Promise and Faithfulness. Genesis 17:15-27
The fourth speech given in verses 15-17 is the name change of Sarai, and she is said to be the mother of nations as well as kings. This parallels the second speech where Abraham was said to be the father of nations and kings.
Genesis 17:15, "And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be." Sarai and Sarah both have the same Hebrew root. Sarai is understood to be my princess with the first person singular ending. Some confusion entered into this during the early part of the 20th century. The Septuagint translated Sarai as Sara. Then Sarah was transliterated into Greek as Sarra. At one time scholars in their attempt to understand the meaning of the name suggested that a possible root based on the Greek transliteration might have been a root meaning contentious or striving. But that has been thoroughly rejected by Hebrew scholars. Her name is given a new significance when God renames her "Princess," because it moves to an absolute category because now she is going to be the mother of nations and kings.
The promise that is given in verse 16 is that God is going to bless her. "And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her." We see here another very important word, the word for "bless." It is the Hebrew word barak, meaning to kneel, to bless, to praise, or even to salute. It has a variety of meanings. The root occurs 415 times in the Old Testament and about 220 of them occur in the piel stem, which is the intensive stem. The piel stem is the primary way in which blessing is used. While some scholars suggest that there is a relationship between the idea of kneeling and receiving a blessing it is better to understand these as two different words. The word barak for blessing didn't come from the word barak for kneeling. It is called a homonym—they are spelled the same, they sound the same but they are from two different roots. Blessing is an important concept to understand. The basic idea of blessing is the idea of someone being endued with power or strength for success, for prosperity, for longevity, for fruitfulness, for productivity. Somehow God is enduing a person with a certain amount of strength or power to accomplish His will for their lives in some cases, or to fulfill a mission. This is the basic idea. For example, in Genesis chapter one God blessed the animals that they would be fruitful and multiply. So God gave them the power of procreation. That is what that means.
Blessing is used three different ways in the Scripture. When God is the subject, when God is blessing something and man or something else is the object, then God is the one who is enduing man with something. He is giving him some power to accomplish some task. When man is both subject and object, for example if someone blesses something or someone else with something or says to someone, May you be blessed, then the idea is that they are expressing a wish that God would endue them with a certain amount of power, strength, etc. But when we shift it around and God is the object of the verb, e.g. Bless God, or, We are going to come together to bless God, it is phraseology is used in the Psalms a number of times, and it is a synonym for praising God for blessing us. The idea is that we are going to praise God because He has endued us with this power or ability to be fruitful, productive, to have good life, long life, healthy life, prosperity, these ideas. The root idea isn't to be confused with some kind of material prosperity but God giving the ability to accomplish the task that He has designated for the individual.
So God says, "I will bless her." And what is the context? She is going to have a baby. It is productivity, fruitfulness. God is going to give this 90-year-old woman the ability to have children. "… and give you a son." Here we have the verb natan in the Hebrew which indicates grace. God is going to give in grace a son. This is the first time we have had "son" in reference to the covenant. Up to this point it has been "many descendants, seed," but it hasn't been designated "son." This creates a little conflict in Abraham's thought patterns because it doesn't quite fit his world view.
Genesis 17:17, "Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?" There are two ways to interpret this. The first way that some people teach is that he is laughing in derision, mocking God, this is a great joke, as if this is an expression of his unbelief. The second way to take it is that this is an expression of belief, he is laughing out of joy and the question is really a question of expressing joy. That is what is happening here. Abraham is not doubting God, he is expressing this question out of joy and out of excitement over the fact that God is now finally going to bring to fruition this promise of a seed that He has made down through the years. And the point is, it is going to come through Sarah. So he is expressing joy, certainty, and his faith and trust in God that God is finally going to bring to fruition the promise that He has made "Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed." This is the verb from which we get Isaac, which means laughter. It is a laughter of joy that this is happening in their latter years. So Abraham laughs and this becomes the basis for Isaac's name.
But then Abraham still shows his cultural problems, he has quite yet broken through his cultural boundaries. Just like most of us. We have certain strait jackets on our thinking that are put there because of the thinking of the culture around us. This happens with Abraham because in his culture it is the firstborn male who gets the inheritance. Abraham can't get past the fact that Ishmael is the firstborn, and so the inheritance, the double portion, should go to Ishmael. So he stops and says, okay, I am going to have another son and the seed is going to go through him, but I need to ask for a blessing for Ishmael, he needs to be blessed by God as well. So he is requesting a blessing for Ishmael: "And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before you!"
Genesis 17:19, 20, God responds in a very gracious way. "And God said, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation." He demonstrates that He is not going back on any promises that He made to Hagar related to Ishmael, that there will be promises fulfilled to Ishmael and his descendants, but He reiterates the fact that it is through Sarah that the line is going to progress, not through Hagar. "Covenant" is a key word in this chapter. It is repeated about eight or nine times through the chapter and indicates a central idea here, that God is establishing this contract specifically with Abraham. It is going to be fulfilled with Abraham and Sarah and is going to descend through Isaac and his descendants. And again it is stated that this is an everlasting covenant.
