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Genesis 17:1. The Lord.] Heb. Jehovah, the Author of existence and performance—the Covenant God. Almighty God. Heb. El Shaddai. El, the name for God, which signifies strong, eternal, absolute. Shaddai. From a verb signifying to be strong—to destroy. Hence the Irresistible One, able to make and to destroy—the Almighty. “This is the name which expresses God’s Almightiness, and by which He says He was known to the patriarchs, rather than by the Covenant name Jehovah (Exodus 6:3). This name is found six times in Genesis, and thirty-one times in the book of Job. This compound name in both parts expresses the Divine Majesty and All-Sufficiency, and impresses us with His sovereign ability to perform all He had promised.” (Jacobus.) Walk before Me. Heb. expresses the idea emphatically, Set thyself to walk. Perfect. “Not sincere merely, unless in the primitive sense of duty; but complete, upright, holy—not only in walk, but in heart.” (Murphy.) Holiness is the thing intended.
Genesis 17:2. I will make My covenant.] Not in the sense of now originating it, for which the Heb. expression is to cut a covenant (ch. Genesis 15:18). The verb employed here means, I will grant, fix, or establish My covenant—carry into effect provisions already expressed. There was now to be a further development: the covenant was to be sealed. Multiply thee. The blessing of the “seed,” more than the promise of “land” on the previous occasion.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 17:1-2
PREPARATION FOR FRESH SPIRITUAL PRIVILEGES
The course of Abraham’s life is truly “the path of the just, shining more and more unto the perfect day.” God is about to show him greater things—to open the full blessings of His Covenant. In the believer’s history, the richest and best things are kept till the last. Before God bestows them He prepares the mind and heart for their reception, and chiefly (as in this instance) in two ways:
I. Divine visitation. “The Lord appeared to Abram.” He made the patriarch sensible of His presence, and revealed His awful majesty as far as it could be endured by mortal sight. This was a specially favoured saint, for he had an exalted perception of God, permitted only to a few; and yet in the case of every believer there are times when God evidently appears. There is such a feeling of the Divine presence before we are about to receive distinguished favours. Thus we are prepared by awe and reverence for fresh gifts of goodness and mercy. But, as it was with Abraham, there is often something in our past history, some prolonged trouble or perplexity, so that we stand in special need of the comfort of a Divine visitation.
1. To reward long trial and patience. Abram had waited for thirteen years in much perplexity as to what the Providence of God really meant for him. The promise had once seemed near, but the trials of time had brought strange misgivings. The tried saint was still looking towards some undefined blessing in the future. His heart was growing sick with hope deferred. Then God visits him to put a period to the sore trial of his patience. God visits those who wait for Him.
2. To reveal the Divine purpose more clearly. The dealings of God with Abram were growing more and more strange. He had no open vision. Nothing was perfectly clear. Now God visits him to reveal His purpose more distinctly. The promised blessings are made more definite. New light is thrown upon the future so that it affects the soul like a real and palpable good. Every time God appears it is to give more light. God’s revelation has grown clearer in the successive dispensations of His grace towards mankind.
II. Enlargement and exaltation of the idea of duty. The more we know of God, the more exalted and noble our conception of the duty we owe to Him. Our sense of the holiness of His law increases.
1. We have a clearer idea of the standard of duty. “Walk before me.” The moral character of God is proposed for our imitation. Human actions are viewed in Scripture, not merely as they affect the well-being of society, but in their relation to the requirements of God’s will. The standard of duty is conformity to the Divine nature. Piety is the constant study and endeavour to please God.
2. We see what is the true evidence of duty. “Be thou perfect.” Perfect obedience—completeness of spiritual character—respect unto all God’s commandments—these are the evidences that our duty has been rendered acceptably. The constant aim after perfection is a proof that our piety is real and sincere.
3. We have the Divine encouragements of duty. “I am the Almighty God.” As we have infinite goodness to furnish us with an idea and an example, so we have infinite power to support us and to give us the necessary strength. He who commands can furnish us with energy for our duty, and is able to reward us afterwards. Hence “all things are possible to him that believeth.”
WALKING BEFORE GOD
I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect. These words were spoken to Abraham after his leaving his country in obedience to the Divine command (ch. 12); his giving up his own interest for peace with Lot (ch. 13); his venturing his life to rescue his kinsman (ch. 14); his being met and blessed by Melchizedek, and refreshed and strengthened with bread and wine; his believing the Divine promise, and being justified (ch. 15). They imply—
I. A declaration. “I am the Almighty God.” Whose favour is better than life—yea, is the greatest good; and whose displeasure is worse than death—yea, is the greatest evil. Who is perfectly able to direct thee in all difficulties, to protect thee in all dangers, to comfort thee in all troubles, and to supply all thy wants. Able to strengthen thee for thy spiritual warfare, for thy duty, and for suffering. Able to work in thee and by thee His whole will, and to raise thee to a state of felicity and glory inconceivable and eternal. Or, All-sufficient, whose favour, and image, and communion with whom are an all-sufficient portion, here and hereafter.
II. A command. “Walk before me.” To walk before God is, to remember that we are before Him, at all times, in all places, employments, companies; and to think of His omnipresence,—that His eye is upon us, and upon all our ways, our thoughts, desires, tempers, words and works, motives and ends,—that He is not an unconcerned spectator of our deportment; but is so holy as constantly to approve or disapprove, and to abhor or delight in our spirit or conduct,—that He is so just as to determine to punish or reward,—that He is so merciful as to forgive, through Christ, all that is past, and so gracious as to be even ready to change our nature at the present, and enable us to live to His glory for the future. It is to have these things in daily recollection; to think, speak, act, etc., under a sense of them; to have an eye to Him in all our walk, as God Almighty and All-sufficient. Is this favour better than life? Then let us value it, and have an eye to it accordingly. Is He able to direct in difficulties, protect in dangers, comfort in troubles, and supply our wants? Then let us look to Him for direction, protection, comfort, and supply of our wants. Is He able to strengthen us for our spiritual warfare and sufferings? Then let us look to Him to do this for us. Is His favour and image, and communion with Him, an all-sufficient portion here and hereafter? Then let us view Him as our chief good, and live constantly, in all our conduct, under a sense of this.
III. A further command, or promise. “Be thou perfect,” or, Thou shalt be perfect. As a COMMAND it imports, Thou shalt be upright and sincere in all the particulars above mentioned. As a PROMISE, Thou shalt be perfect as thy state and nature can bear. Negatively, not in knowledge, so far as to be free from ignorance, error, mistake; or in holiness, so as to have no infirmity, failing, or defect; or in happiness, so as to have no adversity, pain, reproach, affliction, etc., or so as not to feel such things as evils. But positively perfect in a knowledge of the greatest and most important truths of the Gospel, as far as they are revealed (Hebrews 6:1; Ephesians 4:14). In holiness, so as both to have power over sin, and deliverance from all those tempers, words, and works that are known to be evil; and also to have faith, hope, love, humility, and all other graces in lively and vigorous exercise. In happiness, so as to receive all trials, etc., in faith, hope, patience, and resignation, and to find God a sufficient portion.
The readiest way to this perfection is to walk before God as above described. We shall then see light in His light, and gain a knowledge which shall “shine clearer to the perfect day.” While steadily contemplating the holiness of God, as revealed by His spirit, we shall not only adore, but abase ourselves before Him (Job 42:6), and see our need of conformity to Him. Also, while regarding His mercy and faithfulness, we shall obtain encouragement to trust in Him, and by faith in His promises we are actually made partakers of His holiness. In short, while we walk before Him as the all-sufficient God we shall be blessed with the fulness of His grace and goodness. It is promised in this way. Only let us walk before God, and He will make us perfect.—(Rev. J. Benson’s Sermons and Plans.)
