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Faith Wavering

The Establishment of a Covenant People The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part VI

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 28, 1999

Genesis 16:1-16

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Genesis 16:1-16

Faith Wavering

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis. And before we move on to Genesis 16, I'd invite you to look back at Genesis 12, to remind you of where we have come from so far. This is the sixth in a series on the life of Abraham. To this point he is, of course, Abram, the patriarch. We said as we began to look at his life in Genesis 12:1-3, that passage from one standpoint could be called the center point of the Biblical story of redemption. Everything that comes before it leads up to it. Everything that comes after it fulfills it. And we learned several lessons from that general passage. In Genesis 12, if you’ll scan your eyes across the verses of 1-9 of Genesis 12, we see the establishment of God's covenant with Abraham there. The specifics are enumerated of the promises that God had made to Abram in the covenant of Grace: He would make him a great nation, that He would bless him, that He would make his name great, that He would bless those who blessed him, and curse those who cursed him, that in his family all the families of the earth would be blessed, and that to his descendants He would give the land. So we see a series of promises made to Abram.

Then when we look at the latter part of that chapter from verse 10 to verse 20, we see Abram's faith immediately tested and Abram doesn't come through very well. In the very first test of the faith of Abram after he had been given the promises of the covenant, he failed because he endangered the covenant by his unbelief in the way he treated his wife, Sarai, on their venture into Egypt. Then in Genesis 13, as we looked at that whole chapter, after that sorry spectacle of Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham passes a test with flying colors. And we see him part ways with Lot, trusting in the Lord to provide him a good land, even though Lot had chosen the better place.

Then, in Genesis 14:1-21, the hero, Abram, rescues Lot and then refuses to be rewarded by the wicked king of Sodom and gives an offering of thanksgiving to God via Melchizedek, the priest king of Jerusalem. Melchizedek, whose name means king of righteousness, king of peace. And so having looked through Genesis 12 through 14 we came upon that great passage in Genesis 15:1-21. One of the most important passages in all of the Old Testament. And in this passage the great covenant of God with Abram was confirmed in the most striking way imaginable. Listen at what Derek Kidner says: "The New Testament finds this a momentous chapter in two respects. First, in its declaration that Abram was justified by faith."

So Genesis 15:6 is a foundation passage for the apostle Paul when he is teaching us what it means to be justified by faith. And, secondly, in its record of the covenant. For this, rather than Sinai, was the fundamental covenant and it spoke of grace and not law. And then Kidner adds this incredible phrase. "To honor this promise, God would bring His people out of Egypt and His Son into the world." In that passage we see God do two important things for the faith of Abram.

First of all, God reiterates His covenant promises to Abram. Even though they hadn't come to pass, even though Abram had been waiting for many years, God reiterates those promises. And then in response to Abram's question how shall I know that I am going to receive these promises, we see secondly God confirm that covenant by a blood sign. God Himself takes upon Himself the position of a vassal, a slave, in order to prove to Abram the seriousness of His promise in the covenant. That brings us to Genesis 16:1-16. Our text for tonight and unfortunately we are here at another low point in the life of Abram. So let's hear God's holy word beginning in Genesis 16:1:

Genesis 16:1-16

Our Father, as we come to this passage, where our father in the faith, Abram, is tested again, we pray that You would teach us lessons of trust. Show us our own sin, give us the grace to rest and trust in You alone, not only for our salvation, but for everything in this life. Build us up in the promises of the covenant of grace. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Derek Kidner opens his commentary on this passage by saying the these words. "This chapter marks another stage in eliminating every means but miracle towards the promised birth. It is ironical that after the heights attained in the last two chapters, Abram should capitulate to domestic pressure, pliant under his wife's planning and scolding, and quick to wash his hands of the outcome." Abram the hero suddenly reduced to Abram the boy under the pressures of Sarai. Well, maybe for those of you who have wives, you understand what Abram has done here. Maybe you've found yourself doing it before. At any rate, this passage has many great lessons for us, and I'd like to look at three or four with you tonight.

I. God is sovereign and we have a hard time accepting that.

First of all in verses 1 and 2 we see Abram engaged in a concessionary action which is a big mistake. It's not only clear that this is a mistake from the immediate consequences of his actions, but it's clear that what he does is a mistake based on what Paul says about this passage in Galatians 4. So I'd like you to look with me at verses 1 and 2 of the first section of this passage. In this passage we learn that God is sovereign and we are not, and we have a hard time accepting that. This passage clearly sets forth the sovereignty of God in Abram's situation. Abram and Sarai had been waiting for the fulfillment of God's promise to them to give them an heir and to make them a great nation. And it did not happen. So Sarai set about a plan that was very common, very normal for the culture of her day. In fact there are no fewer than three sources of contemporary literature that explain exactly what Sarai did.

If you go to the code of Hammurabi and to other various common, cultural expressions of legal form and social customs, what Sarai did was normal. If a woman was not able to bear a child for her husband, it was legal in those days for her to put forward one of her servants, one of her maid servants as a concubine who would then bear children who would actually be counted as if they were children of the first wife. This was legal and usual. But it was in direct violation of the one flesh principle which God had set down in Genesis, chapter 2. And in that very action we see the difference between natural law and the laws of nature. Our Catholic friends tend to talk about natural law as that law which grows up out of the common customs of men. The common customs of men confirm a particular action to be moral or immoral, and thereby, natural law is determined.

We Protestants have always preferred to speak of the laws of nature. In order to emphasize that these laws do not find their source in common, human consensus, but in the fact that God has implanted and woven those principles into the very fabric of the nature that he has created. And so even though it was common custom for people to do this, it violated the laws of nature which God had already set forth in Genesis 1 and 2. So it was right in the eyes of their contemporaries, but it was wrong in the eyes of God. They had followed natural law, not the laws of nature which are authored by God Himself. And Paul comments on this in Galatians 4:21. Paul contrasts Hagar and Sarah. Galatians 4:21: "Tell me, you who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law for it is written that Abraham had two sons. One by the bondwoman and one by the free woman." And the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh and the son by the free woman through the promise. Now Paul goes on to expand that and continue that thought through the very end of that chapter, down to verse 31. But I want you to concentrate on that last phrase in verse 23. The son by the bondwoman was born how? According to the flesh. And the son by the free woman through the promise.

Now Paul is pointing there to the fact that Hagar's giving birth to Ishmael was the result of the design of the flesh. The will of man, indeed, the sinful will of man produced Ishmael, whereas Isaac was the product of Abraham and Sarai's trust in the covenant promises of God. So Ishmael is the product of Abram and Sarai's failure of trust in the Lord. See, you can understand what they are going through. Ten years have passed since Abram has landed in Canaan and still there are no children. So under mounting pressure, Abram relents and he follows Sarai's plan. The consequences of this are seen in the story. But this passage makes it very clear that God is in sovereign control, no matter what Abram and Sarai think. In fact, Sarai admits that. I'd like you to look back at an interesting phrase because it's very important. In Genesis 16:2, Sarai says to her husband, "Behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children." Now that's not just a figure of speech. I want you to notice that that assertion is never corrected anywhere in this passage. Nowhere does Moses come along and say, ‘Now by the way, Sarai was mistaken. It wasn't that the Lord had prevented her from having children, it was just that she had a condition where she couldn't bear children naturally.’ No, that statement is never corrected. It is indeed the Lord who gives children and the Lord who determines to refrain from giving children. And Sarai admits this. And by the way this will not be the last time in the book of Genesis that a godly woman who desires a child will make that particular assertion. And nowhere does Moses correct that.

Now do you understand the implications of that? The implications of that are found in the testimony that it gives to God's sovereignty over even the minute events of our lives. That is something which is asserted from the very beginning of the Bible to the end. God is sovereign. That's not the problem. The problem is when God's sovereignty conflicts with our desires. So in this case even though Abram and Sarai's desire to have an heir was a godly desire because God had promised an heir. Yet their message landed them into trouble. So though they trusted God's promise, they didn't trust God's promise enough to allow God to bring about that promise, but they sought through their own instrumentality to bring about the promise of the covenant. And therein are all the consequences, the negative consequences which flow in this passage. So in verses 1 and 2 we see the big mistake, but we also see a testimony to God's sovereignty.

II. God's grace is magnified in contrast to the sinfulness of His people.
In verses 3 through 6 we come to the second section of this passage. Here we see the consequences of Abram and Sarai's decision. In this passage God's grace is magnified in contrast to the sinfulness of His people. Everybody comes off looking badly in this passage. No one in this passage looks like an upright citizen of the kingdom of the Lord. And by the way that is not a unique thing in Genesis either. If we were to go back to Genesis 3 and look at verses 1 -14, in that passage neither the serpent nor Adam nor Eve emerges unscathed. All of them are in rebellion against the Lord. And this is not the last time this will happen in Genesis. If we were to turn forward to Genesis 27, and the story of Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Esau and the stolen blessing of the Lord, when you read that chapter in Genesis, nobody comes off looking good. Isaac knows that he is supposed to bless Jacob, not Esau, but what did he do? He attempts to go directly against what the Lord had revealed to Rebecca. Rebecca knows her husband is the head of the household, and yet she conspires with Jacob in order to defraud Isaac into doing what is right. Esau is just a worldly man outright. He's already sold his birthright for a cup of soup, and you just can't stand the man when you read about him. And then there's Jacob, the deceiver. Nobody in that passage leads you to believe that they’re just so wonderful that God just couldn't help but love them. Everybody comes off badly. It's the same thing in this passage that we're looking at now. Neither Abram nor Sarai nor Hagar responds to their circumstance in an appropriate way. Let's look at it more closely.

First of all, Hagar, as soon as she conceives, is filled with false pride and gloating, and she despises Sarai. She now has born Abram a son and immediately she is full of herself, and she despises her mistress. This is stressed both in verses 4 and 5. In response to this, Sarai herself is filled with envy and with bitterness, and that bitterness flows over into false blame against Abram. I mean from the way that Sarai speaks to Abram, you would have thought that Abram came up with the idea. What is this that you have done to me? You've conceived by my handmaid, and behold now she despises me. Let the Lord judge between you and me. And Abram is just standing back, saying, ‘I thought this was your idea.’ And then there's Abram who plays the classic role of the complacent husband, who just sort of shrugs his shoulders and he says, ‘Well, anything I have to do to keep the peace, you just do whatever you want to do to Hagar and it will be fine.’

Now Abram knew that that was wrong. Abram knew that the law, the same law in his time, that allowed for a concubine to be made a wife, or allowed for a maidservant to be made a wife, allowed that maidservant to be returned to her status as a slave, but that maidservant could not be expelled from the household. Because once she was expelled from the household, her chances of being able to support herself in an honorable way were nil. And therefore, he had a covenantal responsibility to take care of her. But Abram didn't care. Sarai was mad and so Abram sought to keep the peace. He said, ‘Look Sarai, you do anything you want to do with Hagar. I'm just going to leave it in your hands.’

Now remember friends, Abram was supposed to be a blessing to the nation, and now for the second time in the book of Genesis, the first time at the end of Genesis 12, and now here in Genesis 16, Abram has been anything but a blessing for a poor Egyptian. The first time it was Abimelech. Now it's Hagar who apparently Abram had brought out after the incident in Egypt. She was an Egyptian servant and now instead of being a blessing to her, he had turned his back on her and he had proved to be a stumbling block to this stranger. That's a very strange twist in the life of Abram. But this whole passage reminds us that it is nothing in ourselves that evokes God's love for us. God loves us, draws us to Himself and it is because He loves us that goodness flows from our hearts. It is not because of our goodness that His love is drawn towards us.

III. God cares for those who are defenseless.
So in verses 7 through 14 we see the results of Sarai's uncontrolled treatment of Hagar. Hagar leaves the presence of Sarai in verse 6 and flees into the wilderness. And we're told in verse 7 that the Angel of the Lord finds her by a spring of water in the wilderness. This is the third section of the passage. And here we see God's care for the outcast. Though Abram shows no concern for Hagar at this point, God cares for this defenseless woman; and He shows us an aspect of His character here. Though God has great redemptive designs with the family of Abram, and though we might understand it if Moses overlooked the stories of God's dealings with lesser personages given that Genesis now has been taken up with the great figures of Adam and Noah and Seth and now Abram. We could understand if someone like Hagar was passed over in Moses’ account, and yet God goes into detail to show us how He cared for Hagar, though with regard to the stream of redemptive history, she was insignificant.

Even when God's people failed to live up to the covenant, God is faithful. And even though Abram had been unfaithful in his dealings with Hagar, God was faithful to her. By the way there's a parallel to this in the book of Joshua. In Joshua 9, you will remember God's people entering into a covenant with the Gibeonites. They failed to ask God where these Gibeonites were from and they made a covenant with them. And then they found out that they were part of the Canaanites. And the people immediately wanted to break that covenant, they wanted to break that treaty, that contract that had been made with the Gibeonites. But God told Joshua and the leaders of Israel, ‘No. These people had been brought into a covenant with me, and I will protect them.’ And even 400 years later when Saul attempted to persecute the Gibeonites, God remembered and he sent a plague against Israel because of the persecution of the Gibeonites. Even though God's people failed to live up to the covenant, God is faithful.

Let me say, in passing, that verse 7 is the first occurrence of the term angel in the Bible. Interestingly enough, it's fairly clear in this passage that this angel is not simply a heavenly messenger, but this angel is the Lord Himself come to deal with Hagar in her time of distress. This is a manifestation of God, as is apparent at the end of Hagar's conversation with the angel of the Lord. God would show this Egyptian slave that he cared for her by coming and meeting her himself as she fled back toward her native country of Egypt.

God comes to Hagar, He reveals Himself to her, He blesses her, He promises her protection, and He points her eye to the future. He says, ‘Hagar you do have a son within you, and you will bear that son, and he will become a great nation.’ And so He focuses Hagar's eyes on the future and on His promises and not on the wrongs which have been done to her. There is a poignant exchange between Hagar and the Lord here. In verse 13 she calls on the name of the Lord who spoke to her. "You are a God who sees. Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?" This is a very difficult passage to translate, but the sense is pretty clear. Hagar by this time must not have had a great deal of confidence in the religion of Abram. Abram had wronged her, and yet the God of Abram tracks her down in the wilderness and meets her face to face just like He met with Abram, and just like He would later meet with Moses. And Hagar is stunned by this. And she says, ‘How can it be that I can live after I have seen a glimpse of the one who sees me?’ The name that she gives to this God is the one who sees.

And as you know, the idea of God ‘seeing’ in the Old Testament is identical with the idea of God ‘caring.’ If He sees, then He cares. And this woman feels cared for by God, the God of Abraham, even if she is not cared for by Abram himself. And so the Lord Himself sends Hagar back to Sarai and says, ‘Look, you go back to your mistress and you submit to her and I will take care of you.’ This is a tremendous lesson for us, friends. For though there may be those in our own experience who seem marginal to God's purposes and insignificant in the great flow of things, we have an obligation to them as God's people. God calls on us to mirror His own love for the defenseless, for the marginal, for the unimportant as an expression of our realization that He has loved us when we did not deserve it. And so God gives us again an example of how we are to love.

Let me say also in passing that the man, Ishmael, as he is described in this prophecy of the Lord, is a man who in some ways is a parody of Abram, his father. Listen to the words of Kidner: "To some degree this son of Abram would be a shadow, almost a parody of his father, his twelve princes would be notable in their times but they would not be in the history of salvation; his restless existence would not be a pilgrimage but an end in itself; his nonconformism was a habit of mind, not a call to be a light to the nations." And so though God blesses Hagar, the kind of blessing that is given to her and the kind of words that are spoken about Ishmael remind us again of the difference between the blessings of God upon Jacob and Esau.

God indeed blessed Esau, but all the blessings that He gave him in Genesis 27 were earthly and temporal blessings. All the spiritual blessings went to Jacob. So also, we will see this son who became greatly beloved of Abram, nevertheless the promises given to him were not spiritual but temporal. And so again we see the distinction that God makes in His plan of redemption.

IV. God still calls Abram to wait.
Finally, when we come to verses 15 and 16 we have come to the epilog of the passage. There the birth of Ishmael is recorded, and we are reminded again that God still calls Abram to wait. Hagar goes back to her master and mistress and she bears Abram a son, and Abram calls the name of his son Ishmael, just as the Lord had told Hagar that her son would be called Ishmael, Abram owned his responsibility for the son, by naming the son Ishmael. And this responsibility that Abram took for Ishmael is made very clear and you will see it when we get to Genesis 17. The next time Abram truly takes the boy in and makes him his own.

 

But I want you to see that after all these machinations, after all these attempts on the part of Abram and Sarai and Hagar to work out their situation, that with regard to the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant, Abram is right back where he started from. He has not taken one step forward towards the fulfillment of God's promises towards him since the beginning of the chapter. Many troubles, many sorrows, but not one step forward in the progress of redemption because God is going to do things His way.

It reminds me of the thing that my father used to tell me, as he would reach for his belt, affectionately known to his sons as "Mr. Belt." And he would say, "Son, we can do this the easy way or the hard way." Now Abram had chosen to do it the hard way. His way and all it ended up was bringing misery on his household. It didn't help his situation a bit. God was still going to have to do a miracle to bring the son of promise into the world through Sarai. So perhaps there's a lesson for us in that. Perhaps God has you in a place where all you can do is stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. That's against our nature. We don't like to stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. We like to help. As my friend, Bebo Elkin, says, "We are all by nature Arminians."

You know we say, "Thank you, Lord, for saying this and now I'm going to do something about it." And this passage reminds us again that God is not dependent on our strategizing and scheming. God will bring about His purposes without our adding in our own nifty new ideas and innovations and inventions. This passage teaches us that we must not only trust God's promise, but we must obtain God's promises in the way, by the method which He says we are to obtain those promises. May God help us do so. Let's look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, we praise you for Abram. We thank You for what you did in His life and the great faith which he manifests we see clearly tonight was not due to his own heart, but was due to Your grace at work in His heart. So we would pray that You would work a similar grace in our hearts, that we might trust in You, both for Your promises and for the means of bringing about those promises. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

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