So, we’ve been thinking about the story of Abram for several weeks now. First of all, we saw in chapter 12 how God called Abram to leave his father’s household and to go to the land the Lord was going to show him. And God promised to make him into a great nation. And he promised that all nations of the world would be blessed through one of his offspring. And he promised to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. It would be their home.
Then we saw how the Lord rescued Abram from Egypt. Remember? He went down to Egypt because there was a famine in the land of Canaan. But in Egypt, the Pharaoh took Abram’s wife, Sarai, for himself. Of course, he didn’t know Abram and Sarai were married; Abram had told him that Sarai was his sister. But the Lord rescued Sarai from the hands of the Pharaoh and Abram and Sarai were allowed to go free.
Then, in chapter 13, we read how Abram and his nephew Lot had to separate. They both had so much livestock that there wasn’t enough grass and water to sustain all their animals. And so, they separated. And after Lot left to take possession of what seemed to be the best land, the Lord spoke to Abram and repeated his promise to him that he was going to give to Abram and his descendants all the land he could see and that Abram’s offspring would be so numerous they’d be like the dust of the earth. Abram would have so many descendants, they couldn’t be counted.
In chapter 14, we read how Lot was kidnapped. A war started between two groups of kings; and Lot — who was now living near the city of Sodom — got caught up in it. But Abram came to the rescue. As soon as he heard what had happened to his nephew, he gathered an army together and went to rescue him. And afterwards, Melchizedek — the priest and king of Jerusalem — came out and blessed Abram.
And then, last week, we were reading chapter 15 where God again spoke to Abram and once again repeated his promise to give Abram many descendants:
Can you count the stars? No, there’s too many of them. So shall your offspring be.
And then the Lord made a covenant with Abram. Do you remember? He told Abram to get a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. And Abram cut the animals in two and laid all the pieces in two rows. And then, the Lord — in the form of a smoking brazier and a flaming torch — walked down between the two rows. And by doing so, the Lord was saying to Abram:
I swear it. I swear that I will give you the Promised Land. I will do whatever it takes and if I don’t, may I be cut in two like these animals.
And we thought some of the miracles the Lord performed in order to bring Abram’s descendants into the Promised Land. Remember the plagues he sent on the Egyptians? Remember the passageway through the Red Sea? Remember how he fed them and kept them in the wilderness? Remember how he caused the walls of Jericho to fall down? Remember how he helped them defeat their enemies? He performed all these mighty miracles in order to keep his covenant promise to Abram to give him and his descendants the land of Promise.
And we also thought about how God was not only promising to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan, but he was also promising him something far, far better. He was promising to bring Abram and all who share his faith into the Promised Land of Heaven. And what did it take for the Lord to keep that promise? Well, it took the death of his one and only Son. By making a covenant with Abram, God was saying to him:
I will do whatever it takes.
And what it took was the death of his Son.
Abram and Sarai
So, that’s where we’ve got to already. Today, we come to chapter 16. And look how this chapter begins. Perhaps, after the events of chapter 15 — when God had cut this covenant and sworn to give Abram and his descendants the land. And when he had repeated his promise to give Abram many descendants, as many as the stars in the sky — after that high point in Abram’s life so far, perhaps we’d expect chapter 16 to begin with good news. You know, something like this:
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him a son.
That’s what we’re expecting: we’re expecting God to come through on his promise. But no. This chapter begins with the bad news that Sarai, Abram’s wife, had still not borne any children.
So, what about God’s promise? What about the promise that not just one child, but a great nation would come from Abram? Well, maybe God needs a bit of help. Maybe Abram and Sarai can come up with a plan to move things along. After all, verse 3 tells us that Abram and Sarai have been living in the Promised Land for ten years. And Abram was 75 years old when he left his father’s household. So, he’s already 85 years old. Neither of them were getting any younger. And they’re getting anxious. And worried. And it’s hard to keep waiting for God to act. I mean, how long are they supposed to wait anyway? So maybe they can move things along a little faster.
And so Sarai comes up with this plan. She has an Egyptian maidservant, a slave, and Sarai suggests to Abram that he could take her and sleep with her in order to produce an heir. She said to him in verse 2:
Perhaps I can build a family through her.
And, you see, this was an established custom in those days. It was considered acceptable for a man to have concubines and several wives and if his first wife didn’t produce an heir, then it was acceptable for him to take another wife. That’s how important having children was in those days.
Now, that was the custom. That was the accepted practice. However, while the Bible tells us that other Old Testament figures had multiple wives and concubines, the Bible never approves of this practice. You never get the impression that this was the right thing to do.
And, of course, it’s not the right thing to do, because, as we saw in Genesis 2, God’s will for marriage in the beginning is for it to be between one man and one woman only. There’s only room for two people in the marriage bed. And so, to have multiple wives is against God’s will.
But what we also discover in the Bible, is that having multiple wives always, always causes problems. And that’s what we find here as well. Hagar, Sarai’s servant, has no problem conceiving. And as soon as she realises she’s pregnant, she begins to look down on her mistress. Look at verse 4: she began to despise Sarai. She treated her with contempt. Sarai became as nothing in her sight, because Sarai was unable to conceive while Hagar could. And remember that in those days and in that culture: having children and producing an heir was so important. Sarai was nothing without children.
And Sarai knew it. And she was felt Hagar’s contempt. And so what does she do? She tells Abram. In fact, she blames Abram in verse 5. She said to him:
You’re responsible for this. You’re the reason I’m suffering.
She’s forgotten that it was her idea! But she brings her complaint to Abram. And look: Abram doesn’t want to get involved. Do you see that in verse 6? Instead of showing some leadership or instead of trying to sort this problem out, he said to Sarai:
You sort it out. It’s not my problem. You work it out. Do whatever you need to do.
Here we have Abram and Sarai, these great OT characters. Abram is the father of all believers. He’s held up in the NT as an example for us of what it means to trust in God. Sarai is his wife and in 1 Peter she’s held up as an example for godly wives to follow. They were great Old Testament characters. And yet, look at how badly they appear in this chapter! They don’t come across at all well. If this was today, they’d want to get in a Public Relations expert to try to help them salvage their reputation, because right now it’s ruined: Abram sleeps with his wife’s servant. He then won’t help in sorting out the jealousy and rivalry. And what about Sarai? She begins to mistreat her servant so badly that Hagar has to run away from her. Now, we don’t know how Sarai ill-treated Hagar, but whatever she did, she treated Hagar so badly that Hagar decided the best option for her was to leave.
Well, last week the point of the ceremony when God established his covenant with Abram was to teach Abram and us that God was going to keep his promise. And do you remember: There were no conditions placed on Abram. God was going to do everything necessary to ensure that Abram’s descendants would possess the Promised Land of Canaan. And Abram wasn’t asked to do anything — except to believe God’s promise. And the point was that possession of the land didn’t depend on Abram. It didn’t depend on his performance or how well he served God. It didn’t depend on Abram at all. Possession of the land rested on God and his faithfulness to his promise.
And after reading chapter 16, we can say in all sincerity: Thank God that is true, because if it were down to Abram and his faithfulness, or if it were down to Abram and his performance, then he would never have taken possession of the land, because there’s not one good thing to say about him in this chapter. There’s nothing about him in this chapter that would make you think that he deserved God’s blessing. And so we can thank God that Abram and his descendants did take possession of the land; and they took possession of it, not because they deserved it, and not because they were particularly good or obedient — because they weren’t — but only because God remained faithful to his promise in spite of their sin.
And it’s the same with us. If entrance into the Promised Land of Eternal Life was down to us and our performance and how good we are and how obedient we are, then none of us, none of us, would make it, because we’re all sinners, who disobey God all of the time, and none of us by ourselves is good enough for God. None of us is able to keep God’s laws perfectly and completely and constantly. And, rather than being able to make up for our sins by our good deeds, every day we only increase our guilt, because every day there are new sins we commit against God.
But the good news of the Bible is that entrance into the Promised Land of Eternal Life is not down to us and what we do. God has promised his people that he will forgive all our sins and he will give us eternal life, not because of what we have done, but because of what the Lord Jesus has done for us. God has promised he will do whatever it takes to bring us into the Promised Land of Eternal Life; and what it took was the death who died to pay for all our sins.
Entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan wasn’t down to Abram. It was down to God. He would make it happen. And entrance into the Promised Land of Eternal Life is not down to us. It’s down to God. And he will make sure it happens.
So Abram and Sarai don’t come across very well in this chapter. But their faithlessness, their foolishness, and their sin only highlight for us the absolute goodness and faithfulness of God.
Well, Abram and Sarai are not the only characters in this story. What about Hagar? Well, it’s true that she despised Sarai. She looked at her with contempt and showed her mistress no respect or honour. And that’s not right. But as we read this story, we feel sympathy for her, don’t we? She’s only a maidservant, a slave. And her mistress, instead of protecting her, abuses her. The father of her child, instead of protecting her, shrugs his shoulders and doesn’t want to know. And things have become so intolerable for her that she has to run away.
And she made it to this spring of water which was by a road that went through the desert on the way to Shur which is on the border between Canaan and Egypt. So this Egyptian slave is running back home. And it’s a long way. And she’s alone. And it’s a desert. And it’s hot. And she’s pregnant. And what kind of future is there for her now, since she’s an unmarried, single mother who is a run-away slave?
But look what happens. Verse 7: the angel of the Lord found her. Now, the commentators discuss what is meant by ‘the angel of the Lord’ and no one is entirely sure whether this is an angel or some kind of visual representation of the Lord himself. And you see, it’s unclear because the expression is used several times in the Old Testament and sometimes the angel of the Lord appears and he’s depicted as being distinct from God. It’s as if they are two different beings: there’s the Lord and there’s his angel. But then at other times, it’s as if the angel and the Lord are identical. For instance, in verses 7 and 8 we’re told that the angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar. But then, in verse 13, Hagar says it was the Lord who spoke to her. So which is it? An angel? Or the Lord? Well, it’s not entirely clear. But whether it’s the Lord himself or whether it’s the Lord’s angel, it’s good news for Hagar. She’s on her own, having been abused by her mistress and shunned by her master. But the Lord has found her. And that’s wonderful. And it’s wonderful because she wasn’t looking for the Lord. She was just running back home. She wasn’t looking for God. She wasn’t praying to him. She wasn’t crying out to him. But he came looking for her; and he found her.
And then look at verse 11. God made a promise to her, similar to the one that he made to Abram, because he promised that the child she will bear will become a great nation. Now, this isn’t the child that God promised to give to Abram, the child through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. But nevertheless, God promised to bless Hagar’s child and he promised to make him into a great nation. And so, we see the kindness of the Lord to Hagar and her unborn child.
But look now at verse 11. The angel said to her:
the Lord has heard of your misery.
Or a better translation is:
the Lord has listened to your affliction.
Now, we should pause to think about what this means. Hagar wasn’t looking for the Lord. She wasn’t praying to him. She wasn’t crying out to him. But nevertheless, the Lord listened to her affliction. And look at verse 13: Hagar describes the Lord as the one who saw her. He saw her misery and her sadness and her suffering, and he came and he found her. Now, don’t we need to know that about the Lord? We need to know it for ourselves and for our own re-assurance, because suffering is inevitable. Everyone here has suffered in the past or we’ll suffer in the future or we’re suffering right now. For Hagar, she suffered abuse at the hands of her mistress. For some of us, we’ll suffer socially: someone at work will make our lives miserable. Or it’ll be a neighbour perhaps or someone in our family will be the cause of our pain. Or we’ll suffer physically: there’ll be some illness or physical affliction which will be the cause of our sorrow and heartache. Or we’ll suffer financially and economically. Suffering comes to us in lots of different ways and sometimes when we’re in the middle of it, we don’t seek God. We don’t pray to him. We don’t call out to him. Sometimes because we’re hurting so much, we feel as if we can’t pray. We feel so crushed, so beaten down, so overwhelmed, that we don’t have any strength left and for whatever reason, we can’t pray any more. But here’s the thing. God sees his people. And even when we’re not praying to him, or asking for his help, he sees us and he listens to our afflictions and our pain and our misery. And just at the right time, he’s able to send us the help we need.
Whenever Christians suffer, we often think we mustn’t let it show. You know: we must be strong, because we’re Christians. And because we’re Christians, who are meant to trust God, we must be strong in the face of suffering. But the thing is: often we don’t feel strong. We feel crushed. And beaten. But the important thing is not that we’re strong, but that our God is strong. The important thing is not the strength of our faith, but the strength of our God. And look what Hagar teaches us here: the God of the Bible is the one who sees us. He is the One who sees us. And he knows all about us. And just as he found Hagar on the side of the road in a desert, so he’s able to find us in our distress.
And that’s what the gospel teaches us as well. God saw the sin and misery of his people and what had become of us because of Adam’s fall. He saw how sin and misery spread throughout the human race, corrupting our lives and our relationships, affecting everything and everyone. And what did he do? He sent his Son to seek and to save the lost. He saw our sin and he sent his Son to pay our penalty, so that we can be forgiven all that we have ever done wrong. He saw our misery and he sent his Son to suffer in our place so that we might have everlasting joy in the presence of God. He sent his Son so that we needn’t run away from God the way Hagar ran away from Abram and Sarai. But instead we’re reconciled to God and we’re made part of God’s family. ‘This is love’ the apostle John wrote in his first letter:
This is love. Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son.
Before we ever loved him, before we ever thought of him, before we ever sought him, he saw us and he heard our affliction, and he loved us and he sent us his Son to save us.
