ABRAHAM SACRIFICES ISAAC BY FAITH
2nd week of January
Hebrews 11:17-19—By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
Compare also Genesis 22.
Abraham’s obedience to God in sacrificing his son is the crowning instance of Abraham’s faith. More than aught else in Abraham’s life obedience to God’s command in this matter demanded faith, faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
A SORE TRIAL
It is at once evident from vs. 17 how must we look upon God’s command to Abraham. We must look upon it as a trial, a testing, or as Gen. 22 says a “temptation”. That is must so be looked upon is evident from the words, “When he was tried”. Neither ought it at all be forgotten that this whole matter was a trial. Otherwise we lost ourselves in idle speculation, as some have indeed done just exactly because this was forgotten. Some have asked, how could God possibly demand Abraham to present his son as a burnt offering, when the Scriptures so abundantly show that he has not delight in human sacrifices. Israel later, for example, was warned not to offer them: yet God here commands Abraham to do so. Further, neglecting to bear in mind that we have to do with a trial, some have said, how could God command that which the sequence shows was not his determinate will and counsel? In connection with such idle speculations the following should be borne in mind: (1) that we do not too hastily say that God has no delight in human sacrifices. Indeed, God does not delight in these. But the basic reason is that he himself brings the sacrifice in Christ Jesus, who was a living sacrifice. We must not lose the cross when we deny that God delights in human sacrifices. (2) Furthermore—and here all emphasis must fall—the whole history was a trial. That implies that it was not God’s purpose that Isaac should actually be killed, but that Abraham’s faith might be evinced in his readiness to sacrifice his son to his God. It is true Abraham did not know that until afterward. Had he known it, it would have then been no trial of his faith. God did not tell Abraham of the outcome, as was his right, and as was necessary that the instance might be fully and wholly a trial of his faith.
Just what does it mean that God tried Abraham’s faith? In answer to this question we may say that it does not mean that God tempted Abraham to sin, in the sense in which Satan tempts, James 1:13-15. When Satan tempts, when we succumb to the temptations of our own heart, it is because we delight in the sin as such. When God tempts his purpose is not delight in sin: his purpose is always holy, pure and righteous. What is means here is that God made it hard for Abraham, God cast his faith in the crucible, and God did that in order that Abraham’s faith might be revealed in all its glory. Thus considered Abraham’s trial serves a three-fold purpose: (1) First of all it is to God’s glory, God tests his own work in his covenant friend-servant that the glory of his own work may be evinced. (2) Secondly, it serves to Abraham’s further strengthening in the faith and by this instance he becomes very clearly evident again as the father of all believers. (3) Thirdly, it comforts the church of all ages, since it shows the power of the faith God operates in His people.
Indeed the trial was a sore trial. It was that: for Abraham as a father, and for Abraham as a believer. It was that for Abraham as a father, first of all. God demanded of him that which was above all precious—his child, his only child, the child he loved. His child, than which nothing was dearer to him of all he had, that God demanded him to sacrifice. It was hard for Abraham to send Ishmael away, but it was harder to do what God now commanded. Isaac was perhaps in his early teens. Now Abraham was to put him to death with his own hand. Certainly the trials of many believers pale away in insignificance before this one. But, secondly, we should not merely think of this history as a trial for Abraham as a parent—it was also, and above all, a trial for Abraham as a believer. The child was the child of the promise, concerning which God had assured him that in Isaac shall thy seed be called. The promise of God was to be fulfilled in Isaac and his seed. That child of his faith and hope it was that God called him to sacrifice. And God’s command brooked no delay –he was to take that son and go at once to mount Moriah and sacrifice him.
QUESTIONS: In which sense has God no delight in human sacrifices? In what sense was Abraham tried? Does God still try his peoples; and if so, how are believers today tried? Why was God’s command a sore trial for Abraham as a father? Why for Abraham as a believer?
A MARVELOUS ACCOUNTING
Abraham obeyed the Lord. However, that does not mean that there was no inward struggle on Abraham’s part. It is true the account in Genesis does not with so many words speak of a struggle. From this silence, however, we may not conclude that there was none. That could hardly be. Even our Saviour passed through a violent struggle in the garden of Gethsemane, be it that it was without sin. Abraham certainly did not stand higher than the Christ; on the contrary, he surely may not even be put on the same plane with Christ, for Abraham is like unto us in all things, sin not excepted. When Abraham went to Egypt he was not without fear, when he sent Ishmael away he passed through a struggle, and when he first left Ur his arrangement with Sarah (Gen. 20:13) shows that even then his faith was not entirely unmixed. Surely then, Abraham must have passed through a struggle before his faith had the complete victory. The text of Heb. 11 settles the matter and proves beyond dispute that there was some accounting on Abraham’s part. The word “accounting” implies this; it means a reckoning such as a bookkeeper or accountant makes when he tallies the disbursements and the receipts. The same word is used in Rom. 8:18 (“reckon”), where Paul compares the present sufferings with the future glory and comes to the conclusion that the former are not worthy of consideration over against the glory of the latter.
