God came to Jacob in a dream and said, "Go back to Bethel, the place where I first met you. Build an altar there, as you promised you would" (see Genesis 28:10-22 and 31:13).
Jacob had heard a clear word from God, and he acted in full obedience to that word. He knew that God would keep him, be with him, and fulfill His plan. Yet Jacob faced a peril that brought him to the very brink of destruction.
He was going back to face his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, both of whom he had deceived. At one point, a messenger came to Jacob, warning him, "Esau is coming this way with an army of four hundred men. He's out to get you!"
Scripture says, "Then Jacob was greatly afraid . . ." (Genesis 32:7). He quickly divided his clan into two groups, thinking, "If Esau kills one group, at least the other can escape." Yet, even in this most fearful experience of his life, we see proof of Jacob's broken, contrite heart:
"Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.
"Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children. And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude" (verses 9-12).
Jacob was holding to the covenant God had made with him. He was saying, in essence, "Lord, You made me a promise. I know I'm not worthy of it but You said You would go with me. But now I'm about to lose everything. I'm not claiming any goodness on my part but I love You and am obeying You. So, where is Your covenant, God?"
At the end of his life Jacob, a man with a contrite heart, could look back and say, “When my brother Esau threatened me, it looked like my life was over but God brought me out. My Lord was there the whole time!”