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“ THE TRIAL AND TRIUMPH OF FAITH.”
PREACHED ON SABBATH MORNING, FEBRUARY 15TH, 1891.
REV. JOHN MCNEILL.
The other Sabbath morning, when we were dealing with the story of Hagar, we suggested that it might have calmed Hagar in the torrent-tempest and whirlwind of her grief if she could have but understood that, after all, no strange thing was happening to her. Trial is the common experience of all those whom God takes into covenant with Himself; they are purified through suffering. She thought, perhaps, that nobody was ever so tried and plagued as she was; turned out a homeless wanderer with her boy. And we thought how, when the Lord spoke to her out of heaven, it was in His power to have assuaged her grief and cooled her burning brow, by telling her that Abraham's day and Isaac's was coming. And, this morning, we are face to face with Abraham's trial. The day has come when all his cherished hopes and ambitions, just like Hagar's, seem to be smashed into nothing by a bolt out of a blue sky.
Vol. III.- No. 15.
This was a severe and unmistakable trial. You are led to expect that by the way in which the narrative ushers itself in. It was to be a trial in deed and in truth, and no mistake about it. It is to be no figure of speech. It is not ushered in with " And the Lord said, I will try Abraham, as it were,” or “I will try Abraham, so to speak, in a sense,” but we are led to believe from the calm, deliberate, matter-of-fact beginning, that there is a calm, deliberate, matter-of-fact trial that shall search Abraham to the very bottom, to the centre and the circumference of his spiritual and moral nature. Was this a real trial? Commentators, I notice, differ about it. Commentators will differ if they can get a chance; and although God says very plainly in the first verse what He was going to do, and still more plainly in the second verse shows us the very angle of incidence of the trial, just where the blow struck in upon all the quivering nerves in Abraham's heart, still some of the commentators say, “Abraham made a mistake. The Lord did not ask him to slay his son.
The Lord only asked him to offer his son up; but according to the old Canaanitish heathen practices of immolation and burning of human bodies that were round about him, he thought that God meant it in this way. Abraham needlessly aggravated the trial." What a pity it is that one of the commentators had not been tried instead of Abraham. For once we should have seen a man going through a great trial on an even keel. By the help of a “Higher Critic" what God said would easily have been turned into anything you please. No, no; let us get rid of this idea. Abraham did not excogitate this out of his own soul. As F. D. Maurice says (and he is not always a sure guide, but he is here), this was not a seed that was dropped
in his mind by accident. God's own hand planted it there, and it was God Himself that made His servant unmistakably understand that He was asking for Isaac to be offered up for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains that He would show him. Asking for Isaac. " And it came to pass, that God did try Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham; and he answered, Here I am.” Then, you know the trial. You know how it is set forth in Scripture. One cannot read it without seeing how the very language in which the trial is expressed is meant to catch our mind's eye, to stir up our sympathies, and to make us go through the whole story with quick sensibility for Abraham, and with clearly-opened eyes that we may see the dealing of God and understand that as it was with the great Head and Prince of the household of faith, so it is with all his lineage. This honour, this mark, this stamp, this brand have all God's saints. As we can bear it, and according to our individuality, our condition, it comes to pass that God does try every spiritual child of Abraham to see whether he be worthy of his lineage, and says to every one of us in some high, and holy, and solemn crisis of life, “ Abraham, Abraham"; and we have to answer, “Here am I.” We who know the New Testament, we who can see Abraham's trial, the end of it from the beginning, could stand up and encourage him as if it were just to be gone through. We could say to him, “Abraham, count it not strange concerning the fiery trial. Abraham, lose not hope, lose not heart. Abraham, count it all joy when put through a furnace like this; for the trial of your faith, much more precious than that of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, shall be found unto praise, and honour, and glory at the appearing of Jesus
Christ." I say this is a process through which we all have to go. The eternal day will show, when all God's sheep are gathered together, that He branded every one of us with this branding iron.
When I read this narrative, I always feel that the trial, the crucifying force of it, lies in a bit of unknown land there -known only to God and known only to Abraham-a bit of unknown land between the second verse and the third, The trial is laid on in the second verse : “ Take thou thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burntoffering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of"; and when you come to the third verse the trial is over, virtually, for you read : “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of the young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him." Why," we feel, “ was there any trial here?”--the one verse slips so into the other. " Was this Abraham flesh and blood ? Did this man feel as other fathers feel ? or is there some kind of vague unreality about these Old Testament people? And then we get the answer: “No, the very best of them, the greatest of them, were as human as we are.” Elijah was a man of like passions with ourselves.
Abraham-well, he could sin like us'; he could make slips and trips like each one of us; he could fall all his length in the dirt, and get as dirty as anybody who falls like that, See what a poor show he made in Egypt. And then you come to the trial, and you read it in the second verse; and the third verse, instead of being filled with expostulations or prayers, or at least asking God did He really mean this the third verse is Abraham bundling, and packing, and splitting wood, and making all ready, and taking Isaac with him, and virtually doing the thing in anticipation. You feel, when you get to the third verse, " This thing will be done." You correctly anticipate. This man is not going to falter from the way in which he is beginning. In that unknown bit between the second verse and the third, the time between the moment when it was plain to Abraham's soul, “ God is calling me to give up Isaac," and the rising early in the morning to give him up, there was a big battle, I have no doubt, although the record of it is not written. By the fact that Abraham is flesh and blood, and that God is trying him, proving him, you may be sure that he winced, and tingled, and keen, lancing pains shot through the whole of that great, big, grand soul of his. It was only because he was the man he was that God laid upon him the trial that He did. Abraham knew that with the other hand God would uphold him and sustain him, but it cost him something. All alone, all alone, that word would come to him, and all through that night, before he rose early in the morning—was Abraham's Waterloo. Then he fought; then he won; then he gave up not only Isaac, but he gave up himself in thought, in feeling, in spirit, in resolution; and, yielding up all to God, he slew Isaac and he slew himself—his own will, his own plan, his own purpose, his own thought. It was done in spirit, and in feeling, and in desire before it was done outwardly. And when you see that calm man stepping out in the third verse, do not misunderstand him. Do not; and then I will not misunderstand you, and you will not misunderstand me. Maybe, to each other, it does not look as if we were being greatly tried.