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BY ALEXADER GARDIER MERCER, D.D.
And Abraham called the name of his son that was bom unto him, whom
Sarah bare to him, Isaac. — Gen. xii., 3.
I HAVE often spoken of subjects connected with the
early history of our race. I have done so partly because
of the freshness and charm which that distant age brings
to the present.
A well-known American author — Mr. Emerson — ^writes
thus : " In York Minster, on the day of the enthroniza-
tion of the new archbishop, I heard the service of evening
prayer read and chanted in the choir. It was strange to
hear the pretty pastoral of the betrothal of Rebekah and
Isaac, in the morning of the world, read with circum-
stantiality in York Minster on the 13th of January, 1848,
to the decorous English audience, just fresh from the
Tivics newspaper and their wine, and listening with all
the devotion of national pride. That was binding old
and new together to some purpose. The reverence for
the Scriptures is an element of civilization. So here in
England every day, — a chapter of Genesis and a leader
in the Times *'
Setting aside the irony as to the Englishman and his
manners, he well notes the strange, sweet blending of the
past and the present ; but he (ails to note with becoming
reverence the great lessons which the latest age may
learn from the simplest of the stories of this early time.
One of them is before us this morning in the account of
The character of Isaac is not prominent, and is not,
perhaps, especially interesting. The interest is rather
about him than in him. He is, for example, the only
child of Abraham and Sarah, — of the unique and majestic
Abraham and of the once beautiful Sarah, a woman with
a woman's interest and a woman's faults, yet invested
with a simple dignity as the " mother of nations," of
whom the promise was that " kings of people " should
come of her. Then Isaac is, besides, the great providen-
tial child of all that ancient history, — " the child of prom-
ise," as he is called. For a long time the whole scheme
of God seemed to wait for Isaac, and seemed ready to
fail because of his absence. The honor of God seemed
about to fail ; and if we really enter into the thoughts
and feelings of Abraham, — of the childless old man, who
began to fear that the promises of God, that nations like
the stars in number should come of him, were flatteries, —
then this child Isaac (awaited with such strange feeling,
and received at last with such triumphant joy) becomes
clothed with a singular and sacred interest.
Again, see the peculiar light cast on this child, as
placed by the side of his brother Ishmael, — the boy
Isaac the head of the chosen people ; the boy Ishmael
1 6 BIBLE CHARACTERS,
the head of that hardly less wonderful Arabian race !
And then the very sad but natural story of Hagar, the
mother of Ishmael, cast out with her son because of
Isaac. For " Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian
mocking/' The bright, vigorous young Ishmael, " a slip
of wildness," the father of Arabs, naturally mocked the
quiet and somewhat tame boy Isaac, and that Sarah
could not abide, so Hagar and her son were cast out, and
Isaac was left without a rival.
See, again, the interest which attaches to Isaac because
of the story of his marriage. Rebekah, ** the damsel
very fair to look upon," being in her own land and near
her father's house, went down to the well to fill her
pitcher. As she went to draw water among the com-
pany of Syrian virgins, she was divinely pointed out to
the messenger of Abraham as the chosen wife of Isaac, —
pointed out by her grace and beauty first, then con-
clusively by her gracious kindness. She says to the
weary and thirsty messenger, " Drink, my lord," and,
hastening to the well again, draws water for all his
camels, saying, "We have provender enough for all the
cattle," and adds that in her father's house there is
" room to lodge in." Very just tests these of a kind
woman, and one also of a prompt and energetic nature, as
she was afterward proved to be.
But I hasten to the real subject : What was Isaac ?
Difficult to say with accurate justice. The lines are
so few in this primitive sketch of a human face that al-
most any likeness may be made out of it, according
to our prepossessions, by reading between the lines,
as we say. From the hints given, however, the critics
have usually judged that Isaac was of a peaceable,
amiable, and yielding temper, without much strength or
elevation, — ^a quiet person, with many of the faults of
passiveness. This is to be seen, they might say, in all
his history. But I am not quite content with this view.
In all the stories of Isaac's weakness, though I admit
much, I see there is something more. The first great
scene of his life, which was the scene of his intended
sacrifice on Mount Moriah, where he seems so passive,
is to me full of sacred submission rather. He jour-
neys with his father for three days toward the mount,
saying nothing, and when they alight at the foot of the
mount, and Abraham lays on his son the wood for
the sacrifice, the boy toils on and says nothing ; but
finally, near the place, ** Isaac spake unto his father, and
said. My father: and he said, Here am I, my son.
And he said. Behold the fire and the wood ; but where is
the lamb for a burnt-oflfering ? And Abraham said,
My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt-
offering : so they went both of them together " ; and,
though Isaac well understands, he utters no word
while his father binds him, while he lays him upon
the altar, upon the wood, and while the knife is lifted.
ow if the sacrifice which Abraham made that day was
in reality Isaac's childlike offering of himself, then
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all that Abraham was to God, in sacred filial submission,
all that^ Isaac was to his father Abraham. Is this
Again, later, when the beautiful Rebekah comes to be
his bride, she finds him meditating in the field at the
even-tide. Meditating at even is not the occupation of
a rough and warlike chief ; it may be physical passive-
ness, but it IS life in the heart of a man.
Again, see the story as to the wells of water. You
know what wells of springing water are to a pastoral
people. ow, when Isaac finds that the Philistines have
filled up the wells of Abraham his father, he says noth-
ing, but quietly digs them out again, and calls them by
the names his father had given them. Moreover he digs
new wells; but his enemies, not content with their first
mean act, say as to the new springs, " The water is ours,"
and contest these with him. They strive with him at
the first, and he calls its name Esek (strife) and leaves it
to them ; and they strive with him at the second, and he
calls its name Sitnah (hatred) and gives that up to them.
o matter how often he had yielded, he was willing to
yield again. If he had laboriously dug in a new place
and found good water, and a quarrel came out of it, he
stood on no rights, but again retired.
This may have been weakness, but I think not, and the
inner spirit of the narrative confirms my belief. For as
often as Isaac gave up, and wherever he went, an inner
blessing seemed to follow him, and he always found
sweet water, and prospered. So his rough, quarrelsome
neighbors finally give up their persecution and come and
say : '* Let us be friends ; we see certainly that the Lord
is with you." And he, without a grudge, welcomes
them once more, — yes, and makes a feast for them.
Then he digs his third well, and in the joy of his heart
calls it Rehoboth (room).
ow, though I have said this much in vindication, I
do not say of Isaac's character in general that it is in
the highest style, or without great fault. Infirmities all
through there are ; and the greatest virtue he has is con-
stantly near to weakness. All that I admit. Isaac was
no perfect man. He deceived others as Abraham did,
and as Jacob did much more. I admit it. He could be
coarse and sensual. I admit it. " And Isaac loved Esau
because of his venison." And when Jacob counterfeited
Esau, and fed the old man with " savory meat " and
gave him sweet wine, Isaac then felt himself in a con-
dition to transmit to him the sacred blessing. All coarse
enough, to be sure, and yet quite natural, — indeed this
was a common trait of the primitive man. The image
of humanity was then made up of fine metals standing
on legs of clay. Even his kindness and love could be-
ow because of such faults — because the clear moun-
tain water sometimes runs through mud — people forget
the pure and sparkling element in the mud.
These early men, especially the patriarchs, were crude
20 BIBLE CHARACTERS,
types of the perfection and head of the race, — I mean
Christ, — ^just as the lower forms of the creation are types
of the higher. It is simply foolish to deny to lower ages
something of the higher because men were yet but igno-
rant and sensuous. So, in spite of this or that superiority,
great, grand roots were deep in all these fine old patri-
archal figures. We may, and ought indeed, to prefer
one to another (there is a choice among them), but each
has some golden strain, some rich gold thread. I prefer
Abraham, — perhaps I prefer even the Jew Jacob to Isaac ;
but still there is a peculiar sweetness in the gentleness
of Isaac ; and if we judged him by the old Hebrew test
of excellence — namely, prosperity — he certainly stood
high in the divine favor.
Few things are more pleasing than the picture of this
gentle patriarch, yielding every thing and finding every
thing ; as if his history was an antique pictorial illustration
of the very words, " Give, and it shall be given unto you."
He yields his life on the altar on Moriah, and he finds it.
In the strife he always gives up. A lamb among wolves,
he conquers the wolves. By patience he is successful.
And so ** the man waxed great, and went forward, and
grew until he became very great," — illustrating, so far
back, the Hebrew saying, that to the good man "the
very stones of the field shall be at peace." Ah! that
our striving, grieved hearts, standing on our points of
pride or interest, would cry, " Sitnah " (hate), and go
away, though we lose the precious well, forgiving the
worst injustice by remembering the love and pity of God
our Saviour toward us !
Do not misunderstand me and think I mean that
peacefulness and yielding are always best and always de-
serve great blessings ; though in general I wish that from
our wells of strife .we would remove and again remove.
Yet we must not forget that there are things over which
we should stand and strive. To be sure, the all-yielding
Isaac was rewarded more than the warlike Abraham, —
to be sure, Isaac led a far happier life than Jacob ; yet the
character even of Jacob was higher ; and as to Abraham,
he rises far above both. Mark this, — that, with all
Isaac's happiness and fortune, he was not a special favor-
ite with God ! I find no record that God ever speaks to
him but once (though he speaks often to Abraham and
Jacob), and then it is thus written : " And the Lord ap-
peared unto Isaac at night and said, I am the God of
Abraham thy father, and I will bless thee /or my servant
AbrahanCs sakeT It was Abraham, capable of war, that
God loved best.
ow, though I have, as was necessary, done justice to
the sweetness of Isaac, yet do not forget that it is the
generous, disturbed, warring souls (though they have
little peace) that bear up the ark of the Lord in their
awful hands. Erasmus contrived to be at peace with
many people, his days through ; but what was he to the
warlike Luther? Peace and prosperity are no tests.
Isaac, the happiest, was by no means the greatest, of the
22 BIBLE CHARACTERS,
patriarchs. I rate him high, to be sure, but I rate far
higher Abraham, who was capable of " the slaughter of
And now one thing more, and then an end. Those
ancient men, as compared with us moderns, were far more
religious men, but less moral. For morals — that is, right
conduct between man and man — require long experience
and education ; and in this Abraham was yet a child. He
did things, and as a matter of course too, which every
true man to-day would feel to be wrong. But the patri-
archs, in their sense of God, — that is, in religion, — were
alive, while we are, I may say, dead. For even Isaac,
though a less religious man than the Jewish Jacob, — yet
even Isaac in his religion towers above the modern Chris-
tian time. A sense of the presence of God is to us almost
a lost faculty and a lost divine art. God has become a
law ! We cannot even distinctly recall how the patriarchs
felt. Sitting alone during a thunder-storm lately, I got a
glimpse for a moment of the way of feeling of primitive
men, or even of a orth American Indian, but especially
of the inspired Hebrews, — their deep sense of the present
God. Yes ; God's presence was all through to them.
They saw Him, they heard Him, they almost touched Him.
He was visible, a visible Person at work, through all this
scene of human life. Listen to the way those old people
talked : " He sendeth forth his commandment : his
word runneth very swiftly. He giveth snow like wool :
he scattereth the hoar-frost like ashes." Yes; to them
His authentic voice speaks in the thunder ; the lightning
is a gleam of His indignant eye. Yet His tender mercies
are over all His works. He giveth to the beast his food ,
He listens to the young ravens when they cry. He stops
at the voice of sorrow, and healeth the broken in heart.
ow, with this Presence, sometimes awful, sometimes
sweet, the patriarchs walked. They meditated of Him in
the quiet even-tide. They often erred and went wrong ;
but God was their Friend and everlasting portion. O
refined and thinking men of the nineteenth Christian
age ! do you find a deep want after all ? I will tell you
why : We have lost God 1 Go back ! go back ! Find
Him again ; and in the power of this restored fact you
will find a strength above humanity ; in the fact of God
your Friend you will find your '* exceeding great reward,"
— in all disturbance a fathomless consolation, filling life
with peace, and the grave with hope ! Amen.
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