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Expositions of Holy Scripture by Alexander Maclaren

Part 4 out of 12

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from the melting of the snow to the cutting of the hay, the whole
harvest of a life may be gathered in a very little space, and all be
done which is needed to make the life complete. Has your life this
completeness? Can you be 'satisfied' with it, because the river of
the flowing hours has borne down some grains of gold amidst the mass
of mud, and, notwithstanding many sins and failures, you have thus
far fulfilled the end of your being, that you are in some measure
trusting and serving the Lord Jesus Christ?

Again, it is possible, at the end of life, to be _willing_ to
go as satisfied.

Most men cling to life in grim desperation, like a climber to a
cliff giving way, or a drowning man clutching at any straw. How
beautiful the contrast of the placid, tranquil acquiescence
expressed in that phrase of our text! No doubt there will always be
the shrinking of the bodily nature from death. But that may be
overcome. There is no passion so weak but in some case it has 'mated
and mastered the fear of death,' and it is possible for us all to
come to that temper in which we shall be ready for either fortune,
to live and serve Him here, or to die and enjoy Him yonder. Or, to
return to an earlier illustration, it is possible to be like a man
sitting at table, who has had his meal, and is quite contented to
stay on there, restful and cheerful, but is not unwilling to put
back his chair, to get up and to go away, thanking the Giver for
what he has received.

Ah! that is the way to face the end, dear brethren, and how is it to
be done? Such a temper need not be the exclusive possession of the
old. It may belong to us at all stages of life. How is it won? By a
life of devout communion with God. The secret of it lies in obeying
the commandment and realising the truth which Abraham realised and
obeyed: 'I am the Almighty God, walk before Me, and be thou
perfect.' 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield and thine exceeding
great reward.' That is to say, a simple communion with God,
realising His presence and feeling that He is near, will sweeten
disappointment, will draw from it its hidden blessedness, will make
us victors over its pains and its woes. Such a faith will make it
possible to look back and see only blessing; to look forward and see
a great light of hope burning in the darkness. Such a faith will
check weariness, avert satiety, promote satisfaction, and will help
us to feel that life and the great hereafter are but the outer and
inner mansions of the Father's house, and death the short though
dark corridor between. So we shall be ready for life or for death.

2. Now I must turn to consider more briefly the glimpse of the
joyful society beyond, which is given us in that other remarkable
expression of our text: 'He was gathered to his people'

That phrase is only used in the earlier Old Testament books, and
there only in reference to a few persons. It is used of Abraham,
Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Aaron, and once (Judges ii. 10) of
a whole generation. If you will weigh the words, I think you will
see that there is in them a dim intimation of something beyond this
present life.

'He was gathered to his people' is not the same thing as 'He died,'
for, in the earlier part of the verse, we read, 'Abraham gave up the
ghost and died ... and was gathered to his people.' It is not the
same thing as being buried. For we read in the following verse: 'And
his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in
the field of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before
Mamre.' It is then the equivalent neither of death nor of burial. It
conveys dimly and veiledly that Abraham was buried, and yet that was
not all that happened to him. He was buried, but also 'he was
gathered to his people.' Why! his own 'people' were buried in
Mesopotamia, and his grave was far away from theirs. What is the
meaning of the expression? Who were the people he was gathered to?
In death or in burial, 'the dust returns to the earth as it was.'
What was it that was gathered to his people?

Dimly, vaguely, veiledly, but unmistakably, as it seems to me, is
here expressed at least a premonition and feeling after the thought
of an immortal self in Abraham that was not there in what 'his sons
Isaac and Ishmael laid in the cave at Machpelah,' but was somewhere
else and was for ever. That is the first thing hinted at here--the
continuance of the personal being after death.

Is there anything more? I think there is. Now, remember, Abraham's
whole life was shaped by that commandment, 'Get thee out from thy
father's house, and from thy kindred, and from thy country.' He
never dwelt with his kindred; all his days he was a pilgrim and a
sojourner, a stranger in a strange land. And though he was living in
the midst of a civilisation which possessed great cities whose walls
reached to heaven, he pitched his tent beneath the terebinth tree at
Mamre, and would have nothing to do with the order of things around
him, but remained an exotic, a waif, an outcast in the midst of
Canaan all his life. Why? Because he 'looked for the city which hath
the foundations, whose builder and maker is God.' And now he has
gone to it, he is gathered to his people. The life of isolation is
over, the true social life is begun. He is no longer separated from
those around him, or flung amidst those that are uncongenial to him.
'He is gathered to his people'; he dwells with his own tribe; he is
at home; he is in the city.

And so, brethren, life for every Christian man must be lonely. After
all communion we dwell as upon islands dotted over a great
archipelago, each upon his little rock, with the sea dashing between
us; but the time comes when, if our hearts are set upon that great
Lord, whose presence makes us one, there shall be no more sea, and
all the isolated rocks shall be parts of a great continent. Death
sets the solitary in families. We are here like travellers plodding
lonely through the night and the storm, but soon to cross the
threshold into the lighted hall, full of friends.

If we cultivate that sense of detachment from the present, and of
having our true affinities in the unseen, if we dwell here as
strangers because our citizenship is in heaven, then death will not
drag us away from our associates, nor hunt us into a lonely land,
but will bring us where closer bonds shall knit the 'sweet
societies' together, and the sheep shall couch close by one another,
because all are gathered round the one shepherd. Then many a broken
tie shall be rewoven, and the solitary wanderer meet again the dear
ones whom he had 'loved long since, and lost awhile.'

Further, the expressions suggest that in the future men shall be
associated according to affinity and character. 'He was gathered to
his people,' whom he was like and who were like him; the people with
whom he had sympathy, the people whose lives were shaped after the
fashion of his own.

Men will be sorted there. Gravitation will come into play
undisturbed; and the pebbles will be ranged according to their
weights on the great shore where the sea has cast them up, as they
are upon Chesil beach, down there in the English Channel, and many
another coast besides; all the big ones together and sized off to
the smaller ones, regularly and steadily laid out. Like draws to
like. Our spiritual affinities, our religious and moral character,
will settle where we shall be, and who our companions will be when
we get yonder. Some of us would not altogether like to live with the
people that are like ourselves, and some of us would not find the
result of this sorting to be very delightful. Men in the Dantesque
circles were only made more miserable because all around them were
of the same sort as, and some of them worse than, themselves. And an
ordered hell, with no company for the liar but liars, and none for
the thief but thieves, and none for impure men but the impure, and
none for the godless but the godless, would be a hell indeed.

'He was gathered to his people,' and you and I will be gathered
likewise. What is the conclusion of the whole matter? Let us follow
with our thoughts, and in our lives, those who have gone into the
light, and cultivate in heart and character those graces and
excellences which are congruous with the inheritance of the saints
in light. Above all, let us give our hearts to Christ, by simple
faith in Him, to be shaped and sanctified by Him. Then our country
will be where He is, and our people will be the people in whom His
love abides, and the tribe to which we belong will be the tribe of
which He is Chieftain. So when our turn comes, we may rise
thankfully from the table in the wilderness, which He has spread for
us, having eaten as much as we desired, and quietly follow the dark-
robed messenger whom His love sends to bring us to the happy
multitudes that throng the streets of the city. There we shall find
our true home, our kindred, our King. 'So shall _we_ ever be
with the Lord.'


'And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a
man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling
in tents. And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of
his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob. And Jacob sod
pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:
And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that
same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name
called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy
birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to
die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto
him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob
gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat
and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau
despised his birthright.'
GENESIS xxv. 27-34.

Isaac's small household represented a great variety of types of
character. He himself lacked energy, and seems in later life to have
been very much of a tool in the hands of others. Rebekah had the
stronger nature, was persistent, energetic, and managed her husband
to her heart's content. The twin brothers were strongly opposed in
character; and, naturally enough, each parent loved best the child
that was most unlike him or her: Isaac rejoicing in the very
wildness of the adventurous, dashing Esau; and Rebekah finding an
outlet for her womanly tenderness in an undue partiality for the
quiet lad that was always at hand to help her and be petted by her.

One's sympathy goes out to Esau. He was 'a man of the field,'--by
which is meant, not cultivated ground, but open country, which we
might call prairie. He was a 'backwoodsman,'--liked the wild
hunter's life better than sticking at home looking after sheep. He
had the attractive characteristics of that kind of men, as well as
their faults. He was frank, impulsive, generous, incapable of
persevering work or of looking ahead, passionate. His descendants
prefer cattle-ranching and gold-prospecting to keeping shops or
sitting with their lungs squeezed against a desk.

Jacob had neither the high spirits nor the animal courage of his
brother. He was 'a plain man.' The word is literally 'perfect,' but
cannot be used in its deepest sense; for Jacob was very far indeed
from being that, but seems to have a lower sense, which might
perhaps be represented by 'steady-going,' or 'respectable,' in
modern phraseology. He went quietly about his ordinary work, in
contrast with his daring brother's escapades and unsettledness.

The two types are intensified by civilisation, and the antagonism
between them increased. City life tends to produce Jacobs, and its
Esaus escape from it as soon as they can. But Jacob had the vices as
well as the virtues of his qualities. He was orderly and domestic,
but he was tricky, and keenly alive to his own interest. He was
persevering and almost dogged in his tenacity of purpose, but he was
not above taking mean advantages and getting at his ends by miry
roads. He had little love for his brother, in whom he saw an
obstacle to his ambition. He had the virtues and vices of the
commercial spirit.

But we judge the two men wrongly if we let ourselves be fascinated,
as Isaac was, by Esau, and forget that the superficial attractions
of his character cover a core worthy of disapprobation. They are
crude judges of character who prefer the type of man who spurns the
restraints of patient industry and order; and popular authors, who
make their heroes out of such, err in taste no less than in morals.
There is a very unwholesome kind of literature, which is devoted to
glorifying the Esaus as fine fellows, with spirit, generosity, and
noble carelessness, whereas at bottom they are governed by animal
impulses, and incapable of estimating any good which does not appeal
to sense, and that at once.

The great lesson of this story lies on its surface. It is the folly
and sin of buying present gratification of appetite or sense at the
price of giving up far greater future good. The details are
picturesquely told. Esau's eagerness, stimulated by the smell of the
mess of lentils, is strikingly expressed in the Hebrew: 'Let me
devour, I pray thee, of that red, that red there.' It is no sin to
be hungry, but to let appetite speak so clamorously indicates feeble
self-control. Jacob's coolness is an unpleasant foil to Esau's
impatience, and his cautious bargaining, before he will sell what a
brother would have given, shows a mean soul, without generous love
to his own flesh and blood. Esau lets one ravenous desire hide
everything else from him. He wants the pottage which smokes there,
and that one poor dish is for the moment more to him than birthright
and any future good. Jacob knows the changeableness of Esau's
character, and is well aware that a hungry man will promise
anything, and, when fed, will break his promise as easily as he made
it. So he makes Esau swear; and Esau will do that, or anything
asked. He gets his meal. The story graphically describes the greedy
relish with which he ate, the short duration of his enjoyment, and
the dark meaning of the seemingly insignificant event, by that
accumulation of verbs, 'He did eat and drink, and rose up and went
his way: so Esau despised his birthright.'

Now we may learn, first, how profound an influence small
temptations, yielded to, may exert on a life.

Many scoffs have been directed against this story, as if it were
unworthy of credence that eating a dish of lentils should have
shaped the life of a man and of his descendants. But is it not
always the case that trifles turn out to be determining points?
Hinges are very small, compared with the doors which move on them.
Most lives are moulded by insignificant events. No temptation is
small, for no sin is small; and if the occasion of yielding to sense
and the present is insignificant, the yielding is not so.

But the main lesson is, as already noted, the madness of flinging
away greater future good for present gratifications of sense. One
cannot suppose that the spiritual side of 'the birthright' was in
the thoughts of either brother. Esau and Jacob alike regarded it
only as giving the headship of the family. It was merely the right
of succession, with certain material accompanying advantages, which
Jacob coveted and Esau parted with. But even in regard to merely
worldly objects, the man who lives for only the present moment is
distinctly beneath him who lives for a future good, however material
it may be. Whoever subordinates the present, and is able steadily to
set before himself a remote object, for which he is strong enough to
subdue the desire of immediate gratifications of any sort, is, in so
far, better than the man who, like a savage or an animal, lives only
for the instant.

The highest form of that nobility is when time is clearly seen to be
the 'lackey to eternity,' and life's aims are determined with
supreme reference to the future beyond the grave. But how many of us
are every day doing exactly as Esau did--flinging away a great
future for a small present! A man who lives only for such ends as
may be attained on this side of the grave is as 'profane' a person
as Esau, and despises his birthright as truly. He knew that he was
hungry, and that lentil porridge was good, 'What good shall the
birthright do me?' He failed to make the effort of mind and
imagination needed in order to realise how much of the kind of
'good' that he could appreciate it would do to him. The smell of the
smoking food was more to him than far greater good which he could
only appreciate by an effort. A sixpence held close to the eye can
shut out the sun. Resolute effort is needed to prevent the small,
intrusive present from blotting out the transcendent greatness of
the final future. And for lack of such effort men by the thousand
fling themselves away.

To sell a birthright for a bowl of lentils was plain folly. But is
it wiser to sell the blessedness and peace of communion with God
here and of heaven hereafter for anything that earth can yield to
sense or to soul? How many shrewd 'men of the highest commercial
standing' are making as bad a bargain as Esau's! The 'pottage' is
hot and comforting, but it is soon eaten; and when the bowl is
empty, and the sense of hunger comes back in an hour or two, the
transaction does not look quite as advantageous as it did. Esau had
many a minute of rueful meditation on his bad bargain before he in
vain besought his father's blessing. And suspicions of the folly of
their choice are apt to haunt men who prefer the present to the
future, even before the future becomes the present, and the folly is
manifest. 'What doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and
forfeit his life?'

So a character like Esau's, though it has many fine possibilities
about it, and attracts liking, is really of a low type, and may very
easily slide into depths of degrading sensualism, and be dead to all
nobleness. Enterprise, love of stirring life, impatience of dull
plodding, are natural to young lives. Unregulated, impulsive
characters, who live for the moment, and are very sensitive to all
material delights, have often an air of generosity and joviality
which hides their essential baseness; for it _is_ base to live
for flesh, either in more refined or more frankly coarse forms. It
is base to be incapable of seeing an inch beyond the present. It is
base to despise any good that cannot minister to fleeting lusts or
fleshly pleasures, and to say of high thought, of ideal aims of any
sort, and most of all to say of religion, 'What good will it do me?'
To estimate such precious things by the standard of gross utility is
like weighing diamonds in grocers' scales. They will do very well
for sugar, but not for precious stones. The sacred things of life
are not those which do what the Esaus recognise as 'good.' They have
another purpose, and are valuable for other ends. Let us take heed,
then, that we estimate things according to their true relative
worth; that we live, not for to-day, but for eternity; and that we
suppress all greedy cravings. If we do not, we shall be 'profane'
persons like Esau, 'who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.'


'Esau despised his birthright'--GENESIS xxv. 34.

Broad lessons unmistakable, but points strange and difficult to
throw oneself back to so different a set of ideas. So

I. Deal with the narrative.

Not to tell it over again, but bring out the following points:--

(_a_) Birthright.--What?

None of them any notion of sacred, spiritual aspect of it.

To all, merely material advantages: headship of the clan. All the
loftier aspects gone from Isaac, who thought he could give it for
venison, from Esau, and from the scheming Rebekah and the crafty

(_b_) The Bargain.

It is not clear whether the transaction was seriously meant, or
whether it only shows Jacob's wish to possess the birthright and
Esau's indifference to it.

At any rate, the barter was not supposed to complete Jacob's title,
as is shown by a subsequent piece of trickery.

Isaac's blessing was conceived to confer it; that blessing, if once
given, could not be revoked, even if procured by fraud and given in

The belief would fulfil itself, as far as the chieftainship was

It is significant of the purely 'secular' tone of all the parties
concerned that only temporal blessings are included in Isaac's

(_c_) The Scripture judgment on all parties concerned.

Great mistakes are made by forgetting that the Bible is a
passionless narrator of its heroes' acts, and seldom pauses to
censure or praise--so people have thought that Scripture gave its
vote for Jacob as against Esau.

The character of the two men.

Esau--frank, impulsive, generous, chivalrous, careless, and

Jacob--meditative, reflective, pastoral, timid, crafty, selfish.
Each has the defects of his qualities.

But the subsequent history of Jacob shows what heaven thought of

This dirty transaction marred his life, sent him a terrified exile
from Isaac's tent, and shook his soul long years after with guilty
apprehensions when he had to meet Esau.

All subsequent career to beat his crafty selfishness out of him and
to lift him to higher level.

II. Broad General Lessons.

1. The Choice.--Birthright _versus_ Pottage.

(_a_) The Present _versus_ The Future.

Suppose it true that to both brothers the birthright seemed to
secure merely material advantage, yet even so the better part would
have been to sacrifice material present for material future. Even on
plane of worldly things, to live for to-morrow ennobles a man, and
he is the higher style of man who 'spurns delights and lives
laborious days' for some issue to be realised in the far future.

The very same principle extended leads to the conviction that the
highest wisdom is his who lives for the furthest, which is also the
most certain, Future.

(_b_) The Seen _versus_ The Unseen.

However material the advantages of the birthright were supposed to
be, they _then_ appealed to imagination, not sense. _There_ was the
pottage in the pan: 'I can see that and smell it. This birthright, can
I eat _it_? Let me get the solid realities, and let who will
have the imaginary.'

So the unseen good things, such as intellectual culture, fair
reputation, and the like, are better than the gross satisfactions
that can be handled, or tasted, or seen.

And, on the very same principle, high above the seeker after these--as
high as he is above the drunkard--is the Christian, whose life is
shaped by the loftiest Unseen, even 'Him who is invisible.'

2. The grim absurdity of the choice.

The story seems to have a certain undertone of sarcasm, and a keen
perception of the immense stupidity of the man.

Pottage and a full belly to-day--that was all he got for such a

'This their way is their folly.'

3. How well the bargain worked at first, and what came of it at

No doubt Esau had his meal, and, no doubt, when a man sells his soul
to the devil (the mediaeval form of the story), he generally gets
the price for which he bargained, more or less, and oftentimes with
a dash of vinegar in the porridge, which makes it less palatable.

What comes of it at last. Put side by side the pictures of Esau's
animal contentment at the moment when he had eaten up his mess, and
of his despair when he wailed, 'Hast thou not one blessing?'

He finds out his mistake. A sense of the preciousness of the
despised thing wakes in him.

And it is too late. There _are_ irrevocable consequences of
every false choice. Youth is gone: cannot alter that. Opportunities
gone: cannot alter that. Strength gone: cannot alter that. Habits
formed, associations, reputation, position, character, are all

But there is a blessed _contrast_ between Esau's experience and
what may be ours. The desire to have the birthright is sure to bring
it to us. No matter how late the desire is of springing, nor how
long and insultingly we have suppressed it, we never go to our
Father in vain with the cry, 'Bless me, even me also.'

'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his
own soul?'


'Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same
year an hundredfold, and the Lord blessed him. And the
man waxed great, and went forward, and grew until he
became very great: For he had possession of flocks, and
possession of herds, and great store of servants: and
the Philistines envied him. For all the wells which his
father's servants had digged in the days of Abraham his
father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them
with earth. And Abimelech said unto Isaac, Go from us;
for thou art much mightier than we. And Isaac departed
thence, and pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar, and
dwelt there. And Isaac digged again the wells of water,
which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father;
for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of
Abraham: and he called their names after the names by
which his father had called them. And Isaac's servants
digged in the valley, and found there a well of springing
water. And the herdmen of Gerar did strive with Isaac's
herdmen, saying, The water is ours: and he called the
name of the well Esek; because they strove with him. And
they digged another well, and strove for that also: and
he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from
thence, and digged another well; and for that they strove
not: and be called the name of it Rehoboth; and he said,
For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be
fruitful in the land. And he went up from thence to
Beer-sheba. And the Lord appeared unto him the same
night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father:
fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and
multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham's sake. And he
builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the
Lord, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac's
servants digged a well.'--GENESIS xxvi. 12-25.

The salient feature of Isaac's life is that it has no salient
features. He lived out his hundred and eighty years in quiet, with
little to make history. Few details of his story are given, and some
of these are not very creditable. He seems never to have wandered
far from the neighbourhood of Beersheba. These quiet, rolling
stretches of thinly peopled land contented him, and gave pasture for
his flocks, as well as fields for his cultivation. Like many of the
tribes of that district still, he had passed from the purely nomad
and pastoral life, such as Abraham led, and had begun to 'sow in
that land.' That marks a stage in progress. His father's life had
been like a midsummer day, with bursts of splendour and heavy
thunder-clouds; his was liker a calm day in autumn, windless and
unchanging from morning till serene evening. The world thinks little
of such lives, but they are fruitful.

Our text begins with a sweet little picture of peaceful industry,
blessed by God, and therefore prospering. Travellers tell us that
the land where Isaac dwelt is still marvellously fertile, even to
rude farming. But to be merely a successful farmer and sheep-owner
might have seemed poor work to the heir of such glowing promises,
and the prospect of a high destiny often disgusts its possessor with
lowly duties. 'But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we
with patience wait for it,' and the best way to fit ourselves for
great things in the future is to bend our backs and wills to humble
toil in the present. Peter expected every day to see the risen Lord,
when he said, 'I go a-fishing.'

