The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.Abram's Vision
After Abram had slain the kings he might well feel uneasy as a stranger in a strange land, for how could he tell how many enemies might be stirred up and what reprisals might come upon him? He was just in that state of exhaustion and bewilderment in which a word of comfort is especially precious There are times when we are not sure whether we have done right or not; we may have been rash; we may have sinned in our anger; and we want a word from heaven to tell us that the deed was good and that our soul is safe.
It was in these circumstances that "the word of the Lord came unto Abram." This is the first time that the expression, "the word of the Lord," occurs in the Bible. Afterwards it comes times without number; but now it comes in all its fresh music. We have often read up to this point that "the Lord said"; in this new expression it would seem as if the "Word" and the "Lord" were separated, or that the "Word" came separately, as if a messenger or a person. This is all the more likely from what follows: the Word came in a vision; the Word spoke in its own name; the Word answered the doubts and fears of Abram. What this "word of the Lord" may be, we are not supposed to know up to this point. We must mark the expression very carefully, and, perhaps, as we pass through the pages, light may be shed upon it. Hitherto the Lord has come to men—notably to Adam and to Noah; now his word has come, and come in a vision!
"Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward": this is the first time that the word shield occurs in the Bible; it means defence, guardianship invincible! What is it that is a shield? It is the Word of the Lord! Is there, then, something of battle in human life, that such defences should be needful? Does every man need a shield? May we not go unprotected into the strife of the world? The idea of a shield once having been suggested the ages have seized it as a prize and wrought it into their speech as a tone musical above many. Thus: "God is a shield unto them that put their trust in him"; "His truth shall be thy shield and buckler"; "With favour wilt thou compass the righteous as with a shield"; "Thou art my hiding-place and my shield"; "The Lord God is a sun and shield"; "Behold, O God, our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed." The world will never let a word go out that really touches its heart. There are words that will not be allowed to die. They came into language as by right, and they are welcomed as friends the very first time we hear them. They are, too, nearly always short words, words that a child can say and that the heart needs. Look at such short words as—life, love, peace, rest, faith, hope, home! Words small as drops of dew, yet holding the sun! And, wonderful in graciousness, God himself and his dear Son take up these words and claim them as their own. It is God that says "I am thy shield"; it is not a low thought of man's; it is God's own sweet speech; and it is Christ himself that says "I am the vine"; "I am the door"; "I am the true bread"; "I am the way, the truth, and the life"; "I am the light of the world." He who would speak to every soul of man, through all time, must speak in figures and stoop to pick up small words.
"And Abram said, Lord God"—this is the first use of those two words together. We have met them singly again and again, and we have met them together in English often in the second chapter, but in the Hebrew this is the first conjunction, the words being Adonai Jehovah. The same combination occurs only twice more in the whole of the five books of Moses, and these cases are both in Deuteronomy. It is instructive to notice how great words are used in great necessities: this sacred word "shield" is used in the necessity of fear, and this holy word "Lord God" is used in the necessity of doubt and wonder. Eloquence always comes out of necessity. Abram felt that his own short life was too small to hold all the riches that God was giving him. How could the great Euphrates be confined within one man's garden-plot? How could the stars be all crowded into one crown? God had given Abram everything but a child, and therefore it seemed to him that all this flow of God's love was running into a pool where it could only stand still. And Abram told God his fear in plain words. How true it is that we can say things in the dark that we dare not say in the light! For a long time Abram wanted to say this, but the light was too strong: he knew he would stammer and blush in the daytime, so he hid the fear in his heart. But now it is eventide! The shadows are about, and the stars are coming! O sweet eventide, what words we have spoken in its dewy quietness—words that would have been out of place in the glare of open day! How the voice has become low, and the heart has told what was deepest and tenderest, sending it out as a dove that would find another soul to rest in! It was so that Abram talked to God in the vision that came at star-time. He said, "I have no child; all my goods are in the hands of a steward, a true enough servant, but still not a son; what is to become of all these tokens of thy love?" and whilst he was talking the stars came out more and more, all of them—millions of silvery eyes, throng upon throng, glowing over head, sparkling over the distant hills, glittering in the east, throbbing like hearts on the western horizon, the singing Pleiades, the mighty Arcturus and his sons, Venus and Mars, and the Milky Way (names unknown then), there they were, angels talking in light, servants watching the gate of the King's city. It was in that hour that the Lord said to Abram, "Look up"; and Abram looked; and God said, "Count them"; and Abram said, "My Lord, who can count that host?" and the Lord said, "So shall thy seed be."
And now comes perhaps the greatest word yet spoken in human history. I wish we could speak it in the right tone! This is the word, "And Abram BELIEVED"! This is the first time the word believed occurs in the Bible. How wonderful this chapter is in the matter of first uses of words! It seems to be a chapter of beginnings. Believed,—what a history opens in this one word! The moment Abram believed, he was truly born again. We may see here some of the great meanings of the word. Paul says of Abram that "against hope he believed in hope," and "that he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief." Here, then, we may study the word at the fountain head. "Believed" means supported, sustained, strengthened; Abram nourished and nurtured himself in God; Abram hid his life and his future in this promise, as a child might hide or nestle in a mother's breast. That is faith. He took the promise as a fulfilment; the word was to him a fact. Thus he was called out of himself, out of his own trust, out of his own resources, and his life was fostered upon God,—he by-lived, lived-by, believed, God! It was surely a perilous moment. Appearances were against the promise. Doubt might well have said, How can this thing be? But Abram "staggered not." God's love was set before him like an open door, and Abram went in and became a child at home. Henceforward the stars had new meanings to him, as, long before, the rainbow had to Noah. Abram drew himself upward by the stars. Every night they spoke to him of his posterity and his greatness. They were henceforward not stars only but promises, and oaths, and blessings. Thus dust is turned into flesh; bread into sacramental food; and stars become revelations and prophecies.
This act of believing in the Lord was accounted unto Abram for righteousness. From the first, God has always made much of faith. In no instance has it been treated as a mere matter of course, but rather as a precious thing that called for approbation and blessing. Faith was counted unto Abram for character; it added something positive to his being; he became more than merely harmless; he became noble, dignified, righteous. To believe, is not simply to assent; it is to take the thing promised as if it were actually given; and this action on the part of man is followed by an exactly corresponding action on the part of God, for he takes the faith as righteousness, the act of belief as an act of piety, a mental act as a positive heroism. What Abram did, we ourselves have to do. He rested on the word of God; he did not wait until the child was born, and then say, "Now I believe"; that would not have been faith, it would have been sight. It is thus that I must believe God: I must throw my whole soul upon him, and drive all doubt, all fear, from my heart, and take the promise as a fact. God asks me to do so; he says he will give me strength to do so; he says that without faith it is impossible to please him. Lord, increase my faith! See how large a life Abram entered into when he believed! He became a contemporary of all ages, a citizen and freeman of all cities the world over and time without end. Life without faith is an earth without a sky.
Then the covenant was made. Abram wished a ratification to be given, and God gave it. Blood was shed, fire was enkindled, and words of strange import were spoken. The meaning of those words will appear as we become better acquainted with the history. In our own life there is always some dream yet to be fulfilled. We have not come to the point which we feel sure has yet to be reached. Thus God lures us from year to year up the steep hills and along roads flat and cheerless. Presently we think the dream will come true—presently, in one moment more, tomorrow at latest; and so the years rise and fall, the hope abiding in the heart and singing with tender sweetness; then the end; the weary sickness, the farewell, the last breath, and the Dream that was to have shaped itself on earth welcomes us, as the Angel that guarded our life, into the fellowship of heaven. We call it Dream now; we shall call it Angel then!
Abram's Domestic Life
Genesis 15 and Genesis 16
I take these two chapters together, as completing one view of Abram's domestic life. It may be well to take notice that, up to this point, everything has gone on in regular order, with the exception of one great and solemn event. We have found just what we might have looked for: the growth of the population, the spreading out of families and tribes into distant places, a little invention, and the beginnings of discovery and progress. There has been nothing unnatural in the history. As we might have expected, domestic life has been carefully and vividly brought under notice. We have had family lists and registers in abundance, for, in truth, there was little else to talk about in those early days. The talk was of the children. To have the quiver full of such arrows was to be blessed of God in the most acceptable way; not to have children was to have great disappointment and distress. Abram had many children in promise, but not one in reality; a joy which he himself could bear, but his wife did not accept the position with so glad a readiness. And out of this want of faith came grief, grief of her own making, but not wholly limited to herself. Want of faith always brings grief. It leads to meddlesomeness, and suspicion, and jealousy; and jealousy is a precipice over which men topple into the pit. Jealousy is as cruel as the grave. Its root is in suspicion. It suspects motives; it suspects actions; it suspects innocence itself: then it grows; it sees things that have no existence; it looks out under the eyebrows stealthily; it listens for unusual noises; it mistakes and misinterprets the ordinary signs and movements of life; and all the while it is killing the heart that nurses it. Have pity upon people that are afflicted with jealousy. They make you suffer, but they suffer more themselves. Oh, the dreams they have! The nightmare, terrible as hell, when the serpent rears itself at the bedside and shoots out its empoisoned fang, and coils its infinite length around their resting-place so that they cannot escape. It was so that Sarai dreamed by night, and in the daytime her heart was cruel towards Hagar. It all came from want of faith. She had no deep trust in God. And, observe, if it be not true for ever, that as the religious life goes down the evil powers set themselves up in awful mastery in the heart. O, my friend, keep fast hold of God, for when thy trust goes there is no more peace for thy poor life.
Sarai was so cruel that Hagar fled away from her. Sarai imagined that Hagar despised her. It was all fancy. How fancy tortures us! It turns the green branches of spring into serpents; it curdles and rots the milk of human kindness; it turns the child's sweet laugh into a mocking noise; it finds hell everywhere! Beware of thine imaginings, my friend, my brother, my sister—beware! One wrong turn, and there is nothing for thee but cloud and storm, and weary aching of heart.
The angel of the Lord sent Hagar back again, knowing that "what cannot be cured must be endured." Besides, submission itself, though so hard, may be so accepted as to become useful in the mellowing and strengthening of character. The angel did not say, "Fight it out and let the strong one win." He advised submission, and this is the first instance in which such advice is given in the Scriptures. It is a great Christian law, we know, but it is early to find it in Genesis! "Submit yourselves one to another for the Lord's sake," is a lesson which reads well in church; but Hagar heard it not under a Gothic roof, half-chanted by surpliced priest, but "by a fountain of water in the wilderness, in the way to Shur,"—she the only hearer, the angel the priest of God! A good church, too, in which to learn the lesson of submission. I see Hagar taking a draught of the fountain, and trudging home again on weary feet; going back to work among the sharp thorns, and to have words keen as stings thrown at her all the day long. A sorry fate, you say, to be pointed out by an angel! But wait. You do not know all. Who could bear all the ills of any one human life without having some help, some light, some hope? A wonderful word was spoken to the woman—"I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." As if he had said—"If thou didst know thy destiny, thou wouldst think little of Sarai's mocking; it is but a momentary pain; bear it with the heroism of silent patience." And, truly, this same angel speaks to us all. He says, "If you walk in the way of the Lord you shall have blessing after sorrow, as the flowers bloom after the rain; persecution you cannot escape, nor slander, nor cruel words; but your light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh out for you a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. One hour in heaven will banish every sad thought of earth; submit, be patient, and return not evil for evil." Oh, listen to the angel; it is God's angel; it is God himself!
And now Hagar's days went with a new speed. Sarai mocked as before, but Hagar heard the angel's voice. The words of the angel became a kind of refrain in the melancholy music of her outer life: "I will multiply thy seed exceedingly; the Lord hath heard thy affliction"; these words never cease, and, under their influence, all taunts and sneers and bitter maledictions lost their effect. We, too, might have refrains still tenderer, the recurrence of which would refine and ennoble all coarse and cruel words. Thus: "Fear thou not, for I am with thee"; "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee"; "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper"; "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Ten thousand such promises are to be found in the Holy Word. Choose your own; take the one that fits your woe best, and if you be in Christ fear not to use it when the bitter wind blows fiercely. Hagar left her house in overwhelming distress; she went back to her sufferings with a new hope Our sufferings are so different when we take them at the Lord's hand, and endure them because he tells us to do so. We cannot triumph and rejoice in suffering merely on its own account. It is impossible to like pain simply because it is pain. But take the suffering at God's bidding; say, This is the cup of the Lord and I must drink it for his sake; it is a burden chosen for me by my Father in heaven; then you will sing with a new and tenderer emphasis,
In the seventeenth chapter we read the renewal of the covenant which the Almighty made with Abram, with a clear statement of the terms upon which the covenant was based. Thirteen years at least had come and gone since the promise was given the first time. Thirteen years of waiting! Thirteen years of mortification for Sarai! Thirteen years of discipline for Abram and Hagar and Ishmael! They would have killed some of us: thirteen days are to us eternity. The name Abram which signifies "Exalted father," now becomes Abraham, father of a multitude, and the limited name Sarai (my princess) becomes Sarah, princess; the limited becoming the unlimited. Mark how this renewal of the covenant turns upon the consecration of children. Hitherto we have to do with grown-up people, but now we are brought face to face with little ones. We have hardly had a child at all as yet in this long history. One wonders what notice God will take of young life; will he say, "Suffer the little children to come unto me," or will he shut them out of his view until they become great men? Is a child beneath God's notice?
"Is it much
Beautiful, too, is Christian baptism when regarded as the expansion of the idea of circumcision. It well befits a tenderer law; circumcision was severe; baptism is gentle: circumcision was limited to men-children; baptism is administered to all: circumcision was established in one tribe, or family, or line of descent; baptism is the universal rite,—Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. So we go from law to grace; from Moses to the Lamb; from the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, to the quiet and holy Zion.