"Grants of mercy call for returns of duty; and the sweet
communion we have with God ought ever to be remembered."--Matthew Henry.
"Therefore fear not, O my servant Jacob, says the Lord;
neither be dismayed, O Israel--for I am with you, says the Lord, to save
you."--Jeremiah 30:10, 11.
God said to Jacob, "Now move on to Bethel and
settle there. Build an altar there to worship me—the God who appeared to you
when you fled from your brother, Esau." Genesis 35:1
We revisit with emotion localities which have been
consecrated to us in early years; all the more so, after a long period of
absence. Whether it be the lowly cottage of the hamlet, or the residence in
the busy city, or the more splendid ancestral dwelling. Some one special
scene or haunt, also, may have its more hallowed memories; the tree whose
shade vividly recalls childhood's playful hours; the murmuring stream and
pendent willow where youth's first aspirations were formed; "the upland
lawn" or "accustomed hill" where in the company of some cherished friendship
"the early dews were brushed away;" the Church whose walls listened to the
silent vows of a new spiritual life--the room where those now numbered with
the dead spoke tenderly and lovingly of filial duty, and who have left
behind them imperishable examples of holy living and happy dying.
The human heart is the same in every age--and akin,
therefore, to the emotions just described, must have been the feelings with
which Jacob once more stood among the stones of his former couch at Bethel.
For the previous nine years, he had encamped at Succoth
and Shechem. At the latter place he set up an altar "in the grove of Moreh."
In connection with it, however, he had no divine personal
remembrances. It was sacred to him only as associated with his grandfather's
primitive altar, erected 160 years previously, on the occasion of first
receiving the Covenant promise. It was different altogether with the spot
which had awakened within his own breast his deepest religious fervor, and
witnessed his own earliest vows of heart-consecration. What a change had
passed over his history during the three decades! To how many vicissitudes
had he been subjected since that never-to-be-forgotten morning, when, with
elastic tread, he went forth fresh from the voices and visions of heaven on
his unknown pilgrimage!
Then he was all alone--no companion but a bag and a
pilgrim staff--now, he returns, the head and center of an imposing Eastern
caravan. Whatever these varied experiences had been, one thing he could
gratefully testify, that the Great Being who had spoken to him had been true
to His promises. He had not failed him. He had 'kept him in all places where
he had gone,' and had 'brought him again into that land.' It was a
retrospect of covenant faithfulness. What Moses, in an after age, said in
his dying admonitions to Israel, might have been appropriately addressed now
to their illustrious progenitor--"You shall remember all the way which the
Lord your God led you--in the wilderness, to humble you and to prove you, to
know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments, or
not" (Deut. 8:2).
In accordance with the divine direction, the Patriarch
now willingly returned to the old votive ground, anew to pledge his
faithfulness to the God who had 'answered him in the day of his distress.'
Nine and a half years previous to this, the recollection of the ladder-dream
had been vividly brought before him. On the other side of the Jordan, just
as he was approaching the borders of Canaan, the Angels of that heavenly
Stair had again appeared. We may perhaps infer, that not during the twenty
years of his exile, had they been visible to the outward eye of the Pilgrim
Shepherd; but in that night of awe and trembling at Jabbok, an angelic
revelation was again given. The exile "went on his way" from Mesopotamia,
and (on reaching Canaan) the "angels of God met him" (Gen. 32:1).
Standing now upon the spot where formerly these radiant
Beings had revealed themselves in a dream above his pillow of stone, he
would gratefully recall, in addition to the bestowment of positive
mercies, the evasion of many and great perils. There would be his escape
across the Euphrates from the morose and exacting Laban. There would be the
averting of the anger of his once vengeful and vindictive, but, as he had
proved, high-minded and generous brother. There would be the deliverance
from more recent reprisals at the hands of the Canaanites, in consequence of
his son's breach of faith in the exterminating massacre of the citizens of
Shechem (a treacherous and perverse deed in which he himself had no
complicity). Above all, there was Jehovah's own gracious meeting with him at
the frontier river; a meeting which might truly be called the second
birthday of his soul. He had been spiritually born at Bethel, but he might
be said to have been born again at Jabbok. A soldier before, he was there
panoplied with new armor. From that memorable crisis-hour, indeed, we note
that he becomes truer, more real, more unselfish, more affectionate, more
God-fearing. Ewald graphically remarks, "Then was accomplished the true
spiritual triumph of the great hero, made a new man through such superhuman
conflicts; though as the chronicle finally concludes, he receives a
lameness, a memento of the mortal combat he has passed through, and a
reminder of bygone weakness; as if the moral deformity of 'The Crafty' had
passed into the body, and were henceforth to attach to that only."
A new altar we are told was erected on the dreamland,
apparently by his own hands, and the name bestowed on the place twenty years
before received a fresh and solemn confirmation. "He called the place
El-Bethel" (Gen. 35:7). Jehovah once more appeared to His servant. In all
probability that appearance on the present occasion was in visible form. The
same voice, however, which of old spoke from the stair-summit, again
addresses him. First renewing the covenant blessing; and then farther
signalizing both the place and the occasion by the reiteration of the new
name bestowed at Jabbok. Jacob "the Supplanter" is changed into
"Israel"--"the Prince of God." "And God said unto him, Your name is
Jacob--your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be
your name; and he called his name Israel" (Gen. 35:10).
As a fresh motto and watchword for the pilgrimage, the
honored Patriarch listens to the additional announcement from the lips of
his gracious Protector, "I am God Almighty!" (Ver. 11.) After
certifying to him that the promise previously made on the same ground is to
be made good, "to you and to your seed after you will I give the
land"--farther, that he was to be the father of a company of nations and of
a line of kings; (ver. 12); we read "God went up from him in the place where
he talked with him" (13). Another, probably more carefully built pillar was
then erected to commemorate this new revelation of the Divine Being--"a
pillar of stone," on which the customary libation was poured, consisting of
a "drink-offering and oil" (35:14).
This scene and occasion has perhaps been truly called,
"the time of Jacob's greatest happiness." His cup certainly was full as it
had never been before. It was the pride of the wealthy sheep owner with his
vast flocks and herds--of the chief surrounded with his clansmen--the Sheikh
by his servants--the joy of the exile returning to his native hills; of the
father in the midst of his numerous family and dependants. There was the
lively recollection of the divine condescension and kindness in the past;
and the renewal of the divine promises for the future. We may even picture
his household, who had lately renounced their idols (Gen. 35:4), assembling
around the votive pillar, and uniting in the simple rites of worship.
No anticipation of coming trial broke the trance of
present bliss--Bethel, during these memorable days, must have appeared, even
in an earthly sense, as the Gate of Heaven. The "Goodness and Mercy" of the
future Psalm (as if two of the radiant Angels of the ladder) would seem
about to follow him all the days of his life.
Alas! for the instability and insecurity of earth's best
blessings! Jacob knew not (as we know not) what a day may bring forth. This
solitary Shepherd of Palestine, like the laurel-crowned victors of a later
age, must listen in the hour of blessing and prosperity to the needful
monitory word reminding of vicissitude and mortality. In his present moments
of elation, little did he forecast coming events. Little dreamt he, that
only a few days later, after striking his tents, the impending cloud of
bereavement which darkened his whole future was to burst upon him; that he
would reach his father's encampment, now pitched at Mamre, a broken-hearted
widower! His beloved Rachel he laid in her early grave at Bethlehem. Even
the aged nurse, who formed the tenderest link which bound him to his
mother's name and memory, was left with tears at Bethel under the "oak of
weeping"--a name which surely carries with it a touching testimony alike to
the fidelity of the servant and the irrepressible grief of the master.
Meanwhile, however, in calm confidence, though all
ignorant of that unknown morrow, he erects his altar and vows his vow. What
was said of a great descendant may with equal truth have been said of him--
"Bold to bear God's heaviest load,
Dimly guessing at the road--
Rocky road and hard ascended
Though his foot was angel-tended.
"Soon came heartache, care, distress,
Blighted hope and loneliness--
Sad success, parental tears,
And a dreary gift of years."
Here by rights this volume should end. And yet, may we
not well include in our pages still another and more solemn 'Eventide at
Bethel'? Are we not warranted to believe that there was yet one other
occasion when the Dreamland came conspicuously before the eye of the
Patriarch? He was indeed, at the time we speak of, at a long distance from
Canaan. Very different scenes had for seventeen years risen before his eyes.
He was no longer among the sunny hills and pastoral valleys and lowly altars
of Palestine, but far away amid the stretches of glowing sand and the
colossal Temples and Pyramids of Egypt. We are summoned in thought to his
death-chamber in that strange kingdom. The season has now arrived, the
solemn hour in his, and in every history, when life is lived over again, and
its most momentous incidents are recalled to impressive remembrance. As the
princely Joseph and his sons stand by his bedside to take their last
farewell, lo! it is the memories of the stony pillow which are first upon
the lips of the dying Patriarch.--When Jacob heard that Joseph had
arrived, he gathered his strength and sat up in bed to greet him. Jacob said
to Joseph, "God Almighty appeared to me at Luz (Bethel) in the land
of Canaan and blessed me. He said to me, 'I will make you a multitude of
nations, and I will give this land of Canaan to you and your descendants as
an everlasting possession.'" Genesis 48:2-4
Then, after recounting some touching reminiscences of his
pilgrimage, he farther proceeds to pronounce a special blessing on his
favorite son, and his two grandchildren. But even in doing so, the vision of
Bethel seems anew to rise up vividly before him. He sets his dying seal to
the veracity and fidelity of the divine promise which, it will be
remembered, gave birth to his own responsive vow--"The God which fed me all
my life-long unto this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil" (Gen.
May we not, moreover, well suppose, that the ladder-dream
had its own due share in impelling the urgent and reiterated request
regarding his own burial plans? He wishes no stately Pyramid or Sarcophagus
reared over his ashes in the land of the Pharaohs. "Bury me not, I beg you,
in Egypt, but I will lie with my fathers--in the land of Canaan." We are
thankful for the record of this quiet eventide, after a stormy and troubled
day--the peaceful migration of this great Shepherd-Patriarch to 'the Better
country.' We hear of triumphant deathbeds. This surely is one of them. Like
a glorious sun bursting from a bank of clouds in an evening sky, he seems to
illuminate all around. Not Joseph and his sons only, but all his family are
gathered round his couch to receive his benediction.
And such a benediction! It has been well called a "grand
lyric." The religious fervor which dictated the morning vow and prayer and
which reared the altar on the upland at Bethel, seems to return in these
waning hours. Not in the prosaic imagery we generally associate with age and
weakness, but in strains of loftiest poetry the spirit of the old man passes
away. "Who," says Toplady, "that reads this chapter, would imagine, that
elevated strains like these--strains that would have done honor to the
genius of Homer, warbled from the lips of a dying man--of a man, also,
laboring under the utmost decays of age, and over whose head no fewer than
one hundred and forty-seven years had passed!
All the dross, from that complex soul of his, had now
been burnt out and removed in the smelting furnace. He comes forth from his
life of great mercies yet of great tribulation, refined as the gold. He
seems transfigured before he is glorified. What could not have been said for
many a long year of trial and discipline can be averred with confidence now,
"Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile."
We hear no more of murmuring at calamities--no more
mourning over failures--no more rash impugnings, as once there were, of
divine wisdom and faithfulness. The "all things" he once thought "against
him" are now owned to have been for him. He seems wrapped up and
absorbed in the contemplation of the goodness of that Redeeming Angel-God.
God's hand alone he traces in the varied events of his pilgrimage. His
bounty had fed him, His Providence had shielded him, His presence had
cheered him and He who had given him sustaining grace for a living-day, now
gave him dying grace for a dying-day.
And if we might, for yet a few moments, linger at that
death-scene, it would be to note one other minute particular in the
narrative (trivial in itself), but not without its interest as the last link
with the Dream-land. We have noted in its place, in a preceding chapter,
that the solitary possession of the shepherd-pilgrim specially mentioned in
connection with that lone eventide at Bethel, was his pilgrim staff.
Nor indeed need we speak of this reference to the staff of the patriarch as
'trivial;' when it is not deemed to be so by an inspired penman of a long
future age. It is surely remarkable, that the writer of the Epistle to the
Hebrews in his roll-call of worthies, should, in illustrating Jacob's faith,
specially single out for mention the circumstance that in blessing the two
sons of Joseph in the hour of his departure, "he worshiped, leaning on
the top of his staff."
As we associate Moses with his rod, and Elijah with his
mantle, so do we associate Jacob with this pastoral crook. The same staff,
perhaps, had been familiar to him in life's bright morning among the flocks
at Beersheba--the same had been at the side of the Bethel-dreamer when he
became spectator of angelic footsteps and auditor of the heavenly voice--it
was probably the first thing his hand grasped in early dawn, when he raised
himself from his stony pillow. It had been the companion of his pilgrimage
ever since; the silent witness of his covenant-vows; the memento and
souvenir of many loving-kindnesses and interpositions of the God he had
served--with him in his joys, with him in his sorrows; on which he had
leaned when bowed with grief at his subsequent trials, when "Joseph was not
and Simeon was not," and they threatened to "take Benjamin also."
The blind old man, as he strengthens himself on his bed,
leans reverently on the same cherished support, absorbed in thought. He can
no longer see it. His eyes are dimmed with the haze of years and of
death--but his aged hands can grasp it. That death-grasp would seem to help
him to gather up the tangled threads of memory and to retrace all the varied
steps in the ladder-dream of existence. No more; the humble prop which had
guided him through the fords of Jordan (Gen. 32:10) would seem to suggest a
nobler Shepherd's crook, leaning on which, he would pass safely at life's
eventide through the deep gorges and rushing waters of a deeper and darker
valley. He could anticipate gracious words which have cheered countless
millions in the same hour, "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil--for You are with me; Your rod and
Your staff they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).
We almost forget the once trembling fugitive and scared
dreamer on the uplands of Benjamin. We can hardly recognize the timid
traveler at Jabbok. The mists and clouds that obscured his early morning
have passed away forever. The rustic wanderer has risen to the dignity of
Prophet. Before these eyes, dimmed to earth, but already kindling with the
light of an opening heaven, there rises, in the far-reaching vista of a
grander future, the vision of a Great coming Conqueror--the Messiah of his
race. He even hails Him by names, in what Luther well calls "a golden text,"
as the SHILOH. He sees nations and peoples gathering around His standard;
kings and princes casting their crowns and scepters at His feet, and
welcoming Him to the throne of universal Empire.
Then, as if rejoicing in his own assured personal
interest in these transcendent predictions, he puts his dying seal to the
faithfulness, in a dying hour, of "the Angel who redeemed him." As if at
last fully realizing the glories of the Bethel vision--"I have waited," said
he, in a rapture of gospel triumph--"I have waited for Your salvation, O
God!" With that Dreamland before his closing eyes, and the angels of the
heavenly stair tracking his footsteps, he boldly crosses the border-river,
and the noblest part of the Bethel promise is fulfilled, "he is brought to
his Father's house in peace." "When Jacob had finished giving
instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his
last and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 49:33).
May such a tranquil Eventide be ours--the vision, the
promise, the staff, the Angel-convoy, the memories of divine goodness, the
song of salvation, the abundant entrance! May we be among the privileged
number, who, having gazed with the eye of faith on the Dreamland ladder, are
able at a dying hour to grasp its sublime spiritual and everlasting
verities, and who shall at last "sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and JACOB
in the Kingdom of our Father!"
"Complain not that the way is long--
What road is weary that leads there?
But let the Angel take your hand,
And lead you up the misty stair--
And then with beating heart await
The opening of the Golden Gate."
"Beyond the stars that shine in golden glory,
Beyond the calm sweet moon,
Up the bright ladder saints have trod before you;
Soul! you shall venture soon.
"All finished! all the conflict and the sorrow,
Sin felt and feared no more;
There dawns the radiance of a dreamless morrow
On the Eternal Shore!"
"Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee;
Even though it be a cross
That raises me;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
"Though like the wanderer,
The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me,
My rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I'd be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
"There let the way appear
Steps unto Heaven;
All that Thou sendest me
In mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
"Then with my waking thoughts
Bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs
Bethel I'll raise;
So by my woes to be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
"And when on joyful wing,
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
Upward I fly;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee."