Genesis 25 - 27.
J. G. Bellett.
Section 4 of: The Patriarchs: Being Meditiations upon Enoch, Noah,
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job; The Canticles, Heaven and Earth.
New Edition, Morrish, 1909.
In the former papers, entitled ENOCH, NOAH, and ABRAHAM, I have followed the course of the Book of Genesis, down to the end of Gen. 24. I now propose to take it up from thence, and follow it on through chapters 25 - 27; Isaac, after Abraham, being the principal person there.
There is, however, but little in his history, and little in his character. In some respects this is no matter; for, whether much or little, his name is in the recollection of us all who have learnt the ways of the God of grace, "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," which is His name for ever, His memorial unto all generations. Ex. 3.
Isaac was a stranger in the earth, a heavenly stranger, as his father had been, and we see him with his tent and his altar, as we saw Abraham; and we hear the Lord giving him the promises, as He had given them to Abraham.
"By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise."
This tent-life of the patriarchs had a great character in it. Hebrews 11:9-10 teaches us this. It tells us that the fathers were content to live upon the surface of this world. A tent has no foundations. It is pitched or struck at a moment's warning. And such a slight and passing connection with this earth, and life upon it, these patriarchs were satisfied to have and seek only. They did not look for a city or for foundations, till God became a Builder. Till His building was manifested they were sojourners here, just crossing the plain, or surface of the earth, without striking their roots into it.
This is the voice that is heard from the tents of these pilgrim-fathers. And as their tents bespoke this heavenly strangership, their altars bespoke their worship, their true worship; for they raised their altar to Him who had appeared to them. They did not affect to find out God by their wisdom, and then worship Him in the light and dictate of their own thoughts. They did not, thus, in the common folly, profess themselves to be wise; but they knew God and worshipped God only according to His revelation of Himself. Therefore it was not an altar "to the unknown God" at which they served; but they served or worshipped in truth. And in its generation the patriarchal altar was, in this way, as beautiful as the patriarchal tent. The latter put them into due relationship to the world around them, the former to the Lord God of heaven and earth who was above them.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alike in all this. There was, therefore, no new dispensational secret, no fresh purpose of the divine counsels, revealed in Isaac, as there had been in, Abraham.* This is so. But still, though there was no new dispensational scene unfolded, there was a further unfolding of the glories that attach to the dispensation or calling which had been already made known in Abraham. And a very important one too — such as, if we had divine affections, we should deeply prize. I mean this: The heavenly calling or strangership on earth was the common thing; but characteristically, election was illustrated in Abraham, and sonship or adoption in Isaac.
*See the paper on "Enoch," where certain dispensational purposes of God, in their differences, are considered.
God called Abraham from the world, from kindred, country, and father's house, separating him to Himself and to His promises. But Isaac was already as one chosen and called and sanctified, while in the house of his father. He was at home from his birth, and he was there with God, having been born according to promise, and through an energy that quickened the dead — and in all these things he represented sonship, as Abraham had represented election. In Isaac we see that family that is "born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God," and who stand in liberty; as the apostle says, "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise." We are Abraham's seed, so many Isaacs, children of the freewoman, or in the adoption, if we be Christ's.
Now this mystery of sonship or adoption represented in Isaac, as the mystery of election had been made known in Abraham, is in divine order. For the election of God is unto adoption, as we read, "Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto Himself;" and this being so, this high, personal prerogative being represented in Isaac, in the course of his history we get the mystery of the son of the freewoman very blessedly, largely exhibited.
For we get both the birth and the weaning. And each of these events was the occasion of joy in the house of the father. The child born was called "laughter," the child weaned was celebrated by a feast.
Wondrous and gracious secrets these are. It is the father's joy to have children, it is his further joy that his children should know themselves to be children. This was the birth and the weaning of Isaac in the Book of Genesis. And all this, after so long a time, is revived in the Epistle to the Galatians. For what was represented in Isaac is realized in us through the Spirit. In that epistle we learn that we are children by faith in Christ Jesus. And there we learn also that, being children, we receive the spirit of children. We are weaned as well as born. Paul travailed in birth for them again, as he says: "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you." The Christ of this passage is Christ the Son; and Paul longed and laboured that they might be brought into the Isaac-state, the liberty of conscious adoption. They were under temptation to feed again upon the ordinances which gendered bondage, and which the tutors and governors of an earlier dispensation had enjoined. But opposed to this, the apostle would draw them again into liberty, as he himself had proved the virtue of it in his own soul. It had pleased God, as he says, to reveal the Son in him. The life he lived in the flesh he lived by the faith of the Son, who loved him. He could, therefore, go down to Arabia, where he had no flesh and blood to confer with, no Jerusalem or city of solemnities, no apostles or ordinances, no priesthood after a carnal order, no worldly sanctuary, to countenance, to seal, or to perfect him. He did not want what any or all could give him, for he had the Son revealed in him. He was a weaned Isaac and he would fain have the Galatians to be such likewise; and to hear the word which of old had been heard in the house of Abraham over Isaac, "Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman."
All this is given us, mystically, in Isaac the child of the freewoman, whose birth caused laughter, and whose weaning was celebrated with a feast. And this mystery is, we thus see, largely and expressly revived and opened, in its full character, in the Epistle to the Galatians.
It is not of glories only that we must be thinking, when thinking of predestination. God's purposes concerning us are still richer. We are predestinated to a state of gratified affections, as well as to a place of displayed glories — to "the adoption of children," and to be "before Him in love," as well as to the inheritance of all things. Ephesians 1. And the Spirit already given is as surely in us the power to cry, "Abba, Father," as He is the seal of the title of the coming redemption.
We are apt to forget this. We think of calling and of predestination, in connection with glory, rather than in connection with love, and relationship, and home, and a Father's house.
And yet it is relationship that will give even the inheritance or the glory its richest joy. The youngest child in the family has another kind of enjoyment of the palace of the king, than the highest estate and dignitary of his realm. The child is there without state, for its title is in relationship — the lords of the land may be there, but they are there as at court, by title of their dignity or office. And the child's enjoyment of the palace is not only, as I said, of another kind, it is of a higher kind — it is personal and not official — the palace is a home to it, and not merely the court of royalty.
Now it is the son, the child at home, the child in the privileges of relationship, that we get in Isaac. It is such an one that he represents — this is what Isaac mystically, is. Isaac was kept at home, waited on by the household, nourished and endowed; and the wealth as well as the comfort of his father's house was his; as we read, "And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac. But unto the sons of the concubines which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country."
Mystically looked at, Isaac is thus before us, a son, born of the free woman, born of promise, born of God, as it is said, "I will come and Sarah shall have a son." Isaac represents that adopted family who are made "accepted in the Beloved," who have put on Christ, who stand in His joy, and breathe His spirit.
We have, however, to consider him morally as well as mystically; that is, in his character, as well as in his person. The elements, however, are but few. There is but little history connected with him. There are but few incidents in his life, and but little disclosure of character. And this is to our comfort. At times we find among the elect of God very fine natural materials, a noble bearing of soul, or a delicate, attractive form of human virtue; and again, at other times, either poor, or even very bad, human materials. And this becomes a relief to our poor hearts. Because we find it (from a better acquaintance with ourselves than with others) easy to own the poor and wretched materials that go to make up what we ourselves are; and then it is our comfort (comfort of a certain sort) to find like samples of nature in others of God's people.
Isaac was wanting in character. He was neither of fine nor of bad natural materials. There was much in him that, as we say, was amiable, and which, after a human estimate, would have been attractive. But he was wanting in character. The style of his education may go far to account for this. He had been reared tenderly. He had never been away from the side of his mother, the child of whose old age he was — her only child; and these habits had relaxed him, and kept a naturally amiable temper in its common softness. Quietness and retirement, the temper that rather submits than resents, and this allied to the relaxing indulgence of domestic, if not animal, life, appear in him. He was blameless, we may quite assume, pious and strict in the observance of relative duties, as a child and as a husband, and would have engaged the good-will and good wishes of his neighbours; but he was wanting in that energy which would have made him a witness among them, at least; beyond the separation which attended his circumcision, his altar, and his tent. And such a life is always a poor one. To his tent and his altar he was true, to a common measure; but he pitched the one and raised the other with too feeble a hand.
Isaac was forty years old when he received Rebecca to wife. For twenty years they were childless — but under this trial they behaved themselves even better than Abraham and Sarah had done. Abraham and Sarah had no child, and Sarah gave her bondmaid to her husband. Isaac and Rebecca had no child; but they entreated the Lord, and waited for His mercy. This was a difference, and for a moment, the last are first, and the first are last; and such moral variety do we find among the people of God to this day. But the two sets of children suggest different divine mysteries, as the way of the parents of each thus afford different moral teaching.
There were the two sons of Abraham — Isaac and Ishmael; but they were by two wives: there are now the two sons of Isaac — Jacob and Esau; but they are by the same wife.
The enmity between the sons of Abraham began when Ishmael, a lad of fourteen years of age, mocked the weaned Isaac. But the struggle between the sons of Isaac was in the womb. Two nations were there, as the Lord had told Rebecca, "Two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels." And so it came to pass. The man of God was found in Jacob, the man of the world in Esau; the principle of faith was in the one, the principle of nature in the other. Two manner of people were indeed separated from her bowels, and had struggled in her womb. "The friendship of the world is enmity against God." And this was Esau. Accordingly, Esau made the earth the scene of his energies, of his enjoyments, and of his expectations. He was "a man of the field," and "a cunning hunter." He prospered in his generation. He loved the field, and he knew how to use the field. He set his heart on the present life, and knew how to turn its capabilities to the account of his enjoyments. His sons quickly became dukes, nay kings, and had their cities; as Ishmael's children had become princes, and had their castles. Their dignity and their greatness proceeded from themselves; and the world witnessed them in their magnificence.
But Jacob was "a plain man," a man of the tent. He took after his fathers. Like Abraham and Isaac, he was a stranger here, sojourning as on the surface of the earth for a season, with his eye upon the promise. His children — while Esau's were dukes, settled in their domains, in the sunshine of their dignities and wealth — had to wander from one nation to another people, to suffer the hardships and wrongs of injurious Egypt, or to traverse, as pilgrims, the trackless, wasted desert.
Esau was the "Profane" one. His hope and his heart were linked with life in this world, and with that only; for he would say, "I am at the point to die, and what profit shall this birthright do to me?" Like the Gadarenes, and like Judas, Esau would sell his title to Christ. But Jacob had faith, and was ready to buy what Esau was ready to sell.
Two manner of people were, after this manner, separated from Rebecca's bowels, as all this tells us. They are no sooner brought forth than this is seen; and their earliest habits, their first activities, are characteristic. It was not merely the bondwoman and the free, or the children of the two covenants, as Ishmael and Isaac had been; in Esau and Jacob we get a fuller expression of the same natures; the one, that reprobate thing, had from Adam, profane or worldly, which takes a portion in the earth and not in God; the other, that divine thing, had from Christ, which is believing, hopeful, looking to God's provisions, and waiting for the kingdom.
All this survives to the present day, and flourishes abundantly in different samples in the midst of us, or around us. I might say the Cain, the Nimrod, the Ishmael, and the Esau are still abroad on the earth, and these tales and illustrations have their lessons for our souls. They are wonderful in their simplicity; but they are too deep for the wisdom of the world, and too pure for the love of it.
These things I have gathered for the sake of the moral and the mystery which so abound in them. But my immediate business is with Isaac.
Isaac as I have already noticed, was brought up in his mother's tent. He was, as I may say, rather the child of his mother than of his father — the common case of all of us in our earliest days. But with Isaac, this was so till his mother died; and then he must have been much beyond thirty years of age.
He knew more of Sarah's tent, than of the busier haunts and occupations of men. Her tent had been his teacher, as well as his nurse, and this education left impressions on his character which were never effaced. We have a passing or incidental, but still, a very sure, witness of the strength of maternal influence over him, in chap. 24:67. "And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into his mother's tent, and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."
This strongly intimates the tendencies of his early life. And thus was character formed in him. He was the easy, gentle, unresisting Isaac, pious, as we speak, and, as I have said of him, blameless and amicable.
But with all this, and while this I doubt not is surely so, I ask, Was it merely nature or character that bore him unresistingly along the road to Mount Moriah? See Gen. 22. Was it merely filial piety which then disposed him to be bound as a lamb for the slaughter, without opening his mouth? Can we assume this? Was this the force of character merely? I say not so. This was too much for human gentleness and submission, even such as might have been found in an Isaac, or in a Jephthah's daughter. I must rather say, the hand of the Lord was over him on that occasion, just as, long afterwards, it was over the owner of the ass that was needed to bear the King on to the city, and then over the multitude that accompanied and hailed Him on the road; or, as it was over the man bearing the pitcher of water, who prepared the guest-chamber for the last passover. On these occasions, the hand of the Lord was strong to force the material to comply, and take the impression of the moment. As also in the earlier days of Samuel, when the kine carried the ark of God right on the way homeward, though nature resisted it, their young being left behind them. For the divine power was upon the kine then. And Isaac in like manner, was under divine power, under the hand of God, on this occasion; willingly, I fully grant, but made willing as in a day of power; for he was to be the type or foreshadowing of a greater than he. The seal was in a strong hand, and the impression must be taken, clear, deep, and legible. "Lo, I come to do thy will, O God," is the writing on the seal. "As a lamb before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth."
That was a great moment in the life of Isaac, an occasion of great meaning. So in his acceptance of Rebecca. See Gen. 24. In his taking a wife, not of all whom he chose, but of his father's providing, we may trace the same strong hand over him. There might easily have been more of human submissiveness and filial piety in this, than in the case of the sacrifice on Mount Moriah, we may surely allow; but still this was a sealing time as well as the other. This marriage was a type or mystery, as well as that sacrifice. The wife brought home to the son and heir of the father, by the servant who was in the full confidence and secret of the father, this was a mystery — and the material must comply again, and take the impression from the hand that was using it. The potter was making vessels for the use of the household, and the clay must yield. The prophet's children, ages afterwards, had names given them, as the Lord pleased, and the prophet had to say of them, Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders. Isa. 8. And so, Isaac and Rebecca, in the day and circumstances of their marriage, were a type, "for a sign and a wonder." This was their chief dignity; they tell the mysteries of God. They are parables as well as mysteries. They were events set in time or in the progress of the earth's history, as the sun and moon and stars are set in the heavens, for signs. Each of them has a writing on it under the hand of God. "I will engrave the graving thereof, saith the Lord of hosts;" for on these events He has impressed the image of some of His everlasting counsels.
