XI. THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM
“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he went. By faith he became a sojourner in the land of promise, as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for the city which has the foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God. By faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed when she was past age, since she counted Him faithful Who had promised: why also there sprang of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things make it manifest that they are seeking after a country of their own. And if indeed they had been mindful of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: why God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God: for He has prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only-begotten son; even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall your seed be called: accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead; from where he did also in a parable receive him back.” — Heb. xi. 8–19 (R.V.).
We have learned that faith is the proof of the unseen. We must not exclude even from this clause the other thought that faith is an assurance of things hoped for. It is not stated, but it is implied. The conception of a personal God requires only to be unfolded in order to yield a rich harvest of hope. The author proceeds to show that by faith the elders had witness borne to them in God’s confession of them and great rewards. He recounts the achievements of a long line of believers, who as they went handed the light from one to another. In them is the true unity of religion and revelation from the beginning. For the poor order of high-priests the writer substitutes the glorious succession of faith.
We choose for the subject of this chapter the faith of Abraham. But we shall not dismiss in silence the faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. The paragraph in which Abraham’s deeds are recorded will most naturally divide itself into three comparisons between their faith and his. We venture to think that this was in the writer’s mind and determined the form of the passage. From the eighth to the tenth verse the Apostle compares Abraham’s faith with that of Noah; after a short episode concerning Sarah, he compares Abraham’s faith with Enoch’s, from the thirteenth verse to the sixteenth; then, down to the nineteenth verse, he compares Abraham’s faith with that of Abel. Noah’s faith appeared in an act of obedience, Enoch’s in a life of fellowship with God, Abel’s in his more excellent sacrifice. Abraham’s faith manifested itself in all these ways. When he was called, he obeyed; when a sojourner, he desired a better country, that is, a heavenly, and God was not ashamed to be called his God; being tried, he offered up Isaac.
Two points of surpassing worth in his faith suggest themselves. The one is largeness and variety of experience; the other is conquest over difficulties. These are the constituents of a great saint. Many a good man will not become a strong spiritual character because his experience of life is too narrow. Others, whose range is wide, fail to reach the higher altitudes of saintliness because they have never been called to pass through sore trials, or, if they have heard the summons, have shrunk from the hardships. Before Abraham faith was both limited in its experience and untested with heaven-sent difficulties. Abraham’s religion was complex. His faith was “a perfect cube,” and, presenting a face to every wind that blows, came victorious out of every trial.
Let us trace the comparisons.
First, Noah obeyed a Divine command when he built an ark to the saving of his house. He obeyed by faith. His eyes saw the invisible, and the vision kindled his hopes of being saved through the very waters that would destroy every living substance. But this was all. His faith acted only in one direction: he hoped to be saved. The Apostle Peter compares his faith to the initial grace of those who seek baptism, and have only crossed the threshold of the spiritual life. It is true that he overcame one class of difficulties. He was not in bondage to the things of sense. He made provision for a future belied by present appearances. But the influence of the senses is not the greatest difficulty of the human spirit. As the lonely ship rode on the heaving waste of waters, all within was gladness and peace. No heaven-sent temptations tried the patriarch’s faith, He overcame the trials that spring out of the earth; but he knew not the anguish that rends the spirit like a lightning-stroke descending from God.
With Abraham it was otherwise. “He went out, not knowing where he went.” He leaves his father’s house and his father’s gods. He breaks for ever with the past, even before the future has been revealed to him. The thoughts and feelings that had grown up with him from childhood are once for all put away. He has no sheltering ark to receive him. A homeless wanderer, he pitches his tent to-day at the well, not knowing where his invisible guide may bid him stretch the cords on the following day. His departure from Ur of the Chaldees was a family migration. But the writer of this Epistle, like Philo, describes it as the man’s own personal obedience to a Divine call. Submitting to God’s will, possessed with the inspiration and courage of faith, obeying daily new intimations, he bends his steps this way or that, not knowing where he goes. True, he went right into the heart of the land of promise. But, even in his own heritage, he became a sojourner, as in a land not his own. God “gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on.” Possessor of all in promise, he purchased a sepulchre, which was the first ground he could call his own. The cave of Machpelah was the small beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promise, which the spirit of Abraham is even now receiving in a higher form. It is still the same. The bright dawn of heaven often breaks upon the soul at an open grave. But he journeyed on, and trusted. For a time he and Sarah only; afterwards Isaac with them; at last, when Sarah had been laid to rest, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the three together, held on bravely, sojourning with aching hearts, but ever believing. The Apostle brings in the names of Isaac and Jacob, not to describe their faith — this he will do subsequently, — but to show the tenacity and patience of “the friend of God.”
His faith, thus sorely tried by God’s long delay, is rewarded, not with an external fulfilment of the promise, but with larger hopes, wider range of vision, greater strength to endure, more vivid realisation of the unseen. “He looked for the city which has the foundations, whose Architect and Maker is God.” In the promise not a word is said about a city. Apparently he was still to be a nomad chief of a large and wealthy tribe. When God deferred again and again the fulfilment of His promise to give him “this land,” His trusting servant bethought him what the delay could mean. This was his hill of difficulty, where the two ways part. The worldly wisdom of unbelief would argue from God’s tardiness that the reality, when it comes, will fall far short of the promise. Faith, with higher wisdom, makes sure that the delay has a purpose. God intends to give more and better things than He promised, and is making room in the believer’s heart for the greater blessings. Abraham cast about to imagine the better things. He invented a blessing, and, so to speak, inserted it for himself in the promise.
This new blessing has an earthly and a heavenly meaning. On its earthly side it represents the transition from a nomadic life to a fixed abode. Faith bridged the gulf that separates a wandering horde from the cultured greatness of civilization. The future grandeur of Zion was already held in the grasp of Abraham’s faith. But the invented blessing had also a heavenly side. The more correct rendering of the Apostle’s words in the Revised Version expresses this higher thought: “He looked for the city which has the foundations” — the city; for, after all, there is but one that has the eternal foundations. It is the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, seen by the faith of Abraham in the early morning of revelation, seen again in vision by the Apostle John at its close. The expression cannot mean anything that comes short of the Apostle’s description of faith as the assurance of things hoped for in the unseen world. Abraham realised heaven as an eternal city, in which after death he would be gathered to his fathers. A sublime conception! — eternity not the dwelling-place of the solitary spirit, the joy of heaven consisting in personal fellowship for ever with the good of every age and clime. There the past streams into the present, not, as here, the present into the past. All are contemporaries there, and death is no more. Whatever makes civilization powerful or beautiful on earth — laws, arts, culture — all is there etherealised and endowed with immortality. Such a city has God only for its Architect, God only for its Builder. He Who conceived the plan can alone execute the design and realise the idea.
Of this sort was Abraham’s obedience. He continued to endure in the face of God’s delay to fulfil the promise. His reward consisted, not in an earthly inheritance, not in mere salvation, but in larger hopes and in the power of a spiritual imagination.
Second, Abraham’s faith is compared with Enoch’s, whose story is most sweetly simple. He is the man who has never doubted, across whose placid face no dark shadow of unbelief ever sweeps. A virgin soul, he walks with God in a time when the wickedness of man is great in the earth and the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually, as Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening before sin had brought the hot fever of shame to his cheek. He walks with God, as a child with his father; “and God takes him” into His arms. Enoch’s removal was not like the entrance of Elijah into heaven: a victorious conqueror returning into the city in his triumphal car. It was the quiet passing away, without observation, of a spirit of heaven that had sojourned for a time on earth. People sought him, because they felt the loss of his presence among them. But they knew that God had taken him. They inferred his story from his character. In Enoch we have an instance of faith as the faculty of realising the unseen, but not as a power to conquer difficulties.
Compare this faith with Abraham’s. “These,” — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, — “all died in faith,” or, as we may render the word, “according to faith,” — according to the faith which they had exhibited in their life. Their death was after the same pattern of faith. Enoch’s contemplative life came to a fitting end in a deathless translation to higher fellowship with God. His way of leaving life became him. Abraham’s repeated conflicts and victories closed with quite as much becomingness in a last trial of his faith, when he was called to die without having received the fulfilment of the promises. But he had already seen the heavenly city and greeted it from afar. He saw the promises, as the traveller beholds the gleaming mirage of the desert. The illusiveness of life is the theme of moralists when they preach resignation. It is faith only that can transform the illusions themselves into an incentive to high and holy aspirations. All profound religion is full of seeming illusions. Christ beckons us onward. When we climb this steep, His voice is heard calling to us from a higher peak. That height gained reveals a soaring mass piercing the clouds, and the voice is heard above still summoning us to fresh effort. The climber falls exhausted on the mountain-side and lays him down to die. Ever as Abraham attempted to seize the promise, it eluded his grasp. The Tantalus of heathen mythology was in Tartarus, but the Tantalus of the Bible is the man of faith, who believes the more for every failure to attain.
Such people “declare plainly that they seek a country of their own.” Let not the full force of the words escape us. The Apostle does not mean that they seek to emigrate to a new country. He has just said that they confess themselves to be “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” They are “pilgrims,” because they are journeying through on their way to another country; they are “strangers,” because they have come here from another land. His meaning is that they long to return home. That he means this is evident from his thinking it necessary to guard himself against the possibility of being understood to refer to Ur of the Chaldees. They were not mindful of the earthly home, the cradle of their race, which they had left for ever. Not once did they cast a wistful look back, like Lot’s wife and the Israelites in the wilderness. Yet they yearned for their fatherland. Plato imagined that all our knowledge is a reminiscence of what we learned in a previous state of existence; and Wordsworth’s exquisite lines, which cannot lose their sweet fragrance however often they are repeated, are a reflection of the same visionary gleam, —
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star.
Has had elsewhere its setting,
And comes from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory, do we come
From God, Who is our home.”
Our author too suggests it; and it is true. We need not maintain it as an external fact in the history of the soul, according to the old doctrine, resuscitated in our own times, of Traducianism. The Apostle represents it rather as a feeling. There is a Christian consciousness of heaven, as if the soul had been there and longed to return. And if it is a glorious attainment of faith to regard heaven as a city, more consoling still is the hope of returning there, storm-tossed and weather-beaten, as to a home, to look up to God as to a Father, and to love all angels and saints as brethren in the household of God, over which Christ is set as a Son. Such a hope renders feeble, sinful people not altogether unworthy of God’s Fatherhood. For He is not ashamed to be called their God, and Jesus Christ is not ashamed to call them brethren. The proof is, that God has prepared for them a settled abode in the eternal city.
Third, the faith of Abraham is compared with the faith of Abel. In the case of Abel faith is more than a realisation of the unseen. For Cain also believed in the existence of an invisible Power, and offered sacrifice. We are expressly told in the narrative that “Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord.” Yet he was a wicked man. The Apostle John says that “Cain was of the Evil One.” He had the faith which St. James ascribes to the demons, who “believe there is one God, and shudder.” He was possessed with the same hatred, and had also the same faith. It was the union of the two things in his spirit that made him the murderer of his brother. Our author points out very clearly the difference between Cain and Abel. Both sacrificed, but Abel desired righteousness. He had a conscience of sin, and sought reconciliation with God through his offering. Indeed, some of the most ancient authorities, for “God bearing witness in respect to his gifts,” read “he bearing witness to God on the ground of his gifts;” that is, Abel bore witness by his sacrifice to God’s righteousness and mercy. He was the first martyr, therefore, in two senses. He was God’s witness, and he was slain for his righteousness. But, whether we accept this reading or the other, the Apostle presents Abel before us as the man who realised the great moral conception of righteousness. He sought, not the favours of an arbitrary Sovereign, not the mere mercy of an omnipotent Ruler, but the peace of the righteous God. It was through Abel that faith in God thus became the foundation of true ethics. He acknowledged the immutable difference between right and wrong, which is the moral theory accepted by the greater saints of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament forms the groundwork of St. Paul’s forensic doctrine of the Atonement. Moreover, because Abel witnessed for righteousness by his sacrifice, his blood even cried from the ground to God for righteous vengeance. For this is unquestionably the meaning of the words “and through his faith he being dead yet speaks;” and in the next chapter the Apostle speaks of “the blood of sprinkling, that speaks a better thing than that of Abel.” It was the blood of one whose faith had grasped firmly the truth of God’s righteousness. His blood, therefore, cried to the righteous God to avenge his wrong. The Apostle speaks as if he were personifying the blood and ascribing to the slain man the faith which he had manifested before. The action of Abel’s faith in life and, as we may safely assume, in the very article of death, retained its power with God. Every mouthing wound had a tongue. In like manner, says the writer of the Epistle, the obedience of Jesus up to and in His death made His blood efficacious for pardon to the end of time.
But Abraham’s faith excelled. Abel was prompted to offer sacrifice by natural religiousness and an awakened conscience; Abraham sternly resolved to obey a command of God. He prepared to do that against which nature revolted, yea that which conscience forbade. Had not the story of Abel’s faith itself loudly proclaimed the sacredness of human life? Would not Abraham, if he offered up Isaac, become another Cain? Would not the dead child speak, and his blood cry from the ground to God for vengeance? It was the case of a man to whom “God is greater than conscience.” He resolved to obey at all hazards. Hereby he assured his heart — that is, his conscience — before God in that matter wherein his heart may have condemned him. We, it is true, in the light of a better revelation of God’s character, should at once deny, without more ado, that such a command had been given by God; and we need not fear thankfully and vehemently to declare that our absolute trust in the rightness of our own moral instincts is a higher faith than Abraham’s. But he had no misgiving as to the reality of the revelation or the authority of the command. Neither do the sacred historian and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews question it. We also need not doubt. God met His servant at that stage of spiritual perception which he had already attained. His faith was strong in its realisation of God’s authority and faithfulness. But his moral nature was not sufficiently educated to decide by the character of a command whether it was worthy of God or not. He calmly left it to Him to vindicate His own righteousness. Those who deny that God imposed such a hard task on Abraham must be prepared to solve still greater difficulties. For do not we also, in reference to some things, still require Abraham’s faith that the Judge of all the earth will do right? What shall we say of His permitting the terrible and universal sufferings of all living things? What are we to think of the still more awful mystery of moral evil? Shall we say He could not have prevented it? Or shall we take refuge in the distinction between permission and command? Of the two it were easier to understand His commanding what He will not permit, as in the sacrifice of Isaac, than to explain His permission of what He cannot and will not command, as in the undoubted existence of sin.
But let us once more repeat that the greatest faith of all is to believe, with Abel, that God is righteous, and yet to believe, with Abraham, that God can justify His own seeming unrighteousness, and also to believe, with the saints of Christianity, that the test which God imposed on Abraham will nevermore be tried, because the enlightened conscience of humanity forbids it and invites other and more subtle tests in its place.
We must not suppose that Abraham found the command an easy one. From the narrative in the Book of Genesis we should infer that he expected God to provide a substitute for Isaac: “And Abraham said, My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering; so they went both of them together.” But the Apostle gives us plainly to understand that Abraham offered his son because he accounted that God was able to raise him from the dead. Both answers are true. They reveal to us the anxious tossings of his spirit, seeking to account to itself for the terrible command of Heaven. At one moment he thinks God will not carry matters to the bitter end. His mind is pacified with the thought that a substitute for Isaac will be provided. At another moment this appeared to detract from the awful severity of the trial, and Abraham’s faith waxed strong to obey, even though no substitute would be found in the thicket. Another solution would then offer itself. God would immediately bring Isaac back to life. For Isaac would not cease to be, nor cease to be Isaac, when the sacrificial knife had descended. “God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him.” Besides, the promise had not been withdrawn, though it had not yet been confirmed by an oath; and the promise involved that the seed would be called in Isaac, not in another son. Both solutions were right. For a ram was caught in a thicket by the horns, and Abraham did receive his son back from the dead, not literally indeed, but in a parable.
Most expositors explain the words “in a parable” as if they meant nothing more than “as it were,” “so to speak;” and some have actually supposed them to refer to the birth of Isaac in his father’s old age, when Abraham was “as good as dead.” Both interpretations do violence to the Greek expression, which must mean “even in a parable.” It is a brief and pregnant allusion to the ultimate purpose of Abraham’s trial. God intended more by it than to test faith. The test was meant to prepare Abraham for receiving a revelation. On Moriah, and ever after, Isaac was more than Isaac to Abraham. He offered him to God as Isaac, the son of the promise. He received him back from God’s hand as a type of Him in Whom the promise would be fulfilled. Abraham had gladly received the promise. He now saw the day of Christ, and rejoiced.
 1 Peter iii. 20.
 Chap. xi 8.
 Chap. xi. 9.
 Acts vii. 5.
 Chap. xi. 10.
 Rev. xxi. 10.
 ἀσπασάμενοι (xi. 13).
 Chap. xi. 14.
 ξένοι καὶ παρεπίδημοι.
 Chaps. xi. 16; ii. 11.
 Gen. iv. 3.
 1 John iii. 12.
 James ii. 19.
 Chap. xii. 24.
 1 John iii. 19, 20.
 Gen. xxii. 8.
 Luke xx. 38.
 Chap. xi. 12.
 καὶ ἐν παραβολῇ.
 John viii. 56.
From the Epistle to the Hebrews by Thomas Charles Edwards, D.D., Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury in MCMIV. Digitally produced by Marcia Brooks, Colin Bell, Nigel Blower and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013.
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To the Hebrews - T.C. Edwards
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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