Genesis 25:19-24 “This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to enquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.”
Isaac is one of the three patriarchs whose reputation and life stories have been known for 4,000 years. Today they are known all over the earth. They are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. They are also known to heaven as God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On no less than thirty occasions in Scripture this trio is mentioned together. Of the three men it was Isaac who lived the longest, 180 years, five years longer than his father Abraham, while his son Jacob lived until he was 147 years of age. While Isaac lived the longest, least is known about him. There is more than a century during which time we know absolutely nothing of what he did decade after decade. It is only in this chapter and in the next chapter that the Bible focuses on his life. Alexander Maclaren said, “The salient feature of Isaac’s life is that it has no salient features.” There is Abraham – a giant of a man, Isaac’s father; there is Jacob, a fascinatingly complex man, Isaac’s son. Between them there is the more passive figure of Isaac. I have compared them to the Hodges of Princeton Seminary. Abraham is like the giant Charles Hodge; Jacob is like his son the dynamic A.A. Hodge while Isaac is like that enigmatic quiet figure Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr., the great Hodge’s grandson, the teacher and colleague of John Murray, the Hodge whose life was fairly anonymous. I preached thirty messages on the life of Abraham; I plan to preach four on the life of Isaac. That indicates the scale of importance between father and son. Men enter the kingdom of God not by natural descent but by a birth from above. Men’s usefulness in the kingdom of God does not depend on their I.Q and their family connections and glittering personalities but on gifts of grace that God bestows on them. Most of us are like Isaac, and that is why studying his life will resonate with us all.
1. ISAAC AND REBEKAH WERE WITHOUT CHILDREN.
I want you to consider the wording of the announcement of Isaac’s birth in Genesis 25 and verse 19; “This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac.” Go back seven verses to verse 12, and see the wording of the announcement of Ishmael’s birth, “This is the account of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham.” Abraham is the biological father of Ishmael, his son by his wife’s Egyptian maid Hagar. She bore him a son, and that grievous misjudgment is acknowledged in Scripture, but when Isaac’s birth is announced we read, “Abraham became the father of Isaac” that is, Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac is his beloved son, his only-begotten son with his wife Sarah. When God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Moriah he describes him as “your only son.” Abraham may have had another son before, and other sons after Isaac (see the list of his sons in the opening verse of chapter 25), but in the most important sense of all, Isaac was his only son.
What a difference between Isaac and Ishmael his half brother. Isaac is the seed; Isaac alone is in the line of the woman who will one day produce the Seed who will bruise Satan’s head. All the promises of God have come to Isaac, and him alone. It will be through Isaac and his seed that the hope of cosmic redemption rests. Ishmael went away from the promised land with his mother. Off they went to Egypt. There he produces son after son. By the end of his life he has twelve sons and how many daughters we don’t know. When 40 year-old Isaac marries Rebekah Ishmael already has many children, and when Isaac finally becomes a father Ishmael is 73 and probably has had all his twelve boys. What good for Wales will be all the sons of Ishmael? Will Wales be blessed by one of Ishmael’s sons? No, not one. Only through Isaac will the nations of the world be blessed. If Isaac and Rebekah have no children then God is a liar, his promises are empty promises and the cursed world revolves without hope.
So when we get into the married life of Isaac and Rebekah we discover that we are on familiar ground. Here are echoes of the life of Abraham and Sarah. We learn that Isaac did not marry until he was forty years of age – men usually married at half that age in his day. His bride was the delightful Rebekah whose age, as is the case with women, is never revealed. She was far younger and that is enough. It was an arranged marriage; it was a love marriage, and there was no one else for either of them. Abraham had children from three women, and Jacob had children from four women, but Isaac had one wife, his darling Rebekah. He was the only patriarch who was monogamous, though they were to have no children for the first twenty years of their marriage. He would not take a concubine from his wife’s servants. He was walking down the same path as his father in having to wait years to have a child, but he rejected his parents’ ploy. Isaac would wait for his child to be conceived by his wife and until then yearn for that happy event. He would wait on God to answer his prayers. God is sovereign, almighty to give life and full of compassion; God had told him and his father that they would have children, and Isaac was prepared to wait year after year. Did it seem impossible after twenty years that this promise would be fulfilled? Isaac kept believing God. Isaac was a man of faith like his father. He believed that what God had prom
ised he would also fulfil. Aren’t we glad of that? The godly line is coming through one believing generation after another in those patriarchal times.
Isaac was not a perfect man, any more than Abraham was, in fact he repeated two of his father’s other mistakes. He lied about Rebekah saying that she was his sister, out of fear of that old king Abimelech. He didn’t tell him the truth – “She is my wife; hands off” – and then trust in Jehovah’s protection. He also displayed favouritism; he had one of his sons whom he particularly loved, Esau, and he strove with God that God’s special blessing would fall on him and not on his other son Jacob. But God had explicitly rejected Esau. There again Isaac was like his father Abraham who wanted God to bless Ishmael and make the descendants of Ishmael the promised line. Why am I telling you this? That you might see Isaac’s life was not a perfect life and better identify with him. It was the life of a sinner who believed in God for mercy. Isaac was not the promised Seed. He’ll come; yes he will, in the fulness of time; he is going to come, but we have to wait all through the Old Testament years until Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem for the promised Seed to be born through whom and by whom Wales and every nation in the world is going to be blessed. Abraham has to wait. Isaac has to wait. We are having to wait today for our Lord’s return from heaven. God will keep his word. He will accomplish all that he has promised.
Think of Isaac waiting for twenty years with an empty crib, the words of his father ringing in his ears, “The Lord said to me that through our lineage, through me and you and your children the Promised One will come and all the nations of the earth, from pole to pole and east and west, are going to be blessed. It will happen, Isaac. Don’t give up hope. Look how long it was before your mother and I had you.” Abraham, you see, was still alive when Isaac’s twins were born. He was 160 years of age and he lived to see his twin grandsons, Esau and Jacob, reach their fifteenth birthdays. For his wife to give birth Isaac waited fifty years from the time he had been laid out on the altar and offered to God by Abraham, all this time he was learning that God’s plan did not depend on his fertility and strength any more than it had depended on his notable father’s. All that would happen would happen despite the weaknesses of father and son. It is a great lesson that even Christians receive slowly, that salvation does not depend on human ability and power but solely on the sovereign mercy of the Lord.
So the first words we are told about Rebekah in our text are not that she trusted in God or that she was beautiful, but those blunt sad words of verse 21, “she was barren.” It is three words and there is no reference to any of the anxiety, and concern, and frustration that her mother-in-law endured in Sarah’s barrenness. That takes about nine chapters in the life of Abraham to resolve. I guess we are to read all of that sadness into these three words, “she was barren.” It is not new, and so take it as read that not having children for twenty years was not easy for Rebekah any more than it had been for Sarah. “Ditto,” says the author of Genesis as he hurries through verse 21. We know that Rebekah was not the first woman of note in the Scripture to endure the test of barrenness. Sarah had to wait until she was 90. The mothers of Joseph, and Samson, and Samuel, and John the Baptist all were going to be tested by long periods of childlessness, almost giving up hope of having children. Rebekah had every reason to expect children; God himself had encouraged her to know this, but after twenty years of trying and praying, nothing at all, and her biological clock was ticking away.
All this was 2,000 years before Christ. These barrennesses in the wives of the first two patriarchs are preparing us for Christ’s coming. What do I mean? Well, how did such an extraordinary man as Jesus of Nazareth appear in our world? Where did he come from, this man of whom his hearers said, “No man ever spoke like him.” This man had power over the surface of the sea; the winds and the waves obeyed him, and a tree withered and died if he uttered a word. He could heal every sickness known to man, however devastatingly it might have gripped a person. Jesus could even raise the dead; he himself was risen from the dead on the third day. How did the Lord appear in the world? You know what the New Testament tells us so clearly. He was conceived in the womb of a virgin. His begetting was completely beyond the plans of man. There were no virgins in Israel saying, “We will give birth to a divine man, to God the Son.” Such an action was totally outside human engineering. Salvation belongs to God because the Saviour was the vertical sovereign gift of God from heaven. Let us rejoice in that sovereign grace, or we will have nothing to rejoice in one day in the future. For two thousand years the promise of the Seed coming had hung over the world and then, in the fulness of time, Israel’s barrenness ended and the Christ appeared as God had promised Abraham.
So here are Isaac and Rebekah well into middle age with no children. What extraordinary promises each had received. Isaac could never forget the time God prevented his father sacrificing him when he was bound on an altar saying, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars and the sand on the seashore.” In Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth were going to be blessed. But here is Isaac, the seed, and he can’t produce one single offspring.
Then there was Rebekah and she can remember the day that changed her entire life when a camel train arrived and the servant of Abraham asked if she would go with him to marry his master’s son Isaac. Her relatives had made their speeches and expressed their good wishes; “Oh, sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands,” they’d said (Gen. 24:60). Twenty years later she hadn’t produced a single baby.
That was the situation facing Isaac, and what will he do? How will he respond? Will he try his own devices to produce an heir like Abraham did with Hagar in his lack of faith? Or will he cleave to the promises of God? Will he wait on the Lord or get itchy feet?
2. ISAAC SPREAD THE MATTER OF REBEKAH’S CHILDLESSNESS BEFORE THE LORD.
Isaac had learned from his father and that old man’s regrets. Isaac had more trust in God than Abraham. There had been a time when King Abimelech had taken into his harem Sarah thinking she was Abraham’s sister, and God in his judgment on them for doing that had made all the royal court barren. Then Abraham had prayed and God had lifted the judgment and children again were conceived. Yet, even with that stark answer to prayer, there is no record of Abraham interceding that God would open Sarah’s womb, and that is the oddest blind-spot in the patriarch’s entire life. When God announced that Sarah would have a child they laughed, though later believed. But here is the son of Abraham, and what does he do? We are told, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife” (v.21). I am repeating this astounding fact that we don’t find any record of Abraham interceding for Sarah to conceive, even though he interceded for the entire royal court of the pagan king Abimelech to conceive. Isaac, I say, had more trust in God than his father. Our longing is that our children will have more trust in God than we do, and many of us have seen it. We stand in awe of the maturity of our
children’s faith, and our grandchildren have more grace than we had when we were their age. Don’t you see how wrong it is for people to say that children cannot show more holiness than their parents, or to say that church members cannot show more holiness than their ministers? I do not believe that that is so. Why should that be so? So Isaac prayed for his wife to have a son though he was sixty years of age, and he and she had been married twenty years without a child. Isaac trusted in God and one day in a session of intercession he focused all his faith on Rebekah’s barrenness and asked God that he would end it. He prayed on behalf of his wife. It is a very simple lesson. Peter tells believing married couples that they are heirs together of the grace of life and that nothing should be done to hinder their prayers.
The answer to the prayer is immediate and in the same verse: “The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant” (v.21). It is impossible for men – “What do we want? We want a baby. When do we want it? Now!” That is all arrogance crying out from impotence. How different is believing, submissive prayer. What Isaac and Rebekah had failed to achieve in twenty years God granted them when Isaac prayed. “You are trusting me,” said Jehovah, and he gave him his heart’s desire. Isaac knew with total confidence that he and Rebekah were bound to have descendants, because God had told them that. Please understand that God makes no such promise to every Christian married couple. But he had made it to this couple and they believed his word even after twenty years of childlessness. Isaac prayed in accordance with the revealed will of God that he would become a father, and he laid hold of God’s promise and pleaded it to God.
Someone asks, “But wouldn’t God have given them a child anyway?” I have slightly modified Bill Baldwin’s words when he answers, yes and no. Yes, God would have, because he was committed to providing the seed through Isaac. Of course, he wasn’t going to let Isaac’s weakness, or Rebekah’s weakness, or a combination of both their weaknesses and prayerlessness frustrate his purposes in sending his Son into the world in the fulness of time joined by his umbilical cord to Isaac and Rebekah. Yes, a child was bound to be born to them. Then there’s this question, why bother with prayer? God is going to do what he is going to do, isn’t he? Well, let’s look at the ‘no’ half of the answer. No, in the sense that this is the wrong way of looking at it. God has ordained that through the trusting and praying of Isaac, and in no other way, he would bring the Seed into the world. Isaac cannot change God’s plan, which is from all eternity, but he can participate in that plan. How does he do that? Is it by adding his strength to God’s strength? No, Isaac had no strength, and if he did Almighty God would not need it. How did Isaac participate in the plan of God? Trust and obey; there is no other way of participating in God’s plan. Isaac and Rebekah must trust what God has said, that he will give them a child and through his line all the nations of the earth will be blessed. AMEN! you say. PRAISE GOD! you say. You trust God, and you obey God, but you show that in your praying, and you also remember to continue to sleep together which is the biological means of children being born. Isaac, who cannot guarantee Rebekah conceiving, does all that and he trusts that the time will come, maybe has already come, the set time, for the promised child to be born. He commits their need of children to the Lord; “he prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife” (v.21). All this is what Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (I Cor. 3:6). That is how all men and women are born into the world, and also how favoured people have their second birth. The wind blows as it wills and thus some are born of God into his kingdom.
3. ISAAC AND REBEKAH DISCOVERED THEY WERE HAVING TWINS.
“The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord’” (v.22). They asked God for a child and they got two, and it turned out to be double blessing (because all children are God’s reward) and double trouble. Isaac needed only one but he got twins, and the Holy Spirit tells us the reason for Rebekah’s discomfort before she herself knew it. She knew this was not the kind of pregnancy she’d witnessed in her servant girls. There was more than the usual kicking and moving around. There was tumult in her womb. It seemed at times like a couple of wildcats were fighting in there. It went on and on; there has scarcely been a more painful pregnancy than Rebekah’s. The word ‘jostled’ means a violent internal commotion, as if the children were jousting and dueling with one another in the womb. The word is used of crushing another, or thrusting, or striking at one another.
Did she say to Isaac who had prayed that she might conceive, “Why is this happening to me?” (v.22). He didn’t know. He’d never been a prospective father before. All he could do was feel guilty and hold her hand and show compassion. So she took the question to the Lord in order to get an answer: “If all is well, why am I like this?” Yes! Rebekah was a woman of faith. She spoke to Jehovah the Lord, her Lord, and she spoke some words which are almost impossible to translate from Hebrew. It’s not a complete sentence; it comes out in gasps, and sharp intakes of breath, and ouches as she gulps out words in her pain to God between the kicks she is getting from inside her womb. What sort of pregnancy was this? She asks God, though knowing the promise that she would have a son, and knowing that God had answered her husband’s prayer for her to have children. How was God answering this prayer? Was all well with this pregnancy? It is typical of our lives in this groaning world. We pray earnestly for something, and God answers us, and then we’re soon praying again, “Why this sort of answer?”
We’ve come here as we do each Sunday, inquiring of the Lord as to why things have worked out in our lives as they have. Why the delays? Why the ill health? Why the troubles? We get the best possible answers for ourselves here and now, and we know we will get much better answers in the future. So Rebekah goes to the Lord and she does not know what we already know from our text, that she is pregnant with twins. God answers her, as he answers us Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. God drops the bombshell; “You’re expecting twins.” He says, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (v.23). But, as Bill Baldwin says, “Not just any twins would fight like this in the womb. You’ve got twins who are going to fight with each other for their entire history, not just their personal history, either, nations will come from them and these nations will be separated or divided against one another. Those nations will oppose one another. The battle has commenced already in your womb, and this is a foretaste of the long war these two will be fighting in the future.”
God tells Rebekah that they’re not going to fight to a draw or to mutual exhaustion. There will be no truce in this long campaign. There’ll be a victor one day in this fight. The stronger one is going to triumph over the other. God
doesn’t tell her that it will be a thousand years before this will happen in the time of King David when he leads the children of Jacob into battle against the children of Esau in the country of Edom. He does not tell her that again it will seen during King Uzziah’s time in his defeat of the Edomites. He doesn’t tell Rebekah that it will be 2000 years before this prophecy is spiritually fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the son of Jacob, who will defeat the serpent on the cross. But the beginning of this battle is what is going on here. Rebekah has both the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent in her own womb, in two different sacks – they were not identical twins. She has the lover of the world and the lover of heaven both in her womb. Cain and Abel are both there together hating one another. Little wonder the clash is so violent!
God takes sides. God discriminates. His choice is not the seed of the serpent, but the seed of the woman. You can understand that, but then God chooses the younger one as the superior who is going to triumph. You’d think he’d choose the older who, by right, should inherit the blessings that came through Isaac. No, God says, no primo-geniture here. Rather, the older will serve the younger. God reverses the normal order of things. It happened again very vividly in the choosing of David. All his older brothers, some of them tall, handsome, athletic men, were brought one by one to meet Samuel the prophet but he shook his head and rejected all of them. God had chosen none of them. The one he had chosen was the youngest, the shepherd boy up on the hills with the flock. He was selected and anointed and the Spirit of God came upon him. It is not the flesh that matters – beauty and intelligence and entrepreneurial skills – it is what God by his spirit decrees shall be, not the child who is superior by age; rather the child who is superior because God has favoured him and loved him and so has chosen him. Salvation is of the Lord. So there is hope for you isn’t there, because you are not very gifted, and not a very good man. Yet you may ask God to save you, and you may plead the argument that Jesus did not come for the righteous but it was sinners he came to save, and you qualify as a sinner.
Why does God show his sovereignty in this way? Paul picks it up in the ninth chapter of Romans and this is what he writes as the apostle of Christ, “Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (vv.10-12). When you read the lives of the patriarchs then you see one lesson with increasing clarity. God is in control of their lives and destinies. God summoned Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. Of the half a million people living there he chose Abraham. The same God kept Abraham waiting until he was a hundred years of age before he gave him Isaac. God kept Isaac waiting twenty years and then gave him Esau and Jacob. God is sovereign in all those decisions. God is teaching us that keeping us waiting upon him is one of the great lessons we must learn. Now he has decided that Jacob will be born second and that the first born will be Esau who yet has to serve Jacob. It is not because of the perfection of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah that God has chosen them, it is because of his sovereign loving initiative. Paul affirms that before these twins were born or had done any great actions of kindness or had done any terrible evil acts – before any of that, while they were still in Rebekah’s womb God’s love fell upon the second born. It was not Isaac’s decision – he always favoured Esau the first born – it was Jehovah’s sovereign decision. “The line of the Messiah will go through the second born, Jacob,” God said. “That is my purpose, and my choice and that is going to stand. Nothing is going to knock this choice down and replace it.” That was God’s plan from all eternity.
We are going to be examining Jacob’s life soon, but many of you know it, the way he cheated his own brother out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. He was devious, and crafty and deceitful. We are not told those things about his brother Esau, yet it was Jacob whom God loved and chose. A man once said to Spurgeon that he had difficulty with God loving Jacob and hating Esau. “Yes, I have trouble with that verse too,” said Spurgeon, “how could God possibly love Jacob?” Of course the man’s problem had been with God hating Esau, but that was not nearly so big a problem to Spurgeon as God loving a wheeler-dealer who cheated his own brother. Thank God that he can love and choose despicable and pharisaic bullies like Saul of Tarsus. You think of Abraham. He wasn’t more holy or smarter than the rest of his family. For years he had stood with them before pagan altars in temples and worshipped idols. He was a pagan of pagans when God suddenly appeared to him and God told him to go to a place which he would show him. God didn’t choose Abraham because of his works but to make him through faith a man who would do good works to God’s glory.
Aren’t you glad that this is so? Imagine God having one tiny requirement before you could get to heaven and that is that you had this task of doing one entirely good work once during your lifetime. In other words when God looked at something you did then he would say, “Wow! Absolutely 100 percent perfect. It was done exclusively to my glory. It was done from your heart. It was all done in entire obedience to my word. Welcome to my presence for ever.” If that had been the case then you would be a lost man. We’d all be condemned people, wouldn’t we? There is no one who does something completely and perfectly good, no not one. When God shines the light of his own holiness through it, and examines by his own knowledge every molecule then there are the greatest flaws in the best things we have done. They simply do not pass muster. They need God’s mercy, and we would have no one to blame but ourselves when he judged us. Aren’t we mighty glad that he chose sinners like Jacob, and brought us under the gospel, and opened our understanding, and gave us saving faith in a Saviour whom he led us to know, and entered our hearts and sealed us with the Holy Spirit? So we flee from our good works as a foundation of attaining heaven and we run to the Saviour, to Jesus Christ, to his cross, to blessed Golgotha and the blood he shed as the Lamb of God, and we plead his life of good works. That is where in the world the perfect good works of a man are found. That is where our righteousness is, and where by his death and his resurrection we plead our only hope of being saved. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.
Here is a God who owes us nothing but has given us everything, an abundance without measure, in Jesus Christ. We give all glory to God for loving Jacob-like sinners from before the foundation of the world. He knew how like Jacob we were, and yet he blessed us with his salvation.
23 May 2010 GEOFF THOMAS
I acknowledge my appreciation of Bill Baldwin’s website of sermons on the patriarchs which I always turn to and consult.