But though this gentle and submissive nature that was in our Isaac was not equal to such sacrifices and surrenders as these, yet gentle, submissive nature is the quality which gives him his character. At times it acts amiably and attractively; at times it sadly betrays him. But at all times, under all circumstances, amid the few incidents that are recorded of him, it is the easy, gentle, yielding Isaac that we see. And the presence of one and the same virtue on every occasion is, I need not say, but poor in point of character. It is combination that bespeaks character and divine workmanship. "The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." It is firm as well as gracious and joyous. And this is moral glory; as many coloured rays give us the one unsullied result in the light we enjoy and admire. But this does not shine in Isaac. In none, surely, in its full beauty, save in Him in whom all glories, in their different generations, meet and shine.
Jeremiah, I might here take liberty to say, appears to me to have been a man of one passion, as Isaac was a man of one virtue. I mean, of course, characteristically as to each of them, Isaac and Jeremiah. A godly passion indeed it was, grief over the moral wastes of Zion, which characterized Jeremiah. But being thus his one affection, the passion or sentiment, which, after this manner, possessed his soul, it makes him generally very engaging and attractive to the heart; but at times it allies his spirit with that which defiles him. He is angry with the people who were stirring the sorrows of his heart. And he murmurs against God Himself. I speak, of course, of Jeremiah's character, as we get it exhibited in his ministry. I know, surely, in that ministry, looked at in itself, he was the prophet of God and delivered the inspirations of the Holy Ghost. But as a man I speak of him; as a man, he was a man of one passion; as I have said of Isaac that he was a man of one virtue. But it is those in whom there is assemblage of virtues, that tell us more assuredly of divine workmanship, of trees planted by the rivers of waters, that bring forth fruit in season. Psalm 1. For it is this seasonableness that is the real beauty. Everything is beautiful in its season, and only then. Gentleness loses its beauty, when zeal and indignation are called for. The first Psalm is too high a description for a man of one virtue; it implies character, and decision, and individuality; it shows a soul drawing its virtue from God. "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." This is of divine husbandry; but such we do not see in our Isaac. In his measure, and certainly in contrast with Isaac this combination or assemblage of virtues, of which I have already spoken, appears in Abraham; and this difference in the two may be seen in their acting under similar circumstances. Abraham in Gen. 21 and Isaac in Gen. 26.*
*As to the common sin of Abraham and Isaac touching the denial of their wives, calling them their sisters, see "Abraham".
Isaac had been very badly treated by the Philistines. One well after another of his own digging was violently taken away from him, as the wells which his father had dug had been filled up. He had yielded to this wrong with a gentle, gracious spirit, in a spirit that well became one of God's strangers and pilgrims here, who look for citizenship in another world. He went from place to place, as the Philistines again and again strove with him and urged him. This was according to the mind which marks him, as we said, in every incident of his life. Suffering, he threatens not — doing well and suffering for it, he takes it patiently; and this we know is acceptable with God. 1 Peter 2:20. And so God here attests this; for He owns His servant in this thing and comes to him by night as He had comforted Abraham. But when, in season, the Philistines are brought to a better mind, and Abimelech the king, with his friend Ahuzzath, and Phichol his chief captain, seek Isaac and alliance with him, I ask, Does not his character, in its way, betray him?
Of course it was right in Isaac to receive them, and plight them his friendship, and to exchange the good offices and pledges and securities of neighbourliness which they sought. For we ought to forgive, if it be seventy times seven a day. But with that there is to be faithfulness in its season — faithfulness as well as forgiveness. "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." But Isaac was not quite up to this sturdier virtue. He complains to Abimelech, but it is in such soft and easy terms, that it seems to carry no authority to the conscience with it. Not so his entering into covenant with him. He strikes hands readily, and, I may say, heartily. He makes a feast for the king of Gerar, and sends him away as his ally, without his being brought to any acknowledgement of the wrong which his people had done to the man whose friendship he was now seeking and getting. Nor is there on the lips of Isaac any gainsaying of Abimelech's assertion, that he had done nothing but good to Isaac all the time he had been in his country. As far as this intercourse went, and as far as we can discover the mind of the king of Gerar, he was not convicted by Isaac but returned home with his friends at peace with himself as well as with Isaac. Isaac had not made good to Abimelech's conscience the complaint he had made to his ear — there was want of character and force in it — it partook of Isaac's own nature.
This was but poor virtue in Isaac. It is but poor virtue in ourselves, when it appears — and some of us have to treat it as such, and confess it as such, at times. It is agreeable in a certain form of amiable human nature; but it is not service to God. We are humbled by reason of that in our own ways. It is poor, and our Isaac here gives us, in measure at least, a sample of this.
It was, however, otherwise with Abraham. The king of Gerar had sought Abraham in his day, and sought him for a like reason, and with a like desire. Abraham meets him in as noble a spirit of forgiveness as Isaac would have done, with an equal readiness of heart and hand to accept him, and to pledge him. But with all this, he rebukes him and makes him feel the rebukes. "Abraham reproved Abimelech," as we read, but as we do not read in the case of Isaac. Abraham will not send him away satisfied with himself, as Isaac did, with an unanswered boast in his mouth of his and his people's virtues. He will assure him, as fully as Isaac could have done, of his full forgiveness and reconciliation; but he will not hide it from him, that his conscience may have a question with him, though his neighbour may accept him and pardon him; that there are matters (as between him and the Lord) which Abraham's feast and Abraham's friendship could never settle.
This was real, real before God, where reality, beloved, ever puts us. May we know that secret better, and be upright before Him! This was beautiful — and by this Abraham was blessing Abimelech, and not merely gratifying him. But this was not so with Isaac and we may leave him on this occasion, in Gen. 26, with something of this inquiry in our hearts, Was it mere nature, or the renewed mind in the saint, that acted thus? — a question which still occurs.
Isaac was an elect one, as surely as Abraham; a stranger with God in the earth; one who used his altar as well as carried it. He was meditating in the field when he got his Rebecca, and he had prayed for the mercy, when Esau and Jacob were given to him. We speak of character in him only, when we thus contrast him with another. We speak of the living, practical ways of a saint; and we see in him what was below a witness for God abroad, though amiable and devout at home. This is found in Isaac and kindred things are still found, again I may say, as many of us know to our humbling. As one once said to me, "There is much that goes with others for being spiritual, because it is done for the eye and taste of our fellow-christians, and not, as in God's presence, with a single heart to Him."
This indeed is true; and this searches our hearts to their profit. Such notices of our common ways may convict, but they need by no means dishearten us. Quite otherwise; they may be welcomed as for blessing. The light that penetrates to scatter our darkness, leaves itself behind to gladden us, and has title to assert the place as all its own — so that we ought to be able, in spirit, to sing of present light and past darkness, to know what we were, and what we are, and still to sing —
"All that I was, my sin, my guilt,
My death was all my own —
All that I am I owe to Thee,
My gracious God, alone.
The evil of my former state
Was mine and only mine —
The good in which I now rejoice
Is Thine and only Thine.
The darkness of my former state,
The bondage, all was mine —
The light of life in which I walk,
The liberty is Thine."
This is standing, not attainment; this is what faith entitles us to celebrate. Faith takes up this language, and the soul surely hears it and understands it. But faith is the spring, in the inworking power of the Holy Ghost. As in Heb. 11, from beginning to end, it is faith that is celebrated. Enoch, and Moses, and David, and the prophets, and the martyrs of other days, may be presented there in their fruits and victories, but it is faith, and not the people of God, that the Spirit by the apostle is celebrating in that fine chapter.
But I must return to Isaac.
At the close of Gen. 26 we read: "And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: which were a grief of mind to Isaac and to Rebekah."
This has much for us in the way of admonition; but to use it aright, I must look to things connected with it, or like it, in the earlier history of Abraham, and then in the future histories of Jacob and his son Judah.
The command to the nation of Israel at the very beginning was to keep the way of the Lord very particularly as to marriage. They were by no means either to give their daughters to the sons of the Canaanites, or take the Canaanites' daughters for their sons. Deut. 7:3. If they did so, it would be on the pain of being no longer owned of the Lord. Joshua 23. According to this, the apostate days of Solomon are marked by disobedience to this very thing (1 Kings 11); and afterwards, no real recovery to God could be admitted, without a return to the observance of this principle in their marriages. Ezra 10; Neh. 10.
Obedience, therefore, in this thing was a peculiar test of the state of the nation. And it is thus that I look at it in this earliest book of Genesis. For though divine law was not then published, divine principles were then understood. It may be regarded as the witness of the state of family religion then, as it was of the state of national religion afterwards.
Abraham, in this matter, eminently keeps "the way of the Lord;" and so Eliezer, one of his "household;" and so our Isaac, one of his "children." For Abraham sends a special embassy into a distant land, in order to get a wife "in the Lord" for his son — Eliezer goes on that embassy with a ready mind — and Isaac in patience waits for the fruit of it, not seeking any alliance with the nearer people; and, though sad and solitary, keeps himself for the Lord's appointed helpmeet. Like Adam, he waited for a helpmeet from the Lord's own hand, though it cost him patience and sore solitude. This his meditation in the field at eventide shows. He endured. He might have got a daughter of Canaan; but he endured. He will rather suffer the sickening of his heart from the deferring of his hope, than not marry "in the Lord," or take him a wife of any that he may choose. And all this was very beautiful in this first generation of this elect family. The father, the servant, and the child, each in his way, witnesses how Abraham had ordered his house according to God, teaching his children and his household the way of the Lord. See Gen. 18:19.
But we notice a course of sad decline and departure from all this.
Isaac in his turn and generation, becomes the head of the family. But he is grievously careless in this matter, compared with his father; as this scripture, the close of chapter 26, shows us. He does not watch over his children's ways, to anticipate mischief, as Abraham had done. Esau his son marries a daughter of the Hittites. Isaac and Rebecca are grieved at this, it is true; for they had righteous souls which knew how to be "vexed" with this; but then, it was their carelessness which had brought this vexation upon them.
This we cannot say was beautiful. But still there was a happy symptom in it. There was a righteous soul to be vexed, a mind sensitive of defilement. And this was well. Jacob, however, declines still further. He neither anticipates the mischief, like Abraham, nor does he, like Isaac, grieve over it when it occurs. But with an unconcerned heart, as far as the history tells us, he allows his children to form what alliances they please, and to take them wives of all whom they choose.
This is sad. There is no joy for the heart here, as in the obedience of Abraham; there is no relief for the heart here, as in the sorrow of Isaac and Rebecca.
But Judah afterwards goes beyond even all this in a very fearful way. He represents the fourth generation of this elect family. But he not only does not anticipate mischief, like Abraham, in the ordering of his family, nor grieve over mischief when brought into it, like Isaac, nor is he simply indifferent about it, whether it be brought in or not, like Jacob, but he actually brings it in himself! For he does nothing less than take a daughter of the Canaanites to be the wife of his son Er!
This exceeded. This was sinning with a high hand. And thus, in all this, in this history of the four generations of Genesis-patriarchs, we notice declension, gradual but solemn declension, till it reach complete apostasy from the way of the Lord.
But if this be serious and sad, as it really is, is it not profitable and seasonable? Can we not readily own, that it is "written for our learning"? How does it warn us of a tendency to decline from God's principles! What took place in the same elect family, generation after generation, may take place in the same elect person, year after year. The principles of God may be deserted by easy gradations. They may first be relaxed, then forgotten, then despised. They may pass from a firm hand into an easy one, from thence to an indifferent one, and find themselves at last flung away by a rebellious one. Many have at first stood for God's principles in the face of difficulties and fascinations, like Abraham — then, merely grieved over the loss of them, like Isaac — then, been careless about their loss or maintenance, like Jacob — and at last, with a high hand, broken them, like Judah.
This is suggested by the scene at the close of Gen. 26. As we pursue the story of Isaac after this, we shall find that his soft and pliant nature allies him not only with weaknesses, but with defilement, with some of the low indulgences of mere animal nature. I mean in the closing action of his life, his blessing of Esau and Jacob.
This is a solemn scene indeed, full of warning and admonition.
Though Isaac had been grieved, as we have seen, by the marriage of Esau with a daughter of the Hittites, yet we learn immediately afterwards, that it is this very same Esau that draws and holds the strongest affections of his father's heart, to which that father would, if he could have sacrificed everything. And this was very sad. It reminds me of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat had godly sensibilities, but he was wanting in godly energies. Through vanity he sadly sinned; first joining in affinity with Ahab, king of Israel, and then with Ahab going to the battle. But still, he had sensibilities that were spiritual and of divine workmanship. For in the midst of the prophets of Baal, he was not at ease. He had a witness within, that this would not do; and he asked, "Is there not here a prophet of the Lord beside, that we might inquire of him?" But still, and in spite of all this, he went to Ramoth-Gilead to battle, and that, too, in alliance with that very Ahab, who had thus so painfully wounded the best affections of his soul, and who, under his own eye, and as they sat on the throne together, in the spirit of deep revolt from the God of Israel, had consulted the prophets of Baal.
This was strange, as well as terrible; but this was that king Jehoshaphat. And just after the same manner, our Isaac on this occasion had his sensibilities, but not his corresponding energies. With a godly mind he grieved over Esau's marriage with a daughter of Heth; and yet that very Esau, who thus wounded the witness within him, was the one to attract and hold and order the fondest sympathies of his heart, so as to hinder him from freeing himself to act for God.
It was not through vanity, as it was in Jehoshaphat, that Isaac thus sadly and strangely failed — it was rather, from the common pravity of his character, such as we have seen it to be, a general relaxed moral tone of soul. But whether it be through this or that, he is ensnared, I may say, by an earlier Ahab, though his soul had the sense of that Ahab's apostasy. He would help Esau to the blessing all he could, as Jehoshaphat would help the king of Israel all he could to the victory at Ramoth-Gilead.
What sights are these! what lessons and warnings!
But we must inspect this family scene, this family circle in Gen. 27 a little more closely. There are others beside Isaac to be looked at.
Abraham's servant in Gen. 24 had brought two different things with him out of the house of his master, when he visited the house of Bethuel. He brought a report of all that the Lord had done for Abraham, and gifts.
These different things become tests of that household in Mesopotamia. The report dealt with future and distant things, and had God necessarily connected with it — the gifts might have been independent of Him, and were a present gain. Rebecca was moved by the report. She takes the jewels, it is true; but the tidings which the servant brought are chief with her. The report of what awaited her among a distant people whom the Lord had blessed had power to detach her. It was not Isaac merely, or Abraham's wealth merely. Her father had wealth, and she need not go far to promise herself a home and its enjoyments. But the Lord had blessed Abraham, and had now prospered the journey of his servant. It was not a question with Rebecca whether she would take Isaac and a share in Abraham's wealth, or remain poor and lonely. The question was this — Would she take the portion the Lord was now bringing her, or that which her kindred and circumstances in the world had provided her?
And so it is with us, beloved. It is not a question between heaven and nothing, but between heaven and the world, between our taking the happiness which the Lord in His promises, or which human present circumstances, have for us. Are we desirous of divine joy and of heavenly riches? Can we say to the Lord Jesus, Thou shalt "choose our inheritance for us?" Is the distant land, of which we have received a report, our object? This was Rebecca; she could answer these questions. We should wrong her if we judged that with her it was Abraham's wealth and Isaac's hand or nothing. It was not so. As we said before, and surely the story warrants it, she had large expectations of every kind, if she remained at home. She need not take a long, untried journey with a stranger and to a strange people. But all became nothing to her, when in faith she received the report. She comes forth at the call of God.
Rebecca was a genuine daughter of Abraham. Abraham had crossed the desert at the call of the God of glory, and Rebecca now crosses the same desert at the report of what the God of glory had done for Abraham. They had the like "spirit of faith." The stronger expression of it we may find in Abraham, but it was the like "spirit of faith." Abraham had gone forth in the faith of an unattested call; Rebecca now goes forth on an accredited report. There was no Eshcol brought out of Canaan to Ur to embolden Abraham to take the journey; but "this is the fruit of it" was said to Rebecca in the servants and camels and gold and jewels — a branch with a cluster rich and abundant indeed. The report is now sealed to Rebecca, as it had not been to Abraham. Abraham tried an untried path; Rebecca did but walk in the footsteps of the flock. But they were on the same road, and reached the same place.
This is simple and beautiful in Rebecca, and the way of faith to this hour. But, beloved, there is more, and that, too, of another kind. Rebecca's character had been already formed — as, I may say, it is with all of us, before we are quickened of God. The moment of His power arrives — we are made alive with divine life then — the separating call is also answered; but it finds us of a certain character, a certain shape and complexion of mind. It finds us, it may be, Cretans (Titus 1), or brothers and sisters of Laban, or something that wears the strong stamp of a peculiar pravity of nature. And then character and mind, derived from nature or from family or from education and the like, we take with us after we have been born of the Spirit, and carry it in us across the desert from Padan-aram to the house of Abraham.
This is serious. It is serious, that with the quickening of the Spirit, nature, or the force of early habits and education, or of family character, will cling to us still. "The Cretans are always liars."
Laban, with whom Rebecca had grown up, was a crafty, knowing, worldly man. It is plain that, on the occasion of Eliezer's visit, he had been moved only by the gifts. They made a ready way for Abraham's servant; as we read, A man's gift maketh room for him. Proverbs 18:16. Laban was evidently the stirring, active, important one in his father Bethuel's house. He had a taste for occasions which called for management. And all this is a very bad symptom. It is a bad symptom when one carries the bag. It is bad to find one prematurely managing and clever, or, at any period, fond of occasions where skill of that kind is to be exercised, having an aptness in conducting either state affairs or family interests. And just such an one was Laban; and Laban was the brother of Rebecca, and Rebecca had passed all her life, till her marriage, with him; and the family character, in this only great action in which she is called to take a part, sadly betrays itself.
If Abraham and Sarah had brought the foul, unclean compact between them, as they left their father's house to walk with God, so did Rebecca bring this family character, this Laban-leaven, with her. We have nature in its pravity with us after our conversion; and we have our own fleshly characteristics also, as well as the common pravity of nature. And we have to rebuke them sharply, that we may be sound, that is, morally healthful, in the faith. Titus 1:13. And this lesson is afresh pressed upon us, from the story of this distinguished woman in this chapter.
But there is more of the same kind. Jacob, as well as his mother, Rebecca, got his mind formed by this same earliest influence. He was all his days — I mean, all his practical, active days — a slow-hearted, calculating man; and in this family scene, in Gen. 27, we find him to be such an one — a ready, intelligent pupil of his mother, Laban's sister, and whose favourite child he had been from his birth. So that as Laban had been corrupting his sister Rebecca, Rebecca had been corrupting her son Jacob.
And further still, as this same chapter tells us, Isaac whose mind and character, as we have seen, had been so remarkably formed by his early life in Sarah's tent, had sunk into the indulgence of some of the low desires of nature. He loved his son Esau, because he ate of his venison. This was poor indeed, and something worse than poor. And this love of venison, we may surely suggest, must have encouraged Esau in the chase; just as Rebecca's cleverness, got and brought from her brother's house in Padan, formed the mind and character of her favourite Jacob. And thus one parent was helping to corrupt one of the children, and the other the other.
What mischief, what sad defilement, is disclosed here, in all this family scene! But we may go on to expose it even more; for the heart is not only capable of such defilement, but it is daring enough, at times, to take its naughtiness into the sanctuary. "I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly." Proverbs 5.
The word to Aaron, long after this, was, Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy son with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation. Lev. 10. Nature is not to be animated in order to wait on the service of God; it is not to be set in action by its provisions, for the discharge of the duties of the sanctuary. Strong drink may exhilarate, and give ebullition to animal spirits, but this is no qualification for a priest of the house of God.
But even into pollution such as this Isaac seems to have been betrayed. "Take, I pray thee," says he to Esau, "thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go to the field, and take me some venison: and make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die." He was going to do the last religious act of a patriarchal priest, and he calls as for wine and strong drink, the food of mere animal life, to raise and endow him for the service!
This was sad indeed, thus to deliberate on the venison at such a moment. We may all be conscious how much of nature soils our holy things, how much of the mere animation of the flesh may be mistaken for the easy and strong current of the Spirit. We may be aware of this, in the place of communion. And this is to be our sorrow and our humbling — we are to confess it as evil, or at least as weakness, and to watch against it. But to prepare for it, carefully to mix the wine and strong drink, to take a full draught, after this manner, this exceeds in defilement.
And nothing comes of all this but dishonour and loss. The whole of this family pollution is judged in the holiness of God, because this was a family of God in the earth. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Isaac is laid aside, Rebecca never sees Jacob again, and the calculating supplanter finds himself in the midst of toils and wrongs and hardships, supplanted and deceived himself again and again; for twenty long years an alien from the house of his father. Nothing comes of all this, whether we look at the crooked policy of the one party, or at the fleshly favouritism of the other; all is disappointment and shame, under the rebuke of the holiness of the Lord.
There is, however, one relief, and it is a very important one, in the midst of this otherwise foul and gloomy scene. "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come." This is the Holy Ghost's own reference to this chapter in Hebrews 11.
But ere I speak of the relief or comfort which this has for us when thinking of Isaac, I take occasion to inquire, What was the nature or character of this blessing by the patriarchs upon their children, which we find again and again in the Book of Genesis?
A blessing was in the hand of Melchizedek in Gen. 14; as again, long after, there was a blessing in the hand of Aaron in Num. 6. These instances we may easily understand — these blessings were conferred or pronounced by reason of office. They were delivered through priesthood ordained of God. There was nothing prophetic or oracular in them. The words which these priests used were rather prepared than inspired; words already prescribed by divine provision, rather than communicated at the moment by divine illumination, at least in the case of Aaron.
With the patriarchal blessing, however, it was as clearly otherwise. There was a prophecy or an oracle in Isaac's words on Esau and Jacob here in Gen. 27; and so was there afterwards in Jacob's words on his children in Gen. 49, and in his words on Joseph's children in Gen. 48; and so was there before, in Noah's words, in Gen. 9, on Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
But why, I inquire, was this great matter thus committed to the patriarchs?
If I mistake not, some of the secrets of patriarchal religion, patriarchal worship and ministry, are involved in the answer to this. Religion had, in these earliest days, the same great truths which it still has for its spirit and principle. The Fall and Recovery of man, or Ruin and Redemption, were then made known, and they were received by faith. The altars of the fathers, and the ordinance of clean and unclean, tell us of faith and of the apprehensions of faith in those days. The tent of the living patriarchs, and the Machpelah of the departed patriarchs, tell us that they understood the stranger's calling, and a coming resurrection; and Abraham's grove at Beersheba (Gen. 21), and his alliance with the Gentile at the well of the oath, tell us likewise, in clear though symbolic language, that they understood some of the bright and happy secrets of the millennial age, or of "the world to come."
And worship and ministry, in those infant days, were in their simplest forms. I may say, nature suggested that the father or head of the house should be the prophet, priest, and king, there. In after times, when the condition of things spread out, and when, with enlargement and age, corruption came in, the holiness of God demanded a separated or circumcised people; and, connected with such, a separated or anointed priesthood. Now, in our day, in the day of the kingdom of God, which is, as we know, "not in word, but in power," it is required that ministry should be something more than nature would suggest, or than holiness would demand; there must be power, such as the Spirit Himself prepares and imparts. But in the early days of Genesis, those family days — those infant, earliest days — the voice of nature was listened to, and duly and seasonably so; and accordingly, the head of the family was the minister of God to the family, and both the dignities and the services of prophets, priests, and kings, within the range of the homestead, or in the family temple, centred in the father.
The blessing of the children seems to flow from this. It was an act performed in the combined virtues of a prophet and a priest, which, as we see, the fathers of the families carried in their own persons. They received a communication of the divine mind, and then uttered it, as "oracles of God;" and, being separated or priestly representatives of God to their children, they pronounced His blessing, God's blessing, upon them.
They seem to sustain this character through the Book of Genesis.
In our Isaac it is sad indeed to see how this character was exercised, or rather abused — as such like high endowments have constantly been, the priestly dignity, for instance, in the person of Eli (godly old man as he was), and the kingly authority, in one tremendous instance, even by such an one as the deeply-loved and honoured son of Jesse.
So Isaac would have made his office serve, not only his private partialities, but his very appetites. And this, too, in the face of solemn, divine warning. The word had gone before, upon Isaac's children (Esau the elder and Jacob the younger), "the elder shall serve the younger." But Isaac's fleshly favouritism and appetites had made him careless and forgetful of this, and he would fain have made the elder, Esau, the heir of the promise.
And here we may call to mind, that Caiaphas, in his day, was such an one as Isaac, combining the prophet and the priest in his own person. And Caiaphas would fain have abused his office and his gift to his own wretched purposes and desires. He delivered a true prophecy with a design on the life of the Lord Jesus. John 11. And in earlier days, the prophet Balaam was of the same generation. He sought, all he could, to use his gift in the service of his lusts. God, however, took him out of his own hand, and forced his lips to utter the sentence of righteousness, the judgment of truth. And, though it be sad to put such men together, even in a single action, yet so it is; for such was Isaac in Gen. 27. Though a sanctified and filled vessel, he would have served the wish of his own fond heart, in the use of the treasure which he carried; but God took him out of his own hand, and used him as the oracle of His settled, sovereign purpose. Again I say, it is sad thus to link such men as Isaac and Balaam in a common moral action. But we know that "that which is born of the flesh is flesh." As an old writer says, "The water that is foul in the well will not be clean in the bucket." The flesh in an Isaac is as the flesh in a Balaam; and the world in the heart of each of them is the same world.
But they are not one to the end. This is the comfort, the gracious comfort, of which I spoke before. Balaam is Balaam still, the man who loved the wages of unrighteousness, and ran greedily after his own error for reward; he goes on as Balaam, giving counsel to Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the people of God; and at last he fell, as Balaam, with the uncircumcised, slain with the sword, like those that go down to the pit. But Isaac repented with godly sorrow unto a repentance not to be repented of. When his eye is opened, and he discovers what he had been about, and how Jacob had got the blessing which he had prepared for Esau — when it thus confronts him to the face, that he had been withstanding God, but that he could not prevail, his soul seems to awaken as from sleep, and to get alive to all this, for we read of him, that he trembled with a great trembling greatly. v. 33. The sight, the moral sense, of the place that he was filling, startles his soul. He trembles in himself. The flesh which he had been nourishing could not stand him in such a moment — and he seeks it not — it has been exposed to him; and in the light and energy of the better life, he acts according to faith, and says, speaking now of Jacob, and no longer of Esau, "I have blessed him, yea, and he shall be blessed."
There was nothing of this in Balaam; Balaam was not turned back. When the angel withstood him in the narrow way, and his ass fell under him, there was none of this godly sorrow working repentance. But our Isaac is restored. He seeks another way, and takes up and follows after God's object from that moment. It is not "the madness of the prophet" that the Spirit records in Isaac as He had to do in Balaam, but the faith of the prophet. For in this hour of happy restored fellowship with the mind of God, after his trembling, "with a great trembling greatly," the way of Isaac is sealed and signalized by the Spirit. "By faith Isaac blessed Esau and Jacob concerning things to come." And this is the only matter in the life of Isaac which is noticed by the Spirit in that chapter, Heb. 11.
But this had character in it, and the Spirit has distinguished it. The victories of faith which Moses gained were very fine. He answered both the attraction and the terrors of Egypt; refusing to be called the son of the king's daughter, and forsaking the country, not fearing the king's wrath. These were splendid victories; and are so to this day, when achieved in the saint. But there are conquests much less distinguished, which nevertheless are conquests, recorded in this chapter which celebrates the deeds of faith. They may be seen in Isaac and in Jacob. Each of these witnesses of faith, in his day, blessed the children or the sons before him according to God, though this was contrary to nature. Isaac would have preferred Esau, and Jacob would have preferred Manasseh; but Isaac persisted in his blessing of Jacob, and Jacob in his blessing of Ephraim, and in this, nature was conquered. It was not, we may allow, the world, in either its snares or its dangers, that stood out to try the strength of faith in the saint — but still it was an opposer. It was nature; the suggestions or sympathies or partialities of nature — and while we may admire the splendour of the victories of a Moses or an Abraham, let us remember and look to it, that we fight the fight of faith with nature, and gain the day in that field, with Isaac and Jacob.
As to Jacob's part in this family scene which we are looking at, we may certainly say, had he but left his matters in the Lord's hand, where they had been from the beginning, from before his birth, and not allowed his mother to take them into hers, he would have fared far better. How often has many and many a Jacob since the days of Gen. 27 proved the same! The Lord had promised him the blessing without any condition. "The elder shall serve the younger." But he could not, in the patience of faith, wait the Lord's time and method to make good His own promise. Therefore the promise gets laden with reserves and difficulties and burdens. It shall surely be made good. The promise of the Lord is certain, and "never was forfeited yet." He is able to make it stand. The elder shall serve the younger — but now, by reason of Jacob's own unbelief and policy, the elder shall give the younger some trouble: because the younger thinks well to deal with the promise in his own craft and skill, he shall be made to reach it after delay and sorrow and shame.
Accordingly, Esau himself gets a promise from the Lord, through his father Isaac on this occasion, a promise which the divine purpose and grace towards Jacob, at the first, had never contemplated. "And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck." vv. 39, 40.
All this comes to pass. David, who came of Jacob, sets garrisons in Edom, and the Edomites become his servants and bring gifts. Jehoram, who also comes of Jacob, afterwards loses the Edomites as his servants and tributaries; they revolt, and continue so to this day. 2 Sam. 8:14; 2 Chr. 21:8.
Saviours by-and-by shall come to Zion and judge the mount of Esau. Obadiah 21. The tabernacle of David which is now fallen shall be raised up, and Israel shall possess Edom and the residue of the Gentiles. Amos 9. This shall be made good in its season, for the elder shall serve the younger — the promise is yea and amen. But now, and from the days of Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat of the house of David of the lineage of Jacob, Esau or Edom has been in revolt; and the promise is thus delayed and complicated and burdened in ways such as the grace of God and the gift by grace had never designed, and such as Jacob had never passed through, had his faith been more simple.
And there is much like this in Christian experience. See the disciples on the sea of Galilee, in Mark 4. The Lord had said to them, "Let us go unto the other side." This was a pledge to them that they were sure to reach the other side. They need not fear. They may, if they please, lay them down to sleep with their Master. But no — they fear, and consult with flesh and blood. And therefore they reach the other side with tremblings and amazement and shame. Their fears loaded their spirit with these burdens, which, had they left the fulfilling of the word to Him who had given the word, would have been saved them. And so, the unbelief of Jacob in Gen. 27, his putting the promise of God into his mother's hand, has loaded the history of his house with those perplexities and contradictions and changes, which, as we have mentioned, were all strangers to the promise, as the simple gift of grace, at the beginning, had purposed it and made it.
Many like experiences the disciples had, through their unbelief, as they companied with the Lord Jesus all the time He went in and out among them — and many such are known to us His saints at this day. Our spirits gather amazement and shame, when we might have known only the calm and bright enjoyments of faith, looking, if it were so, at a sleeping Jesus, and knowing His sufficiency for all promises, though winds and waves oppose.
Thus was it with Jacob, according to the part he acted in this sad family scene. Esau was not the guilty one here. He was rather the injured party; and therefore, in the hand of Him by whom "actions are weighed," Esau is the only one who is a gainer. All the rest have to learn what the way of their own hearts shall end in. Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob alike prove this. It is Esau, so far the injured one, who gains, as we have seen, anything by it all. By his sword he lives, and, in time and for a time, breaks the yoke of his younger brother off his neck.*
*Jeroboam in his day took his own way to reach the promise of God touching the kingdom of the ten tribes, by the prophet Ahijah — and he delayed his own mercy; just as Jacob does in this chapter. Nay, further. Jeroboam has to be an exile in Egypt till the death of Solomon, because of this; as Jacob has for twenty years to be an exile in Padan, for the same evil. See 1 Kings 11.
After all this, just at the end of his ways, though not of his days, at the desire of the suspicious and terrified Rebecca, Isaac sends away Jacob. And this action is done with an expression of sorrow and shame and disappointment, the bitter fruit which their own way had prepared for them. All would have been different indeed, had the spirit and obedience of faith kept them in the way of the Lord. Gen. 27:42; Gen. 28:5.
And here we reach, as we said, the end, the practical end, of the life of our patriarch. He lives, it is true, for forty years after this; it may be more — but he is lost to us. He is as if he were not.
At the close of Gen. 35 we read, "And Jacob came unto Isaac his father unto Mamre, unto the city of Arbah, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were an hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him."
Abraham had carefully possessed himself of Machpelah, on the occasion of Sarah's death; and there he had buried Sarah, and there Isaac and Ishmael had buried him; and there, at this time, Jacob and Esau bury Isaac and there afterwards his twelve sons bury Jacob.
The purchase of this parcel of ground, and the care the patriarchs manifested in the matter of their burial there, tell us of their faith in their own happy resurrection and its attendant inheritance of the land. It tells us that hope was in their souls as surely as faith — that as they rested, without a doubt, in the certainty of their call and adoption, so did they, with like assurance, in the life and inheritance prepared for them in the world to come. They lived in faith, and they died in faith. They were a people in whose souls the life of faith and hope was known and enjoyed. They betray nature again and again; they err, they shift and contrive and play false with God at times through unbelief; they incur discipline and rebuke, and at times are humbled before men; but they seem never to doubt the blessed facts, that they were adopted and endowed by the God of glory. Faith and hope lived in their souls. I say not that they had what we have. There is now an unction, an earnest, and a witness, fruit of the given, indwelling Spirit, imparting not only the power but the character of this day of ours. But the patriarchs, in their infant age, seem never to doubt. And this is precious — that God, even in the earliest communications of Himself — communications of Himself to His elect even in their childhood, or, in the infant days of Genesis — would be known by them as One to be trusted both for the present and the future.
And again I say, this is precious. The Spirit forms hope in the soul of the elect, as surely as faith. Machpelah tells us this, as to the patriarchs. But it was found before them, and it has been found ever since. Adam was a hoping as well as a believing man. As soon as he had faith, he had hope. He walked as a stranger on earth, as well as in the consciousness of life. And with him, and like him, the antediluvian saints.