And then throughout our lives, now that we are reconciled to him through his Son’s death and resurrection, God continues to see our sorrow and our suffering. And before we even ask for his help, he gives it to us. Before Hagar ever sought God’s help, he helped her. And if Jesus Christ is your Saviour, if you trust in him, then you can know for sure that the One who died for you on the cross will not abandon you or leave you now. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that in Jesus Christ we have a great high priest who knows what it was to suffer and to be in sorrow, and he’s able to help us day after day after day.
There’s one last thing to notice from this chapter before we leave. Abram and Sarai believed God’s promises to them. They believed that he would give them many descendants. But they believed this would come about by natural means.
So, back in chapter 15, Abram suggested to the Lord that it could happen through his servant, Eliezer who could become his heir. How about that for a plan? Now, in this chapter, Sarai suggested that they could obtain an heir for Abram through Hagar. How about that for a plan? If Abram slept with Hagar he could have a child by her. That would work.
You see, they thought that God’s promises to them would be fulfilled through entirely natural processes. But what they needed to realise is that God was going to keep his promise to them in a supernatural way. He was going to wait until Abram and Sarai were well beyond the age for having children. He was going to wait until they were so old and grey that everyone would say:
He was going to wait until every human strategy had been frustrated and all human strength had been exhausted. He was going to wait until it seemed too late. And only then, would the Lord act and do what he had promised to do for them. And it was going to take sheer supernaturalism: the power of God to do the impossible. He was going to act in such a way that it would be obvious to all that the Lord — and the Lord alone — had done it.
And we see the same thing throughout the rest of the Old Testament as God worked to keep his promise and to bring Abram’s descendants into the land of Promise. When they were in Egypt, he worked supernaturally to send the plagues on the Egyptians. When their way of escape was blocked by the Red Sea, he worked supernaturally to open a path for them. When they were wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, the Lord worked supernaturally to feed them and to sustain them. When they came to the Jordan River, he again created a path for them through the river. When they came to Jericho, he worked supernaturally to bring the walls of the city down. Think about the days of the Judges and how Gideon was able to defeat thousands with only 300 men and how Samson was able to fight with supernatural strength. The Lord was keeping his promise to give them the land of Promise. And he did it by sheer supernaturalism.
Abram and Sarai assumed it would happen by natural means. Here’s Hagar: have a child with her. But the Lord intended to do it by his almighty power. And we see the same thing in the New Testament and in the growth of the church. First of all, and most obviously, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God. And then, think about what we read at the end of Matthew and at the beginning of the book of Acts. The Risen Lord Jesus commanded his Apostles to go and make disciples of all nations. How would they be able to do it? There was only a handful of them. And they were uneducated, simple men. Many of them were only fishermen. What could they do? But then the Lord God filled them with his Spirit and after Peter’s first sermon, 3,000 men were convinced and converted to faith in Christ. And wherever they went, preaching the good news, the Holy Spirit was at work, supernaturally, to open the hearts of the hardest men and women so that many repented and believed and churches were formed all over the Roman Empire.
How did it happen? It happened supernaturally, by the power of God. Isn’t that the point the Apostle Paul was making at the beginning of 1 Corinthians? Do you remember? People in Corinth were judging his preaching and it seemed to them that it was weak and foolish. They said: The Jews want to see miraculous signs. They won’t believe unless you impress them with powerful signs. And the Greeks want wisdom. They won’t believe unless you impress them with wise words and cleverness. They were saying to Paul:
Your preaching, Paul, is weak and foolish. It won’t work.
But what they didn’t account for was the power of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit who worked supernaturally through Paul’s apparently weak and foolish preaching to give sight to the spiritually blind and to bring light where there was only darkness.
Abram and Sarai believed God’s promises. But they thought his promise would be fulfilled through natural means. And it’s the same today. We believe God’s promises about salvation for all who believe. We believe God’s promises that he will build his church. But so often we think it can only happen by natural means and by what makes sense to us. And we run around looking for the thing that will work, the right technique, the right method which will convince sinners to believe.
But what we forget is God’s power. And we forget that God very often waits. He waits until every human strategy has been frustrated, and all human strength has been exhausted. He waits until we’re ready to give up and to say:
It’s no good. It’s impossible. Nothing we have tried has worked.
And then, and only then, will he step in and he’ll roll up his sleeve, and he’ll show us the strength of his arm, and he’ll do what we have not been able to do ourselves. And when he steps in and does what we have not been able to do ourselves, then it will be clear, it will be obvious, that he is the one who did it. And he is the one who deserves all the praise and all the glory and all the honour, because it didn’t happen by natural means and by what makes sense to us; but it happened by supernatural means and by the power of God to convince and convert sinners through the weak and foolish preaching of the cross of Christ.