"And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him."
If we consider the sketch, given us in scripture, of the life of this patriarch, we shall find that few have had equal manifestations of the divine favor. But the light did not at all times shine on him. He had his dark hours while dwelling in this strange land. Here we find an horror of great darkness to have fallen upon him. The language used to describe his state, on this occasion, is strong. It expresses more than the want of God's sensible presence. It describes a state similar to that of the psalmist, "While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted." His sufferings probably bore an affinity to those of the Savior when the father hid his face from him; at which period there was more than the withdrawing of his sensible presence, the powers of darkness were suffered to terrify and afflict him -- "It was their hour" -- God had left him in their hands. So Abram on this occasion.
Just before God had smiled upon him -- "Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." Then all was light and love. "The candle of the Lord shone on his head." When he complained that he had no child to comfort him, or inherit his possessions, God promised him an heir, and countless progeny -- "Look now toward heaven and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them -- So shall thy seed be. And he believed the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness." What an occasion of joy? What strange manifestation of divine favor? They are scarcely paralleled in the history of man. But how sudden the reverse? The same day -- when the sun was going down; lo! the brightness disappears, and an horror of great darkness fell upon him.
A deep sleep fell upon Abram. This was not a natural sleep. There is no probability that he would have given way to weakness, and fallen into a common sleep, while engaged in covenanting with God; binding himself with solemn engagements, and receiving tokens of the divine favor, and the promise of blessings for a great while to come. If he could have slept while receiving such manifestations of the divine friendship, it is not probable that his dreams would have been terrifying: His situation would rather have inspired joyful sensations, and exciting pleasing expectations. THAT which for want of language more pertinent and expressive, is here termed sleep, seems to have been divine ecstasy -- such influence of the holy spirit operating in the soul, as locked it up from everything earthly, and shut out worldly things, as effectually as a deep sleep, which shuts up the soul and closeth all its avenues, so that nothing terrestrial can find admittance.
This was often experienced by the prophets, when God revealed himself to them, and made known his will. Thus Daniel, when the angel Gabriel was sent to solve his doubts, and let him into futurity -- "Now as he was speaking with me, I was in a deep sleep on my face toward the ground." The holy prophet, filled with fear at the approach of the celestial messenger, could not have fallen asleep, like some careless attendant in the house of God. Yet such is the language used to express his situation at that time, and afterwards on a similar occasion.* The three disciples, who witnessed the transfiguration, experienced similar sensations -- sensations which absorbed the soul, and shut out terrestrial objects, which the evangelist compares to sleep.
* Daniel viii.18, x.9.
But why was Abram's joy, occasioned by the communications of the morning, so soon turned to horror.
The reasons are with him "Whose judgments are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out." We may observe, however, that such is the way of God with man, while here on trial. If at any time a person seems peculiarly favored of heaven, something of a different nature is commonly set over against it. Perhaps to remind him that this is not his rest. We seldom enjoy prosperity without a sensible mixture of adversity; or without somewhat adverse following in quick succession. "Even in laughter, the heart is sorrowful, and the end of mirth is heaviness." Neither are special trials or sorrows sent alone; comforts and consolations are usually joined with the, or soon succeed them. If we consider the matter, we shall observe this in ourselves; and may often discover it in others. We see it in the history of this patriarch, and that of many of his descendants.
The pilgrimage of Jacob, how remarkably diversified with good and evil, with joy and sorrow? That also of Joseph -- of Moses -- of Daniel? At times each of these were raised high and brought low -- sometimes found themselves at the summit of earthly honor and felicity; at other times, were cast down, and hope seemed ready to forsake them.
In the history of Job the same things are exemplified in still stronger colors. That holy man experienced the extremes of honor and infamy, joy and grief, hope and terror. The prophets and apostles, passed through scenes in many respects similar; their joys and sorrows were contrasted to each other. Daniel's mournings and fastings were followed with remarkable discoveries and cheering revelations; but the divine communications were almost too strong for frail humanity; they filled him with dismay, and had well nigh destroyed his mortal body. "He fainted and was sick certain days."
St. Paul was "caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it was not possible for a man to utter" -- had a view of the ineffable glory of the upper world; but trials no less remarkable, and very severe, were contrasted to those strange distinctions, and more than earthly joys! "Lest I should be exalted above measure, through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure." *
* 2 Corinthians xii.4-7.
St. john suffered sore persecutions -- was banished from the society of his fellow Christians, if not from the society of men. But divine discoveries repaid all his sufferings -- heaven's ineffable glories were opened to his view! What he witnessed could be but very partially communicated. Language is weak; only faint hints and general intimations could be given of the "glory which is to be revealed." But the suffering apostle enjoyed it, and was supported, yea, enraptured by it.
This life is filled with changes. Good and evil, hope and fear, light and darkness, are set over against each other. The saints, while they dwell in the dust, sometimes walk in darkness, and have their hours of gloom and horror -- "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now -- Even those who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan within themselves, waiting for -- the redemption of the body. Those of whom the world is not worthy, are often in heaviness, through manifold temptations."
We may wonder at these things: but when we consider them as ordered of God, the consideration, should calm our minds, and bring us to say with the astonished Shunamite of old, "It is well." *
* 2 Kings iv.26.
God doth not order sorrows to his creatures here, because he delights in their sufferings. "He grieves not willingly, neither afflicts the children of men. He doth it for their profit, that they may be partakers of his holiness." And which of the saints hath not received benefit from it? Who among them hath not sometimes been ready to adopt the language of the psalmist, "It is good for me, that I have been afflicted."
"Born of the earth, we are earthly" -- our afflictions naturally descend. We are prone to set our affections on temporal things, and set up our rest where there is no abiding. Therefore do we need afflictions to keep us mindful of our situation. Such remains of depravity are left in the renewed, that prosperity often corrupts them. But for the sorrows and sufferings ordered out to them, they would forget God and lose themselves among the deceitful cares, and infatuating allurements of this strange land.
Intervals of comfort are also needful for them. Were these denied them, "the spirits would fail before God, and the souls which he hath made." And intervals of light and joy are given to refresh and cheer, and animate them to the duties required in this land of darkness and doubt. But they are not intended to satisfy. They answer like ends to the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, as the fruits of Canaan, carried by the spies into the wilderness did to Israel while journeying toward the land of promise -- serve to give them a glance of the good things prepared for them, to increase their longings after them, and animate them to press forward and make their way to the possession.
Such may be some of the reasons of those varied scenes through which the people of God are doomed to make their way to glory.
Often the saints find themselves unable to penetrate the design of heaven in the trials through which lies their way -- especially in the hidings of God's face, so that they cannot discover him. This made no small part of Job's trial -- "Behold I go forward but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand where he doth work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand that I cannot see him." Could he have known the reasons of his trials it would have been a great consolations, but it was denied him, and the reasons of God's hiding his face from him, no less than those of his other trials.
So it is also with others. The darkness which involves them makes part of their trials. It is a common trial of the saints. God will have his people "live by faith and walk by faith." To live by faith, implies want of light, and ignorance of the designs of providence. A great part of the good man's trial here, consists in trusting God without knowing why such things are required, or such trails ordered out to him. In this way the saints had great trials under the former dispensations. A veil was then spread over the method of grace, or way in which God would bring salvation to men. Even the religious rites enjoined by the law, were not understood, though they made part of the duties of every day; they remained mysterious, till Christ removed the covering cast over them; made known the hidden mystery, and opened "the way into the holiest by his blood."
Under every dispensation religion greatly consists in referring every thing to God, and trusting in him, without being let into his designs, or knowing reasons of his orders. "Blessed is he who hath not seen and yet hath believed" -- Blessed is he who without penetrating the designs of heaven trusts in God, and conforms to his requirements, not doubting but all will turn out right -- that God will lead him in right ways, though they may be ways which he knows not.
Abram discovered much of this temper -- in obedience to divine order he left his father's house, and "went forth, not knowing whither he went." And afterwards, when commanded of God, he took a three days journey, to offer his son, Isaac, at the place which should be shewn him.
The trial of this patriarch, recorded in the text, might be, at that time particularly necessary. God had then admitted him to special nearness; and special trials might be requisite to keep him humble, and prevent high thoughts of himself. For such is fallen human nature, that particular distinctions, even divine communications, though of grace, are apt to be abused; to foster pride! Though man is poor and dependant, pride is a sin which very easily besets him. If Paul needed something to keep him humble when favored with revelations, why not Abram? Abram was then in the body -- compassed with infirmity -- liable to temptation, and prone to seduction. God knew his state -- corrected him therefore, to give him a sense of demerit, when he received him into covenant and engaged to be his God.
Another design of his darkness and horror at that time, might be to fill him with awe and reverence of the divine majesty. Had he experienced nothing of this kind, the strange familiarity to which he had been admitted of the most high, might have diminished his fear of God, and caused him to think lightly of the great supreme.
The horror and distress he now experienced might also serve to prepare him for holy joy, when God should lift on him the light of his countenance. Light and joy are most refreshing when they follow darkness and terror. Therefore the joy of those who have been pricked in their hearts for sin and made to know its exceeding sinfulness, when they are brought to hope in divine mercy, and believe themselves forgiven of God. There is reason to believe that the sorrows of this state will give a zest to the joys of heaven -- the darkness of this state, to the light of that in which darkness is done away -- the fear and concern here.
Some think that what Abram experienced on this occasion was intended to intimate God's future dealings with his family. They were honored by being taken into covenant with God, but were to pass through the horror and darkness of Egyptian bondage -- the distress of a wilderness state, and a war with the Amorites, before they should enjoy the promised land. Some conceive Abram's sufferings at this time, designed to prefigure the legal dispensation, under which his seed were to continue long and suffer many things. However this might be, we know that Abram did not find rest in this weary land, unallayed with sorrow. He was doomed to make his way through darkness, doubts and difficulties.
Such was the portion of this father of the faithful, while he remained in the body and continued on trail. The same is the portion of all the saints. "This is not their rest, because it is polluted." Rest is not to be found on earth. When the remains of sin shall be purged away, there will be no more darkness, fear or horror. "The former thing will pass away"
These considerations teach us what we have to expect while we tabernacle in clay -- namely, trials and difficulties, doubts and darkness -- these must be here our portion. Though we may be children of God, we are not to expect exemption from them till the earthly house of our tabernacle is dissolved and we are clothed on with our house which is from heaven.
Those who are strangers to religion may flatter themselves that should they attain renewing grace and get evidence of it, they should no more suffer from fear or horror, or the hidings of God's face, but that God would smile incessantly upon them and cause them to go on their way rejoicing. But this is far from being the case. Though when persons first attain a hope towards God, they are glad, their joy is soon interrupted -- doubts and fears arise -- their way is dark -- "God hideth his face that they cannot behold him. O that I were as in months past -- when God preserved me -- when his candle shined upon my head, and by his light I walked through darkness -- when the Almighty was yet with me."
This hath been the complaint of many others beside benighted Job. It is often the language of the saints while in this dark world. "God often hides his face from those whom his soul loves, so that they walk on and are sad." This makes them long for heaven, because there "will be no night there, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor any more death."
In this life sanctification is imperfect. The saints carry about in them a "body of death." While this continues, they cannot have uninterrupted peace, but must have intervals of darkness and doubt. Those who have gone before us have often been troubled and distressed, and gone on their way sorrowing.
This is the fruit of sin. Man was doomed to it at the apostasy. It hath been from that time the portion of humanity. None hath been exempted. Those whom St. John saw walking in white robes and rejoicing in glory, had "come out of great tribulation."
We can hope for nothing better than to "be followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises." We must travel the same road and can promise ourselves no better accommodations on our journey. If Abram, the friend, of God, felt horror of great darkness, after he had been called of God, we have no reason to expect trials less severe.
Let us not be discouraged, or saint in our minds. The way to glory lies through this dreary land -- to us there is no other way. But the end will be light. If we keep heaven in our eye, and press on unmoved by the difficulties, and unawed by the dangers which lie in our way, "our labor will not be in vain in the Lord." God will be with us. He will not leave us comfortless; but will support us under difficulties and guard us to his kingdom. After we shall have suffered awhile, he will call us from our labors, and reward us with eternal rewards. "Then shall we obtain joy gladness, and sorrow and mourning shall flee away." And the time is short.
"He which testifieth these things, saith, surely I come quickly. Amen." May we have such evidence of an interest in him, as may dispose us to answer, "Even so come Lord Jesus."