Genesis 49:4
Genesis 48
Genesis 48. We are admitted into the inner chamber of the patriarch's departing life, and we see there the presence of Jehovah with him. He is -

1. The subject of inspiration.

2. The mediator of the Divine promises. He is under the control of purposes which have been swaying him all his life.

3. A witness to Divine faithfulness. The grandfather blessing the grandchildren. The blessing passes on to the third and fourth generation. Yet the human blessing is only the type of the Divine. The angel which redeemed me from all evil bless the lads. Jacob made a cross with his hands over the heads of the boys. It displeased Joseph, but it pleased God. The imposition of hands is also here. The name of Jacob is named upon them, the symbol of the covenant. Their prosperity is predicted, but it is connected immediately with their covenant standing. The elevated state of mind in the patriarch is a testimony to the sustaining power of religion in fleshly weakness. It points on too to the survival of the soul after the death of the body. The preference of Ephraim reminds us that all is ascribed to the grace of God. - R.







Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.
: —

I. The first thing which strikes us in the instability of water is that IT HAS NO COHESIVE SHAPE OF ITS OWN. It takes the form of the vessel into which you pour it; it changes one form for another without resistance; and water spilt on the ground falls asunder and vanishes. This suggests the first defect of instability — that it prevents a man gaining an independent position in life. There is a true position in the world which we should all aim at, a place where we may stand on our own feet, fill our own sphere, and meet all the just claims which come upon us in the family, in friendship, and in society. This cannot be gained without some measure of stability. If, indeed, there is entire instability in the ground of the character, it is very difficult to deal with, and if men were under fixed laws of nature the case might be incurable. But nature has its emblems of hope even for this indecision; there is a possibility of crystallizing water.

II. Another thing in the instability of water is THE CHANGEFULNESS OF ITS REFLEXION. Look at the water in an outspread lake. It takes moon and stars and changing seasons into the depths of its confidence, and its seeming depths are only a surface. This is beautiful in nature, but very unhappy in men; and we may see in it an illustration of how instability unfits us for gaining either true culture or character.

III. A third thing we may mention in the instability of water is that IT INSPIRES DISTRUST. Its very calm is danger: there are hidden rocks under the smoothness, and treacherous currents which wind like serpents round those who trust them. This reminds us that instability destroys influence. The world is governed not so much by men of talent as by men of will.

IV. Water is READY TO MOVE ANY WAY BUT UPWARD. It descends, but cannot rise to its source; and it illustrates this most serious defect of instability, that it unfits a man for a successful endeavour after the higher life. In seeking to conquer instability there must(1) be a sincere desire to escape from this defect where it is felt.(2) In arriving at decision, a man should seek to ascertain what he is capable of.(3) There are helps in this struggle against indecision:

(a)Method or system;

(b)associations;

(c)the taking an early and manly stand.

(J. Ker, D. D.)

The Holy Spirit is here describing the character of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob. He is acknowledged, indeed, as the firstborn, but at the same time he is given to understand that he has forfeited his right; he is now to have no pre-eminence or authority over his brethren; he is not to excel, This passage may well lead us to serious reflection on the great and peculiar danger of unsteadiness.

I. This verse was written especially for the learning of those among Christians who have GOOD FEELINGS, who feel something of the beauty of holiness, who admire it, and are shocked at crime in others. All of us are by nature more or less partakers in these feelings; but we may, if we will, neglect to cherish them, and then they will die away and do us no good.

II. The true and faithful Christian is marked by nothing more certainly than by his FIRMNESS AND DECISION OF PURPOSE. He makes good resolutions and keeps them. He sets his face like a flint, and is not ashamed. A Christian without stability is a miserable wonder in the sight of God and His angels.

III. PERSEVERANCE — a kind of bold and generous obstinacy — is a necessary part of Christian goodness. There is no excelling without it; nay, so many are the snares and dangers which surround us, that there is no chance, but by it, of keeping even the lowest place in God's kingdom.

IV. To all our other good purposes this one must be added — we must resolve, by the grace of God, not to measure things by the judgment of men, but to go strictly by THE RULE OF GOD'S COMMANDMENTS. We must guard against that tendency, so natural to many, to exhaust their repentance and good meaning in feelings and professions and strong words, instead of going on without delay to the calm and sober keeping of the commandments. We must pray that He who holds our hearts in His hand may not suffer our repentance to be as unstable as water, pouring itself out in vain and useless lamentation.

(Plain Sermons by Contributors to the "Tracts for the Times. ")

I. HIS PRIVILEGES. The first-born. Entitled to

(1)first rank among his brethren;

(2)leadership of the tribes;

(3)a double share of the inheritance (Genesis 27:29; Deuteronomy 21:17).

II. HIS FORFEITURE OF HIS PRIVILEGES.

1. By a foul sin.

2. By his instability of character.

3. By a life of sensuality.

(T. H. Leale.)

I. THAT ALL ARE UNDER OBLIGATION TO EXCEL. This arises from our duty towards God, others, and ourselves. It is taught in every department of nature, every scriptural command, every instinct of the soul.

II. THAT ALL EXCELLENCE HAS A DEADLY FOE IN INSTABILITY, How strikingly does St. James speak of the waverer (James 1:6). Double-minded man, unstable ways. Wrong in religion, wrong in everything.

III. THAT THIS DEADLY FOE OF INSTABILITY MAY BE VANQUISHED. In the gospel there is all that is necessary for conquest. It is the wisdom and power of God.

1. It points direct to God Himself.

2. It changes man's very nature (cf. Isaiah 11:6 with 1 Peter 1:16).

(J. Barber.)

I. WHAT OUGHT TO BE THE GRAND AIM OF EVERY REASONABLE BEING — To "excel."

1. An excellence of dignity which all ought to desire; an "honour that cometh of God only" — a distinction, "whose praise is not of men, but of God."

2. An excellence of power which should also be our aim.

II. WHAT MAY BE REGARDED AS ONE OF THE MOST FATAL IMPEDIMENTS TO THE ATTAINMENT OF THIS OBJECT.

1. If you are unstable in your principles — ever wavering and changing in your views of Christian truth — how is it likely that you should gain any assurance of ranking high in the favour of God? any growing power against the enemies of your soul?

2. If you are unstable in your purposes, it will be impossible for you to excel.

3. If you are unstable in your practice, the same consequence must needs follow; there can be no excellence.

III. BY WHAT MEANS THIS IMPEDIMENT MAY BE SURMOUNTED.

1. Seek to have a more abiding sense of your own insufficiency.

2. Expose your heart more habitually to the influences of the Spirit of God.

(J. Jowett, M. A.)

I. If we throw a stone into the water, although at first certainly it divides the surface and gives it a new impression, yet, after a few circling eddies, tranquility is restored, and no mark remains of its recent motion. If you launch a boat upon the stream, instead of its remaining a fixed weight upon it, it rolls and moves with the rolling current. If we cast our eyes upon the ocean, that mighty world of living waters, how changeable is the scene that comes before us! Every breeze that blows varies even its colour, while its waves exhibit to us nothing but tumult and commotion. Now all this is, in reality, what it is intimated to be in the text — an emblem and a picture of several amongst the children of men.

1. Whenever a new object comes before some people, it makes, like the stone cast into the water, an impression upon them at first; it engages their attention; they are, probably, pleased with it and delighted, and fancy that they have discovered the treasure of true satisfaction. But again, like the stone, after a few circling eddies — that is, after a few observations, after a few gratifications and short acquaintances — the novelty is over; something fresh catches the attention, and the former object departs without leaving a single mark or vestige behind.

2. You shall see other people, like the boat upon the stream, quite at the mercy of the fickle current. They never fix to anything; they are without a rudder, without ballast, without any of the other requisites of good management. The surface upon which they rest is soft and variable; and thereon, without allowing any confidence to be placed in their firmness and stability, they rock about with every momentary agitation of the water.

3. Thirdly, there are others completely like the sea. Such people never continue in the same mind for a month, nay, sometimes not even for a day together — and that too upon subjects of the greatest possible concern and importance. Now they view life and the world under one colour, and now under another: one while they are full of hope, and energy, and self-satisfaction; at another time they are absorbed in gloomy presentiments, and anxieties, and melancholy: one day they represent this life as everything; the next they speak against it as of no kind of importance or value at all: and all this, not from any change of circumstances; nor indeed from any one good cause, as relates to themselves, is this alteration in their opinions, but from an innate principle of unsteadiness, and from the temper and humour they happen to be in at the moment of forming them. Now, look at such men in their pursuits, and in their occupations; and there they are just the same as they were in their opinions; there is a perpetual variation. Observe such persons once more — observe them in their attachments: and what are they in this respect? The very same — inconstant and fickle.

II. But I come now to the most useful bearing in this argument: and that is the adaptation of it to higher, and to spiritual designs. If the sentiment in the text be a true one in affairs of this world how much more true is it in things connected with that world which is to come! If a man cannot excel in a trade, a profession, or science without study, application, and perseverance; if a man cannot, and with very just cause cannot, we will say, become either a good scholar or a skilful architect, provided he will not submit to the rules of the art, and if he only attend by fits and starts; how, let me ask, can he reasonably expect to become a good Christian by the same means? What is it that exempts Christianity from that careful attention that belongs to every other pursuit? What is it that induces us to hope that the foundation and superstructure, the knowledge, the experience, the application, the comfort of religious truths, are all to be acquired by a few trifling fanciful attempts, just according to a momentary burst of feeling, or a capricious use of accidental opportunities? Is it that religion is of no importance, and therefore need not take up much of our time? Our work is never done. Amongst the clearest truths in the whole Bible is this: that religion is a progressive state.

(E. Scobell, M. A.)

I. Now the condition of a man who is divided between two contrary ways of life, between virtue and vice, godliness and irreligion, is CERTAINLY VERY WRETCHED AND DEPLORABLE.

1. This doubtful, uncertain way of living and thinking proceeds from a mean state of mind, such as is beneath the dignity of human nature.

2. But the dignity of our nature, is a consideration capable of touching but few. Let us go on therefore to more plain and affecting considerations. For such an unsettled temper of mind as we have described creates a great deal of trouble and disturbance to the man who is so unhappy as to be master of it.

3. But further, such a temper, so distracted between contrary inclinations and practices, is mischievous to a man in point of interest as well as ease. For it renders him unfit for all the affairs and business of life; incapable of forming advantageous designs with confidence, or of persecuting them with effect.

4. But these are slight inconveniences, in comparison of what follows; that such a wavering, uncertain temper of mind is utterly inconsistent with the terms of salvation, and the hopes of eternal happiness. For it is not an holiness taken up by fits and starts that can carry a man to heaven. It must be a constant regular principle, influencing us throughout, that must do that.

II. Secondly, to persuade the man that is thus bewildered To RETRIEVE HIMSELF BY SERIOUS CONSIDERATION, AS SOON AS IS POSSIBLE; AND TO FIX A SURE PRINCIPLE OF VIRTUE IN HIS MIND, THAT MAY GUIDE AND GOVERN HIM THROUGHOUT, AND MAKE HIM UNIFORMLY WISE AND HOLY. For which purpose I shall take leave to recommend two or three plain but useful considerations.

1. And first, he that sets about this work must be sure that his belief is right and sound at the bottom. For it is generally the uncertainty and waveringness of this that produces all that unevenness and disorder in the life and practice of mankind.

2. In the next place, consider well what that particular weight was, that in the days of his irresolution still hung upon him, and clogged all his virtuous endeavours.

3. When he has thus settled his faith upon good ground, and armed himself well against that sin which does so easily beset him (Hebrews 12:1), he must take care not to suffer himself to come within reach of anything that may anyways unfasten his resolutions, whilst they are yet young and tender.

4. If to these endeavours he joins fervent and unwearied prayer to Almighty God for the aids and support of His grace, he shall assuredly from thence be made perfect at last, be established, strengthened, settled. He shall have a new heart created in him, that shall enable him to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

(Bp. Atterbury.)

Here there is a reference to the forfeiture of the birthright by Reuben, and the sin of which that was the punishment. Its commission is traced to the geyser-like quality of Reuben's character, which burst forth intermittently, now boiling up in a sudden surge, and now receding out of sight. Of this peculiarity we have instances in his spasmodic and therefore unsuccessful attempt to save the life of Joseph by getting him put into the pit, and then leaving him, and in his altogether extravagant offer to allow his two sons to be slain if he did not bring Benjamin safely back. Now, such a temperament never achieves excellence. It lacks perseverance and steadiness of application, and Jacob affirms that Reuben's posterity, taken after their father in this respect, would never rise to any eminence in the nation. Nor did they; for it is remarkable that not one of the judges belonged to this tribe. It gave no great captain to the armies of Israel, and no name to the goodly fellowship of the prophets in the laud. In the song of Deborah it is mentioned with disapprobation among those who came not up to the help of the Lord; and the unreliableness of its members may be referred to in the words, "For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abe(lest thou among the sheepfolds to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." So it passes down into the region that is below mediocrity, and becomes the type of superficial and short-lived impulse that dies away into inactivity and inefficiency.

(W. M. Taylor, D. D.)

Some years ago, there was an eldest boy in one of our religious schools — it was a school at Marlborough — and he was a Christian boy, and the younger boys loved him, and they said that he did more good than the master; he was such a Christian boy. I will not tell you his name, though I know it — he was always first in every good thing — first in loving and fearing God; and he did such good in Marlborough, that many boys said they owed a great deal indeed to that boy. He was the eldest, Reuben is the eldest, and therefore you will see his father calls him, in the verse before the text, "the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power," and he calls him too "unstable as water." Reuben had one great fault, and that spoiled him. Do you know what it was? He was unstable." What does that mean? "Unstable." I will tell you what that word means exactly; it means that his character did not stand; he was always changing; he was not steady to one thing: he was not a firm character: and because he was not a firm or steady character, it spoiled all. Now it says here, you see, that an "unstable man" is like "water." Shall we think how he can be like "water"? There are several sorts of water — what water shall we think of? There is the sea, that is all water, and you know the sea is very restless — it does not keep still — it is not the same one day as it is another day — it occasionally looks a different colour, it sometimes looks green, sometimes blue, sometimes a kind of purple, sometimes whitey-brown; and then it is always tossing about. You remember it says in Isaiah 57:20, "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." I do not think that this is what the word means. Do you know how "water" is made? Water is made up of numbers and numbers of little round things called "globules," little spheres; and they touch one another only at points, just like marbles in a bag; they cannot stick to one another. To speak properly, there is not much attraction or cohesion, because they are little round things; but they may be easily separated. Now a piece of wood is altogether different, because it is close, it is not composed of little round things. We can put our hands into a basin of water and move it about, but we cannot put our hands into a piece of wood, it is too firm; but as water sticks so little together, you can easily move it. If you put some water in a basin on a table, and you walk across the room, the water will move by the shaking; and even if you breathe upon it, the breath will cause it to move. For this reason it is so "unstable." And you cannot, you know, make water stand up by itself. Supposing you get some water, and try to make a pillar of the water, you cannot do so. If you try to make water stand up by itself, it will not stand up. No, not even the most wonderful man that ever lived in the world, could make water stand up like a pillar. So a man that is "unstable" cannot stand; he is always moving — that is what it means. Think of the sea — think of the water in the basin — how it moves by a little touch. You may try but I am sure you cannot make water stand up. It is said of some people they are just like "water," they cannot stand; they are always moving, always changing — "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." Will you look at Hosea 6:4 — "O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah what shall I do unto thee? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away." Are you like that? Does all your religion soon pass away, soon go? It is very often the case with little children. I will tell you how it is. You kneel down to say your prayers, and before you have gone through them your thoughts travel I don't know where; your thoughts all wander. Then you go to other things. You go to your studies; you may be very diligent; you commence well; you open your books and begin to study, but before you get a very little way you have looked at something which sends your thoughts all wandering about; you do not keep steady; you are "unstable." Then I will tell you another thing I think about some of you; that yon determine that you will be good, and love God, and do what is right; and yet, after perhaps a very little time, you break your resolution. You are " unstable." I will tell you a sad story. An old man was lying on a sick and dying bed, and he sent for all his children. When they gathered round him he said something like this: " My dear children, never grieve the Holy Spirit. Take warning by me. When I was a little boy I had often religious instructions, but I did not take much account of them till I was about sixteen. Then I had very strong religious feelings — I had great convictions of sin, and I remember what I did. I remember saying to myself, 'I must become a Christian, I must be religious, but I am very young now; there are a great many pleasures, and I will take my pleasure now, but will become religious soon.' And so I put it away, and went on till I was twenty-five — just after I was married — and then came another, when it seemed as if the Holy Spirit was striving with me again, for He was very patient with me, and I had very strong religious feelings, and something seemed to whisper to me 'Now, now.' I remember what I did then. I said, ' Now I am married, and I must attend to my wife, to my home, and my children; I cannot forget them just now.' And so it went on till I was forty. And when I was forty, I remember how the Spirit worked in my heart again, and urged me very strongly to decide for God. And again I said, 'I am a man of business, I can't do it while I have to keep up my business; when I give up my business, then I will give my whole heart to God.' And so it went on for another ten years, till I was fifty, and then it once more came to me and said, 'Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.' I put it away more easily than I did before; I thought that soon I should be a very old man, and then I should be infirm and be obliged to stop in-doors, and then it would be the time to be religious. But now I lie upon my sick-bed, and now it does not seem as if the Holy Spirit is with me; He does not seem to draw me. I listen, I listen; but I quenched the Spirit — I stifled conviction. I have gone through life without Him, and now He seems gone! 