Devotional Hours with the Bible
J. R. Miller, 1908
From the Creation—to the Exodus
In the Beginning God
The First Temptation
The Story of Cain and Abel
The Story of Enoch
The Story of the Flood
The Call of Abraham
Abraham and Lot
God's Promise to Abraham
Abraham the Friend of God
Abraham's Intercession for Sodom
The Outcome of Lot's Choice
The Offering of Isaac
Isaac and His Sons
Isaac the Peacemaker
Jacob's Dream at Bethel
Jacob a Prince with God
Discords in the Family of Jacob
Joseph and His Dreams
Joseph in Prison
Joseph from Prison to Palace
Joseph and His Brothers
Joseph and His Father
Joseph's Old Age and Death
Israel Oppressed in Egypt
The Childhood of Moses
The Call of Moses
Moses and Pharaoh
The Institution of the Passover
Crossing the Red Sea
In the Beginning God
Genesis is the book of beginnings. The first chapter is one of the most wonderful portions of the Bible. It takes us back far beyond all beginnings. Its first words are among the sublimest ever written, "In the beginning—God." We are now in the midst of a vast universe full of life—but there was a period when there was nothing—not a grain of sand, not a blade of grass, not a flower, not a leaf, nor the tiniest insect—nothing but God.
There never was a time, however, when God was not. He had no beginning. "Before the mountains were brought forth, or before You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting You are God." The thought is too great for us to grasp! Everything else that we see or of which we know—had a beginning. The sea with its majesty began away back somewhere in the midst of the ages of creation, when the Creator gathered the waters of the globe together into one place. The mountains which we think of as ancient, hoary, abiding, of which we speak as eternal—also had a beginning. There was a period when they were not, and then a time when by some gigantic convulsion they were lifted up.
Everything but God, had a beginning. Matter is not eternal. All life is derived. Not only was God before all things—but all things are the work of His hands. God created all things. Nothing came by 'chance'. It is no part of the plan of this book to suggest any scheme of creation. We do not need to vex ourselves with questions as to how things came into being. We do not have to know or understand. But whatever the theories may be, science has not set aside the teaching of Genesis, that God created all things. The best science accepts the Christian teaching, that God made all things.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews states the case thus: "By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which do appear." God was the Creator, however many ages may have been occupied in the vast work, or whatever the order or the processes of creation may have been. That is all we need to know.
At the very beginning of the story of creation, we have a wonderful glimpse of the heart of God and of His love for man, His child. Man had not yet been made. Indeed, there was only chaos. "The earth was waste and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Then we have this statement, "The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." A marginal reading is, "The Spirit of God was brooding upon the face of the waters."
The picture suggested in the words is that of a hen sitting on her nest, covering her eggs, brooding over them to bring out the new lives through the warmth of her own body. Without unduly pressing the words, they certainly suggest that when He brooded over the mere chaos, God was thinking of His children yet to be and planning for their happiness and good. That is the way love always does. It prepares the nest for the little birds. It fills the storehouse for the coming winter.
Through all the great ages of continued world-building, we find evidence of this same Divine brooding and forethought. Man was not the first of the creatures made—indeed, he was the last of God's works. In this fact we see a wonderful expression of the Divine kindness and love. If man had been created at an earlier period, he could only have perished. He was not created until a place had been prepared for him. From the beginning, he was in God's thought. All through the creative ages before man was made—God was preparing and fitting up this earth to be his home.
First, there was chaos, a world without beauty, light or life, waste and empty—yet with God brooding over it. Then light broke over the dark world. Then the waters were gathered into seas and lakes and rivers, and the continents emerged—plains, hills, mountains. Then life appeared—vegetable life, animal life, in orderly succession. As the time drew near for man's creation, one particular place was chosen and fitted up to be a home for man—the Garden of Eden, filled with the rarest things of creation. All this for man not yet made; all the exquisite beauty and variety of scenery, all the wealth hidden away in mountains and hills, all the useful things prepared and stored up in nature—were for man's happiness and comfort!
Think, for instance, of the vast beds of coal laid up among earth's strata, ages and ages since, in loving forethought, that our homes may be warmed and brightened in the late centuries. Think of the minerals that were piled away in the rocks long before there was a human footprint on the sand, to be discovered and brought out for use in remote ages. Think of electricity, stored in exhaustless measures everywhere and kept undiscovered until these modern days, when it has been brought out to perform its vast service for the world. Think of the 'laws of nature', as we call them, established to minister to man's pleasure and profit. Think of all the latent forces and properties that have been lodged in matter, to be brought out from time to time, at the call of human need. Look at the springs of water opened on every hillside, in every valley, to give drink to man and beast. Note the provision in every climate and every zone, for food and clothing. Look at the medicinal and healing virtues stored away in leaf, in root, in fruit, in bark, in mineral.
It fills our hearts with wonder and praise—to think that for uncounted ages, before there was a human being on the earth—that God was thinking of us, that He foresaw our needs and began laying up goodness for us in the storehouses of nature. No one dare say that all this was a mere marvel of coincidences—there is proof of design in it; it could have been nothing else but the love of God planning and preparing for His children in long ages to come.
It is interesting to think of the creation of man, at the close of all this vast preparation. When his home was ready for him, then he was created. Man was made, too, in the likeness of God. Here we see his exalted rank in creation—he is not like any other creature. This likeness to God was not a physical likeness, however. We are like Him in immortality, in mind, in will, in heart, in hope and life.
This suggests man's pre-eminence among the creatures. Last of all to be made—he was also the noblest, the greatest of all. All the things that had been made were good and beautiful. But when man was made he was distinguished above all other orders of beings by having put upon him the image of his Creator. Man was God's child. Plants and trees and rocks and hills were things; beasts, birds, insects, and reptiles were living creatures; but man was a living soul, able to think and choose, to love and obey, to commune with God, to enter into close fellowship with Him, to be God's friend, God's child.
Man's body was made of dust. This showed his frailty; he was not made from the rocks, or from metal ores—but from the lowly dust. Yet into this frail body God breathed His own breath and man lived.
When God had made man, He gave him rule over all things. "Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Thus man was made to be lord of the creation. Not only was he above all the other works of God in rank and dignity—but he was set to rule over them all.
All things were made for man, for his use and service. Man still has great power over the creatures. He uses them for his own purposes, making them help him in his work. He employs the animals in his work, and makes them serve him. Steam is made to turn his machines, propel his ships, draw his trains. The sea he has mastered, making it, instead of a barrier—a highway to all parts of the earth, on which he carries his commerce. The lightning, whose thunders are full of dread, he has tamed and taught to be a gentle messenger, doing his bidding and serving him in countless ways. The rocks he has made to yield to him their minerals, and from the dark depths of the earth he brings his fuel.
God created man "male and female." It would have been very desolate for man to live on this earth alone. No matter how beautiful the world had been made, beauty would not have satisfied him. Man has a heart and needs love, and only love could satisfy him. There were animals of all kinds in the lovely Paradise which was given to man for his home—but man could not have found the companionship he needs among these. He was made immortal and only a being immortal like himself could answer his longing for fellowship. He was made to love, and only a being capable of loving could satisfy him.
It was a mark of God's thought for man, therefore of His love for him, that woman was made to be man's companion. They could talk together of the lovely things about them, they had minds alike and could think together and commune on the great things of God. They had hearts that beat alike, and could love each other. They could commune together on spiritual things and together enter also into communion with God.
We have here, too, the institution of marriage. God saw that man would be lonely, and that it would not be good for him to be alone, so He gave him a wife. Thus was she fitted to be man's companion, his helpmate, his inspirer. God Himself united this first pair in marriage. Heart clasped heart, and life was knit to life.
God bade our first parents to "replenish the earth, and subdue it." He gave the earth to man—but it was yet a possession for conquest, an inheritance that man must win for himself. At the very beginning, in the unfallen life, man was meant to work. He was to cultivate the soil that he might gather its fruits and harvests. He was to find and dig out the treasures hidden away in the rocks and hills. He was to master the forces of nature. The earth was his—but he must subdue it.
God made provision for man's sustenance. "I have given you every herb, . . . every tree, . . . for food." It is not God's intention that anyone shall ever lack food. Yet we must not make the mistake that even in man's innocence it was meant that he should have food without work. "If any will not work, neither let him eat," is a law of Providence which grace does not render inoperative. Sometimes a man says, "The world owes me a living." Yes, if he will by his own toil earn it! The prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," teaches us to live by the day and to be content with the day's portion, trusting God for tomorrow; but it teaches another lesson in the word "our." It cannot be our daily bread until we have earned it. So we ask God to give us, with His blessing, the portion which our hands have gathered and prepared for the day.
From the beginning, too, God cared for animals and provided for their maintenance. "I have given all the grasses and other green plants to the animals and birds for their food." Does God care for oxen and birds and worms? Here is the assurance that He does. Then the Scriptures have other words which tell us of God's thought for all His creatures. Your heavenly Father feeds the sparrows, said Jesus. We are taught here a lesson of kindness toward dumb creatures. If God is so thoughtful in making provision for them, surely we must be gentle and humane in our treatment of them.
The First Temptation
The story of the first temptation is intensely interesting. We do not need to perplex ourselves with its form. There is enough in it that is plain and simple and of practical value, and we should not let our minds be confused by its mystery. Whatever the broader meaning of this first temptation may have been, everyone must meet a like personal experience, and hence this Genesis story has for us a most vital interest.
Everyone must be tempted. Untried life is not yet established. We must be tested and proved. It is the man who endures temptation, who is blessed. Our first parents did not endure.
It was in the garden of Eden, with beauty and happiness on every side. But even into this lovely home, came the tempter! He came stealthily. The serpent is a remarkable illustration of temptation: subtle, fascinating, approaching noiselessly and with an appearance of harmlessness which throws us off our guard.
The tempter began his temptation in a way which gave no alarm to the woman. He asked her, "Has God said—You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" The question indicated surprise that God should make such a prohibition. The tempter's wish was, in a quiet and insinuating way, to impeach the goodness of God and make Eve think of Him as severe and harsh. His purpose was to put doubt of God's goodness into the woman's mind. "If God loved you—would He deny you anything so good?"
The tempter still practices the same deep cunning. He wants to make people think that God is severe, that His restraints are unreasonable. He tries to make the young man think that his father is too stern with him; the young girl that her mother is too rigid. He seeks to get people to think themselves oppressed by the Divine requirements. That is usually the first step in temptation, and when one has begun to think of God as too exacting, he is ready for the next downward step.
Everything depends upon the way a person meets temptation. Parleying is always unsafe. Eve's first mistake was in answering the tempter at all. She ought to have turned instantly away, refusing to listen. When there comes to us a wrong suggestion of any kind, the only wise and safe thing for us—is immediately to shut the door of our heart in its face. To dally is usually to be lost. Our decision should be instant and absolute, when temptation offers. The poet gave a fine test of character when he said he would not take for a friend, the man who needlessly sets his foot upon a worm. With still greater positiveness should we refuse to accept as a friend, one who seeks to throw doubt on God's goodness and love.
When the tempter finds a ready ear for his first approach—he is encouraged to go on. In this case, having raised suspicion of the Divine goodness, he went on to question God's veracity. "The serpent said unto the woman—You shall not surely die!" He would not have said this at the first, for the woman would not have listened then to such an accusation against God. But one doubt makes way for another. She listened now, and was not shocked when the tempter went farther and charged God with insincerity.
The tempter still follows the same course with those he would draw away from God. He tells them that what God says about the consequences of disobedience is not true. He tries to make people believe that the soul that sins—shall not die. He is still going about casting doubt upon God's words and suggesting changes in the reading of the Bible. He even tried to tempt our Savior by misquoting and perverting Scripture! He sought to get Him to trust a Divine promise—when He had no Divine command to do the thing suggested. We need to be sure of the character of the people we admit into our lives as friends, advisers, or teachers. Jesus tells us that His sheep know His voice. They know the voice of strangers, too, and will not listen to them, because they will not trust the words of strangers.
The tempter now goes a step farther with the woman. "God does know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil." Instead of dying, as God had said they should, if they ate the forbidden fruit—the devil said the eating of this fruit would open their eyes and make them wondrously wise, even something like God Himself!
The tempter talks in just the same way in these modern days. He tells the boys and young men, that doing certain things will make them smart and happy. He taunts them also with the ignorance of simple innocence, and suggests to them that they ought to see and experience the world. It will make men of them and give them power, influence and happiness. There is a great deal of this sort of temptation. A good many people cannot stand the taunt of being 'religious' or of being afraid to do certain things.
The temptation was successful. "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it." She listened to the cunning words of the tempter. Curiosity, ambition, and desire—all awoke in her. The one prohibited thing in the garden, began to shine in such alluring colors that she forgot all the good things which were permitted to her. It all seemed dull and poor, compared with the imagined sweetness of the fruit they were not allowed to eat. The commandment of God faded out of her mind—as she stood listening to the tempter and looking at the forbidden fruit before her. Then, fatal moment! She reached out her hand and took the fruit—and the doleful deed was done! We never know what a floodgate of evil and sorrow—one little thought or word or act may open—what a river of harm and ruin may flow from it!
When one has yielded to temptation, the next step ofttimes is the tempting of others. "She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it!" Milton suggests that it was because of his love for Eve that Adam accepted the fruit from her hand. Since she had fallen, he wished to perish with her. Whatever the reason was for Adam's yielding, we know that the common story is—the tempted and fallen—become tempters of others! The corrupted become corrupters of others. One of the blessings of companionship should be mutual help. Mountain climbers tie themselves together with ropes that the one may support the other. But sometimes one slips and drags the other with him down to death. Companionship may bring ruin, instead of blessing!
However pleasant sin may be, when it has been committed, a dark shadow falls over the soul. "The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees." The first thing after sinning is remorse, and then comes the desire to hide from God!
There is a story of a young man who entered the house of one who had been his friend, to steal costly jewels which he knew to be in a certain place. He made his way quietly into the room, found the trunk in which the jewels were kept, and opened it. Then glancing up he saw a portrait hanging on the wall—the face of one he had known in years gone, in this house—but who was now dead. The calm, deep eyes of his old companion looking down upon him, witnessing his dark deed, made him tremble. He tried to keep his back to the picture—but he could not hold his gaze away from it. Yet he could not go on with his robbery. The steady looking of the eyes down upon him, maddened him. At length he took a knife and cut the eyes from the portrait and then finished his crime. If even human eyes looking down upon us make it impossible for us to commit sins—how much more terrible is the eye of God to the guilty soul!
But it is impossible ever to get away from the presence of God. While the man and his wife were thus trying to hide, they heard God's voice saying, "Where are you?" It was not in anger but in love, that the Father thus followed His erring children. He sought them—that He might save them. It is ever so. God is not to be dreaded—even if we have done wrong. We never should flee from Him. He follows us—but it is that He may find us and save us. Conscience is not an enemy, but a friend—the voice of God speaking in love. People sometimes wish they could get away altogether from God, could silence His voice; but if this were possible, it would be unto the darkness of hopeless ruin!
It is pitiful to read in the narrative how, when asked regarding their sin, the man sought to put the blame on the woman. "The woman You put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." That is the way ofttimes—when a man has done wrong, he blames somebody else. A drunkard said it was his wife's fault, for she was not sociable at home and he went out evenings to find somebody to talk with. A young man fell into sin—and said it was the fault of his companion who had tempted him. No doubt a share of guilt lies on the tempter of innocence and inexperience. It is a fearful thing to influence another to do wrong. Yet temptation does not excuse sin. We should learn that no sin of others in tempting us—will ever excuse our sin in yielding. No one can compel us to do wrong. Our sin is always our own!
At once upon the dark cloud—breaks the light! No sooner had man fallen, than God's thought of redemption appears. "So the LORD God said to the serpent—I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." This fifteenth verse is the gospel, the first promise of a Savior. It is very dim and indistinct, a mere glimmering of light, on the edge of the darkness. But it was a gospel of hope to our first parents, in their sorrow and shame. We understand now its full meaning. It is a star-word as it shines here. A star is but a dim point of light as we see it in the heavens—but we understand that it is really a vast world, or center of a system of worlds. This promise holds in obscure dimness—all the glory of all the after-revealings of the Messiah. As we read on in the Old Testament, we continually find new unfoldings, fuller revelations, until at length we have the promise fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ!
This story of the first temptation and fall, is not the record of one isolated failure at the beginning of the world's history merely—it is a record which may be written into every human biography. It tells us of the fearful danger of sin, and then of sin's dreadful cost. What a joy it is that on the edge of this story of falling—we have the promise of one who would overcome! Now we have the story of one who has overcome, "strong Son of God," who also was tempted—but who did not yield, and now is the Mighty Deliverer. He overcame the world. And in Him we have peace and salvation!
The Story of Cain and Abel
Cain was the first child born on earth. The coming of the first baby, is always an important event in a home—but the birth of the first child in the human family, was an event of peculiar importance. Mothers have many dreams and hopes for their babies. The first mother had her dreams. She seems to have been expecting that her son would be the "seed of the woman" referred to in the promise of the bruising of the serpent's head. When she saw the beautiful new-born child, she said joyfully, "With the LORD's help, I have brought forth a male child!" The mothers will best understand her glad hope, what expectations filled her heart. She forgot the pain of her travail—in her joy that a child was born. It is sad to think how this first mother's dreams were disappointed. Instead of becoming a godly man, his life an honor to his parents—he proved a wicked man, who brought sorrow to his home!
At the beginning of the story of the human family, we find both good and evil. Two children of the same parents, have in their hearts dispositions that differ in every way. They had different tastes, which led them to different occupations. One become a farmer, tilling the soil, and thus providing for his own necessities. The other, with peaceful tastes, became a shepherd.
The two sons differed still more radically in moral character. Cain developed wicked traits. He was energetic, ambitious, resourceful, a man who made his mark in the world, a builder of cities, a leader in civilization—but a man of bad temper, selfish, morose, cruel, hard, resentful. Abel was quiet, affectionate, patient. The world now would call him easy-going, not disposed to stand up for his rights, meek, allowing others to trample over him and tread him down in the dust. Cain was the kind of man who today wins the world's honors, who gets on in the world, grows rich, is enterprising, becomes powerful and rules over his fellows. Abel was the type of man described in the Beatitudes, poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, a peacemaker, unresisting, bearing wrong without complaint, not striving for mastery. Abel was the kind of man that He was—who, at the end of the ages, appeared as the true Seed of the woman, whose heel was bruised by the serpent, but bruised the serpent's head, conquering by love.
Both the sons were worshipers of God, though here, too, they differed. Cain brought of the fruit of the ground for his offering; and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock. Some suppose that Cain's offering was unfit in itself, inferring that God had already instituted the offering of blood, as the only acceptable worship. We do not learn this, however, from the Bible narrative; we are told only that the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering—but unto Cain and his offering He had not respect. Then in the Epistle to the Hebrews we are told that it was faith in Abel, which made his sacrifice more excellent than Cain's.
We learn at least—that God must be worshiped in the way He has commanded. We learn also that the acceptance of worship—depends on the heart of the worshiper. Cain's heart was wrong—and Abel's was right. The publican went down to his house justified, because of his penitence and sincerity; the Pharisee received no blessing, because there was no faith in his prayer. God cares nothing for forms of worship; He looks into the heart and is pleased only when He finds love, faith, and true devotion there.
"Cain was very angry." Why was Cain angry? Was he angry with God for not showing respect to his offering? Did he think God had treated him badly? If the anger was against God, how very foolish it was! What good could it do? It would be most silly for a man to be angry at the waves of the sea, or at the storm, or at the lightning. Would the waves, the tempest, or the thunderbolt mind his rage? It is infinitely more senseless, to be angry with God!
Or was Cain angry with Abel because he had pleased God—while he himself had failed to do so? It seems, however, from the record, that he was angry with Abel. Why? What had Abel done? He had done nothing, except that he was a better man than his brother. Was that reason enough why Cain should be angry?
Superiority always arouses envy, opposition and dislike. We must not expect to make ourselves popular—by being great or good. "To show your intelligence and ability, is only an indirect way of reproaching others for being dull and incapable." It was Abel's favor with God—that made Cain hate him.
Joseph is another striking example of the same hatred of the good—by the bad. It was not his pretty coat that made his brothers so bitter against him—but that which the coat represented, the superior qualities which had made Joseph the favorite of his father. Envy is a most unworthy passion. It is utterly without reason. It is pure malevolence, revealing the worst spirit. Cain was angry with Abel, because he was good.
"Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him!" Genesis 4:8. See here, the fearful growth of the evil feeling in Cain's heart. It was only a thought at first—but it was admitted into the heart and cherished there. Then it grew until it caused a terrible crime! We learn here, the danger of cherishing even the smallest beginning of bitterness; we do not know to what it will grow!
Some people think lightly of bad temper, laughing at it as a mere harmless weakness; but it is a perilous mood to indulge, and we do not know to what it may lead. In His reproof of Cain, the Lord likens his sin to a wild beast lying in hiding by his door, ready to leap on him and devour him. This is true of all sin which is cherished in the heart. It may long lie quiet and seem harmless—but it is only a wild beast sleeping!
There is a story of a man who took a young tiger and resolved to make a pet of it. It moved about his house like a kitten and grew up fond and gentle. For a long time its savage, blood-thirsty nature seemed changed into gentleness, and the creature was quiet and harmless. But one day the man was playing with his pet, when by accident his hand was scratched and the beast tasted blood. That one taste, aroused all the fierce tiger nature, and the ferocious animal flew on his master and tore him to pieces!
So it is, with the passions and lusts of the old nature, which are only petted and tamed and allowed to stay in the heart. They will crouch at the door in treacherous lurking, and in some unguarded hour—they will rise up in all their old ferocity! It is never safe to make pets of tigers! It is never safe to make pets of little sins!
We never know what sin may grow into—if we let it stay in our heart. "It came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him!" That is what came of the passion of envy in Cain's heart! It was left unrebuked, unrepented of, uncrushed—and in time it grew to fearful strength. Then in an evil moment its tiger nature asserted itself. We never know to what dreadful stature—a little sin may grow. It was the apostle of love who said, "He who hates his brother is a murderer." Hatred is a seed—which when it grows into its full strength—is murder!
We can easily trace the development of this sin in Cain. First, it was only a bitter and hurt feeling, as he saw that Abel's sacrifice was more pleasing to God than his own. But by and by in uncontrolled anger, Cain rose and murdered his brother!
We need to guard especially, against envy. Few sins are more common. One pupil recites his lesson better than another, and the less successful one is tempted to all manner of ugly feelings toward his fellow. Unkind things are said about the scholar who gets along well.
Envy is classed among the "seven deadly sins," and one has said that of all these, it most disturbs the peace of mankind. "All the curs in the street are ready to attack the dog that gets away with the bone!" "It is the tall cedar, not the tiny shrub, which will likely be struck by lightning. The sheep that has the most wool—is soonest fleeced! Envy follows every successful man—as close as his shadow. While David kept his father's sheep at home—he might sing sweetly to his harp in the fields without disturbance. But when he comes to court and applause and greatness caress him, malice and spite dog close at his heels wherever he goes. Let us guard against the beginnings of envy.
The Lord asked Cain to account for his brother. "Where is your brother?" We all are our brother's keepers, in a certain sense. In families, the members are each other's keepers. Parents are their children's keepers. The older brothers and sisters are the keepers of the younger. Brothers are their sisters' keepers—and should be their protectors and benefactors. Sisters are their brothers' keepers—and should throw about them all the pure, gentle, holy influences of love. Each one of us is in greater or less degree—a keeper of all who come under our influence. We are certainly each other's keepers—in the sense that we are not to harm each other in any way. We have no right to injure anyone; and we are under obligation to do as much good as possible to all about us.
We shall have to account for our influence over each other, and for all our opportunities of doing good to others. One of the most significant words in our Lord's parable of the Judgment, is that in which the king is represented as saying to those on his left, "Then He will also say to those on the left—Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels! For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in; I was naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not take care of Me." Matthew 25:41-43
There is no more serious teaching in the Scriptures than this of our responsibility for the lives of others—not for members of our own families only—but for everyone who belongs to the human family.
After Cain had committed his crime, he thought of its enormity. "What have you done! Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground!" People do not stop to think beforehand, of the evil things they are going to do. They are carried away by passion or desire for pleasure, for power, or for gain—and do not see the darkness of the deed they are committing. But when it is done and they turn back to look at it—they see it in all its shame and guilt.
If the young man who is tempted to embezzle would go on and look at himself as a convict in prison, his name blackened, his family ruined—would he do the evil thing? The experience of Cain ought to teach everyone to ask before doing any wrong thing, "What is this that I am going to do?" Sin brings curse! Even the very ground is cursed, when remorse is in a man's heart. Even the flowers, the trees, the birds, and all beautiful and innocent things, seem to whisper shame and curse to his conscience.
"My punishment is too great to bear!" Sin is always a dreadful burden. It may seem pleasant at the moment—but afterward the bitterness is intolerable! A man gratifies his evil passions for a time and seems happy—but the result is shame and remorse—penalty greater than he can bear. Cain would have given all he had—to undo the sin he had committed—but he could not. He could not bring back the life he had destroyed. His dead brother would not answer his cry of grief. Though one suffers from the law, no punishment for his sin—he yet bears punishment intolerable in himself.
People say they do not believe in a hell of fire, that a God of mercy would not cast His children into such torment. But sin needs no literal flames, to make its hell. It brings its torment in itself. It is not that God is cruel—it is sin that is cruel. We cannot blame God for the punishment which our disobedience brings; we have only ourselves to blame.
Someone said in bitterness, "If I were God my heart would break for the world's woe and sorrow." God's heart did break—that is what the Cross meant. Sin is indeed a heavy burden. Many are driven to suicide by remorse. Some become hardened, all tenderness in them having been destroyed. But it will not be until the sinner gets to the next world—that he will know all the intolerable burden of his sin and its punishment. Then there will be no escape from the awful load, no hiding forever, and no getting clear of the terrible burden.
In this world, there is always a way of escape from sin's punishment. Christ bore sin and its punishment, and all who flee to Him will have the load lifted off!
The Story of Enoch
The history of the world is not told in detail in Genesis. We have only a glimpse here and there of the life of the first days. But a few names are preserved from antediluvian generations. The people seem to have lived long—but not to much purpose. All we learn of most of them—is that they lived so many hundreds of years, and then died. The good seed seemed to perish in the death of Abel—but Seth was born in his place, and then men began to call upon the name of the Lord.
Some generations passed and in the scant record, we come upon one name that shines brightly in the story. "When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away." Genesis 5:21-24
God and Enoch were good friends. Their relations were intimate and familiar. The meaning is not that God appeared to Enoch in any visible form and walked with him about the country, as a man would walk with his friend. A little child, however, told the story thus. She had been to Sunday School, and when she came home her mother asked her what she had learned that day. She answered, "Don't you know, mother? we have been learning about a man who used to go for walks with God. His name was Enoch. He used to go for walks with God. And, mother, one day they went for an extra long walk, and they walked on, and on, and on, until God said to Enoch, 'You are a long way from home; you would better just come in and stay.' And he went in!"
The child's idea of the story was very beautiful. It was true, too—at least in a spiritual sense. The figure of a walk is used in the Bible many times for the course of life. When men are said to have walked in the ways of the Lord—the meaning is that they lived righteously, keeping God's commandments. When we read that the people walked in the way of Jeroboam, the thought is that they followed him in his idolatry. When it is said that Enoch walked with God, we are to understand that he obeyed God's commandments, so far as they were revealed to him, and that he lived in communion with God.
It was a walk of faith. Enoch did not see God. We do not know how much he knew about God. We must remember that he lived before the Flood, only a few generations from Adam. The race was in its infancy then, and only a few revelations from God had been made. There was no Bible. It was long before Moses received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. But in whatever way and to whatever extent Enoch had been taught about God—he believed. God was as real to him—as if He had walked with Enoch in human form!
We all walk with God in a sense, for all our life. We never can get away from His presence for a moment. He is closer to us than our nearest friend. Wherever we go—He walks beside us. But the trouble with many of us is that we do not realize this presence. We never think of it. Faith is that exercise of the mind, which makes unseen things, real. God was real to Enoch. His walk with God—was as real as if he had seen God's face, and heard His voice and felt the touch of His hand!
We may walk with God as consciously and as familiarly as Enoch did, if we really desire. Christ told the disciples that He wished to make them His personal friends, opening His heart to them and giving them His full confidence. But how many of us are living in conscious communion with Christ? We sing Bernard's hymn,
"Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Your face to see,
And in Your presence rest."
But to how many of us, are the words really a true expression of our experience? We talk a good deal about God—but how many of us are actually walking with God? An eloquent preacher says, "A missing note of the religious life of today, is that of personal fellowship with the Creator. We are largely dependent on other people, not Christ—for our spiritual experience." Never have there been so many religious activities in which Christians take part, as at present. There are meetings, societies, brotherhoods, unions and all manner of organizations for the promotion of spiritual life and for the winning of souls. But is there not a lack of personal communion with Christ? We are depending more for the quickening of our spirits and for our religious interest and earnestness, on outside activities and on the influence of other Christians upon us—than on our own individual fellowship with Christ!
We need to learn anew to walk with God. We need to train ourselves to more personal communion with Christ, to be more alone with Him. We cannot get our religious life second-hand. None of us can give to another, what we have received from God, in our own communion with Him. The wise virgins could not give of their oil—to their sisters whose lamps were going out, and whose vessels were empty. Sometimes it seems to us as we read the story, that these virgins were selfish, unkind, ungenerous, in refusing. But the incident is meant to teach—that one cannot give the grace of God to another. Each must receive it directly from God for himself. If your friend walks with God—then in his hour of trial or need, he will have the comfort and strength he requires. But if you follow God afar off—then in your time of stress, you will find your lamp burning low and your vessel empty, and you cannot run to your friend for what you need. Each must know Christ for himself.
There are many blessings which come to him who walks with God. One is companionship with God. Human companionship is very sweet and refreshing. It makes the way seem shorter and easier. How could we live without friends? We never can be thankful enough for the companionships of our lives. It would be hard to live without our human friends. We need them, and they bring us cheer, comfort, strength, encouragement all along the way. But human companionships, as heart-filling as they may be—are not enough. Then they drop away one by one—we know not what morning, the dearest and most needed friend shall be missed from our side when we come out to begin our day's walk.
What would you have done if the Great Companion had not been beside you on that dark day when the human friend you had leaned on so heavily, was called away? What will you do when those who now make the journey so pleasant for you, slip away and leave you if, when you lift up your eyes through your tears, you do not see the Master still by your side? Then, even with the happiest and gladdest earthly companionship crowding our path, we need God too. Without Him—the dearest human love fails to satisfy.
But no words can fully tell of the joy and the blessing of Divine companionship. Think of the years when Christ walked with His personal friends, what His presence meant to them. And that short story of the Incarnation is not something past, which cannot be realized now. We may have those days over again, each one of us, with all their sweetness and helpfulness. Christ came down to earth, not to stay a few years only and then leave us—but to stay unto the end, and to walk with each one of us all the way home.
Another blessing that comes from walking with God, is the transfiguration of our common life. Many of us miss much of the beauty and the glory of life, because we do not know that God is with us. Life is all dark and mysterious, sometimes full of sorrow and disaster, when we know nothing of the love of God. But when His love fills our hearts—then all the world is changed. Even human love coming into a life, changes the aspect of all things. Only the other day a young friend came to tell of the coming of love, and the dear face was shining as if a holy lamp of heaven were burning within.
If human love brings such joy, the love of Christ brings infinitely more!
Enoch's walking with God was not interrupted by the common experiences of his life. "Enoch walked with God 300 years—and had other sons and daughters." Some people suppose they could continue to walk with God if they were engaged all the time in 'religious' work; but they do not suppose it possible to maintain a life of unbroken communion with Him, when they have to be at work in the shop, in the office, or in the kitchen. But the truth is, we may stay near Christ just as easily when at our daily duties—as when we are at our devotions.
There is a legend of a monk whose great desire was to see Christ and touch the hem of His divinity. At his monastery, he waited in prayer and penance before his crucifix. He had vowed that he would see no human face—until his prayer was granted. One morning he seemed to hear a voice which told him that his wish would be fulfilled that day. With eager joy he watched. There came a gentle tap upon his door, and the plaintive cry of a child was heard, pleading to be taken in and fed. But the voice of the cold and hungry little one, was unheeded. The 'saint' was busy with his devotions, watching for the vision of the Master, and must not be disturbed. The candles burned low and the monk grew dismayed. Why did not the vision appear? All he heard was, "Unhappy monk, you may pray on forever. The answer to your prayer was sent today—it lingered, then sobbed, then turned away."
God is quite as sure to come to walk with us, in the doing of some common task of love and kindness—as when we pray or sit at our Master's communion table. "For I was hungry—and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty—and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger—and you took Me in; I was naked—and you clothed Me; I was sick—and you took care of Me; I was in prison—and you visited Me." Matthew 25:35-36
To him who is walking with God—all life has glory. We do not know what we miss—when we fail to see the Great Companion who is ever by our side.
A little child was traveling with his mother over the sea. After a little while he asked, "Mother, where is the sea?" His mother said, "Why, we are on the sea. It is all around us." The child replied, "I see the waves—but where is the sea?"
Just so, we go through our days, all bright with the shining of God's glory, and ask, "Where is God?"
You remember how the disciples, going to Emmaus, talked with the Stranger who walked with them, about Jesus, telling how bitterly they had been disappointed, not knowing, not dreaming, that He who was walking with them—was the Master Himself for whom their hearts were breaking. So ofttimes, we walk on our ways in life with sadness, crying out for God, asking, "Where is He? Where can I find Him?" while all the time He is closer to us than our dearest friends. How a simpler faith would brighten all things for us—and reveal the Master to us!
Another blessing from walking with God, is a heavenly atmosphere. We know the value of atmosphere even in human friendships and associations. Everyone has an atmosphere of his own. With some people we feel ourselves in an atmosphere that is sweet, exhilarating, inspiring. All our life is quickened by their influence. With others we find a depressing atmosphere about us, when we enter their presence. Dr. Arnold used to say, "We too much live, as it were, out of God's atmosphere."
They used to build observatories in the heart of cities—but it was found that the atmosphere was unsuitable. It was not clear—but was full of smoke and dust which obscured the vision. Now observatories are built on the highest points that can be found, where the air is pure, so that observations can be made without hindrance. God walks always on the high levels—and those who walk with Him must leave the low valleys with their fogs and mists—and go up to the mountain-tops!
Another blessing from walking with God, is the cleansing of our lives. The influence of pure and good companionship is always transforming. John lay on Christ's bosom—and became like Christ. When two live together in close and intimate association, they grow alike. Intimacy with God, can result only in becoming like God.
Sometimes we want to run ahead of God—we cannot wait for Him. "Enoch walked with God." He waited for God—-was not impatient when God seemed slower than he wished. We must trust God when He delays to answer our prayers. He knows when to answer.
Then sometimes we hold back when God wants us to move quickly. Walking with God means that we must never parley nor dally when God moves on—but must move promptly, never falling behind.
So let us walk with God—wherever He leads us. The way may not be easy—but that is not our concern; our concern is only to walk with Him—without question, unfalteringly. He always leads in the right way—He will lead us home!
That was the way He led Enoch. "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away." People missed him one day and saw him no more—but he was not lost. God had simply lifted him over the river of death, so that he missed dying, and had taken him home!
Christian life here is very sweet. It is a glorious thing to walk with God in this world. But only in heaven can we get the whole of anything good, which was begun here. We are going on into that land where all faith's dreams shall be realized, where all love's visions shall be fulfilled. Nothing beautiful shall be lost. We shall meet our Christian friends on the other side; dying is but parting for a little while.
A child, about to fall asleep, threw her tired arms around her father's neck and said, "Good-night, dear father; I shall see you in the morning."
She was right. When we die, we are only saying to our remaining Christian friends, "Good-night!" And in a fairer land, we shall say "Good-morning!"
The Story of the Flood
Whatever the physical cause of the Flood may have been, the moral cause was sin! This is made clear in the narrative in Genesis. It was because of the wickedness of the people—that God determined to destroy the human race! The wickedness hinted at, was startling and vile. We cannot understand the connection between the Divine judgment and great natural catastrophes like the Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A large question is opened when we begin to think of this matter. What shall we say of storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, which often cause great ruin? Must we say that there is always a moral cause? Jesus seems to have forbidden this, in His allusion to the falling of the Tower of Siloam. So we dare not say that it was sin that directly caused any great catastrophe in ancient or modern history. We can understand how cholera and yellow fever are the penalties of the violation of the physical laws of sanitation.
But we can find a connection between the sin of the antediluvians, and the Flood; and between the wickedness of the Cities of the Plain—and the rain of fire which destroyed them. In the case of the Flood we may say that it was purely a miraculous visitation of judgment for sin—for we have a distinct statement of the fact.
The Flood was a great parable of coming eternal judgment. The wicked were swept from the earth—not without warning, for ample time was given while the ark was being built. Noah was also a preacher of righteousness. No doubt, like Jonah at Nineveh, he warned the people of the coming destruction, and called upon them to repent. But they heeded not the calls to repentance, and the judgment was not stopped.
The ark was not a normal ship. It was a great vessel built for floating on the water. It had neither sail nor oar nor rudder, and it would seem that it must have been guided in some supernatural way upon the rushing waters. God is always in His world, and He always keeps His eye upon His children—and reaches out His hand to protect, to rescue, and to keep His own.
During one of the great floods in the West, a few years ago, when the river overflowed its banks and swept houses, barns, buildings, and fences on its wild current, some men in a skiff saw a baby's cradle borne along in the stream. Rowing to it they found in it, sleeping as quietly and sweetly as it had ever slept in its mother's bosom—a little baby! God had cared for it in all the perils of waters. So God cared for Noah's ark in the great flood which swept from the earth all the human race, except for this one family.
We are not told anything about the experiences with the ark during the long months; or of the way the great, undirected vessel went on its strange voyage. We can only imagine the life the family lived, while shut in those long months. Perhaps they could see a little of what was going on outside—the rising floods, the destruction of lives, the terror and agony of the people who were perishing. Not a word is told of this, however, in the description of the appalling scenes as the waters rose.
A modern newspaper writer would have dwelt at length, in graphic fullness of detail, upon the tragic elements of the story—but the Bible narrative has not a word upon this phase of the subject. Nor have we any description of the feelings of Noah and his family, shut in with the varied mass of animals that were in the ark. We can easily imagine that the life was far from ideal, in its comfort and delight. But there must have been a serene sense of safety in the minds of Noah and his household, as the huge vessel went quietly on the floods. Yet was there not also a feeling of distress—as the dreadful work of judgment went on?
The Chaldean legend of the Deluge speaks of the sorrow caused by the great calamity. Noah, when he looked out upon the great sea which had swept all humanity from the earth—sat down and wept. The sense of desolation must indeed have been indescribable. No mention of this is made, however, in the Scriptural account. The Bible tells its story simply, plainly, baldly.
"God remembered Noah." He did not forget him for a moment. For a whole year, this rescued family were in the ark. For five months, the ark was floating about in the waters amid countless perils before it grounded—but it received no damage. So in all the wildest storms and floods of life—God cares for His children. He is Lord of all the forces of nature. Not a drop of water, even in angriest billows—ever breaks away from the control of the God who is our truest and most loving Friend!
At length, the appointed months had all passed. The provisions in the ark were nearly exhausted. The confinement must have grown more and more disagreeable, becoming almost unbearable. The family in the great vessel had been saved—but what was to be the outcome? We are not given any hint of the feelings of the imprisoned household during the long months. At length, however, the time of release drew near. The waters subsided, and at last were dried up. Noah and his family must have been happy when they left the ark. They went out at God's command. The earth had been cleansed of its sin. All the evil men had been swept away!
Noah's family were now the only human beings left. They were to begin life in the new world. We can think of the feelings of the little company—as they went out of the ark and stood once more on the dry ground. They had been spared from the universal destruction and they were grateful. They had been spared for a purpose, too—to start the human race again on a new plane. They must have felt a deep sense of responsibility as they stepped out and remembered that it was theirs now to possess the renovated earth for the God who had spared them for this very purpose. They were now to lead in a new trial of the human race. What would they make of the world which was now committed to them?
They began right. "Noah built an altar unto the Lord . . . and offered burnt offerings on the altar." Several things were implied in this devout act. It expressed Noah's gratitude to God, for the great deliverance he and his family had experienced. It put God first, in the new life on which they were now to enter. They acknowledged Him as their God.
It was really, a devotion and a consecration of Noah and his family to God. They really laid themselves upon the altar, their lives, their hopes, their hearts! Then it was the taking possession of the renewed earth for God, as when the discoverer of a new land hoists the flag of his country and claims the territory for his nation. It was a fit beginning of the new life they were to live. The race which had perished had desecrated the earth with their sins, and now this little company of redeemed ones were pledging themselves to keep the earth pure and holy.
This pious act of Noah has its suggestions also for us. After every deliverance from trouble, from danger, from sickness, from any trial; and after rising from our bed each morning, we should first of all thank God for His mercy. To Him we are indebted for every comfort, every blessing, and we should never fail to express our gratitude. Are we thoughtful as we ought to be, in thus recording our gratitude to Him from whom all our blessings come? We, too, should put God first in every new work or effort we make, in every plan, transaction, and undertaking, and at the opening of every new day.
"In the beginning God" should be the motto of all our life. "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" is our Master's summing up of all practical duty. "Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He shall direct your paths" is an inspiring rule of life with a wonderful promise added. We should renew our consecration to God at each new beginning. But are there not many who never think of God, nor give Him any honor anywhere, at any time in their lives?
We should claim for God—all that our feet stand upon. We are sent out by Christ to conquer the world for Him. Every advance we make, every gain of influence, every new success and prosperity—we should take possession of for our King.
God is glad to have us recognize and confess Him. It would have grieved Him, if Noah had come out of the ark after His great deliverance, set up his home, taking possession of the fields, and begun his work of tillage and building—with no word of thanks, no honoring of Him who had brought him through the terrible dangers. But Noah devoutly recognized the Divine hand, and God was pleased, and accepted the homage and the offering. "The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma." He was pleased with Noah's sacrifice.
In the ancient worship, incense was the emblem of prayer, and as the incense burned upon the fire—it gave out sweet aromas. True worship is fragrant to God. He smells a sweet aroma.
The Lord then made a covenant with Noah, saying, "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done." We live now under the blessing of this covenant and promise—that never again will He destroy all living creatures, and that "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter; day and night will never cease."
This promise must have been a great comfort to Noah and his family, as they stood there and looked upon a desolated earth. Terrible had been the experiences through which they had passed. There must have been in their hearts—a dread that this catastrophe might be repeated. But here was the promise of God that it should never be. "I confirm My covenant with you—that never again will all flesh be wiped out by the waters of a deluge; there will never again be a deluge to destroy the earth."
As the little company of saved ones stood there, this assurance must have been a great comfort to them. Ever since that day, too, this same promise has been a ground of confidence to the dwellers on the earth. Floods have left devastation in many places—but there has always been the abiding assurance of a "Hitherto shall you come—and no further; and here shall your proud waves be stayed!" as this ancient covenant has been remembered.
This Divine word is another illustration of the truth, that all nature's forces are under the control of God. He gathers and holds the winds of heaven in His fists! The waters He measures in the hollow of His hand. The Scriptures everywhere represent God as thus directly holding and controlling all the powers of nature, so that no tremendous energy of the elements can ever break from His grasp or go a hair's breadth beyond the bounds He sets for it!
Science now explains so many things which devout people in the past have loved to look upon, as the very 'acts of God', that some have begun to wonder whether, after all, our Father really has anything to do with nature. But what is nature? It is all God's handiwork. What are the "laws of nature"? They are nothing but God's ways of working. The powers that work so mightily in earth and air—God put there! Can these powers be greater than He who lodged them in His works? We need never fear that any scientific discovery shall show us a world beyond the control of God. We know, too, as Christians, that the God who made all and controls all—is our Father! And we are sure that we shall be securely sheltered and guarded in every danger.
The blessing of God makes rich. He accepted the consecration of Noah and his family, and then sent them out to possess the new earth for Him. They were to replenish it, starting a new human family that should be holy and pure. They were also given authority over the beasts, the fowls of the air, the fish of the sea, and over all life. It is a beautiful thought, that God's covenant with Noah included every living creature. It is astonishing how God's care extends even to the beasts. Think of God making a covenant with the cattle that roam the valleys, the sheep that graze in the meadows, the birds that fly in the air, and even with the insects that chirp in the fields. We know, too, that this care is real. There are promises in other parts of the Bible, which contain the same assurance.
"He feeds the wild animals, and the young ravens cry to him for food!" Psalm 147:9
"He makes grass grow for the cattle!" Psalm 104:14
Then our Lord said, "Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them!" Luke 12:24
There is even a promise for the flowers. Our Lord says, "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field..."
Of course the lesson for us from all this is the one which Jesus taught. If God cares for birds and flowers, how much more will He care for His own dear children!
God deals with His children in a most simple and gracious way. We see it in His gentleness to Noah and his family, after they left the ark. After their terrible experience they would naturally be in dread every time there was a continuous rain. But God assured them that He never would again destroy the earth with a flood. Then, to make their confidence still stronger—He made the rainbow, which probably was then appearing, to be a seal or pledge of His promise.
"And God said—I am giving you a sign as evidence of my eternal covenant with you and all living creatures. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life!" Genesis 9:12-15
It is a beautiful thought that God allows Himself to be reminded of His covenant. He says that when He sees the rainbow in the cloud—He will remember His covenant. Every time we see a rainbow—we can look at it and think that God is looking at it at the same time and is remembering His ancient promise.
The Lord's Supper is another beautiful token of a Divine covenant. Christ wants us to receive it and by it to be reminded of His love and sacrifice and of His blessed covenant of redemption. It thus becomes to us—a pledge that all His promises will be sacredly fulfilled. It is a sweet thought that Christ, as He looks upon the same emblems also remembers—thinks of us and of His own covenant of love.
Of course all this, as applied to God, is but an adaptation to human forms of expression. God never forgets. He never needs to be reminded of His promises. He requires no mementoes or memorials to make Him faithful. But His condescension to our manner of human thought, so as to make His love the more real to us—is very gracious indeed!
The Call of Abraham
The purpose of the Bible is not to give the history of the human race—but to tell the story of redemption. In a sense, this begins with Abraham. No doubt there always were good men in the world, although the number of them at times may have been very small. The Flood left only one family for a new beginning of the race—but the new earth did not continue pure and holy. Even Noah, whose life had so pleased God by its righteousness, that he had been spared from the destruction of the race—did not close his career without stain. The story of his fall is a sad one. The spectacle of such a man lying drunk and naked on the floor—is most pitiful.
Again the race multiplied—and the people swarmed everywhere. The tenth chapter of Genesis tells us of the races that sprang from Noah's three sons and their distribution over the earth. The story of the Tower of Babel seems to indicate a Divine overthrow of a great human revolt, an attempt to establish a universal kingdom. The confounding of languages, led to the scattering of the people into different portions of the world. It seems to have been a judgment, and perhaps was regarded as a calamity by the people themselves—but no doubt proved to be one of those great providences which mean so much in human history.
From this time, the Scripture narrative narrows to the family of Shem, and in this family to the story of one man, Abraham. We are not told of any great supernatural events or experiences in Abraham's life. He lived in Ur of the Chaldees. Abraham's family were idolaters. "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods." Joshua 24:2. Perhaps Abraham himself as a young man worshiped idols. Tradition has interesting stories of his early struggles with idolatry.
We are told that the Lord commanded Abraham to get out of his country and away from his kindred and his father's house to a land which would be shown to him. We are not told how this Divine call came to Abraham. Was there a theophany, an appearance of God in a human form, such as afterwards occurred before the destruction of Sodom? Or did God come to Abraham in some strange vision, as later he came to Jacob at Bethel or at Jabbok, or to Moses in the burning bush?
We are not told how it was, that the Lord gave His message to Abraham. It may have been in some quiet way, with no display of supernatural brightness, with nothing marked or unusual. We are in danger of letting ourselves suppose that when God comes to us—He comes always in some startling way, while the truth is, that He nearly always comes in common ways. Once He appeared in a bush that burned with fire—but evermore He comes in bushes which are not burning, and we do not see Him and go on with our irreverence, keeping on our shoes.
When Philip said to Jesus, "Show us the Father," he was craving a display of glory, like a Sinai or a Transfiguration. Jesus told him He had been showing Him the Father every day for two or three years. He referred to His own life of kindness, mercy, love and holiness. Jesus Himself was God manifest in the flesh. It is always so. There is not a day when God does not come to us and show us the splendor of His glory in some sweet human kindness, in some gentle thoughtfulness that is full of Divine beauty and grace, in some deed of unselfishness that is a thousand times more dazzling in angels' eyes—than was the fire on Sinai!
Let us not get the impression that God does not appear to men in these days—because He does not seem to come to them as He came to the boy Samuel in his sleep, or as He came to Gideon in the threshing-floor. He is always coming to men. Let us not conclude that God does not any more call us to new duties, to great tasks, to heroic missions—because He does not speak in a loud voice, or deliver His message in some startling way. The world is just as full of God today—as it was in Bible days. We do not know how God called Abraham. We know only that He called him, and Abraham was sure that He called him.
In some way, it became clear to Abraham that there was only one God. Everybody else believed there were many gods. How this truth of one God came to Abraham, we are not told. The conviction may have grown gradually and slowly. Jewish tradition, however, represents the patriarch, as faithful to Jehovah from his childhood.
One myth says that he lived in early boyhood in a cave and did not come out of it until he was a growing lad. "When he first left it," says the legend, "looking up at the heavens over him, and round about him upon the earth, he began to think, 'Who could have made all this?' Presently, the sun rose in splendor, and he thought it must be the Maker of the universe, and cast himself down before it and worshiped the whole day. But when evening came the sun sank out of sight, and Abraham said it could not be the Creator of all—or it would not set. Then the moon rose in the east and the countless army of stars came forth. 'Surely the moon is the Lord of all and the stars are the host of His servants,' cried Abraham, and, bowing himself before the moon, he worshiped it. But the moon went down, the light of the stars faded, and the sun appeared again on the edge of the sky. Then he said, 'Truly all these heavenly bodies together could not have created the universe; they listen to the voice of an Unseen Ruler, to whom all things owe their being. Him alone, will I henceforward worship; before Him alone, will I henceforward bow.'"
In whatever way the Divine command came to Abraham—the call was clear, explicit, and positive. "Leave your country, your people and your father's household—and go to the land I will show you." Genesis 12:1
It was a call to separation. Abraham was living among idolaters—and he must go out from the midst of them. His own family were idolaters—and he must leave them.
It was also a call to sacrifice. He must give up his country and his possessions. All true life must be sacrificial. It costs to live worthily. Jesus required His followers to leave their homes, their business, their property. All Christian growth is by abandonment, by giving up, by forgetting the things that are behind and reaching forth to things that are before. We must sacrifice earthly things—if we would gain things that are heavenly. The student who would win the honors of scholarship, must forego many self-indulgences. The Christian who would attain the highest things in spiritual life and achievement, must sacrifice many pleasures and amusements which in themselves may not be morally wrong—but which cannot be indulged in—if he is going to do his best as a follower of his Master.
Too many people who want to be Christians, do not heed this call to "leave your country, your people and your father's household". They want to have the blessings and the comforts of Christian life—without giving up the associations, the friendships, the gains, and the enjoyments of the world. Perhaps it is this lack of sacrifice—which is the greatest impediment of the Church in these days. It does not have the power from on high because it does not give up the present world.
Abraham was called also to a life of faith. He had at first no promise of a definite country that would be given to him—in place of the country he was commanded to leave. It was only "the land that I will show you." Some people are disappointed when they do not find in the Christian life—the worldly prosperity and the temporal good they desired. The fact is that Abraham never received a country of his own—in place of the one he gave up. He was never anything but a pilgrim. Later Canaan was promised to him—but he did not himself receive it. He had to purchase and pay for the little plot of it he needed for a burying-place for his family.
Those who are called to follow Christ are promised an inheritance. They are told that they are heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, that all things are theirs. Yet many of them never receive much of this world.
We too are called to a life of faith. God has a land in waiting for us—a land that He will show us. But it is not earthly acres, houses, money, riches, ease, honor, power. We may be called to give up all of this world in going with Christ—and may never receive any earthly reward. But we will receive Christ and all spiritual blessing and good here on earth—and then in the end eternal life!
The Lord promised to make Abraham the father of a great posterity, "I will make you a great nation." This promise was fulfilled. No name in all history compares with Abraham's in honor, in influence, in greatness. Not only is he revered by the Jewish people; he is also the father of a great spiritual seed, including all who call themselves Christians. Then millions of Mohammedans also call him their father.
"And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you!" Not only was Abraham to be great himself if he would obey God's call; he would also become a blessing to countless multitudes. This is always the law of spiritual life: blessed—to be a blessing. This is God's offer and message to all of us. He wants to bless us—and then He wants us to be a blessing to others. When He would bless a little child—He puts a gift of love into a mother's heart. When He would bless a class of young people or children—He sends a teacher full of warm sympathy and earnest interest in souls. When He would bless a community—He raises up a good man and touches his heart, that he may scatter benefits among the people.
Always, too, when God blesses us with gifts of whatever kind—He wants us to be a blessing to others. Nothing that we have is ours for ourselves alone; we receive, that we may dispense again. When God gives anyone money, He intends him to use it to be a blessing to the world. When God bestows upon anyone the gift of song, or of eloquence, or the artist's power. He desires these gifts to be used to make men better and happier. Our lives should all be both blessed—and a blessing. We should never live for ourselves. We should seek always to live so as to make the world better, purer, happier, sweeter. We need God, and God needs us in order to reach others with His grace and goodness. He would bless others through us. If we fail, we check the flow of God's blessing to others.
The Lord extended the promise, so that all who were friendly to Abraham would also receive a Divine blessing. "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." It is wonderful how God makes common cause with His people. It is a perilous thing to lift a hand against any of God's people, for he who does so, lifts his hand against God. Christ says the same of His followers. To be kind to one of His people—is to be kind to Him. To harm a Christian—is to harm Christ. To neglect a suffering Christian—is the same as if Christ Himself were suffering and we neglected Him. We need to beware that we never do injury of any kind—to the least of Christ's little ones. On the other hand, all kindness done to a friend of Christ in His name—is done to Christ Himself, and is rewarded accordingly. Even the giving of a cup of cold water to a disciple of His, does not go without reward.
Abraham believed God, and at once obeyed the call that had come to him. "Abram left, as the Lord had told him." He did not know where he was going, or what country was to be given to him; he had simply the call of God and the promise. But he asked no questions. He did not insist on knowing how his journey would come out, how profitable it would be, and just what he would get in exchange for the land he was leaving. Quietly, without doubt or hesitation, and without question or assurance of anything to come, he rose and cut the ties that bound him to his old home—and was off. That is the kind of faith all of us should have, whenever God calls us.
Some people insist upon seeing where they are going before they will follow Christ. But that is not walking by faith. We should not trouble ourselves to know where we are to be led—if only we know that God has us by the hand. We do not need to know what lies over the hill—if God is leading us. His guidance is safe, and we should be willing to trust Him and to do precisely what He says, and go just where He leads, without asking any questions. Abraham's life is a picture of a true walk with God.
Having left Ur, Abraham stopped for a time in Haran. His father was feeble and probably unable to travel, and he tarried at Haran until the end came. Haran was only half way to the land of promise. There is a pathetic suggestion in the fact that Terah died there. The old man's eyes never looked on the land of promise. Probably when the company of emigrants reached Haran, his feeble strength gave out and he could go no farther. The whole party then had to wait and watch beside the old man until he died and was buried. He had started too late on the long journey.
There is a lesson here for the old, that they should not defer too long any good thing they think of doing, any kindness they would show, any piece of work they would do. An old man with trembling hands planted a tree before his door. He said he wanted to enjoy its shade. But long before the tree had grown to strength so that it could cast a shade, the old man was in his grave. He planted the tree too late.
Abraham never settled down anywhere in this land of promise. "Abram traveled through the land." Genesis 12:6. That was all he ever did. He never stayed long anywhere. Abraham's pilgrim life in Canaan illustrates what every Christian life should be in this world, a journey through it—and not a settling down in it. We should be in the world, for we owe duties to it; we have blessings in our hands for it; but we are not of the world, and should never allow the world to possess us or engross us. However, that is not the way most people like to live in this world. They would rather settle down and have their permanent possessions here. Still the Bible idea of a life of faith—is not to take deep root anywhere here on earth—but to look forward for our true and eternal home, regarding this present life merely as a pilgrimage to it.
God promised the country to Abraham's family after him. "Unto your seed, I will give this land." He would not get it himself—but his children would possess it. The same history is being repeated continually. Parents toil, suffer, and wait, and do not themselves get the reward of their services and sacrifices. They die without seeing the blessings for which they have wrought. Then their children reap the fruit of their parents' sowing and tears. Thousands who live now in ease and luxury—are enjoying the good for which their parents toiled—but in vain. We do not always remember what we owe to those who have gone before us. Sometimes a fashionable and wealthy woman is almost ashamed of her old-fashioned father and mother; but she ought to remember that it is because they worked hard and saved carefully—that she is what she is, and has what she has today.
The artist was painting a portrait of an old mother who had passed away, using a photograph as a model. He proposed leaving out some of the lines in the photograph, that the face in the portrait might look fresher and fairer. But the son said, "No, no! Do not take out one of the lines. It wouldn't be my mother if one of them were missing!" Then he told the story of the mother's toils, sacrifices, and sufferings for her children, how she had nursed them in diphtheria, how she had gone without even the necessaries of life—that they might not hunger and might not want anything. The lines and wrinkles on the old face, told the story of the mother's holy love and were sacred. Every one of them must stay in the picture!
Wherever Abraham went he took God with him. "There he built an altar unto the Lord." It is good to mark the bright spots in our path, especially where God appears to us. We ought to mark our red-letter days—so as not to forget them. Some people are a great deal more apt to remember their sad days—than their bright days. We do not forget the days of our troubles—when the baby died, when we lost the money, when we had the long sickness, when we met the sore misfortune; but we very often forget the date of the great joy, the rich blessing, or the Divine help. The best way to mark these bright places, is by some act of homage towards God.
Abraham and Lot
Genesis 12:10-20, 13
The story begins in Egypt. How did it happen that Abraham was there? Why had he left his promised land? We have the account in full. There was a famine in Canaan. Even the godly, living under the Divine guidance, do not have unbroken prosperity. The child of God is not promised exemption from the trials of life; his promise is, grace to meet every hard experience, strength to endure, Divine protection and provision.
A famine was a great calamity to Abraham with his flocks and herds. What should he do? In his distress he went to Egypt and there found, no doubt, rich pastures. It is quite certain, however, that he did wrong in fleeing to Egypt in his need. At least there is no record of his asking counsel of God in his trouble, or of his being divinely sent there. It seems to have been a lack of faith that made him turn away from his own land in time of distress to find provision in a heathen country. A similar mistake is made ofttimes by Christian people in modern days. They take the care of their life into their own hands—rather than trust it in God's hands. In time of need or trial—they have recourse to earthly sources of supply rather than to God. God's call is not always to unbroken prosperity—but it is always a call to truth and righteousness. We must do right, whatever our dilemma may be.
Another sad thing resulted from this flight into Egypt. An oak-tree was once shattered by lightning, and in its hollow trunk was found a skeleton with some old military buttons and a pocketbook. The latter bore some pencil scratches, which, when deciphered, told that a soldier, fleeing from the Indians, had jumped into an open cavity where the tree-top was broken off. To his terror, the tree was hollow to the root, and he fell to the bottom, and there, hopelessly imprisoned, he died. His refuge proved worse than the terrors from which he fled. So it is to those who look to the world for shelter. Thus Abraham found it in Egypt. He got entangled in the world's nets—and did things that were not right.
"Abram said to his wife Sarai—I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live!" So he resorted to falsehood to save himself. The result was a predicament from which he had great trouble in extricating himself, and from which he came with dishonor. We may learn from Abraham's experience, that a lie is never necessary nor justifiable to save us from any danger. God does not need any of our fabrications in protecting us. Truth is the only safety in any case.
No doubt Abraham left Egypt wiser, stronger, and firmer in his hold upon the Divine covenant. He "went up out of Egypt." He went at once after escaping from his wretched entanglement with Egyptian authority. The narrative says he "went up." It was up in more ways than one—from a low moral plane—to the higher planes of sturdy heroism and obedience to the truth.
It is said that when Abraham returned he went at once to "the place where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord." The language seems to indicate the thoroughness of his repentance—back to where he first began. Then he called upon the Lord, which indicates possibly that he had not been calling upon God of late—but had been taking his own course. Our repentance when we have sinned, should be complete; we should never stop half way. And if we have been leaving God out of our life at any time, we cannot get right again until we have gone back to His altar and started in the new.
"Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. Genesis 13:2. God's favor was restored to Abraham, and he continued to prosper. He grew very rich. But riches do not insure one ease or worldly comfort. Indeed, as wealth increases—cares multiply! The Hebrew word for "riches" means "heavy." Riches ofttimes prove to be a very heavy load indeed! Sometimes in shipwrecks, men have tried to carry their gold away with them—but it was so heavy that it sank them to the bottom of the sea! Just so, many are dragged down into the deep sea of perdition—by the money which they gather into their pockets!
Riches ofttimes interfere with friendship. We are told in this story of a strife caused by wealth. "And quarreling arose between Abram's herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot." Lot was Abraham's nephew. He had joined his uncle when he migrated from Ur. He too had been greatly prospered. The flocks and herds of the two men had become so vast, that they spread over all the land. There was not room enough for both of them, with all their possessions, in the same neighborhood. So here we see something of the evil of great wealth. It kindles jealousy and strife between men. Too often riches make men greedy and selfish. They learn to think only of themselves and their own enrichment, and do not remember that others have the same right to prosper. They forget Paul's counsel that men should think of each other's good, preferring one another in love, and then strife follows.
This is a good place to take a lesson on the sin and unbeauty of quarreling. One of the aims of Christianity, is to teach men the art of living together peaceably. Love is the ideal of the true and beautiful life our Lord wishes us to live. Love is patient and kind. Love does not behave rudely, seeks not its own, is not provoked. We may well give heed to Abraham's beseeching. "Let's not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers." Strife anywhere between any people is wrong and very foolish—but strife between members of the same family is exceedingly unchristian.
The lesson applies not to members of the same families only—but to Christians. We should live together in love. One of the reasons here given by Abraham why there should be no strife between him and Lot was that "the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land." Nothing would have pleased these heathen tribes better—than a bitter quarrel between Abraham and Lot. Nothing pleases the world better—than to see Christians quarreling among themselves. It gives the world an opportunity, with apparent good reason, to sneer at piety.
Then, it hinders the progress of Christianity. A quarrel in one Church in a community destroys more good than all the other Churches in the community can accomplish! The newspapers eagerly spread the scandal, and evil men gloat over it. Nothing harms religion more than strife among its adherents. We remember that in our Lord's great intercessory prayer, it was from discord and division that He asked God to keep His disciples, "that they all may be one." The Canaanite and the Perizzite are still in the land where we dwell, with keen eye for all inconsistencies in the followers of the Master. We must walk in love, and thus prove the reality and the beauty of the Christian life.
It is ofttimes better, no doubt, for people not to attempt to live together in close and intimate relations, if they cannot live peaceably. "Separate, that friendship may remain," says an old writer. This was Abraham's suggestion to Lot: "Is not the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left." In making this suggestion Abraham also showed his unselfish generosity, for although he had the first right—he gave Lot his choice.
This is what the true Christian spirit always inspires one to do. Some people are forever haggling about their rights. If they had been in Abraham's place they would have said to Lot, "If you cannot get along peaceably here alongside of me, you can go elsewhere. This is my country, and I am going to stay here." But Abraham showed a much nobler spirit. He did not want to quarrel—he would not quarrel. He was illustrating two thousand years in advance Paul's counsel, "If it be possible, as much as in you lies, live at peace with all men." He was willing to secure peace—by giving up his own rights and yielding to those of Lot. We should always be ready to yield our own rights, rather than quarrel.
If all people were like this old patriarch, there would be no quarrels or contentions, and no need for courts to settle disputes between man and man.
When Abraham had manifested his noble generosity in offering Lot his choice, Lot revealed the selfishness of his heart by grabbing the best of the land. Lot ought to have modestly but firmly said, "I cannot consent to take my choice. This land is yours—God has given it all to you. I am only accompanying you and through your kindness sharing the blessing that is yours. You choose the portion that you would have, and allot to me the part of the land, whatever it is, in which you would have me to live." But Lot did not have in him a generous or even a just feeling. He never thought of declining Abraham's great-hearted kindness. He was greedy and quickly accepted the opportunity to get the best. "Lot chose all the plain of Jordan."
There are several things about this choice which reveal the man who made it. It was a most selfish choice. Abraham had generously offered Lot his choice of the land, and Lot deliberately selected the richest and best, forgetting that he owed all his prosperity to Abraham. The Christian teaching is not to seize the best, even if we seem to have a right to the best. George Macdonald says somewhere, that the finest thing about "our rights" is that, being our own, we can give them up if we wish. Jesus teaches us not to pick out the best places at a feast—but to take humble seats. Lot was selfish, and selfishness is never beautiful. We will always be ashamed of it—when we see our acts in their true light.
Then Lot's choice was also worldly. He saw that the Jordan valley was the richest spot in all that region, and he asked no further questions about it. He made no inquiry about its moral character, or if he did, he was not influenced when he had learned of the wickedness of the people in the Plain. He would find there the best pasture for his flocks, gather the richest harvests—and would soon grow rich. He looked no farther. No doubt he knew the character of the people in the valley—that they were very wicked. But he overlooked this fact, saw only the fertile valley and rich pasture lands, giving no thought to the terrible moral corruption of the people who would be his neighbors. As we read on in the story—we shall see the full result of the worldly choice which Lot made.
Abraham seemed to have accepted a disadvantage when he allowed Lot to take the richest part of the country; but when we look at the two men's possessions in the light of Divine teaching—we see that the advantage was really Abraham's. "Abraham dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot moved his tent as far as Sodom." No doubt Abraham's portion was less fertile than Lot's; but fertility is not all. Lot went down into his chosen valley, and pitched his tent toward Sodom. That is, he kept moving nearer and nearer to the wicked city. The next thing we hear of him—he is in the city! Then he is one of its chief men, for we find him sitting in the gate. We shall see a little later, what his worldly choice cost him in the end. There came a time when he had to flee from the condemned city, losing all that he had, barely escaping with his life, and even then besmirched with the pollution of the foul place! It is not safe to pitch one's tent toward Sodom. We would better live on the barest hills—and work like slaves to earn our bread.
After Lot had made his choice, taking for his own the richest portion of the land, God appeared to Abraham and renewed to him the promise of great blessing. In this vision Abraham was given a glimpse of the advantages that were in the rougher, less fertile portion that was left to him. He had God with him, God's favor. He received from God, promises of great future blessing—a seed like the dust of the earth for multitude, and an influence reaching over the whole world and through all time. It is better to have a rocky farm and God—than to have the fertile valley of Sodom without Him!
God's Promise to Abraham
Lot had made a "good deal," as men say, in getting for his own such a rich section of the land. No doubt he congratulated himself on his fine fortune. We are not told whether he showed any gratitude toward Abraham, or whether he was one of those men who take all they can get, thanking neither God nor their fellow-man for any favor. There is need for cultivating a spirit of gratitude towards those who are kind to us and do things for us.
Soon, however. Lot found himself in trouble. He had pitched his tent in the neighborhood of Sodom, and one day there was great consternation in the valley when it was reported that King Chedorlaomer and his army were advancing over the hills with an irresistible force of warriors. The kings of the cities of the Plain were defeated in battle, their people were carried away as captives, and their goods as spoil. Among those taken captive, was Lot with his family and his possessions. Perhaps Lot began to see now, the mistake he had made. His misfortune had come through his worldly choice.
News of the disaster soon reached Abraham, in his safe place among the hills. Probably he would not have felt called upon to attempt the rescue of the people of Sodom; but when he heard that his nephew was taken captive, he assembled his men and pursued the enemy, and brought back Lot and his goods and also the people of Sodom who had been carried away.
Some men, after having been treated as Abraham had been by Lot, would not have felt called upon to do anything to rescue him—but Abraham, with his large-heartedness, instantly forgot Lot's selfishness toward him and treated him as a brother. We would say that Lot would be lavish in his gratitude to Abraham for rescuing him—but we have no record of a word of thanks from him. The king of Sodom showed his gratitude to Abraham for bringing back his people—but no mention is made of Lot coming to say how thankful he was. Men who do injustice to you or treat you unkindly—are the last to show gratitude to you for kindnesses you may do.
Abraham seems to have been afraid after his attack upon Chedorlaomer. He had been easily successful—but he knew that the men he had defeated would probably return to seek revenge.
He did not want to become embroiled with them. In this time, therefore, when he was afraid, God came to him to reassure and comfort him: "Fear not, Abram: I am your shield." He did not say He would prepare a shield for Abraham, He said He Himself would be his shield. We need never be afraid of any danger—if we are obeying God and living faithfully. He who would do us harm—must first smite down God who is our shield!
But there was something else that was causing anxiety to Abraham, besides the danger from the hordes of the mountains. A great promise had been given to him, the promise of an abounding posterity—but as yet he had no child! "O Lord Jehovah, what will You give me, seeing I go childless?" God comes now to comfort him in this great hunger of his heart.
It is interesting to notice the patience and kindness of the Lord in the way He sought now to encourage Abraham. "He brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven." It is always a good thing to get people to look toward heaven. God likes to point us there, especially when we are discouraged, for He loves to be an encourager. There is always a bright outlook heavenward, however dark it may be on the earth. There always are stars shining there, though clouds may be all about us where we stand. Heaven is a place of hope. God is there, glory and home are there. We should train ourselves to look up and not down.
The heart follows the eyes, and if we accustom ourselves to keep our eyes toward the earth—we shall grow to care only for earthly things. But if we look up, our life will grow upward, our affections will be fixed on things above, and we shall have our treasure in heaven.
The stars became an object-lesson that night in the Lord's teaching, in helping Abraham to realize the numberlessness of his posterity in the future. "Number the stars, if you be able to number them . . so shall your seed be." Once before, God had given Abraham a similar promise, using then the dust under his feet as a measure of computation. Whenever he looked down at the ground he would think of God's promise and of the countless family that was assured to him. But now God gave him another sign. This time he pointed him to the heavens. His seed should be as the stars. The stars suggest radiancy, glory. He bade Abraham count them. Modern science makes this promise mean very much more than it did to Abraham. It is said that only five or six thousand stars are visible to the unaided eye—but with a modern telescope there are millions and millions—eighteen million stars, astronomers tell us, in the zone called the Milky Way alone. The promise, therefore, was far greater than Abraham himself knew.
Abraham's response to the Lord's assurance, shows a childlike trust. "He believed Jehovah: and he reckoned it to him for righteousness." The Hebrew word for believed is very strong. It means that Abraham reposed upon God's word of promise—as a child nestles in a mother's arms. It is a wonderful picture of faith. That is what faith in God should always be—a lying down in God's bosom, a resting upon God in deep confidence. There was no human reason for expecting that Abraham should have such a posterity. He was growing old and had no child. Yet God assured him that he should have a seed as countless as the stars, and Abraham believed God's word, without question. He would not perplex himself about the time or the way the promise would be fulfilled—but would simply rest upon God, lean upon Him, trust Him—and leave all to His loving wisdom. There was no more doubting on Abraham's part after this.
This is the kind of faith that pleases God. It is what Christ would have us exercise in Him. We cannot see Him—but we may trust Him, because He has assured us that if we believe in Him—He will save us, bless and use us, and bring us at last home to glory. He would have us repose upon His promises and trust our life, for time and for eternity, absolutely in His hands. Such faith is imputed for righteousness.
We need to think carefully of the importance of faith. In these days, the whole force of Christian teaching is toward activity. The followers of Christ are urged to be instant in season and out of season in the work of their Master. These are great missionary days. Christians are awaking as never before, to the duty of carrying the gospel to all lands, to every creature. Those who are taking no part in this work are not fulfilling their Lord's will and command. Young believers are taught to take up at once some work in the Church. It is here that all Christian teaching focuses.
And there is nothing amiss in thus putting the emphasis on service. We must show our faith—in our works. If we believe on Christ, we must devote ourselves without reserve to His service. If the world is to be won for Christ, everyone who is Christ's friend must do his part. Nevertheless it is important that we keep ever in mind, the truth that without faith it is impossible to please God, that we are justified by faith, that it is only through faith we are united to Christ and receive power for life and service. Abraham was simply to believe God—that was all. He had nothing whatever to do with the fulfillment of the promises. Nor have we. Faith links us to God—our littleness to His almightiness, and then He does the work—not He without us, certainly never we without Him—but He in us and through us. Let us get a fresh vision of the meaning and importance of faith. The greatest measure of work without faith—will accomplish nothing.
The Lord then said that His plan for Abraham's future would not fail. "I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur . . . to give you this land." God had had a plan for Abraham's life from the beginning. When He called him from his old heathen home, He had all his future in His thought. He intended then to give Canaan to his seed.
God has a plan for every life. There is something He wants each one of us to do, something He made us to do, a place we are born to fill. Paul puts this in a wonderful way when he says, "Those He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified." God has a glorious plan for the life of every one He calls from sin. Those who, like Abraham, listen to His call and leave all to follow Him—at last receive the inheritance of eternal life. Those who despise the call and stay in their sins—miss all this glorious destiny which might have been theirs, which was offered to them and rejected.
Abraham asked for some token that the promise would be fulfilled. "How shall I know that I shall inherit it?" We all like to have tokens of love from our friends, though we never for one moment doubt their affection. When friends are called to separate for a time, they sometimes exchange gifts. A gift is not only a pledge, but is also a constant reminder, in absence, of the loved one who is ever faithful and true.
A young man was going abroad for a long journey, and when he was about to leave home his father gave him a watch, bearing upon the dial plate, the miniature pictures of both his parents. He asked his son to carry the watch on all his journey, and every time he looked at it he would think of the faithful, tender love at home. The young man would never have doubted this love, though he had carried no token of it; yet this pledge made the love seem more real and was a great comfort to him when far away from home. The Lord's Supper is a similar pledge from Christ to every Christian in this world. We do not doubt Christ's love for us—but this memorial feast makes the love seem more real and keeps it ever fresh in mind.
In answer to Abraham's request for some token—a vision was granted to him. The meaning of the vision is made clear. "Know this for certain: Your offspring will be strangers in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterwards they will go out with many possessions. But you will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. In the fourth generation they will return here." Abraham himself would not receive the fulfillment of the promise, nor his immediate descendants. But four generations later the promise would be realized. There would be dark days of toil and sorrow meanwhile—but beyond these dark days—bright days would come.
God's thoughts are long; He plans for long periods, for generations and ages future. Because a promise has not an immediate fulfillment, we are not to conclude that it has failed. Some of God's wheat grains are long in coming to harvest.
The same is often true of the Divine promises. They are long in being kept. There must be a time of preparation before fulfillment can come. We do not know what we must suffer and endure—before the spiritual beauty of which we dream when we consecrate ourselves to God, can be realized in us. We are only part, too, of a great company of believers who are to work in the bringing in of the kingdom. Our portion may be small, only a tear or two, only a word spoken for the Master, only a short day of service—and then death. It would take generations, the Lord told Abraham, to make ready for the occupancy of the promised land. Let us learn to believe—and to wait.
We do not live for ourselves nor for our own age alone; we live for those who will come after us, even generations hence. We may be only foundation layers—and may never see the superstructure rising. But no matter. If we can make a good beginning, which after we are gone shall grow to nobleness, will not the honor of the work be ours? Indeed, those whom the world honors most highly today—are the men who themselves did not see completed the great things they began. This was true of Abraham, of Moses, of John the Baptist, of Luther, of Calvin. They wrought in faith, receiving not the promise themselves—but only laying foundations for after generations to build upon, sowing seed for future harvests.
The faith of Abraham was sorely tried by the long waiting before Isaac was born. The promise was repeated again and again—but still its fulfillment was delayed. Sarah seems to have lost faith altogether when she gave her maid, Hagar, to Abraham to be his wife. It is instructive to note the consequences of this foolish and unbelieving resort. Only think how different the history of the world might have been through the long centuries—if Ishmael had not been born. From him came the vast Arab tribes which swarm over the East, claiming Abraham as their father, and the promises made to him as their inheritance. The Mohammedans are Ishmael's descendants, and when we think of their vast numbers, their hatred of Christianity, their bloody wars and persecutions, and all their opposition to the world's true progress—we see something of the evil that has come from Sarah's unbelief!
The lesson for us is, never to doubt God's promise, however long its fulfillment may be delayed, and never to resort to any schemes or devices of our own—to hasten a Divine purpose. Sarah's trouble was that she could not wait. Then she thought she would help God.
A little girl had been out quite a while. When she came in at length her mother asked her where she had been. "In the garden, mother." "What were you doing in the garden, my dear?" "I was helping God," the child replied. She explained that she had found a rose almost blossomed, and had blossomed it. But she had only ruined the rose. There are many people who try in the same way to help God, and try by schemes of their own to hasten the results they are expecting. The consequences to the world in the case of Sarah's impatient and unbelieving interference with God's way—show us the peril of taking our affairs out of God's hands into our own. We must trust and wait. We may trust, too, without doubting, for God's word never can fail. We may wait, for God's time is always the right time.
Abraham is called the friend of God. Once God speaks of him as "Abraham, My friend." We have in our Bible chapters a beautiful illustration of God's friendship for Abraham. It was just before the coming of the terrible judgment on Sodom, and God tells Abraham what He is about to do, giving the reason why He thus confides in him.
"The Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham this thing which I do?" The language is human. God is represented as a man reasoning with Himself as to what He should do. We see in this verse, a wonderful revealing of the Divine heart. We think of a man who has a great project about to be wrought out. Thus far he has carried the secret in his own heart, telling it to no one. But he has a friend, one he loves very much, to whom he confides everything, from whom he conceals nothing. One day he says, "I feel like telling my friend about this important thing which I am purposing and planning to do. I love him and trust him, and he loves and trusts me. To keep from him the knowledge of my purpose—is not consistent with my love for him." That is the way God is represented here as speaking with Himself about Abraham. He puts the highest honor upon him. But that is just the glory of the Divine grace—its wondrous condescension. Abraham is lifted up by this Divine act—to a sharing of the very innermost counsels of God's heart. God dealt with him as a man deals with his most intimate, confidential friend.
In one of the Psalms we read, "The friendship of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant." We have the same truth taught in our Lord's words to His disciples, when He says, "No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knows not what his Lord does: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard from My Father—I have made known unto you." God is ever ready to disclose to us—the secrets of His love. But we must be near to Him to enjoy this privilege. It was to John who lay upon His bosom, that Jesus revealed the innermost things of His heart. Peter, sitting farther off at the table, when he wished to learn something from his Master, beckoned to John—and John whispered the question in the Lord's ear, and got the answer.
Those who live near to Christ's heart—have closer intimacy with Him than those who stay on the outskirts of the disciple household. We cannot dwell remote from Christ, in spirit, in feeling, in character, in service—and learn the sweetest things. He tells us that He will manifest Himself to those who love Him. "If any man loves Me—he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him." Therefore it is to those who love Christ and do His will—that He will make known the secret confidences of His heart.
The first reason God gives for His intimacy with Abraham and His revealing of His will to him—is that Abraham holds in his hands such great blessing for the future. The Divine purpose was to have a people trained as a holy seed, to whom He would commit the ordinances of true religion. Out of this nation the Messiah in due time would come. Abraham was chosen as the father of this new people. The divine plan for his life was very clearly marked out. He would become a great and mighty nation, and through him rich blessing would descend to all coming generations.
We cannot all be Abrahams. Not often does God want a man to start a new nation. But even for the lowliest life, He has a definite purpose. There is a place He would have us fill, a work He would have us do. If we are only faithful in the lot to which God assigns us, that is all He asks of us. It is a great thing to be what God made and designed us to be, though it be only to fill the obscurest place in the world.
Some people fail God. He requires them to do a certain work for Him, and they do not do it. It is a serious thought that something of God's plan in the blessing of the world is in the hands of each one of us, depends upon our being faithful. What a motive this gives for being loyal to God and true to our trust! It will be a sad thing if we disappoint God, or if the interests of His kingdom which He puts into our hands suffer through our negligence or sinfulness.
For example, to every father and mother—God entrusts the training of their children for Him. If they are unfaithful and their children's lives are marred or come to nothing beautiful, they have failed God in their place.
It was a great distinction that was put upon Abraham in the purpose of God for him—that "all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him." We know how this was fulfilled. The Hebrew people, with all their faults and failings, carried blessing into all the old world. The fulfillment is yet going on in the Christian Church, in which the blessing of Abraham is still flowing through the earth. Abraham was faithful, and did not fail God. The Divine purpose was carried out in his life. All the nations of the world have been blessed in him. No other man has ever had the honor that was Abraham's, of becoming the father of nations, carrying in his faithfulness, that which has blessed all the earth. But in our measure, everyone of us may be a blessing, if not to all nations, certainly to many people.
We should seek to live—so that others will be blessed in us. The secret lies in fulfilling the plan and purpose of God in our lives. We can do this only by entire self-effacement. We cannot live for ourselves, and also bless the world. "He saved others; Himself He cannot save," though spoken in mockery by the enemies of Christ, is a truth which lies at the basis of every life that blesses others. We cannot live selfishly—and then be a blessing to others.
Abraham had approved himself to God, by his faithfulness. God had trusted him—and Abraham had not failed him. "For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him." For God to know one is more than for us to know a person. His knowledge is fore-knowledge and choice, and the knowing of the heart, which takes the person into covenant relations. His knowing, choosing, and calling of Abraham were "to the end that he may command his children and his household after him." His mission was not completed when he had lived his own life faithfully and earnestly. He was also to train his family aright, so as to set their feet in the paths of God's purposes.
Many otherwise worthy men fail just here. They are good and saintly themselves, but they do not command their households after them in the way of the Divine law. Thus it was that Eli failed. He was a holy and saintly man in his own life—but he failed to restrain his sons from evil ways. Thus the good of his life ended in a measure, with himself. To make our life complete—we must see to it that those who are given to us to teach and to train, shall receive from us the good which has been entrusted to us for keeping and for transmission to posterity. Fathers and mothers are God's messengers to perpetuate the blessings of His grace in the world. It is not enough for them to love God themselves; they must see that their children are also taught to love God and do His will. Few things are sadder in life—than the home where the parents are godly—but where the children, through lack of early training and teaching, drift into the world!
We speak much of the responsibility of parents for children. It is very great. But there is also a responsibility of children for parents. "That they may keep the way of the Lord and do righteousness and justice, to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken to him." First, Abraham was responsible for the commanding of his children after him in the ways of God. If he had been negligent or remiss, and they had failed to be faithful, he would have been to blame for the failure. Next, his children must keep the ways of the Lord, "to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him." That is, God's promises to Abraham regarding the future could not be fulfilled unless his children were faithful to their part in the Lord's plan. Many a child wrecks and destroys all the good that a godly parent has built up in this world.
We are thus responsible in a measure, for the success of those who have gone before us. Without us, the things they have begun cannot go on to completion. Every true man begins many things which he cannot complete in his short life, the carrying forward of which must be left to other hands. A teacher's faithful work can come to its full fruitage—only through the diligence and earnestness of his pupils. A preacher's work can prove effectual and enduring—only through the continued faithfulness in living and doing of those who attend upon his ministry.
Even in business the same is true. A man founds some large enterprise, building it with his own hands to great proportions, and then leaves it to his sons. Its future and final outcome is dependent upon the wisdom and fidelity of those who come after him.
The Word of God has many promises for godly parents who bring up their families in the ways of holiness and righteousness; but their children have it in their power to hinder the coming of the promised blessings. Only by keeping God's commandments, can they secure the carrying out of the Divine purposes and plans which began with their parents. Any child has it in his power to bring failure upon all that his father has lived, suffered, and sacrificed to establish. Thus children carry in their hands—the final and complete success of the lives of their parents.
God still speaks after the manner of men. He is going down to see the true state of things in Sodom. "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me." God never punishes without faithful inquiry into the facts of the case. We are not always so careful to know the facts—before we judge. We too often form our opinions after hearing only one side. We judge from what others have told us, sometimes from mere gossip, or from appearances. We condemn without knowing all the facts. Indeed, there seems to be in human nature a quality most un-Christlike which is eager to seize upon the smallest reasons for condemning or criticizing others! Ofttimes things that seem to be wrong in others, if only we knew all the circumstances, would appear most trivial matters or even really good and beautiful things.
A young man who made a fair salary seemed to his fellow clerks in the bank, to be very stingy and pinching. He stinted himself in his own living, boarding and dressing in an economical way that seemed quite unnecessary for one who had his income. He avoided all the social expenditures in which his friends freely indulged.
But the truth about him was that he had an only sister, who lived some hundreds of miles away, an invalid, who was entirely dependent upon him for everything—as they were orphans. This was the secret of the economy and closeness in personal expenditure which his friends condemned—he was caring for his sister! He pinched himself—that he might send delicacies and comforts to her. If his companions had known all the facts—they would have honored his faithfulness and not have called it miserliness. Thus they misjudged him because they did not know all the facts. Life is full of illustrations of the same mistake in judging. We are apt to blame or condemn from only partial knowledge. Thus we are constantly doing injustice to others.
We may take a lesson from the Divine example in this case of Sodom. Of course the Lord knew the precise moral condition of these cities without making an investigation, for His eyes see into all hearts, and He knows not only acts but the reasons for them and the springs and motives from which they flow. But the representation we have here, is after the manner of men, to make it plain and clear to all, that the Lord is always just, never inflicting penalty when it should not be inflicted. Thus men were taught not to doubt the Divine justice in any case.
Abraham's Intercession for Sodom
Three travelers came one day to Abraham's tent door. They were strangers—he did not know them. Yet he treated them with warm-hearted hospitality. That was the custom of the East. Kindness was always shown to the stranger. No man's tent was his own alone—it was his and God's, and its shelter and comfort must be shared with any other who were passing through.
Abraham rose eagerly when he saw the three men approaching, ran to meet them, bowed himself to the earth before them, and welcomed them into his tent, showed them the most gracious hospitality, and provided for them an abundant meal. At length Abraham learns that one of the men whom he had thus entertained was God Himself, and that the other two were angels from heaven. But at the time he had no thought that they were other than ordinary men. In the Epistle to the Hebrews this beautiful incident is used to teach the duty of entertaining strangers, reminding us that in doing so—some have entertained angels unawares.
It is not likely that we shall have such visitors as Abraham had, that heavenly angels shall come to our doors unawares in the guise of book agents, peddlers, or strangers of any kind. Yet the lesson remains, teaching the duty that we should so treat all who come to our door as friends, neighbors or strangers, in whatever garb they come, that if it should turn out that they are angels—we shall not be ashamed to remember how we received them and treated them.
William Bryant said that his rule was to treat every person who came to him in any way—as if he were an angel in disguise. It may not always be easy to do this—but this would seem to be the Christian rule.
Jesus taught the lesson very clearly in His description of the Last Judgment, when He said that those who will be welcomed to the King's right hand will hear the words: "I was a stranger—and you took Me in;" while those on the King's left will hear, "I was a stranger—and you did not take Me in." If we knew that the stranger at our door needing welcome, love, shelter, and kindness were Christ Himself—how would we treat Him? Yet He says, "Inasmuch as you receive one of the least of these My brethren—you receive Me."
Times have changed since Abraham's day, and we are not expected to entertain everyone who comes along—as this good old patriarch entertained these men. Yet there is a courtesy which we may show to all who cross our path, a kindly spirit and manner which will at least not give pain, and may give pleasure and help. We should not treat even a beggar or a tramp—in a way the remembrance of which will condemn us should we learn that he is really an angel in disguise.
"Then the LORD said—I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." These strangers brought to Abraham a promise that in a short time, a son should be born to him. Thus the patriarch's faith received another assurance to strengthen it. The time of waiting was now almost at an end. The messengers then rose up to depart, and Abraham accompanied them on the way.
The Lord then told Abraham what he intended to do to Sodom—if he found the wickedness of the city as great as it had been reported to Him. When Abraham heard the words of the Lord, his heart went out in compassion for the people of Sodom, and especially for Lot, and he began his intercession. "Abraham drew near, and said." He drew near to the Lord when he began to plead. This showed his earnestness, also his great boldness and confidence.
We may get from this example of Abraham's, several lessons for ourselves. One is that we ought to draw near to God in spirit when we plead with Him. If we are really in earnest we will do so. We should always have deep reverence in our heart when we approach God—but reverence need not keep us far away from Him. We are His children, and children do not dread a true father—nor stand far off when they desire to ask any favor of Him. God does not want us to come before Him as if we were slaves—but as His dear children. "Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help." "Having therefore boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus—let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith."
Abraham's intercession also showed a noble heart. Were the people of Sodom anything to him? Lot, his relative, was there—but Lot had not treated Abraham well; he had been ungenerous toward him. Yet Abraham did not nourish malice, and now, when doom is impending over Lot, he is quick to plead for him. Lot had been drawn away from God into the world—but this did not prevent Abraham's seeking to save him from destruction. Indeed, this only added to his interest and his compassion. We should pray for others—even though they have treated us badly. Jesus tells us to intercede for those who persecute us.
But a careful reading of this narrative of Abraham's intercession, shows that he did not pray merely for Lot. Indeed, Lot's name is not mentioned at all in Abraham's prayer. Of course, it must have been that Lot was in his thought and compassion, in all his pleading—but not Lot only. It was for Sodom that he begged, for the saving of the city, not for the saving of his nephew alone. Abraham was a great-hearted man. A little while ago he fought for Sodom, not for Lot only, and rescued them. Now, when they were in far more terrible plight, he intercedes with God that they might be saved. We need to widen our praying, taking in all men.
There is a striking contrast to Abraham's intercession, in the prayer of Lot as he fled from Sodom. He thought only of himself, and pleaded that he might not be driven to the mountain—but that the little town of Zoar nearby, might be made his refuge and spared for his sake. There is not a word spoken for Sodom or its people, in his pleading. The characters of the two men, Abraham and Lot, are revealed in nothing else more markedly, than in the reach of their prayers.
As we look at Abraham standing before the Lord, interceding for the cities of the Plain, we are reminded of Christ as our Intercessor. He ever stands before God in heaven and pleads for us. We have a glimpse in one of His parables of His intercession for the impenitent. He pleads that the axe may not fall, that the fruitless tree may not be cut down—until He has tried in other ways to make it fruitful. Only the intercession of Christ spares the impenitent from speedy destruction. They are spared through Divine mercy that yet more may be done for their salvation. We have another glimpse of Christ's intercession in John's word, that if we sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. In heaven He carries our affairs in His hands. When we sin, He acts as our Advocate, securing our deliverance.
Abraham pleads God's own righteousness. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" He certainly will. We need not fear for a moment, that anything He does will be wrong. Some people worry about the fate of the heathen, and ask if God can be just and do so-and-so. A far better solution to such perplexity, is Abraham's, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Surely we can trust Him with all such things, leaving them in His hands with perfect confidence.
Other people have perplexity concerning the apparent lack of justness in the allotments of earth. Some godly people have little but trouble here on earth, while some very evil people have much prosperity. We have the same truth on which to rest all such seeming inequities. We do not know what is good and what is evil—in the way of earthly experiences. What we call trouble—may have more blessing in it for us than what we call prosperity. Then the end of life—is not in this present world. God may not make all things equal before death—but He has eternal years in which to adjust the equities!
Abraham's intercession was humble and reverent. "O let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak." The Lord loves importunity in prayer. He delights in the earnestness of His children, when they call upon Him. Two of our Lord's parables enforce the duty of persistence in pleading. Christ's own example in the Garden, shows us that it is right to pray and pray again. The Lord is never angry with us for being urgent in intercession for others. No doubt He is grieved far more by our lack of earnestness, than by our importunity. All Christians should pray for the lost—as earnestly as Abraham pleaded for Sodom.
Abraham first asked if God would spare the whole city in case fifty righteous men were found in it. He then asked if it would be saved though only forty-five were found, though only forty, though only thirty, though only twenty, though only ten. To each request came an answer of mercy. If there had been even so many as ten holy people in Sodom—the whole Plain, with all its cities and inhabitants, would have been spared from destruction for the sake of the ten!
We do not know how many other cities, towns, and communities in the world—have been spared along the centuries, for the sake of the few righteous people who lived in them. The wicked make sport of the godly—yet they do not know how much they owe to them in a thousand ways. Infidels, while they scoff at Christians and caricature the gospel, forget that for the very blessings of their civilization, the things that brighten their homes—they are indebted to the Christianity which they so despise!
The world, even the wicked world, will never know what it owes to its saints. We do not know, any of us, what our debt is to the godly, the true, and the holy about us. Our security in our Christian community, is the result of the influence of the praying lives round us. As saints diminish in a place, and the wicked multiply—life and property become insecure.
The Outcome of Lot's Choice
Abraham ended his intercession, and the two angels went on their way. In the evening they reached the gate of Sodom. There they found Lot sitting in his place, ready to show hospitality to strangers. When he saw the heavenly messengers approaching, he arose and greeted them cordially and warmly. He invited them to stop with him in his house as his guests. Lot understood the laws of hospitality and failed not in practicing them. The men at first declined to stay in Lot's house, saying they would abide in the city square—but when they were pressed, they accepted Lot's invitation and went home with him. Lot then made a feast in their honor.
The coming of the strangers to Lot's house became known outside, and during the evening the people of the town gathered about the door, apparently in a wild and boisterous mob. This shows the character of the inhabitants of the city, and gives us a hint of the wickedness that prevailed there. Peter speaks of Lot as righteous, and says that he was greatly distressed by all the immorality and wickedness around him; and that he was distressed by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day.
Lot is a problem. He is spoken of as a righteous man and one that preached righteousness. Yet his preaching seems to have had little power to make the people better. His own life appears to have been blameless, and yet it had no influence on the community. The people were not made better by it. It probably is not hard, however, to account for the ineffectiveness of Lot's righteousness and his preaching. He revealed the kind of man he was in his treatment of Abraham. He showed his selfishness in taking advantage of Abraham's generosity, and choosing the richest and best portion of the country for his own, choosing the garden valley and leaving the rugged hills for Abraham.
Lot's choice revealed his worldliness, as well as his selfishness. The people of the Jordan valley were exceedingly wicked. Lot knew the character of the towns in this garden spot—and yet he overlooked this in his desire for the wealth that he could gather there. Not only did he choose the rich valley—but he soon pushed his way into the depths of the wickedness, for he took his family into the city of Sodom and became identified with the place, doing business in it, one of the ruling men in the city.
One, to be an effective preacher in an evil community, must keep himself separate from the evil. He must not be a partaker in it. Those who would preach unselfishness must be unselfish. It is evident that Lot was a lover of money, of luxury, of gain. A home may be a blessing and a center of influence in a community—but to be so it must be a home of prayer, of love and of all righteousness. There are evidences that the home of Lot was not kept sacred and separate. Its doors were open to the social life of Sodom. Lot's children made their friends among the Sodom young people. His daughters were married to evil men of the place. It is easy to see that his home had not made itself a power for good in the community. It was not known in the city, as a home of prayer. It was just like the other homes of Sodom!
All this explains the fact that however good a man Lot was in his personal life—he had no effectiveness as a preacher of righteousness. He loved the world and lived in the world and for the world—and therefore could have no influence upon the men of his community! He showed courage that night when his guests were so insulted by the wicked mob. He went out to plead with them and to try to persuade them to depart. He showed loyal hospitality, and was ready to pay any price to protect his guests. But the people only laughed at him and assaulted him. It would have gone hard with Lot—perhaps he would have lost his life—had not the angels, his guests, interfered to save him, bringing him inside, shutting the door and smiting the mob with blindness, so that they were powerless to do anything.
The angels then began at once to prepare to get Lot and his family away from the city—before its doom would be visited upon it. First, they inquired about his household. "Do you have any other relatives here in the city? Get them out of this place—for we will destroy the city completely. The stench of the place has reached the Lord, and he has sent us to destroy it!" The angels wished that all of Lot's family might be spared from the overthrow which was impending.
It is not enough to secure our own safety; we must also eagerly seek the safety of all who belong to us. Lot hastened out in the darkness of the night and sought the homes of his sons-in-law and, arousing them, told them of the doom that was about to be visited upon the city. "Quick, get out of the city! The Lord is going to destroy it!" "But his sons-in-law thought he was joking!" They only laughed at him. They did not believe his message nor heed his warning. It is sad when a good man has no influence, even upon his own family! Lot had not begun soon enough to have his children trust in him and respect his counsels.
A man rose in a prayer-meeting one evening, when the topic was "Home Religion," and asked prayers for his sons. In the early days of his home life, he was not a Christian. He did not love God nor honor Him. He never prayed in his home. He lived without God. He indulged in profanity, in bad temper, in strong drink. In that atmosphere, his children were born and spent their childhood. After a good many years the father came under the influence of the Spirit of God, and was saved. His conversion was genuine and thorough. He became a man of faith and prayer. He put away his evil habits and was an earnest follower of his new Master. Then he tried to bring his family to Christ. But his children had learned the ways which he had shown them by his example, and had so long lived in these ways that he could not win them to the new life he had chosen. They only laughed at his pleadings. He came into the prayer-meeting and told the whole story, asking the Christian people to help him.
If we would have our children safe with us in the shelter of Divine love—we must begin in their earliest years by teaching them the Divine commandments and by living ourselves near to Christ. When they are out in the world, absorbed in its life—it is too late to fly to them in some time of alarm and beg them to come to Christ. Lot had to go away from Sodom—and leave his two sons-in-law to perish in its destruction!
At the breaking of the day the angels hastened Lot. "Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the destruction of the city!" There was no hope now that the city would be saved. Abraham had prayed that if there were ten good people found in it the city would be spared for the sake of the ten. But there were not ten righteous to be found. Yet while the city could not be spared, the good who were in it would be gathered out before the doom fell. It was so also before the flood came—the saving of Noah and his family was provided for. It was the same before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD—the Christians were led out of the city and found refuge in Pella. So it will be at the end of the world. Not one believer in Christ shall perish in the destruction that shall come upon the wicked. Christ will send His angels and gather out all His own.
It seems strange that Lot lingered when the angels had urged him to flee. Why did he linger? Did he doubt that the destruction of the city was imminent? No! but all Lot's interests were in Sodom, all the property he had amassed. He was probably very wealthy. If he fled from the city—he must leave all this behind him, and his heart clung to it. It is hard for those who love the world and money—to part with it. We have an example of this in the story of the young man who came to Jesus asking the way into the kingdom. He was told to give up all that he had, and let it be used to help the poor, and then follow Christ. He longed to make the right choice—but he could not, and the last we see of him—he is clinging to his money and turning his back on Christ.
The angels had almost to drag Lot and his wife and daughters away from their home and from the city. Angels are gentle and kindly messengers—but here was a time when gentleness would have been most unkind. "When Lot still hesitated, the angels seized his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters and rushed them to safety outside the city, for the Lord was merciful."
If we understood the meaning of our troubles and chastenings, our disappointments, the blighting of our earthly hopes, the severe things in our lives which so often break into our ease and comfort—we would find that many of them are God's angels, sent to save us from ruin! Even stern treatment is kindness, when it saves us from destruction. Anything, however painful or stern, that tears us away from sinful attachments and brings us into the way of life—is a Divine mercy.
When the angels had brought Lot and his wife outside the city—they bade them escape for their lives. The terrible storm of fire was about to burst upon the plain. What the exact agency of destruction was, is not known. Josephus, giving the Jewish tradition, ascribes it to lightning. An Assyrian legend also says that a terrible thunderstorm caused the destruction. Others say an earthquake was the cause. The Bible account is very striking and simple. "The Lord rained down fire and burning sulfur from the heavens on Sodom and Gomorrah. He utterly destroyed them, along with the other cities and villages of the plain, eliminating all life—people, plants, and animals alike!"
This judgement broke suddenly and the angels had commanded Lot and his wife and daughters to, "Run for your lives! Do not stop anywhere in the plain. And do not look back! Escape to the mountain, or you will die!" They were not even to look behind them, nor were they to stay or slacken their flight anywhere on the Plain. They were not to rest—until they had reached the mountain.
This is still the gospel message. We are in danger of God's judgement—and must escape from it—if we would live. We must not stay anywhere in all the plain of sin. There is no safe spot, no shelter anywhere, no place where the fires of judgment will not fall. Some people would like to compromise; they are willing to flee from some sins—but not from others. There are some professed Christians who like to stay on the borders of their old life. They are continually asking whether they can do this or that, go here or there—and still be Christians. They want to keep just as near to Sodom as possible—so as not to be burnt up in Sodom's destruction. The answer to all such questions is, "Run for your lives! Do not stop anywhere in the plain. And do not look back! Escape to the mountain, or you will die!" Even the borders are unsafe! The only safe place is the mountain, the mountain where Christ's Cross stands!
Lot ventured to make a request, to ask for a special favor. The mountain seemed far away. The flight to it seemed greater than he could make. So he pointed to a little city that was near at hand, and begged that this might be an asylum for him. It was only a little city, and he pleaded that it might be spared from the doom of all the cities of the Plain, just to be a refuge for him. Lot did not show much faith in God, in making this request for a refuge near at hand. He certainly had not much of that faith which Abraham had, when he left all and went out, not knowing where he went—but trusting God to take care of him.
Lot reluctantly left Sodom—but he wanted to choose his own refuge. There are a great many who make the same mistake. They want to be Christians—but they are not willing to be brave, heroic Christians, cutting loose from all their old life and following Christ to the mountains in heroic ventures of faith. They are afraid to give up a wrong business which pays them well—and depend upon the Lord to provide for them. Such timid faith never reaches anything noble in Christian life or character. God may still accept us—but we are throwing away our own opportunities of doing a great work, and of attaining a high character. Little faith wins only little blessings.
Lot's request was granted, the doom upon Zoar annulled, and Lot was allowed to flee there. We should note, however, that God sometimes lets people have their own way, which seems an easier way to them—when it is not really best for them. He sometimes answers even unwise prayers and gives us what we crave, though it is not what He would give to us if we had more faith and courage and were able for the harder thing. In this very case, Lot soon found out that he had made a mistake in fleeing to Zoar, and he was glad enough to leave his unsafe refuge and go at last to the mountain to which the angels had bidden him to flee at first. God may sometimes let us have our own way, though it is not the best, until we learn our mistake by our own sad experience.
Lot's wife 'looked back'. There had been a specific command, "Do not look back!" The meaning was, that the storm of death would move so swiftly that even a moment's delay in their flight would imperil their safety. Why Lot's wife looked back is not explained. Was it curiosity to see the nature of the terrible destruction that she heard roaring behind her? Or was it her dismay as she thought of her beautiful home, with all its wealth of furnishing and decoration, and all her jewels and garments and other possessions—which were now being consumed in the great conflagration?
Our Lord's use of the mistake of Lot's wife was to teach the peril of desiring to save things out of the world—lest in doing so we lose all. "It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot's wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it."
The inference from our Lord's use of the incident would seem to be that she was appalled at the thought of leaving and losing all her beloved possessions, and paused in her flight and looked back, with the hope that possibly she might yet run back and snatch some of the ornaments or gems—something, at least, from the awful destruction. "But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt!"
We should not miss the lesson which our Lord Himself teaches us from the tragic fate of this woman. We cannot have both worlds! Lot's wife could have escaped with her husband and her daughters—but she could escape only by resolutely and determinedly leaving everything she had in Sodom. Her love for her possessions, cost her her life.
Just so, there are thousands today, to whom God's message comes, "Run for your lives! Do not stop anywhere in the plain. And do not look back! Escape to the mountain, or you will die!" They somewhat desire to follow Christ—but their love for the world is so intense that they cannot give it up—they cannot renounce it. They must decide, however, which they will renounce—Christ or the world. They cannot keep both!
In Lot—we have an example of one who was almost lost—and yet saved. In Lot's wife—we have an example of one who was almost saved—and yet lost. She was lost because she loved the world. She looked back, lingering there until it was too late to escape.
There is a picture of an artist sitting on an ocean rock which had been left bare by the retreating waves. There he sat, sketching on his canvas the beautiful scenery—sky, earth, and sea—all unconscious that the tide had turned and had cut him off from the shore and was rapidly covering the rock on which he sat. The tempest, the waves, the rising sea were forgotten, so absorbed was he in his picture. Even the cries of his friends as they shouted from the shore were unheard.
So men grow absorbed in this world, and perceive not the torrents of judgment onrolling, and hear not the calls of friends warning them of their peril. So they stand—until overwhelmed with the waves of destruction!
The Offering of Isaac
The record of the birth of Isaac is made as quietly and simply as if it had been an event of very small importance. The birth of a baby is indeed no unusual occurrence. Every moment, an infant is born somewhere in the world. Yet there was something about the birth of Abraham's child, which made the event momentous. It had been long promised and foretold and painfully waited for. This was the child of promise, included in the Divine covenant, from whom was to spring the posterity numberless as the stars, promised to Abraham. The birth of Isaac, was one of the most important events occurring in any century of history. Yet it is recorded in a few simple words, "Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him." Genesis 21:1-3
Faith now had its reward. But little is told of the childhood and youth of Isaac. The child grew and was weaned. His weaning was celebrated by a great feast given by his father. Almost nothing else is related of him. When he was only a child, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away from Abraham's home. After that, Isaac grew up with his mother, who was very old, and was "molded into feminine softness," says one, "by habitual submission to her strong, loving will."
The offering of Isaac was the highest reach of Abraham's faith. For many years his faith was sorely tried in waiting for the promised heir. At length the child was born—and there was great joy. Great hopes center in every child in a true home. Every worthy father has large plans and expectations for his boy. But they were no ordinary dreams and hopes, which filled the heart of Abraham. "As the stars—shall your seed be," ran the promise. "In you and in your seed—shall all the families of the earth be blessed," the Lord had said.
This lad in the patriarch's tent was the son in whom this glorious future lived. Many a man in business, with great interests in his hands, knows with what expectations he thinks of his son as living after him, to continue his name and business. But there was far more than this in Abraham's expectation concerning Isaac. There was fatherly love of the gentlest and truest kind, as the records show. There was a vast property to transmit to his heir. But besides these human affections and interests, there was a new nation to spring from Abraham—and this boy was the single link.
There was also a Divine cause represented in Isaac. "Abraham saw My day," said Jesus, "and was glad." The Messiah and Christianity were in Isaac too!
It is only when we think of all that Isaac meant to Abraham, and to the cause of God, that we can in any sense understand what it cost him to obey this call. "Some time later God tested Abraham." The narrative suggests that the purpose was the still further testing and proving of the patriarch's faith. It had been put to the test already through the long years of waiting, and had not failed. Now it must be put to one other test. "God tested Abraham."
The command by which he was tested startles us. Why did God demand a human sacrifice? We must remember, first of all, that in those days such sacrifices were not considered wrong. On the other hand, the highest religious act a father could perform, was to sacrifice his first and only son to God. Abraham, therefore, did not think it a sin to offer his son. If any father should now make such a sacrifice, he would be regarded either as guilty of murder, or as insane—and would be dealt with accordingly. But in Abraham's time he would have been considered as having paid to God the highest worship he could pay.
But in God's judgment, then as now—it was wrong to make such a sacrifice. God wanted to teach Abraham that he must actually make this offering—but in spirit only, not in outward act. From that moment, human sacrifice was forever forbidden. "God meant Abraham to sacrifice his son—but not in the coarse, material sense. God meant him to yield the lad truly to Him; to arrive at the consciousness that Isaac more truly belonged to God—than to him, his father."
"Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, 'Abraham!' 'Here I am,' he replied." What did Abraham do when this command came to him? Did he hesitate and begin to argue the case with God? No! He quietly and unquestioningly obeyed the Divine command. When he heard his name called, he answered, "Here I am." He was ready to do whatever was wanted of him.
It was said by someone of William Carey, the missionary, that he was a man who could not say 'No' to God. He was called from the shoemaker's bench to preach, then to the mission field, and from service to service, and never could say 'No'. We call a man weak' who cannot say 'No'—and imagine that he has no will of his own. But the man who cannot say 'No' to God—is strong. "Here I am" was always Abraham's answer—to every calling of his name by God. Whatever the bidding was, it must be instantly and quietly obeyed.
We talk a great deal about consecration—but do we mean it? Consecration is no mere sentimental good feeling; it is the surrender of our will to God without question, without reserve, without shrinking.
To "Here I am" came a call which cut into the depths of his heart. Abraham's God said "Take now," immediately, "your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac,"—not Ishmael—but Isaac. "And go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt-offering." Remember all the Divine promises which centered in Isaac. Remember the posterity which no man could count, the glory stretching away into the future—all in Isaac. "Take this Isaac"—his name is given that there could not possibly be any mistake, "and offer him as a sacrifice." Could there have been any other test so searching as this?
How did Abraham stand the test? Keen as was the pang which the call of God sent to his heart, he promptly obeyed. "Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about." He did not stop to reason or to question WHY such a hard thing was asked of him; without a moment's hesitation, he set out to do that which God had bidden him to do.
That is what we should do, whenever God asks a hard thing of us. We had better not perplex ourselves with the why and wherefore—it is enough to know that it is God's will for us. God's will is always good and perfect. If our consecration is sincere—we may never withhold anything that God asks of us; nor surrender anything for which He asks—with any but the most loving submission.
A friend said to a mother whose son had been appointed as a foreign missionary, "I hope that you will be able to give him up for the work." "Oh," said she, "I gave him up to God in his infancy—but never knew until now—where God wants him." Every true Christian parent gives his child to God at birth—to be His entirely and forever. What God may want to do with the child—he knows not. God ordinarily gives the child back to the parent to be trained for Him—but always for Him, and then to be surrendered at His call, without murmuring, either for service in this world—or to live with God Himself and to serve Him in glory.
Parents may not make their own plans for their children, without consulting God. He knows what He wants them to do, and the parents' prayer should always be—that the child may become that for which God made him and redeemed him. George Macdonald says that he would rather be what God made him to be—than be the grandest being he could think of.
It is significant that before reaching the place for the sacrifice, Abraham dismissed his servants. He wanted no human eyes to look upon his agony. Perhaps they might have interfered in some way. Certainly their uncontrolled grief would have made it harder for Abraham to do the bidding of God. So he left the men behind, out of sight of the act of sacrifice he was to make on the mountain.
The incident reminds us of Gethsemane. Our Lord said to the disciples, "Wait here," while He Himself pressed on a stone's cast farther into the heart of the solitude. Alone He entered into the anguish of that mysterious hour.
We all need to be alone in our times of great testing. Human sympathy is very sweet—but there are experiences in which even human sympathy will not help us; it will only do us harm, and endanger our perfect doing of our duty, in which, indeed, no human friend can ever be near to us. Alone, we must meet the sore trials, the hard struggles, the great questions of life. Others may stand near us with their cheer, their encouragement, their sympathy—but really—they are far away, and we are alone with our sorrow, our struggle or our decision.
Very pathetically reads the narrative of Abraham's preparations for the sacrifice. "Abraham took the wood . . . and laid it upon Isaac his son." Isaac was not altogether passive, either, in this day's events. Abraham did not tell him at first, what the journey meant. Until the very last moment, he did not disclose to him that he was to be sacrificed. Yet Isaac did his share in the preparations. "So they went both of them together." Together, but with what different feelings! Abraham's heart was breaking. Isaac was awed by the unexplained mystery. Then, his father's anguish must have oppressed him.
The journey lasted two days. We may suppose there was little said, as the two went on together. The boy's mind was busy. "My father," he said, near the end of the long walk, "my father, behold the fire and the wood—but where is a lamb for a burnt-offering?" It was a terrible question. Abraham answered, not disclosing yet to Isaac, what was before him—yet giving faith's true answer: "God Himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering."
In all this extraordinary story, we see the earthly picture of another still greater sacrifice. Our Heavenly Father gave His only begotten Son to actual death without substitute, because of His infinite love for sinners. In Isaac carrying up the hill—the wood for the sacrifice in which he himself was to be consumed as a burnt-offering, we have a wonderful picture of Jesus going out to Calvary, bearing the cross on which He was to die for sinners!
Isaac's part in this great transaction, is sometimes overlooked. He must have consented to the sacrifice. He said not a word in resistance, made no outcry, did not flee—but quietly submitted to be laid upon the altar without a murmur. Thus the sacrifice was Isaac's—as well as his father's. He devoted himself to God, made himself over to God in perfect trust. He was the son of promise with great Divine purposes depending on him; if God wished him to die—he was willing to die. By this sacrifice Isaac became indeed Abraham's heir.
The supreme moment was reached without any failure of faith. "Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son." Abraham stands here as the sublimest hero of faith. He knew only one thing—to obey. What terrible emotional pain it cost him—to make that long journey to Mount Moriah, then to build the altar and lay his son upon it, then to stretch forth his hand to slay him—no human heart can conceive! Yet he faltered not.
We can raise in these days a thousand questions as we study the story—but Abraham raised none. It was not his business to settle perplexities; his business was simply to obey. He knew very well—that all Divine promises centered in Isaac, and that if he were cut off—the foretold innumerable seed would be destroyed in Isaac. But this did not trouble him. The same God who made the covenant and gave the promise—now gave the command which seemed to sweep all away! But Abraham's one duty was to obey. We have a glimpse of his heart in the book of Hebrews, where we are told that he obeyed in faith, accounting that God was able to raise Isaac up from the dead. Nothing that God commands ever can bring harm or real loss to us. His commandments never cancel His purposes—nor clash with them. No painful sacrifice He ever demands of us—can possibly interfere with His covenant of love.
When Abraham had gone thus far in obeying, God withdrew His request. "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son."
Abraham had proved his faith and obedience—by going straight forward, up to the very point of actual sacrifice, and God was satisfied. He did not want a literal offering of Isaac upon the altar—what He desired was the perfect surrender of the father's will—and this surrender was now made. This is the true sacrifice always, and the only one that counts with God. God is pleased far more with submission and obedience, than with the most costly offering. "To obey is better than sacrifice." The richest gifts amount to nothing—if the heart is not in them. The things we try to do for God, in obeying His commandments, even though they fail—are accepted and rewarded. God takes the will—for the deed.
The testimony which God gave to Abraham after his testing and proving, is very beautiful. "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son." God is pleased when we endure trials well—when He calls us to pass through afflictions, or to endure losses and make sacrifices. His eye is upon us in tender love. He watches us to see how we are obeying Him and trusting Him. Murmuring and rebellion grieve Him—but He is pleased when we submit to His will, though it is hard to submit, and though it cost us pain and tears. When He sees us faithful, patient, and submissive, He knows that we love Him and trust Him.
What does all this mean to us? We shall never have precisely this test of our faith—but we may have, we almost certainly shall have—some time in our life, a trying of our faith which shall be a testing of our life. We may be called to lay on the altar one dearer to us than life. He was a friend of promise. His coming to us was the fulfillment of a thousand hopes and dreams. All our future of happiness and good, seemed to depend upon him. Then we may hear the command to give him up. At first it will seem to us that we cannot possibly do it. There must be some terrible mistake. Certainly God cannot mean this. He gave us our friend—He would not take him away from us again. All the blessings of our life are in him, and to lose him—would be to lose all.
But there is a higher view of life into which we must seek to rise. We belong to God—and not in any sense to ourselves. It is not our conception of life that we are to seek grace to fulfill—but God's purpose for us. Abraham thought that Isaac was to live, and that through him, he was to become a great nation and be a blessing to the world. Now for three days it appeared as if God's will for Isaac was death, not life. Abraham raised no doubt, expressed no surprise, asked no question, even showed no anguish. It was God's matter, not his. He had thought that the will of God was for Isaac to live—but if it was sacrifice on the altar instead—it must be right. Abraham was silent.
When we seem called upon, to give up the friend upon whom all our happiness depends, let us remember that it was God who gave us the friend; that He knows how the friend can be the very most to us, to God, and to the world; that the thought in God's mind is our good and the blessing of others; that His will is not an arbitrary tyranny—but is the expression of perfect love; and that the very aim we seek will be reached—only by quiet acquiescence in that will. Our vision is too short-sighted to perceive what is best for us and others. The only safe thing for us—is to let God have His way. If we had our own way instead—our life might be hurt and our future darkened!
Faith is the absolute submitting of our life to God—so that He and not we shall direct it. Then let us learn that we and all our interests are absolutely safe in God's hands. No harm came to Abraham's hopes, through this experience on Mount Moriah. Abraham was a better man afterward. Isaac was a truer and worthier son after having been laid on God's altar. The promise lost nothing in its splendor and glory.
Likewise, we shall never lose anything in any sacrifice we make to God. What we surrender to Him—we receive back in rich beauty. Whatever plans of ours are broken—are only superseded by God's infinitely better plans, and brought into harmony with His perfect will. In the book of Hebrews it is said that "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death." When we give to God in simple faith—the friends and the things we love—we receive them back again, and they become more to us than ever they were before.
"Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh"—"the Lord will provide." We may write the same name over every place of sacrifice in our life. Whatever our need or danger, the Lord will provide. When we are convicted of sin, and only condemnation seems possible, the Lord will provide a Redeemer, "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." When we meet sorrow and loss, when everything seems gone, the Lord will provide, and our sorrow will be turned into joy—and our loss into gain!
Isaac and His Sons
With the birth of Isaac, Abraham saw the beginning of the fulfillment of the Divine promise. He was to have a great posterity. For a long while, he had no child—but at last one was born to him. Yet Isaac was little more than a link. He had none of the greatness of Abraham. One writer thinks this was partly due to his father's greatness—he was dwarfed and weakened by growing up under the shadow of Abraham. Another writer thinks Isaac's passive weakness of character may have sprung in part from his close relations with his mother. He grew up in the shade of Sarah's tent, and was molded into feminine softness by habitual submission to her strong will. Both these suggestions are worthy of thought.
It is possible for a son to be dominated too strongly and too exclusively by his father's influence, especially if the father is a man of great force of character and occupies a prominent place in the world. The sons of fathers who have grown rich, frequently fail to make of their lives what they might have made—if they had been born poor and compelled to struggle and toil for themselves. Life is too easy for them. Sons whose fathers are great in name and in intellectual power, are ofttimes hampered in the development of their own career. They are apt to live in the shadow of their father's name, to depend upon an inherited distinction, rather than upon making their own. There usually is a disadvantage for a boy in having too great a father. Such a father needs much wisdom if he would make his son's chance in the world a fair one, for true greatness of any kind cannot be bequeathed; each man must win his own greatness, through his own effort, his own toil and self-denial, his own struggle.
Then it is no doubt true also that many a son's career is marred, perhaps wrecked, by the very love of his mother. Boys are sometimes sneered at by other boys, as being "tied to their mother's apron strings." Sometimes the sneer is most unjust. Happy, indeed, the boy who is in all true ways, under the influence of his mother, if she is a worthy mother. The boy who is not proud of such a mother and does not make her his confidante in all matters—is missing one of the finest opportunities that will ever come to him. Someone was telling a boy of God's help, how all good came from Him. "Yes," said the boy, very thoughtfully, "yes—but mothers help a lot!"
Yet it is possible that Isaac was too exclusively under Sarah's influence. It is possible that he was too tenderly cared for by her, too much sheltered from care and danger, saved too much from thinking for himself, meeting his own difficulties, fighting his own battles, doing things for himself. It is possible that it would have been better for Isaac, would have made a better man of him—if he had been pushed out into the world, if he had had more contact with other boys and young men, if he had had to take more hard knocks, and measure his strength more with the strength of others.
One of the best results of college life for a young man—is his contact with other young men. It takes the self-conceit out of him—the self-conceit his mother in the very love of her heart—has probably done something to pamper. It teaches him respect for other young men's abilities. It brings out the finest qualities in character. No matter how great the educational value of the college curriculum, it is no doubt true, in most cases at least, that the part of college life which means most to a young man—is what he gets from college life itself. The best education a boy may get in private, studying alone—never can do for him all that he needs; it may make a scholar of him—but it cannot make him a man.
We are not told of much that Isaac ever did. He made no mark of distinction for himself. He dug some wells to get water for his flocks—but most of these were probably old wells of his father's which had been filled up, and which Isaac re-dug. After his mother had died, his father began to think of getting a wife for him. While his mother lived the question of marriage seems not to have been taken up. Probably it was just as well, for a young wife might not have had an easy lot in Sarah's home.
When Abraham took up the question himself, according to the custom of the country, he was wisely solicitous concerning the kind of wife his son would get. He did not want him to marry one of the Canaanite women. They were idolaters, and Abraham was to found a new nation that would worship only the one true God. Abraham's conversation with his servant on this subject is very instructive. The servant doubted whether a young woman would be willing to leave her own country to come to a strange land—but Abraham was sure God would take the matter in hand and would send His angel to influence her.
The story of the journey in search of a wife for Isaac is told most simply and beautifully. It is a story of providence. God had gone before—and had prepared the way. The servant had prayed for guidance, asking that when the daughters of the neighborhood came that evening with their flocks, the girl whom God had chosen for Isaac should be the one who should give drink to him at his request. So it came about, that it was Rebekah who met him, and Rebekah proved to be God's choice for Isaac.
When Rebekah was told at length the servant's errand, and asked if she would go and become the wife of Isaac, she said that she would go with him. So Rebekah became Isaac's wife, and he loved her and was comforted after his mother's death.
For twenty years no child was born to Isaac and Rebekah. They had to learn in some measure, the same lesson of faith and waiting that Abraham and Sarah had to learn. At length their prayers were answered. The twin sons that were born to them gave evidence from the first of great differences in every way. They were different in appearance, and they developed difference in disposition, in character.
It was probably when they were quite young men, that the strange transaction between them occurred in which Esau, the firstborn, sold his birthright to his brother. This incident well shows the differing qualities and characteristics of the brothers.
The narrative begins with the natural statement that "the boys grew". They were country boys, and they lived a free life in a simple sort of civilization. There was but little restraint put upon them. They did not have to go to school every day as our boys do. They probably had no athletic games to absorb their vast energies. Their home-life was simple. They lived very much as Bedouin boys live today. So they grew into great, stalwart fellows. Boys should always seek to grow. They should grow not only in physical stature and vigor—but also in mental power and in spiritual strength.
"And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents." The brothers developed their difference in taste and disposition very early. Esau became a hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob showed a preference for a quiet life.
If you plant an acorn and a chestnut in the same field, though the soil is the same, and the same sun shines on both, and the same winds blow over both—they will not both grow up either oaks or chestnut-trees. The individuality of each will assert itself. So it is with boys. Environment may have much to do with the shaping of character—but it does not make character. Your boy with the artist soul, will become an artist—though he is brought up on the farm among sheep and cattle. And though you keep your boy with the musical soul in the midst of most unmusical influences—the music will come out.
A great English painter tells of a boy put under his training to be made a painter. One day the boy was found crying bitterly over his blotched work, and when asked what was the matter, replied, "Father thinks I can draw—but I want to be a butcher." God does not want us all to be alike—there is need in the world for every kind of ability—and the truest education is that which gives God's plan for the boy the best opportunity to work itself out.
