The Wells of Isaac
If you look at single verses of this chapter you might suppose that Isaac was a very excellent man. If you look at other verses in the same chapter you will find that he was guilty of express and abominable falsehood. Is it not the same chapter which records your life?—mine? Our life is not one whole chapter in a solid paragraph, to be read through as if it were but one great sentence: our life-chapter is broken up into verses, punctuated sometimes very strangely and surprisingly. To pick out a single verse from that chapter and say "That is the man" might make us too good; shall I add that to pick out another kind of verse from the same chapter and to say "That is the man" might perhaps hardly do justice to the roundness and the inner most quality and meaning of our character? Believe me we are not quite so good as some little verse in our own life-chapter would seem to imply, and you will believe me when I say that, notwithstanding the blackness of some stinging verses—the horrible blasphemy—we did not altogether mean it exactly as if might be read by an elocution that was determined against us. Blessed be Heaven! it is not the business of any man to read my life-chapter, nor my business to read any other man"s life-chapter. God will read all the writing—a wondrous Reader: skilled in all the holy cunning of love which gets meanings and suggests emphases, and reads up into accents quite out of the way of mere scholarly reading and literary articulation. Jesus Christ has given us an instance of his way of reading, and when he read the chapter to the very people who were supposed to have dictated it by their action, they said "Well, well." That will be so in the last great reading. Comfort one another with these words. Great meanings will come out of little actions, as great trees come out of little bulbs. Spoken by the Lord, our life"s speech will expand into a noble eloquence, and throb with inexpressible meanings, and heaven will begin in the surprise with which we shall listen to the testimony of him who is above our life. Never exclude the other side of the picture. Let us be frank with ourselves. Some of our neglects may be turned into impeachments; some of our omissions may be charged upon us as high treason against the law of love and trust and obligation. We do not recognise them; we have a way of over-leaping certain spaces in the life, and of referring to some things in whispers; but our neglects may be the beginning of our hell. Suppose we are not guilty of direct, overt, and nameable crimes,—we may be charged with omissions—you ought to have done this beauteous deed of charity; you ought to have spoken that tender word of comfort, you ought to have visited such and such solitude and turned it into sweet companionship. These are the things we make nothing of. Because we are not guilty of murder, therefore we think we are not guilty of heart-slaughter. God will read the life-chapter at last, and in the reading of it he will divide the universe of humanity into heaven and hell.
What a detestable man Isaac is when he tells lies to the king of the Philistines! Then he goes out well-hunting, as if he deserved to find water in the earth; and, secondly, calls the wells after the names which his father Abraham had given them. What contradictions we are!—telling lies to a living king, and sentimentally honouring a dead father. Mean man! has Isaac left any posterity upon the earth? Do we look upon him as an ancient character, or as a modern instance? We are doing the same thing ourselves in some form or way. What if in the very middle of our life there be just one great black lie, and lying outside two or three beautiful touches of sentiment—quite a skill in the drawing up of epitaphs, and quite a tearful and watery way of talking about old fathers and old associations? All these speeches make the lie the worse; when we see how little good we might be and might do, it aggravates the central evil of the life into overpowering and intolerable proportions. We never know how profane is the blasphemy until we catch ourselves in prayer. To think that the tongue blackened by that profanity could have also uttered that same prayer! Why, in the contrast is a new accusation and a fresh reproach. But let us follow Isaac in his well-digging. Man must have wells; man must go out of himself and pray to God in digging, if he will not pray in liturgy and uttered hymn and psalm in words. God lays his hand upon us at unexpected places: if we will not fall down upon our knees, we must still bend the proud back and dig in his earth in quest of water. At best we are dependants, seekers, always in quest of something which another hand alone can give us. Oh that men were wise! that in these true and inevitable providences we might see the beginning of inward and spiritual Revelation, and that knowing the goodness of God in the gift of water and of bread, we might proceed to know that ineffable goodness which expressed itself in sacrificial and propitiatory blood. From the lower to the higher, I charge thee to go, or else thy reasoning is a base sophism and the beginning of an awful crime. Isaac"s men are now in a little valley through which the summer torrent poured, and it is very dry, and they must seek water, and they dig and find the water of which they were in quest, and then the herdmen of the Philistines said, "The water is ours"; and Isaac called the well Strife—Esek. We have dug that well ourselves; you have dug it in your business. Do not suppose that men can find wells and be let alone. If Isaac"s men had found nothing but dust, the men of Gerar would never have spoken to them. It is what you find that excites the surprise, the envy, the opposition of those who are not in sympathy with you. If you sometimes take that view of life, it may help you. If you had plunged your hand into the wild wind and plucked nothing out of it, your unkindest neighbour would not have spoken harshly about you; he would have been rather pleased on the whole, and have treated himself to some new little luxury; but when you bring back news of wells, and mines, and fruit-fields, and harvests plentiful and golden, and then have to enter into contest, do not look so much at the contention as at the prize: take the broader, brighter view of things, even the divine aspect of life"s reality, and remember that all life is—after all, through all—a contest, a strife, a controversy, a sharp friction.
Isaac took the right course: he said, "Pass on and find another well." His men "digged another well," and the men of Gerar "strove for that also: and he called the name of it Sitnah"—Hatred. Who can bear two successes? One might have been forgotten, but repetition is unpardonable. At first, mere strife, contradiction, contention of a worthy sort; and then a settled frown, the awful disgust, the virulent detestation. To that pass may human feeling be driven! Let us beware of it: it hinders prayer, it beclouds heaven, it dries up the beautiful well that springs in the middle of our own heart; or it turns the crystal water rising from that human fountain into a kind of poison. Hatred and love cannot live in the same house. Hatred may seem to expend itself upon the outer object, but in reality it is hurting you more than it is hurting your victim; it takes the angel out of you, it slays your very soul; it chokes the sweet song in your throat, and turns all the milk of human kindness into gall and bitterness. Hatred distorts the countenance into unbeautiful and hideous gnarls; hatred takes out of the voice its frank trustfulness and sympathetic music; hatred takes away the appetite, so that a man"s bread becomes sour in his own mouth; hatred gives the hand a wrong twist in writing letters of love and friendship, so that the readers can see between the lines indications of an unhappy and undivine condition of mind. Hatred does not expend itself upon the victim: it expends itself in the ruin of the soul of the man who hates. He who hates cannot pray; he who hates can offer no sacrifice upon God"s altar that shall be accepted. If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and then rememberest that thou hatest thy brother and hast not forgiven him, or hast been unkind to him, run back, and when thou hast spoken the true and noble word to thy brother, return, and thy mouth shall be opened in prevailing prayer, and God will say Amen in the uptaking of thy sacrifice and placing it in heaven.
Isaac had a sweet nature, too: he was not turned sour by all this, as some of us might have been. The worst issue that these arrangements can produce is an issue of souring the mind of the sufferer, turning him away from social paths as a disappointed and wounded man. Brother, I would I could speak comfortingly to thee herein! Surely, having dug two wells, and been driven away from both of them, there might be some excuse for a little pouting of the lip and hanging down of the head, and a groaning out of bitter words against men. Here I can but preach where I would gladly practise; but the right preaching would tell both you and me that, having been driven away from two wells, dug by our own industry, and secured, as we think, under God"s blessing, by our own skill, we are not justified in complaining impiously; we ought to go straight on, and try to find another well. It is weary work. I do not like people to tell me in a jaunty and cheerful voice that I ought to carry my griefs and disappointments in an airy manner; I prefer the solemn tone that assures me that the grief is noted, is weighed, and is regarded as very serious; but that, after all, the world is bigger than any part of it; the globe is larger than any section of its crust—the Lord reigneth, and perhaps I am only driven away from this place that I may find a larger; the disappointment which I now mourn may be the beginning of largess and fortune and benediction and heaven. I will up and go and dig again. Yes, that is the right preaching; and whoever alters his tone, the preacher must never alter his; whilst he stands in his pulpit, with God"s book open before him, and the roof of the sanctuary over his head, he must speak the great word—ay, even though in speaking it he be pleading against himself, and convicting his practical life of a breach of every word he has spoken before the bar of God. Our prayer must be right, whatever our life is; our speech must have in it the right tone and music, whatever our poor doing may be. It is our duty to lift up the life to the prayer, and the doing to the speech; meantime, prayer to God and speech to man must be of the royalest kind, imperially pure, inexorable in righteousness, most tender in charity, most radiant in hopefulness.
The leader being of sweet temper, the men went forward—"removed from thence and digged another well; and for that the Philistines strove not." That is the way to wear out an enemy. Hatred does give in sometimes; black, hideous hatred, does sometimes exhaust itself. The Philistine herdmen strove no more, so Isaac said, "We will call this well Rehoboth"—Room, space to live in; a place to stand upon. There is a place for every one of us, could we but find it; some have a long, long search in quest of the right place. Do not let us who stand in circumstances of comfort be the men to chide and sting such with reproaches; what have we that we have not received? It is easy for men who are in great prosperity to sneer at poor strugglers, against whose faces every door is shut and locked and bolted; let us show our refinement by abstaining from vulgar criticism on the difficulties of other men; let us show our gratitude by our sympathy, and let us prove our strength by the moderation of its exercise. The well you have found is God"s gift: your beautiful home, your happy family, your prosperous business. You did not perhaps come to that estate of contentment and enjoyment all at once. Remember the first well you dug, and what a fight you had over it; the second, and how hatred turned you out of the place; and, remembering your own difficulties, have pity upon the fruitless exertions of other men. That may be the beginning of piety; to take a right view of such circumstances may be the dawn of prayer. I shall not despair of you if you have one kind, hopeful word for men who are still at the well of Strife, or at the fountain of Hatred.
After that another well was dug, and Isaac said, "We will call it Sheba"—an oath, a covenant: a settled and unchangeable blessing. So the course of life runs—Strife, Hatred, Room, striking of the hands in holy covenant. Happy is the consummation; it is possible to us all under the providence of God. It is a surprising thing that we should have all this friction to pass through, if we look at some aspects of our character; but if we look at other aspects, it is surprising that we have so little discipline to encounter and to endure. Looking at certain aspects of our nature and position we say, "Is it not surprising that we should be called upon to endure all this?" Thus we mistake ourselves for ill-used men of piety. The right speech would be: "This comes of that lie I told the Philistines; God is hurting me now for that base falsehood; this is John the Baptist risen from the dead; this is God"s ghost sent to make "night hideous." Thanks be unto God that the discipline is so little, so attempered, so adapted to my weakness. When I remember the great lie, the awful deed, the plucking of fruit from the interdicted tree, the treachery, and then think that I have only been driven from two wells, how good is God! I will join the house of Aaron, and say, His mercy endureth for ever." That is the view I would take of my own life-course, and therefore would exhort other men to follow the same method of judgment. We are not so deeply pious, so supremely holy, that God ought to spare us the prick of a pin, or the thrust of a thorn. Dwelling upon one side of our excellences, we might wonder that God should allow one touch of the goad to disturb us; then we are self-deceivers. I will reckon up the prayers I ought to have prayed but never spoke, the deeds I have done that I ought not to have accomplished; I will reckon up all neglects, all offences against God and Prayer of Manasseh, all the weaknesses of my character; and, adding these up, the wonder is that God has not struck me through and through—not merely punctured me with a thorn here and there, but struck me with his seven lightnings, and utterly consumed me from the face of the earth. The trial has been severe, the disappointment has been acute; looked at from various standpoints we may have had too much to bear, but enclosing ourselves within the solemnity of God"s holiness and our own deeds, we cannot but wonder that the men should have been men and not wolves that, springing from hidden places, might have devoured us because of our unrighteousness.
Then there is another and higher aspect It is not necessary that a man"s parents should have sinned that he should be born blind, nor is it necessary to find a crime in order to explain a suffering. This is the course of Jesus Christ himself. He came unto his own, and his own received him not; he came again, and he was despised and rejected of men; he came again, and he is finding room; he is coming again, and he will realise the oath that he shall have the heathen for his inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for a possession. He was made perfect through disappointment and cruelty and wrong, through injustice and suffering. Both sides of this question, therefore, must be carefully looked at, and each man must determine for himself in the secrecy of his own consciousness to which side he ought to look for comfort or for warning.
Speaking of wells, I like the word; it is full of music, there is a plash in it as of the water which it represents. "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." O ye poor well-diggers, digging where there is no water, how long will ye turn your back upon the right way, and be as gods unto your little selves? Why eat stones for bread? Why dig where there is no stream to be found? " Hosea, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money." Whosoever will may come. We cannot explain these words: they are not to be treated exegetically, after the manner of analysis or vivisection; but they cannot be uttered sympathetically without touching something in us that tells us we are not earth-born or time-imprisoned, but arc made of God, and are meant for eternity.
The Marriage of Esau
This is not a personal matter, beginning and ending with Esau, Judith, Bashemath, Isaac and Rebekah: this is a little piece of the universal history—a line or two taken almost at random from the daily tragedy of social intercourse and experience. To think that a man"s age is set down as an element in the moral reckoning of his life! Esau was forty years old when he did this. A sin is aggravated, sometimes, by the age of the sinner. We excuse the young; we try to account for them; we assign a certain period of young life within which it seems to be—not right—but natural that certain seeds should be sown and that certain influences should come and go. If we can say regarding the accused one, "He was but eighteen"; "Certainly he was under twenty," we touch something in the human heart which answers the appeal on behalf of the young. We do not lower the standard of righteousness; we do not accommodate the terms of virtue so as to involve in any complacent manner or degree the actions of vice; yet far away back in the heart we say, "He was but a child, he will learn better; give him time, and all may yet come right." But Esau was forty years old when he did this. Some men learn nothing by age; they are only forty years old on the books of the registrar: they are no age at all in the books of wisdom. Forty years old! Some men are patriarchs by that time, and other men have not begun to know that they are alive in a responsible state in society. Age is a variable term. You must find out the spiritual quality of a man before you can determine with moral precision what age he Isaiah, and almost the degree of responsibility that attaches to him. But do not excuse yourselves too easily. When you do the sin, think of the age; think of everything that can set forth the action in its most solemn and expressive meaning; think of the fine day, the insulted sunshine, the offended flowers, the summer blasphemed against; yea, if there is one thing you can think of that will show what the reality of the deed Isaiah, keep it steadily before the mind for the sake of its possibly restraining moral influence Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith and Bashemath—and there the matter ended. No: matters do not end so. The next verse contains part of the consequence: "Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah." You cannot shut up your sin within the four corners of your own life, or house, and say, "What matters it to anybody beyond?" Sin has consequences. A motion made in the middle of the lake sends its palpitations to the shore. We do not think of this. You do not know sufficiently the effect of any unhappy, unwise, or unrighteous thing you do. You did not see your mother put her hand to her failing eyes to dry out the tears when she heard that you had made that moral slip; when she met you the tears had all gone, but there was a significant redness you might have interpreted, if you had not already put out the eyes of your own heart. Poor young fool! you have forgotten the old folks at home; you are making the old man ill, you are doubling his age, you are battering down his very last little pleasure; and as for your mother, you have taken a thousand lives out of her; only a woman who is a mother could have survived the butchery. Do not yield to the wicked sophism that what you do nobody has anything to do with. We have a right to do with everything that is done. I have a right to stop any man who is cruelly treating any beast upon the street that cannot defend itself. It is my beast he strikes. We have the right of criticism in relation to actions that touch the general human heart, that interfere with the general moral temperature, and that involve the happiness or unhappiness, perhaps, of countless generations. You cannot do injury to yourself without in some way injuring the generation following. Actions are not solitary and uninfluential: they have relations to other actions and to influences simply innumerable and incalculable. I passed today a poor ill-shapen thing on the streets, and watched him as he hobbled his uneven way down the road. Was he to blame for the misshapenness, the deformity, the ungainliness? What history was there in that decrepitude!—a history stretching back twenty, fifty years and more; and there he—personally innocent thing—was carrying the burden of life-long guilt on the part of his progenitors. What a sacred thing is life! What an unbuilt temple, so far as hands are concerned. But how shapely, how visible, how solemn to the eyes that can see it, and to the heart that can respond to its inner meanings!
Thus should the preacher bring from every quarter, points, circumstances, suggestions, facts, reflections, and possibilities which can shape his argument into a powerful and tremendous appeal which he shall lodge against the iniquity and the vileness of his age.
A sin does not confine itself to one line of punishment Esau went against the law of his country and his people in marrying Canaanitish women. What was the punishment? Endless, ubiquitous, complete. All heaven shuts itself against the violation of heaven"s law. No star opens its door of light as if to guide the evildoer: every star, contrariwise, takes up arms for its Creator, and denounces the doer of wrong. Esau was, in the first instance, alienated from his family. His father and mother did not want to see him as they used to do. They were not going openly to shut the door in his face, and say "You shall not come within these doors any more." The mother did not assume that violent form, but assumed consequences far more pathetic and in one sense far more terrible. A grief of mind is far greater sorrow than mere excitement of resentful temper. The mother still opened the door to the hunting Song of Solomon, but it did not go back with the old swing; the mother still looked upon that well-built, noble form, but she wished that the interior of his nature had been in this instance equal to the mould and fashion which nature had bestowed upon his physical frame. A wounded spirit who can bear? This alienation is not a matter of arms, and revenge, and bitter speeches, and reproaches, which ease the very heart that launches them upon its object; this was an instance of grief of mind, sorrow of heart, a wounded spirit for which there is no balm.
Esau committed an offence against organised society. He took the matter into his own hands, saying, "I know I am forbidden to marry into Canaanitish families, but I will marry when I please, where I please, how I please; I am a Prayer of Manasseh, and I will stand upon my individual rights." Take care how you accept that reasoning! What are individual rights? Who is the individual? Is it the solitary unit that bears the name of one individuality? or is it the social unit, the sum total, the great humanity? Tell me one individual right. Have I any right to blaspheme? to assert myself at the expense of the feelings of others? to occupy more space than is due to me? Have I a right to shut my eyes when misery goes past my windows, that I may not see the bent and tearful figure, or be moved by the spectacle of distress? Have I a right to involve other people in my actions—to use their money, to prostitute their influence, to trade upon their credit which has never been given, to heap up riches to myself, without regarding the cry of the poor and the helpless? There are no such rights. Wrong can never be right; selfishness can never be right; the man whose policy is figured upon the surface of one world only can never be right. Right is a large term, a most comprehensive expression. Our actions should be weighed and measured as to their social influence upon those near at hand and those who have yet to come.
Esau was not only alienated from his family and a rebel against the laws of his organised society: Esau forfeited his hereditary rights. That is a point to which our attention may not have been sufficiently called. The law of his land was: To marry a Canaanitish woman is to lose your primogeniture. Where now your many tears for Esau, the fainting hunter, who was taken at a disadvantage by his supplanting brother? Esau supplanted himself. To marry thus was to drop out of the entail, to forfeit position, and to commit hereditary suicide. It was then that Esau sold his birthright. How we have felt for him as an injured man! How often we have sentimentally said we prefer Esau to Jacob, the child of the mountains to the plain man dwelling in tents, the rough shaggy hunter to the hairless man who stayed at home! It was too bad of Jacob to treat his brother so. Find out the roots and beginnings of things, and you will always discover that a man is his own supplanter: his own enemy. You will find far back—ten years ago, twenty, and more, yea, a quarter of a century—that a man did something which has been following him all the time. When the crises come that the public can look at, they pity him within the four corners of the visible crisis itself: they do not know how judgment has been tracking the Prayer of Manasseh, watching him with pitiless, critical eye, waiting for its turn to come. We read over such little verses as these as though they were related to an ancient anecdote, and have really no immediate concern to the public of our own century. We come upon a second line, and say, "Poor Esau! that was too bad!" Let us be just! No man can injure you so much as you can injure yourself. If you have not injured yourself you may defy the world; the world will come round to you in due time. Keep substantially right—that Isaiah, right in purpose, right in motive, right in the centre of the mind; and slips and misadventures notwithstanding, God will have regard to the uppermost meaning of your life, and if you have been true to him in the intent of your heart, the world cannot take your birthright, cannot break your spiritual primogeniture. An awful thing is this searching into the past. Long ago, in some unsuspected way, we sold our birthright. When we omitted, in the first instance, our religious duty, the whole battle was lost; when we "shortened the prayer by two minutes, the birthright was gone; when we haggled with the enemy, instead of smiting him in the face with the lightning of God, our birthright passed from us; when we first lost standing in our mother"s heart we slipped away from the hand of God. Verily, in such instances, the mother and the God are very close to one another. When the mother lets us go for moral reasons, I do not see how God can help us. She has a firm grip upon us; she is inventive in arguments on our behalf; she knows that we were not so much sinners as sinned against; she says that if we had been in another town we should not have misbehaved ourselves; she says that if our lodgings had been more comfortable our morals had been more complete; and, drying the very biggest, hottest tear out of her eyes, she is quite sure that if we knew all about it we should form a gentler judgment respecting the sin. When she gives up her evangelical logic that has no logic in it, but only one great outburst of motherly love, and says, "I cannot defend him any more," I do not see that Omniscience can invent another excuse. Many an Esau thinks himself an injured Prayer of Manasseh, but forgets that long ago he sowed the seed with his own hand which he reaps today. There are not so many injured men, in the sense of men who have been really maliciously used and unrighteously wronged, as there might seem to be at the first blush of things. Life is wonderfully complicated and intertangled: it is not one thread or one straight line, but an infinite complexity, and God only can disentangle it and set in order its component and related parts. Long ago you broke a heart: do you suppose that event will be without influence, if unrepented of, during the remainder of your lifetime? I believe in ghosts of that kind—dropping poison into the wind; swiftly changing the glasses—ay, when we do but blink, the exchange is completed by a marvellous magic. The air is full of ghosts. You refuse a benefit—your bread shall choke you! You treated a law as if you had a right to trample it underfoot; you set at defiance the God who ordained it, and the men to whose trust it was committed—you cannot think to do such things and hear no more about them. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."
The law does not operate on one side only: it has its genial aspect and its happy outgoings. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward" It is an impartial ordinance, a law with two sides moving with equalness of administration, of reward, and penalty, along all the lines of human life. Providence takes up our separate, and, apparently, unrelated Acts, and makes a chain of them, and hangs it on the criminal in the sight of the universe; or Providence gathers up our separate and, apparently, unrelated Acts, and finds heaven in them, saying to its own gracious heart, "Nothing but heaven can complete this process." "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." When?—we do not know it: this is mistaken identity. "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." So the law is no onesided ministry: it is impartial; but from its hell there is no escape, and they who have endeavoured to obey the law will find that heaven is the prepared consummation for a life spent in the Spirit of the Lord. How awful, how dreadful is this place! this is none other than the house of God! The subject has been severe with me: it has cleft me in twain; but it is right; I was wrong when I pitied Esau sentimentally; I ought to have known the case before judging it, and as for the wounds and bruises we have suffered, they have a moral explanation.
Now, preacher, say some other word: we cannot break up thus. or we shall take out with us broken hearts. I will say this word—not my own: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Can the blood of Christ act retrospectively, so as to take in all the black yesterdays? Every one of them. Is there any text that speaks upon this matter with a comprehensiveness all-inclusive? Yes. What is it? This is it: "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin." "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Parting with that word, we part under fair skies and with the music of a benediction singing in our hearts.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 26". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent