God manifested himself and his favour to Jacob when he was asleep and purely passive; for the spirit, like the wind, blows when and where he listeth, and God’s grace, like the dew, tarrieth not for the sons of men, Mic. 5:7. But Jacob applied himself to the improvement of the visit God had made him when he was awake; and we may well think he awaked, as the prophet did (Jer. 31:26), and behold his sleep was sweet to him. Here is much of Jacob’s devotion on this occasion.
I. He expressed a great surprise at the tokens he had of God’s special presence with him in that place: Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not, Gen. 28:16. Note, 1. God’s manifestations of himself to his people carry their own evidence along with them. God can give undeniable demonstrations of his presence, such as give abundant satisfaction to the souls of the faithful that God is with them of a truth, satisfaction not communicable to others, but convincing to themselves. 2. We sometimes meet with God where we little thought of meeting with him. He is where we did not think he had been, is found where we asked not for him. No place excludes divine visits (Gen. 16:13; here also); wherever we are, in the city or in the desert, in the house or in the field, in the shop or in the street, we may keep up our intercourse with Heaven if it be not our own fault.
II. It struck an awe upon him (Gen. 28:17): He was afraid; so far was he from being puffed up, and exalted above measure, with the abundance of the revelations (2 Cor. 12:7), that he was afraid. Note, The more we see of God the more cause we see for holy trembling and blushing before him. Those to whom God is pleased to manifest himself are thereby laid, and kept, very low in their own eyes, and see cause to fear even the Lord and his goodness, Hos. 3:5. He said, How dreadful is this place! that is, “The appearance of God in this place is never to be thought of, but with a holy awe and reverence. I shall have a respect for this place, and remember it by this token, as long as I live:” not that he thought the place itself any nearer the divine visions than other places; but what he saw there at this time was, as it were, the house of God, the residence of the divine Majesty, and the gate of heaven, that is, the general rendezvous of the inhabitants of the upper world, as the meetings of a city were in their gates; or the angels ascending and descending were like travellers passing and re-passing through the gates of a city. Note, 1. God is in a special manner present where his grace is revealed and where his covenants are published and sealed, as of old by the ministry of angels, so now by instituted ordinances, Matt. 28:20. 2. Where God meets us with his special presence we ought to meet him with the most humble reverence, remembering his justice and holiness, and our own meanness and vileness.
III. He took care to preserve the memorial of it two ways: 1. He set up the stone for a pillar (Gen. 28:18); not as if he thought the visions of his head were any way owing to the stone on which it lay, but thus he would mark the place against he came back, and erect a lasting monument of God’s favour to him, and because he had not time now to build an altar here, as Abraham did in the places where God appeared to him, Gen. 12:7. He therefore poured oil on the top of this stone, which probably was the ceremony then used in dedicating their alt 1a67 ars, as an earnest of his building an altar when he should have conveniences for it, as afterwards he did, in gratitude to God for this vision, Gen. 35:7. Note, Grants of mercy call for returns of duty, and the sweet communion we have with God ought ever to be remembered. 2. He gave a new name to the place, Gen. 28:19. It had been called Luz, an almond-tree; but he will have it henceforward called Beth-el, the house of God. This gracious appearance of God to him put a greater honour upon it, and made it more remarkable, than all the almond-trees that flourished there. This is that Beth-el where, long after, it is said, God found Jacob, and there (in what he said to him) he spoke with us, Hos. 12:4. In process of time, this Beth-el, the house of God, became Beth-aven, a house of vanity and iniquity, when Jeroboam set up one of his calves there.
IV. He made a solemn vow upon this occasion, Gen. 28:20-22. By religious vows we give glory to God, own our dependence upon him, and lay a bond upon our own souls to engage and quicken our obedience to him. Jacob was now in fear and distress; and it is seasonable to make vows in times of trouble, or when we are in pursuit of any special mercy, Jonah 1:16; Ps. 66:13, 14; 1 Sam. 1:11; Num. 21:1-3. Jacob had now had a gracious visit from heaven. God had renewed his covenant with him, and the covenant is mutual. When God ratifies his promises to us, it is proper for us to repeat our promises to him. Now in this vow observe, 1. Jacob’s faith. God had said (Gen. 28:15), I am with thee, and will keep thee. Jacob takes hold of this, and infers, “Seeing God will be with me, and will keep me, as he hath said, and (which is implied in that promise) will provide comfortably for me,—and seeing he has promised to bring me again to this land, that is, to the house of my father, whom I hope to find alive at my return in peace” (so unlike was he to Esau who longed for the days of mourning for his father),—“I depend upon it.” Note, God’s promises are to be the guide and measure of our desires and expectations. 2. Jacob’s modesty and great moderation in his desires. He will cheerfully content himself with bread to eat, and raiment to put on; and, though God’s promise had now made him heir to a very great estate, yet he indents not for soft clothing and dainty meat. Agur’s wish is his, Feed me with food convenient for me; and see 1 Tim. 6:8. Nature is content with a little, and grace with less. Those that have most have, in effect, no more for themselves than food and raiment; of the overplus they have only either the keeping or the giving, not the enjoyment: if God give us more, we are bound to be thankful, and to use it for him; if he give us but this, we are bound to be content, and cheerfully to enjoy him in it. 3. Jacob’s piety, and his regard to God, which appear here, (1.) In what he desired, that God would be with him and keep him. Note, We need desire no more to make us easy and happy, wherever we are, than to have God’s presence with us and to be under his protection. It is comfortable, in a journey, to have a guide in an unknown way, a guard in a dangerous way, to be well carried, well provided for, and to have good company in any way; and those that have God with them have all this in the best manner. (2.) In what he designed. His resolution is, [1.] In general, to cleave to the Lord, as his God in covenant: Then shall the Lord be my God. Not as if he would disown him and cast him off if he should want food and raiment; no, though he slay us, we must cleave to him; but “then I will rejoice in him as my God; then I will more strongly engage myself to abide with him.” Note, Every mercy we receive from God should be improved as an additional obligation upon us to walk closely with him as our God. [2.] In particular, that he would perform some special acts of devotion, in token of his gratitude. First, “This pillar shall keep possession here till I come back in peace, and then it shall be God’s house,” that is, “an altar shall be erected here to the honour of God.” Secondly, “The house of god shall not be unfurnished, nor his altar without a sacrifice: Of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee, to be spent either upon God’s altars or upon his poor,” both which are his receivers in the world. Probably it was according to some general instructions received from heaven that Abraham and Jacob offered the tenth of their acquisitions to God. Note, 1. God must be honoured with our estates, and must have his dues out of them. When we receive more than ordinary mercy from God we should study to give some signal instances of gratitude to him. 2. The tenth is a very fit proportion to be devoted to God and employed for him, though, as circumstances vary, it may be more or less, as God prospers us, 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7.