Genesis 26:1-11 “Now there was a famine in the land – besides the earlier famine of Abraham’s time – and Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines in Gerar. The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.’ So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’ He thought, ‘The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.’ When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, ‘She is really your wife! Why did you say, “She is my sister”?" Isaac answered him, ‘Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.’ Then Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’ So Abimelech gave orders to all the people: ‘Anyone who molests this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.’”
There were three great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their names are grouped together like that on thirty occasions in the Bible. Isaac lived the longest dying at 180 years of age, but far less is written of him than of the other two, in fact this is the only chapter in the Scriptures devoted to Isaac exclusively, his son Jacob doesn’t receive a mention, and Esau only in the last couple of verses, a solitary sad reference. Dr. Griffith Thomas wrote this judgment of Isaac, that he was the ordinary son of a great father, and the ordinary father of a great son. That sort of thing will inevitably occur while men are spiritually born from above, not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will but of God. Of our children’s gifts and intelligence and vocations we must say, “Even so Father for so it seemed good in thy sight.” George Whitefield had a baby boy whom he called John. He felt sure that he would be a preacher, but the baby lived only a few weeks. It is God who knits together our children in their mothers’ wombs and gives them personality, intelligence, strength and identity. Then in his providence he works in their lives as they mature, and he leads many of them to confess him as the God and Saviour by the Spirit’s regeneration. We are dependent on God. If Cromwell’s son had been as strong and wise as his father then our land might have been one of the first republics in the modern world. It was not to be. If Spurgeon’s son Thomas had been a greater preacher then there might not have been a decline in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London after the old man died. It was not to be. We are not in the business of building dynasties. It’s cult leaders and dictators who do that sort of thing. We don’t live in a theocracy. These three patriarchs were all very different men. Isaac was a shadow of his father and his son.
- BELIEVERS CAN EXPERIENCE FAMINE TIMES AND TESTINGS.
That is how this chapter begins. Isaac has been given sons after twenty years of a childless marriage, and I would think that it was when they had grown up, after the event with the birthright, that this famine appeared in the land though some Christians believe that this event took place before the twins arrived. A famine would be a time of testing for God’s people and a time to spoil his enemies. How would Isaac respond? How will you respond as someone who has to trust in God when the going gets tough? Would Isaac respond as hungry, famished Esau had responded? Would food be all important to Isaac too, filling his own belly and those of his family, servants, flocks and herds? Would that be the paramount factor in his response? God had promised Isaac that he would supply all his needs, as he promises the same to us. There is this land promised to Abraham and his offspring – to Isaac particularly as the next in line – and this land is a picture of heaven. It stands for Isaac’s hope of glory and eternal life. Will Isaac behave like his son Esau in a time of trial and give up that land for a bowl of bean stew? Can Isaac believe that our God commits himself to providing for all his people even the simple things in life like daily bread? Does the Lord teach us to ask God ‘Give us this day our daily bread’? Is the mighty God so intimate and personal and kind as to stoop down and give us food for today? Men can reluctantly admit to believing in a God who set the earth spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun with all the planets, yes, God does that sort of thing, but guaranteeing food in my refrigerator today? Would he stoop so low and become so involved as to promise that? Will Isaac disbelieve?
Our Lord is a personal God not just some deity who winds things up and then lets the wheels all turn automatically from the atom to the galaxies. This is not a mechanistic universe; this is my Father’s cosmos and we all live and move and have our being in him. Sparrows fall in him, that is, by his will and by his purpose, not by chance. If Isaac does remain in the Promised Land, as God desires, then he will be declaring to Rebekah and to Esau and Jacob, &l
dquo;God will supply our needs. Don’t worry.” He is saying to his shepherds and herdsmen, “God will look after the flocks because the cattle on the thousand hills are all his.” What a wonderful lesson that would be for all the household of Isaac to learn. But if Isaac gives the orders, “Fold up your tents. Load them onto the wagons. Gather the herds all together. We are leaving the land and going south to . . . Egypt,” then it would be a very sad and eloquent statement of a loss of trust, and a decision that he would provide for himself and his family as best he could. What will happen?
The Holy Spirit reminds us that his father had gone through the same testing, there was “the earlier famine of Abraham’s time” (v.1), and Abraham had failed the test then, mighty man of faith that he was, he made a mess of things. In its way his fall is a little encouragement to us who often feel we truly believe but our faith is small, like a tiny mustard seed. Abraham is the father of all of us who believe, and yet our father failed to trust in God as he should at a difficult time, just as we do. Abraham faltered; he doubted whether God could keep him and his family alive and so off he had taken everyone and everything, lock, stock and barrel, to Egypt.
