"The purified righteous man has become a coin of the Lord, and has the impress of his King stamped upon him."--Clement of Alexandria.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth." Genesis 28:20-22
We left Jacob, in the preceding chapter, setting up a memorial-pillar. He now proceeds to make it a votive one. God had spoken to him in wondrous mercy and grace, he now desires to make a return-avowal to his Almighty Protector and Friend. It is the voluntary declaration of new and devoted obedience on the part of a son to the loving Father who has tracked his wandering steps, and spoken to him "comfortable words."
In this recorded vow which accompanied the erection of the stone, the Patriarch has been much misunderstood. He has been credited with entering into the unworthy compact with his gracious Benefactor, that only on certain conditions of temporal good bestowed, he would "take the Lord for his God." Moreover, that on the same stipulation, (the fulfillment of this guarantee of divine guidance,) he will make corresponding acknowledgment and restitution. In other words, that his resolve does not take the shape of the free spontaneous offering of a trusting heart; but is expressed rather in the terms of a selfish contract, containing certain specified conditions, the deal of the old bargain-making, worldly-wiseman. He vows a vow, but it is only on the presumptuous understanding that the Divine Being will first of all redeem His own pledge. Add to this, that his mind is so engrossed with the thought of temporal good and personal protection, that all reference is excluded to the more glorious spiritual blessings promised to his posterity.
We concede that such a harsh interpretation would not be altogether out of harmony with Jacob's antecedents. But we dismiss the thought of his thus degrading and desecrating the noblest moments of his life. Surely that ladder-dream and its accompaniments had taught him little, if, on his first waking moments, he were led thus to mock the divine Revealer with a requital like this. We may well cease, then, to regard the words as the compact of a hesitating man, doubtful whether he could, after all, take Jehovah as his Divine Benefactor, offering a loyal allegiance only on certain stipulations and contingencies. No; we are abundantly warranted to take them rather as the utterance of unswerving trust; the simple acquiescence in God's own terms; the recital of God's own declaration. As it has been, in brief, expressed by a scholar--"the saying of Jacob was not a promise for the future, but a reasoning upon the past."
If we might venture to give a paraphrase in modern language, the whole might read thus--'Lord, I take You at Your word. Your pledged promise, given by this wondrous vision, I know is faithful and true. I stagger not through unbelief. You have Yourself signed this charter of temporal good and spiritual blessings. You have said that You will be with me; that You will keep me in all places; that You will bring me again to this land; never leaving me until all Your promises and purposes regarding me be fulfilled. Be it so--I insinuate no doubts; I accept the terms, and joyously subscribe article by article of Your covenant. Since You will, indeed, in wondrous love thus be with me--thus keep me in my pilgrimage-wanderings; thus feed me with food and clothe me with clothing; above all, bring me back again from my exile, first to this dream-land and then to my father's tent in peace, thereby enabling me to call You and rejoice in You as 'my God,'--THEN I shall, even more than now, be in a position to utter the memory of Your great goodness by erecting on this spot an enduring monument of Your faithfulness. The pillar I have now set up will meanwhile remain a pledge of what is to follow. I shall rear on the spot, at some future day, an altar of sacrifice, whereon with burnt-offerings I will pay You the vows my lips have uttered and my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble. Yes, and as a further testimony to Your mercy and loving-kindness, "of all that You shall give me, I will surely give the tenth unto You." "O Lord, truly I am Your servant; I am Your servant, and the son of Your handmaid; You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord"' (Ps. 116:16-18). "It was not, then," says Mr. Blunt, "as has been falsely represented by the enemies of revelation, the shrewd compact of an avaricious man to bind the Deity to his interests; but the overflowing of a grateful heart anxious to bind itself to its God." Or, to sum up with the words of Matthew Henry, the best of commentators, as he thus briefly expresses all we have said, "Jacob had now a gracious visit from heaven. God had renewed His covenant with him; and the covenant is mutual. When God ratifies His promises to us, it is proper for us to repeat our promises to Him."
Nor is this all. We still further fail to see the mercenary spirit which has entailed such heavy censures on the character of the Patriarch, when we note the moderation and simplicity of his desires. He just had had ratified to him the wondrous promises of the covenant. He had awoke with the intensified conviction that he was heir of the Holy Land. Yet the whole boon he asks is humble pilgrim's fare. No superabundance; only food and, clothing--willing to submit to any other privations. A divine lesson to many among ourselves who are apt to give way to peevish fretfulness and discontent in the midst of abounding mercies and even luxuries. "If God gives us much," says the same devout commentator last quoted, "we are bound to be thankful, and to use it for Him. If He gives us but little, we are bound to be content and cheerfully to enjoy Him in it."
In the future there would be many vicissitudes and trials now unforeseen by Jacob; but he lets the unknown ills of tomorrow slumber quietly until tomorrow comes; knowing that the God who guides him and feeds him will give the morrow's grace for the morrow's emergencies.