We can easily imagine the accounting Abraham made. On the one hand there was his great paternal love, and what God had promised concerning this son. Looking at this side of the ledger obedience seemed impossibly. But on the other hand there was God’s clear command to sacrifice the son as a burnt-offering. Besides, on this side of the record also belonged the fact that the Almighty and Faithful God was able to raise Isaac from the dead, if so he willed.
Abraham’s faith was evident exactly herein, that the outcome of this accounting was in favor of obedience to God. Abraham came to the conclusion that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead. This does not mean that Abraham believed this would surely happen; the point is that he reckoned God was able to do that, if that was the way for the promise in Isaac to be realize. Undoubtedly Abraham so reasoned by faith not only once, but over and over during the three days journey to mount Moriah. Unbelief never reasons thus—for unbelief the balance always swings to the seen things. But Abraham saw his God, and in faith’s reasoning God wins. In that very faith he had at once set out when God commanded it, and in that faith he continued.
QUESTIONS: Prove that Abraham did some accounting. Why did God send Abraham to mount Moriah to sacrifice his son rather than order him to it right where he was?
Abraham obeyed. He sacrificed his son. Indeed he did not actually kill his son and so literally sacrifice him a burnt-offering to the Lord. Yet the text of Hebrews is not incorrect when it says, “By faith… Abraham offered up Isaac”. For, in his mind, Abraham did it a thousand times on the way. And on top of Mt. Moriah, he built the altar, laid the wood in order, tied down his son, and lifted his knife to plunge it into his heart. As far as Abraham was concerned, when the Lord stopped him he had very completely surrendered his son and sacrificed him.
That obedience was also rewarded. God gave him his son back, back as it were from the dead. For Abraham received his son from the dead “in a figure”, which simply means, “figuratively speaking”. As one risen from the dead, as one he had wholly consigned to the dead, he received him back.
So God attained his purpose, and Abraham’s faith was clearly evinced as a complete trust and obedience. And God blessed Abraham anew.
QUESTIONS: Did Abraham sacrifice his son? Did Abraham believe in a resurrection from the dead?
ISAAC BLESSES JACOB AND ESAU
3rd week of January
Heb. 11:20- By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
Compare also Genesis 27.
Perhaps one would hardly expect the name of Isaac to be enrolled among the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11; and, certainly, it is striking that as the instance of his faith Heb. 11 should choose the matter of his blessing of Jacob and Esau. Although Isaac certainly was not the man Abraham his father was, nor even as strong as Jacob his son. The aggressiveness of his father and of his son is absent in his life. His wife Rebekah seems to be more exemplary in this than Isaac does. Yet Hebrews 11 mentions Isaac, and the Spirit made no error when he enscrolled his name here. And yet, one would hardly expect that the incident of his blessing would be chosen as the example of faith worthy of mention. There can be no question but the text refers to the history mentioned in Gen. 27, and superficially read that chapter leaves the very impression that Isaac was fooled in blessing Jacob. Yet the Holy Spirit makes no mistake when this incident is mentioned as a striking illustration of Isaac’s faith. In justice to the Word of God we must so approach the passage.
But did Isaac also bless Esau? Such is the first impression one receives from the text. The text at first seems to mean that Isaac blessed both sons, Esau as well as Jacob. In the light of Scripture as a whole, this cannot, however, be the meaning. No interpreter dares to say that Isaac blessed both in the same sense. Those that claim that both were blessed always go on to say that while Jacob received the eternal blessing, Esau only received a temporal blessing, i.e. a so-called “common grace” blessing. To this interpretation there are several objections: (1) That in that case the word “blessing” used only once in the text must be emasculated of its true meaning in the case of Esau, and in this way mean something different in Esau’s case than in that of Jacob. To solve the difficulty in the way of “common grace” transgresses the rule that the same word in the same connection must be understood in the same sense; here especially because the word is used only once. (2) That a careful study of Gen. 27 makes plain that Esau received no blessing at all (as the sequence of this outline will attempt to show). (3) This same book of Hebrews in the next chapter, vs. 17, refers to this same history, and there emphatically states: not that Esau was in some sense also blessed, but that he was rejected. To my mind the only proper explanation of the mention of Esau in this connection, since it cannot be in the light of the above that he was blessed, is that as the natural heir of the blessing he could not be left unmentioned. Isaac in the bestowal of the blessing had his two sons before him, and when he blessed he so blessed that the blessing came upon Jacob and not upon Esau.