"Behold, I have blessed him." Here we have a qal perfect of the word for barak, and the qal perfect tense is used throughout this section. The Hebrew perfect is past tense—prophetic past. It is something that is going to happen in the future but it is so certain of fulfillment that it is spoken of as having already been accomplished. This is how God's promises function in all of our lives. They are so certain of fulfillment that they are spoken of frequently in the past tense, indicating that in the plan of God they are already fulfilled. How is this blessing for Ishmael accomplished? "I will make him fruitful." He will have many descendants. The aspect of the twelve princes is fulfilled in Genesis 25:12-18. It is also important to note that Ishmael is going to produce twelve princes, which is a temporal idea indicating temporal political leadership, secular leadership, whereas through Abraham there will be twelve tribes. A tribe is a much more permanent concept than that of a prince.
Genesis 17:21, a reiteration of His promise. "But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto you at this set time in the next year."
Abraham's obedience is explained from verse 23 down to the end of the chapter. "And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him." There is an instant and willing obedience, and we see this among all those present. There is no resistance to this, there is a heart-felt response to the command of God and so all the males are circumcised. Then at the conclusion of the chapter there is the statement that Abraham is ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised.
The key doctrine that under girds this chapter is the doctrine of God's faithfulness. Hebrews 11:11, "Through faith [by means of the doctrine in her soul] also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because [of something in her soul] she judged him faithful who had promised." There is always the spiritual dimension. What the Bible says under girds everything that is happening here. God is making a promise on the one hand, and this is articulated through a human convention called a covenant or a contract. This is a unilateral contract where God is binding Himself to the contract. He is going to keep the promise; He is faithful to His Word, to the stipulations of the contract. This is what we learn in the doctrine of God's faithfulness, that God is always faithful to His promise and to His word, and He binds Himself to these agreements with us so that we can in turn have confidence and stability in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty, when it looks like the whole world crashing around us. When things that we were confident of we can no longer be confident of we realize that the only things that has stability in the entire universe is God. Everything else is going to change. God is in a permanent state of stability and therefore we can always count on Him.
The doctrine of the faithfulness of God
a. The Hebrew concept is really germane to understanding the New Testament because the New Testament writers are all Jews and are writing from a Jewish background and are understanding of the Jewish Scriptures. We have a word group in Hebrew, as we have in Greek which is based on the word PISTOS [pistoj], and it is based on the word aman. The root meaning in the qal stem is to confirm, to support, or to uphold. In fact, in one of the noun forms of aman, which probably relates to emeth (truth), is used in Chronicles describing the foundation stone that is sunk down into the ground under the pillars of the temple. We are talking about a root concept of stability, something that is not going to shift or change, something that is immovable. So when we talk about this whole word group that is the root idea: something that provides support, stability, certainty. This word group not only means faithful, it also is a word group that indicates truth and it is one that relates to the meaning of the word "believe." So faith is understood here as putting your reliance on something that is stable, concrete and unshakeable. The qal stem has the meaning of to confirm, to support, to hold up something. In the niphal stem (passive) is means to be established or to be faithful. In the hiphil (causative) it means to be certain of something, to believe in it, to trust in it.
b. The Greek word is PISTOS [pistoj] and it is the primary word for something that is trustworthy, something that is faithful or ongoing, God's faithfulness to His promises and dependability. So the root idea of God's faithfulness has the idea of firmness, certainty, stability, something that is immovable.
c. God's faithfulness is related to His covenants. Deuteronomy 7:9, "Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations." Notice that the faithfulness of God is defined as keeping His covenants. The word "mercy" is the Hebrew chesed which refers to God's loyal, faithful love, and it is always related to His contractual obligations. Psalm 36:5, "Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds." Psalm 89:1, "I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations."
d. At least three time the Bible states that God is faithful: 1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:13; 2 Corinthians 1:18. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Christ is described with the title Faithful and True in Revelation 19:11; 3:14. His character defines faithfulness; He sets the definition, not anything in the created realm.
e. Divine faithfulness is God's perfect consistency with His character and promises.
2) The Scripture says that God is faithful to His promises. Hebrews 10:23 is an example, where we are challenged to hold fast, to stick with it all the way to the end of our Christian life. It is standing firm, staying in the race all the way to the end. "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised)." What is He faithful to? The promises He made.
3) God is faithful to us when we fail. No matter how badly we fail God is always faithful to His promises—not to us, but to His promises and His character. If His faithfulness was predicated on our behavior we'd be in trouble. This is why we have passages like 1 John 1:9. A passage which is difficult for people to understand in 2 Timothy 2:11-13, "It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him [retroactive positional truth], we shall also live with him: if we endure [persevere in the Christian life], we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us [rewards]: if we are faithless, yet he abides faithful: he cannot deny himself."
4) God is faithful to us in testing. 1 Corinthians 10:13, "There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to endure it [stay faithful under the test]."
5) God's faithfulness is a divine protection for the believer in the turmoil of life. Psalm 91:4, "He shall cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you shall take refuge: his truth [emeth, faithfulness] shall be your shield and buckler." God's faithfulness is what protects us.