We’ve been following the story of Abraham since Genesis chapter 12, when he was 75 years old. And now, in this chapter, we read about his death and burial when he was aged 175 years old. So, we’ve been following his life over the course of 100 years; and now we come to the end of his life and his death and burial.
But then in his chapter we also read about the birth of two of his grand-children: Esau and Jacob, who were born to Isaac and Rebekah.
And then when the boys grew up, we read how Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother.
At that’s what we’re going to be looking at this evening: There’s a funeral. There’s a birth. And there’s a deal.
But before we get to that, I need to say a word about Abraham’s children. Look with me at verses 1 to 4 where we read about the sons he had with this woman, Keturah. Here she’s described as his wife, but in 1 Chronicles 1 she’s called his concubine. And you’ll see that she bore him six sons. And some of his grandchildren are also named.
Then jump down now to verses 12 to 18 where we read about the sons of Ishmael. And Ishmael, you’ll remember, was the son Hagar bore Abraham. And we read here that Ishmael had 12 sons.
So, Abraham had sons and grandsons by Keturah. And he had a son and grandsons by Hagar. And then in verses 5 and 6 Isaac is also mentioned. And we’re told in verse 5 that Abraham left everything he owned — the entire inheritance — to Isaac. And according to verse 6, while he was still living, Abraham gave gifts to his other children and then he sent them away.
Well, I’m reminded of my father and his brother. One of them — my uncle — was to inherit the family farm. And though they didn’t exactly send my Dad away, nevertheless they made sure that he received the training he needed to get a job in the bank. They made sure that he was able to earn a living on his own, so that the farm didn’t have to be divided between the two brothers. The farm could support one brother, but not two brothers. And so, my Dad needed to find work somewhere else.
And that’s what’s going on here. Isaac was going to receive the whole inheritance from his father. And so, his half-brothers had to go away and make their fortune somewhere else. And to help them on their way, Abraham gave them gifts to start them off.
However, we also need to remember God’s great plan for the world. You see, God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation: he would have so many descendants that no one would be able to count them. And God had promised to give Abraham and his descendants the Promised Land: he was going to give them the land of Canaan. And God had also promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed through one of Abraham’s offspring. In other words, God was planning to send the Saviour into the world. And the Saviour would be descended from Abraham.
So, God was going to give Abraham a people. And he was going to Abraham a place. And he was also going to send the Saviour into the world. That was God’s plan for the world. And God had revealed to Abraham that he was going to work out this plan for the world through only one of Abraham’s descendants. And it wasn’t going to be through Hagar’s son, Ishmael. And it wasn’t going to be through any of Keturah’s sons. No, he was going to work out his plan for the world through Sarah’s son, Isaac. Just as God had chosen Abraham, so he also chose Isaac. And so, in verse 11, we read that after Abraham’s death, God blessed Isaac. God was going to use him to fulfil his plan for the world. And that’s why the sons of Keturah are never mentioned again. And that’s why Ishmael is not mentioned again. God’s plan of redemption for the world is centred around Abraham and then Isaac and on their descendants.
Well, let’s turn now to verses 7 to 10 and to the account of Abraham’s death and burial. We’re told he breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man full of years. The expression ‘full of years’ really means ‘full’ or ‘fulfilled’. In other words, Abraham had lived a full or a fulfilled life. And then we’re told that he was gathered to his people. Do you see that in verse 8? It’s an expression which tells us that even in those days the people believed that there was more to life than what we can see around us. They understood that there’s this life, and then there’s the life to come. When we read that Abraham died and was gathered to his people, it means they believed that after a person dies he’s re-united with his ancestors who have gone before him.
So, Abraham breathed his last. And he died. And he was gathered to his people. And he was then buried. And do you see that he was buried in the same place as he buried his wife, Sarah. This cave of Machpelah near Mamre which we read about in verse 9 was in the field which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred shekels of silver back in chapter 23.
Well, as Isaac and Ishmael buried their father in that cave, they might have wondered about their father’s life and what his faith in God had got him. Hadn’t God promised to give him the land of Canaan? But look, when he died, he only owned a small piece of the land. The only part of Canaan which he owned was this graveyard. What had his faith in God got him?
Well, if Isaac and Ishmael did think that — and we have no way of knowing whether they did or not — but if they did think that, then they did not understand their father, because as we’ve seen before, Abraham was looking beyond the Promised Land of Canaan towards an even better country. Let me remind you of what the writer to the Hebrews said about Abraham in Hebrews 11:
All these people [Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob] were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country -– a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. What did his faith in God get him?
Well, he didn’t get much of the land of Canaan. His descendants would, of course. They went on to possess all of the land. But Abraham was looking beyond the land of Canaan to an even better country. He was longing for a heavenly country. He was yearning for the new heavens and the new earth where all of God’s people will live for ever. And he believed that God would bring him there.
And that’s the great hope and the longing which God puts in the hearts of all his people. He might give us lots of good things to enjoy in this life. And he might enable us, as he did with Abraham, to live a long and full life. But he’s also put in our hearts the hope and the longing for an even better life and an even better home than this world.
When Abraham died, he only owned a very small piece of the Promised Land of Canaan. But he was looking beyond the land of Canaan and he was longing for something even better. And we’re to follow his example of faith, and we’re to keep trusting in the Lord, day by day. We’re to keep trusting in the Lord, not giving up, not giving in, not turning aside to other things. We’re to keep trusting in him, knowing that in due course he will bring us into that better country and into the eternal peace and rest he has promised for all his faithful people.
And you see, that’s the point. God called Abraham when he was 75 years old and made these promises to him. And 100 years later, Abraham was still trusting in the Lord and he was still faithfully waiting for the Lord to bring him into the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And so, we need to persevere in our faith. We need to keep trusting in the Lord, day after day, month after month, year after year, trusting in the Lord to do what he he promised and to bring us at last to our eternal home.
Well, let’s move on now to the birth or to the births, because two sons were born to Isaac and Rebekah. But they were a long time coming. Look at verse 20: Isaac was 40 years old when he and Rebekah were married. And look at verse 26 now where we read that Isaac was 60 years old when his twin sons were born. So, when we read in verse 21 that Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren, we should understand that for 20 long years he was praying for her, and for 20 long years she had to suffer the disappointment and the heartache of being childless.
Even though Isaac was the chosen one, it wasn’t easy for him or for his wife. And isn’t that interesting? We sometimes think that if we belong to God, if we’re members of his people, seeking to do his will, and to walk in his ways, then he’ll fill our lives with good things and we’ll know only joy and happiness all our days. We think that if we’re in the centre of his will for us, he’ll open the way for us and it will all be plain sailing. On the other hand, if we have struggles and disappointments, and problems, then we must have done something wrong. But no. Isaac was the chosen one. He was the one who inherited all of God’s promises to Abraham. And God was going to work out his plans for the world through Isaac. But look: even though he was at the centre of God’s will, even though God was going to work out his plans for the world through him, it was still hard for Isaac and Rebekah. And for 20 years, they remained childless. For 20 years, they experienced disappointment. For 20 years, they experienced frustration. So you see? We may be at the centre of God’s will, and we may be seeking to walk in his ways. But nevertheless, life can still be hard.
And so, Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife. And isn’t that interesting? What did his father and mother do when they were childless? Do you remember? They thought they could give the Lord a helping hand. And so, they arranged for Abraham to have a son with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. They knew that God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation. But they thought they could give God a hand. But, of course, after Ishmael was born, the Lord made clear that no, Hagar’s son would not inherit the promises. Abraham would have a child with Sarah; and the Lord would bring it about.
That’s what Isaac’s parents did. But Isaac was different. Instead of trying to give God a helping hand, and instead of trying to work it out on his own, he did what we must do whenever we’re faced with troubles and difficulties. He looked to the Lord to help him. He turned to God in prayer and he kept praying until the Lord answered him.
Well, there’s a lesson for us personally. Whatever troubles we have in our own lives, we ought to remember and believe that we can look to the Lord for the help we need. We ought to take our troubles to him.
But there’s a lesson for us as a church. I’m on the Union Commission. So when a church is vacant, they come to the Union Commission to seek leave to call a new minister. And before they come, representatives from the church complete a form about their life and work. And on one of the pages, each congregation is to write a list of all their organisations and activities. And it seems to me that these lists are getting longer and longer, because every church seems to have more and more organisations and activities and events during the week. More and more clubs. More and more meetings. More and more ministries. But where is the prayer meeting? That’s what members of the Commission ask:
You’ve got all these meetings. But where is the prayer meeting? Don’t you meet for prayer?
Or if there is a prayer meeting, then you’ll need a magnifying glass to read the number of people who attend it. Lots and lots of organisations and activities. But very few prayer meetings. And the thing is: when you look at the church statistics, what do you find? Despite all the activity, the number of members is falling.
So, let’s remember what Isaac did. Faced with the problem of his wife’s barrenness, he looked to the Lord for help. And look at the outcome: eventually, after 20 years, the Lord answered his prayer and did what neither he nor Rebekah could do on their own: this barren woman became pregnant. You see, the Lord hears and answers our prayers. It might take a long time, but we must trust in him and wait for him. That’s true for us in our personal lives. And it’s true for the church as well.
Well, from what we read next, things did not become plain sailing even then, because we’re told that Rebekah was expecting twins and the two babies jostled each other inside her. In fact, the Hebrew word for ‘jostle’ actually means ‘smashed’. It’s used elsewhere in the Bible to describe how someone smashed another person’s head with a stone slab. So, these two babies were smashing each other inside Rebekah’s womb.
Well, she was obviously upset about this and went to enquire of the Lord:
What’s going on?
And the Lord revealed to her what it meant. Look at verse 23. He said:
Two nations are in your womb.
In other words, two nations will come from your two sons. And the Lord went on:
Two nations are in your womb and two peoples from within you will be separated.
Now, this is a prophecy. The Lord was saying:
You’re going to have two sons, Rebekah, who will become two nations. And just as your two sons are smashing each other in your womb, so these two nations will be separated from each other and they’ll be at war with one another.
This was was a prophecy and the Lord was foretelling the bitter hatred which would exist between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau. The people of Israel, the Jews, came from Jacob. And the Edomites came from Esau. And throughout the Old Testament we read of the bitterness between these two nations. For instance, when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they wanted to pass through the land of Edom. But the Edomites refused to let them through. And in Psalm 137 we read how the Edomites were glad when they heard about the destruction of Jerusalem. And the whole of the book of Obadiah is about God’s judgment on the Edomites for their bitter hatred towards the Israelites.
Well, God was foretelling all of this in Genesis 25. And look what else he said:
one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.
Well, in those days, the older brother in a family normally inherited a double portion of the father’s inheritance. You know, the elder brother was the leader and he took precedence over his younger siblings. But, said the Lord, in the case of these twins in Rebekah’s womb, the older one will serve the younger: Jacob, the younger of the two, will be greater than his older brother.
What we’ll discover in due course is that just as God chose Abraham, and just as he chose Isaac, so he’ll choose Jacob and not Esau. He’ll choose Jacob and he’ll work out his plans for the world through him and not through his older brother. And so, Jacob went on to become the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And they went on to inherit the Promised Land of Canaan. And from them, there came the Saviour of the world. God chose Jacob and he chose to work out his plans for the world through him and not through his older brother, Esau.
And why was this? Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? Was it because Jacob was better than his brother? That’s the way we think. When we go into a supermarket to get some apples, we choose the best ones and leave the bruised ones behind. We choose the best. And we assume God is the same. So, Jacob must have been better than Esau and that’s why God chose him. Isn’t that it?
Well, fortunately the Apostle Paul can help us here. You see, the Apostle Paul mentioned Jacob and Esau in his letter to the Romans. And this is what he said in Romans 9 verses 10 to 13:
[W]hen Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
We assume that God is just like us and that he will always choose the best and leave the worst. But what does Paul teach us? He reminds us that when God chose Jacob over Esau, they weren’t yet born. And because they weren’t yet born, they hadn’t yet done anything, whether good or bad. So, it wasn’t that God looked at Jacob and saw that he was better than his brother. Or it wasn’t that he looked at Esau and saw that he was worse than his brother. Before they were born, and before they had done anything, whether good or bad, God chose Jacob.
So, if it wasn’t that one was better than the other, why then did God choose Jacob over his brother? Well, Paul tells us. God wanted to teach us about his purpose of election. In other words, God wanted to teach us that when he chooses to save us from our sins, it’s not because of what we have done. He doesn’t choose to save us because of our good life or because of our good deeds. He doesn’t choose to save us because we’ve done something to deserve it. No, it’s not by works. And it doesn’t even depend on our desire or effort, says Paul. Our salvation, he tells us, is due to God’s mercy. God says:
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.
So, if you’re a Christian today, then Paul is telling you that the only reason you’re a Christian, and the only reason God chose to forgive your sins and to give you the hope of everlasting life is because he decided to be merciful to you. It’s not that you were any better than anyone else. It’s not because you did something to make you stand out from the rest. No, he simply decided to show you mercy. He hardens one. And he has compassion on another.
And this truth about God and his mercy towards us is illustrated here in Genesis 25 where God revealed to Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger son. He chose Jacob over Esau. Jacob wasn’t any better than Esau. Jacob hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Before they were born, before they had done anything, whether good or bad, God chose Jacob. In the same way, he chose to save us from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life. And so, we ought to remember and believe that we owe our salvation to him and to him alone. And to him belongs all the praise and the honour and the glory for his mercy towards us in Christ Jesus.
Well, let me deal with the deal briefly. We read in verse 27 how the boys grew up to become very different from one another. Esau became a hunter and he loved to be out in the open country. Jacob, however, was a quiet man. The Hebrew can mean ‘civilised’ and here it probably means something like well-cultured. Jacob was a well-cultured man. He liked the finer things in life, and preferred to stay at home, unlike his brother who liked to be out in the open, hunting wild animals. And look: Isaac, who loved the taste of wild game, preferred Esau over Jacob. But Rebekah preferred Jacob over Esau. So, this was a family with tensions in it: the sons were smashing one another in the womb, and now one parent prefers one son, and the other parent prefers the other son. So, we can perhaps imagine that Isaac and Rebekah may have argued over the boys.
Anyway, we read how the hunter, Esau, came in from the fields one day, and he was famished. ‘Give me some of that’ he said roughly to his brother. And his brother said:
First sell me your birthright.’
The birthright was all the privileges the elder son could expect from his father. So, it included a double portion of the inheritance. And perhaps, on this occasion, it also included the right to all of God’s promises which God had made first to Abraham, and then to Isaac. You know: the people, the place, the Saviour. Sell me the rights to all of that, says Jacob. And look at Esau response in verse 32:
Look, I’m about to die. What good is the birthright to me?
I’m starving to death. I don’t care about the birthright. Give me that food.
And look how the story ends. We’re told in verse 34:
So Esau despised his birthright.
Well, just as Paul helped us to understand the births, so the writer to the Hebrews helps us to understand this deal. Listen to what he wrote. This is from Hebrews 12:
15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. He’s using Esau to warn us, because Esau is someone who gave up something great because he wanted something else now. He sold his birthright — all of it — for a mere meal. And afterwards, when he realised what he had given up, he tried to get it back. But it was too late. He gave up something great because he wanted something else now.
The writer to the Hebrews was writing to Christians who were tempted to give up the faith and therefore their salvation, because they wanted an easy life now. They didn’t want to be persecuted for their faith anymore. And they didn’t want to have to fight against sin and temptation anymore. They wanted an easy life now. And so, they were being tempted to give up the faith and their eternal salvation for the sake of an easy life now.
Well, that’s the temptation we can face from time to time. Loving the Lord and walking in his ways seems too hard; and we just want an easy life. Keeping ourselves faithful and obedient is too much work; and we just want an easy life. People in school or at work mock me because I’m a Christian; and I just want an easy life. Well, says the Bible: Don’t become like Esau who sold his birthright for a meal. Don’t give up the faith and your salvation for an easy life now. Keep trusting in the Lord. Keep walking in his ways. Persevere every day and don’t give up, because if you turn away from the Saviour now, then you’ll lose out on salvation and instead of inheriting eternal life you’ll go on to suffer eternal punishment away from the presence of the Lord. So, stand firm. Don’t give in. Don’t throw it all away. And in the end, you’ll see that it was all worthwhile.