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The Temptation of Abraham
This narrative has been an awful difficulty to many. Some, who have not quite cast the Bible away as God's Word, yet go near to saying that we cannot see God's Word in this passage. It is said by some that the whole incident must be explained by ideas in Abraham's mind, suggested by the practice of human sacrifices around him. Abraham thought on these till the feeling arose that his God also demanded nothing short of the life of his best beloved treasure; then this feeling mastered him as a passionate resolve, till he all but slew his son.
Such a view I refuse to accept. I am quite sure it is not the view meant to be given by the narrative, and I am quite sure that the narrative had the approval of our Lord Jesus Christ, as a true account of His Father's will and work. So I am sure that, somehow, God supernaturally conveyed to Abraham His command, as the absolute Lord of the life of His creatures; that Abraham obeyed not his own feelings, but that command; that he was supernaturally prevented from the final act, when his willingness to do even it at his Lord's word had been shown, and that his whole conduct received a glorious crown of approval, then and there, from heaven. All this I steadfastly believe; but I do not wonder at the difficulties many hearts have felt over the story.
Now here note some of the 'messages' of Abraham's temptation.
I. First, it was obviously a case where 'test' and 'enticement' might, and no doubt did, beset Abraham at the same time. His heavenly Friend was testing him. His dark Enemy is not mentioned; Genesis has no clear reference to him at all after Chapter III. But we may be sure he was watching his occasion, and would whisper deep into Abraham's soul the thought that if this call was from the Lord, the Lord was an awfully 'austere' Master; would not some other Deity, after all, be more kind and tolerant?
II. Then, we see where the essence of the awful test lay. Abraham was asked, in effect, two questions through it. He was asked whether he absolutely resigned himself to the Lord's ownership, and also whether he absolutely trusted his Owner's truth and love. The two questions were not identical, but they were twined close together. And the response of Abraham, by the grace of God in his heart, to both questions was a 'yes' which sounds on for ever through all the generations of the followers of the faith of Abraham. He so acted as to say, in effect, 'I am Thine, and all mine is Thine, utterly and for ever'. And this he did, not as just submitting in stern silence to the inevitable, but 'in faith'. He was quite sure that 'He was faithful who had promised.' He was sure of this because of His character; because he knew God, and knowing Him, loved Him. So he overcame. So he received the crown; he was blessed himself, and a blessing to the world.
III. Are we ever 'proved' in ways which in the least remind us of Abraham upon Moriah? Is it very strange, very dreadful, very arbitrary, to our poor aching eyes? Let us remember whose we are, and whom we trust, because we know Him. We belong to Him by purchase, by conquest, by surrender. Therefore all our 'belongings' belong to Him, in the sense that He has perfect right to detach them from us if He thinks it well. And we rely on Him to whom we belong. We know that not only are His rights absolute, but so also is His love, which abideth, is Himself.
The Divine command to Abraham, not merely to surrender Isaac but to kill him, is of course the mystery of the story. I believe it is enough to say that the absolute Lord of the lives of Abraham and of Isaac had the right not only to call for Isaac's life, but to call for it so having already trained Abraham up to a full reliance on His character. But we should also observe that the command would appeal to a human fact of that age, and of ages after; the fact that family was then so constituted that the child was regarded as the property of the parent. In the full light of the Gospel, while every filial duty is deepened and glorified, such a constitution is not possible. We may be sure that no such command will be given in the Christian age.
Bishop H. C. G. Moule.
I. The word tempt here means try. To those dwelling out of the Kingdom of Faith such a command as this must appear strange indeed, one exacting from a father, it seems so contrary to nature, so opposed to the very feelings sown in the heart of man; and doubtless multitudes think the same of the entire plan of salvation, as also of affliction, or trials of any sort. But there are those who have gone through difficulties, and sufferings, and have felt, however painful the trials, yet were they accompanied with brightening, purifying influences; they drew those tried ones nearer to God, in proportion as they had faith and grace to bear.
II. The conduct of men in general is influenced by reason, by feeling, by interest, but in this act of Abraham's we find all these laid aside. Abraham did not act from any of these motives, but from a principle which was in opposition to them all. Therefore when the command came, it might have startled him perhaps, but he did not criticize it, he did not sit in judgment on it, he knew where it came from, it must be right, and it must be obeyed.
III. Not only were Abraham's reason and feelings opposed to his faith, but also his highly cherished interests. In Isaac were wrapped up the father's fond affections, all his worldly hopes and prospects; through him he was taught to expect that his descendants should become a mighty nation, that from him should spring a race of kings, yea, the Messiah, the King of kings; yet when the command came to slay that son, faith led him to obey it.