It is said that "Isaac loved Esau". The reason given is "because he had a taste for wild game." The old man was fond of wild game, and Esau took pains to bring it to him from the field. Are we influenced in our preferences and friendships, by anything that panders merely to the physical appetites? Perhaps we are. The nearest and surest way to some people's friendship—is said to be through their stomachs! Sometimes a person of very vile and unworthy character, is received as a friend because he is "so kind," always bringing dainty things for eating. Of course Isaac ought to have loved Esau, because Esau was his son—but the reason given for it, and for Isaac's favoritism to Esau, is not a lofty one.
Then, "Rebekah loved Jacob". Each parent had a favorite child. This was bad. It is always unwise for parents to show preference and partiality for any one child. Jacob himself made the same mistake at a later time—in his undisguised preference for Joseph—but he only made trouble for Joseph. It should be the aim of parents to treat all their children alike, showing no preference. If there is special interest manifested in any particular child—it should be in the one who is in some way unfortunate, blind, crippled, deformed. In such cases there is need for special love and help—to balance the handicap of misfortune. But partiality and favoritism because of peculiar endowment or winningness, is both unwise and unjust.
A single act sometimes reveals the whole of a life's inner quality. We may read some of the lines of Esau's character in his behavior that day when he came in from the field hungry and begged Jacob to give him some of his stew. Jacob was cooking lentils at the time, and the moment Esau smelled the odor of the savory dish—his hunger became ravenous. His appetite mastered him. He was hungry, and he acted like a big baby—rather than like a man. We ought to learn to keep our appetites under control and to endure the cravings of hunger with some sort of manly courage.
Esau was not a child at this time—but a man probably of more than thirty. Esau was altogether under the control of his bodily desires. He was altogether earthly. He had no heavenly aspirations, no longings for God. He was under the sway of bodily appetites. We see the same kind of man again and again, one who thinks of nothing but his meals—what he shall eat and what he shall drink!
But what shall we say of the way Jacob treated his brother's pitiful craving? It was natural enough for Esau in his hunger to ask Jacob for a portion of his supper. What should Jacob have done? What would you say a Christian brother should do in a like case? If Jacob had acted as he should have done—there would have been no story of the selling of the birthright. We cannot commend Jacob's part in this business. It was despicably base and selfish. We should never take advantage of another's weakness or distress of any kind—to drive a sharp bargain with him. If a man is compelled to sell a piece of property to raise money to meet an urgent need—an honorable neighbor will not use the other's misfortune, to get the property at less than its true value. One who has money to lend—should not take advantage of another's necessity to exact usurious interest. No one should take advantage of another's ignorance, to impose upon him or to deceive him. No boy wants to be called base—yet nothing is baser than taking advantage of another boy's weakness, innocence, ignorance, or need!
The Lord had said before the birth of the boys, that the elder would serve the younger. That was God's plan—but He did not want it brought about by any wrongdoing. He never wants our sins—in working out His purposes. If Jacob had been told this by his mother—he ought to have waited for God to give him the promised honor in His own way. We should never try to hurry God's providences. You can hasten the opening of a rose, tearing the bursting bud apart—but you will spoil the rose. You may force some plan which God is working out for you—by putting your own hands to it—but you only mar and stain it. God's good purpose for you will bring you blessing, only if it is worked out in God's way.
Esau's present hunger seemed such a bitter thing to him, that to appease it he was willing to sacrifice a great future good. For one bowl of stew—he sold his birthright! We speak of his folly as if the case were exceptional, as if no other one ever did the same. But people are doing this all the time. For a moment's sinful pleasure, men indulge their lustful appetites and passions, throwing away innocence, happiness, and heaven for it!
A man is hungry and steals bread—selling his birthright of innocence, making himself a thief, darkening all his own future with the shadow of crime, to appease for one little hour the pangs of hunger!
The bargain was sealed. The price was paid and accepted. The birthright was now Jacob's—and the stew was Esau's. His hunger was satisfied for an hour or two—but his birthright was gone. The hunger would soon return—but the birthright never could be his again. He had traded rank, position, power, possession, headship, special Divine and very blessed promises—for one bowl of stew!
There are several things to notice in the terrible folly of such bartering. One is, that the present is not all. For the instant, it seems all. The giving of the passions or appetites immediate gratification, seems bliss. Everything is forgotten but the moment's pleasure or gain. But the present is not all. There are days, years, ages, afterward when the life will go on in shame, darkness, bitterness. It would be well to think of this—before blackening all the future—for one hour's sinful enjoyment! "Better give up my birthright than die," said Esau. "Nay, nay; better die than part with your birthright."
Another thing which intensified the folly of Esau's act, was its irrevocableness. He had taken an oath, and the compact never could be undone. In Hebrews this feature of Esau's wickedness is specially marked: "Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears." Ah, that is the bitterness of such sin—we cannot undo it; we cannot get again the birthright which we have sold. Tears will not bring back lost honesty, lost innocence, lost virtue, lost character, a lost Christ!
By his reckless act, Esau showed that he despised his birthright. He did not value it. He rated it as worth no more than a morsel of food. Yet it really was worth everything to him. Men and women are all the while despising their own birthright. They are holding in one hand purity, noble character, usefulness, joy, peace, heaven—and in the other hand, some little sinful gratification, some transient pleasure, some prize worth nothing in the end! Imagine selling a priceless inheritance—for a few fading flowers. What fools we are! Shall we not seek to prize and honor—the things to be really prized and honored?
Isaac the Peacemaker
Isaac was a child of old age, his father being a hundred, and his mother ninety, when he was born. His name means "laughter," thus being a constant reminder of the gladness of his mother's heart when she learned that she was to have a son. It is a good thing to be a joy, to make life a song, wherever one goes. As to character, Isaac was meek, gentle, and contemplative; perhaps not very ambitious—yet diligent, lowly in spirit, peace-loving. Isaac would probably not make a name for himself in the modern world, with its intense commercialism and its fierce driving—but God would see quite a number of the Beatitudes shining in his character and disposition, nevertheless.
After the extraordinary incident of Abraham's sacrifice, when Isaac was bound upon the altar as an offering to God, he must always have considered his life, as in a special sense belonging to God. One who had served as a model for an artist in painting a picture of Jesus on His cross, said that ever afterwards the impression remained with him—he never could forget that for a number of hours he had represented the Master in His act of supreme devotion and sacrifice. In a still more real way—had Isaac been given to God, and had he given himself to God, and he must always have regarded his life as redeemed—an innocent animal died in his place.
Everyone who accepts of Jesus Christ as his Savior, has an experience just as real. He stands before God guilty, condemned. Then an offering is made for him. One takes his place on the altar and dies for his sins. He is redeemed now, not merely to go free—but to take his place as a living sacrifice. He is no longer his own, to do his own will—but bought with a price and belonging therefore to God.
In the chapter we are now reading, we see Isaac in a characteristic phase of his life—as a peacemaker. A famine had driven him into the Philistine country. Isaac seems to have repeated two mistakes of Abraham in this journey in the country of the Philistines. He fled to another land to escape the famine, when probably he ought to have braved it out where he was, trusting God to care for him. He seems to have intended to go all the way to Egypt, as Abraham had done—but before he had gone so far—God appeared to him and told him not to go there—but to stop where he was. So he remained in the land of the Philistines.
Isaac then had the same trouble among the people of Gerar, that Abraham had in Egypt. His beautiful wife attracted the attention of the men; and Isaac, fearful of being killed for the sake of Rebekah, lied about her, as Abraham had lied about Sarah, saying, "She is my sister." The falsehood was exposed at length, to Isaac's dishonor. It seems strange, that precisely the same blot should be on the names of two men. We should learn a second time here—that the only safe way in any danger, is the way of truth. A lie will never make a safe refuge for us.
"The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father's servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth!" Isaac was prospered in the land of the Philistines. He sowed there and reaped large harvests—a hundredfold, because the Lord added His blessing to Isaac's labor, and to the fertility of the soil. He increased in wealth and prosperity, his flocks and herds greatly multiplying. The result was envy on the part of the Philistines. It is always so. When one has special success, others envy him and become his enemies, ofttimes treating him meanly and wickedly. There is plenty of the same wicked spirit in modern times, and in any community examples of it can be found.
The Philistines showed their envy towards Isaac—by filling the WELLS which Abraham had dug—with dirt. Wells were very important in those days and in that Eastern country. Water was scarce; there were few rivers or streams, and it was necessary to dig wells to get water both for themselves and for their flocks. To have a well in the desert was therefore a great benefaction. Someone asked Mohammed, "What shall I do to make my name immortal?" "Dig a well," was the answer. In the desert wastes of the East—a well is a great blessing. Neither man nor beast could live but for the wells. The Philistines did great harm, therefore, to Isaac and to the country when they stopped up the wells.
The king of the Philistines at last commanded Isaac to leave his land. He frankly gave the reason for this expulsion, "For you are much mightier than we." The king was afraid of Isaac; for with the remarkable prosperity that was attending him—he would soon be able to overpower the inhabitants of the country and drive them out. That is the way the Philistine king, the indwelling-sin in us, tries to do with anything good that is beginning to grow in our heart. He would drive it out. There is a great deal of this crowding out of the good, in the lives of Christians, by the evil that still remains in them. God is not desired to take full possession of us and to occupy our whole life. Too many professing Christians are careful not to yield unreservedly to the Spirit of God. The world is envious of Christ, and does not intend to let Him dwell in men's hearts and lives.
In the time of the strifes and enmities which arose—we see Isaac's peace-loving spirit. He might have resisted Abimelech's command, refusing to leave the Philistine country. Some people like to contend for their rights. They fight against all encroachments upon them. They are continually in some contention—quarreling with somebody. They boast of the fact that they never allow anyone to impose on them. The world calls this a manly spirit—but Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Here, twenty centuries before Christ came, we find Isaac living out this Beatitude.
"Isaac departed"—that is, he moved on when he was told to move on, rather than contend for his right to stay there. We should not fail to get the lesson: it would be better for us to suffer wrongfully, than engage in contention and strife. This is the way the Master did. He let Himself be a "way," a road, on which others walked to better things. It is thus that He would have His followers live. This is the upward way.
Isaac moved on, and now we see him clearing out the old wells which his father had dug—but which the Philistines had filled up. There is continual opportunity for us in this world, to open out old wells which have been filled up, and rendered useless. The Evil One is always trying to destroy the fountains of good in a community. It is sad to see a church building unused, falling into decay, in which once the gospel was preached every Lord's Day. It is a sad thing to know of a home where once there was a family altar which has been torn down—the old well of grace and goodness, having been filled up. It is a holy work to clear out these wells, that again the water of life may flow in them to quench thirst and to make life.
Besides cleaning out and opening up the old wells, Isaac's servants dug also a new well, and found there a fountain of springing water. Wherever we go these days, we should seek to dig a well, to start some blessing which has not been there before. Someone says that he who makes two blades of grass grow where only one had grown before, is a benefactor. No one should be content to live anywhere, even for a little while, and not do something which will make his stay there a blessing. It is not always necessary literally to dig a well—that may not be the best thing to do. But there are other things that one may do—which will make the neighborhood more beautiful, a better place to live in.
Perhaps one may plant a tree which will grow and cast a grateful shade long after he who planted it has gone to his rest. Thackeray in a story tells of one of his characters whose custom was to keep his pockets filled with acorns when he walked over his estate, and whenever he found a spot that was bare and empty—he would plant one of these so that at length an oak would grow up to adorn the place. It was said by a friend of a Christian girl who died when a little past twenty, "Everywhere she went—flowers grew in the path behind her." She was an encourager, an inspirer, a comforter, a bearer of burdens, wherever she was known.
There are countless ways of starting a blessing in a neighborhood in which one is living. One does not need to have millions, and to found a great public library, endow a church, or open a well, in order to start a blessing. Just living a sweet life is a way of digging a well, whose waters will refresh others. To find an unhappy home—and change it into a home of love and peace—is to set going a blessing whose influence will go on forever. To change one unhappy person into happiness, one discontented man into contentment, one anxious woman into quiet peace, to help a little child—is to dig a well which shall become an enduring blessing. We should never allow a day to pass—without doing a kindness which shall make some heart gladder, some spirit braver, stronger, better. Wherever you go, tomorrow, any day—be sure you dig a well.
Although Isaac had moved on to avoid trouble with the Philistines, they persistently followed him, and wherever he settled, they continued to disturb him. Wherever his servants dug a well, the herdsmen of Gerar would claim it and try to take it. Isaac would then quietly give up the well, rather than have a struggle over it, and would dig another a little farther on. His enemies would then strive for that too, and then Isaac would again move on and dig another. All this showed Isaac's wonderful patience, his inoffensive spirit, and how willing he was to make sacrifices for the sake of peace.
Some who read this chapter may consider Isaac as lacking in manliness; but was he not doing what Jesus long afterwards, in His Sermon on the Mount, taught His disciples to do? "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:39-42
At last Isaac got beyond the spitefulness of the Philistines. He seems by his inexhaustible patience to have literally worn out their persistent greed. "He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it." Isaac then made this well a memorial of his gratitude, for he called it Rehoboth, "room." "For now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land," he said. Patience had wrought at length its perfect work.
Isaac's peaceful spirit was approved in heaven, and the Lord appeared to him at Beer-sheba, blessing him and renewing to him the promise which had been given to Abraham. There Isaac built an altar and worshiped the Lord. There also he pitched his tent and his servants dug a well. Again we have the tent, the altar, the well—emblems of a true and good home.
Jacob's Dream at Bethel
Nothing is more beautiful than an ideal home. Love rules in all its life. The members are as one, in their fellowship and association. Each thinks of the comfort, the convenience, the happiness of the others. In the home of Isaac—all these conditions seem to have been reversed. The veil is lifted and the life of this chosen family is revealed as sadly divided, rent by strifes and jealousies. There is no semblance of love in the home association. There are no home ties binding the household together. The dove of peace does not nestle there. There is no common interest for which all strive. Instead, they are torn apart in bitter personal aims and struggles, plotting against each other in most unseemly way, deceiving one another. The story told in the twenty-seventh chapter is a pitiful one, and when we remember that it was in the family of sacred promise, that all these unseemly things occurred, it perplexes us. We would naturally expect beautiful and godly living—in this family which carried in it the holy seed.
First, we see Isaac planning to give the family blessing to Esau. Yet he knew well that the purpose of God was that Jacob should receive the blessing. Esau had sold his birthright and had also shown himself unfit to be the head of the family. Still his father clung to him and sought to have him receive the blessing of the firstborn.
Rebekah, ever on the alert, having learned of Isaac's arrangement to bestow the blessing on Esau, set about to defeat it. She would stop at nothing and accordingly devised a scheme to deceive her blind old husband. Jacob played his part well, under his mother's instructions, and won the blessing by fraud and falsehood. The result was the intensifying of Esau's hatred for Jacob, and a vow that he would kill him. So Jacob had to flee for his life. For many years he did not see his home again or the faces of his father and mother. His life, too, was full of trouble. He had sought to live by fraud—and fraud followed him into his old age!
The unveiling of the life of this home with its enmities, its strifes, its frauds, and deceptions—should teach us again, how unfit and unbeautiful is such a life in any home. Everything of happiness was wrecked. We cannot imagine anything gentle or kindly in the life Isaac and Rebekah lived together in their old age. After their striving and plotting so long—the one against the other—it is impossible to think of their coming together again in the confidence and mutual affection which ought to be realized in every marriage.
Then there grew a bitter feud between the brothers which was never really healed. All the hopes of marriage and home were negatived in this marriage and home. Out of this wreck and mockery of family life—comes an appeal for a home life which shall realize all the possibilities of love.
There are many homes in Christian lands, homes of wealth and of rank, in which the household life is no better than was that of this old patriarchal family. It is a shame, that this confession has to be made. Let us determine to make our homes places of peace, of unity, of purest unselfishness, a place where all the best and sweetest things of love shall be realized.
We take up now, the account of Jacob's flight from Beer-sheba. He was running away from home. It was his own fault, too—his and his mother's—that he had to flee. He had got a valuable thing—his blind father's blessing, which included the birthright with all its privileges. But he had sinned to get it—and sin always brings trouble. He had won by fraud and lying—what God would have given to him in His own time and way, without any stain or blot—if Jacob and his mother had only kept their hands off, and refrained from all plotting and scheming.
Success in life is a good thing—but we must not pay too much for it. Especially, we must not sin to attain it. It is inspiring to see men rise to high positions in life—but we want to know how they rise. Too many people get wealth and position—as Jacob got his blessing—at the cost of personal righteousness. Not every fine house in which people live, has a heavenly blessing upon it. Sometimes it has been built with the gains of dishonesty—and then a curse is written on the walls. An old man, about to die, called his sons to his bedside, and spoke to them of the money he had to leave them. "It is not much," he said, "but there is not a dishonest dime in the whole of it." A small amount of money, every honest penny of it, is better than millions stained in the getting.
We follow Jacob in his flight, and one evening, probably his second or third evening from home, we see him preparing for sleep. It was not a very cosy place to rest for the night. "He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and laid down in that place to sleep." The rough lots in life have their compensations. It seems hard for a boy to have to grow up in poverty—but it is in such a condition, if there is anything noble in the boy—that his life will be trained into strength.
Jacob's circumstances were not luxurious that night. He was tired and homesick. His pillow was hard, his bed was cold. Yet never before had he seen such glorious things as he saw then. Luxury is not necessary to heavenly visions. John saw the wonderful visions of the Apocalypse, while in exile on the rocky Isle of Patmos. Bunyan had his marvelous spiritual experiences, in Bedford Jail. Stephen saw into heaven and beheld the Divine glory and Jesus standing there, when he was being stoned to death by an angry mob. Paul got a glimpse of his crown of glory, from a Roman prison.
It was a wonderful vision that Jacob had that night. He had sinned and he must have been most unhappy. He was lonely, too, and home-sick. But he seems to have thought of God and prayed. God is always gracious. He had His watchful eye on Jacob, for the promise to Abraham was now his. "Behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven." This ladder may be viewed in several ways. Its immediate meaning to Jacob himself was very comforting. It told him of God's mercy, friendship, and care, and of a way of communication with heaven. Although he had sinned, God had not forsaken him. There was a way open to God with free communication.
But the ladder was not merely for Jacob. Centuries afterwards we stand at the Jordan, and hear Jesus say, "You shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." The ladder is, therefore, a picture of the Incarnation. It shows Christ to us as the Mediator, coming down to earth's lowest depths—and making a way for us up to heaven's most glorious heights. The ladder is a way on which human feet may climb; Christ is the way to the Father and the Father's house. "I am the way ... no man comes unto the Father but by Me." The angels went up and came down on the ladder; through Christ there is communication with heaven.
The ladder is also an illustration of a true Christian life. At every young Christian's feet, springs such a ladder which stretches away through growing brightness until its top reaches the very glory of God.
The figure of a ladder is suggestive. A ladder is not easy to ascend—a true, earnest life is never easy. A ladder must be climbed step by step, and it is thus, if at all, that we must go up life's ladder.
We must rise by daily self-conquests in little things. Every fault we overcome, lifts us a step higher. Every unholy desire, every bad habit, all longings for base, ignoble things, all wrong feelings, that we conquer and trample down—become ladder rungs for our feet, on which we climb upward—out of groveling and sinfulness, into godly manhood and womanhood. And there is no other way by which we can rise heavenward. If we are not living victoriously these little common days, we are not making any progress in true living.
Only those who climb—are getting toward the stars. Heaven is for the overcomers. Not that the struggle is to be made in our own strength, or the victories won by our own hands: there is a mighty Helper always on life's ladder with us. He does not carry us up—we must do the climbing—but He helps and cheers us and ever puts new strength into the heart, and so aids every one who strives in His name to do his best, that he may become more than a conqueror, and may at last wear the victor's crown.
The ladder was not empty. "Behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it." All along life's steep pathway, angels minister. They do not reveal themselves to us visibly—but they watch over us with loving faithfulness, guiding us, protecting us, helping us in temptation, whispering in our ears many a good suggestion, and ministering to us in countless ways.
The ladder did not stop half-way up—it reached all the way to God's very feet. "Behold, the Lord stood above it." No plan of life is complete, which does not take in heaven—and reach up to God Himself. A picture without sky in it lacks something. No matter how brilliant life's way is, if it does not bring us at last to God and to blessedness, it is a dreadful failure!
The gracious words which God spoke to Jacob, must have given him great comfort in his penitence and fear that night. "I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go." When the British mariner puts out to sea his prayer is, "Keep me, O my God; my boat is so small—and the ocean is so wide." The prayer suits everyone of us, especially the young as they step out into life. We are small and weak—and the world is wide and full of peril; we must have the mighty keeping of God—or we shall perish. This is assured in the word that God spoke to Jacob and speaks to us. Angel companionship is cheering—but here is something far better, "I am with you." God does not merely stand in heaven and look down on His children as they climb wearily up the steep ladder, waiting there to crown them with glory when they struggle to His feet. He comes down Himself and keeps close beside each one of them in all their conflicts and struggles.
Jacob was deeply impressed by the vision which came to him that night. Awaking out of his sleep, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place—and I knew it not!" The Lord is everywhere. We talk about special providences—but why special? Every day is full of God; no event is independent of Him. He is in what we call the accidents of life. If we would remember this, it would make us reverent always, for any chance meeting or any smallest circumstance, may be God's hand laid on our shoulder.
There is another phase of the lesson. The Lord is in every place—but ofttimes we do not know it. There is no place where He is not. An atheist's child had learned something about God. One day the father, wishing to impress his own creed upon his child's heart, wrote on a piece of paper, "God is nowhere." He asked the child to read the sentence, and she spelled it out, startlingly though unconsciously, "God is now here."
There was still more of Jacob's thought. Not only was God in the place—but the place was near to heaven. "This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" He was right.
Wherever God reveals Himself—is God's house, and God's presence is there. It needs no fine building—to make a Bethel. There is no spot on earth which may not any moment become a real gate of heaven. Wherever a heart in penitence calls upon God, there is opened straightway a path of light which stretches away to God and makes a glorious ladder on which the soul may climb to eternal blessedness. Wherever a saint is dying, in palace or hovel, on battlefield, or in a wreck on the sea—there is a gate which opens into the brightness of celestial joy. This sad world would not be half so sad—if we had eyes to see all the heavenly glory that bursts into it!
Jacob promised God to begin a new life from that hour. "Jacob vowed a vow, saying, if God will be with me . . . this stone . . . shall be God's house; and ... I will surely give the tenth unto You." There are three things in this vow which we should notice:
Jacob gave himself to God. This must always be the first thing in a new life. God cares nothing for our formal worship or our gifts—so long as our heart is not made His.
Next, Jacob set up Divine worship on the spot where he had been blessed.
Then Jacob consecrated his substance and pledged himself to give to God the tenth of all that God gave to him. Christians should certainly not give less than the Old Testament believer gave.
Jacob a Prince with God
There are twenty years between Jacob's vision of the ladder—and this night at Jabbok. Jacob journeyed from Bethel, about five hundred miles. At the well near his uncle's home he met Rachel, and a beautiful love story began there. He served Laban seven years to get Rachel for his wife, and then was deceived, getting Leah instead. He was receiving in his own experience, what he had been practicing on others. Then he served another seven years for Rachel. After this he remained six years more, gathering wealth. At last he left Laban—to return to his own home. It was on the way that the incident of the Jabbok ford occurred.
He had fled from Beersheba to escape the wrath of Esau. As he now neared the old home, he began to fear Esau's anger—and sent messengers to his brother, expressing the hope that he might find grace in his sight. The messengers returned with the news that Esau was coming with four hundred men to meet him. Jacob was in great distress and cried to God for help. No wonder Jacob was afraid to meet Esau. He had treated him basely. It was twenty years ago—but the memory had not faded out of Jacob's mind. We forget base and dishonorable things done to us, if we are forgiving and generous—but it is far harder to forget such things, when we did them. Jacob was a better man than he was twenty years before, and this made him more ashamed to meet his brother. Besides, Esau still hated Jacob and might violently contest his return.
Jacob took his fear and anxiety to God. Trouble often drives men to prayer. In time of danger, there is no other refuge like the secret of God's presence. It is well if we have a habit of running into this refuge at every approach of danger or sense of need.
There are several points in this prayer which we may profitably study as elements in all true prayer. As faulty a man as Jacob was, we may learn from him important lessons in praying. For one thing, we should plead God's covenant when we pray. Jacob addressed God as the God of his fathers. God had made solemn covenant with the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, and had therefore put himself, as it were, under obligation to Jacob, who belonged in the line of the covenant. If we are believers in Christ, we may plead God's covenant with His Son, in which covenant we are heirs. God's covenant is a wonderful expression of His love and grace. Voluntarily He binds Himself to do what He promises; He puts Himself under an oath or a solemn and sealed pledge to give us the things that belong to our redemption. We may then remind God of His promise given in the covenant.
Another thing in Jacob's prayer, was his plea that he was in the way of God's commandment, and therefore might expect blessing. "O Lord, who said unto me. Return unto your country, and to your kindred, and I will do you good." We cannot plead God's protection, if we know that we are not doing God's will—for example, Jonah, running away from his duty. But Jacob was conscious that he was in the way of obedience. He had not taken his homeward journey at his own suggestion—but at the bidding of God Himself. Besides, he had received a definite promise of protection and blessing on the journey. The Lord had said, "Return, and I will do you good." This made Jacob very bold and confident in his prayer.
We should always be sure that we have God's bidding for everything we set out to do, for every journey we undertake; then we shall have the right to expect and claim God's blessing and help on the road. When the Lord sends us anywhere, however dangerous the way may be—He intends to take care of us and to see us safely through. We need then only to make sure that God sends us. The path of duty—is always the path of safety.
Jacob also shows penitence and humility in his prayer, and gratitude, as he thought of all that God had done for him. So Jacob remembered God's great goodness to him. He thought of his own sinfulness, and then of all that God had done for him, and the remembrance made him ashamed of his own life. He did not ask then for his own sake—but for the sake of God's mercy. Humility is important in all true prayer. We are not worthy to receive anything from God. We deserve only His wrath and punishment. If we claim what is really due to us—we would get no blessing or goodness. Our plea, therefore, is to be, not our worthiness—but our unworthiness.
That is what we mean when we offer our prayers for the sake of Christ. Our only claim is the Divine mercy. We are saved by grace—that is, unmerited favor. We receive all blessings in the same way. It is because Christ died for us—that we have a right to expect mercy and blessing. We ought not to forget this; it will keep us ever humble, and humility is always beautiful in God's sight. Pride He hates; humility He loves. He dwells with the humble—but in the proud heart He never makes His home.
Jacob then prays definitely for protection from Esau. "Deliver me, I pray You, from the hand of my brother." There is something very striking in the artless simplicity of Jacob's pleading. He is in danger from the long-nursed wrath of an angry brother. He tells God about it, just as a confiding child would tell a loving mother of some danger.
It would seem that one ought never to need to seek protection against a brother. Only love should be in a brother's heart. But here there was hate in the heart of a twin brother. It was bitter, long-rankling hate, and it was very needful that God should be asked to shield Jacob against the approaching danger.
We may learn here a lesson on simplicity and directness in prayer. We are apt to pray in formal, stilted phrases; but we ought to talk to God just as we would talk to a human father or mother. All Bible prayers are direct and straight, requests for the thing that is wanted. In our secret prayers, we may lay aside all forms of words, and, getting near to God, may tell Him in briefest sentences what troubles us, what our danger is, or our fear, what we need or desire.
It is night. Jacob has sent a present of flocks and herds to Esau, arranging them in three divisions, hoping to appease his brother. He then sent his family and his flocks over the brook, he himself lingering behind. Then "a man wrestled with him." Jacob had been a wrestler all his life, seeking to get on by his shrewdness and cunning. Now he is met at his own strong point. The prophet Hosea tells us that it was an angel that wrestled with him. Christian commentators generally agree that it was a manifestation of God in human form—a theophany. This was a crisis in Jacob's life. There was yet in him much that was wrong. He was willful and crafty. He wished to prevail with God that night—but he could do so—only by being first defeated. Hence God appeared to him as an antagonist, wrestling with him.
Jacob was left alone for his hour of pleading. Another suggestion here is that in all the deepest and most intense experiences of life we must be alone. There is companionship, in living, at only a few points.
We must meet our sore temptations alone. We may get strength from human friendship, and may be cheered by sympathy, or nerved by heroic counsels—but the struggle itself, we must endure alone.
It is so in sorrow. Others may come and sit down beside us, and breathe tender comforts into our ears, or draw our head down upon their bosom; they may hold the lamps of Divine truth to shine upon our darkness and thus may lighten it a little; but through the sorrow—we have to pass alone.
So we must die alone. Our nearest and best beloved may sit about our bedside. With holy affection they may try to sustain us. The one we love best may hold our hand; another may wipe the cold beads from our brow; another may sing to us some sweet hymn, or speak for us to God in prayer; but in the act of dying the nearest and dearest must be left behind, and we must pass out alone into death's strange mystery. Human companionship in that hour is utterly impossible.
This stranger who wrestled with Jacob was no less a personage than the Son of God Himself. He came in human form, with His glory veiled; for if He had come to that sinful, unworthy man in the splendor of Divine majesty, Jacob would have fled away, or would have fallen as dead at His feet! He came in the plain, lowly form of a man, and then during the struggle of that night, revealed Himself to Jacob as a manifestation of God, with power to bless.
One lesson for us here is, that while we can have no human companionship in life's deepest experiences, there is no loneliness in which God Himself cannot come to be with us. In the loneliness of temptation, or of sorrow, He comes with strong help. In the deep mystery of dying, when every human friend has been left behind, we shall find this Friend of friends close beside us. He walks to us on the wild billows of our sea of trial or trouble, when human friends can only stand on the shore and look in powerlessness upon us in our peril.
We should notice, also, that while God came to Jacob in human form. He revealed Himself to him before the night was gone—as the Lord Himself, for Jacob said of Him, "I have seen God face to face." Had He been only a man He could not have helped Jacob. All this was a fore-gleam of the Incarnation. God came down to earth as a man, that He might get near to us in our need and sorrow; then when we trust Him and lean on Him—we find the everlasting arms underneath us.
Why did the Lord come to Jacob as a wrestler? The answer is that this was the way He could best bless Jacob. There were things in him that must be got out of him—before he could receive the spiritual blessing. The old Jacob must be defeated and crushed before the new name Israel could be given. And the Lord has not ceased wrestling with men.
People often ask why it is that God seems to be contending with them? Perhaps He is. There may be something in them of which they must be cured—before they can be richly blessed, and God comes to them as a wrestler, to contend with them, until the evil that is in them has been destroyed.
Of course this Divine Stranger could have crushed Jacob instantly—but that is not the way God deals with men. He struggles and wrestles with them, that they may yield to Him—but He does not crush them by His great strength. Why did He touch Jacob's thigh? The thigh is the pillar of the wrestler's strength. Jacob had been depending on his own strength all his life. Then God by a touch takes away his strength, that he can wrestle no more. When God contends with men and they will not yield to Him—He often touches the point on which they depend instead of upon Himself, and withers it, that they may rely on Him alone and seek and find their joy and strength in Him. Sometimes it is money, or position, or human friends, or worldly circumstances, or some sinful thing; God contends with them—but they do not learn the lesson; then He touches the thing that is boasted of, and depended upon, and it is gone.
Jacob got the victory by clinging. He refused to let his antagonist go. It was his unconquerable perseverance that at last won the victory. When Jacob could not longer wrestle, he wound his sinewy arms round his antagonist and clung to Him. It is sometimes said that he prevailed with God by wrestling—but really he did not prevail until he ceased wrestling and simply clung to the Stranger. That is the lesson God was teaching him—that not by wrestling but by clinging was the blessing to be obtained. We are not to contend with God and seek to have our own way; we are rather to yield our wills and seek blessing by loving submission.
Then came the great final blessing—in the new name given to Jacob. "He said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob—but Israel." His name was not changed—until his nature had been changed. The old Jacob never could have been called Israel. The change in nature came in the struggle, when the old, proud, self-reliant man was subdued—and he became content to cling to God and hang upon Him. The new name stood, therefore, for faith and trust in God, for crushed pride, for lowly humility, for the strength that comes only from God.
The new man limped as he walked away; probably all through life thereafter, he bore the marks of the struggle that night, and his lameness was a constant memorial of the rich spiritual blessing that had come into his soul through his defeat. He was never the same man afterward. He left the 'Jacob' forever behind with his old wiliness, craftiness, deceit; and was 'Israel' thereafter, a prince with God. Every Christian carries in his later years marks of similar struggles, out of which he came with new blessings. Sorrows leave their marks; so do temptations and great trials.
We do not like Jacob—many of us. At least we do not like his nature, his disposition. Yet probably we are nearer of kin to Jacob than we would care to confess. At least there are ugly things in us—things that spoil the beauty of our character. We all have to come to our Jabbok, to get face to face with ourselves, and face to face with God—where the battle may be fought to a finish, the old nature, the old SELF, beaten, lamed, crippled—and the new nature, the new self, victorious. It will be well if in this wrestling—our name shall be changed, if it shall be no more Jacob—but Israel—a prince of God!
Discords in the Family of Jacob
When Jacob returned to his father's house, Esau met him with four hundred men. If Esau's intent was hostile, he was appeased by Jacob's generous kindness. Then we must remember that Jacob had prayed to the Lord to protect him and his household from his brother's anger, and we believe in prayer. God softened Esau's heart toward Jacob. Jacob had got right with God that night at Jabbok, and now he also gets right with his brother. There is rich instruction in all this even for us who read the story so long afterward.
We saw that the home of Isaac was not ideal—but was rent with strifes and jealousies; the home of Jacob as we see it now was also full of discords. The behavior of Jacob's sons caused the old man great sorrow. The hand of death also wrought sadness for him. Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died. There are old servants who are so faithful and true, who do so much for those with whom they live, that they become almost as dear as if they were members of the family. We should be kind to those who serve us.
Then a still greater bereavement came to Jacob. Rachel had been close to Jacob's heart all the years. Polygamy had made his home a most discordant and unhappy one—but the one abiding comfort of his life had been Rachel. On the way from Bethel a son was born to her—but the mother died in the hour of her anguish. She knew, in dying, the mother's joy that a son was born. She had strength to give him his name—Benoni, "The son of my sorrow," and then died. Her disappointment was very bitter. "She was never to feel the little creature stirring in her arms with personal human life, nor see him growing up to manhood as the son of his father's right hand. It was this sad death of Rachel's which made her the typical mother in Israel."
Rachel was buried at Bethlehem and her grave marked by Jacob. Then the family journeyed on. We cannot stop long, even for sorrow, on our pilgrimage. The baby lived and took his place as the last of the twelve sons of Jacob, completing the number. We now take up the beautiful story of Joseph.
The family of Israel was still living in the land of Canaan, although they did not own it. Canaan is called the land of their father's sojournings. That was all this land was to any of those old patriarchs—a land of sojournings, of pilgrimage. They had no abiding home in it. They merely pitched their tents here and there, tarrying for a little while, then pulling up the tent pins and moving on.
This is a picture of what the world really is to all God's children who are passing through it—a land of sojournings. We have no permanent abiding-place here. Our true home is in heaven. We are strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
A distinguished clergyman used to wish that he might die at an inn, because it looked like one going home, the world being but like a great noisy inn—and he a wayfarer tarrying in it as short a time as possible, and then hastening away.
Not all of us, however, look upon the world in just this way—but if we are children of God, why should we not? It is said that ofttimes those who walk by the lakes of Switzerland are scarcely aware of the lake, are hardly conscious that they are journeying beside it, their eyes are so enchanted by the glorious mountains that rise up, piercing the clouds. So in a sense it is with the Christian in this world whose eye of faith sees heaven's glories.
JOSEPH was of rare person of beautiful character. Because of his importance in the great events of the beginning of the nation, the story of his life is told with unusual fullness in the Scriptures. We would not say that Joseph's early environment was just such as to make a great man of him. He had not much to inspire him to beautiful or noble things. Yet, no doubt, the circumstances amid which he grew up, proved in the end—full of the best influences for his growth. His home was a quiet one.
His father was now at his best. Jacob had not begun well, and he had had many hard lessons to learn, for there was much chaff in his character, which had to be winnowed out. He had to be knocked about rather roughly—to get the refining and polishing which he needed. But in his old age he was no longer Jacob the supplanter—but Israel, prince with God. His disposition was softened, his character was improved, his nature was enriched. He was a long time ripening—but at last the late fruit was compensation for all the experiences through which! he had come.
Joseph grew up in the patriarchal home in these better, softer, richer years of Jacob's, and we cannot doubt that the blessings of his father's later evening time—had their part in the making of his character. Isaac, also, was an inhabitant of the home when Joseph was a boy. He was a very old man, more than one hundred and sixty years of age. It is ofttimes a beautiful friendship that is formed between such a grandfather and a young boy. Isaac doubtless would talk to the lad about his own experiences, about the divine promises, and not the least beneficial of the early impressions upon the heart of Joseph—were those which the touch of Isaac's hand left there.
Joseph did not always have a sweet and happy home in which to grow up. If his brothers were much in it—there must have been bickerings and strifes ofttimes, and much ungodliness. The boy had no good books, magazines, and newspapers, as our boys have. An English or American boy of this day, would have had a dreary time in Joseph's environment; but the man is the proof of his education, and Joseph came out of his training—as one of the noblest men that ever was grown on this earth!
The lesson is, that circumstances help to bring out what is in the life. God will help us to grow anywhere into His own thought and plan for our life—if only we are faithful in our place. Indeed, He knows just where and under what influences you will best grow into what He wants you to be—and therefore you may let Him choose the place and the circumstances. You did not come to your place by accident; it is the very place God meant for you!
Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his sons. There was good reason for this. Joseph was of winning disposition. He was different from his brothers, who were sons of the other mothers. Jacob could scarcely help having a special fondness for Joseph. His mistake was in showing his preference. He seems not to have tried to conceal it. He showed it openly, for instance, in putting on Joseph a garment which advertised that he was the favorite. The father's showing of his partiality for Joseph, worked badly for the boy.
There is an old fable of an ape which had a favorite cub—that he hugged to death through over-loving. Some parents show their love in like unwise ways for their favorite children, hurting instead of helping them by their over-kindness.
In Joseph's case, there was at least this injury done by the favoritism of his father: that it made his brothers hate him more, and thus became the occasion of all the trouble which came upon him through them. The father's foolish mistake was no excuse, however, for the crime of the brothers. We see here again—the danger of allowing envy in our hearts to take root. At first only an unkind feeling, if cherished and nursed—it grows with alarming rapidity into hatred, often even into murder. We remember that in Cain, envy became actual murder, and in these brothers of Joseph, the murder was in their hearts and was even planned and begun.
We are all human, with human weaknesses, and not one of us dare say that such and such a result would never be reached in our case, that we never would do such wickedness.
The only safe thing to do with envious thoughts—is to crush them at once, to overcome evil with good, compelling ourselves to do some kindness to the person of whom we are disposed to be envious, to drive the wicked feelings out with that love which seeks not its own, which is not provoked, which thinks no evil.
We must notice here, too, that it was in a home that this envy grew up, in the hearts of brothers. Homes ought to be places of love. Brothers and sisters ought to love each other and live together affectionately. Yet in too many homes there is sad lack of love, at least of the expression of it. There are children who do not live together affectionately, nor always speak kindly to each other. Let us learn from what is not beautiful in this home of Jacob—to make our own home-life more Christlike and heaven-like.
One night the boy Joseph had a dream. It was a Divine fore-gleam, or intimation, of his future destiny. Both of Joseph's dreams were glimpses of the same future. We shall see as we go on with the story—how the dreams at length came true. Every young man has visions of his own future, which are more than dreams. God often shows in the first visions of early youth—the things which it is possible for the person ultimately to attain or achieve. Many a great artist has had visions in his childhood of the greatness which later in life he achieved. Many boys show at the beginning of their days—glimpses and intimations of what they afterward become.
Joseph seems to have talked rather too freely of his dreams of coming honor and greatness. Possibly he showed or seemed to show, a little self-conceit. Yet we may account for this on the ground of his frankness and simplicity of spirit. If Joseph had been older and had had more discretion, he would not have told his dreams. He would have known that other people, especially members of his own family, are not apt to take kindly to a boy's thoughts of his superiority. He was less than seventeen years of age, without experience of the world, and had not learned wisdom and tact. It is probable, too, that he did not imagine the dreams had any real meaning. He was excited over what he had dreamed—and naturally and boyishly told the family all about it. So we must not blame Joseph too much for this. All his life he was frank and outspoken, and this quality it was that made him tell at the breakfast table what his dreams of the night before had been.
The father's rebuke was certainly not very serious, for we are told that the old man kept the matter of the dreams in his mind, no doubt wondering if they would some day come true. His rebuke may have been given with a desire to allay the bitter feeling in the hearts of Joseph's brothers. Be that as it may, we know that ultimately not only the brothers—but also the father himself, bowed down to Joseph in the land of Egypt. Then, too, we know that the brothers never forgot these dreams, and when at last they learned who Joseph was in Egypt, they remembered very vividly these incidents of his early boyhood.
JOSEPH AND HIS DREAMS
They said one to another, "Behold, here comes that dreamer!" Genesis 37:19
When a story of providence begins—we never know what the end will be. In seven chapters will be retold the story whose beginning we have here a boy coming across the fields carrying a basket. God wanted the family of Israel down in Egypt for a few hundred years. Why? Was not Canaan promised to them as their own land? Why not keep them there? Several reasons may be given.
Canaan was filled with warlike tribes. While there were only a handful of the Israelites, these tribes let them alone. But they were now to grow rapidly, and as soon as they began to be a multitude, war would be waged against them and they would have been exterminated. God's plan, therefore, was to take them away to a place where they could live securely, and grow into a nation—and then to bring them back, able to conquer the hordes of Canaan.
There was another reason for getting them away from Canaan. They must grow up separate from the world. They were to be God's people. They were to receive God's Law and God's Word. From them were to come teachers, singers, prophets. By and by the Messiah, the world's Redeemer, was to be born of this nation. They must be a holy people, with unmixed blood. If they grew up among the Canaanites, this could not be. These tribes would mingle with them. They must be taken to some place where there would be no temptation to inter-marriages and social commingling. The Egyptians were proud and exclusive. They would have no associations with any foreigners. In Goshen, then, while under the favor and protection of the king—they were effectually shut up by themselves. They were compelled to grow up together, and separate from all other people.
There was yet another reason for their removal from Canaan for a time. Canaan was a country of crude and barbaric peoples, without learning, without culture, without the arts and sciences. Egypt was the seat of the world's highest civilization. It had its great libraries, its colleges, its arts and letters, its culture. By dwelling in Egypt, the Israelites would become educated. They would be trained and would learn the arts necessary to fit them for self-government and for being the conservators of the revealed law of God, and the teachers of the world. We cannot estimate what the Hebrew nation has been to the world, especially through its laws and its religion. Humanly speaking, if the people had grown up in Canaan, they could never have had the influence they attained.
It was God's plan, therefore, that the family of Jacob should be taken away from Canaan to Egypt. This boy coming across the fields with a basket, is to play a most important part in all this great movement.
He did not know it. Likewise, we hardly ever know when we are being used of God in doing important things. Joseph had been sent on an errand. He was seventeen, bright, beautiful, innocent, happy. His mother was dead. He had only one own brother Benjamin, four or five years old. He had ten half-brothers, and with these he was unpopular.
One reason for this unpopularity, was that he was his father's favorite. Doubtless he was better than his brothers. Then he was Rachel's son, and Jacob loved Rachel most tenderly. Jacob loved Joseph best of his sons and did not hide the fact. Indeed he seems to have taken pains to show it. He gave him a coat which advertised to all, that he was his favorite.
Favoritism in a family, is most unwise. It is wrong in itself. The dull child—not the bright one; the weak, faulty child—not the strong, perfect one—really needs the most praise and encouragement, the most help and favor. Also, favoritism usually spoils the child, cultivating pride, self-conceit. Not many of us can stand petting, pampering, and flattery. It is unjust to the others, too—to choose one for special preference and distinction. Once more, favoritism naturally draws upon the favorite, the hatred and envy of the others.
There was a timid knock at a mother's bedroom door early one morning. "Is that you, pet?" asked the mother from within. "No; it isn't pet; it's only me," was the pained answer. But the sorrowful tone cured the mother. There was no more a "pet" in that household. There should not be a "pet" in any home.
"Behold, here comes that dreamer!" Joseph had had some dreams. His brothers' sheaves bowed down to his sheaf. The sun, moon, and stars made obeisance to him. With boyish simplicity, he told his dreams—and his brothers never forgave him. The dreams were divine intimations of the boy's future, which came true by and by. All we need to notice at present, however, is that the dreams and the boy's telling of them—made the brothers hate Joseph the more. The merest hints of his present or possible superiority over them—made their envy the more bitter.
Sixty miles away these brothers were pasturing their flocks. The old father wanted to know how they fared. So he sent Joseph to carry messages and a basket of good things to them, and to bring back word again. It was a long, lonely journey for a boy of his years, but at last he was near the end of his journey. Far off the brothers saw him coming. They knew him by his coat of bright colors. "Behold, here comes that dreamer!" they said, one to another. "Come now, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits; and we will say, 'Some evil beast has devoured him.'"
Here we must pause and take a lesson on the fearful danger of allowing envious thoughts to stay even an hour in our heart. Envy grew to murder in these brothers! We see here the wisdom of Paul's counsel, not to let the sun go down upon our anger. We should instantly crush the merest beginnings of envy. The hour of evening prayer, when we bow at God's feet, should always be a time for getting right all that may have gone wrong in us during the day. Then every feeling of bitterness against any person should be cast out of our heart. It should be a time for forgetting all injury, and unkindness, all hurt done us by anyone.
Joseph was not killed. His errand was not yet finished. Instead of a tragedy, came a providence. Reuben, one of the brothers, was not ready for murder. He proposed that they cast the boy into a dry pit. Reuben intended to come and rescue him afterwards. The suggestion was accepted. So they cast Joseph into the pit, and leaving him there, they went to their accustomed meal. "They sat down to eat bread."
But there was an Eye on the weeping, shivering lad—and an Ear that heard his piteous cries in the dark, dank pit. Then there was another providence. The heartless brothers, as they ate and chuckled over their shrewdness in getting the hated dreamer out of their way, looked up and saw a caravan coming. It was going down to Egypt. A bright thought struck one of the brothers. Judah proposed that they sell Joseph to these passing merchants. It would be a good thing for two reasons. They would get rid of the boy's blood—and blood is always a troublesome thing on one's hands. It will not wash off. Besides, there would be a little money in the transaction. So the boy was hurriedly drawn up out of the pit, and after some parleying with the traders, was sold to them for some twelve dollars.
The caravan moved away, carrying the dreamer farther on his errand. The brothers returned to their unfinished meal. Reuben, who had been waiting apart for an opportunity to rescue Joseph, came, and finding the pit empty, supposed the lad had been killed, and tore his clothes in bitter grief. The other brothers, knowing that some news must be sent to the old father, killed a young goat, and dipping the hated coat in the blood, sent it home, innocently explaining: "We found this coat, in this condition, in the field. Does our father think it is his son's coat?" The father recognized it and drew the inference the cruel brothers meant him to draw. "Joseph is without doubt, torn in pieces!" So, for more than twenty years he thought that his dear son Joseph had been torn to pieces—and all the years were filled with sore mourning.
Dropping the thread of the story for the present, let us gather some practical lessons, as we see the boy carried off to a distant land as a slave.
1. When we say our good-byes at our home doors in the morning, though it be but for a few hours separation, as we think—we do not know how long it may be before we shall meet again. Joseph went out from his father's door that morning, on a common errand, for but a few days' absence. We can picture the parting. All the household was much interested in the lad's journey. All sent messages to the absent brothers. The old grandfather Isaac was still living a very aged man, and he would have messages and a blessing to send. Little Benjamin would have a deep interest in his big brother's journey, and would want to go with him. All the family gathered about the door to see Joseph off, and stood there watching him, calling and waving their good-byes, until he was out of sight. But no one was anxious. In a few days Joseph would be home again—so they thought. No one dreamed that for more than twenty years, that bright happy face would not be seen, that some of them would never see him again.
We must not miss the lesson. Even our most casual partings may be for years, and perhaps forever. When we part at our doors in the morning, one to go to business, one to school, one on a short journey, others to stay in the home—we do not know when we shall all look again in each other's face. We expect to gather at the table at noon, or round the fireside in the evening—but are we sure of it? Many go out in the morning—who never come home at night!
If Jacob and Joseph and the other members of that family had known that morning, that for more than twenty years they would not meet again, would not their parting have been very tender? Yet life is quite as uncertain for us and our households, as it was for that patriarchal family. Any hurried good-bye may be for years, and perhaps final; surely then it should be loving. We should never separate in an angry or impatient mood, with unforgiveness, bitterness, or misunderstanding. We should not say our good-byes coldly, carelessly—but always with thoughtful love and gentle feeling.
Suppose that the one who goes out—should be brought home dead; or should return to find the one dead—whom he left at the door. If the parting were with harsh word or look or thought—how must the surviving one grieve, when sitting by the flower-covered coffin, to remember the last word or look! The flowers then will not atone for the coldness of the parting on the doorstep, nor will they take the pang out of the bereft heart. We should make every parting with home loved ones, every briefest good-bye, sweet enough, kindly enough, for a last farewell, should it prove to be the last, as it may well be.
2. We never know when we set out in the morning, what misfortune or calamity may befall us before the night comes. See that happy lad leaving Hebron, and passing on his way to Shechem. He had no apprehension of danger. With a pure heart and a quiet trust in God, he went along without fear. He was expecting a kindly welcome from his brothers, certainly he never expected for a moment, the cruel reception they gave him. After a short visit away, he hoped to return to the old home, where there was so much love for him. Yet see to what circumstance, he was blindly going!
So we all go on continually, unaware of what lies before us. We spend today in gladness—not knowing that tomorrow will bring us tears. We move on through the flowers, heedless of danger—not suspecting that at our next step we may fall into some hidden pit. We boast of our sturdy health, our rugged strength—not dreaming that tomorrow we may be stricken down by disease. We rejoice in our prosperity, unconscious of the fact that disaster may come any hour and sweep it all away! We set out on the happy journey, without thought of the possible accident on the way—which may leave us crippled or dead.
What is the lesson? Should this uncertainty of all human affairs, sadden our life? Should we tremble at every step we take, lest the next may be into some grief or calamity? No! That is not the lesson. That would take all the joy and all the energy out of life for us. God does not want us to be unhappy while the sun is shining—because by and by it will pass under a cloud. He does not want us to bring in tomorrow's possible shadows—to darken our bright today. He does not want us to dim and spoil youth's gladness—by gloomy forecastings of the trials of old age. He wants us to live in today, to enjoy its blessings, and do its work well—though tomorrow may bring calamity. "Sufficient unto the day, is the evil thereof."
How can we do this, you ask, if we know that any bright future has in it, possibilities of sudden darkness? Only by calm, quiet, trustful faith in God, and obedience to him at every step.
We sometimes wish we could see into the future—that we might choose our way, and avoid the rough paths. But suppose that Joseph had been told, on his way to Dothan, how his brothers would treat him, and that he would be sold as a slave; would he have gone forward? Would he not have turned back? Then what a wonderful story of God's providence would have been spoiled! Joseph himself would have missed all that bright future, which lay beyond the period of wrongs and cruelties into which he first plunged. Then think what his people would have missed, what the world would have missed.
It would not be well for us—to know what is before us; we would often meddle with God's plans and spoil them, marring our own future, and harming others. Nor is it well for us to be made afraid and overcautious, by the thought of our day's experiences. Yet this uncertainty ought to hold us near the side of Christ at all times. Nothing can ever go really wrong with us—if he is leading us, and we are quietly following him. Though he takes us through pain, misfortune, suffering—it is because that is the path to true blessing and good.
3. Take a lesson on the heartlessness of some people. When these brothers had cast Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat bread. Not far from where they were feasting, lay their own brother, suffering untold anguish. They had decided not to kill him—but to leave him in this pit to die. They seem to have forgotten that this was no less cruel, than if they had slain him outright!
We see how envy freezes out of the heart—all warmth of affection, turning it to stone. Unmoved by the thought of their brother's suffering, and indifferent to his cries of anguish which rang in their ears—these men sat down to selfish enjoyment. Let us study the picture closely. A boy who had left his happy home only two or three days since, finds himself in a deep dark pit. He cannot escape out of it. His feet sink in the mire. Slimy creatures creep about him. He can only die.
Does not a like fate befall many a young man in these days? Life all around us, is full of worse pits, deeper because their bottom is hell—into which thousands of young men, and young women, too, are cast.
Brothers cast Joseph into this deep pit. There are brothers who evermore are dragging down their brothers into dark snares. Are we our brothers' keeper? Yes! yet see how many who bear the image of God and who ought to be the loyal guardians of other lives, rest not unless they cause someone to sin. It is a terrible thing to sin, to debauch one's own conscience, to stain one's own soul. But it is a far worse thing to cause others to sin, to put the wine-cup to pure lips, to whisper impure, unholy words into innocent ears. Yet there are brothers who are leading brothers into snares, and causing the young and innocent to fall into evil pits!
Every drinking saloon is a pit, a thousand times darker and more deadly than Joseph's, into which hundreds of the young boys of the country are entrapped, never to come out as they went in. Every gambling den is such a pit, where honor and truth and character are the real ventures, where immortal souls are the fortunes lost. Every house of the immoral woman is such a pit. "Her feet go down to death! Her house is the way to hell."
Men hang red lanterns on the streets where there are pitfalls. Red lights should be hoisted over these pitfalls of death, which are open everywhere. He who loves his own soul, who loves peace, honor, purity, life—should shun them! Those who fall into them—can only be rescued by the strong hand of Almighty God.
But we are not done with this picture. See the brothers feasting while this lad, their own brother, lies yonder in the pit! "How cruel! How heartless!" one says. Yes—but is there no such heartlessness in our own life? The world is full of sorrow, suffering, need. Go where we may—we find anguish and distress. Here, it is sickness. There, the fluttering crape tells of death within. Inside this door, it is poverty—little children are crying for bread. Next door it is sin, drunkenness, vice, crime—turning God's blessing of life to cursing.
On all hands are our brothers, who have fallen into sin's pits and are perishing there in the darkness! There are homes close to ours, where there is no prayer—and that is worse than no bread. There are little children on our streets, who are being lured into hell's pitfalls—and no one seems to care. This sad, heart-rending picture of the bright, pure, noble boy, in the pit at Dothan, is no strange sight to heaven's angels!
What are we doing? Are we any less heartless than these inhuman brothers were? Do we not sit down to our meals and eat them with relish, unmoved by the cries of need that come in at our windows? "Heartless," does any one say they were? Yes; but is much of our Christian charity any better? In one home, feasting, affluence, luxury—and at the back gate, beggary timidly knocking. Out in the chill darkness the child of poverty crouches, peering into the brilliant parlors. But where are the hearts that have pity?
Souls are perishing. Young men are being snared in pits of hell. Young women are being lured away to wretchedness and degradation. Children are being entrapped and dragged into pits of shame.
And what are we doing? What are the greater number of Christian people doing? Are we trying to rescue these ensnared ones? In our own hearts, we have Christ and the joy of his love and grace. We sit down to our communion tables and feast on heavenly provision. We sing our songs. We clasp our hands in Christian love. But do the cries of the perishing outside, ever break upon our ears as we sit there? Do the visions of our brothers and sisters in their peril and woe, never flit across our eyes, as we look with rapture into the blessed face of Jesus?
There is wonderful response to calls for physical relief when people are in need. Christian people open their hands to the hungry. But there are sorer, bitterer needs. In sin's dark pits where they have fallen, there are dying ones, with none to care. Is there no pity in our heart for these? They are all about us brothers, fallen into pits, brothers, cast into pits by brothers—and with none to heed their cries. If we found a dog, or an ox, or a horse, fallen into a pit—we would hasten to lift it out. Shall we pass by our brothers and not lend a hand to save them?
One tells of a man in a New England town who walks about always with his head bent down as if in sad dejection. Once this man was captain of an ocean vessel. One day, as his ship was speeding through the waters, a signal of distress was observed some distance away. It was seen that there was a man on the piece of wreck. To go to his rescue the ship would have to be stopped and turned back, losing much time. "No," said the captain; "some other vessel will pick him up." He speeded on and was in port in good time, and was commended for his swift passage. But the captain could not get out of his mind the memory of that signal of distress out there on the wild sea, and the sight of that one man on the piece of wreck left there to perish. By day and by night that picture haunted him. He has never gone to sea since; and when he walks on the street, people know him by his downcast face, and remember the pathetic story of his last voyage.
As we are hurrying on these busy days, do we see no signals of distress on life's broad sea? Do we hear no cries no wails of anguish from souls that are out on the angry waves? Do we heed the signals and hearken to the cries? Do we turn away from our business, our pleasure, our ease, our money-getting, our personal ambitions—to rescue to those who are perishing? Or do we hurry on and say that we have no time for these things—no time to try to save our brothers—no time to lift out of sin's pits, those who have fallen into them—no time to wipe away a tear? If we do not reach out our hand to help—may not our sorrow in eternity be the memory of cries of distress unheeded? May not the visions of perishing ones neglected, haunt us forever?
Listen to the words of Scripture: "Rescue those being taken off to death, and save those stumbling toward slaughter. If you say, 'But we did not know about this;' will not He who weighs hearts consider it? Will not He who protects your life know? Will not He repay a person according to his work?" Proverbs 24:11-12
A modern writer has written an interesting tale entitled "Hands Off" which illustrates God's providence in the life of Joseph. It represents a man in another stage of existence, looking down upon the Hebrew lad in the hands of the Midianites. As the story goes—being an active, ingenious lad, Joseph escaped from the caravan on the first night after his brothers had sold him. He had just reached the outer edge of the camp when a yellow dog began to bark and awakened the men who were in charge of him, and he was returned to captivity.
However the onlooker wanted to kill the dog before he had awakened the camp. Then Joseph would have got away and would have reached home in safety. Great sorrow and suffering would have been avoided. But the onlooker's guardian said, "Hands off." And to let him see the evil of interfering, he took him to a world where he could try the experiment and see its results. There he killed the dog. Joseph reached home in safety, his father rejoiced, his brothers were comforted. It certainly seemed a better way than the other. But when the famine came on, there was no Joseph in Egypt to foretell it and to prepare for it, and there was no food laid up in the storehouses. Palestine and Egypt were devastated by starvation. Great numbers died and the savage Hittites destroyed those whom the famine had spared. Civilization was set back centuries. Egypt was blotted out. Greece and Rome remained in a barbarous state. The history of the whole world was changed, and countless evils came—all because a man in his ignorant wisdom killed a dog, saving a boy from present trouble, to his own and the world's future great loss.
We would better keep our hands off God's providences. Many a beautiful plan of his is spoiled by human meddling. Peter wanted to keep Jesus back from his cross. Suppose he had done so, what would have been the result? No doubt, many a time, love has kept a life back from hardship, sacrifice, and suffering, thereby blighting or marring a destiny, a plan of God. We are likely to pity the boy Joseph, as we see him enter his period of humiliation, and as we read of his being sold as a slave, then cast into fetters. But we well see, that if human pity could have rescued him from this sad part of his life—that the glorious part which followed, with all its blessed service to the world, would have been lost!
Few truths are more sustaining to Christian faith than this—that our times are in God's hands. We forget it too often and sometimes we fret when life brings hard things to endure, when our own plans are broken. But someday we shall see that God knows best.
Joseph was seventeen when the caravan bore him off, as a slave, to Egypt. He was thirty when called from prison to become prime minister of Egypt. The whole period of his humiliation was therefore, thirteen years. The three points on which we are to fix our thoughts are his slave life; his great temptation; his prison life. The special thing to mark is, that Joseph went through all these experiences unhurt. This is a secret worth learning, of how to meet injustice, wrong, cruelty, inhuman treatment, temptation, and misfortune—so as to receive no harm from the experience. Let us look at each of the three phases of Joseph's humiliation, to see how he bore himself so as to rob them of their bitterness and their power of harming, and to extract from each of them blessing and good.
Joseph's slave life was humiliating. It is always hard to be a slave—not to be one's own, to belong to another, to be driven to grinding toil, to bow beneath heavy burdens bound upon one's shoulders, to feel the lash of the taskmaster, not to be able to claim the fruit of one's own toil, to serve as a mere animal, bought and sold in the market!
Joseph was a slave. His brothers sold him to the traders. In the shambles of Egypt, Potiphar saw him, looked him over as one would a horse, and bought him, paying, no doubt, a handsome profit to the merchants who had brought him down from Canaan. Think how galling was all this, to a boy of Joseph's free spirit! Think, too, of the sense of wrong which filled his heart as he remembered the treatment he had received from his brothers:
They had torn him away from his home.
They had been about to kill him.
They had treated him with heartless cruelty.
They had sold him as a slave.
Surely it was hard to keep one's heart sweet and free from bitterness, with such a sense of injustice in the soul.
But add to this, the hardness of the new condition in which Joseph found himself. He was among strangers. Not a face he had ever seen passed before him. He was utterly alone. He had not a friend in all the land. He was not free to go as he pleased, to do what he liked, to follow his own tastes. Many a young man lands in our free country—poor, friendless, and alone—but with a brave heart filled with noble impulses, free to make what he will of his life, and soon is on the highway to success.
But Joseph was a slave. Potiphar had bought him. He was in fetters. It is hard to conceive of a condition more discouraging. It was a sore test of character, to which Joseph was exposed. The treatment he had received from his brothers tended to make him bitter. His present circumstances seemed enough to crush his spirit. Some men in such experience of injustice, wrong, treachery, and falseness—would have lost all faith in humanity, becoming soured. There are people who have had not the tenth part of Joseph's trouble, but who are embittered against the world and denounce it as cold and heartless and ungrateful. Other men there are who, having been wronged, grow hard and vindictive, and live only to repay the injustice they have received—with like injustice blow for blow. Still others sullenly surrender to the injuries they have received—and with broken spirit creep through life, like wrecks drifting on the sea, pitiable spectacles to men and angels.
Few men there are, who pass through such experiences of injustice and cruelty as those which Joseph met with—and keep their heart sweet and gentle, their faith in God bright and clear, and their spirit brave and strong. It showed the healthiness and wholesomeness of Joseph's nature, that he passed through the galling and trying experiences of his humiliation unhurt. He was not soured toward men. He did not grow morbid, sullen, or disheartened. Though a slave, he accepted his position with cheerfulness, and entered heartily into his new life—doing his duties so well that he soon became overseer in his master's house. He wasted no time or strength, in weeping over his misfortunes. He did not grieve over his wrongs, nor exhaust himself in self-pity, which is one of the most miserable and unmanly of emotions. He did not burn out the love of his heart, in vindictive and resentful feelings. He did not brood over his wrongs. He looked forward and not back; out and not in.
A poet writes of one who had had bitter experiences, that the darkness crept into her heart and darkened her eyes. But the darkness about Joseph's life, was not allowed to enter his heart. This was one of the great secrets of his victorious living. The light within him continued to burn pure and clear. With hatred all about him—he kept love in his heart. Enduring injuries, wrongs, and injustices—his spirit was forgiving. With a thousand things that tended to discourage and dishearten him, to break his spirit—he refused to be discouraged. Because other men lived unworthily, was but a stronger reason why he should live worthily. Because he was treated cruelly and wickedly, was fresh reason why he should give to others about him the best service of love and unselfishness. That his condition was hard—was to him a new motive for living heroically and nobly.
So we find the spirit of Joseph unbroken, under all that was galling and crushing in his circumstances. The lesson cannot be too urgently pressed. Many people find life hard. Sometimes wrong and injustice make the days bitter. Sometimes the atmosphere of daily life is one of strife, petty persecution, miserable fault-finding, incessant opposition, nagging, criticism. Home life ideally ought to be loving, inspiring, encouraging, helpful, full of all kindness and grace. Yet there are homes little better than Joseph's, where instead of love—are envy, selfishness, bitterness. There are those, too, who must live continually amid unjust opposition and antagonism. There are those whose life is little better than that of a slave, with grinding toil half-requited, driven as by cruel taskmasters to severe and rigorous service. There are those who are pressed on all sides by human selfishness, who suffer from the dishonesty, the baseness, the avarice, the selfishness of others.
Let us not fail to get the lesson. The problem of life—is to keep the heart warm and kindly—amid all injustice and wrong; to keep the spirit brave and cheerful—in the midst of all that is hard in life's circumstances and conditions; to be true and right and strong—in all moral purpose and deed, however others may act toward us. Our inner life should not be affected by our external experiences. Right is right, no matter what others about us may do. We must be true—no matter if all the world is false—even false to us. We must be unselfish and loving—though even our nearest friends prove selfish and cruel to us. We must keep our spirit strong, cheerful and hopeful—though adversities and misfortunes seem to leave us nothing of the fruit of all our labors.
A young man must do his work well, making the most and best of his life, though compelled to serve for most inadequate wages. In a word we are to live victoriously, truly, nobly, sweetly, cheerfully, songfully—in spite of whatever may be uncongenial in our condition!
This is the lesson from the first period of Joseph's humiliation. This is the lesson of all Christian life. We should not let the outside darkness into our soul. We should seek to be delivered from all morbidness and all unwholesomeness. We should not allow anything to crush us. Though a slave as to our condition, our spirit should be free.
We read that Joseph bore himself so congenially, and did his work so well, and was so capable, so true, so trustworthy, that Potiphar "left all that he owned under Joseph's care; he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate." Genesis 39:6. Joseph would never have won such a success—if he had given up to discouragement, if he had brooded over his wrongs, if he had sulked and complained, if he had spent his time in vain regrets or in vindictive feelings. We should learn the lesson, and it is worth learning—it is life's highest and best lesson. It is the victory of the faith in Christ which overcomes the world.
Another part of Joseph's humiliation was his temptation. He had been in Potiphar's house for several years. He had lived so worthily and worked so faithfully, that he had his master's fullest confidence and had risen to the first place in the household. We can think of the boy's dreams of greatness as again coming into the young man's heart, as he found himself so honored. His temptation was, by an intrigue with Potiphar's wife—to rise to yet higher prominence. He would throw off his slave's chains and become a man of rank in the great nation of Egypt. This, and not the appeal to base immoral passion, was the chief element in the temptation to Joseph.
We may think, too, of the circumstances which made the trial the harder. Joseph was away from home and friends. No eye of mother, father or sister was upon him, inspiring him to all that was pure, true, and noble. We do not realize what a restraint against wrong-doing and all that is vile and ignoble—we have in the expectations of our friends for us, their belief in us. Joseph was in a heathen land, too, where the standard of morals was low and where such intrigues were common. We do not realize how much we are helped in our virtue—by the high ideals we find around us ,and by the knowledge that certain lapses and sins would expose us to disgrace, and to the condemnation of society. Joseph had none of these social restraints to help him to be strong and pure.
But he met the temptation on far higher grounds, on grounds of pure principle. Note his answer to the solicitation of his temptress: "No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
Two motives appear in these words of Joseph's. One is loyalty to his master. Potiphar had trusted him, trusted him implicitly with all that he had. Could he now be guilty of such a base wrong—to the man who had placed such confidence in him? To Joseph's mind, such an act would be treachery to his friend. In the face of the flattering solicitation of this woman high in rank, unmoved by her passionate temptation, regardless of the consequences which offending her might bring upon him—he kept his eye fixed on his duty and wavered not—but flung the temptress from him and tore himself away his soul unstained.
The other motive which saved him was his loyalty to God. "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" All sin is sin against God. "Against you, you only, have I sinned," said David in his penitence. Cruelty to an animal—is sin against God. Treachery to Potiphar—was sin against God. All our acts have reference to God. Sins against innocence and purity—are sins against God. We can never get away from our relation to God, in any act of our life. In all such temptations as this of Joseph's, men should remember that while to yield would be treason to another—it would also be sin against God.
Another element of Joseph's nobleness of character in this case, appears in his silence under false accusation. His temptress, in her disappointment and anger, charged him to her husband with the most reprehensible behavior. Under this accusation, Joseph was seized and cast into fetters. But he said not a word to Potiphar, to turn suspicion upon the accusing wife. He seems to have thought still of Potiphar's honor, and rather than lay a stain upon it—he would go to the dungeon under the false charge, leaving to God the vindication of his own honor and the proving of his own innocence. It has been said, "For his purity you will find his equal—one among a thousand; for his mercy—scarcely one." By a word he could have told Potiphar the whole story—but rather than speak that word—he suffered the dishonoring accusation to rest undenied.
Nothing is harder than to live under false charges which bring upon one suspicion and condemnation, which hinder one's advancement, and which by breaking silence—one could cast off. There are people who do live, thus bearing reproach and odium to shield others. Sometimes it seems to be a duty—but it is very hard. Joseph had resisted temptation in order to be loyal to Potiphar; now Potiphar thinks him guilty of the very baseness, which for love of him—he had scorned to commit. But in all this, Joseph kept his heart sweet and loving.
Sometimes it costs very dearly—to be true to God. Joseph lay now in a dungeon. But his loss through doing right, was nothing in comparison with what he would have lost—had he done the wickedness to which he was tempted. His prison gloom, deep as it was, was as noonday, compared with what would have been the darkness of his soul under the blight of evil, and the bitterness of remorse. The chains that hung upon him in his dungeon, were but like feathers in comparison with the heavy chains which would have bound his soul, had he yielded to the temptation. Though in a prison, his feet hurt by fetters—he was a free man because his conscience was free, and his heart was pure! No fear of consequences should ever drive us to do a wrong thing.
It is better to suffer any loss, any cost, any sacrifice—than be eaten up by remorse! Better be hurled down from a high place for doing right—than win worldly honor by doing wrong! Better lose our right hand—than lose our purity of soul! Better rot in prison—than to sin against God!
It was the prayer of a girl queen, which she wrote with a diamond point on her castle window, "Keep me pure; make others great." That is the lesson of Joseph's victory over temptation; dishonor, loss, dungeon, death—anything before sin!
Another phase of Joseph's humiliation was, his prison life. It was a terrible blight upon his young life—to be thus hurled into a dungeon. We can imagine his thoughts when he found himself shut away in the darkness, and bound with chains. This, then, was the reward of being true to God and to duty! He had resisted sin—and here he was in irons, while his guilty temptress was posing as an injured woman, receiving compassion and enjoying luxury!
However bitter the prison may have been at first to Joseph, we know that here as before—he soon rose to honor. He was not yet crushed. The noble soul within him, rose superior to all the effects of the misfortunes and the wrongs under which he was suffering. He did not lie down and despair. Soon his old aptitude for meeting life with courage and hope, showed itself. "The jailer put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners and over everything that happened in the prison. The chief jailer had no more worries after that, because Joseph took care of everything." So we find Joseph always superior to his condition and circumstances.
There is a story of one who during a time of persecution, was cast into a deep dungeon, far underground. Once only each day, and for but half an hour, did the outer light stream down into the darkness of the prison. But this good man found an old iron nail and a piece of stone among the rubbish on his cell floor. Using the nail for a chisel, and the piece of stone for a mallet, he carved on his prison wall, during the few moments when the light streamed in, a crude figure of the Savior on his cross.
So should we do in our life prisons. Thus did Joseph. He did not hew any figures on the stone walls which shut him in; but on the walls of his own heart he cut the figures of hope, joy and love. His heart was not in chains. The fetters did not hurt his soul. He was victorious over all the wrong, the injustice, the false accusation, the suffering. Indeed he found his period of humiliation a great time of growth, of discipline, of training.
At length he was summoned from the prison to sit beside the king; and so well was he fitted for greatness and for wise ruling, that his head did not grow dizzy—when he stood on this pinnacle of honor and fame.
So we get from this part of our story—the duty of victoriousness in all life's conditions. What is the secret? Be true to God. Be true to yourself. Be true to your fellow men. The record tells us: "The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man." This was when he was a slave. Then of the time of his prison life we read: "The Lord was with Joseph, and showed kindness unto him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper." Truly, if we are true to God—God will bless us, and even our misfortunes, he will use to train us for larger, better, nobler, more useful life!
A writer tells the story of the rose of Jericho—how it flourishes in lack of all things plants need in the hot desert—in the rocky crevices, by the dusty wayside, in the rubbish heap. Even more, the fierce sirocco tears it from its place and flings it far out upon the ocean, and there, driven by the storms and tossed by the salt waves—it still lives and grows. So should we grow in any and all circumstances, wherever we may be cast in sorrow, in hardship, in misfortune, in suffering. A deathless life is in us, and we should be unconquerable. Christ is with us; Christ's life is in us; nothing should be allowed to crush us. Live near the heart of Christ—and the world's power will not hurt you, nor the world's darkness dim your soul's light.
FROM PRISON TO PALACE
"Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and they quickly brought him from the dungeon." Genesis 41:14
The story reads like a romance novel! In the morning, Joseph lay in prison. He had been there probably three years. He knew of nothing that gave any hope of release. In the evening he was wearing the king's ring, was arrayed in vestures of fine linen, had a gold chain around his neck, and was honored as next to the king. It seems too strange to be true—yet it was true.
We may think a moment of the man in the prison.
He was not a criminal. He was in prison on false charges. Let us beware lest we do injustice to others—by believing false things about them. What is it in human nature, that inclines people to believe evil of others? Shall we not strive to have the love which thinks no evil? In the story of Joseph, we know the other side, and we see a man with a white soul, though under the shadow of a black charge. May it not be so, with some other person we know of, whom people allege dishonorable things—but who in God's sight is innocent, with clean soul? We should plead for justice, for charity, toward all. We should shut our ears to the insinuations and whisperings of the slanderer's tongue! It was a lie that put the felon's garb and chain upon Joseph, robbed him of his good name, and turned the dungeon key upon him! Be slow to believe an accusation against another! One false mouth can destroy the reputation won by a lifetime of worthy deeds!
Joseph was in prison under a false charge. The very treachery against his master which his noble nature scorned to commit—his master was made to believe he had committed. Yet he sealed his lips and went to the dungeon without one word of self-exculpation. He could not exculpate himself without bringing scandal and ruin upon his master's home—and he was silent. This was a case when silence was hard—but when silence was noble.
Any one of us may become the innocent victim of calumny. Blameless, we may have to endure false accusations. As Christians, what should we do in such a case? Of course, not all cases are alike. In some instances vindication may be possible, and it may be our duty to seek it. But there may be cases, like Joseph's, when we cannot free ourselves from false accusation, without bringing dishonor and suffering upon others. Then it may be our duty, like Joseph, too—to suffer in silence and in patience. He left all in God's hands, doing nothing himself to right the wrong. There is a verse in the thirty-seventh Psalm, which gives a lesson and a promise: "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun."
Joseph committed his way into the Lord's hands that terrible day. He kept his own hands off. He was three years under the black cloud—but then he came forth into the light, and there was not a stain on his soul. We may safely leave our vindication to God!
Those were hard years for Joseph indeed, all those thirteen years were—from the day the boy was sold to the passing caravan—until he was sent for by Pharaoh, and lifted to honor. But as hard as they were—they did not hurt him. There are little flowers that grow through all the coldest winter, under the snows, keeping sweet and beautiful beneath the deepest drifts, coming out in the spring days, when the snow melts away—unhurt, as lovely and fragrant as if they had been sheltered in a conservatory! So it was that the life of Joseph remained gentle, beautiful and sweet—under all the terrible trials of those years: wrong, cruelty, heartlessness, injustice, inhumanity from brothers, too; then slavery, degradation; then false accusation, fetters.
Some of us can hardly keep sweet under little imaginary slights, and the common frictions and microscopical hurts and injustices of fairly easy conditions. Some of us grow morbid and cynical, if a friend omits some simple amenity!
The noble bearing of Joseph, teaches us to be superior to all circumstances and conditions, to all unkind or unjust treatment. That is the great lesson of life. If you are going to be affected by every change of social temperature, by every variation of experience your spirits running up and down like the mercury in the thermometer with the fluctuations of the atmosphere, you will have a sorry life! That is not living. But as Christians, we have the secret of a divine life within us. We must live unaffected by circumstances. Morbidness is sickly living. Cynicism is unworthy of a being in whose heart human blood pulses, especially in a heart in which Christ's life throbs. Discouragement is undivine.
We must be strong in the grace of God. We must be unconquerable through him who loved us. We must put misfortunes, adversities, personal injuries, sufferings, trials—under our feet, and tread ever upward over them. We must conquer ourselves also—the evil that is in us, we must subjugate. That is the way to grow.
Remember, your task in living—is to keep sweet, to keep your heart gentle, brave, strong, loving, full of hope—under the worst that the years can bring you of injustice, hardship, suffering, and trial. That is what Joseph did. Then when he was suddenly needed for a great duty, he did not fail.
Something went wrong one day, in the big world above Joseph's dungeon. There was trouble in Pharaoh's palace. Two high officials were careless and they were hurried off to prison. Why is this related in the Bible? Because it was one of the links in the wonderful chain of providence, by which Joseph was at last brought to his place of power.
We do not know what circumstances or events of that vast complex network of things about us, will help change our destiny. "God is always coming down to us through unlikely paths, meeting us unexpectedly." We see how important to Joseph was the coming of Pharaoh's two officers to the prison. Let us walk reverently along all life's paths. We know not what trivial occurrence, any day—may affect all our after course unto the end. Who knows but the casual meeting with someone today—may have great good for us long years hence? The touching of Joseph's life by these prisoners from the palace, was a link in the chain by which Joseph was lifted out! Just so, the person you meet casually tomorrow, may have in his hand the key which some day will open a prison for you and lead you to liberty.
Yet it seemed for a long time, as if nothing would come of the touching of Joseph's destiny by this hand from the outside. Joseph told the meaning of the men's dreams, and in three days what he had said came true. As the chief butler went out happy from the prison, to resume his old duties—he parted very affectionately from his friend. Joseph had said to him: "But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison." No doubt the butler promised to do so. Oh yes, certainly he would remember his prison friend! But here are the pathetic words with which the record closes: "The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him."
He was restored to his place in the palace. He again wore the insignia of office. He was again in the blaze and brilliance of the royal presence. Waiting in his prison, Joseph hoped each day to be released, through the strong influence of his friend at court. He waited and hoped—and yet the days went on without bringing any token that he was remembered. Two years passed, and still Joseph languished in the darkness, wearing his chains. The chief butler, who had been so profuse in his promises to remember him, forgot him!
This "chief butler" has many successors in all ages. We are all quite ready to condemn his ingratitude; but do we never repeat his sin? In the time when help comes to us, or deliverance, or favor—our hearts are warm with grateful feeling. We will never forget this kindness, we say with sincere intention. But do we never forget it? We probably remember injuries done to us. It is hard for many people to forget a wrong. "I forgive him—but I can never forget his treatment," we hear people say. Slights, and cutting words, and unkindnesses, and neglects—how well we remember these! Some of us nurse them and cherish their memory. But have we as faithful recollection of favors, kind words, comforts given in trouble, help in need? "Men too often write the record of grudges in marble—and of favors in sand." Let us not fail to get the lesson. Let us write the record of hurts and wrongs done to us in sand—and of kindnesses shown to us in stone.
Stop a moment right now, and think. Is there someone somewhere, suffering, shut in, perhaps enduring wrong, bearing a heavy load—to whom once you gave a promise of sympathy, of a visit, of an effort to help or relieve—a promise you have now forgotten? When we find people in distress or sorrow or adversity or crushed by some heavy blow—we are quite apt to promise them love and thought and friendly help. But do we always keep our promises? Our words cheer them, and they look for our coming again, and watch and hope for the help we so eagerly said we would give; but how often do we forget, just as the butler forgot Joseph? Is there not someone to whom you spoke in strong words of sympathy, in a time when your heart was warm? You meant to call again very soon. You meant to lend a hand to help the weary struggler. You meant to try to give or secure the relief the person needed. But out in the busy world, you forgot it. "The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him." For two years he forgot him!
There are forgotten Josephs everywhere, to whom promises have been made—but not kept. We should recall those to whom we once spoke so freely, so earnestly. Have we ever called since? Have we ever done anything to give the comfort we promised to give? Think of the disappointment we have caused, the long weary waiting, for kindness expected—but which we have forgotten to render.
We do not know what power there is in our heart to bless others, to make the world a little brighter for them, the burden a little lighter, the path a little easier. All about us in life, are dungeons in which suffering Josephs lie in chains! It is dark about them. The air is not sweet. Bird songs do not break in upon the heavy silence. They are lonely. You and I, out in the free air, hear the bird songs, and quaff the nectar of human happiness, and have joy and love for our portion. Let us not forget the Josephs in their prisons. They look for tokens from us, to assure them that they are not forgotten. They expect our visits, some proofs at least of kindly thought, some effort to give relief or comfort. You have in your heart's full cup, that which will give strength and cheer. Do not think it a small thing—to put a little new hope or courage or gladness into a fainting human heart. It is helping God warm this world. It is helping Christ save a soul.
But now a strange thing happened. As it so happened, it was better for Joseph, in the end, that the butler did not speak for him to the king for so long a time. Had he made intercession for him at once, and had Pharaoh listened to the plea and set Joseph free, what would have been the result? Joseph could not have gone back to Potiphar's house, and would probably have been sold away from the city, for he was still Potiphar's slave. Or possibly he might have been set free to return to Hebron. In any case, he would not likely have been within reach when he was sought for to interpret Pharaoh's dreams.
Consider the consequences. His career would have been toward obscurity. Perhaps he would never have been heard of again, and then this charming story would never have been written. Then Pharaoh's dreams would have had no interpreter. The years of plenty would have come and passed, leaving no storehouses filled for the famine years which followed. In the terrible distress of those years—the family of Jacob, with its holy seed, might have perished from the earth.
But the ingratitude of the butler, inexcusable as it was, left Joseph in the prison, suffering unjustly—but waiting close at hand, until the moment came when he would be needed for a work of stupendous importance. While God's purposes were slowly ripening in the world outside, Joseph's character also was ripening, into strength and self-discipline within the dungeon walls!
So we see again the wonderful providence of God, how every link of the chain fits into its own place with most delicate precision. Nothing comes a moment too soon, nothing lags, coming a minute too late. God's providence is like God's nature. Among the stars there are no haphazard movements. The sun never rises late. No star sets too early. So in providence, everything comes in its set time. God's clock is never a second slow. Can this be mere chance? Can nature's perfect adjustments, be chance? Can the wonderful beauty and beneficence of providence, be chance, a mere endless succession of happy, blessed coincidences? Oh no, there is a God whose hand moves the machinery of the universe—and that God is our Father! There is a heart beating at the center of all things. He who has ears to hear, cannot but hear it.
Thus in Joseph's life every smallest event, was wrought into the final result with perfect adaptation. The inhuman wickedness of his brothers in selling him, the foul lie of Potiphar's wife which sent him to a dungeon, the ingratitude of the butler which left him friendless and forgotten for two years in prison—all these wrongs from others, were by the divine touch, transmuted into blessings!
As we read this story, we see all this in the life of Joseph. Shall we suppose that Joseph's life was in God's hand, in any exceptional sense? Is there any less of God's providence in our life—than there was in the life of that Hebrew lad? He did not see the providence at the time—not until afterwards did the dark clouds disclose their silver lining, or the rough iron fetters reveal themselves as gold. Not until afterwards, shall we see that our disappointments, hardships, trials, misfortunes, and the wrongs done to us by others—are all made parts of God's providence toward us! Not until afterwards—but the "afterwards" is sure if only we firmly and faithfully follow Christ and keep our own hands off. God works slowly—and is never in a hurry.
The light which shines from this story of Joseph, ought to shine into a great many lives today with its beam of cheer and hope—for those who are waiting amid discouraging circumstances. The heart of God is beating in each life's experiences, and the hand of God is working; only the hour for full revealing has not yet come on the dial of the clock of God.
At last came the time for Joseph's deliverance and exaltation. Pharaoh had a double dream. It was not an ordinary dream; it was God's way of revealing the future to the king, that he might be a true father to his people. Seven fat cows feeding in a meadow; and seven lean cows standing by the Nile. The seven fat cattle eaten up by the seven lean—which are lean as ever, afterwards. Seven fat, good ears of corn; and seven thin, blasted ears. The thin ears devour the fat ears—and are thin as ever.
The dream troubled the king. He sent for Egypt's famed wise men, dream-interpreters; but they gave him no light. Now, at last, after two years of ungrateful forgetting, the butler remembered his fault and told Pharaoh the story of the Hebrew slave in the prison, who had interpreted his own dream. Swiftly runs the messenger to the prison, and Joseph is called into the presence of the king. He is thirty years old. He has been thirteen years in Egypt, as slave and prisoner. Now his time for honor and for service has come. This is the hour, and here is the duty for which all his former life has been a preparation.
Pharaoh tells his dreams. Listen to Joseph's answer. A vain man would have had his head turned by such a sudden blaze of royal splendor about him, and would have spoken boastfully. But Joseph speaks with the humility of an unspoiled child. "It is beyond my power to do this—but God will tell you what it means." We should not miss the lesson—we who teach others, we to whom perplexed ones come with their questions. We should not seek to show our own wisdom—but should hide ourselves away, and point to God as the One who is the source of whatever wisdom our lips may speak. "It is beyond my power to do this—but God will tell you what it means."
Then Joseph told the king what the dream meant. It was God's message to Pharaoh—a glimpse into the future. There would be seven years of great plenty in Egypt, and after these, seven years of sore famine. And the famine would be so grievous, that it would eat up all the food of the abundant years. Joseph went on to advise the king what to do to find a wise man and let him gather the extra food of the seven years of plenty, and lay it up in great storehouses to meet the needs of the coming years of famine.
At once the king appointed Joseph himself to this place of honor and trust. He took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph's hand, thus giving him almost royal authority. He arrayed him in vestures of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck—insignia of princely rank. He caused him to ride in a chariot next to the king's own, in a royal procession along the streets. He gave him a new name Zaphenath-paneah, which meant "bread of life" in allusion to Joseph's great service in saving the land from famine. He gave to him also in marriage a daughter of one of Egypt's priests, thus elevating him into the priestly caste.
All this honor came suddenly to Joseph. Was it not worth waiting for? The way seemed long from the pit at Dothan to the steps of Egypt's throne. The dreams of the Hebrew boy were long in coming true. The experiences were hard and tended to crush and destroy the young life. Those thirteen years out of the golden prime of life seemed wasted. Yet, we should notice that all this time, and in all these experiences, God was training the man for his work. The butler's dream came true in three days—but there was not much of it when it was fulfilled. It took thirteen years for Joseph's dreams to be realized, because the dreams meant so much. If a man's work is of small importance, he can be prepared for it in a little while. But when he has a great mission to fulfill, it requires a long time to fit him for it. Let no one grow impatient in God's school, however slow the advancement may be. The longer time God takes with your training, and the harder the discipline is—the richer will be your life when the work is finished.
No doubt Joseph recognized the providence of God in all those slow years of his life. He believed that he was being prepared for his life's mission. This was the secret of his unconquerable hope and courage and of all his sweet life—in the trying experiences of those years. He knew he was in God's school. Providence was a Bible to him. The same may become just as true in our life—as it was in his. We may accept our condition as God's appointment for us. Then we may read God's will for us as clearly in each day's unfoldings—as if the divine finger wrote it out for us on a sheet of paper under our eye! We shall cease then our restless struggling. We shall no longer fight so for our own way—but will take God's way.
Thus and thus only, can anyone be what God made him to be, and do what God made him to do in this world. God has a plan for every life—but we can fulfill that plan only by daily reading the little page of God's Bible which he writes for us on the tablet of the day's providences. To be able to say always in disappointment, in sorrow, in loss, in the suffering of injuries at the hands of others, in the midst of pain and trial, "God is teaching me some new lesson, training me for some new duty, bringing out in me some new beauty of character," is to live as we should live. One incident left out in Joseph's strange career, would have broken the chain and spoiled all. So it is in every life; all the events are necessary to fit us for the place for which God is preparing us.
We may learn a lesson from the system which Joseph adopted of providing in the years of plenty, for the years of famine. In everyone's life there are seasons of abundance, of rare plenty—and then there will come also, surely, seasons that are empty and full of need. It is wisdom's part to gather the bounties of the full years—and lay them up in store for the empty years.
Youth is a time of plenty. It brings opportunities for education, for study, for reading, for self-discipline, for the formation of habits, for the culture of character, for the establishment of good principles and for careful training and preparation for life's work or business. If youth's plenty is allowed to run to waste—if the season of youth is not improved, after life can bring only misfortune and failure.
In the years of health and prosperity, we should lay up a little of our plenty for the "rainy day" that will certainly come the day of sickness, when the hands cannot work and the doctor's bill must be paid. Through the years of joy, we should lay up in our heart the divine comfort for the years of sorrow which will come. Through youth and manhood or womanhood, we should be ever filling storehouses to draw from in old age. In the present life, we must lay up treasures in heaven for the life to come. In the days when the gospel's grace is falling like sunshine about us, we must receive it into our heart, or we shall perish in the eternal years of darkness.
AN INTERPRETER FOR GOD
Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." "I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires." Genesis 41:15-16
Joseph was an interpreter for God. There are two instances recorded in which he made known the meaning of dreams. The first was in the prison in Egypt. Two officials from the king's palace were among his fellow prisoners. Joseph had risen to influence in the prison. "The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison," is the way the Bible puts it. "And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison." So when these distinguished prisoners from the palace came into the dungeon, they fell under Joseph's care.
One morning when Joseph was going his rounds he found these men sad. He had a sympathetic heart, and he asked them, "Why do you look so sadly today?" They told him that they had each dreamed a dream the night before, and there was no one to act as interpreter for them. Promptly he said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams." The men in turn told him their dreams, and Joseph told them the interpretation. He was God's interpreter to them, showing them what God's Word for them was.
The other case was that of Pharaoh. He had two dreams in one night. In the morning his spirit was troubled, and he wished to know what his dreams meant. He called for Egypt's wise men, who were supposed to understand dreams—but none of them could interpret the king's dreams. Then it flashed upon the memory of the chief butler, that two years before, a Hebrew slave, in Potiphar's prison, had interpreted his dream, and that it came about as the young man said it would. Soon Joseph stood before Pharaoh, listening to a recital of the dreams that so troubled the king.
"Pharaoh said to Joseph—I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph's answer reveals his humility. It shows also his courage, for in the presence of the heathen king he honors his God. "I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires." Then he told the king the interpretation of the dreams. We know how important was the message of God that Joseph read in Pharaoh's dreams. Think what woe and sorrow and devastation were averted, not for Egypt only—but also for other lands, by the interpreting of those dreams. Think what it would have cost the world, if no interpreter had been found. He read the divine meaning that lay folded up in the king's dreams, and the king was enabled by gathering the surplus of the harvests in the years of plenty to feed his people and the starving people of other lands, in the years of famine which followed.
Thus, Joseph was an interpreter for God. He explained to others the meaning of what God was saying to them. Some writers speak of Joseph as a type of Christ. There certainly are many striking points in which the life of Joseph seems to shadow forth that of Jesus. Like our Lord, he was his father's beloved son. He was sent by his father to visit his brothers on an errand of love; so Jesus was sent. He was seized by his brothers and sold by them for silver; so was the Son of God. Through his bondage and humiliation, Joseph became the deliverer, the savior, in an earthly sense, of his brothers and of the world; Jesus, dragged to death, made redemption for His people. Joseph as an interpreter for God, was also typical of Christ, the great Interpreter. In the largest sense, Jesus is the interpreter who alone has made plain to the world—the nature and the will of God, and who alone can unfold to us the meaning of the divine revealings for our personal life.
It is only in Christ that we can know God. "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." As Jesus walked among men and was asked to reveal the Father, he said "He who has seen Me—has seen the Father." The mysteries of the divine nature, were interpreted in Christ. He was the love of God made visible on the earth. Joseph interpreted men's dreams, in which God's words were wrapped up. Jesus heard men's questions, and gave answers to them. He made plain and clear to them, the meaning of the divine teachings. All mysteries vanish, as we sit at Christ's feet. He is the great interpreter for God.
But there is a sense in which we are all called to be interpreters. When Joseph came to the cell of the prisoners from Pharaoh's palace, he saw a deep gloom on their faces. When he asked why they looked so sad, he learned that the cause was their uninterpreted dreams. They were sure that the dreams had a meaning which concerned their future, and they were burdened and anxious to know what the meaning was. So it is with people all about us. There is sadness in their faces. There are lines that tell of perplexed thought, of earnest questionings which get no answers, of deep cravings to know which cannot be satisfied. If we were to ask every sad person we meet, the reason for his sadness—we would find that it is the old story of these prisoners unanswered questions, uninterpreted mysteries, unexplained trials, unsolved perplexities.
We all need interpreters. The dreams of these two prisoners, really were words of God referring to their future, lamps of divine revealing which threw gleams of light upon their destiny. One was a foretelling of life, the other of the swift coming of death. But the men could not understand the words in which the revealing was made. So, in Pharaoh's case, the dreams were not mere meaningless dreams—but were words of God to the king. They were words, too, of the utmost importance, for they concerned the coming days and were meant to guide the king in his caring for his people. God meant that Pharaoh should know the meaning of the dreams in order that he might act according to the wisdom which this new revealing of the future required. It would have been a great calamity, if he had not learned what God had spoken into his ear in these visions of the night. But without an interpreter he never could have known.
So we all stand in this world, in the midst of mysterious writings which we cannot read, having our dreams and visions whose meanings we cannot ourselves interpret. Yet these writings and these visions are really God's words to us, divine teachings, which we ought to understand, whose meanings it is intended we should find out. They have their lessons for us. They hold messages of comfort for our sorrows, of guidance for our dark paths, of instruction for our ignorance, of salvation for our perishing life. We cannot live as we should live—unless we learn the meaning of these divine words. We need interpreters.
Take the little child. It comes into the world knowing nothing. On all sides are wonderful things in the phenomena of nature, in its own life, in the lives of others, in books, in art, in science, in providence; but every door is locked. The child does not understand anything. It cannot read the simplest written sentence. It does not know the meaning of the commonest occurrence. Yet it is here to learn all it can of the mysteries which lie about it. All these things contain words of God, which it is intended that the child shall hear and understand, words which concern its own happiness and well-being in the future. But the child needs an interpreter. As soon as it is born, it begins to learn. When it is only a few weeks old, we see the questions in its eyes. With the first prattlings of speech, it begins to ask what this means, and what that is. When it is taught to read, its wonder grows. Books are full of great secrets. As it becomes older, life's mysteries rise before it. "How do I see? How do I hear? How does my heart keep beating, beating, beating, without pause, day and night? What is that strange voice within my heart, which keeps forever saying 'I must, or I must not?'"
Nature, too, has its endless mysteries for the child. We all know how children ask questions. Some of us at times grow almost impatient of their endless interrogations. But the truth is, these mysteries all about them, these strange phenomena, these things they do not know and cannot make out for themselves, are words of God which it is meant they should understand. The children are not impertinent in their incessant asking, What? and Why? and How? They have a right to know what these strange things mean. They would be poor stupid things—if they did not care to find out. Their lives would be incomplete, half-blessed, or failures, if they never learned them. And it is our duty, to act as interpreters to them.
The mother is the child's first interpreter for God. She hears its first questions, and seeks to answer them. She tells it the meaning of a thousand things. Then the child's school teachers come next, with their interpretations. The church, too, has its function of interpretation for childhood, for the most important of all revealings of truth are those which concern God and his will for man, what he is, what are his feelings toward us, what he wants us to be and to do.
But not childhood alone needs an interpreter; ail through our life, even to the end, we come continually to questions which perplex us, and we have dreams and visions which trouble us. Life is full of enigmas. We bend over the Bible and find texts we cannot understand. The Ethiopian treasurer, sitting in his chariot, and reading the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, reading with deep interest—but not knowing what the words meant, is a picture of many of us. "Do you understand what you are reading?" asked the interpreter, who stood beside the chariot. "How can I, except someone guides me?" answered the puzzled reader. Then the evangelist sat beside him and showed him a blessed revelation of the Messiah, in the words which he had not been able to understand.
Who has not bent over what seemed obscure Bible texts, unable to find out their sense, until some interpreter came and made the meaning plain? But it is not for the words of God written in the Bible alone, that we need interpreters. There are mysteries in providence; they come into every life at some time. There are dark days in which no light breaks through the clouds. There are nights in which no star shines. We sit with sad heart and with gloom in our face. All things seem to be against us. We cry out with pain and fear. Yet in these very providences, there are words of God hidden—good words, words of love, words of mercy.
A minister was talking with his child, about some trouble the child had, and taking a book from his table he pointed to a verse. The child could not make out the words, could not even name a letter. It was in a language he did not know. Then the father told him what the words were, putting them into English. As he did this, the child's face began to brighten. It was a Greek New Testament in which he was reading, and the words were words of love from the lips of Christ. The child needed but to have the interpreter to show him beauty and blessing, where all had been mystery before to his eyes. So it is that God's dark providences appear to his children. Yet thoughts of divine love lie in them, and we need only to have them interpreted to us.
These are only hints of the great mysteries that lie about all of us in this world—all the way from the cradle to the grave. God gives his messages in many forms: in nature, in the lives of others, in his providences, in history, in his Word, in books and friendships, in circumstances. But how often does the writing baffle us! We need interpreters to read off for us the mysterious handwriting.
All of us in our turn, are to be interpreters to others. Joseph found the two prisoners sad—and his heart was touched with sympathy. He became eager to comfort them. That showed a noble spirit in him. He had a warm, gentle heart. No one can ever be greatly useful in this world—who does not enter into the world's experiences. Christ was moved with compassion when he saw human pain, sorrow and sin. At once his love went out to the sufferer, and he desired to help and save. Wherever we go—we see sad faces, telling of unrest, or broken peace, of unsatisfied longings, of unanswered questions, of deep heart-hungerings. Sometimes it is fear which writes its lines on the pale cheeks. Sometimes it is perplexity over tangled circumstances, which darkens the features. Sometimes it is baffled longing; sometimes it is unquenchable desire to know the future; sometimes it is eagerness to learn more of God.
We are sent to be interpreters, each in our own way, and in the things that we know. When we think of it, we see that all the rich knowledge of the world, has come through God's interpreters. Along all the ages seers have been climbing to the mountain-tops, where the first light breaks, catching the divine meanings in God's writings, and then interpreting them to others. There have been prophets in every age, gifted to look into the scrolls of truth and read off the words and their meaning. The scientific knowledge we have today, has come through many interpreters who have learned to read God's word in nature. For nature is one of God's Bibles. Long ago David wrote, "The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is silent in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to all the world." Psalm 19:1-4
All nature's works, are pages written full of noble thoughts from God. But not all of us can read the writing. Thousands walk through this world with lovely plants and flowers and a million forms of vegetable life all about them, with the grandeur of mountains, hills, rivers, seas and landscapes on all sides, and with the brilliant splendor of the skies and the starry heavens overarching them—and yet never see anything in all this to stir their heart to admiration or their mind to rapture or praise. But there have been interpreters, men with eyes which saw, and with ears which heard—and they have told us something of the wonderful things that God has written in nature.
Or take the literature of the world. It is the harvest of many centuries of thought. In every age there have been a few men who have looked into truth with deeper, clearer vision than their fellows, and have heard the whispers of God's voice; then coming forth from their valleys of silence, they have told the world what they have heard. They have been God's interpreters.
Take the treasures of spiritual truth which we possess today. How have they come to us? We know how the Bible was written. God took Moses up into the mount, and talked with him, as a man talks with his friend, speaking to him great truths about his own being and character, and giving him statutes and laws for the guidance of men; then Moses became an interpreter to the world of the things God had shown him.
David was an interpreter for God. God drew him close to his heart and breathed heavenly songs into his soul; then David went forth, struck his harp and sang—and the music is breathing yet through all the world.
John was an interpreter for God. He lay in Christ's bosom and heard the beatings of that great heart of love, and learned the secrets of friendship with his Lord; then he passed out among men—and told the world what he had heard and felt and seen; and the air of the world has been warmer ever since, and more of love has been beating in human hearts.
Paul was an interpreter for God. Christ took him away from men and revealed himself to him, opened to him the mystery of redemption as to no other man, and Paul wrote the many divine letters we have of his, which have been marvelous in their influence throughout all these Christian centuries.
But not alone have these inspired men been God's interpreters; many others since have taken up the Word of God and have read new secrets, blessed truths, precious comforts, which had lain undiscovered before, and have spoken out to men what they found. Evermore new insight is breaking forth from the Bible.
God gives to every human life that he sends into this world—some message to speak out to others. Indeed he never gives anyone anything to keep for himself alone. Every beam of light he flashes into any soul, from a text of Scripture, from a note of song, from a flower, from a star in the heavens, from a book, from the heart of a friend—is an interpretation which is to be given out again. The words he speaks to you in the darkness—he wants you to utter forth in the light. Into the heart of every creature therefore, he puts something which he wants that creature to speak out to the world.
God gives the star a message of light—and we look up into the heavens at night and it tells us its secret. Who knows what a blessing the star may be to a weary traveler who finds his way by its beam, or to the sick man lying by his window and in his sleeplessness looking up at the glimmering point of light in the calm, deep heavens?
God gives to a flower a message of beauty and sweetness, and for its brief life it tells out its message to all who can read it. And who can sum up all the good that even a flower may do, as it blooms in the garden, or as it is carried into a sick room?
But especially does God give to every human life, a message to interpret. To one it is a new revealing of science. A great astronomer spoke of himself as thinking over again God's thoughts, as he discovered the paths of the stars and traced out the laws of the heavens. To the poet God gives thoughts of beauty which he is to interpret to the world, and the world is richer, brighter and better for hearing his message.
Thus to everyone of us, even the lowliest, God whispers some secret of truth which he wants us to interpret in word or act to others. We cannot all make books or write poems or hymns, which shall bless men; but if we live near the heart of Christ, there is not one of us into whose ear he will not whisper some fragment of truth, some revealing of grace and love; or to whom he will not give some experience of comfort in sorrow, some glimpse of light in darkness, some glimmering of heaven's glory, in the midst of this world's care.
God forms a close personal friendship with each of his children—and whispers to each one some special secret of love which no other has ever learned before. That now is your message, God's own peculiar word to you—and you are his prophet to forthtell it again to the world. Let each one speak out what God has given him to tell. If it is only a word, it will yet bless the earth.
Suppose that Joseph, knowing by divine teaching, the meaning of Pharaoh's dreams, had remained silent; think what his silence would have cost the world. Or suppose that John, having leaned upon the Lord's breast and having learned the inner secrets of his love—had gone back o his fishing after the ascension, and had refused to be an interpreter for Christ, what would the world have lost!
If only one of the million flowers that bloom in summer days in the fields and gardens, refused to bloom, hiding its little gift of beauty—the world would be less lovely. If but one of the myriad stars in the heavens should refuse to shine, keeping its little beam locked in its own breast, the nights would be a little darker. Every human life that fails to hear its message and learn its lesson from God, or fails to interpret its secret, keeping it locked in the silence of the heart—in some measure impoverishes the earth. But every life, even the lowliest, which learns its word from God and then interprets it to others—adds something at least to the world's blessing and good.
It is the interpretation of life—which makes for most in blessing the world. Our creeds may be good—but unless we interpret their articles into sweet, beautiful living, in this world of sorrow and sin—our orthodoxy will count for little. One writes of a day in the dead of winter, when even men and women wrapped in furs could scarcely endure the biting cold. Yet in the midst of it all, wearing only tatters which flapped in the wind, passed a child, shivering and crouching, as in mumbled words that seemed frozen on his tongue; he called out the name of his newspaper. One face by its genial light arrested his calling. "May I have a paper?" he asked. The kind eye glistened as the stranger took the newspaper and glanced at the stiffened fingers, dropping into the boy's hand the value of his fifty papers. "Ah, poor little friend!" he faltered, "Don't you shiver and ache with cold?" The boy, with a gulp of gladness, sobbed out, as he raised his eye to the warmth of the face above him, "I did, sir—until you passed by!"
That was a bit of true interpretation. We should try to get men and women to know of the love of Christ, and we never can do it in sermons and bible-lessons alone; we must do it in deeds, in living, in humble service; in love which interprets itself in kindly helpfulness; and in truth which is wrought into honesty, integrity, uprightness and holiness.
Joseph was an interpreter for God; we must be God's interpreters. How? We must live near to God, so as to hear what God has to say to us. We must study God's truth, that his words may become plain to us. If Joseph had yielded to temptation; if he had let his heart grow bitter under injury and wrong; if he had lost his faith in God in the darkness—he could not have been God's interpreter when he was called to tell others the meaning of the divine teachings. So must we keep our heart gentle and warm, our hands clean, our faith strong, and our character right—if we would be God's interpreters to others.
Let us set ourselves anew, to the task and the duty of being the interpreter for God. Let us learn well the meaning of God's Word—that we may interpret that. Let us seek for the key to God's strange providences, that when we are beside those who are perplexed and in darkness, we may speak to them the interpreting word of divine peace. Let us get into our heart so much of the word, the spirit, and the love of Christ—that we may show in our daily life—the beauty of Christ. Whittier truthfully tells us that,
The dear Lord's best interpreters
Are humble human souls;
The gospel of a life—
Is more than books or scrolls.
From scheme and creed the light goes out,
The blessed fact survives:
The blessed Master none can doubt,
Revealed in holy lives.
JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS
"Then Joseph kissed each of his brothers and wept over them, and then they began talking freely with him." Genesis 45:15
It was a startling revelation to the Hebrew brothers, when these words fell from the lips of the great ruler of Egypt: "I am Joseph!" No wonder they could not answer him. No wonder they were troubled at his presence.
But let us bring up the story. There were seven years of plenty, and then the seven famine years began. The famine extended to Canaan, where Jacob lived. He and his household began to be in need. Then Jacob heard that there was food in Egypt, and that the hungry people of all lands were flocking there to buy bread. So he sent his sons to obtain provision for his household. The brothers seem to have been slow to start on this journey. Their father had to urge them. "Why are you standing around looking at one another?" he asked them. "I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die."
But we are not surprised that they did not set out eagerly for Egypt. It was into Egypt they had sold their brother. That was more than twenty years ago—but the memory was fresh as ever. There are some things we cannot forget. The mention of Egypt was like a sword in the flesh of these strong men. No wonder they had to be urged to start. Only ten went. The father would not trust Benjamin away from himself.
Arriving in Egypt, they were ushered into the presence of the governor, and bowed down themselves before him, with their faces to the earth. So Joseph's dreams were fulfilled at last. He knew his brothers. At first he treated them harshly, made himself strange to them, spoke roughly to them. Why did he do this? Was it resentment? Was he repaying the evil they had done to him so long before? No! he was testing them. He wanted to know if they had grown better through the long years. So he tested them at different points, in different ways.
If one has wronged us, treated us unjustly, shown toward us a spirit of envy, or of ingratitude; forgiveness is not all the duty we owe him. We have a duty to the man's soul. We should seek the cure in him of the evil disposition which caused him to sin against us. We should try to make it impossible for him to repeat the wrong to another.
Before he revealed himself to them—Joseph sought to know whether his brothers had been cured of the badness of heart which twenty years before had led them to treat him so cruelly. Were they penitent, or hardened still? He found very soon that they were suffering the bitter pain of remorse. He put them into prison for three days, alleging that they were spies. Again they stood before him. Not supposing that he understood their Hebrew language, they talked among themselves:
"They said one to another—This has all happened because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his terror and anguish and heard his pleadings, but we wouldn't listen. That's why this trouble has come upon us!"
Joseph heard their words and understood what they said. He saw that they remembered their sin against him. He saw, too, that they were feeling the sense of remorse and conscious guilt, and believed that the calamity which had now befallen them, was in retribution for the great crime they had committed against their brother.
Remember that he was now testing them, to find out whether they were the same men who had dealt so cruelly with him twenty-two years before. The first testing was encouraging. They seemed to be truly penitent. Joseph was deeply affected. The record says "He turned away from them and began to weep." This shows that even at this first interview, his heart was tender and loving toward them. Why did he not then make himself known to them at once? Instead of doing this, however, he suppressed his heart's deep feeling, restrained his longing to say to them, "I am Joseph!" and to forgive them, and turned back to them sternly, saying that one of them must stay in prison while the others returned home with food for their households. Then he took Simeon and bound him before their eyes.
Why was this seeming severity, when his heart was so full of love for them? He was not yet sure enough of the genuineness of their repentance. Perhaps it was the prison that had wrought this penitence in them. Perhaps they were not really changed in their heart and character. Mere sorrow for wrongdoing, is not enough. One may have bitter remorse for a bad past—and yet not be cured of the spirit which did the evil. Would these men do now the same thing, over which they were grieving so bitterly? Joseph was not yet sure, and he would not make the mistake of revealing himself to them and forgiving them—until he was satisfied on this point. So he sent them away.
Nine brothers went back to Hebron. On their way home they were startled at finding their money in their sacks with the food. Guilt makes such cowards of men, that every new incident fills them with new terror. Finding the money, made the brothers afraid. They interpreted this bit of generosity as evidence of enmity, a trick to get some cause of harming them. Even a sweet bird note, sounds like a warning of retribution, to a conscience in remorse. Our own heart—makes our world to us. Peace in the bosom changes a wilderness to a garden; it changes thorns to roses; it changes discords to harmonies. But remorse makes a hell of the loveliest spot of God's footstool.
The brothers went home. At length, they are back again in Egypt, and Benjamin is now with them. They had a kindly reception. The governor asked after the welfare of their father "the old man of whom you spoke." He saw Benjamin and his heart yearned upon his brother, and he sought where to weep. He could not keep back the tears, and he entered his own room and there gave vent to his feelings. Gaining control over his emotions, he washed his face, to remove the traces of his tears, and came again to his brothers. He had them dine with him. Still he did not make himself known to them. He let them start homeward again. They are happy now. Simeon is free, too, out of prison and with the others.
But they have not gone far, before they are suddenly overtaken by an Egyptian officer who charges them with the theft of Joseph's silver cup. Sack after sack is taken down and searched, in the order of the men's ages. At last the missing treasure is found in Benjamin's sack. Instantly dismay seizes all the brothers. They did not know that Benjamin was innocent, that Joseph had ordered the cup to be put into his sack for a purpose. All the circumstances were against him. It looked as if this youngest brother of theirs, of whom their father was so proud—was a thief! Here he was, bringing disgrace upon all of them. Now mark where the test of character comes in. If these older brothers had been the same men they were twenty-two years before, they would have made short, sharp work with Benjamin. But what did they do?
They tore their clothes in their sorrow, and went back, all of them, to the city. They hastened to Joseph's house and fell down before him on the ground. Joseph spoke sharply to them: "What deed is this that you have done? "
There was another outburst of penitence: "Oh, my lord, what can we say to you? How can we plead? How can we prove our innocence? God is punishing us for our sins. My lord, we have all returned to be your slaves—we and our brother who had your cup in his sack." They do not denounce Benjamin, and propose to give him up. They will all stand together.
Joseph said he could not punish the innocent with the guilty. "Only the man who stole the cup will be my slave. The rest of you may go home to your father."
Here was the test. Would these ten men go away and leave Benjamin alone, in the grasp of Egyptian justice, to suffer for his supposed offense? Twenty-two years ago they would have done it. Instead of this, however, we have one of the finest scenes in all human history. These brothers will not desert Benjamin. The speech of Judah, as he pleads for Benjamin, is one of the noblest pieces of natural eloquence in any literature, sacred or profane.
"Then Judah stepped forward and said, "My lord, let me say just this one word to you. Be patient with me for a moment, for I know you could have me killed in an instant, as though you were Pharaoh himself. "You asked us, my lord, if we had a father or a brother. We said, 'Yes, we have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, his youngest son. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother's children, and his father loves him very much.' And you said to us, 'Bring him here so I can see him.' But we said to you, 'My lord, the boy cannot leave his father, for his father would die.' But you told us, 'You may not see me again unless your youngest brother is with you.' So we returned to our father and told him what you had said. And when he said, 'Go back again and buy us a little food,' we replied, 'We can't unless you let our youngest brother go with us. We won't be allowed to see the man in charge of the grain unless our youngest brother is with us.' Then my father said to us, 'You know that my wife had two sons, and that one of them went away and never returned—doubtless torn to pieces by some wild animal. I have never seen him since. If you take away his brother from me, too, and any harm comes to him, you would bring my gray head down to the grave in deep sorrow.' "And now, my lord, I cannot go back to my father without the boy. Our father's life is bound up in the boy's life. When he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We will be responsible for bringing his gray head down to the grave in sorrow" Genesis 44:18-31
No one can read these pathetic words of Judah, as he pleads for his brother Benjamin, and not see that these men have been wonderfully changed since that day when they sold another brother into bondage, and were deaf to all his piteous cries and entreaties. Judah evidently speaks for all his brothers. We notice particularly, in these men, a tender regard for their father, which they had not shown before. They had seen his uncomforted sorrow all the years since they had robbed him of Joseph; now they cannot endure to cause him even a single pang. Their gentle thought for him is really beautiful. We notice also a tender love for their youngest brother, which contrasts wonderfully with their hard-hearted cruelty toward Joseph that day at Dothan. As they were then—they would not have cared what might happen to Benjamin; now Judah begs to take the boy's place and bear his punishment, staying in Egypt as the governor's slave, so that Benjamin may return home.
Joseph was now satisfied. At their first visit he had seen their deep consciousness of guilt, as they remembered their sin against him. In this final testing he saw more—he saw that they were changed men. The grace of God had been at work in them. The sin of twenty-two years ago, they could not now commit. Penitence had wrought deeply in them, softening their hearts. They were prepared now to stand together as brothers and together to lay the foundation of national life.
The time has come therefore for disclosure. All doubts are gone from Joseph's mind. As soon as Judah had finished his eloquent plea, Joseph ordered all the attendants to go out of the room. No eye must witness the sacred scene which was about to be enacted. When they were altogether alone, Joseph, with streaming eyes and loud weeping made himself known to his brothers. "I am Joseph!" he said to his brothers.
Who can imagine their feelings—as these words fell upon their ears! First there must have been terror mingled with the amazement. Again all their sin against their brother rose before them. Here was Joseph whom they had so cruelly wronged. He was Ruler of Egypt, and they were in his power; what would he do with them? Twenty-two years ago, they had put him in the pit to die, and then had hastily lifted him out, only to sell him as a slave. They had supposed that they were now done with "that dreamer." But here they are before him in utterly reversed position. Is it any wonder they stood speechless in the presence of Joseph, or that they could not answer him, or that they were troubled?
But Joseph's heart was too full to prolong the scene. "Come near to me," he said. "I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt!" But he hastened to comfort them. "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God!" Genesis 45:5-8
Then he bade them hasten to his father with the news—and to return, all of them, with their father and their families, to dwell in Egypt, to be near to him. The wonderful scene closes with Joseph's falling upon Benjamin's neck in loving embrace, then kissing all his brothers and weeping with them in the joy of reconciliation. The barriers were all now broken down. The old sin was forgiven. The long-sundered family was brought together again. Estrangement had been healed by love and peace.
Here we may pause in the narrative, to gather some of the PRACTICAL LESSONS.
Joseph's dealing with his brothers is an illustration of Christ's dealing with us, when we have sinned. When the brothers came the first time to Egypt and stood before Joseph, he was ready to forgive them, to be reconciled to them, and to take them into his favor. When he heard them talk in confidence among themselves of their sin against him, he was so moved that he had to turn away from them and weep. There was no bitterness even then in his heart toward them. Yet he did not at once say to them, "I am Joseph!" and fall upon their necks in forgiving love. He restrained his tender feelings and impulses. He let them go away and for months longer remain uncomforted by the forgiveness, which was even then warm in his heart. He did it because he believed it were better for them that he should do this. He was not satisfied that they had yet reached the experience in which forgiveness would be the full, rich blessing it should be to them.
In all this we have an illustration of the way Christ ofttimes deals with us in forgiving us. There is forgiveness in his heart the moment we stand before him. We have not to excite and kindle love in him. He loves us in our sins. He is always ready to forgive. But ofttimes he leads the penitent through experience after experience, before he reveals himself in full, rich love. These brothers were sorry for their sin when they first stood before Joseph. "We are truly guilty!" they said among themselves.
That was confession. But had their sorrow for their sin—cured them of their wickedness of heart? Joseph was not sure at first. Mere consciousness of guilt is not enough when we stand before Christ. It is not enough to say, "I have sinned." There is a sorrow of the world, which works death. It is a sorrow because the sin is found out, because it brings shame and reproach upon us, because it hurts our reputation among men, or because it must be punished. Such penitence as this, does not satisfy Christ. He does not yet declare himself to the man who stands before him, weeping over his sins—but with heart unchanged. He does not yet forgive him. He may even seem cold to him, and may treat him with apparent harshness.
The sorrow for sin which God wants and waits for—is godly sorrow, which works amendment of life; which is not only sorry for past sins—but which will no more repeat those sins. When Joseph learned at last that his brothers were new men, gentle-hearted toward their father whom they had once so cruelly and with such heartlessness, wronged; and loving and noble-spirited toward their brother, instead of manifesting the spirit of envy and wickedness which they had shown toward himself—he quickly revealed his identity to them, forgave them, took them into his heart, and lavished his generous love upon them.
Just so, does Jesus. When our repentance is sincere, true and deep—he then reveals himself to us, makes himself known to us, grants us forgiveness, and gives us his peace. As Joseph invited his brothers to come to Egypt, where they would be near him and where he could nourish them—so Jesus invites his forgiven ones into fellowship with him, into the family of God, to share all his blessedness and glory.
This story teaches us the duty of forgiving those who have wronged us. It would be hard to conceive of any sorer wrong that could be done to another, than was done to Joseph by his brothers. There was no cause for it either, no provocation. It began in a feeling of envy because their father loved Joseph more than he loved them, and weakly showed his preference. It was aggravated by the boy's dreams, which he in a naive and childlike way told them. Envy grew to hate, and hate ripened into the intention of murder, which by God's providence was softened into selling as a slave. It was cruel wrong—and causeless! But we have seen how freely and how beautifully it was forgiven.
There does not appear ever to have been any revengeful feeling in Joseph's heart toward his brothers. He seems to have kept his heart free from any trace of bitterness—and full of sweet, gentle love, through the years. When his brothers bowed before him, and he had them in his power—all his old affection for them revived. He forgave them completely. He took them to the old place in his love. He confessed them as his brothers before the king. He had them come and live close beside him, and nourished them with affectionate tenderness.
Surely it is a beautiful picture—Joseph loving and blessing those who had sought to kill him, who had caused him years of sorrow and grief! It is more than a mere human sweetness and gentleness of heart, that does this. Centuries before Christ came to teach the world the blessedness of forgiving, before the cross was raised up, before the gospel was written—Joseph had learned the whole lesson! How? He must have lived close to the heart of God all those years, and thus he became the interpreter of the divine forgiveness.
And the lesson is for us! We live more than as many years after Christ's birth—as Joseph lived before he came; have we learned this lesson of forgiveness as well as Joseph had learned it? Are there any of us who have been abused by brothers as he was? Are we keeping our own heart sweet and loving under the ill-usage? Or have we allowed bitterness to creep in, a feeling of resentment, a desire for revenge? Let us study the picture of this badly-treated brother, forgiving those who had so sorely wronged him—until its spirit sinks into the depths of our spirit! Life is too short for us to carry in our heart, even for one little day—a feeling of bitterness.
"Forgive us our sins—just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us." So we pray.
We are taught here, too, that God uses even men's evil—to help advance his kingdom. Joseph said to his brothers: "Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you." We can readily see how blessing and good came out of all the evil done by the brothers of Joseph. Had not Joseph been sent to Egypt—no preparation would have been made for the famine. Even the men who did the cruel wrong themselves, ate the bread which through their sin had been laid up! This is a wonderful truth. God's hand is on everything. No evil deed of worst men, is allowed to run riot among the divine plans and purposes, or to defeat his love and grace. This does not make sin less sinful; but it assures us that even the wrath of man, shall be made to praise God.
It has been, said that some of the greatest treasures in heaven will be blunders which God's children have made when trying their best to do something to show their love. The soiled and puckered handkerchief the little girl is trying to hem, because she loves her mother—has a value away beyond anything a seamstress can do. Many a piece of marred work, marred by one who wanted to help Christ, and did her best—will have immeasurable value in God's sight. Many of us in looking back over our life, can see many things we thought were mistakes—but which now appear to have been the very best things we could have done. It seems as if the "mistakes" were all the while intended to be there, so thoroughly have they become part of the fabric of our life and work.
Indeed we may go further, and say that the errors, yes, even the sins of our life, when repented of, forsaken and forgiven—are taken into the hand of the great Master builder, and used in the temple walls. The result of Peter's fall was so transmuted, that it became a great blessing to him. Someone says, "God does not need our sins to work out his good intentions—but we give him little other material;" and it is surely a comfort to us in our penitence—to know that even out of such material, he can build beauty and good. It is a comfort to know that while we cannot undo our wrong deeds—yet God can keep them from undoing us—and can even use them in his kingdom.
This truth should not make anyone think less penitently of his sins. We may not do evil—that good may come, depending upon God to bring good out of it. This would be presumption and blasphemy. The lesson is for those who have already sinned and done wrong and foolish things. They never can be, as if they had not done evil. The memory of transgression will always give pain. Penitence is not the best thing; innocence is far better. But, having sinned, penitence is blessed; and even out of the hurt and the marring—God can build good. "You meant it for evil; but God meant it unto good."
We must all stand one day before him, whom by our sins we are grieving and wronging these passing days. The brothers never expected to meet again, the lad whom they had sold away as a slave. But one day, in Egypt, they found themselves face to face with him, and heard from his lips the startling words, "I am Joseph!" Pilate had Jesus before him, pale and despised, and sent him to his cross. In judgment, Pilate will lift up his eyes on Jesus and hear the words, "I am Jesus!" Are you wronging Christ? Are you grieving him, rejecting him? Are you harming any of his little ones? There will be a day when you shall stand before a great white throne, and shall hear from the lips of him who shall sit there, "I am Jesus!" Let us so treat Christ now—that when he reveals himself to us in the judgment, it may not terrify us with the words, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!"—but give us joy to hear the precious words pronounced by his lips, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world!"
JOSEPH AND HIS FATHER
"But when they told Jacob all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived." Genesis 45:27
Every side of Joseph's character is beautiful. Everywhere we see him—he bears himself nobly. His childhood was winning. It was a sore test to which he was subjected when he began to endure wrongs; but here the splendor of his spirit shone out in even brighter light than in his childhood. When he was a slave, the manhood in him was free and unshackled. In the hour of temptation his soul remained untarnished. When he was cast into prison, falsely accused, though innocent, hurled into chains and a dungeon, he was not yet crushed. Instead of letting the darkness into his soul to darken his eyes—the light that was in him shone out and filled his prison with brightness, overcoming the gloom. Instead of yielding to discouragement and despair—he became a comforter of others. He filled the dungeon with the fragrance of love. Then at one bound, he passed from the darkness and the chains of cruel imprisonment, almost to the throne of Egypt.
Many men who bear adversity well, fail in prosperity. Many a spirit that shines radiantly in trial, fades out in the fierce light of human honor. But the promotion of Joseph, dimmed no line of the beauty of his soul. He went as quietly to the great tasks of government, as ever he had gone to his lowliest duties when a slave. He stood the test of sudden promotion to highest honor.
Again the experience changed. His brothers stood before him the brothers who had sold him as a slave. This was a great trial of his character—but he was equal to the testing. There was no bitterness in his heart. One of the most beautiful scenes in all history, is Joseph forgiving his brothers.
We pass now to still another chapter in the life of Joseph, and here, too, we shall find the beauty unsullied, the splendor undimmed. We look at Joseph and his father. We see at once, that through all the strange and varied experiences of life—he kept his love for his father warm and tender.
There is one incident which at first thought, seems to have shown forgetfulness of his old home. When his first son was born he named him Manasseh. "For God," said he, "has made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house." But he did not mean that the coming of this child into his home, blotted out all memory of his father. The words reveal the heart hunger of Joseph for home, love, and domestic ties. He had been torn away from these, and for thirteen years and more, had lived unblessed by human affection. Now the hunger of his heart was met by the child he held in his arms. He had now a home of his own, and in the new joy—the years of hungry, unmet love were forgotten, as the earth forgets the desolation of winter when springtime comes with all its glory of bursting life and bloom and foliage.
But his father was not forgotten, even in the gladness of his own happy home. All through the story of the brothers' visits, we have glimpses of Joseph's love for his father. Little did those men from Canaan, know how eagerly the great governor watched their words to hear about his father. As he pressed on them the charge that they were spies testing them, learning what was in them, they dropped the words: "Your servants are sons of one man . . . The youngest is this day with our father." They spoke carelessly as to a stranger who knew nothing of their home—but their words told Joseph that his father was yet alive, sending a thrill of gladness into his heart.
The brothers went home and came again, and when they stood before the governor, almost his first word to them was the inquiry, "Is your father well the aged man of whom you spoke? Is he yet alive?" The brothers saw nothing in the words but the fine courtesy of a noble gentleman; yet under the courtesy, there throbbed a tender filial love. When Judah presented his plea for Benjamin, referring again and again to his father at home his old age, his loneliness, his bereavement, his love for Benjamin so deep and tender that he would die if the lad were not returned to him—he little knew what chords he was touching in the soul of the great man to whom he was speaking.
It was this picturing of the aged, sorrowing father—which most of all moved Joseph as he listened to Judah's words. When the plea was ended, Joseph broke down could not refrain himself longer, and said amid sobs, "I am Joseph!" Then the very next words were, "Does my father yet live?" A few minutes later, after the passionate assurance of forgiveness had been given, to quiet the hearts of his brothers in their consternation, he bade them hasten to "my father". "Tell my father all about my glory in Egypt and about all you have seen. And bring my father here quickly!" He also sent wagons to bring his father over the rough roads as softly and gently as possible. He sent him presents, too, twenty donkeys carrying provisions and comforts for his father's use on the journey.
Weeks must have passed while the caravan slowly wended its way to Canaan, and while preparations for breaking up the old home and moving were progressing, and while the family journeyed again toward Egypt. At last, however, word came to Joseph that his father was approaching; and he made ready his chariot and went to meet him. Who can tell the tenderness of that meeting? The Bible never indulges in sentimental narration, and yet the picture its words present is very touching. "Joseph presented himself to him, threw his arms around him, and wept for a long time!" It had been twenty-two years since Joseph, a lad of seventeen, had gone away from the home door, to carry messages and tokens to his brothers, expecting in a few days to return. He had never seen his father's face since that morning, and the pent-up love of all the years found expression in his greeting.
Sometimes young men who have risen from a lowly origin to places of honor, have not cared to acknowledge the members of their own family in the presence of the distinguished friends who stood about them in their new rank. But here, too, the character of Joseph shines in brilliant splendor. Egypt was then the first nation of the world in its civilization, its refinement, its culture. The court of Pharaoh was a place of great splendor. Jacob was a plain shepherd, lowly, unconventional in manners, without worldly rank or honor, withered, limping, famine-driven. Far apart were these two men, the governor of Egypt and the patriarch of Canaan. But the love in Joseph's heart for his father was so strong and so loyal, that he never thought of the difference, and he led the old shepherd into the presence of the great King with pride. He told Pharaoh of the coming of his father as eagerly as if Jacob too had been a king.
He made provision for his father, also, in Egypt, and nourished him as long as the old man lived. When Jacob was dying, Joseph stood watching by his bedside, the Prime Minister of Egypt by the old shepherd, with beautiful filial devotion. When Jacob was dead, Joseph fell upon his face and wept upon him and kissed him. Then followed a funeral like that of a king. Pharaoh's nobles, with the great men of the land, joined the family of Jacob in honoring the father of him who had saved Egypt from famine.
The narration of these incidents in the story shows how loyal to his father, Joseph was. Through all the years the love of his heart continued warm and tender. Amid the splendors of rank and power, he never forgot the aged man, waiting in sorrow and longing, in his tent in Canaan. When his father came to him, bent, withered, limping—he honored him as if he had been a king. During the remaining years of his life he nourished him in almost royal state. When he was dead, he honored him with the burial of a prince.
All this illustrates the nobleness of Joseph's character. The lesson is plain. Children should honor their parents. Nothing more sadly mars the beauty of a life, than anything which shows lack of filial love and respect. Children never come to an age, while their parents live—when they may cease to treat them with affection and honor, in return for their unselfish devotion, self-denial, and care on their behalf, in the days of infancy and childhood. These are debts we never can pay, except by love that stops at no cost or sacrifice, nor flags in its faithfulness, until we have laid away the revered forms to rest in the grave.
Children who rise from lowly and simple homes to wealth, honor or distinction, should never dishonor the parents they have left in the obscurity of the common walks. There have been children who have grown distinguished in the world and then have been ashamed of the old-fashioned father and mother to whom they owed all that gave them power to rise among men. There have been fathers and mothers who, old, poor, broken, and broken-hearted, have been turned away from the splendid mansions of their own children children for whom they had toiled, suffered and sacrificed, without stint, without complaining, in the time of their infancy and early years. They thought it would disgrace them to own these plain, uncouth, uncultured old people as their parents, in the presence of their fashionable worldly friends. They did not know that their unfilial treatment of their own father and mother, left upon them a dishonor a thousand times deeper than any little social stigma which their acknowledgment of them before their friends could have occasioned. All the world condemns and scorns anything that has the appearance of disrespect to parents. This is a sin which even society never forgives. On the other hand, those who honor their parents have the commendation of all men.
The beautiful example of Joseph should inspire in all children whose parents are living—a deep desire to give them comfort, gladness, and tender care as long as they live. In our infancy and childhood they cared for us, not murmuring at the trouble we caused them; when they are in the feebleness of old age and we are strong, it should be ours to repay their care and patience.
If we are blessed with wealth or with plenty, they should share it who shared their all with us in days gone by, perhaps pinched themselves that we might not lack, or that we might be better fitted for life. If we have risen to higher position and greater honor than our parents had, we should bring them into the sunshine that is ours, that the blessing of our favored life may brighten and sweeten their old age. If they are a little peculiar, or odd in their ways, lacking some of the refinements of our more fashionable life—we should remember that these are only outside disfigurements, and that beneath them beat hearts of love, and dwell spirits which are noble with the nobleness of Christlikeness.
Even if parents have marred their life by sin which has brought shame, it were better, like Noah's nobler sons—to close our eyes and to fling the mantle of filial love over the shame.
There is another part of the story of Joseph and his father, which has its revealings and its lessons. We turn back to Hebron, and to the time when the brothers came home from Egypt after Joseph had made himself known to them. They told their father that Joseph was alive and that he was the governor of Egypt—but the old man could not believe the tidings. His heart was overwhelmed. For more than twenty years, he had mourned Joseph as dead. The vision of the boy's coat covered with blood, which had been brought home to him, had never faded from his memory. Joseph was dead, and torn in pieces by a wild beast. Jacob had never dreamed of seeing his son alive. Not a hint nor a whisper of him had ever come back to the old home all these years. Now to hear that he was alive in Egypt, was too much for the old father. "Jacob was stunned; he did not believe them."
His sons sought to make him believe what they had told him. They repeated to him the words of Joseph. While he still listened, bewildered, doubting, full of conflicting emotions, the wagons Joseph had sent to carry him to Egypt were driven to the door. Then the donkeys, bearing the provisions and the good things of Egypt also appeared. Now Jacob was convinced. His spirit revived. "I'm convinced! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die!" Why did the sight of the wagons help Jacob to believe that Joseph was still alive? Wagons were not known in Canaan at that time, at least, such wagons as those which stood before Jacob's door. These were fine carriages, such as were used by Joseph himself and other members of the royal household. When Jacob saw them he knew at once that they did not belong to Hebron or to any place in that region—but that they had come from Egypt. Thus he was convinced. Joseph must indeed have sent them. So the fruits and other things sent to Jacob's door were unmistakably from Egypt. They could not have grown any place but beside the Nile.
We have here another beautiful illustration of a phase of our Savior's life. Jacob had long supposed that Joseph was dead. He had seen his coat wet with blood. Now he is told that Joseph is alive. But he cannot believe it. He has no evidence of the fact, except the words of his sons. Are they speaking to him seriously and truthfully? He has never been sure of what they told him; they have not been truthful men. Might they not now be trying to deceive him? Besides, might they not be mistaken deceived themselves? 'Joseph alive! Joseph governor of Egypt! It cannot be,' said the old man. Then came the wagons and the good things of Egypt. "Joseph sent these wagons to carry you to Egypt, and these provisions for your use on the way," said Judah.
"Did Joseph send these?" asked the old man. He looked at the wagons and the provisions. Now he was convinced. "Joseph is alive!" These gifts and presents could not have come from any place but Egypt. They must have come, too, from one that loved him and thought of his comfort. Then they must have been sent by one high in power and position, for they were fit for a king. Thus the wagons and the good things of the land helped Jacob to believe in the continued existence of his son, whom he had long thought to be dead.
All this is suggestive and illustrative of the way we are helped in this world to believe in the existence of Jesus Christ in heaven. We know that Jesus died on the cross, slain by wicked hands. We know that he was laid in the grave, and that a stone was rolled to the door. The gospel comes to us, telling us that he is alive. Note here, again, the similarity of Joseph to Christ. 'Joseph was alive in Egypt,' that was what they told Jacob. 'Jesus Christ is alive in heaven,' that is what the gospel tells us. Again, not only was he alive, he was ruler over all the land of Egypt. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore, beyond death; and he is ruler over all things, King of kings and Lord of lords!
But Jacob could not see Joseph, and could not believe that he was alive. We cannot see into the land of glory, where we are told Jesus lives and rules. We strain our eyes gazing up amid the stars—but we see no face looking down upon us. We call to him—but we hear no voice answering our calls. Can it be true, we ask, that the Jesus who was nailed on the cross and died there—is indeed alive and ruling in heaven? Jacob was convinced that Joseph lived in Egypt—when he saw the tokens he had sent. Christ sends us blessings out of heaven, which prove to us that he is really alive there and in power. Do there not come answers to your prayers, when you bow and plead with God? Do there not come comforts for your sorrows, when your heart is burdened?
Canaan was famine-stricken. There was no bread in all the land. The people were starving. In Egypt there were great storehouses. From these, supplies certain good things came to Jacob's door. Somebody had sent them, somebody who knew him and loved him. They said it was Joseph, and the old man believed it.
This world is famine-stricken. There is no bread here for our souls. Heaven has its storehouses. Daily there come to your doors from these reserves of goodness, supplies of blessing. There are blessings just for you, having your name written on them. They just meet your needs. They come just at the right time. "There must be someone in heaven who knows me!" you say; "someone who keeps his eye upon me and knows what I need, and then sends his good things to me at the right moment!" Yes; that someone is Christ. He is not dead under the Syrian stars—he is alive and in heaven. He knows you, and watches you, and sends the blessings your life requires. These good things that come into your days, with their joy and brightness, are all from him.
To be sure they tell us that the proofs of Christ's resurrection are infallible the historical proofs. Witnesses saw him. He gave indubitable evidences of being truly alive. He ate with his friends. He talked with them. He showed them the nail prints in his hands and feet and the spear wound in his side. He remained on the earth for forty days until the last shred of doubt of his resurrection had vanished from the slowest to believe of all his friends. Paul said triumphantly, "Now is Christ risen from the dead." The historic evidence is utterly invincible.
But a proof still more convincing and sure, is found in the experience of every believer. We know that Christ lives and reigns in heaven, for every day blessings come to us that could have come from no land but the heavenly land, and that no one but Jesus could have sent to us. The forgiveness of our sins, the peace that fills our heart, the joy that comes in sorrow, the help that comes in weakness, the human friendships that bring such blessings, the answers to prayer, the blessings of providence—who but Jesus could send all these heavenly good things to us? These are the best proofs to us that Jesus lives and rules in the land of blessedness and glory.
Wagons came for Jacob, to bear him to Egypt. Wagons will come for us by and by to carry us home. A chariot of fire, with horses of fire, came for Elijah and bore him away into heaven. The chariots need not be visible, are not visible, which come for God's people; nevertheless they are real. Jacob was not left in famine smitten Canaan while Joseph continued to live and rule in glory in the land of grain and wine. The royal carriages came to take him to his son. This, too, is a parable. We learn that Jesus lives and rules in heaven. We have glorious proofs of this. We bow in prayer and we know that our Redeemer lives and that he hears us and remembers us.
But that is not all; that is not the best. To know that Christ, though unseen, is yet yonder in the silences, amid the hallelujahs; that he ever lives to make intercession for us; that he sends blessings down to us on the earth, heaven's good things—is a very precious truth. Even this is a joy that thrills our hearts. But there is something better.
We are not to stay always on this earth, separated from our Savior. The wagons came and took Jacob away from that land of hunger, with its mere handfuls of the good things of the land of plenty, and bore him right into the heart of the country where his son ruled. He was met on the borders of the country by the son who had died to him—but still lived. He was welcomed by him with love's warmest welcome. He was presented to the king who bade him dwell in the best of the land. There he stayed close to his son, nourished by him. No longer did he have merely a few of the good things, sent from far away, as tokens of the abundance in store yonder; he dwelt now in the very midst of the storehouses and had all that he could wish.
We see how beautifully true all this parable is, in its application to Christ's believing ones in this world. Here our joy is very sweet—but we have only little foretastes of the heavenly good things. By and by, the wagons will come for us to take us into the very presence of Christ. Already they have come for some of our friends, and have borne them to the land of life and blessedness. That is what death is—God's chariot swinging low, to carry home the beloved saint. When Jacob got into the royal carriage and it drove away, he was not sad. He was leaving his old walks and the place of his sorrows—but he was going to his son! He was leaving famine and poverty, and was going to a land of plenty. That is what dying is to the Christian. We shall leave the place of toil and care, to find rest. We shall leave the land of tears and separations, to go into the presence of our Joseph.
The wagons of heaven have been at our doors already and have taken some of ours home. Some day they will come for us, and we will go away from this earth where the famine is, and where we cannot see our Savior. But it will not be a sad day to us, if we are Christ's own by faith. The wagons will take us to the land where our Savior lives in glory and reigns over all. He will meet us on the edge of that blessed country.
He will meet us on the borders of the land of blessedness. He will welcome us with tenderest love. He will present us to his Father not ashamed to own us as his friends, his brothers, his sisters, before all heaven's angels. He will give us a place near to himself, close to the center of heaven's glory. There he will nourish us with heaven's choicest fruits, and we shall go no more out forever.
Our Joseph has gone before us to prepare a place for us! And when the place is prepared for us and we are prepared for the place, he will come again and receive us to himself, that where he is—there we may be also. Dying is but going from where we get only the crumbs—to sit at the full table!
The doctor had spoken of the importance of keeping everything serene in the death-room, where a Christian woman was about to take her departure. "I do not see anything here to make us unserene," she said. "Death is but entering into wider, fuller life." Shall we not try to get true views of Christian dying?
JOSEPH IN OLD AGE AND DEATH
"And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said—God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place." Genesis 50:25
Our last study brought us to the close of Jacob's life. Word was sent to Joseph one day that his father wished to see him. The old man was thinking of his departure. He knew that he must die in Egypt—but he did not want to be buried in that strange land. He wanted to lie in the land of promise. So he asked Joseph to swear to him, in the crude fashion of the times, that he would not bury him in Egypt.
Joseph promised. "Swear unto me," said Jacob. And Joseph swore unto him. It was no mere sentiment that made the old man, as his end drew near, crave to lie beside his father and his wife in the cave of Machpelah; it was his strong faith in God's promise to give Canaan to his descendants. He believed that the promise would be fulfilled and he wanted his grave to be where the future home of his children would be. Then he wanted his family, though still abiding in Egypt, to have a constant reminder that Egypt was not their home. He knew that his grave in the land of promise would continually draw upon their hearts.
There was another incident. Jacob was sick. Joseph heard it and hastened with his two sons to his father's bedside. Jacob adopted these boys as his own, taking them in among his own sons, kissing and embracing them, then stretching out his thin, trembling hands and laying them .on the heads of the lads, while he uttered this beautiful blessing upon them: "the angel who has kept me from all harm—may he bless these boys. May they preserve my name and the names of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac. And may they become a mighty nation."
Then we have Jacob's death scene. All the sons are there and the dying patriarch, in prophetic words, unveils the future of each in turn. We need not linger on these patriarchal predictions, interesting as they are. But it is interesting to note the blessing pronounced upon Joseph:" "Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel." Genesis 49:22-24
It is a solemn moment to a man, when he stands by the deathbed of a beloved and honored father. He lives over again all his own life—as he watches the last breathings of his sire, and listens to the last words of farewell and blessing. Those were intensely solemn moments to Joseph. All his honors seemed small, as he stood there by that patriarchal bed and felt on his head the touch of the hand now growing cold in death.
At length the feeble voice ceased to speak. The blessings were all pronounced. Then came the dying charge. "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite." And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the Spirit, and was gathered unto his people. What a strange thing is death! He who but a little while ago was breathing out his blessings and his farewells—is gone now, away from earth. The old house is empty. The love that thrilled the heart with its tenderness and flushed the face with its glow and warmth, an hour ago—has passed from earth! Strange mystery of dying! How orphaned it leaves us when it is a father or a mother that is gone. We never are prepared to lose our parents. No matter how old they are, how ripe their life, how full their years—the time never comes when we can lose them without a pang. Life is never quite the same again—when they have left us.
It is always so, when either father or mother is gone. Life is never the same again. Something has gone out of our life, something very precious, which we never can have again. Never more a mother's prayers lost and missed, now for the first day since we were born. No more a father's love, thought, care, and hope, in this world, lacking now, first, since infancy. The consciousness of bereavement is keener when a parent is taken away in the child's earlier years, and the loss is greater, in a sense—but perhaps the pain is no deeper. No wonder that Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept upon him and kissed him, when he saw that he was dead. His grief was sore, his sense of loss was great.
Quickly Joseph set about to do all that love could do to honor the name and memory of his father. The body was embalmed. Then followed seventy days of mourning according to the custom in Egypt. After this the patriarch's dying command was obeyed, and the twelve sons, with many Egyptian friends, among them men of rank, bore the body away to Canaan, and laid it to rest beside the bodies of his kindred.
It was at Hebron, in the cave of Machpelah. This cave is covered now by a great Mohammedan mosque. The entrance is so sacredly guarded that none except Mohammedans can enter it. There are shrines in the mosque for each of the dead who sleep beneath Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob. In the interior of the sacred building is a small circular opening which leads down into the ancient cave, where, no doubt, the twelve sons of Jacob laid the embalmed body of their father. Mohammedanism cannot always keep such jealous guard over that sacred burying-place, and it is the dream of many that some day this cave may be opened and explored, and that the mummy of Jacob may be found, as, recently, in Egyptian burying-places, the mummies of many distinguished men, including one of the Pharaohs of the days of Moses, have been discovered.
After the burial of his father, the story of Joseph is almost a blank. Only one incident is given. When Jacob was dead, the brothers grew uneasy. They thought that their father's influence had restrained Joseph from seeking revenge upon them for their sin against him, and they feared that now, when this restraint had been taken away, Joseph would visit punishment upon them. The memory of sin dies hard! It had been forty years since this wrong was committed, and for seventeen years the brothers had lived in the sunshine of Joseph's forgiveness, nourished by his love, without a word or an act to suggest anything of resentment; yet here we find the old dread still lingering. Guilt makes cowards of men! Sins against love—plant thorns in the heart!
Joseph wept when he heard his brothers' words. It pained him to learn that they doubted his love and forgiveness. When you have been a loyal and faithful friend to another, loving him unselfishly, making sacrifices for him, giving of your life's strength and skill to help him, putting honor upon him—it grieves you sorely to have him misunderstand you, suspect your sincerity and doubt your affection! Seventeen years of such generous love as Joseph had shown to his brothers in Egypt, ought to have made it forever impossible that they should doubt or suspect his forgiveness.
Do we ever treat our friends so? Do we never treat Christ so? Do we never doubt his forgiveness, or question his love for us? Let us not grieve that gentle heart—by even the faintest doubt of a love that is infinite in its truth and its tenderness.
Joseph was pained when he heard of the fears and the distrust of his brothers—but his patience did not fail. "But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, do not be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them." Genesis 50:19-21
This was his answer to their distrust. It takes a large heart to love on—in spite of doubt, suspicion and unwholesome discontent; but Joseph had a large heart. His generous love never failed. In this case its warm tides overflowed the new barriers his brothers' distrust had cast into the channel, and buried them out of sight. His answer was only a new assurance of affection undisturbed by their treatment; he would nourish them in the days to come as he had done in the past. He would share his honor with them. He would provide for them in the land where they were strangers. He would care for their children. So he comforted them and spoke kindly unto them.
After this incident, Joseph lived fifty-four years—but nothing whatever is told us of these years. We can picture to ourselves a ripe and beautiful old age, full of honors and full of usefulness. He had saved Egypt and there is no reason to suppose that he failed to receive the gratitude of the people of the country unto the end of his life-course.
We know that his life continued beautiful to its close. Sometimes old age does not fulfill the prophecy and the promise of the earlier years. Sometimes men who live nobly and richly until they have passed the meridian of their days, lose in the splendor of their character and the sweetness of their spirit—as they move toward the sunset. A great many sermons are preached to the young. No doubt youth has its perils and needs constant warnings. But there is need also of wise words of counsel to those who are growing old. Old age has its perils and its temptations. It is hard to bear the honors of a good and worthy life, as they gather about the head when the years multiply, and not be spoiled by them. It is hard to keep the heart humble, and the life simple and gentle, when one stands amid the successes, the achievements, the fruits of one's life's victories—in the days of a prosperous old age. Some old men grow vain in their self-consciousness. They become talkative, especially about themselves and their own past.
The ease and freedom from care which come sometimes as the fitting reward of a life of hardship, toil and sacrifice—do not always prove the happiest conditions, nor those in which the character shows at its best. Some men who were splendid in incessant action, when bearing great loads and meeting large responsibilities, and in enduring sore trials, are not nearly so noble when they have been compelled to lay down their burdens, drop their tasks and step out of the crowding, surging ranks—into the quiet ways of those whose life work is mainly finished. They chafe in standing still. Their peace is broken—in the very days when it should be calmest and sweetest. They are unwilling to confess that they are growing old and to yield their places of burden and responsibility to younger men. Too often they make the mistake of overstaying their best usefulness in positions which they have filled with wisdom and honor in the past—but which with their waning powers they can no longer fill acceptably and well. In this respect, old age puts life to a crucial test.
Then sometimes old age grows unhappy and discontented. We cannot wonder at this. It becomes lonely, as one by one its sweet friendships and its close companionships fall off in the resistless desolation which death makes. Then it is hard to keep sweet and gentle-spirited when the hands are empty and one must stand aside and see others do the things one used to do himself. Feebleness of health, too, comes in ofttimes as an element which adds to the hardness of living beautifully when one is old.
These are some of the reasons why old age is a severer testing time of character, than youth or mid-life. Many men who live nobly and richly while in their prime, fail in their old age. The grace of Christ, however, is sufficient for the testings and the trials of the old as well as of the young. We should set ourselves the task of making the whole day of life to its last moments, beautiful. The late afternoon should be as lovely with its deep blue and its holy quiet, as the forenoon, with its freshness; and the sun-setting as glorious with its splendor of amber and gold, as the sun-rising with its radiance and brightness. The old, or those growing old, should never feel for a moment that their work, even their best work, is done, when they can no longer march and keep step in the columns with youth and strong manhood. The work of the riper years is just as important as that of the earlier years. Young men for action, old men for counsel.
The life that one may live in the quieter time, when the rush and the strife are left behind, may be even more lovely, more Christlike, more helpful than was the life of the more exciting, stirring time that is gone. Life ought to grow more beautiful every day to its close. Let no one think that he has finished his task of sweet, true living—when he has got safely through the years of mid-life, into the borders of old age. No! we must not slacken our diligence, our earnestness, our fidelity, our prayerfulness, our faith in Christ, until we have come to the gate of eternity. God's plan for our life takes in all.
Chalmers wrote: "It is a favorite speculation of mine, that if spared to sixty years of age, we then enter the seventh decade of human life; and that this, if possible, should be turned into the Sabbath of our earthly pilgrimage, and spent sabbatically, as if on the shores of an eternal world; or, as it were, in the outer courts of the temple that is above, the tabernacle that is in heaven. A beautiful thought, and as true as beautiful. Old age is a time for waiting, praying, hoping, and for reflecting to others, something of the peace and love of the heaven we are nearing, and of the Christ we hope soon to see."
At last the time came for Joseph to die, as this time must come to all. "Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place." Then the record goes on giving the end of the story: "So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt."
Embalming was a costly process. When the body had been prepared, it was wrapped in bands of fine linen and placed in a stone or wooden coffin or mummy case. The Egyptian funeral rites were very elaborate. Because of his great service to the country, Joseph might have had a burial with the highest honors; but he refused all this. It is said that among the ruins of that wonderful land there has been discovered a tomb which it is thought was prepared for Joseph. It is near the pyramid of one of the Pharaohs. It is the tomb of a prince. It bears the name "Eitsuph" or Joseph, and the title "Abrech" which means "Bow the knee." If this tomb was prepared for Joseph he refused to have his body rest in it. He was not an Egyptian—but an Israelite. Like Moses, afterwards, he preferred to share the reproaches of his own people, rather than receive the honors of a heathen nation. Joseph was not buried at all in Egypt. His body was embalmed there—but not entombed. Egypt had long been his home. It had been the scene of all his honors and triumphs. His wife was an Egyptian. His friends were Egyptians. But he was still a loyal Israelite, and would not lie in an Egyptian grave. He would be buried in an Israelite grave. This is the first thought which Joseph's dying command suggests.
But there are other thoughts. In the Epistle to the Hebrews when the faith of Joseph is spoken of, it is remarkable that it is this command concerning his bones that is mentioned. "By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones." How did this show his faith? It showed that he believed God's promises concerning his people. His faith was so strong, that he refused to be buried at all in Egypt; his burial must wait until his people went up out of Egypt to their own land.
Mark the difference in the dying requests of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, too, refused to be buried in Egypt. He had spent seventeen happy years there, and his family was well settled, with his son honored in all the land. But he could not die until he had the pledge from his children, that he would be buried beside his kindred. Joseph's request was different. He was not to be buried in Egypt, yet his body was not to be carried to Canaan until his people should go there. He was so confident of their exodus—that his mummy was not to be laid in the grave at all until they went back to the land of promise.
There was a special reason why Joseph made his will in this way. He wanted even his bones to do good after his death. His people would need all the influences that could be put into their lives, in the long, dark years of trial before them, to keep alive in their hearts the memory of the promises, love for Canaan, and the hope of possessing that land. The graves of their fathers were there, which made the country dear to love and hope. But Joseph felt that his mummy left among them unburied, waiting to be carried away to Canaan and buried there, would do more to keep hope alive in their hearts, than if it lay at rest yonder in the cave of Machpelah. Every time they saw it they would remember why it was unburied, and their thoughts would turn toward their land of promise.
By and by it grew very dark in Egypt. The dynasty of the Pharaohs who had been Joseph's friends gave way to a new dynasty who cared nothing for his memory and were jealous of the growth of the Israelites. Bitter oppression followed. In those days of gloom, who knows how much the unburied mummy of Joseph, with its unspoken words of hope, helped to keep the people from despair?
Then one night there was great excitement in Goshen. The hour of departure had come. Here is the record: "Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place." Exodus 13:19. Then followed forty years of weary marching and wandering, and during all this time the mummy of Joseph was in the camp.
At length there was a funeral one day at Shechem, and those bones, in their Egyptian mummy case, were laid to rest by Joshua. Here again is the record: "And Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor." When tourists journey in the Holy Land, they are shown at Shechem the tomb of Joseph. It is but a little way from the pit at Dothan, into which his brothers cast him to die. So the great wrong is righted, for the world now honors his grave.
We may take two lessons from Joseph's dying words. One is a lesson of faith. "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid." He would die—but God would live on and his work would go on. "God buries his workmen—but carries on his work." We have only our little fragment to build in the wall. Then we shall die—but the work will go on, for God lives on and his plans and purpose shall not fail.
The other lesson is, that we should live so that the memory of our life and its influence, when we are gone, shall inspire those who stay behind. "The memory of the just is blessed." Proverbs 10:7. Joseph's embalmed body, kept among his people, spoke not only of his noble work in the past—but declared ever the word of hope for the future. It said: "This is not your home. You are but tarrying here as strangers and pilgrims. By and by you will go on."
Such should ever be the impression that our life makes and that our memory keeps alive in other hearts. We should so live that when we are gone, every recollection of us shall make others think of heaven as home. We have not lived at our best—if the memory of our life only makes our friends think of us. The true life must ever speak of spiritual and eternal things!
Let us seek then to be so filled with Christ that every influence of our life shall incite men upward, toward God, and onward, toward imperishable things, starting in every heart, the prayer of divine longing for our heavenly home!
Israel Oppressed in Egypt
After the funeral of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt. Why did they not stay in Canaan? Was not Canaan the land of promise? Why was it that this chosen family were led off to Egypt, where ultimately they had to meet such experiences of trial and suffering? When we read on and learn of the hard lot of the Israelites in Egypt, their cruel bondage, does it not seem to us that it would have been better if they had not returned after the funeral of Jacob? But when we think of the matter more closely, we learn that the period of their stay in Egypt was not a mistake—but part of God's wise plan for the training of His people.
For one thing, Canaan was full of fierce tribes, who would not have allowed any strange people to live and grow up among them. The sons of Jacob and their families would have been blotted from the earth. In the providence of God, therefore, they were led into Egypt, where they could grow up into a great people, protected by the king, through the influence of Joseph. Then, in due time, when they were great in numbers, they came back to Canaan and conquered the land for themselves, driving out the people that had held the country.
Another reason for the removal to Egypt—was that if they had remained in Canaan it would have been impossible for them to be kept separate from the nations about them. Yet this was essential. They were not to mix with any other peoples. The exclusiveness of the Egyptians, was such that it was impossible for them to mingle in intermarriage or even in social relations.
A still further reason for the transfer to Egypt—was that Canaan was a wild country, crude and uncultured. It was necessary that the people of God should be educated, that they might be the teachers of the world, which afterwards they became. Egypt was at that time, the most advanced of all countries in civilization, in the arts, in education. Dwelling in Egypt, the people of Israel learned the things they needed to learn to fit them for their high position and their great mission.
We take up now the story of the Israelites in Egypt. It is something that even names live for thirty-five hundred years. It is suggestive, too, that out of the wrecks of human things in those ancient times, the names that are here presented are not those of kings, poets, philosophers, and conquerors—but those of men who were in the line of God's chosen people. The names of God's children are the only really immortal ones. They are written in the book of life. They may be names of lowly people—but they are preserved, while the names of the great of the same period, have utterly perished from the earth.
Long, long ages ago, a fern grew in a deep valley. It lived for only one summer and then fell into the earth and perished. As it sank down in the indistinguishable mass of decaying vegetation it murmured, "I shall be utterly forgotten. I shall have no record in this great world. My memory shall perish." But the other day a teacher of geology, going about with his class, struck off a piece of rock with his hammer, and there lay the fern, every line of its beautiful leafage and veinage traced in the stone. So it is with the names and the deeds of those who live in this world to honor God and bless their fellow-men. Love never dies. Love's memory never perishes. The things you do in the name of Christ and to give comfort, cheer, and help to others—cannot fade out of the universe. Their record is written in imperishable lines in the book of God, and also in the lives into which the deeds have been wrought. Thousands who live in this world obscurely, and die, never thinking that they shall be remembered, will be surprised in the other world to see the record of every beautiful thing they have done, every gentle word they have spoken, every kindly touch they have put upon a human soul.
The story says there were souls in Jacob's family. The Bible talks about people as souls. If you look at your concordance you will be surprised to find how common this is. Three thousand souls were added to the Church. On the ship on which Paul was when he was wrecked were two hundred threescore and sixteen souls. We talk about people having souls—but a far better way to put it is that they are souls. We are souls and we have bodies. The children who sit in the teacher's class and look up into her face are souls. They are going by and by into eternity, and will carry there the marks and impressions which she is making upon them these days.
It is well we should remember that we are immortal souls. We shall live forever, and what we do in this world shall never perish. It is worth while that we live every day at our best.
At length Joseph died. He died—but he lives yet in the world. The story of his early days lives, and has for us all the interest and charm of a delightful romance. We read of his noble spirit, uncrushed by adversity, unembittered by injustice and wrong, keeping sweet, courageous, and loving, through all the thirteen years of cruel injury and wicked treatment. Joseph lived nobly, and then died.
We grieve when a godly man dies. But why should we? If he has filled his years, few or many, with beautiful living, dying is not a disaster. Joseph lived gloriously, and now the influence of his unconquerable life is still going on. Everyone who reads his story thoughtfully, gets new inspiration for beautiful and victorious living. All that Joseph wrought, all the impressions he made upon human history—yet lives. Good done in the world is imperishable. They tell us that a word spoken into the air goes quivering on and on, forever. We are certain, at least, that every good word spoken and every good deed done—leaves an impression on human lives which shall never die out. Every life that is pure in its purpose and strong in its strife, makes all lives better, truer, and stronger.
Not only did Joseph die—but the whole generation to which he belonged passed away. However long one may live, the story always closes with "and he died." Whether beautiful or marred, whether good or bad in our life and character, we must come to the same end—death. There are those who do not like to think of this, and never put death into the plan of their life. Then when death comes—it finds them unready for it.
Then came a change of dynasties in Egypt, and the new king did not know Joseph, and so had no remembrance of what Joseph had done. Thus it is ofttimes. Nations and communities are ungrateful; the good that men do—is too often forgotten. It is not best to count too certainly on the lasting gratitude of the people whom we benefit or try to help. Many times those we serve at greatest cost—heap injustice upon us or do wrong to us. However, the possibility of ungrateful treatment, should never check the outflow of our beneficence. Even if men do forget, there is one place where all our good work is kept in mind. Every tear, every sacrifice, every smallest service, Christ remembers. If we but learn to do all our work for Him, though men forget us and wrong us—we shall not fail of the final reward. The world can never rob us of the true reward of faithful service. It may withhold gratitude—but no earthly ingratitude can intercept the Divine blessing. Joseph is no poorer now for the ingratitude of the Egyptians. He helped shape the history of the world. Think of the countless thousands of lives he preserved from famine. His beautiful character has been for many centuries one of the world's brightest ideals. His influence is felt wherever the Bible is read. What does it matter then, that the new king sought to blot out the name of Joseph and every memory of him? Today his is one of the most honored names in all history, and his work in the world will abide forever.
The new king entered on a course which was intended to check the growth of the Hebrews. He was a wise king, and feared that this growing people would by and by become a formidable power, if allowed to increase in the future as it had been increasing in the past. So he set to work to counteract the alarming increase of the Hebrew people. He did not know that he was contending with the Almighty. Tyrants do not see the invisible Being who stands behind the frail people they seek to destroy. They are continually resorting to cunning and policy to outreach God and carry out their own schemes. They consider it dealing wisely—but the end always proves it to be the most wretched folly!
There is only one place in the Bible where God is said to laugh, and that is when the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Almighty King. How foolish it is for puny man to contend with the omnipotent Jehovah! Men go on with their diplomacy, their scheming, imagining they are carrying out their own ambitious plans to final success; but they really are only like children trying to dam back the rising tides of the sea by their little embankments of sand. It is the worst of folly to contend with God. The only wise thing to do in any case—is to fall in with God's purpose and to work in full harmony with His plan.
Instead of checking the increase of the Hebrews, the effect of the king's oppressive measures, was to make them grow all the more. This has been the history of all persecution. It has served only to strengthen the Church and multiply it. The first great persecution of Christians soon after Pentecost, instead of exterminating the little company, only scattered the disciples abroad to carry the gospel into hundreds of new centers. It was like the effort of the wind to put out a fire—it only blows the few coals in every direction to kindle new conflagrations. "The blood of the martyrs—is the seed of the Church."
So with all trial. Grace in the heart cannot be crushed out by afflictions. It is like those roots which, once in the soil, cannot be exterminated—but which grow all the faster and thicker the more you beat and dig them and try to get them out. This truth has two bearings. It shows how utterly futile it is to contend with God, for when we oppose Him—we really only help to carry out the purpose we seek to defeat. Then, it ought to bring a sense of wonderful security to the Christian who is exposed to wrongs or to trials of any kind. They can never really injure him, if he cleaves to his Lord. "We know that all things work together for good—to those who love God."
We are all in bondage naturally, and until our chains are broken and we are brought out by Christ—we are under this terrible taskmaster. Sin's bondage is hard, and it makes men's lives bitter. It grows worse every day and never easier. Unless men are delivered from it in this world—it will end in eternal bondage. But God has mercy upon souls in this cruel slavery, even when they have no mercy upon themselves. He has compassion upon those who are bound and crushed by Satan's taskmasters, and comes with deliverance. Jesus is the great Deliverer.
The Childhood of Moses
Everybody is interested in a baby—that is, everybody who has a gentle heart. The babies of the Bible are especially interesting. Next to the infancy and childhood of Jesus, perhaps no Bible baby interests us so much as the infant Moses in his basket among the rushes.
We must bring up a little of background of the story. Pharaoh became alarmed at the rapid growth of the Hebrews. He determined to check their increase. He tried to do this, first, by making the people slaves, reducing them to bondage. He made them toil on the public works. He set taskmasters over them and compelled them to work in building storage cities. The intention was, by the burdens put upon them, to wear them out and check their increase. But the more he afflicted them—the more they grew. Yet more rigorous was the service made—and the more bitter the cruel bondage. But all availed nothing. They still increased marvelously.
Then a still more barbarous scheme was ordered. Every male infant was to be killed, cast into the Nile. It was while this edict was in force that Moses was born. The prospect was not bright for the child's future. But when God has a purpose and a work for a life, men's schemes do not avail. The king was no match for God.
It is a beautiful story we are to study. The king's own daughter becomes unwittingly the protector of the little child, not only rescuing him from the river—but also training him under royal shelter for his mission as liberator of his people. When Jochebed, the mother, looked into her baby's face she saw that he was "a fine child", very beautiful. The child's beauty was to play an important part in shaping his destiny. No doubt it influenced the princess, too, when she saw the child in the basket. It is not surprising that he seemed beautiful to his mother. What mother ever saw anything but beauty in her own child? Love transfigures the homeliest features. Every baby born into the world is the handsomest baby ever born—to one woman. God never sends a baby—but He sends love to make a nest for it. Yet there was something unusual in this infant's appearance, something which told the mother that he was to have a great destiny. "Cast this baby into the river!" she said. "Never!" So she hid him.
No doubt there were spies watching the Hebrew homes to drag every boy baby away to the Nile. Jochebed would keep the news of the little stranger's coming so secret, that it never would be known there was an infant in the house. Yet it is hard to hide a baby very long. How she must have trembled every time the child cried, lest some informant might be prowling round the door and should hear the sound and come in. Three months passed. Then she began to feel that she could hide him no longer. He was getting too large. The danger was too great. She must think of some other way to protect him. How should she do it?
Love is fertile in devices. Jochebed decided upon her course, and then she intelligently and very bravely set to work to carry it out. She wove a little ark of bulrushes, and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. She seemed to put it just where the king's watchers and guards would be surest to find the child. What did she mean? Just this—that when she could no longer conceal him herself she would put him altogether out of her own hands—into God's. That is the law of Providence—God does nothing for us which we can do for ourselves; but when we can do no more we may turn to God and be sure that He will work for us. Jochebed believed that God had a great purpose for her child, and she would let God take the whole care of him in the present peril.
Does any mother ever now place her child on the edge of such perils, committing him to God? Yes; there are more cruel rivers than the Nile, flowing by our very doors. Only think of intemperance, impurity, evil companionship, the myriad vices amid which every child has to be raised. The Christian mother cannot hide her child forever in her own home. Some mothers think this is their duty, and they try to keep their children sheltered in their home, not allowing them to mingle with other children. But this is not the true way to bring up a child in order to make him strong and ready for life's tasks and duties. He must meet temptation, or he will never be able to live victoriously. He must go out into the world. What can the mother do to shelter him from the dangers and the enemies? She can only build an ark for him, then put him out of her own hands, and ask God to take care of him.
