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The Death of Abraham
Now that he is gone we may be able to get a clear view of his whole character, and to see how one part looks in the light of another. It is almost impossible to be just to any living man who is doing a great work, because we see his imperfections, we are perhaps fretted by the manner in which he does it, and we are not quite sure that he may not even yet spoil it by a blunder or a crime. But when he has laid down his tools, and left his work for the last time, we may look quietly at the whole character, stretching clear through from youth to old age, and form a sound opinion of its quality and value.
Abraham is by far the greatest man we have met with in these studies, and his greatness is our difficulty, because we are apt to judge him by ourselves. That, indeed, is the difficulty of reading all the best biography; we think what we should have done, and if the hero did not act just as we should have acted, it is very seldom that we give him credit. In some respects Abraham was the first great traveller in the world; and his difficulty in travelling was the greater because he did not leave home to gratify any curiosity or whim of his own, but in obedience to a spiritual influence which bore him forward by a mighty impulse which he could hardly put into words. We should call a man who acts today as Abraham acted thousands of years ago, a fanatic; we believe in a respectable and decorous Providence; not in the God who drives us before the breath of a storm and makes us helpless under the spell of an irresistible inspiration. And we should doubt a man who acted like Abraham all the more because he did not get the very thing which he said God had promised to him before he left home. That would be fatal to any man's claim to having been directed of God nowadays. We judge the providence by the prize. If you succeed, then you have been Divinely guided; if you fail, then you have either "not asked or else you have asked amiss." If you are invited from one church to another, as pastor, your wisdom in accepting the invitation will be judged by the congregations you gather: if you fill the pews and have to enlarge the building, people will say, "You can have no doubt now that God sent you"; but if the hearers be few and poor, the same people will tell you that you have missed "your providential way." Judged by this standard of miscalled success, Abraham's migration is the greatest blunder in the pages of religious history. It was a failure. Canaan was promised to him, and he never got a foot of it! Surely, then, a respectable and commercial piety may fairly call him a mistaken man, an amiable enthusiast, a clairvoyant dreamer who mistook a morning mist for a great estate. I wish, therefore, to learn from Abraham's character the right way of judging Providence; to learn from a Jew how to be a Christian! The rough and ready way of stating this case is: Abraham went out from his kindred and his father's house to get a land that God would show him; Abraham did not get that land, but actually "sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country," and was buried in a grave which he had to buy; it is clear, therefore, that he mistook a dream for a reality, a mirage for a landed property, and he was punished for his selfish ambition. I fear that this notion of God's providence is not unknown amongst ourselves; that we think nothing is heavenly but success; and that it never enters our minds that God's way may lie through the dreary region of hunger and loss, pain and sorrow, weakness and death, and that failure itself may be a sign of God's presence and care in our life.
Abraham's case shows that God may have fulfilled a promise when he had apparently broken it; and that God's promises are not to be measured by the narrowness and poverty of the letter. God promised Abraham and his seed a place or land called Canaan, and yet Abraham and his seed never held the land; Abraham "sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in the tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise"; he had "none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet God promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child." Now, this brings us, so to speak, into close quarters with God's providence, and Abraham's character becomes a medium through which we learn Divine lessons. Abraham suffered for us. It is beautiful beyond expression to see how the true idea dawned upon the mind of the man of faith, that is to say, how he got from the letter to the spirit and saw God's meaning at last. When he came out of the land of the Chaldeans he had a very small notion of his future, but as he went on and on, from Charran, building his altar and pitching his tent, his eyes pierced beyond the little land of Canaan, and "he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God." He could not have taken in the grandeur of that idea at first. It was too spiritual for him. He must have real land, real stones, real possessions of divers kinds, and by-and-by there would break upon his mind the higher light; these things would show their own worthless-ness as mental supports and tonics, and he would let them slip out of his hands that he might become a citizen of "a better country, that is, an heavenly," "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away," and the literal Canaan would cease to have a single charm for a man that had seen "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." I beg you not to let this point slip, or you may "charge God foolishly": you may say, "God promises one thing and gives another, therefore he disappoints and distresses the believer of his promises," now, that is true as to the first part, and untrue as to the second, for it is in evidence in all the volumes of history and personal experience that God's way of fulfilling his promises always astonished with glad surprise the very persons who at first saw nothing but the letter, and grasped nothing but the common meaning of the word. God's promises are not broken, they are enlarged and glorified. The receivers themselves are satisfied, are overwhelmed with thankful amazement, and, instead of complaining that the letter has not been kept, they say, "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think"; and so deep is this impression that they have said, and are saying every day, the things that are seen by the natural eyes are not worthy to be compared with the glories that shine on the eyes of the heart. Now this I hold to be the explanation of the difficulty arising from the supposed discrepancy between the promise and its fulfilment. It is fulfilled beyond all expectation. The answer is as a river which overflows the channel of the promise.
Your little boy is five years old: promise him that if he will learn such and such lessons he shall have the finest rocking-horse in the world when he is fifteen: I can easily imagine him seizing his lessons with great earnestness; at five a rocking-horse seems the finest of prizes; the child works, and reads, and learns (the figure of the rocking-horse still being before his imagination), but as five becomes seven, and seven grows into nine, and nine enlarges into twelve, and the mind strengthens and brightens by the very work which was to bring the prize, the rocking-horse goes down in value, until, at fifteen, the intelligent, well-trained, glad-hearted youth declines the very Canaan which he so eagerly started to win, and is almost insulted if you name to him the promised prize. Why does he decline it? Because he has get something so much better: he has got information, culture, discipline, habits of reading and observation, and these very things which he had no idea of getting when he started have actually wrought in him a proper contempt for the very prize that was promised.
So I see Abram starting from the land of the Chaldeans with a promise of getting another land. At first he thinks much about it. He wonders how long it is, and how wide, and how rich in wells and thick pastures, and many a long dream he has about the country far away; travel tries him; little disappointments trouble his daily life; sorrow comes; death overshadows him; great judgments come down from heaven; a solemnity grows upon his heart as he sees the seasons rise, flourish, and die, and life run its little round; many a word God speaks to his heart; he learns something of the greatness of manhood; new possibilities disclose themselves; unusual aspirations give a higher dignity to his prayers, and his soul almost unconsciously enters into new alliances and companionships, until at last he declares plainly, even in Canaan itself, that he seeks a country, a better country, a richer Canaan, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. It is thus our manhood grows. "When I was a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I needed a promise suitable for a child ; I sigh for a fulfilment worthy of a man.
When the young man started in business he probably set before his mind the idea of twenty years' service, a modest competence, and long years of leisure, a Canaan easily gained and easily held. As he went forward the very effort he was required to make evolved new opportunities, new habits, and new ambitions, until his first notion became ridiculous even to himself. Thus we are led on. First, that which is natural; afterward, that which is spiritual. To begin with we must have something to look at and to touch; by-and-by our better nature will be awakened, and spiritual meanings will be realised. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be" in spiritual elevation and desire; in our meaner selves we think that the earthly will be enough, but in our better moments we shall earnestly desire our house from heaven. The young lad whose pocket money is fourpence per month quite longs for the time when he will be called upon to pay the income-tax. He says he will be only too glad to pay the tax when he gets the income. In due time he obtains the income, but I listen in vain for any special gratification in the matter of the tax. The veteran servant who has received a gift of honour from his admirers, tells them that much as he values the silver and the gold, he prizes the love which gave them infinitely more. This is the same principle; it is the spiritual absorbing the material. The principle may be applied to heaven itself. The young Christian thinks of heaven as a magnificent collection of all the finest things he has ever heard of of harps and trumpets, of gardens and fountains, of processions and banners, of crowns and thrones; as he grows in holy life he sees that something better must be meant; as he gets nearer and nearer the promised land he cares less and less for the magnificence which once satisfied him; and at the last he sees all the heaven he needs in being "for ever with the Lord."
These are beautiful words as showing one side of Abraham's character; "And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah." I am not aware that those names are thus united in any other transaction. Abraham never ceased to care for Ishmael, the son of the bondwoman, the wanderer; and Ishmael showed how he valued his father's care by thus uniting with Isaac in the last act of filial love. How true is it that sometimes relatives only meet one another at funerals! For years they may never speak to each other, but some cold, sad day they set out on a journey to one common grave. "Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac," yet Ishmael went to the funeral! Isaac and Ishmael met over their father's dead body, and then probably separated for ever. Ishmael might have had hard feelings as he stood so near the bones of Sarah: thought of his mother and of that day when she and he went forth into the wilderness. Some recollections cut us very keenly, and even make us furious with resentful anger. It was surely not so with Ishmael. The wilderness had told well upon him. He was not hardened by hardship. He was a giant and a true king, and his eye took in wide sweeps of things, and thus helped his soul towards large and noble judgments.
Abraham is our father, too, if we believe, for he is "the father of the faithful." If we blame him for aught of short-coming or misdeed, we blame ourselves, for we are more to be reproached than he. Abraham lived in the twilight, we live in the full noon; Abraham stood alone, we are members of the general assembly and Church of the firstborn, with throngs of friends around us, and blessed memories and inspirations. Let us cultivate the pilgrim spirit. Let us "declare plainly that we seek a country." Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. Bind the sandals, grasp the staff, tarry briefly everywhere, and though faint, be evermore pursuing, content with nothing less than heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 25". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent