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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Genesis 22

 

 

Verse 1

THE TRIAL OF FAITH

‘God did prove Abraham.’

Genesis 22:1 (R.V.)

We look on the demand which Jehovah here makes as a forward step in Abraham’s spiritual training. We believe that it answered the two purposes, first of showing him what was the principle at the heart of sacrifice, and second of condemning human sacrifices finally and for ever among the people of God.

I. Think, then, first, what Abraham needed. This is best expressed in the Revised Version. And it came to pass after these things that God did prove Abraham. He needed to suffer that so he might be strong. But had he not been sufficiently tried? For an ordinary man—yes; but not for the father of the faithful. Nor is it true that our trials diminish as we get on in life. Abraham was put through his fiercest test when it seemed as though all tests were over. He had settled down into a tranquil old age when Isaac was born. The succession was assured. And then came the hardest trial of all. It tried alike his faith and his affections. His faith in God might have been shaken under this dreadful demand. All he knew of Jehovah up to this time had prepared him for anything rather than for this. And his tenderest love was wrenched. The words of God were so arranged that each seemed keener than the one before.—Thy son—thine only son—whom thou lovest—Isaac. ‘We can fancy, as the voice went on, that it seemed as if God took malignant pleasure in dwelling on every item of the suffering He was inflicting on Abraham. The dreadfulness of all this was that Abraham had to think that God required this of him.’

II. Turn, secondly, to inquire into the purpose which the trial of Abraham’s faith was intended to serve.—Was it not meant once and for all time to clear up the matter of sacrifice?

Three things Abraham gained by this test.

(1) He understood what true self-surrender was.—Let us think what it involves. For one thing, sacrifice. Now what is the truth lying at the heart of all sacrifice? Is it not this: that we belong to another and greater than we? We are God’s husbandry. The lamb, the fruit, the tithe given up, speak of this. We are stewards, not proprietors. Then, for another thing, sacrifice involves the surrender of our wills. This Abraham was slowly learning. God had a will for him, but in Egypt and at the court of Abimelech he had interposed his own will, and had suffered for it. ‘God seemed to demand the sacrifice of life. He really required the surrender of the father’s will.’ But another feature in self-surrender is that we are called upon to give up what we most prize. Had Abraham not been willing to part with Isaac into the hands of God, his love, even to Isaac, would have been feeble. He who prefers his dearest friend or his well-beloved child to the call of duty will soon show that he prefers himself to his dearest friend, and would not sacrifice himself for his child.

(2) Abraham saw more clearly into the true nature of God.—Human sacrifices must always have been abhorrent to Him. He does not change in His essence. But now let this true man, and all time to come, learn what pleases God in sacrifice is self-surrender. ‘Abraham never needed himself to be taught a second time that God does not wish the offering of blood. No Hebrew parent reading that story in after years and teaching it to his children would ever think of pleasing the God of Abraham by offering to Him his first-born son; it became an abomination in Israel to cause children to pass through the fire of Moloch, and the later prophets knew that God loves mercy rather than sacrifice.’

(3) Abraham came back from the mountain with his faith—because it was clearer—therefore stronger than before.—Note these few points in his faith: (a) Unresisting obedience. Not a word had he said to Sarah. He was now alone with God. God must see a reason for this act which mortal eye could not. (b) Deliberate isolation. Faith grows and fills out in solitude. Probably nothing was said when Abraham rose early, made the preparations himself, and started on that sad journey to Moriah. Be still and know that I am God. (c) A larger confidence. My son (most pathetic words), God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering. Already his quiet meditation had brought him to believe that ‘in some way or other the Lord will provide.’ (d) Entire submission. Lay not … for now I know, etc. This was all that was necessary. The education of Abraham was now complete.

Illustration

(1) ‘It is related that about a century ago there was a day of remarkable gloom in America, when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was then in session, and some one, in the consternation of the hour—it was thought the day of judgment had come—moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, who said that if the last day had come he desired to be found in his place, doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in so that the house could proceed with its duty. It was this that nerved the old patriarch to plod on so unflinchingly to the place where Isaac was to be offered; he was in the way of duty, and in the way the Lord would provide. Even “in the Mount,” in man’s extremity, the Lord would provide. Like capital safely invested, the way of duty yields a sure though modest return, and is never more comfortable than in time of panic and anxiety.’

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


Verses 1-8

THE GREAT TEST

‘It came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham,’ etc.

Genesis 22:1-8 (R.V.)

It is by trial that the character of a Christian is formed. Each part of his character, like every part of his armour, is put to the proof; and it is the proof that tests, after all, the strength both of resistance and defence and attack.

I. The voice of God to Abraham was not heard in audible words; it was a voice in the soul constantly directing him to duty and self-sacrifice. The voice told him, as he thought,—I do not for a moment say as God meant,—that his duty was to sacrifice his son. The memories of olden days may have clung and hovered about him. He remembered the human sacrifices he had seen in his childhood; the notion of making the gods merciful by some action of man may still have lingered in his bosom. We have here the first instance of that false and perverse interpretation which made the letter instead of the spirit to rule the human heart.

II. As Abraham increases in faith he grows in knowledge, until at last more and more he can hear ‘Lay not thy hand upon thy son.’ ‘God will provide Himself a sacrifice’ bursts from his lips before the full light bursts upon his soul. In this conflict Abraham’s will was to do all that God revealed for him to do. In every age and in every station faith is expressed in simple dutifulness, and this faith of Abraham is, indeed, of the mind of Christ. We may be perplexed, but we need not be in despair. When we arrive on Mount Moriah, then the meaning of the duty God requires of us will be made clear. And as we approach the unseen, and our souls are more schooled and disciplined to God, we shall find that to offer ourselves and lose ourselves is to find ourselves in God more perfect.

Canon Rowsell.

SECOND OUTLINE

Abraham was not picked out as a model of excellence. He was apt to fear, apt to lie. What he was apart from his Teacher we see in his journey to Egypt: a very poor, paltry earthworm indeed, one not to be despised by us, because we are earthworms also, but assuredly worthy of no reverence which was his by birth or which became his merely in virtue of his call. What he was when he was walking in the light, when that transfigured him from an earthworm into a man, his after history will help us to understand.

I. The thought may have struck our minds that the circumstances of Abraham were eminently favourable to the cultivation in him of a pure, simple, monotheistic faith. A man living under the eye of Nature—on open plains, amidst flocks and herds—was likely, it may be said, to preserve his devotion unsullied and to give it a healthy direction. But we must remember that there was nothing in the perpetual beholding of natural objects which could preserve him from the worship of those objects. You cannot, by considerations of this kind, escape from the acknowledgment of a distinct call from an actual, personal, unseen Being, addressed to the man himself and confessed by him in his inmost heart and conscience. But if you begin from the belief of such a call, the more you reflect upon Abraham’s outward position the better. His work was the image of a Divine work; his government over the sheepfold, and still more in the tent, was the image of the Divine government of the world.

II. This we shall find is quite as important a reflection with a view to Abraham’s personal character as it is with a view to his position and office as a patriarch. His faith carried him out of himself; it made him partaker of the righteousness of Him in whom he believed. He became righteous in proportion as he looked forward to that which was beyond himself, and as his own life was identified with the life of his family.

III. Abraham’s intercession. Abraham believed God to be a righteous Being, not a mere sovereign who does what he likes. On that foundation his intercession is built. It is man beseeching that right may prevail, that it may prevail among men,—by destruction if that must be, by the infusion of a new life if it is possible. It is man asking that the gracious order of God may be victorious over the disorder which His rebellious creatures have striven to establish in His universe.

IV. As the life of the family is inseparably involved with the life of the individual, the most awful experience in the personal being of the patriarch relates to the child of promise—the child of laughter and joy. If we take the story as it stands, we shall believe that God did tempt Abraham—as He had been all his life tempting him—in order to call into life that which would else have been dead, in order to teach him truths which he would else have been ignorant of. God did not intend that a man should be called upon to make a sacrifice without feeling that in that act he was in the truest sense the image of his Maker. A filial sacrifice was the only foundation on which the hearts of men, the societies of earth, the kingdom of heaven, could rest.

—Rev. F. D. Maurice.

Illustration

(1) ‘Abraham and Isaac are an example of the unhesitating obedience of faith. Abraham knew that his own son had been named as the appointed victim; yet even so he could feel that God would provide that victim, and therefore he could submit. Isaac acquiesced in his father’s submission, content that God should provide the victim, even though it were himself.… We have here an example which finds its perfect antitype in the compact of sacrifice between God the Father and God the Son. The sacrifice of Calvary was as much the eternal design of the Son as of the Father: the Father laid nothing on the Son but what the Son freely took on Himself.’

(2) ‘“God did tempt Abraham.” The seed did not drop by accident into the patriarch’s mind; it was not self-sown; it was not put into him by the suggestion of some of his fellows. It was his Divine Teacher who led him on to the terrible conclusion, “The sacrifice that I must offer is that very gift that has caused me all my joy.”’

(3) ‘It would have been strange if commentators had not called attention to the beautiful classical story of Iphigenia. According to it her father, Agamemnon, was on the point of sacrificing her when the goddess carried her away in a cloud and substituted a stag for her. In several ancient religions animal or other sacrifice came to be looked on as taking the place of human sacrifice. We are told that amongst the Egyptians the animal “was marked with a seal bearing the image of a man bound and with a sword at his throat.” At the Roman Lemuralia thirty images of men made out of rushes were thrown into the Tiber from the Pons Sublicius by the Vestal Virgins. An officer recently returned from India informed the writer of this note that near one of his stations was a rock, over which a man used to be precipitated at a great festival every year, after some months’ preparation by the priests. Our Government has prohibited this, and now, instead of a man, a goat is thrown over. The story of the twenty-second chapter of Genesis shows how “the inhuman sacrifices, towards which the ancient ceremonial was perpetually tending, were condemned and cast out of the true worship of the Church for ever.”

It may be true that we cannot now teach this narrative as it was taught to us. We cannot, for example, say that all difficulty vanishes whenever you quote the words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Nor can we any longer obliterate the patriarch and his son, and make the whole story an allegory of the sacrifice of our blessed Lord. But we have suffered no loss in having these avenues closed. For the one way is still open that leads to the patience and comfort which Scripture is sent to give us. And that way is to accept the story in the light of all its human circumstance and colour, and be resolute not to leave God out of it.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 22:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/genesis-22.html. 1876.

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