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 17:1. The several stages in the Patriarch’s history are carefully noted. The trials and anxieties of His servant were all known to the Covenant God.
Anxious haste on the part of believers is often accompanied by tarrying on the part of God.
The Almighty shows no haste in His dealings with His people. What seems to us to be delay, is truly no delay with Him. (2 Peter 2:9.)
The longest night of the believer’s trial has an end. God appears, at last, to console His servants and to reward their faith and patience of hope.
Before the command of holy duty, God speaks His name of power. But for the assurance of Divine grace to help, the thought of our duty would only fill us with dismay. Human systems of morality lay down the lines of conduct, but suggest no sufficient power to enable us to render obedience. Hence their failure to regenerate mankind. But revealed religion tells us of an Almighty God who supports and assures us by His power, so that we can bear our trials and do His will.
“Fear not! I will help thee.” Fear not! If there were an ant at the door of thy granary, asking for help, it would not ruin thee to give him a grain of thy wheat; and thou art nothing but a tiny insect at the door of My all-sufficiency. I will help thee.—(Spurgeon.)
Thus did God appear to Abram, by the name of God Almighty—the name most appropriate when He claims the confidence of His people, in giving exceeding great and precious promises, as the name Jehovah is the more significant when He is about to fulfil them. (Exodus 6:3.) In promising, He appeals to His omnipotence; in fulfilling, to His unchangeableness. As God Almighty, able to do whatsoever He says, He calls to a perfect walk before Him. As Jehovah, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, He gives warrant for a patient waiting upon Him, till all be accomplished. In the one character, God summons you to begin, or to begin anew, your course. In the other. He encourages you to hold on to the end.—(Candlish.)
The Almightiness of God—
1. Rebukes our lack of unwavering faith. The announcement of this sacred name may have partly been intended as a rebuke to Abram for his impatience.
2. Teaches us to leave with God all that concerns us. They are in safe keeping, and God can best choose His modes of help, and ways and times of deliverance.
3. Teaches us to practise perfect openness with God. We should disguise nothing from Him—lay open our troubles before Him, for He has power to help; and our sins, for He has power to save.
4. Is the remedy against all discouragement. God supports us by His own power, and fulfils all His promises. The righteous possess a Divine strength which increases amidst the decays of nature (Isaiah 40:29-31).
To walk before God is—
1. To live as in His sight, and under His special inspection.
2. To realise, at all times, His presence and His Providence.
3. To feel the dignity of the godly life. We are not to walk behind him, as if ashamed, but before Him, as conscious of the dignity of our high calling.
4. To feel the constant energy of spiritual life. The light of God’s countenance is upon us, and in that we have life. We cannot fail with the Almighty power behind us.
5. To feel the love of God towards us. Unless there was redeeming love on God’s part, it would be impossible for us to walk before Him. In that alone our souls can live and move.
6. To apprehend God’s love by our faith. This is that power in the soul that lays hold of the Divine fulness. Hence “the just shall live by his faith.”
Walk constantly, step by step, and keep pace with me. Austin would not, for the gain of a million of worlds, be an atheist for half an hour, because he knew not but God might in that time make an end of him. For, “Can two walk together and they not agreed?” saith the prophet (Amos 3:3). “Ye cannot serve the Lord,” saith Joshua to the people that promised fair (Joshua 24:19), that is, unless ye will serve Him entirely, walk uprightly, as Abram here; walk evenly, without halting or halving with Him. Holiness must run through the whole life, as the warp doth through the woof; all the parts of our line of life must be straight before God. “As for such as turn aside to their crooked ways, the Lord shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity”—with openly profane persons, when “peace shall be upon Israel” (Psalms 125:5), upon all that are “Israelites indeed, in whom there is no guile” (John 1:27; Psalms 32:2). Surely, as an unequal pulse shows a distempered body, so doth uneven walking an unsound soul—such as is not verily persuaded that God is all-sufficient, able, and ready to reward the upright, and punish the hypocrite. (Trapp.)
In the command to walk before God, faith and works are brought together. We have the principle of life—the motive power; and also the results of life. The power of faith, like all other forces, is only known by its effects.
Before my face. The anthropomorphisms of the Scripture. The soul, head, eyes, arm of God, are mentioned in the Bible. The Concordances give all the information anyone needs. It is not difficult to ascertain the meaning of the particular descriptions. His face is His presence in the definiteness and certainty of the personal consciousness (Psalms 139:0).—(Lange.)
Perfect, upright, sincere. Not only must the walk, in its outward aspects, be according to godliness; but the principle by which we are guided must be pure and genuine. The heart is the spring of action.
We can never attain a vigorous spiritual life unless we have the highest aim. Our mark should be the moral nature of God. The Infinite alone can draw out all our powers.
Abram is called to be perfect. This word “perfect,” or “upright,” when applied to man, in the Bible, is not absolute, but relative. It relates, for the most part, not to the whole character of a man, but to some one particular feature of his character, some individual grace or virtue specified, in respect of which he is said to be complete or entire, consistent, and sincere. Instances of this use of the word are frequent in the Psalms. Thus, in the concluding words of the thirty-second Psalm, the righteousness or uprightness mentioned has reference to the single duty of confessing sin to God (Genesis 17:1-5), and denotes freedom from guile, or the unreserved openness of a heart unburdening itself, in the full and frank confidence of faith, to God. In Psalms 64:0, the particular respect in which perfection is ascribed to the man of God (Genesis 17:5), is his inoffensive demeanour towards his enemies. So, again, in Psalms 139:0, the Psalmist challenges to himself perfection, as a hater of those who hate God (Genesis 17:22)—a hater of their principles, their society, their works and ways—hating them as God hates them, not personally, but for their wickedness’ sake; and hating them in that sense, perfectly, with no secret reserve in favour of what may be agreeable or amiable in their sins—no complacency in their company, nor any love of their conversation. In Psalms 101:0, by undertaking to walk in a perfect way, and with a perfect heart, the Psalmist simply avows his determination to discourage vice and countenance holiness in the ordering of his household and the ruling of his court and kingdom. And in the preparation for the building of the Temple (1 Chronicles 29:9), David and the people are said to offer gifts to the Lord “with a perfect heart,” i.e., with a heart perfect, in regard to this act of liberality, as an act springing from no unworthy or dishonest—no selfish or self-righteous or superstitious motives, but done with a single eye to the glory of God, the worship of His house, and the honour of His name.—(Candlish.)
It is said in classic history, that a statuary, who resolved to cut out of the Parian marble a female figure the most beautiful and graceful the world ever saw, or the poet ever dreamed of, induced all the beauties of Greece to come to him in succession, while he selected from each the feature that was in the highest perfection, and transferred it to the marble on which he was working; and when this beautiful thing was finished, it became the admiration of Greece, and of the utmost bound of Europe. In order to form a perfect character, we need copy none but Christ.—(F. F. Trench.)
“Oh, how the thought of God attracts
And draws the heart from earth,
And sickens it of passing shows
And dissipating mirth!
God only is the creature’s home;
Though long and rough the road,
Yet nothing less can satisfy
The love that longs for God.
Dole not thy duties out to God,
But let thy hand be free:
Look long at Jesus: His sweet blood—
How was it dealt to thee?
The perfect way is hard to flesh:
It is not hard to love.
If thou wert sick for want of God,
How swiftly wouldst thou move!
Oh! keep thy conscience sensitive;
No inward token miss;
And go where grace entices thee:
Perfection lies in this.
Be docile to thine unseen Guide;
Love Him as He loves thee:
Faith and obedience are enough,
And thou a saint shalt be.”—Faber.
Genesis 17:2. My Covenant, which I have already purposed and formally closed. I will grant, carry into effect the provisions of it. Multiply thee. The seed is here identified with the head or parent seat of life. The seed now comes forward as the prominent benefit of the covenant.—(Murphy).
The covenant blessing of the seed, is a higher and greater one than that of land, which was promised on former occasions. In the progress of revelation, God’s gracious designs towards mankind assume, at each successive step, a nobler form. God is ever giving us greater things, and that which is natural leads to that which is spiritual.
It has pleased God mostly to use human agency in bringing about His purposes. Hence the connection between the development of the race and the history of religion. The whole of mankind are to be helped through Christ, indeed, as the central power; but also through good men, as those in whom that power lives, and acts, and by whom it is distributed.
Genesis 17:3. God talked with him.] “We must notice here the expression Elohim, and the Dabbar (word). God, as the Author of the universe, begins a conversation with Abram, when he should become Abraham the father of a multitude of nations.” (Lange.)
Genesis 17:4. As for Me.] Thus one party to and the originator of the covenant is here made prominent. Father of many nations. Fulfilled in a literal sense. The twelve tribes of Israel, many Arab tribes, the twelve princes of Ishmael, Keturah’s descendants, and the dukes of Edom sprang from him. But St. Paul teaches that this is also to be realised in a spiritual sense (Romans 4:16-17).
Genesis 17:5. Abram.… Abraham.] The former name was composed of Ab (father) and ram (high, eminent). The name Abraham is formed by dropping the last letter, and inserting the first syllable of the word hamon (multitude). Abram-hamon is abbreviated into Abraham, the high father of a multitude. Have I made thee.] Heb. Have I given thee—appointed or constituted thee. The word used by St. Paul conveys exactly the same idea (τεθεικα) (Romans 4:17).
Genesis 17:6. Kings.] “From him were descended the chief of the twelve tribes of the Hebrews, and after their separation, the kings of Judah as well as the kings of Israel. From him sprang the ancient monarchs of Edom, and the Saracen kings in Arabia, Babylon, and Egypt. If we pass from the literal to the spiritual fulfilment, we find the heavenly Messiah, the King of kings, descending from the same stock, and all true Christians, his seed, by faith ‘Kings and priests unto God’ ” (Revelation 1:6). (Bush).
Genesis 17:8. The land wherein thou art a stranger.] Heb. The land of thy sojournings, or wanderings.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 17:3-8
THE SECOND STAGE OF THE COVENANT
Already Jehovah, the Covenant God, had appeared thrice to Abram.
(1) Simply to assure him that he should be blessed, and become a blessing (ch. Genesis 12:7).
(2) To give him the promise of a numerous progeny, as the dust of the earth for multitude (ch. Genesis 13:16).
(3) To repeat this assurance, but now likening the number of his seed to the stars of heaven (ch. Genesis 15:5). This third vision was confirmed by a solemn sacrifice. In it God stands clearly out as the contracting party, conveying certain blessings to Abram, and requiring the performance of no distinct conditions on his part. Now the Covenant has moved forwards another stage, and Abram is to take his own part in it by receiving the appointed sign—“the sign and seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11.) This second stage of the Covenant was marked—
I. By more definite and circumstantial promises. In the revelation of God’s will to mankind we can trace a gradual progress. Promises and prophecies, at first vague and mysterious, are succeeded by others which are clearer and more minute in their contents. As time moves on, the Divine purpose becomes more definitely revealed. Such were the prophecies concerning Christ, until the fulness of time was come. This law of progressive revelation has an illustration in the case of Abram. The original promise is renewed, but spread more out into details. Consider these promised blessings—
1. In their natural greatness. Though they have a higher meaning and importance, yet there are aspects of them which belong entirely to this present world. They speak of a numerous seed, of Abram as the fountain of the inextinguishable life of countless generations. They speak of him as the progenitor of kings and great nations, so that there was spread before him the vision of great lawgivers, and statesmen, and warriors, and all that belongs to the idea of a great civilisation. His seed would be great and distinguished, cared for in an especial manner by God, living under the immediate eye of Providence, and made to fill a prominent place in the history of mankind. Their continuance was assured by an unfailing covenant, by which God bound Himself to preserve them. They are the only nation of mankind whose history is written on the awful scroll of prophecy. Hence they still persist throughout human history—a remarkable evidence of the truth and stability of God’s word.
2. In their spiritual significance. Considering that it was God who made these promises, and in behalf of men who were destined to live for ever, they cannot be restricted to this present life, but look towards a higher and a spiritual world. Their ultimate reference is above and beyond the things of time and sense. The numerous seed represents a wider family, the children of Abram’s faith who are to be blessed with him. The sands on the sea-shore, and the multitude of the stars, speak to us Christians of the number and extent of the true Church of God. That, too, is possessed of an indestructible life—an energy which will remain unhurt by the wrongs of time. The spiritual privileges of the Church are secured by covenant. The true King of men—the rightful Monarch of human souls, has sprung from Abram, and He has gathered around Him a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people. There is only one institution now in the world whose continued existence is assured, and that is the family of God named after the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:14-15). Thus the life of Abram, speading and continuing through history, is a figure of the life of the Church of God. Also, the promise of the land to Abram for an everlasting possession points to a more glorious inheritance—the heavenly Canaan. In some way or other, Abram was to inherit the land; for so the grant runs, “I will give unto thee, and unto thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8). Thus Abram himself had a vested right in this inheritance—a condition which was never fulfilled in this world, and which can only be satisfied by an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. God leads His people from the earthly to the heavenly, and through many disappointments He conducts them to some real and permanent good. The blessing in its highest form may for a while be hidden from them, but in the end it is revealed, and their souls are satisfied. Again: this second stage of the Covenant was marked—
II. By a changed name. Abram had reached a new stage in his history, and this is indicated by a new name. So the name Jacob was changed to that of “Israel,” which signifies Prevailer, in remembrance of his triumphant wrestling with the Angel of the Covenant, and as a gracious assurance of his future successes in prayer. The name Cephas was changed to that of Peter, to indicate that a stage of firm and unshaken faith had been reached. The sons of Zebedee were called Boanerges, to signify their new-born zeal and the earnest work which they were to do. With God, names are not empty designations, but represent the truth of things. They are the outward signs of reality. They are a form which encloses a substance. God gives a new name with a new nature. To Abraham it was as a new life to find the promises growing more clear, the gifts of God’s goodness more palpable and evident. His importance in the external history of nations, his spiritual connection with the Church in all ages, the deathless energy of the example of his life, all combined to make this time, as it were, a resurrection into a new state. All things had become new. Abraham’s faith had prevailed, and a new name was given to him as it shall be given to all who have overcome. This second stage in the Covenant was also marked,
III. By special engagements on the part of God. A covenant implies two parties, and among men takes the form of a bargain, or agreement, with conditions imposed. But with God it becomes a covenant of grace, which is virtually a command, founded upon God’s promises, and the advances of His love. “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee” (Genesis 17:4). God is the fountain of the blessing, and the sole proposer of the terms. His covenant is the only foundation of all our hope. We can look for nothing but what is thus assured to us. God first engages Himself to us, and then we become bound to engage ourselves to Him. To believers in covenant, God conveys the riches which are in Christ. They are bound to a life of faith and love, and He engages Himself to impart His fulness.
1. This should excite our gratitude. As creatures, and especially as sinful creatures, we are not in a position to dictate to God or to lay any claims on His bounty. We, therefore, receive all as the gift of His grace, and the uppermost feeling in our hearts should be gratitude. When the Most High binds Himself down for our sakes, we can only adore His goodness with a thankful heart.
2. It should stimulate our faith. Every fresh blessing received is a confirmation of our past faith and an additional reason why we should trust for the future. Thus a long-tried faith, and a faith encouraged by fulfilled hopes, becomes to us as the certainties of knowledge. “I know whom I have believed.” As God’s engagements to bless come home more and more to our life and experience, a new impulse should be given to our faith in Him for all that is to come.
