“Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” –Genesis 28:11-19
We’re introduced here to one of the most endearing stories of the Bible – a story meaningful to children as well as adults. We assume the ladder is symbolic of the interconnectedness of God’s providence in the heavens with His creation, Earth, and its inhabitants.
What we’re presented with here is one of the best illustrations of the role of angels – true messengers from God to humans on Earth. To dispel Jacob’s fears and allay the inward tumult of his mind, nothing was better suited than the dream / vision of the gigantic ladder, which reached from the ground to heaven, and on which the angels were continually ascending and descending from God Himself on their benevolent errands.
God does His work gradually and by steps; angels are employed as ministering spirits to serve all the designs ofProvidence, and the wisdom of God is at the upper end of the ladder, directing all the motions. The angels are active spirits, continually ascending and descending; they do not rest. They ascend to give account of what they have done, and to receive orders; and descend to execute the orders received from God.
Scholars have argued that a ladder is an awkward image and that instead, maybe we should consider what Led Zeppelin called a “stairway to heaven.” Either image works so it’s best not to quibble with that. What is important is that the purpose of this vision was to afford comfort, hope, and quiet confidence to the lonely fugitive, both in his present circumstances and as to his future prospects. It might be intended also to point out the intercourse between heaven and earth, and the connection of both worlds by the means of angelic ministry.
It gives us comfort to know that Providence employs angels in the affairs of man; that the angels receive their commission from heaven, and execute it dutifully on earth. In that commission, they are diligent, faithful, and constant.
Perhaps the ladder is a type of Christ – that Jacob in his wanderings is a type of the Church. The Church is connected with God in heaven through Christ, who uses His angels to minister and protect us. In fact, the Lord applied to Himself this vision of the ladder when He said, “Hereafter ye shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” (John 1:51)
The dream at Bethel gives us a comforting picture of the progress of our own spiritual growth as the truth is lived out in conduct in the world. To the spiritually aware, windows are always open to heaven and the Lord. And the Lord’s angels are always present to help us in our journey. And as we all know, sometimes that journey can be as lonesome and harrowing as was Jacob’s.