And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.…
A life of faith and self-denial has usually its sharpest trials at or near its beginning. The stormy day has generally a calm close. But Abraham's sorest discipline came all sudden, like a bolt from blue sky. Near the end, and after many years of peaceful, uneventful life, he had to take a yet higher degree in the school of faith. Sharp trial means increased possession of God. So his last terrible experience turned to his crowning mercy.
I. THE VERY FIRST WORDS OF THIS SOLEMN NARRATIVE RAISE MANY QUESTIONS. We have God appointing the awful trial. The Revised Version properly replaces "tempt" by "prove." The former word conveys the idea of appealing to the worst part of a man, with the wish that he may yield and do the wrong. The latter means an appeal to the better part of a man, with the desire that he should stand. God's proving does not mean that He stands by, watching how His child will behave. He helps us to sustain the trial to which He subjects us. Life is all probation; and because it is so, it is all the field for the Divine aid. The motive of His proving men is that they may be strengthened. He puts us into His gymnasium to improve our physique. If we stand the trial, our faith is increased; if we fall, we learn self-distrust and closer clinging to Him. No objection can be raised to the representation of this passage as to God's proving Abraham which does not equally apply to the whole structure of life as a place of probation that it may be a place of blessing. But the manner of the trial here presents a difficulty. How could God command a father to kill his son? Is that in accordance with his character? Well, two considerations deserve attention. First, the final issue; namely, Isaac's deliverance was an integral part of the Divine purpose, from the beginning of the trial; so that the question really is, Was it accordant with the Divine character to require readiness to sacrifice even a son at His command? Second, that in Abraham's time, a father's right over his child's life was unquestioned, and that therefore this command, though it lacerated Abraham's heart, did not wound his conscience as it would do were it heard to-day.
II. THE GREAT BODY OF THE STORY SETS BEFORE US ABRAHAM STANDING THE TERRIBLE TEST. What unsurpassable beauty is in the simple story! It is remarkable, even among the Scriptural narratives, for the entire absence of anything but the visible facts. There is not a syllable about the feelings of father or of son. The silence is more pathetic than many words. We look as into a magic crystal, and see the very event before our eyes, and our own imaginations tell us more of the world of struggle and sorrow raging under that calm outside than the highest art could do. The pathos of reticence was never more perfectly illustrated. Observe, too, the minute, prolonged details of the slow progress to the dread instant of sacrifice. Each step is told in precisely the same manner, and the series of short clauses, coupled together by an artless "and," are like the single stroke of a passing bell, or the slow drops of blood heard falling from a fatal wound. The elements of the trial were too: First, Abraham's soul was torn asunder by the conflict of fatherly love and obedience. The friend of God must hold all other love as less than His, and must be ready to yield up the dearest at His bidding. Cruel as the necessity seems to flesh and blood, and especially poignant as his pain was, in essence Abraham's trial only required of him what all true religion requires of us. Some of us have been called by God's providence to give up the light of our eyes, the joy of our homes, to Him. Some of us have had to make the choice between earthly and heavenly love. All of us have to throne God in our hearts, and to let not the dearest usurp His place. The conflict in Abraham's soul had a still more painful aspect in that it seemed to rend his very religion into two. Faith in the promise on which he had been living all his life drew one way; faith in the latter command, another. God seemed to be against God, faith against faith, promise against command. We, too, have sometimes to take courses which seem to annihilate the hope and aims of a life. The lesson for us is to go straight on the path of clear duty wherever it leads. If it seems to bring us up to inaccessible cliffs, we may be sure that when we get there we shall find some ledge, though it may be no broader than a chamois could tread, which will suffice for a path. If it seem to bring us to a deep and bridgeless stream, we shall find a ford when we get to the water's edge.
III. So WE HAVE THE CLIMAX OF THE STORY — FAITH REWARDED.
1. The first great lesson which the interposition of the Divine voice teaches us, that obedience is complete when the inward surrender is complete. The will is the man, the true action is the submission of the will. The outward deed is only the coarse medium through which it is made visible for men. God looks on purpose as performance.
2. Again, faith is rewarded by God's acceptance and approval. "I know that thou fearest God." Not meaning that he learned the heart by the conduct, but that on occasion of the conduct He breathes into the obedient heart that calm consciousness of its service as recognized and accepted by Him, which is the highest reward that his friend can know.
3. Again faith is rewarded by a deeper insight into God's word. That ram, caught in the thicket, thorn-crowned and substituted for the human victim, taught Abraham and his sons that God appointed and provided a lamb for an offering. It was a lesson won by faith, Nor need we hesitate to see some dim forecast of the great substitute God provided, who bears the sins of the world.
4. Again, faith is rewarded by receiving back the surrendered blessing, made more precious because it has been laid on the altar.
5. Lastly, Abraham was rewarded by being made a faint adumbration, for all time, of the yet more wondrous and awful love of the Divine Father, who, for our sakes, has surrendered His only-begotten Son, whom He loved.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.