Abraham: Chapter 15-16

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Gen. 15; 16
There is a sensible difference between the portion we are entering on now, as compared with the chapters we have had before us. They have given not only a distinct, but also, as it appears to me, within their own line, a complete view of that side of the truth which it was in the mind of the Spirit of God to convey. In this way chapters 12, 13, 14 form a whole; and, as we have already seen, the great thing there before God was the call of Abram, and its consequences from first to last, the public step that He was Himself taking in His own ways, in having a man, not only walking by faith, as others had done before, but set apart openly to Himself as none had ever been before. I do not mean merely separate spiritually now for no doubt Abel was so, to begin at the beginning. No one can doubt that, before the difference between him and Cain, or the terrible issue came out into view, the moral distance between the first brothers had been existing, and was felt, not only by themselves, but by every one else. It is plain that Cain's own spirit found it intolerable; and it was just this conviction which he resented, and which carried him to lift up, first his hand in violence against his brother, then his voice, in irreverence and rebellion against God, as his heart had been a stranger to Him all through.
Here is another thing. For the first time we see the efficacious principle of a separate witness, to whom God conveyed a promise, and a promise too that had to do not only with what was unseen but with what all could see. After coming out at God's word, the latter was indeed the earlier of the two; for what Heb. 11 shows is that, first of all, Abram was acted on by faith to leave the country to which he belonged, and when he came into the land that God promised to give him, then his eyes were lifted higher still. Thus does the Spirit of God show us the introduction of the great principle which God has never given up since, but has always been carrying out. He set it publicly before Israel in an earthly way, and now He is giving it effect after a heavenly sort. This seems to be the subject of chapters 12, 13, 14. That it is concluded there is manifest from this, that we have a scene which brings distinctly before us the last great conflict—the battle between the kings of the earth, and the victory which the man of faith enjoys by the power of God, even over the powers previously victorious. In short, it is there we have the type of the great “Priest upon his throne” in Melchizedek, active toward God as well as man, blessing man in the name of the “most high God,” and blessing the “most high God” on the part of man. All this will assuredly find its due place and season when Christ appears in glory.
To this I have referred in a brief summary, to show you that there is a complete whole in these chapters, starting with the call, and ending with the glory; so that we have the general public picture of the life of faith, with its worship, its drawbacks, failure, and recovery: the disclosure of the earthly mind too, its covetousness, and its disasters; faith's triumph over the world it had left behind, and the sudden appearing of Him who will display the glory of God in the blessing of man, and the harmony of heaven and earth; all brought before us within the compass of these three chapters.
But what follows seems rather to come back again, and make a new start. That this is true is most evident from chapter xv., as compared with those before it, and indeed it relieves one of no little difficulty when seen to be so intended by the Spirit. For if it be viewed simply as a: continuance of the former chapters, would it not be very extraordinary to hear now that Abram is justified by faith? There is naturally, therefore, a fresh beginning. Of course, it is not denied for a moment that what took place at this time did literally occur after the scene with Melchizedek; but we are now speaking of the ulterior and deeper aim which the Spirit of God had in recording these matters. It is a question not only of facts, but of God's mind in His word; and we are seeking to regard it as a divinely given source of profit for ourselves, and of gathering from the Lord why it is; for we may with reverence inquire, and indeed are bound to inquire, seeing this is the way in which we grow in the knowledge of the mind of God.
Why then, we ask, does the Spirit of God introduce this theme at this particular place? It appears to me that here we have a fresh start, and another course of divine lessons for our souls, in looking at the new dealing of God with His servant. And it will be shown further that there is a series, as it is not merely an isolated fact; but, just as we saw in what went before, a chain of circumstances all connected one with another, and completing the subject as a whole. A similar principle governs here as there. There is this remarkable difference, that here we come to what is far more personal, as one may call it. We have no longer public testimony. What we have had bears this character right through, from first to last. But here another thing is impressed on us, and very important in its place—that we are not merely witnesses. Here, accordingly, personal faith comes first before us.
Some of us must be more or less aware of the danger to the soul from being so occupied with that which is public as to neglect what is personal. Take, for instance, the gathering together of saints to the Lord's name—our assembling around His table. Who does not know that, however precious the privilege, however closely bound up with the Lord's glory, however full of comfort, and blessing, and growth to our souls, if used aright, there remains much which is not a question of testimony, but of the exercise of faith individually, carrying one more into God's presence, and intercourse between Him and our souls?
