The Laughter of Unbelief
Two weeks ago we began our studies in the chapter of Genesis 17. Abram, this man whose name meant exalted father, had spent 86 years of life not being a father at all, and then finally had had a child through his wife's maid servant, a concubine, named Hagar. And over that 13-year period, the idea had grown in Abram's mind that the promise that God had made to him to make him a father of many nations was actually going to be fulfilled through this son, Ishmael, who was now, by the time we get to Genesis 17, 13 years old. So here we have Abraham, this man who is now almost a hundred, whose name means exalted father, high father, mighty father. And we talked about how no doubt over the years there had been many jokes made about that name, some perhaps to his face, many more perhaps behind his back. And then the Lord comes to him in Genesis 17 and says “Abram I'm going to change your name to Abraham, father of multitudes. And we talked about how Abram must have felt when this announcement was made to God. And God then, as we studied last week in verses 9-14, we saw that God gave him a sign to assure him of His purposes. That He was indeed going to bring about the promises He had made to him. But the Lord isn't finished yet. He wants to continue to reiterate and become even more specific in the promises that Abraham has been given in the passage before us this week.
So let's look at Genesis 17:15, and we’ll read to the end of the chapter. Hear God's holy and inspired word.
Father, this is Your word. It's intended for our edification. It's intended, O Lord, that we might glorify You by our trust. We pray, O Lord, that our faith would be increased even as we study Your word and that You might assure us of Your glorious, covenantal purposes for us. That we might have a greater view of those blessings as we study Your word tonight. And we pray, O Lord, as well that we would respond to You in faith and in obedience. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
God has so far given Abram extraordinary promises beginning in Genesis 12. He had made specific promises to Abram as He called him out of the Ur of the Chaldeans. And He's given him protection even when he's sinned in his sojourn in Egypt in Genesis 12. The Lord protected Abram and brought him out. He gave him victory in battle over his enemies in Genesis 14. And He literally cut a covenant with him in order to assure the promises that He had made with him in Genesis 15. He had appeared to him on numerous occasions in Genesis 12 and 15 and again here in Genesis 17, and in other places He had appeared to him, revealing Himself to Abram. He had reminded him of his character here in Genesis 17. He had reprised His promises, He had even changed his name to Abraham in order to convince Abraham of the certainty of the fulfillment of His promises. Then in Genesis 17 we saw last week that He even gave him a covenant sign, cut into his own flesh to remind him of the certainty of His promises. And now the Lord speaks again. One thing that stands out loud and clear is that God is persistent in pursuing His people that they might have assurance of His covenant promises. And that is the very first point I want you to see as we study this great passage tonight.
I. God is persistent in His quest for our assurance.
If we look at verses 15 and 16, we see a reiteration of God's promises of blessings to Abraham. And here Sarah's part is explicitly indicated. All along we have suspected that God had something for Sarah in this great covenant. That the Lord was not going to bypass this woman. That even as Abraham was encouraged by the Lord's promises to him, and even as the Lord was rolling away His reproach by giving him a son, so also the Lord was going to roll away Sarah's reproach. She was no longer going to called a barren woman, but she was going to be a mother of the faithful and here the Lord makes that absolutely, abundantly clear in verses 15 and 16. And as we read these verses, we learn that God is persistent in His quest for our assurance. Sarah is given a new name. Sarai is now to be called Sarah. They are both forms of the same name. One is an older and one is a newer form of a name which either means princess or heroine; and she was going to be a heroine of her people. The renaming of Sarah was a marker just like it was with Abraham. Many cultures do this at significant stages of life one's name is modified or a name is added to that particular name to indicate a significant stage of advancement. This is done, for instance, in Japan with the emperor. The emperor is given a different name at different stages of life to mark passageways of significance. This marker, of course, is a marker to confirm God's promises to Sarah. Some have even suggested that Sarai indicates “my princess.” It's a possessive ending. Whereas, Sarah simply indicates a princess, so that she would be recognized as a princess of the nations and not simply as Abraham's helpmate. At any rate, four specific blessings are mentioned in verse 16 which God is going to pour out on Sarah. In order to emphatically establish her place in the covenant, God reiterates these blessings.
First, He says I will bless her. He will show her His favor. I will give you a son by her, Abraham. She is going to be the instrument whereby I bring My covenant promises through to your descendants. It's not going to be Hagar, and it's not going to be Ishmael. It's going to be a son through Sarah. That's how I'm going to bring my promises through, and that's how I'm going to bless her. And again in verse 16 she's going to be a mother of nations. It's not just you, Abraham, who's going to be a father of nations. She's going to be a mother of nations. She's not going to be left out in this process. And then again at the end of verse 16, she will be a mother of kings. Abraham, if you’re going to be a father of kings, then that's going to require in my plan that Sarah be a mother of kings because she's the one that I've chosen to be the bearer of the seed of the covenant. Throughout His dealings with Abraham here, God shows a concern to strengthen his faith, to strengthen his assurance by repeating to him His promises. And this passage, this word of God is given to Abraham in order to shake him out of a rut in his thinking.
It is very clear from Abraham's response in verses 17 and 18 that Abraham had resigned himself never to having a son of his own by Sarah. But rather, he had resigned himself to seeing God's plan fulfilled through Hagar's son, Ishmael. In fact, he had not just resigned himself to that, he had gotten comfortable with that. In fact, he was rather emphatic about that being the way that God was going to work. And so the Lord specifies to Abraham here, ‘No, this is not going to be My plan for fulfilling My promises. I want you to see Abraham, a grander plan than you have imagined.’
Now we can understand Abraham's struggle of faith here. He had been waiting a long time since God first called him out of the Ur of the Chaldeans, and he had never seen fruit of his own marriage with Sarah. And now God is reiterating to him, “Abraham, I want you to understand explicitly the covenant is going to be fulfilled through Sarah.” J.J. Davis says this: “Believers have often found themselves in the gulf between divine promise and personal experience: God's promise is clear but circumstances do not seem to be leading to its fulfillment. The failure in these situations is not God's, but ours. What is true of believers today was true of Abraham. God had given him a great promise, but events raised such deep questions in his heart that he began to fear. The Lord in His graciousness to Abram continues to give him over and over assurances of His promise. Why? Because God is persistent in His quest for your assurance. God knows that if our faith is not strong, our sanctification will not progress. And He knows that if our assurance of the hope which is set before us is not as real as the pews that we are sitting in, we will give in to the contentments and the satisfactions of this world, rather than seek those things which God holds before our eyes which are eternal, but which are not perhaps as tangible to us now as the things that we might take delight in and partake of. And so the Lord wants us to have the strongest assurance possible because it is necessary for us to grow in the walk of faith. And so the Lord pursues Abraham that he might have assurance. That's the first thing that we see in this passage.
II. Even saving faith has its struggles.
Then as we look at verses 17 and 18 we see a second thing. In those passages we see recorded for us Abraham's struggle to believe. In fact, we see the laughter of unbelief displayed. Perhaps as you remember being taught the book of Genesis, you remember the incident in Genesis 18 and Sarah's laughter as being the first indication of unbelief in the story of Genesis and Abraham and Isaac. But Abraham was actually the first couple, member of that couple, to utter a laugh at God's promises. Even saving faith has its struggles. That's the lesson we learn here in verses 17 and 18. Even saving faith has its struggles. When God announces to Abraham that he's going to have a son by Sarah, Abraham's instinctive response is incredulity. He just can't believe it. This is unbelievable. He falls on his face and he laughs. He can't quite fathom it. He can't quite take it in. Now I want to note that this is not cynical laughter. Abram was not hard of heart. We’ll see that in a few moments. But Abraham is having a hard time believing what God has said. Now Paul makes it clear in Romans 4:20 that Abraham never grew hard-hearted. But his faith is definitely struggling here when God gives him this explicit promise. And this passage is very important for us. When we realize how the father of faith and the father of the faithful struggled, it somehow helps us in our own fight of faith. Abraham wrestled to believe what God was promising.
Why? Because what God was promising was so much better, was so much bigger, was so much grander than Abraham could have expected. You know Abraham's problem was his God was too small. And God is saying, ‘Abraham, My plan is far better than the plan that you have decided I was going to fulfill. And you’re going to need to adjust your sights in order to see the greatness of the grace that I have for you.’ Now Abraham explains to the Lord what the real desires of his heart are in verse 18. He says to the Lord in a prayer, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You.” Abraham is verbalizing his desire that Ishmael would be the covenant bearer, and that he would walk before the face of God. Isn't it interesting how we all become comfortable with our substitutes for God's plan for our lives. We like the idea of planning our own lives out and then simply asking God to put His rubber stamp on our vision. Now Abraham had done this before. You’ll remember in Genesis 15 when God had come to reiterate to him His promises, he said to the Lord, “Lord, the heir of my house is going to be Eliezer of Damascus, a servant born amongst my people.” That's going to be my heir. And the Lord said, “No, a son is going to be your heir.”
And then for many years Abraham thought that Ishmael was going to be his heir. And the Lord is saying to him again no, Abraham, I have something else in mind. We all become comfortable with our substitutes for God's plan. A life of faith is not without its challenges, even in the greatest of men, and so we must learn to hang on to God's word and to trust him despite all evidences to the contrary. Derek Kidner says this: “Abraham's laughter, to judge by God's reply and by Paul's words in Romans 4:19 and following, was a first, incredulous reaction, real enough, as is shown by his gentle attempt to steer God into a more reasonable path, but he was open to correction. On such genuine struggles of faith God is never hard.” Think of how God deals with Habakkuk. We’re waiting for God to blast Habakkuk when he questions Him. But Habakkuk's struggle was a genuine, believing struggle of faith, just as Abraham's was, and so the Lord is generous. Abram's doubt was wonderfully tempered by faith and love in his prayer for Ishmael.
III. God's grace exceeds our expectations.
Now we learn a third thing in this passage in verses 19-22. Here God tells Abraham about the covenant which he is going to establish through Isaac. And here God gives Abraham the ‘no’ of grace.
We don't often think of no as the best answer to a prayer. But very often, precisely because God loves us, He gives us a no which is far better than the yes that we desire. Here we see that no of grace, and we learn that God's grace exceeds our expectations. In verses 19-22 the Lord comes back and speaks to Abraham replying to Abraham's request. Abraham's basic problem here was that he could not take in a blessing as grand as the Lord had given him. His faith was struggling after many years of waiting. So God reiterates His promises to Abraham. Look, beginning in verse 19 at what God says. He says basically three things. I'm going to give you a son by Sarah. He makes it absolutely clear that Sarah is going to be the line of the seed. And then he even tells the name of the boy. His name is going to be Isaac. Now hold that in the back of your mind because there's a play on words going there. Throughout this passage there are names like Ishmael and Isaac which are basically in their forms prayers. And Isaac is a prayer, too. It's almost like it could be translated something like may God smile on you, or may God smile on me. Hold that in the back of your mind. We’ll come back to it in a minute. That's the first thing that the Lord says. I’ll give you a son by Sarah.
Then he says, secondly, My covenant is going to be with him. That's going to be the line through which the covenant is going to be extended.
And then finally we see that the covenant will be with his descendants. So all those three things are reiterated. By the way, this passage gives clear testimony to God's electing purposes. He chooses Isaac to be the line of promise, the line of the covenant. And He explicitly passes by Ishmael. Ishmael is born first. Born first in Abram's household. By legal right of primogeniture you would have expected him to be the heir of all that Abraham had. But once again in the book of Genesis we see a younger son supplant an older son. And it won't be the last time we see that in Genesis. In fact, that scene is repeated throughout this book in order to stress to us God's prerogative of election. He chooses those through whom He will bring His blessing and promise. He chooses His own instrument. And here, in verses 19 and 20 He chooses Isaac, not Ishmael to be the line of the covenant.
Notice also if you will the Lord's words in verse 20. Here He gives a blessing of Ishmael. But it is a secular blessing. Look at the stipulations. “I will bless him, I will make him fruitful, I will multiply him exceedingly, he will be a father of twelve princes, I will make him a great nation. All those things are real blessings. Those aren't curses. Those are real blessings. But there is no indication of spiritual blessings given there. There is another blessing in Genesis very, very similar to this. It is the blessing that Isaac will give to one of his sons. And so we see here that temporal blessing is never a substitute for the spiritual favors of God. A real temporal blessing is given to Ishmael, but apparently without spiritual favor. All we know of Ishmael, he lived to the east of his brethren and in opposition to them. And so though the Lord blessed him temporally, he did not give him the covenant blessings which were given to Isaac. Abraham had prayed that the Lord would cause Ishmael to be the line of the promise and that Ishmael would walk before him. But the Lord gives him a mind-stretching answer and tells him that he will have a son through Sarah named Isaac. Now let's go back to that name.
Derek Kidner says this: “The name Isaac is of a pattern common at the time. If Isaac meant may He smile upon him; to those who were in on the secret it spoke of Abraham's laugh. The promise and the miracle that made his birth unique and the covenant predestined beyond all doubt.” Now we can imagine again the word spreading around that Abram was telling all the folks in the tent that he was going to have a son by Sarah. Well what are you going to call him, Abraham? Well, I'm going to call him Isaac. And for everyone in the know, the immediate response would be, well, that name means laughter, and it sure is laughable that a ninety year old Sarah and a hundred year old Abraham are going to have a child. That is laughable. Yet, God has the last laugh.
IV. Saving faith displays itself in trusting obedience.
And so we see in verses 23-27 Abraham's response to this message. As unbelievable as it was and as incredulous as Abraham was when he first heard this promise, Abraham obediently circumcises his household. In verses 23-27 we see the obedience of Abraham's fate. That is, we see the obedience which flows from faith. Abraham believes God's promises, and so he does what God commands. And we learn that saving faith displays itself in trusting obedience. The stress of this passage is that men of every age and status and background and spiritual experience were gathered into this covenant. And that Abraham acted immediately. It says that he and Ishmael were circumcised on the same day.
Now we need to remember that Abraham's action was a brave action. This was not only going to be a painful process, especially for the adult men in the camp, but it was going to be one that left them in a vulnerable situation. We hear of other stories in the Old Testament where that was exactly the case. It meant danger for him. And no doubt there was much grumbling in the tent. I mean, again Abraham comes back and he says, ‘Well, the Lord has promised to make me a father of many nations, and he's given me a sign and the sign is circumcision, and every male in the house is going to be circumcised. Now without being crass for a moment, friends, I have no doubt that there were some that were upset at this announcement. And there may well have been serious grumbling in the camp. And yet Abraham is absolutely obedient to God, because God's command is sufficient to answer all the circumstances of life. Faith hears and obeys. Faith hears and obeys. Abraham heard and he believed and he obeyed.
Aalders, speculating on this passage says, “Naturally, we all wonder why God made Abraham wait so long for the fulfillment of the promise. Undoubtedly He wanted to reveal something to Abraham and to His people of all time. They must know, beyond all question and all doubt, that God's promises are absolutely trustworthy. No matter how impossible the fulfillment of these promises might appear from human perspectives, God does the impossible and keeps His promises. Abraham's history reveals with unmistakable clarity that God's word is always trustworthy. God fulfills His promises, not because they are reasonable, by human standards, but because God is God and His Word is true and absolutely reliable.” And that is something that all of us need to learn today just as much as Abraham did in Genesis 17. May the Lord bring it to pass in our own hearts and may He bless His word. Let's pray.
Our Heavenly Father, we would trust in Your word because it's You who giveth and because it's true even as our father, Abraham, trusted in the word of Your promise. We praise You that that promise has now come to fruition in us for all who believe on Christ are the children of Abraham by faith. Give us the grace, O Lord, to walk in that faith and to respond in obedience to Your word in every circumstance of life. We ask it through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.