IV. Besides Abraham being set before us in this Scripture as a noble example of faith and obedience to God's commands, there is another lesson which this narrative seems evidently intended to teach. We have here a lively type and illustration of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for the sins of men. The whole history is, in several parts, a sort of breathing picture, prefiguring by actual persons and actual sufferings the great sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross.
E. J. Brewster, Scripture Characters, p. 20.
References. XXII. 1. Spurgeon, Sermons, vols. xxii. xxiii. No. 37. XXII. 1-14. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Genesis, p. 152. XXII. 1-19. J. Clifford, Daily Strength for Daily Living, p. 19. J. J. S. Perowne, Sermons. p. 332.
Isaac the Domesticated
Isaac is distinctively a female type. He reveals human nature in a passive attitude precisely that attitude which the old world did not like.
I. The life of Isaac is from beginning to end a suffering in private. His was that form of sacrifice which does not show, which wins no reputation for heroism.
II. Our first sight of him is the sight of an unresisting victim on an altar of sacrifice, but his attitude is not that of a mere victim. It is that of acquiescence. In the deepest sense Isaac has bound himself to the altar. He has submitted to self-effacement for the sake of his family. That submission is the type of his whole life.
III. Most probably this self-effacement on the part of Isaac did not come from a quiet nature. His sacrifice takes the form of personal divestiture. It is all inward, but the man who can give his will has given everything. His was the surrender and not the crushing of a will. The crushing of a will brings vacancy, but the surrender of a will is itself an exercise of will power.
G. Matheson, The Representative Men of the Bible, p. 131.
References. XXII. 2. J. Parker, Adam, Noah, and Abraham, p. 191. C. D. Bell, Hills that Bring Peace, p. 45. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xv. No. 868.
The Offering of Isaac
Certain features of this severe trial closely resemble some of the operations of Divine providence known to ourselves.
I. We are often exposed to great trials without any reason being assigned for their infliction. When such trials are accepted in a filial spirit, the triumph of faith is complete.
II. Even in our severest trials, in the very crisis and agony of our chastisement, we have hope in the delivering Mercy of God. This is often so in human life; the inward contradicts the outward. Faith substitutes a greater fact for a small one.
III. We are often made to feel the uttermost bitterness of a trial in its foretelling and anticipation. Sudden calamities are nothing compared with the lingering death which some men have to die.
IV. Filial obedience on our part has ever been followed by special tokens of God's approval. We ourselves have in appropriate degrees realized this same overflowing and all-comforting blessing of God in return for our filial obedience.
V. The supreme lesson which we should learn from this history is that almighty God, in the just exercise of His sovereign and paternal authority, demands the complete subjugation of our will to His own. We are distinctly called to give up everything, to sink our will in God's; to be no longer our own; to sum up. every prayer with, 'Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done'.
Joseph Parker, The Contemporary Pulpit, vol. v. p. 154.
The Backgrounds of Life
Abraham was on his way to offer up Isaac, and 'the place afar off' was the mountain on which he had been told to perform the sacrifice. Let me put aside at once any consideration of the object of his journey and any discussion of the disputed question of the locality. I am taking the words of the text as simply suggesting the idea of a distant view closed in by a mountain range. Views of this kind are common in Palestine. There are few parts of the country where the horizon is not bounded by a mountain outline, and though the heights are not great when compared with the higher Alps, yet the shapes and the structures are those of mountains, not hills. Our personal memories of mountain scenery in other lands are enough to give us an idea of the view which lay before Abraham. We think of distant, delicate, changing tints, purple or blue or grey, seen across a foreground of plain or valley; we think of the charm of what Ruskin calls mountain gloom and mountain glory. That was not, of course, the way in which the Jews of the Old Testament regarded their mountains. It was not love of their beauty which they felt; it was rather a sense of their awfulness. They associated mountain heights, as in the case of Mount Sinai, with the immediate presence of God. 'He that treadeth on the high places of the earth,' says the prophet Amos, 'the Lord the God of Hosts is His name.' If this belief inspired a feeling of awe about mountains, from another point of view it was not devoid of comfort. To the Psalmist the mountain horizons of his fatherland suggested the assurance of God's protection. 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains from whence cometh my help.' 'As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people from this time forth and for evermore.'