That was always the temptation of the people of God, to rely on Egypt and its river Nile, being fed remorselessly by the vast Lake Victoria rather than on God who promises he will care for us where he has put us. When the Israelites were delivered from Egypt they got into the wilderness where food and water were scarce and instead of looking to God’s provision they longed to return to Egypt, to the leeks and onions and fish. They no longer said to one another, “It won’t be like this when God gets us into Canaan. That place flows with milk and honey.” They were looking back to their days of bondage in Goshen in Egypt and not looking on to the life of freedom in Canaan. So Abraham had gone down to Egypt; the temptation to become an economic refugee there was overwhelming.
So, what would his son Isaac do? Would he follow the example of his old man? Would be trust in the promises of God to provide for them or would he trust in Egypt and the river Nile flowing down from Lake Victoria all the year round? What makes Isaac really secure and settled? Will it be the promises of God, or the presence of food? Isaac decides this, that he will go to . . . Gerar. Gerar? Now what does that mean? Is that Egypt or not? Was he obeying or not? We are deliberately kept in suspense by the Holy Spirit. We are not told up front what sort of decision this was. Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar, but we know that it was a kind of fiefdom within the borders of the Promised Land, so Isaac did not go outside its borders for provision. Why did Isaac go there? The next verses will tell us. We are not to think that Isaac took a compromise decision, not going to Egypt but not quite staying in the Promised Land. We are told in verse one that he went to Gerar and then the following verses unpack the decision, “let me tell you,” the Holy Spirit is saying, “how it happened that Isaac decided to set up his camp in the land of Gerar.”
Jehovah had appeared to Isaac and he had exhorted him, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live” (v.2). This was more of an exhortation than a commandment (Bill Baldwin points out on his helpful website). There are two ways of giving prohibitions in Hebrew; there is the strong dogmatic way, ‘Thou shalt not . . . Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil . . . Do not have any gods before me.’ Stern warnings are declared with sanctions for disobedience. ‘If you do these things I will punish you.’ Then there is the other way, the pleading exhortation which is what we have here; “I urge you not to go down to Egypt.” I think it is useful to be aware of distinctions like that otherwise you become a dogmatic heavy shepherd demanding total obedience on the slightest matters. In other words I can talk to you about attendance at meetings, about giving more money to the church, about not going out with an unbeliever, about not having a tattoo, about putting on nice clothes for Sunday worship and so on. Those things are not like one of the ten commandments. They are important but we must speak about them more gently and persuasively. That is what I see here, “I urge you not to go down to Egypt,” the Lord says. Remember how he encouraged his own son Jesus with Joseph and Mary to escape to Egypt. Things right at some times can be wrong at others. So the Lord is more persuasive here.
Listen to the whole tone of this beautiful exhortation of God, “‘Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.’” (vv.2-5). This is a true gospel command isn’t it? This is not, “Obey me . . . or you will die.” It is nothing like this. It is, “Consider everything I have spelled out in my promises to your father, and I am now repeating them to you and your children and your children’s children. You can rely on me . . .”
So God is talking sweetly with Isaac, as he talks to us, “Don’t go putting your trust in Egypt, Isaac. Think back to the time your father tied you to the altar and he took out his knife, remember? Of course you remember, and then the messenger of God cried out, ‘Don’t touch the child,’ and pointed out to you both a ram caught by its horns in a bush. That animal replaced you on the altar. It died in your place. It was provided by God. It died and you lived. Do you remember that? God spared your life all those years ago and hasn’t he since that time, with your long life, freely given you all things? He has given you your lovely wife, and didn’t I overcome her inability to have sons, and haven’t I blessed you with flocks and herds in abundance? Will I not provide for you in the future?” That is the way God pastors Isaac; the Lord is such a Wonderful Counsellor.
The Lord could also bring to Isaac’s mind how his father had gone down to Egypt and that that had brought disaster on him and Isaac’s mother, and how God had to rescue him from that. When Abraham tried to produce a child by his own scheming and his own strength the boy was rejected by God, but God showed his power again and opened Sarah’s womb so that Isaac owed his very existence to a mighty deliverance of God. He could speak tenderly with Isaac in this way, and that is how he pleads with us Christians to live more godly lives as we come under gospel preaching week by week. “Don’t behave like this,” the Lord says, “This is the way you should be going.” So he showed to Isaac the land where he should live during the famine, the land of Gerar. The famine had been a test. Now living in Gerar was another testing . There is
to be no escape from trials. God often says to us, “Now, do you really trust in me?”
2. BELIEVERS CAN BE BLESSED IN FAMINE TIMES AND TESTINGS.
Now I can plead with you as a preacher. . . I must plead with you, as though God did beseech you by me . . . but God himself does not appear to us as he once appeared to Isaac here (v.2). Isaac receives a special revelation of God’s grace – just as his father had had more than once. It was a divine assurance to Isaac that God had forgotten nothing of what he’d said to his father, that God’s promises still applied as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar. He assures Isaac, “I will be with you” (v.3). Isn’t that a precious promise? This is the first time in Scripture for God to say that. He had told Abraham that he would be his God, and that he would be the God of his offspring, but now it gets very personal; “I will be with you.” Two such different beings, the God who is a Spirit infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, and us who are born in the morning, live in the afternoon and die in the night. Why go down to Egypt with all its wealth and grain and bustling markets and fat children and water – and risk losing the presence of God? Don’t Christians go to strange places? They jeopardize losing the presence of God for what? You find Adam and Eve hiding from God behind bushes – what an undignified place to be. You find Jonah on a boat sailing on the Med. trying to get away from God. What an idiot, thinking that he could move somewhere else to be out of touch with God, when the greatest blessing of all is to be near to the Lord. “I will be with you,” the Lord says and then many years later this same incarnate resurrected Lord sends his servants off into all the world to preach the gospel to everyone – “Lo, I am with you always” he says. Today our comfort is breathtaking that when we meet in Jesus’ name this same God who spoke to Isaac is present in our midst too. There is that barely known hymn of William Williams, Pantycelyn, in which he writes these words;
In thy presence I am happy, in thy presence I’m secure;
In thy presence all afflictions I can easily endure.
In thy presence I can conquer, I can suffer, I can die,
Far from thee, I faint and languish; O thou Saviour, keep me nigh.
“Keep me near to you,” Pantycelyn is praying. Then the Lord continues and he adds another promise, “I will bless you” (v.3). Not the mere presence of God, never the mere presence of the Lord with us. We know he is omnipresent, but the joy is that he is present to bless, to strengthen our faith, to deepen our love, to lift our burdens, to answer our questions, to comfort us in our loneliness. To give us a hunger after righteousness, to make our rebel wills more submissive to God. Those are the blessings that come upon all of us from God. He has blessed us all our lives; he blessed our fathers in churches all over the world in the last century and earlier, and now he refuses to let us go blessing-less in the years that lie ahead. That is our hope too; he gives it by revelation to Isaac, and in the revelation of the Scriptures he gives that promise to us.
I was preaching in Margate at the Thanet Convention two weeks ago and in the congregation was a widow named Marion. I picked up her testimony on the book table. She spoke of the serious illness of her husband, and the chemotherapy he had, and the good recovery he made, but then he had a heart attack and three days later he died. She asked, “Where was God. There was so much we had planned to do, so much Roger wanted to do in the church. Surely there was a role for him? That was the time to remember God’s promises, not what I wanted him to promise. He never promised life would be easy. He never promised I would have everything I wanted or planned. He did promise his presence, never to leave me or forsake me. He did promise not to burden me with more than I could bear. Time to count my blessings. I had a loving family, a church family who supported me, a job, a home. And most important of all a loving heavenly Father who cared and watched over me.” She ended quoting Romans 8:28 that that promise of all working for our good was her trust. All those things were true in famine times for Isaac.
When God spoke to him he promised Isaac much more; he assured Isaac and his descendants that the land would be theirs, as he promised Abraham. His progeny was not going to be a remote tribe of a few hundred folk, speaking a language that only they know, somewhere in the midst of a secret valley unreached by the rest of the world, in a black hole where cell phones can’t operate. No! “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (v.4). This will not be not some secret society; this will not be not some monastic order of men living in a desert. This is a very numerous people who are present everywhere and making their presence known pervasively in every continent and city in the world 4000 years later, even today, announcing their weekly preaching services and never missing, running Christian bookshops, holding meetings in every university in the land so that people in every part of the world are affected by them. This is the God Isaac is being urged to trust. Let him not falter at the rare famine times that come into all our lives. Keep going! Keep trusting! Keep obeying! God is still being true to his determination that through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the world will be richly blessed.
God will do all this to the line of Abraham because the old man had trusted in God. Do you understand? If he had shrugged his shoulders and challenged what God had said, “Maybe . . . who knows?” then he wouldn’t have known a lifetime of extraordinary blessings. But Abraham had to trust God! He had heard the voice of God. God had met him and become his own God. Wouldn’t you trust such a speaking God? So the promise made to Isaac’s father also came and was nailed to Isaac, because Abraham had believed God and obeyed him. Because of Abraham’s faithful obedience Isaac was born, Isaac had a great wife, Isaac had sons, all because Abraham had responded to God – as any of us should respond when God speaks to us and makes great promises and pleads with us to obey him. So Isaac must never let go of this, that the blessings that had come to him came to him because of the righteousness of God imputed to believing Abraham. Isaac has to rely on the righteousness of another. And that is exactly where we stand today, we are looking back to the righteousness of great Abraham’s greater son Jesus the Christ. He has merited all the blessings of God’s presence with us, the forgiveness of our sins and the wonderful new heavens and new earth that lie before us because Jesus was faithful even to the death of the cross. He is the author and finisher of our faith. Believers are kept and blessed in famine times and testings because of God’s Son Jesus Christ.
- BELIEVERS CAN FALTER AT FAMINE TIMES AND TESTINGS.
“So Isaac stayed in Gerar” (v.6). He does exactly what God told him to do. He doesn’t go down to Egypt; he doesn’t think that his scheme of finding food and water there will be more reliable than God’s promises. He has learned from his father than Abraham had found no profit in going down to Egypt but rather much trouble, and so Isaac remained in the Land of Promise living in this fiefdom named Gerar ruled over by king Abimelech. He would rely on God’s presence and God’s blessing. Isaac listened to what God had said to him, his pleading exhortations, and he seemed to have been on track doing what God said.
But then Isaac faltered. He appeared to be doing so well, relying on God’s promises to be with him and bless him. He hadn’t do what his father had done and gone down into Egypt and ran into trouble. He exceeded his father’s faith, but then he reproduces one of his father’s less admirable actions. He doubts and worries and tells the people of Gerar that Rebekah is his sister. It is incredible! He is trusting God to be with him and God to provide his needs and yet Isaac is afraid of the lustful men of Gerar, that they will kill him and take Rebekah by force. God has told him very plainly that he will be with him, and yet he steps aside and makes it easier for his beloved Rebekah to be abducted by the men of Gerar. In fact they don’t abduct her, but he suggests that she is available, that she belongs to no man.
You read this and you say to yourself, “Here we go again!” We have been here before. We have been here before on two occasions. In Egypt Abraham pulled this stunt with his wife Sarah. Abraham had momentarily stopped relying on God. For a time he is scared of the Egyptians; he feels threatened by them and so he lies to them that his wife is in fact his sister, and he puts her in terrible danger. Then later on Abraham does the very same here in Gerar. Abraham feels that Abimelech has designs on his wife and that he will kill him to have his widow. I would think that this Abimelech of our text is Abimelech II the son of the king intimidating Abraham. God had sent barrenness upon the people of Abimelech’s household to judge them for taking away Abraham’s wife Sarah.
Didn’t Isaac know all this about Mum and Dad? Were there so many extraordinary events taking place in his father’s life that this incident was never spoken about? Hardly. Was the fact that nothing happened to Sarah during these falls of Abraham the only factor that seemed important to Isaac? His mother had been spared abduction and rape by his father saying she was his sister, and so Isaac would do the same thing, in the same place. Think of it! If Isaac remembered the incident he forgot or brushed aside the total failure of Abraham to trust in God. God has just told Isaac that he would be blessed because of the righteousness of Abraham, that is, the righteousness of Abraham is being visited upon his son Isaac, but here the sin of Abraham is being visited upon his boy. Isaac needs a better righteousness than Abraham’s own cobwebby righteousness in order to live in the presence of God for ever and possess that glorious place of which the land was a sign. Isaac needs a perfect spotless righteousness of the king of glory and of grace. Isaac has lost his trust in God his Sovereign Protector.
What does God do? He protects Rebekah; of course he does. Nothing whatsoever happens to her, not even a wolf-whistle. She becomes the invisible woman of Gerar. Rebekah does not suffer because of the failure of her husband’s walk. The weeks and months go by and no one in Gerar tries to take her. She is beautiful, certainly in the eyes of Isaac, though she is mature. No one agitates for her to be his bride though he might think she is eligible. The Lord is protecting and no one puts his hand on her to hurt her. All that should have humbled Isaac and given him the grace of repentance. He should have become stronger in faith, but none of that happens. He continues to live this lie that Rebekah was his sister.
So finally God acts as he does whenever there is a deceit in a relationship, and he brings matters to a head. King Abimelech one day sees Isaac giving Rebekah a long hug and a passionate kiss (v.8). They are locked in one another’s arms in a way that no brother and sister could be and Abimelech sees the warning lights flashing. “She is not his sister; she is his wife! The rogue!” The king becomes the means by which God rebukes Isaac for his unbelief. God uses a pagan ruler to chastise the believing son of Abraham, just as Abimelech’s father had rebuked Isaac’s father. The son of the king can remember what happened in the days of his father with Abraham and his wife. He knows that God is with Isaac and Rebekah – he knows this better than Isaac himself! This pagan knows that to touch this man, to curse him is to draw upon yourself the curse of God. That is what God had said to Abraham, “Those who curse you I will curse.” His father had taken Sarah not knowing it was Abraham’s wife but still he and his household came under God’s curse. Abimelech knew better than Isaac what Isaac ought to have known like the back of his hand, that you don’t mess around with the God of Abraham. He is omnipotent and he is holy. He guards and protects his people. He watches over them.
The king rebuked Isaac; he had a conscience as did all they men of Gerar. The things of the law were written in their hearts. They didn’t have the Bible but they knew sexual violence was wrong. ; “Then Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’ So Abimelech gave orders to all the people: ‘Anyone who molests this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.’” (vv.10&11). Isaac had been afraid of what Abimelech might do to him; he was more afraid of him than of what God might do to him. “Fear him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear.” It was a breakdown of trust. In one area of his life the pagan Abimelech had a greater appreciation of God’s power than Isaac. The king wouldn’t lift a finger to hurt him or Rebekah and he wouldn’t allow anyone else to do so for fear that the judgment of God would fall on them. God cared for Isaac in spite of his little faith, just as he had cared for limping Abraham.
You may know of people who oppose the gospel being preached in a congregation. It could be situation in East Africa; it could be in west Wales; it could be anywhere. Wherever there is a flock of Christ’s sheep there are wolves who would destroy it. “Oh, it wasn’t the gospel, it was the man who was the minister there,” they complain. You heard their threats and grumblings. They intimidated you. What might they do to undermine the ministry and the fellowship of this church? You lay awake and wondered what might happen. You know what you were doing? You were looking to men and being afraid of men, whereas you should have been looking to God who is the Good Shepherd of his congregations, the one who will build his churc
h so that not only are men unable to destroy it, the gates of hell are helpless to do so. The men who would have pulled a gospel temple down around them were not as strong as Samson, and they gave up. It was their own testimony that they destroyed. They came to realize that they could do nothing to prevent the work of God going on, and the whole counsel of God being preached, and godliness and separation from the world being encouraged and practiced. They postured, and plotted, and threatened, but all that came from it was a bout of care for the people of God, and they cast that on the Lord who cared for them. The opponents quit the field and left the congregation in peace. The Shepherd had protected his cause and his name and his truth and his little flock from the wolves as he protected Rebekah from the foolish actions of another mere weak Christian.
Stop being like Isaac. Stop living in fear, What can man do to you? Stop relying on your own abilities and your own schemings. Isaac relied on those and see where it got him. Of course God still protected him – that is the grace of God, but Isaac could have lived those years without fear, giving glory to God by telling the truth in all things, and relying on God to keep his promises. God has appeared to us in Christ, and in Christ he says to us, “I will be with you.” He says, “I will bless you.” Did God say this to Isaac? Yes. He says it even more plainly to you. He was not talking of earthly riches and human relationships that all pass away. The blessing that God offers is clarified in Christ. It is richer and deeper. It is eternal. It is the city of God. God said to Isaac, “To you and your offspring I will give all these lands,” that is the new heavens and the new earth. They are ours by right of inheritance; they are reserved for us.
“And though they take our life, goods, honours, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small; these things shall vanish all;
The city of God remaineth.” Martin Luther.
Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken let us lay up our treasure there. In Christ all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed. He has redeemed for himself people from every nation, tribe and tongue. Who can thwart the plans of God, the God who makes such powerful promises, and keeps them in a more glorious way than we could have expected?
Only trust in Christ. Cling to his righteousness. Rely on God’s faithfulness – great is his faithfulness. Fear nothing though you are surrounded by enemies. He will prepare a table for you in the presence of your enemies. As Bill Baldwin says, “The lusts of the flesh may tempt you. What do they offer that compares to what you have already received from God and what you’re going to get one day? The desire of your eyes may try to turn you aside, but what do your eyes see more glorious than the glories of God in Christ – glories to be revealed in the last day. The desire to boast in yourself may lead you astray. Put that to death. Have you ever done anything that was totally and absolutely good, 100% good? Never. Your hopes are all in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, aren’t they? What can you do to care for and protect yourself? Without the armour supplied by God you are utterly vulnerable. You are a sheep who daily needs the good Shepherd as your Sovereign Protector. With walls of salvation he surrounds the soul he delights to defend. You are no better than Isaac; your plans will attain no more than his. So always trust in God and boast in the Lord and give him the glory for ever.
27th June 2010 GEOFF THOMAS