Here, at any rate, in the wonderful book before us, begins a new series of instruction. God is showing His dealings with the soul of Abram, and not viewing him so much as a witness for Him before others. He is viewed alone as in his house, but, above all, with God. Every one could see when Abram had left his country, and set out for a promised land: they could see, too, that he sometimes failed for a season to accomplish what was before him. And it is all most instructive. Then, again, his pitching his tent, or rearing an altar, was all visible, and meant to be so: so, further, the victory over the powers of the world was that which men generally could not only hear of but feel—it was a real and public testimony. But had this been all, it would not have met what God meant to give, and what He loves to give, for the blessing of the soul. There is such a thing as living too much in the public walk and activity of a saint, to the neglect of that which is more personal. This seems precisely what the Spirit of God enters into here from chapter xv.—the dealings of God with the soul individually, beginning with its wants, but leading on to a far deeper communion with Himself.
The first thing to notice by the way is, “After these things.” This is the usual way of marking off a new division or a fresh subject. You will find a similar expression at another and similar section in chapter 22. There clearly begins a line of things quite distinct from what preceded. So it is here. “After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram.” We have not had this expression before, although we have had “the Lord said to Abram.” What makes it more remarkable is, that in the counterpart of it in the Acts of the Apostles (chap. 7.), we are told that “the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham” at that very time. Thus it is the more striking, because, although He did appear, it is not so said in Gen. 12 It was according to the mind of God only to speak of His speaking to Abram. Of course it remains perfectly true that He did appear, but not a word of it is mentioned in the history, which adds indeed to the point of it, by the seventh verse of the same chapter, where it is distinctly declared that God appeared to Him; and worship is thus grounded on it, that is, on the positive revelation of God to his soul, and not merely on a revelation from God. Such, too, is the form in which God presents that which has come out now in Christ our Lord. There the Father was showing Himself in Him. We are called to the knowledge of the Father and the Son, and truly our fellowship is with both, the Holy Ghost being the power that gives the enjoyment of it. Thus it is not merely His words we have, but the showing of Himself. So one of the disciples said, “Show us the Father,” though, this indeed He was ever doing, but they were dull to see it. An hour was coming, however, when they should see it. This was the hour for Christian worship, which is the answer of the heart, the precious and spontaneous, effect of the revelation of God to the soul.
Here then, as one sees, is a new form we have not had before. It is not merely that the Lord “said,” still less that the Lord “appeared,” but, suitably to the fresh lesson of the Spirit of God, “After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram.” What “the word” calls for is faith. There we discern at once the reason of it; and faith is the groundwork of all dealings between the soul and God. As, on the one hand, it is “the word of the Lord” that came to Abram; so, on the other, faith answers to His word; and this is the point of truth illustrated here.
But there is another trait noticeable, the wisdom of God in not always putting—indeed we may say never, but of Christ, putting—the highest truth first. This is of great moral interest. Even if it were the Lord Jesus from heaven speaking to Saul of Tarsus, still after all He is dealing first with his conscience, though by the light of the glory in Himself. There might be that which Saul, afterward pondering, enters. into far more deeply than when he was converted; but the thing that was blessed to his soul was a divine person, yet a man, in heaven, judging all yet in perfect grace, and not something that supplied merely a wonder for the mind to be occupied with. This was not the point. He was made nothing of before the Lord. No flesh may glory. One can glory, but only in the Lord. And so I find here. This scene may not be at all so deep, high, or large in its character as what follows, but it just marks the way of the Lord in dealing with the soul to justify it.
The truth is, when the “word of the Lord” comes to a soul, it not only finds, but awakens, wants. Such is its just fruit. It is not only that we are needy. The present case of Abram was not that of one disturbed and anxious about its condition. Abram, long before, was quickened of God, and indeed had been in His ways, as we know, for many years before this; but God was pleased to make the chapter that comes before us the first of a new series for the opening of His truth in the more hidden and personal life of His servant. The first thing seen here is that He sets him in perfect confidence in Himself,
“Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” No doubt there was a beautiful suitability in this revelation after what had just passed. Abram had refused what the world had to give, and God graciously owns this with complacency, and announces Himself his sufficient reward. If God wore his shield, Abram need not fear the jealousy of the Canaanite, nor even the hostile reprisals of the kings he had defeated, nor yet from any other quarter. “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” God would be true to His own word. There was a bulwark of protection, and source of supply, at once secured to His servant. But mark the effect. It awakens the sense of wants, and draws out, bp, the expression of those wants. If Abram had long felt in secret any such desire, there is no reason to suppose that he had ever told it out to God before. Now he does. God had given him the land of promise, but he was not content with that, and God meant that he should have more. His unfolding Himself to him in this new way leads Abram to breathe out what he had perhaps never defined to himself before. He was not content with the general terms God had hitherto used to him. He says, “Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless?” Where was the value of God's being ever so great a reward, if after all he was childless, “and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?” What matter the lands he might have, if all was to go to his servant?
Now I do not say that this is by any means the highest point of Abram's faith; on the contrary, it seems to me far from what we see not long after. But still there was reality, and this is assuredly one point of moment for us here—that God would always have us in the truth of our state, whatever this may be. Suppose a person is not at ease about his sins, let him not gloss it over. If God is dealing with his soul, He brings it clearly out. If to be fully blessed, the person is made as unhappy as he can be, and it is the same grace which gives to the soul the assurance that God blots out and forgives which brings the soul to look at its own sins to the very depth. So again, yet more, supposing a person is clear enough about his forgiveness, still he may be troubled about the sin that dwells in him. This is another exercise for souls. But, whatever the occasion, God will always have reality; and though He encourages in grace, that He begins with it is what we find in His dealing with Abram now. He sounds Abram's wishes and thoughts, and He brings out from his lips what was at the bottom of his heart. He who had the promises was not satisfied, because he had not a son to inherit all that God had given him. And so he takes this place— “Behold, to me thou hast given no seed, and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.” Soon the word of the Lord comes to him again. “This shall not be thine heir, but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.” And then he is taken abroad, and bid to “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars if thou be able to number them; and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness” —that very fruitful scripture, which the New Testament uses over and over again for the most important purposes. In all these, however, it will be observed, that the object is to meet the soul at the starting-point individually, which is exactly what I am showing in the account of Abram, though in fleet the thing occurred in Abram's history after he had been a believer some time. Still, even the New Testament shows that life is not justification, so that the truth abides substantially alike everywhere. But even though quickened, a person cannot go on steadfastly, or enter into the mind of God fully, until he is clear as to the grave point of righteousness. This too gives us an instructive lesson for ourselves in having to do with others. It makes us feel the incomparable mercy that God has shown us in this respect; for if there is one thing that He has been pleased to bring out into distinctness, and to give the simplest souls to enjoy through faith in Christ and His work, it is that personal freedom, and deliverance from every question, which it is our privilege now to enjoy; and I believe that a greater mercy there cannot possibly be for the believer individually.
Very likely what first arrested one was something quite different. It may have been with us as it was with Abram. Many of those called out in our day were brought into and occupied at first with the public ways of God. What we had understood as the church was learned to be a mere ruin. We had received from God truth as to His own will and counsels about us, as Abram had; but God wrought, and powerfully too, in another way. Not of course that any one could assume in such a state to have more than a very partial insight into God's mind in that respect. But this one may say, that unless a soul be at one time or another—perhaps not always at the start—brought into clearance, into thorough enjoyment of its own place by grace through faith, the public walk of faith in testimony and worship will not always possess its charm, still less will the soul always hold it in power for the Lord's glory. The real reason, one will find, why souls (and not infrequently, grievous to say) slip out of the place of witness to Christ, is, that they have never been thoroughly broken down as individuals. They have never really been brought into that which would make the preciousness of Christ alone, and liberty by and in Him, enjoyed by their souls. They have slurred over the great matter of personal clearance with God. The public life, in short, has been not only that on which the soul first entered but where it abides, and this entails an unconscious escaping from the question of finding and getting the answer to our wants personally with God.
Now this seems to me of no small moment, not only for ourselves, but also in dealing with the persons we meet from day to day. Were it only a question of what is public, it would not bear the stamp of the truth of God. It might be true, but still there would be something wanting for spirituality of soul, I believe it, therefore, to be a matter of profound thankfulness to our God that He has not only brought out from His word the path of faith in worship and public walk, and given some few to enter into it more or less, but He has brought the same souls into the liberty with which Christ makes free. Doubtless there are differences of apprehension, and there must be so among the people of God; we are not all equally spiritual or simple. But it remains true that God has of late wrought so that we should by grace enjoy both these aspects of the truth, the public and the personal, and that the very same testimony which on one side of it has made clear to us what is publicly for the glory of the name of the Lord Jesus, has brought the word of God into our souls to establish us in His righteousness more clearly, and with greater power, than we ever knew before we trod that public place of testimony. Can I not appeal to the souls that read these words for the truth of them?
But as some despise what is public in desire for the supply of personal need, so others may merge all in what is public. There is danger, therefore, on either side. The general testimony may expose to the danger of neglecting the more personal part of the truth. As we see, it was not so with Abram; and it is of great consequence that we should look to this for ourselves, if we are not in perfect peace, and for souls generally.
Never assume that those who bear the Lord's name in Christendom are personally clear before God. If they are in thorough departure from the mind of God ecclesiastically, they are just as ignorant and unestablished as to the soul. It is a good thing to bring them out of that which hinders them; but seek far more than that. Do not fail to probe the soul as to the consciousness of its place with God. Do not be content that they should hear a little of what is meant by the assembly; that they should see the importance of what it is to worship the Father in spirit and in truth. This is well, and also most important; but there is a nearer want, which may never have been fully faced and met. Can the person take the place now of standing before God in calm and constant confidence, without spot or stain? Does he know what it is (for that is the form the truth takes for us) to be not only justified by faith, but dead to sin, and crucified to the world? Sometimes, through unwillingness to offend, or assumption that a believer must know, we are apt to slur over these matters, just as if, because they have taken a public stand, all the rest must be settled. Often it has never been so; and very generally, if not always, it will turn out that those who have slipped aside from the testimony are men that never enjoyed the individual clearance of their souls. “That day” may show that all who have departed from what is due to the name of the Lord Jesus were weak personally. Indeed, if we ourselves come to search, looking back, and weigh that which they have talked or (it may be) preached, do we not see ground enough to infer that there had always been a lack there? No wonder that the public walk failed, if the personal faith was never according to the just measure of the truth of God.
This, then, is the prominent point here; and you will observe that in this chapter Abram does not rise above the answer to his wants. Let none slight what is so needful and important in its season. It is no use to be asking for great things, if there be an unsatisfied want that is near the heart; and this was the case with Abram. God, no doubt, meant all through to have given him a son; nevertheless, He would have Abram's heart thoroughly searched, and sends His word purposely to bring out what was there, meets him where he is, answers the faith that was exercised, and gives him further enlargement, with a token by which he should know that he should inherit the land. Thus his heart is first drawn out about a son, and if a son, then an heir. The inheritance follows, though alter intervening sorrow and trial.
Accordingly we find what was very appropriate as a sign of this— “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a horror of great darkness fell upon him.” You see it is not one that stands in the light of God, but one that was still in the region of his own wants, and of all the sorrow that belongs to wants connected with such a world and such a state. Ultimately we find that the land is secured to Abram as punctually as in a map. The Lord knew what was in Abram's mind, and so He enters into this covenant— “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates, the Kenites, and the Kenizites,” &c.
Throughout the chapter, then, it is what man wanted, and this made it a suited scene for illustrating justification. It was not God appearing, but the word that came, and Abram believed, and his faith was counted to him for righteousness. Jehovah had adapted His word to bring this about by saying, “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” Then Abram asks, and has the promise of a son and heir out of his own bowels, his seed to be as the stars for number. The pledge follows whereby he should know his inheritance of Canaan. It is sealed by a sacrifice; and the horror of great darkness which fell on sleeping Abram seems to me in keeping with the prophecy of affliction for his seed in a strange land, however surely the Lord would judge the nation they should serve, and they should come again to Canaan when the iniquity of the Amorites was ripe for divine vengeance.
A smoking furnace and a lamp of fire passing between the pieces point to the same, while the same day Jehovah covenants with Abram, marking the limits of the laud and the devoted races of Canaan. Throughout it is the wants of man on the earth, and God securing the answer, in His grace, by sacrificial death. It is the earthly people to be delivered by judgment on their enemies in and out of the land.
But Abram did not know how to wait; and Sarai takes no happy part in the action of chapter 16. It is first “that which is natural,” though we can also add, “afterward that which is spiritual.” Flesh is impatient, and seeks at once the accomplishment in its own way. She proposes her Egyptian bondmaid, Hagar, and Abram hearkening, instead of walking by faith, the maid conceives, and her mistress is despised. The Epistle to the Galatians gives the certain clue to what we else might never have understood. It is the covenant of Sinai which she represents, answering to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. The law works not peace, but wrath; not the accomplishment of the promise but fleshly pride, and a child born in sorrow who cannot be heir. What a contrast to blessing and praise through the royal priest in chapter xiv., or the altars of chapters 12, 13! If the justified man take up the law (save to convict others), no wonder if the issue be disappointment on all hands. Such is the solemn admonition of chapters 15, 16.