3. It should excite our reverence. When Jehovah appeared to announce His Covenant blessings, Abram “fell on his face” (Genesis 17:3). He was oppressed with the sense of God’s Sovereign Majesty. The sublime Object of our worship appears in the greatness and freeness of His blessings. Such good and perfect gifts can only come from the Father of Lights. Profound reverence should be the posture of our souls when God appears, for reverence is the life of all religion and that habit of soul which prepares it for that heavenly state where one Supreme Will alone is loved and obeyed. The worship of reverence and praise is eternal. To be brought to the feet of God in humble adoration, and in the bliss of His presence, is our highest glory.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 17:3. Like Abraham, we must learn to fall upon our faces before God as a preparation for receiving His promised blessings.
The first effect of a Divine manifestation is to overcome us, and thus an awe and silence are produced by which we are fitted to hear what God will say.
There is no playing in phrases or disputing about God when once He appears. All speculation and controversy are hushed, and we feel the greatness of His power and majesty.
This is the lowliest form of reverence, in which the worshipper leans on his knees and elbows, and his forehead approaches the ground. Prostration is still customary in the East. Abram has attained to loftier notions of God. God talked with him. Jehovah, El Shaddai, is here called God. The Supreme appears as the Author of existence, the Irresistible and Everlasting, in this stage of the Covenant relation.—(Murphy.)
God’s revelation of Himself is made to reverent minds.
It was fit that he should fall on his face, now that God talked with him. Such a posture of body befits us at the hearing of the word, as may best express our reverence, and further our attention. Balak is bid to rise up to hear Balaam’s parable. (Numbers 23:18.) Eglon, though a fat unwieldy man, riseth up from his seat to hear God’s message from Ehud. (Judges 3:20.) The people in Nehemiah “stood up” (ch. Genesis 8:5) to hear the law read and expounded. Constantine the Great would not be entreated to sit down or be covered at a sermon; no more would our Edward VI., whose custom was also to take notes of what he heard. The Thessalonians are commended for this, that they heard Paul’s preaching “as the word of God, and not of man.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13.) Had Samuel thought it had been God that called to him (and not Eli), he would not have slept, but fallen on his face before the Lord, as Abram here, who was no novice, but knew well that though God loves to be acquainted with men in the walks of their obedience, yet He takes state upon Him in His ordinances, and will be trembled at in His word and judgments.—(Trapp.)
The speech of God to man makes up the substance of the Bible. We can know the nature of physical bodies by knowing their properties and relations, but we can only know the nature of a person when he speaks. He thus declares himself. Hence the necessity for revelation if we are to know anything of God.
Where did holy men of old get those sublime ideas of God and human duty and destiny—ideas which never could have arisen in the mind uninformed from a Divine source? The only answer is, that God talked with them.
Genesis 17:4. The greatness of the Being from whom the Covenant proceeded imparted to it a surpassing value, grandeur, and excellence.
The assurance of God’s Covenant mercies console us after long trials, and revive our faith and devotion.
God might have formed gracious designs towards us, and yet have us ignorant of them. But He has revealed to us His gracious purpose in Christ Jesus. He hastens to console us, as He did to Abram, by telling us that His Covenant is with us and for our advantage. Our hope’s foundation lies in the word of God.
The living personality of the Divine Being lights up the pages of the Bible, and imparts the potency of life to its truths.
The living energy of the faith of this primitive and model believer pervades all history. Abraham, according to St. Paul, is “heir of the world.” All nations which have any future before them profess that same faith (though with added light) which was held by this first Father of the Church. To Abraham and his seed we Christians are indebted for all the religious privileges we enjoy.
Thus emphatically is the promise confirmed to Abraham; and the assurance is peculiarly well timed, and well fitted to sustain and revive his spiritual faith. What does he see before him? Not a long line of earthly monarchs, and a great variety of earthly communities, all tracing their natural descent from him as their common ancestor, but a great multitude which no man can number, of all nations and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues, gathered into one in Christ; all justified like Himself, by faith, and all rejoicing to be called His children, and to be blessed as such along with Him. The patriarch had indeed many sons after the flesh, for his second spouse bore him a numerous offspring, and of these sons many various nations sprung, over whom renowned kings reigned. But it was not such a patriarchal honour that Abraham chiefly valued. Himself a partaker of the righteousness that is by faith, he longed for a more illustrious distinction, and sought a more congenial family to arise and call him father. He saw the day of Christ afar off, and in Christ he saw the exceeding increase and fruitfulness of the great household of faith, the countless host of the elect, gathered into one out of all nations, united in the same holy faith and fellowship with himself; and finally, nations themselves and their kings converted to the knowledge of the Saviour in whom he believed, and so becoming His children indeed. What a prospect, to revive, to elevate, and to ennoble the patriarch; to break every worldly and carnal spell; to make the eye of his spiritual faith beam keen, and the pulse of his spiritual life beat warm, and high, and strong!—(Candlish).
This Covenant was not made with many nations, but with one man. They were to trace their natural and spiritual greatness to him: Thus it was intended that the world should grow familiar with the great principle upon which our salvation rests—redemption through One, even Christ. Not by laws of progress, or political systems, or philosophies, are mankind to be delivered, but by the Son of God, who has brought salvation.
Genesis 17:5. It has been said that all our science consists ultimately in giving right names to things. God, who knows all, can give names which correspond to realities.
“God calleth those things which be not as though they were,” i.e., He called or denominated Abraham the father of a multitude, because he should finally become so, though now he had but one child, and he not the child of promise.—(Bush.)
A new name—
1. Is fitted for those who have new hopes and a clearer view of their inheritance. Abraham had now his hope turned in a new and unlooked-for direction. His inheritance in the future was more clearly marked out; the whole scene standing vividly before him, so as to affect his soul with the sense of new pleasures.
2. Is a stimulus to fulfil the high destiny signified by the changed name. That name would ever remind the patriarch of God’s calling and purpose.
By the exposition given of this promise in the New Testament (Romans 4:16-17), we are directed to understand it not only of those who sprang from Abraham’s body, though these were many nations; but also of all that should be of “the faith of Abraham.” It went to make him the Father of the Church of God in all future ages; or, as the Apostle calls him, “the heir of the world.” In this view he is the father of many, even of “a multitude of nations.” All that the Christian world enjoys, or ever will enjoy, it is indebted for it to Abraham and his seed. A high honour this, to be the Father of the Faithful, the stock from which the Messiah should spring, and on which the Church of God should grow. It was this honour that Esau despised, when he sold his birthright; and here lay the profaneness of that act, which involved a contempt of the most sacred of all objects—the Messiah, and His everlasting kingdom!—(Fuller.)
God has no relations to time (as we count it) and speaks of the future as here, and present before Him. We may well, therefore, trust His word against all appearances to the contrary.
The high father becomes the father of a multitude; thus God enlarges the portion of those who trust in Him.
Genesis 17:6. God’s Providence ordains the sources of nations, and controls their destinies.
Nations and kings. Thus the history of mankind is to stand connected with political order.
The true king of men was to arise from the seed of Abraham. All kings shall fall down before Him.
God, in His Providence, ordered nations to arise with kings over them, with their laws and usages of government, in order that He might prepare mankind for the idea of a holy nation, presided over by the true priest-king.
The spiritual is founded on the natural, and is the goal of it. Abraham’s high distinction is that he is the spiritual father of a vast spiritual progeny, having a Divinely established order, and under one Supreme sovereignty.
Nations, though they may exist for ages, at length share the mortality of their founders. Kings reign for a few brief years, and then pass away. But the nation of true believers and their kingship are perpetual, for they belong to that realm of the Messiah which for ever lasts.
