And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.…
I. THE FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL. Example is an invariable element in every man's education. More or less he is sure to be shaped by it.
II. ABRAHAM'S EXAMPLE ATTAINABLE. Abraham is a favourite subject for the artist's pencil. But in most of the paintings we behold a figure erect and commanding, his countenance ploughed with stern lines of determination, an eye which makes resistance quail and tremble, and features which display a natural decision of character capable of pursuing its object at any cost. You would think love an easy sacrifice for such a being; you would say at the very first glance, "I could tell beforehand that man would give up his all to accomplish his purpose; I can understand his offer of Isaac." I recollect seeing a painting the very opposite of all this. Before me stood the Patriarch, a decrepid and weak old man; he had lost his stature, for years had bent him down; there was a shrinking back from the deed, a rebellion in every joint; his face harrowed with grief, wearing an expression of intense agony, and evidently appalled by the act it was contemplating; his arm half lifted up, and apparently questioning whether he should do the deed or not. My first impression was, "It is wrong, utterly wrong." And yet there was something on that canvas which kept me gazing, and at last altered my opinion entirely. There was a certain speech about the uplifted eye which you could not mistake; there was a peculiar and inexplicable expression overshadowing the agony of feature; there was a heavenly something about the countenance which told you that, after all, the deed would be done, and that the struggles you saw were but the weakness of man contending in unequal and unavailing effort with the might of the Spirit. The man would evidently draw back, but the God would as evidently triumph. Human power was all directed to avoid the sacrifice; but heavenly power — God working in that refractory heart to will and to do of His good pleasure — would certainly consummate the offering. That painting was a faithful likeness. I recognized Abraham. The Patriarch was not by nature a firm man; much less was he a stern man of cold heart. There are facts of his previous life which prove him to have been originally of a somewhat shrinking and cowardly disposition. We look in vain for moral firmness in the case of Sarah's sojourn in Egypt. He resorted to a falsehood as a safeguard against his fears lest strangers should slay him to obtain his wife; and notwithstanding he saw the evil and mischief resulting from this deception, he again practised it on Abimelech with the same purpose. His domestic life altogether indicates a pliant and yielding disposition. The short narration of Sarah's imperious and overbearing conduct in Ishmael's case (Genesis 13:8-10) is very significant. The division of land with Lot goes to prove the same point; there is no stern demand of strict justice; he does not insist upon his due; he does not even award the nephew his portion of territory; but he gives up his right of adjudication, which he possessed by seniority and patriarchal title, and meekly does he allow his younger relative to select his own land and pasturage. Even in his prayer for Sodom, there evidently is seen the pitying and earnest, yet fearful and undecided suppliant: he does not sternly leave the city to its doom; he does not put forth one general supplication for mercy; but the ground of his petition is moved and shifted in a way, which, to say the least, is not the act of a firm unyielding nature. Yet if these proofs do not establish the contrary of constitutional boldness, there is at least no proof of its existence; there is nothing to indicate that the parent's sacrifice had any sort of origin or support in natural disposition. We know that one who was weak in bodily presence, and in speech contemptible, was chosen out of the rest as the very chiefest of the apostles; and the probability is that one of the most infirm and naturally unlikely of all the Patriarchs was made strong out of weakness, and distinguished above many physical and mental Samsons, as a Father in grace. We are apt to consider such examples far above, out of our reach. We reckon them as giants from the womb, instead of giants by grace. We attribute to them natural powers which we have not. In fact we treat them as superhuman beings of a different race, and moving in a different sphere, But though the power provided is amply sufficient to enable us to emulate the faith of Abraham, yet you object, that you will not have the same scope for the exercise of that power; your circumstances are different; you are never likely to be commanded to take a son of special promise and slay him as a sacrifice to God. True, the deed is great, and probably, as a single act, it stands and will stand alone and unequalled; but there is often, as it were, a congeries of trials, which may even surpass, in its sum total, the amount of suffering which Abraham endured. A long succession of lesser sacrifices, following one on the heels of another, and keeping you in a state of constant depression for years, may call for more than the strength of faith required for Isaac's sacrifice. Sustained labour — sorrow scattered over a large surface — is far more difficult to bear than any crushing but momentary load. A strong man may easily walk twenty-four miles a day for a fortnight together; but break up this distance, and distribute it over the entire day and night; compel him to walk half a mile in each half hour. The distance is the same, but the effect is altogether different. The harassed traveller cannot bear this unceasing drain on his strength; he has no unbroken rest, no time for nature to recruit before her energies are again taxed; and often has such an attempt ended in almost fatal exhaustion. There is an analogy between body and soul; a number of little trials are more than equal to a great one; like the half mile to each half hour, they keep the moral bow continually strained and bent, and thus tend to destroy its elasticity. You may kill a man with drops of water as well as by immersing him in a flood.
III. THE NATURE OF FAITH'S TRIAL. God tries men; Satan tempts them. God sits as a refiner of silver, to purify it; Satan as a base coiner, to alloy it. Both often use fire; but the fire of heaven burns out the dross, whilst the fire of hell amalgamates more and more base metal with the lump. The two operations are diametrically opposed, though the means are often the same. God sits as a refiner of His people; His object is to purify and not to punish; and hence our surest escape from sorrow is not to struggle against the sorrow itself, but against the sin which demanded it. But since God alone gives trial efficacy, why cannot He give the efficacy without the trial? of what use is trial? how does God employ it? Some speak of the believer's trial as though it were a means employed by God, for His own information, to find out the qualities of our heart and the strength of our faith. But the Lord knows such facts without trial. Our Creator is not a mere spiritual experimentalist, who needs a long course of practical tests before He can arrive at the truth. His science is not inductive, but intuitive. A mere volition on His part is more searching than the most careful analysis of the chemist, or all the combination, separation, and comparison of the philosopher. A look of God can resolve the intricate mesh-work of the human heart into single strands, and make every spiritual pulse as apparent as though it were the heaving of a volcano. The Lord "knoweth our flame " — every part as well as all — every weakness as well as every faculty; and even the unconceived thought — the "thought afar off " — is understood by Him. It is not necessary, then, that we should be put to the proof, in order that God may estimate our amount of faith and love; neither is it needful for our Maker to try our strength by actually piling burdens upon our shoulders, for He can tell to the very grain what we can bear, and what will crush us. The promise that He "will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able to bear," clearly implies a previous knowledge of the extent of our ability, Yes! God can weigh in the delicate balances of His Omniscience every power, bodily, mentally, or spiritual; a mere glance reveals to Him every weakness of our soul; and therefore trial is not intended to usurp the province of Omniscience, or to teach that which the Lord knows without teaching. Why, then, does God try His people? How does He employ trial? He aims, not at a knowledge of their condition, but at development of it. His object is to open out to your own eye the book of your heart, to display before you the letters which He Himself has already seen, and to pour such a light upon them that their true meaning and character may be understood by you. The frequent aim of sorrow is to "show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." At other times trial is sent, not so much to point out actual sin, as to expose some internal weakness — some latent tendency to evil. There is a flaw in the metal, and since it has escaped your notice, God puts the lump in the proof-house, and that flaw is soon made visible — David's impure affections, and Peter's "fear of man," were thus brought to the light. Or, perhaps, there is some muscle of the soul shrunken for the want of use — some talent buried and wrapt in a napkin — and temptation is to us as a gymnasium, strengthening that which was weak by athletic exercise, and gradually developing that "which was attenuated even to deformity, until the might of the Spirit has by trial so completely matured our strength that the babe in Christ stands forth in all the gnarled muscle and staining sinew of spiritual manhood.
IV. THE REALITY OF TRIAL. Abraham's offer of Isaac was not "a solemn farce," as a scoffer has said; but it was a real sacrifice — real, as God who searches the heart counts reality. The father's entire plan bears the impress of a fixed conviction that Isaac must die, and die by his parent's hands. There are many who can behave most heroically with trial in the far and uncertain distance. So long as self-denials and sacrifices are indefinitely shadowed in the dim future, so long as they are problematical, who so ready as these pseudo-Abrahams to meet them! There have been sad instances of this spiritual dealing in promissory notes, given under the impression that no call for the money would ever be made, and that men may live, and satisfy both their neighbours and themselves, on the credit of this mere paper sacrifice. God does not require from us loud assertions of what we would do under circumstances which we never expect to occur; He does not desire us to tell the world how unflinchingly we would bear the tortures of persecution, and die in the flames for the sake of Christ; but He requires some practical and real proof of our obedience. Conditional faith is very easy; gifts ungiven do not cost much; zeal, without a field for work, is readily kindled; but the true proof that you possess the spirit of Abraham is this — are you ready in act or deed to give up this or that jewel as he gave up Isaac? Are you willing to surrender any possession, or endure any suffering, in the full belief that God will ask and receive it from you?
V. FAITH TRIED BY DUBIOUS OR CONFLICTING COMMANDS.
VI. FAITH TRIED BY A CONFLICTING PROMISE AND COMMAND. The command to slay Isaac seemed to be given in the very face of previous promise. On Isaac was the covenanted future of Abraham built. "But My covenant will I establish with Isaac." What a strange and mysterious contradiction! Here is the forefather of the Redeemer — the boy from whom Christ is hereafter to be born; and he is to die as a sacrificial lamb — a burnt-offering — a type of Christ. As though God with one fell blow would destroy the hope of Israel, and in the very act of destruction mock His servant with the sign He had established as a guarantee that the hope would be fulfilled. It was like using the earnest of our inheritance to sweep away and devastate our inheritance itself. It was like employing the seal of the covenant as an instrument wherewith to cancel the covenant itself. This alone was a fearful trial of faith. And can our circumstances ever resemble these? We believe they can, and often do. God may have placed you in a position of great spiritual peril. Your soul seems to be endangered. He has promised to save you, and yet has surrounded you with such a complication of snares and dangers, that salvation appears impossible. Cares "like a wild deluge " sweep over you; your business is all-engrossing; it demands your closest attention; it calls you early from your bed, and only allows you to retire when it has thoroughly drained the energies of mind and body; your family is increasing around you; you dare not slacken your labours; starvation or this drudgery lies before you. Now such a case appears to be utterly incompatible with the growth of piety; it seems a fiat contradiction of the promise, "Peace I leave with you." Yet it is clear that God has put a necessity upon you to remain in this employment; He has so contrived circumstances that you cannot escape without violating duties on all hands. If you abandon your calling, then a much worse condition threatens. You dare not lay down and die; this were suicide, and if you have lives depending on you, it were murder too. If your employment were in itself wrong and immoral, then it would be different; in such a case God calls you out, and at all risks, even though you had a thousand Isaacs to leave, you must go. But as it is, your occupation is right in itself, yet owing to your own weakness and infirmities, it has an influence, as all business has, to draw your soul from Christ, and plunge it in a sea of anxieties. Your companions also may be among those spiritual fools who say in their hearts there is no God, and laugh at your scruples. You cannot rid yourself of them; they may be employed by your master; or they may be a part of your necessary stock-in-trade; at all events, for some reason or other, escape from their society may be as impossible as giving up your calling altogether. Or perhaps your very family may be profane; the father who begat you may look coldly on you as a saint; your piety may wean you even from a mother's heart; for Christ's sake you must remain like a leper in your family — alone, and when not alone, still worse — a butt for mockery, or a thing to be loathed. And all these grievous spiritual stumbling-blocks, or some of them, or other which we have not named, may stand in your way to heaven, and there is no possible turning by which you may rightly avoid them. In fact, to stay or to go seems fraught with your soul's peril. How then can you be saved? Now such a position may appear hostile to your soul's welfare; it may seem like handing you over to the wiles and power of Satan; it may wear the aspect of imminent peril; but if only you go on your way as Abraham journeyed with the doomed Isaac to Moriah, trusting in God's love and faithfulness, you will eventually find that this road right through the enemy's camp was really your safest road after all; your mind and your habits may be so formed, that nothing but constant "fightings without" keep up the necessary fightings within; like many a soldier after the flesh, you may not be fit for peace service; the luxuries of repose may prove more fatal to you than the enemy's whole park of artillery; so that war is actually your safest occupation; resisting strong temptations may be the securest employment for you. Or perhaps God has some work for you to perform in the world's heart — some poor half-wrecked bark to draw out of the whirling sucking vortex — some soul to be converted from the error of his ways, and to shine at last as your joy and crown of rejoicing before the presence of Christ. At all events, you may be quite sure that though every possible spiritual danger were accumulated round you, yet is that position nought but a master-piece of strategy, planned by the Captain of your salvation for your safety. Only trust in the Lord's wisdom, and lean upon His strength, and the very spear of the foe shall be your defence, warding off some more dangerous and unseen weapon; the sharp bosses of the world's buckler shall be the steel on which you sharpen your own sword; the number of your enemies shall be but an index of your imparted graces; the fierceness of the fight shall only predicate the splendour of your triumph and the brightness of your everlasting crown.
VII. FAITH SACRIFICING AFFECTION. The heart of the Patriarch was the primary point of assault in his trial of faith. The flocks of the Patriarch were not asked. It had been a great sacrifice to give up those large possessions of which we are told, some years previously to Isaac's offer, that "Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold." But though the command left them untouched, what would they be when the heir was gone? And Isaac was now Abraham's only son. Ishmael was gone — gone at God's command (Genesis 21:13). And how painfully must the dear boy's name have struck on the father's ear, when he was told to take "thine only ISAAC" — "thy Laughter!" Oh! God touched more than one sensitive cord of Abraham's heart when He said, "Take Isaac." It told the father of that ungrateful mockery with which he heard the promise of a son pronounced; it told him how a forgiving God had pardoned the offence, and turned the laughter of mockery into the laughter of joy; it told him of the many years he had spent with this Isaac — this "Laughter" — to wipe away his tears and wreath sorrow itself into smiles. And now he is to take this Isaac — and God, when He dooms the son to death, and the father to kill him, calls him "Thine only Laughter." And then to complete this array of the son's claims on his father's heart, the Lord terms him thy son, "whom thou lovest " — as though there were any occasion to tell Abraham that. The reason of all this is obvious; it was to make manifest the Divine purpose; it was to say in plain language, "Lovest thou Me more than these?" God is not contented if you only give Him what you can easily spare; He will not be satisfied with a mere secondary treasure; but often He demands your chief delight, and bids you surrender the most precious thing you have. There is to be no reserve — no treasure kept back — no bidding God to take anything except that. There are many ways in which your faith is thus tried, and your love is called to give up its treasures. True, you are not told to offer up an Isaac on the altar; but there are other things which are "Isaacs" to you, and which God requires you to surrender; the" great possessions" were the young ruler's Isaac, pharisaism was that of Paul, and expected worldly greatness was that of all the apostles who followed Christ in the days of His flesh. Everything dear to us, whether within or without, may be our Isaac; and oftentimes we find that the most hidden of our idols is our dearest. What can be dearer to you than your own will — that inbred desire to walk where you list, do as you like, and live for yourself? it is your nature; it is like the instinctive love of life; it is that for which the carnal man craves. And God invariably says with respect to this Isaac; "Take him, dear though he be, and offer him up in a place that I will show thee" — that place is Calvary. But frequently this cherished will assumes some more special form; it appears as some particular disposition or tendency of nature; there is some pleasure in which your tastes lead you to indulge, some unholy employment which mere avarice induces you to continue, some bad companion whose image has crept into your heart. Or it may be that some object, good in itself, stands between you and your God — between your love and your duty. And this trial is often heightened by God's selecting a particular mode of giving, as well as by His choosing a gift we prize. God not only demanded Isaac, but He also fixed upon the most trying process of surrender. "Give Me thy son, and offer him up." Abraham knew what that meant. If Isaac had been sent, like Ishmael, into the wilderness, and there left to perish of thirst, still had it been a gift of the child to God. But a mere gift was not all which God demanded; the means of bestowment were as essential as the gift itself. Abraham must sacrifice Isaac like a mere sheep on the altar. How many pangs did that act require l Even the mere preparations demanded more than a martyr's fortitude. Knife and fire! Just the two things from which affection most abhorrently recoils. So fearful in their operation! So violent in their work! So terrible for memory to dwell upon. It is related of an ancient painter that he once chose for his subject the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, and over Agamemnon's face he painted a veil, thus rendering the features invisible. The artist's friends remonstrated on this singular omission. "You have obscured," said they, "the chief personage in your group; you have concealed the father." "Ah," said the painter," "I could not describe his features"; and so he thought the veil more significant than any impotent attempt to depict agony, which no canvas nor words can convey. We must adopt the same wise plan; silence is the best comment upon the anguish of Abraham; the heart alone can paint it. But, however painful the operation which God selects, we must adopt it; for to change the mode of sacrifice, or to murmur at it, is just as much a proof of deficient faith, as to withhold the object. Alas! This impatience of the Lord's mode of trial is all but universal. We seem contented with submitting to the bare loss of some treasure, and appear to think this meagre submission entitles us to find fault with the way in which that loss befel us. The merchant does not pine under his ruin, but impatience overmasters him when he thinks of the fact that a son's extravagance, or a friend's treachery was the agency which God permitted; if only he had miscalculated his expenses, overrated his profits, or been defrauded by strangers, and thus being ruined, he could have submitted; at least he thinks he could. The parent loses his child; perhaps the stroke fell upon him with appalling suddenness, or the visitation was attended with severe pain, and long continued struggles with death; he fancied that he could have given up his boy in any other way without a murmur; if only time to say farewell had been granted, or if he had seen his darling sink into death as into a calm and painless sleep, he could have said, "Thy will be done"; but oh! that violent wrenching apart of soul and body, that pillow unwatched and unsoothed, that far distant grave unwatered by a tear, untold by an epitaph, or unadorned by a flower; these are the food on which a murmuring spirit feeds; these are the excuses to which want of submission clings. Or perhaps the sacrificed Isaac may be of quite a different kind; some privilege is taken away, some means of usefulness removed, and it is possible that all this may have been brought about by the authority of those dear to you; they care not for religion, they are taken up with business, they compel you, as far as possible, to relinquish what they call your weakness and absurdity, and since you will not go with them to the same excess of riot and worldliness, they throw every obstacle they can in the way of your progress; the taunt, the sneer, the profane jest, and the positive prohibition are all tried in turn; your heart is almost broken as it views such barriers reared by such hands. Oh l if the sword were to be the instrument which cut you and your privileges asunder; if a dungeon were to shut you out from your means of grace, instead of that parlour and that circle of loved hearts which like a chain surround you; if the edicts of some bloodthirsty ruler or some savage council were to utter your sentence of banishment from your means of grace, and not those words spoken by lips which have kissed you, and by tongues which have soothed you even as a babe, then you could bear your sad lot. All this is wrong; our faith is seriously defective; we have not learnt to say, "Thy will be done," until we can give not only what the Lord wills, but as the Lord wills.
VIII. FAITH OPPOSITE AFFECTION. One half of the Patriarch's sacrifice is frequently forgotten — men see the father surrendering the son, but they overlook the husband giving up the wife; they do not remember that the same weapon which slew the child would inevitably divide asunder the parents. Abraham was called to pierce one heart and break another; and the same blow would certainly do both. How could Sarah survive Isaac's death stroke? The probability is that the command was purposely kept from her, lest she, who had imperiously sent Ishmael away against her husband's wish, should now step in like a robbed lioness, snatching Isaac from his father's hands, and thus preventing obedience. Besides, the account tells us that God's purpose was to try Abraham — not Sarah — and therefore to him alone was the afflicting command given, and from him alone was this sacrifice of faith required. With Sarah in this state of unconsciousness, what a terrible awakening was before her! And supposing Isaac were at length given back, would Sarah's love for Abraham recover from such a shock? Could she ever bear to be supported or fondled with that hand which had once been spotted with her Isaac's blood? But in any case what a trial of the heart was here! We speak truth when we say that a large share of the Patriarch's sacrifice consisted in opposing, as well as surrendering, his affections — in wounding Sarah as well as killing Isaac. God calls you frequently to thwart your heart, and to oppose things and persons you love. He does not always require you to give up the object; but He leaves it in your possession and bids you contend against it. It is not enough to resist love's influence against God, nor will it suffice that it should lie passive and submissive beneath the Saviour's power; but we must even strive to make it an active and influential agent in Christ's work of winning souls. Love must not be drummed out of the regiment as a vagabond sin, but it must be disciplined into a "good soldier of Jesus Christ" — a recruiting sergeant for the Lord's army. Love must turn preacher, and "persuade men."
IX. FAITH DARING THE WORLD'S REPUTE. What will the servants of Abraham say? How will the Canaanite mock? Even if Isaac be restored, yet what will they say, should the bare purpose of that journey to Moriah ever transpire? And if the Patriarch should return alone; what then? What a difference between the Patriarch and many of us I He had reproaches awaiting him of such a character as to make the firmest man stagger — reproaches founded on principles which were true in the general way, and only false in his special case; and here are we hesitating at every step, however slight, wondering and fearing what this friend, or that neighbour, may say. "How strange it will seem" is our excuse for omitting many a duty, and perpetrating many a sin. I have but to quote to you half-a-dozen opinions against your obedience to God; I have but to show you that this or that act of discipleship will incur a laugh, or a sneer, or a curse, from your acquaintance, and you draw back; I have but to prove that open profession of Christ will be followed by your being cast out from some privileged "Synagogue of Satan," and you timidly hide your Saviour, you content yourself with a hole-and-corner piety, your discipleship is only an invisible dress, you come to Jesus by night, the fear of man is your snare. Abraham must have expected to draw down upon himself the reproaches even of those who loved God; Melchisedec the priest, and Sarah the wife, and Eliezer the servant, would probably all unite in upbraiding him. And the name, too, how hard to hear — "Murderer!"
X. PROMPT FAITH. The difference between an excuse and a reason is, that the former is the offspring of desire, the latter is the result of judgment; one is forced into being by self-justification, the other is deliberately conceived by conviction; one is a mere invention, the other is a discovery. Now Abraham had no reason for delay; yet had he many possible excuses. Why not take some days or at least some hours to make his preparations for almost a week's journey; food must be obtained, tents must be packed, wood must be hewn, and arrangements must be made for so long an absence. Affection might have lingered over a thousand so-called necessaries, and multiplied its preparations, in order to lengthen out the span of Isaac's life. The youth himself must be allowed time to get ready; and, above all, Sarah's mind must be prepared for his absence, or else what will she say to his sudden and mysterious journey? True, the servants may tell her, "He is gone to do sacrifice"; but will not her obvious answer be, "Why should he conceal such a deed from me? why should he so suddenly conceive such a purpose? why disappear like a thief in the night?" Surely the husband may spare her this woe I surely he may lull her suspicions by giving her a few days' warning that he and Isaac are about to go and offer sacrifice in a place which God will show him, and thus reconcile her to the journey! The heart might easily have seized on any or all these excuses to prolong the son's life, and defer the dreadful slaughter. And to facilitate this immediate obedience, we find the Patriarch using the most simple preparations, and actually sharing in the labour of making them. With servants in abundance, he yet saddles the ass with his own hands; he then takes Isaac and two young men, and the four cleave the wood — i.e., the dry fuel which it was necessary to carry with them in order to kindle the damp wood they might find near the place of sacrifice. A tardy and hesitating commencement of Christian duty is so utterly opposed to the spirit of the gospel that the bare existence of reluctance is a just cause for doubting the genuineness of our faith. One of the most hopeless forms which ungodliness takes is the pseudo-obedience of unbelief, and fear, and hesitation. Oh! there is a force in prompt obedience which completely baffles the enemy of souls; he has no time to manufacture snares; he has no opportunity of throwing down stumbling-blocks before you; but there you are in possession, so to speak, of the heights, and too firm and strongly entrenched for him to disturb your position. Promptitude is the very strategem Satan employs so successfully against us; he anticipates our obedience with his rebellious suggestions; he is throwing up barricades before us while we are questioning whether we will go forward or not. Alacrity is thus the very weapon specially adapted to foil him. History tells us that promptness and rapidity of movement were the keys to Napoleon's most splendid victories; he no sooner conceived a plan of campaign than his whole army was in swift march to execute it; his adversary's outposts, driven in by what appeared to them a mysterious and omnipresent antagonist — his artillery, flashing and booming from heights which the foe thought it useless and absurd to occupy — these were the couriers who made the first announcement of his approach to the enemy. At times this prompt appearance in the fie
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.