CHAPTER 4. —ISAAC.
There is scantier illustration of providence in the recorded life of Isaac than in that of either Abraham or Jacob. Such as there is will be found of similar import and value. The first instance is connected with Rebekah, who on the return of Abraham’s servant with her from Mesopotamia, Isaac loved and took for his wife. For the first twenty years of their married life, they were without issue. The matter was made the subject of earnest petition on the part of Isaac (Genesis 25:21), whence we may infer it was a cause of anxiety to both Isaac and Rebekah. It was natural it should be so in their special relation to the promises. Those promises hinged upon “seed” plural and singular, national and Messianic, and in the absence of family there was an absence of the obvious link with promised futurity. Their domestic experience was thus blended with spiritual solicitude, and was at once the basis and occasion of faith. In this matter “the fathers” stood in a position, peculiar to themselves with regard to their ordinary life. None of their children, natural or spiritual, can be like them in the pregnant significance and strong interest of their domestic history. Nevertheless, the same general principles apply, as we shall see.
It is a striking fact that a matter so directly promised and so vitally important to the divine purpose, should have been the subject of delay, and threatened with frustration through natural barrenness on the part of Rebekah. It shows that the fathers themselves were much more practically tried in their faith than their tried children are apt to realise. Year after year rolled by—year after year—without a symptom of the promised fecundity. Human views would have suggested that time was being lost. God’s ways are large and slow. As Dr. Thomas used to remark, “He is in no hurry, He has plenty of time.” When the occasion calls, He can deal a lightning stroke like the overthrow of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, or the engulfment of a rebellious company of priests in the wilderness; but in the general proportions of His plans of operation, magnitude, deliberation, gradualness, are characteristics. Then it is essential that He must be honoured.
“I will be sanctified in them that approach unto Me” (Leviticus 10:3).
“Them that honour Me, I will honour” (1 Samuel 2:30).
Faith is honouring to God: and faith requires time for its exercise. God had made “great and precious promises” to the fathers: and He tried them by not specifying time, and causing them to wait long.
“And so after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (Heb.6: 15).
Let us not weary under a similar test: “a patient continuance in well doing” is the revealed rule of our acceptance (Romans 2:7) and this means a long time of waiting with nothing to rely on but confidence in the pledged word of Jehovah, i.e., faith, “without which, it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). By such a process, we shall be prepared for a place among the tried sons of God, with whom we shall be enabled to say at the last,
“Lo, this is our God, we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
But it is not to be a stoical waiting.
“Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21).
He made the promise the subject of petition. This was according to the will of God, who has said—
“For these things I will be enquired of” (Ezekiel 36:37).
In this, Isaac was an example to us of the duty enjoined upon us by the Lord Himself:
“Men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Luke 18:1).
“Pray to the Father who is in secret, and He that seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
The specimen prayer the Lord has given is an example of the topics to be made the subject of petition. They embrace every desire and every hope, as summarised by Him in the phrase “what things ye have need of” (Matthew 6:8). Paul, His messenger, gives us, by the spirit, the same command:
“Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: make your requests known unto God.”
A short-sighted view of the matter would have suggested to Isaac that there was no need to entreat the Lord on a matter that had been the subject of promise. But all God’s ways work together. There is no clash. He makes a promise: but He wills to be asked for the thing promised, and makes its individual attainment dependent upon our compliance with His will. In this way, the connection that exists in fact between God and His children is kept constantly before their minds, with the double blessedness of yielding God pleasure and His people peace and joy and benefit.
Isaac, ignorant of the meaning of the barrenness, yet strong in faith, gives expression to his anxious desire on the subject, and asks God on Rebekah’s behalf.
“And the Lord was entreated of him, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”
God answered the prayer, but the answer was apparent only in its results. There was no audible voice, no visible token. The course of things was natural in appearance, but God was in it. God is the same still. His children are invited to pray; and the prayer of faith—(i.e., the prayer founded in conviction of His existence, and in the recognition of His wisdom and sovereign right to withhold our request, if He sees fit)—may often have its manifest answer, yet, in ways perfectly natural on the surface of them. Open answer, by voice or sign, would be inconsistent with the dispensation of faith in which we are trained for the endless ages of sight.
“This is the confidence that we have in Him that if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us” (1 John 5:14).
A famine occurred in the land. Isaac apparently meditated removal to Egypt, as Abraham had done before him, under similar circumstances. While he was thinking of it a message came to him,
“Go not down into Egypt. . . . . Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and bless thee” (Genesis 26:2-3).
Accordingly, Isaac stayed there (in Gerar) “a long time” (verse 8), during which he tilled the land and realised extraordinary crops—“an hundredfold.”
“He waxed great and went forward, and grew until he became very great”—
So much so that the king of the district, Abimelech, grew distrustful of the effect of his prosperity, and asked him to move into another part, which he did. There are several things here for profitable consideration. It was natural for Isaac to look upon the prevalent scarcity in the land as a reason for seeking a more plenteous country. But duty required him to stay where he was. And in the confidence that God would be with him, he stayed in the midst of evil, and was preserved and prospered. We are Isaac’s children if we belong to Christ. Have we no promise that God will be with us in our difficulties. If anyone doubt it, he has but to recall the words of Paul in Hebrews 13 where he applies a promise to us which, without his guidance, we might have lacked boldness to appropriate. He says (verse 5):
“Let your conversation (your course in life) be without covetousness (without desire to possess), and be content with such things as ye have, for He hath said, ‘I WILL NEVER LEAVE THEE NOR FORSAKE THEE;’ so that we may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper: I will not fear what man shall do unto me.’”
It has to be understood, of course, that the “we” and the “me” of these sayings are not of indiscriminate application. Paul wrote to “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ Jesus,” such as know God, and have His love and fear indwelling with them and walk in the obedience of His commandments in the confidence and rejoicing of the hope. Their character is described in this very chapter as those who accept the position of strangers and pilgrims in the present evil world;
“Who have here no continuing city but seek one to come: who offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name: who do good and forget not to communicate.”
Such are not those who have a name to live and are dead, who are in name brethren and sisters of Christ, but in principle, sentiment, affection and actions, are identical with the children of the present world. This class does not rejoice in the promises under consideration. No wonder, then, that they find them fail in time of need, and perhaps it is as little to be wondered at that they presumptuously speak against the applicability of the promises of our time, as if God had changed of His arm had shortened. As regards all who truly trust and obey the God of Israel, David’s words will remain true to the last:
“I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.”
They may be taken through seas of affliction, like Job, and may sometimes know hunger and want, like Paul; but it will only be for their good—not for their destruction. God will not forsake them; and—
“If God be for us, who can be against us?”
But we must do our part, otherwise God will not be for us, for so is His will that we do what He has appointed.
“Isaac sowed in that land” (verse 12).
If he had not, the hundredfold increase which God bestowed on his labour would not have come. There is a difference between faith and presumption. Faith is obedient and modest; but there is an article called faith in our day which is the reverse. With much “piety” of talk, it is, in its spiritual essence, dictatorial to God, insubmissive to His arrangements, presumptuous in its expectations. It expects God to give a crop at their call without that sowing of the land which is the way He has appointed for the crop to come. Let us do our part in all humility and God will do His. He can spoil or prosper our work, but our work is the basis of His action toward us.
“Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.”
A presumptuous attitude will be our destruction.
The hand of God was not openly visible in Isaac’s affairs. His crops were good; his herds fruitful; his house in peace. But it was all apparently natural. The blessing was dispensed in a form calling for constant faith. God is great and dreadful; His kindness does not stoop to familiarity with sinful man: it is around and with the men who tremble in wisdom at His word, but in a form that precludes presumption, and shuts off the gaze of mere curiosity. Let us commit our affairs to God in faith, and resist the disposition to think that God has nothing to do with them because they are all natural. Faith is founded on true reason, while unbelief is the mere utterings of ignorance and intellectual poverty. The wicked prosper, but only for a time, as part of the probation of the righteous, and they prosper not as the righteous prosper, but to their final hurt. The righteous fall into trouble, but it is for their good. They come out of it to find themselves benefited. When trouble comes, do not think it is not from God, because it is natural. It may not differ from the trouble of other men in apparent origin and form, but it differs from theirs in being under an invisible supervision which aims at a result, and will say, at a certain point, “Thus far and no farther.” Truth, like the prism, has many sides—all beautiful and consistent one with another. Childlike docility in its study will open up her treasures which are hid from the eyes of the proud. Our affairs are small in the measureless universe; but they are of great consequence, for good or evil, to worms like ourselves, consequently not insignificant in the eyes of Him who invites us to “cast all our care upon Him,” with the assurance that “He careth for us.”
Abimelech having requested Isaac to remove from him,
“Isaac departed thence, and pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar” (26:17).
Here Abraham had been before him, and had dug wells which, on Abraham’s death, his Philistine neighbours had enviously stopped. These stopped wells Isaac now restored. His servants, while so engaged struck a spring; but they were not allowed to enjoy it. The men of the neighbourhood said it belonged to them. What did Isaac do? He gave way to the unrighteous intruders. He allowed them to take possession of the spring and ordered his servants to dig in another place. They succeeded in finding another good supply of water. But here also, the herdmen of Gerar—loutish fellows, who owe their memory with posterity to their boorish encroachments on the patient son of Abraham—claimed the well as their own—by what law it would be hard to make out, except by that law of prior occupation which worldly folks think very dignified and indefeasible, but which will be effectually ignored and dissipated to the winds when Christ arrives to eject all prior occupants from the soil. Isaac had recently arrived on the ground. Still his father Abraham had lived there before him, and he might have insisted on his rights, so far as that gave him a right; but he was a stranger and sojourned in the land which was his by promise. Therefore his servants, for a second time, gave way. They allowed the men of Gerar to have the well, moved to another spot and dug another well, of which they were allowed to remain in unchallenged possession.
In this matter Isaac left an example to the household of faith—an example emphasised by the precepts of Christ. He “gave place unto wrath”; he “resisted not evil.” He meekly gave way before the sons of pride. The brethren of Christ occupy precisely the position of Isaac. They are strangers and sojourners in the very place of their promised possession. The “rights” are all on their side, for there can be no true right except that conferred by God, the original proprietor. Nevertheless, for a season, they are called upon to submit to unrighteousness, exactions, and encroachments, like sheep among wolves, who try to escape their pursuers, but do not turn upon and try to retaliate on them, or attempt to enforce the restitution of a torn ear.
Afterwards, Isaac removed from the scene of his unneighbourly treatment in the valley of Gerar, to Beersheba. Here the Lord appeared to him, and gave him this comfort:
“Fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee.”
How many consoling reflections are suggested by this. It was natural for Isaac to fear, for he lived a stranger in the midst of enemies. He is told to fear not, for God is with him. What cheering words! Who has not felt the effect of cheering words in times of danger and distress? Some times, alas! They are nothing more than words, because the speaker of them is a man, and speaks perhaps against hope, for the mere sake of preventing despondency, without power in his hand to alter evil. But consider the cheer contained in divine summons to “fear not.”
“If God be for us, who can be against us?”
He knows we are prone to fear. He knoweth our frame; He remembereth we are dust. He knows we can only see things as they appear to mortal sense, and not as they are to His all penetrating eye. He knows that the cloud and the immensity and the silence appear greater to our feeble faculties than He appears who fills all, holding even the ocean in the hollow of His hand. He knows we walk by faith and not by sight, and He knows that, though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. Therefore, He recognises the tendency of our poor hearts to flutter and quail, and He says “Fear not.” Not only to Isaac, but to all his children are these words elsewhere addressed.
“Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
“Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, and FEAR NOT” (Isaiah 35:4).
“Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14).
“Fear ye not nor be afraid: have not I told thee?” (Isaiah 44:8).
“Fear not: ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
“The angel said to the women, Fear not” (Matthew 28:5).
“The angel said to the shepherds, Fear not” (Luke 2:10).
“Jesus said to Peter, Fear not” (Luke 5:10).
“Jesus said to Paul, Fear not” (Acts 27:24).
“Jesus said to John, Fear not” (Revelation 1:17).
The basis of this cheering adjuration is the assurance supplied to faith:
“I am with thee.”
Isaac had to lean on this, though in many dreary years there was nothing visible to show it. True, he had the message to that effect, but in the long intervals, all was natural. The wing of the Almighty was over him; but the fact was not apparent as a matter of sight. Isaac walked by faith. We are invited to do the same. The only difference is, that while Isaac had the assurance directly and individually, we have it indirectly in the form suitable to our time in the world’s history—the promises recorded in the word. But one may say, How do I know that God is with me? Such may find their answer in these words:
“The Lord is with you while ye be with Him. If ye seek Him, He will be found of you; but if ye forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chronicles 15:2).
The Scriptures abound with similar declarations. They make the course of every earnest man clear. Seek the lord in the reading of His word, in prayer to Him, and in the doing of those things He has commanded; and He will guide your way in the darkness without any apparent interference, and cause all things (yea even evil circumstances) to work together for your good, namely, your preparedness for an entrance into His glorious kingdom. But if ye decline from His ways and seek your own pleasure, He will leave you to your own—perhaps successful—devices, which will at last work out your own self-destruction.
Berean Home Page