ISAAC’S NATURAL INCLINATIONS
For some twenty years after their marriage Isaac and Rebekah had no children, until in answer to their prayer God gave them the twin sons. From a certain viewpoint these two boys were as alike as it is possible for two humans to be. They were born of the same father and mother; they were even twins and so closely related as brothers according to the flesh can be. They were also alike in this that both were historically children of the covenant, with the same training and the same advantages. On the other hand, the two were as unlike as two brothers can possibly be. They were unlike from a mere natural viewpoint. Already at birth, because Esau was red and hairy, while Jacob was other. As they grew up this difference became still more evident: Esau was a man of the woods and liked to hunt, while Jacob was a keeper of flocks and loved his home. Also their characters were unlike: Esau was open, frank and hearty, while Jacob was more reserved and sneaky. Spiritually they were also unlike. Before they were born this spiritual difference had been revealed to their mother—Jacob was the vessel of election, while Esau was reprobate. As they grew up this spiritual difference also manifested itself: Esau was profane, sold his birthright and married heathen women; Jacob loved the things of God’s covenant and promise, although he did not always seek them in the right way.
Isaac’s natural inclination was to bless Esau. Between the two sons he had to choose in the bestowal of the patriarchal blessing. (We should remember these blessings were a serious matter; they were not mere wishes or prayers, but prophecies of things to come). Isaac only had one blessing to bestow, the birthright blessing. This birthright blessing did not merely mean a double portion of the inheritance, but it implied according to its chief idea, also dominion, authority over the family, and here especially the covenant promise. Now it is evident from the whole history of Genesis that it was Isaac’s natural inclination to bless Esau rather than Jacob. He loved Esau; he liked his venison, and took to Esau. Besides, Esau was also first-born, and so naturally had the historic right to the blessing rather than Jacob. As a matter of fact Gen. 27 makes plain that when Isaac set out to bless he intended to bless Esau and not Jacob at all.
ISAAC’S ACTUAL DEED
The fact of the case is, however, that Isaac blessed Jacob. Perhaps you say he was tricked in doing so. In my opinion, although Isaac did question whether the son that so soon appeared before his was really Esau, he was in so far deceived. However, in the sequence of the event Isaac maintained his blessing of Jacob, and that was only by faith. Note that when Esau appeared his father says in regard to Jacob’s blessing, “Yea, and he shall be blessed”. That was faith victorious over his flesh and natural desires. Note further that to Esau’s pleas he gave no heed at all, he refused to be influenced by Esau’s pleas to change what he had done. That was faith victorious. And shortly later when Jacob fled to Padan-arm Isaac once more bestowed upon Jacob the blessing. Besides, if you consult Gen. 27, you will note further that the whole blessing was given Jacob (the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth, the corn and the wine; the dominion over his brother, who should serve him and be in subjection to him as Edom later was to Israel; “Cursed be everyone that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee” – all this included the whole Abrahamic blessing, all of which was given Jacob).
Isaac did not bless Esau at all. Some contend that Esau was also blessed, blessed at least with a temporal blessing, and refer to Gen. 27:39-41. However, Gen 27 does not at all state this. Vs. 39 does not say that Isaac blessed Esau, but that Isaac said unto Esau, and that is something wholly different. Besides, what he said is the very opposite of the blessing. Interpreters generally admit that vs. 39 is improperly translated in our Bibles. The Hebrew does not say, “thy dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above”, but it says: “they dwelling shall be away from the fatness of the earth, and away from the dew of heaven from above”. Jacob had already received the fatness of the earth and the dew from heaven, and now Isaac said to Esau that he should be away from it. Therefore also vs. 40 says that he should live by his sword. Thus indeed it was with Esau and his descendants (the Edomites) in history; they lived on the barren mountains. Malachi 1 also substantiates this. The second part of vs. 40 in Gen. 27 does not refute this, but simply means that Esau should always be seeking to break the rule of Jacob but be unfruitful in his continual struggle. Furthermore, it is exactly because the writer of Heb. so understood Genesis to mean that Esau did not receive a blessing that he writes in Heb. 12:16, 17 that Esau was rejected. When Isaac so addressed Esau as he did, he set his seal upon the blessing of Jacob, and expressed that Esau was rejected from it. And so also you must understand vs. 41 of Gen. 27—Esau hated Jacob for the blessing wherewith his father had blessed him (and that him is, not Esau, but Jacob). Esau did not repent, he did not receive the blessing, and therefore he wanted to slay Jacob.
