What doth the ladder mean Sent down from the Most High? Fasten'd to earth its foot is seen Its summit in the sky.
Warm-up: Genesis 28:10-22
Jacob was on the run, fleeing from his brother Esau's fury, a lonely, frightened fugitive far from his family home, so lost that even God couldn't find him--or so he thought.
Cold and weary he came to "no particular place," as the text puts it, and, because night was falling, cleared a spot in the rubble-strewn ground, rolled out his sleeping bag, found a rock to put under his head and lay down. In all his solitude and grief," poet Henry Vaughn writes, "on stones did sleep and found but cold relief."
In his misery and exhaustion Jacob soon fell into a deep sleep in which he began to dream. In his dream he saw a stairway, rising from the stone at his head, connecting heaven and earth.
The traditional ladder is such an old favorite it's a shame to give it up, yet it goes without saying that the picture of angels scrambling up and down a ladder in a steady stream leaves something to be desired. The term usually translated "ladder" actually suggests some sort of stairway and was more likely a stone ramp leading up to the top of a ziggurat.
The ziggurats of that day were equipped with flights of stairs leading up to the summit. Jacob would have been familiar with the architecture. Here's another example of God's passion to communicate, using human metaphors to bridge the gap between the seen and unseen worlds, moving from the known to the unknown.
Ziggurates were normally built alongside a smaller temple on the ground. The lower temple was intended to be a place for human beings to gather; the summit of the ziggurat was the place where the gods were said to dwell. The ziggurat with it's steep stairway was essentially a symbol of man's efforts to plod his way up to God. In order to get in touch with him one had to trudge up a long flight of stairs. It was hard work, but there was no other way (cf. Genesis 11:1-4).
It's odd how that pagan notion has found its way into Christian theology and thinking. Early writers used the ladder as an analog for spiritual progress, tracing the steps of Christian faith, beginning with the fear of God and moving through obedience and perseverance to the twelfth degree and the summit: "humility and charity which is perfect and casts out all fear." Walter Hilton's literary classic The Ladder of Perfection is based on that understanding.
The idea is still around. The old camp-meeting song "We are climbing Jacob's ladder" draws on the same association. In each case the emphasis is placed on the ascent of man.
What caught Jacob attention, however, was not the stair and the need to ascend it, but the fact that God was standing "beside" him, for that's the meaning of the preposition. [The phrase everywhere in Genesis means God standing alongside (Genesis 18:2 and 45:1)].
God had come down the stairway. That's the point of the dream. Yahweh himself was present in this strange place, contrary to Jacob's expectations and far from the holy places Jacob normally associated with God's presence. "Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!" Jacob declares with wide-eyed, childlike amazement. "This (place), is none other than the abode of God and that (the stairway) is the gateway to heaven."
It seems that Jacob got the message of the metaphor, but God was taking no chances: he illuminated the picture with a promise: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.... I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Genesis 28:15). This was the good word that quelled Jacob's anxiety and lifted his heavy heart.
The narrator then relates how Jacob, very early the next morning "took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it" (Genesis 28:18). In ancient fashion, Jacob upended the stone on which he had rested his head, poured oil over it and consecrated the place, naming it Bethel, the House of God.
Then Jacob made a vow: "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house and if the Lord will be my God then this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" (Genesis 28:20-22 my translation).
Jacob is not betraying a grasping, mercenary spirit, bargaining with God for food and drink and then saying, "If I get these things then Yahweh will be my God" (as most translations put it). The phrase "then Yahweh will be my God" is actually part of the string of conditional clauses and should be translated, "if Yahweh indeed is my God...." He is paraphrasing the promise: "I am with you."
The so-called apodosis, as grammarians say, is contained in the statement "then this stone...will be God's house. In other words, if God went with Jacob wherever he wandered he promised to return and build on this place an enduring monument to this event.
Jacob had no idea what lay ahead. His years in Haran were brutal, painful years, filled with anxiety and grief, yet God proved to be as good as his word. He was with Jacob every step of the way. That's what rendered Jacob quiet and at easedespite the difficulties of those days.
Some years later, true to his word, Jacob came back to Bethel and built an altar there to the One who, as he said, "has been with me wherever I have gone" (Genesis 35:3).
Jacob's dream recalls Jesus' words to Nathaniel, that honest and open-hearted Israelite, "You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51).
"Son of Man" was Jesus' title for himself--man as he was meant to be. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of the truth Jacob learned at Bethel. He lived in continual, conscious awareness of his Father's presence. "I am never alone," he said, "for my Father is always with me" (John 16:32).
That was the secret of our Lord's rich tranquillity--and of ours. We must learn like our Brother to see him who is invisible. "From youth we have only one vocation," George MacDonald said, "to grow eyes."
When we know that God is near there is a delightful sense of peace. Our own ambitions and desires begin to be muted; a quiet serentity and security starts to envelop us; foes, fears, afflictions and doubts begin to recede. It doesn't matter so much that we're sick or well, rich or poor, slandered or honoured. We can forebear in every setting and circumstance because we know "the Lord is at hand" (Philippians 4:5).
G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a reporter what he would say if Jesus were standing behind him. "He is," Chesterton replied with calm assurance. God's invisible presence is a sober fact, not a figure of speech. He is with us whether we're awake or asleep. He is present in our car, in our office, at our workbench, in our classroom, in our bedroom. The Lord is in there whether we know it or not. He is there because we are there.
That perception--seeing him who is invisible--cannot be gained on our own. It's rather a gift of God given in answer to prayer. So Paul prays, as we must pray for ourselves, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened that we may see what otherwise cannot be seen (Ephesians 1: 18).
Furthermore it is the natural consequence of our submission. Humble, self-forgetful obedience to God's will renders him real to us. If we regard iniquity in our hearts, if we consistently yield to impurity, if we harbor bitterness, resentment, greed or grandiosity, God will not seem real to us. It is the "pure in heart," Jesus said, who "see God" (Matthew 5:8).
"What you see," C. S. Lewis wrote, "depends a good deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are."