Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson
“For Abraham looked for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 9 June 1850
“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place that he would afterward receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing where he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10).
Last Sunday we touched on a thought that deserves further development. God promised Canaan to Abraham; and yet Abraham never inherited Canaan: to the last he was a wanderer [nomad] there. He had no possession of his own in its territory. If he wanted even a tomb to bury his dead, he could obtain it only by purchase (Genesis 23:1-20). This difficulty is expressly admitted in the text, “In the land of promise he sojourned as in a strange country.” He dwelt there in tents—in changeable, movable tabernacles—he had no permanent residence.
It is stated in all its startling force, in terms still more explicit, in the Book of Acts. “And He gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet He promised that He would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child” (Acts 7:5).
Now the surprising point is that Abraham, seemingly misled, did not complain. He was even grateful that the promise was not literally fulfilled in his lifetime because he was not looking for Canaan: he was looking for “a city that has foundations.” His faith consisted in waiting on and in trusting in God. “Abraham believed God” (Galatians 3:6), and the reward of waiting was fulfillment of the promise. If, in due time, God could give Abraham a son (Genesis 21:1-5), then, in due time, He could give him a city. “I am the Lord,” God tells Isaiah. “They shall not be ashamed who wait for Me” (Isaiah 49:23).
And herein lies a principle that, rightly expounded, can help us to interpret this life of ours. God’s promises may not be fulfilled according to our understanding of what He meant by them or when we think they ought to be fulfilled. Those who know life best, and have trusted God most, are the first to say that life is a series of disappointments. And in the spirit of this text from the Book of Hebrews we have to say that it is a wise and merciful arrangement that ordains it so.
The wise and holy do not expect to find it otherwise—would not wish it otherwise; their wisdom consists in doubting their own private interpretation (cf 2 Peter 1:20). To develop this idea would be a glorious task; for to justify God’s ways to man, to expound the mysteriousness of our present being, to interpret God—is not this the very essence of the ministerial office? All that I can hope, however, today, is not to exhaust the subject but to furnish hints for thought. Overstatements may be made, illustrations may be inadequate, the new ground of an almost untrodden subject may be torn up too rudely; but remember, we are here to live and die. In a few years it will be all over. Meanwhile, what we have to do is to try to understand, and to help one another to understand, what it all means—what this strange and contradictory thing, which we call life, contains. Do not stop to ask, therefore, whether the subject was satisfactorily worked out; let each man be satisfied to have received a germ of thought that he may develop better for himself.
THE ILLUSIVENESS OF LIFE’S PROMISE
And the Lord said to Abraham, “Get out of your country, from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). “Lift up now your eyes and look from the place where you are, north and south, east and west, for all the land you see, to you will I give it and to your seed forever …. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it, for I will give it to you” (13:14-17). That God told Abraham to walk the land is evidence that the promise is not to be exclusively spiritualized. The Promised Land was real terra firma.
Yet the promise was not fulfilled literally in Abraham’s lifetime. I do not say the fulfillment was delayed. I say it was not fulfilled. Abraham had a few feet of earth, obtained by purchase—beyond that nothing; he died a stranger and a pilgrim in the land of promise (Hebrews 11:13). Isaac had a little. So small was Jacob’s hold on his country that the last years of his life were spent in Egypt, and he died a foreigner in a strange land, but by the grace of God was allowed to be buried with his family (Genesis 49:29-32; 50:1-13). His descendants returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan (Joshua 1:1-9), expecting to find “a good land and a large, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27)—and it was that, as evidenced by the grapes of Eshcol, pomegranates, and figs: the fruit was real (Numbers 13:23, 27), the promise was real. God had not lied. But they also found hard work to do—war and unrest—and were faced with the conquest of a place overrun with Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Amalekites, and giants (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:29, 33). That, in time, they conquered, divided, possessed, and inhabited the land—and that God refused them Mount Seir because He had given it to Esau (Deuteronomy 2:4, 5; Joshua 24:4)—is further evidence that the promise was literal as well as spiritual.
During a brief period in the history of Israel, it seems, the promise came to fruition: during the later years of David and the earlier years of Solomon; but we have the warrant of Scripture itself that even then the promise was not completely fulfilled. David writes, “I am a stranger and a sojourner as all my fathers were” (Psalm 39:12). He speaks of a hope of entering into a future rest (16:9-11). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, quoting Psalm 95:7-11, infers from it that God’s promise had not been fulfilled by the entrance into and settlement of Canaan; for he says, “If Joshua had given them rest, then would he not have spoken of another day” (Hebrews 4:8). Again, in the very chapter of our text, we have “These all died in faith, not having received the promises” (11:13). To none, therefore, had the promise been ultimately fulfilled. Accordingly, writers on prophecy, to get over this difficulty, take for granted that there must be a future fulfillment, because the earthly fulfillment was inadequate.
They who believe that the Jews will be restored to their native land [Israel became a nation in 1948] expect it on the express ground that Canaan has never been actually and permanently theirs. A certain tract of country—three hundred miles in length, by two hundred in breadth—must be given, or else they think the promise has been broken. To quote the expression of one of the most eloquent of their writers, “If there be nothing yet future for Israel, then the magnificence of the promise has been lost in the poverty of its accomplishment” (Samuel Conway).
I do not quote this to prove the correctness of the interpretation of the prophecy, but as an acknowledgement that may be taken so far as a proof that the full promise made to Abraham—from the river of Egypt to the River Euphrates (Genesis 15:18; cf Joshua 1:4)—has never been accomplished.
And such is life’s disappointment. Its promise is Canaan. It turns out to be a dream—toil and warfare—nothing that we can call our own, not the land of rest. But we will examine this in particulars.
• Our senses deceive us; we begin life shortsighted. Our senses deceive us with respect to distance, shape, and color. What afar off seems oval turns out to be circular, modified by the perspective of distance; what appears a speck, on nearer approach, becomes a vast body. Stars may appear as small lamps hung in space. Beautiful berries may prove to be bitter and poisonous. What apparently moves is really at rest. What seems to be stationary is in perpetual motion: the earth moves, the sun is still. Experience is a correction of life’s distortions—a modification, a reversal of the judgement of the senses: and life is a lesson on the falsehood of appearances.
• Our natural anticipations deceive us—I say natural in contradistinction to extravagant expectations. Every human life is a fresh one, bright with hopes that will never be realized. There may be differences of character in these hopes. Finer spirits may look on life as the arena of successful deeds, the more selfish as a place of personal enjoyment.
With man the turning-point of life may be a profession; with woman, marriage—the one gilding the future with the triumphs of intellect, the other with the dreams of affection. Life, it turns out, is not what they expect, but something else. It seems almost a satire on existence to compare the youth in the outset of his career, flushed and sanguine, with the aspect of the same being when it is nearly done—worn, sobered, covered with the dust of life, and confessing that its days have been few and evil. Where is the “land flowing with milk and honey”?
With our affections it is still worse, because they promise more. Man’s affections are but the tabernacles of Canaan—the tents of a night—not permanent habitations even for this life. Where are the charms of character, the perfection, the purity, and the truthfulness that seemed so resplendent in our friend? They are only the shape of our own concepts—our creative shaping intellect projecting its own fantasies. Thus, we outgrow our early friendships, outgrow the intensity of all. We dwell in tents; we never find a home, even in the land of promise. Life is an unenjoyable Canaan, with nothing real or substantial in it.
• Our expectations, resting on revelation, thwart us. The world’s history has turned round two points of hope: (1) the First Advent and (2) the Second Advent.
In reference to the First Advent, the magnificent imagery of Hebrew prophecy led Israel to anticipate a conquering Messiah—they still anticipate Him. Have they overlooked the obvious? Isaiah wrote, “He shall grow up as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground. He has no form nor comeliness: when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We hid as it were our faces from Him. He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was on Him, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opens not His mouth … He was cut off out of the land of the living. For the transgression of my people was He stricken … Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him” (Isaiah 53:2-10). The victory turned out to be the victory of submission (Philippians 2:5-8) not the victory of a knight on a white charger. The promise in the letter was real, but the interpretation exceeded all expectation. “His own received Him not” (John 1:11).
For ages now the world’s hope has been the Second Advent. The early church expected it in their own day: “We, who are alive, and remain until the coming of our Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Even the Savior Himself said, “This generation [people group: the Jews] shall not pass till all things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). At His ascension an angel promised, “This same Jesus, who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yet the Son of Man has not returned—yet. Unnumbered times the judgement-eagles have gathered together over corruption ripe for condemnation. Times innumerable the separation has been made between good and bad. But as generations anticipated His First Advent, so generations have anticipated His Second Advent. To this day the promise of His return has not been fulfilled—yet.
There are two ways of considering this aspect of life. One is the way of sentiment; the other is the way of faith. The sentimental way is trite enough. Saint, sage, sophist, moralist, and preacher, have repeated in every possible image, till there is nothing new to say, that life is a bubble, a dream, a delusion, a phantasm. The other is the way of faith: the ancient saints felt as keenly as any moralist could feel the frustration of waiting for the promise. They “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13), that they had here “no continuing city” (13:14). “They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country” (11:14). But they did not mournfully moralize on this; they said it cheerfully, and rejoiced that it was so. Like Abraham and the company of the faithful, they were looking for “a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
THE MEANING OF THAT ILLUSIVENESS
• The promise spurs us on. Suppose that a spiritual promise had been made at first to Israel; imagine that they had been informed at the outset that God’s final rest was spiritual; that the Promised Land was ultimately to be found in “the holy city, New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2)—not material, but immaterial. That rude, gross people, yearning after the fleshpots of Egypt (Numbers 11:4-9)—willing to go back into slavery, only that they might have enough to eat and drink—would they have quitted Egypt on such terms? Would they have begun one single step of that pilgrimage that was to find its meaning in the discipline of ages?
We are led through life as we are allured on a journey. Could a man see his route before him—a flat, straight road, unbroken by bush, or tree, or eminence, with the sun’s heat burning down on it, stretched out in dreary monotony—he could scarcely find energy to begin his task; but the uncertainty of what may be seen beyond the next turn keeps expectation alive. The view that may be seen from yonder summit—the glimpse that may be caught, perhaps, as the road winds round yonder knoll—hopes like these, not far distant, beguile the traveler on from mile to mile, league to league.
In fact, life is an education. The object for which you educate your son is to give him strength of purpose, self-command, discipline of mental energies; but you do not reveal to your son this aim of his education. You tell him of his place in his class, of the prizes at the end of the year, of the honors to be given at college.
These are not the true incentives to knowledge; such incentives are not the highest—they are even mean, and partially injurious; yet these mean incentives stimulate and lead on, from day to day and from year to year, by a process the principle of which the boy himself is unaware. So does God lead on, through life’s unsatisfying mysteries, ever educating: Canaan first, then the hope of a Redeemer, then the millennial glory.
Now what is remarkable in this is that the waiting continued to the last: “they all died in faith, not having received the promises” (Hebrews 11:13). All were hoping up to the very last, and all died in faith, not in realization, for thus God has constituted the human heart. You may tell a boy or girl that life is a disappointment; yet however you may persuade the child to adopt your tone, and catch the language of your sentiment, he is looking forward to some bright distant hope—the rapture of the next vacation, or the unknown joys of the next season—and throwing into it an energy of expectation of which only an eternity is worth. You may tell the man who has received the heart-shock from which he will not recover that life has nothing left; yet the stubborn heart still hopes on, ever near the prize—”wealthiest when most undone,” he has “reaped the whirlwind,” but he will go on still, till life is over, “sowing the wind” (cf Hosea 8:7).
Now observe the beautiful result that comes from this indestructible power of believing in spite of not seeing. In the first centuries, the early Christians believed that the millennial advent was close; they heard the warning of the apostle, brief and sharp, “The time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29). Now suppose that, instead of this, they had seen all the dreary page of church history unrolled. Suppose that they had known that after two thousand years the world would have scarcely spelled out three letters of the meaning of Christianity. Where would have been those gigantic efforts, that life spent as on the brink of eternity, that characterized the days of the early church, and which, after all, represents only the true life of man in time? It is thus that God has led on His world. He has conducted it as a father leads his child, when the path homeward lies over many a dreary league. He suffers him to beguile the thought of time, by turning aside to pluck now and then a flower, to chase now a butterfly; the butterfly is crushed, the flower fades, but the child is so much nearer home, invigorated and full of health, and scarcely wearied yet.
• This waiting for the promise fulfills it in a deeper way. The account we have given already, if it were to end there, would be insufficient to excuse the failure of the promise; by saying that it allures us would be to charge God with deception. Lest we malign God’s good name, let us remember: “God is not a man, that He should lie, neither the son of man that He should repent. Has He said and shall He not do it? Has He spoken and shall He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19). “There has not failed one word of all His good promise” (1 Kings 8:56). “If we believe not, yet He abides faithful: He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). “He is faithful who promised” (Hebrews 10:23) ….
God’s promises are true, though “afar off” (Hebrews 11:13), far truer than we at first take them to be. We work for a mean, low, sensual happiness, all the while He is leading us on to a spiritual blessedness, unfathomably deep. This is the life of faith. “We walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We do not preach that all is disappointment—the dreary creed of sentimentalism; but we preach that nothing here is disappointment, if rightly understood. We do not comfort the poor man by saying that the riches that he has not now he will have hereafter—the difference between himself and the man of wealth being only this, that the one has for time what the other will have for eternity. What we say is that what you have failed in reaping here you never will reap, if you expected the harvest of Canaan. God has no Canaan for His own, no milk and honey for the luxury of the senses, for “the city that has foundations” is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20), “for other foundation can no man lay than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). This is the “city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
He in whom Godlike character dwells has all the universe for his own—“All things,” says the apostle, “are yours … whether life or death, or things present, or things to come” (1 Corinthians 3:21, 22). “If you be Christ’s, then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness”
(2 Peter 3:9).
“The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come”
“The permanence of God’s character guarantees the fulfillment of His promises.”
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 6. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.