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The Offering of Isaac
It must have seemed hardly possible to the patriarchs, and the elder Hebrews generally, that God could have made the heavy demands upon their trust and love which they were almost daily required to satisfy. In saying this I am judging primitive faith by modern religion: I am in fact judging Abraham by ourselves! Suppose that it should be borne in upon our mind, as the current phrase is, that we should do this or that great thing, requiring special self-denial and personal suffering, we should instantly reason that such a mental impression was the result of mental disorder or of physical derangement; the very last idea that would occur to us is that God meant to bereave and humble us until he had by suffering perfected the sanctification of our will. It is, therefore, the more startling to find Abraham, instantly, without fretful appeal or pathetic argument, going forth to a deed so terrible as the offering of his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved. I propose to point out certain features of this severe trial, which closely resemble some of the operations of Divine Providence known to ourselves, and thus to confirm ancient and modern revelation, and so get some notion of the unity and completeness of human discipline and training. In a word, I want to show that the God of the Jew is the God of the Christian, and that the God of Abraham is, in the widest sense, "the God of the living,"
1. The experience of Abraham and our own experience are strikingly coincident in the fact that we are often exposed to great trials without any reason being assigned for their infliction. Notice this in the case of Abraham. In the very midst of his domestic joy this desolating word falls. We do not read that Abraham had been committing sin, or that in any way he had been provoking the Most High to anger. From our point of view this trial is wholly without cause or reason, and the terms read like an edict of wanton and ruthless cruelty.
Such experiences are far from uncommon in our own day. We see human fortunes reversed without any apparent reason; the innocent are impoverished and scourged; men are paralysed in the very attitude and act of prayer; honestly-gotten wealth is scattered beyond recovery; the most useful workers in the Church are laid aside by sickness; and they who would gladly be foremost in the fight are made to stand still because of pain and helplessness. No reason is given. No justification is offered. The fearful demand is made point-blank, and no compromise is possible. God sometimes insists upon a distinct Yes or No, and then to falter is to rebel.
In this part of the case it is not proper to say that all men have sinned, and that the universal fact is explanation enough of the particular instance. That suggestion would cover too much ground; more, indeed, than is covered by the kind of providences now being considered. Universal depravity is of course the most mournful fact in human history, and, if followed in each instance with a trial as special as Abraham's, the reasoning would be sound. But we are looking at the case of men who stand nearest God, who love him most, and whom he himself most delights to honour, and we find that they are called upon to bear trials of unexampled and intolerable severity, without one word of explanation or argument. When such trials are accepted in a filial spirit, the triumph of faith is complete. Such faith is counted unto men for righteousness. It is not a faith that hesitates and falters and struggles; it is a faith victorious in its way even infinite and omnipotent.
2. The experience of Abraham and our own are further coincident in the fact that 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 strikingly shown twice in the story before us. "Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you" ( Gen 22:5 ). Mark the promise to come again! It would be pitiful trifling with the solemn occasion to say that Abraham lied unto the young men. The man who could offer such a sacrifice was not the man to tell lies to the on-lookers In the next instance, Abraham said to Isaac, "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering" ( Gen 22:8 ), when he knew that Isaac was appointed to the altar! It is so often in human life that the inward contradicts the outward, and that the unseen controls that which is seen. Terrible as the storm may be, yet far away in some dim chamber of the heart is an angel singing softly of hope, and light, and rest. Sometimes it is a voice without words; a solemn sound that never comes within the narrow range of articulation; yet it is as a rock on which the soul builds. "We will come again," said Abraham, when the very earth was reeling under his feet! "God will provide himself a lamb," said he, when the appointed victim was walking at his side. All this is true to life, as we ourselves know it. We have said these very words. We have said things to dying friends which would not bear a strictly literal test of accuracy, yet which were true in larger interpretations than literal exactness could comprehend or contain. Sometimes we have spoken in the power of the spirit, when men have limited us by the poverty of the letter. It was so that Jesus Christ himself was often misunderstood. He gave infinite meanings to finite words, and so he was constantly being contradicted by students of the mere letter. He said he would "build the temple in three days"; he said that he was "before Abraham"; he said that the dead Lazarus was "asleep." Faith often substitutes a greater fact for a small one. The parable overruns the mere history. "You will get better," we say to the patient, when perhaps we mean that he will be healed with immortality; and when we meet him in heaven he will tell us that we were right when we said he would yet live. Sometimes we wist not what we say. Let us then be careful how we charge one another with false speech, for there is a fiction that is not untrue.
3. The experience of Abraham is coincident with our own in the fact that we are often made to feel the uttermost bitterness of a trial in its foretelling and anticipation. Say whether you ever read anything so terrible as the second verse: "Take now thy son thine only son Isaac thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest and offer him for a burnt-offering"! The words must have dropped into Abraham's heart like molten lead. But not more hotly into his heart than some words have dropped into our own. Slowly has the finger of God moved over our most cherished treasures, marking them for ruin. They have not been spoken of in the gross, or hurriedly, as if with reluctance, but slowly, lingeringly, with a deliberation that aggravated the cruelty, until the steadiness of reason itself has been threatened. It was so with the regular and inexorable "calls" of the bankrupt bank in which you placed the savings of an industrious lifetime it was so in the accursed chancery suit which remorselessly stripped you of everything; and it was so in the shutting of door after door, until your last hope died, and you plunged into the black river of despair. A sudden reversal is nothing compared with the lingering death which some men have to die. They die upwards, inch by inch the light brings them no hope, and spring brings no renewal of their withered strength. If we meditate on these things, and study their plain and solemn meaning, we shall see that we ourselves and Abraham have been afflicted with common sorrows.
4. The experience of Abraham and our own are coincident in the fact that filial obedience on our part has ever been followed by special tokens of God's approval. We have something more than mere Hebrew redundancy of language in the promise made to Abraham by the Almighty. Hear how that promise reads. It reads like a river full to overflow: "Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice." I do not know of a more striking realisation of the promise, "I will open the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it." I call upon you to witness whether you yourselves have not, in appropriate degrees, realised this same overflowing and all-comforting blessing of God, in return for your filial obedience. Have you ever given money to the poor without repayment from the Lord? Have you ever given time to God's cause without the sun and the moon standing still until you had finished the fight, and made up for the loss? "Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life." Exceeding great and precious are the promises of God! He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think!
Other points of coincidence as between the old experience and the new will occur on reading the text, such as (1) the unconscious aggravations of our suffering made by inquiries such as Isaac's ( Gen 22:7 ); (2) the wonderfulness of the escapes which are often made for us ( Gen 22:13 ) by Divine Providence; and (3) the sanctification of special places by sweet and holy memories of deliverance and unexpected joy ( Gen 22:14 ). But the supreme lesson which I would 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. This is a hard lesson for man to learn. Man loves his own will. He thinks it best. He clings to it long. It is just here that the great battle must be fought. We are not called upon to give up one taste out of many; one pursuit out of many; one wish out of many; we are distinctly called upon 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." That is pure religion before God and the Father. "Except a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily, he cannot be my disciple." If God wants your only child to be a poor missionary, when you mean him to be a rich merchant, let him be laid upon the altar if you love and honour God! If God strip your vines, and take away the one ewe lamb; if he bark your fig-tree, and cause the herd to die in the field you are to say "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord." And never can we say this with the heart's full consent until we are crucified with Christ. We must say our greatest lesson after him. He speaks first, we speak second. He is the Master, we are the scholars. Lord, if thou wilt break the last link, break it; if thou wilt take away my last morsel of breads take it; "though thou slay me, I will trust in thee."
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 22". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany