Genesis 17:1-8 “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’ Abram fell face down, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’

This is one of the more important chapters of Scripture. If there were red-letter Old Testaments in which the words of Jehovah were printed in red then you can see that most of this chapter to verse 21 would be printed in that colour. It is full of the self-revelation of God. In other words if you want to know what God is like – and who doesn’t want to know that? – then this is one chapter to read and understand who God is and what he does.



Abram was now 99 years of age. Thirteen silent years had passed since he had gone to the servant girl Hagar at his wife’s suggestion and Hagar had conceived Ishmael. I wonder what had happened in Abram’s household during the following years? Don’t we often ask questions like that about events in the Bible? What was Jesus of Nazareth like when he was sixteen years of age? What was the result of Paul’s trial in Rome? Was he eventually found guilty? Did Peter die a martyr’s death? Obviously the church doesn’t need to know answers to such questions or God would have given them to us. We won’t become any stronger in faith by knowing them. When pregnant Hagar returned from the wilderness after her encounter with the angel of the Lord did she find the family quiet, chastened and repentant because of her sudden flight? Did they all turn to God confessing their sins and spend the next years walking modestly with God? We know three things certainly, that these years were lightened and cheered by the growth of little Ishmael, Abram’s only son. The old man loved him dearly, in fact Abram hoped that that Ishmael would inherit the covenant and the promises of God (v.18). We also know, secondly, that any earthly hope that Abram and Sarai had of having a baby by natural means had virtually vanished because now Sarai was in her 90th year (v.17). We also know, thirdly, that there had been no divine visitations during these thirteen years. After Abram had slept with Hagar and she had conceived Ishmael heaven was silent; neither God nor even one of his angels had come and spoken to the old patriarch throughout that period.

Then a time came when Jehovah God determined to give Abram a personal visitation. He suddenly appeared mercifully and lovingly and spoke at length to Abram. The doubts and imperfections of Abram and Sarai had not rendered void the purposes of God. They had been silent years, yes, but God still loved Abram and intended to bless all the nations of the world through him. God’s promise to him hadn’t fallen to the ground. God’s periods of silence are always deliberate. Not only does God always know best, and does best, but he takes action at precisely the best time. We’d probably judge that the age of 99 wasn’t the optimum time for God to come and revive our faith. We would prefer it to be at 86 or much younger, but God fulfils his promises in the fulness of time. He is never late and he is never early. God is always on time. If we have not known great blessings as young people then why shouldn’t our last years be our most fruitful and blessed and useful years? The best is still to come!

It has now been twenty-five years from the time that the Lord first appeared to Abram and promised him a son. Why was God waiting so long to give to him and Sarai their baby Isaac? The answer is that God was pastoring and strengthening the faith of Abram weaning him from his self-reliance, encouraging the old man to realise with stronger conviction than he’d ever known before, that God’s work didn’t depend on Abram’s leadership, and his wits, and his energy, but rather everything Abram had did actually depend on God. The work that God was going to achieve through the descendants of Abram didn’t all hang on Abram doing something first. Without the Lord, Abram could do nothing. God acts in grace when he knows we’re convinced that our only hope is for God to rise and come to us. That time comes when we’ve been brought to the end of ourselves and repent of our self-centred thinking. We have to come to this awareness; “Thou must save, and Thou alone.” If we don’t feel like that we are still trusting too much in our works.

There was once a discussion taking place amongst a number of ministers about the work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians. Does God have to wait for us to do something first? One of the preachers turned to an elder in the congregation who was listening to the preachers. He asked the elder if he had a contribution to make. Immediately he replied, “I fought against God with all my strength, and he won.” Abram had been fighting the sovereignty of God regarding a birth of a son that could only come from above. God alone could do this. Abram ha
d to be persuaded that the only way he and Sarai could be delivered from their barrenness was by a divine work of God. Nothing else could achieve parenthood. No other way could produce a son but a supernatural work of God. When men are aware that God alone can save them then they will cast themselves on God crying, “Save me, please!” Then they will give God all the glory for whatever happens. It is then that God does remarkable things. When the people of Israel were without any protection facing the chariots and military might of Egypt then they were cast on the living God who alone could save them. God said to them, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” In the time of this incident in Genesis 17 Abram was almost a hundred years of age and his wife ten years younger, and though people at that time lived longer than we do today yet both husband and wife knew that Sarai’s womb was incapable of conceiving a child. It was when they were convinced of this that God acted and he gave them a son. They would never, never pride themselves on any achievement on their part in begetting Isaac. They would never even think, “We were the ones who fulfilled God’s promise. We were active and fertile in old age.” Never. It was all a work of God, and this ancient pair at last were deeply aware of this.



When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers’” (vv. 1&2). Immediately we see that the way God revived Abram’s faith was by revealing himself to Abram in words. The way God revives our faith is by his word. That truth brought about the mighty Reformation under Knox and Calvin and Luther. Now let me just remind you for a few moments about Abram’s condition. Abram had been given his distinctive name by his father Terah, and we may safely estimate that as the years passed he bore it with a measure of submission but not delight, because the name ‘Abram’ meant ‘exalted father.’ He had had to endure bearing that name into his adult life. Imagine some people passing through Ur from Mesopotamia and going on to Egypt. They stopped at his home and enjoyed hospitality, and then over the meal questions would be asked. “Your name is . . .? “Exalted father,” the old patriarch says. “Ah . . . and how many children do you have Abram?” “None,” mutters Abram. How many times did that man have to answer that question in the seventy years of his adult life? It’s almost a cruel joke. “How many children, ‘Exalted Father’?” “None.”

Then at the age of eighty-six he has a child by Hagar, and Abram becomes comfortable with the idea that maybe Ishmael is going to be the one through whom God will fulfil these promises of many descendants. You can understand his feelings. Finally, the poor man when he’s asked the question, “Abram, how many children do you have?” can say well, “I have one son.” Most of them could speak of many sons. Abram’s name still seemed a bit over the top for a man with just one child. The Irishman Frank O’Conner wrote his biography twenty years ago and he gave it the plaintive title, An Only Child and My Father’s Son.

So Abram at ninety-nine had begun to be content with his only child, and he was on the verge of ceasing to look for further divine favour. “This is how it is going to be from now on until my death,” he was thinking. John Calvin judges, “Abram being contented with his only son, Ishmael, ceased to desire any other seed.” In fact you can see Abram crying to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (v.18). In other words, “Oh that what exists already before my adoring eyes, this beautiful young teenage boy, might satisfy you, Lord, and fulfil your intentions!” Do you see how Abram had got . . . if not the very thing God had promised him, he’d got something at least very much like it. We can be like that can’t we? We become content with a substitute for the blessing of God on our lives and the life of our churches because we have other things – maybe we have numbers and music and a happy spirit in the congregation; “In these dark days let us be satisfied! We cannot afford to be picky!” So Abram had almost ceased to look or long earnestly for anything else. He was satisfied with his own accomplishment; he was no longer asking God to fulfil his glorious promise that God would give to him and Sarai a son who would be the father of the Seed of the Woman and would bless all the nations. His faith in this promise was like a spider’s thread. His hopes were focused on Ishmael. So how great was the need of a revival of faith and hope in Abram’s family, and that is what the Lord comes to give him. Notice God’s way of doing this – we can call it the divine methodology – and there were three steps:

i] God reveals his own nature afresh to Abram. So after thirteen long years the Lord appeared to Abram and introduced himself to the old patriarch like this; “I am God Almighty.” Spiritual renewal begins with the sight of God. It was like this for Moses in the desert, and it was so for Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died when the prophet was in the temple and the Lord appeared to him there, high and lifted up and his train filling the temple. When we perceive God’s character, when we see who and what he is, as he reveals his attributes and nature and glory to us, then we are awakened. Our faith is renewed. Our souls are revived.

