SUNSET ON THE MOUNTAINS OF MAMRE
"Then ABRAHAM breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite." Genesis 25:8-9
We begin with the oldest, and in many respects the most memorable, of all the "sunsets" on the Hills of Canaan--the departure of the illustrious Father of the Hebrew nation, whose name to the "children of ABRAHAM" is still their most treasured patrimony, the great household word in their world-wide home. There is little recorded in connection with the mere closing of the Patriarch's life. Like the sunsets with which his eyes were familiar in his own Eastern sky--we have no twilight hour--no melting shadows of eventide. Other death-beds in the olden time, as we shall find, were rendered remarkable by saintly counsels--children and children's children were summoned in to receive the hallowed benediction and catch the last glimpse of the dimming eye! All this is a blank in the terminating chapter of Abraham's history. Whether Isaac had stood by his dying parent's pillow, listening to parting attestations to God's faithfulness, and in some new visions of the "far-off" Gospel "day" had poured into his ear words of prophetic rapture--whether roving Ishmael had sped from his desert "castles" (Gen. 25:16) to receive and return the final blessing--whether old Eleazar of Damascus was there, faithful in death as he had been in life, lifting up his withered hands in prayer to "the Lord God of his master Abraham"--of all this, not a word is said--not even is the locality described where that great orb of Israel hastened to his setting. We have every reason to believe it must have been near to Mamre. But whether in some sequestered spot, with only a few of his own family around him, or amid the suppressed hum of a "city of tents," hushed in awe and silence under the shadow of death, we are not informed. The simple narrative tells us no more than that, at the ripe period of one hundred and seventy-five years, "Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite."
Nor is this silence of the biographer and of the Spirit of God without its significance. Does it not announce the lesson, constantly recurring in the succeeding pages, that life, and not death, is the all-important part of human history? We test the strength of the vessel, not by the way in which she entered the sheltered harbor, but by how she wrestled with the storm out in the defenseless ocean. We estimate the prowess of the warrior, not as he returns at the close of conflict, weak and weary, but as he bore himself up amid the fray, in the heat of battle. It is the opening and middle chapters of a man's biography that are the momentous ones, and which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, determine the character of the closing scene. It may, indeed, be soothing to the bereaved to listen at the hour of death to devout expressions of faith and hope--these, in the case of all, are hallowed keepsakes and souvenirs to be exchanged for no earthly treasure. But rather, far rather, would we revert to the even tenor of a close walk with God.
If the death-bed be in silence and gloom--if the spirit be hurried away to meet its Maker amid the ravings of delirium--what signify a few gathering clouds at sunset? Better is the memory of meekness and gentleness, patience and submission, through a bright heavenly life. Better surely these, than the reverse--a storm-wreathed life-sky--the sun of existence wading through clouds, and a watery burst of sunshine at the setting.
But brief as the record of Abraham's death is, it is not without its impressive lessons. Let us take clause by clause in the order of the inspired register.
"Then Abraham gave up the spirit." "The English word spirit," says an able critic and commentator, "is supposed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon gast, 'an inhabitant--inhabitant--guest'--and also 'spirit.' In popular use it is now restricted to the latter meaning. But the primitive idea seems to be that of dismissing the soul or spirit as the guest of the body." In this etymological sense the reference is peculiarly beautiful. Abraham's spirit--his immortal and nobler part--was "a guest," a lodger or wayfarer in an earthly tent--a perishable dwelling. Its tent-life was not its home-life. It was like an imprisoned bird longing to soar away. And now the appointed time has come--the cage is opened--the winged tenant goes free. The tent is taken down, pin by pin--rope and stakes and canvas--and the "lodger for the night," forsaking the blackened patch in the desert--the smouldering ashes of his campfire--speeds away to "the better country"–
"His spirit with a bound
Left its encumbering clay;
His tent at sunrise on the ground
A darkened ruin lay."--Montgomery.
Not long ago, a group of Alpine villagers were engaged, in early summer, weeding their crops close to their native hamlet. Above them rose mountain piled on mountain, crested with jagged peaks of everlasting snow. A low, murmuring, crushing sound was heard at eventide, high up among these cliffs; a sound too familiar to be mistaken by experienced ears. It was the dreadful messenger of wrath and destruction. A fragment of rock, loosened in the topmost crags, became the nucleus and feeder of the avalanche. Down came the terrific invader, sweeping all before it, and burying the handful of huts in a common ruin. The villagers themselves escaped unhurt. Disentangling their mutilated furniture from the midst of the broken pine-rafters and stones, and thankful for their providential escape, they moved to the opposite slope of the valley, and reared their dwellings anew.
Death is that avalanche! "At such a time as we do not
think!" It may be in smiling spring, or in radiant summer, or hoary
winter--down it comes, destroying all that is fair and lovely and
beauteous--rooting up tender flowers, budding blossoms, trellised vines,
primitive forests--overwhelming "the house of the earthly tabernacle," and
leaving it a mass of dilapidated walls and shattered timbers. But what of
the inhabitant? What of the immortal inhabitant? The house is dissolved, but
the tenant is safe. A new home is reared for it. The soul leaves the wrecked
bodily frame-work, and seeks the "building of God," "eternal in the
heavens." The same idea is beautifully expressed by a Christian poet of the
land of Luther in one of their funeral Hymns–
The golden-winged butterfly soars aloft from its broken chrysalis home. Death, like the angel in Peter's dungeon, breaks the fetters of mortality, throws open the prison doors; and from the gloom of night, and the crash of the earthquake, leads the spirit out to gladsome day. Oh that we would ever view it as such--the exodus of life--the outmarching of the soul from its chains and its bondage to the land of rest and liberty and peace!
"He died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years." We must be struck with the tautology here. First the Patriarch's age is given in the previous verse–"Altogether, Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years." (ver. 7.) Then it is added that he died--"in old age"--"a good old age"--"an old man"--"and full of years."
The reason of this redundancy of expression would have been better understood and appreciated by a Jew than by us. The Old Testament economy dealt largely in temporal blessings. These were bestowed as types and shadows and pledges of higher spiritual ones. Old age was one of these. "Wisdom" is represented in the Book of Proverbs with "length of days in her right hand." And the Psalmist, in enumerating the blessings heaped on the head of the righteous, says--"The Righteous shall flourish like the Palm-tree; he shall grow like the Cedar in Lebanon…THEY SHALL STILL BRING FORTH FRUIT IN OLD AGE," (Ps. 92:12-14). "The hoary head is a crown of glory when found in the way of righteousness," (Prov. 16:31).
In the case of Abraham, his advanced years were perhaps the more specially noted by his biographer as a testimony to God's fidelity to His promises. Eighty years antecedent to this time, in the earlier life of the patriarch, the Lord had led His servant forth amid the glories of an Eastern night, and pointed to the spangled skies as an emblem of his spiritual seed. In the solemn covenant which He made with him on that remarkable occasion, He included this among other promises, "And you shall go to your Fathers in peace, you shall be buried IN A GOOD OLD AGE!" (Gen. 15:15) Jehovah had been with him in life. He had been repeatedly true to His assurance, "Fear not, Abraham, I am your SHIELD, and your exceeding great reward!" (Gen. 15:1) And now "with long life" did He "satisfy him" before He fully showed him the promised "salvation!"
But this good old age--this fullness of years--this protracted life had its close. The sun lingered at his setting but he set at last! Abraham was "the friend of God," yet he died. He was the "Father of the Faithful," yet he died. All his greatness and goodness, and faith and patriarchal virtues, could not exempt him from the universal doom. "Though he lived long and lived well, though he did good and could be ill spared, yet he died at last." (Matthew Henry)
His first inheritance in Canaan was a grave for his dead. God had assured him that all the land his footsteps trod would yet be his own; but for many a year the Pilgrim Wanderer could only point to one little spot, and say, "That is mine." It was the field and the sepulcher he purchased of Ephron the Hittite, by the walls of Hebron, where he laid the body of Sarah, and where his own was next to follow. "I am a stranger and a sojourner," said he, as his eye fell for the first time on that grave. Let us seek to cherish the old Pilgrim's spirit. We may have no other foot of ground in the world which we can call our own--but we shall one day claim the narrow house "appointed for all living!" With our eye upon it, let us, with the great patriarch, confess that we are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
"He was gathered to his people." It is a pleasing and a hallowed thought, the dust of a household mixing together! The most sacred spot on earth is the place where the ashes of our kindred repose. And beautiful is the exception which one occasionally sees made in our own land, when, by reason of family misfortune and disaster or other causes, the old family property and inheritance has passed into other and alien hands--there is yet one spot which has been still preserved--where the yew tree and weeping willow every now and then have their stillness invaded by the tramp of the funeral throng!
Abraham had doubtless the same feeling. We know not where he died--but we are here expressly told that the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the Hittite, was opened to receive his lifeless remains. But is it this to which the historian alludes when he records of this illustrious saint that he was "gathered to his people?" Abraham's own people (his fathers) were not in Canaan but in Haran, and it is evidently not to them he refers, in the sense of being interred in their distant sepulchers, for the next verse informs us that this was not the case. Alike of Moses and Aaron it is said, in recording their death, "They were gathered to their people." But this plainly could refer to no vault where rested the ashes of their sires, for the loneliest of sepulchers was appointed them, amid the solitudes of Hur and Mount Nebo.
Without grounding too positively on an ambiguous phrase the statement of a great and comforting truth, which has other passages in its support, may we not, in common with many trustworthy interpreters, ancient and modern, venture with strong probability to conclude, that by the expression in question, the sacred writer meant, not that the patriarch's body, but that his soul was gathered to swell the ranks of that true "people" in the Church triumphant, with whom his name is so often associated in Holy Writ. His ashes were laid in the cave of Machpelah--(we come to a description of their funeral rites immediately)--but the biographer first describes the destiny of the nobler part. He speaks of Abraham as "giving up the spirit," (dismissing the spirit-guest from the earthly tabernacle,) then he follows that spirit in its arrowy flight, until he sees it folding its wings amid the ranks of "the people of God" in the Church of the glorified.
It affords a delightful theme for hallowed imagination, to picture the soul of this great and good man entering the gates of glory, to be welcomed by the Abels, and Noahs, and Enochs, and the unrecorded saints in the ranks of the redeemed, the pledge and first-fruits of a mighty "multitude which no man can number."
Moreover, we are left to infer that his was an immediate entrance on a glorified state. That the moment he breathed away his spirit, it took its place in the mansions of bliss. When, three hundred and thirty years subsequently, God appeared to Moses out of the burning bush at Horeb, He revealed Himself as "the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob." Our blessed Lord's own comment on which, in reply to the Sadducee objection to a resurrection, is, that Abraham was then alive--for God was "not the God of the dead, but of the living," (Matt. 22:32). And in His parable of "the Rich Man and Lazarus," He represents the glorified beggar as reclining on "the bosom of Abraham," (Luke 16:23).
This informs us that "the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory." They are a living people! Oh, most precious and consoling truth to those who have treasures in the tomb! Years after they have gone to their "long home;" when perhaps the moss may have gathered on their grave stones, and time has dismantled their old earthly dwelling, God appears to the lonely survivor and says--"Fear not! I am the God of your sainted one!--Fear not! I am his shield and his exceeding great reward." It gives us also the ennobling and encouraging assurance that when we die, if we die in the Lord, we go not to a strange or unfamiliar land; that yonder heaven is a second home. "Our people" (our loved and lost) are gathered there before us. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, are waiting to welcome us, and to renew the old groups and greetings of hallowed earthly communion. When David said regarding the tender blossom that lay withered at his feet, "I shall go to him," can we suppose that the eye of that stricken parent rested only on the cold walls of the mausoleum where the cherished dust was to repose? No; his thoughts were dwelling on reunion in a better world, where affection's "silver cord" would no more be loosed, nor its "golden bowl" be broken.
Cheerless indeed would be the thought, as we lay beloved relatives in the grave, "I shall see you no more forever!" We cling to the belief that there shall be renewed friendships, undying restoration of earth's sweetest fellowships. How comforting especially must this expectation be to those who like Abraham are "full of years"--the last of their generation--the friends of their early life removed--the village, or street, or city where they were born, filled with new and unrecognized faces--the lights in their own homestead one by one extinguished--the trees of the home forest, one by one, cut down, and the gnarled trunks alone remaining! How cheering for them to think, when stretched on a death-bed, that they are not so much going from home as to home--that if they wish to be "gathered to their people," they must go to heaven! That that "dark Valley" from which they used, in the bright buoyant days of youth, to terrify them as something fearful, is really the avenue leading up to their Father's dwelling-place--the rendezvous of their kindred. As they draw near, they hear music and joy; and many a familiar voice exclaiming--"This my parent, my brother, my son, was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found!"
There is just one other entry in this register of Abraham's death--"And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah."
We read of no great funeral procession!--no trappings or pageantry of mock-mourning, such as mar the solemnity of death in modern times. There are only two mourners mentioned. More there may have been. As we read of Samuel that "all Israel" mourned him, so the thousands in the strange land who had come to recognize Abraham as a mighty prince (Gen 23:6) may have gathered in as mute spectators of the solemn scene. If they did, nothing is said of it. For anything we know the old servant of God may have uttered a wish, often expressed still--that no pomp, or equipage, or crowd should throng the way to the field at Mamre.
The sacred text pictures to us a grave, with only two attendants, paying the last tribute of filial devotedness to the most honored of parents! And who were these? Other sons had Abraham. But the heir and the outcast, the child of the bondwoman and the child of the free woman, are alone there the representatives of his family. See them smoothing his death pillow, composing his limbs, embalming his body, and committing it to its last resting-place!
Beautiful and touching spectacle! Ah, Death! how often have you proved the healer of breaches? We know that a bitter hostility had separated the brothers; Hagar's son had never forgotten the hour of dishonor when he and his mother were thrust out by a jealous rival. Who can tell but the old father, before he closed his eyes in death, got the estranged children to lock their hands together in forgiveness? Be this as it may, we see them at all events in hallowed brotherhood, standing by the grave of the patriarch--Isaac with his meditative spirit, his soul full of burning memories of parental fondness--Ishmael, "the wild man" of the desert, leaning on his reversed spear--and both, on this sacred altar of their common affections, rekindling the smouldering embers of brotherly love. A pregnant lesson to divided relatives--divided families--divided churches--divided nations!
"He being dead yet speaks!" Is Abraham dead? His body sleeps, we believe to this day undisturbed, in the old cave of Machpelah, guarded by a cumbrous pile of rocks. But, the death-wail, which arose from the mouth of that grotto at Mamre, did not close the earthly record of this spiritual giant. His example and influence have been living through a hundred generations. His faith has been spoken of throughout the whole world. The lamp which he lit on leaving Haran, unquenched by the damp and darkness of the tomb, still burns bright and clear. The winds which shook the boughs, and at last laid prone on the ground this old Terebinth of Mamre, have blown its seeds into earth's thousand sequestered nooks and crevices. The sanctity of his great character never dies. How many a Jewish, yes, and Christian father--as with bereft and desolate heart he mourns over family losses--has had his misgivings and murmurings silenced and reproved as he thinks of that unparalleled surrender of the child of promise--God exclaiming, "Abraham! Abraham!"--the foreboding of heavy tidings--while the Patriarch with alacrity responded--"Here I am."
Let it be with us, in some imperfect degree, as with this holy saint. Let us seek to leave behind us some hallowed influence. He left behind him much that the world would call great--much cattle, substance, herds, flocks; a great name--a patriarch, a shepherd-king. But these were nothing compared with what out peered them all--the testimony that he was "the Friend of God." (Hebron is still called El Khalyl, that is, "The Friend," from its having been the abode of the Patriarch.)
In this sense, may many of us be the children of Abraham; ambitious to bequeath as he did, not a legacy of money, or wealth, or honors, shekels of silver, herds of camels, or changes of clothing--but a legacy of holy living and happy dying--lives of sterling integrity and worth.
Who among us (I believe not one) but can summon up, amid the graves of our fathers and deceased relatives, some such sacred character--some hoary patriarch, some Abraham or Sarah--whose exalted and consistent walk has left on our minds impressions never to be effaced; who, when we think of true Christians, (Israelites indeed,) start up before us in vivid reality! They thought they bade us farewell when we were summoned to their death-chambers to receive a last blessing. No, deathless ones! you are, indeed, "gathered to your people," but in many an hour--in the rustle of the dense crowd, in the hush of unbroken solitude--your silvery voices are still heard. You are "gathered to your people," but the people you left behind you on earth still gather in thought around you. The flame has left for heaven, but the live-ashes still linger on the altar. The voice has ceased, but it reverberates in endless echoes among the earthly hills!
Nor let any suppose a long life like that of Abraham is required to fulfill the great purposes of existence. The expression in the sacred record is significant and suggestive, "an old man, and full." The words "full of years," are added by our translators, and are not in the original. "Full"--the idea is that of a tree, whatever its age and dimensions, whose branches, great or small, are filled with sap and clothed with verdure. This fullness is not to be measured or estimated by time or years. It is the fullness of character; ripeness for transplantation to the heavenly Paradise. The young sapling if covered with foliage is fulfilling the conditions and purposes of life, as much as the oldest inhabitant of the forest. Of the loving child or youth who has consecrated an early existence to God, and who leaves the memories of worth and goodness behind him, as well as of the hoary-headed saint with his mantle of snowy age, it may be said, "He died a hundred years old," (Isa. 65:20).
Let us seek especially, as we take the last look of Abraham's mausoleum, to be partakers of his FAITH. It was this exalted and exalting grace which made him the hero that he was. "Faithful Abraham" is the eulogy which, more than once, inspired lips pronounce over his ashes. Faith was the motive principle, the guiding star throughout his chequered history. It was FAITH--simple, calm, dignified trust in the bidding of God--which led him from his paternal plains to the wild glens of distant Canaan. It was faith which reared altar upon altar wherever his tent was pitched. It was faith which girded on his armor against the confederate kings, and crowned him with victory. It was faith which dictated the unselfish proposals to Lot, in the partition of the land. Faith sent him to wrestle for the doomed cities of the plain. Faith enabled him to master the struggling emotions in his heart of hearts, in the hour when that grace culminated in its grandest triumph on the Mount of Sacrifice. Except in one solitary instance, his Faith ever forbade any mercenary calculations--any debate between duty and expediency--between natural affection and divine obedience. He had but one thought, and that was to obey his God--making his own will coincident with the Divine. He lived for this. It was enshrined in his soul, and sanctified and interpenetrated his whole being. GOD was to him food and clothing, home and country, Father and Friend--ALL! Abraham offers perhaps the grandest illustration earth has ever beheld of the great characteristic of the heavenly state, where the angelic will is finally and completely merged and absorbed in the Divine.
And the Great Being he so trustfully served, allowed not his faith to go unrecompensed. Never does the patriarch rear his altar, but the sacrifice is acknowledged by the promise of some new blessings. Never does he gird himself for some fresh heroic deed, but some inspiring vision or "word" is ready to meet him. If his own character was one magnificent example of--faith, obedience, self-surrender, and self-sacrifice, God in various ways, in the course of his history, repeats the touching and impressive picture of the King of Salem--coming forth to meet His servant with tokens of royal favor as "the King of Righteousness" and "peace." His life is like a mighty pyramid rising to heaven. Every stone of trustful obedience which Abraham lays, God cements with some new covenant token. That enduring pyramid of FAITH still towers above his ashes, testifying alike to the moral greatness of the patriarch and to the faithfulness of Him "who promised."
Reader! have you this faith of Abraham--a faith which, as in his case, manifests its legitimate and invariable influence in "working by love," "purifying the heart" and "overcoming the world?" When you come to die, in what sense could it be said of you, "He is gathered to his people?" for this (in a widely different sense) will be said of all. "Say to the righteous," You shall be gathered to your people! "Say to the wicked," You shall be gathered to yours! The angels, who are to be the final ingatherers, are said to "bind" the righteous and wicked in separate "bundles." "The unjust" shall be gathered among the unjust bundles, to be "unjust still." "The filthy" shall be gathered among the filthy, to be "filthy still." The righteous shall be gathered among the righteous, to be "righteous still;" and the holy among the holy, to be "holy still."
There will be moral assimilations. Like will draw to like. Spirits will cling to kindred spirits, like steel-filings to the magnet; or, as if the planets of heaven were suddenly to have the present equilibrium and balance of the great law of forces destroyed, so that many would rush to the central sun, and others shoot away into the illimitable abyss of darkness. There is a common saying on earth, "The child is the father of the man." Equally true is it, in a vaster sense, of the great future, that the mortal life is the parent of the immortal. What we are, will determine what we shall be. The moral and spiritual affinities of earth will decide those of eternity.
Let each ask, to which would I be gathered? What would be my bundle? If the ingathering angel of death were to put in his sickle tonight, which would be the bundle into which the reaper's hand would cast me? The children of God, or the children of the wicked one? Can I now, looking up to Abraham "afar off" in the true Heavenly Canaan, say in the words of Ruth to Naomi, "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God?"
And if we would add a closing sentence, it is this--Let us seek that the same lustrous, animating truth which doubtless irradiated the countenance of the Patriarch at death, as it gladdened him in life.--"Your Father Abraham," says Jesus, "saw MY DAY afar off, and was glad!" (John 8:56.) It was the Vision of Christ--as the EL-SHADDAI, the "All-Sufficient," which surrounded with a heavenly halo the pathway of this Pilgrim-father, and, as "he stood before his dead," gilded the sepulcher of Mamre with hopes full of immortality. Who knows but that the ecstatic vision may have brightened and increased in intensity amid the deepening shadows of age, until it became brightest of all at the close--the glory of this "full orb's" setting, derived from the reflected splendor of the Sun of Righteousness?
"None but Christ"--"None but Christ," has ever been the motto and watchword of departing believers in every age of the Church. Is it not interesting to think of the key-note of this dying song of triumph as having been struck by the Father of the Faithful himself--to stand by that entranced pillow, and behold a panorama crowded with Gospel scenes passing before his eye; Bethlehem and Nazareth--Capernaum and Bethany--Gethsemane and Calvary; and more than all, the Divine PERSON who has given these names all their imperishable significance and glory? Other luminaries were to intervene before His day--all "the goodly fellowship of prophets"--but these lesser orbs pale before the brightness of "the Light of Lights." They had "no glory by reason of the glory which excels."
Champion of Faith as Abraham was, he had, like others, his hours of weakness--misgiving, distrust, unbelief. Bright as was the setting of this patriarchal sun, we can observe 'spots' in his descending sun. Morning and mid-day 'clouds' obscured its radiance. And, therefore, like all the good and true who have preceded and followed him, he sought to have these, lost and swallowed up in the blaze of that "better Sun" whose rising was hailed with such triumphant joy.
Reader, would you die happy? Would you have yours also a peaceful "sunset?" Bring this "day of Christ" continually before you. Gather up, if we might so speak, the rays of the Sun of Righteousness in store for the hour of your departure. Blessed, thrice blessed are those on whom in life He rises, and at death He sets with healing "in His beams." Thrice blessed those who, at that hour, when their earthly warfare--their spiritual conflict is closing, are met by the true Melchisedek to receive His benediction.
Abraham was the Friend of God; and He whose person and work made the patriarch "glad," says, to each of His true disciples, "I have called you Friends!" Magnificent patrimony! better than earth's best hereditary honors--"the child of Abraham," "the Friend of Jesus!" Believers; rise to the consciousness of your exalted rank, as the true aristocracy of the world, with the blood of patriarchs in your veins--allied to "the Prince of the kings of the earth," "sons of God"--yes, and along with nobler honors and destinies in future possession, permitted to "sit down with ABRAHAM . . . in the kingdom of YOUR FATHER."