Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were distinctively the " fathers of Israel " - the heads of a people called of God, to walk in the earth, as happily dependent on Him. Abraham leads the way; and while the most exemplary in the faith which characterised them, he had also to contend with peculiarities of circumstances and conflicts unknown to them. If the path was higher, the difficulties were greater; if the faith was more vigorous, the resistance and denial of nature was more obstinate and severe ; but in leadership this became him. The mighty agencies of divine faith engaged in fatal conflict each daring opposition, which wilful nature, struggling for existence, raised against it. The combat was a close one: dependence on God, wresting the creature from the government of his own will in order to subject it to God's will must have evoked nature's bitterest antagonism. Abraham properly presents the leadership in this momentous engagement. Isaac follows: a leader, to be sure, but in a subordinate degree. Abraham, as it were, conquers the country; Isaac is required to retain it, and must hold the position against the common foe. Abraham suffers while contending for possession; Isaac, while keeping it. Abraham's hindrances are generally from the force of circumstances outside him; Isaac's, almost always from personal weakness. Isaac presents to us the inability of nature, in its best and fairest condition, to hold the path of faith, on which, through grace, man is set. His failures are not so much the strength of the enemy turning him aside., as the mere weakness of humanity. The disciples slept when the Lord asked them to watch, not from evil, for " the spirit was willing," but because " the flesh was weak," and it could not demonstrate the very feeling it commended. Isaac teaches us how weak and rickety the best part of our nature is in the path of faith, how it fails therein, and hence the discipline necessary for it.
Isaac enters on the scene as the child of promise ; and, as his name indicates, under the happiest moral auspices. No wonder that we should be prepared to see in him a pleasing sample of fallen humanity, obedient, affectionate and domestic. Our first notice of his opening manhood being the ascension of mount Moriah, a scene so wonderful that we hardly know which most rivets our admiring gaze, the self-possessed action of Abraham, or the lamb-like acquiescence of Isaac. It maybe said, that he did not know beforehand that it so fatally affected himself ; but, even when he did know, by being laid on the wood of the altar, and the knife in his father's outstretched hand to slay him, we do not find that he in the least resisted its accomplishment. To obey in ignorance evinces unlimited confidence in the one to whom I yield such unsuspecting submission, and, still more, proves that I can bend and set aside my own will in subjection to the one who has claim on me. Obedience must stand at the head of the fist of all the activities which would conduce to order and blessing. The demand (even as it was in the first instance with Adam) is to surrender the will to one rightly invested with claim to it. Subjects, servants, wives, children, come under it; and the first commandment with promise is such, because the surrender of the will is an activity contrary to the very genius of our nature ; and this activity God owns and blesses. The path of the Lord Jesus was one of unqualified obedience, but He had always vividly before Him what the consequences of that obedience would be; so that He submitted because of the service He should render, and the joy He should contribute to His Father, and not, as did His type Isaac, because he was ignorant of the issue, or only sustained in his obedience by confidence in the one who required it. This obedience of Isaac in the opening of his history, however, warrants our estimate of him; but if (like the young man in the gospel whom the Lord loved) it proceeded only from natural character, it must be (even as was his) subjected to an unequivocal test.
The more lovely the character, the more unmistakable must be the evidence that such an one has renounced all of himself. He is required to sell all that he has and give to the poor, whence it could not be recalled ; and thus, bereft and denuded, to follow the Lord. Isaac, then, the gentlest of natures, must in figure pass through death! Death! that end of all nature, the only true goal for it, for where the flesh is entirely ended, even in the death of Christ, there only is full deliverance from it, and conscious entrance into the place in which grace has set us. To this unreserved submission to the divine mind unfailingly leads ; and this discipline, so necessary and blessed for him, is imposed on Isaac at the very opening of his history. It is not as with Abraham, separation and self-mortification, but it is nothing short of death, moral death. The more refined and perfect the nature, the more difficult it is to deny it; where there is nothing very manifestly to be denied, it seems hard that all must be denied. Where there is something manifest, the denial of it will always break the will, because the will is expressed in the leading passion, and breaking the will is moral death to nature, which all must pass through, only with some it is accomplished directly through the crushing of some ruling taste or evil; while with others, of a more even nature, such as Isaac's, where nothing stands out prominently to be broken, the whole thing must be negatived, and that practically.
The next notice we get of Isaac is also one of death*; but death of a different description, and which prepared him for a new order of life. The death of his mother has left him a solitary one on the earth ; and this was another way of learning it. Surely we find in divine discipline the twofold way of learning death, that is, either dying myself or everything dying to n2e. May we not say that, as Isaac " meditated in the field," he must (though cheered with hopes of better things to come) have experienced how death can blight all the scene, causing a blank to the heart which nothing in it could repair? The removal of Sarah, however, is followed by the gift of Rebekah, and he emerges from the gloom and sorrow of death to enter, as it were, on the consolation which the Lord has provided for him ; but even then, so true and faithful are the dealings of our God with His people, Isaac the promised seed has no heir; nor has he until cast on God, he is taught to look to Him instead of to nature. He must learn that God's blessings, whatever they be, will not yield desired results apart from Him. But, when this lesson is learnt, the pre-ordained purpose will be accomplished, and thus to Isaac children are given. At their birth is vouchsafed a revelation of their destinies sufficient to guide an ear open to God's mind and counsels, as to what the divine mind respecting them was, and what should be their respective places. Isaac should have understood this, and acted towards them accordingly ; but he does not appear to have done so, or else his habitual nature swamped the counsel of God in his mind, for he does not seem to have discerned in Jacob the heir to the promises, and " he loved Esau because he did eat of his venison.- . The divine intimation is overlooked, because the father's heart is gratified in the attentions of the son, and is more influenced by the dictates of nature than by the counsel of God. Natural and paternal as this feeling was, it was man's will opposed to God's will, and therefore Isaac must be taught to relinquish it-for the word of the Lord, that shall stand!
But this does not happen in a moment. He appears to have enjoyed his preference of Esau for a long time. In the course of discipline to which God subjects His people, we often find that there is a manifest reluctance on His part to deprive us of simple natural enjoyments. Nay, we are often allowed to share in them, until we attempt in the presumption of nature, to give them a place contrary to God: until, like king Uzziah, we seek to give that which has only a place in nature, a place with God; and accordingly invest it with dignities which are sacred to Him. This , almost necessarily occurs where there is a disposition to follow the Lord, and even where pleasing God is the approved motive of the soul ; in fact, where the conscience is in exercise, but the will is not subject. Hence the Lord's demands may be acknowledged in the soul, without the will being really subject to God's will; and, when this is the case, there will be an effort (and often a momentarily successful effort) to appropriate for the creature that dignity and province which the divinely-appointed alone should occupy. In Christendom we see remarkable examples of this, right names attached to the most unfit opponents of them. For instance, " the church," as used in common parlance, no more represents the true thing than the golden calf did the God who brought Israel out of Egypt ; and yet the majority of consciences are satisfied because the true and spiritual name is retained. Alas! we may all fall into this in our own way and practice. We may calm our conscience, while we gratify our will, by affixing to what is but nature's offspring a divine title. Where this tendency is at work there must be discipline; but for some discipline we are not prepared until we pass through that of another order. And mark, while Esau by his hunting is ingratiating himself with his father, and so far annulling the word of God in his mind, the effects of that very hunting oblige him to sell his birthright to the one whom God had designed it for: thus, at the same time, preparing the needed discipline for Isaac, and the fulfilment of the Lord's own purposes. Satan's most apparent success always contains the seed of his own ruin. As in the death of Christ., his Power was concentrated and lost; so in every minor assault of his we should find., if we had but patience to wait for the issue, that his direst plot against us eventuates in our surest deliverance. " Out of the eater comes forth meat."
The next notice we have of Isaac is of a different order. There was a famine in the land ; and Genesis 26 gives us a detailed account of the exercises which he passed through, from the time he departed southward until he returned again. This famine is expressly distinguished from the " first famine " in the days of Abraham. The first tried Abraham, the leader; the second tried Isaac, the occupier. Abraham had turned aside through it and gone down to Egypt. Isaac takes the same direction, and goes to Abimelech, king of the Philistines ; but God there warns him not to go further, but to sojourn in Gerar. He allows him to sojourn there, in order to test the possibility of it; but adds, " Dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of " Isaac not only sojourns in Gerar, but dwells there ; and., as a consequence, his troubles begin. He has another lesson to learn here : even that however prosperous he may be in the land of the Philistines, he can never enjoy the Peace and calm which his soul desired while he is in association with them. He attempts at first to secure an undisturbed residence among them by false representations, which falsity being discovered, humbles him before them ; as one not able to trust God in the circumstances in which he had placed himself. Still he does not leave the place. We often strive to remain where we have been unfaithful, as if we could regain what we had lost; but if our position be one of unbelief, no course of conduct there will ever alter its character. The Lord teaches Isaac the unprofitableness of gain in Gerar. He may be blessed, his corn yielding a hundredfold, until he become very great. But what of it all? The position of stranger would be happier for him, for he might then eat his bread in quietness, and drink from his own fountain in peace ; but with all his greatness and possessions, these mercies are denied him in Gerar.
Isaac, by a slow and painful process, is taught that he must abandon the land of the Philistines in toto: each successive well which he had to dig marking the stages of this process. First, " contention " ; then " hatred " ; next " room ; but having found " room," and being delivered from the association which hampered him, he advances to Beersheba, which is on the confines of the land. He again takes the place of a stranger and pilgrim, depending on God ; and the moment he does so he gets his reward. " The Lord appeared unto him the same night," and blessed him. The discipline had produced sanctification, and he builds an altar and worships. It had taught him that it is better to have a little with God than great possessions in a position outside his calling; and now he enjoys his mercies and his well in peace. It is the same lesson, only in a milder form, which Abraham had to learn; even to crucify his ambition and desire for eminence in this evil world. Ambition seeks to be an object of consideration to others ; affection seeks an object of consideration for itself. Abraham had to pass through the trial and crucifixion of both ; Isaac also, only, as we have said, in a milder form. He is brought to the end of the one, even ambition, in a way very common to the people of God, by finding that no acquisition with evil association can be enjoyed, and by being driven, after various struggles to abandon the wrong position for the untroubled waters of Sheba and the presence of the Lord.
But the great discipline, that of affection, awaits him one for which he was being prepared, as it were, for a long time ; indeed, it was the grand discipline and lesson of his life. It began when, on Mount Moriah, his whole nature, the good as well as the bad, was negatived by passing, in a figure, through death ; and is never lost sight of throughout his course. Then it was more actual death, once and for ever ; but now he is taught that denial of the will which morally leads into what death is practically. All that we hear of him, in connection with his favourite son, Esau, bears the same character, and seems to be a preparation for the trial of his affections, which he was to undergo respecting him at the close, for having unduly indulged nature in preference to the counsel of God. The weakness of the flesh was Isaac's lesson, often a more humbling one than its evils. It caused the beloved disciple to sleep in Gethsemane, and allowed Peter to curse and to swear that he knew not the One whom he loved best on earth.
But, to resume. Esau not only had disposed of his birthright, but he had socially disentitled himself to heirship by marrying a Canaanite. This being known to Isaac, is, as we read, a " grief of mind " to him. Yet even this did not displace Esau from that place in his father's affections which he held for so many years. Esau was forty years old when this marriage took place. Years after this, as we may suppose, when " Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see," he calls Esau to him, and says, " My son,... 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 into the field, and take me some venison, and make me savoury meat, such as I love, that I may eat, and that my soul may bless thee before I die." Thus to the last does Isaac cling to the son he loved, overlooking, in the strength of his natural affection, every divine intimation, and every act of his, which should have influenced him to a different course; and he here comes before us in a truly humbling point of view, as the saint always does when uncontrolled nature rules the day.
But God will subdue nature, unjudged nature, and in Isaac too! And not only this (so perfect and complete are God's ways), but He will use that very gratification, the indulgence of which had served to pervert Isaac's mind and judgment, as the direct instrument wherewith to discipline him. He is allowed to be deceived. Through means of the " savoury meat," his mind was diverted from sound judgment, and through the " savoury meat " he is compelled, unconsciously, to act according to the will of God; not as in the elevated and intelligent action of Jacob, who, in pronouncing his blessing, did so in full accordance of spirit with the mind of God, but as failing, humbled, deceived-carrying out the will of God almost in spite of himself; and without any intelligent communion with Him-the sad effects of nature unjudged, and unmortified.
However, human counsels are frustrated. Jacob, the rightful heir, the appointed of God, receives the blessing, and Isaac must hear it. And now the conflict between the natural will and the word of God takes place in his soul What is the result? Nature surrenders. What a moment; Who can describe the moral volcano which convulses the whole being when the word of God which has been treated with indifference asserts its sway and authority in our souls. Our will withers up before the majesty of the truth made known to us, without sanctifying us. No wonder we read that " Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it to me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? yea [' the word of the Lord is triumphant '], and he shall be blessed! " We should note here a fact of great moment, namely, that though walking in self-will may not, as it cannot, alter truth, yet, if our spirit is not in subjection to God, we shall attempt to apply it very erroneously. It is only when nature is subjected that we can happily accord with the only true and right application of the word of God.
In conclusion, note how the discipline of the Lord works. Isaac has now submitted to the counsel of God; but what a scene of sorrow surrounds him! His affection for Esau wrenched ; and the now rightful heir, the hope of his house, an exile! All this the bitter fruit of natural affection indulged, contrary to the mind of God!
Yet we hear no expression of impatience with Isaac, he blesses Jacob, and sends him to Padan-aram, in the vigour and faith of his best days. And his history closes with the account of how his last days were cheered by the presence of Jacob. Thus we see what is the " END of the Lord," even " very pitiful and of tender mercy," restoring to the bereaved one, when discipline has done its work, all, and even more than it lost. May this comfort all who mourn in Zion!