The Four Pillars of Jacob
by Harry Foster

Chapter 2
The Pillar of Separation

"So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. Then Jacob said to his brethren, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there on the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore its name was called Galeed, also Mizpah, because he said, “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take other wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us—see, God is witness between you and me!” Then Laban said to Jacob, “Here is this heap and here is this pillar, which I have placed between you and me. This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of their father judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his brethren to eat bread. And they ate bread and stayed all night on the mountain. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place. So Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is God’s camp.” And he called the name of that place Mahanaim." (Gen. 31:45-32:2).

This is the second of the four pillars set up by Jacob as spiritual landmarks in his life and experience. It would appear that in this transaction there were both a heap of stones and a pillar, the former being made by Laban while it was Jacob who set up a stone for a pillar. This is the pillar of separation - "Mizpah."

In certain circles and in an age more sentimental than our own, people employed the word "Mizpah" to speak of the watchfulness of the Lord between absent friends, to express their devotion to one another during their absence, and their prayer that the Lord would soon bring them together once again. This is certainly not what Jacob meant. He had no intention of returning. This separation was final and irrevocable; that was the declaration which Jacob made in setting up his pillar, and that fact was also recognised by Laban. This was the end. They were finished with one another for ever.

The word separation will probably mean different things to different people. It speaks, of course, of the need for a distinct understanding with the world as to where we stand with regard to Christ - that we are on the Lord's side. It means, however, more than that, for separation from the world must pass from the general sense into every realm which has an element of compromise in it. But it must go deeper than that. There is a whole world of natural life which is as alien to our spiritual being as was Laban to Jacob. This is not so much a matter of external separation as of a clear division in the very person of the believer. One life must be separated from the other, and the pillar of testimony declares our acceptance of this clear demarcation.

An Inevitable Separation

Whatever the particular aspect of separation which applies to us under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, there can be no question as to the challenge of Jacob's pillar. It calls us to a clear cut declaration as to where we stand. For Jacob it marked a definite and lasting cleavage between an old and unsatisfactory realm of mixture and compromise, and a new position with God. His pillar but expressed in visible form what was already true inwardly. That is the only safe kind of separation. It is dangerous to attempt an outward separation unless there is first a true, inward work. This separation was inevitable, for there was already a deep inward division between Jacob and Laban.

(a) Separated by Birth

They were separated by their birth. True, they had a common ancestor, but there was such a radical difference between the two branches of the family that for twenty years Jacob had been a foreigner dwelling in an alien land. Not only by his ancestry but also by marriage he had become involved with Laban's family, but he was never truly one of them. The line of Isaac marked something quite distinctive, for he was born according to Divine promise and by the power of God. For this reason, when the Lord appeared to Jacob in relation to this separation His command was: "Get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity" (Gen. 31:13), inferring that Jacob was where he did not belong. So it is with the Christian when he is in the world, and so also with the man of the Spirit when he is involved in the realm of the flesh - he does not belong there and ought not to be there. A great gulf is fixed between that which is born of the flesh and that which is born of the Spirit, the two realms being mutually antagonistic. The apostle, elaborating this very matter in connection with Jacob's father, said, "As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so also it is now" (Gal. 4:29). That which obtained in Isaac's case was equally true for his son, Jacob, and is still true today. At Mizpah Jacob recognised that truth.

(b) Separated by Faith

They were incompatible by birth - and also by faith. We notice that when making their oaths they both swore by God, yet their apprehension of Him was very different. Laban said, "The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us." Now Abraham and Nahor, with their father Terah, had come out of Ur of the Chaldees by reason of a certain relationship with God. They reached Haran, and there Nahor and Laban's branch of the family had remained. It is true that they were different from the idolaters of Ur, but nevertheless they were still idolaters even though they in measure served the Lord. On the other hand Jacob swore by "The Fear of Isaac." This implied a very different relationship with God. Abraham had not remained in Haran, but had moved on into the Land, where at long last there was born to him a son of promise, Isaac, the man of the Spirit. It was to this distinctive line that Jacob referred when he made his oath. Laban's relationship with God was in a realm of mixture and compromise, whereas Jacob had a different faith - the Fear of Isaac.