We have all felt, I suppose, the beauty of the Psalmist's simile. May we not claim that it still has a meaning of value for us? Let us think for a little about the mountain backgrounds of life. Our lives are like a great landscape; each life has its own foreground and background; the foreground full of detail, full of the movement of our daily work, looming much larger on our sight than the distance beyond it, pressing upon us calls of business that we cannot put off, keeping our thoughts immersed in the ceaseless hurry and hustle of our professional career, calling continually for our immediate attention to this or that thing that has to be done. Such is the foreground of life. And then behind all this multiplicity of detail and movement come the wider horizons, the larger aspirations, the deeper convictions, the eternal truths, the unchangeable principles to which we must continually lift up our eyes if our life is to have any general plan or purpose. These are the mountain backgrounds. Both foreground and background are equally indispensable. No life can be complete that ignores either of them. But there is this difference between them. Men as a rule are naturally inclined to pay far more attention to the foreground than to the background. There are indeed sluggish or visionary natures which are content to stand aside from the ordinary activities of life, but these are exceptional. Most men find their immediate daily duties so engrossing that they are apt to neglect the view beyond. The mountain distances become blurred or blotted out. That is a great loss how great a loss our Lord teaches us Himself by His own example. We cannot suppose that He, in His busy daily life, ever really put God out of His thoughts; always He must have had with Him the sense of His Heavenly Father's presence. Yet none the less He felt the need of going up into a mountain apart to pray.
The idea that life is like a landscape is a mere metaphor of course, but it may be helpful and suggestive. Let me try to give one or two illustrations.
I. There is the background of the inner personality, for instance. Behind the foreground of conduct comes the background of character. The teaching of Jesus covers the whole range of this spiritual landscape. He says, 'Keep My commandments' that is the rule of conduct. But He also says (and we feel that it is a still deeper saying) 'Ye must be born again'. That is the need of regeneration of character. These two sayings are closely connected. Conduct and character must be in harmony, or there can be no real sincerity of life. Many lives, we all know, never attain this sincerity. That means a discrepancy, a want of harmony between foreground and background.
II. Then, again, there is the background of prayer. Every true prayer, it has been said, has its background and its foreground. The foreground of prayer is the intense immediate longing for some blessing which seems to be absolutely necessary for the soul to have; the background of prayer is the quiet, earnest desire that the will of God, whatever it may be, should be done. Examine from this point of view our Lord's perfect prayer at Gethsemane. In front we see the intense longing that the cup of agony and death might pass away from Him; but behind there stands the strong, steadfast desire that the Will of God should be done. Take away either of these conditions and the prayer becomes less perfect. Leave out the foreground (I quote the words of a great preacher) let there be no expression of the wish of him who prays and there is left a pure submission which is almost fatalism. Leave out the background let there be no acceptance of the Will of God and the prayer is only a manifestation of self-will, an ill-regulated petition for personal gratification, without reference to any higher law. It is just this background of prayer on which we need to keep our eyes fixed.
III. Take again the background of Divine truth. What do we see as we look down on the foreground of our lives in these days of controversy? There lies before us a series of battle-scenes full of noise and confusion the conflict of parties within our Church, the conflict of Church and Church, the conflict of Christian and non-Christian belief, the conflict of religion and agnosticism. We must lift up our eyes to the still, solemn mountain background which rises far away beyond the scene of conflict. There, on the distant horizon of our lives, we shall find, if we have but faith to see, that eternal truth which is one aspect of the nature of God, that truth which tests and explains and reconciles our partial and conflicting beliefs. There are times, no doubt, when to some of us the truth may be hidden from our eyes. The mountains may be veiled in clouds which we cannot pierce. But some of us perhaps have had experience of moments and moods when Divine truth seems to burst in upon the eye of the soul, and it is an immense help to be able to believe that, whether we see it or not, it is always there in the background of life, the one eternal, unchangeable goal of all the faith and of all the intellectual effort of mankind.
IV. One other spiritual background let me mention it is the background of the Christian ideal. Behind the foreground of the actual daily lives lived by Christian men and women comes the distant ideal and do we not constantly feel that it is unattainably distant? which the Master has set before His Church. The teaching which presents that ideal is no mere dead record of a life that has passed away: it is a perennial reservoir of suggestiveness. Age after age has witnessed the reincarnation of the Christian ideal. It has been assailed in these days, as it has often been assailed in times past. But the movement of modern thought has not been without its compensating advantages to Christianity, and I think we may claim that in some respects we are in closer touch than men used to be with the mind and the heart of Jesus Christ.
H. G. Woods, Master of the Temple.
References. XXII. 6. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 454. XXII. 7. M. Biggs, Practical Sermons on Old Testament Subjects, p. 53. XXII. 7, 8. F. D. Maurice, Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament, p. 83. R. Winterbotham, Sermons and Expositions, p. 19. XXII. 9. Bishop Armstrong, Parochial Sermons, p. 172. XXII. 9, 10. C. Bradley, The Christian Life, p. 206. E. Blencowe, Plain Sermons to a Country Congregation (2nd Series), p. 163.