The Philistines' envy was very natural, since Isaac was an alien,
and, in some sense, an intruder. Their stopping of the wells was a
common act of hostility, and an effectual one in that land, where
everything lives where water comes, and dies if it is cut off.
Abimelech's reason for 'extraditing' Isaac might have provoked a
more pugnacious person to stay and defy the Philistines to expel
him. 'Thou art much mightier than we,' and so he could have said,
'Try to put me out, then,' and the result might have been that
Abimelech and his Philistines would have been the ones to go. But
the same spirit was in the man as had been in the lad, when he let
his father bind him and lay him on the altar without a struggle or a
word, and he quietly went, leaving his fields and pastures. 'Very
poor-spirited,' says the world; what does Christ say?

Isaac was not 'original.' He cleaned out the wells which his father
had digged, and with filial piety gave them again the old names
'which his father had called them.' Some of us nowadays get credit
for being 'advanced and liberal thinkers,' because we regard our
fathers' wells as much too choked with rubbish to be worth clearing
out, and the last thing we should dream of would be to revive the
old names. But the old wells were not enough for the new time, and
so fresh ones were added. Isaac and his servants did not say, 'We
will have no water but what is drawn from Abraham's wells. What was
enough for him is enough for us.' So, like all wise men, they were
conservatively progressive and progressively conservative. The Gerar
shepherds were sharp lawyers. They took strong ground in saying,
'The _water_ is ours; you have dug wells, but we are ground-
owners, and what is below the surface, as well as what is on it, is
our property.' Again Isaac fielded, moved on a little way, and tried
again. A second well was claimed, and given up, and all that Isaac
did was to name the two 'Contention' and 'Enmity,' as a gentle
rebuke and memorial. Then, as is generally the result, gentleness
wearied violence out, and the Philistines tired of annoying before
Isaac tired of yielding. So he came into a quiet harbour at last,
and traced his repose to God, naming his last well 'Broad Places,'
because the Lord had made room for him.

Such a quiet spirit, strong in non-resistance, and ready to yield
rather than quarrel, was strangely out of place in these wild days
and lands. He obeyed the Sermon on the Mount millenniums before it
was spoken. Whether from temperament or from faith, he is the first
instance of the Christian type of excellence in the Old Testament.
For there ought to be no question that the spirit of meekness, which
will not meet violence by violence, is the Christian spirit.
Christian morals alter the perspective of moral excellences, and
exalt meekness above the 'heroic virtues' admired by the world. The
violets and lilies in Christ's garden outshine voluptuous roses and
flaunting sunflowers. In this day, when there is a recrudescence of
militarism, and we are tempted to canonise the soldier, we need more
than ever to insist that the highest type is 'the Lamb of God,' who
was 'as a sheep before her shearers.' To fight for my rights is not
the Christian ideal, nor is it the best way to secure them. Isaac
will generally weary out the Philistines, and get his well at last,
and will have escaped much friction and many evil passions.

'Tis safer being meek than fierce.'

Isaac won the friendship of his opponents by his patience, as the
verses after the text tell. Their consciences and hearts were
touched, and they 'saw plainly that the Lord was with him,' and sued
him for alliance. It is better to turn enemies into friends than to
beat them and have them as enemies still. 'I'll knock you down
unless you love me' does not sound a very hopeful way of cementing
peaceful relations. But 'when a man's ways please the Lord, he
maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.' But Isaac won more
than the Philistines' favour by his meek peacefulness, for 'the Lord
appeared unto him,' and assured him that, undefended and unresisting
as he was, he had a strong defence, and need not be afraid: 'Fear
not, for I am with thee.' The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit
is, in the sight of God, of great price, and that not only for 'a
woman'; and it brings visions of God, and assurances of tranquil
safety to him who cherishes it. The Spirit of God comes down in the
likeness of a dove, and that bird of peace sits 'brooding "only" on
the charmed wave' of a heart stilled from strife and wrath, like a
quiet summer's sea.

Isaac's new home at Beersheba, having been thus hallowed by the
appearance of the Lord, was consecrated by the building of an altar.
We should hallow by grateful remembrance the spots where God has
made Himself known to us. The best beginning of a new undertaking is
to rear an altar. It is well when new settlers begin their work by
calling on the name of the Lord. Beersheba and Plymouth Rock are a
pair. First comes the altar, then the tent can be trustfully
pitched, but 'except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain
that build it.' And if the house is built in faith, a well will not
be lacking; for they who 'seek first the kingdom of God' will have
all needful 'things added unto them.'


'And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward
Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried
there all night, because the sun was set; and he took
of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows,
and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and
behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it
reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending
and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above
it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father,
and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to
thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall
be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad
to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to
the south; and in thee and in thy seed shall all the
families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with
thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou
goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I
will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have
spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep,
and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I
knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful
is this place! this is none other but the house of God,
and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early
in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for
his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil
upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place
Beth-el: but the name of that city was called Luz at the
first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with
me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give
me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come
again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord
be my God; And this stone, which I have set for a pillar,
shall be God's house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I
will surely give the tenth unto Thee.'--GENESIS xxviii. 10-22.

From Abraham to Jacob is a great descent. The former embodies the
nobler side of the Jewish character,--its capacity for religious
ideas; its elevation above, and separation from, the nations; its
consciousness of, and peaceful satisfaction in, a divine Friend; its
consequent vocation in the world. These all were deep in the founder
of the race, and flowed to it from him. Jacob, on the other hand,
has in him the more ignoble qualities, which Christian treatment of
the Jew has fostered, and which have become indissolubly attached to
the name in popular usage. He is a crafty schemer, selfish, over-
reaching, with a keen eye to the main chance. Whoever deals with him
has to look sharply after his own interests. Self-advantage in its
most earthly form is uppermost in him; and, like all timid, selfish
men, shifty ways and evasions are his natural weapons. The great
interest of his history lies in the slow process by which the
patient God purified him, and out of this 'stone raised up a worthy
child to Abraham.' We see in this context the first step in his
education, and the very imperfect degree in which he profited by it.

1. Consider the vision and its accompanying promise. Jacob has fled
from home on account of his nobler brother's fierce wrath at the
trick which their scheming mother and he had contrived. It was an
ugly, heartless fraud, a crime against a doting father, as against
Esau. Rebekah gets alarmed for her favourite; and her fertile brain
hits upon another device to blind Isaac and get Jacob out of harm's
way, in the excuse that she cannot bear his marriage with a Hittite
woman. Her exaggerated expressions of passionate dislike to 'the
daughters of Heth' have no religious basis. They are partly feigned
and partly petulance. So the poor old blind father is beguiled once
more, and sends his son away. Starting under such auspices, and
coming from such an atmosphere, and journeying back to Haran, the
hole of the pit whence Abraham had been digged, and turning his back
on the land where God had been with his house, the wanderer was not
likely to be cherishing any lofty thoughts. His life was in danger;
he was alone, a dim future was before him, perhaps his conscience
was not very comfortable. These things would be in his mind as he
lay down and gazed into the violet sky so far above him, burning
with all its stars. Weary, and with a head full of sordid cares,
plans, and possibly fears, he slept; and then there flamed on 'that
inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude' to the pure, and its
terror to the evil, this vision, which speaks indeed to his then
need, as he discerned it, but reveals to him and to us the truth
which ennobles all life, burns up the dross of earthward-turned
aims, and selfish, crafty ways.

We are to conceive of the form of the vision as a broad stair or
sloping ascent, rather than a ladder, reaching right from the
sleeper's side to the far-off heaven, its pathway peopled with
messengers, and its summit touching the place where a glory shone
that paled even the lustrous constellations of that pure sky. Jacob
had thought himself alone; the vision peoples the wilderness. He had
felt himself defenceless; the vision musters armies for his safety.
He had been grovelling on earth, with no thoughts beyond its
fleeting goods; the vision lifts his eyes from the low level on
which they had been gazing. He had been conscious of but little
connection with heaven; the vision shows him a path from his very
side right into its depths. He had probably thought that he was
leaving the presence of his father's God when he left his father's
tent; the vision burns into his astonished heart the consciousness
of God as there, in the solitude and the night.

The divine promise is the best commentary on the meaning of the
vision. The familiar ancestral promise is repeated to him, and the
blessing and the birthright thus confirmed. In addition, special
assurances, the translation of the vision into word and adapted to
his then wants, are given,--God's presence in his wanderings, his
protection, Jacob's return to the land, and the promise of God's
persistent presence, working through all paradoxes of providence and
sins of His servant, and incapable of staying its operations, or
satisfying God's heart, or vindicating His faithfulness, at any
point short of complete accomplishment of His plighted word.

We pass from the lone desert and the mysterious twilight of Genesis
to the beaten ways between Galilee and Jordan, and to the clear
historic daylight of the gospel, and we hear Christ renewing the
promise to the crafty Jacob, to one whom He called a son of Jacob in
his after better days, 'an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.'
The very heart of Christ's work was unveiled in the terms of this
vision: From henceforth 'ye shall see the heaven opened, and the
angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.' So,
then, the fleeting vision was a transient revelation of a permanent
reality, and a faint foreshadowing of the true communication between
heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the ladder between God and man. On
Him all divine gifts descend; by Him all the angels of human
devotion, consecration, and aspiration go up. This flat earth is not
so far from the topmost heaven as sense thinks. The despairing
question of Jewish wisdom, 'Who hath ascended up into heaven, or
descended? ... What is his name, and what is his son's name, if thou
canst tell?'--which has likewise been the question of every age that
has not been altogether sunk in sensual delights--is answered once
for all in the incarnate and crucified and ascended Lord, by and in
whom all heaven has stooped to earth, that earth might be lifted to
heaven. Every child of man, though lonely and earthly, has the
ladder-foot by his side,--like the sunbeam, which comes straight
into the eyes of every gazer, wherever he stands. It becomes
increasingly evident, in the controversies of these days, that there
will remain for modern thought only the alternative,--either Jesus
Christ is the means of communication between God and man, or there
is no communication. Deism and theism are compromises, and cannot
live. The cultivated world in both hemispheres is being more and
more shut up to either accepting Christ as revealer, by whom alone
we know, and as medium by whom alone we love and approach, God; or
sinking into abysses of negations where choke-damp will stifle
enthusiasm and poetry, as well as devotion and immortal hope.

Jacob's vision was meant to teach him, and is meant to teach us, the
nearness of God, and the swift directness of communication, whereby
His help comes to us and our desires rise to Him. These and their
kindred truths were to be to him, and should be to us, the parents
of much nobleness. Here is the secret of elevation of aim and
thought above the mean things of sense. We all, and especially the
young, in whose veins the blood dances, and to whom life is in all
its glory and freshness, are tempted to think of it as all. It does
us good to have this vision of the eternal realities blazing in upon
us, even if it seems to glare at us, rather than to shine with
lambent light. The seen is but a thin veil of the unseen. Earth,
which we are too apt to make a workshop, or a mere garden of
pleasure, is a Bethel,--a house of God. Everywhere the ladder
stands; everywhere the angels go up and down; everywhere the Face
looks from the top. Nothing will save life from becoming, sooner or
later, trivial, monotonous, and infinitely wearisome, but the
continual vision of the present God, and the continual experience of
the swift ascent and descent of our aspirations and His blessings.

It is the secret of purity too. How could Jacob indulge in his
craft, and foul his conscience with sin, as long as he carried the
memory of what he had seen in the solitary night on the uplands of
Bethel? The direct result of the vision is the same command as
Abraham received, 'Walk before Me, and be thou perfect.' Realise My
presence, and let that kill the motions of sin, and quicken to

It is also the secret of peace. Hopes and fears, and dim uncertainty
of the future, no doubt agitated the sleeper's mind as he laid him
down. His independent life was beginning. He had just left his
father's tents for the first time; and, though not a youth in years,
he was in the position which youth holds with us. So to him, and to
all young persons, here is shown the charm which will keep the heart
calm, and preserve us from being 'over exquisite to cast the fashion
of uncertain evils,' or too eagerly longing for possible good. 'I am
with thee' should be enough to steady our souls; and the confidence
that God will not leave us till He has accomplished His own purpose
for us, should make us willing to let Him do as He will with ours.

2. Notice the imperfect reception of the divine teaching. Jacob's
startled exclamation on awakening from his dream indicates a very
low level both of religious knowledge and feeling. Nor is there any
reason for taking the words in any but their most natural sense; for
it is a mistake to ascribe to him the knowledge of God due to later
revelation, or, at this stage of his life, any depth of religious
emotion. He is alarmed at the thought that God is near. Probably he
had been accustomed to think of God's presence as in some special
way associated with his father's encampment, and had not risen to
the belief of His omnipresence. There seems no joyous leaping up of
his heart at the thought that God is here. Dread, not unmingled with
the superstitious fear that he had profaned a holy place by laying
himself down in it, is his prevailing feeling, and he pleads
ignorance as the excuse for his sacrilege. He does not draw the
conclusion from the vision that all the earth is hallowed by a near
God, but only that he has unwittingly stumbled on His house; and he
does not learn that from every place there is an open door for the
loving heart into the calm depths where God is throned, but only
that _here_ he unwittingly stands at the gate of heaven. So he
misses the very inner purpose of the vision, and rather shrinks from
it than welcomes it. Was that spasm of fear all that passed through
his mind that night? Did he sleep again when the glory died out of
the heaven? So the story would appear to suggest. But, in any case,
we see here the effect of the sudden blazing in upon a heart not yet
familiar with the Divine Friend, of the conviction that He is really
near. Gracious as God's promise was, it did not dissipate the
creeping awe at His presence. It is an eloquent testimony of man's
consciousness of sin, that whensoever a present God becomes a
reality to a worldly man, he trembles. 'This place' would not be
'dreadful,' but blessed, if it were not for the sense of discord
between God and me.

The morning light brought other thoughts, when it filled the silent
heavens, and where the ladder had stretched, there was but empty
blue. The lesson is sinking into his mind. He lifts the rude stone
and pours oil on it, as a symbol of consecration, as nameless races
have done all over the world. His vow shows that he had but begun to
learn in God's school. He hedges about his promise with a
punctilious repetition of God's undertaking, as if resolved that
there should be no mistake. Clause by clause he goes over it all,
and puts an 'if' to it. God's word should have kindled something
liker faith than that. What a fall from 'Abram believed in the Lord,
and He counted it to him for righteousness'! Jacob barely believed,
and will wait to see whether all will turn out as it has been
promised. That is not the glad, swift response of a loving, trusting
heart. Nor is he contented with repeating to God the terms of his
engagement, but he adds a couple of clauses which strike him as
being important, and as having been omitted. There was nothing about
'bread to eat, and raiment to put on,' nor about coming back again
'in peace,' so he adds these. A true 'Jew,'--great at a bargain, and
determined to get all he can, and to have no mistake about what he
must get before he gives anything! Was Jesus thinking at all of the
ancestor when He warned the descendants, in words which sound
curiously like an echo of Jacob's, not to be anxious 'what ye shall
eat,' nor 'what ye shall put on'? As the vow stands in the
Authorised Version, it is farther open to the charge of suspending
his worship of God upon the fulfilment of these conditions; but it
is better to adopt the marginal rendering of the Revised Version,
according to which the clause 'then shall the Lord be my God' is a
part of the conditions, not of the vow, and is to be read 'And [if]
the Lord will be ... then this stone ... shall be,' etc. If this
rendering be adopted, as I think it should be, the vow proper is
simply of outward service,--he will rear an altar, and he will tithe
his substance. Not a very munificent pledge! And where in it is the
surrender of the heart? Where is the outgoing of love and gratitude?
Where the clasping of the hand of his heavenly Friend with calm
rapture of thankful self-yielding, and steadfastness of implicit
trust? God did not want Jacob's altar, nor his tenths; He wanted
Jacob. But many a weary year and many a sore sorrow have to leave
their marks on him before the evil strain is pressed out of his
blood; and by the unwearied long-suffering of his patient Friend and
Teacher in heaven, the crafty, earthly-minded Jacob 'the supplanter'
is turned into 'Israel, the prince with God, in whom is no guile.'
The slower the scholar, the more wonderful the forbearance of the
Teacher; and the more may we, who are slow scholars too, take heart
to believe that He will not be soon angry with us, nor leave us
until He has done that which He has spoken to us of.


'And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met
him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God's
host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim'
(_i.e._ Two camps).--GENESIS xxxii. 1, 2.

This vision came at a crisis in Jacob's life. He has just left the
house of Laban, his father-in-law, where he had lived for many
years, and in company with a long caravan, consisting of wives,
children, servants, and all his wealth turned into cattle, is
journeying back again to Palestine. His road leads him close by the
country of Esau. Jacob was no soldier, and he is naturally terrified
to meet his justly incensed brother. And so, as he plods along with
his defenceless company trailing behind him, as you may see the Arab
caravans streaming over the same uplands to-day, all at once, in the
middle of his march, a bright-harnessed army of angels meets him.
Whether visible to the eye of sense, or, as would appear, only to
the eye of faith, they _are_ visible to this troubled man; and,
in a glow of confident joy, he calls the name of that place
'Mahanaim,' two camps. One camp was the little one of his down here,
with the helpless women and children and his own frightened and
defenceless self, and the other was the great one up there, or
rather in shadowy but most real spiritual presence around about him,
as a bodyguard making an impregnable wall between him and every foe.
We may take some very plain and everlastingly true lessons out of
this story.

1. First, the angels of God meet us on the dusty road of common
life. 'Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.'

As he was tramping along there, over the lonely fields of Edom, with
many a thought on his mind and many a fear at his heart, but feeling
'There is the path that I have to walk on,' all at once the air was
filled with the soft rustle of angel wings, and the brightness from
the flashing armour of the heavenly hosts flamed across his
unexpecting eye. And so is it evermore. The true place for us to
receive visions of God is in the path of the homely, prosaic duties
which He lays upon us. The dusty road is far more likely to be
trodden by angel feet than the remote summits of the mountain, where
we sometimes would fain go; and many an hour consecrated to devotion
has less of the manifest presence of God than is granted to some
weary heart in its commonplace struggle with the little troubles and
trials of daily life. These make the doors, as it were, by which the
visitants draw near to us.

It is the common duties, 'the narrow round, the daily task,' that
not only give us 'all we ought to ask,' but are the selected means
and channels by which, ever, God's visitants draw near to us. The
man that has never seen an angel standing beside him, and driving
his loom for him, or helping him at his counter and his desk, and
the woman that has never seen an angel, according to the bold
realism and homely vision of the old German picture, working with
her in the kitchen and preparing the meal for the household, have
little chance of meeting such visitants at any other point of their
experience or event of their lives.

If the week be empty of the angels, you will never catch sight of a
feather of their wings on the Sunday. And if we do not recognise
their presence in the midst of all the prose, and the commonplace,
and the vulgarity, and the triviality, and the monotony, the dust of
the small duties, we shall go up to the summit of Sinai itself and
see nothing there but cold grey stone and everlasting snows. 'Jacob
went on his way, and the angels of God met him.' The true field for
religion is the field of common life.

And then another side of the same thought is this, that it is in the
path where God has bade us walk that we shall find the angels round
us. We may meet them, indeed, on paths of our own choosing, but it
will be the sort of angel that Balaam met, with a sword in his hand,
mighty and beautiful, but wrathful too; and we had better not front
him! But the friendly helpers, the emissaries of God's love, the
apostles of His grace, do not haunt the roads that we make for
ourselves. They confine themselves rigidly to 'the paths in which
God has before ordained that we should walk in them.' A man has no
right to expect, and he will not get, blessing and help and divine
gifts when, self-willedly, he has taken the bit between his teeth,
and is choosing his own road in the world. But if he will say,
'Lord! here I am; put me where Thou wilt, and do with me what Thou
wilt,' then he may be sure that that path, though it may be solitary
of human companionship, and leading up amongst barren rocks and over
bare moorlands, where the sun beats down fiercely, will not be
unvisited by a better presence, so that in sweet consciousness of
sufficiency of rich grace, he will be able to say, 'I, being in the
way, the Lord met me.'

2. Still further, we may draw from this incident the lesson that
God's angels meet us punctually at the hour of need.

Jacob is drawing nearer and nearer to his fear every step. He is now
just on the borders of Esau's country, and close upon opening
communications with his brother. At that critical moment, just
before the finger of the clock has reached the point on the dial at
which the bell would strike, the needed help comes, the angel guards
draw near and camp beside him. It is always so. 'The Lord shall help
her, and that right early.' His hosts come no sooner and no later
than we need. If they appeared before we had realised our danger and
our defencelessness, our hearts would not leap up at their coming,
as men in a beleaguered town do when the guns of the relieving force
are heard booming from afar. Often God's delays seem to us
inexplicable, and our prayers to have no more effect than if they
were spoken to a sleeping Baal. But such delays are merciful. They
help us to the consciousness of our need. They let us feel the
presence of the sorrow. They give opportunity of proving the
weakness of all other supports. They test and increase desire for
His help. They throw us more unreservedly into His arms. They afford
room for the sorrow or the burden to work its peaceable fruits. So,
and in many other ways, delay of succour fits us to receive succour,
and our God makes no tarrying but for our sakes.

It is His way to let us come almost to the edge of the precipice,
and then, in the very nick of time, when another minute and we are
over, to stretch out His strong right hand and save us. So Peter is
left in prison, though prayer is going up unceasingly for him--and
no answer comes. The days of the Passover feast slip away, and still
he is in prison, and prayer does nothing for him. The last day of
his life, according to Herod's purpose, dawns, and all the day the
Church lifts up its voice--but apparently there is no answer, nor
any that regarded. The night comes, and still the vain cry goes up,
and Heaven seems deaf or apathetic. The night wears on, and still no
help comes. But in the last watch of that last night, when day is
almost dawning, at nearly the last minute when escape would have
been possible, the angel touches the sleeping Apostle, and with
leisurely calmness, as sure that he had ample time, leads him out to
freedom and safety. It was precisely because Jesus loved the
Household at Bethany that, after receiving the sisters' message, He
abode still for two days in the same place where He was. However our
impatience may wonder, and our faithlessness venture sometimes
almost to rebuke Him when He comes, with words like Mary's and
Martha's--'Lord, if Thou hadst been here, such and such sorrows
would not have happened, and Thou couldst so easily have been here'--we
should learn the lesson that even if He has delayed so long that the
dreaded blow has fallen, He has come soon enough to make it the
occasion for a still more glorious communication of His power. 'Rest
in the Lord, wait patiently for Him, and He shall give thee the
desires of thine heart.'

3. Again, we learn from this incident that the angels of God come in
the shape which we need.

Jacob's want at the moment was protection. Therefore the angels
appear in warlike guise, and present before the defenceless man
another camp, in which he and his unwieldy caravan of women and
children and cattle may find security. If his special want had been
of some blessing of another kind, no doubt another form of
appearance, suited with precision to his need, would have been
imposed upon these angel helpers. For God's gifts to us change their
character; as the Rabbis fabled that the manna tasted to each man
what each most desired. The same pure heavenly bread has the varying
savour that commends it to varying palates. God's grace is Protean.
It takes all the forms that man's necessities require. As water
assumes the shape of any vessel into which it is put, so this great
blessing comes to each of us, moulded according to the pressure and
taking the form of our circumstances and necessities. His fulness is
all-sufficient. It is the same blood that, passing to all the
members, ministers to each according to the needs and fashion of
each. And it is the same grace which, passing to our souls, in each
man is shaped according to his present condition and ministers to
his present wants.

So, dear brethren, in that great fulness each of us may have the
thing that we need. The angel who to one man is protection, to
another shall be teaching and inspiration; to another shall appear
with chariots of fire and horses of fire to sweep the rapt soul
heavenward; to another shall draw near as a deliverer from his
fetters, at whose touch the bonds shall fall from off him; to
another shall appear as the instructor in duty and the appointer of
a path of service, like that vision that shone in the castle to the
Apostle Paul, and said, 'Thou must bear witness for me at Rome'; to
another shall appear as opening the door of heaven and letting a
flood of light come down upon his darkened heart, as to the
Apocalyptic seer in his rocky Patmos. And 'all this worketh that one
and the self-same' Lord of angels 'dividing to every man severally
as He will,' and as the man needs. The defenceless Jacob has the
manifestation of the divine presence in the guise of armed warriors
that guard his unwarlike camp.

I add one last word. Long centuries after Jacob's experience at
Mahanaim, another trembling fugitive found himself there, fearful,
like Jacob, of the vengeance and anger of one who was knit to him by
blood. When poor King David was flying from the face of Absalom his
son, the first place where he made a stand, and where he remained
during the whole of the rebellion, was this town of Mahanaim, away
on the eastern side of the Jordan. Do you not think that to the
kingly exile, in his feebleness and his fear, the very name of his
resting-place would be an omen? Would he not recall the old story,
and bethink himself of how round that other frightened man

'Bright-harnessed angels stood in order serviceable'

and would he not, as he looked on his little band of friends,
faithful among the faithless, have his eyesight cleared to behold
the other camp? Such a vision, no doubt, inspired the calm
confidence of the psalm which evidently belongs to that dark hour of
his life, and made it possible for the hunted king, with his feeble
band, to sing even then, 'I will both lay me down in peace and
sleep, for Thou, Lord, makest me dwell in safety, solitary though I

Nor is the vision emptied of its power to stay and make brave by all
the ages that have passed. The vision was for a moment; the fact is
for ever. The sun's ray was flashed back from celestial armour, 'the
next all unreflected shone' on the lonely wastes of the desert--but
the host of God was there still. The transitory appearance of the
permanent realities is a revelation to us as truly as to the
patriarch; and though no angel wings may winnow the air around our
road, nor any sworded seraphim be seen on our commonplace march, we
too have all the armies of heaven with us, if we tread the path
which God has marked out, and in our weakness and trembling commit
ourselves to Him. The heavenly warriors die not, and hover around us
to-day, excelling in the strength of their immortal youth, and as
ready to succour us as they were all these centuries ago to guard
the solitary Jacob.

Better still, the 'Captain of the Lord's host' is 'come up' to be
our defence, and our faith has not only to behold the many
ministering spirits sent forth to minister to us, but One mightier
than they, whose commands they all obey, and who Himself is the
companion of our solitude and the shield of our defencelessness. It
was blessed that Jacob should be met by the many angels of God. It
is infinitely more blessed that '_the_ Angel of the Lord'--the
One who is more than the many--'encampeth round about them that fear
Him, and delivereth them.'

The postscript of the last letter which Gordon sent from Khartoum
closed with the words, 'The hosts are with me--Mahanaim.' Were they
not, even though death was near? Was that sublime faith a mistake--the
vision an optical delusion? No, for their ranks are arrayed around
God's children to keep them from all evil while He wills that they
should live, and their chariots of fire and horses of fire are sent
to bear them to heaven when He wills that they should die.


'And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of
my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return
unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal
well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the
mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shewed
unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this
Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I
pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand
of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me,
and the mother with the children. And Thou saidst, I
will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand
of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'
--GENESIS xxxii. 9-12.

Jacob's subtlety and craft were, as is often the case, the weapons
of a timid as well as selfish nature. No wonder, then, that the
prospect of meeting his wronged and strong brother threw him into a
panic, notwithstanding the vision of the camp of angels by the side
of his defenceless caravan of women and children. Esau had received
his abject message of propitiation in grim silence, sent no welcome
back, but with ominous haste and ambiguous purpose began his march
towards him with a strong force. A few hours will decide whether he
means revenge. Jacob's fright does not rob him of his ready wit; he
goes to work at once to divide his party, so as to ensure safety for
half of it. He schemes first, and prays second. The order might have
been inverted with advantage, but is like the man--in the lowest
phase of his character. His prayer shows that he is beginning to
profit by the long years of schooling. Though its burden is only
deliverance from Esau, it pleads with God on the grounds of His own
command and promise, of Jacob's unworthiness of God's past mercies,
and of His firm covenant. A breath of a higher life is stirring in
the shifty schemer who has all his life been living by his wits. Now
he has come to a point where he knows that his own power can do
nothing. With Laban, a man of craft like himself, it was diamond cut
diamond; and Jacob was equal to the position. But the wild Bedouin
brother, with his four hundred men, is not to be managed so; and
Jacob is driven to God by his conscious helplessness. It is the
germ, but only the germ, and needs much tending and growth before it
matures. The process by which this faint dawning of a better life is
broadened into day is begun in the mysterious struggle which forms
the main part of this lesson, and is God's answer to his prayer.

1. We have, first, the twofold wrestling. The silent night-long
wrestle with the 'traveller unknown' is generally regarded as
meaning essentially the same thing as the wonderful colloquy which
follows. But I venture to take a somewhat different point of view,
and to suggest that there are here two well-marked stages. In the
first, which is represented as transacted in unbroken silence, 'a
man' wrestles with Jacob, and does not prevail; in the second, which
is represented as an interchange of speech, Jacob strives with the
'man,' and does prevail. Taken together, the two are a complete
mirror, not only of the manner of the transformation of Jacob into
Israel, but of universal eternal truths as to God's dealings with
us, and our power with Him.

As to the former stage, the language of the narrative is to be
noted, 'There wrestled a man with him.' The attack, so to speak,
begins with his mysterious antagonist, not with the patriarch. The
'man' seeks to overcome Jacob, not Jacob the man. There, beneath the
deep heavens, in the solemn silence of night, which hides earth and
reveals heaven, that strange struggle with an unknown Presence is
carried on. We have no material for pronouncing on the manner of it,
whether ecstasy, vision, or an objective and bodily fact. The body
was implicated in the consequences, at all events, and the
impression which the story leaves is of an outward struggle. But the
purpose of the incident is the same, however the question as to its
form be answered. Nor can we pronounce, as some have done, on the
other question, of the personality of the silent wrestler. Angel, or
'the angel of the covenant,' who is a transient, and possibly only
apparent, manifestation in human form of Him who afterwards became
flesh and dwelt among us, or some other supernatural embodiment, for
that one purpose, of the divine presence,--any of these hypotheses
is consistent with the intentionally reticent text. What it leaves
unspoken, we shall wisely leave undetermined. God acts and speaks
through 'the man.' That is all we can know or need.

What, then, was the meaning of this struggle? Was it not a
revelation to Jacob of what God had been doing with him all his
life, and was still doing? Was not that merciful striving of God
with him the inmost meaning of all that had befallen him since the
far-off day when he had left his father's tents, and had seen the
opened heavens, and the ladder, which he had so often forgotten?
Were not his disappointments, his successes, and all the swift
changes of life, God's attempts to lead him to yield himself up, and
bow his will? And was not God striving with him now, in the
anxieties which gnawed at his heart, and in his dread of the morrow?
Was He not trying to teach him how crime always comes home to roost,
with a brood of pains running behind it? Was not the weird duel in
the brooding stillness a disclosure, which would more and more
possess his soul as the night passed on, of a Presence which in
silence strove with him, and only desired to overcome that He might
bless? The conception of a Divine manifestation wrestling all night
long with a man has been declared 'crude,' 'puerile,' and I know not
how many other disparaging adjectives have been applied to it. But
is it more unworthy of Him, or derogatory to His nature, than the
lifelong pleading and striving with each of us, which He undoubtedly
carries on? The idea of a man contending with God has been similarly
stigmatised; but is it more mysterious than that awful power which
the human will does possess of setting at naught His counsels and
resisting His merciful strivings?

The close of the first stage of the twofold wrestle is marked by the
laming of Jacob. The paradox that He, who could not overcome, could
yet lame by a touch, is part of the lesson. If His finger could do
that, what would the grip of His hand do, if He chose to put out His
power? It is not for want of strength that He has not crushed the
antagonist, as Jacob would feel, with deepening wonder and awe. What
a new light would be thus thrown on all the previous struggle! It
was the striving of a power which cared not for a mere outward
victory, nor put forth its whole force, lest it should crush him
whom it desired to conquer only by his own yielding. As Job says,
'Will He plead against me with His great power?' No; God mercifully
restrains His hand, in His merciful striving with men. Desiring to
overcome them, He desires not to do so by mere superior power, but
by their willing yielding to Him.

That laming of Jacob's thigh represents the weakening of all the
life of nature and self which had hitherto been his. He had trusted
to his own cunning and quick-wittedness; he had been shrewd, not
over-scrupulous, and successful. But he had to learn that 'by
strength shall no man prevail,' and to forsake his former weapons.
Wrestling with his hands and limbs is not the way to prevail either
with God or man. Fighting with God in his own strength, he is only
able to thwart God's merciful purpose towards him, but is powerless
as a reed in a giant's grasp if God chooses to summon His
destructive powers into exercise. So this failure of natural power
is the turning-point in the twofold wrestle, and marks as well as
symbolises the transition in Jacob's life and character from
reliance upon self and craft to reliance upon his divine Antagonist
become his Friend. It is the path by which we must all travel if we
are to become princes with God. The life of nature and of dependence
on self must be broken and lamed in order that, in the very moment
of discovered impotence, we may grasp the hand that smites, and find
immortal power flowing into our weakness from it.

2. So we come to the second stage, in which Jacob strives with God
and does prevail. 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' Then did the
stranger wish to go; and if he did, why could not he, who had lamed
his antagonist, loose himself from his grasp? The same explanation
applies here which is required in reference to Christ's action to
the two disciples at Emmaus: 'He made as though He would have gone
further.' In like manner, when He came to them on the water, He
appeared as though He 'would have passed by.' In all three cases the
principle is the same. God desires to go, if we do not desire Him to
stay. He will go, unless we keep Him. Then, at last, Jacob betakes
himself to his true weapons. Then, at last, he strangely wishes to
keep his apparent foe. He has learned, in some dim fashion, whom he
has been resisting, and the blessedness of having Him for friend and
companion. So here comes in the account of the whole scene which
Hosea gives (Hos. xii. 4): 'He wept, and made supplication unto
Him.' That does not describe the earlier portion, but is the true
rendering of the later stage, of which our narrative gives a more
summary account. The desire to retain God binds Him to us. All His
struggling with us has been aimed at evoking it, and all His fulness
responds to it when evoked. Prayer is power. It conquers God. We
overcome Him when we yield. When we are vanquished, we are victors.
When the life of nature is broken within us, then from conscious
weakness springs the longing which God cannot but satisfy. 'When I
am weak, then am I strong.' As Charles Wesley puts it, in his grand
hymn on this incident:--

'Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair.'

And God prevails when we prevail. His aim in all the process of His
mercy has been but to overcome our heavy earthliness and
selfishness, which resists His pleading love. His victory is our
yielding, and, in that yielding, obtaining power with Him. He
delights to be held by the hand of faith, and ever gladly yields to
the heart's cry, 'Abide with me.' I will not let Thee go, except
Thou bless me,' is music to His ear; and our saying so, in earnest,
persistent clinging to Him, is His victory as well as ours.

3. We have, next, the new name, which is the prize of Jacob's
victory, and the sign of a transformation in his character. Before
this time he had been Jacob, the worker with wiles, who supplanted
his brother, and met his foes with duplicity and astuteness like
their own. He had been mainly of the earth, earthy. But that solemn
hour had led him into the presence-chamber, the old craft had been
mortally wounded, he had seen some glimpse of God as his friend,
whose presence was not 'awful,' as he had thought it long ago, nor
enigmatical and threatening, as he had at first deemed it that
night, but the fountain of blessing and the one thing needful. A man
who has once learned that lesson, though imperfectly, has passed
into a purer region, and left behind him his old crookedness. He has
learned to pray, not as before, prayers for mere deliverance from
Esau and the like, but his whole being has gone out in yearning for
the continual nearness of his mysterious antagonist-friend. So,
though still the old nature remains, its power is broken, and he is
a new creature. Therefore he needs a new name, and gets it from Him
who can name men, because He sees the heart's depths, and because He
has the right over them. To impose a name is the sign of authority,
possession, insight into character. The change of name indicates a
new epoch in a life, or a transformation of the inner man. The
meaning of 'Israel' is 'He (who) strives with God'; and the reason
for its being conferred is more accurately given by the Revised
Version, which translates, 'For thou hast striven with God and with
men,' than in the Authorised rendering. His victory with God
involved the certainty of his power with men. All his life he had
been trying to get the advantage of them, and to conquer them, not
by spear and sword, but by his brains. But now the true way to true
sway among men is opened to him. All men are the servants of the
servant and the friend of God. He who has the ear of the emperor is
master of many men.

Jacob is not always called Israel in his subsequent history. His new
name was a name of character and of spiritual standing, and that
might fluctuate, and the old self resume its power; so he is still
called by the former appellation, just as, at certain points in his
life, the apostle forfeits the right to be 'Peter,' and has to hear
from Christ's lips the old name, the use of which is more poignant
than many reproachful words; 'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath
desired to have you.' But in the last death-bed scene, when the
patriarch lifted himself in his bed, and with prophetic dignity
pronounced his parting benediction on Joseph's sons, the new name
reappears with solemn pathos.

That name was transmitted to his descendants, and has passed over to
the company of believing men, who have been overcome by God, and
have prevailed with God. It is a charter and a promise. It is a
stringent reminder of duty and a lofty ideal. A true Christian is an
'Israel.' His office is to wrestle with God. Nor can we forget how
this mysterious scene was repeated in yet more solemn fashion,
beneath the gnarled olives of Gethsemane, glistening in the light of
the paschal full moon, when the true Israel prayed with such sore
crying and tears that His body partook of the struggle, and 'His
sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the
ground.' The word which describes Christ's agony is that which is
often rendered 'wrestling,' and perhaps is selected with intentional
allusion to this incident. At all events, when we think of Jacob by
the brook Jabbok, and of a 'greater than our father Jacob' by the
brook Kedron, we may well learn what persistence, what earnestness
and effort of the whole nature, go to make up the ideal of prayer,
and may well blush for the miserable indifference and torpor of what
we venture to call our prayers. These are our patterns, 'as many as
walk according to this rule,' and are thereby shown to be 'the
Israel of God,'--upon them shall be peace.

4. We have, as the end of all, a deepened desire after closer
knowledge of God, and the answer to it. Some expositors (as, for
instance, Robertson of Brighton, in his impressive sermon on this
section) take the closing petition, 'Tell me, I pray thee, Thy
name,' as if it were the centre point of the whole incident. But
this is obviously a partial view. The desire to know that name does
not come to Jacob, as we might have expected, when he was struggling
with his unknown foe in the dark there. It is the end, and, in some
sense, the issue, of all that has gone before. Not that he was in
any doubt as to the person to whom he spoke; it is just because he
knows that he is speaking with God, who alone can bless, that he
longs to have some deeper, clearer knowledge still of Him. He is not
asking for a word by which he may call Him; the name is the
expression of the nature, and his parting request is for something
far more intimate and deep than syllables which could be spoken by
any lips. The certain sequel of the discovery of God as striving in
mercy with a man, and of yielding to him, is the thirst for deeper
acquaintance with Him, and for a fuller, more satisfying knowledge
of His inmost heart. If the season of mysterious intercourse must
cease, and day hide more than it discloses, and Jacob go to face
Esau, and we come down from the mount to sordid cares and mean
tasks, at least we long to bear with us as a love-token some whisper
in our inmost hearts that may cheer us with the peaceful truth about
Him and be a hidden sweetness. The presence of such a desire is a
sure consequence, and therefore a good test, of real prayer.

The Divine answer, which sounds at first like refusal, is anything
but that. Why dost thou ask after My name? surely I need not to give
thee more revelation of My character. Thou hast enough of light;
what thou needest is insight into what thou hast already. We have in
what God has made known of Himself already to us--both in His
outward revelation, which is so much larger and sweeter to us than
it was to Jacob, but also in His providences, and in the inward
communion which we have with Him if we have let Him overcome us, and
have gained power to prevail with Him--sources of certain knowledge
of Him so abundant and precious that we need nothing but the loving
eye which shall take in all their beauty and completeness, to have
our most eager desires after His name more than satisfied. We need
not ask for more sunshine, but take care to spread ourselves out in
the full sunshine which we have, and let it drench our eyes and fire
our hearts. 'And He blessed him there.' Not till now was he capable
of receiving the full blessing. He needed to have self beaten out of
him; he needed to recognise God as lovingly striving with Him; he
needed to yield himself up to Him; he needed to have his heart thus
cleansed and softened, and then opened wide by panting desire for
the presence and benediction of God; he needed to be made conscious
of his new standing, and of the higher life budding within him; he
needed to experience the yearning for a closer vision of the face, a
deeper knowledge of the name,--and then it was possible to pour into
his heart a tenderness and fulness of blessing which before there
had been no room to receive, and which now answered in sweetest
fashion the else unanswered desire, 'Tell me, I pray thee, Thy

In like manner we may each be blessed with the presence and
benediction of Him whose merciful strivings, when we knew Him not,
came to us in the darkness; and to whom, if we yield, there will be
peace and power in our hearts, and upon us, too, the sun will rise
as we pass from the place where our foe became our friend, and by
faith we saw Him face to face, and drank in life by the gaze.


'Arise, go up to Beth-el, and dwell there: and make
there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when
thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother,'

Thirty years at least had passed since Jacob's vow; ten or twenty
since his return. He is in no haste to fulfil it, but has settled
down at Shechem and bought land there, and seems to have forgotten
all about Bethel.

1. _The lesson of possible negligence_.

(_a_) We are apt to forget vows when God has fulfilled His side
of them. Resolutions made in time of trouble are soon forgotten. We
pray and think about God more then than when things go well with us.
Religion is in many men's judgment for stormy weather only.

(_b_) We are often more resolved to make sacrifices in the
beginning of our Christian course than afterwards.

Many a brilliant morning is followed by cloudy day.

Youth is often full of enthusiasms which after-days forget.

2._ The reasons for the negligence_.

Jacob felt a gradual fading away of impressions of need. He was
comfortably settled at Shechem. He was surrounded by a wild, godless
household who cherished their idols, and he knew that if he went to
Bethel idolatry must be given up.

3. _The essentials to communion and service_.

Surrender. Purity. Must bury idols under oak.

4._The reward of sacrifice and of duty discharged_.

The renewed appearance of God. The confirmation of name Israel.
Enlarged promises. So the old man's vision may be better than the
youth's, if he lives up to his youthful vows.


'And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a
stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations
of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding
the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the
sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's
wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil
report. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children,
because he was the son of his old age: and he made him
a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that
their father loved him more than all his brethren, they
hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. And
Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and
they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them, Hear,
I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: For, behold,
we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf
arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves
stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And
his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over
us? or shalt thou Indeed have dominion over us? And they
hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren,
and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and behold,
the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance
to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren:
and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is
this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother
and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to
thee to the earth? And his brethren envied him; but his
father observed the saying.'--GENESIS xxxvii. 1-11.

'The generations of Jacob' are mainly occupied with the history of
Joseph, because through him mainly was the divine purpose carried
on. Jacob is now the head of the chosen family, since Isaac's death
(Gen. xxxv. 29), and therefore the narrative is continued under that
new heading. There may possibly be intended a contrast in 'dwelt'
and 'sojourned' in verse 1, the former implying a more complete
settling down.

There are two principal points in this narrative,--the sad insight
that it gives into the state of the household in which so much of
the world's history and hopes was wrapped up, and the preludings of
Joseph's future in his dreams.

As to the former, the account of it is introduced by the statement
that Joseph, at seventeen years of age, was set to work, according
to the wholesome Eastern usage, and so was thrown into the company
of the sons of the two slave-women, Bilhah and Zilpah. Delitzsch
understands 'lad' in verse 2 in the sense in which we use 'boy,' as
meaning an attendant. Joseph was, then, told off to be subordinate
to these two sets of his rough brothers. The relationship was enough
to rouse hatred in such coarse souls. And, indeed, the history of
Jacob's household strikingly illustrates the miserable evils of
polygamy, which makes families within the family, and turns brothers
into enemies. Bilhah's and Zilpah's sons reflected in their hatred
of Rachel's their mothers' envy of the true wife of Jacob's heart.
The sons of the bondwoman were sure to hate the sons of the free.

If Joseph had been like his brothers, they would have forgiven him
his mother. But he was horrified at his first glimpse of
unrestrained young passions, and, in the excitement of disgust and
surprise, 'told their evil report.' No doubt, his brothers had been
unwilling enough to be embarrassed by his presence, for there is
nothing that wild young men dislike more than the constraint put on
them by the presence of an innocent youth; and when they found out
that this 'milk-sop' of a brother was a spy and a telltale, their
wrath blazed up. So Joseph had early experience of the shock which
meets all young men who have been brought up in godly households
when they come into contact with sin in fellow-clerks, servants,
students, or the like. It is a sharp test of what a young man is
made of, to come forth from the shelter of a father's care and a
mother's love, and to be forced into witnessing and hearing such
things as go on wherever a number of young men are thrown together.
Be not 'partaker of other men's sins.' And the trial is doubly great
when the tempters are elder brothers, and the only way to escape
their unkindness is to do as they do. Joseph had an early experience
of the need of resistance; and, as long as the world is a world,
love to God will mean hatred from its worst elements. If we are
'sons of the day,' we cannot but rebuke the darkness.

It is an invidious office to tell other people's evil-doing, and he
who brings evil reports of others generally and deservedly gets one
for himself. But there are circumstances in which to do so is plain
duty, and only a mistaken sense of honour keeps silence. But there
must be no exaggeration, malice, or personal ends in the informer.
Classmates in school or college, fellow-servants, employees in great
businesses, and the like, have not only a duty of loyalty to one
another, but of loyalty to their superior. We are sometimes bound to
be blind to, and dumb about, our associates' evil deeds, but
sometimes silence makes us accomplices.

Jacob had a right to know, and Joseph would have been wrong if he
had not told him, the truth about his brothers. Their hatred shows
that his purity had made their doing wrong more difficult. It is a
grand thing when a young man's presence deprives the Devil of elbow-
room for his tricks. How much restraining influence such a one may

Jacob's somewhat foolish love, and still more foolish way of showing
it, made matters worse. There were many excuses for him. He
naturally clung to the son of his lost but never-forgotten first
love, and as naturally found, in Joseph's freedom from the vices of
his other sons, a solace and joy. It has been suggested that the
'long garment with sleeves,' in which he decked the lad, indicated
an intention of transferring the rights of the first-born to him,
but in any case it meant distinguishing affection; and the father or
mother who is weak enough to show partiality in the treatment of
children need not wonder if their unwise love creates bitter heart-
burnings. Perhaps, if Bilhah's and Zilpah's sons had had a little
more sunshine of a father's love, they would have borne brighter
flowers and sweeter fruit. It is fatal when a child begins to
suspect that a parent is not fair.

So these surly brothers, who could not even say 'Peace be to thee!'
(the common salutation) when they came across Joseph, had a good
deal to say for themselves. It is a sad picture of the internal
feuds of the house from which all nations were to be blessed. The
Bible does not idealise its characters, but lets us see the seamy
side of the tapestry, that we may the more plainly recognise the
Mercy which forgives, and the mighty Providence which works through,
such imperfect men. But the great lesson for all young people from
the picture of Joseph's early days, when his whiteness rebuked the
soiled lives of his brothers, as new-fallen snow the grimy cake,
hardened and soiled on the streets, is, 'My son, if sinners entice
thee, consent thou not.' Never mind a world's hatred, if you have a
father's love. There is one Father who can draw His obedient
children into the deepest secrets of His heart without withholding
their portion from the most prodigal.

Joseph's dreams are the other principal point in the narrative. The
chief incidents of his life turn on dreams,--his own, his fellow-
prisoners', Pharaoh's. The narrative recognises them as divinely
sent, and no higher form of divine communication appears to have
been made to Joseph, He received no new revelations of religious
truth. His mission was, not to bring fresh messages from heaven, but
to effect the transference of the nation to Egypt. Hence the lower
form of the communications made to him.

The meaning of both dreams is the same, but the second goes beyond
the first in the grandeur of the emblems, and in the inclusion of
the parents in the act of obeisance. Both sets of symbols were drawn
from familiar sights. The homeliness of the 'sheaves' is in striking
contrast with the grandeur of the 'sun, moon, and stars.' The
interpretation of the first is ready to hand, because the sheaves
were 'your sheaves' and 'my sheaf.' There was no similar key
included in the second, and his brothers do not appear to have
caught its meaning. It was Jacob who read it. Probably Rachel was
dead when the dream came, but that need not make a difficulty.

Note that Joseph did not tell his dreams with elation, or with a
notion that they meant anything particular. It is plainly the
singularity of them that makes him repeat them, as is clearly
indicated by the repeated 'behold' in his two reports. With perfect
innocence of intention, and as he would have told any other strange
dream, the lad repeats them. The commentary was the work of his
brothers, who were ready to find proofs of his being put above them,
and of his wish to humiliate them, in anything he said or did. They
were wiser than he was. Perhaps they suspected that Jacob meant to
set him at the head of the clan on his decease, and that the dreams
were trumped up and told to them to prepare them for the decision
which the special costume may have already hinted.

At all events, hatred is very suspicious, and ready to prick up its
ears at every syllable that seems to speak of the advancement of its

There is a world of contempt, rage, and fear in the questions,
'Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion
over us?' The conviction that Joseph was marked out by God for a
high position seems to have entered these rough souls, and to have
been fuel to fire. Hatred and envy make a perilous mixture. Any sin
can come from a heart drenched with these. Jacob seems to have been
wise enough to make light of the dreams to the lad, though much of
them in his heart. Youthful visions of coming greatness are often
best discouraged. The surest way to secure their fulfilment is to
fill the present with strenuous, humble work. 'Do the duty that is
nearest thee.' 'The true apprenticeship for a ruler is to serve.'
'Act, act, in the living present.' The sheaves may come to bow down
some day, but 'my sheaf' has to be cut and bound first, and the
sooner the sickle is among the corn, the better.

But yet, on the other hand, let young hearts be true to their early
visions, whether they say much about them or not. Probably it will
be wisest to keep silence. But there shine out to many young men and
women, at their start in life, bright possibilities of no ignoble
sort, and rising higher than personal ambition, which it is the
misery and sin of many to see 'fade away into the light of common
day,' or into the darkness of night. Be not 'disobedient to the
heavenly vision'; for the dreams of youth are often the prophecies
of what God means and makes it possible for the dreamer to be, if he
wakes to work towards that fair thing which shone on him from afar.


'And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his
brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his
coat of many colours that was on him; And they took him,
and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there
was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread: and
they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a
company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their
camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to
carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren,
What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal
his blood! Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites,
and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother
and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there
passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and
lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the
Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought
Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and,
behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his
clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said,
The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? And they
took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and
dipped the coat in the blood; And they sent the coat of
many colours, and they brought it to their father; and
said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy
son's coat or no. And he knew it, and said, It is my
son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is
without doubt rent in pieces. And Jacob rent his clothes,
and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his
son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters
rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted;
and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my
son mourning. Thus his father wept for him. And the
Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer
of Pharaoh's and captain of the guard.'--GENESIS xxxvii. 23-36.

We have left the serene and lofty atmosphere of communion and
saintship far above us. This narrative takes us down into foul
depths. It is a hideous story of vulgar hatred and cruelty. God's
name is never mentioned in it; and he is as far from the actors'
thoughts as from the writer's words. The crime of the brothers is
the subject, and the picture is painted in dark tones to teach large
truths about sin.

1. The broad teaching of the whole story, which is ever being
reiterated in Old Testament incidents, is that God works out His
great purposes through even the crimes of unconscious men. There is
an irony, if we may so say, in making the hatred of these men the
very means of their brother's advancement, and the occasion of
blessing to themselves. As coral insects work, not knowing the plan
of their reef, still less the fair vegetation and smiling homes
which it will one day carry, but blindly building from the material
supplied by the ocean a barrier against it; so even evil-doers are
carrying on God's plan, and sin is made to counterwork itself, and
be the black channel through which the flashing water of life pours.
Joseph's words (Gen. 1. 20) give the point of view for the whole
story: 'Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good ...
to save much people alive.' We can scarcely forget the still more
wonderful example of the same thing, in the crime of crimes, when
his brethren slew the Son of God--like Joseph, the victim of envy--and,
by their crime, God's counsel of mercy for them and for all was

2. Following the narrative, verses 23, 24, and 25 show us the
poisonous fruit of brotherly hatred. The family, not the nation, is
the social unit in Genesis. From the beginning, we find the field on
which sin works is the family relation. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and
Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and now the other children of Jacob and
Joseph, attest the power of sin when it enters there, and illustrate
the principle that the corruption of the best is the worst. The
children of Rachel could not but be hated by the children of other
mothers. Jacob's undisguised partiality for Joseph was a fault too,
which wrought like yeast on the passions of his wild sons. The long-
sleeved garment which he gave to the lad probably meant to indicate
his purpose to bestow on him the right of the first-born forfeited
by Reuben, and so the violent rage which it excited was not
altogether baseless. The whole miserable household strife teaches
the rottenness of the polygamous relation on which it rested, and
the folly of paternal favouritism. So it carries teaching especially
needed then, but not out of date now.

The swift passage of the purely inward sin of jealous envy into the
murderous act, as soon as opportunity offered, teaches the short
path which connects the inmost passions with the grossest outward
deeds. Like Jonah's gourd, the smallest seed of hate needs but an
hour or two of favouring weather to become a great tree, with all
obscene and blood-seeking birds croaking in its branches. 'Whosoever
hateth his brother is a murderer,' Therefore the solemn need for
guarding the heart from the beginnings of envy, and for walking in

The clumsy contrivance for murder without criminality, which Reuben
suggested, is an instance of the shallow pretexts with which the
sophistry of sin fools men before they have done the wrong thing.
Sin's mask is generally dropped very soon after. The bait is useless
when the hook is well in the fish's gills. 'Don't let us kill him.
Let us put him into a cistern. He cannot climb up its bottle-shaped,
smooth sides. But that is not our fault. Nobody will ever hear his
muffled cries from its depths. But there will be no blood on our
hands.' It was not the first time, nor is it the last, that men have
tried to blink their responsibility for the consequences which they
hoped would come of their crimes. Such excuses seem sound when we
are being tempted; but, as soon as the rush of passion is past, they
are found to be worthless. Like some cheap castings, they are only
meant to be seen in front, where they are rounded and burnished. Get
behind them, and you find them hollow.

'They sat down to eat bread,' Thomas Fuller pithily says: 'With what
heart could they say grace, either before or after meat?' What a
grim meal! And what an indication of their rude natures, seared
consciences, and deadened affections!

This picture of the moral condition of the fathers of the Jewish
tribes is surely a strong argument for the historical accuracy of
the narrative. It would be strange if the legends of a race, instead
of glorifying, should blacken, the characters of its founders. No
motive can be alleged which would explain such a picture; its only
explanation is its truth. The ugly story, too, throws vivid light on
that thought, which prophets ever reiterated, 'not for your sakes,
but for My name's sake.' The divine choice of Israel was grounded,
not on merit, but on sovereign purpose. And the undisguised
plainness of the narrative of their sins is but of a piece with the
tone of Scripture throughout. It never palliates the faults even of
its best men. It tells its story without comment. It never indulges
in condemnation any more than in praise. It is a perfect mirror; its
office is to record, not to criticise. Many misconceptions of Old
Testament morality would have been avoided by keeping that simple
fact in view.

3. The ill-omened meal is interrupted by the sudden appearance, so
picturesquely described, of the caravan of Ishmaelites with their
loaded camels. Dothan was on or near the great trade route to Egypt,
where luxury, and especially the custom of embalming, opened a
profitable market for spices. The traders would probably not be
particular as to the sort of merchandise they picked up on their
road, and such an 'unconsidered trifle' as a slave or two would be
neither here nor there. This opportune advent of the caravan sets a
thought buzzing in Judah's brain, which brings out a new phase of
the crime. Hatred darkening to murder is bad enough; but hatred
which has also an eye to business, and makes a profit out of a
brother, is a shade or two blacker, because it means cold-blooded
calculation and selfish advantage instead of raging passion. Judah's
cynical question avows the real motive of his intervention. He
prefers the paltry gain from selling Joseph to the unprofitable
luxury of killing him. It brings in regard to brotherly ties at the
end, as a kind of homage paid to propriety, as if the obligations
they involved were not broken as really by his proposal as by
murder. Certainly it is strange logic which can say in one breath,
'Let us sell him; ... for he is our brother,' and finds the clause
between buffer enough to keep these two contradictories from

If any touch of conscience made the brothers prefer the less cruel
alternative, one can only see here another illustration of the
strange power which men have of limiting the working of conscience,
and of the fact that when a greater sin has been resolved on, a
smaller one gets to look almost like a virtue. Perhaps Judah and the
rest actually thought themselves very kind and brotherly when they
put their brother into strangers' power, and so went back to their
meal with renewed cheerfulness, both because they had gained their
end without bloodshed, and because they had got the money. They did
not think that every tear and pang which Joseph would shed and feel
would be laid at their door.

We do not suppose that Joseph was meant to be, in the accurate sense
of the word, a type of Christ. But the coincidence is not to be
passed by, that these same powerful motives of envy and of greed
were combined in His case too, and that there again a Judah (Judas)
appears as the agent of the perfidy.

We may note that the appearance of the traders in the nick of time,
suggesting the sale of Joseph, points the familiar lesson that the
opportunity to do ill deeds often makes ill deeds done. The path for
entering on evil is made fatally easy at first; that gate always
stands wide. The Devil knows how to time his approaches. A weak
nature, with an evil bias in it, finds everywhere occasions and
suggestions to do wrong. But it is the evil nature which makes
innocent things opportunities for evil. Therefore we have to be on
our guard, as knowing that if we fall it is not circumstances, but
ourselves, that made stumbling-blocks out of what might have been

4. Leaving Joseph to pursue his sad journey, our narrative
introduces for the first time Reuben, whose counsel, as the verses
before the text tell us, it had been to cast the poor lad into the
cistern. His motive had been altogether good; he wished to save
life, and as soon as the others were out of the way, to bring Joseph
up again and get him safely back to Jacob. In chapter xlii. 22,
Reuben himself reminds his brothers of what had passed. There he
says that he had besought them not to 'sin against the child,' which
naturally implies that he had wished them to do nothing to him, and
that they 'would not hear.' In the verses before the text he
proposes the compromise of the pit, and the others 'hear.' So there
seem to have been two efforts made by him--first, to shield Joseph
from any harm, and then that half-and-half measure which was
adopted. He is absent, while they carry out the plan, and from the
cruel merriment of the feast--perhaps watching his opportunity to
rescue, perhaps in sickness of heart and protest against the deed.
Well meant and kindly motived as his action was--and self-
sacrificing too, if, as is probable, Joseph was meant by Jacob as
his successor in the forfeited birthright--his scheme breaks down,
as attempts to mitigate evil by compliance and to make compromises
with sinners usually do. The only one of the whole family who had
some virtue in him, was too timid to take up a position of
uncompromising condemnation. He thought it more polite to go part of
the way, and to trust to being able to prevent the worst. That is
always a dangerous experiment. It is often tried still; it never
answers. Let a man stand to his guns, and speak out the condemnation
that is in his heart; otherwise, he will be sure to go farther than
he meant, he will lose all right of remonstrance, and will generally
find that the more daring sinners have made his well-meant schemes
to avert the mischief impossible.

5. The cruel trick by which Jacob was deceived is perhaps the most
heartless bit of the whole heartless crime. It came as near an
insult as possible. It was maliciously meant. The snarl about the
coat, the studied use of 'thy son' as if the brothers disowned the
brotherhood, the unfeeling harshness of choosing such a way of
telling their lie--all were meant to give the maximum of pain, and
betray their savage hatred of father and son, and its causes. Was
Reuben's mouth shut all this time? Evidently. From his language in
chapter xlii., 'His blood is required,' he seems to have believed
until then that Joseph had been killed in his absence. But he dared
not speak. Had he told what he did know, the brothers had but to
add, 'And he proposed it himself,' and his protestations of his good
intentions would have been unheeded. He believed his brother dead,
and perhaps thought it better that Jacob should think him slain by
wild beasts than by brothers' hands, as Reuben supposed him to be.
But his shut mouth teaches again how dangerous his policy had been,
and how the only road, which it is safe, in view of the
uncertainties of the future, to take, is the plain road of
resistance to evil and non-fellowship with its doers.

6. And what of the poor old father? His grief is unworthy of God's
wrestler. It is not the part of a devout believer in God's
providence to refuse to be comforted. There was no religious
submission in his passionate sorrow. How unlike the quiet
resignation which should have marked the recognition that the God
who had been his guide was working here too! No doubt the
hypocritical condolences of his children were as vinegar upon nitre.
No doubt the loss of Joseph had taken away the one gentle and true
son on whom his loneliness rested since his Rachel's death, while he
found no solace in the wild, passionate men who called him 'father'
and brought him no 'honour.' But still his grief is beyond the
measure which a true faith in God would have warranted; and we
cannot but see that the dark picture which we have just been looking
at gets no lighter or brighter tints from the demeanour of Jacob.

There are few bitterer sorrows than for a parent to see the children
of his own sin in the sins of his children. Jacob might have felt
that bitterness, as he looked round on the lovelessness and dark,
passionate selfishness of his children, and remembered his own early
crimes against Esau. He might have seen that his unwise fondness for
the son of his Rachel had led to the brothers' hatred, though he did
not know that that hatred had plunged the arrow into his soul.
Whether he knew it or not, his own conduct had feathered the arrow.
He was drinking as he had brewed; and the heart-broken grief which
darkened his later years had sprung from seed of his own sowing. So
it is always. 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.'

It is a miserable story of ignoble jealousy and cruel hate; and yet,
over all this foaming torrent, God's steadfast bow of peace shines.
These crimes and this 'affliction of Joseph' were the direct path to
the fulfilment of His purposes. As blind instruments, even in their
rebellion and sin, men work out His designs. The lesson of Joseph's
bondage will one day be the summing up of the world's history. 'Thou
makest the wrath of man to praise Thee: and with the remainder
thereof Thou girdest Thyself.'


'And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the
prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound:
and he was there in the prison. But the Lord was with
Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favour in
the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper
of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the
prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they
did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the
prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand;
because the Lord was with him, and that which he did,
the Lord made it to prosper.'--GENESIS xxxix. 20-23.

'And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the
king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of
Egypt. And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against
the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.
And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard,
into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound. And the
captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served
them: and they continued a season in ward. And they dreamed a
dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man
according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the
baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison. And
Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them,
and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh's officers that
were with him in the ward of his lord's house, saying, Wherefore
look ye so sadly to day? And they said unto him, We have dreamed
a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto
them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray
you. And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to
him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; And in the vine
were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her
blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe
grapes: And Pharaoh's cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes,
and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I gave the cup into
Pharaoh's hand. And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation
of it: The three branches are three days: Yet within three days shall
Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou
shalt deliver Pharaoh's cup into his hand, after the former manner
when thou wast his butler. But think on me when it shall be well with

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