These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them…
It is in the power of actions as well as of words to declare plainly; and the patriarchs of this chapter made it as plain by what they did as by what they said, whither it was that their desires and their affections were tending. Nothing could be more explicit of this than the practice of Abraham — who gave up the place of his nativity; and tore himself away from all its charms and endearments; and became a pilgrim in an unknown land. What is very well termed a man's general drift, stood most palpably out on the whole of his history. And, in the same way, every human being has a prevailing drift, that may in most instances be pretty accurately gathered from certain obvious indications, which are ever obtruding themselves on the notice of bystanders. But there is a distinction to be remarked here. It may sometimes not be so very plain what the particular interest is which a man is prosecuting with the main force of his ambitious desires — whether it be the love of money, or the love of power, or the love of acceptance in society, or the love of eminence above his fellows by the lustre of a higher literary reputation. I may not be able to pronounce of the most bustling and ambitious member of our city corporation, whether his heart is most set on the acquirement of a princely fortune, or on a supreme ascendency over all his compeers in the political management of this great community. But whether it be the one or the other, I can say on the instant, that the great theatre of his favourite exertion is this, the place of our habitation — that is here — that it is among home society around him where he seeks to signalise himself, whether by wealth or by influence, or by popularity; and not in any remote or distant society with whom no sympathies are felt, and for u-hose homage either to his dignity or to his opulence, no anxiety whatever has been conceived. One would need to be profoundly intimate with the hidden mysteries of our nature to trace the numerous shadings and varieties of worldliness that obtain in our species. But it may be a matter of the most obvious recognition to the most simple of men, that worldliness, in some shape or other, is the great pervading element of all its generations. This much at least may be seen, without the piercing eye either of scholar or of satirist; and while the apostle said of the faithful whom he was enumerating., how they declared plainly that they were seeking a future and a distant country — we may say of nearly all whom we know, and of all whom we look upon in society, that they declare as plainly the world to be the only scene on which their hopes and their wishes do expatiate. It is not either that man is actually satisfied with present things. It is not that he has set him down in placid acquiescence among the creatures and the circumstances by which he is for the moment surrounded. We see nothing of the repose of full and finished attainment with any of our acquaintances. There is none of them, in fact, who is not plainly stretching himself forward to some one distant object or other; and, as the tokens of one who is evidently on a pursuit, do we behold him in a state of motion and activity and busy endeavour. But when we come to inquire into the nature of the object that so stimulates his desires and his faculties, do we find it to be a something which lies within the confines of mortality — a something suited only to such senses and such powers of enjoyment as death will extinguish — a something that he may perhaps hand down to posterity, but which a few rapid years will wrest away from himself, and that by an act of everlasting bereavement. Surely it is one of the strangest mysteries of our nature, and, at the same time, one of the strongest tokens of its derangement, that man should thus embark all his desires in a frail and crazy vessel so soon to be engulfed. But to alleviate this gross infatuation, it may be said, and with plausibility too, that the region of sense and the region of spirituality are so unlike the one to the other — that there is positively nothing in our experience of the former which can at all familiarise our minds to the anticipation of the latter. And then, as if to intercept the flight of our imaginations forward to eternity, there is such a dark and cloudy envelopment that hangs on the very entrance of it. Ere we can realise that distant world of souls, we must pierce our way beyond the curtain of the grave — we must make our escape from all the warm and besetting urgencies, which, in this land of human bodies, are ever plying us with powerful solicitation; and force our spirits across the boundaries of sense, to that mysterious place where cold and evanescent spectres dwell together in some incomprehensible mode of existence. We know not if there be another tribe of beings in the universe who have such a task to perform. Angels have no such transition of horror and mystery to undergo. There is no screen of darkness like this intrposed between them and any portion of their futurity however distant; and it appears only of man, that it is for him to drive a breach across that barrier which looks so impenetrable, or so to surmount the power of vision as to carry his aspirings over the summit of all that vision has made known to them. Now if this be the work of faith, you will perceive that it is not just so light and easy an achievement as some would apprehend. Think for one moment of the apostolical definition of faith. It is the substance of things hoped for, anti the evidence of things not seen — or, as it should have been rendered, it is the confident expectation of things hoped for, and the clear and assured conviction of things not seen. It is that which gives to an interest that is future all the urgency and deciding power upon the conduct which belong to an interest that is present. And should the future interest be greater than the present, and they come into competition, the one with the other, faith is that which resolves him who is under its influence to give up the immediate gratification for the sake of the distant advantage. Thus it is, essentially and by its very nature, a practical principle; and no sooner does it take possession of the heart of any individual, than it holds out the plain attestation of itself upon its history — and not by his dogmata, but by his doings. Heaven is held out in the gospel not in bargain as a reward to our performance of God's precepts, but simply in anticipation as a fulfilment to our hope of God's promises; and what place, it may be asked, is there for seeking after this? How shall we seek that which is already gotten? or what conceivable thing is there to do in quest of a benefit that is offered to our hand; and on the honesty of which offer we have merely to lay an unfaltering reliance? We can understand how to go about it, when the matter is to seek that which we must work for. But if heaven be not of works but of grace, what remains but to delight ourselves in the secure anticipation of that which we should count upon as a certainty, instead of labouring for it as if it were a contingency that hung upon our labours? And yet they are promises, and nothing else, which put all the patriarchs into motion. It was just because they saw these promises afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth — it was just because of all this that they declared plainly, both by their desires and by their doings, that they sought a country. Eternal life is the gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord — a thing not purchased by us but purchased for us by another — a matter so gigantically beyond any price that man could render for it, that, if held up to him in this aspect it would look to his despairing eye as if placed in the region of impossibility away from him. Grace has been charged with ministering to human indolence. But it is free grace, and nothing else, which unfastens this drag — which releases man from the imprisonment that formerly held him — which brings him out to a large and open space, and sets an object of hopefulness before him that he knows to be accessible — which breaks him loose from the grasp of that law, from whose condemnation and whose penalties he felt so inextricable. So that, instead of doing nothing for heaven, when the gulf of a pathless separation stood in the way of it, he can now embark on a career of approximation, where, by all his doings, and by all his seekings, he may declare plainly that heaven is indeed the country to which he is travelling. It is said of the patriarchs in this chapter that they were not only persuaded of the promises, but that they embraced them. To be persuaded of them was to believe in the truth of the promises; to embrace them was to make choice of the things promised. Abraham chose his prospects in a distant country, rather than his possessions in the country of his father; and, in the prosecution of this choice, did he abandon the latter, and plainly declare, by all his subsequent doings, that he was seeking and making progress towards the former. And a believer nowadays, is not only persuaded that he has heaven for the acceptance of it; but he actually accepts, and, in so doing, he, like the father of the faithful, makes a preference between two objects which stand in competition before him. The man who chooses heaven rather than earth, chooses what is essentially characteristic of heaven, rather than what is essentially characteristic of earth; or, in other words, he makes choice of the piety of heaven, and the purity of heaven, and the benevolence of heaven. It is not by these that he purchases a place for himself in paradise; but it is by these that he prepares himself both for the doings and for the delights of paradise. It is by these that he brings his taste and his temper into conformity with that which is celestial. It is by these that he becomes a fit recipient for all those sensations of blessedness which are current there. The point at which heaven is accepted as a gift, so far from marking that place in the history of a believer when he gives up his activity because he has now gotten all that he wants, marks the place of his breaking forth on a career of activity — at the entrance of which he was before bound by a spell that no exertion of his could dissipate.
(T. Chalmers, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.