A Promise and a Covenant
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 26 as we continue our study in the life of Isaac. This is a very important chapter. Isaac is probably displayed for us more in Genesis 26 than in any other area of the book of Genesis. We get a feel for his piety. We see the tendencies of his spirit and of his heart, and the struggles of his times here in Genesis 26.
We commented early that some of the commentators believe that the message of the chapters in the life of Isaac and Jacob is not as focused as it is in the life of Abraham. There's clearly the message of the establishment of the covenant of grace in the days of Abraham's life. And the charge is made by people like Larry Richards that no great and single message shines through in these chapters as it did in the early chapters of Genesis. But as we look at these chapters together, are we not conscience throughout of God's covenant faithfulness.
Over and over again in these chapters we see the theme of God's faithfulness to the covenant which he had established with Abraham and that faithfulness being continued to the next generation. That is an immensely important message, and it's one that we take for granted. We take it for granted because of the thoroughness with which God applied His faithfulness to the covenant. Genesis 26 especially confirms the reality of God continuing the promises that were first given to Abraham to the next generation in the life of Isaac.
So let's turn to Genesis 26 and we’ll begin in verse 18 as we look at the second half of this chapter. This is God's word:
Our Father, this is Your word, and we beg now Your Spirit's enlightening work in our hearts, not only that we might understand it, but that we might see the truth for our lives in our time. Judge us, we pray, by Your word and encourage us all, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
This great passage continues the main part of the story of Isaac and we see Isaac in the context of both blessing from God and contention with his neighbors. Even as God blesses him, his neighbors are jealous. Even as he experiences what are clearly tokens of God's covenant favors towards him, he is simultaneously experiencing the trials of this life and contention with this world.
And I'd like to propose to you that Isaac's living in this passage provides a wonderful pattern and model of Christian living in a world which is opposed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let's look at the three or four parts that we see here in this passage tonight.
I. Isaac's struggles with the people of the land.
First, in verses 18 through 22 we see Isaac's struggles with the people of the land. And at the same time we see God's eventual blessing on him in the midst of those contentions. And I believe that we are reminded as we look at this passage that Christians ought to aim to live at peace and await God's vindication. Even as Isaac aimed to live at peace with his neighbors, and await God's invitation. The Philistines we are told — By the way we've already seen this pattern in verses 15 and following in this passage, but it continues in verse 18. We have seen that the Philistines came and they stopped up the wells of Abraham. This is clearly in violation of the covenant which they had made with Abraham, a covenant of friendship. And Isaac, very quietly, redigs these wells and names them by their old names. This is not only a sign of respect to Abraham, but it's a message to the Philistines that even though they have forgotten their obligations in the covenant to Abraham, Isaac has not forgotten their obligations in the covenant to Abraham. And so he very gently makes a statement that they are violating the promises that they made to his father.
And then we're told in verses 19 and 21 that Isaac went on to dig new wells. But he meets resistance from the herdsmen in Gerar in verses 20 and 21. And again we see Isaac not pressing his rights. Isaac doesn't stand on what he could have — He could have said look, you’re in violation of the covenant with Abraham, and I'm going to bring my men over and we're going to attack you just like Abraham attacked the kings who kidnapped Lot. Isaac does not stand and press his rights here.
Finally, we are told in verse 22 that he moves even further away from the herdsman of Gerar, and he finally finds peace. Very interestingly, Isaac credits his peace to the Lord's providence. This is a glimpse into the piety of Isaac. Isaac himself had taken steps to keep from being in a contentious relationship with his neighbors. And he could have said, well, finally, my plan worked. I was so kind to these people in not pressing my rights, and finally I got what I deserved, a little peace. That's not Isaac's response. Isaac's response is that the Lord has granted them peace. Look at verse 22. “The Lord has made room for us and we will be fruitful in the land.” Matthew Henry says, “Those that follow peace sooner or later shall find peace. Those that study to be quiet seldom fail of being so.” And he goes on to say, “When a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, even his enemies shall be at peace with him.” And Isaac aimed to be pleasing to the Lord. He aimed to be at peace with his enemies, and in God's good providence, God granted that to him for a time.
We see this same pattern of course in Paul's life. Paul was a Roman citizen. There are many occasions on which Paul could have pressed his rights and have avoided mistreatment and even severe beatings at the hand of the Roman governors. But if you did a study of the book of Acts, and I challenge you to do this sometime, look at how Paul will use his Roman citizenship. If his invoking the right of being a Roman citizen is merely in an instance to save his own pain and suffering, Paul will never invoke that right. But if there is a gospel issue at stake, if there is a kingdom issue at stake, Paul will invoke the rights of his Roman citizenship. Watch that. Go study the missionary journeys of Paul, and see, interestingly, when he will invoke his rights as a Roman citizen and when he will not. Paul has a kingdom agenda, and Isaac here presses a kingdom agenda, not his own agenda. As Paul himself would say in Romans 12:18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Isaac is the poster child for that verse. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Matthew Henry again says religion teaches us to be neighborly, and as much as in us lies, to live peaceably with all men.
Many of the commentators are critical of Isaac in this passage. They describe him as passive. But his passivity in this section is courageousness passivity. And his passivity was the kingdom objective because Isaac knew that it was his job to be a blessing to the nations. And so insofar as it depends on him, he is doing as much as he can to live in peace with men while recognizing that only the Lord God can give you peace with your enemies. That's a beautiful combination to see in Isaac, and even though he's not a trailblazer, he's not a pioneer like his father Abraham, we have to appreciate a man who takes this kind of a difficult stand in the circumstances in which he found himself.
II. God reiterates His covenant promise to Isaac.
Then in verses 23 through 25 we see another thing. We see God reiterate His covenant promises to Isaac. How timely this was. In the midst of these struggles with his neighbors, God comes to him again, a second time, and reiterates, re-emphasizes, recommits himself to the covenant promises that he had repeated to Isaac in the first part of Genesis 26 which were themselves a mirror of the promises that He had made to Abraham many, many years earlier. And again we learn here that Christians in the midst of their trials ought to trust in the promises of God.
Isn't it interesting what God brings to the forefront of Isaac's mind when he's in the midst of trial. He brings His promises. And He says, Isaac, I want you to steadfastly focus your heart on My promises in the place where you are now. And if you will do that, you will receive comfort. God appears to Isaac in the wake of his struggles in verse 24, and He speaks to him a second time for the purpose of reassuring him. God loves to reassure His people. And that's exactly what he's doing here in Genesis 26, verses 24 and following. God reiterates His covenant promises and this again is a reminder that the covenant itself serves the cause of assurance. God wants His people to be assured of His blessings and benefits. And therefore He enters into covenant with them so that we will be assured certainly of the promises of God. And look very briefly at what God says to Isaac in this passage, beginning in verse 24: “I am the God of your father Abraham.”
Notice how God shows His closeness to His people by taking our name. In a marital relationship we show the closeness of the bride to her husband as she takes his name. God, to show His closeness to His people, takes our name. It is not only that we are named after Him, and so Jacob's name will be changed to Israel, it is that God Himself takes on our name. Here He calls Himself the God of your father, Abraham. Don't underestimate the preciousness of that gift from God. He takes your name. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and that means He is your God. He's the God who takes your name. Secondly, look He says to Isaac, “Do not fear, for I am with you.” Notice that the presence and favor of God cures our fear of everything else. Fear God and you have no need of fearing man. Fear God and what can be against you? If God is for you, who can be against you? And so it is the very presence and favor of God which cures our fears. And he reminds this to Isaac in the time of trial. Look again. He says, “I will bless you.” What's God saying? He's saying that His continued covenant favor is a confirmed reality. I will favor you, I will bless you, I will shower my benefits on you.
He goes on to specify those benefits. “I will multiply your descendants,” He says. Specifically, He is saying that He is going to increase of Isaac's descendants. That is, of course, necessary to fulfill the continuation of the covenant. If there are no descendants, the covenant cannot be continued to the next generation and to the next. And so God is saying I'm going to fulfill the conditions which are necessary for my covenant of grace to continue on.
And then finally He says, interestingly, I'm going to do this why? For the sake of My servant Abraham. Is this not a picture of the grace of God's dealings with Isaac? Isaac is going to be dealt with according to the favor of God because of God's relationship with Abraham. Isaac has nothing that he can claim that evoked these blessings from God. He was born into the household of Abraham and it was because of Abraham that God would continue His blessings upon the next generation. God is Isaac's God by grace. Yes, Isaac has embraced it, but God says I'm doing this because of your father Abraham, because of my servant Abraham, in order to stress to Isaac that he doesn't deserve any of these covenant blessings. They are his by God's unmerited favor.
And then in response to this, we see in verse 25 that Isaac worships in gratitude for God's favor and out of gratitude for God's favor. He's responding to God's favor as he worships. Listen to what Derek Kidner says: “The alters built by the patriarchs were a response, rather than an initiative; for the most part they gratefully record God's coming and speaking to His servants.” When you look at pagan religion wherever you find it, in the near east or anywhere around the world, what is normally happening in the worship practices of pagan religion? The rituals of pagan worship are designed to manipulate the god of the pagan worshiper into blessing you. You will not find that pattern in Genesis. In Genesis God comes to His people, God speaks to His people, God blesses His people, and then His people set up an alter. Not to manipulate Him into blessing them, but to praise Him and thank Him and express their gratitude for the blessing that He's already given to them by grace. Totally different from the pagan religion. And that's exactly what we see here. God comes graciously to Isaac in his time of need. And then Isaac sets up an altar, not to try and manipulate God into blessing him, but to thank Him for the blessings that he's already received.
Now in this passage we see illustrated what we do in worship Sunday after Sunday. Why do we begin our worship with a scriptural call to worship. To remind you who your God is and what He has done to you so that the rest of worship is what? A response to that. It's not worship God so that you can manipulate Him into giving you what you want. No, look at what God has given you. Now in light of that, you come and worship God. You pour out your hearts in praise to Him. The divine pattern of worship is that God initiates in His bestowal of favor, and we respond in our expressions of gratitude. God supplies us His word and His promise to strengthen us in trial. That's what we see here in Genesis 26, verses 23 through 25. And then we give back to Him worship out of our gratitude and thankfulness for the promise that He has given to us. This both shows us the centrality of God's word and His promise in worship, and it shows the initiative of His grace in worship. Our worship is but a response to His blessing to us.
By the way, encouraging Isaac, in strengthening Isaac's faith, we said just a few minutes ago that God gave him a promise. He gave Him a word. And this is designed to buttress Isaac's confidence in the certainty of God's future benefits. And that's very important. Even though Isaac could have looked around and said well, you know God has blessed me with peace. It's more important that Isaac concentrate on God's word of promise to him. Listen to what Calvin said: “One word of God weighs more with the faithful than the accumulated mass of all good things.” See, even though you can look around and say yes, God has favored me in ways that I do not deserve. That can never measure up to the assurance which is drawn from what? From God's word. When you see that word and you say, “Yes, Lord,” that is your promise to your servant. There is nothing more encouraging, even when we look around and see God's blessings in our lives. The Lord appeared to Isaac in this passage and He reiterated the covenant that he had made with Abraham. And Isaac responded by building an altar and worshiping God. And that altar is a significant sign post of Isaac's thanksgiving to God for His revelations and for His providential care.
And so we Christians, too, in the midst of our trials ought to trust in God's promises, and as He delivers us we ought to respond in thanksgiving. That's why thanksgiving is such an important, but so often neglected part of prayer.
III. Isaac's covenant with Abimelech.
Then as we look together at verses 26 through 31 we see this covenant which Isaac makes with Abimelech. The pagan king of the Philistines. And we again see God's surprising providence here. Even pagans apprehend God's favor towards His people. Even this pagan recognizes God's blessing upon Isaac. Abimelech, Ahuzzath and Phicol come to Isaac and they seek a pledge, they seek an oath, a sworn agreement which is going to be confirmed by a covenant and we learn something of the components of a secular covenant as we look at this passage together. And Isaac bluntly questions them.
I mean they've already broken the covenant arrangement that they've made with Abraham. They have already driven him out of the land, and suddenly as he is being blessed by God they show up at the doorstep wanting to enter into a sacred treaty or relationship. And so he's very blunt, and he says, but you hate me and you've run me off. What are you showing up for wanting a covenant?
And yet this covenant was in bad need of being renewed. The covenant between Abraham and the Philistines had obviously been violated, and if Isaac was going to have any peace in the land, it was going to be to his best interest to be in a covenant relationship with them. So in verses 28 through 31 the covenant is secured. The meal which was shared, the feast, was a way of cementing this contract. The oath stresses the solemnity of the transaction.
But let me say there's something else going on here, too. God, in this chapter, is confirming the fact that Isaac is now the covenant head. And in this story, He does it even by showing us that a pagan king understands God's covenant headship in Isaac. Isaac is now the head of the covenant line. R.S. Candlish, the great Scottish theologian, said it was important that Isaac be recognized and acknowledged by the nations and kings with whom Abraham had been called to mingle. And so God, in His mysterious and wise providence, often uses unbelievers to confirm His special favor on His people. And that in turn enables us to be loving in the midst of an unjust world.
Isn't it interesting what's going on here. God is confirming Isaac's place in the covenant, even by an unbeliever. But at the same time, at the same time, God is showing Isaac his favor through this unbeliever so that Isaac will be able to be forgiving in the midst of a setting where he has been maltreated. If Isaac thinks he lives in an unjust world and there is no recourse, it is going to be very difficult for him to forgive. When he realizes that his God is able to control the hearts of even pagan kings, he's able to deal with him gently.
Isn't it interesting, Isaac's first words to Abimelech are harsh. But then as he realizes that God has moved the heart of this pagan to come to him as it were on bended knee, begging for a covenant, Isaac realizes again my God is in control. He holds the heart of the king in his hand, and he turns it whichever way he wants. And so he is able to show love and forgiveness towards an unjust world. Matthew Henry again says, “Those whom God blesses in favors have reason enough to forgive those who hate them since the worst enemy they have can do them no real hurt.” Do you realize that tonight? Do you realize that even pagans, by God's grace, apprehend God's favor towards His people? And that there is no real hurt that anyone, not your worst enemy, can do against you, because your enemy's hearts are in the hands of the almighty God.
IV. God's blessing on Isaac.
Then we see in verses 32 through 35 God's blessing on Isaac through this whole course. We also saw the grief that Esau causes his parents, and again we learn that we ought not to be surprised at the intensity of the pain of our trials, especially when those trials are family spiritual trials. We ought not be surprised, even in the presence of God's blessings. We ought not to be surprised at the intensity of our trials, especially when those trials are familial spiritual trials. God shows his favor to Isaac in this passage, and as you look at verse 32, on the very day that the covenant is concluded with Abimelech, Isaac's men dig a well.
Now I don't know whether this is a brand new well or whether this is the redigging and uncovering of an old well. But we do know where the well was. It was at Beersheba, where his father Abraham had dug the well. In the same place where Abraham had concluded the covenant that he had made with Abimelech's predecessor a hundred years before. God is showing His favor towards Isaac in the wake of his dealings with Abimelech in the discovery of this new well. And the very significance of the origin of this name of the well, Beersheba — remember the name had already been given to it by Abraham, however long before it was that he had found the well. Maybe what had happened in the meantime is the well had been filled up or renamed by the Philistines. Isaac is coming back and he's reclaiming that title, that name, that Abraham had given it so long ago. And when we saw the walls come down in Berlin, and then as we saw the turmoil and the upheaval in the Soviet Union, you remember the moving sight of seeing those people playing the old imperial national anthem and raising the old imperial Russian flag for the first time in almost a century. They were reclaiming a heritage which had been repressed and suppressed and oppressed in the days of Soviet communism. And there's something like that going on here. When Isaac redigs this well and says, this well is again going to be called the well of Shibah. It's Beersheba. My father named this well and, by golly, the name of this well is going to be Beersheba.
At the same time there's grief in Isaac's family. Esau's worldly marriages bring grief to Isaac and Rebekah. He openly defies the principles which Abraham had followed in Genesis 25. Abraham didn't want Isaac to marry the women of the land. He sent them back home to their relations to find a bride. But Esau goes right out and marries the daughters of the Hittites. Perhaps this is one reason he is referred to in Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 16, as an immoral and godless man. He's not only a polygamist, but he's chosen to take his wives, those who are the sworn enemies of his people, the very people that God had already told to Abraham in Genesis 15 that the children of Israel would one day judge. And here Esau is mixing the line of Shem with the line of the Canaanites, and it was a grief to Isaac and Rebekah, even in the wake of real and obvious blessings, and in the company of true divine blessings there are trials for Isaac.
And even in the wake of God's blessings in this life, there are trials for the saints. Derek Kidner says, “There is more to this notice than meets the eye, for it underlines Isaac's folly in favoring Esau for the family headship, and it prepares the ground for Jacob being sent to his cousins at Paddan-aram.”
But it reminds us, too, doesn't it that even when God is truly favorable towards us, that that does not mean that there will be no trials. You can image how this trial would have impacted Isaac. This isn't just a trial with one of his herdsmen, one of his men. This is his son, and this is the son that he clearly loves, just like Abraham loved Ishmael, and he's breaking his heart. And there are so many messages in that for us, aren't there? May the Lord bless His word. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God we cannot do justice to Your word, but we thank You for Your faithfulness in showing us the truth. We thank You for Your real blessings, and we thank You for the way You sustain us in trial. We pray that we would draw strength from this word, this truth tonight. For Christ's sake, Amen.