ISAAC’S GLORIOUS FAITH
Thus understood it is evident that Isaac’s faith revealed itself in this history very clearly. It revealed itself therein that he spoke of things to come, which showed that he still adhered to faith himself. It revealed itself especially herein that while he was naturally inclined to bless Esau, his faith prevailed and he blessed Jacob and rejected Esau. That was faith, faith prevailing. Otherwise Isaac had never acted as he did.
QUESTIONS: In what respect were Jacob and Esau alike, and in what respects opposites? In what way did Isaac show faith in this blessing act? (I believe you will find many questions and a warm discussion on this passage).
JACOB’S DYING BLESSING
4th week of January
Heb. 11:21—By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph: and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.
Compare Gen. 47:27-48.
It is not strange that Jacob’s name should be enrolled among the heroes of faith, but it is strange that the text should single out of all the rich events of his life this incident of his last illness as the outstanding example of his faith. Usually, in the treatment of the life of Jacob, this event receives little attention. There are, it seems to me, two reasons why the Holy Spirit singled out this particular event. The first is that this dying act of faith best illustrates the viewpoint of faith emphasized in the first verse of the chapter. And, secondly, the writer wishes to spur the believers on, not only to live by faith but also to be ready to die in and for the faith (cf. vs. 13—these all died in faith), and therefore quite appropriately shows how the dying Jacob manifested faith even in that hour. Perhaps we might add a third reason, and say that while the writer had spoken of the blessing of Jacob and Esau he now quite naturally turns to Jacob’s blessing of both the sons of Joseph.
JACOB’S DYING TESTIMONY AS SUCH
“When he was dying”, brings before our mind the scene of Jacob’s last illness, spoken of in Gen. 49. Jacob was in the closing days of his life, about to meet the last enemy which is death. The picture Gen. 49 draws is that of an old man, bedridden, failing eyesight, weak and sick. Jacob was 147 years old. He was not as old as Abraham had become (175), nor as old as Isaac (180), but the number of his years were full and his life was fast ebbing away. Perhaps his active life and his bitter experiences had in comparison with his forebears prematurely aged him. The number of years allotted to him by his God was full. The Bible tells us that his eyesight was dimmed, that he was bedridden even before his last and final illness (Gen. 47:31 compared with Gen. 48). He indeed was “a dying”, and perhaps his failing strength accounts for it that he accomplished his last prophetic utterances by stages at different times. Still, we must not get a picture of him as of an old man who has lost control of his faculties and does not know what he is doing. Jacob was mentally alert, his mind was sharp. He knew what he was doing: he knew his death was nigh; he spoke of his burial in Canaan; his deliberate calling of Joseph, and later of his other sons, all show this, as does the careful crossing of his hand over the two sons of Joseph that the younger rather than the older might receive the chief part of the blessing.
Jacob’s spiritual strength certainly was not ebbing—it was as great as before. His eye of faith had not grown dim, even now that Israel was far from the promised land, he still believed his seed should inherit Canaan. Besides, although himself face to face with death, the king of terrors, he was wholly occupied with the things of faith—he spoke of them and conserved his strength to address his sons of the things of God’s covenant. As a matter of fact his faith shone with a great glory in this hour. The Jacob in him is not evidence—it is Israel on the foreground, waiting for God’s salvation. He was in the words of Psalm 90, fresh and green in his old age.
HOW HIS FAITH WAS MANIFESTED
They dying Jacob manifested his faith in two ways: (1) He blessed both the sons of Joseph. (2) He worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.
As to his blessing of the two sons of Joseph, the following: It refers of course to Jacob’s bestowal of the birthright upon Joseph, which in this case refers especially to the double portion. He blesses both the sons, the text says, to distinguish this instance from Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau. The aged Jacob deliberately crossed his hands and gave the chief blessing to the younger of the two lads, to Ephraim. And Ephraim did indeed in history become the leading tribe of Israel as far as power was concerned. This particular blessing Hebrews singles out rather than the blessing uttered upon the other sons for the following reason: (1) Because it regarded the birthright, which was taken from Reuben and given to Joseph. (2) Because Jacob incorporated the two boys, who were more Egyptian than Israelite, into his seed, and made them count among Israel. (3) Because in it Jacob clearly spoke and confessed the goodness and grace of God, see Gen. 47: 15, 16.