So that day, out of the blue the Lord homed in on Abram, and God spoke, saying these words, “I am El Shaddai.” This is the first time God was to make himself known by this majestic name meaning ‘God the Almighty.’ None but El Shaddai could do what he had long promised Abram, but with the Almighty God all things are possible. He is the God of absolute omnipotence, and while that strikes terror into the hearts of those who reject him nothing could be more comforting to his people. Because he is El-Shaddai he is able to succour us when we are tempted. Because he is El Shaddai nothing can ever separate us from his love. Because he is El Shaddai he is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask to think. Because he is El Shaddai none can ever pluck us from his hands. Because he is El Shaddia he is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before his presence with exceeding joy. El Shaddai is the one who is always able to cope.

This name of the omnicompetent God appears very often in the Old Testament, for example in the books of Ruth and Job it is significantly present, God is El Shaddai, but especially here in Genesis you meet him using this name of might and majesty. It highlights the power of God, his all-sufficiency, his total self-sufficiency, that he never needs any external life-support system to survive. He lives in and of and from himself alone from eternity to eternity. He is without beginning or end of days. Someone has pointed out that in Genesis this name for God tends to be matched to situations where God’s servants are struggling and losing faith. They need assurance that God is with them. That’s exactly where Abram is at when the Lord comes to him and says, “I am El Shaddai.”

The late James Montgomery Boice tells of the letterhead of a Chinese evangelist called Leland Wong. He had three Scripture verses on his letterhead; he&rs
quo;d selected them in order to bear his testimony to the great power of God. The first scripture verse he chose says: “The sun stood still,” Joshua 10:13. The second scripture verse was, “The iron did swim,” 2 Kings 6:6, and the third Scripture verse was Psalm 48:14: “This God is our God.” By clustering these verses together, Leland Wong was affirming that his God did the impossible;” “The sun stood still.” “The iron did swim” and “This God is our God.” That was Leland Wong’s God in persecuting times, and he is our God today – El Shaddai. That is precisely what God was saying to Abram, “Abram, I can do anything.”

Shouldn’t Abram have had goose pimples the moment he heard God coming and introducing himself like that? When the Lord said those words he was saying, “Abram I’m going to fulfil my promise to you at my time, where you have lost all hope. I’m going to have to change the way you’ve been thinking. I am going to remove your complacency and your dependence upon Ishmael. I am going to do something extraordinary in your life.” So God revealed himself to Abram as the Almighty one, the one whose only limitation on anything he does is his own will.

ii] God declares his demands afresh to Abram. I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be blameless” (v.1). God never comes to revive us without reviving within us our holy calling. There are always man’s solemn responsibilities in God’s covenant of grace. God the Good Shepherd comes seeking for Abram and Sarai, reminding them of how mighty God is – El Shaddai! But God’s covenants have obligations and responsibilities, and immediately Abram is given again the divine requirement; “Walk before me and be blameless.” In other words, “Abram be like your forefather Enoch who walked with me. Be like Noah, Abram, who also walked with me. Don’t turn away from me and walk as those the world judges to be great. Walk through life before me. Set your hopes and thoughts on me.”

Abram was to live under the conscious gaze of God Almighty; to walk before El Shaddai. That is, Abram was to live in such a way that our holy and pure heavenly Father could look upon Abram and see himself living like that. You watch families coming into church at the beginning of the service, going to their pews and you often notice how sons walk like their fathers. So Abram was to walk before El Shaddai, living under the gaze of God, as a blameless son. He was to be a man of integrity, a man who was whole-hearted in his commitment to God. Abram was not to be a hypocrite. He was to truly love God, trust God and worship God from the inside out, and his outward actions were to flow from that inward trust in God. You have heard me use the lovely Latin phrase coram deo many times. It means that we are to live our entire lives before the face of God, under the eyes of God, under the gaze of God. That is exactly what God is saying when he says to Abram, “Walk in my light; live before my eyes. With integrity and wholeheartedness serve me all your days.” In other words, don’t be double-minded, half-hearted and hypocritical. Serve God with all your heart. This is the challenge of these words. We went to church one Sunday and God spoke to us in the preaching of his word. What did he say? “You walk before me next week, and all the weeks of your life. This is the life I bless.”

Live knowing that the eyes of the Lord were upon you, and under his special inspection. Think of how self-conscious you are when driving your car and a police car comes up behind you and sits on your tail just ten yards behind you for a few miles. How your awareness that he is watching all you do as you drive makes you very, very careful. So we are to live as those who are conscious that El Shaddai is seeing and hearing us, realizing his presence, feeling his open and unslumbering eyes ever upon us. But he is with us not like the traffic police to spot some violation and pull us over. His fatherly eyes of redeeming love are on us, the Father we love and want to please in everything we do. He is the Father whose desire is to bless and keep us. We want to be perfect, blameless, and upright in our walk before God. Only the children of God can desire and do that. You’ve got to trust him. Our walk with God is the expression of our faith in him. Then you are not afraid that his holy eyes are on you. Our calling this week is to walk before God in our integrity, to set God always before us, to think, and speak, and act in everything, as those who are always under his eyes, to have a constant regard to his word. “Abram, walk before me, live before me in such a way that I take pleasure in your living and your trust in Me.”

iii] God renews his covenant afresh to Abram. The Lord gives Abram two good reasons why he ought to comply with those responsibilities – why he ought to walk before God and be blameless. He says, “I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will greatly increase your numbers” (v.2). In other words he says to Abram that after all these silent years he, at least, has not forgotten his covenants and promises. So Abram should walk before God and be blameless because of the wonderful things God is going to do for him. So he draws attention to the covenant. He says, “I will confirm the covenant I’ve made with you.” Thirteen years had passed since God in the form of a furnace and a shining light had passed up and down the avenues of carcasses, but God is saying, ‘I am now confirming that covenant with you. You trust me and walk before me blamelessly because what I’ve promised to do I’m going to do. I will certainly greatly increase your numbers.”

We should never begin to read and study the Scriptures, or hear the Bible preached without a longing to know what it can teach us about our God. That’s the secret of soul-fattening preaching, to turn to the Scriptures and search for what they teach us first and foremost about God. We must hear about God. What is God? Who is God? How can I know God for myself? That is why we are here, not with an itch to get some tip that’s relevant to my life. Of course, the Scriptures are relevant to us, but that’s not a big deal is it? It’s saying too little. Dr. Ligon Duncan makes the point that claiming that “the Scriptures are relevant to us” is like claiming that petrol is relevant to running a car. Big deal! Is the Pope a Catholic? If I were to stand up here and give you a lecture on the need to put petrol in your car before going anywhere, you wouldn’t say “Doh! How profound! I’d never thought of that . . .” You’d think I was one brick short of a load. Of course that’s true, and of course the Bible is relevant to believers’ daily living, but it is far more important to come to church asking, “Now what does this chapter teach me about the one true and living God – my own Creator and Judge? Preacher, show to me God!” I have told you about David Wells’ friend, a theologian, who says to him, “I go to church but I never hear sermons about God.” What a loss! Seeing again the greatness of God and the covenant that he’s made with us, that is what strengthens our faith for the walk that God has called us to take through life in this uncertain earthly pilgrimage. God revives our faith by renewing in us his covenant promises. Abram saw again through an encounter with the great God that he was a debtor to mercy alone, a debtor to covenant mercy.


  1. GOD

God revives our faith through meeting with us and speaking to us in his word, and by renewing his covenant and reminding us of our duties. Finally he continually brings to us his exceeding great and precious promises. You’ll see at least six of them in this passage;

i] God promises to multiply Abram exceedingly (v.2). In other words, God is going to do something beyond Abram’s thinking, because Abram is obsessed with his dynamic energetic thirteen year old son called Ishmael. Abram is thinking that he is going to be the one through whom the Seed of the woman will come. “No, Abram, my plan is much grander than you have imagined. I haven’t finished with you yet. You are glad that you’ve had one son at 86 years of age. Listen, ‘I will greatly increase your numbers.’” That’s the proto-promise Abram heard way back in Ur of the Chaldeans, and it is reiterated here by God. See Abram’s response? At those words he fell on his face, in fact he has hardly clambered to his feet again and listened to El Shaddai continuing to speak before he falls flat on his face again when he hears that his 90 year old wife is going to have a baby (v.17). In verse three he collapses in worship and fear – “is God going to do this to me?” He says nothing at all. It’s his body language as he falls that is declaring so eloquently his wonder and faith in God. Abram doesn’t stand and argue the impossibility of this event happening, but when he hears what’s going to happen to his wife he falls on his face with joy and laughs and laughs with delight. “My Sarai has always wanted a baby, and now she is going to have one at her time of life!” He is so overjoyed he can’t keep standing.

ii] God promises to make Abram “the father of many nations” (v.3). See how God wants this fact to register on Abram. El Shaddai repeats in verse five; “I will make you a father of many nations,” and he even reiterates it in verse six, “I will make nations of you.” That is the reason why Abram’s name was changed, because God promised to make him a father of a multitude of nations, because that is what the name ‘Abraham’ means. This new name was a seal of what God now reckoned him to be; it was a pledge of what in due time God would actually make him become. God would make him a father indeed. The new name was an explicit personal divine guarantee of his fruitfulness. When God names someone he is stating that he will accomplish what the child’s parents cannot accomplish. This boy will fulfil the meaning of the name that I have given him. Abraham will be fruitful – just as Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth. To a 99 year-old man this paradisaic name was given. How can he be fruitful and become the father of many nations? Abraham is given what El Shaddai will accomplish.

Can you think of Abram walking back to the tents that night? For decades he had borne the reproach of the name Abram, an ‘exalted father.’ For the last thirteen years he’d found some relief that he’d finally got a son. This day he goes back to his tent to announce to his servants and family and friends, “Goodbye ‘Abram’! Welcome ‘Abraham!’ Men and women I have this announcement to make. I want you to know that El Shaddai has changed my name. I am no longer to be known as Abram. That is not going to be my name from now on, not ever. Henceforth I am to be addressed by all of you as . . . ‘Abraham’.” I mean, can you imagine the varied reactions of the household? They would be thinking half way through the speech that perhaps the Lord would have given him – as a father of an only child – a rather more appropriate name – ‘Contented Father’ or something like that – maybe ‘Got just one and glad to have one’ in Hebrew – one of those long O.T. names . . . a bumper sticker name! But it was not like that. Abram declared to them his new name ‘Abraham’ and it hit them between the eyes. He said to them, “From now on you have to address me like this, ‘father of many nations.’”

How little Abraham and the prophets of the Old Testament understood of the glories of the Seed of the woman who one day would come, the son of Abraham. How little Abraham knew of the literal immensity of the kingdom of God filled with men and women from every nation and tongue and tribe, all blessed by his Seed, and he the father of all who believe. You think of the picture in the book of Revelation, chapter 7 and verse 9; “And after these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands.” They are that nation promised here in Genesis 17 verses four and five and they are the ‘nations’ of verse six. Jesus himself confirms that in John, chapter 8. The Jews talking with him there said to Jesus, “Surely you are not greater than our father Abraham who died? Who or what do you make yourself out to be?” In answer to that, among other things, Jesus said in John 8:56: “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.” And in verse 58 he says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.” How is our faith revived? When we think of heaven and the millions and millions of followers of the Lord who will be there because God promised Abram that all the nations of the earth would be blessed by his Seed. What God promises he fulfils and our faith is quickened by a sight of such glory.

iii] God promises to make kings come from Abraham (v.6). El Shaddai already promised him land and that he will be a father of many nations, but now he expands his promise, not only the father of nations, the father of kings. All the great kings of Israel and Judah, David and Solomon and Asa and Joash and Amaziah and Azariah and Hezekiah and Josiah, each one could say truly, “My father is Abraham.” And in the fulness of time the great King of heaven would come to earth and he would exercise authority over the winds and waves, the very demons would obey this king. He had authority over disease and over death. They crucified him and nailed him to a cross but then they attached this superscription over his head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” He was the son of Abraham, and he was King David’s greater son, and he was the Son of God. This dead branch is going to be very fruitful.

iv] God promises to establish his covenant with all his descendants (v.7). “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” It is very emphatic that this covenant is not like a marriage covenant between one man exclusively and one woman exclusively. This covenant is with Abraham, yes, but it is also with his descendants after him even when he’s dead and buried. The covenant will not be dead and buried. The covenant will live on. This covenant will still stand with Abraham’s seed (translated here by the N.I.V. as ‘descendants’). This fact is mentioned twice in this seventh verse, and it is repeated in verses 8 and 9 and 10 and 19. God is going to be with this particular people. They will say, ‘God is with us.’ I know I have a personal relationship with God. I can sing to him, “Mine, min
e, mine, I know Thou art mine.” That is true, but I have also been baptized into the body of Christ. I am a member of the people of God. I am not a loner Christian. I am in the family of faith, the family of believers who have Abraham as their head. We see here the establishment of the covenant community of the people of God which is here today. Now it has taken on a new form. It is a covenant of timeless validity, a covenant in perpetuity with those believers who truly have Abraham as their father.

v] God promises give Abram and his descendants the whole land (v.8). “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you.” God had called him out of Ur and promised him this land, but he is still living in a tent and sharing the grazing of Canaan with the Canaanites. Yet one day the whole land will be his and by the time of David a thousand years later that land was his descendants. But that is not the climax of this promise to Abraham and his descendants as if there were nothing greater than these acres. Think of a farmer who drives on his tractor with his ten year old son and takes around the circumference of the great field which is like a sea of wheat. He says to his son, “After my days this land will all be yours.” But the farmer lives another 45 years and in the mean time God prospers him and he buys other fields alongside that first field. Then he does the same across the country he expands his lands with huge acres of fields and forests and rivers and lakes and mountains to the north and south and east and west. When he dies does his son just have the one great field that he promised him? Of course he doesn’t. He has all the land that God has prospered him with. Hundreds of miles away he has thousands of acres in every part of the world and he even has holdings overseas.

So it is with the descendants of Abraham. It is not the physical children, those joined through the umbilical cord with Abraham, who are counted as his seed but those who like Abraham believe the promises of God and trust in the covenant mercies of Christ for salvation. These men and women are not only in Israel they are now all over the world. They are Aborigines and Chinese and Kikuyu. The kingdom of God is everywhere, and they are all looking forward to the day when the earth will be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham. This is their everlasting possession. There will be a new heavens and a new earth and it is God’s gift to us – far more glorious than a piece of real estate at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The meek who trust in the God of Abraham will inherit the earth. Abraham knew that now he was living in a tent but one day he would live in a renewed creation.

vi] God promises he will be their very own God.I will be their God” (v.8). This is a marriage pledge from God to Abraham. God is eagerly affirming his own, “I will! I will belong to you. I will be Abraham’s God and eternal possession.” He’s pronouncing his own “I do!” He is saying, “Most certainly I am going to be your God, Abraham, and the God of your spiritual descendants. I’m going to be their God.” This is the greatest gift that could possibly be given. He gave not only many gifts and graces to Abraham, but he gave himself to him and his covenant people. This indicates the true reality of the covenant blessing. God’s covenant people would not only know covenant blessing, they would possess the God of the covenant as their own God. El Shaddai is Jesus – Jesus, Jesus, all sufficient to us, just as long as we are in covenant with him. This covenant with Abraham was originally a covenant with Christ. In him it stands and for his sake all his people are accepted and blessed. We have everything in him, and we have enough in him, all that can satisfy our deepest desires, enough to supply our greatest needs, enough to secure everlasting happiness for our immortal souls. Less could not satisfy, more is not desired.

14th June 2009 GEOFF THOMAS