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Vol. 4, Sermon 13 - Isaac Blessing His Sons

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached November 24, 1850

      "And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and be said unto him, Behold, here am I. And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death: now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; and make me savory meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that My soul may bless thee before I die."-Gen. xxvii. 1-4,

      In chapter xxv. we find Abraham preparing for death by a last will: making Isaac his heir, and providing for his other children by giving them gifts while he yet lived, and so sending them out into the world. In this chapter, the heir himself is preparing to die. The rapidity with which these chapters epitomize life, bringing its few salient points together, is valuable as illustrative of what human existence is. It is a series of circles intersecting each other, but going on in a line. A few facts comprise man's life. A birth-a marriage-another birth-a baptism-a will-and then a funeral: and the old circle begins again.

      Isaac is about to declare his last will. It is a solemn act, in whatever light we view it, if it were only for the thought that we are writing words which will not be read till we are gone. But it is solemn, too, because it is One of those acts which tell of the immortal. First, in the way of prophetic presence. Is it not affecting to think of a human being, not sick, nor in pain, with his natural force unabated, calmly sitting down to make arrangements for what shall be when he is in his last long sleep? But the act of an immortal is visible also in that a dead man rules the world, as it were, long after his decease. Being dead, in a sense he yet speaketh. He is yet present with the living. His existence is protracted beyond its natural span. His will is law. This is a kind of evidence of his immortality: for the obedience of men to what be has willed is a sort of recognition of his present being.

      Isaac was not left without warnings of his coming end. These warnings came in the shape of dimness of eyes and failing of sight. You can conceive a state in which man should have no warnings: and instead of gradual decay, should drop suddenly, without any intimation, into eternity. Such an arrangement might have been. But God has in mercy provided reminders. For we sleep in this life of ours a charmed sleep, which it is hard to break. And if the road were of unbroken smoothness, with no jolt or shock, or unevenness in the journey, we should move swiftly on, nothing breaking the dead slumber till we awake suddenly, like the rich man in the parable, lifting up our eyes in heaven or in hell. Therefore God has given these reminders. Some of them regular-such as failing of sight, falling out of hair, decay of strength, loss of memory-which are as stations in the journey, telling us how far we have travelled: others, irregular-such as come in the form of sickness, bereavement,pain-like sudden shocks which jolt, arouse, and awaken. Then the man considers, and like Isaac, says, "Behold, I am old, I know not the day of my death." We will consider-

      I. Isaac's preparation for death.

      II. The united treachery of Jacob and Rebekah.

      I. Isaac's preparation for death. First, he longed for the performance of Esau's filial kindness as for a last time. Esau was his favorite son: not on account of any similarity between them, but just because they were dissimilar. The repose, and contemplativeness, and inactivity of Isaac found a contrast in which it rested, in the energy and even the recklessness of his first-born. It was natural to yearn for the feast of his son's affection for the last time. For there is something peculiarly impressive in whatever is done for the last time. Then the simplest acts contract a kind of sacredness. The last walk in the country we are leaving. The last time a dying man sees the sun set. The last words of those from whom we have parted, which we treasure up as more than accidental, almost prophetic. The winding up of a watch, as the last act at night. The signature of a will.. In the life of Him in whom we find every feeling which belongs to unperverted humanity, the same desire is found: a. trait, therefore, of the heart which is universal, natural, and right. "With desire I have desired to cat this passover with you before I suffer. For I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." It was the Last Supper.

