, and receive all that he provides for you in Christ: forgiveness, renewal, and life everlasting. 


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