There was this sense existing in men’s hearts, showing itself in their acts, that the relations between man and man rest on something out of sight, that they are spiritual relations, not those of force, or fraud, or convenience—that men do not huddle together as cattle to keep themselves warm, nor band together as wild beasts, that they may hunt in company; that law is not the result of so much self-will which each man might have kept, yet for certain advantageous considerations throws into a common stock, but that rather there is a law of laws, anterior to and constituting the ground of each positive enactment. If men had any sense of this divine order, which they did not themselves constitute, but into which they entered—which to accept was good, which to deny and fight against was evil—if they did thus believe, in the words of the father of Roman philosophy, nos ad justitiam esse natos, then we have implicitly here an acknowledgment of, and a yearning after, the kingdom of God. They who believed this, believed in “the City which hath foundations,” in that only one which can have everlasting foundations, for it is the only one whose foundations are laid in perfect righteousness and perfect truth—the city “whose builder and maker is God”—the same that Abraham looked for, and because he looked for would take no portion in the cities of confusion round him, but dwelling in tents witnessed against them, and declared plainly that he sought a country—the city of which we already are made free, and which it was given to the latest seer of the New Covenant, ere the Book was sealed, to behold in the spirit coming down in its final glory from Heaven (Revelation 21:2.)—(Trench).
Genesis 17:7. The Abrahamic Covenant includes the seed of the parent along with himself. “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.” The great chief personage contemplated in the seed is Jesus (Galatians 3:16). But the seed does also include all who are in Christ (Galatians 3:9). This household feature of the Covenant is perpetual. It was from the beginning the plan of God to propagate His Church by means of a pious posterity; and in His Covenant provision, He is pleased to compass in His arms of love not only the parent, but the infant children also. This was definitely fixed by the very terms of the Covenant, and in the very form of the Covenant seal. And it has thus always been a feature of the Church. And it comes down to us under the New Testament dispensation: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Galatians 3:29; Acts 2:39). The seed of Abram according to the flesh—the Jewish people—has great promises as a people (Romans 4:0).—(Jacobus.)
The great blessings of God’s Covenant were not intended to terminate in those who first received them, but to flow down though the generations of mankind. God gives as one who inherits all time.
Children may be partakers of God’s Covenant, though they are unconscious of its nature and blessings.
There were blessings of the Covenant which were intended to be partial and to endure only for a time, but in their higher meaning and intent they are eternal. God hath willed it that His greatest gifts to those who love Him shall be enjoyed for ever (Hebrews 13:20).
God’s gifts are kingly.
1. In their greatness. For He is Lord and possessor of all. He gives not according to our narrow, niggardly notions, but according to His fulness.
2. In their duration. He is King for ever, and therefore can bestow eternal good.
God is in covenant with every child of grace. Let witnesses be called. First, let Abraham appear. He was born in sin,—prone to evil,—the child of wrath, laden with iniquity, just as we are. But his evidence asserts that God thus communed with him, “I will establish My Covenant between thee, and thy seed after thee.” Let David next be heard. By natural descent he was as we are. But his truthful gratitude exclaims, “He hath made with me an everlasting Covenant, ordered in all things, and sure.” Thus far the point is clear. God covenants with man. But perhaps some trembling believer may doubt whether such grace extends beyond the favoured elders in the household of faith. Mercy speeds to give the reply. The Covenant is established with Abraham, and his seed after him (Galatians 3:29). If you are Christ’s, you are a Covenant-child of God. In His majesty, God says, “I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thy hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a Covenant to the people.” We are here bade to gaze on Jesus, as Himself the Covenant. And such He is: for it has no being, no continuance, no power but in Him. He is its essence, its reality, its fulness, its all. It is founded, erected, concluded in Him. No Christ, no Covenant. Receive Him, and it is yours in all its truth and riches. Reject Him, and you perish, because you have not the shadow of a plea. He is the Covenant, because, as Jehovah’s fellow. He designs it, and wills it, and orders it, and frames it, and accepts it. He is the Covenant, because, as God-man, He takes it into His own hand, and works out its every condition.—(Archdeacon Law: “Christ in All.”)
The Covenant with Abraham’s Children by faith.
1. Christ is the messenger of it (Malachi 3:1). He tells us that it is made, and informs us of its contents; by His word—His servants—His sealing ordinances.
2. Christ is the Surety of it (Hebrews 7:22). He engages to carry out its provisions, and by His Spirit to work in His people the fruits of righteousness.
3. Christ is the Mediator of it (Hebrews 12:24). He touches God and man, and they become one in Him. He is the Mediator by means of death (Hebrews 9:15). Thus it was sealed with His blood.
To be a God unto thee. Thus all God’s promises to His people, which seem to point to merely limited and temporal good, have their fruition in glory; we have only that one name for that happiness which is dealt out according to the full measures of the Divine riches.
What God is and what he has belongs to the whole generation of faithful believers.
All the privileges of the Covenant of mercy, its richest joys and most glorious hopes, are summed up in this assurance. He that comes within its scope, as does every believer, can desire nothing more to make him happy. It is as if He had said, “Whatever I am or have, or purpose in a way of grace to do, all that I will be to thee and to thy seed, all that shall be employed for thy protection, consolation, and salvation.”—(Bush.)
The force of language can no further go to express the bliss of God’s chosen; for what good can there be which is not in God? Therefore, blessed are they whose God is Jehovah (Psalms 144:15).
Genesis 17:8. The temporal and the spiritual are here brought together. The land of promise is made sure to the heir of promise for a perpetual possession, and God engages to be their God. The phrase “perpetual possession” has here two elements of meaning: first, that the possession in its coming form of a certain land shall last as long as the co-existing relations of things are continued; and, secondly, that the said possession, in all the variety of its ever grander phases, will last absolutely for ever. Each form will be perfectly adequate to each stage of a progressive humanity. But in all its forms, and at every stage, it will be their chief glory that God is their God.—(Murphy.)
They who possess God can never want any good thing. The blessings which are suited to them in this life last as long as they require them, while those which are specially suited to the habits and requirements of their spiritual nature last for ever.
God’s promises are fulfilled to believers in their lower sense, so that they might be prepared for their enjoyment in a higher. The land of Canaan was thus a type of heaven, that blessed country which shall be cleared of all enemies, and shall be the portion of God’s people for ever. They were once “strangers” to it, for it was not theirs by the inheritance of birth, but it has been given to them as the inheritance of faith—as the grant of grace, and not as coming of natural right.
The two expressions, “I will be a God unto thee,” and “I will be their God,” represent religion considered in two ways.
1. As personal. The soul comes face to face with the personal God. And God gives Himself entirely to the individual believer as if there were no other being besides that soul which He loves. He is not imperfect, as we are who can only bestow but a little of our thought and feeling upon others; for it is a necessity of His nature that He should love with all the directness and intensity of His being.
2. As the character of a corporate body. While we rejoice in the intimate and full relation in which God stands to our individual souls, we must not be unmindful of the spiritual interests of others—of the Church of God considered as a corporate body. God’s word teaches believers to give due regard both to public and to private interests. The infinite resources of God secure the perpetual bliss of the heavenly Canaan.
Abraham most certainly saw in this promise the hope of an inheritance with God, to be reached by a resurrection from the dead; an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. Compared with this—to be for ever possessed by himself, and by all like-minded with himself—how poor the prospect of the occupation of Canaan for a few brief centuries, by a nation—all born of him, it is true, but, alas, not all partakers of that faith by which alone he was justified, and by which alone he or they could be saved. That, assuredly, was not the hope of Abraham’s calling. No. He had lived by the power of the world to come, he rejoiced in hope of the glory to be revealed, and in this renewal of the Covenant he had his eye directed to no earthly prize but to heaven itself, and to God as constituting the blessedness of heaven—or, in a word, to the full enjoyment of God as his own and his children’s portion for ever. (Candlish.)
As the call of Abraham was the first Divine act towards the formation of a Church, so in this renewed Covenant God revives the long-tried faith of His servant by opening up a wide and glorious prospect before him.
1. Countless multitudes of believing children.
2. Their unity in Him who is the true seed. Thus they are bound together into one sovereignty—a holy nation, a people for God’s possession.
3. The intimate relation in which God stands to this true seed, and to all who are one with Him.
4. The glorious hope of an eternal inheritance, which they are to reach through the resurrection from the dead.
When Abraham was promised that his seed were to inherit the land, and that God was to be theirs for a perpetual possession, the thoughts of the patriarch would naturally be cast upon the future. He would feel that God was not granting to him blessings which vanish with life, but those which endure for ever. Thus would he be weaned from the world, and learn to fix the eye of his faith upon the larger prospect of the heavenly country.
Genesis 17:10. My Covenant.] The outward sign is here called the Covenant, for it is the seal set upon the Covenant. The same mode of expression is used in Acts 7:8. Also, in the Lord’s Supper the Cup is called the New Testament in Jesus’ blood. (Luke 22:19-20). Circumcised. Heb. Shall be cut round about, i.e., there shall be an excision of the prepuce or foreskin of the flesh of all the males. Herodotus speaks of this as a custom ancient in his time, and existing among several nations, chiefly the Egyptians and Ethiopians.
Genesis 17:11. The flesh of your foreskin.] The Heb. for foreskin signifies that which is “superfluous or redundant,” not in itself, but in relation to the ordinance. The same word is applied figuratively to other parts, as to the lips (Exodus 6:20); to the ear. (Jeremiah 6:10); to the heart (Leviticus 26:41; Isaiah 6:10). St. James plainly alludes to this (James 1:21) “superfluity of naughtiness.”
Genesis 17:12. Eight days old.] Heb. Son of eight days. This rite was administered on the eighth day, even though it should happen to be a Sabbath. It was a Jewish maxim that “circumcision drives away the Sabbath.” This maxim was acted upon in Our Lord’s time. (John 7:22-23). Delayed till the eighth day, because all creatures newly born were reckoned unclean for seven days, and might not sooner be offered to God. (Leviticus 12:2-3). No animal could be presented as an oblation before it was eight days old. (Leviticus 22:27). Born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.] “Here the rite is enjoined in case of household servants or slaves who were ‘born in the house’—a class so often described (Genesis 17:13). The last phrase qualifies the whole foregoing. The Heb. reads, ‘And a son of eight days shall be circumcised to you. Every man child in your generations—the one born in the house—and the purchase of (silver) money—of every son of a stranger who is not of thy seed’—showing that those ‘born in the house’ refer to such as were not their own children, but ‘of strangers’ ” (Jacobus).
Genesis 17:14. That soul.] Heb. That person. Cut off from his people. “This phrase, first of all, means exclusion from the Covenant membership and treatment as a Gentile or alien. This was sometimes accompanied with the sentence of death” (Exodus 31:14). (Jacobus.) “We believe the true sense of the phrase to be that the individual who transgresses the condition or sign of the Covenant thereby resigns his connection with the Hebrew community, and ceases to belong to it” (Kalisch). Knobel, Murphy, and others, hold this view.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 17:9-14
THE COVENANT SEAL
The Covenant with Abraham, which had been renewed, is now ratified by the additional confirmation of a sacramental pledge. The seal is now affixed. That outward sign does not make the blessings of the Covenant, but only declares them—taking for granted the validity of the previous transaction. It is the closing act of the whole negotiation of the believer’s peace and fellowship with God.
I. Its spiritual significance. Abraham was now to become a father, not by his own will but according to the will of God. His carnal policy had failed, better hopes were raised within him. A prospect was before him, bright and important beyond all his former expectation. He was to be the human source of a sacred and gifted society—the Church of God. By the presence and the acknowledgement of a Divine guidance and authority, and by sacramental pledges, this Church must ever be distinct from the world. God now sets His seal upon this epoch which marks the founding of the visible Church. Circumcision had an important meaning considered as a seal. It authenticated God’s signature to the Covenant, and executed it on His part. It was an instrument by which blessings were conveyed to those who in faith set their hands to this seal. It was a sign which parents put upon their children to show that they were devoted to God. It was the distinguishing mark of a holy and elect nation. But, besides all this, circumcision had a spiritual meaning. It taught, in a most impressive manner, certain deep truths about the soul and its relation to God.
1. It taught the natural depravity of man. Man was evil in the sight of God, not possessed any longer of that innocence and constancy in goodness which would secure the Divine favour. A new race, representing a regenerated people, was to be propagated; and therefore it was necessary that there should be this sign of holiness in the fountain head. Like baptism, circumcision teaches the uncleanness of the flesh, i.e., of human nature.
2. It taught the necessity of purification. Human nature must be cleansed at its origin and source. The elect of God must separate themselves from evil.
3. It taught regeneration. A kingdom was to be set up, and men could not enter it by right of natural birth. They must be born again, and thus be made naturalised subjects of that kingdom. They enter it by miraculous means—by the favour of a new creation. Hence even the Old Testament dwells upon the necessity for the circumcision of the heart. A new heart can alone ensure a holy life. The stream cannot be pure as long as the fountain is polluted.
4. It taught that God’s people are to be distinguished from the children of this world. The Israelites were distinguished from other nations by this outward mark on the flesh. That pointed to a vital distinction in the spiritual condition of men. This sign of the Covenant spoke of faith in God, who was to guarantee that the blessings it set forth would be bestowed. And faith—in the gospel usage of the term—is still the most real and conspicuous difference between man and man. This is the surest touchstone of the innermost nature of the heart. The Covenant of Promise is only for the children of faith. They who possess faith feel that they belong to a race having wider prospects, a nobler calling, and higher aspirations than the rest of mankind. They are marked off as the seed of promise.
5. It taught dedication to God. All who received this sign of the Covenant were bound to give themselves up to God. They were no longer their own. Each one bore in his body the marks of a heavenly calling, the sign of a perpetual obligation to serve God.
6. It pointed to Christ, who does not come by natural generation. The true bringer in of salvation was the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the promised seed. His human nature was pure from its source. Thus circumcision preaches the whole doctrine of salvation, its necessity, and the means by which it is brought about. It proclaims the soul’s need—of the mortification of the flesh—of repentance—of a Saviour from sin.
II. Its subjects. The rite of circumcision was enjoined not only upon Abraham and his seed, but also upon all his servants or slaves, and upon all born of them in his house. Everyone connected with him by social or domestic ties must submit to this outward sign of the Covenant. In his capacity as a father and as a master he had to see that this rite was administered. Great principles and facts are involved in this description of the nature and extent of this duty.
1. The principle of human responsibility. God’s blessings are not to be received passively by us without any thought or concern. We have to acknowledge, in God’s own appointed way, that these good gifts bind us to the performance of duties. God originates Covenant mercies from His own free goodness, but we have to take our part in reference to them. We have to accept our obligation.
2. That a man is accountable for the souls of those who are connected with him by social or domestic ties. Abraham had to submit his servants and their offspring to this rite (Genesis 17:12-13). The employers of labour should remember that their duties to those who are under them do not end with mere considerations of work and wages. Their humble dependents are something more than dumb machines. They have souls which are capable of receiving impressions for good or evil. They have spiritual interests of a surpassing nature which may be affected for weal or woe by the conduct of those whom Providence has placed over them. This is too often forgotten, as we may see by the confessions of human language which describes the employed as “hands.” Men speak in a most careless manner in this regard, and do not consider the separate individuality of souls. Property and influence have their privileges, but they have also important duties. No differences of social position can discharge us from the duty of paying profound respect to the image of God in man. With religious men, all duty has reference to God and His purposes concerning the human race.
3. That the Covenants of God are not narrow in their range. The promised blessings were not only for Abraham and his seed, but also for all who were associated with him, even for “strangers.” The area over which the Covenant mercy was to show itself was thus made very wide. This pointed to the wide charity and universality of the provisions of the Gospel.