      2. By making his last testamentary dispositions. Apparently they were premature, but he did not defer them: partly because of the frailty of life, and the uncertainty whether there may be any to-morrow for that which is put off to-day: partly, perhaps, because he desired to have all earthly thoughts done with and put away. Isaac lived thirty or forty years after this: but he was a man set apart: like one who in Roman Catholic language had received extreme unction, and had done with this world; and when he came to die, there would be no anxieties about the disposition of property to harass him. It is good to have all such things done with before that hour comes: there is something incongruous in the presence of a lawyer in the death-room, agitating the last hours. The first portion of our lives is spent in learning the use of our senses and faculties: ascertaining where we are and what. The second, in using those powers, and acting in the given sphere: the motto being, "Work, the night cometh." A third portion, between active life and the grave, like the twilight between day and night, not light enough for working, nor yet quite dark, which nature seems to accord for unworldliness and meditation. It is striking, doubtless, to see an old man hale and vigorous to the last, dying at his work like a warrior in armor. But natural feeling makes us wish, perhaps, that an interval might be given: a season for the statesman, such as that which Samuel had, on laying aside the cares of office, in the schools of the prophets -. such as Simeon had, and Anna, for a life of devotion in the temple; such as the laborer has when, his long day's work done, he finds an asylum in the almshouse; such as our Church de. sires, where she prays against sudden death: a season of interval in which to watch, And meditate, and wait.

      II. The united treachery of Jacob and Rebekah. It was treachery in both; in one sense it was the same treachery. Each deceived Isaac and overreached Esau. But it would be a rough estimate to treat the two sins as identical. This is the coarse, common way of judging. We label sins as by a catalogue. We judge of men by their acts; but it is far truer to say that we can only judge the acts by the man. You must understand the man before you can appreciate his deed. The same deed done by two different persons ceases to be the same. Abraham and Sarah both laughed when in formed that they should have a son in their old age. But Sarah's was the laugh of skepticism; the other, the result of that reaction in our nature by which the most solemn thoughts are balanced by a sense of strangeness or even ludicrousness. The Pharisees asked a sign in unbelief: many of the Old Testament saints did the same in faith, Fine discrimination is therefore necessary to understand the simplest deed. A very delicate analysis of character is necessary to comprehend such acts as these, and rightly to apportion their turpitude and their palliations.

      In Rebekah's case the root of the treachery was ambition; but here we find a trait of female character. It is a woman's ambition, not a man's. Rebekah desired nothing for herself, but every thing for Jacob: for him spiritual blessing-at all events, temporal distinction. She did wrong, not for her own advantage, but for the sake of one she loved. Here is a touch of womanhood. The same is observable in the recklessness of personal consequences. So as only he might gain, she did not care. "Upon me be the curse, my son." And it is this which forces us, even while we must condemn, to compassionate. Throughout the whole of this revolting scene of conceit and fraud, we can never forget that Rebekah was a mother. And hence a certain interest and sympathy are sustained. Another feminine trait is seen in the conduct of Rebekah. It was devotion to a person rather than to a principle. A man's idolatry is for an idea, a woman's is for a person. A man suffers for a monarchy, a woman for a king. A man's martyrdom differs from a woman's. Nay, even in their religion, personality marks the one, attachment to an idea or principle the other. Woman adores God in His personality, man adores Him in His attributes. At least that is, on the whole, the characteristic difference.

      Now here you see the idolatry of the woman: sacrificing her husband, her elder son, high principle, her own soul, for an idolized person. Remark that this was, properly speaking, idolatry. For in nothing is a greater mistake made than in the conception attached to that word in reference to the affections. A mother's affection is called, by many religious people, idolatry, because it is intense. Do not mistake. No one ever loved child, brother, sister, too much. It is not the intensity of affection, but its interference with truth and duty, that makes it idolatry. Rebekah loved her son more than truth, i. e., more than God. This was to idolize. And hence Christ says, "If any man love father or mother more than me, be is not worthy of me." You can only test that when a principle comes in the way. There are persons who would romantically admire this devotion of Rebekah, and call it beautiful. To sacrifice all, even principle, for another-what higher proof of affection can there be? Oh, miserable sophistry! The only true affection is that which is subordinate to a higher. It has been truly said, that in those who love little, love is a primary affection; a secondary one in those who love much. Be sure he can not love another much who loves not honor more. For that higher affection sustains and elevates the lower human one, casting round it a glory which mere personal feeling could never give.

      Compare, for instance, Rebekah's love for Jacob with that of Abraham for his son Isaac. Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son to duty. Rebekah sacrificed truth and duty to her son. Which loved a son most?-which was the nobler love? Even as a question of permanence,which would last the longer? For consider what respect this guilty son and guilty mother could retain for each other after this: would not love turn into shame and lose itself in recriminations. For affection will not long survive respect, however it may protract its life by effort.

      Observe, again: monsters do not exist. When you bear of great criminality, you think of natures originally monstrous, not like others. But none are liars for the sake of lying. None are cruel for cruelty's sake. It is simply want of principle that makes glaring sins. The best affections perverted-that is the history of great crimes. See here: there is no touch of compunction from first to last. The woman seems all unsexed. She has no thought of her defrauded eldest son: none of her deceived husband. There is an inflexible pursuit of her object, that is all. It is wonderful how ambition and passion dazzle to all but the end desired. It is wonderful how the true can become false, and the tender-hearted bard and cruel for an end. Nor is this lesson obsolete. Are there no women who would do the same now? Are there none who would sacrifice a son's principles or a daughter's happiness to a diseased appetite for distinction? Are there none who would conceal a son's extravagance, foster it, furnish it means unknown, or in an underhand way, in what is called the manoeuvring, of fashionable life; and do that for family advancement from which the strong sense and principle of a father would recoil and revolt? And all this, not because they are monsters, but because their passion for distinction is inflamed, and their affections unregulated.

      Now look at Jacob's sin. He was not without ambition; but be had not that unscrupulous, inflexible will which generally accompanies ambition and makes it irresistible. A bad man naturally he was not: nor a false man: but simply a pliable and weak man. Hence he became the tool of another-the agent in a plan of villainy which he had not the contrivance to originate. He was one of those who, if they could, would have what they wish innocently. He would not play false,yet he would unjustly have. He was rather afraid of doing the deceit than anxious that the deceit should not be done. Here was the guilt in its germ. He had indulged and pampered the fancy: and be sure he who wishes a temporal end for itself, does, or will soon, will the means. All temptations and all occasions of sin are powerless, except as far as they fall in with previous meditations upon the guilt. An act of sin is only a train long laid, fired by a spark at last. Jacob pondered over the desire of the blessing, dallied with it, and then fell. Now observe the rapidity and the extent of the inward deterioration. See how this plain, simple man, Jacob, becomes by degrees an accomplished deceiver; how he shrinks at nothing; how, at first unable to conceive the plan devised by another, he becomes at last inventive. At first the acted falsehood-a semblance; then the lie in so many words; then the impious use of the name, "The Lord thy God brought it me." How he was forced by fear and the necessities of begun guilt into enormity: deeper and deeper. Happy the man who can not, even from the faint shadows of his own experience, comprehend the desperate agony of such a state: the horror mixed with hardening effrontery with which a man feels himself compelled to take step after step, and is aware at last that he is drifting, drifting, from the great shore of truth-like one carried out by the tide against his will, till he finds himself at last in a sea of falsehood, his whole life one great dream of false appearance.

      Let us apply this briefly.

      Doubtless perverted good is always different from original vice. In his darkest wanderings, one in whom the Spirit strives is essentially different from one who is utterly depraved. Sensibility to anguish makes the difference, if there were nothing else. Jacob, lying in this way, plunging headlong, deeper and deeper, was yet a different man from one who is through and through hollow. Grant this-and yet that fact of human pervertibility is an awful fact and mystery. Innocence may become depraved: delicate purity may pass into grossness. It is an appalling fact. Transparency of crystal clearness may end in craft, double-dealing, contrivance. Briefly, therefore

      1. Learn to say "No."

      2. Beware of those fancies, those day-dreams, which represent things as possible which should be forever impossible. Beware of that affection which cares for your happiness more than for your honor.

      Lastly, in the hour of strong temptations, throwing ourselves off self, distrusting ourselves, let us rest in Him who, having been tempted, knows what temptation is; who "will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that we may be able to bear it.."

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