Jacob and his retinue having safely arrived at Beth-el, we are here told what passed there.
I. There he built an altar (Gen. 35:7), and no doubt offered sacrifice upon it, perhaps the tenth of his cattle, according to his vow, I will give the tenth unto thee. With these sacrifices he joined praises for former mercies, particularly that which the sight of the place brought afresh to his remembrance; and he added prayers for the continuance of God’s favour to him and his family. And he called the place (that is, the altar) El-beth-el, the God of Bethel. As, when he made a thankful acknowledgment of the honour God had lately done him in calling him Israel, he worshipped God by the name of El-elohe Israel; so, now that he was making a grateful recognition of God’s former favour to him at Bethel, he worships God by the name of El-beth-el, the God of Beth-el, because there God appeared to him. Note, The comfort which the saints have in holy ordinances is not so much from Bethel, the house of God, as from El-beth-el, the God of the house. The ordinances are but empty things if we do not meet with God in them.
II. There he buried Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, Gen. 35:8. We have reason to think that Jacob, after he came to Canaan, while his family dwelt near Shechem, went himself (it is likely, often) to visit his father Isaac at Hebron. Rebekah probably was dead, but her old nurse (of whom mention is made Gen. 24:59) survived her, and Jacob took her to his family, to be a companion to his wives, her country-women, and an instructor to his children; while they were at Bethel, she died, and died lamented, so much lamented that the oak under which she was buried was called Allon-bachuth, the oak of weeping. Note, 1. Old servants in a family, that have in their time been faithful and useful, ought to be respected. Honour was done to this nurse, at her death, by Jacob’s family, though she was not related to them, and though she was aged. Former services, in such a case, must be remembered. 2. We do not know where death may meet us; perhaps at Beth-el, the house of God. Therefore let us be always ready. 3. Family-afflictions may come even when family-reformation and religion are on foot. Therefore rejoice with trembling.
III. There God appeared to him (Gen. 35:9), to own his altar, to answer to the name by which he had called him, The God of Beth-el (Gen. 35:7), and to comfort him under his affliction, Gen. 35:8. Note, God will appear to those in a way of grace that attend on him in a way of duty. Here, 1. He confirmed the change of his name, Gen. 35:10. It was done before by the angel that wrestled with him (Gen. 32:28), and here it was ratified by the divine Majesty, or Shechinah, that appeared to him. There it was to encourage him against the fear of Esau, here against the fear of the Canaanites. Who can be too hard for Israel, a prince with God? It is below those who are thus dignified to droop and despond. 2. He renewed and ratified the covenant with him, by the name El-shaddai. I am God Almighty, God all-sufficient (Gen. 35:11), able to make good the promise in due time, and to support thee and provide for thee in the mean time. Two things are promised him which we have met with often before:—(1.) That he should be the father of a great nation, great in number—a company of nations shall be of thee (every tribe of Israel was a nation, and all the twelve a company of nations), great in honour and power—kings shall come out of thy loins. (2.) That he should be the master of a good land (Gen. 35:12), described by the grantees, Abraham and Isaac, to whom it was promised, not by the occupants, the Canaanites in whose possession it now was. The land that was given to Abraham and Isaac is here entailed on Jacob and his seed. He shall not have children without an estate, which is often the case of the poor, nor an estate without children, which is often the grief of the rich; but both. These two promises had a spiritual signification, of which we may suppose Jacob himself had some notion, though not so clear and distinct as we now have; for, without doubt, Christ is the promised seed, and heaven is the promised land; the former is the foundation, and the latter the top-stone, of all God’s favours. 3. He then went up from him, or from over him, in some visible display of glory, which had hovered over him while he talked with him, Gen. 35:13. Note, The sweetest communions the saints have with God in this world are short and transient, and soon have an end. Our vision of God in heaven will be everlasting; there we shall be ever with the Lord; it is not so here.
IV. There Jacob erected a memorial of this, Gen. 35:14. 1. He set up a pillar. When he was going to Padan-aram, he set up for a pillar that stone on which he had laid his head. This was agreeable enough to his low condition and his hasty flight; but now he took time to erect one more stately, more distinguishable and durable, probably placing that stone in it. In token of his intending it for a sacred memorial of his communion with God, he poured oil and the other ingredients of a drink-offering upon it. His vow was, This stone shall be God’s house, that is, shall be set up for his honour, as houses to the praise of their builders; and here he performs it, transferring it to God by anointing it. 2. He confirmed the name he had formerly given to the place (Gen. 35:15), Beth-el, the house of God. Yet this very place afterwards lost the honour of its name, and became Beth-aven, a house of iniquity; for here it was that Jeroboam set up one of his calves. It is impossible for the best man to entail upon a place so much as the profession and form of religion.