CHAPTER 3. –ABRAHAM
The bible abounds with cases of direct, open, manifest interposition of divine power on behalf of the subjects of divine favour. The dividing of the Red Sea, the destruction of Sennacherib’s army and the resurrection of the Lord from the dead, are leading illustrations of a large class of such interpositions, great and small, scattered over the course of Bible history. It will not be relevant to the present purpose to cite such cases. The Times of the Gentiles in which we live, though times of divine regulation of human affairs no less than the time of Israel, are not the times of open work, alias miracle, and, therefore, it would not be helpful to the object in view to cite miracle. We propose to confine the illustrations of providence to those incidents and aspects of Bible history, first, which are expressly declared in the illustrations brought forward to be the work of God, alias providence.
The first signal illustration is the case of Abraham. There was much in his life that belongs to the category of revelation, such as the direct summons to leave the land of the Chaldees, the command to offer Isaac, repeated interviews with members of the angelic host, etc. With such, at present, we have nothing to do. We look to the incidents of what may be considered the natural order avowedly manipulated by the hand of providence. They are not wanting.
Abraham, at a certain stage of his journeyings, sojourned at Gerar (Gen. 20:1). Seeing the licentious character of the neighbourhood, he feared his life might be endangered by the comeliness of his wife, if the relation were avowed. He, therefore, agreed with Sarah, who was his sister on his father’s side, though not on his mother’s (verse 12), that she should announce herself his sister. The result was that Sarah was the object of the king’s attention, and Abraham was honoured for her sake.
“Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah.”
She was at his court for a considerable time (verse 18). He supposed her to be an unmarried woman and free, and his desires were towards her. How came it that he did not give effect to his ideas? We learn from a divine message communicated to him (verse 6):
“I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thine heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against Me; THEREFORE, SUFFERED I THEE NOT TO TOUCH HER.”
This instance bears two ways, first, with respect to Abraham; God invisibly protected his wife in the dangerous position in which she was placed through Abraham’s own prudence. Secondly, with respect to Abimelech, who seems to have been a righteous man (verse 4). He was withheld from doing a thing which, while legitimate from his own point of view, would have been a wrong against God. He would not be aware of the fact. From day to day, domestic events and his own mood would simply take that turn, apparently in the ordinary course, which would keep him from the course that seemed open and desirable to him. God was withholding him and he did not know it. Why did he withhold him? Because he was animated by integrity of heart in the matter. This is the point of the case in its bearing in subsequent times; for it was intended for subsequent times. The Spirit in Paul informs us that these things were “written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). They were not written as human records are written—merely for their historic interest. They were not even written for Abraham’s sake alone, but for us also (Rom. 4:23-24). They were written for our instruction, guidance and comfort. Consequently, if we set ourselves, with earnest purpose, to pursue the ways of righteousness, Abimelech’s case shows us that we pray not a vain prayer when we pray “deliver us from evil.” Nor is it an empty allusion when Jude ascribes glory—
“To Him that is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (verse 24).
The lesson of the case is both comforting and purifying. It is the lesson embodied in the words of Peter:
“Let them that suffer according to the will of God, commit the keeping of their souls to Him IN WELL DOING as unto a faithful Creator.”
In the course of time, Abraham was requested by Sarah to send Hagar and her son Ishmael away from the house.
“And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.”
From which we learn that a thing may be of God and yet very unwelcome to the beloved of God for whose benefit it is devised. This will help every godly man to entertain a comforting reservation with regard to every evil circumstance—a reservation to this effect: “Well I do not see the object of this, but God is wiser than man; let the will of God prevail.” The commonest and most distressing domestic incident may be the hand of God in our affairs, if those affairs are committed to him in prayer and obedience.
“In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.”
Abraham was told not to be grieved at Sarah’s request (verse 12), for in Isaac, Sarah’s son, and not in Ishmael, was the seed to be called.
“And also of the son of the bond-woman will I make a nation because he is thy seed.”
Here are two points: first, for Abraham’s sake, Ishmael was favoured. The righteous are a blessing to all connected with them, because God regards their connections for their sakes. This principle constantly appears throughout the whole Scriptures. Lot was saved for Abraham’s sake (Gen. 19:20); Rahab’s family for her sake (Joshua 6:25); the kings of Judah for David’s sake, even when David was long dead (1 Kings 11:12; 2 Kings 8:19; 19:34). On this principle, Sodom would have been saved if there had been ten righteous men in it (Gen. 18:32). On this principle the Lord’s people are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). On this principle, too, we are forgiven and saved for Christ’s sake, if we conform to what is required of us (Eph. 4:32; Acts 13:38-39). The second point lies in the expression:
“I will make a nation of the son of the bond-woman.”