See good Jochebed making this ark for the launching of her heart's treasure. She takes great pains in weaving it to make it strong. Then she plasters it with tar and pitch to make it watertight. No doubt many tears dropped upon it as she worked away, and she wove as many prayers as reeds into the little barque. At last it was finished. Then she took her three-month old baby and laid him in the ark, and told Miriam, the baby's sister, to carry the basket down to the river and leave it there at a certain spot among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.
Well, that is just what good Christian mothers are doing all the while with their children. They must let them go out to meet temptation. So they build arks out of the promises, the good counsels, the Bible teachings, and the home influences. They line them with many prayers and much love. They consecrate them with tears. Then they put their children into them and push them out into the world, committing them to God.
Now what did God do? He took charge of this child. How wonderfully He arranged everything! All the promises to Abraham and all the hopes of the nation hung upon that baby, born in slavery, with the doom of death pronounced upon it, and now laid actually outside of the mother's care in a little basket by the river's edge. Yet all was perfectly safe, for God was watching. "Steer boldly," said Caesar to his pilot in a storm. "Steer boldly, good pilot, for you bear Caesar and his fortunes." More than Caesar's fortunes lay in this little basket, and no wave could wreck it, no great beast could crunch the baby or trample it into the mire.
The sister did her part well. She kept faithful watch over that basket, and did not go off to gather flowers, nor sit down to play with her dolls. She attended to her duty. Her baby brother's life was in her keeping. We shall see, as we read on, what she was to him, not only then but afterward. Many an older sister has been God's angel to her younger brother. Sometimes noble sisters sacrifice their own pleasure and happiness in unselfishly living for their brothers, that they may obtain an education and become noble men. In many a home there is a boy exposed to danger and temptation, and there is an older sister who has it in her power to be guardian and friend to him, doing for him what Miriam did for her brother. Will the young girls who read these words—think what they can do for their brothers?
Was it an accident that the princess came down that way just at that time? She did not know any reason for taking a stroll but for the common one—that she might bathe in the Nile. Yet she was really on an errand for God. She did not even know God, for her religion was heathen—but God knew her, and had her unwittingly do this beautiful work for Him. So we all go on our way each day, each intent on his own purposes—but all the while God is using us to help carry out His greater purposes. Any daily walk we take—may accomplish an errand for God, may touch some life with blessing, or decide some destiny.
Had the mother thought it all out? Did she know the habits of the princess? Did she put her baby in the ark and place it carefully so that the princess would be the first to see it? Then did she depend upon the appeal the child would make by its helplessness to her woman heart? So it would seem. When the princess had the ark opened—the baby was crying, and this cry touched her compassion. She would have been an unnatural woman if she had remained unmoved, or if she had bidden her maidens cast the baby into the river.
We cannot but admire Miriam's beautiful doing of her part in this wonderful life-drama. Someone has said of her and her words, "A little girl by one speech changed the history of the world." She was watching faithfully, and the moment the little basket was brought to the princess this artless Hebrew maiden was close beside her. A picture of the scene represents Miriam standing with her hands behind her back, looking into the basket as innocently as if it were all a perfect surprise to her. With wondrous artlessness she suggested that she would run and find a nurse for the child among the Hebrews.
What woman should she call to nurse that baby—what one but the baby's mother? How the little maiden must have hastened! How the mother's heart must have leaped when she was called to become nurse to the little foundling! And now we see the princess of Egypt, unawares committing the beautiful baby she had found, back into his own mother's hands to be nursed by her!
We can imagine the feelings of Jochebed's heart as she took her child into her bosom again. She did not need to hide her baby now. The princess of Egypt had adopted him and the protection of the throne was over him. No one dared touch him.
When God took charge of the training of this child for his great mission—the first teacher He sent him to was his own mother. No one can ever take the true mother's place in the training of a child. Some things God gives twice—but He never gives a mother twice to a child. It was especially important that Moses should be brought up in his earliest days by his own mother. He must be trained as a Hebrew, with Hebrew sympathies, with the knowledge of the true God. If he had been brought up from the first in the palace of Egypt, with Egyptian teachers, he never could have become the deliverer of his people.
At length, however, the child was removed from the mother's care, and taken to the palace to occupy his place as the son of the princess. His mother must be his first teacher—but she could not teach him all he needed to learn for his life's mission. So God arranged at the proper time to have him taken to another school. He would have to wrestle with Egypt by and by, and deliver his people out of Pharaoh's hands. He would also have to take a great company of slaves, form them into a nation, train them for self-government, and fit them for a glorious mission. To be prepared for all this work, Moses was placed in a position to learn the best of the world's wisdom. He never became an Egyptian, however—but remained a loyal Hebrew.
The Call of Moses
The training of Moses took eighty years. For a great mission the preparation must be wide and thorough. Perhaps many of us would do larger and better work and leave a more abiding impression in the world—if we took longer time to prepare for life.
Moses received the first part of his training in a slave home on the Nile, with his mother for nurse and teacher. Mothers do not know the opportunity they are missing, when they allow any other one to have the chief care of their children. It matters not how well qualified the nurse or governess may be, nor how faithful, how gentle, how devoted, the child needs the mother first. She has something that no other woman can give her child. "God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers," said the Jewish Rabbis. God comes first to the child through its mother. She is a new incarnation, as it were. Her love is God's love interpreted in the only way a child could understand it. A nurse may do blessed work—but still the child needs the mother, and there will be something lacking in the child's training, if there is no mother's influence in it.
No doubt it was a plain and humble house in which the child Moses was nursed and brought up. His parents were slaves. But there was love in the home. There was faith. There was loyalty to the God of Israel. There was prayer. Poor as the home was, and empty as it was of adornment, it was the best place in the world for the nursing of this child.
We know nothing of Jochebed, except that she was the woman God had chosen and prepared to be the mother of the man who was to lead the people of Israel out of bondage, then train them for national life, be their teacher, their lawgiver, and lead them to the promised land. This was one of the most stupendous tasks ever given to any man. God never gives the privilege of being the mother to such a man—to any but the truest, strongest, noblest, and most faithful woman.
The quality of the training which Moses received from his mother, is seen in Moses himself. She had him in her home only a few years, and yet she put into his mind and heart, teachings which shaped all his future life. If there had been as little religious instruction given to him in his childhood, as is given by many professing Christian mothers in these Christian days—would it have made him the loyal Hebrew which he became? After these few early years with his mother, Moses, until he was forty, was constantly under Egyptian influences of the strongest kind. He was brought up in the king's palace as the son of the king's daughter. He had Egyptian teachers. His religious instructors were Egyptian priests. He attended the best Egyptian schools and was trained in all Egyptian learning. No doubt Moses, as the adopted son of the princess, received the best education that could be given to him. In all these years, therefore, he was constantly under Egyptian influences.
Yet he never became an Egyptian; he never forgot that he was a Hebrew. His mother had done her work so well, that thirty-five years of Egyptian teaching and influence could not undo it. Mothers may take encouragement from this splendid outcome of the work of Jochebed. Let them fill their children's minds and hearts with the best teachings and influences, training them to love God above all and to be faithful and true to Him at whatever cost, and then it will matter little what the after influences may be—the children will remain faithful and true unto the end.
But the mother of Moses could not give her son all the education he would need for the great mission which was God's plan for his life. She was only a plain woman, without the culture of the schools. She could not teach her son the arts and sciences, the philosophies and the wisdom of the society, all of which he must know to be ready for his work as leader and prophet of his people. It was providential that the child fell under the shelter and influence of the princess, where he was fitted unwittingly in the largest possible way for the great part he was to play, in the making of the Hebrew nation.
But the training of Moses was not yet complete. He was not yet ready for his great work. He thought he was. We do not know how it came into his mind, that he was to be the deliverer of his people. The desire may have grown slowly. In the scant records, however, we come suddenly upon the fact that his heart was burning with the wish to help his people. "One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand."
The next day he went out again and sought to reconcile two Hebrews who were quarreling, and was defied. "Who made you ruler and judge over us?" Moses probably expected his people to accept him as their head and rise up against their cruel masters—but they were not ready for it. Then his effort showed that he himself was not ready. His act was brave, patriotic and chivalrous—but indiscreet. He had to flee from Egypt to escape the king's vengeance.
The mistake Moses had made in trying to avenge his people, God used, as He often uses our mistakes, for the advancement of His cause. Moses was led into the wilderness, where he entered on the third part of his education. For forty years God was his teacher. He had lessons to learn which neither his mother nor the universities could teach him.
Moses was a shepherd. He was a great deal alone and had much time for quiet thought and meditation. We all need silent times in our lives. Some photographs require long exposure to fix them on the plate. Some Divine impressions one can receive only through long experiences. We need to dwell in the presence of God for years—to get the holy beauty fixed upon us! While he went about his homely duties he was maturing for the great work he was soon to do. Pride, self-confidence, revenge, and hot temper were dying in him. He was learning that self-control which gave him the honor in after years, of being called the meekest man.
One day Moses had a strange experience. As the old shepherd was leading his sheep in the desert, he came suddenly upon a bush which was in flames of fire. From the bush came a Divine voice calling him to become the leader of his people. "Come now therefore, and I will send you unto Pharaoh, that you may bring forth My people . . . out of Egypt." This call startled him. The fire of his old bravery and heroism had died down to cold ashes. In his long seclusion, he had lost his spirit, his enthusiasm, his confidence. So his reply to the call was, "Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
We may look at the persistence of Moses in seeking to be excused from his mission. First, he urged his lack of fitness. "Who am I that I should do this?" He knew Egypt, its power, the stubbornness of the king and how he would tighten his hold upon the Hebrews and refuse to let them go. What could he, the old shepherd, without an army, without influence, do with the proud, haughty king? The Lord met this objection with one word. "Certainly I will be with you!" Moses alone was not to do this stupendous task—God and Moses were to do it. Moses could not do it himself—no man, no company or combination of men could do it. Yet God would not do it alone; He needed a man with whom and through whom He could work. And when God says to any man, the frailest and feeblest, "Certainly I will be with you!" there is nothing the man cannot do.
When a great conqueror was dead, some men who had heard of his exploits came and asked to see the sword that had fought so marvelously. They were astonished when they saw it to notice how small it was. "How could this common blade win such victories?" they asked. "Ah," was the reply, "you have not seen the arm that wielded it." When we read of the achievements of Moses after his eightieth birthday, and learn that he had nothing in his hand in all his work but a shepherd's rod, we must remember that the secret of power was not in the rod—but in the hand that held it.
But Moses had another difficulty to present. His people would not accept his leadership. He remembered how, forty years before, when he wanted to be their leader, they had demanded, "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?" They would ask now for his authority. What should he say to them? "Tell them," said the Lord, "I AM has sent me unto you." Say to them, "Jehovah, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Israel—has sent me unto you." Then He gave him also certain signs that would be his credentials, proving to the people that he was divinely sent to lead them out of bondage.
Still Moses hesitated. Another element of unfitness presented itself to his mind. "O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue." He may have had some impediment in his speech, or he may only have lacked fluency in speaking. Whatever the defect was, it seemed to him, to unfit him for the mission to which God was calling him. It would be necessary to speak well in order to impress Pharaoh. But the Lord promptly met this excuse or difficulty by saying to him, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say."
God is able to use the weak things of life, even the faults and imperfections of men. When He calls a man to a mission, He knows the gifts and talents necessary in fulfilling it, and will always give them. If it requires eloquence, eloquence will be given. But it may be that a man can better honor God with a halting, stumbling speech—than if he were gifted with human eloquence. We are sure at least that God will make no mistake in qualifying His servants for the mission to which He calls them.
Thus the difficulties Moses presented were met—but still he was unwilling to accept the Divine call. He had no further definite excuses to offer—but he broke out despondently, impatiently, almost petulantly, "O Lord, please send someone else to do it!" This was little short of a final and absolute refusal to go. "Send some other one, anyone it pleases You to send. But I cannot go."
God never gets angry as men do. Yet the record says that the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Moses for his continued and persistent refusal to go on the errand on which he was bidden to go—to do that for which he had been born and trained. The Lord's reply was, "What about your brother, Aaron? I know he can speak well. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him."
There are two views as to the meaning of this reference to Aaron. One is that it shows God's patience and kindness in meeting the fear and timidity of Moses. Moses was conscious of his lack of speaking ability, and Aaron, his eloquent brother, was promised to make up his lack. This was a grateful relief to a man who felt unequal to the task assigned to him.
The other view is that the coming of Aaron into companionship with his brother, to share his work, was a distinct taking away of part of the mission and part of the honor of Moses. If he had cheerfully accepted the call of God he would have had honor unshared by another. But as it was, he lost part of the glory of his mission.
There is something painful in this part of the story of Moses. As great a man as he was, one of the greatest who ever lived, he appears at this point of his career in sad light. His hesitation in accepting his call is a blot on his name. When God calls us to any task or duty, small or great, we should accept it without question, without fear or doubt. Whatever we ought to do—we can do, with God's help. God knows what He is doing when He marks out a mission for anyone. He will never give us a task we cannot do, nor send us on a mission without qualifying us for it.
For everyone of us, God has a life-plan, something He made us for. Moses almost missed filling his place in the Divine purpose. Suppose he had continued to give reasons why he could not accept his call, and God had taken him at his word and chosen some other man in his place, consider what it would have meant for Moses. He would have gone back to his shepherd life in the wilderness for the remaining years of his life and would never have been heard of in history. As it is, no other man in all the world's records has greater honor or influence than has Moses.
May we not fear that many Christian people repeat the sad story of Moses in declining to do the work for which they were born? When you have been summoned to some service, some mission, or some great task, have you never said, "Who am I that I should do this work?" When you have been called to do some important work, have you never said, "I have not the ability for this!" Are there not men who in youth heard a call to the Christian ministry—but who begged off for some reason? Instead of spending their lives in the glorious work of winning souls, building up men in Christian character and comforting sorrow—they are devoting their lives, with all their fine abilities, to some little secular business—the care of a farm, a clerkship, an agency.
You are called to do Christian work in some definite form—in the Sunday School, in the Church. Do you promptly accept the call? Or do you give reasons or excuses why you cannot do it? Do you know what honor you are declining? There can be no excuse that will relieve us from anything that is our duty. We may sincerely think we cannot do it—but if it is our duty—we can do it, with God's help.
There is another suggestion here—talking is not the only way of doing God's work. Moses was a poor speaker; Aaron was a glib talker, the man the people heard gladly. Moses was ofttimes cast in the shade by his brother's brilliant eloquence. But Moses was the man of power.
There are men in every community who talk finely—but whose words are only sounding brass, making no impression, because character is lacking. Then there are other men who lack eloquence—but whose plain, simple words have measureless power, because of the true and worthy lives of those who speak them. Let not those who have slow, stammering tongues be discouraged. See to what splendor, power, and honor Moses attained, in spite of defective speech. Aaron could speak better—but was not one Moses worth a hundred Aarons?
In studying the story of Moses the fact should deeply impress us that his life, with all its greatness and its mighty achievements, came perilously near to being a failure. It startles us to think that with only one more word of hesitation and unwillingness, he might have been left with his sheep in the wilderness, and the honor of the great mission for which he was born and trained given to another.
At Baalbek, in a quarry, lies a great block, hewn and shaped, almost detached and ready for transportation, dressed and carved for its place in the Temple of the Sun. Then in the temple is an empty space. The column meant for this vacant space lies in the quarry, ready for its place—but never filling it. Moses was almost such a failure.
And are there not many lives, made for places of great influence and honor—but which lie among the wastes and ruins of the world? The only way to make one's life glorious, is to accept the Divine purpose and to plan for it, and without hesitation, excusing, or shrinking obey the call of God and do the will of God.
Moses and Pharaoh
It was hard to get Moses to accept the leadership of his people. He almost missed the glory of his life, by urging his unworthiness and unfitness. But when he had accepted his mission—he gave himself to it without reserve. He never again raised the question of his ability. He never shrank from any service required of him. He never failed in any task or duty.
Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh and delivered to him the message of Jehovah, "Let my people go!" "Who is Jehovah," was the insolent reply, "that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not Jehovah, and moreover I will not let Israel go!"
Pharaoh charged Moses with keeping the people from their tasks, and the taskmasters were then commanded to make it still harder for them. They were to withhold straw from the brick-makers, compelling them to gather straw for themselves, while the quota of bricks required was not lessened. Thus the demand made upon Pharaoh, only added to the burden and hardship of the people. In their anguish, they cried to Moses in bitter complaint. Moses took the matter to God. God rehearsed His covenant promise that He would surely bring the people out. But they could think of nothing except their cruel wrongs and great sufferings.
One of the dangers of affliction, is that in our distress we fail to hear God's words of comfort, that we think only of our own affliction and pain. There is a picture of a mourner sitting on a rock beside the sea which has swallowed up her dear ones. She is bowed in deep grief. Behind her is the Angel of Consolation, touching the strings of his harp. But the woman is so absorbed in her sorrow that she sees not the angel nor hears the music of comfort. So it is ofttimes with those in grief. The comfort is brought to them—but they hear it not. If the people of Israel had listened in their bitter trouble, to the promise of God—they would have been braver and stronger to endure a little longer in hope of the relief that was coming.
Then began a series of plagues or judgments—while Pharaoh fought stubbornly against God. These plagues were meant to reveal to Pharaoh the power of Jehovah and to compel him to let go his hold upon God's people. The waters were turned into blood; frogs swarmed everywhere—in people's houses, in their beds, their ovens; lice, then flies filled all the land; a grievous pestilence caused great loss among cattle; boils afflicted the people; a fearful storm of hail wrought destruction upon crops and property; locusts covered the whole country, eating up all the herbs and trees which the hail had left; thick darkness was over all the land for three days.
At the first Pharaoh seemed entirely indifferent to these judgments. Then he began to be affected by them for a little time—but as soon as the plague was withdrawn, he would harden his heart. After the plague, he offered to let the people go to worship their God—but they not allowed go out of the land. This condition Moses could not accept. Pharaoh then agreed that they might go out of Egypt—but not very far away. But when the flies were gone, he withdrew his permission altogether. When the storm of hail was working such destruction, Pharaoh confessed that he had sinned—but his penitence was of brief duration. When the devastating plague of locusts was announced, Pharaoh said the people could go—but the men only. This condition, however, could not be accepted. When the darkness lay upon the land Pharaoh said to Moses, "Go you, serve Jehovah; only let your flocks and herds be stayed." The answer to this was prompt and positive. "Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind." Pharaoh then said to Moses, "Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die!" Moses said, "I will never appear before you again!"
It should be noted that the Israelites did not suffer in the plagues. When the plague of flies was threatened, Jehovah said, "I will set apart that day the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there. I will put a division between My people and your people." After the plague upon the beasts of Egypt we are told that Pharaoh sent, "and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead!" In the storm of rain and hail the record is, "Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, there was no hail." In the time of the darkness in Egypt "all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings."
God always makes a distinction between His own people and those who do not accept Him. It may not seem so. Christian people suffer in the same calamities with those who are not friends of Christ. In the great conflagration there is apparently no distinction made. The houses of Christians are not spared, the fire does not leap over them and burn only the homes of unbelievers. In the desolation of the earthquake, when a city is destroyed, godly men's homes are not left standing, while the houses of wicked men topple in ruin to the ground. In the sweep of contagion over a community, there seems to be no favor shown to those who love God and live lives of faith and service. Life's common sorrows and troubles seem to knock at all doors alike. The godly are not exempt. Indeed, it sometimes appears as if the wicked fare better than the righteous, and have fewer trials!
How, then, does God make a distinction between His own people—and those who do not own Him and worship Him, who do not obey Him and live to honor Him and bless others? We may say at least, that when God's children suffer with the ungodly—they do not suffer as the ungodly do. The latter have no comfort in their sorrows or losses. They are not sustained and strengthened in enduring them. When their property is destroyed in the flood, the conflagration, or the earthquake, they have nothing left; their loss is absolute. When they are bereft, when loved ones are taken from them, they have no consolation; no Divine comfort is with them.
On the other hand, the children of God, in precisely the same troubles or afflictions, have joy of which the people of the world have no experience; they have light in their homes. In their losses—they have compensations. A man had put all his money into the building of a mill. Just when it was completed there came a great flood, and the mill was swept away. As the owner stood on the bank when the floods had subsided, grieving over his loss, he saw something shining in the sands. The wild waters which had swept away his mill—had laid bare a vein of gold. The disaster which had beggared him—had made him rich.
So is it always with the earthly losses which befall the godly—when they endure them with faith and trust in God. Earthly losses—uncover spiritual treasures! Pain which hardens the impenitent heart—softens the heart of him who is abiding in Christ. Bereavement leaves the Christian lonely—but he is comforted by the Divine love and sings and rejoices in his grief. "To those who love God—we know that all things work together for good."
Let us not say, then, that God makes no distinction now between His own people and those who love and obey Him not. We do not know what protection from physical hurt and danger comes continually to those who are Christ's. The ninety-first psalm is filled with promises of Divine care, sheltering and blessing to those who dwell in the secret place of the Most High, and abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We do not know from how many unseen dangers we are preserved every day. God's eye is always upon His people. The very hairs of their heads are all numbered. Then when sorrow or trouble befalls them, they are held in the everlasting arms and the love of God ministers to them healing and comfort.
The same troubles come to the saint and the sinner. Yet there is always a difference. God does indeed make a distinction between the world and His own people. If sorrow comes to both, it is different—to the Christian it is illumined by hope. If death comes to both, it is not the same to both—to God's child it is but the opening of the gate into the Father's house!
Nine plagues had been visited upon his land and people—but still Pharaoh yielded not. Now the announcement was made that there would be one more judgment, the most terrible of all, and that then Pharaoh would yield. "I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely." The appalling character of the last plague would be such that Pharaoh would no longer hold out.
Preparations were now to be made by the people of Israel for leaving Egypt. The Lord's assurance had been realized. "No word He has spoken shall ever be broken." The people were to go out, and they should not go empty. "Tell all the Israelite men and women to ask their Egyptian neighbors for articles of silver and gold." The Hebrews had been serving the Egyptians long without wages; what they were taught to ask now, was their simple right. The result was that they went away with gold and silver and other valuable articles freely given by the Egyptians. These gifts no doubt were used afterward, perhaps contributing toward the building and adorning of the Tabernacle.
Moses then told the people of the terrible woe that was to come upon the Egyptians. "All the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die!" There would be no exceptions—no household would be spared the calamity. From the palace to the lowliest hut—every family would have its dreadful sorrow. Even the cattle would not escape. This would be the last judgment of God upon the Egyptians, to compel Pharaoh to let go his hold upon the Hebrews.
It is most interesting to notice that the Lord said, "I will go out into the midst of Egypt." It was a Divine judgment, not a mere ordinary calamity. This death of the firstborn in all the land of Egypt, suddenly and simultaneously, was not a mere coincidence, was not due to any pestilence or contagion. It was the hand of God which produced it. It was a direct Divine act, a judgment upon Pharaoh, to bring him down before the Lord in submission.
Here, as in all this struggle between the Lord and Pharaoh, the Hebrew people were unharmed. "But among the Israelites it will be so peaceful that not even a dog will bark!" This shows that it was not merely an epidemic that swept through the land, for then the Israelites would have suffered as well as the Egyptians. "Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites." It is always so. The Lord knows His own people, knows where they live, knows them in any company or crowd, never overlooks the least or lowliest of them, and always distinguishes between them and the people of the world. "The Lord knows those who are His."
Though Pharaoh had received such a fearful warning concerning the death of the firstborn—announced to him in advance, no doubt, to give him an opportunity to repent—yet his heart was not softened—but only grew harder! We would say that he, as king and father of his people, should have submitted in order to save them from the terrible calamity that impended, and which he was assured would surely come unless he yielded to God. But even this motive of compassion for his people did not make the stubborn king relent. He persisted in his struggle with Jehovah though he was assured that unless he let the people go—the firstborn in all his land would die at midnight.
We should not forget that the same resistance to God is repeated in a measure, in everyone who year after year hears God's calls of mercy and grace—and refuses to yield to the Divine love. There is a passage in the Gospel of John which reads strikingly like this story of Pharaoh: "Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them." John 12:37-40
To us the lesson is that we should listen to every voice of God, to every appeal and command, never resisting, always submitting gladly, cheerfully. Only thus can we make sure of God's blessing. To resist, to refuse to obey, is to have our hearts made harder and less open to future appeals. And the end of final resistance and rejection—is the utter hardening of the heart until it is past all feeling, and past all hope!
The Institution of the Passover
The time had come for the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. The struggle with Pharaoh had been long and bitter. He had resisted and refused to let the people go. Now the time had come when his resistance would break down. When in every house the firstborn would be dead, in the palace as well as in the laborer's hut—the king would hold out no longer, would even demand that they leave his land at once.
The 'Passover' was instituted as a memorial of deliverance form Egyptian bondage. It would be their last supper in Egypt, and was to be observed annually ever after, to keep in mind the great deliverance. The leaving of Egypt, was a new beginning for the Israelites. They were to call this date, their New Year. They were to reckon time thereafter, from the Passover.
In like manner the Christian world counts time from the birth of Christ. We write our dates Anno Domini—"in the year of our Lord". There were a great many hundreds of years before the beginning of the Christian era. The world is very much more than nineteen hundred and eight years old—but we count only the years of our Lord.
In personal life the same is true—we begin to live, only when we become Christians. What went before, does not count. The real birthday of the Christian, is the day of his new birth, the day he was saved. No one truly begins to live, until the chains of his sin bondage are broken—and he goes out free. All the time before he leaves Egypt—is lost time!
An eighty year old man, when asked his age—replied that he was just six months old. He said that though he had lived more than eighty years in this world—he had been a Christian and had really lived, only six months. All his other years had been time thrown away! No other anniversary should be kept so sacredly, with so much joy, as the anniversary of one's conversion!
The arrangements for the Passover were very definitely prescribed. Each family must take a lamb for itself; one household could not take it for another. Just so, one can take Christ for another. We have to carry our own sins to God. It must be by our own faith that we receive forgiveness. All true religion is personal. No one, not even a saintly mother, can believe for us, do our duty for us, or carry our load. "Each one must bear his own burden." Every family must have its own lamb. No one could come under the protection of some good neighbor's faith. Every home makes its own home-life. If it is happy, the happiness must be made within its own doors. If it is loving and sweet, the love must be in the hearts and lives of the inhabitants. Every home must have Christ for itself.
We should not overlook this lesson. A man said, "Oh, my wife is religious for us both." But if a man depends upon such vicarious religion as this, he will find that his wife will have to go to heaven for them both.
There is a pleasant thought here also about family life, "a lamb for a household." The family is one. Parents and children stood that night about the table and were sheltered behind the same blood. Every family should be one in Christ with loving fellowship, all the members trusting in the same Savior and gathering beneath the shadow of the one Cross.
The lamb chosen should be without blemish. It would not do if it were imperfect. The people were not to bring in a lame, crippled, or blind lamb. God wants the best. We should always bring to Him the best we have. We should give Him our heart when it is warm, tender, and unstained—not waiting until it has grown cold in the service of the world. We should give Him our hands when they are skillful and strong for work—not waiting until they are cramped, stiff, and unfit for beautiful service. We should give Him our feet when they are swift and ready to run upon His errands—not waiting until they have become crippled with age. We should give Him our lips when the eloquence and the song are still in them—and not wait until our voice is broken and has no music in it.
Do we never bring to God things that are blemished, keeping the best for ourselves—and laying on His altar things that we not longer prize? Do we never give to Christ only the poor scraps—after we have served ourselves with the best?
Dr. Wilton Merle Smith tells of buying a ring for his wife. He found one which was very beautiful, with a stone that was rare and rich. The salesman then showed him another ring almost identical with the first, and said, "I can sell you this one for just half the price of the other." The rings were so alike that none but an expert could tell the difference. Dr. Smith asked why the second ring was offered for so much less, and learned that there was a minute and almost imperceptible flaw in the stone which only an expert could detect. "No," he said, "I do not want that. Would I present to the woman I love—a flawed stone?"
Should we offer to Christ—a flawed offering, a blemished life, an imperfect service?
The lamb was to be killed, and the blood put upon the posts of the door. The lamb died in place of the firstborn. That night in Egypt the firstborn of every family would die at midnight. The firstborn of the Hebrews would be saved—but only if redeemed, a lamb dying in its place.
It is said that on the roof of a little church in Germany, stands the stone figure of a lamb which has an interesting history. When some workmen were engaged on the building, many years ago, one of them fell to the ground. His companions hastened down, expecting to find him crushed to death. They were amazed, however, to see him unhurt. A lamb was grazing just where the workman came down, and falling upon it, he crushed the little creature to death, while he himself escaped injury. He was so grateful, that he had an image of the lamb cut in marble, and placed upon the building as a memorial of his deliverance. The lamb saved his life—by dying in his place! Each one of the firstborn sons of Israel was living the morning after the Passover, because a lamb had died in his place! Every one who is saved can point to the Lamb of God and say, "I am saved because Jesus died in my stead!"
It was not enough to kill the lamb—if they had done this and nothing more—the people would not have been saved from the death-angel. The blood must be put upon the doorposts. The angel would look for this mark on each house, and if he did not see it—he would not pass over that house. It is not enough that Jesus, the Lamb of God, died for us on the cross. This He did, and the offer of salvation through His redemption is made to everyone. But we must make personal application of His redemption to ourselves, by having His blood sprinkled upon us. This we do by the personal receiving of Christ as our Savior. This is to each one of us, the vital point in the whole matter—not that the blood has been shed—but that it is found upon us. Paul speaks of the possibility of making the Cross of Christ of no effect. This we would do, if after Christ has suffered, we reject His redemption. Only the personal receiving of of Christ makes us safe.
There is something else here. The Hebrews were not only to put the blood upon the doorposts—but the family were then to gather inside the house and stay there until God should call them out. If any of them were found outside—they would not be protected by the blood. "None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning." Just so, we must take refuge behind Christ's Cross, and we must abide there, staying in the shelter. It will not do for us to run out whenever we please. We must live a life of continual faith in Christ, trusting constantly in His blood for our redemption, abiding in Him and yielding to Him unbroken obedience.
The second part of the duty and blessing of that night—was the eating of the lamb. While the plague was sweeping over the land of Egypt—the household in every Hebrew home was gathered about the table, eating the midnight meal. While Christ by His blood shelters His people from the penalty of sin—He also provides a feast for them. This suggests many a beautiful thought about the Christian life.
On the dark night of the betrayal, while the enemies of Jesus were preparing for His arrest and crucifixion, He and His disciples were sitting in the upper room, enjoying a feast of love together. Christ is always bread for our needs—as well as refuge from our sin. A feast means joy, gladness—all Christian life should be full of song and praise. Even in sorrow—we may have songs to sing.
A Christian life is not merely protection from penalty, freedom from condemnation, a life sheltered from the storm; it is a life of joy, of peace, of love, of song. We are not only forgiven criminals—we are children of God, we have fellowship with God, all things are ours! We are not exempt from sorrow—but in our sorrow we have comfort. We have trials and afflictions—but in all of them there is blessing for us. Then the road, however hard and rough it may be, leads to our blissful eternal home!
The blood on the doorposts was to be a mark of safety. "When I see the blood, I will pass over." It was very important, therefore, that the blood should be upon the doorposts in plain sight. There was no other safety. It would not be sufficient for a man to say, "I belong to the people of Israel, and God intends only to slay Egyptians. There is no need of my troubling myself to put blood on my doorposts. My home will be safe. My firstborn will not be harmed." Would this man's house have been passed over by the destroying angel? No! God had appointed a way of deliverance, and if any of His people had refused to accept that way, thinking that some other way would do as well, or that they were safe without any mark—they would have put themselves outside the protecting walls of the covenant!
Men may say of Christ's blood now: "I will trust myself in God's hands, for He is merciful; He is my Father. But I will not look to Christ's blood for salvation. I can see no need for that." He who would say this, rejects God's way of salvation; and there is no salvation in any way—but that which He has appointed, through Jesus Christ. We cannot say we trust in God's mercy—while we reject His Son. Christ is the mercy of God to the world.
The angel looked that night for the blood, and only the houses marked by it would he pass over. No matter how good the people inside were, if they had disregarded God's appointment and had taken some way of their own—there would have been death within their home at midnight! The blood must be on the doorposts—and the people must put it there with their own hands! It is so now—God looks for Christ's blood. Where that mark is found—He gives protection and blessing. Where Christ's blood is lacking—there is nothing to shelter from eternal wrath!
The Passover was to be a perpetual memorial. The people were never to forget the deliverance of that night. Lest they might forget it, the Passover feast always reminded them that they had once been in bondage—and that they had been delivered by great power. It also reminded them that they were a redeemed people, since their firstborn were saved from death that night—by the dying of the paschal lamb in their place.
The Lord's Supper is a like memorial to us. It tells that once we were in sin's bondage, that now we are free, and that our redemption cost the blood of the Lamb of God!
Crossing the Red Sea
"At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well! Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead! Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron during the night. "Leave us!" he cried. "Go away, all of you! Go and serve the LORD as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, and be gone!"
The people of Egypt were urgent that the Israelites should be sent away in haste. "If they are not, we are all dead men," they said. The Egyptians were disposed to be kind also to the Israelites, and responded generously to their requests for gifts, jewels of silver and gold and clothing. The children of Israel took their journey, gathering together, perhaps two million people in all, and began their march. It was four hundred and thirty years since the little company had come down to Egypt. God's covenant with Abraham had been fulfilled. "Know for certain," God had said to him, "that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions."
When Pharaoh had thrust the people out of his land, God took charge of them. He chose the route they were to take. The shortest way would have been through the country of the Philistines—but that route was avoided, because they would have had to fight their way, and they were not trained soldiers and might be afraid and turn back again to Egypt. God never leads His people by any way that is too hard for them. He has compassion on our inexperience and weakness.
It is mentioned in the narrative, that the bones of Joseph were taken by Moses when the people moved. They had been kept unburied, because they were to be laid to rest in the land of promise. The people had Divine guidance—the Lord Himself led them, even directing their movements so as to draw Pharaoh's pursuing army to destruction.
The narrative is full of instruction. It shows us that God is in all our life. We do not think enough of this—indeed, we sometimes forget it altogether. It will do us great benefit, to see the Divine part in all this story. Pharaoh was sorry that he had let Israel go, and soon was in hot pursuit. The Lord did not hinder him—but so directed the Hebrews that they were safe.
They were in great terror when they found that the Egyptian army was closing in behind them. Moses quieted them, bidding them not to be afraid—but to stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah. "Jehovah Himself will fight for you. You won't have to lift a finger in your defense!" We need not be afraid to believe this record. This is history written from the Divine side. We see only the human side, and write our history from what men do. Here we see God proposing, planning and active in all things. There always are these two sides in life. We think that we are directing our affairs—but One we cannot see—is the real Master and director. "God is on the field—when He is most invisible."
Some men may tell us that the world has now got quite beyond belief in such a narrative as this. But this is God's world as truly as ever it was, and God is on the field as actually as He was that night by the Red Sea! There is no conflict here with science.
There comes a time when prayer is not the duty. Moses was called to get up off his knees, and lead the people forward. They thought they were hopelessly shut in between the mountains and the sea, with Pharaoh's army behind them. But they did not see the way of escape before them, through the sea! They did not need to cry to God for deliverance—they needed only to go forward.
They had a heavenly escort—the angel of the Lord, first before them, and then behind them. It is always safe to follow the guidance of an angel of God. God never sends a heavenly messenger to lead us into unsafe ways. This angel was revealed in the form of cloud and fire. Sometimes God sends us angels that wear robes of sorrow. It was wonderful guidance which God gave to His people in their marches out of Egypt. By day the pillar of cloud sheltered them; and then by night the same cloud was fire, to fill their camp with brightness. By day it was shelter, by night it was light, and always it was guidance.
This was supernatural guidance—but we have God's presence just as really, though in no visible pillar, to lead us in life. God guides His people by His Word, by His Providence, by His Spirit. If we truly want to be led and are willing to follow unquestioningly, we shall never be left long in perplexity, as to the way we should take.
Our guidance is given to us—only as we will receive it and follow it. God does not compel us to go in the right way. Nor is the guidance given in maps and charts, showing us miles and miles of the road at one glance; it is given only step by step as we go on.
At a certain time, the angel changed his position and went behind the people. The pillar of cloud also moved and took its place behind them. Sometimes it is not guidance that we most need. Sometimes we must stand still, and then God goes behind us to shelter us, when there is danger behind us. He always suits Himself to our needs. When it is guidance we need—He leads us. But when we need protection—He puts Himself between us and the danger. There is something very striking in this picture—the Divine presence moving behind—and becoming a wall between Israel and their enemies.
There are some mother-birds that cover their young with their own bodies in time of peril—to shield them, receiving the dart themselves.
Human love often interposes itself as a shield to protect its own. On the cross Jesus bared His bosom to receive the storm, that on His people no blast of the awful tempest might strike! Not only does Christ put Himself between us and our sins; He puts Himself also between us and any danger! Many of our dangers come upon us—from behind. They are stealthy, insidious, treacherous, assaulting us when we are unaware of their nearness. The tempter is cunning, shrewd, watching for opportunities to destroy us. He does not meet us full-front. We need a guardian behind us—to shelter and defend us. It is a comfort to know that our Savior comes behind us—when it is there that we need the protection!
The pillar stood between the Egyptians and the Israelites. But it was not the same to the two camps. The same cloud was darkness to the Egyptians, gloom, hostility, confusing and hindering them; and to the Israelites light, friendly, favorable, showing the way. To His own people God is light, protection, shelter, blessing—but those who are not reconciled to Him, who are fighting against Him, do not find these favoring things in Him. To the unreconciled, the thought of God brings terror and alarm.
The truth that God perfectly sees into every heart—brings to the Christian a sense of security, and fills him with peace and confidence; but the same truth makes the unreconciled sinner tremble.
God's providence in like manner has this double aspect. The Christian sees God's love everywhere. He knows that all things are working together for good to him—because he is God's child. He sees his Father ordering and shaping all events with loving wisdom, and he is never afraid. Every flower breathes love. When he cannot understand what God is doing—he trusts the heart of God, and waits. But to him who does not have God as his friend—this same Providence is a dark mystery. He has no sense of safety, no assurance of protection, no consciousness of God's love anywhere in the universe for him.
Death also to the unbeliever is a dark cloud, filled with terrors—but to the Christian it is a glorious blaze of Divine love, a pathway of light through the valley—into the heavenly glory!
It will be the same also in judgment. To His own people Christ will then be all glorious, and His appearance will give unspeakable joy; but to the ungodly His presence will bring terror!
As the people went forward—they found an open way. God had cut the path for them through surging waters. Thus God always opens ways for His people, when they are following His guidance. He never asks us to take paths which do not lead at length, into blessedness. He never leads us into traps that we may be destroyed by enemies. Sometimes we think we are shut in, and that no way can be made for us out of our difficulties; but we have only to wait for God, and at the right time—He will open the door for us. We have only one thing to care for—that we are doing God's will and obeying His commandments. All else belongs to Him, and He will never fail us.
Thus God always changes dangers—into walls of safety for those who obey Him, and go firmly in the path of duty. So it is continually in life. Things we dread, when we go quietly forward in Christ's name to meet them—become helpers and protectors. We need never be afraid of anything into which our Master leads us—if we are faithfully following Him. "All things are yours," all things become your helpers. The storms only waft your barque towards home. The sickness that shuts you—in teaches you new songs. The sorrow that makes life dark for you—enriches you with heavenly comforts.
While the Lord was leading His own people in the light, helping them on—He was making it hard for their enemies. On one side of the cloud—an eye of love looked down upon the people of God; on the other side—it was the eye of an offended Judge which looked out on those who were fighting against God and trying to destroy His people. It makes a world of difference with us—on which side of God we are on! From the one side—love streams; from the other side—wrath bursts!
A great fort in war times, is a protection to those who are inside its walls! Amid the roar and crash they can lie down and sleep in peace. But those outside the fortification find no such protection from it. The walls that shelter those within—frown upon those without, and from its guns the deadly fire belches. So God is the refuge of those who have fled to Him for safety—but it is a terrible thing to have God against us, to be on the wrong side, among His enemies!
The Egyptians at last saw that it was a resistless power against which they were contending, and that they could only be destroyed if they followed further, and they sought to retreat. But it was too late. They had gone too far in fighting against the Almighty!
The destruction of the Egyptians was complete. They had seen the Israelites enter the parted sea, and supposed they could go in the same open way. But where the former found safety—the latter found death. The path which God opens for His own people—is not a safe path for His enemies. It was not made for them. The very Providence that protects the former, destroys the latter.
There are many promises to those who believe in Christ and follow Him; but not one of these is for those who believe not on Him. The angels who protect the one—destroy the other. The waters which are a defense for God's own children—become a flood to overwhelm His enemies! Let no unbelieving person venture into the way marked out for God's own children, hoping while unrepentant to find the same protection and blessing that they have found!
Life is full of illustrations of this truth—but its most striking application is to death. The believer finds the way open. "Why, there is no river here!" exclaimed a dying Christian. God opens a path through the waters for His own people. But not so for the unbeliever; death's waters roll over him and overwhelm him in their blackness!