The Highest Self-offering
This chapter teaches us that Abraham had to discover something about God. God did not tempt Abraham to any deed of violence. Instead of that He raised the faith of Abraham and the service and even the character of Abraham to a higher level than they had ever occupied before.
I. Abraham having discovered his God of righteousness proceeds to test himself with regard to the validity of all earthly affection, and I can imagine, as he feels his pride in his dear son growing day by day, that the influence of early training would come over him. 'Would it be a sublime thing, in fact does God want it that I offer my boy, as my father and my father's father have offered their boys to their Gods?' Then the moment comes, the resolution is taken, he sets out upon his journey, and the lad who is to be his victim accompanies him, unquestioning, for Isaac had a part in this event. Abraham binds him who is dearer than life itself to the old man, lays him on the altar, and prepares for the last dread blow. But something cries, 'Hold, lay not thine hand upon the lad.' It was as though an angel spoke to him, for God did speak in the mind of this heroic single-minded servant, who with a very dim light shining in his soul chose to serve at his best.
II. The principle herein declared, the situation herein described, has repeated itself in human history a thousand times since that far-off day a thousand times? may be a thousand thousand times. It teaches us this God requires no meaningless sacrifices from any man. I said no meaningless sacrifices, but there are occasions in life when earthly affection has to be sacrificed to eternal truth, when a lower love has to be offered up in the name of a higher. John Bunyan went to prison for his faith in a day when it meant much to suffer, and he endured within those prison walls some things which were harder than death. Here was a man to whom the stake would have meant nothing, a man who could have faced torture and shame and death with equanimity. He was putting on the altar what was dearer to him than a thousand lives. His blind child, his wife, his other dear ones, were offered to the service of the Most High and for love of Jesus Christ.
III. But there is a love for which men and women will sin. The wife will lie for the husband, mothers will do wrong for their children, fathers will sin for home, friend will sacrifice to the devil for friend. Know then that in every case where such decision is taken you have sacrificed husband, wife, child, self, to the lower, and not to the higher. The highest love is the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, and by. that I mean the love of Christ which never spared, never will spare those whom He calls. Consecrate all earth's affection at the altar, and if from the altar you must go to Calvary, then go! Love's highest is called for, the worthiest, the only one which you can offer in the presence of the Lamb of God.
R. J. Campbell, Sermons Addressed to Individuals, p. 171.
References. XXII. 10. R. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 83. S. A. Tipple, Echoes of Spoken Words, p. 213.
I. The Intended Sacrifice by Abraham of Isaac. It may be worth our while to ask for a moment what it was exactly that Abraham expected the Lord to provide. We generally use the expression in reference to outward things. But there is a meaning deeper than that in the words. What was it God provided for Abraham? What is it God provides for us? A way to discharge the arduous duties which, when they are commanded seem all but impossible for us. 'The Lord will provide.' Provide what? The lamb for a burntoffering which He has commanded. We see in the fact that God provided the ram which became the appointed sacrifice, through which Isaac's life was preserved. A dim adumbration of the great truth that the only sacrifice which God accepts for the world's sin is the sacrifice which He Himself has promised.
II. Note on what Conditions He Provides. If we want to get our outward needs supplied, our outward weaknesses strengthened, power and energy sufficient for duty, wisdom for perplexity, a share in the sacrifice which taketh away the sins of the world, we get them all on the condition that we are found in the place where all the provision is treasured.
Note when the provision is realized. Up to the very edge we are driven before the hand is put out to help us.
III. Note what we are to do with the Provision when we get it. Abraham christened the anonymous mountain-top not by a name which reminded him or others of his trial but by a name that proclaimed God's deliverance. He did not say anything about his agony or about his obedience. God spoke about that, not Abraham. Many a bare bald mountain-top in your career and mine we have got names for. Are they names that commemorate our sufferings, or God's blessings?
A. Maclaren, The God of the Amen, p. 209.
References. XXII. 14. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Genesis, p. 165. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1803. S. Martin, Sermons, p. 159. XXII. 15-18. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xliii. No. 2523. XXII. 16-18. E. H. Gifford, Voices of the Prophets, p. 131. XXII. 18. Expositor (2nd Series), vol. viii. p. 200. XXII. F. W. Robertson, Notes on Genesis, p. 53. XXIII. 19. J. Baines, Sermons, p. 139. XXIII. F. W. Robertson, Notes on Genesis, p. 62.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Genesis 22". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany