ŇTherefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.Ó Hebrews 11:12.
The third and last effect of SarahŐs faith is that by this son Isaac, whom she conceived and brought forth by faith, she had a wonderful great issue, and a posterity almost without number. This effect consists not of itself, but depends upon the former. Her faith gave her strength to conceive Isaac, though she were barren, and to bring him forth, though she were old and weak; and so her faith brought him out, by whom she was made the mother of many millions of men.
The matter of this third effect is the multitude of men that came of Abraham and Sarah by Isaac.
This posterity or multitude is described by two arguments:
I. By the beginning or root of it: One that was as dead.
II. The quantity of greatness laid down:
1. Generally, to be a multitude and innumerable.
2. Particularly, by two comparisons:
(1). As many as the stars in the sky.
(2). As the sands by the sea shore.
I. The first point is the root and beginning of this multitude in these words::
And therefore sprang there of one, even one that was as dead.
One, that is one woman, Sarah; or at the most, one couple, Abraham and Sarah. And this one was no better than dead. Not dead properly and fully; for none are so dead whose souls and bodies are not separate; but, as dead, that is, as good as dead, or half dead; meaning that they were altogether unfit for generation of children, the strength of nature being decayed in them; Abraham being an hundred, and Sarah ninety years old. And if this be true of Abraham, who was past age; how much more is it of Sarah, who was both past age, and was also barren in her best age.
Here we are to note and learn many things:
First, multitudes came of one. See here the powerful, and yet the ordinary works of God, to rear up good and huge buildings upon small and weak foundations. So did He in the beginning, and ever since. Indeed He made at the first thousands of stars, because they must be no more than at the first they were; and millions of angels, intending they shall not multiply; He could also have made millions of men in a moment. He would not, but only one couple, Adam and Eve. And of them came the infinite race of mankind. When sin had made an end of that world, he founded not the second that yet continueth upon a thousand couples; but by three men and their wives he multiplied the whole race of mankind, which since have grown from three to millions of millions. And so here of one old man, and a barren old woman, spring innumerable multitudes.
This God doth to magnify His own power in the eyes of the sons of men; and so He did also in matters heavenly. The number of Christians since Christ, that have grown to millions, began in a poor number at the first. For when Christ Himself was ascended, the number of known believers was 120 (Acts 1:15).
The consideration hereof should teach us all these duties:
(1). First, not to measure God by our lengths, nor to tie Him to our rules; but to esteem of His power and might, as we see it deserves; and to entertain high and honourable thoughts of Him and His majesty, who can rear up so great works upon so poor foundations.
(2). Secondly, not to despair of ourselves or our estates, though we think ourselves never so weak, so poor, so sick, either in soul or body; but to remember Him that of one made multitudes to spring out. Therefore when thou art brought never so low, either in soul or body, by any miseries, either inward or outward; faint not, but go forward in the strength of the Lord thy God. Particularly, if God have afflicted thee with poverty that thou have nothing to begin withal; or for thy soul; is thy knowledge in religion small, thy means poor, thy feeling of GodŐs favour but weak? Yet faint not, but lay fast hold on GodŐs power and promise, use carefully the holy means God hath ordained, remembering and relying on Him who made millions grow out of one; and assure thyself, as Job saith, Though thy beginnings be small, yet thy latter ends shall greatly increase (Job 8:7).
2. Secondly, observe here how old persons are called half dead, or as good as dead; and that is true of them many ways:
(1). First, their years and days limited them, are as good as gone. For suppose a man should be as sure to live 100 years, as the sun is to run all the day long his course, and at night to go down; yet as when the sun is past the height, and drawing downward, we say it goeth fast down, and the day hasteth away; so when a man is past his middle age, when the sun of his life is past the noontide, he declineth daily, and draweth fast away, and the night of his life approacheth with haste and much horror, unless he prevent it.
(2). Secondly, their strength and vital powers, by which their life is continued and their souls and bodies kept together, are so much weakened, that they are almost extinguished; whereby it comes to pass, an old man may feel a manifest defect in all powers of mind and body.
(3). Thirdly, sickness or diseases grow upon old age; and as their strength faileth, so the force of diseases is redoubled on them; and look what diseases have lurked in their bodies which either naturally were bred in them, or accidentally taken, they now shew themselves more sensibly; and the weaker a man is, the stronger is his sickness. In these three respects an old man or woman is as good as dead.
The use hereof is profitable:
(1). First, they must therefore be advised to prepare themselves for death. Every man is to prepare, I confess; then if every man, especially they that be old. The young man may die, the old man must die; the youngest cannot live always, the old man cannot live long; the aged manŐs grave is as it were made already, and his one foot is in it. And this is not manŐs conceit alone, but GodŐs own judgment, who as we see here, calls an old man as good as dead; and that not so much in regard that he is sure to die, as that he is near it. Therefore as every man young or old is to make ready, because his time is unknown, and no man is sure that he shall live to be old; and as the psalmist singeth, Every man in his best state is altogether vanity (Psa. 39:5); so especially he to whom God hath been so gracious as to let him see old age, he should think of nothing but his end, and prepare every day to die in the Lord. His grey hairs, his wrinkled skin, his withered face, his ill stomach, his weak memory, his crooked body, and the manifest and most sensible alteration and decay of his whole state of mind and body, should hourly all cry in his ears: I am half dead, I will therefore prepare to die in the Lord.
It is therefore a miserable sight to see that those, who of all men should be most willing to die, are for the most part most desirous to live. And those who should be most ready to die are generally most ignorant, most covetous, and their hearts most of all wedded to the earth and earthly things.
(2). Secondly, old persons must here learn St PaulŐs lesson (2 Cor. 4:16), that as the outward man perisheth, so the inward man may be renewed daily. The outward man is the body, the inward man is the soul and the grace of God in it. They must therefore labour, that as the strength of their bodies decay, so the grace of God in their souls may quicken and revive. But alas, the common practice is contrary. For old men have generally so misspent their youth, and in their old age are partly so backward, partly so unfit to learn religion, that when they come to their death beds, they are then to be catechised in the very principles of religion; so that when the body is half dead, religion hath no being in them; and when the body is dying, religion and grace scarce begin to live in them; such men cast all upon a desperate point. But let them that desire a joyful departure, think of these things beforehand; and as years draw on, and so draw life to his end, and the body to the grave; so let them wean their hearts from the world, and lift them up to God, and so spend their last days in getting knowledge and in serving God; that when their bodies are weakest and fittest for the earth, their souls may be the holiest and the ripest for heaven. To such men shall it never be discomfort to see their bodies half dead, when for recompense thereof they find their souls half in heaven. Thus we see the root or foundation of this posterity, how poor and weak it was. Now let us come to the greatness of it.
Thereof sprang as many in number &c.
1. This one old couple, Abraham and Sarah, are made by GodŐs power the father and mother of many nations; and he and she, of whom the world would have pronounced that they should not have left a name upon the earth, have now millions of children that sprang out of them. Here we may learn that though God work ordinarily, according to the course of nature, which Himself hath established; yet that He is not bound to it, nor will be; He bound it, therefore there is no reason it should bind Him. Here we may see the power and prerogative of GodŐs majesty.
As in the beginning He made to be, those things which were not; so still He calleth things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17), and turneth and altereth the state and nature of His creatures as pleaseth Him. He can take life from the living man, and leave him dead; He can give life to the dead man, and make him live again. So hath He dealt for the body, and for the soul He hath been no less wonderful.
Saul, of a bloody persecutor, He can make a zealous preacher (Acts 9), even a glorious instrument and a chosen vessel to carry His name unto the Gentiles (v.15), even he who thought to have blotted out the name of Christ, and all that called on that name from under heaven (v.14).
Rahab, an harlot and a common woman, yet by GodŐs work so far altered that her faith is registered in v.31 of this chapter as amongst the most excellent believers that have been in the world. Let this teach us, when we see our own sins, how hideous and monstrous they be, yet not to despair. And when we see other men live in extreme dissoluteness, yet not to judge of them before the time; but even then, with hope and comfort, remember that God quickeneth the dead, and calleth things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17).
And in that hope, let us persuade ourselves that He may quicken our dead hearts, and revive us by His grace. And therefore in that hope, let us raise up ourselves to use all holy means of GodŐs word, sacraments and prayer; which if we carefully and continually do, we shall see wonders wrought in us; that as they said of Paul, This man preacheth the faith which before he destroyed, and therefore glorified God for him (Gal. 1:23,24); so shall men say of us, This man hates the profaneness that he lived in, and loves the religion that before he mocked. Such miracles will the Lord work in us, if with faith and diligence we use the holy means; that so all that see us shall glorify God for me.
Thus we see generally how great the issue and posterity of Sarah was.
2. But it is more particularly enlarged by two comparisons:
As many as the stars in the sky, or the sands by the sea shore, which are innumerable.
His comparisons are two: One taken from the heavens, as many as the stars in the sky; the other from the earth, as the sands in the sea. And these two are used by the Holy Ghost, being things of incredible number, to express the multitude of the Israelites that came all from Sarah.
Not but that other things also are of as great number; as the drops of water, dust of the earth, and hairs of menŐs heads, &c., but these two are most common and proverbial phrases whereby to express a multitude. And again, the stars of the sky are rather named than any other, because God in the beginning pleased to use it to Abraham, when he had never a child (Gen. 15:5). God carried Abraham forth in the night, and bade him count the stars if he could, and said, so shall thy seed be. And Moses afterwards useth the same comparison (Deut. 10:22), Our fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord hath made us as the stars of the sky in multitude.
Now, because all men are not astronomers, as Abraham and Moses were, and that ignorant men might say that they can perceive no such matter in the stars; therefore he useth another comparison, which every countryman may discern how innumerable they be; namely, the sands of the sea shore. And lest any should say, I dwell in the midland country, and never saw the sea sand, and am ignorant and so cannot judge of the stars, therefore to put him out of doubt, the Holy Ghost assures him in the end of the verse that they are both innumerable; that is, not in themselves, or to God; but in regard of man, and manŐs skill, they are unable to be counted.
(1). Concerning these two comparisons, let us observe the manner or the phrase of speech in them used:
(i) For the first, we are to know that the speech is not proper, but figurative. For properly, they were not as many as the stars, or as the sands; neither are the stars or sands innumerable; but it is a figure called by the rhetoricians a hyperbole. which is an excess of fineness of speech, or an excessive elegancy. And as it is ordinary in all writers, and even in common speech; so it is not refused by the Holy Ghost, but used both here and in the two forenamed places; and the like also of the same nature (but in other phrases) in other places; as St John (John 21:25), I suppose, saith he, that if all the sayings and doings of Christ were written, the world could not contain the books that would be written. Meaning that there would be exceeding many, and more than would be needful for salvation. And (Deut. 9:1), Moses saith that the cities of the Canaanites were great, and walled up to heaven. Meaning that they were very high, and so high as was possible for city walls to be, and as was impossible to have been sealed in all menŐs reasons, had not God fought for them.
These and such like are common in the Scripture; and seeing we allow that liberty to all writers, and to ourselves in common speech; we have no reason to deny it to the Scripture, which was written for all menŐs understanding, and therefore in such phrases as are usual and ordinary with all men.
(ii) And the like liberty is here taken also in another figure; as many as the sands by the shore of the sea; the word properly signifieth and soundeth the lip of the sea. No the sea hath no lip, but it is a speech taken or borrowed from man or beast who have lips, and the seas shore resembleth a lip. For look what a lip is to them, the shores are to the sea; as the two lips enclose the mouth, so the two shores on both sides do enclose the sea, which lieth as in a mouth between them.
From hence we may learn profitable instructions:
(i) First, that therefore rhetoric is a warrantable, good and lawful art; and it ariseth thus: That which the Holy Ghost practiseth must needs be not only not evil, but good and warrantable. But the Holy Ghost useth and practiseth rhetoric, here and in many other places else of the Scripture; Therefore it is a good and lawful art. The proposition is undoubted, the assumption is clear by both these places, and almost the whole body of the Scripture; many of St PaulŐs epistles, many of ChristŐs own sermons, St JohnŐs gospel, many of the prophets, especially Isaiah, have as much and as elegant rhetoric in them as any writers in the world; and besides all other virtue and divine power in them, do even for figures and ornaments of art match any orators that have written in the Greek or Latin. Nor would it be any hard task to undertake to prove and illustrate every approved rule of rhetoric out of some part of Scripture. Now if it be lawful to practice the rules of rhetoric, then it is lawful also to collect those rules together, to pen them, and to make an art of them. They therefore that holding the contrary, do say or teach or write that it is unlawful, go against the stream and common practice of the Scripture, and rules of common reason.
(ii) Secondly, here it is apparent that in preaching GodŐs word, it is lawful and warrantable for a minister to use rhetoric and eloquence. And the reason is good: for that which the Holy Ghost useth in penning of the Scripture, the same may GodŐs ministers use also in preaching the same. They therefore that deny that liberty to ministers, are too rough and rugged, and pull out of the hand of the ministers one of his weapons, and out of the wings of the Scripture one of her feathers.
Yet we must know that all or any kind of eloquence is not permitted to a Christian minister; for St Paul saith (1 Cor. 2:13), We speak the words of God, not in the words which manŐs wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. So that there is an holy, a sanctified, a spiritual eloquence, an eloquence fit for spiritual things, and that eloquence must be used. As the Israelites might marry the Midianite women whom they had taken in a war, but not till they had purified them (Num. 31:18,19), And more plainly and particularly (Deut. 21:11-13), Moses explaineth what that purifying is: And thou shalt bring her home into thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails, and put off the garment she was taken in, and then thou mayest marry her. So, human eloquence must be brought home to divinity, and be pared and shaved with spiritual wisdom, and then may lawfully and profitably be used.
For our more special direction herein, these cautions may be observed:
(a) First, the more natural it is, and the less affected, the more commendable it is in the doer, and more profitable to the hearer.
(b) Secondly, it must be grave, sober, and modest; remembering the height and holiness of the place a man stands in, and of the work he doeth. Therefore it must not consist in telling strange tales, or using such gestures or words, manner or matter as may move laughing and smiling in the auditors. There may be wit in such doing; but it can hardly be the sanctified and spiritual eloquence which St Paul there speaks of.
(c) Thirdly, it must be such as may be an help, and not an hindrance to the understanding of GodŐs Word; for it is a damsel to divinity, but not her mistress. GodŐs Word therefore must not bow and bend to her; much less be wrung and wrested to her, but she to GodŐs Word.
It must in a word be such as may most lively, purely, plainly, and significantly express the meaning of GodŐs Word. Therefore a man must endeavour that all his speech be in one language, at least, in such as his hearers understand; for else if he speak the body of his speech in one, and peck out the members in another which the people understand not; he may indeed in his own spirit speak mysteries, but to the hearer he speaketh parables (1 Cor. 14:2). And to his own understanding he may preach well, but the hearer is not edified (1 Cor 14:17). Therefore let not eloquence be an hindrance to the understanding of the hearers, which God hath ordained to be an help and furtherance. And with these or such like qualifications, eloquence may be used with good warrant and much profit. And for cautions and qualifications herein, hardly can any man set down better rules than every manŐs conscience will unto himself.
(iii) Thirdly, in as much as the Holy Ghost here and elsewhere useth so much rhetoric, divines may learn where the fountain of Christian eloquence is, namely, in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Which being compiled by the wisdom of God, we are to assure ourselves they contain in them true wisdom of all sorts. Precepts of rhetoric, I confess, are to be learned out of other books, which purposely do teach them; but the practice of those rules in examples, can be nowhere better than in Moses, and the prophets, and the evangelists. And this must needs follow upon that that hath already been granted. For if we yield that rhetoric is good and lawful, and practised in the Scripture; then it must needs follow that it is there practised in the best manner; for shall the divinity there taught be the soundest? The history reported there the truest? The conclusions of philosophy, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, cosmography and physic there delivered the finest? The music there practised the exactest? The logic there practised the sharpest? The laws there enacted the justest? And shall not the rhetoric there practised be the purest? Surely, if Moses had written a book of his own, as he was a mere man, and as he was Moses brought up in Egypt; or Paul written a book as he was a Pharisee and doctor of the law; they would have been full of all excellent learning; for Paul was brought up at the foot of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3); and Moses was exceeding learned in all the learning of the Egyptians, and mighty in word and deed (Acts 7:22). Shall they then be the secretaries of the most High God, the fountain of wisdom and learning; and shall not their books be filled with the most excellent learning in all kinds? Doubtless, whoever searcheth it, shall find it to be so.
Seeing therefore that eloquence is lawful, and that preachers may lawfully use it; let them also know where to have it; let them study GodŐs books, and there shall they find not only divinity, but knowledge and learning of all sorts, and that most exquisite; and as excellent patterns and precedents of eloquence, as are to be found in any authors in the world. And let them, if they would preach with spiritual power and eloquence; look how Moses, the prophets, our Saviour Christ, and His apostles preached; for to follow them is the true way.
Thus we see the manner here used by the Holy Ghost in these two comparisons, to describe the greatness of this her posterity.
(2). Now the matter in them contained is, that here is the performance of one of the greatest promises made to Abraham. The promise is (Gen. 22:17), I will surely bless thee, and greatly multiply thy seed, as the stars in the heaven, and as the sands by the sea shore. There is the promise; and behold here the performance in the very same words, and that most true and effectual; for, at the time when the Holy Ghost wrote these words, the Israelites were multiplied to many millions; yea, to a number past number.
So that here we learn that God is true in all His promises, be they never so great and wonderful. If He speak the word, if the promise pass Him, it is sure; heaven and earth shall rather pass away, than any one piece of His promise shall fail.
The use is to teach us:
(i) First, to believe God when He promiseth, whatever it be; for He is worthy to be believed, who never failed to perform what He promised. He promised these millions to Abraham, when he had but one child; nay, when he had never a one (Gen. 15:8), and Abraham believed. Such a faith was excellent indeed, and deserves eternal commendation (as here it hath). Let us be children of this faithful Abraham, and the rather, seeing we see the performance which he saw not. We think it a disgrace if we be not believed; especially if we do use to keep our word. Let us then know thereby, what dishonour it is to the Lord not to believe Him, who never failed in the performance to any creature.
(ii) Secondly, we must here learn of God to be true and faithful in our words and promises. God spake plainly, and deceived not Abraham; and after at the time performed it; so must we deal plainly and simply in our words and bargains, and think that to deceive and overreach by crafty words and double meanings and equivocal phrases are not becoming Christianity. And we must make conscience of a lie, else we are like the devil and not God. Also a Christian man must take heed what, how and to whom he promiseth; but having promised, he must perform, though it be loss or harm to himself; if it be not wrong to God, or to the church or state. Wrong to himself must not hinder him from performance. Christian menŐs words must not be vain, they should be as good as bonds, though I know it is lawful, and very convenient in regard of mortality to take such kinds of assurances.
(iii) Lastly, Abraham had the promise that his seed should be so (Gen. 15:8), and here we see it is so, but he himself saw it not; so that Abraham had the promise, and we the performance. So Adam had the promise of the Messiah, but we see it performed; the patriarchs and prophets had the promise of the calling of the Gentiles, but we see it performed.
See here the glory of the church under the New Testament above the Old. This must teach us to be so much better than they, as God is better to us than He was to them; and to excel them in faith and all other virtues of holiness; or else their faith and their holy obedience shall turn to our greater condemnation, which have had so far greater cause to believe and obey God, and so far better means than they. Which if it be so, then alas, what will become of them who come behind them, nay, have no care to follow them in their faith, nor holiness, nor any duties of holy obedience.
Thus much for the example of this holy womanŐs faith, and of the commendation thereof.
Now before He come to any more particular examples of faith, the Holy Ghost gives a general commendation of the faith of all those jointly which are spoken of already.