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Esau

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1861

I.

ESAU.

And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.

Genesis xxvii. 34.

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1861.

It is to be feared that even those who are most ready to confess that all Holy Scripture was written for our learning, do yet practically derive very little instruction from large portions of the Old Testament History. There are certain broad features indeed which we can scarcely mistake. When the flagrant sinner is struck down by divine vengeance in the midst of his crimes, or when blessings are showered on the faithful servant of God, the lesson is too plain to escape us. The history of David or of Ahab cannot be misread. But there are other parts of Holy Scripture which appear to us very perplexing and unintelligible, which we are disposed perhaps to give up in despair. We cannot understand for instance why in certain cases grave sins are dealt with so lightly, or slight offences visited with so heavy a punishment. We feel that our measure of right and wrong would have been very different; that we should have established another law of retribution. There are many reasons for this. It arises in part no doubt because we are judging of past ages by the conventional standard of good and evil in our own, and are therefore unwilling to view some of the more current and respectable sins in their true light. But it is still more due to the circumstance, that the point which decides the true character of the action frequently does not lie on the surface of the narrative, and that it requires more pains perhaps than we are disposed to give, in order to appreciate its moral significance. And yet it is just those lessons requiring the most study to master which are the most valuable, when once learnt. For they not only give us the broad features of God's dealings with His creatures. They bring out the finer lines in the portraiture of good and evil. They develope the faint shadows of the picture. They discriminate between the real and the seeming. And thus they bring home to us our true position in the sight of God. They pluck off the mask, which we have worn to ourselves as well as to others. They penetrate the inmost depths of our spirit. And thus 'the word of God is' indeed 'quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword,' a very 'discerncr of the thoughts and intents of the heart.'

And it happens very frequently in such cases— where the lesson conveyed does not appear at once on the face of the narrative, and where consequently there is a danger of our passing it over in a careless reading—that our attention is arrested by some casual but pointed allusion to it in the writings of an Apostle or Evangelist, or in the words of our Blessed Lord Himself. And thus the light of the New Testament is shed upon the Old. The narrative assumes a new aspect. We at length recognise its importance. We are led to study it afresh, and each time we read it we are more fully impressed with the depth of the lesson it conveys.

The instances of Balaam and of Esau both illustrate the truth of what I have been saying. They are in many respects parallel. The difficulty is much the same in either case. We are at a loss to account for the extreme severity, as we are disposed to regard it, with which the offender is treated in the sacred narrative. Both alike are referred to in the New Testament. 'The way of Balaam the son of Bosor' is a by-word for disobedience and ungodliness. The 'profane' Esau, 'who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright', is the very picture and type of the hopelessly and irrevocably fallen.

Yet this is certainly not the estimate we should have formed by ourselves. Our first impression of Balaam is of one, who—if he fell short of the highest perfection, if his duty to God was not all in all to him—yet at all events cannot be said to have gone very far wrong. We read of his consulting God in all he does. We find him acting as God commands him to act. We marvel at his subsequent history, and we are perplexed at the language which Scripture holds regarding him. So again with Esau. We have a sort of feeling that he too, like Balaam, is somewhat hardly dealt with. We are not sure that we should have given the preference to his brother Jacob—nay, we more than suspect that we should have reversed the judgment: that, instead of depriving him of the blessing, we should even have restored him the birthright. We have a lurking regard for his rough, impetuous, simple character, for his undesigning and generous spirit. The treachery which is practised upon him, and the success which attends his brother's plots, enlist our sympathies in his favour. It is only when we have examined the narratives more closely, giving them more thought and trying to divest ourselves of our prejudices, that we see their history in its true light. Then at length we acknowledge the justice of God's rebuke of Balaam; and we cease to marvel at his fall, because we can now see that, when he acted aright, he acted from fear and not from love. Then at length we discover the superiority of Jacob; and we wonder no more that Esau was deprived of the blessing and rejected as a profane person: for we see that Jacob—though amidst many imperfections, despite many grievous sins—did place his reliance on God; did look to Him, as the Giver of all good things; did live for more than the passing moment. In short Jacob was spiritually minded; while Esau—with much in him to like, and something to admire—was careless and indifferent to all higher things, influenced only by passing impulses and momentary impressions, without foresight, without reflection, the type of that hopeless class of men, whose maxim is, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.'

To this latter narrative, the history of Esau, I ■ will ask your attention for a few moments this morning. I know of no sadder story. I can imagine none. If the character of Esau had been less attractive, his fall would have excited less pity. If his prospects had not been so brilliant, his fate would have been less terrible. But it is the combination of these two circumstances in the narrative—the ruin of a character

which we are disposed to admire, and the unspeakable value of the birthright and the blessing which he recklessly threw away—that gives the interest to the story, and rivets our attention to the lesson which it contains. The destruction of so many bright hopes, the dissipation of so many glorious visions, the hopeless and irrevocable ruin of one so simple and honest and open-hearted—what can be more touching than this? And hence it is that we seem to hear ringing sharply above the most piercing shrieks of pain, and the loudest wailings of grief, that one exceeding bitter cry, uttered in the agony of despair,'Bless me, even me also, O my father.'

And perhaps it may be that the narrative comes home with peculiar force to ourselves, that we are conscious of some crisis in our own lives, or recall some incident in the career of others whom we have known and loved, which reminds us only too painfully of the fate of Esau, and gives point to the lesson. Is it so with any of us? May it not be so in some degree or other with most or all of us? Or is it a mere form that we bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses; that we confess the remembrance of them to be grievous unto us, the burden intolerable? Have we not each our special temptation, our besetting sin? And it may be that at one time or other this *has culminated in some act, more heinous than we had supposed possible—some breach of the law of love, or of truth, or of purity, according to our special temptation—one act which has seemed to shut us out from the presence of God, and to leave us to darkness and despair. And then at length we have learnt in our bitter anguish to measure the exceeding great value of that heavenly birthright, which as sons of God we have inherited only to spurn and to set at naught, and—in remorse, if not in penitence—have striven by the importunity of our cries to arrest the blessing, ere it has passed away from us for ever.

I need scarcely dwell on the character of Esau, as it is painted in the sacred narrative. Making allowance for the rude habits of the patriarchal age, he is not essentially different in character from a very large number among ourselves. He has just the same virtues, and just the same faults. He is the father's favourite son. He is born to great hopes. He has brilliant prospects before him. His career is in his own hands. His lot may well be envied by others. But all is thrown away upon him. He is reckless of his opportunities. He is insensible to his blessings. He loses everything by one desperate act of folly. He finds out too late the value of what he has lost. He would give anything to recover it, when recovering it is hopeless. And yet his character is far from utterly vicious. Of such a man we might say, that he is no one's enemy but his own. If his bad passions are strong, his impulses for good are strong also. If he is reckless and undisciplined, he is simple and honest and open-hearted. He is in short not so very much worse—perhaps not at all worse—than a great number, who are admired and loved among ourselves, and whose manifest faults are forgiven for the sake of many rough virtues and generous affections.

Nor do I think that the guilt of Esau will seem so much deeper in comparison with that which we may incur, when we consider the nature of the privilege which he despised, of the blessing which he threw away. True it is that the promise which pertained to Esau—the promise given to Abraham and renewed to Isaac—was something more than the possession of lands and flocks and houses; that his birthright implied more than mere rank or wealth or earthly power. He knew that by virtue of his birthright he was destined to be the father of the chosen seed; that in him all the families of the earth should be blessed; that from his race as concerning the flesh Christ was to come, the Redeemer of the whole world. This he knew, or might have known. This inheritance he bartered for a morsel of meat. For this he is condemned and branded as a profane person.

It was no common offence then of which Esau was guilty. It was perhaps as great an offence as in his position he could have committed. Yet it is not greater than that which we shall commit, if like him we despise our birthright. For have we not an inheritance more precious still—we who are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ—a name more glorious than his, for it is a name better than of sons and of daughters? If he might have been the father of Messiah's race, how much greater is our privilege, to whom is accorded a far more intimate, because a spiritual, relationship ?' Whosoever shall do the will of My Father Which is in heaven, the same is My brother and sister and mother.' Are we tempted for some worldly consideration, for some momentary advantage, for wealth or popularity or fame or ease or pleasure, to barter away this brilliant inheritance? Is not the price we give as ruinous, the exchange we get as worthless, as it was with Esau?

There are two circumstances however in the story of Esau, which it may be well to dwell on more at length: for from these we may derive the most valuable lesson. Yet at first sight they only perplex us. They seem not only to palliate the guilt, but almost to obliterate the offence. They lead us to look upon him as the victim rather than the culprit, as sinned against rather than sinning. The first of these is the circumstance that he is surprised into selling his birthright. It is a momentary, unpremeditated act; he falls into a snare laid for him; we feel disposed therefore not to judge him too harshly: we cannot regard his offence as very heinous. In the second place, though the loss of the birthright was certainly his own act, whatever excuse we may make for it, yet he was deprived of the blessing by no fault of his. By no reasonable foresight could he have prevented it. He made some efforts at least to obtain that blessing. He did not throw it away. He was robbed of it. Surely this can not be laid to his charge. Of this at least he is innocent.

In considering the first of these points, let us ask ourselves what is meant by being surprised into such and such a sinful act—what leads to it, what state of mind it supposes, how it comes about? In a certain sense indeed Esau is surprised into selling his birthright. He returns from the field hungry and faint. He asks for food. His brother will not give it him except at the price of his birthright. He yields. 'Behold,' he says, 'I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?' But is this yielding an isolated act? Does it not show a defective character? Does it not betoken a certain spiritual depravity, a low, worldly view of his position? He 'despised his birthright,' we are told, and therefore he is branded as 'a profane person.'

For indeed surprise would be utterly powerless, unless the character were previously undermined. And so it is no excuse for a sinful act; it is scarcely in any degree a palliation. It is rather a revelation of secret depravity in a man, hidden successfully from his neighbours, ignored by, but not unknown to, himself. After the flagrant deed is committed, others may be at a loss to account for it. It is unexplained to them by anything in his previous career. But to himself it is clear enough. To him it is not an isolated act, but one link in a long chain of evil. He has been aware all along that he was sinking into sin. He has thrust away the troublesome thought, but he has been aware of it. He has taken no measure, it may be, of the growth of his guilt. It has ripened into grievous sin unnoticed. In no other sense can it have been a surprise to him. For all the while the seed was there, and had taken root, and the noxious plant was growing; and he knew it, and he hid it from others, and he would not confess it perhaps even to himself.

Is it an act of sensuality into which he has been betrayed? One act perhaps, which has poisoned the fountains of his spiritual life, which has bound his outward existence with heavy chains which he cannot shake off. The temptation took him unawares, we say. He was startled into sin. But is this the whole account of the matter? Is it natural, is it reasonable, that this should be so? Who shall dare to trace the secret history of that man's soul, to lay open the hidden springs of his guilt? Who shall venture to say what forbidden thoughts he has admitted, perhaps welcomed, how recklessly he has lingered on the border line of good and evil, how longingly he has hovered about the accursed thing, before he dared to touch it?

Or again, is it a palpable breach of truth or honesty? He has committed some act of fraud or treachery, which has destroyed his good name for ever. How came this to pass? Were there no antecedents in his career which led naturally to that result? Had he not contracted a habit, for instance, of saying less or more than he meant, of expressing an enthusiasm or an interest which he did not feel, of paring down the truth to fit it into some conventional mould, of suppressing a little here or exaggerating a little there? Or if he fell, not from moral cowardice or from the desire to please, but from greed of gain, were there not here also insidious influences at work? There are many cases, where the question of right is doubtful. These he has decided in his own favour. There are others, where, if he investigated, he might find that he was defrauding his neighbour. These he will not enquire into. He will not be dishonest knowingly, but he will take no pains to find whether he is so or not. These are the beginnings of his guilt. By these a fraudulent habit is created. By degrees he goes on from bad to worse. He avails himself of his superior cunning; he defrauds his neighbour in little things where he is sure of escaping observation. By this time he has ceased to respect honesty as a thing to be prized in itself. To him it is so much capital to trade upon—and for this purpose the semblance is as good as the reality. Hitherto he has preserved his reputation before the world. But at length he is surprised, as we say, into some flagrant act of dishonesty. Society lays him under a ban. His character is irrecoverably lost.

And so it was with Esau. It was not that one act of selling his birthright which constituted his guilt. That was but the revelation of his true character, the summing up, as it were, of his depravity.

But fearful as is the lesson which this incident suggests, it is not half so fearful as that which we derive from his subsequent fate. He bartered away his birthright, but how was it with the blessing? It was by no act of his own that he lost this. There is nothing in the narrative which leads us to such a supposition. There was no unholy traffic here, no profane contempt here. He did not drive the blessing away. It went in spite of him. The key to this difficulty is found in the allusion in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The loss of the blessing is there represented as the inevitable consequence of the sale of his birthright. 'Ye know that afterwards, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected.' His fate up to a certain point was in his own hands. After that it was placed beyond his reach. So it was with Esau, and so it is always with the downward course of guilt. We may wade for a time amidst the shallows of sin, feeling our footing and heedless of danger. A single step more places us at the mercy of the waves, and we are swept away into the ocean of ruin. When we read of God's hardening the sinner's heart, we are perhaps startled at the phrase, yet there is no doubt that it represents a fearful moral truth. The sinner after a time ceases to be his own master. He has coiled a chain about him, which binds him hand and foot. He is dragged helplessly down. There is no more terrible passage in classical literature than that in which the Roman poet describes the guilty man trembling in his secret soul, as he sees himself falling, falling headlong, unheeded and unsuspected by those nearest to him. With a true moral insight he regards this state as the just retribution of offended heaven—the heaviest punishment which can be inflicted on the most heinous guilt. Such indeed it is. Translating it into the language of Scripture we should say, that God has hardened such a man's heart . Surely we need not call to our aid the terrors of an unseen world— however true those terrors may be—to deter us from the path of guilt. The thought that our hearts also may be hardened, that we too may shut ourselves out from the presence of God, should be sufficient to check us in our downward career.

And even supposing this deadness should not pervade our whole spiritual being, may not the yielding to our special temptation, the indulgence in our favourite sin, stiffen and paralyse some limb or other of our moral frame? Do we not every now and then see an instance of this? We are brought in contact with some one, who, thoroughly conscientious in most things, keenly sensitive on many points of duty, is yet hardened in some one point of his moral constitution, seems dead to some moral virtue. Yet such cases are exceptional. It is the tendency of this paralysis to spread. It seizes on one limb first, but presently it extends to all. The moral frame, like the bodily, is compacted and knit together in a marvellous way. There is a wonderful sympathy between limb and limb. 'Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.'

In what I have said, I have been speaking the language of warning, and not the language of despair. C. s. 2

Despair is no word of the Christian's vocabulary. So long as there is any heavenward aspiration, any loathing of sin, any yearning after better things, however slight, however feeble, there is still hope. Cherish these higher feelings. Quench not the Spirit, though it flicker faintly and lowly. From these few sparks a bright flame may be kindled, which shall cheer your heart, and throw a light upon your path, and guide you home to your heavenly rest.