Abram was already an old man when the Lord directed him to leave Haran and go into exile to a land where He would guide him. Even in this we have echoes of Christ’s command to take up your cross and follow. Abram had to leave his father’s house and all of his relations to go forth in obedience to God. Like the disciples he left everything behind and followed.
Childless he had no one to leave an inheritance to, no one to carry on his name or to pass on his wealth or the fruit of his labours. So his life promised to be poured out for the benefit of strangers, distant relatives would claim his possessions at his passing. His days would end in a sigh and all for what purpose? But God had plans for his welfare, great plans. God had taken it upon His heart to bless Abram (exalted father) and establish him as Abraham (father of nations). God was revealing to him something that was hidden from the beginning, from before the foundation of the world, His Son.
Abram left his father’s house for a land he knew not, a land of promise, a land of blessing. His life was no longer his own for he had, through his obedience, subjected himself to the one who alone could bless, could destroy and could save. This was revealed to him not by the words of scripture or scrupulous study, but by the acts of God upon his very life. God was setting about revealing something greater than the life and concerns of man, something greater than the mystery of heaven and earth, God was revealing to Abram the most precious thing He had to give, Himself. The Lord was teaching him the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.
Abram when he left Haran departed with his nephew Lot. Because of the size of their respective flocks they could no longer journey together and share the available grazing land. With need to separate, Abram offered Lot the choice of direction for him to travel. So Lot chose the Jordan Valley and settled in the south in Sodom.
Through this separation Abram was to come to know something of the fear, the mercy, the power, in fact the nature of God.
The power of sin had grown so great in Sodom that God had reason to act against their depravity. He sent His angels to earth but before acting against Sodom they visited Abraham (who by this time had changed his name from Abram). What is extremely interesting is that there were three men who visited Abraham but only two of them went forth from him to Sodom. There is the sense that the other who remained and had further conversation with Abraham was the Lord. He promised that He would return in a year and at that time Sarah would have a son. Sarah laughed! The task at hand however was the destruction of Sodom. As the angels headed off toward Sodom the Lord stayed in conversation with Abraham and did not hide from him His intent. This prefigured a later statement that God does nothing without first revealing it to His servants the prophets. He told Abraham, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave.”
Abraham asked that if there were fifty righteous men in the city would it be spared, and the Lord answered that it would. Abraham is not finished, his heart won’t rest, fearful of the one he is talking to and anxious not to offend, he just has to ask, in fear, knowing that he himself is but dust, “Lord if there is five lacking from the fifty will you spare the city?” To which the Lord spoke and said if there were forty-five men I will spare the city.
Abraham still could not let it rest, he was needing to know the reality, in his own heart, of the righteousness of God. So troubled was he that a good man might perish along with a wicked man he kept asking, “What about thirty men?” Then ‘twenty men’, finally the Lord said, “If there are ten righteous men in the city I will spare the city” and with that He departed.
In fact the depravity in Sodom was so great that when the two angels visited Lot in the city the men of the city wanted to have sexual relations with the angels. So, for the fact that there were not ten righteous men to be found in the city, the city could not be spared. The angels, however, told Lot to take his wife and his daughters and their proposed husbands and flee the city. The two young men concerned, however, thought it was all a joke and would not go, so Lot and his family fled and the city was destroyed.
All of these events taught Abraham something deep and troubling and fearful about God, about righteousness and judgement and the hopeful purpose of the Lord; for God had chosen Abraham from amongst the sons of the world to be the father of His chosen people and through them, He would reveal His own Son, in whom all the world would be blessed. God was drawing Abraham into His confidence, into His fear and counsel and into His ways. He was through all of this, offering to Abraham something even deeper than friendship – He was revealing His own heart. The depth and the wonder of this would continue to dawn on Abraham as Isaac arrived.
Part of the revelation through which God reveals Himself to man is the crushing of the pride of man. It is impossible to see and know Him if you are full of yourself. God did not make Abraham the father of the chosen people when he was a young man, in the natural course of the events of his life, for of what value would that be to Abraham? How would he know, beyond doubt that this was the work of God? It was precisely because he was old, his wife beyond any hope of ever bearing a child, that he knew that this was all entirely of God. It is when the natural man is dead, weighed down by the burdens of a life lived in this sinful world, beyond every reason for hope, that God provides hope. Lest any man should boast! Abraham knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that God had blessed him and that this child was indeed special. Isaac was like no other child born on earth until then. He was an extremely deep and precious blessing, a child, not of the flesh, but of the spirit.
One only has to look at Abraham’s receiving of the angels, compared to their reception at the hands of the people of Sodom, to see the righteousness and fearfulness of God’s judgements. The same heavenly visitors, yet one man bakes them bread and presents them with a freshly slaughtered calf in an outpouring of hospitality and the other men wish to rape them. This contrast shows the heart of the people involved. Abraham is lowly of heart and open to receive a heavenly visitor with joy, so God blesses him; the men of Sodom are dead to God, dead to love, so their destruction is the seal of the course they are already taking.
Abraham’s life, though, has prepared him for the blessing. Having lived 75 years without an heir, before leaving Haran, he has already faced a life of chastening. He has had to deal with his lack and Sarah’s pain. The trials of life help to knock off our sharp edges, our cockiness and the high and unwarranted opinions we all have of ourselves. It is after a lifetime of this dejection that God reaches down to Abraham, not because Abraham is great, but because he is a man humbled by life who has not allowed his circumstances embitter him and is still open to receive God when God instructs him to leave Haran. A man putting the unknown future of his life into the hands of God.
Along the way to the point of being blessed by God with the son of promise Abraham has had his stumblings. When Abraham left Haran the Lord spoke to him and said, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Abraham obeyed and followed but he struggled to take all of these words fully to heart.
On his journeyings Abraham, whilst in Canaan, had an encouraging encounter with God who said that He would give this land to his descendants. Because of a drought in the land Abraham went down into Egypt, a journey which would be mirrored by his grandson Jacob. Abraham had forgotten the promise of God, for when he came to Egypt he was afraid of being killed. This is of course something which could never have happened, for what God says He does. But Abraham, afraid, instructed Sarah to say that she was his sister, a half-truth, and not his wife. So Pharaohs’ men, seeing her beauty, praised her to Pharaoh, who took her into his house. Because of her Pharaoh treated Abraham well, with gifts of livestock and servants. God, however, was not pleased. He struck Pharaoh’s house on account of her. Thus Pharaoh, discovering his error, summoned Abraham and asked him what had he, Pharaoh, done to him for him to lie to Pharaoh in this way. He therefore reunited them and bid them to go, taking with them their gifted possessions. So through their stumbling and through their need, in a time of drought, God had blessed them.
It is acts like these which strengthen a man‘s faith. Faith is not empty or a vain hope, but it is an ever present strength in the day of trial against our fears and is a growing knowledge of God’s trustworthiness. Faith is a deepening reality, for the one we trust keeps showing His saving acts toward us, and in this way builds us up in love. For the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but the steadfast man is given gifts, acts of love towards him, which not only strengthens his faith but also opens his heart to ever deeper praise and thanks and delightful love. For a man who has showers of blessings cannot help but wonder and grow certain in love.
The Lord is teaching Abraham, ever more deeply, the mystery and the way and the power of His love. God has chosen to bless him, and he has to show patience and obedience and trust. He had no book of commands to follow, no bible studies or theological debates, he had a life to live, embraced in a partnership with God, and he had to arrive through this at the blessing, which is the knowledge of God. Jesus said, “No one knows the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son reveals Him.” Here then was the work of the Spirit of Christ, to reveal the Father to Abraham. Acting on his life, directing his heart, preparing the way for the outworking of the promise, which is the revelation of the Son, and through this, the very heart of God.
The blessing which God was giving Abraham, the child of promise, was the preparing of the way for the full revelation of His own Son in the flesh. When Abraham had lived his life without a blessing, with no hope of issue, when his life was as good as dead, God provided an heir. Abraham had to know that the blessing was not because of his own acts, or his own capacity, but it was due to a complete charis, a grace given without merit from his own life, but granted from the free will of God. A gift granted from His heart. So unbelievable was the prospect of God’s granting the promise that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the very thought of it, yet God granted the promise.
So disillusioned and anxious had they become in their waiting that Sarah provided her servant Hagar as a partner for Abraham to gain a son. Thus Ishmael was born, of whom the angel of the Lord declared that he would be a ‘wild donkey of a man’. So all of our best laid out plans turn out to be! But the promise of God and the hope and blessing of Abraham rolled towards its time and God’s purpose.
Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born and when he was 99 years of age, a year before Isaac was born, God spoke again to Abraham and instituted the covenant of circumcision. Every male member of his household would be circumcised of the foreskin on the eighth day from their birth, from that day forward. Unfortunately for Abraham he had to have the snip when he was 99 years of age, not an inconsiderable undertaking. But this was a sign, a seal, that Abraham belonged to God, and the child to come, the fruit of the promise, was His also.
With the covenant established Isaac was born.
We can only imagine the joy and wonder in their heart as they received this child into the world. Sarah who had so given up hope, so dead was her body, that she gave Hagar to Abraham that the promise might be fulfilled. God, however, had deeper plans for her. She, though she faltered in hope for herself, was full of longing for the birth of the child of promise. Hagar, who had smirked in her heart at Sarah when she had given birth to Ishmael, had belittled Sarah and the ache of her heart and the sacrifice of her hope which she had made in offering her maid to Abraham. Now, Sarah knew the deepest joy, for the unbelievable gift that had swollen in her belly and broken forth with a cry, which sounded like joy to Sarah, as she gave birth. Here the impossible had happened and they could but marvel at the way the Lord had blessed them when no other could. God showed His love to them through the decay of their aging bodies, through all their trials and stumblings, through all of their helplessness and travail. The seed of promise had borne fruit.
Abraham and Sarah, like any parents, watched as their son grew, but with more wonder than any parents before them, and few since. For an entire nation, and salvation to the world, rested upon the brow of this child. For this child was more particularly a child of grace, an act of love, a gift of God. What would have Abraham have pondered as he saw the child grow?
But then, when Isaac was yet a young man, God commanded Abraham to offer up his son as a sacrifice to the Lord as a burnt offering. Abraham obeyed, taking his son, his unique son, up Mount Moriah to sacrifice. Isaac, bearing the wood for the sacrifice, asked his father, “where was the sacrifice?” Abraham replied, “The Lord will provide.”
There is much controversy concerning this sacrifice, mostly scathing, ‘how could God ask such a thing?’ But there is much more to meditate upon, for it was through this sacrifice that Abraham learned something which words in a book could never reveal and that is the mystery of the heart of God. God, the Lord, was drawing Abraham into a conformity with His own heart. The very design and purpose of the blessing He was giving.
How must Abraham have wrestled as he walked beside his son? This child, given to him in his old age, a miraculous child, in whom all the promises, which God had made, rested. There was no other treasure which Abraham had, the very gift of God, the fruit of his own body, through the mercy of God, in his old age when the body of his wife was way past child-bearing age. How could all the promises be fulfilled if this child should perish? There was nothing that could make sense of this except to trust that God meant what He said and blessed those who obey. Had not God given him a son whom he, along with all the world, thought the very idea impossible? Did he not have to labour to arrive at faith? Did not he believe God in spite of the extreme foolishness of the idea? Had not he seen God’s hand, strong and true, and deep and real, protect him and his wife in their wanderings, and increase their flocks, and bless them in their ways? Had not he met with the Lord, talked with Him face to face about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah? How many ways had the Lord blessed him! How many times had He reached out to teach and comfort him? Why would have God reached out and led him, reached down and blessed him, given forth such hope and assurance, if all was simply to end upon a pile of sticks as a fragrant aroma to God?
Abraham dug deep into his heart, he wrestled with his joy, his grief, his hope, his sorrow, and there, at the bottom of his heart, at the bedrock, at the absolute centre of himself, the only thing he lived by and for, was love of God. Abraham knew that He would bless him and that the child would yet live. Had not God created him from nothing, had not God raised him up from the dust? Did not God love Isaac more even than he, Abraham? Was not the entire purpose God’s own purpose? Abraham knew that God would raise Isaac from the dead. There was nothing he could not trust God with. His very life was God.
Abraham had reached this peace of heart, this hope, this trust, this offering up to God everything he had; life, heart, soul all rested in the knife at the child's throat. And God said Halt! For He knew the depths of Abraham’s heart. He knew the steadfastness of trust and fear that Abraham had for Him and He was pleased. For Abraham was a man truthfully after God’s own heart.
Was not the blessing that He was offering through Abraham the salvation of the world, through His own Son? God was asking of Abraham what He, God, was offering through Abraham’s obedience – His only begotten Son, slain before the foundation of the world! In this act of unity, God was drawing Abraham into the sacrifice of love which was the blessing. Sharing a common hope and a common purpose, putting all of his heart into blessing the world. All the nations, all the peoples, every man, woman and child’s life was in the offering up of Isaac, all of our hope. Every blessing that is known to man lay in this event – the preparing of the way of the Lord.
Jesus was in the heart of God. He was opening Abraham’s heart to behold the very heart of God. The Father offering up the Son for the salvation of the world. The seed was planted for the fruit that was to come.
God knew Abraham and now, mysteriously, Abraham knew God.