- Singing the Faith:461i (CD19 #11)
- Charles Wesley
- “Wrestling Jacob” by Samuel Sebastian Wesley
Ideas for use
Select verses as appropriate. Also see Hymns to build worship around.
This poem by Charles Wesley was first published in Hymns & Sacred Poems, 1742, in 14 stanzas of 6 lines, and entitled "Wrestling Jacob." Charles’s fellow hymn writer Isaac Watts said that this single poem was worth all the verses he himself had written.
It has been included in every Methodist hymn book since 1780, though invariably with stanzas 5 and 7 omitted, so producing the 12-stanza format published in Singing the Faith. The tune “Wrestling Jacob” was composed for the text by Charles Wesley’s grandson, S.S. Wesley.
“Come, O thou Traveller unknown” is an evangelical exposition of the incident in Genesis 32:24 – 32 in which Jacob wrestles with an angel. He refuses to submit, demanding to know the angel’s name. In the same way, suggests Wesley, the seeker after God persists until she or he discovers the name of the one being sought, which is “Love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Having established this, the hymn offers a series of reflections on the consequences of that truth, blending the original story with a wide range of allusions to Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament – but pushing each verse forward to an insistent restatement of the fundamental message: “thy nature and they name is Love” (vv.7 – 14).
In his Dictionary of Hymnology (1907), John Julian notes the poem’s greatness but says that its unsuitability for singing by a congregation is seen in the fact that it is seldom found in any hymn book, except those of the Methodist denominations. Nevertheless, it may be sung – or it may be read and explored in worship as a powerful description of the way in which, if we acknowledge that our own physical and emotional strength is not sufficient on its own, we may live most fully by giving ourselves over to the love of God.
Verse by verse commentary. (Adapted from Companion to Hymns & Psalms, Methodist Publishing House 1988)
v.1 Establishes the story of Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:24)
v.2 Focuses on the part of the story (vv.28-29) in which the angel calls Jacob by his new name (“Israel”). In return, Jacob asks the angel's name. Wesley expresses this by quoting from the prophet Isaiah 43:1 (“I have called thee by your name”) and 49:16 (“See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands”). This last statement is linked in Wesley’s mind to the nail marks in the hands of the crucified Jesus – and this idea is taken up in…
vv.3&4 The speaker is now (to Christian ears) clearly addressing Jesus: “Art thou the Man that died for me?” Wesley combines John 19:5 (“Behold, the man”) with Romans 5: 6 – 8. The “new, unutterable name” (v.4) recalls the original name of God communicated to Moses (“I AM THAT I AM”, Exodus 3:14), but it is now a “new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). This name, we will learn eventually, is “Love” – but Wesley holds back this truth until verse 7.
vv. 5&6 Paradoxically, the wrestler is strong when he is weak (2 Corinthians 12:10) and “confident in self-despair”. The appeal to “instant prayer” (v.6) is a reference to Romans 12:12. It forces the wrestler’s opponent to speak and to confirm his suspicion, that the opponent’s name is Love.
v.7 The name “Love” is first whispered (perhaps an allusion to the “still, small voice” of God in 1 Kings 19:13). “The morning breaks, the shadows flee” and the seeker is convinced by his vision of “pure, universal love”.
v.8 Now it is the grace that the seeker has received that is unspeakable (2 Corinthians 9:13 - 15). The seeker, like Jacob, can’t quite believe that he has experienced God’s love “face to face” and yet still lives. (References here to 1 Corinthians 13:12 and Deuteronomy 5:24).
v.9 Jesus is named explicitly for the first time and described as “the feeble sinner’s friend” (Matthew 11:19). He is urged to stay (as he was by the two disciples at Emmaus, Luke 24:29). His “mercies never shall remove” (Psalm 100:5) since (once again) “thy nature and thy name is love”.
v.10 Having evoked Jesus, the friend of sinners, and as the post-resurrection friend of the two disciples at Emmaus, Wesley now describes the risen Christ more fully as the “Sun of Righteousness” who is “risen with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2) - a phrase familiar from Wesley's Christmas hymn, Hark! the herald-angels sing. Paradoxically, the speaker finds his natural strength withered but that power has been given to his soul, whose help (line 5) is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 124:8) and whose treasure is “laid up above” (Matthew 6:20).
v.11 The hymn returns us to the original story of Jacob, who wakes from his dream to find himself limping from injuries sustained in the night’s wrestling match. Yet, the wrestler is now contented, although weak and helpless (cf. Hebrew 11:32 - 34), because he is depending only on Jesus Christ for strength (Colossians 1:11).
v.12 The final verse begins with a reference to Isaiah 33:23, where even the lame take their prey, and continues (line 3) with Isaiah 35:6: “Then the lame shall leap like a hart” (or "deer" in modern translations), which leads the seeker to describe himself as a “bounding hart”. Instead of thirsting for God (Psalm 42:1 - 2) the hart “flies home”. Its final resting place “through all eternity” is in triumphant unity with Christ.