The appointment of this chapter, containing the history of the command to the patriarch Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, to be read as one of the lessons for this day, is an evidence that our church considers this event as typical of that which she now commemorates--the offering up, by the Almighty Father, of his only Son, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The whole subject is suitable for our contemplations on this day.
Let us then state the history;
Vindicate it from objections; and
Urge the ends answered by it.
After the lamentable degeneracy of our first parents, mankind, following the impulse of their wicked imaginations, formed gods unto themselves, and nearly extinguished the knowledge of the Lord, the only living and true God. These wicked and idolatrous nations the Almighty Ruler of the world swept away by a deluge, preserving only Noah and his family. Their descendants soon forgot this mark of the divine indignation, and, like their forefathers before the flood, departed from [273/274] the service of the Maker of heaven and of earth. But it pleased God, in the exercise of infinite compassion, not again to punish the idolatrous world. He revealed his name and his perfections to Abraham his servant, whose posterity he designed to make his peculiar people, the depositaries of his wo/fl and service, and the centre from which the beams of divine truth might afterwards irradiate the nations. "The Lord said unto Abraham, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee." [Gen. xii. 1.]
In obedience to this command, the pious patriarch leaves the land of his nativity, encounters the difficulties of a long and toilsome journey, and, under the divine protection, at last dwells securely in the land of Canaan. To him was given the glorious promise*, that "in his seed alt the families of the earth should be blessed:" and though the blessing of the promised son was long delayed, Abraham continued "strong in faith," being fully persuaded, that what God had promised, he was able also to perform. Isaac, the son of promise, was at length given to his ardwnt prayers: but severe was the- trial, in regard to this son of his affection, to which, in infinite wisdom, he was subjected.
God did "tempt" (that is, try) "Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And God said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt-offering, upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of." [Gen. xxii. 1, 2.] Every circumstance which rendered [274/275] Isaac peculiarly dear to Abraham his father, is here forcibly presented. Isaac, the only, the beloved son, the destined comfort of his father's old age, the son in whom was wrapped up the gracious promise of future blessings to the world, was to be sacrificed by the fund father. Exalted the faith which repelled every murmur, and bowed him submissive to the severe command!
"Rising up early in the morning," Abraham prepares for his journey. Its purpose, in tenderness to the mother of Isaac, the patriarch did not communicate to her; accordingly the preparations which were made indicated only an intention to engage in an act of worship by the burnt-offoring of a lamb. Accompanied by Isaac, and two young m«n bearing wood for the sacrifice, Abraham set out on his journey. On the third day, the place -of sacrifice appears afar off: thither Abraham advances with Isaac only, on whom was laid the wood. Supposing that the object of their journey was to worship God by a burnt-offering, and therefore surprised that his father had not prepared a lamb for the purpose, he calls to him, "My father," and receives the tender reply, "Here am I, my son." Directing to his father his eager countenance, beaming with innocence, affection, and piety, Isaac solicitously asks, "Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?" Heart-rending question to the fond father! he could not then summoa resolution to announce to Isaac--Thou, my son, art the victim: he piously directs the faith and trust of Isaac to God--"My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt-offering."
They pursue their journey--they come to the place of sacrifice: the altar is built--the wood is [275/276] laid in order--Isaac permits his father to bind him, and to lay him on the wood. What an example of holy submission to the will of God! In obedience to that will, a son consents to lay down his life--a father prepares to be his son's executioner. Behold Abraham by the altar on which was laid, bound, the innocent victim. Isaac looks to heaven for resignation, and then to his father, expecting the fatal stroke. Abraham stretches forth his arm to plunge the knife into the bosom of his son. Unsearchable often thy dispensations, Almighty God, yet ever full of mercy!--delighting not in human victims, thou didst arrest the blow. "The angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me." What gratitude and joy must have cheered the breast of the patriarch! "He lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold a ram caught in a thicket by its horns: and he went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering instead of his son."
It is now our business to vindicate this history from objections.
It is asserted that God, who is most merciful, just, and holy, could not approve, much less require, the unnatural act of a parent sacrificing his child. But though, for wise and good purposes, the Sovereign Ruler of the universe required this act in the case of Abraham, he did not permit it to be consummated: he restored Isaac, the destined victim, to the embrace of his afflicted father, with [276/277] his virtue more exalted, and therefore more worthy of parental love, by the noble fortitude and resignation which he had displayed. God restored him, too, with renewed and gracious blessings. "By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand upon the sea-shore--and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."
But if God had required from Abraham the actual sacrifice of his son, who will presume to arraign the sovereign authority of the Creator over the creatures of his hand? We hold our life as a free gift from him, and he may take it away in whatever mode and at whatever time he pleases. He who gave to Abraham the promised blessing--a son, in his old age--might have required that, for infinitely wise and good purposes, he should be offered up by his father, a holy sacrifice to the God that made him. Nor would this act have authorized the barbarous custom of the Heathen in immolating their children on the altars of their false gods. Theirs was a superstitious, unauthorized homage to imaginary deities, whom their corrupt fancy clothed with every detestable vice and passion. The sacrifice of Isaac was an exalted act of holy obedience to the living God, the ever-blessed Jehovah, who, by his visible presence, convinced Abraham of the reality of the command. But let it be remembered that Isaac was not sacrificed, and that the goodness of God shines with the brightest lustre in the glorious blessings with which he rewarded the faith [277/278] of his servant. Abraham considered the command, not as the mandate of an arbitrary Sovereign, but as the requisition of a righteous and merciful Parent. He was unshaken in his conviction, that however dark and mysterious was the requisition to sacrifice his son, the reasons for it were infinitely wise and good. This was the faith which inspired Abraham with fortitude and strength to resolve to sacrifice his son: it was a faith grounded, not on the apparent reasonableness of the command, but on his obligations and duty to obey the Almighty Being, his Maker, Preserver, and Benefactor, who prescribed it.
And infinitely wise and good were the ends accomplished by the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son.
I. The faith of the holy patriarch was thus confirmed and exalted.
The merit of obedience is always in proportion to the number and greatness of the obstacles to be overcome. That faith which overcomes the strongest principles of human nature, and the most tender feelings of the heart, is the most exalted and meritorious. Such was the faith of Abraham, evidenced by his readiness to sacrifice his son. He bound his tenderly-beloved son on the altar--he made bare the bosom in which to plunge the knife. More entire submission to the will of God, founded on confidence in his divine perfections and his right to command, could not be exhibited, than that which was here displayed. Jehovah himself set his seal to the faith and virtue of his servant--"Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me."
 II. By this command to Abraham he became an instructive and glorious example to the people of God in all future ages.
Piety and virtue shed instruction and pleasure on all who behold them; they live in the benefits which they have diffused, and in the unworthy whom they may have reclaimed, long after their possessor is numbered with the dead; and they live in the sacred page of history, to instruct, reprove, and reform the latest generations. Happy, then, the man, whose virtue, eminently tried, and therefore eminently illustrious, becomes an instructive and blessed example to the world! Severe was the sacrifice which Abraham was called to-make; but his holy submission, his unreserved obedience, his vigorous and unshaken faith, have not only made him eternally blessed, but have exalted him at the head of the faithful servants of the living God; and his example the servants of God. in all ages, are called to imitate. But,
III. By this trial of his faith, both he and his posterity had a lively view and assurance of the plan of redemption through the promised Messiah.
Among the nations of the East, it was common to communicate information by signs and actions expressive of things and events. Many instances of this language of signs occur in the Old Testament, particularly in the prophetic books. When Isaiah was to foretell the captivity of Egypt and Ethiopia, he loosed the sackcloth from off his loins, and put off' the shoe from his foot, and walked naked, (that is, without the rough garments which the prophets wore;) by this expressive action declaring that the Ethiopians and Egyptians should [279/280] be led captive, and barefoot. To denote the subjection into which God would bring the nations whom Nebuchadnezzar would conquer, the prophet Jeremiah made bonds, and put them on his neck. And among a variety of instances, more common in Ezekiel than in any of the other prophets, to denote the captivity of Israel, he was directed by God to bring out the furniture of his house in the sight of all the people, signifying that in this manner they should be removed, and go into captivity. This language of signs, indeed, was common among the Eastern nations, from the earliest times. The Deity therefore, who, in a revelation to any person or people, would adopt that mode which would be most expressive and intelligible, in order to inform Abraham and his posterity of the plan of redemption through the death of the promised seed, commanded the patriarch to sacrifice his son. By this transaction the mystery of redemption was laid open to the view of the patriarch. The poignancy of his own feelings when about to sacrifice Isaac, would assist him to form some estimate of the surpassing love of God to man, by giving up, to suffering and death, his only-begotten and well-beloved Son. In the resignation and submission of the innocent Isaac were portrayed the meek readiness and patience with which the Lamb of God sustained the griefs and carried the sorrows of guilty man. Isaac bore the wood on which he was bound a victim: Jesus carried the cross on which he suffered an atoning sacrifice for sin. In the restoration of Isaac as it were from the dead, was prefigured the resurrection of Christ from the grave, after having expiated sin. And in the gracious blessing which God bestowed upon Isaac, [280/281] was denoted his merciful acceptance of the complete sacrifice which the Messiah would make for the sins of the world. In the mournful scene which wrung the heart of the patriarch, he beheld the glorious plan of redemption through the promised Messiah--that redemption which was faintly foretold in the promise, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent. In the bitter grief and agony which the giving up of his own son occasioned, the astonishing goodness of God, in sparing not the Son of his bosom, appeared worthy of unutterable praise and love.
It was not to Abraham only that the command to sacrifice Isaac displayed the plan and mystery of redemption: it was handed down, as a type and assurance of that event, to the nation of the Jews: and to us, at this day, it is in some measure fm evidence that the promised Messiah, thus typified in Isaac, has indeed visited us in Christ the Lord.
Let us learn from this history,
1. To adore the goodness of God in the trial of his servants.
He tried the faith of Abraham, that it might become more exalted and illustrious. He tries the faith of his servants, in every age, with the same gracious purpose. It is not to sport with the creatures of his hand, or to display his resistless sovereignty and power, that he assails us with calamity--that he separates from us those most dear to us--that he often places us in situations most critical and trying. No; "like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth those that fear him." It is to purify his people from the dross of infirmity and sin, and to perfect them in that holy and entire subjection to his will, which is their highest [281/282] happiness--it is that their faith, vanquishing every enemy, and triumphing over every temptation, may finally obtain a crown of glory that shall never fade away--that he tries them sometimes "seven times in the fire." What force and propriety, then, in the exhortation of the apostle--"Count it all joy, brethren, when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trial of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."
2. Let us learn to adore the goodness of God in the aids and motives to virtue which he affords us in the example of holy men.
Precepts, however strong and animating, speak not to the heart with that persuasion and energy as example. Religion is displayed, in example, in all her dignity and sweetness. When we contemplate her as portrayed by the sacred writers, as delineated in the law of God, she appears in such perfection and purity, that we may be led to suppose that she does not leave heaven, her blest abode, to dwell among frail and sinful mortals. But when we contemplate the examples, exhibited in Scripture, of holy men, we are induced to acknowledge that religion was designed for man, as his perfection and happiness; that truly she "rejoiceth in the habitable parts of the earth, and her delights are with the sons of men." By these holy men the law of God was fulfilled in its extent and purity, and his statutes rejoiced their hearts. We see those who, "through faith, subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises." And what they have done by the grace of God, we can do also. "Encompassed by so great a cloud of [282/283] witnesses," it behoves us "to lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset us, and to run with patience the race which is set before us." [Heb. xii. 1.] We have reason then to praise God, that, to the holy instructions of his word, the awful calls of his threatenings, the enlivening influences of his promises, the invigorating and quickening operations of his Spirit, he has added the animating example of the faithful, to "awaken us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness," and to direct, strengthen, and console us in our Christian course.