4. That in our duty to others there is an element of hope and encouragement. When Abraham imparted the sign of the Covenant to his children and servants, he would see that God had designed blessings for them. His duty would not be performed from a dry sense of obligation, but have an element of gladness in it arising from the thought of the blessings which it would convey to others. He who labours for the highest good of mankind is encouraged by the light of hope. The picture of Abraham’s vast posterity was rendered bright and grateful to him by the thought that they, too, would receive the blessings of the Divine favour.
III. Its obligation. The Covenant rite was not a thing indifferent, to be performed or neglected at pleasure. It was binding on all to whom it was committed.
1. Because God commanded it. No one was free to refuse it on the ground that it was unnecessary, and had no real connection with the promised blessings. God commanded, and that was enough. He knows the reason why. God knows what is good for man, and what outward signs he requires to aid him in the apprehension of things spiritual
2. Because God’s commands were hedged about by sanctions. God gives more than mere advice to His creatures. He gives law, which draws after it penalties. An appeal is made not only to our sense of what is reasonable, but also to our sense of fear. We have to consider that we are incurring danger by neglecting God’s plain commands. What God has instituted and made binding upon us cannot be lightly set aside; for this implies contempt for the authority by which it was ordained, and of the grace of which it was the seal.
CIRCUMCISION AND CHRISTIAN BAPTISM
Abraham is circumcised on the eve of his becoming the father of the Messiah—when the holy seed is to spring from him; and all the faithful are to be circumcised till the holy seed is come. Hence one reason why this introductory seal of the Covenant is superseded, and another sacrament has been ordained in its place. Circumcision significantly pointed to the future birth of Christ, who was to be of the seed of Abraham. The birth being accomplished, the propriety of circumcision as a sacrament ceases. Any corresponding rite now must be not prospective, but retrospective; not looking forward to the beginning of the Messiah’s work, as the righteousness of God, when in His birth He was shown to be His Holy One, and His Son by His miraculous conception in the Virgin’s womb—but looking back to the end of His work, in His burial, when He was declared to be the Son of God with power, by His resurrection from the grave.
Such a rite, accordingly, is Baptism, as explained by the Apostle when he says, “We are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our baptism signifies our engrafting into Christ, as not merely born, but buried and risen again. It refers not to His entrance into the world, but to His leaving it. It is the symbol, not of His pure and holy birth merely, but of the purifying and cleansing efficacy of His precious blood shed upon the cross, and the power of His resurrection to life and glory. Abraham and the faithful of old were circumcised into His birth, His redemption being yet future; we are baptised into His death, His redemption being now past. The one sacrament was an emblem of purity, connected with a Saviour to be born; the other is an emblem of purity connected with a Saviour who liveth and was dead, and behold! is alive for evermore! Both circumcision and baptism denote the purging of the conscience from dead works, or from the condemnation and corruption of the old nature, through the real and living union of the believer with Christ—with Christ about to come in the flesh, in the one case; with Christ already come, in the other.—(Candlish.)
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 17:9. Blessings imply obligations. God turns to man as the other party to the Covenant to remind him of his duty.
My Covenant. The Apostle informs us of the true nature of this ordinance, and thus of a sacrament, as such, that it is a sign and seal, in the passage in Romans which refers to this transaction. “And he received the sign of circumcision, the seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, being yet uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). It is an outward sign of an inward grace, and a seal also, whereby the signature is formally attested and authenticated. As in a deed or instrument of conveyance, there is first the signature, and then the seal which confirms it, and in so far executes the instrument. But it needs also beyond that to be delivered. And this calls for the hand of faith.—(Jacobus.)
Genesis 17:10. Circumcision, as the rainbow, might have been in existence before it was adopted as the token of a Covenant. The sign of the Covenant with Noah was a purely natural phenomenon, and therefore entirely independent of man. That of the Abrahamic Covenant was an artificial process, and therefore, though prescribed by God, was dependent on the voluntary agency of man. The former marked the sovereignty of God in ratifying the Covenant, and ensuring its fulfilment, notwithstanding the mutability of man; the latter indicates the responsibility of man, the trust he places in the word of promise, and the assent he gives to the terms of the Divine mercy. The rainbow was the appropriate natural emblem of preservation from a flood, and the removal of the foreskin was the fit symbol of that removal of the old man and renewal of nature which qualified Abraham to be the parent of a holy seed. And as the former sign foreshadows an incorruptible inheritance, so the latter prepares the way for a holy seed, by which the holiness and the heritage will at length be universally extended.—(Murphy.)
Under the old covenant, as everything pointed forward to Christ the God-man—Son of Man—so every offering was to be a male, and every covenant rite was properly enough confined to the males. The females were regarded as acting in them, and represented by them. Under the New Testament this distinction is not appropriate. It is not “male and female” (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).—Jacobus.
The appointment of this rite suited well with God’s promise to multiply the seed of Abraham. This outward badge would serve for the attestation of that promise.
All who by Divine Providence are thrown into the midst of the family of God are bound to receive the Covenant sign. Hence the propriety of Christian baptism. The privileges of the Church are also duties. Men must be brought to acknowledge that they are not their own, and that their lives should be dedicated to God. They must be reminded whose they are, and whom they are bound to serve. Sacraments may be neglected, and many may prove unworthy of the grace they seal; yet that obligation which they signify still remains.
Genesis 17:11. As a sign placed upon the foreskin, it designates still more definitely on the one side, that the corruption is one which has especially fallen upon or centres in the propagation of the race, and has an essential source of support in it, as, on the other side, it is a sign and seal that man is called to a new life, and also, that for this new life the conception and procreation should be consecrated and sanctified (John 1:13-14).—Lange.
1. Are outward and visible. They impress the senses.
2. They teach spiritual truths. Circumcision was a teaching ordinance; so are baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
3. They are the appointed channels of spiritual blessings. Though God is not tied to them, yet He promises grace to the worthy in their use.
4. They serve as perpetual reminders of God’s grace, and of our own duty and responsibility.
Genesis 17:12-13. It is worthy of remark that in circumcision, after Abraham himself, the parent is the voluntary imponent, and the child merely the passive recipient of the sign of the Covenant. This is the first formal step in a godly education, in which the parent acknowledges his obligation to perform all the rest. It is also, on the command of God, the formal admission of the believing parents’ offspring into the privileges of the Covenant, and therefore cheers the heart of the parent in entering upon the parental task. This admission cannot be reversed but by the deliberate rebellion of the child. The sign of the Covenant is also to be applied to every male in the household of Abraham. This indicates that the servant or serf stands in the relation of a child to his master or owner, who is therefore accountable for the soul of his serf, as for that of his son. It points out the applicability of the Covenant to others, as well as to the children of Abraham, and therefore its capability of universal extension when the fulness of time should come. It also intimates the very plain but often forgotten truth, that our obligation to obey God is not cancelled by our unwillingness. The serf is bound to have his child circumcised as long as God requires it, though he may be unwilling to comply with the Divine commandments.—(Murphy).
The fact that Abraham was bound to administer this rite, either to those who were unconscious of its meaning or to those who might be unwilling to receive it, shows that the acceptance of religious privileges is compulsory. Children born of Christian parents are compelled to become Christians, and in after life God holds them responsible for the right use of the privileges implied in that sacred name. They may complain of the appointment by which such things are thrust upon them—that others have chosen for them, but they cannot get rid of this law imposed on their nature, by which they are obliged to accept responsibility. They might as well try to abolish the law of gravitation, which also, in its way, may sometimes prove a tyranny. To everyone brought within the influence of religious privileges, is committed an uncontrollable destiny—the destiny of accountableness, the fate of being free, the unalienable prerogative of choosing between life and death.
We have to accept our religious privileges as we have to accept the fact of our birth. We can no more discharge ourselves from the one than we can annul the other.