'Quench not the Spirit.'" And he died. I am not going to say, my dear children, whether that man was saved or not — God only knows — he may be; Jesus may have saved him. I know he was very unhappy indeed, to look back and think when he was dying that, he had been so "unstable." Now I will tell you one more thing in which I think you are like the "water." Don't you find that you are very different, when you are with different sorts of people? When you are with good people, you feel hew pleasant it is to be good! Ah, when you go with another sort of people — wicked people, then you are like the wicked people, and you act like them, and feel like them! You are always like the people you are with — changing your character, and striving to please everybody. There is a very awful instance in the Bible of a man who did that. Do you know who it is? Pontius Pilate — he was like the people he was with. When he was with Christ, he was a Christian; when he was with a Jew, he was like a Jew; and when he was with a Roman, he was always like a Roman; and just see what he did. He at last became so wicked that he crucified Christ! He was a weak character. "Unstable as water thou shalt not excel." Now I think you see how you are like "water." Do you remember whether it is so? I think it is. Sometimes you have very good feelings, and they pass away like "the dew" in the morning. I think you make good resolutions and break them again. I think you act according to the people you are with. And in all these things you are "unstable" like the "water." Now God has said, my dear children, that if you are "unstable" like the "water," you "shall not excel." If you are restless and changeable — if you are easily moved, like the "water" in the basin, by the breath of what anybody says, or the footsteps of a companion — if you cannot stand up you will never be great. Now I come to the all-important thing. Are you very weak, my dear children? Which is weaker — your bodies or your souls? You have not very strong bodies, but your souls are weaker than your bodies, A good old divine, one of the old Puritans, who lived a long time ago in England, says that he always had a broken wine glass, without the bottom, and around the wine glass he used to have the text written — "Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe." His soul was like the wine glass. To remind him how weak he was, he had this wine glass before him with the text written around it — "Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe." How can we become more firm and strong that we may "excel" — that we may all be useful Christians? That is what I want you to think about. One thing is (and I am going to tell you four things), to keep your promise, to be consistent and decided. That is one thing. Let us look at something which does not change. It helps us very much if we want to do anything steadily, to look steadily at steady things. For instance, when a man is steering a ship, he must not look at the waves, he must look at the compass, or at some star; or when a man is ploughing a furrow, he must not look close to him, but at some object at the end of the field, and then the furrow would be straight; and if you want to walk along a plank, you must not look on the plank, you must look at the end. Do that with your soul. Think how unchangeable Jesus Christ has been to you ever since you were born. This is one thing; now I come to the second. You will find, if you live long enough and think about it, that you cannot stand, and your soul cannot stand by itself. As soon as you get a vine in your garden, and you wish to make that vine a splendid tree, you bind it around something — all the little creepers must be entwined about something for that purpose, else it will not become beautiful; and, oh I my dear children, we are all of us creepers, we cannot live and grow unless we creep. Well, let us look at Psalm 61:2 — "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I." What a pretty prayer! "Oh! I am a poor, weak little girl (says one), I cannot keep my good resolutions; oh! 'lead me to the Rock that is higher than I,' — that is, Jesus Christ: He is the Rock, and He will hold me up. And I shall twine around Christ, and shall get strong, because He is strong." I will tell you about a man who lived some time ago. When he was a boy, he was very passionate, and often became very angry. This little boy had a very good mother — a kind, pious mother; and this mother used to read the Bible with him every morning, and she did what a great many good mothers do, when she had read a passage she used to say to the boy, "Let us take a verse and think of it during the day — have it for our motto for the day." And one morning, when this little boy had been in a great passion, and had been a very naughty boy indeed, when he went to read to his mother, she chose the sixty-first Psalm, and they read it together, and she said, "Now, my dear boy, let us choose out of this Psalm a verse that shall be for our text for the day; and I think the best will be, 'Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.'" And then she explained to him that Jesus Christ was "the Rock," and that he could not conquer his temper if he did not go to Jesus Christ for help, and if he loved Jesus Christ he would be able to conquer himself; and he said, "I know I shall, I am sure I shall, I will conquer myself; I feel so different, that I am sure I shall never be angry again." But, before the breakfast was over, the little boy was in a passion; yet when he was in that passion, his text came to his mind, "O lead me to the Rock that is higher than I": and he was conquered much sooner than was generally the case, because he offered up the prayer," O lead me to the Rock that is higher than I; He will conquer me." That boy lived on, and had a great many troubles in life. He was a young man who was very unkindly treated. I will not tell you who it was; but he said he found his text like a talisman — that is, a sort of charm; and whenever he was getting angry, he thought of these words, "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I; and I shall conquer." And when that man came to lie upon his dying bed, a minister went to see him, and he said, "What shall I read?" And he said, "Oh, read the sixty-first Psalm — I owe everything to that — read it; oh, read it on!" and when the minister came to the end of the second verse — "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I," — the sick man cried out, "Stop, stop; I can't tell you what I owe to my mother who pointed out to me that verse when I was a little boy! She taught me to say, 'Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I'; and so I was conquered." Now I must go on to my third point. If you are a weak character, and know it, you must not expose yourself to temptation. Supposing a doctor came and said to you, "Now you are a person who will very easily take a fever" — would not you take great care not to go near a place where you knew there was a fever? Would not you be very careful? Supposing the cholera was very bad about, and you were told you must be particularly careful what you ate or drank, for you would easily take the cholera. Would not you be careful about your diet? I tell you, as the physician of your soul, that you are a character that will easily catch sin. Then, for God's sake, don't go near it — to danger; don't go in temptation's way, lest you catch that most contagious disease — sin. Once more. Take good care that you have some good foundation, as you are so "unstable." We may be easily led — take care to have a good foundation. Some time ago a ship was wrecked on the coast. She was riding at anchor, but she slipped her anchor, and so, drifting, ran on shore. The sea was running very high; only a few were saved on that dreadful night; they were saved by swimming on shore, or by getting on planks. There was one man on board ship, who was as calm as possible on that terrific night. One of the sailors went to him and said, "Do you not know the danger? Don't you know we have lost our anchor, and are drifting on to the shore? Our destruction is certain." "Oh, I know, I know," he replied, "I have an anchor for the soul, a castle built upon a rock, sure and steadfast." And it was that which gave him such stability; because he had the anchor of the soul, he could do anything.