But let us remember, that, without the virtues of the faithful servants of God, we cannot expect to inherit their reward: let us remember, that theirs were lives of ardent devotion, triumphant faith, and holy resignation. The same glorious perfection of piety is attainable by us. Yes; exalted as was the faith of Abraham, it is required of every Christian, not in the particular instance to sacrifice an only son, but in an entire surrender of his will, his affections, and his whole life, to the holy will of God. Studying and meditating on the example of the faithful, and excited by the grace of God to a holy emulation of them, after being made perfect through faith and patience, we shall be thought meet to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of God.
3. Let us, in unreserved trust and submission to God, receive with humility whatever he has revealed.
This was the conduct of Abraham. When he received the command to sacrifice Isaac, he did [283/284] not hesitate, but instantly prepared to obey. "It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth to him good," was doubtless his language. Worthy his conduct of our imitation! That pride of reason which rejects every truth that cannot be measured by its imperfect standard, is reconcileable neither with the modesty and sincerity of the inquirer after truth, nor with the humility and piety of the Christian. Impressed with a sense of the imperfection and frailty of reason, and firmly trusting in the unsearchable wisdom and infinite goodness of the Maker and Ruler of the universe, let us believe with humility whatever God has revealed, and obey, without a murmur, whatever he commands. He is our heavenly Father and Friend; he has revealed as much as is for our present good to know; he suffers no evil nor care to assail us which is not designed in tender mercy; his goodness, therefore, should lead us to repentance, and to devote ourselves to his service. Then we may cherish that full confidence in his favour which will light up comfort in the darkest night of sorrow. It was this confidence which cheered and animated the patriarch Abraham in the severe trial which he was called to sustain. Let us love and obey God, and all things shall work together for our good. The sorrows and trials of this mortal life shall soon pass away, and we shall enter on the fulness of bliss in God's presence.
Finally. Let us endeavour, from this history, to estimate the infinite love of God towards us, in giving up his only-begotten and well-beloved Son to suffering and death for our redemption.
Infinitely removed indeed is Jehovah, the eternal Spirit, from human passions; but every virtuous [284/285] affection exists in him, in a perfection, purity, and strength inconceivable by us. Inconceivably perfect, pure, and strong, therefore, was the love which, in the incomprehensible Godhead, subsisted between the Father and the Son; yet this Son God the Father gave, not to take upon him the nature of angels, but of fallen man--gave, not to ease, and splendour, and power, but to pain, suffering, and death, for us and our salvation. Well may this be considered as an evidence of the surpassing love of God for us; well may the apostle say--"God so loved the world, as to give his only-begotten Son." Let us then with reverence labour to conceive what were the holy emotions of the ever-blessed God, when he gave up his only Son to the bitter agonies of the cross. In the case of Isaac, death was the penalty which he must sustain as a sinner; but the Son of God, who knew no sin, sustained this penalty. The death which Isaac was called to sustain, was not a death of ignominy, nor of more than ordinary pain; but the death of Christ was that of the vilest malefactor, aggravated by insults, and scoffs, and reviling--it was a death embittered by the sense of the sins of the whole world--by the dereliction of his Father's presence and favour: yet to this death did God the Father give his only Son--this death did the Son, partaker of the glory of the Godhead, sustain--and let it be remembered--for us. Human conception fails fully to realize this mystery of infinite love. But how aggravated must be the guilt, how dreadful the condemnation of those that disregard it--that neglect a salvation prompted by the love of God the Father, wrought by the love of God the Son! To [285/286] Him, then, that loved us, and gave himself for us, let us, in the devotion of our hearts and the obedience of our lives, as well as in the homage of our lips, ascribe all honour, and praise, and glory, for ever and ever.