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Here, we continue our study in the life of Abraham.
1After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward."
2But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
4Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." 5He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then He said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
6Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.
In this passage, God responds to Abram's noble behavior in the previous chapter. Moses (the writer of Genesis) emphasizes the link to the previous chapter by beginning this chapter by saying: "After this..." In the previous chapter, if you recall, Abram took an army of 300 of his servants to rescue Lot from a band of marauding kings. Then, upon returning from the battle, Abram met the king of Sodom (who was also rescued). The king of Sodom offered Abram the spoils of the battle, but Abram chose to turn down the offer because he did not want people to say that the king of Sodom made him rich.
The Lord responds to all of this by appearing to Abram "in a vision". He offers Abram words of comfort that speak directly to Abram's state of mind following the events of the previous chapter. He says: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward."
God says first, "Do not be afraid", because Abram most likely feared reprisal for his victory over the five kings (see Gen. 14). As always after a victory, Abram's excitement and boldness had faded, and he quite possibly expected a renewed attack. God met his state of mind, telling him not to be afraid, and also: "I am your shield." And what a great shield! The Creator of the universe Himself! As David says: "Whom shall I fear?" (Ps. 27:1). Ironically, in the heat of the battle, Abram did not need these words of comfort. But now at home, in a time of peace, when he has time to think about the whole situation, Abram needs to hear from the Lord: "I am your shield." Why are we so prone to turn to fear? Why do we so readily lose confidence in the Lord? Certainly the most recurring commandment of God is "Do not be afraid", repeated dozens of times in the Bible.
God also tells Abram: "I am...your very great reward." Abram needed to hear this because, quite possibly, he was having second thoughts about turning down the booty offered by the king of Sodom in chapter 14. God was reminding Abram that his obedience to God was more important than receiving the material riches, because true, lasting rewards come from God. We must all learn to be satisfied in the Lord alone, and what He gives us. He gives us all we need and more than we deserve (God certainly will not be a debtor to us). When will we realize this, and stop spending all our time and effort clamoring for material riches.
These words of comfort from God to Abram show that God is a personal God, a loving God, who cares about us and our feelings. Abram, sensing this, brings before God his frustration at the tarrying of the fulfillment of God's promise to him. He says: "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?...You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir" (v. 2-3). Abram certainly must have been frustrated waiting on the Lord, having been in the promised land over ten years, yet seeing no sign of the fulfillment of the promise of God concerning his offspring. "What good are all my possessions," thought Abram (a very old man at the time), "with no heir?"
Abram was going through some spiritual despondency, as we all do. He was serving the Lord, in obedience, and tired of waiting on the Lord. To his credit, he did what we should do during times of spiritual despondency: be frank with God and confront Him with our frustration. The men of God in the Bible--Abraham, Job, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, among them--all faced God directly in their frustration, and God honored their directness by answering them. Here, God renews His promise to Abram, specifically saying: "This man (Eliezar) will not be your heir."
God had not forgotten His promise to Abram. He renews it here with a vivid visible symbol. Taking Abram outside, God says: "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them...So shall your offspring be." The symbol of the stars for Abram's offspring not only expressed the number of Abram's future offspring, but also expressed the capability of God to fulfill the promise. Certainly, if God is capable of producing the stars and the heavens in all their vastness and glory, He can give Abram a child, even at his age.
Next, Moses tells us: "Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness" (v. 6). This is a very significant statement. It establishes that righteousness can be credited to a man by God on the basis of something other than his works. This should be a great comfort to us, because we all know, as we look at our own lives, that righteousness certainly cannot be credited to us based upon our behavior.
Again, notably, it was not for Abram's behavior (he had just completed a great work of obedience to God in chapter 14), but for his faith that Abram was credited with righteousness: "Abram believed the LORD." And as it was with Abram, so it is with us. God has not changed and so the basis of being justified has not changed since the time of Abram. "[R]ighteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (Rom. 3:22). The object of Abram's faith was the same as ours. Abram believed that God would give him a son, through whom the world would be blessed (cf. Gen. 3:3; Gal. 3:16-17); we believe that God sent His Son (the descendant of Abram that was the object of Abram's faith) who brought salvation to the world. Abram's faith was a forerunner to ours. His righteousness, credited to him by faith, is a model of the righteousess and salvation that is available to us by faith.
We see in this, the unity of the Scriptures. Righteousness by faith is not strictly a New Testament idea. Here, very early in the Old Testament, very early in the history of mankind, before the nation of Israel was born, before the law was given to Moses, very clearly and unambiguously we are told: "Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness."
7He also said to him, "I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."
8But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?"
9So the LORD said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon."
10Abram brought all these to Him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years. 14But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. 15You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."
17When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates-- 19the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."
God now reiterates His promise concerning the promised land, saying: "I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." Notice first that God strengthens the weight of the promise by reminding Abram who He is: "I am the LORD." God is Lord over all, and has the strength and ability to fulfill all of His promises. Notice also that God strengthens the weight of His promise by reminding Abram of the past work that He did in Abram's life. God had a reason to bring Abram "out of Ur of the Chaldeans", that was, in order to "give [Abram] this land to take possession of it."
God gave Abram the land, but it was Abram, or more appropriately, Abram's descendants, who were to "take possession of it." This is an important point in light of the next verse, where Abram says: "O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?" (vs. 8). At first glance, this statement seems like Abram is doubting the promise of God. That would be odd, for we have just been told that "Abram believed the LORD, and He credited him with righteousness" (vs. 6). However, what Abram was doubting was not the promise of God, but his own ability to appropriate the promise of God. Again, God gave Abram the land for him (Abram) "to take possession of it." Abram is not doubting that God gave him the land; rather, he is wondering how he himself "shall gain possession of it".
This reminds me of us. God calls us to a certain service, and we believe that God has called us to it, but we still wonder how we will be able to carry it out, how we will be able to "take possession of it." But God meets us at our need, for He does not call us for anything that He does not also give us the ability to carry out. And so, as long as we remain obedient to Him and lean on Him for guidance and ability, we will "take possession" of all He has given us.
Abram looked around and saw the many tribes that lived in the land, and so asked God, "How can I know that I shall gain possession of it?" In response, God gave Abram a symbolic answer and a verbal answer. For the symbolic answer, God had Abram bring to an altar a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a young pigeon, and sacrifice them. As Abram was laying the animals on the altar, "birds of prey came down on the carcasses".
Then, "Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him." In Abram's sleep, God gave him the verbal answer to his question: "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions" (vs. 13-14). Then, God told him, "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here" (vs. 16).
God revealed that Abram's descendants would not take possession of the land without great suffering first, so we can infer that the animals on the altar in God's symbolic answer represent the suffering children of Israel, with the "birds of prey" as the Egyptians tormenting the Israelites. Abram's descendants could only take possession of the promised land after they had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. And so, their suffering, like our suffering, is a requirement before entering the glory of the promised land: "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22); and "Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Romans 8:17). The death of the animals on the altar represent the death of God's people before they can be part of the covenant. They, in effect, died in Egypt, and rose again through the waters of the baptism of the Red Sea to be the children of God. Their death is like our death, their baptism like our baptism: "Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:3-4).
God tells it like it is. He does not water down the destiny of Israel. He told Abram frankly that the promise would come with much suffering. And so for us, contrary to those who claim that the Christian life will be a bed of roses, the Bible tells us that we will suffer in this world. But through our suffering, we will be enabled to enter the kingdom of heaven and take possession of our promised land.
Though God does tell Abram that he "will go to [his] fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age", he does give Abram a few more promises than he bargained for. He promises Abram that his descendants will be exiled, enslaved, ill-treated, and will wait 400 years to return to the promised land. Yet, they will return: "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." (vs. 16).
Notice that God ties the time of the return of the Israelites to another purpose of His, that is to punish the Amorites for their sin. When the Israelites took possession of the promised land, they were not dislodging poor, innocent people, but depraved nations whose sin had "reached its full measure." Because of their sin, God decided to punish them in judgment. He used the Israelites to carry out this judgment. And so, God (in His wisdom, working everything to His purpose) accomplished the fulfillment of His promise to Abram, and the just judgment of the evil nations at the same time.
Finally, after nightfall, "a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces" (vs. 17). The "blazing torch" that "passed between the pieces" was the glory of God (see Ex. 19:18 for a similar manifestation of God). He passed between the pieces (which represent the children of Israel) as if to say that He would be with them through their suffering. This consummated the covenant of God with Abram that promised his descendants the land of Israel. God said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates." (vs. 18). We see here that God gave them the land from the Nile all the way to the Euphrates. So, the children of Israel actually never completely "took possession" of all of the land that God had given them. Such it is with the gifts of God: He gives us great things, but we must "take possession" of what He gives us in order to receive the full blessings of His gifts.
So, Father, help us by Your Spirit to take possession of all of the gifts that You have given us, beginning with salvation through Your Son. Give us the strength, boldness, desire and ability to appropriate all You have promised. Also, strengthen our faith so that our faith too may be credited to us as righteousness. We seek Your righteousness by faith in the person and work of Your Son, in whose name we pray these things, Amen.
(Our study of Abraham's life will continue in the next issue.)
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