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Expositions of Holy Scripture by Alexander Maclaren

Part 3 out of 12

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weakness. This is nobility of life--to aim at the unattainable, and
to be ever approximating towards our aim. It is more blessed to be
smitten with the longing to win the unwon than to stagnate in
ignoble contentment with partial attainments. Better to climb, with
faces turned upwards to the inaccessible peak, than to lie at ease
in the fat valleys! It is the salt of life to have our aims set
fixedly towards ideal perfection, and to say, 'I count not myself to
have apprehended: but ... I press toward the mark.' _Toward_
that mark is better than _to_ any lower. Our moral perfection
is, as it were, the reflection in humanity of the divine

The wide landscape may be mirrored in an inch of glass. Infinity may
be, in some manner, presented in miniature in finite natures. Our
power cannot represent God's omnipotence, but our moral perfection
may, especially since that omnipotence is pledged to make us perfect
if we will walk before Him.

2. Note the sign of the renewed covenant. Compliance with these
injunctions is clearly laid down as the human condition of the
divine fulfilment of it. 'Be thou perfect' comes first; 'My covenant
is with thee' follows. There was contingency recognised from the
beginning. If Israel broke the covenant, God was not unfaithful if
He should not adhere to it. But the present point is that a new
confirmation is given before the terms are repeated. The main
purpose, then, of this revelation, did not lie in that repetition,
but in the seal given to Abram by the change of name.

Another sign was also given, which had a wider reference. The change
of name was God's seal to His part. Circumcision was the seal of the
other party, by which Abram, his family, and afterwards the nation,
took on themselves the obligations of the compact.

The name bestowed is taken to mean 'Father of a Multitude.' It was
the condensation into a word, of the divine promise. What a trial of
Abram's faith it was to bid him take a name which would sound in
men's ears liker irony than promise! He, close on a hundred years
old, with but one child, who was known not to be the heir, to be
called the father of many! How often Canaanites and his own
household would smile as they used it! What a piece of senile
presumption it would seem to them! How often Abram himself would be
tempted to think his new name a farce rather than a sign! But he
took it humbly from God, and he wore it, whether it brought ridicule
from others or assurance in his own heart. It takes some courage for
any of us to call ourselves by names which rest on God's promise and
seem to have little vindication in present facts. The world is fond
of laughing at 'saints,' but Christians should familiarise
themselves with the lofty designations which God gives His children,
and see in them not only a summons to life corresponding, but a
pledge and prophecy of the final possession of all which these
imply. God calls 'things that are not, as though they were'; and it
is wisdom, faith, and humility--not presumption--which accepts the
names as omens of what shall one day be.

The substance of the covenant is mainly identical with previous
revelations. The land is to belong to Abram's seed. That seed is to
be very numerous. But there is new emphasis placed on God's relation
to Abram's descendants. God promises to be 'a God unto thee, and to
thy seed after thee,' and, again, 'I will be their God' (verses 7,
8). That article of the old covenant is repeated in the new (Jer.
xxxi. 33), with the addition, 'And they shall be My people,' which
is really involved in it. We do not read later more spiritual ideas
into the words, when we find in them here, at the very beginning of
Hebrew monotheism, an insight into the deep truth of the reciprocal
possession of God by us, and of us by God. What a glimpse into the
depths of that divine heart is given, when we see that we are His
possession, precious to Him above all the riches of earth and the
magnificences of heaven! What a lesson as to the inmost blessedness
of religion, when we learn that it takes God for its very own, and
is rich in possessing Him, whatever else may be owned or lacking!

To possess God is only possible on condition of yielding ourselves
to Him. When we give ourselves up, in heart, mind, and will, to be
His, He is ours. When we cease to be our own, we get God for ours.
The self-centred man is poor; he neither owns himself nor anything
besides, in any deep sense. When we lose ourselves in God, we find
ourselves, and being content to have nothing, and not even to be our
own masters or owners, we possess ourselves more truly than ever,
and have God for our portion, and in Him 'all things are ours.'


'And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live
before Thee!
GENESIS xvii. 18.

These words sound very devout, and they have often been used by
Christian parents yearning for the best interests of their children,
and sometimes of their wayward and prodigal children. But
consecrated as they are by that usage, I am afraid that their
meaning, as they were uttered, was nothing so devout and good as
that which is often attached to them.

1. Note the temper in which Abraham speaks here. The very existence
of Ishmael was a memorial of Abraham's failure in faith and
patience. For he thought that the promised heir was long in coming,
and so he thought that he would help God. For thirteen years the
child had been living beside him, winding a son's way into a
father's heart, with much in his character, as was afterwards seen,
that would make a frank, daring boy his old father's darling. Then
all at once comes the divine message, 'This is not the son of the
Covenant; this is not the heir of the Promise. Sarah shall have a
child, and from him shall come the blessings that have been
foretold.' And what does Abraham do? Fall down in thankfulness
before God? leap up in heart at the conviction that now at last the
long-looked-for fulfilment of the oath of God was impending? Not he.
'O that _Ishmael_ might live before Thee. Why cannot _he_ do? Why may
he not be the chosen child, the heir of the Promise? Take him, O God!'

That is to say, he thinks he knows better than God. He is petulant,
he resists his blessing, he fancies that his own plan is quite as
good as the divine plan. He does not want to draw away his heart
from the child that it has twined round. So he loses the blessing of
the revelation that is being made to him; because he does not bow
his will, and accept God's way instead of his own. Now, do you not
think that that is what we do? When God sends us Isaac, do we not
often say, 'Take Ishmael; he is my own making. I have set all my
hopes on him. Why should I have to wrench them all away?' In our
individual lives we want to prescribe to God, far too often, not
only the _ends_, but the _way_ in which we shall get to the ends; and
we think to ourselves, 'That road of my own engineering that I have
got all staked out, that is the true way for God's providence to take.'
And when His path does not coincide with ours, then we are discontented,
and instead of submitting we go with our pet schemes to Him; and if
not in so many words, at least in spirit and temper, we try to force
our way upon God, and when He is speaking about Isaac insist on pressing
Ishmael on His notice.

It is often so in regard to our individual lives; and it is so in
regard to the united action of Christian people very often. A great
deal of what calls itself earnest contending for 'the faith once
delivered to the saints' is nothing more nor less than insisting
that methods of men's devising shall be continued, when God seems to
be substituting for them methods of His own sending; and so fighting
about externals and church polity, and determining that the world
has got to be saved in my own special fashion, and in no other,
though God Himself seems to be suggesting the new thing to me. That
is a very frequent phenomenon in the experience of Christian
communities and churches. Ishmael is so very dear. He is not the
child of promise, but he is the child that we have thought it
advisable to help God with. It is hard for us to part with him.

Dear brethren, sometimes, too, God comes to us in various
providences, and not only reduces into chaos and a heap of confusion
our nicely built-up little houses, but He sometimes comes to us, and
lifts us out of some lower kind of good, which is perfectly
satisfactory to us, or all but perfectly satisfactory, in order to
give to us something nobler and higher. And we resist that too; and
do not see why Ishmael should not serve God's turn as he has served
ours; or think that there is no need at all for Isaac to come into
our lives. God never takes away from us a lower, unless for the
purpose of bestowing upon us a higher blessing. Therefore not to
submit is the foolishest thing that men can do.

But if that be anything like an account of the temper expressed by
this saying, is it not strange that murmuring against God takes the
shape of praying? Ah! there is a great deal of 'prayer' as it calls
itself, which is just moulded upon this petulant word of Abraham's
momentarily failing faith and submission. How many people think that
to pray means to bring their wishes to God, and try to coax Him to
make them His wishes! Why, half the shallow sceptical talk of this
generation about the worthlessness of prayer goes upon that
fundamental fallacy that the notion of prayer is to dictate terms to
God; and that unless a man gets his wishes answered he has no right
to suppose that his prayers are answered. But it is not so. Prayer
is not after the type of 'O that Ishmael might live before Thee!'
That is a poor kind of prayer of which the inmost spirit is
resistance to a clear dictate of the divine will; but the true
prayer is, 'O that I may be willing to take what Thou art willing,
in Thy mercy and love, to send!'

I believe in importunate prayer, but I believe also that a great deal
of what calls itself importunate prayer is nothing more than an obstinate
determination not to be satisfied with what satisfies God. If a man
has been bringing his wishes--and he cannot but have such--continuously
to God, with regard to any outward things, and these have not been
answered, he needs to look very carefully into his own temper and heart
in order to make sure that what seems to be waiting upon God in
importunate petition is not pestering Him with refused desires. To make
a prayer out of my rebellion against His will is surely the greatest
abuse of prayer that can be conceived. And when Abraham said, 'O that
Ishmael might live before Thee!' if he said it in the spirit in which I
think he did, he was not praying, but he was grumbling.

2. And then notice, still further, how such a temper and such a
prayer have the effect of hiding joy and blessing from us.

This was the crisis of Abraham's whole life. It was the moment at
which his hundred years nearly of patient waiting were about to be
rewarded. The message which he had just received was the most lovely
and gracious word that ever had come to him from the heavens,
although many such words had come. And what does he do with it?
Instead of falling down before God, and letting his whole heart go
out in jubilant gratitude, he has nothing to say but 'I would rather
that Thou didst it in another way. It is all very well to speak
about sending this heir of promise. I have no pleasure in that,
because it means that my Ishmael is to be passed by and shelved.' So
the proffered joy is turned to ashes, and Abraham gets no good, for
the moment, out of God's greatest blessing to him; but all the sky
is darkened by mists that come up from his own heart.

Brethren, if you want to be miserable, perk up your own will against
God's. If you want to be blessed, acquiesce in all that He does
send, in all that He has sent, and, by anticipation, in all that He
will send. For, depend upon it, the secret of finding sunbeams in
everything is simply letting God have His own way, and making your
will the sounding-board and echo of His. If Abraham had done as he
ought to have done, that would have been the gladdest moment of his
life. You and I can make out of our deepest sorrows the occasions of
pure, though it is quiet, gladness, if only we have learned to say,
'Not my will, but Thy will be done.' That is the talisman that turns
everything into gold, and makes sorrow forget its nature, and almost
approximate to solemn joy.

3. My last word is this: God loves us all too well to listen to such
a prayer.

Abraham's passionate cry was so much empty wind, and was like a
straw laid across the course of an express train, in so far as its
power to modify the gracious purpose of God already declared was
concerned. And would it not be a miserable thing if we could deflect
the solemn, loving march of the divine Providence by these hot,
foolish, purblind wishes of ours, that see only the nearer end of
things, and have no notion of where their further end may go, or
what it may be?

Is it not better that we should fall back upon this thought, though,
at first sight, it seems so to limit the power of petition, 'We know
that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us'? There
is nothing that would more wreck our lives than if what some people
want were to be the case--that God should let us have our own way,
and give us serpents because we asked for them and fancied they were
eggs; or let us break our teeth upon bestowed stones because, like
whimpering children crying for the moon, we had asked for them under
the delusion that they were bread.

Leave all that in His hands; and be sure of this, that the true way
to peace, to rest, to gladness, and to wringing the last drop of
possible sweetness out of gifts and losses, disappointments and
fruitions, is to have no will but God's will enthroned above and in
our own wills. If Abraham had acquiesced and submitted, Ishmael and
Isaac would have been a pair to bless his life, as they stood
together over his grave. And if you and I will leave God to order
all our ways, and not try to interfere with His purposes by our
short-sighted dictation, 'all things will work together for good to
us, because we love God,' and lovingly accept His will and His law.


'And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward
Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the
way. And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that
thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become
a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the
earth shall be blessed in him! For I know him, that he
will command his children and his household after him,
and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice
and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that
which He hath spoken of him. And the Lord said, Because
the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because
their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see
whether they have done altogether according to the cry
of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.
And the men turned their faces from thence, and went
toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.
And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt Thou also destroy
the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be
fifty righteous within the city: wilt Thou also destroy
and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that
are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this
manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that
the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from
Thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous
within the city, then I will spare all the place for
their sakes. And Abraham answered and said, Behold now,
I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am
but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five
of the fifty righteous: wilt Thou destroy all the city
for lack of five? And He said, If I find there forty
and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto Him
yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty
found there. And He said, I will not do it for forty's
sake. And he said unto Him, Oh let not the Lord be angry,
and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be
found there. And He said, I will not do it, if I find
thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon
me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be
twenty found there. And He said, I will not destroy it
for twenty's sake. And he said, Oh let not the Lord be
angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure
ten shall be found there. And He said, I will not destroy
it for ten's sake. And the Lord went His way, as soon as
He had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned
unto his place.'--GENESIS xviii. 16-33.


The first verse of this chapter says that 'the Lord appeared' unto
Abraham, and then proceeds to tell that 'three men stood over
against him,' thus indicating that these were, collectively, the
manifestation of Jehovah. Two of the three subsequently 'went toward
Sodom,' and are called 'angels' in chapter xix. 1. One remained with
Abraham, and is addressed by him as 'Lord,' but the three are
similarly addressed in verse 3. The inference is that Jehovah
appeared, not only in the one 'man' who spake with Abraham, but also
in the two who went to Sodom.

In this incident we have, first, God's communication of His purpose
to Abraham. He was called the friend of God, and friends confide in
each other. 'The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,' and
it is ever true that they who live in amity and communion with God
thereby acquire insight into His purposes. Even in regard to public
or so-called 'political' events, a man who believes in God and His
moral government will often be endowed with a 'terrible sagacity,'
which forecasts consequences more surely than do godless
politicians. In regard to one's own history, it is still more
evidently true that the one way to apprehend God's purposes in it is
to keep in close friendship with Him. Then we shall see the meaning
of the else bewildering whirl of events, and be able to say, 'He
that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God.' But the reason
assigned for intrusting Abraham with the knowledge of God's purpose
is to be noted. It was because of his place as the medium of
blessing to the nations, and as the lawgiver to his descendants. God
had 'known him,'--that is, had lovingly brought him into close
relations with Himself, not for his own sake only, but, much more,
that he might be a channel of grace to Israel and the world. His
'commandment' to his descendants was to lead to their worship of
Jehovah and their upright living, and these again to their
possession of the blessings promised to Abraham. That purpose would
be aided by the knowledge of the judgment on Sodom, its source, and
its cause, and therefore Abraham was admitted into the council-
chamber of Jehovah. The insight given to God's friends is given that
they may more fully benefit men by leading them into paths of
righteousness, on which alone they can be met by God's blessings.

The strongly figurative representation in verses 20, 21, according
to which Jehovah goes down to ascertain whether the facts of Sodom's
sin correspond to the report of it, belongs to the early stage of
revelation, and need not surprise us, but should impress on us the
gradual character of the divine Revelation, which would have been
useless unless it had been accommodated to the mental and spiritual
stature of its recipients. Nor should it hide from us the lofty
conception of God's long-suffering justice, which is presented in so
childlike a form. He does 'not judge after ... the hearing of His
ears,' nor smite without full knowledge of the sin. A later stage of
revelation puts the same thought in language less strange to us,
when it teaches that 'the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by Him
actions are weighed,' and in His balances many a false estimate,
both of virtuous and vicious acts, is corrected, and retribution is
always exactly adjusted to the deed.

But the main importance of the incident is in the wonderful picture
of Abraham's intercession, which, in like manner, veils, under a
strangely sensuous representation, lofty truths for all ages. It is
to be noted that the divine purpose expressed in 'I will go down
now, and see,' is fulfilled in the going of the two (men or angels)
towards Sodom; therefore Jehovah was in them. But He was also in the
One before whom Abraham stood. The first great truth enshrined in
this part of the story is that the friend of God is compassionate
even of the sinful and degraded. Abraham did not intercede for Lot,
but for the sinners in Sodom. He had perilled his life in warfare
for them; he now pleads with God for them. Where had he learned this
brave pity? Where but from the God with whom he lived by faith? How
much more surely will real communion with Jesus lead _us_ to
look on all men, and especially on the vicious and outcast, with His
eyes who saw the multitudes as sheep without a shepherd, torn,
panting, scattered, and lying exhausted and defenceless!
Indifference to the miseries and impending dangers of Christless men
is impossible for any whom He calls 'not servants, but friends.'

Again, we are taught the boldness of pleading which is permitted to
the friend of God, and is compatible with deepest reverence. Abraham
is keenly conscious of his audacity, and yet, though he knows
himself to be but dust and ashes, that does not stifle his
petitions. His was the holy 'importunity' which Jesus sent forth for
our imitation. The word so rendered in Luke xi. 8, which is found in
the New Testament there only, literally means 'shamelessness,' and
is exactly the disposition which Abraham showed here. Not only was
he persistent, but he increased his expectations with each partial
granting of his prayer. The more God gives, the more does the true
suppliant expect and crave; and rightly so, for the gift to be given
is infinite, and each degree of possession enlarges capacity so as
to fit to receive more, and widens desire. What contented us to-day
should not content us to-morrow.

Again, Abraham is bold in appealing to a law to which God is bound
to conform. 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' is
often quoted with an application foreign to its true meaning.
Abraham was not preaching to men trust that the most perplexing acts
of God would be capable of full vindication if we knew all, but he
was pleading with God that His acts should be plainly accordant with
the idea of justice planted by Him in us. The phrase is often used
to strengthen the struggling faith that

'All is right which seems most wrong,
If it be His sweet will.'

But it means not 'Such and such a thing must be right because God
has done it,' but 'Such and such a thing is right, therefore God
must do it.' Of course, our conceptions of right are not the
absolute measure of the divine acts, and the very fact which Abraham
thought contrary to justice is continually exemplified in
Providence, that 'the righteous should be as the wicked' in regard
to earthly calamities affecting communities. So far Abraham was
wrong, but the spirit of his remonstrance was wholly right.

Again, we learn the precious lesson that prayer for others is a real
power, and does bring down blessings and avert evils. Abraham did
not here pray for Lot, but yet 'God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot
out of the midst of the overthrow'(chap. xix. 29), so that there had
been unrecorded intercession for him too. The unselfish desires for
others, that exhale from human hearts under the influence of the
love which Christ plants in us, do come down in blessings on others,
as the moisture drawn up by the sun may descend in fructifying rain
on far-off pastures of the wilderness. We help one another when we
pray for one another.

The last lesson taught is that 'righteous' men are indeed the 'salt
of the earth' not only preserving cities and nations from further
corruption, but procuring for them further existence and probation.
God holds back His judgments so long as hope of amendment survives,
and 'will not destroy for the ten's sake.'



We have seen that the fruit of Abraham's faith was God's entrance
into close covenant relations with him; or, as James puts it, 'It
was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the
friend of God.' This incident shows us the intercourse of the divine
and human friends in its familiarity, mutual confidence, and power.
It is a forecast of Christ's own profound teachings in His parting
words in the upper chamber, concerning the sweet and wondrous
intercourse between the believing soul and the indwelling God.

1. The friend of God catches a gleam of divine pity and tenderness.
Abraham has no relations with the men of Sodom. Their evil ways
would repel him; and he would be a stranger among them still more
than among the Canaanites, whose iniquity was 'not yet full.' But
though he has no special bonds with them, he cannot but melt with
tender compassion when he hears their doom. Communion with the very
Source of all gentle love has softened his heart, and he yearns over
the wicked and fated city. Where else than from his heavenly Friend
could he have learned this sympathy? It wells up in this chapter
like some sudden spring among solemn solitudes--the first instance
of that divine charity which is the best sign that we have been with
God, and have learned of Him. All that the New Testament teaches of
love to God, as necessarily issuing in love to man, and of the true
love to man as overleaping all narrow bounds of kindred, country,
race, and ignoring all questions of character, and gushing forth in
fullest energy towards the sinners in danger of just punishment, is
here in germ. The friend of God must be the friend of men; and if
they be wicked, and he sees the frightful doom which they do not
see, these make his pity the deeper. Abraham does not contest the
justice of the doom. He lives too near his friend not to know that
sin must mean death. The effect of friendship with God is not to
make men wish that there were no judgments for evil-doers, but to
touch their hearts with pity, and to stir them to intercession and
to effort for their deliverance.

2. The friend of God has absolute trust in the rectitude of His
acts. Abraham's remonstrance, if we may call it so, embodies some
thoughts about the government of God in the world which should be

His first abrupt question, flung out without any reverential
preface, assumes that the character of God requires that the fate of
the righteous should be distinguished from that of the wicked. The
very brusqueness of the question shows that he supposed himself to
be appealing to an elementary and indubitable law of God's dealings.
The teachings of the Fall and of the Flood had graven deep on his
conscience the truth that the same loving Friend must needs deal out
rewards to the good and chastisement to the bad. That was the simple
faith of an early time, when problems like those which tortured the
writers of the seventy-third Psalm, or of Job and Ecclesiastes, had
not yet disturbed the childlike trust of the friend of God, because
no facts in his experience had forced them on him. But the belief
which was axiomatic to him, and true for his supernaturally shaped
life with its special miracles and visible divine guard, is not the
ultimate and irrefragable principle which he thought it. In
widespread calamities the righteous are blended with the wicked in
one bloody ruin; and it is the very misery of such judgments that
often the sufferers are not the wrongdoers, but that the fathers eat
the sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. The
whirlwind of temporal judgments makes no distinctions between the
dwellings of the righteous and the wicked, but levels them both. No
doubt, the fact that the impending destruction was to be a direct
Divine interposition of a punitive kind made it more necessary that
it should be confined to the actual culprits. No doubt, too,
Abraham's zeal for the honour of God's government was right. But his
first plea belongs to the stage of revelation at which he stood, not
to that of the New Testament, which teaches that the eighteen on
whom the tower in Siloam fell were not sinners above all men in
Jerusalem. Abraham's confidence in God's justice, not Abraham's
conceptions of what that justice required, is to be imitated. A
friend of God will hold fast by the faith that 'His way is perfect,'
and will cherish it even in the presence of facts more perplexing
than any which met Abraham's eyes.

Another assumption in his prayer is that the righteous are sources
of blessing and shields for the wicked. Has he there laid hold of a
true principle? Certainly, it is indeed the law that 'every man
shall bear his own burden,' but that law is modified by the
operation of this other, of which God's providence is full. Many a
drop of blessing trickles from the wet fleece to the dry ground.
Many a stroke of judgment is carried off harmlessly by the lightning
conductor. Where God's friends are inextricably mixed up with evil-
doers, it is not rare to see diffused blessings which are destined
indeed primarily for the former, but find their way to the latter.
Christians are the 'salt of the earth' in this sense too, that they
save corrupt communities from swift destruction, and for their sakes
the angels delay their blow. In the final resort, each soul must
reap its own harvest from its own deeds; but the individualism of
Christianity is not isolation. We are bound together in mysterious
community, and a good man is a fountain of far-flowing good. The
truest 'saviours of society' are the servants of God.

A third principle is embodied in the solemn question, 'Shall not the
Judge of all the earth do right?' This is not meant in its bearing
here, as we so often hear it quoted, to silence man's questionings
as to mysterious divine acts, or to warn us from applying our
measures of right and wrong to these. The very opposite thought is
conveyed; namely, the confidence that what God does must approve
itself as just to men. He is Judge of all the earth, and therefore
bound by His very nature, as by His relations to men, to do nothing
that cannot be pointed to as inflexibly right. If Abraham had meant,
'What God does, must needs be right, therefore crush down all
questions of how it accords with thy sense of justice,' he would
have been condemning his own prayer as presumptuous, and the thought
would have been entirely out of place. But the appeal to God to
vindicate His own character by doing what shall be in manifest
accord with His name, is bold language indeed, but not too bold,
because it is prompted by absolute confidence in Him. God's
punishments must be obviously righteous to have moral effect, or to
be worthy of Him.

But true as the principle is, it needs to be guarded. Abraham
himself is an instance that men's conceptions of right do not
completely correspond to the reality. His notion of 'right' was, in
some particulars, as his life shows, imperfect, rudimentary, and far
beneath New Testament ideas. Conscience needs education. The best
men's conceptions of what befits divine justice are relative,
progressive; and a shifting standard is no standard. It becomes us
to be very cautious before we say to God, 'This is the way. Walk
Thou in it,' or dismiss any doctrine as untrue on the ground of its
contradicting our instincts of justice.

3. The friend of God has power with God. 'Shall I hide from Abraham
that thing which I do?' The divine Friend recognises the obligation
of confidence. True friendship is frank, and cannot bear to hide its
purposes. That one sentence in its bold attribution of a like
feeling to God leads us deep into the Divine heart, and the sweet
reality of his amity. Insight into His will ever belongs to those
who live near Him. It is the beginning of the long series of
disclosures of 'the secret of the Lord' to 'them that fear Him,'
which is crowned by 'henceforth I call you not servants; but ...
friends; for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made
known unto you.' So much for the divine side of the communion.

On the human side, we are here taught the great truth, that God's
friends are intercessors, whose voice has a mysterious but most real
power with God. If it be true, that, in general terms, the righteous
are shields and sources of blessing to the unholy, it is still more
distinctly true that they have access to God's secret place with
petitions for others as well as for themselves. The desires which go
up to God, like the vapours exhaled to heaven, fall in refreshing
rain on spots far away from that whence they rose. In these days we
need to keep fast hold of our belief in the efficacy of prayer for
others and for ourselves. God knows Himself and the laws of His
government a great deal better than any one besides does; and He has
abundantly shown us in His Word, and by many experiences, that
breath spent in intercession is not wasted. In these old times, when
worship was mainly sacrificial, this wonderful instance of pure
intercession meets us, an anticipation of later times. And from
thence onwards there has never failed proof to those who will look
for it, that God's friends are true priests, and help their brethren
by their prayers. Our voices should 'rise like a fountain night and
day' for men. But there is a secret distrust of the power, and a
flagrantly plain neglect of the duty, of intercession nowadays,
which need sorely the lesson that God 'remembered Abraham' and
delivered Lot. Luther, in his rough, strong way, says: 'If I have a
Christian who prays to God for me, I will be of good courage, and be
afraid of nothing. If I have one who prays against me, I had rather
have the Grand Turk for my enemy.'

The tone of Abraham's intercession may teach us how familiar the
intercourse with the Heavenly Friend may be. The boldest words from
a loving heart, jealous of God's honour, are not irreverent in His
eyes. This prayer is abrupt, almost rough. It sounds like
remonstrance quite as much as prayer. Abraham appeals to God to take
care of His name and honour, as if he had said, If Thou doest this,
what will the world say of Thee, but that Thou art unmerciful? But
the grand confidence in God's character, the eager desire that it
should be vindicated before the world, the dread that the least film
should veil the silvery whiteness or the golden lustre of His name,
the sensitiveness for His honour--these are the effects of communion
with Him; and for these God accepts the bold prayer as truer
reverence than is found in many more guarded and lowly sounding
words. Many conventional proprieties of worship may be broken just
because the worship is real. 'The frequent sputter shows that the
soul's depths boil in earnest.' We may learn, too, that the most
loving familiarity never forgets the fathomless gulf between God and
it. Abraham remembers that he is 'dust and ashes'; he knows that he
is venturing much in speaking to God. His pertinacious prayers have
a recurring burden of lowly recognition of his place. Twice he
heralds them with 'I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord';
twice with 'Oh let not the Lord be angry.' Perfect love casts out
fear and deepens reverence. We may come with free hearts, from which
every weight of trembling and every cloud of doubt has been lifted.
But the less the dread, the lower we shall bow before the Loftiness
which we love. We do not pray aright until we tell God everything.
The 'boldness' which we as Christians ought to have, means literally
a frank speaking out of all that is in our hearts. Such 'boldness
and access with confidence' will often make short work of so-called
seemly reverence, but it will never transgress by so much as a
hair's-breadth the limits of lowly, trustful love.

Abraham's persistency may teach us a lesson. If one might so say, he
hangs on God's skirt like a burr. Each petition granted only
encourages him to another. Six times he pleads, and God waits till
he has done before He goes away; He cannot leave His friend till
that friend has said all his say. What a contrast the fiery fervour
and unwearying pertinacity of Abraham's prayers make to the stiff
formalism of the intercessions one is familiar with! The former are
like the successive pulses of a volcano driving a hot lava stream
before it; the latter, like the slow flow of a glacier, cold and
sluggish. Is any part of our public or private worship more
hopelessly formal than our prayers for others? This picture from the
old world may well shame our languid petitions, and stir us up to a
holy boldness and persistence in prayer. Our Saviour Himself teaches
that 'men ought always to pray, and not to faint,' and Himself
recommends to us a holy importunity, which He teaches us to believe
is, in mysterious fashion, a power with God. He gives room for such
patient continuance in prayer by sometimes delaying the apparent
answer, not because He needs to be won over to bless, but because it
is good for us to draw near, and to keep near, the Lord. He is ever
at the door, ready to open, and if sometimes, like Rhoda to Peter,
He does not open immediately, and we have to keep knocking, it is
that our desires may increase by delay, and so He may be able to
give a blessing, which will be the greater and sweeter for the

So the friendship is manifested on both sides: on God's, by
disclosure of His purpose and compliance with His friend's request;
on Abraham's, by speech which is saved from irreverence by love, and
by prayer which is acceptable to God by its very importunity. Jesus
Christ has promised us the highest form of such friendship, when He
has said, 'I have called you friends: for all things that I have
heard of My Father I have made known unto you'; and again, 'If ye
abide in Me, ... ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done
unto you.'


'And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened
Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters,
which are here; lest them be consumed in the iniquity of
the city. And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon
his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the
hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto
him: and they brought him forth, and set him without
the city. And it came to pass, when they had brought
them forth abroad, that He said, Escape for thy life;
look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain;
escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. And Lot
said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord: Behold now, Thy
servant hath found grace in Thy sight, and Thou hast
magnified Thy mercy, which Thou hast shewed unto me in
saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest
some evil take me, and I die: Behold now, this city is
near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me
escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul
shall live. And He said unto him, See, I have accepted
thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow
this city, for the which thou hast spoken. Haste thee,
escape thither; for I cannot do any thing till thou be
come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called
Zoar. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered
into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon
Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;
And He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and
all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew
upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind
him, and she became a pillar of salt.'--GENESIS xix. 15-26.

The religious significance of this solemn page of revelation is but
little affected by any of the interesting questions which criticism
raises concerning it, so that I am free to look at the whole
narrative for the purpose of deducing its perennial lessons. There
are four clearly marked stages in the story: the lingering of Lot in
the doomed city, and the friendly force which dragged him from it;
the prayer of abject fear, and the wonderful answer; the awful
catastrophe; and the fate of the wretched woman who looked back.

1. Lot's lingering and rescue by force. Second thoughts are not
always best. When great resolves have to be made, and when a clear
divine command has to be obeyed, the first thought is usually the
nobler; and the second, which pulls it back, and damps its ardour,
is usually of the earth, earthy. So was it with Lot. Overnight, in
the excitement of the terrible scene enacted before his door, Lot
had been not only resolved himself to flee, but his voice had urged
his sons-in-law to escape from the doom which he then felt to be
imminent. But with the cold grey light of morning his mood has
changed. The ties which held him in Sodom reassert their power.
Perhaps daylight made his fears seem less real. There was no sign in
the chill Eastern twilight that this day was to be unlike the other
days. Perhaps the angels' summons roused him from sleep, and their
'arise' is literally meant. It might have given wings to his flight.
Urgent, and resonant, like the morning bugle, it bids him be
stirring lest he be swept away 'in the punishment of the city.'
Observe that the same word means 'sin' and 'punishment,'--a
testimony to the profound truth that at bottom they are one, sin
being pain in the root, pain being sin in the flower. So our own
word 'evil' covers all the ground, and means both sin and sorrow.
But even that pealing note does not shatter his hesitation. He still
lingers. What kept him? That which had first taken him there--material
advantages. He had struck root in Sodom. The tent life which he had
kept to at first has been long given up; we find him sitting in the
gate of the city, the place for gossip and friendly intercourse. He
has either formed, or is going to form, marriage alliances for his
daughters with men of the city who are as black as the rest. Perhaps
his wife, whom the story will not name, for pity or for horror, was a
Sodomite. To escape meant to leave all this and his wealth behind. If
he goes out, he goes out a pauper. So his heart, which is where his
treasure is, makes his movements slow. What insanity his lingering
must have seemed to the angels! I wonder if we, who cling so desperately
to the world, and who are so slow to go where God would have us to be
for our own safety, if thereby we shall lose anything of this world's
wealth, seem very much wiser to eyes made clear-sighted with the wisdom
of heaven. This poor hesitating lingerer, too much at home in the city
of destruction to get out of it even to save his life, has plenty of
brothers to-day. Every man who lets the world hold him by the skirts
when Christ is calling him to salvation, and every man who is reluctant
to obey any clear call to sacrifice and separation from godless men,
may see his own face in this glass, and perhaps get a glimpse of its

What a homely picture, full of weighty truth, the story gives us, of
the angels each taking two of the reluctant four by the hand, and
dragging them with some degree of kindly force from destruction into
safety! So, in a great fire, domestic animals and horses seem to
find a strange fascination in the flames, and have to be carried out
of certain death by main force. They 'set him'--or we might read,
'made him rest'--outside the city. It was but a little distance, for
these 'cities' were tiny places, and the walls were soon reached.
But it was far enough to change Lot's whole feelings. He passes to
feeble despair and abject fear, as we shall see. That forlorn group,
homeless, friendless, stripped of everything, shivering outside the
gate in the cold morning air, may teach us how wise and prudent the
man is who seeks the kingdom of God second, and the other things

2. There was a pause outside the city. A new voice speaks now to
Lot. 'They' brought him forth; but 'He' said 'escape.' The same
'Lord' to whom Abraham had prayed, has now rejoined the mysterious
pair whom He had sent to Sodom. And Lot's entreaty is addressed to
Him whom he calls 'my Lord.' He uses singular pronouns throughout,
although the narrator says that he 'said unto _them_.' There
seems to be here the same idea as is embodied in the word 'Elohim';
namely, that the divine powers are regarded as in some sense
separable, and yet all inhering in a personal unity. At all events,
we have here a distinct representation of an intercourse between God
and man, in which thoughts are conveyed to the human spirit direct
from the divine, and desires pass from the human to the divine. The
manner of the intercourse we do not know, but the possibility of the
fact can scarcely be denied by any believer in a God; and, however
we may call this miraculous or abnormal, the essence of the event
can be repeated in the experience of each of us. God still speaks to
men, and men may still plead with God. Unless our religion is
communion, it is nothing.

The divine voice reiterates the angels' urgent command in still more
stringent words: 'Escape for thy life.' There is to be no more
angel-leading, but Lot's feet are to be made as hinds' feet by the
thought of the flaming death that is pursuing. His lingering looks
are sternly forbidden, since they would delay his flight and divide
his heart. The direction of his flight is for the first time pointed
out. The fertile plain, which had lured him down from the safe
hills, is prohibited. Only on the mountain-side, probably the
eastern mountains, where the morning red was beginning to blush, is
there safety.

Lot's answer shows a complete change of feeling. He is too fully
alarmed now. His fright is so desperate that it has killed faith and
common sense. The natural conclusion from God's mercy, which he
acknowledges, would have been trust and obedience. 'Therefore I can
escape,' not 'but I cannot escape,' would have been the logic of
faith. The latter is the irrationality of fear. When a man who has
been cleaving to this fleeting life of earthly good wakes up to
believe his danger, he is ever apt to plunge into an abyss of
terror, in which God's commands seem impossible, and His will to
save becomes dim. The world first lies to us by 'You are quite safe
where you are. Don't be in a hurry to go.' Then it lies, 'You never
can get away now.' Reverse Lot's whimpering fears, and we get the
truth. Are not God's directions how to escape, promises that we
shall escape? Will He begin to build, and not be able to finish?
Will the judgments of His hand overrun their commission, like a
bloodhound which, in its master's absence, may rend his friend? 'We
have all of us one human heart,' and this swift leap from
unreasoning carelessness to as unreasoning dread, this failure to
draw the true conclusion from God's past mercy, and this despairing
recoil from the path pointed for us, and craving for easier ways,
belongs to us. 'A strange servant of God was this,' say we. Yes, and
we are often quite as strange. How many people awakened to see their
danger are so absorbed by the sight that they cannot see the cross,
or think they can never reach it!

God answered the cry, whatever its fault, and that may well make us
pause in our condemnation. He hears even a very imperfect petition,
and can see the tiniest germ of faith buried under thick clods of
doubt and fear. This stooping readiness to meet Lot's weakness comes
in wonderful contrast with the terrible revelation of judgment which
follows. What a conception of God, which had room for this more than
human patience with weakness, and also for the flashing, lurid
glories of destructive retribution! Zoar is spared, not for the
unworthy reason which Lot suggested--because its minuteness might
buy impunity, as some noxious insect too small to be worth crushing--but
in accordance with the principle which was illustrated in Abraham's
intercession, and even in Lot's safety; namely, that the righteous are
shields for others, as Paul had the lives of all that sailed with him
given to him.

God's 'cannot' answers Lot's 'cannot.' His power is limited by His
own solemn purpose to save His faltering servant. The latter had
feared that, before he could reach the mountain, 'the evil' would
overtake him. God shows him that his safety was a condition
precedent to its outburst. Lot barred the way. God could not 'let
slip the dogs of' judgment, but held them in the leash until Lot was
in Zoar. Very awful is the command to make haste, based on this
impossibility, as if God were weary of delay, and more than ready to
smite. However we may find anthropomorphism in these early
narratives, let us not forget that, when the world has long been
groaning under some giant evil, and the bitter seed is grown up into
a waving forest of poison, there is something in the passionless
righteousness of God which brooks no longer delay, but seeks to make
'a short work' on the earth.

3. So we are brought face to face with the grim story of the
destruction. There is a world of tragic meaning in the simple note
of time given. 'The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered
into Zoar.' The low-lying cities of the plain would lie in shadow
for some time before the sun topped the eastern hills. What a dawn!
At that joyous hour, just when the sunshine struck down on the
smiling plain, and lake and river gleamed like silver, and all
things woke to new hopes and fresh life, then the sky darkened, and
the earth sank, and horrible rain of fiery bitumen fell from the
black pall, salt mud poured in streams, and over all hung a column
of fat, oily smoke. It is not my province to discuss the physical
cause of the destruction; but I may refer to the suggestions of Sir
J. W. Dawson, in his _Egypt and Syria_, and in _The Expositor_ for
May 1886, in which he shows that great beds of bituminous limestone
extend below the Jordan valley and much of the Dead Sea, and that the
escape of inflammable gag from these through the opening of a fissure
along a great 'line of fault,' is capable of producing all the effects
described. The 'brimstone' of the Authorised Version is probably
rather some form of bituminous matter which would be carried into the
air by such an escape of gas, and a thick saline mud would accompany
the eruption, encrusting anything it reached. Subsidence would follow
the ejection of quantities of such matter; and hence the word 'overthrew,'
which seems inappropriate to a mere conflagration, would be explained.

But, however this may be, we have to recognise a supernatural
element in the starting of the train of natural causes, as well as
in the timing of the catastrophe, and a divine purpose of
retribution, which turns the catastrophe, however effected, into a

So regarded, the event has a double meaning. In the first place, it
is a revelation of an element in the divine character and of a
feature in the divine government. To the men of that time, it might
be a warning. To Abraham, and through him to his descendants, and
through them to us, it preaches a truth very unwelcome to many in
this day: that there is in God that which constrains Him to hate,
fight against, and punish, evil. The temper of this generation turns
away from such thoughts, and, in the name of the truth that 'God is
love,' would fain obliterate the truth that He does and will punish.
But if the punitive element be suppressed, and that in God which
makes it necessary ignored or weakened, the result will be a God who
has not force enough to love, but only weakly to indulge. If He does
not hate and punish, He does not pardon. For the sake of the love of
God, we must hold firm by the belief in the judgments of God. The
God who destroyed Sodom is not merely the God of an earlier
antiquated creed. 'Is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also of
the Gentiles? Yea, of the Gentiles also.'

Again, this event is a prophecy. So our Lord has employed it; and
much of the imagery in which the last judgment is represented is
directly drawn from this narrative. So far from this story showing
to us only the superstitions of a form of belief which we have long
outgrown, its deepest meaning lies far ahead, and closes the history
of man on the earth. We know from the lips which cannot lie, that
the appalling suddenness of that destruction foreshadows the
swiftness of the coming of that last 'day of the Lord.' We know that
in literality some of the physical features shall be reproduced; for
the fire which shall burn up the world and all its works is no
figure, nor is it proclaimed only by such non-authoritative voices
as those of Jesus and His apostles, but also by the modern
possessors of infallible certitude, the men of science. We know that
that day shall be a day of retribution. We know, too, that the crime
of Sodom, foul and unnatural as it was, is not the darkest, but that
its inhabitants (who have to face that judgment too) will find their
doom more tolerable, and their sins lighter, than some who have had
high places in the Church, than the Pharisees and wise men who have
not taken Christ for their Saviour.

4. The fate of the loiterer. Her backward look must have been more
than momentary, for the destruction of the cities did not begin till
Lot was safe in Zoar. She must have lingered far behind, and been
overtaken by the eruption of liquid saline mud, which, as Sir J. W.
Dawson has shown, would attend or follow the outburst of bituminous
matter, so that her fate was the natural consequence of her heart
being still in Sodom. As to the 'pillar of salt' which has excited
cavils on the one hand and foolish legends on the other, probably we
are to think rather of a heap than of a pillar. The word does not
occur in either meaning elsewhere, but its derivation implies
something raised above the level of the ground; and a heap, such as
would be formed by a human body encrusted with salt mud, would suit
the requirements of the expression. Like a man who falls in a
snowstorm, or, still more accurately, just as some of the victims at
Pompeii stumbled in their flight, and were buried under the ashes,
which still keep the outline of their figures, so Lot's wife was
covered with the half-liquid slimy mud. Granted the delay in her
flight, the rest is perfectly simple and natural. She was buried in
a horrible tomb; and, in pity to her memory, no name has been
written upon it. She remains to all generations, in a far truer
sense than superstition dreamed of when it pointed to an upright
salt rock as her prison and her monument, a warning of the danger of
the backward look, which betrays the true home of the heart, and may
leave us unsheltered in the open plain when the fiery storm bursts.
'Remember Lot's wife.'

When the angels awoke Lot, the day was breaking. By the time that
Abraham had risen 'early in the morning,' and reached the place by
his tent from which he had yesterday looked on the smiling plain,
all was over, and the heavy smoke cloud wrapped the dead with its
pall-like folds. So swift and sudden is to be the coming of the Son
of man,--as the lightning which rushes in one fierce blinding flash
from one side of heaven to the other. Wherefore, God calls to each
of us: 'Escape for thy life; look not behind thee.'


'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. And He said, Take now thy son, thine
only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the
land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering
upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And
Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his
ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac
his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and
rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told
him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes,
and saw the place afar off. And 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.
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid
it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand,
and a knife; and they went both of them together. And
Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father:
and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the
fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt
offering! And Abraham said, My son, God will provide
Himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both
of them together. And they came to the place which God
had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and
laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and
laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched
forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And
the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven,
and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And
He said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do
thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest
God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only
son from Me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked,
and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his
horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered
him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh:
as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it
shall be seen.'--GENESIS xxii. 1-14.


A life of faith and self-denial has usually its sharpest trials at
or near its beginning. A stormy day has generally a calm close. But
Abraham's sorest discipline came all sudden, like a bolt from blue
sky. Near the end, and after many years of peaceful, uneventful
life, he had to take a yet higher degree in the school of faith.
Sharp trial means increased possession of God. So his last terrible
experience turned to his crowning mercy.

1. The very first words of this solemn narrative raise many
questions. We have God appointing the awful trial. The Revised
Version properly replaces 'tempt' by 'prove.' The former word
conveys the idea of appealing to the worse part of a man, with the
wish that he may yield and do the wrong. The latter means an appeal
to the better part of a man, with the desire that he should stand.
Temptation says: 'Do this pleasant thing; do not be hindered by the
fact that it is wrong.' Trial, or proving, says: 'Do this right and
noble thing; do not be hindered by the fact that it is painful.' The
one is 'a sweet, beguiling melody,' breathing soft indulgence and
relaxation over the soul; the other is a pealing trumpet-call to
high achievements.

God's proving does not mean that He stands by, watching how His
child will behave. He helps us to sustain the trial to which He
subjects us. Life is all probation; and because it is so, it is all
the field for the divine aid. The motive of His proving men is that
they may be strengthened. He puts us into His gymnasium to improve
our physique. If we stand the trial, our faith is increased; if we
fall, we learn self-distrust and closer clinging to Him. No
objection can be raised to the representation of this passage as to
God's proving Abraham, which does not equally apply to the whole
structure of life as a place of probation that it may be a place of
blessing. But the manner of the trial here presents a difficulty.
How could God command a father to kill his son? Is that in
accordance with His character? Well, two considerations deserve
attention. First, the final issue; namely, Isaac's deliverance, was
an integral part of the divine purpose from the beginning of the
trial; so that the question really is, Was it accordant with the
divine character to require readiness to sacrifice even a son at His
command? Second, that in Abraham's time, a father's right over his
child's life was unquestioned, and that therefore this command,
though it lacerated Abraham's heart, did not wound his conscience as
it would do were it heard to-day. It is impossible to conceive of a
divine injunction such as this being addressed to us. We have
learned the inalienable sacredness of every life, and the awful
prerogative and burden of individuality. God's command cannot
enforce sin. But it was not wrong in Abraham's eyes for a father to
slay his son; and God might shape His message to the form of the
existing morality without derogation from His character, especially
when the result of the message would be, among other things, to
teach His abhorrence of human sacrifices, and so to lift the
existing morality to a higher level.

2. The great body of the history sets before us Abraham standing the
terrible test. What unsurpassable beauty is in the simple story! It
is remarkable, even among the scriptural narratives, for the entire
absence of anything but the visible facts. There is not a syllable
about the feelings of father or of son. The silence is more pathetic
than many words. We look as into a magic crystal, and see the very
event before our eyes, and our own imaginations tell us more of the
world of struggle and sorrow raging under that calm outside than the
highest art could do. The pathos of reticence was never more
perfectly illustrated. Observe, too, the minute, prolonged details
of the slow progress to the dread instant of sacrifice. Each step is
told in precisely the same manner, and the series of short clauses,
coupled together by an artless 'and,' are like the single strokes of
a passing bell, or the slow drops of blood heard falling from a
fatal wound. The homely preparations for the journey are made by
Abraham himself. He makes no confidante of Sarah; only God and
himself knew what that bundle of wood meant. What thoughts must have
torn his soul throughout these weary days! How hard to keep his
voice round and full while he spoke to Isaac! How much the long
protracted tension of the march increased the sharpness of the test!
It is easier to reach the height of obedient self-sacrifice in some
moment of enthusiasm, than to keep up there through the commonplace
details of slowly passing days. Many a faith, which could even have
slain its dearest, would have broken down long before the last step
of that sad journey was taken.

The elements of the trial were two: first, Abraham's soul was torn
asunder by the conflict of fatherly love and obedience to God. The
narrative intimates this struggle by continually insisting on the
relationship between the two. The command dwells with emphasis on
it: 'thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest.' He takes with
him 'Isaac his son'; lays the wood on 'Isaac his son.' Isaac 'spake
unto Abraham his father'; Abraham answers, 'Here am I, my son'; and
again, 'My son, God will provide.' He bound 'Isaac his son'; he
'took the knife to slay his son'; and lastly, in the glad surprise
at the end, he offers the ram 'in the stead of his son.' Thus, at
every turn, the tender bond is forced on our notice, that we may
feel how terrible was the task laid on him--to cut it asunder with
his own hand. The friend of God must hold all other love as less
than His, and must be ready to yield up the dearest at His bidding.
Cruel as the necessity seems to flesh and blood, and specially
poignant as his pain was, in essence Abraham's trial only required
of him what all true religion requires of us. Some of us have been
called by God's providence to give up the light of our eyes, the joy
of our homes, to Him. Some of us have had to make the choice between
earthly and heavenly love. All of us have to throne God in our
hearts, and to let not the dearest usurp His place. In our weakness
we may well shrink from such a test. But let us not forget that the
trial of Abraham was not imposed by his own mistaken conceptions of
duty, nor by a sterner God than the New Testament reveals, but is
distinctly set before every Christian in essence, though not in
form, by the gentle lips from which flowed the law of love more
stringent and exclusive in its claims than any other: 'He that
loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.'

The conflict in Abraham's soul had a still more painful aspect in
that it seemed to rend his very religion into two. Faith in the
promise on which he had been living all his life drew one way; faith
in the later command, another. God seemed to be against God, faith
against faith, promise against command. If he obeys now, what is to
become of the hopes that had shone for years before him? His whole
career will be rendered nugatory, and with his own hand he will
crush to powder his life's work. That wonderful short dialogue which
broke the stern silence of the journey seems to throw light on his
mood. There is nothing in literature sacred or secular, fact or
fiction, poetry or prose, more touching than the innocent curiosity
of Isaac's boyish question, and the yearning self-restraint of the
father's desperate and yet calm answer. But its value is not only in
its pathos. It seems to show that, though he knew not how, still he
held by the hope that somehow God would not forget His promise. Out
of his very despair, his faith struck, out of the flint of the hard
command, a little spark which served to give some flicker of light
amid the darkness. His answer to his boy does not make his sacrifice
less, but his faith more. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews
gives a somewhat different turn to his hopes, when he tells us that
he offered up the heir of the promises, 'accounting that God was
able to raise him from the dead.' Both ways of clinging to the early
promise, even while obeying the later command, seem to have passed
through his mind. The wavering from the one to the other is natural.
He is sure that God had not lied before, and means what He commands
now. He is sure that there is some point of reconciliation--perhaps
this, perhaps that, but certainly somewhat. So he goes straight on
the road marked for him, quite sure that it will not end in a blind
alley, from which there is no exit. That is the very climax of
faith--to trust God so absolutely, even when His ways seem
contradictory, as to be more willing to believe apparent
impossibilities than to doubt Him, and to be therefore ready for the
hardest trial of obedience. We, too, have sometimes to take courses
which seem to annihilate the hope and aims of a life. The lesson for
us is to go straight on the path of clear duty wherever it leads. If
it seem to bring us up to inaccessible cliffs, we may be sure that
when we get there we shall find some ledge, though it may be no
broader than a chamois could tread, which will suffice for a path.
If it seem to bring us to a deep and bridgeless stream, we shall
find a ford when we get to the water's edge. If the mountains seem
to draw together and bar a passage, we shall find, when we reach
them, that they open out; though it may be no wider than a canon,
still the stream can get through, and our boat with it.

3. So we have the climax of the story--faith rewarded. The first
great lesson which the interposition of the Divine voice teaches us,
is that obedience is complete when the inward surrender is complete.
The outward act was needless. Abraham would have done no more if the
flashing knife had buried itself in Isaac's heart. Here is the first
great proclamation of the truth which revolutionises morality and
religion, the beginnings of the teaching which culminates in the
ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and in the gospel of salvation,
not by deeds, but through faith. The will is the man, the true
action is the submission of the will. The outward deed is only the
coarse medium through which it is made visible for men: God looks on
purpose as performance.

Again, faith is rewarded by God's acceptance and approval. 'I know
that thou fearest God,' not meaning that He learned the heart by the
conduct, but that, on occasion of the conduct, He breathes into the
obedient heart that calm consciousness of its service as recognised
and accepted by Him, which is the highest reward that His friend can
know. 'To be well pleasing to Him' is our noblest aim, which,
cherished, makes sacrifice sweet, and all difficult things easy.
'Nor know we anything more fair Than is the smile upon Thy face.'

Again, faith is rewarded by a deeper insight into God's will. Much
has been said about the sacrifice of Isaac in its bearing upon the
custom of human sacrifice. We do not believe that Abraham was led to
his act by a mistaken idea, borrowed from surrounding idolatries.
His position as the sole monotheist amid these, the absence of
evidence that human sacrifice was practised then among his
neighbours, and, above all, the fact of the divine approval of his
intention, forbid our acceptance of that theory. Nor can we regard
the condemnation of such sacrifices as the main object of the
incident. But no doubt an incidental result, and, we may perhaps
say, a subsidiary purpose of it, was to stamp all such hideous
usages with the brand of God's displeasure. The mode of thought
which led to them was deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Old
World, and corresponded to a true conception of the needs of
humanity. The dark sense of sin, the conviction that it required
expiation, and that procurable only by death, drove men to these
horrid rites. And that ram, caught in the thicket, thorn-crowned and
substituted for the human victim, taught Abraham and his sons that
God appointed and provided a lamb for an offering. It was a lesson
won by faith. Nor need we hesitate to see some dim forecast of the
great Substitute whom God provided, who bears the sins of the world.

Again, faith is rewarded by receiving back the surrendered blessing,
made more precious because it has been laid on the altar. How
strange and solemn must have been the joy with which these two
looked in each other's faces! What thankful wonder must have filled
Abraham's heart as he loosed the cord that had bound his son! It
would be many days before the thrill of gratitude died away, and the
possession of his son seemed to Abraham, or that of life seemed to
Isaac, a common thing. He was doubly now a child of wonder, born by
miracle, delivered by miracle. So is it ever. God gives us back our
sacrifices, tinged with a new beauty, and purified from earthly

We never know how sweet our blessings are till we have yielded them
to Him. 'There is no man that hath left' anything or any person for
Christ's sake and the gospel's who will not 'receive a hundred-fold
more in this life, and in the world to come life everlasting.'

Lastly, Abraham was rewarded by being made a faint adumbration, for
all time, of the yet more wondrous and awful love of the divine
Father, who, for our sakes, has surrendered His only-begotten Son,
whom He loved. Paul quotes the very words of this chapter when he
says: 'He that _spared_ not His _own Son_, but delivered Him up for us
all.' Such thoughts carry us into dim regions, in which, perhaps,
silence is best. Did some shadow of loss and pain pass over the divine
all-sufficiency and joy, when He sent His Son? Was the unresisting
innocence of the son a far-off likeness of the willing eagerness of
the sinless Sufferer who chose to die? Was the resolved surrender of
the father a faint prelude of the deep divine love which gave His
only Son for us? Shall we not say, 'Now I know that Thou lovest me,
because Thou hast not withheld Thy Son, Thine only Son, from me'?
Shall we not recognise this as the crown of Abraham's reward, that
his act of surrender of his dearest to God, his Friend, has been
glorified by being made the mirror of God's unspeakable gift of His
Son to us, His enemies?



The first words of this lesson give the keynote for its meaning.
'God did prove Abraham'; the strange command was a test of his
faith. In recent times the incident has been regarded chiefly as
embodying a protest against child-sacrifices, and no doubt that is
part of its intention, and their condemnation was part of its
effect, but the other is the principal thing. Abraham, as the
'Father of the Faithful,' has his faith tested by a series of events
from his setting out from Haran, and they culminate in this sharpest
of all, the command to slay his son. The life of faith is ever a
life of testing, and very often the fire that tries increases in
heat as life advances. The worst conflicts are not always at the
beginning of the war.

Our best way of knowing ourselves is to observe our own conduct,
especially when it is hard to do nobly. We may easily cheat
ourselves about what is the basis and ruling motive of our lives,
but our actions will show it us. God does not 'test' us as if He did
not know what was gold and what base metal, but the proving is meant
to make clear to others and ourselves what is the worth and strength
of our religion. The test is also a means of increasing the faith
which it demonstrates, so that the exhortation to 'count it all joy'
to have faith tried is no overstrained counsel of perfection.

The narrative plainly declares that the command to sacrifice his son
was to Abraham unmistakably divine. The explanation that Abraham,
living beside peoples who practised child-sacrifice, heard but the
voice of his own conscience asking, 'Canst thou do for Jehovah what
these do for Moloch?' does not correspond to the record. No doubt
God does speak through conscience; but what sent Abraham on his
terrible journey was a command which he knew did not spring up
within, but came to him from above. We may believe or disbelieve the
possibility or the actuality of such direct and distinguishable
commands from God, but we do not face the facts of this narrative
unless we recognise that it asserts that God made His will known to
Abraham, and that Abraham knew that it was God's will, not his own

But is it conceivable that God should ever bid a man commit a crime?
To the question put in that bald way, of course there can be but one
answer, No. But several conditions have to be taken into account.
First, it is conceivable that God should test a man's willingness to
surrender what is most precious to him, and what all his hopes are
fixed on; and this command was given with the purpose that it should
not be obeyed in fact, if the willingness to obey it was proved.
Again, the stage of development of the moral sense at which Abraham
stood has to be remembered. The child-sacrifices around him were not
regarded as crimes, but as worship, and, while his affections were
the same as ours, and his father's heart was wrung, to slay Isaac
did not present itself to him as a crime in the way in which it does
so to us. God deals with men on the moral and spiritual level to
which they have attained, and, by descending to it, raises them

The purpose of the command was to test faith, even more than to test
whether earthly love or heavenly obedience were the stronger. There
is a beautiful and instructive climax in the designations of Isaac
in verse 2, where four times he is referred to, 'thy son, thine only
son,' in whom all the hopes of fulfilment of the divine promise were
concentrated, so that, if this fruit from the aged tree were cut
off, no other could ever grow; 'whom thou lovest,'--there the sharp
point pierces the father's heart; 'even Isaac,' in which name all
the ties that knit him to Abraham are gathered up. Each word
heightens the greatness of the sacrifice demanded, and is a fresh
thrust of the dagger into Abraham's very life. Each suggests a
reason for not slaying Isaac, which sense might plead. God does not
hide the painfulness of surrender from us. The more precious the
treasure is, the more are we bound to lay it on the altar. But it
was Abraham's faith even more than his love that was tested. The
Epistle to the Hebrews lays hold on this as the main element in the
trial, that he who 'had received the promises' was called to do what
seemed to blast all hope of their being fulfilled. What a cruel
position to have God's command and God's promise apparently in
diametrical opposition! But faith loosened even that seemingly
inextricable tangle of contradiction, and felt that to obey was for
man, and to keep His promise was for God. If we do our duty, He will
see to the consequences. 'Tis mine to obey; 'tis His to provide.'

Nothing in literature is more tenderly touched or more truly
imagined than that long, torturing journey--Abraham silent, Isaac
silently wondering, the servants silently following. And, like a
flash, at last 'the place' was seen afar off. How calmly Abraham
speaks to the two followers, mastering his heart's throbbing even
then! 'We will worship, and come again to you'--was that a 'pious
fraud' or did it not rather indicate that a ray of hope, like pale
light from a shrouded sun, shone for him? He 'accounted that God was
able to raise him up even from the dead.' Somehow, he knew not how,
Isaac slain was still to live and inherit the promises. Anything was
possible, but that God's word should fail was impossible. That
picture of the father and son alone, the one bearing the wood, the
other the fire and the knife, exchanging no word but once, when the
innocent wonder of Isaac's question must have shaken Abraham's
steadfastness, and made it hard for him to steady his voice to
answer, touches the deepest springs of pity and pathetic sublimity.
But the answer is in the same spirit as that to the servants, and
indicates the same hope. 'God will provide Himself a lamb, my son.'
He does not know definitely what he expects; he is ready to slay
Isaac, but his faith is not quenched, though the end seems so
inevitable and near. Faith was never more sharply tested, and never
more triumphantly stood the test.

The divine solution of the riddle was kept back till the last
moment, as it usually is. The place is slowly reached, the hill
slowly climbed, the altar built, the unresisting Isaac bound (with
what deep thoughts in each, who can tell?), the steady hand holding
the glittering knife lifted--a moment more and it will be red with
heart's blood, and not till then does God speak. It is ever so. The
trial has 'its perfect work.' Faith is led to the edge of the
precipice, one step farther and all is over. Then God speaks, all
but just too late, and yet 'right early.' The willingness to make
the sacrifice is tested to the utmost, and being proved, the
sacrifice is not required.

Abraham had said to Isaac, 'God will provide a lamb,' and the word
'provide' is that which appears in the name he gave to the
place--Jehovah-_jireh_. The name, then, commemorated, not the
servant's faith but the Lord's mercy, and the spirit of it was embodied
in what became a popular saying, 'In the mount of the Lord it shall
be provided.' If faith dwells there, its surrenders will be richly
rewarded. How much more dear was Isaac to Abraham as they journeyed
back to Beersheba! And whatever we lay on God's altar comes back a
'hundred-fold more in this life,' and brings in the world to come life


'And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh;
(that is, The Lord will provide).'-GENESIS xxii. 14.

As these two, Abraham and Isaac, were travelling up the hill, the
son bearing the wood, and the father with the sad burden of the fire
and the knife, the boy said: 'Where is the lamb?' and Abraham,
thrusting down his emotion and steadying his voice, said: 'My son,
God will provide Himself a lamb.' When the wonderful issue of the
trial was plain before him, and he looked back upon it, the one
thought that rose in his mind was of how, beyond his meaning, his
words had been true. So he named that place by a name that spoke
nothing of his trial, but everything of God's provision--'The Lord
will see,' or 'The Lord will provide.'

1. The words have become proverbial and threadbare as a commonplace
of Christian feeling. But 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, and see in it the assurance that we shall not be left
without the supply of the necessities for which, because God has
made us to feel them, He has bound Himself to make provision. And
most blessedly true is that application of them, and many a
Christian heart in days of famine has been satisfied with the
promise, when the bread that was given has been scant.

But there is a meaning deeper than that in the words. It is true,
thank God! that we may cast all our anxiety about all outward things
upon Him, in the assurance that He who feeds the ravens will feed
us, and that if lilies can blossom into beauty without care, we
shall be held by our Father of more value than these. But there is a
deeper meaning in the provision spoken of here. What was it that God
provided for Abraham? What is it that God provides for us? A way to
discharge the arduous duties which, when they are commanded, seem
all but impossible for us, and which, the nearer we come to them,
look the more dreadful and seem the more impossible. And yet, when
the heart has yielded itself in obedience, and we are ready to do
the thing that is enjoined, there opens up before us a possibility
provided by God, and strength comes to us equal to our day, and some
unexpected gift is put into our hand, which enables us to do the
thing of which Nature said: 'My heart will break before I can do
it'; and in regard to which even Grace doubted whether it was
possible for us to carry it through. If our hearts are set in
obedience to the command, the farther we go on the path of
obedience, the easier the command will appear, and to try to do it
is to ensure that God will help us to do it.

This is the main provision that God makes, and it is the highest
provision that He can make. For there is nothing in this life that
we need so much as to do the will of our Father in heaven. All
outward wants are poor compared with that. The one thing worth
living for, the one thing which being secured we are blessed, and
being missed we are miserable, is compliance in heart with the
commandment of our Father; and that compliance wrought out in life.
So, of all gifts that He bestows upon us, and of all the abundant
provision out of His rich storehouses, is not this the best, that we
are made ready for any required service? When we get to the place we
shall find some lamb 'caught in the thicket by its horns'; and
heaven itself will supply what is needful for our burnt offering.

And then there is another thought here which, though we cannot
certainly say it was in the speaker's mind, is distinctly in the
historian's intention, 'The Lord will provide.' Provide what? The
lamb for the burnt offering which He has commanded. It seems
probable that that bare mountain-top which Abraham saw from afar,
and named Jehovah-jireh, was the mountain-top on which afterwards
the Temple was built. And perhaps the wood was piled for the altar,
on which Abraham was called to lay his only son, on that very piece
of primitive rock which still stands visible, though Temple and
altar have long since gone; and which for many a day was the place
of the altar on which the sacrifices of Israel were offered. It is
no mere forcing of Christian meanings on to old stories, but the
discerning of that prophetic and spiritual element which God has
impressed upon these histories of the past, especially in all their
climaxes and crises, when 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 provided.

This is the deepest meaning of all the sacrificial worship, as of
Israel so of heathen nations--God Himself will provide a Lamb. The
world had built altars, and Israel, by divine appointment, had its
altar too. All these express the want which none of them can
satisfy. They show that man needed a Sacrifice; and that Sacrifice
God has provided. He asked from Abraham less than He gives to us.
Abraham's devotion was sealed and certified because he did not
withhold his son, his only son, from God. And God's love is sealed
because He hath not withheld His only-begotten Son from us.

So this name that came from Abraham's grateful and wondering lips
contains a truth which holds true in all regions of our wants. On
the lowest level, the outward supply of outward needs; on a higher,
the means of discharging hard duties and a path through sharp
trials; and, on the highest of all, the spotless sacrifice which
alone avails for the world's sins--these are the things which God

2. So, note again on what conditions He provides them.

The incident and the name became the occasion of a proverb, as the
historian tells us, which survived down to the period of his
writing, and probably long after, when men were accustomed to say,
'In the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.' The provision of
all sorts that we need has certain conditions as to the when and the
where of the persons to whom it shall be granted. 'In the mount of
the Lord it shall be provided.' If we wish to have 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 receive them all on the
condition that we are found in the place where all God's provision
is treasured. If a man chooses to sit outside the baker's shop, he
may starve on its threshold. If a man will not go into the bank, his
pockets will be empty, though there may be bursting coffers there to
which he has a right. And if we will not ascend to the hill of the
Lord, and stand in His holy place by simple faith, and by true
communion of heart and life, God's amplest provision is nought to
us; and we are empty in the midst of affluence. Get near to God if
you would partake of what He has prepared. Live in fellowship with
Him by simple love, and often meditate on Him, if you would drink in
of His fulness. And be sure of this, that howsoever within His house
the stores are heaped and the treasury full, you will have neither
part nor lot in the matter, unless you are children of the house.
'In the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.' And round it there
is a waste wilderness of famine and of death.

Further, note _when_ the provision is realised.

When the man is standing with the knife in his hand, and next minute
it will be red with the son's blood--then the call comes: 'Abraham!'
and then he sees the ram caught in the thicket. There had been a
long weary journey from their home away down in the dry, sunny
south, a long tramp over the rough hills, a toilsome climb, with a
breaking heart in the father's bosom, and a dim foreboding gradually
stealing on the child's spirit. But there was no sign of respite or
of deliverance. Slowly he piles together the wood, and yet no sign.
Slowly he binds his boy, and lays him on it, and still no sign.
Slowly, reluctantly, and yet resolvedly, he unsheathes the knife,
and yet no sign. He lifts his hand, and then it comes.

That is God's way always. Up to the very edge we are driven, before
His hand is put out to help us. Such is the law, not only because
the next moment is always necessarily dark, nor because God will
deal with us in any arbitrary fashion, and play with our fears, but
because it is best for us that we should be forced to desperation,
and out of desperation should 'pluck the flower, safety.' It is best
for us that we should be brought to say, 'My foot slippeth!' and
then, just as our toes are sliding upon the glacier, the help comes
and 'Thy mercy held me up.' 'The Lord is her helper, and that right
early.' When He delays, it is not to trifle with us, but to do us
good by the sense of need, as well as by the experience of
deliverance. At the last moment, never before it, never until we
have found out how much we need it, and never too late, comes the

So 'it is provided' for the people that quietly and persistently
tread the path of duty, and go wherever His hand leads them, without
asking anything about where it does lead. The condition of the
provision is our obedience of heart and will. To Abraham doing what
he was commanded, though his heart was breaking as he did it, the
help was granted--as it always will be.

3. And so, lastly, note what we are to do with the provision when we
get it.

Abraham christened the anonymous mountain-top, not by a name that
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. He did not want
these to be remembered, but what he desired to hand on to later
generations was what God had done for him. Oh! dear friends, is that
the way in which we look back upon life? Many a bare, bald mountain-
top in your career and mine we have got our names for. Are they
names that commemorate our sufferings or God's blessings? When we
look back on the past what do we see? Times of trial or times of
deliverance? Which side of the wave do we choose to look at, the one
that is smitten by the sunshine or the one that is all black and
purple in the shadow? The sea looked at from the one side will be
all a sunny path, and from the other dark as chaos. Let us name the
heights that lie behind us, visible to memory, by names that
commemorate, not the troubles that we had on them, but the
deliverances that on them we received from God.

This name enshrines the duty of commemoration--ay! and the duty of
expectation. 'The Lord will provide.' How do you know that, Abraham?
and his answer is, 'Because the Lord did provide.' That is a shaky
kind of argument if we use it about one another. Our resources may
give out, our patience may weary. If it is a storehouse that we have
to go to, all the corn that is treasured in it will be eaten up some
day; but if it is to some boundless plain that grows it that we go,
then we can be sure that there will be a harvest next year as there
has been a harvest last. And so we have to think of God, not as a
storehouse, but as the soil from which there comes forth, year by
year and generation after generation, the same crop of rich
blessings for the needs and the hungers of every soul. If we have to
draw from reservoirs we cannot say, 'I have gone with my pitcher to
the well six times, and I shall get it filled at the seventh.' It is
more probable that we shall have to say, 'I have gone so often that
I durst not go any more'; but if we have to go, not to a well, but
to a fountain, then the oftener we go, the surer we become that its
crystal cool waters will always be ready for us. 'Thou hast been
with me in six troubles; and in seven thou wilt not forsake me,' is
a bad conclusion to draw about one another; but it is the right
conclusion to draw about God.

And so, as we look back upon our past lives, and see many a peak
gleaming in the magic light of memory, let us name them all by names
that will throw a radiance of hope on the unknown and un-climbed
difficulties before us, and say, as the patriarch did when he went
down from the mount of his trial and deliverance, 'The Lord will


'I being in the way, the Lord led me.'--GENESIS xxiv. 27.

So said Abraham's anonymous servant when telling how he had found
Rebekah at the well, and known her to be the destined bride of his
master's servant. There is no more beautiful page, even amongst the
many lovely ones in these ancient stories, than this domestic idyll
of the mission of the faithful servant from far Canaan across the
desert. The homely test by which he would determine that the maiden
should be pointed out to him, the glimpse of old-world ways at the
well, the gracious courtesy of the fair damsel, and the simple
devoutness of the speaker, who recognises in what to others were
trivial commonplaces God's guidance to the end which He had
appointed, his recognition of the divine hand moving beneath all the
nothings and littlenesses of daily life--may teach us much.

1. The first thing that these words seem to me to suggest is the
conditions under which we may be sure that God leads--'I being in
the way.'

Now, of course, some of you may know that the words of our text are,
by the Revised Version and others, rendered so as to obliterate the
clause telling where the speaker was when the Lord led him, and to
make the whole a continuous expression of the one fact--'As for me,
the Lord hath led me in the way to the house of my master's
brethren.' The literal rendering is, 'I in the way, Jehovah led me.'
No doubt the Hebrew idiom admits of the 'I' being thus emphatically
premised, and then repeated as 'me' after the verb, and possibly no
more is to be made of the words than that. But the fuller and more
impressive meaning is possible, and I venture to retain it, and to
see in it the expression of the truth that it is when we are 'in the
way' that God will certainly lead us.

So that suggests, first, how the people that have any right to
expect any kind of guidance from God are those who have their feet
upon a path which conscience approves. Many men run into all manner
of perplexities by their own folly and self-will, and never ask
whether their acts are right or wrong, wise or foolish, until they
begin to taste the bitter consequences. Then they cry to God to help
them, and think themselves very religious because they do. That is
not the way to get God's help. Such folk are like Italian brigands
who had an image of the Virgin in their hats, and sometimes had the
Pope's commission in their pockets, and therefore went out to murder
and ravish, in sure and certain hope of God's favour and protection.

But when we are 'in the way,' and know that we are doing what we
ought to do, and conscience says, 'Go on; never mind what stands
against you,' it is then, and only then, that we have a right to be
sure that the Lord will lead us. Otherwise, the best thing that can
happen to us is that the Lord should thwart us when we are on the
wrong road. Resistance, indeed, may be guidance; and it is often
God's manner of setting our feet in the way of His steps. We have no
claim on Him for guidance, indeed, unless we have submitted
ourselves to His commandments; yet His mercies go beyond our claims.
Just as the obedient child gets guidance, so the petulant and
disobedient child gets resistance, which is guidance too. The angel
of the Lord stands in front of Balaam, amongst the vines, though the
seer sometimes does not see, and blocks the path for him, and hedges
up the way with his flaming sword. Only, if we would have the sweet,
gracious, companionable guidance of our Lord, let us be sure, to
begin with, that we are 'in the way,' and not in any of the bypaths
into which arrogance and self-will and fleshly desires and the like
are only too apt to divert our feet.

Another consideration suggested by these words, 'I being in the
way,' is that if we expect guidance we must diligently do present
duty. We are led, thank God, by one step at a time. He does with His
child, whom He is teaching to read His will, as we sometimes do with
our children, when we are occupied in teaching them their first
book-learning: we cover the page up, all but the line that we want
them to concentrate their eyes upon; and then, when they have got to
the end of that, slip the hand down, low enough to allow the next
line to come into view. So often God does with us. One thing at a
time is enough for the little brains. And this is the condition of
mortal life, for the most part--though there do come rare
exceptions. Not that we have to look a long way ahead, and forecast
what we shall do this time ten years off, or to make decisions that
involve a distant future--except once or twice in a lifetime--but
that we have to settle what is to be done in this flying minute, and
in the one adjacent to it. 'Do the duty that lies nearest thee,' and
the remoter duty will become clearer. There is nothing that has more
power to make a man's path plain before his feet than that he should
concentrate his better self on the manful and complete discharge of
the present moment's service. And, on the other hand, there is
nothing that will so fill our sky with mists, and blur the marks of
the faint track through the moor, as present negligence, or still
more, present sin. Iron in a ship's hull makes the magnet tremble,
and point away from its true source. He that has complied with evil
to-day is the less capable of discerning duty to-morrow; and he that
does all the duty that he knows will thereby increase the
probability that he will know all that he needs. 'If any man wills
to do His will, he shall know of the teaching'--enough, at any rate,
to direct his steps.

But there is another lesson still in the words; and that is that, if
we are to be guided, we must see to it that we expect and obey the

This servant of Abraham's, with a very imperfect knowledge of the
divine will, had, when he set out on his road, prayed very earnestly
that God would lead him. He had ventured to prescribe a certain
token, na´ve in its simplicity: 'If the girl drops her pitcher, and
gives us drink gladly, and does not grudge to fill the troughs for
the cattle, that will show that she is of a good sort, and will make
the right wife for Isaac.' He had prayed thus, and he was ready to
accept whomsoever God so designated. He had not made up his mind,
'Bethuel's daughter is a relation of my master's, and so she will be
a suitable wife for his son.' He left it all with God, and then he
went straight on his road, and was perfectly sure that he would get
the guidance that he had sought. And when it came the good man bowed
and obeyed.

Now there is a picture for us all. There are many people that say,
'O Lord! guide me.' when all the while they mean, 'Let me guide
Thee.' They are perfectly willing to accept the faintest and moat
questionable indications that may seem to point down the road where
their inclination drives them, and like Lord Nelson at Copenhagen,
will put the telescope to the blind eye when the flag is flying at
the admiral's peak, signalling 'Come out of action,' because they
are determined to stay where they are.

Do not let us forget that the first condition of securing real
guidance in our daily life is to ask it, and that the next is to
look for it, and that a third is to be quite willing to accept it,
whether the finger points down the broad road that we would like to
go upon, or through some tangled path amongst the brushwood that we
would fain avoid. And if you and I, dear brethren, in the
littlenesses of our daily life, do fulfil these conditions, the
heavens will crumble, and earth will melt, before God will leave His
child untaught in the way in which he should go.

Only, let us be patient. Do you remember what Joshua said to the
Israelites? 'Let there be a good space of vacant ground between you
and the guiding ark, that you may know by which way you ought to
go.' When men precipitately press on the heels of half-disclosed
providences, they are uncommonly apt to mistake the road. We must
wait till we are sure of God's will before we try to do it. If we
are not sure of what He would have us do, then, for the present, He
would have us do nothing until He speaks. 'I being in the way, the
Lord led me.'

2. Now a word about the manner of the guidance.

There was no miracle, no supernatural voice, no pillar of cloud or
fire, no hovering glory round the head of the village maiden. All
the indications were perfectly natural and trivial. A thousand girls
had gone to the wells that day all about Haran and done the very
same things that Rebekah did. But the devout man who had prayed for
guidance, and was sure that he was getting it, was guided by her
most simple, commonplace act; and that is how we are usually to be
guided. God leaves a great deal to our common sense. His way of
speaking to common sense is by very common things. If any of us
fancy that some glow at the heart, some sudden flash as of
inspiration, is the test of a divine commandment, we have yet to
learn the full meaning of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. For that
Incarnation, amongst all its other mighty influences, hallowed the
commonest things of life and turned them into ministers of God's
purposes. So remember, God's guidance may come to you through so
insignificant a girl as Rebekah. It may come to you through as
commonplace an incident as tipping the water of a spring out of an
earthen pot into a stone trough. None the less is it God's guidance;
and what we want is the eye to see it. He will guide us by very
common indications of His providence.

3. And now, the last thing that I would say a word about is the
realisation in daily life of this guidance as a plain actual fact.

This anonymous trusted servant of Abraham's, whose name we should
like to have known, had a mere segment of the full orb of the
knowledge of God that shines upon our path. With true Oriental
freedom to speak about the deepest matters, he was not afraid nor
ashamed to stand before Bethuel and Laban, and all these other
strangers that crowded round the doorway, and say, 'The Lord led
me.' There is a pattern for some of us tongue-tied, shamefaced
Christians. Whatever may be the truth about the degradations of
which heathen religion is full, there is a great deal in heathen
religion that ought to teach, and does teach, Christendom a lesson,
as to willingness to recognise and to confess God's working in daily
life. It may be very superficial; it may be very little connected
with high morality; but so far as it goes it is a thousand-fold
better than the dumb religion that characterises such hosts of
Christian people.

A realisation of the divine guidance is the talisman that makes
crooked things straight and rough places plain; that brings peace
and calmness into our hearts, amid all changes, losses, and sorrows.
If we hold fast by that faith, it will interpret for us the
mysterious in the providences concerning our own lives, and will
help us to feel that, as I said, resistance to our progress may be
true guidance, and thwarting our wills may be our highest good. For
the road which we travel should, in all its turnings, lead us to
God; and whatsoever guides us to Him is only and always blessed.

May I, for one moment, turn these words in another direction, and
remind you, dear friends, of how the sublimest application of them
is still to be realised? As a climber on a mountain-peak may look
down the vale up which he had painfully toiled for many days and see
the dusty path lying, like a sinuous snake, down all along it, so,
when we get up yonder, 'Thou shalt remember all the way by which the
Lord thy God hath led thee these many years in the wilderness,' and
shalt see the green pastures and the still waters, valleys of the
shadow of death, and burning roads with sharp flints, which have all
brought thee hither at last. We shall know then what we believe now,
that the Lord does indeed go before them who desire to follow Him,
and that the God of Israel is their reward. Then we shall say with
deepened thankfulness, deepened by complete understanding of life
here, seen in the light of its attained end, 'I being in the way,
the Lord led me,' and 'I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for


'Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old
age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered
to his people.'--GENESIS xxv. 8.

'Full of years' does not seem to me to be a mere synonym for
longevity. That would be an intolerable tautology, for we should
then have the same thing said three times over--'an old man,' 'in a
good old age,' 'full of years.' There must be some other idea than
that in the words. If you notice that the expression is by no means
a usual one, that it is only applied to one or two of the Old
Testament characters, and those selected characters, I think you
will see that there must be some other significance in it than
merely to point to length of days.

It may be well to note the instances. In addition to our text, we
find it employed, first, in reference to Isaac, in Genesis xxxv. 29,
where the words are repeated almost _verbatim_. That calm,
contemplative life, so unlike the active, varied career of his
father, also attained to this blessing at its close. Then we find
that the stormy and adventurous course of the great king David, with
its wonderful alternations both of moral character and of fortune,
is represented as being closed at last with this tranquil evening
glory: 'He died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and
honour.' Once more we read of the great high priest Jehoiada, whose
history had been crowded with peril, change, brave resistance, and
strenuous effort, that with all the storms behind him he died at
last, 'full of days.' The only other instance of the occurrence of
the phrase is at the close of the book of Job, the typical record of
the good man suffering, and of the abundant compensations given by a
loving God. The fair picture of returning prosperity and family joy,
like the calm morning sunshine after a night of storm and wreck,
with which that wonderful book ends, has this for its last touch,
evidently intended to deepen the impression of peace which is
breathed over it all: 'So Job died, being old and full of days.'
These are all the instances of the occurrence of this phrase, and I
think we may fairly say that in all it is meant to suggest not
merely length of days, but some characteristic of the long life over
and above its mere length. We shall, I think, understand its meaning
a little better if we make a very slight and entirely warranted
change, and instead of reading '_full_ of years,' read '_satisfied_
with years.' The men were satisfied with life; having exhausted its
possibilities, having drunk a full draught, having nothing more left
to wish for. The words point to a calm close, with all desires
gratified, with hot wishes stilled, with no desperate clinging to
life, but a willingness to let it go, because all which it could give
had been attained.

So much for one of the remarkable expressions in this verse. There
is another, 'He was gathered to his people,' of which we shall have
more to say presently. Enough for the present to note the
peculiarity, and to suggest that it seems to contain some dim hint
of a future life, and some glimmer of some of the profoundest
thoughts about it.

We have two main things to consider.

1. The tranquil close of a life.

It is possible, then, at the end of life to feel that it has
satisfied one's wishes. Whether it does or no will depend mostly on
ourselves, and very slightly on our circumstances. Length of days,
competence, health, and friends are important; but neither these nor
any other externals will make the difference between a life which,
in the retrospect, will seem to have been sufficient for our
desires, and one which leaves a hunger in the heart. It is possible
for us to make our lives of such a sort, that whether they run on to
the apparent maturity of old age, or whether they are cut short in
the midst of our days, we may rise from the table feeling that it
has satisfied our desires, met our anticipation, and been all very

Possibly, that is not the way in which most of us look at life. That
is not the way in which a great many of us seem to think that it is
an eminent part of Christian and religious character to look at
life. But it is the way in which the highest type of devotion and
the truest goodness always look at it. There are people, old and
young, who, whenever they look back, whether it be over a long tract
of years or over a short one, have nothing to say about it except:
'Vanity of vanities! all is vanity and vexation of spirit'; a
retrospect of weary disappointments and thwarted plans.

How different with some of us the forward and the backward look! Are
there not some listening to me, whose past is so dark that it flings
black shadows over their future, and who can only cherish hopes for
to-morrow, by giving the lie to and forgetting the whole of their
yesterdays? It is hard to paint the regions before us like 'the
Garden of the Lord,' when we know that the locusts of our own
godless desires have made all the land behind us desolate. If your
past has been a selfish past, a godless past, in which passion,
inclination, whim, anything but conscience and Christ have ruled,
your remembrances can scarcely be tranquil; nor your hopes bright.
If you have only 'prospects drear,' when you 'backward cast your
eye,' it is not wonderful if 'forwards though you cannot see,' you
will 'guess and fear.' Such lives, when they come towards an end,
are wont to be full of querulous discontent and bitterness. We have
all seen godless old men cynical and sour, pleased with nothing,
grumbling, or feebly complaining, about everything, dissatisfied
with all which life has thus far yielded them, and yet clinging
desperately to it, and afraid to go.

Put by the side of such an end this calm picture of the old man
going down into his grave, and looking back over all those long days
since he came away from his father's house, and became a pilgrim and
a stranger. How all the hot anxieties, desires, occupations, of
youth have quieted themselves down! How far away now seem the
warlike days when he fought the invading kings! How far away the
heaviness of heart when he journeyed to Mount Moriah with his boy,
and whetted the knife to slay his son! His love had all been buried
in Sarah's grave. He has been a lonely man for many years; and yet
he looks back, as God looked back over His creative week, and feels
that all has been good. 'It was all for the best; the great
procession of my life has been ordered from the beginning to its
end, by the Hand that shapes beauty everywhere, and has made all
things blessed and sweet. I have drunk a full draught; I have had
enough; I bless the Giver of the feast, and push my chair back; and
get up and go away.' He died an old man, and satisfied with his

Ay! And what a contrast that makes, dear friends, to another set of
people. There is nothing more miserable than to see a man, as his
years go by, gripping harder and tighter at this poor, fleeting
world that is slipping away from him; nothing sadder than to see
how, as opportunities and capacities for the enjoyment of life
dwindle, and dwindle, and dwindle, people become almost fierce in
the desire to keep it. Why, you can see on the face of many an old
man and woman a hungry discontent, that has not come from the mere
wrinkles of old age or care; an eager acquisitiveness looking out of
the dim old eyes, tragical and awful. It is sad to see a man, as the
world goes from him, grasping at its skirts as a beggar does at the
retreating passer-by that refuses him an alms. Are there not some of
us who feel that this is our case, that the less we have before us
of life here on earth, the more eagerly we grasp at the little which
still remains; trying to get some last drops out of the broken
cistern which we know can hold no water? How different this blessed
acquiescence in the fleeting away of the fleeting; and this
contented satisfaction with the portion that has been given him,
which this man had who died willingly, being satisfied with life!

Sometimes, too, there is satiety--weariness of life which is not
satisfaction, though it looks like it. Its language is: 'Man
delights me not; nor woman neither. I am tired of it all.' Those who
feel thus sit at the table without an appetite. They think that they
have seen to the bottom of everything, and they have found
everything a cheat. They expect nothing new under the sun; that
which is to be hath already been, and it is all vanity and striving
after the wind. They are at once satiated and dissatisfied. Nothing
keeps the power to charm.

How different from all this is the temper expressed in this text,
rightly understood! Abraham had had a richly varied life. It had
brought him all he wished. He has drunk a full draught, and needs no
more. He is satisfied, but that does not mean loss of interest in
present duties, occupations, or enjoyments. It is possible to keep
ourselves fully alive to all these till the end, and to preserve
something of the keen edge of youth even in old age, by the magic of
communion with God, purity of conduct, and a habitual contemplation
of all events as sent by our Father. When Paul felt himself very
near his end, he yet had interest enough in common things to tell
Timothy all about their mutual friends' occupations, and to wish to
have his books and parchments.

So, calmly, satisfied and yet not sickened, keenly appreciating all
the good and pleasantness of life, and yet quite willing to let it
go, Abraham died. So may it be with us too, if we will, no matter
what the duration or the externals of our life. If we too are his
children by faith, we shall be 'blessed with faithful Abraham.' And
I beseech you to ask yourselves whether the course of your life is
such as that, if at this moment God's great knife were to come down
and cut it in two, you would be able to say, 'Well! I have had
enough, and now contentedly I go.'

Again, it is possible at the end of life to feel that it is
complete, because the days have accomplished for us the highest
purpose of life. Scaffoldings are for buildings, and the moments and
days and years of our earthly lives are scaffolding. What are you
building inside the scaffolding, brother? What kind of a structure
will be disclosed when the scaffolding is knocked away? What is the
end for which days and years are given? That they may give us what
eternity cannot take away--a character built upon the love of God in
Christ, and moulded into His likeness. 'Man's chief end is to
glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.' Has your life helped you to
do that? If it has, though you be but a child, you are full of
years; if it has not, though your hair be whitened with the snows of
the nineties, you are yet incomplete and immature. The great end of
life is to make us like Christ, and pleasing to Christ. If life has
done that for us, we have got the best out of it, and our life is
completed, whatever may be the number of the days. Quality, not
quantity, is the thing that determines the perfectness of a life.
And like as in northern lands, where there is only a week or two

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