If we follow the history of Ishmael’s descendants, we find them become a nation, and a nation that has played a very important part in history; but we do not find on the face of that history anything that would apparently answer to the idea that Ishmael’s national development was a divine work. Read as merely natural men read it, it would appear a perfectly natural affair throughout—that is an affair left to chance; but here we have the certainty before us that it was not an affair of chance. It was a matter divinely regulated and fostered for Abraham’s sake, whence arises the conclusion that affairs of human action may be perfectly natural and uninfluenced on the face of them (like Abimelech’s abstention), and yet be the subject of divine manipulation. It is merely a question whether the affair comes within the range of divine manipulation, and not a question of appearance. The question is determinable first by the other question whether a divine purpose has been declared, as in the case of prophecy; or, secondly, whether the Lord’s people are involved, by prayer or otherwise.
“In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.”
Abraham, like every enlightened father, was anxious on the subject of the marriage of his son. His anxiety differed altogether from that of the moderns, whose principal solicitude relates to income and worldly prospects. He might have found a suitable match on this score among “the daughters of Canaan”—the landed folk of the age; for he was on terms of equality with the leading people, even to their very kings. But he declined an alliance in this direction. The cup of the Amorites was not yet full, but it was filling, and he did not wish alliance with a state of society whose corruptions may be learnt from Lev. 18 as applied in verses 24-25. He preferred to seek a wife for his son in the family of his own father, who had joined with him in the original pilgrimage from Ur at the command of the Lord (Gen. 11:31), and the members of which showed in their subsequent intercourse with Abraham’s servant that they knew and feared the God of Abraham. Thus early did scruples on the “marriage question” characterise the friends of God. Later on, Esau, Isaac’s son, the prototype of the rejected class, acted otherwise. He married Canaanitish wives, “which,” we are told, “were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebecca” (Gen. 26:35), and Rebecca, in advising Isaac to save Jacob from a similar mistake, said:
“I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these who are the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?” (Gen. 27:46).
However, we are not dealing with Esau but with Abraham. Abraham took steps in the matter. He called the steward to his house and said:
“I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred and take a wife unto my son Isaac.”
There are two difficulties in the way. Eliezer, his steward, did not know where he was to find his master’s kindred (for there were no directories in those days, and a general reference to Mesopotamia was a poor guide); and even if he found them out, it might turn out there was no woman suitable for a wife for Isaac, or being suitable, she might be unwilling; and how, in that case, was the thing to prosper? Eliezer stated the latter difficulty, and enquired, in case it should turn out so, whether he was, in that case, to take Isaac back to Mesopotamia? Abraham was emphatic on this point. Wife or no wife, Eliezer was to beware of taking Isaac back to Mesopotamia. It was a command from God that he and his seed were to sojourn in the land wherein they were strangers, and Abraham would not break one command in trying to keep another—a striking and important example. Abraham’s confidence was this:
“The Lord God of heaven shall send his angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my son from thence.”
He was prepared, however, for failure, if the will of God were so.
“If the woman will not be willing to follow thee, then thou shalt be clear from this my oath.”
Eliezer starts; in due time he arrives in the neighbourhood where Bethuel, the son of Nahor, his master’s brother, resides. He does not know exactly where to go. He has seen no angel on the way. All things have been perfectly natural. But he has confidence in the guidance of Abraham’s God. He stands by the well outside the city. Other men besides Bethuel dwell in the place; and there are many daughters whose custom it is to come to the well in the evening to draw water. Which of them all is it that suits his delicate errand? He asks God to give his errand good speed. He proposes an indication: let the first woman to whom he shall speak be the woman, if she offer to draw water for his camels as well as himself. He speaks to her; she not only complies with his own request for a drink, but as soon as he has slaked his thirst, she says,
“I will draw water for thy camels also.”
“The man wondering at her, held his peace, to wit whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not” (verse 21).
When the camels had done drinking, he asked her whom she belonged to, and discovered she was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor. He then made known to her that he was Abraham’s steward, and was cordially welcomed by Nahor’s son, Bethuel. He said the Lord had “led him to the house of his master’s brethren,” and he refused to eat till he had told his errand, and demanded an answer at once. They said to him:
“The thing proceedeth from the Lord; we cannot speak to thee bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before thee; take her and let her be thy master’s son’s wife, as the Lord hath spoken.”
Now here is a case of angelic arrangement beyond question. Yet no angels were seen. The man Eliezer went on from step to step in a natural way. He was not conscious of any interference. He seemed to follow his own volitions all the way. How is this reconcilable with angelic guidance? The case of Balaam illustrates it inversely. An Angel stood in the way to arrest his progress (Numb. 22:22-31). Balaam did not see any angel, but attributed the awkwardness of the animal he rode to a freak of temper. “The Lord opened his eyes” (verse 31) and then he became aware of the situation. There was no need to open the eyes of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant; the case did not call for it. But if his eyes had been opened, he would have seen that an angelic guide was directing his way, invisibly operating upon him to conceive impulses and think thoughts which to his consciousness were all his own.
The teaching of the case is plain.
“The angel of the Lord encampeth round about those that fear Him;”
And directs their way without any open or apparent interference with the natural order of things. What is due to a man’s own thoughts and what to angelic supervision, a man cannot by his own reasoning discriminate. He need not attempt it. His part is simply to fear God, do His commandments, commit his way to Him, in the full and cheerful confidence that—
“All things work together for good to them that love God and who are the called according to His purpose.”
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