(J. Vaughan, M. A.)

As the first-born, the full sprout of Jacob's strength, Reuben was entitled according to natural right to the first rank among his brethren, the leadership of the tribes, and a double share of the inheritance. This dignity is expressed by Jacob in a few but simple words: "Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power." Reuben's standing among his brethren could not have been more exalted, and Jacob seems to set it before him in increased and reiterated language. Dignities such as are implied in these words involve tremendous responsibilities, which Reuben did not realise or fulfil. In equally few but startling words, Jacob sets before him his sin and consequent judgment: "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it; my couch is gone." Reuben's sin was sensuality, lust, by which he was carried away; and because of this dominating propensity he would never excel. And what is the first truth taught us in this dignity and utter failure of Reuben? It is the truth running through the entire Scripture in every varied form — man's original dignity and his utter failure. Its bud is seen in Eden at man's creation, and the full-blown fruit in the awful and universal apostacy in the Book of Revelation. But there are other and more startling truths shadowed forth in this sin of Reuben's. It is probable that old Jacob had not resented that sin at the time, or that Reuben had thought little of his father's deep wrong, and of the sorrow that had wrung his heart in secret. In a little while it was passed over, and Reuben thought nothing more of it. How often it is so with many. The crime they have committed in secret has for the moment made the conscience uneasy. The deep wrong inflicted has perhaps left some temporary compunction. But because no hand of retribution has been laid upon them, and no shadow of vengeance has darkened their path, it is soon forgotten. The pressure of business, and the round of amusements, and the ten thousand influences driving the thoughts into new channels, has forced it out of memory, and so the thing is forgotten. Nay, but sin dogs the steps, and brings its consequences to light at unexpected moments, and in most unlikely ways. Here, years after its commission, it starts up to darken the path of the criminal, surefooted though slow of pace to cast a blight over all its prospects, and make a man feel that there is a judgment awaiting him. Observe, again, how few trace their not excelling to some past act which has tainted their whole moral and intellectual nature. Some secretly gratified lust has given a downward impetus to the character, which has been again and again repeated. These undisclosed chapters in the man's history are the explanation of his "instability" of character, just as the hectic flush on the countenance betrays the deadly disease preying upon the vitals. There is no remedy for such a state of things but a change of heart, a great and mighty transformation, of soul by the Spirit of God. And even then, the taint of the original sin will colour the natural life to the end, and can only be met by constant watchfulness, struggle, and prayer.

(F. Whitfield, M. A.)

Perfect stability has ceased from the world since the day when Adam fell. He was stable enough when in the garden he was obedient to his Master's will; but when he ate of the forbidden fruit he did not only slide himself, but he shook the standing places of all his posterity. Perfect stability belongs alone to God; He alone, of all beings, is without variableness or shadow of a turning. He is immutable; He will not change. He is all-wise; He need not change. He is perfect; He cannot change. But men, the best of them, are mutable, and therefore to a degree they are unstable, and do not excel. Yet it is remarkable that, although man has lost perfect stability, he has not lost the admiration of it. Perhaps there is no virtue, or, rather, no compound of virtues, which the world more esteems than stability of mind. You will find that, although men have often misplaced their praise, and have called those great who were not great, morally, but were far below the level of morality, yet they have scarcely ever called a man great who has not been consistent, who has not had strength of mind enough to be stable in his principles. Now my brethren, if it be so in earthly things, it is so also in spiritual. Instability in religion is a thing which every man despises, although every man has, to a degree, the evil in himself; but stability in the firm possession and practice of godliness will always win respect, even from the worldly, and certainly will not be forgotten by Him whose smile is honour and whose praise is glory, even the great Lord and Master, before whom we stand or fall. I have many characters here to-day whom I desire to address in the words of my text. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel."

