ISAAC, OR THE SPIRIT OF SONSHIP
Chapters 21 - 26
"Now we, as Isaac was, are the children of promise." -- Gal. 4:28.
"We have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." -- Rom. 8:15.
AT this stage, when Adam, and Cain and Abel, and Noah, and Abraham and Lot, have already shewn themselves; when in the inward life we have known the old man, and the strivings of flesh and spirit, and regeneration; and the spirit of faith has been freed from much that impeded it in the earlier stages of its pilgrimage; -- at this stage appears another form of life, rightly called Isaac or laughter, (Note: Heb. yitschaq [H3327], from tsachaq [H3227], to laugh.) because it brings great joy with it, the spirit of sonship, the fruit of Abraham or faith, another development of the elect spirit, another shade of the light of life in man. For not only do many forms of life grow out of the old man, before the true spirit of sonship or adoption is born in us; but even the elect spirit, which in due time is to produce this, (though from the first it contains it as the root holds the flower, and as Levi was in the loins of Abraham when Melchisedek met him,) does not bring it forth until other forms of life have first been produced and manifested. The stem must bud and grow before the fruit comes forth. So Adam, and Abel, and Noah, and Abraham, that is, the old man, and flesh and spirit, and regeneration, and the life of faith, must precede in our souls (as the root and stalk precede the fruit) that spirit of sonship which Isaac represents, as Isaac or sonship must again precede that evangelic service which Jacob typifies. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are types of the divine life in man, manifesting itself in the spirit, in the understanding, and in the body respectively; -- for this is only another way of saying that they are the spirit of faith, of sonship, and of service: for sonship is the bringing of the divine life into our understanding, and service is bringing it into our outward and bodily acts; -- and this cannot be done at once, but by degrees and successively. Sonship is come, when the things which are in the spirit are in the understanding also. Service is come, when the things which have been in the understanding are seen in the body and wrought outwardly. The subject, like all which is of God, is infinite. We only make it definite by not touching the infinite. (Note: It may interest some to mark how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as they figure the divine life in man, also figure something of the life of God Himself. That they have been so regarded by some is well known. The Fathers hesitate not to say, that in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they see types of the ways and works of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The quotations given below, on the dispensational view of chapters 22, 24, &c., are examples of this. Blind leaders of the blind may urge this exposition as opposed to that which I have given here. But the one is the very reason and ground of the other. Our life as saints is but the result of our being made partakers of the divine nature. If He lives and walks in us, our ways must resemble His ways, and hence the life of the elect will be a reflection of His life.)
Each of these then is the same elect spirit, only seen at different stages of its development, and taking at each stage a different form, by which the same One Spirit may shew itself in its sevenfold variety. The Holy Ghost in all supplies the common light-power; but the creature gives to the colourless light a medium by which it may variously reflect itself. For as the same one light of the sun appears to us different, through the reflecting medium of the atmosphere of the planet which intercepts it, by which, according to the peculiar fitness of each for reflection, one star differeth from another star in glory; so in us the one same Spirit of God shews variously through the different mental atmospheres which are furnished by the successive stages of man's development. Fair indeed is the form of life now reached in Isaac, in whom to faith is added knowledge, -- for the spirit of sonship is a spirit of understanding also, -- an Isaac indeed, that is, joy, to all who possess it, and bringing gladness not to Abraham's house alone, but to many afar off.
Let us note some of the features of this much longed-for child, the circumstances of his birth, and the treatment which he at once meets with.
I. -- THE BIRTH OF ISAAC, AND ITS RESULTS
THREE facts are recorded: -- Isaac is born contrary to nature; then, while yet he is a babe, his blood is shed in circumcision; then at his weaning he is mocked by Hagar's son. Such is and must be every Isaac's history.
First, he is born out of the common course of nature, when Abraham and Sarah are both "as good as dead;" for Abraham was now "a hundred years old," and Sarah was "barren" and "past age" (Gen. 21:5, 7; Heb. 11:11, 12). Then the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as He had spoken. So comes this form of life in us, through despair of self, "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). It springs indeed from faith, but not till faith itself by long fruitlessness has learnt its own nothingness, that it is but the channel, not the spring. While therefore the strength of the flesh remains, though other fruit is borne, Isaac is not given us. But Abraham's fleshly strength is now all gone: self-will is no longer looked to as the means of bearing fruit: the true relationship to Sarah is confessed: then out of that long-barren womb comes the promised seed. Isaac is conceived. A new life grows within, soon to shew itself to the joy of faith and of the inward spiritual will.
Then, whilst yet a babe, Isaac's blood is shed in circumcision. "Abraham circumcised Isaac, being eight days old, as God had commanded him" (Gen. 21:4). Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he received this seal (Gen. 17:24): for the spirit of faith, when it first starts, and even when it has crossed Jordan, may be without self-judgment, unchastened, unmortified. How many, in whom faith lives, are yet unjudged, and have not reached to "the putting away of the filth of the flesh" by inward circumcision. But with the spirit of sonship or adoption this cannot be; from the very first this pure life is truly circumcised; and that uncleanness, which faith may carry with it many days, is cut off at once from the new form of life which now is given to us.
Other trials follow, first "weaning," then "mocking." While he is a babe, Sarah herself "gives her son suck." Pure milk at first is Isaac's food. But "the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned." Then "the son of the bond-maid mocks" the heir. "He that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the spirit" (Gen. 21:7-9; Gal. 4:29). So is it now. While this new life is young, it needs milk. At such a stage the carnal seed of faith does not trouble it. But it grows and is weaned. Then a feast indeed is spread, and then the bond-maid's son at once rises up in mockery. If we have reached to sonship, and are in spirit "weaned children," and the milk of our mother can be exchanged for strong meat, then will faith perceive how the fruits of Hagar rise against the purer fruit which Sarah now has brought forth. (Note: Augustin. Quoest. in Gen. l. i. n. 50. Origen notices the same thing. -- Hom. vii. in Gen.) Then begin fresh trials to faith; for faith now sees that its own first fruits are opposed to the purer spiritual life. How many men of faith have not yet a glimpse of this. We go far before we know that the life which faith first produces in us, a seed loved by us, the fruit of our own efforts, and to get which even Sarah has stirred us up, is at heart a mocker and a persecutor. While it is alone, the real mind of this son of the bond-maid is undetected, save by the eye of God. But when the true fruit of grace is come, faith itself perceives the mockings of Hagar's son. Thus is sonship opposed from the first, not least by that which Abraham himself, that is the spirit of faith, has brought forth and nourished up; by a mind in us, which though of faith is carnal, the fruit of union with Hagar or law, and rather natural than spiritual. But Isaac though mocked, is the heir; and his coming casts out that which had hitherto occupied the house of faith.
Let us mark the results of the coming in of this new life, both in and out of Abraham's house.
Within the house of faith, Isaac's birth soon leads to the final dismissal of Hagar, with whom her son is sent away. While the new life is yet a sucking babe, Ishmael remains; but when he begins to mock, because "a great feast" is made for the child, who now can bear strong meat, then Sarah says, "Cast out this bond-maid and her son, for the son of this bond-woman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10; Gal. 4:30). Sarah yet speaks so, when her son is weaned. While she is barren, while the promise tarries, while as yet the spirit of sonship is not come or only a sucking babe, she endures the presence of the bond-maid and her seed. But when Isaac is mocked, the bond-maid is cast out. Both bondage and law are now dismissed. For a time they have had their place and use with faith. But their work is done when the spirit of sonship is come. They depart now to return no more.
But this casting out "was very grievous to Abraham," not so much on Hagar's as on her son's account (Gen. 21:11). At this stage the giving up of self-will or law is not so trying to faith as the giving up of that form of life which faith has produced out of self-will. But to give up this life, which we ourselves have produced, is "very grievous" even to men of faith. We cling to what we have or are, and are slow to believe that there can be a something better than that we now rejoice in. We cannot think that a life which springs from faith can be cast out, not yet seeing that faith's first fruit is carnal. Faith would, therefore, if it might, keep Ishmael; but the fruit of law and bondage must be given up. Up and onward is the path for evermore. One after another of the things of childhood must be put away (1 Cor. 13:11). "God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad: in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken to her voice" (Gen. 21:12). Trying, therefore, as it is to cast out the bond-maid, let us hearken to all that Sarah saith unto us; for "in Isaac only shall the seed be called:" yet also upon the son of the bond-maid will the Lord bestow a suited blessing; for he shall live and beget a mighty seed, because he also, though carnal, is the fruit of faith (Gen. 21:13).
Isaac's birth has results also out of Abraham's house. The Philistine, seeing a son born contrary to nature, comes to Abraham, and seeks peace. "It came to pass at that time that Abimelech spake to Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest. Now, therefore, swear unto me that thou wilt not deal falsely with me. And Abraham said, I will swear" (Gen. 21:22-24). No sooner does the spirit of sonship come, than worldly knowledge in us feels and confesses that God is with faith. Thenceforth, therefore, it submits. And the spirit of faith shews kindness to the strange land in which it dwells. Worldly knowledge is put into its place, but not destroyed. It even receives good things from faith (Gen. 21:27). It is not allowed to think that the wells are its work. The offered lamb is witness that the waters have been drawn by faith's energy (Gen. 21:30). But withal no unkindness is shewn towards the Philistine. Worldly knowledge still lives, and faith yet sojourns many days in near contact to it (Gen. 21:34).
Such is this scene within. Without, in substance it is the same thing. In this view Sarah and Hagar are the two covenants. True men of faith beget a double seed. Some are Hagar's and some are Sarah's children. Those begotten through law are yet the bond-maid's sons. Those whose life is of grace are children of the free-woman. Every church or house of faith will produce both of these. As long as the Isaacs are unweaned, the Ishmaels live with them. But the feast of fat things, provided when Sarah's son are weaned, ever calls forth the hatred and mockery of the children of the bond-woman. Then comes a separation, painful indeed to men of faith, which yet God sanctions, saying, "Hearken to all that Sarah saith unto thee." So the Ishmaels go forth into a dry land, with some portion of the bread of men of faith; but the water for them is only in bottles (Gen. 21:14-19), -- doctrine for them is only in certain forms, -- and this is soon spent, and though a well is at hand, and they are faint, their eyes see it not. For they are not accustomed to draw for themselves. And so, when the water in the bottles is spent, because they have only a bottle, they almost perish. Isaac lives by wells, and digs them often, and has strifes for them with Philistines. The bond-maid's sons look not for such streams, and see them not, even though a well is close to them; till God, who yet loves them, sends them help, to point out the well, and give them drink out of it. So they live and grow and dwell in a thirsty land. There with worldly principles, that is "an Egyptian wife" (Gen. 21:21), like Nimrod and Esau, they are "archers," (Gen. 21:20. Compare Gen. 49:22, 23; Judges 5:10, 11; Psalm 11:2; 91:4, 5.) quick to hunt, ready for controversy and to judge evil; blessed nevertheless for Abraham's sake, and forming a great nation and a mighty people. (Note: Origen goes into this outward fulfilment at considerable length, Orig. Hom. vii. in Gen.)
The fulfilment of all this in the dispensations is well known. When in the course of ages the New Covenant out of the death of the flesh brought forth the promised seed, and sons indeed were born in the Church, then the fleshly seed, because it mocked, was cast out. St. Paul himself expounds this view: -- "Neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children, but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called; that is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed" (Rom. 9:7, 8). (Note: Origen gives this dispensational fulfilment also, Orig. Hom. vii. in Gen. The same interpretation is given by Gregory Nyssen, In Baptism. Christi, tom. ii. pp. 805, 806. Ed. Paris, 1615.) In the Acts of the Apostles we may see how the spirit of faith seems to yearn over Hagar's rejected sons, feeling it "very grievous" to give them up. Nevertheless they were dismissed. And then, like Ishmael, though the well of water was nigh at hand, they could not see it; "for blindness in part was come upon Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles should come in" (Rom. 11:25). The fleshly Jew was cast out; and then the Gentile, seeing the blessings so richly poured on faith, confessed its power and sought peace. I cannot doubt that the facts of this chapter have a bearing also on the coming age. In this yet future view, Isaac is "the sons of God." The whole creation groaneth and travaileth, waiting for the manifestation of these heavenly children (Rom. 8:19-23). When they are born from that long dead and barren womb, whence they shall issue when their time is come, then indeed shall be a day of laughter, then shall the bondmaid truly be cast out, then shall the world be glad, and the Lord be known by a new name, "the Everlasting God" (Gen. 21:33). (Note: Never before Isaac's birth is the Lord called by this name, el olam [H410 H5769], "the Everlasting God." By this name He is revealed, not so much the God of a particular family or people, as of an age or dispensation. It asks, "Is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not of the Gentiles also?" Ainsworth translates here, "Deus aeternitatis vel mundi.")
Such a day has in spirit already dawned on some. Oh, may its rising hasten over all the earth.
II. -- THE OFFERING UP OF ISAAC
WE have seen what were Isaac's first trials, -- spiritually, the earliest experiences which the spirit of sonship or adoption meets here; first, judgment in the flesh, then weaning, then mocking: we are now to see its trials, when, being weaned, it has grown to somewhat of maturity. This much longed-for life, our Isaac or joy, though an heir of grace and promise, is born to be a sacrifice, not that it may perish, but that greater blessings may be reached by it through this self-sacrifice. This too is yet a stage in the way, for the way is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.
We read, "It came to pass that after these things God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee unto the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Gen. 22:1, 2). Ishmael is not offered, but cast out. Isaac is to be offered up as a sacrifice. This is indeed that cross of Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto us, and we unto the world; the surrender of that meek life in us, which has been formed by divine power out of faith's nothingness, the special offering of those in whom this Son is come, and who, "if sons, are heirs, if so be that they suffer with Him, that they may also be glorified together" (Rom. 8:17); a view of the cross much more inward than any known before, so much deeper and nearer to us than Abel's lamb, or Noah's tree which takes us through the waters, that to some it seems to be almost another thing, while yet it is the self-same cross, only now apprehended far more inwardly.
And first to mark Abraham's part in this scene, that is, the part which the spirit of faith takes in this sacrifice. Isaac yields himself, but it is of Abraham God asks him. Abraham it is who girds the ass, and cleaves the wood, and gives up his Isaac, when the Lord requires the sacrifice. For it is faith which gives up the life it has produced to Him by whose strength it has produced it. The Lord would shew how He can fill the heart; how after the flesh and world are left, faith can, if only He remains to it, give up His gifts also, and again be nothing that God may be all, assured that in being nothing it shall obtain all things.
This is the trial here. Can faith give up that much loved life, that son so long waited for, of whom it had been said, "In Isaac shall thy seed be called." It is not to leave this or that outward thing; -- this was done long ago, when we came out of Ur of the Chaldees; -- it is not the trial of weary pilgrimage, wandering from day to day without a certain dwelling place; it is not even the giving up of Hagar's son, the fruit of our own energy, to which our God now summons us. It is nothing less than to give up that life, to which all God's promises have so long directed us, -- which He has given to be our joy, and from which He Himself has bid us expect such blessings, not to ourselves only, but to others, -- in the assurance that as He gave it at the first, He will, though now He seems to take it from us, give it back again. Faith therefore shrinks not even here, but binds its own fruit, and gives it back to God, accounting that He, who can raise up the dead, will restore the precious life which He first quickened out of our barrenness.
To do this, Abraham leaves his servants and the ass (Gen. 22:5), even as faith, when it is tried, leaves behind it all those thoughts, which, like the servants, by their presence, might oppose the sacrifice. (Note: Chrysostom thus comments on this: -- "Suffer not aught of worldly thoughts to occupy thy soul then. Bethink thee that Abraham also, when offering this sacrifice, suffered nor wife, nor servant, nor any other to be present. Neither then do thou suffer any of thy slavish and ignoble passions to be present with thee; but go up alone into the mountain where he went up; and should any such thoughts attempt to go up with thee, command them with authority, and say, 'Sit ye here, and I and the lad will worship and return to you.' And leaving the ass and the servants below, and whatever is void of reason and sense, go up, taking with thee what is reasonable," &c. Hom. v. on 2 Cor. 2:17, p. 74 of the Oxford Translation.) Thus it travels on to Mount Moriah, that is to ground chosen of God, (Note: Moriah means "chosen of God." Heb. moriyah [H4179], a contraction for mareh yahh [H4758 H3050]. It was in after times the site of the temple. 2 Chron. 3:1.) for faith dares not choose its own crosses, or where or when it will endure suffering. But if in the journey of life trial is appointed, so grievous as to threaten to crush that inward life which is so precious to us, -- be the trial what it may, pain, contempt, or misrepresentation, or, what is far more trying to the elect, confusion of soul, inward distraction, desolation, darkness, -- whatever it be, if it be God-appointed, let us go onward, the spirit of sonship shall not perish. But let us take heed that we are not on self-chosen ground. Self-chosen penances, self-inflicted pains, are not the sacrifice faith offers upon Mount Moriah; rather do they savour of horrid Moloch, to whom even Solomon may bow, but whose worship is abomination. Great as those sacrifices may seem which are imposed by self-will, much more precious are those which God calls us to. One day in which we yield our will to Him is of more value than years of toiling self-will. Such yieldings of our will are safe. The life which has sprung from faith cannot perish thus.
For Isaac does not perish here. Being lifted up, he is, as Paul says, "received back again" (Gen. 22:12; Heb. 11:19). The spirit of sonship does not die: having been bound upon the altar, it is brought back again, as from the dead, with greatly increased blessedness. This is that inward death and resurrection, which all who possess the spirit of sonship must know in due time; to be offered up, and yet to live; to lose our life, and yet to keep it. Thus are we crucified with Christ, nevertheless we live, yet not we, but Christ liveth in us. We bear about in the body the dying of the Lord, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal bodies. We come back to walk awhile with them who tarry with the ass, and have never reached to Mount Moriah, in the knowledge of that, of which those who have so tarried may indeed hear, and even speak about, but have never realised; as men who have endured a real death, and who by it have learned to judge all things here in the light of heaven.
Isaac, though offered, does not die; but something does die there on Mount Moriah. A ram is caught and offered there, and Abraham calls the name of the place Jehovah Jireh (Gen. 22:13, 14). These beasts figure, as we have already seen, the different animal faculties and powers, which are implanted in the creature; against some of which the inward man has to fight, while others may be in measure tamed and made subservient; either, as the ass, to bear the man upon his way, or, as the ox or lamb, to pour out their blood in sacrifice. Of those whose blood is accepted of God, there are some which at times we find it hard to capture. Many a mere animal desire, which we would fain catch and bind, escapes us, even though we pursue it, till, having laid our Isaac on the altar of the Lord, the animal hitherto uncaught is suddenly placed within our reach. Then is it caught and bound by faith; then is it slain, and with joy we say, Jehovah Jireh. "In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen." Now we know that the sacrifice of our Isaac shall not destroy this meek life. What is animal only dies. The man, God's image in us, is not only unhurt, but receives yet more blessing.
And what blessing! "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17). For "the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the sea-shore, and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies" (Gen. 22:15-17). Oh, what a gate there is within, held long by our adversary! But the seed of faith shall henceforth keep it, and the enemy be driven out. "And in thy seed shall all nations be blessed." The whole creature shall be a gainer by Isaac's sacrifice. His birth brought blessing to the Philistines' land. His offering shall be felt even beyond Jordan. For the promise is that many far off shall be blessed in him; and lo! at once others are fruitful and blessed in him. So we read, "It came to pass that after these things it was told Abraham, Behold, Milcah, she also hath borne children to thy brother Nahor" (Gen. 22:20-24). I do not doubt that this increase of Nahor's line is recorded here as the commencing fulfillment of the Lord's promise. For I know that faith cannot offer thus without great blessing coming through it on the other and lower faculties of the regenerate soul. Not even the beasts shall be barren, for God hath said, "If ye hearken to these judgments, there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle" (Deut. 7:14; Exod. 23:26). The inward life shall radiate to that which is without, and even the outward man be a gainer through the grace of the spirit.
Such is the scene within. The other fulfilments of it are well known. In the outward kingdom of the visible Church, the sons of God have laid down their lives, not to perish, but to live a higher life. Not only have God's sons lived in spite of sacrifice, but great fruit has thence been found, even among those who before this were barren and scarcely knew God. Need I trace the same act in a higher sphere as fulfilled in Him, who above all others was the well-beloved Son. (Note: This view of Isaac's sacrifice is common to nearly all the Fathers. Augustine continually alludes to it - Contra Maximin. Arian. l. ii. c. 26, § 7, and De Civit. l. xvi. c. 32. So too Tertullian, Adv. Jud. c. 11; Origen, Hom. viii. in Gen.; Ambrose, De Abr. l. i. c. 8, § 71 and 72; and others.) This view, as indeed the dispensational fulfilment throughout all Genesis, leads us to considerations full of deepest mystery, when we see that God Himself has sacrificed, and that not a mere creature, but His Only-begotten Son. How the sacrifice of Christ in us, when we reach to know the spirit of sonship and its offering, is but the reflection and result of the same thing in God, -- how the path of saints is therefore God's own path, and their ways a feeble shadow of His ways, -- how every good thing in us is but His work, who, being the living and unchanging God, repeats His ways and works of love on every platform, and who, because He is love, cannot but sacrifice, for love involves sacrifice in its very nature, and God is love, -- in a word, how the patriarchal lives, figuring the divine life in man, figure the life of God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, -- may be seen in the sanctuary, but cannot well be spoken of in an evil world and by such poor tongues as ours. Blessed be His glorious name for ever. We can at least fall down and adore Him for His unutterable love, assured that the whole earth shall be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen.
