Gleanings In Genesis

25. The Birth of Isaac

Genesis 21

The birth of Isaac marked a pivotal point in the outworking of God's eternal purpose. The coming of this son to Abraham and Sarah was the second great step toward the fulfillment of Jehovah's plan. This purpose and plan was to have a people of His own, separate from the surrounding nations; a people to whom should be entrusted the Holy Oracles, a people of whom as concerning the flesh the Savior was to be born; a people who should ultimately become the medium of blessing to all the earth. In the realization of this plan and purpose the first great step was the selection of Abram to be the father of the chosen nation, the call which separated him from the idolatrous people among whom he lived, and the migration unto the land which Jehovah promised to give him.

Some twenty-five years had now passed since Abram had left Ur of the Chaldees, and during these years he had received promise from the Lord that He would make of him a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and that He would make his seed as the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16). But years went by and Abram remained childless: the promised seed had not been given and Abram was exercised and perplexed. "And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezar of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir" (Gen. 15:2, 3). To these questions the Lord returned answer, "This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir" (Gen. 15:4). Another interval passed and yet no child appeared, and "Sarai said unto Abram, Behold, now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai, and he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived" (Gen. 16:2, 4). A further thirteen years dragged their weary course and "God said unto Abraham, as for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations: Kings of people shall be of her. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before Thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac" (Gen. 17:15-19). Shortly after this the Lord, accompanied by two angels, appeared unto His servant in the plains of Mamre and, "they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And He said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son" (Gen. 18:9-14).

And now the appointed hour for the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah had struck, and we read, "And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him" (Gen. 21:12). Thus we reach, as we have said, the second stage in the accomplishment of Jehovah's purpose. The birth of Isaac marked an important crisis in connection with the history of the chosen line, for not in Ishmael but in Isaac was Abraham's seed to be called (Gen. 21:12).

Many are the important truths illustrated in the above Scriptures, and many are the profitable lessons to be learned therefrom. We name a few of them without attempting to enlarge. We see from the above that God is in no hurry in the working out of His plans. Man may fret and fume, hurry and bustle, but Jehovah has all eternity at His disposal and works leisurely and with deliberation. Well for us to mark this attentively- "he that believeth shall not make haste" (Isa. 28:16). Again, we note here God's Almightiness. Nothing can hinder or thwart the outworking of His purpose. Abraham may be old, Sarah may be barren, but such trifles present no difficulty to Him who is infinite in power. Abraham may seek to obtain an heir through Hagar, but Jehovah's plan cannot be foiled: Sarah's son shall be his heir, not Ishmael. Behold, too, the faithfulness of God. The Lord had said Sarah shall have a son, and what He promised He performed. His promise may seem unreasonable and impossible to the carnal mind, but His word is sure. Learn, also, how faith is tried and tested. This is in order to display its genuineness. A faith that is incapable of enduring trial is no faith at all. A hard thing was promised to Abraham but, "he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God" (Rom. 4:19, 20). Finally, note that God has a set time for the accomplishing of His will and the fulfilling of His word. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is contingent on the creature. Everything is definitely fixed beforehand by God. "For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him" (Gen. 21:2). Mark how this is emphasized by repetition- "But my covenant will! establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year" (Gen. 17:21); "At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son" (Gen. 18:14). So also we read in another connection, "For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak" (Hab. 2:3). Compare Galatians 4:4.

Isaac was the child of promise. The Lord took great interest in the birth of this boy. More was said about him before his birth than about any other, excepting only Abraham's greater Son. God first made promise to Abraham; "As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her" (Gen. 17:15, 16). The response of the aged patriarch is recorded in the next verse- "Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed." Later, the promise was renewed in the hearing of Sarah, "And He said I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son" (Gen. 18:10). Then we are told, "Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?" How reason ever opposes the promises of God. The "laughter" of Abraham was the laughter of worshipful joy, that of Sarah was credulous unbelief. There is a laughter which the Lord fills the mouth with, when, at some crisis, He comes to our relief. "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, the Lord hath done great things for them" (Ps. 126:112). But there is also the laughter of cynicism and unbelief. The former we are not afraid to avow; the latter makes us, like Sarah, cowards and liars. But are we not told "Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised" (Heb. 11:11). How shall we harmonize this with her laugh of unbelief? To the infidel this would appear a contradiction, but the believer has no difficulty in reconciling these two, for he knows from experience there is a continual struggle going on in his heart between faith and unbelief, sometimes the one and sometimes the other being uppermost. But is it not beautiful and blessed to note that in the New Testament Sarah's unbelief is passed over, just as nothing is said there of Rahab's deception (Heb. 11:31), or of Job's impatience (Jam. 5:11).

Isaac was the child of miracle. Sarah's womb was "dead" (Rom. 4:19) and ere she could conceive a supernatural "strength" must be given her (Heb. 11:11). In this, of course, we discover a foreshadowment of the miraculous birth of the Lord Jesus- now, alas, so generally denied. We are tempted to digress here but must refrain. Certain it is that the vital importance of the virgin birth of our Savior cannot be overestimated. Well did Sir Robert Anderson say, "The whole Christian system depends upon the truth of the last verse of Matthew one" ("The Coming Prince"). Returning to the miraculous birth of Isaac, do we not see in it, as also in the somewhat similar cases of Rachel, the mother of Samson, Hannah, and Elisabeth, not only a foreshadowing of the supernatural birth of Christ, but also the gracious way of God in preparing Israel to believe in it, facilitating faith in the Divine incarnation. If God quickened a dead womb and caused it to bear, why should it be thought a thing incredible if He made the virgin give birth to the Child!

The birth of Christ was markedly foreshadowed by that of Isaac and this in seven ways at least. First, Isaac was the promised seed and son (Gen. 17:16); so also was Christ (Gen. 3:15; Isaiah 7:14). Second, a lengthy interval occurred between God's first promise to Abraham and its realization. When we are told, "And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said" (Gen. 21:1), the immediate reference is to Genesis 17:16 and Genesis 18:14, but the remote reference was to the original promise of Genesis 12:7. So also was there a lengthy interval between God's promise to send Christ and the actual fulfillment of it. Third, when Isaac's birth was announced, his mother asked, "Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?" (Gen. 18:13), to which the answer was returned, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" and the striking analogy is seen in the fact that when the angel of the Lord made known unto Mary that she was to be the mother of the Savior, she asked, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34), to which query the answer was returned, "With God nothing shall be impossible'' (Luke 1:37): so that in each case God's omnipotency was affirmed following the annunciation of the birth of the child. Fourth, Isaac's name was specified before he was born- "And thou shalt call his name Isaac" (Gen. 17:19); compare with this the words of the angel to Joseph before Christ was born- "And thou shalt call his name Jesus" (Matthew 1:21)! Fifth, Isaac's birth occurred at God's appointed time (Gen. 21:2) "at the set time"; so also in connection with the Lord Jesus we read "But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). Sixth, as we have seen above, Isaac's birth required a miracle to bring it about; so also was it with the incarnation of Immanuel. Seventh, the name Isaac (given unto him by Abraham and not Sarah, Genesis 21:3), which means laughter, declared him to be his father's delight; so also was the one born at Bethlehem- "this is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Need we remark how strikingly this sevenfold type evidences the Divine inspiration of Scripture, and demonstrates that the book of Genesis- so much attacked by the critics- was written by one" moved by the Holy Spirit."

It has been noticed by others that in Abraham we have a striking illustration of election, while in Isaac we get, typically, the precious truth of sonship. Abraham was the one chosen and called by God; Isaac was the one promised and born of God's power. The historical order of Genesis is thus the doctrinal order of the New Testament. Thus we read in Ephesians 1:4, 5, "According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him: in love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will." Isaac brings before us in type regeneration, and it is this which will now engage our attention.

The first point we would here dwell upon is that before Isaac was born the power and activities of nature were made an end of. Abraham and Sarah had come to the end of themselves. Abraham's body was "dead," and so too was Sarah's womb (Rom. 4:19). And in order for Isaac to be born that which was dead must be quickened, quickened by God. This is a very humbling truth; one which is thoroughly distasteful to man; one which nothing but the grace of God will enable us to receive. The state of the natural man is far worse than he imagines. It is not only that man is a sinner, a sinner both by nature and by practice, but that he is "alienated from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18). In a word the sinner is dead- dead in trespasses and sins. As the father said of the prodigal, "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:24). That the natural man is dead in trespasses and sins is no mere figure of speech; it is a solemn reality, an awful fact. It is ignorance and the denial of this fact which lies at the root of so much of the false teaching of our day. What the natural man needs first and foremost is not education or reformation, but life. It is because the sinner is dead that he needs to be born again. But how little this is pressed today! The unspeakably dreadful state of the natural man is glossed over where it is not directly repudiated. For the most part our preachers seem afraid to insist upon the utter ruin and total depravity of human nature. This is a fatal defect in any preaching: sinners will never be brought to see their need of a Savior until they realize their lost condition, and they will never discover their lost condition until they learn that they are dead in sin.

But what does Scripture mean when it says the sinner is "dead"? This is something which seems absurd to the natural man. And to him it is absurd. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). To the natural man it seems that he is very much alive. Yes, and Scripture itself speaks of one that lives in pleasure as being "dead while she liveth" (1 Tim. 5:6). Herein lies the key to the meaning of that expression employed by our Lord in His teaching upon the Good Samaritan. Describing the condition of the natural man under the figure of one who had fallen among thieves, who had stripped him of his raiment and left him wounded by the wayside, the Savior termed him "half dead" (Luke 10:30). Mark then the absolute accuracy of Christ's words. The sinner is "half dead": he is alive manward, worldward, sinward, but he is dead Godward! The sinner is alive naturally- physically, mentally, morally- but he is dead spiritually. That is why the new birth is termed a "passing from death unto life" (John 5:24). And just as the deadness of Abraham and Sarah- in their case natural deadness, for they but foreshadowed spiritual truths had to be quickened by God before Isaac could be born, so has the sinner to be quickened by God into newness of life before he can become a son of God. And this leads us to say.

Second, before Isaac could be born God had to perform a miracle. As we have said, Abraham's body was "dead" and Sarah was long past the age of child-bearing. How then could they have a son? Sarah laughed at the mention of such a thing. But what was beyond the reach of nature's capacity was fully within the scope of Divine power. "Is there anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14). No, indeed. "Ah, Lord God, behold! Thou hast made the heaven and the earth by Thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for Thee" (Jer. 32:17).

As it was with Isaac so it is with every Christian. Before any of us could be born again God had to work a miracle. Make no mistake on this point; regeneration is the direct result of the supernatural operation of God. This needs to be stressed today, for regeneration has been so misrepresented by modern evangelists that to the popular mind the "new birth" signifies nothing more than a process of reformation. But the new birth is no mere turning over of a new leaf and the endeavor to live a better life. The new birth is very much more than going forward in a religious meeting and taking the preacher's hand; very much more than signing a card and "joining the church." The new birth is an act of God's creative power, the impartation of spiritual life, the communication to us of the Divine nature itself.

Abraham and his wife- each of them nearly a hundred years old- desiring a son- what could they do? Nothing! absolutely nothing. God had to come in and work a miracle. And thus nature had nothing to glory in. So it is with us. The natural man is not only a sinner, a lost sinner, but he is a helpless sinner impotent, unable to do anything of himself. If help comes it must come from outside of himself. He is, like Abraham and Sarah, shut up to God.

Third, the coming of Isaac into Abraham's household aroused opposition and produced a conflict. "And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had borne unto Abraham, mocking" (Gen. 21:9). In the epistle to the Galatians we are shown the dispensational meaning and application of this, and there we read, "But as then he that was born after the flesh (Ishmael) persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now"
(Gal. 4:29); but it is with the individual application of this type that we are now concerned. Ishmael exemplifies the one born after the flesh: Isaac the one born after the Spirit. When Isaac was born the true character of Ishmael was manifested; and so when we are born again and receive the new nature, the old nature, the flesh, then comes out in its true colors.

Just as there were two sons in Abraham's household, the one the product of nature, the other the gift of God and the outworking of Divine power, each standing for a totally different principle, so in the believer there are two natures which are distinct and diverse. And just as there was a conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, so the flesh in us lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).

It is of first importance that the Christian, especially the young Christian, should be clear upon the two natures in the believer. The new birth is not the improving of the old nature, but the receiving of a new; and the receiving of the new nature does not in any wise improve the old. Not only so, the old and the new natures within the believer are in open antagonism the one to the other. We quote now from the works of one deeply respected and to which we are much indebted: "Some there are who think that regeneration is a certain change which the old nature undergoes; and, moreover, that this change is gradual in its operation until, at length, the whole man becomes transformed. That this idea is unsound, can be proved by various quotations from the New Testament. For example: The carnal mind is enmity against God. How can that which is thus spoken of ever undergo any improvement? The apostle goes on to say, "It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." If it cannot be subject to the law of God, how can it be improved? How can it undergo any change? Do what you will with flesh, and it is flesh all the while. As Solomon says, "Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him" (Prov. 27:22). "There is no use seeking to make foolishness wise. You must introduce heavenly wisdom into the heart that has been hitherto only governed by folly" (C. H. M.).

Fourth, it is to be noted that it was the birth of Isaac which revealed the true character of Ishmael. We know practically nothing of Ishmael's life before the birth of Isaac, but as soon as this child of promise made his appearance the real nature of Hagar's son was made manifest. He may have been very quiet and orderly before, but as soon as the child of God's quickening-power came on the scene, Ishmael showed what he was by persecuting and mocking him. Here again the type holds good. It is not until the believer receives the new nature that he discovers the real character of the old. It is not until we are born again we learn what a horrible and vile thing the flesh is. And the discovery is a painful one: to many it is quite unsettling. To those who have supposed that regeneration is an improving of the old nature, the recognition of the awful depravity of the flesh comes as a shock and often destroys all peace of soul, for the young convert quickly concludes that, after all, he has not been born again. The truth is that the recognition of the true character of the flesh and a corresponding abhorrence of it, is one of the plainest evidences of our regeneration, for the unregenerate man is blind to the vileness of the flesh. The fact that I have within me a conflict between the natural and the spiritual is the proof there are two natures present, and that I find the Ishmael-nature "persecuting" the Isaac-nature is only to be expected. That the Ishmael-nature appears to me to be growing worse only goes to prove that I now have capacity to see its real character, just as the real character of Ishmael was not revealed until Isaac was born.

Fifth, we read, "And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him" (Gen. 21:4). Our space is exhausted and we must be very brief on these last points. The circumcising of Isaac, and later of the Israelites, was a foreshadowing of our spiritual circumcision: "And ye are complete in Him, which is the Head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ" (Col. 2:10, 11). Judicially we have been circumcised and God no longer looks at us in the flesh but in Christ, for circumcision- typically and spiritually- is separation from the flesh, and the eighth day brings us on to resurrection ground in Christ. Compare Colossians 3:9, etc. Sixth, "And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned" (Gen. 21:8). Here again the type holds good. Isaac "grew" by feeding on his mother's milk. Thus, too, is it with the believer. By the new birth we are but spiritual babes, and our growth is brought about by feeding on the milk of the Word. "As new-born babes, desires the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet. 2:2). We cannot now touch upon the significance of the "great feast" above.

Seventh, "And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had borne unto Abraham mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham, let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away" (Gen. 21:9-14). At last the conflict is over. He who "persecuted" Isaac is now "cast out" (Gal. 4:29). So it will yet be with us. Judicially the life of the flesh is already ended for us, but practically it is still here with us and in us. But blessed be God what is true now judicially shall soon be true experimentally also. When Christ returns for us, the flesh shall be put off for ever, just as Elijah left behind him his earthly mantle. But mark how accurate our type is: not till Isaac "grew" and was "weaned" was the persecuting Ishmael cast out! Let this be our closing thought. Soon our Ishmael shall be east out. Soon shall this vile body of ours be made like unto the body of Christ's glory (Phil. 3:21). Soon shall the Savior return and we shall be "like Him," for we shall see Him as He is (John 3:2). Blessed promise! Glorious prospect! Does not the presence of the vile flesh within us now only serve to intensify the longing for our blessed Lord's return? Then let us continue to cry daily, "Come quickly. Even so, come Lord Jesus."

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