I. First, then, to all Christians permit me to address myself. We are none of us stable as we should be. We had a notion when we were first converted, that we should never know a change; our soul was so full of love that we could not imagine it possible we should ever flag in our devotion; our faith was so strong in our Incarnate Master, that we smiled at older Christians who talked of doubts and fears; our faces were so steadfastly set Zionward that we never imagined By-path Meadow would ever be trodden by our feet. We felt sure that our course would certainly be "like the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day." But, my brethren, have we found it so? Have we not this day to lament that we have been very changeable and inconstant, even unstable as water? How unstable have we been in our frames? We have had more changes than even this variable climate of ours. It is a great mercy for us that frames and feelings are not always the index of our security; for we are as safe when we are mourning as we are when we are singing; but, verily, if our true state before God had changed as often as our experience of his presence, we must have been cast into the bottomless pit years ago. And how variable have we been in our faith! In the midst of one trouble we have declared, "though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," we have courted the jeer, we have laughed at the scorn of the world, and have stood like rocks in the midst of foaming billows, when all men were against us; another week has seen us flying away, after denying our Master, because like Peter, we were afraid of some little maid, or of our own shadow. And have you not also, at times, my friends, felt variable in your love? How unstable we are! At one time we are quite certain we are the Lord's; though an angel from heaven should deny our election, or our adoption, we would reply that we have the witness of the Spirit that we are born of God, but perhaps within two minutes we shall not be able to say that we ever had one spiritual feeling. We shall perhaps think we never repented aright, never fled to Christ aright, and did never believe to the saving of soul. Oh! it is no wonder that we do not excel, when we are such unstable creatures.

II. And now leaving these general remarks I have to single out a certain class of persons. I believe them to be TRUE CHRISTIANS, but they are Christians of a singular sort. How many Christians have we in our churches that are unstable as water? I suppose they were born so. They are just as unstable in business as they are in religion; they open a grocer's shop, and shut it in three months, and turn drapers, and when they have been drapers long enough to become almost bankrupts, they leave that and try something else. When they were boys they could never play a game through; they must always be having something fresh: and now they are just as childish as when they were children. Look at them in doctrine, you never know where to find them. Oh ye unstable Christians, hear ye the word of the Lord! "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." Your life shall have little of the cream of happiness upon it: you shall not walk in the midst of the King's highway, in which no lion shall be found, but you shall walk on the edge of the way, where you shall encounter every danger, feel every hardship and endure every ill. You shall have enough of God's comfort to keep you alive, but not enough to give you joy in your spirit and consolation in your heart.

( C. H. Spurgeon.)

1. Reuben seems to have been a man who exercised no control over himself. He schooled himself to no particular line of thought or work, but was carried hither and thither by every momentary desire or passion.

2. Jacob's prophecy concerning Reuben was a true one. His weakness and character and its baneful influence would have seem to have affected all his posterity. There is no record of any great action, and no mention of any judge or prophet or leader of any kind belonging to the tribe of Reuben.

3. The character of this man is by no means a rarity. There are those who have had every advantage of birth, education, and social position to start with in life; but from the first they were so shifting in purpose, so volatile in character, and so apt to be carried away by impulse and passion, that they have not benefited by their superior advantages, and have utterly failed to make progress in the race of life.

4. It is the curse of sin, that it unnerves man, destroying the nobility of his character and bringing him down to be the slave of his lower nature.

5. The great secret of excellence lies in steadiness and perseverance.

(J. Menzies.)

Pilate exhibited a sad degree of vacillation, inconsistency, indecision. Now he throws all blame upon the priests: "I am innocent of His blood; see ye to it." Again he takes the entire responsibility upon himself. "Knowest Thou not that I have power to crucify Thee, and power to release?" Now he pronounces Jesus innocent, yet with the same breath proposes to have Him punished as guilty; now he gives Him up, and then he has recourse to every kind of expedient to rescue. Unstable as water, he does not, he cannot succeed. He allowed others to dictate to him. Carelessly and inconsiderately, he submits that to their judgment which he should have kept wholly within his own hold. He becomes thus as a wave of. the sea, as a feather in the air, which every breeze of heaven bloweth about as it listeth.

(Dr. Hanna.)

man without decision can never be said to belong to himself; since, if he dared to assert that he did, the puny force of some cause about as powerful you would have supposed as a spider, may make a seizure of the hapless boaster the very next moment, and contemptuously exhibit the futility of the determinations by which he was to have proved the independence of his understanding and his will. He belongs to whatever can make capture of him, and one thing after another vindicates its right to him, by arresting him while he is trying to go on; as twigs and chips floating near the edge of a river, are intercepted by every weed and whirled in every little eddy. Having concluded on a design, he may pledge himself to accomplish it — if the hundred diversities of feeling which may come within the week will let him. His character precluding all foresight of his conduct, he may sit and wonder what form and direction his views and actions are destined to take to-morrow; as a farmer has often to acknowledge that next day's proceedings are at the disposal of its winds and clouds.

(J. Foster.)

Incapable of setting up a firm purpose on the basis of things as they are, he is often employed in vain speculations on some different supposable state of things which would have saved him from all this perplexity and irresolution. He thinks what a determined course he could have pursued if his talents, his health, his age had been different; if he had been acquainted with some one person sooner; if his friends were on this or the other point different from what they are; or if fortune had showered her favours on him. And he gives himself as much license to complain as if all these advantages had been among the rights of his nativity, but refused by a malignant or capricious fate to his life. Thus he is occupied, instead of marking with a vigilant eye, and seizing with a strong hand all the possibilities of his actual situation.

(J. Foster.)

He was — i.e. Balaam — as an old writer remarks, one of those unstable men whom the apostle calls "doubleminded," an ambi-dexter in religion, like Redwald king of the East Saxons, the first that was baptised, who (as Camden relates) had in the same church one altar for the Christian religion, and another for sacrificing to devils; and a loaf of the same leaven was our resolute Rufus, that painted God on one side of his shield and the devil on the other, with this desperate inscription, In utrunque paratus — "ready for either."

It is related of Alexander the Great, that, being asked how it was that he had conquered the world, he replied, "By not wavering."

Behold the decided man! He may be a most evil man; he may be grasping, avaricious, covetous, unprincipled, still, look how the difficulties of life know the strong man, and give up the contest with him. A universal homage is paid to the decided man as soon as he appears among men. He walks by the light of his own judgment; he has made up his mind; and having done so, henceforth action is before him. He cannot bear to sit amidst unrealised speculations; to him speculation is only valuable that it may be resolved into living and doing. There is no indifference, no delay. The spirit is in arms; all is in earnest. Thus Pompey, when hazarding his life on a tempestuous sea in order to be at Rome on an important occasion, said, "It is necessary for me to go; it is not necessary for me to live." Thus Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, burned the ships upon the shore which brought his soldiers to land, that there might be no return.

(E. P. Hood.)

An inconstant and wavering mind, as it makes a man unfit for society (for that there can be no assurance of his words or purposes, neither can we build on them without deceit), so, besides that, it makes a man ridiculous, it hinders him from ever attaining any perfection in himself (for a rolling stone gathers no moss, and the mind, while it would be everything, proves nothing. Oft changes cannot be without loss); yea, it keeps him from enjoying that which he hath attained. For it keeps him ever in work, building, pulling down, selling, changing, buying, commanding, forbidding. So, while he can be no other man's friend, he is the least his own. It is the safest course for a man's profit, credit and ease, to deliberate long, to resolve surely, hardly to alter, not to enter upon that whose end he sees not unanswerable, and when he is once entered not to surcease till he have attained the end he foresaw. So may he, to good purpose, begin a new work when he hath well finished the old.

(Bp. Hall.)

"I have often made stern resolutions not to overwork myself, and to take more relaxation; but 'no' is not learnt in a day."

(George Moore.)

When general Suwaroff commanded, under the Prince of Coburg, on the frontiers of Turkey, he had an army of twenty-five thousand men. Coburg himself had thirty-seven thousand, and the Turks only twenty-eight thousand. Prince Coburg's army, which had taken a good position on a rising ground, about nine miles distant from Suwaroff, was attacked and obliged to fall back. Coburg then wrote to Suwaroff, "I was attacked this morning by the Turks. I have lost my position and artillery. I send you no instructions what to do. Use your own judgment, only let me know what you have done as soon after as you can." Suwaroff immediately sent the following answer, "I shall attack the Turks to-morrow morning, drive them from your position, and retake your cannon." Before three o'clock in the afternoon Surwaroff kept his word; and Coburg's army had the cannon and their old position before night.

That the tribe of Reuben did not excel is evident at the first glance of Hebrew history. At the time of the Exodus it was but the seventh in population, and, before entering Canaan, its numbers had so far diminished that it was then the ninth (Numbers 1:21; Numbers 26:5). On the division of the Promised Land, the Reubenites received an inheritance on the east side of the Jordan, where they were exposed to the incursions of surrounding nations (Numbers 32:1; Joshua 1:14, &c.), and it is observable that they were among the first of the tribes of Israel who were carried away by the kings of Assyria (see 1 Chronicles 5:26).

(Thornley Smith.)

It is a miserable thing to see men and women driven before the wind like thistledown. You can make your choice whether, if I may so say, you shall be like balloons that are at the mercy of the gale, and can only shape their course according as it comes upon them and blows them along; or like steamers that have an inward power that enables them to keep their course from whatever point the wind blows; or like some sharply-built sailing ship, that, with a strong hand at the helm, and canvas rightly set, can sail almost in the teeth of the wind and compel it to bear it along in all but the opposite direction to that in which it would carry her if she lay like a log on the water.

(A. Maclaren, D. D.)

Surely there is nothing walks the earth more contemptible, as well as more certainly evil, than a man who lets himself be made by whatever force may happen to be strongest near him, and fastening up his helm, and unshipping his oars, is content to be blown about by every vagrant wind, and rolled in the trough of each curling wave.

(A. Maclaren, D. D.)

We must be made fast to something that is fast, if we are not to be swept like thistledown before the wind.

(A. Maclaren, D. D.)

What a noble thing any life becomes, that has driven through it the strength of a uniting single purpose, like a strong shaft of iron bolting together the two tottering walls of some old building.

(A. Maclaren, D. D.)

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