Israel afterwards celebrated the last night of their sojourn in Egypt with the staff in their hand and the shoe on their foot, as simply and as surely as they had put the blood on the lintel. They hoped for something beyond Egypt, as certainly as they counted on security in Egypt.
Moses witnessed this standing of Israel, this proper standing in the camp of God in the power of faith and hope, when afterwards he said to Hobab, "We are journeying to a place of which the Lord said, I will give it you." And so Paul, in his words before King Agrippa, "Unto which promise our twelve tribes instantly serving God day and night hope to come."
The oil in the vessels of the wise virgins is the expression of the power of hope. They provided against His delay for whose return alone they looked and waited, be that return far off or nigh.
And to give hope its highest, brightest moral glory, we are given to know, that the present heaven of Jesus is a heaven of hope. Though seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, He is, we know, "expecting till His enemies be made His footstool." And the mind of the glorified Church will, by-and-by, be kindred with this mind of her glorified Lord; for the heaven of Rev. 5 is also a heaven of hope. "Thou art worthy," say the living creatures and enthroned elders of that heaven, "to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made them unto our God kings and priests: and they shall reign over the earth."
In this life of faith and hope, the fathers of the Book of Genesis are seen to be one. Happy to know this. They illustrate different mysteries, and read us different moral lessons; but in this life of faith and hope they are one; and each in his day, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is alike gathered to his people (Gen. 25, Gen. 35, Gen. 49) — each is "a handful of sacred dust" in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, laid up there in sure and certain hope of a resurrection unto life and to the inheritance.
There is a common saying, "It is better to wear out than to rust out." But this better thing was not Isaac's. He rusts out. And such was the natural close of such a life.
Was Isaac, I ask, a vessel marred on the wheel? Was he a vessel laid aside as not fit for the Master's use? or at least not fit for it any longer? His history seems to tell us this. Abraham had not been such an one. All the distinguishing features of "the stranger here," all the proper fruits of that energy that quickened him at the outset, were borne in him and by him to the very end. We have looked at this already in the walk of Abraham. (See "Abraham") Abraham's leaf did not wither. He brought forth fruit in old age. So was it with Moses, with David, and with Paul. They die with their harness on, at the plough or in the battle. Mistakes and more than mistakes they made by the way, or in their cause, or at their work; but they are never laid aside. Moses is counselling the camp near the banks of the Jordan; David is ordering the conditions of the kingdom, and putting it (in its beauty and strength) into the hand of Solomon; Paul has his armour on, his loins girded. When, as I may say, the time of their departure was at hand, the Master, as we read in Luke 12, found them "so doing," as servants should be found. But thus was it not with Isaac, Isaac is laid aside. For forty long years we know nothing of him; he had been, as it were, decaying away and wasting. The vessel was rusting till it rusted out.
There surely is meaning in all this, meaning for our admonition.
And yet — such is the fruitfulness and instruction of the testimonies of God — there are others, in Scripture, of other generations, who have still more solemn lessons and warnings for us. It is humbling to be laid aside as no longer fit for use; but it is sad to be left merely to recover ourselves, and it is terrible to remain to defile ourselves. And illustrations of all this moral variety we get in the testimonies of God. Jacob, in his closing days in Egypt, is not as a vessel laid aside, but he is there recovering himself. I know there are some truly precious things connected with him during those seventeen years that he spent in that land, and we could not spare the lesson which the Spirit reads to us out of the life of Jacob in Egypt. But still, the moral of it is this — a saint, who had been under holy discipline, recovering himself, and yielding fruit meet for recovery. And when we think of it a little, that is but a poor thing. But Solomon is a still worse case. He lives to defile himself; sad and terrible to tell it. This was neither Isaac nor Jacob — it was not a saint simply laid aside, nor a saint left to recover himself. Isaac was, in the great moral sense, blameless to the end, and Jacob's last days were his best days; but of Solomon we read, "It came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods," and this has made the writing over his name, the tablet to his memory, equivocal, and hard to be deciphered to this day.
Such lessons do Isaac and Jacob and Solomon, in these ways, read for us, beloved — such are the minute and various instructions left for our souls in the fruitful and living pages of the oracles of God. They give us to see, in the house of God, vessels fit for use and kept in use even to the end — vessels laid aside, to rust out rather than to wear out — vessels whose best service it is to get themselves clean again — and vessels whose dishonour it is, at the end of their service, to contract some fresh defilement.
Wondrous and various the lessons and the ways of grace, abounding grace! Quickly indeed does the soul entertain thoughts of God according to the suggestions of nature, instead of knowing Him according to faith. Nature holds Him before the soul as a judge, or as a lawgiver, or an exactor of righteousness, as One that carries balances in His hand to try every thought and work — One that is sensitive and resentful of the slightest touch of evil. But faith holds Him before a gazing, worshipping eye and heart, as the One who always loves us, do what He may, or speak as He will. For faith worketh by love (Gal. 5:6) — it worketh towards God as Love, and therefore it is a spirit of confidence and liberty. If we find our souls under pressure of the spirit of fear or bondage or uncertainty, we may be sure that they have let go the gentle hand of faith, and allowed themselves to be led by such tutors and governors as nature provides. This ought not so to be. We are to know that we have ever to do with love! When we read, when we pray, when we converse, when we confess, when we serve, when we sing, when we look at His hand in providence, or think of His name in secret, may faith's communion with God be ours! He loves us. The relationship in which we stand, and of which our Isaac was the expression, makes this a necessary truth.
It is "to Himself" that God has brought us and adopted us — having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will. Eph. 1:5. And these words "to Himself" bespeak God's own joy in the adoption of the elect, in making them children; as was Abraham's joy at the weaning of our Isaac. Christ presents the Church to Himself (Eph. 5:27), and the Father gathers the elect as children by adoption to Himself. Each has personal interest and personal delight in the mysteries of grace. And according to this, the Holy Ghost, in the Epistle to the Galatians, to which the story of Isaac so refers, pleads the cause of the Father as well as the cause of Christ with us. He teaches us that we are redeemed by Christ from the curse of the law, and, through the Spirit given to us by the Father, from the bondage of the law. All this is full of blessing to us; and all this, the mystery of Isaac the son of the free-woman, suggests to us.
Faith is that principle in us which gives to the Lord Jesus the place or privilege (such a place indeed as God alone can fill) of sustaining the confidence of a sinner entirely by Himself, of being the immediate, the only object of the sinner's trust. But faith, in this dispensation, involves relationship. By faith we stand in the Person as well as on the work of Christ — and Christ being the Son, we are children, as we are saved sinners. We are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:26. And Ishmael is not to share the house with Isaac. The spirit of bondage gendered by the law or by the religion of ordinances, is to be put out, and the spirit of liberty alone is to fill it. For the house is now set in a child and not in a servant, in Isaac and not in Eliezer — and relationship is God's joy as it is ours. "The Father seeketh such to worship Him." Wondrous words of abounding grace, beloved! and Sarah's joy in our Isaac pledged this in patriarchal days.