JACOB AND ESAU
(Second Sunday in Lent.)
GENESIS xxv. 29-34. And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
I have been telling you of late that the Bible is the revelation of God. But how does the story of Jacob and Esau reveal God to us? What further lesson concerning God do we learn therefrom?
I think that if we will take the story simply as it stands we shall see easily enough. For it is all simple and natural enough. Jacob and Esau, we shall see, were men of like passions with ourselves; men as we are, mixed up of good and evil, sometimes right and sometimes wrong: and God rewarded them when they did right, and punished them when they did wrong, just as he does with us now.
They were men, though, of very different characters: we may see men like them now every day round us. Esau, we read, was a hunter--a man of the field; a bold, fierce, active man; generous, brave, and kind-hearted, as the end of his story shows: but with just the faults which such a man would have. He was hasty, reckless, and fond of pleasure; passionate too, and violent. Have we not seen just such men again and again, and liked them for what was good in them, and been sorry too that they were not more sober and reasonable, and true to themselves?
Jacob was the very opposite kind of man. He was a plain man--what we call a still, solid, prudent, quiet man--and a dweller in tents: he lived peaceably, looking after his father's flocks and herds; while Esau liked better the sport and danger of hunting wild beasts, and bringing home venison to his father.
Now Jacob, we see, was of course a more thoughtful man than Esau. He kept more quiet, and so had more time to think: and he had plainly thought a great deal over God's promise to his grandfather Abraham. He believed that God had promised Abraham that he would make his seed as the sand of the sea for multitude, and give them that fair land of Canaan, and that in his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed; and that seemed to him, and rightly, a very grand and noble thing. And he set his heart on getting that blessing for himself, and supplanting his elder brother Esau, and being the heir of the promises in his stead. Well--that was mean and base and selfish perhaps: but there is somewhat of an excuse for Jacob's conduct, in the fact that he and Esau were twins; that in one sense neither of them was older than the other. And you must recollect, that it was not at all a regular custom in the East for the eldest son to be his father's heir, as it is in England. You find that few or none of the great kings of the Jews were eldest sons. The custom was not kept up as it is here. So Jacob may have said to himself, and not have been very wrong in saying it:
'I have as good a right to the birthright as Esau. My father loves him best because he brings him in venison; but I know the value of the honour which is before my family. Surely the one of us who cares most about the birthright will be most fit to have it, and ought to have it; and Esau cares nothing for it, while I do.'
So Jacob, in his cunning, bargaining way, took advantage of his brother's weak, hasty temper, and bought his birthright of him, as the text tells.
That story shows us what sort of a man Esau was: hasty, careless, fond of the good things of this life. He had no reason to complain if he lost his birthright. He did not care for it, and so he had thrown it away. Perhaps he forgot what he had done; but his sin found him out, as our sins are sure to find each of us out. The day came when he wanted his birthright and could not have it, and found no place for repentance--that is, no chance of undoing what he had done--though he sought it carefully with tears. He had sown, and he must reap; he had made his bed, and he must lie on it. And so must Jacob in his turn.
Now this, I think, is just what the story teaches us concerning God. God chooses Abraham's family to grow into a great nation, and to be a peculiar people. The next question will be: If God favours that family, will he do unjust things to help them?--will he let them do unjust things to help themselves? The Bible answers positively, No. God will not be unjust or arbitrary in choosing one man and rejecting another. If he chooses Jacob, it is because Jacob is fit for the work which God wants done. If he rejects Esau, it is because Esau is not fit.
It is natural, I know, to pity poor Esau; but one has no right to do more. One has no right to fancy for a moment that God was arbitrary or hard upon him. Esau is not the sort of man to be the father of a great nation, or of anything else great. Greedy, passionate, reckless people like him, without due feeling of religion or of the unseen world, are not the men to govern the world, or help it forward, or be of use to mankind, or train up their families in justice and wisdom and piety. If there had been no people in the world but people like Esau, we should be savages at this day, without religion or civilization of any kind. They are of the earth, earthy; dust they are, and unto dust they will return. It is men like Jacob whom God chooses--men who have a feeling of religion and the unseen world; men who can look forward, and live by faith, and form plans for the future--and carry them out too, against disappointment and difficulty, till they succeed.
Look at one side of Jacob's character--his perseverance. He serves seven years for Rachel, because he loves her. Then when he is cheated, and Leah given him instead, he serves seven years more for Rachel--'and they seemed to him a short time, for the love he bore to her;' and then he serves seven years more for the flocks and herds. A slave, or little better than a slave, of his own free will, for one-and-twenty years, to get what he wanted. Those are the men whom God uses, and whom God prospers. Men with deep hearts and strong wills, who set their minds on something which they cannot see, and work steadfastly for it, till they get it; for God gives it to them in good time--when patience has had her perfect work upon their characters, and made them fit for success.
Esau, we find, got some blessing--the sort of blessing he was fit for. He loved his father, and he was rewarded. 'And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.'
He was a brave, generous-hearted man, in spite of his faults. He was to live the free hunter's life which he loved; and we find that he soon became the head of a wild powerful tribe, and his sons after him. Dukes of Edom they were called for several generations; but they never rose to any solid and lasting power; they never became a great nation, as Jacob's children did. They were just what one would expect--wild, unruly, violent people. They have long since perished utterly off the face of the earth.
And what did Jacob get, who so meanly bought the birthright, and cheated his father out of the blessing? Trouble in the flesh; vanity and vexation of spirit. He had to flee from his father's house; never to see his mother again; to wander over the deserts to kinsmen who cheated him as he had cheated others; to serve Laban for twenty-one years; to crouch miserably in fear and trembling, as a petitioner for his life before Esau whom he had wronged, and to be made more ashamed than ever, by finding that generous Esau had forgiven and forgotten all. Then to see his daughter brought to shame, his sons murderers, plotting against their own brother, his favourite son; to see his grey hairs going down with sorrow to the grave; to confess to Pharaoh, after one hundred and twenty years of life, that few and evil had been the days of his pilgrimage.
Then did his faith in God win no reward? Not so. That was his reward, to be chastened and punished, till his meanness was purged out of him. He had taken God for his guide; and God did guide him accordingly; though along a very different path from what he expected. God accepted his faith, delivered his soul, gave him rest and peace at last in his old age in Egypt, let him find his son Joseph again in power and honour: but all along God punished his own inventions--as he will punish yours and mine, my friends, all the while that he may be accepting our faith and delivering our souls, because we trust in him. So God rewarded Jacob by giving him more light: by not leaving him to himself, and his own darkness and meanness, but opening his eyes to understand the wondrous things of God's law, and showing him how God's law is everlasting, righteous, not to be escaped by any man; how every action brings forth its appointed fruit; how those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. Jacob's first notion was like the notion of the heathen in all times, 'My God has a special favour for me, therefore I may do what I like. He will prosper me in doing wrong; he will help me to cheat my father.' But God showed him that that was just not what he would do for him. He would help and protect him; but only while he was doing RIGHT. God would not alter his moral laws for him or any man. God would be just and righteous; and Jacob must be so likewise, till he learnt to trust not merely in a God who happened to have a special favour to him, but in the righteous God who loves justice, and wishes to make men righteous even as he is righteous, and will make them righteous, if they trust in him.
That was the reward of Jacob's faith--the best reward which any man can have. He was taught to know God, whom truly to know is everlasting life. And this, it seems to me, is the great revelation concerning God which we learn from the history of Jacob and Esau. That God, how much soever favour he may show to certain persons, is still, essentially and always, a just God.
And now, my friends, if any of you are tempted to follow Jacob's example, take warning betimes. You will be tempted. There are men among you--there are in every congregation--who are, like Jacob, sober, industrious, careful, prudent men, and fairly religious too; men who have the good sense to see that Solomon's proverbs are true, and that the way to wealth and prosperity is to fear God, and keep his commandments.
May you prosper; may God's blessing be upon your labour; may you succeed in life, and see your children well settled and thriving round you, and go down to the grave in peace.
But never forget, my good friends, that you will be tempted as Jacob was--to be dishonest. I cannot tell why; but professedly religious men, in all countries, in all religions, are, and always have been, tempted in that way--to be mean and cunning and false at times. It is so, and there is no denying it: when all other sins are shut out from them by their religious profession, and their care for their own character, and their fear of hell, the sin of lying, for some strange reason, is left open to them; and to it they are tempted to give way. For God's sake--for the sake of Christ, who was full of grace and truth--for your own sakes--struggle against that. Unless you wish to say at last with poor old Jacob, 'Few and evil have been the days of my pilgrimage;' struggle against that. If you fear God and believe that he is with you, God will prosper your plans and labour; but never make that an excuse for saying in your hearts, like Jacob, 'God intends that I should have these good things; therefore I may take them for myself by unfair means.' The birthright is yours. It is you, the steady, prudent, God-fearing ones, who will prosper on the earth, and not poor wild, hot-headed Esau. But do not make that an excuse for robbing and cheating Esau, because he is not as thoughtful as you are. The Lord made him as well as you; and died for him as well as for you; and wills his salvation as well as yours; and if you cheat him the Lord will avenge him speedily. If you give way to meanness, covetousness, falsehood, as Jacob did, you will rue it; the Lord will enter into judgment with you quickly, and all the more quickly because he loves you. Because there is some right in you--because you are on the whole on the right road--the Lord will visit you with disappointment and affliction, and make your own sins your punishment.
If you deceive other people, other people shall deceive you, as they did Jacob. If you lay traps, you shall fall into them yourselves, as Jacob did. If you fancy that because you trust in God, God will overlook any sin in you, as Jacob did, you shall see, as Jacob did, that your sin shall surely find you out. The Lord will be more sharp and severe with you than with Esau. And why? Because he has given you more, and requires more of you; and therefore he will chastise you, and sift you like wheat, till he has parted the wheat from the tares. The wheat is your faith, your belief that if you trust in God he will prosper you, body and soul. That is God's good seed, which he has sown in you. The tares are your fancies that you may do wrong and mean things to help yourselves, because God has an especial favour for you. That is the devil's sowing, which God will burn out of you by the fire of affliction, as he did out of Jacob, and keep your faith safe, as good seed in his garner, for the use of your children after you, that you may teach them to walk in God's commandments and serve him in spirit and in truth. For God is a God of truth, and no liar shall stand in his sight, let him be never so religious; he requires truth in the inward parts, and truth he will have; and whom he loves he will chasten, as he chastened Jacob of old, till he has made him understand that honesty is the best policy; and that whatever false prophets may tell you, there is not one law for the believer and another for the unbeliever; but whatsoever a man sows, that shall he reap, and receive the due reward of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil.