Genesis 26:23-33 “From there he went up to Beersheba. That night the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.’ Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well. Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. Isaac asked them, ‘Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?’ They answered, ‘We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, “There ought to be a sworn agreement between us” – between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. And now you are blessed by the LORD.’ Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace. That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, ‘We’ve found water!’ He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.”
It’s essential to remember the original readers of, or listeners to this history. The author, Moses was setting it down about 600 years later, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, addressing the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, a million or more people, who had left Egypt behind them to cross a waterless desert and enter the Promised Land. In their exodus from the land of their bondage they confronted many trials and often failed God on the way. They were often tempted to look back at Egypt and its guaranteed water supply and think that such a situation was what the fulness of life would all be about. They needed to be reminded of the founders of their nations, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their testing times, and how God was faithful to them in spite of their imperfect faith, and how God had provided for them in a wilderness again and again. He is the true giver of food and water. Those members of Moses’ congregation were the first hearers of this incident in Genesis chapter 26.
Then the intended readers and hearers of the story also exist hundreds of years later, for example, in a place as far from the Old Covenant’s Promised Land as Italy. Paul wrote to the overwhelmingly Gentile congregation in Rome, 2,000 years after the life of Isaac, these words, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Roms 15:4). The original focus of Genesis 26 was Moses’ congregation, but the more important long term focus was on the post resurrection and post Pentecost church of Jesus Christ including ourselves in Wales today, a further 2000 years later as well as Christians all over the world in the 21st century. In other words, we can go on in the Christian faith and be encouraged to keep believing through the hope that details of chapters like this one give to us at this very moment. That is why the Holy Spirit helped Moses to write this chapter exactly as it is enscripturated. It was written for us . . . right now . . .
So let’s pick up the story; we have been told that the Philistines of Gerar (a kind of principality lying within the borders of the Holy Land) hated Isaac because the blessing of Jehovah his God upon him was all too evident. The size of his barns, and his herds, and hundreds or even thousands of his servants became so intimidating that the king himself said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us” (v.16). God’s blessing was in king Abimelech’s face, and he hated it. “Get off!” He didn’t want to be reminded how powerful a God Isaac served.” We pray for the powerful presence of God with us not thinking how hostile and indignant that can make the atheistic world. It was exactly the same when great Isaac’s greater son Jesus Christ walked this earth, the Pharisees and the Herodians hated the authority and blessing of God evidently resting on Jesus. They complained that the whole world was going after him. Even the Roman procurator Pilate could see their spirit. He tried to release Jesus, “For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy.” They didn’t gain a penny by seeing Jesus dead and buried did they? His murder was planned out of pure spite, and that is how the Philistines viewed Abraham and Isaac.
My point is this; how much more will the world hate you for blessings in Christ concerning which they have no comprehension? You drink from Christ, a well of water springing up to everlasting life. You have a secret supply of strength by which you can do all things and the world has no access to that, and no knowledge of its reality and existence. Christians know how to die being burned to death or hung, drawn and quartered. You too can remain at peace in times of real family tension; you can go through a divorce; you are given strength in times of weakness; you are given comfort at periods of heart-breaking loss. Where do you get it all from? What is your secret? The world cannot understand the supplies of grace you are given year after year and they don’t like it, and they will try to rob you of such blessings. First they will tease, but then they will get sharper and meaner. They will criticize and grumble, and they might even get violent. They are like king Abimelech, promising peace, but giving grief.
Do not fear! The Lord Jesus who overcame the world through the weakness of the cross, is with you. You are seated in Christ in the heavenly places in the true promised land, the kingdom of God. The Lord who delights to give more than what he promised, has finally given you everything in Christ. He’s kept nothing ba
ck from you. It was even for you that he spared not his only Son, that alongside of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ – given to you as your prophet, priest and king – he will with him freely give you all things. What more could anyone offer you? What more do you need? What more could you ask for or even think of? Trust in the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be of good courage. Rest in the Lord and he will reveal the blessing he has bestowed.
1. WE ARE PRIVILEGED TO HAVE THE SPEAKING GOD AS OUR LORD.
We are told, “From there he went up to Beersheba. That night the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.’” (vv.23&24). There was constant reassurance from the God who is the wonderful counsellor. Isaac was obeying him, and so God was speaking lovingly to him. There was no silence from heaven. God had spoken to his father, Abraham, and he had listened and obeyed, and now Isaac is obeying God and God is speaking to him.
We have the Bible, and God-appointed preachers of the Bible. We have this miraculous Book from another world; its promises are ours; its exhortations are ours; its warnings and rebukes are all ours. By it God comforts us; God guides us; God sanctifies us. He takes us to our promised land. God appeared again to Isaac, but, notice this, that God brought to him the very same message that he had given to him a year or two earlier. It is recorded at the beginning of this same chapter in verses 2 through 5; there is nothing new at all found here. Is that sad? No it is not. Think of your husband, how he told you he loved you and wanted you to be his wife thirty years ago. What would you think of him if he never told you afterwards that he loved you; he said he never repeated himself and so wouldn’t tell you again that he loved you? “Well, I’ve told you that once before.” You would not be a happy wife, would you, because you delight to hear your beloved tell you that he loves you? You never want him to stop saying that. So too Isaac never wearied of God appearing to him and comforting and encouraging him with the same promises. When I preach from this pulpit I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated in any sermon. If it is true it is not new; if it is new it is not true. I bring you the eternal promises and comforts of the word of God year after year. So see here what the Lord said to Isaac.
i] Do not be afraid (v.24). We are told that this is the most frequent command on the lips of our Lord. It is addressed to our emotions. A calm and heavenly frame of mind should be the characteristic of the Christian. Fear not. You are afraid you will not get married, you will not have children, you will lose your husband or wife at an early age, afraid your spouse will get dementia or you may get cancer. You are afraid you will not have money to look after yourself when you are feeble. You are afraid of officers’ meetings, and church meetings, and a big division in the congregation. You are afraid of being asked to do something that you will not be able to do. You are afraid of failing your exams. There are so many things you can be afraid of. It is all so desperately unbelieving.
It reminds me of the story of two brothers and they were looking at a pony, a Welsh cob. “I would love to have that,” said one of them. “What would you do with it?” “I would ride it all day,” said the other. “You would let me ride it too,” his brother said. “No, I wouldn’t,” said the brother. “I would tell Dad and he would make you let me ride it.” “No, he wouldn’t,” said his brother. “Yes, he would,” said his brother, and there they were, arguing with one another and getting resentful about nothing at all. The pony wasn’t theirs. It was never going to be theirs. We are like that about our fears. We are afraid about things that haven’t happened and aren’t likely to happen at all, but if some other difficulties happen to us (as they will) then grace will be given to us that we will be able to bear it, and glory in our infirmities and honour God in them. Don’t be afraid of anything except sinning.
ii] God is with us (v.24).You remember the last words of John Wesley, that the best of all is that God is with us. That is the best, Wesley said; God’s presence with his believing people is the best, for without him we can do nothing, but we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Do I have him in the grip of faith? Do I have him in my heart and life? Do we have him when we gather in the Lord’s name? Do we have him when we go into all the world to work for him and serve him? Does he say, “And I am with you always even until the end of the age?” When I face the devil and his temptations do I do so with Christ? When I am in trouble do I go along to see those people with him? When I start a new job do I do so with him? When I return to a newly empty house do I do so knowing that I am not alone but he who promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” is with me? No never alone! He promised never to leave me alone. God was with Joseph in Potiphar’s house and again when he as in prison and so everything he did prospered. That was the blessing of the Old Testament church that they would not fear though the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the seas. The Lord of hosts was with them and the God of Jacob was their refuge. God is with us.
iii] God will bless us (v.24). You’ve looke back. “Goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.” That’s your testimony. You’re thinking of your family life, your employment, your church life, your general good health, your prosperity. What blessings! Then you think of the spiritual blessings that have come to you. Redemption! Full forgiveness for every sin, past, present and future! Adoption into the family of God. The hope of the resurrection of the body and eternal life. You know God for yourself. He has worked all things together for your good . . . your best things . . . your worst things. There have been times better than good times when he has restored your soul. You were taken out of the dry and barren period. You had strong assurance that the Lord was yours. You knew that nothing would separate you from the love of God. What blessings have been yours!
iv] God will prosper us. “I will increase the number of your descendants” (v.24). Have we not seen extraordinary prosperity in the church during the last fifty years? We have seen the Korean and Chinese churches greatly expand. We have seen areas of our own country which had sparse evangelical testimony developing a network of gospel churches. We have seen Bible Colleges and Seminaries planted and growing. We have seen publishing houses and books multiplying, new authors to write them, new magazines appearing, and many new conferences – there is now at least one serious Bible conference each month in various parts of the UK, and in the USA some conferences number 5,000 to 7,000 men in attendance. We have seen camps and summer schools of theology expanding. These may be days of small things but they are not days of absolutely nothing at all. We long for men and women to be converted from sin to be following the Lord Jesus Christ, but we are not totally lacking in even that.
v] God will remember his covenant promises; “For the sake of my servant Abraham” (v.24). God had told Abraham that he would bless the nations of the world through his seed. That was a repeated promise from the first time he perforated Abraham’s life in Ur of the Chaldees, and then again and again throughout Abraham’s life he kept repeating his promise of the land, the child to be born and the nations being blessed. God has assured us in his covenant of grace what he will do in the future of the world. It is not going to end up as a cold, dead rock floating through the corridors of space, massively ugly and as silent as the tomb. That is not how the world is going to end. There will be the voices of ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands. They will come from the north, south, east and west and they will be praising God for all he has done for them in Christ. Each one will be changed into the likeness of God’s dear Son and their deeds will follow them into a happy and blessed eternity. Those are God’s covenant promises. God’s great Servant, the Seed of the woman, the son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, has done all that God required of him and as a result God has blessed the world. We are living in a world gripped by the blessing of God! We are under that blessing, and are receiving that blessing and are working out the consequences of that blessing as year succeeds year. Our past has been blessed and our future will be more blessed. So we are privileged to have the speaking God.
- WE ARE PRIVILEGED TO PRESENT OUR SACRIFICE TO GOD.
God accepts our worship. He watches us build our altars and listens to us when we call on his name. What was Isaac’s response to God’s words? He did not move from the spot. He “built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord” (v.25). He heard all that God had said. God’s words had rained down on Isaac and at that spot, immediately following this glorious new assurance that God had given to him Isaac responded in that way.
We stayed for two days last week with Don Reisinger and his wife in Cape Coral in Florida. I had been preaching in the church where he is a member on the previous Sunday. He had professed faith as a boy under the influence of his father Ernie, but then in his thirties he gave up his whole profession and lived a bad life, but God did not give up on him, humbling him as the broken cisterns increasingly failed to satisfy and constraining him to go back to the church he had abandoned long before. He said that the very first message he heard there from his former pastor was on the parable of the prodigal son. So God spoke directly to him through Walt Chantry preaching exactly what he needed to hear—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Don said, “There was no doubt that I qualified in that, because I actually felt myself to be the worst of sinners by virtue of the fact that I had known the right course all my life, but had refused to submit myself to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and I had done things my way. When the preacher got to the part about the father welcoming his wayward son back home with open arms, my heart melted, thinking of God’s kindness and mercy to me in putting up with me during all those years of rebellion, and especially of his grace and wisdom in devising a plan such as he did—of willingly and purposely sacrificing his only Son, even though righteous himself, to secure a just pardon and forgiveness for me, a hell-deserving sinner.”
God is the speaking God, and he addressed Donald, just as he spoke long ago in our passage to Isaac, and as he speaks to us Sunday after Sunday. What was Don’s response? He said, “My response to these truths was that, by his grace, I would serve him as long as he gave me breath, and that he would use me in his kingdom to bring this gospel of his grace to many, who, like me, do not take time to seek and obtain that most important thing in life—the forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. I want men to know that salvation is real.” Don built his altar to God again and called on God’s name.
God’s words can wash our hearts and minds and fill our affections with joy and wonder. What do we do when God comes and speaks to us powerfully and clearly in his word? I will tell you. Once again we will ‘build an altar’; we will present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God; we will call upon his name. Yes, we have done it in salvation. That was our response to God’s mercy to us in the cross. We gave ourselves to him, “Thine – ever, only and always.” But we must do it again, and again, and again. Maybe each new day, presenting your mind and affections, your bodily strength and vitality, your skills and your aptitudes – each part of you presented to him as a living sacrifice. You want them all to be consumed as a magnificent holocaust of worship to the God who loaned you all you have. We have no need to sacrifice pigeons or goats or red heifers. We make the sacrifice of ourselves to him and we call upon his name. We long for God to receive us in the name of Jesus Christ and through the great sacrifice of himself for us. Building an altar and calling on the name of God is the means of restoring our souls.
A pastor was telling me about his friend Nancy. Thirty-six years ago, in a weird accident, Nancy suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning that left her in a deep coma, near death. For days, weeks, months, Nancy lay listless in the hospital. No response. And then one day, Art, her father, walked into the ward, and Nancy out of the blue, mouthed the words, “Hi Dad.” Art almost fell over overwhelmed with joy. He ran out and got about 5 relatives to come and see if she knew them; she knew everyone of them. Maybe there wasn’t as much brain damage as they feared.
But that was only the beginning of her recovery. Three months had already passed to that day. She was to be in the hospital for another ten months, learning to talk and walk and just be alive again, and then as an outpatient for another year, and then in private physical therapy for another year. It was three years before Nancy realized that she’d now got back what she was going to get back. She was able to walk with a stick, as she still does to this day.
All of this happened over 30 years ago. Today Nancy is a social worker who works in a rehabilitation centre. She’s also been an alcohol rehabilitation counsellor. She lived independently for many years, something no one would have ever thought possible 30 years ago, and a year ago she got married.
This pastor asked her, “Was there some point in your journey when you made that shift from looking back to looking ahead?” “Oh yes,” she said, “I still remember the day. I was with my twin sister. It was about four years after the accident. I couldn’t make much more progress in terms of rehabilitation. But I was still obsessed with why? Why me? The unfairness of life, pitying myself, blaming, pining about ‘if only.’ Then that day my sister Mary said to me gently, but firmly, ‘Nancy, you’ve got to decide whether you want to keep on with all of that rot, and rot to death, or whether you’re going to present your body a living sacrifice to God, saying, “OK God, now what? Where do we go from here?"’” Nancy said that that was the moment. Then she built an altar as it were, and she called on the name of the Lord, she presented all she was once again
Or I can describe the change like this: like Isaac she dug a well. She faced her future and plans had to be made for it. Water was needed for life. Nancy decided about taking a course of study and training for new qualifications. The word of God motivated her, made her forward-looking, forgetting about ‘Why,’ but rather asking “What now Lord?” Yes, this happened four years after Nancy’s accident. Those of you in the middle of your suffering right now, be patient with yourself; be patient. This turning can take time. Also, it wasn’t just her sister’s words that day. Obviously, a pile of things finally came together to make Nancy see that she was facing a choice as awesome as life and death. Nancy repeated again and again to this pastor how important the love of her family and the love of her church had been to her in making her able to make that turn. In all those things, the Spirit of God was at work.
What I am saying today doesn’t just apply to people who’ve suffered as Nancy had suffered. It applies to almost any situation. I think of people like Isaac who suffer prejudice of whatever kind. Victims of prejudice face that awesome choice of whether to be victimized a second time, this time by themselves, by hanging on to the causes of their plight, to blame, to accuse; or whether to declare themselves free from the prison of victimhood and go on, and work harder if that’s what it takes, and run faster if that’s what it takes, but not to be victimized a second time.
All kinds of people are the victims of harassment and spite just as Isaac had been. There is pain and suffering and prejudice in this world. Life is full of injustice and unfairness. There’s no question about that. The question is: am I going to rot in that prison of focusing upon that for the rest of my life? Or do I believe the God who speaks to us in his word and makes wonderful promises to us? Do I build an altar, and dig a well? Do I go ahead in the strength of those promises? Do I look forward and seek his kingdom? Then I will find that there’s a good space for me, a place for me to live, a work for me in his kingdom that is glorious and urgent (the night is coming).
This is the crucial question every sufferer faces. Will I look back or look forward? I know a woman whose life is being ruined because she is being eaten up at the thought that she is a victim. Will she go on looking back, focussing upon her version of the events she passed through, or will she focus upon the future and make a sacrifice of all that has gone by and see it consumed? Will she forget it, and live henceforth for all that’s to come?
3. WE’RE PRIVILEGED TO HAVE OUR ENEMIES SEEK RECONCILIATION WITH US.
Again this is a consequence of Isaac’s submission to the will of God. There is a great statement in the book of Proverbs; “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him” (Provs 16:7). Christians are men of peace. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. When there is someone in the office, or staff-room, or workplace who is always dismissing Christianity, showing his opposition in a very pointed way to all that is precious to us, then it is wearisome to our hearts and minds. We don’t want warfare in our families and places of work. Again, how hard to be a Christian in all of the countries in the middle east or in a dictatorship. We cry for peace to live our lives in godliness.
God gives this blessing to Isaac. It came in the form of an impressive procession of dignitaries who came from the Philistines led by Abimelech the king, Ahuzzath his personal adviser, and Phicol the commander in chief of his army. Their arrival said that something important was about to take place; the king had not sent men of lesser rank. These men were in earnest about making peace with Isaac. He has been meek, and yet he has not compromised his principles. You see Isaac’s righteousness when he greets them: “Isaac asked them, ‘Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?’” (v.27).The implied rebuke was entirely justified. Wasn’t there a certain inconsistency here? First, they drive Isaac out, and then they follow after him to make a treaty of good will? Come on. What is this all about? Isaac is a righteous man. Paul was a righteous man. He and Barnabas had been lashed and then thrown into jail without a trial, but the next morning the Philippian magistrates sent them a message and told them they could go. “No way,” said Paul. “Let them come down to the jail and apologize for dealing with Roman citizens without a trial, in such an unjust way.” Paul was not acting for himself; he was acting on behalf of the fledgling church in Philippi that he had to leave behind. He wanted to win for them the right to evangelize, and the right to gather freely for worship. Isaac’s concern is for the seed to be free from persecution in the promised land, that Esau and Jacob could live there without being hunted from one mountain cave to another.
Notice the reply, “We saw . . . that the Lord was with you.” (v.28). It was not Isaac’s wealth and power and the number of men working for him that impressed the king of Gerar and his chief ministers. They went back to the first cause of this. It was the fact that God was with him. They say this, “Now you are blessed by Jehovah” (v.29). The Philistines had not suffered plague after plague, each one more intense than the former plague as the Egyptians had. Pharaoh had said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” What a price Pharaoh had to pay for his defiance! How different was Isaac. When he lied about his wife in Gerar he did not impress the king but when he did what God said and lived a life of high character then Abimelech could tell that Isaac walked with God. Abimelech was confronted by the prosperity of Isaac, and his unyielding righteousness, resisting the Philistines and cleaning out and reopening the wells his father had built. Soon the resistance of Abimelech had crumbled. He could not overcome this man of God.
You remember how Rahab in Jericho hid the two spies who had come out to reconnoiter the city before the Israelites arrived there. Why was she giving them refuge? She told them that it was not her own foreboding that made her act in this way; “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death” (Josh. 2:9-13). She had so much against her in her society, a young person, a woman, a Gentile, even a prostitute and yet she knew more than all the leaders of Jericho about the power of the one who is God in heaven above and on the earth below, and how irresistible are those on whom his blessing rests.
The kings of Babylon are equally impressed when they see the power of God protecting his people in their land. Nebuchadnezzar falls to the ground acknowledging that the Lord is a great God. And here was Abimelech anxious to make peace with the godly. It raises a very important question; shouldn’t our rulers today, our law-makers, our police, our magistrates, our educationalists, our employers and our government be anxious to make peace with believers in the living God? Alas, they seem to be more interested in keeping in favour with Muslims, and with Hindus, and with homosexuals, and with evolutionists, and with abortionists, and with gamblers, and with publicans and the drink trade, while true Christians are being warned and threatened and even losing their jobs for conscience sake.
So in our text we are told that this party of leading pagans came to Isaac and requested, “Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm” (v.28), and that is a bit rich coming from the men who drove Isaac away, and even then they add, “we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace” (v.29) which is not how it happened. They had taken away a couple of wells he had had dug by his servants. Men behave like that, they even play around with God in that way. Ezekiel spotted it in his day. He said, “your countrymen say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But it is their way that is not just” (Ez. 33:17). We deal with people who lie, who make promises they do not intend to keep, who misrepresent the past and threaten a terrible future if there should be another great awakening.
How generous was Isaac. He did not overcome evil with evil but he overcame their evil with good. He made a feast and they ate and drank that night and the next morning they made a covenant between themselves. Isaac sent them on their way waving goodbye and wishing them ‘Bon Voyage.’ They left in peace. That is all we want with our fellow citizens on planet earth, peace to worship in every country in the world, peace to evangelize, peace to educate our children, peace to live godly lives fearing God and keeping his commandments.
The seal of the wisdom of Isaac’s actions came the very day. The servants came running in their excitement to tell him about a well they had been digging, “We have found water!” Isaac named it, ‘Shiba’ and until today the town built around it is called Beersheba. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.
1st August 2010 GEOFF THOMAS