The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee:Abram's Pilgrimage
It may surprise you to find, unless you have paid long attention to the matter, how impossible it is to understand some actions unless you know the motive out of which they arose. You would suppose that if you knew any action you would know something that was self-contained and self-explanatory; something, in short, about which there could be no mystery. That, however, is a very serious mistake. That which is apparent is in reality the least part of anything which is not merely super ficial and transitory. Whatever has any pith in it, any genuine life and force, is inspired and moved by hidden spiritual influences, over which even the actor himself has but partial control.
Take this expression—"the Lord had said unto Abram." How? As a man would speak to a man? Audibly? What is this Divine voice to the sons of men? Suppose the answer should be, "the Lord came visibly before Abram, and spoke to him in plain Hebrew,"—what then? Many difficulties would arise at once, but no difficulties which faith could not overcome. Suppose the answer should be—"a spiritual revelation was made to Abram, no likeness was seen, no audible voice was heard, but his soul was made aware distinctly and certainly of the Divine purpose,"—what then? Substantially the results would be the same, and it is with results we have to deal rather than with processes. Mozart says in his letters that, whenever he saw a grand mountain or a wonderful piece of scenery, it said to him—"Turn me into music, play me on the organ"; and Mendelssohn says in his letters to his sister, "This is how I think of you today," or "This is what I have to say to you today," and then follows a bar or two of music which she is requested to play on the piano or the organ. So the mountain spoke to Mozart, and the organ spoke to Fanny Hensel, and why should we hesitate to say that the Lord spoke to Abram or that he is speaking to ourselves? He spoke to Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abram, Peter, Paul, John; has he ceased to speak unto the children of men? We now say that we have a notion, an impression, a conviction, or a feeling; and considering that our life is so shallow and cloudy, perhaps it is best to speak thus vaguely, but when we get right in soul we shall boldly say, "The Lord calls me; the Lord tells me; the Lord sends me." It will be more filial, more tender, more Christian.
Truly some things that we see in life require more than ordinary influences to account for them, and this going out of Abram from "Ur of the Chaldees" is one of them. According to the account given in chap. xi., it would seem to have struck Terah that it would be a good thing to go to the land of Canaan, and that as soon as the idea struck him he and his family at once started. But, on second thoughts, that is an account of the movement which is extremely improbable. What did Terah know about Canaan? He had no friends there. Nobody had offered him a home there. The people who were there would very likely give him a rough reception. How, then, did he come to move in that direction? We have the answer in chap. Genesis 12:1 : "Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee."
So, even a journey may be the outcome of an inspiration! "There's a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." I feel life to be most solemn when I think that inside of it all there is a Spirit that lays out one day's work, that points out when the road is on the left and when it is on the right, and that tells one what words will best express one's thought. Thus is God nigh at hand and not afar off. "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord." And thus, too, are men misunderstood: they are called enthusiasts, and are said to be impulsive; they are not "safe" men: they are here today and gone tomorrow, and no proper register of their life can be made. Of course we are to distinguish between inspiration and delusion, and not to think that every noise is thunder. We are not to call a "maggot" a "revelation." What we are to do is this: we have to live and move and have our being in God; to expect his coming, and long for it; to be patient and watchful; to keep our heart according to his word; and then we shall know his voice from the voice of a stranger, for "the secret of the Lord is with them that fear him." If God be our supreme consciousness he will reveal his providence without cloud or doubtfulness. I think it can be proved that the men who have done things apparently against all reason have often been acting in the most reasonable manner, and that inspiration has often been mistaken for madness. I feel that all the while you are asking me to give you tests by which you may know what inspiration is, you have little or nothing to do with such tests,—you have to be right, and then you will be sure to do right.
Possibly, Abram may have got more credit for this journey than he really deserves. It is true that he knew not "whither he went," and by so much this is what is called "a leap in the dark"; but Abram knew two things: (1) he knew at whose bidding he was going, and (2) he knew what results were promised to his faith. There is much more than a command in the text; there is a promise, beautiful as a plentiful vine in autumn: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shall be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." The man who would not go after that would have to justify his disobedience by very strong reasons. We can only move some weights by very long levers. To get a man to leave his "country, his kindred, and his father's house," you must propose or apply some very strong inducement. Now, it is worth while to take notice that from the very beginning God has never given a merely arbitrary command: he has never treated a man as a potter would treat a handful of clay: the royal and mighty command has always ended in the tenderness of a gracious promise. God has never moved a man merely for the sake of moving him; merely for the sake of showing his power: this we shall see in detail as we move through the wondrous pages, but I call attention to it now as strikingly illustrated in the case of Abram. Some of you yourselves may remember the words "Get thee out," who have forgotten the accumulated and glorious blessing. Let us be just unto the Lord, and remember that he treats us as his sons and not as irresponsible machines.
We need this exhortation the more, as it is incorrectly supposed that we are to act blindly and unreasoningly in the spiritual life. The precise contrary is the reality of the case. "No man hath left father or mother, houses or land, for my sake," says Christ, "but shall receive a hundredfold reward here and life everlasting beyond." If the command is "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ," the promise is "Thou shalt be saved." If the Lord hath commanded men everywhere to repent, the promise is that he will "abundantly pardon." If the command is "Sell what thou hast," the promise is "Thou shalt have treasure in heaven." So, all through, from end to end, the good of the creature is the object of the Creator.
Does it follow, then, that God gives "the reason why" in the case of every command? Certainly not. Probably he may give no reason at all, and where he does not give a reason he gives in reality the best reason of all. To give his reason would indeed be to propose discussion, but to give a promise is to show that the reason, though undisclosed, is all-sufficient, for in the case of the All-wise a promise is the harvest of which a reason would be but the bare seed. It is true, too, that we can understand a promise where we could not understand a reason: the reason is intellectual, metaphysical, or spiritual, too high or too recondite for our faculties; but a promise is practical, positive, literal, and if we have faith in the speaker we know that if the promise be so good the command which precedes it must be founded upon a reason equally valid. In reality we have nothing to do with the reasons upon which God's commands are founded. If we meddle with hem we shall touch a fire that will burn us! We are to walk by faith, not by sight. To have faith in God is to comprehend all reasons in one act. I am not to take God in the details of his several commandments, but in the totality, the wholeness of his nature.
Away went Abram from Ur of the Chaldees (Ur of the people of Chesed), and on his way he received a renewal of the promise. Very beautiful was this! It showed that he was on the right road, and that God's faithfulness followed him like an angel of defence. It is so with ourselves on the journey to the better Canaan, where the upper springs never dry, and the summer lies like an infinite blessing over the whole land.
Yet what are all God's promises when set against the heart that is "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked"? When Abram got into Egypt he got into trouble. Just before going into the land he asked his wife to say she was his sister, lest he should lose his own life! Thus we see how strong a man may be—and how weak! Abram could trust a whole destiny to the Lord, but not a particular circumstance in the process! We must meddle a little with the Lord's plan. Just a little to show what managers we are, and how neatly we can turn the corners of life. And what foul finger-marks we leave upon God's work when we touch it! I am not sure that we have met in all the pages we have gone through with anything more humbling than the rebuke given by Pharaoh to Abram, "And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, She is my sister? Now, therefore, behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way." To be reproved by the heathen for telling lies! There is a lesson here to us who are Christians. When men of the world can justly blame men of the Church, how deep is the stain of guilt which has fixed itself in the very substance of our character:
And yet there is another lesson here which we need quite as much: the lesson of Divine forbearance with human infirmity. God did not cast off Abram, or send him back to Ur of the Chaldees—a man disgraced and condemned. God forbid that I should make any excuse for sin; yet there are sins that come out of weakness rather than out of love of sin for its own sake. Abram's sin arose rather from weakness than depravity. A great fear seized him. A sudden squall from the hills struck his little boat sharply, and for the time being he foolishly took his affairs into his own hands. "Let him that is without sin cast the first stone" at Abram! It was something after all, standing between Babylonian and Egyptian idolatry—colossal and splendid—to say, There is but one God and I put my faith in him! It was a new voice in the earth. It was the first note of Christian civilisation. Now it is common to avow this creed, but it went for something when a Chaldean shepherd declared it amidst polytheistic and sumptuous idolatries. "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness." Amid all the stars that showered their glittering silver upon the Eastern night he saw one larger and brighter than all others—"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad." Looking at Abram's sin, and trying, possibly, what we may get out of it in excuse of our own, let us in justice remember that if we copy the sin we ought to endeavour to copy the faith. When we say Abram sinned, we ought also to say that Abram was the friend of God; and if we hide ourselves under the plea of his weakness, we ought also to strive after the holiness and sublimity of his faith.
God's claim upon the individual life is here asserted. God detaches men from early associations, from objects of special care and love, and makes them strangers in the earth. The family idea is sacred, but the Divine will is, so to speak, more sacred still; when the God of the families of the earth calls men from their kindred and their father's house, all tributary laws must be swallowed up by the great stream of the Divine Fatherhood. These calls, so shattering in their social effect, and so painful in their bearing upon the individual heart, are necessary to shake men out of the secondary positions into which they would settle themselves. All earthly parentage is but a reflection of God's fatherly relation to mankind; and if we have idolised and abused that which is merely secondary and typical, we need such calls as these to remind us that over all there reigns, in gracious majesty and tender righteousness, the Maker, the Sovereign, and the Redeemer of our lives.
In this call we see an outline of the great providential system under which we live. God comes into a family and breaks it up; God sets the individual man upon a special course; God shows the land in which we are to dwell. Up to this point there is harshness in the startling demand. Abram is to go out, not knowing whither; and if he did know whither, still the fact that he was called to break up old and endeared associations is enough to fill him with sorrow and dismay. We must read further, if we would recover composure of faith in God's goodness. The first verse is authoritative; but man cannot live a great life upon mere authority, even when the authority is known to be Divine. Men would starve on law. To law must be added grace, if the soul is to know all the joy and peace of life in God. Read the next verses, and say if there be in them one tone of severity.
2. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
3. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
Great lives are trained by great promises. The world has never been left without a great promise singing in its wondering and troubled heart—something to rely upon: something to appeal to when difficulty was extreme. God never calls men for the purpose of making them less than they are, except when they have been dishonouring themselves by sin. This may be taken as a law: God's calls are upward; they are calls towards fuller life, purer light, and sweeter joy. Men do not know their full capacity, except in the service of God: his presence in the soul is a life-expanding and life-glorifying presence. This is the claim that we set up on behalf of true religion—the religion of Jesus Christ—that it exalts human nature, it enriches the soul, it increases the substance and worth of manhood. To confound obedience with slavery is to overlook the argument which is founded upon the nature of God; to obey the little, the mean, the paltry is to be enslaved; to enter the cage of custom or passion is to be subject to bondage; but to accept the invitation of the Sun, and to poise ourselves in his gladdening presence is liberty and joy.
Look at this promise as throwing light upon the compensations of life. Abram is called to leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house, and, so far, there is nothing but loss. Had the call ended here, the lot of Abram might have been considered hard; but when did God take anything from a man, without giving him manifold more in return? Suppose that the return has not been made immediately manifest, what then? Is today the limit of God's working time? Has he no provinces beyond this little world? Does the door of the grave open upon nothing but infinite darkness and eternal silence? Yet, even confining the judgment within the hour of this life, it is true that God never touches the heart with a trial without intending to bring in upon it some grander gift, some tenderer benediction.
Look at this promise as showing the oneness of God with his people: "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee." The good man is not alone. Touch him, and you touch God. Help him, and your help is taken as if it were rendered to God himself. This may give us an idea of the sublime life to which we are called—we live, and move, and have our being in God; we are temples; our life is an expression of Divine influence; in our voice there is an undertone of Divinity.
Look at this promise, as showing the influence of the present over the future: "In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed." This is a principle rather than an exception of true life. Every man should look upon himself as an instrument of possible blessing to the whole world. One family should be a blessing to all families within its influence. Of course, the true and full interpretation of the promise is to be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Brother of all who receive him by faith into their hearts; yet there are great secondary and collateral meanings of the promise, which ought not to be held in contempt. We should not be looking for the least, but for the greatest interpretations of life—not to make our life as little and ineffective as possible, but to give it fulness, breadth, strength: to which the weary and the sorrowful may look with confidence and thankfulness. Christianity never reduces life to a minimum; it develops it, strengthens it in the direction of Jesus Christ's infinite perfectness and beauty.
4. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
5. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.
6. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
There will always be central figures in society: men of commanding life, around whom other persons settle into secondary positions. We cannot all be Abrams; we cannot all have distinct names in the future. Yet, though we cannot have the greatness, we may have the goodness of Abram. But few men in any country touch the highest point of fame; thousands upon thousands, in all generations, come to honour and influence; yet, in a few months after their death, their names cease to have any interest but for the smallest circles. This reflection ought not to discourage virtue. Peace of heart is better than mere renown. To be known in heaven is the best fame. To have a place in the love of God is to enjoy the true exaltation. In the company now journeying towards Canaan, there is one figure that gives unity and meaning to the whole group, yet there is not one in all the band, whose life, judged by the Divine standard, is unimportant.
The one man, Abram, holds the promise; all the other persons in the company hold it secondarily. All men do not receive the direct revelation and vision of God; they are followers, not leaders; echoes, not voices. Personal supremacy, to be beneficent and enduring, should be the result of Divine election. Abram was supreme because God had called him. The salvation of the soul is undoubtedly an individual act; the soul must think, repent, believe, resolve for itself. No man can repent or believe for another; yet, in the working out of Divine plans, one man must follow another, and be content to shine with reflected light. It is so in statesmanship, in literature, and in civilisation generally. Take Abram away from this group, and the group becomes ridiculous. One man is called to stand nearer God than another, and to interpret the purposes of God to the world. There is an empty defiance which proclaims itself in the well-known terms, "I don't pin my faith to any man's sleeve"; "I think for myself"; there is nothing but vanity in such lofty pretensions, made, indeed, the more mischievous by the grain of truth which barely saves them from the charge of insanity. As a matter of fact, we do pin our faith to each other's sleeve. Lot believes in Abram; the weak believe in the strong; we all follow our respective captains and leaders. Abram was the minister of God to all about him. Had his faith gone down, the whole company would have been disorganised; his followers were courageous in his courage, and hopeful in his hope. We think it a great honour to be set so high in the service of God; it is so, truly; yet it must be a burdensome responsibility, and often a pricking thorn, for those who follow can bring reproach and calumny to bear upon Abram and Moses and the chosen servants of God. There is a temptation for Lot to imagine himself as good as Abram, and in that imagining is the explanation of many of the petty torments which fall to the lot of men whom God has taken into his secret counsel.
The Abrams of society often have a difficult task. They cannot always explain themselves fully. Sometimes they cannot even vindicate themselves, nor can they account for circumstances which bear heavily against them. They live a separate life. They have secret intercourse with God. The translation of things heard in heaven is always difficult and often impossible.
7. And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him.
8. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.
9. And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.
We shall be much comforted in this pilgrim-life if we think of God's relation to places, habitations, countries, and geographical positions. The wilderness and the garden are God's; the fountain and the stream are directed in their course by the creating mind. Men are not here and there by haphazard. Cities are not founded by mere chance. Before the city there was a process of reasoning; before the process of reasoning there was Divine suggestion—geography, as well as astronomy, is of God. "The earth is the Lord's." I would be where God wills; with his blessing the desert shall be pleasant as the fruitful field;—without it, the fruitful field shall mock the appetite which it tempts, and the river shall become as blood in my mouth.
Abram set up his altar along the line of his march. Blessed are they whose way is known by marks of worship. The altar is the highest seal of ownership. God will not lightly forsake his temples. This setting up of the altar shows that our spiritual life ought to be attested by outward sign and profession. Abram had the promise in his heart, yet he did not live a merely contemplative life; he was not lost in religious musings and prophesyings—he built his altar and set up his testimony in the midst of his people, and made them sharers of a common worship.
10. And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.
11. And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:
12. Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.
13. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.
The last three verses of the chapter are these:—
18. And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
19. Why saidst thou, She is my sister? So I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.
20. And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.
In this matter Pharaoh was a greater, a nobler man than Abram. Natural nobleness ought never to be underrated. Why begrudge to the heathen a nobleness which was as surely of God as our own Christian excellence? There are men today who make no profession of Christian faith: whose honour, straightforwardness, and generosity would put to shame many who claim a good standing in the Church. I make this statement without reservation; yet it must be explained that it is not because of Christianity, but for the want of it, that professors are humbled before men of the world; and it must be added, that men of natural elevation of temper and sentiment would attain a still intenser lustre by the possession of that life in Jesus Christ, without which all other life is either artificial or incomplete. Christianity does not equalise the character of all men, any more than the sun equalises the value of all trees. There are Christians who are barely saved from being devils, and if they are this with Christianity, what would they be without it? Christianity is not to be judged by the lowest, but by the highest. We should not judge the repute of a medical hospital by the attainments of a student who has been scarcely a month within its walls; it would be unfair to judge the master by the apprentice; why, then, seize upon an immature professor of the Christian religion, and judge Christianity by his imperfect and tottering character? We admire Pharaoh in the case before us; we like the clear, steady tone in which he remonstrates with the culprit; yet natural openness and honourableness of disposition must not be valued as a substitute for the renewed life which is wrought in men by God the Holy Ghost.
This incident shows that God calls men to special destinies, and that life is true and excellent in itself and in its influences only in so far as it is Divinely inspired and ruled. "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." The great demand is made upon faith. Life is to be spiritual; not made up of things that can be counted and valued, but of ideas, convictions, impulses, and decisions that are Divine and imperishable. The world of faith is large, and rich, and brilliant. Those who live in it dominate over all lower worlds. They have their peculiar sorrows, yet they are strong enough to say, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." Have we received the call of God? Has God left us without command or promise? No! Every man of us has heard the command to repent and believe the gospel, and our destiny depends upon the answer we return. We are called to honour, glory, and immortality in Christ Jesus; let us awake and pursue our rugged but ever-upward way!
In view of this incident men may fitly ask themselves at whose call they are proceeding in life? No man is at liberty to stray away at the bidding of his fancy, upsetting the order of civilisation and inflicting discomfort upon all who are connected with him merely to gratify a whimsical curiosity. Society is founded upon order. Permanence is a condition of healthy growth. On the other hand, where men are called of God to go forth, it should be theirs instantly and gladly to obey, how dark soever or stormy the night into which they move. Life is a discipline. Shrewd men say they want to know whither they are going before they set out on a journey; but men of higher shrewdness, men of Christian faith, often go out into enterprise and difficulty without being able to see one step before them. The watchword of the noblest, truest souls is, "We walk by faith, not by sight"; faith has a wider dominion and a more splendid future. I call upon Christian young men to show the practical strength of faith. Don't pick your trembling steps across the stones pioneers have laid for you; be your own pioneers, make your own ways, and show the originality and high daring of profound trust in God. I dare say you may be afraid of rashness—you are partly right, yet it is possible you may hardly know what rashness is. It is certain that the world is deeply indebted to its rash men, its first travellers, its leading spirits. Prudence (in its ordinary but most inadequate sense) has done very little for the world, except to tease and hinder many of its masters and sovereigns; it would have kept back every mariner from the deep, and deterred every traveller from the desert—it would have put out the fires of science, and clipped the wings of poetry—it would have kept Abram at home, and found Moses a comfortable settlement in Egypt. Beware of imprudent prudence; it will lull you to sleep, and bring you to a nameless and worthless end. Make heaven your aim!