Moreover, it is of special moment and interest to observe the effect which the consciousness of "having the Lord for his God" had upon him. It braced him for duty. He was not content with the first effect of the vision--simply rousing his religious emotions, causing him to speak of the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. Sentiment, in his case, as in the case of all God's true Israel, passed into deed. Half the glory and grandeur of this desert-revelation--the most useful part of its lessons, would be lost to us, if there had been no more than the bright staircase and the heavenly visitants. We like to ponder the sequel, when we see the soldier of God, as he awakes from his camp, putting on the spiritual armor, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, "praying always." That is an unhealthy atmosphere in which to move where sentiment and contemplation form the staple of the spiritual life--where there is the weekly Sunday vision of the Most High, accompanied with appeals which rouse the sympathies and sensibilities, but when, for these awakened emotions, there is no practical vent or outlet. Feeble resolutions are allowed to filter through the soul. Truth and duty are listened to, but not fulfilled. Existence is resolved into a mimic battle--a mimic pilgrimage. There is the Bethel dream-land with its dream, but without its pillar of consecration and its votive resolves. "Good and faithful servant" will never be spoken regarding what was "well seen" or "well purposed," but what was "well done."
What pillar can I set up? ought to be the question of each heaven-bound traveler. It behooves each faithfully to find out what is his peculiar vocation; in what sphere or direction he can best serve his Lord and Master. There is "to every man his work,"--to every servant his stewardship. Happy is he who finds out what that work is, the peculiar and allotted place in the Temple to which he can consecrate a portion at least of time and talents. Few can be engaged in the more conspicuous services of the altar. To most must necessarily be allocated the humbler duties of hewers of wood and drawers of water. But what a nobility is given to life, when each, recognizing his peculiar sphere and gift, can say--"This stone I have set for a pillar!" God will not reject the offering because of its lowliness.
In a beautiful passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, hear what the Apostle says regarding one form, among many others, which that pillar may assume--"For God is not unrighteous, to forget your work and labor of love, which you have showed toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence, to the full assurance of hope unto the end that you be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (Heb. 6:10-12). To all who have thus ministered to the needs of the needy, or given other practical illustration of their faith, the words are equally applicable which were uttered to the Patriarch twenty years after the night of his dream--"I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar" (Gen. 31:13). That visit to the sick bed; that gift to the widow and orphan; that word of comfort to the bereaved; that salutary reproof to the scorner or the careless; that text taught to the lisping child in the Sabbath-school--these lowly pillars are all remembered by Me. "These stones shall be for a memorial"--"A book of remembrance was written, for those who feared the Lord and that thought upon His name."
Nor must we omit to emphasize (what, indeed, is the special topic of this chapter), that Jacob embodied all these utterances and resolutions in the form of a vow. The pillar he set up was a votive pillar; the anointing with the oil was, as it were, the subscription with his hand to the covenant-deed.
Few there are among us who cannot recall similar seasons; times of emergency, imminent peril, threatened misfortune, or apparently impending death; when the solemn vow is recorded, though, it may be, unlike that of Jacob, without any conspicuous outward symbolism.
Some who read these pages may remember the hour of sickness, when wearisome days and nights were appointed--when excruciating pain or wasting fever were threatening to rend the earthly tabernacle, and they had the solemn possibility brought before them of being laid on a couch from which they were never again to rise. When life was then "balanced in a breath," and the herald symptoms of dissolution were gathering around your pillow; do you not recall the vow then recorded, that if existence were spared and prolonged, by God's mercy it would be dedicated to His praise? Or, is the retrospect rather in connection with the critical illness of some beloved friend--when the sand-glass seemed to be hurrying to its final grain, and you had all the unutterable sadness before you of anticipated bereavement--an empty chair, a broken heart, a desolate home? Do you remember how you then vowed the vow, that if God would bring back the shadow on the dial, and renew the lease of a valued life, future years would become one thank-offering to the Great Restorer? In both cases the vows were accepted, the prayers were heard, the solicited blessing was graciously given!
How have the vows then registered in heaven been kept on earth? Ewald, a distinguished writer, from whom we have more than once quoted, speaks in connection with a subsequent passage in the life of Jacob, of "the erection of a watchtower (Mizpah), as if for a watchman, on the part of that God who looks down from His height to keep watch over oath and covenant." What shall the Watcher of Israel, in His searching scrutiny, have to say regarding your covenantings? If He were to appear now, as He did on that future occasion to Jacob, after the lapse of a score of years, and confront you with the words then employed, what would be your response? Would it be, that soul and body have been presented ever since as living sacrifices? that, amid much conscious unworthiness and shortcoming, you have been true to your solemn engagements? Or would it be the reverse? Would it be to tell that passions which should have been quenched have been pampered--that besetting sins which should have been slain have been nurtured--that you have refused to hear the voice at the ladder's summit--spurned from you the good angels thronging its steps, and invited a horde of demons in their stead--the fragments of the broken pillar--the smouldering ashes of the desecrated votive altar lying scattered around? In a word, that your vows have been like the morning cloud and the early dew--resolutions vanished like snowflakes falling in the wintry sea, or "as a dream when one awakens"?
Even Jacob, when he stood on that Bethel ground again, had reason to mingle tears of self-reproach and humiliation with grateful offering. The recollection of God's goodness was dimmed and darkened by the memories of his own defections and shortcomings. If such should be our experience--if we be waking up to a sense, it may be, of long and blameworthy failure, let us listen to the solemn admonition of Him 'who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks,' as He points to the far-reaching vistas of existence with their fleeting opportunities and solemn responsibilities--"Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the first works" (Rev. 2:5). With new thoughts--new resolutions of obedience, be it ours to say--"In God have I put my trust--I will not be afraid of what man can do unto me. Your vows are upon me, O God--I will render praises unto You. For You have delivered my soul from death; will not You deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living." (Ps. 56:11, 12, 13).
Jacob added yet one more substantial evidence of the practical character of his faith and trust--"And of all that You shall give me, I will surely give the tenth unto You" (ver. 22).
This TITHING of substance was in accordance with primitive Jewish practice. We find Abraham, as he met Melchisedek, on coming up from the slaughter of the kings, making over to him a tenth part of the spoil which he and his courageous band had taken from the aggressors. In the patriarchal age, it would seem to have been a free-will offering--a voluntary obligation. Under the Mosaic dispensation, the Tithe, as it was called, was rendered obligatory for the support of the Levitical priesthood. In Gospel times, the proportion of giving is left to an enlightened conscience--"as God has prospered us." Not, indeed, that it should be made casual, fitful, precarious--a matter of mere impulse, evoked by emotional appeal and momentary caprice; but in harmony with the other requirements of the spiritual life, regulated by plan and system. The Apostolic rule and principle is thus briefly enunciated, "Let every man, according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7). Christ's own rule and direction in His great ethical discourse should be paramount as to the mode as well as principle of giving. "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matt. 6:3, 4). Secret giving meets with no open reward; but it has a better, deeper, richer, than any conspicuous recompense in the face of the world. The brazen trumpet is carried and sounded before vaunting, self-glorious givers, "the hypocrites"--in that they have their poor reward. But the true, acceptable, and accepted donor has his reward--in what? In nothing visible; but in the silent testimony of a good conscience, the unnoticed approving smile of "the Father who sees in secret."
You who are going forth, or who may have lately gone forth, on the great pilgrimage of life, I close this chapter, as I have done others, with a word to you. Take as your model, alike the simplicity of the Patriarch's requests and the practical form in which his waking thoughts were embodied, as he set up his pillar and recorded his vow--not aspiring after great things; thankful if a gracious Providence puts them in your way; but rather feeling that true happiness (truer than you think) is found in the limited aspiration of Agur, whose ambition, like Jacob's, was bounded by a modest competency--"Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me."
On the other hand, seeking to embody religious sentiment and creed in some substantial form; embarking your youthful energies in some object of religious or philanthropic interest that will please God and do good to men; desirous, with reverent hand and effort, to disentangle the world from some of its elements of discord and confusion; lifting the burden off some of its aching hearts, and helping to redress some of its crying wrongs. Depend upon it, these practical ends of religion will aid you all the better in the fulfillment of the early vow 'to be Christ's servant and soldier unto your life's end.'
If, like Jacob, you trust God in little things, He may answer you by great things. He is a bountiful as well as a wise Provider. Many years later, in the retrospect of this very hour, the Patriarch could say, "He answered me in the day of my distress." And how did He answer him? "With my staff," said he, "I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two bands" (Gen. 32:10) What an encouragement to prayer! Jacob asked little--God gave him much. Jacob's aspirations were bounded by daily bread, and common clothing, and immunity from danger and assault--God gave him riches and blessings beyond what he could have conceived. He made the fugitive Dreamer a lordly Prince of the land.
So may it be, in a better sense of "prosperity," with you. Spreading out your petitions at the Mercy-seat, He may not answer them in the form given to the Patriarch, but He is as able and willing now, as ever, to give to His waiting, believing children "exceeding abundantly above all that they ask or think." His are no miser fountains that feed the clouds. "The shower shall come down in its season, there shall be showers of blessing." It may not be "openly;" it may not be in accordance with the recompense most valued and appreciated on earth. Wealth may rear no golden ladder. Fame may sound no blast of clarion. But "the Father who sees in secret" will reward you with "the riches of His glory by Christ Jesus."