“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.”
Many are the moments in the life of every child of God when he stands at the point of decision. Before him lies the way of the world; and his whole natural self urges him to follow that way to the satisfaction of his natural desires; while within him there is a small principle of new life that tells him not to do so, for it is not the way of the Lord. Before him lies the way of the Lord; and his inmost heart tells him to follow that way as the way of true joy and peace; but the old man of sin insists that it is useless and will come to no avail. Then the decision must be made. He can follow the dictates of his flesh and gain carnal satisfaction for the moment. Or, he can deprive his flesh of its natural desire and live in peace with God.
In Hebrews 11:17 we read, “By faith Abraham, when he was tried . . .,” and it means that God brought Abraham to just such a position. It is a very factual teaching of Scripture that God often places His people before trials; He actually sets them before temptations. God gives to His people commands which, if they are to follow, they have to deny themselves; and there, is nothing more difficult for man to do than to deny himself. It may mean that he has to deprive himself of his nature’s fondest desires. It may mean that he has to give himself over to suffering, and pain of the severest sort. It may mean that he has to perform some deed repulsive to his whole natural being. And yet the command stands and the alternative can not be escaped. One may listen to his flesh: but in so doing he disobeys and sins against his God. He may give his flesh over to hardship; but so he walks in obedience.
These trials God brings to His people for a very explicit purpose. Ii must not be thought that God brings trials to His people for the purpose of discovering whether they have faith or how great their faith may be. In His omniscience, this He surely knows, Rather God recognizes His people, which are of this earth, as being in need of spiritual instruction and growth. The trials which He sends to covenant children are always specifically designed so that, although they may involve hardship and suffering, they will serve to their further instruction in righteousness.
Among the many trials which God throughout the ages has sent to His people, it is difficult to imagine any of those sent to mere man more difficult than that to which Abraham was subjected. This trial began when God appeared to tempt Abraham and commanded, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest . . . and offer him . . . for a burnt offering,” Gen. 22:2. The words seem almost cruel in their formulation. Each phrase seems designed to penetrate deep into the soul of Abraham, each word to cut at his heart like a knife. The command is built up phrase upon phrase and word upon word to accentuate the dearness of the price that will have to be paid if Abraham is to live in obedience. They are words made to pierce, sting, and gnaw at the heart of a father that loves his child. God would have Abraham realize from the very beginning the immensity of the trial that he is to undergo.
“Take now thy son . . . and offer him.” These words in themselves were sufficient to touch the inmost feelings of Abraham’s heart. It was his own son to whom they referred. Difficult enough would the command have been had it referred to just any child, the son of one of his servants, or even the son of a stranger. But the command referred to his own son, flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood. The son toward whom all of his natural affection went. out with fatherly love. That son he must take and with his own hands slay before the altar.
“Take now . . . thy only son.” These words reached even deeper into the feelings of Abraham, for Isaac was his only son. Indeed, Abraham did have another son, but Ishmael was only a son according to the flesh. He had come forth only because of the weakness and doubt of Abraham and Sarah. Moreover, although Abraham had spent many years treating and instructing Ishmael as a covenant seed, he had always refused to live before the face of God. Between Abraham and Ishmael there had never existed that beautiful relationship of covenant father and son sharing and rejoicing together in the many graces of God. In the vocabulary of God he was not a son at all. Rather, according to the command of God he had been cast out as unworthy of being a spiritual heir of Abraham. With Isaac it had been different. He was the son of Sarah whose very birth had been a miracle wrought by the power of faith. Many hid been the hours, weeks, and even years that Abraham had spent in joy raising that son in the fear of the Lord. How rich had been his joy as he saw that simple, childlike faith laying hold on the truth of the promise and exulting in it with his father. He was the only covenant seed which. Abraham had ever had so as to share with him the riches of covenant communion and life, a true spiritual son. That son he must now slay upon the altar.
“Take . . . Isaac.” Isaac was the name given the child by God; it meant laughter. It recalled to Abraham’s mind the years and decades spent by him and Sarah waiting for that son. Long had been their waiting, anxiously spent; and time had crept by; and still the son had not come. And they had become even more anxious because God had told them that all of the promised blessings rested directly upon their seed. The promised land, the life to come, the favor of God, their righteousness, the realization of the covenant, all depended on the promised seed, and the seed did not come. They had grown weary in their waiting and had laughed, both he and Sarah, when God repeated the promise. Therefore the son was to be called Isaac to remind them of their doubt. But that laughter of doubt had dissipated into the strength of renewed faith called forth by the word of God; and the faith had blossomed forth in a new laughter of joy when at last the child was born. He was a son born in their old age to fill all of their parental desires, and even more a covenant son through whom all of the promises could be made real. He could remember the words of Sarah: “God hath made me laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me . . . Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age,” Gen. 21:6, 7. That son Isaac, he, Abraham, must lay on the altar and slay.
“Take now thy son . . . whom thou lovest.” How true it was that he loved that son, and Sarah too. They loved him as the son of their own flesh. They loved him as their only son. They loved him as the son of their old age. They loved him the more as the covenant son upon whom all of their spiritual hopes depended. All of the love of Abraham and Sarah were focused on that child; and that child Abraham must take and slay.
One feels that he can hardly appreciate the struggle which must have swelled within the bosom of Abraham as this almost impossible command fell upon his ears. It is a hard thing for a father to witness the death of his son. Normally it is to be expected that the son will far outlive his father, and to have this order reversed seems painfully unnatural. Even more pathetic is the experience of a father who even accidentally has had a part in the cause of that death. But what can be compared to the heartache of one who is commanded to stretch forth his hand and slay his own son? What we must be careful of, however, is that we do not begin to think that the sole purpose of God in this command was to give Abraham something extremely difficult to do. God is not a despot who finds joy in giving His children trials that are painfully hard to perform. Neither is the ultimate beauty of this event to be found merely in the fact that Abraham was willing to subject his own feelings for the sake of obedience to his God. The ways of the Lord are far richer than that.
The command of God to Abraham was, “Take now thy son . . . and offer him . . . for a burnt offering.” A burnt offering was a particular type of offering with a very specific significance. In that offering after the blood of the victim was shed the body was placed upon the altar and burned until completely consumed. Such a sacrifice was made, not by one who had transgressed, some particular precept of God’s law, but rather, by one who, having sought faithfully to walk in righteousness before the face of God, nonetheless felt that he had come far short of the good and perfect life. It was offered by the child of God who was deeply moved by the conviction of sin and the consciousness of his own unworthiness until he cried out like the publican, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Such a person would shed the blood of the sacrificial victim as a covering for his sin, and he would burn the body of the victim upon the altar to symbolize his own willingness and desire to be completely consecrated and devoted to his God.
That Abraham was such a person, who felt his own unworthiness and need for consecration, we may be sure. He is called by Scripture the father of all believers and spiritual consciousness and the conviction of sin were very real, to him at all times, As through the years he grew in knowledge and in faith, he grew also in the awareness of his own iniquity, so that he pleaded upon the name of the, Lord that his sins might be forgiven him and his guilt be washed away. It was the heart-cry of his life.
Thus it was that God issued to Abraham this painful and hard command. He would teach Abraham a rich truth about salvation. There is only one way of salvation, and that is that the promised seed must die. The blood of bulls and goats could never satisfy the justice of God. Neither was it sufficient merely that the promised seed was born. The promised seed was born exactly for that purpose that it again might die, the complete and perfect offering for sin. So only is salvation possible.
Abraham had within him a small feeling of the dearness of the promised seed. Through all the years God had prepared him so that he might have a very strong love for his covenant son. Then God told him that the price for sin is so great that only the life of that dear son, the promised seed, could suffice. That was the purpose and lesson of God’s command.
In a figure God was actually telling Abraham about Christ. As he was commanded to offer his own dear son, he gained a small idea of the great price which must needs be paid for sin. It reflected the day when the final realization of the promised seed, the very Son of God, would be offered as the most precious price to cover the sins of many.
The most amazing fact is that we may finally read, “By faith Abraham when he was tried, offered up Isaac,”Heb. 11:17. He staggered not at the promise even when it meant the life of his only son. He believed God, and that faith was imputed to him for righteousness. Coming to him in a figure, it was the righteousness of Jesus Christ.