And may He give unto us to know yet more the power of Christ's resurrection through fellowship of His sufferings. Then shall these things be seen in us also. The world indeed will not know us, "for it knew Him not;" yet shall it be blessed and made fruitful by our sacrifice. Like the sun, then, far greater than we seem to men, let us shine on, though others here, deceived in us as in the light of heaven, know not our true greatness.
III. -- SARAH'S DEATH AND ISAAC'S UNION WITH REBEKAH
Chapters 23 and 24
THE stage now reached, though fulfilled in the inward life of all in whom the spirit of sonship has been offered as a sacrifice, is one hard to describe, partly because of our very imperfect apprehension of what is wrought within, but more because we lack words to express even what we see and feel of these mysteries. Even in the outward world every day we are discovering our need of new words to describe what we apprehend of its powers and agencies, and are slowly labelling as best we can its phenomena, of which after all we know next to nothing. In our outward birth and growth too there are countless things, not only unknown, but unspeakable. How much more, therefore, must we expect to find ourselves unable to describe what is done in the inward world and in the development of the spiritual man. For we want not only heavenly eyes and ears, but a heavenly language for heavenly facts. Nevertheless some things may be said "in part," respecting the fact so fully figured here; for "we know in part, and prophesy in part;" but even this part will shew some of the depths and lengths of the work of our sanctification.
To trace it then within. We have here the death of one woman and the introduction of another into the elect house. Sarah dies, and Rebekah is sought and brought into Sarah's tent, and becomes Isaac's wife (Gen. 23:2; 24:67). Men are always certain minds: the women, the affections, more vaguely the principles, with which they are allied; (Note: To avoid repetition, I refer to what has been already said respecting the typical force of "the woman." I feel how much our present imperfect terminology hinders the exact expression of the full meaning here.) for our principles are what our affections are; hence we are not wrong, as we see in Hagar and Sarah, in saying that the women figure certain truths. Now Isaac is the spirit of sonship in us: Rebekah, that affection or principle by embracing which this spirit in us becomes fruitful. This scene therefore represents those experiences and exercises of soul which precede and lead to the union of the spirit of sonship with that inward affection or principle of truth by which it bears fruit. The figure here perhaps will be best expressed, if in these brief and imperfect notes I speak of the women simply as certain truths. Truth comes successively or by degrees; in forms, and in successive forms, suited to the form of that elect spirit to which it is to be united. Thus new principles, or rather fresh forms embodying the same principles, are taken into union by the various forms of the elect spirit, at the successive stages of its development. The form of truth answers to the spirit which receives it; and thus truth substantially the same continually puts on fresh appearances. Truth cannot differ from itself; but as the same elect spirit at different stages takes different forms, so the truth which is embraced by that elect at different stages is seen in different forms also. It dies out in one form and lives in another, and yet all the forms may live to God. For as He is the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and not the God of the dead, but of the living, so is He the God of Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel also, for all in spirit live to Him. Sarah's outward form may die, and as an outward form the truth she figures may die also, but death only gives to the spirit greater liberty, so that her death sets forth the greater spiritualising, even through the destruction of its outward form, of that truth or affection which she represents. (Note: Gregory the Great alludes to this -- Moral. in Job, l. vi. c. 37, § 56.) And then another form of truth is found, suited to the advancing development of the elect spirit, that is, to Isaac. And thus the elect who as the spirit of faith is joined to truth under the Sarah form, when Abraham is old, when faith is matured, at the next stage as the spirit of sonship is united to Rebekah, not another truth, but another form of it.
In this scene we are shewn how this truth is brought into union with that spirit which is already waiting for it. It is not done without much inward exercise. For every truth is at first more in connection with the natural than with the spiritual man; just as Rebekah was in Laban's house in Mesopotamia, midway between the Tigris and Euphrates. Thus at first each truth is in the memory, in the land between Euphrates and Tigris, that is, between the channels of reasoning and of testimony; (Note: Respecting these rivers, see on chap. 2 above.) and while there it dwells in Laban's house, in the sphere of our outward and natural man. Here it cannot be fruitful with Isaac. Truth therefore needs to be carried hence, and conveyed more towards the interior or inward spiritual man; where, united to the true life in us, it may become fruitful and produce fresh forms of life. All that hinders this, -- how Laban strives to prevent Rebekah's departure out of Mesopotamia, -- how the outward man in various ways holds truths, and would hinder their passing from the sphere of the outward into that of the inward man, -- cannot be told, though it is fulfilled every day. The spiritual man may discern within him something of the process; but words are wanting to tell it aright, and not less hearers who could profit by it.
I therefore turn to trace this scene, as it is fulfilled on the wider platform of an age or dispensation. The work is one; but some will see it without, whose eyes are not opened to understand it as it is fulfilled within them.
In this view Isaac is that Son who was born contrary to nature, and mocked, and offered up: who yet was brought back as from the dead, at whose coming the bond-maid's seed were cast out, and a covenant of peace made with the Gentiles. This is the Heir for whom the Bride is sought by Abraham's servant out of a far country.
In this servant who is sent to seek the Bride, we have the figure of the faithful ministers of the house of faith. (Note: This outward fulfilment is much enlarged on by the Fathers. Gregory the Great, Apud Paterium, super Gen. l. i. c. 53. So too Origen at great length, Hom. x. in Gen. So Augustine, Serm. de Temp. 75. (al. App. 8.)) His commission is to go into that land whence Abraham had been called, and thence to bring a bride. This is one end of service here, not only to serve within the house of faith, but at the Master's command to go down among those who are afar off, to gain some of then. But the servant doubts and declares his fears, -- "Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me" (Gen. 24:5); even as faithful servants yet at times will question whether their service will effect anything. To which the Master answers again foretelling both the company His servants shall have on their journey, and the result also, saying, "The Lord God of heaven, even He shall send His angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my Son from thence;" and then, lest the servant shrink from the responsibility, bidding him only to go and deliver his message; -- "then shalt thou be clear." And surely many a servant's heart might fail, did he not know that obedience, not success, is that for which the Master holds him answerable.
The servant's equipment is then described. "He took ten camels of his master, and of all the goods of his master in his hand he took something" (Gen. 24:10). (Note: I follow the rendering of the LXX. and Vulgate here, which seems to be the most correct. See Greg. M. apud Pater. in Gen. l. i. c. 53.) He does not start unprovided with means, or lacking precious credentials to witness of his master's wealth; nor does he take the jewels of the house of faith alone, but rough things also, suited to the desert land through which he is to pass, to bear these good things safely. These camels within, as we have seen, figure certain animal powers or emotions; outwardly, therefore, they are that form which is the expression of these emotions; just as the bride, who within represents certain principles, outwardly is that form which embodies these principles, that is, the Church. Thus do faithful servants yet go forth, taking of the things of Christ, to shew them to those who are afar off; content to use rough means, like the unclean camels here, to come to those, who, because they are yet in outward things, could not be reached otherwise. (Note: The camel was one of the "unclean" beasts. Lev. 11:4. Gregory the Great goes at length into the import of this, Moral. in Job, l. i. c. 28, § 40.) Some vain servants will not use camels, shewing that they are not wise, even if they are faithful; for without these they do not reach outward men; unlike to Abraham's servant here, unlike to Paul, who was "all things to all men to gain some of them" (1 Cor. 9:20-23), who used all he had, rough things as well as smooth, sometimes speaking "as a fool" (1 Cor. 3:3; 2 Cor. 11:21, 23), and sometimes spiritually, because he really yearned for souls, and was full of true knowledge of the love of the Master's heart. To him "nothing was common or unclean" (Acts 10:15, 28); for "to the pure all things are pure" (Titus 1:15, 16).
Thus equipped, the servant goes to that land, between Tigris and Euphrates, whence the elect had come forth. We read that "he arose and went," -- brief words, marking the zeal and promptness of his obedience. Then, having reached the city of Nahor, he prepares to fulfil his work and deliver the message, with which he is entrusted. First he prays: -- "And he said, O Lord God of my master, I pray Thee send me good speed to-day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham" (Gen. 24:12). Whilst he is praying, one comes out of the city to the place where he is standing. To her he speaks words, on which he has already asked God's blessing. Then finding such a response from the damsel as he had asked for, he again worships, bowing his head, and blessing his master's God. Then, when he comes to the house of the desired bride, he will not eat till he tells his tale: -- "There was set meat before him, but he said, I will not eat, till I have told my errand." So he opens his mouth, and tells of his master, his glory and greatness, and how he seeks a wife out of this distant land (Gen. 24:33-49). Who cannot see true service here, beginning with prayer, not for its own so much as for its master's sake, that kindness may be shewn to the absent lord, and not resting till its work is done, and it has uttered something of all his glory; how "He is become great, and has flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and men-servants, and maid-servants, and camels, and asses." Thus of old did faithful servants toil, and verily blessed are such servants.
And now to look at the Bride who is thus sought. She is one of Abraham's natural kindred, not a Canaanite, but of the same family as Isaac has sprung from; only that she is yet in Mesopotamia, and he in the land beyond Jordan (Gen. 24:3, 4). Further, she is an "appointed" person. Twice is it repeated that the woman is not chosen of man, but "the one whom the Lord hath appointed out for his servant Isaac" (Gen. 24:14, 44).
All this is true of the true Bride elect. Is she not of the same family as Isaac, and also elect according to God's foreknowledge for Him? "Forasmuch as the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself took part of the same; for verily He took not on Him the nature of angels, but He took on Him the seed of Abraham" (Heb. 2:14, 16). And as such, He seeks His bride not from angels, the spirits beyond Jordan, but from among the dwellers here. Though Himself brought nigh, He forgets not those far off; and out of them His bride is chosen for Him.
The servant finds her at a well (Gen. 24:13). It is while drawing water that she first hears of Isaac. So with many others. Jacob finds his bride, Moses also, by a well, where they had come to draw water (Gen. 29:2-10; Exod. 2:15, 16). Rebekah not only first hears of Isaac, she also first sees him, by a well, "by the well Lahai-roi" (Gen. 24:62). By no chance are the wives found by wells of water. By no chance did Christ "sit thus upon a well" (John 4:6). Surely if we have been "betrothed in righteousness" (Hos. 2:19), it was by wells of water that the Lord's servant met us. For "understanding is a well of life to him that hath it" (Prov. 16:22), and what are means of grace but wells also. We may indeed sit by these wells in vain. Like mocking Ishmael, we may lie close beside them, and yet see no water. But the soul which daily comes to draw, which comes empty, saying, "My soul is athirst," and is exercised to draw and carry home a full vessel, which desires unasked to make others around who seem in need partakers of the same, and freely gives it them, -- such a one, like Rebekah, will find by the waters a guide to lead her to purer and better lands; while those who draw not will scarcely meet him who comes to tell of a lord who waits to receive a stranger.
And indeed it is by her use of this well, that the servant recognises the person whom he is in search of. For the mark, by which he was to know the bride elect, was, that when he asked for drink, she should give it, and then shew her interest in him by caring for his camels (Gen. 24:14, 18, 19). (Note: Greg. M. apud Pater. in Gen. l. i. c. 53.) True servants, even as their Lord, who said, "Give me to drink" (John 4:7, 10), like Him, asking something only to give back better things, yet appear at first to come to ask more than to give. We do not see when first they speak that they are givers. But souls who will respond to the claim of love made on them, and are prompt in their attention to the rough and outward things of Abraham's servant, (for all are busy with the "camels" before they see the "jewels,") shall ere long see the ear-rings and bracelets also, and be decked, though yet in the far country, with some of the precious things of Abraham's house.
So we read, "Then the man took a golden ear-ring, and two bracelets, and he put the ear-ring on her face, and the bracelets on her hands" (Gen. 24:22, 47). What are these but the precious things of faith, "more precious than of gold which perisheth," brighter than outward pearls or costly array, "the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is of great price" (1 Pet. 1:7; 3:4). And this is "put upon the hands," as well as "in the ears." True ministry does not leave the hands of the elect without some fit ornament. Not content only to fill the ears, it seeks to occupy the hands also with something not less valuable. (Note: Ambros. de Abr. l. i. c. 9, § 89. So too Greg. M. ubi supra.) At this stage the bride receives but one ear-ring and two bracelets. After this, when the damsel is already given to him, the servant puts, not one jewel only, but many "precious things of silver and of gold and of fine raiment" upon her (Gen. 24:53). For there is growth in grace, and "to him that hath shall be given," and she that hath received an ear-ring by the well shall, if she will follow towards Canaan, receive yet more an hundredfold.
This done, she is led to confess who she is. When Isaac's jewels are on her, she says, "I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, which she bare unto Nahor" (Gen. 24:24). Not before she is adorned does she utter this. So now. A confession there must be from us, -- the servant looks for it, -- that the bride acknowledge she is one of a fallen people, from whom the seed for God has been separated. But this is not drawn from her until she has received pledges that she is an object of love, and possesses earnests of that to which she is appointed.
After which she declares that she and her house are able and willing to receive the messenger. He said, "Tell me, I pray thee, is there room for us? And she said, We have room enough for thee to lodge in" (Gen. 24:23, 25). (Note: Greg. M. ubi supra.) How many, if questioned, "Is there room enough?" must confess, if they spake truly, "We have no room; my father's house, the outward man, is filled up with other things." Like that church at whose door the Master stands, which, thinking itself rich and increased with goods, cares not to open to Him, how many, filled up with self, have no room to receive Him who seeks to lead them heavenward. Not so the soul which has Isaac's bracelets upon her. She has received the gift; she cannot reject him by whom the gift has come.
Then "she runs and tells them of her mother's house, saying, Thus and thus spake the man unto me" (Gen. 24:28, 30). Not content to have received some good thing herself, she tells others, nay, she "runs" to tell them. Those who have received of the Lord's good things cannot keep silence. They must run and tell others among whom they dwell the good tidings. There may indeed be a speaking about the Lord without grace. Not only are there hearers, but talkers also, who are not doers. But where the heart is full, it must unburden itself, and make others partakers with it, "for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."
And now the bride is yet more adorned, not as at first with a single ear-ring or a single bracelet for each hand. Now the servant puts much more on her, "jewels of silver and gold," and (what has not yet been mentioned) "fine raiment" also (Gen. 24:53). "To her was granted to be arrayed in fine linen; for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints" (Rev. 19:8). So again it is said, "Hearken, O daughter, and consider; forget also thine own people and thy father's house: so shall the King greatly desire thy beauty; for He is thy Lord, and worship thou Him. She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needle-work; the virgins, her companions that follow her, shall be brought unto thee" (Psalm 45:10, 11, 14). Raiment, as being that which first meets the eye, and also a sign of our station and employments, represents our habits here. Indeed "habit" is but dress. Here the dress is one marked by great costliness, -- "clothing of gold, with raiment of needle-work." And the "fine linen" yet is "raiment of needle-work," wrought "on both sides," with countless stitches, each in itself almost invisible, by which, stitch on stitch, the work is wrought out, until it displays that pattern which pleases the master's eye. This now is put upon the bride, while "her brother and mother also receive precious things," (Note: Greg. M. ubi supra.) for the world too profit by the Church's call, though they will not leave their Mesopotamia to find a better land.
One thing yet remains to be done. The bride must leave her kindred and father's house. The servant came, not to make his home there, but to take some from that far country to share in Isaac's lot. But the bride has friends who would delay her going, saying, "Let her abide with us, at least a few days," -- brothers, who, though they welcomed the messenger, would yet keep him in that land where they will continue to live, and where they die" (Gen. 24:54-58). But the servant cannot stay. Then they say, "We will call the damsel, and inquire at her mouth. And they said unto her, Wilt thou go with this man? And she said, I will go." By the well she could not have said all this. She did not say it even when the first jewels were put upon her. But now she has heard of the glory of her lord, and that he waits for her, and, spite of flesh and blood and its hindrances, she says, "I will go."
Nor are these vain words. "She arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels," -- for she too must use a camel yet, though she shall surely "light off it when she beholds Isaac" (Gen. 24:61, 64). Thus "she followed the man." But the rough things which bear her shall soon be changed for the heart of Isaac and the secret of his tabernacle. O blessed day! Then indeed all the tears, and sufferings, and labours, which must be travelled through, shall seem as a dream, not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. O Lord, Thou hast called us to this end. Keep us as Thine own, unspotted from the world, till we are for ever with Thee. Amen.
IV. -- KETURAH, AND ISAAC AT LAHAI-ROI
AT this point Abraham takes another wife. Here, as throughout, every fact and word presents the exactest figure of that which is wrought within at this stage of man's development. But before we come to this, let us recall one peculiarity of that development.
I allude to this, that as our inward life changes its form at every fresh stage, -- from Adam to Abel, then from Seth to Noah, then to Abraham, and from him to Isaac and other sons, -- so the truth embraced at each successive stage differs in form according to the varying form of the elect spirit which embraces it. Sarah is Abraham's wife; in other words, the spirit of faith lays hold of truth under the Sarah form, that is, the promise; but the spirit of sonship loves another form of the same, as we read, "Isaac took Rebekah, and brought her into Sarah's tent, and she became his wife, and he loved her" (Gen 24:67). (Note: See above what has been said on this subject, on chap. 23.)
But there is more than this; for faith not only embraces truth under a form somewhat different from that which the spirit of sonship apprehends; but the spirit of faith itself, as it fulfils its course, lays hold of several different principles. Isaac has but one wife; as in us the spirit of sonship never embraces any but the one true principle of the New Covenant. But Abraham and Jacob each have more. For faith at first takes law, hoping thereby to be fruitful in its own strength; (Note: See above, on chap. 16.) while Jacob or service, as we shall see, though wishing only to have the spiritual, finds that it has unintentionally embraced that which is first and natural. (Note: See below, on chap. 29.)
The stage we now have reached is marked by Abraham taking another wife. We read, "Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah; and she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah" (Gen. 25:1, 2). Now, after Sarah's death, that is, after the form in which we have first embraced the New Covenant as a form is dead, for it yet lives in spirit; -- when we see that forms of truth, even the best, are given to serve us for a season, and then as forms to pass away; -- when this is not only believed but known, and a new form of truth, suited to the growing spirit of sonship, is found and loved by it; -- at this point Abraham takes another wife: that spirit of faith, so long without fruit, which in its haste tried law, and "when as good as dead" begot the seed of promise out of the barren free-woman, now takes another form of truth, by which it rapidly produces many sons. The question is, What form of truth? What principle is it that Keturah represents?
Now, though we have not an Apostle's word to tell us, as in the case of Hagar and Sarah, the spiritual import of this third wife, we have or may have, if we will wait, that same Teacher, even the Spirit, which was in saints of old; for the Light of their light remains undimmed, nearer to us than its most faithful witnesses, soon to shine, (Is not the morn already breaking?) not upon a few, but over the whole earth. Of course, if a soul though elect has reached only to the Noah stage, this scene will not be understood. Even though Abram lives in us, if we are only now leaving Ur of the Chaldees, -- if Terah is with us, -- if the bond-maid is not gone, -- nay more, if Sarah yet is in the flesh, -- Keturah cannot be known, for she only comes when Sarah as an outward form has passed away. But if this is done, then Keturah will come; and indeed has come in thousands who are fruitful by her in spirit, though in their understanding they do not know her name.
For Keturah is that practical truth, which, neither law nor promise, neither bond-maid nor free-woman, succeeds to both at this stage of faith's life, when the truth which Sarah represents has passed from an outward form into a higher state. St. Paul's epistles are full of Keturah. All those exhortations which are not mere law, and which as clearly are not the promise, though they are meant to follow it, are this third wife, given to be embraced by those in whom Sarah or the New Covenant has already borne fruit. But this sort of truth does not attract the believer, until Sarah passes into a higher sphere. Then we take Keturah to wife. She is, as her name imports, a "savour of a sweet smell." (Note: Heb. qeturah [H6989], incense. Compare this with what St. Paul says of practical truth, Phil. 4:18, and Heb. 13:16. Origen, having argued that some mystery must be hid under this union of Abraham with Keturah, -- first, from the fact, that he who was "as good as dead" in his hundredth year, now at a hundred and thirty-seven begets many sons; secondly, from the analogy of the other two wives, both of whom, according to St. Paul, were certain principles; thirdly, because he who marries truth, though it may die out in one form, will always hold it in another; in which sort of marriage the older we are the more fruit we may bear, as Abraham here did, -- then defines what principles Keturah represents. -- Hom. xi. in Gen.) And her fruits are sweet to God and man, though, like Midian, they may soon be corrupted and even oppose the chosen line. How many lovely fruits have there been borne, the offspring of faith, and that not by law, but by the precious truth which Keturah represents, -- fruits of ascetic life, which have proved in the event to be prejudicial, or at least opposed, to the highest inward life. Indeed the word "ascetic" means in itself simply practical. (Note: Grk., asketikos.) Its conventional sense declares the common end of such efforts, answering exactly to the course and destiny of Keturah's sons. (Note: See Numb. 25:16, 17, and Judges 6:1, 2, for examples of the way in which Midian, one of Keturah's sons, may injure and oppress the elect seed.) Such fruits, sweet as they are, one and all are liable to rapid deterioration. They possess indeed some of the good things of faith (Gen. 25:6), but from the first they are distinguished by faith from the spirit of sonship, which is the true heir. Isaac is not Keturah's son. Sonship is not of law, nor of that practical truth, which, though not law, is somewhat akin to it. Sonship will no more come of these than figs will grow from slips of myrtle, or vines from planting acorns. Yet Keturah's sons, like oaks and myrtles, are lovely too, and, pleasant in their season, though they cannot inherit all Abraham's good things.
"Then Abraham gave up the ghost and died" (Gen. 25:8). The spirit of faith, like that truth which it has so long been united to, now passes away as an outward form from forms, to live as a spirit with God who is a Spirit. Isaac now succeeds to Abraham's place. The form, in which the elect life henceforth shews itself, is not faith so much as understanding, for the spirit of sonship is also a spirit of understanding. He, in whom it lives, not only believes, but to faith has added knowledge and intelligence, even "the mind of Christ." For when Isaac is come, we are no more under the schoolmaster, as servants or children not knowing a father's will; but as sons, and because we are sons, are led in the spirit of sonship into all knowledge and spiritual understanding, even to the full assurance of understanding in the acknowledgment of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ (Col. 2:2). Up to this point, though the spirit of sonship has come, it has been comparatively feeble, and faith has been the ruling life. But now faith is no more in the flesh, but is changed from an earthly form into a spirit. Isaac therefore takes Abraham's place; that is, faith is succeeded in our souls by spiritual understanding, which like Isaac inherits all Abraham's wealth, and is his heir, possessing all the riches of true faith (Gen. 25:5). I feel how little words can express the spiritual reality represented here. Those only who know the blessed fact within will be able really to see the force of Abraham's death and Isaac's succession to all his goods; faith now lost in sight, while in its place the spirit of understanding, which is the spirit of sonship, inherits the things of faith. (Note: Saints of old spoke much of this. They may seem at times to have drawn the line too widely between pistis [G4102] and gnosis [G1108], and pistikos and gnostikos; but there is important truth in the distinction. That we know so little of faith changing to knowledge, shews where we are. See John 8:31, 32, where our Lord promises to "those who believed on Him," that "if they would continue in His word, they should know the truth, and the truth should make them free." Compare also St. Paul's faith in Christ dead and risen again, 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, with his longing desire "to know Him, and the power of His resurrection," Phil. 3:10; and his prayer for those of whose "faith he had heard," that "the Father of glory would give them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him," &c. Eph. 1:15, 17, 18. See also 1 Cor. 2:5, 6. Those who wish to consult the Fathers will find some striking thoughts on this subject, Clem. Alex. Strom. l. vi. c. 9, and l. vii. c. 10, and Origen. in Job, t. xix. pp. 263, 264. Ed. Huet.)
Soon Isaac has even more. "It came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac." If we ask, How? we are told only this, that "he dwelt by the well Lahai-roi" (Gen. 25:11): this was his blessing. And this is a blessing yet. To us few blessings would be greater than a spiritual dwelling by this same living well. Lahai-roi means "the life of vision." (Note: So Gesenius and others translate the name. The LXX. render it to phrear tes horaseos, "the well of vision." I may add that, in Gen. 16:13, 14, where the name first occurs, the true translation in verse 13 seems to be, -- "Have I even seen, (i.e. have I my sight preserved,) after my vision?" Therefore the well was called Beer-Lahai-roi, "the well of the life of vision;" because here life was preserved after seeing the angel of the Lord.) It was the place where life and vision were preserved after the angel of the Lord had spoken and revealed himself. It figures that depth of the word, into which we drink, when "the well of the living and seeing," that is the spiritual sense, is really opened to us. (Note: Greg. M. apud Paterium, l. i. supr. Gen. c. 53; Orig. Hom. xi. in Gen.) Nature cares not to drink of such a spring. The waters are too deep for the carnal, who, if they see them, only wonder and pass on. But Isaac loves the well. In his eyes it is not his least blessing, that he may dwell and drink here. Blessed it is, like Abraham, to dwell at Bethel and Hebron, by faith to rest in worship and happy fellowship. Blessed is it to see Salem and her king; in peace to eat the holy bread and wine. Blessed is it to know Beer-sheba, the well of the oath; to drink the refreshing streams which the word of the covenant makes to flow around us. But more blessed far is Beer-Lahai-roi, the well of the life of vision, where we learn to live among and see unseen things. None dwell here but the pure in heart. None else see God, or the hidden things of God. Others will see the world, or themselves, or their own or others' sins, or even certain doctrines. But the "pure in heart see God" (Matt. 5:8); and there, beholding His glory, are changed step by step into His image, to see as He sees things which eye hath not seen, even the things which the Spirit reveals to them who walk with God. O Lord, give unto me thus to dwell at Lahai-roi; to know yet more and more of this blessed life of vision; not only to visit the well, and depart, but, like Isaac, to abide and learn there, until in Thy presence, still blessed in Thee, this "life of vision" shall be mine for evermore.
Such is this scene within. Like all the rest it has its fulfilments in the outward world, and in the dispensations also.
Outwardly, Abraham here represents men of faith, now matured and richly blessed: Keturah's sons, those children of faith whose spiritual life has sprung out of the affection of practical truth, rather than out of either law or promise. Such souls, the distinctive mark of whose life is a peculiar reverence for religious practices tending to asceticism, will in the next generation shew marks of deterioration, in a greater zeal for what is outward than for what is truly spiritual; and become, like Midian, snares to Israel (Numb. 25:17, 18), though a Moses may find a wife there (Exod. 2:15, 16, 21), and a Jethro of this seed be "for eyes" to the elect, when they come into the wilderness (Exod. 18:1, 24; Numb. 10:29-32). But they are not the chosen heirs. Sarah's sons, the children of promise, are the seed which shall inherit all things.
In the dispensations also this scene is fulfilled. When Sarah, that is, the Gospel dispensation, has, even as Hagar or law, run its full course; when the marriage of the Bride is come; then appears not only one seed or son in Abraham's house, but many seeds. So shall it be when the Son obtains His rights; when faith is changed to sight, and the children of the promise are blessed, and know the life of vision; while others, born after the marriage of the Bride, are witnesses that in Abraham all nations shall be blessed. Then not only shall the favoured "vine and fig-tree" be glad, but "the field shall be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord;" (though the vine still differ from the oak, and the fig and olive from the pine-tree;) "for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth" (Psalm 96:12, 13).
When that day dawns, may we be with that Son, whom the Father hath appointed Heir of all things, to share His joys, blessed not only by Him, but with Him, drinking of the water of life, "the life of vision," for ever. Amen.
V. -- THE TRIALS OF ISAAC RESPECTING SEED
THE stage now reached is one of high blessing. Abraham no longer lives in earthly form. Faith henceforward is no more in the flesh, but is changed from an outward form into a spirit which sees God; while Isaac takes Abraham's place: that is, faith is succeeded in our souls by spiritual understanding, which, like Isaac, dwells at Lahai-roi, and is Abraham's heir, possessing all the riches of true faith. Yet even here the elect must still be tried. He desires fruit, but for long years Rebekah is barren (Gen. 25:21). Infinite love ordains it thus for good. With such rich gifts the soul requires some check to keep it healthy. Thus delays, which try our patience, are needful for us, as the shade and cool of evening, which seems to stay their growth, is needful to the plants as much as warmth and sunshine. Such delays are really rests; for unbroken joy, like constant sunshine, would parch the spirit; while in these rests our God and Father teaches His elect their own insufficiency, and that all their fresh springs are in Him alone.
The trial here then is again respecting fruit, and it touches Isaac both directly and indirectly. At the very time he is lamenting his own barrenness, Ishmael, the seed of Hagar, is seen to increase rapidly. Thus there is grief, first, from the elect's own weakness, and then, from the rapid growth of the carnal seed; to find the fruit of the spirit so late in manifesting itself, and the fruit of the flesh so early, strong, and numerous.
The spread of Ishmael's seed comes first; that carnal spirit, which springs from the union of faith with law within us, begets many forms of life. "These are the generations of Ishmael, whom Hagar, Sarah's handmaid, bare unto Abraham: these are their names, according to their generations; Nebajoth, and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, and Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah, twelve princes according to their nations" (Gen. 25:13-16). Thus spreads the carnal seed. The elect, the spirit of sonship and understanding in us, may be at Lahai-roi. Grace may have bestowed a well of vision. Instead of naked Adam, there may be the spirit which like Isaac has offered itself to God, which is beloved and blessed of Him. Yet all this checks not the growth of the flesh, and that even while the elect spirit in us is mourning its own barrenness. For the fleshly seed breaks forth as it will: it has "children at its desire" (Psalm 17:14); it "is not in trouble like other men, neither is it plagued like other men; therefore pride compasseth it as with a chain, violence covereth it as a garment" (Psalm 73:5, 6). The sons of God must often say, "My time is not yet, but your time is always ready" (John 7:6, 8): "we are weak, but ye are strong; we are despised, but ye are honourable" (1 Cor. 4:10). The flesh has no such delays. It brings forth its fruits of wrath and envy and emulation, even though the spirit dwells at Lahai-roi. And the very grace bestowed upon the inner man seems at times only to excite the flesh to greater activity and open opposition.
Meanwhile the spirit waits from year to year, sighing for, yet not seeing, the seed the Lord has promised it. Isaac is sorely tried. For twenty years Rebekah, the beloved of his heart, is "barren," and produces no fruit (Gen. 25:21). (Note: Compare Gen. 25:20, -- "Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife," with Gen. 25:26, -- "Isaac was threescore years old when she bare Esau and Jacob.") Then, having conceived, she feels two different lives, opposing each other within, even before they shew themselves. Thus barrenness first causes grief. That is removed. Then fruitfulness brings with it fresh disquietude. A cross there must be, to keep us low, and to shew the unfailing resources of God our Saviour.
Rebekah is spiritual truth. (Note: See on chap. 24.) Such truth should not only be a living and active principle in us, but should produce other forms of life. For this end is it given. Nevertheless, for years after sonship is mature in us, it brings forth no fruit. It rests in peace at Lahai-roi, but the new life of service, which it should produce, is not yet manifested. Nor does Isaac feel this at first. But Hagar's seed increase. Rebekah still has no child. Then he cries to the Lord for help, and is heard. "The Lord was entreated of him, and Rebekah conceived seed."
So is it yet. That form of truth, which the spirit of sonship has embraced as a living principle by which to be fruitful, lives within us for awhile before it bears fruit. But the elect still waits on God. Faith may try carnal means, may take a Hagar: the spirit of sonship cannot do so. It may be fruitless, but it will not embrace law. It is in itself a proof of God's almighty power. To Him therefore it cries for strength, and Rebekah is no more barren; in God's strength she bears fruit.
But this fruitfulness has its pains also. Rebekah no sooner conceives, than she is sorely disquieted. "The children struggled within her, and she said, If it be so, why am I thus?" (Gen. 25:22). And so the truth which the spirit loves, when at length it labours to bring forth another life, is felt to contain two distinct elements. Till it conceives, we do not perceive this. Nevertheless, it is so. We say of that truth which Rebekah figures, that it is spiritual; and so it is. But we are deceived if we think that therefore, as apprehended by us, it is unmixed and wholly free from outward things. Our understanding can only possess forms of truth, and to these certain fallacies connected with the senses invariably connect themselves. Hence, when at this stage the spirit in us by the truth has begotten a new life, the inherent difference of the elements which go to form the truth makes itself felt, even before these differing elements are distinctly developed into separate forms of outward life. At the faith stage this is not known. But now, when the spirit of understanding is come, it is first felt, and then its cause is understood. Happy should we be, could we bear only Jacobs; but formed as we are, if our principles are fruitful, the seed will to the end be diverse, and inward struggling must be the result.
Here then we learn the reason of that inward strife or conflict, which so often re-appears in the progress of the elect spirit. The Lord Himself teaches us why it must be; at the same time promising that the first and natural shall in the end give place to the spiritual: -- "Two nations are in thy womb, and two manners of people shall be separated from thy bowels, and the one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Thus even Isaac begets him whom God hateth, (Note: "Esau have I hated." -- Mal. 1:2, 3; Rom. 9:12, 13.) and thus, though sonship is come, do we feel the same old contest which was waged from the beginning, -- "the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things that we would;" and this not from Hagar's seed alone, but even in the fruit of Isaac, the true and beloved heir. So it must be while we are in this tabernacle. A seed cast into the earth draws into union with its life the nature of the soil wherein it shoots forth. According to its soil the selfsame plant varies its hue and form. In it is both the vegetable life, and the life's clothing, which is of the earth earthy. So the wind, which breathes from the south, comes mixed with odours, testifying over what it has passed, and what it bears with it. So with the spiritual seed. The womb it grows in is of the earth. Hence with the heavenly in us the earthy grows also. We forget this, and therefore are troubled. But He, who hath loved us, "knoweth our frame, and remembereth that we are dust," and will work His pleasure in us spite of that flesh, the deformity of which His indwelling makes even more apparent. (Note: After alluding to the outward fulfilment of this scene, as one which needed no comment, Origen then gives the inward application. -- Orig. Hom. xii. in Gen. So too Augustin. in Psalm. cxxxvi. (E. V. 137,) § 18.)
Such is the scene within. In the world without, Rebekah is that body which is formed by the truth, that is, the true Church, whose barrenness oft-times afflicts God's sons, while Ishmael's seed, the children of law, increase and multiply. But the true Church is fruitful through prayer. Then comes fresh grief, to find in the same one mother a double and conflicting seed, who, like the chaff and the wheat, though from one root and stalk, are destined to a very different end, the one to be gathered safely into the garner, the other to be rejected and burnt up (Matt. 3:12). But the very nature of the Church, even as of truth, whilst upon earth, involves the presence of an outer as well as an inner element; and this, though we may not see it in the Church's constitution, (though it is there,) will surely come out and shew itself in her double seed. (Note: Augustine often refers to this outward fulfilment. See his comment on the words, "the fruit of the womb is His reward" in Psalm cxxvi. (E. V. 127,) 3. See also Serm. 4, Class. i. De Jac. et Esau; and Tract. xi. § 10, in Johan. iii. 3, 4.) What son of God has ever loved and preached the truth, without discovering ere long that from the self-same seed, within the same household of God, proceed two diverse families; one, akin to that part of the truth which is outward; the other, to that which is more inward and spiritual. Thus, in the one Church two seeds grow and strive, causing no little pain to their perplexed mother. If hereby she is led to the Lord, though perplexed, in His presence she is taught His purpose and learns to trust in Him.
VI. -- ISAAC'S TWOFOLD SEED, THE ELDER AND THE YOUNGER
TWO new forms of life now appear. Those minds, the legitimate fruit of the spirit of sonship in us, whose mutual opposition has been felt ere they were seen, now manifestly shew themselves. There is still a double seed, -- "two sons," -- "the elder and the younger," who shew through life their essential unlikeness to each other, until at last the younger overcomes. These "two" at each stage are always flesh and spirit: "that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural" (1 Cor. 15:46). But as we advance, and man is more and more developed, both flesh and spirit are apprehended and shew themselves in different forms. We have seen how man becomes regenerate man, and how regenerate man is developed into the man of faith, and again how the man of faith through many trials is developed into man possessing the spirit of sonship and understanding. So the flesh at each stage re-appears in some new form. Cain, Ishmael, and Esau, all are "that which is first and natural." But in Cain we have the fleshly mind as it grows out of Adam, that is, the mere natural man. Ishmael is the same carnal mind, as it springs, through intercourse with law, out of a true man of faith. Esau is this same flesh, as it grows out of one in whom the spirit of sonship lives and walks with God. So strong is this root in us, so quick stage after stage to shew itself, not only in that which is of the flesh, but in connection also with that which is elect and spiritual; a sad witness of the rock whence we are hewn, and the hole of the pit whence we are digged.
In Isaac's sons, then, we see the flesh and spirit, as they grow out of one in whom the spirit of sonship is the ruling life. Here we have the flesh at the best. Esau is in many respects lovely and lovable; outwardly, a great advance on Cain, yet at heart still carnal, sensual, devilish. Jacob on the other hand does not shew so well as some of the earlier forms of the elect life. For the spirit here is not the spirit of faith or sonship, but of service, instinctively "laying hold with its hands," to bring the natural man, or so much of it as it can win, into subjection to a higher life. In this attempt the spirit goes through much toil, which, though in its result it advances the elect, in the performance brings to light weaknesses which we have not seen hitherto. We do not at first know what may be brought, not out of our flesh only, but out of our spirits, by trying circumstances. But if we labour as Jacobs to see "the elder serve the younger," our attempts will open a page within, humbling indeed, but not less profitable.
These sons, the different forms of life, which at this stage of sonship are produced by the elect soul, are now manifested. They are thus described at their birth: -- "The first came out red, all over like a hairy garment, and they called his name Esau: and after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau's heel, and his name was called Jacob" (Gen. 25:24-26).
To look at the elder first. He was "red," or ruddy, as the word is rendered by our translators in the only two other places where we find it (1 Sam. 16:12; 17:42). (Note: Heb. admoniy [H132], from the same root as Edom. The LXX. translate it purrakes.) It describes natural health and strength, in contrast to that weakness out of which Abraham and all the elect are made strong. So fair is the flesh at this stage. Some think that the carnal mind, because "it profiteth nothing" (John 6:63), and "cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8), must therefore be without attractions, an unsightly deformed thing. In some forms it is vile indeed; but in others, and especially as Esau, it is for a season beautiful. But its beauty soon corrupts. Ere long Esau is Edom, that is, the red one (Gen. 25:30; 36:1, 8); his hue, like the "red horse," and "scarlet beast" (Rev. 6:4; 17:3), bespeaking that fierce life within, which will come out through all its coverings. Then we see that Edom is little else than Adam; slightly altered, but at bottom the same old man, which is of the earth, earthy. (Note: In the Hebrew, the difference between Edom and Adam, edom [H123] and adam [H121], is only in the vowel points, both names being most closely connected with adamah [H127], or earth.) Such is the flesh, at its best; fair at first, but degenerating as it grows, until it shews all its inbred violence.
Esau's other mark was "hair." He was "all over like a hairy garment" (Gen. 25:25). (Note: The name Esau is by some translated "hairy." See Gesenius on the word. Jerome however (Nom. Heb.) renders it by "operans," from another root.) This too figures grace and strength. The Lord, describing the growth and comeliness of Jerusalem, says, "Thy hair was grown" (Ezek. 16:7); while "well-set hair" is set in contrast to "baldness," as strength to weakness, and beauty to burning (Isa. 3:24). Esau has all this strength; but it avails as nothing in obtaining heavenly things. Therefore the priests at consecration had to "shave all their flesh" (Numb. 8:7). Therefore the leper, before he could be cleansed must "cut off all his hair, his beard, his eye-brows, even all his hair" (Lev. 14:8, 9). For, in consecration or cleansing, the strength of the flesh is to be put away, because, while that strength lasts, God cannot be fully known. Besides hair, from marking strength, if excessive, shews wildness; as the growth of Nebuchadnezzar's hair, until "it was like eagle's feathers," indicated his thorough brutality (Dan. 4:33). (Note: Greg. M. Moral. in Job. l. v. c. 33, § 59.) So does strength in the flesh tend, if it increase, to make us like to beasts, rough, brutal, wild, and unclean. The flesh, as Esau, becomes all this; so nearly akin is even its beauty to that which is wild and animal.
Of the younger less is said. We only read that "his hand took hold of Esau's heel," whence "his name was called Jacob" (Gen. 25:26). This name, in its very form and composition, figures that which Jacob represents, namely, the divine working in the natural, (Note: The word is formed from aqeb [H6119], the heel, (that part of Adam which was to be bruised, that is, his fleshly part,) with the addition of the letter yod, a letter, which, like he, in Hebrew is symbolic of the divine; as we see in its addition to the name Oshea, changing it to Jehoshua. -- Numb. 13:8, 16. This idea, of the divine working in the natural, is exactly that set forth in Jacob. See Augustine, Serm. iv. Class. i. § 28.) and his unconscious act reveals what Jacob is, as the hair and colour mark what Esau signifies. Jacob is that life which "takes hold with the hand," that is, the spirit of service, in contradistinction to the earlier forms of the elect spirit. This is the form which the spiritual mind assumes, when Isaac or sonship produces its legitimate fruit. Jacob is worker throughout, busy with his hand, not so much a life of faith or sonship as of untiring service; toiling to win and bring into subjection things which till now had been given up as altogether beyond the elect's reach. In all this much of earthly craft is seen; and Jacob, because of his haste, is lovingly disciplined, until he learns the folly of many of his schemes to bring about what God had promised. And yet throughout he is blessed in his work. First one and then another of the things once subject to Laban or the outward man are brought to serve Jacob. This of course is not seen yet. But the first act, the "laying hold with his hand," shews in what new form the younger or spiritual life is now to be manifested.
Such are these sons at birth. As they grow, their characteristic unlikeness yet more shews itself. Esau is "a cunning hunter, a man of the field;" Jacob, "a plain man, dwelling in tents" (Gen. 25:27). The one is the revival of the same wild life, which we have already known at an earlier stage and coarser form in Nimrod and Ishmael. The other continues that pilgrim life, which Abraham's tent and altar have so long exhibited. Their acts shew what each is, and place the real difference of these two minds in a light never to be forgotten.
For "Esau came from the field, and was faint; and he said unto Jacob, Feed me with that red pottage, for I am faint. And Jacob said, Sell me thy birth-right. And Esau said, Lo, I am at the point to die, and what profit shall this birth-right do me? So Esau sold his birth-right to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau food, even pottage of lentiles, and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birth-right" (Gen. 25:29-34). (Note: In the authorised version the 34th verse is rendered, "Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles." But the more correct translation seems to be that which I have given above, viz. "food, even pottage," &c. The same word, lechem [H3899], is used of the offerings, where they are called "the food of God," Lev. 21:17; and of "the tree with its fruit" or "with its food," in Jer. 11:19, eets balachmow.) These "lentiles" were the food of beasts more than of men; and the "famine" mentioned here (Gen. 26:1) may explain how Jacob came to be seething such pottage. It is elsewhere named as being used in a time of dearth, and there was "death in the pot," until the prophet healed it by casting in "fine flour" (2 Kings 4:38-41). For corn and wine, not lentiles, are the bread we should possess; as Isaac says, "With corn and wine have I sustained him" (Gen. 27:37). Not for such meat however, but for lentile pottage, fit rather for swine than men, Esau sells his inheritance. Whoever else may gain it, he cares not to keep it. And having done this, without one expression of regret, he "rises and goes his way," as if satisfied. Such is the flesh in every age. For a momentary gratification it will give up the hope of heavenly glory. Promises, because they tarry, are counted less than vanity, while the husks which the swine eat are esteemed a fit blessing.
Circumstances however as usual give the occasion for this: -- "Esau came from the field, and he was faint;" his pursuits there, though exciting, do not satisfy him. At such a moment the pottage is seen, and becomes through his emptiness the occasion of bringing out the true value he puts on spiritual things. So the flesh, spending its strength in worldly pursuits, following this or that natural emotion or creature faculty, till it is quite wearied, and feeling at times that the field thus used does not satisfy, instead of turning to cast itself upon a present God, too often by its very sense of emptiness is drawn to some passing bait, for which at such moments it will give up the birth-right. For spite of its excitements, nay, through them, the flesh is often faint, and feels that its field, if it is to afford solid satisfaction, needs the sower's seed and patient culture. Could it at such a time turn to the Lord, all would be well; but instead of this, the faintness is made the occasion for self to choose its own remedy. The result is the mess of pottage is seized, and the birth-right thus for ever lost to it.
But this, though the occasion, was not the cause. That lay far deeper: -- "Esau despised his birth-right" (Gen. 25:34). His own words betray him, -- "What profit shall this birth-right do me?" He says, "This birth-right," as Joseph's brethren, when they would mock him, say, -- "This dreamer cometh" (Gen. 37:19); or again as Israel, when they turned away from Moses, -- "As for this Moses, we know not what has become of him" (Exod. 32:1). It is not mere pressure of circumstances, but real contempt of the blessing, which in every age makes the flesh so ready to give up the hope of coming glory. Ignorant of God and the joy of His love, but loving the things of time and sense which this world offers, the flesh prefers the barley to the gem: no wonder therefore that it so lightly parts with what it does not value. Talk to the flesh of the "comfort of love," of "fellowship of spirit," of that "kingdom which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost," of "the inheritance which is reserved in heaven for us, incorruptible, undefiled, and which fadeth not away," -- such themes will touch no answering chord, or raise a single wish or aspiration? Rather it shrinks from such as from a burden, and turns to earth, to its dust and dross, or its morsels of meat such as the flesh loveth. In these is its heaven, in these it would rest, and eat and drink and go its way.
Still the flesh will have its excuse. Grovelling as it is, it cannot give up heaven without an attempt at self-justification. Like Esau it says, "I am at the point to die" (Gen. 25:32). I cannot live unless I act thus. I cannot exist on so vague a thing as the promise. I may be losing the birth-right, but of what use is it, if I cannot live here? Necessity compels me. I cannot help it. Thus argues the flesh; but the excuse is not held good. In all such reasonings God is shut out. Esau is in the Lord's eyes "a profane person" (Heb. 12:16).
Of Jacob less is seen here; but his acts shew a mind as unlike to Esau as may be, and set on other things; the one giving up his birth-right for meat; the other giving up his meat, if by any means he may obtain the inheritance. Jacob may fail in the way he seeks the blessing; he may trust too much to his schemes, not yet disciplined to wait on God to receive of Him what He has promised. But there cannot be a question whether he values the birth-right. His very errors shew that it is more to him than all other things. Such is the spirit of service in us, striving to overcome the flesh, without God, and in its own energy; but ready at all times to give up the world, parting with present good to obtain better things. Many a weary step does this attempt cost Jacob. Even after years of travail, Esau is yet to him "my lord Esau" (Gen. 32:4, 18); so hardly does the elder serve the younger, so slowly even at this stage is the flesh overcome.
And yet "Isaac loves Esau" (Gen. 25:28), and would if possible bless the first-born. For though sonship is come, and we live in the spirit, we love the flesh, and cling to the fruits of nature which yet grow in us. This occurs at every stage. The spirit of faith prays "that Ishmael might live before God" (Gen. 17:18). Even when Isaac is weaned, the rejection of the bond-maid's son is to Abraham "very grievous" (Gen. 21:11). And now when these natural fruits are Esau, when the flesh is seen in the comeliness it possesses after the spirit of sonship rules the elect house, it is hard to give up what seems so fair. The day comes when Esau is known; even then, spite of his ways and the grief which his Hittite wives cause, -- spite of our knowledge that he is rejected, -- that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom, and that though attractive it must be cast out, -- we yet love Esau, and would make him the heir, and bless him, even though we know it cannot be.
But enough of this inward view. Without, Isaac's sons are those in whom respectively the flesh or spirit is the ruling life; who, though born in the house of the Son, and from one womb, after many struggles are for ever separated. The one, pursuing the rough things of the world, (for in this view "the field is the world," Matt. 13:38,) (Note: Greg. M. Moral. l. v. c. 11, § 20. Augustine often refers to the same outward fulfilment. See Serm. iv. Class. i. De Jacob & Esau; Enar. in Psalm. xlvi. § 6; and elsewhere.) faint with such pursuits, sell their hope of glory for the meat which perisheth: while the younger or spiritual seed give up such meat, if by any means they may obtain better things. From the same Church spring both these seeds. For awhile one house is able to contain both. But a few years see them widely apart; the one with a kingdom and kingly sons in Mount Seir, the other with flocks won out of Laban's hand, returning as pilgrims to dwell in the promised land.
Soon shall the toil and grief be done. Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad (Psalm 14:7). Then one shall say, I am the Lord's, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel (Isa. 44:5). Fear not therefore, O my servant Jacob, saith the Lord, and be not dismayed, O Israel; for, behold, I will save thee from afar off, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and be in rest, and at ease, and none shall make him afraid (Jer. 46:27).
In the dispensations too this is fulfilled. The two sons, the natural and the spiritual seed, the Jew and Christian Church, are both the fruit of that Word of God, who is the Son and Heir, the true Isaac. All through the Jewish dispensation, born with it, was there a younger seed, not carnal but spiritual. All the holy prophets were of this line. In due time the younger or spiritual gained the birth-right openly. But before this, the younger was in the house, and in him God's covenant was fulfilled, though the elder was cast out. So St. Paul quotes Esau as a proof of Israel's fall (Rom. 9:10-13). (Note: This dispensational fulfilment is continually alluded to or expounded by the Fathers; by Augustine, De Civit. l. xvi. c. 35; Id. Quoest. in Gen. 73; by Ambrose, De Cain et Abel, l. i. c. 2, and In Psalm. cxviii. Serm. 20; by Irenaeus, Contr. Hoer. l. iv. c. 38; by Cyprian, Adv. Jud. l. i. § 19; by Origen, Hom. xii. in Gen., and by many others.) He at least in Rebekah's sons could see a figure of the dispensations.
VII. -- ISAAC IN THE PHILISTINES' LAND
HERE Isaac comes into collision with the Philistine, and the result is something like a repetition of Abraham's conduct under the same circumstances. In the main the two scenes are alike, shewing the dangers which await the elect spirit when it leaves its own high ground to go down towards Egypt. The difference is that in Abraham we see the trial, as it meets us at the faith stage of our spiritual life. Isaac shews the same, when instead of faith the spirit of sonship and understanding is come and rules within us.
Now the Philistine, as we have already seen, represents that spirit which seeks by knowledge to enter into heavenly things. (Note: See on chap. 20 and the notes there.) Unknown before the flood, such a mind too surely grows out of the evil nature which still lives in us after we are regenerate. This mind is the Philistine in us, who is left to prove, and does more than once severely prove, the true elect (Judges 3:1-4). For the ground of promise often tries us: most truly is it the "land of promise," not of attainment, or of perfect rest. If, then, in addition to the common trials of the way, extraordinary pressure comes, and the springs fail, and the fields wither, the temptation is strong to leave the ground of promise, to find on the ground of sense or worldly knowledge that which for a season the promise does not minister to us. Egypt holds out strong inducements to go there; and this not only in the days of Abraham, that is, at the stage when faith is our ruling life; but also in Isaac's days, that is, when the spirit of sonship is come and is even fruitful in us.
Now "there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham" (Gen. 26:1). Pressed by this, Isaac moves towards Egypt, but stops or is stopped at Gerar in the Philistines' land. "The Lord appeared, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of: and I will be with thee, and I will bless thee, and to thee and to thy seed I will give all these countries; and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham, and I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven; and I will give unto thy seed all these countries, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." But "Isaac dwells in Gerar" for awhile; and here each of his peculiar blessings is seriously imperilled through the Philistines; till pushed by them from place to place he returns again to Beersheba, where the Lord again appears to him, saying, "Fear not, for I am with thee." On this ground the Philistine takes his proper place, submitting to the elect's superiority; after which Isaac finds fresh wells of water, beside which again he dwells in peace (Gen. 26:2-33).
All this is yet fulfilled in those who by grace have reached this stage of man's development. After long enjoyment of Beer-Lahai-roi, and the good things of Canaan, comes a time of dearth and dryness. The soul is parched: the usual blessing is withheld. The ground of promise seems to yield us nothing. Then we think of the good things of sense, not dependent like the hills of promise upon the dews and rain of heaven, but, like Egypt, ever rich in itself, in its own abundant and apparently unfailing river. So we turn to go down thither. Once turned, a few steps bring us into the Philistines' land, that is, the ground of worldly knowledge, -- a descent which can be effected only too easily. (Note: See on chap. 20.) Here the elect's best blessings, first, intercourse with God, then possession of Rebekah, and lastly, provision sufficient for him, are each and all more or less affected, though spite of all failure Isaac by grace is not only sustained but even enriched here (Gen. 26:12). For the elect can gather much from science or knowledge, though mere knowledge cannot enter into spiritual things. The whole experience on this ground is here described, fulfilled in spirit in thousands who in their understanding are all but unconscious of it.
Intercourse with God is Isaac's first blessing. "The Lord appeared to him, and said, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee" (Gen. 26:3). This was the presence of the Lord, better than all His gifts. But this belongs to certain ground. In Egypt, nay among the Philistines, half way to Egypt, the elect cannot enjoy this. If Isaac walks with God, the Lord appears. Walking with Philistines, the Lord's presence is unperceived by him. But no sooner does he come back to the old ground of promise, than heavenly revelations are at once again restored to him. So we read, "Isaac went up from thence to Beersheba, and the Lord appeared to him the same night; and Isaac builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 26:23-25).
It is so still. The ground of promise often tries us, but conscious intercourse with the Lord is here abundantly enjoyed by us. Driven by trial we get off this ground, turning to sense; and we find, that though this or the other trial ceases, God's revelations cease also. On the ground of promise, God is needed. To stand there, did not God interfere, would be far beyond our spirit's powers. Our very need therefore calls out for God, and in the need He reveals Himself as He could not otherwise. But if, instead of this, trial is an excuse to leave the ground of promise, to take refuge either in sense or knowledge, though we reap the good things such ground can give us, for a season we lose the Lord's better manifestations.
Isaac's next blessing was Rebekah. In Gerar "Isaac said, She is my sister" (Gen. 26:7). He shrinks from owning his true relation to her, while the ground he takes subjects her to the risk of dreadful profanation. Very strange it seems that men like Abraham or Isaac should so lightly have imperilled what must have been most dear to them. Could we see into the world within, we should perceive how that truth, which is to us what Rebekah was to Isaac, is imperilled by us with just as little thought, with no more apparent remorse or inward self-condemnation. Our inward man, when pressed by dryness and dearth, forsakes the ground of promise, and seeks relief in mere knowledge. Then the truth we love, our Rebekah, is risked, through the mind in us, which by knowledge would enter heavenly things. But the truth may not be so known or embraced. The spirit of sonship, is that which alone may lay hold of spiritual truth. Mere knowledge would only pervert it. God therefore interferes to prevent such adulteration. We have already seen this at the faith stage. Here we learn that even when the spirit of sonship is come, we are still liable to the very same temptation. Grace, indeed, again averts a fall, but the elect cannot but be humbled as he reviews such stages of his pilgrimage.
Further, upon this ground Isaac's more outward blessings, his "bread and his water," are the occasion of strife and envying. He sows, and the Philistines envy his fruits: he digs wells, and they labour to stop and fill them up (Gen. 26:12-15). Then he removes and digs again, but the herdsmen of Gerar still strive. He digs yet again, and the Philistines yet more strive with him. On the ground of knowledge the elect can never rest. He may reap much there; he may open living wells, "for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" (Psalm 24:1); the fields of knowledge, therefore, the Philistines' land, may be subdued, and much may be obtained thence; but on this ground there are disturbing thoughts withal, which can only be escaped by returning to the true ground of promise, where the Lord's oath again comforts us. There Philistine herdsmen cannot come: (Note: As to these "herdsmen," see on chap. 13.) there the restlessness of mere knowledge cannot trouble us. Beside "the well of the oath," we rest in peace. Here the Philistine in us submits himself, and takes his proper place. So we read, "Then Abimelech came to him, and said, We saw the Lord was with thee: let there now be an oath between us and thee, that thou wilt do us no hurt. And Isaac made them a feast, and they sware one to another, and they rose up and departed from him" (Gen. 26:23-31). Knowledge is rebuked, but no violence is offered to it. For the elect is now on ground where "the oppositions of knowledge, falsely so-called" (1 Tim. 6:20), (Note: The notes on chap. 20 have already shewn the views of the Fathers as to the spiritual import of the "Philistine." I may add the following: Orig. Hom. xiv. in Gen. xxvi. He pursues the subject at considerable length.) cannot disquiet him.
I have thus briefly traced this scene within. But the same thing is continually being re-enacted in the outward Church. Sons of God through trials leave their own high ground, seeking greater ease among those who without circumcision are reaching toward heavenly things; for sweet and blessed as the "well of vision" is, it does not exempt us from trials of faith, and other difficulties. Then the temptation is strong to descend to lower ground, to seek shelter in the things of sense, and in the ways of men of this world. (Note: Compare the scene, chap. 20.) There direct revelations cease: there the Church, and the truth which it embodies, is in danger of profanation; for worldly men, like Abimelech, and that with pure intentions, will seek carnally to know what, as worldlings, never can be theirs. Sons of God yet think too lightly of the shame and peril incurred here; but did not the Lord Himself most graciously interfere, such a course would bring only worse judgment upon the world, and disgrace on God's children. Nevertheless on this ground bread is found, and wells are dug; though envy assails us for the one, while against the other there is open opposition. "The bread is my flesh: he that eateth me, even he shall live by me:" and again, "The water which I will give, shall be in you a well of water, springing up into everlasting life." Bread is the outward form of the word of truth: water is its quickening and refreshing spirit (John 7:38-39). The chief strife is ever for the waters. The "staff of bread" (Psalm 105:16) may be grudged, but it is not destroyed; but the waters are actually choked; Philistines, who never worked to dig wells, will gladly work to stop them. Out of the world we may dig as we please, and sweet and calm are the hours spent at the "well of the oath," or beside the "well of vision." There no envying hand mars the joy by fouling the spiritual stream. It is far otherwise when we are among Philistines. Philistine herdsmen count wells an evil: they are deep and dangerous pits: not only sheep, but men also, -- so they judge, -- may perish in them. Have not some souls, while pretending or attempting to dig for hidden fountains, hurt themselves or others by leading them, from the firm ground of the letter, into uncertain and slippery quagmires of mystic nonsense, or into dry depths which yielded no water? Some have slipped: the well is therefore to be stopped, and the stagnant pool preferred, lest some blind leader of the blind should fall into it. Who is there that in the faith of the "deep which coucheth beneath" (Deut. 33:13), reckoning on a vein of living water, out of sight perhaps, but yet not far off from them that seek it, has dug below the surface, and brought into view the hidden streams of the Spirit's pure and living waters, but has met with strife at the hand of Philistines for the waters, clear and refreshing though they be, which he has opened out. And the strife is from "herdsmen" who have charge of flocks, and who should know the value of living waters. But they know it not. And like the Scribes, they "take away the key:" they "neither enter themselves, and those who would enter in, they hinder" (Luke 11:52). (Note: Orig. Hom. xiii. in Gen. So also Gregory the Great, Moral. in Job, l. xvi. c. 18, § 23. Ambrose dwells on the spiritual import of each of the wells named here, De Isaac et Anima, c. iv. § 20-22.) Thus are the Isaacs troubled still, and God's most precious gifts, given for our cleansing and refreshment, are made occasions of contention; so that such words as hatred and strife become, even in the mouths of the elect, almost synonymes for these pure wells of living waters, (Note: "Isaac called the name of the well Esek, or contention, because they strove with him. And they digged another well, and strove for that also: and he called it Sitnah," or hatred. -- Gen. 26:20, 21.) till they return from this low ground and communion with worldlings to the ground of promise where men of this world care not to come. There the Lord again appears in peace: the "well of the oath" is safe from the distractions which infest us among the men of this world. There the uncircumcised must see that God is with the pilgrim, and though they will not walk with him there, they cease to fight against him. He offers them a feast of fat things: they may grudge and strive with him; he will return them love for their hatred. Another age may shew yet other fulfilments, when the pilgrimage among the Gentiles being ended, the opposing world shall seek and find peace. Then shall the earth be glad, and the sons of God shall dwell by living waters where none can harass them. Lord, Thou only canst bring us to that rest. Bring us thither, whom Thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood. Amen.
Such is Isaac's course, that is the path and experience of the spirit of sonship in us; very different to the energies of faith, freed from the peculiar struggles which mark each stage of Abraham's history; differing widely too from Jacob's path, knowing nothing of that long toil for flocks and children in the far country; but coming in at once to rich blessing, as Abraham's heir inheriting all faith's good things; yet with its special blessings having special trials of its own, first mocked and laughed at, then called to be a sacrifice, to give up as an obedient son its own will in everything, to be even as a lamb appointed unto death, only in the act of perfect self-sacrifice to find deliverance; then, when fruitful, to be pained, at home by its own seed, abroad by seeing the living waters which faith had opened choked by aliens; such is the path; for there is no form of spiritual life which in its progress towards the perfect man must not be tried to the uttermost. The form of the trial varies with the growing form of the elect life, for that which tries us at first is not the trial of the riper and more advanced spirit; but a cross and trial there must be at every stage, to purify the elect from the hereditary evil which still so perseveringly cleaves to him. Many therefore are the inward groans and deaths, which must be passed through in the journey towards perfection. For as the vine draws its sap from the impure earth, and so yields a fluid fruit, first sour, then sweet, which, being crushed in the wine-press, is then turned into wine by fermentation, and thus by successive changes spiritualised and advanced into a more powerful and enduring form of being; so in the great change of man's renewal unto God, the new life, growing out of and in part and for a season sustained by the defiled and earthly nature, is dissolved and purified by successive changes and ferments, till it is transformed and rectified into that which is immortal. But many stages are there in the labour, and many times does nature halt before this final rest. And often do we think the work is done, and the promised rest is come, while yet we are far indeed from seeing it. But it shall come at last to those who by grace yield themselves to God in everything.
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