(c) Separated by Vision

And, of course, they were very different in the matter of vision. This second pillar is closely connected with the first, which marked a Divine revelation. When God told Jacob to return to the land of his nativity He reminded him that He was "the God of Bethel." At Bethel Jacob had seen heaven opened: he could never be like other men after that. What a tremendous cleavage there is between the man who has spiritual vision and the one who has not! For twenty years Jacob had done nothing about this revelation, nevertheless he was a man who had received Divine illumination as to the purpose of God expressed by Bethel. He had seen the realm where God is all. He had seen the realm of the Spirit, the realm of Divine glory, of heavenly life and heavenly service, and after that, even though he lived with Laban for twenty years, he could never be the same as Laban. Spiritual vision works a deep inward separation in the heart of the one who receives it. The Lord held Jacob to the vision in spite of himself: He will do the same with us. Often we may think, as doubtless Jacob did, that it is but a dream, wonderful enough but quite impossible of realization. Laban, the man of earth, would urge him to forget it; to make the best of things as they were at Haran; to settle down to a life of compromise; and to be reconciled to the fact that here on this earth Bethel is quite impracticable, though doubtless it will be enjoyed when we get to heaven. But Jacob had seen the vision, and so in spite of himself, in spite of his prosperity in Haran, and in spite of all his doubts and fears, he was impelled to return to the land. There is great separating power in Divine vision. The break with Laban, then, was inevitable, so that when Jacob erected his pillar at Galeed he was only declaring in outward and irrevocable terms what was already true in his own heart.

A Timely Separation

And it was timely! Twenty years had elapsed since Jacob set up a pillar, twenty years since he had taken a stand as to his spiritual position. It was high time for him to erect the second pillar. The wonderful thing about it is that the twenty years were not wasted. After twenty years he was returning to the first vision, and yet so great is the sovereignty of God that there was no waste. The value of it to Jacob could be clearly seen, for he was a rich man now. He had a family, sons and considerable wealth. He said to Laban, "Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now hadst thou sent me away empty," and there is no doubt as to the truth of his assertion. Jacob would have gone back as he came, with his staff and nothing else, if the sovereign power of God had not safeguarded him. They were, of course, painful years for Jacob, with many bitter experiences, but the Lord is so wonderful that He had seen to it that the twenty years made Jacob a wealthy man. The sovereignty of God is so wonderful that while we are going round in circles, avoiding the vision, forgetting the vision, fearing the vision, our very sufferings bring spiritual wealth into our lives. That period, however, had now ended. The time had come for him to press on into the Lord's real purpose for his life, and so to make this absolute break with all else.

The actual occasion of it was Laban's changed attitude towards him. Before the Lord had spoken to Jacob about making the move, we read, "Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and behold, it was not toward him as beforetime." He suddenly discovered an unexpected hostility in his relative. What a day when we are disillusioned with the world! What a day when we are disillusioned with the things of God as handled by the natural man! And what a day when we are disillusioned about our own corrupt attempts to please and serve God! "The countenance of Laban was not toward him" - literally - "as it had been yesterday and the day before." Only the Lord is the same "yesterday and today, and for ever"; all else is unreliable. It was this realisation which precipitated Jacob's action. It was high time to come to a final understanding as to his position. So he set up his pillar.

A Personal Crisis

The crisis of separation was forced upon him. Jacob had not planned to set up a pillar; he was impelled to do so. He had not intended to advertise his action but had thought, as we all do, that it would be easier to slip away quietly and unseen, under the cover of night. The Lord would not permit this, but through Laban forced him to make a clear-cut definition of what was involved. Laban pursued Jacob, overtook him and demanded to know the reason for his behaviour. Thus challenged, Jacob declared himself, and insisted that the parting must be final. Laban would not go on with him, and he would never turn back again; the pillar must mark a lasting separation between them. Laban thereupon proposed a delay by way of compromise, suggesting that the separation should not be so abrupt. Let them feast awhile, pass some days in happy fellowship, and then perhaps it would be time to part. Happily Jacob realised the dangers of delay, and was not beguiled. These pillars in his life stand for definiteness, wholehearted committal; so the stone of Galeed faces us with the crisis of separation, meaning an end to the dilly-dallying, hesitating, compromising position as to the will of God. Like Jacob we must finish with the state of mixture which so hinders the purpose of God in our case.

How personal it was! It is very striking that both his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac had passed through very similar experiences. In their case there was no pillar set up, but oaths were sworn in connection with the Philistines and the well at Beersheba. In his day Abraham made a covenant with the Philistines, not a covenant of unity but one of distinctiveness. Years afterwards Isaac had to uncover the well and open up the whole matter once again with the Philistines. He also made a covenant, and the very same day they found water. It is always like that. Make a clear stand on the Lord's side and you will not have to go round digging for water - it will rise up. Jacob, however, had to go through the very same experience for himself. It was no use his imagining that he was all right just because his grandfather and father had taken a stand. He also must make his oath. We may inherit many privileges, but we do not inherit distinctiveness. Individually and for ourselves we must set up the pillar, affirming thus our own personal repudiation of all that is not definitely on the Lord's side.

In point of fact the separation was not as wholehearted as Jacob thought it was. Accused by Laban of stealing some of his idols, Jacob was filled with righteous indignation that anything of the old sphere should be hidden away in his camp. Nevertheless he was wrong, and the offender was Rachel whom he loved so dearly. Jacob knew nothing of the hidden contradiction to his oath. This is very true to experience. We seek to take an utter position with regard to separation, whereas the Lord knows that deep down in hidden realms there are still links with the old life, although we would be as indignant as was Jacob for such a charge to be made. Jacob did not know it then, but later he came to know and all in good time he had to make further adjustments before they could move right on to Bethel. For the moment, though, it was enough that he was sincerely setting forth his position by the pillar of separation; God always takes us at our word.

The Way of Blessing

Jacob's pillar is a challenge to us all. It is not enough for us to enjoy his story; we must follow his example and make the definite act of committal and testimony. We saw this in the case of the first one, the pillar of revelation, and now we must heed the call of the second, the pillar of separation. How sharp is the knife which cuts to make this separation effectual! And yet what blessings followed! Jacob's whole life was so closely related to Laban through marriage. The parting was costly, but it was necessary. As soon as the painful scene was over we read, "Jacob went on his way." He had been going round in circles for twenty years, now he began to move straight forward. Until this he had got nowhere. He had worked to the point of exhaustion; he had suffered much; in many ways he had accumulated spiritual values and discovered something of his own need, but geographically he had come no nearer to Bethel. At Galeed, however, the matter was settled, both in his own heart and in a practical way by the testimony of the pillar, and so there was release and Jacob went on his way.

How often this happens! The Lord's people find themselves at a standstill spiritually. They are ready for the Lord's will but there is some positive act of obedience which corresponds to the setting up of the pillar, and until that is faced and dealt with there can be no spiritual progress. It may perhaps be the testimony of baptism, which is certainly intended to set forth a clear-cut separation from the world and the flesh. Laban will counsel caution and delay, will advocate compromise or will argue against anything so downright. However imperfect the apprehension at the time, baptism does represent a wholehearted committal to the Lord of the one concerned; it is like the pillar of stone. On the one side is mixture while on the other is at least the intention of being separated unto God. After twenty years of the former Jacob made his final break with compromise and declared his decision to go on into fulness. This is but one example. The principle follows us all through our spiritual life. Movement onwards is always a succession of deeper committals to the distinctiveness of that which is of the Spirit from that which is of the flesh.

One more incident concludes this section - the vision at Mahanaim. "And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him." Perhaps the real cause of Jacob's reluctance to make the separation was not so much his love for Laban as his fear of Esau. He dreaded to move back into the line of Divine purpose because he expected to find bitter hostility there. It was an encounter which he had avoided for twenty years, but now he must face it. But first of all heaven opened to him again, and he received comfort and encouragement in his onward journey. What he dreaded most of all was to meet Esau's host. Before he had travelled very far he certainly met a host, but it was not Esau's - it was God's! He expected to meet the devil but he met the Lord! The other meeting must be faced, but first of all he must know that God is with him. "And he called the name of the place Mahanaim" - 'Two Hosts, God's host and mine.' "If God be for us, who can be against us?" So now it is not merely Jacob's weak host which is to encounter the enemy, but two hosts - God's and his. It is always thus when we are downright with the Lord. Mizpah opens the way for Mahanaim and Bethel: the pillar of separation leads straight on to heavenly fulness.

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