Jacob also manifested his faith when he “worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff”. In Gen. 47:31 you read, “And Israel bowed himself upon the bed’s head.” Hebrews 11 follows the Septuagint translation, and it is not easy to understand how instead of “upon the bed’s head,” Hebrews 11 should have “upon the top of his staff.” Perhaps he leaned toward the head of his bed, supporting himself with his staff. The emphasis falls, of course, upon the face that the aged Jacob “worshipped”. That means literally that he bowed in a kneeling position. He bent his aged body in the attitude of obeisance and homage before his God, in humility and praise. In that position you see not so much the Jacob in him as the Israel, trusting in his God, and waiting for the salvation of Israel. In this attitude he met the last enemy, beholding by faith the glory of the Lord’s salvation.
Thus we must die if all is to be well. Not that we should expect this testimony of Jacob at every deathbed. Some build all upon the deathbed testimony, and that is wrong. Sometimes it is very gloriously present, as when a dear one dies with a song of praise on the lips, or in an attitude of prayer. However we cannot always expect such blessed deathbed scenes. Sometimes the bodily suffering is so great that the mind is entirely befogged; at other times God’s children wrestle in agony with the last enemy, and faith does not stand out in its strength. Yet, faith as the tie to Christ must be there. Otherwise though calm and fearless, only perdition awaits.
Thus to die, we must so live. A death-bed conversion, Jacob’s was not. Surely these are also quite rare. We must live to die all the day long. We must be strangers and pilgrims in the world, adhering to the unseen things of God’s kingdom and live for them. Then, at even it shall be light, for the day of the Christian’s death is better than his birth.
QUESTIONS: Was Jacob’s faith dim as he lay a-dying? Prove your point. Why did Jacob bless the two sons of Joseph? What does it mean that Jacob worshipped? Can we rightfully expect every Christian’s death-bed to be such a glorious testimony? What about so-called death-bed conversions?
1st week of February
Heb. 11:22—By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel: and gave commandment concerning his bones.
Compare Genesis 50.
The dying act of Jacob undoubtedly reminded the writer of the dying testimony of Joseph.
JOSEPH’S FAITH AS SUCH
How different Joseph’s life from that of Abraham, of Isaac, or of Jacob. All the latter spent much of their life in the promised land of Canaan; Joseph spent the largest part of his life far away from it in Egypt. The others were all strangers on the earth, but Joseph was that in a double sense in Egypt. How many, how varied, how strange were his experiences. Different, yet in another sense alike. For as all the others had lived and died in faith, so too did Joseph. Even in Egypt he was faithful to his God and to the promise, and too his people. This is all the more striking in view of the fact that the church as it then was in Jacob’s sons had done him nought but evil. The world had highly honored him and made him great and powerful. Yet Joseph did not turn away from God and his people. Their cause was his cause. Prosperity and honor had not turned away his heart from God. The deepest reason for Joseph’s faithfulness must be sought in the fact that his God remembered him and sustained him in his faith.
Now Joseph had reached the end of his earthly life. As he lay on his death-bed the things of God were before him.
THE TESTIMONY OF HIS FAITH
The text emphasizes that Joseph made mention of the departing (“exodus” is the word actually used) of the children of Israel. Gen. 50 tells how Joseph reminded them that God would surely visit his people and bring them up out of Egypt to Canaan. Perhaps Joseph saw trouble looming for Israel, the trouble that soon came upon the people of God in Egypt. One thing is evident Joseph believed the promise, and now spent his dying moments to reassure his brethren that God would in due time fulfill his promise.
The arrangements Joseph made for his burial seal his testimony. For when the passage says “gave commandment concerning his bones”, it is evident from Gen. 50 what this means. Joseph made the brethren swear that when the day of redemption would come his bones should be carried along in the coffin to the land of promise and there be buried. This was not to be done at once, as in the case of Jacob, but these bones were to be preserved in Egypt in the unburied coffin until the day when they could be carried out with God’s people and buried in the promised land. That unburied coffin in Egypt was during the intervening centuries a silent testimony to Joseph’s faith in the final deliverance from Egypt. By requesting this, and placing the brethren and their generation under oath, Joseph renounced Egypt and encouraged his brethren, and sealed his spoken testimony with his action.
QUESTIONS: What is unique about the life of Joseph? How long did Joseph live? How long later was it that Israel was delivered? Prove that Joseph’s bones were taken along in the exodus. May Christians practice cremation? Does the Bible teach the propriety of an honorable burial?