It has pleased God to perpetuate religion by means of the family relation. Some amongst mankind shall be born to religious privileges which convey inalienable rights and obligations.
If the visible Church were a mere voluntary association, to make me a member of such a body in my infancy, and without my consent, might be held to be an unwarrantable infringement on my freedom of choice. But if the visible Church be God’s ordinance, and not a mere contrivance or expedient of man, there is no absurdity and no injustice in the arrangement. If, while yet unconscious and incapable of consenting, I am enrolled and registered, and sealed as one of the household of God—if I am marked out from the womb as peculiarly His, by privilege, by promise, and by obligation—no wrong is done to me, nor is any restriction put upon me. If God makes me, by birth, the scion of a noble stock, the child and heir of an illustrious house, then, by my birth, I am necessarily invested with certain rights, and am bound to certain duties. I may refuse, in after life, to take the place assigned to me; I may never avail myself of its advantages; I may never realise my rank, or imbibe the spirit and enter into the high aims of my honourable calling. Still, if I live not according to my birth, the fault is my own. Whether I take advantage of it or not, my birth—in the plan and purpose of God’s providence—had a meaning which might have actually stood me in good stead, if I had so chosen and willed it. So in regard to circumcision or baptism. If God makes me—by such a seal and pledge of grace imparted to me in infancy—a member of that society on earth which bears His name, I may never be in reality what that rite should signify to me. But not the less on that account has the rite a significancy, as implying a spiritual title and spiritual benefits, which are in themselves intended and fitted for my good. And if afterwards I wilfully refuse them, with the badge of them upon my person, it is with aggravated guilt, and at my own increased peril.—(Candlish.)
The privileges of a parent and of a master bring obligations with them to perform the duties implied in those relations. We should care for the eternal as well as the temporal interests of those committed to our charge; for all such duty should have reference to God who commands, and to the immortal nature of those on whom it is exercised.
The wide charity of the Gospel reveals itself even in what appears to be the exclusive dealings of God with mankind. Here is a provision for strangers to be admitted into the family of God. The privileges of the kingdom of God are not intended for a favoured few, but for all who are willing to receive them.
The rite of circumcision, though stated to be of eternal obligation, was yet destined to pass away when the better Covenant was established. Yet the grace signified, entering the hearts and purifying the lives of believers, would remain for ever. The essential part of God’s Covenant abides. They have an enduring substance.
Genesis 17:14. However it is to be understood, the threatening is a severe one, and shows conclusively with what reverence God would have His own ordinances regarded, especially those that bear so directly upon our spiritual interests. Having ordained that the sign and the promise should go together, it was at anyone’s peril that he presumed to sunder them. Yet as God desireth mercy and not sacrifice, so the sickness or weakness of an infant might warrant the delay of the ceremony; and if one chanced to die before the eighth day, it was not to be supposed that this circumstance prejudiced its prospects of future happiness. The same remarks are, in their spirit, applicable to the ordinance of baptism. It is the avowed contempt of the ordinance, and not the providential exclusion from it, that makes us objects of God’s displeasure. The directions here given are to be understood as not only addressed to Abraham personally, but in him to his natural seed in all generations. The reason assigned for this severe edict is, “He hath broken my Covenant”—i.e., hath made prostrate, broken down, demolished, in opposition to the phrase, to establish, to make firm a covenant.—(Bush.)
Such is uniformly the Lord’s manner of dealing with His people. When, in terms of the everlasting Covenant, He freely dispenses the richest spiritual blessings, He places His gift on the footing not of a privilege merely, but of a peremptory order. He not merely permits, and encourages, and invites; He straitly charges and authoritatively commands.—(Candlish.)
God does not propose His laws and ordinances for our consideration and acceptance at our own convenience. He still maintains His dignity as Lord; and while He seeks to win us by His gracious favour, at the same time demands our obedience.
The obligation of sacraments.
1. They are means of grace. They are for the strengthening of our soul—an aid to our minds in conceiving of spiritual things—they afford a greater security for our belief. We should not despise what is so freely offered for our benefit, and so graciously accommodated to our weakness.
2. They are commanded by God. His authority is paramount, and we should yield to it implicit obedience. God knows all the reasons of His appointments. Our business is to observe and do.
3. The wilful neglect of them is visited with God’s displeasure. The culpable neglect of circumcision excluded men from the family of God’s ancient Church. So the contempt and disregard of the Christian sacraments now expose men to the like danger. Every Christian ought not only to use the sacraments as means of grace, but also as occasions for making a public confession of religion, and distinguishing him from those who are strangers to the covenant of promise.
Genesis 17:15. Thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.] “It is acknowledged on all hands that Sarah means a princess; but as to Sarai, Hebraists are far from agreed. Gesenius and Ewald interpret it ‘contentions,’ which seems unlikely in itself; Kalisch, combating or contending, which is not far off the other though differently understood, viz., ‘as contending with difficulties;’ and Delitzsch remarks well on this, that the name of conflict, Sarai, is changed into the name of triumph, Sarah. Others again (as Keil) suppose Sarai to signify princelike, and Sarah, princess; others, that Sarai means my princess, Sarah, princess absolutely” (Alford). “As the ancestress of nations and kings, she should be called Sarah (princess), not Sarai (heroine)” (Knobel).
Genesis 17:16. She shall be a mother of nations. Heb. She shall become nations. This was the first declaration that Sarah should be the mother of the promised seed.
Genesis 17:17. Laughed. Onk. Rejoiced. Jer. Tar. Marvelled (Psalms 126:1-2; Job 8:21). The laughter of admiration and joy. The promised son was by Divine direction called Isaac, which means “laughter” (Genesis 17:19). Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old?] Thus his laughter was grounded on astonishment, as if this form of the blessing was most unlooked for. There may have been some hidden doubt suggested by the natural difficulties. Alford regards Abraham’s feeling as one of mingled reverence and incredulousness.
Genesis 17:18. O that Ishmael might live before thee.] Not only in himself, but in his posterity. Abraham did not wish to relinquish the hopes which had already centred in his son, and still seems to look to him as the heir of the promise. The Heb. word for “live” has often the meaning of prospering. (Deuteronomy 8:1; 1 Samuel 25:6; 1 Samuel 25:19). Indeed.] Heb. But indeed. “An emphatic term, as if to deny the contrary thought, couched, perhaps, in Abraham’s plea for Ishmael. ‘You need not doubt it. Indeed, on the contrary, Sarah is bearing thee a son.’ ” (Jacobus). Isaac.] Heb. He shall laugh. Thus laughter complicated with astonishment and perplexity would, for Abraham, be turned into true laughter. I will establish My Covenant with him.] This was to be the Covenant son—the true type of Christ—the channel of blessings to all nations. (Romans 9:7).
Genesis 17:20. Twelve princes shall he beget.] “As Jacob, the son of Isaac, was the father of twelve patriarchs or phularchs, i.e., heads of tribes, so Isaac is here made the subject of a parallel prediction; and for its remarkable fulfilment consult the history” (Genesis 25:12-16). (Bush.)
Genesis 17:21. This set time in the next year.] This very time in the following year. (Compare Genesis 21:2.)
Genesis 17:22. God went up from Abraham.] Chal. “The glory of the Lord went up.” The visible majesty of Jehovah, the Shekinah, the symbol of the Divine presence (Genesis 35:13; Ezekiel 1:28; Ezekiel 8:4). But God was personally present, though revealed in some visible form (Genesis 17:1).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 17:15-22
THE CLEARER REVELATION OF COVENANT BLESSINGS
As the time draws nigh, the contents of the Covenant promise are described more circumstantially. In God’s spiritual dealings with mankind the patience of faith is rewarded by a clearer discovery of His will. Obedience is the way to knowledge. The darkness in which faith commences turns to light in the end. The lines along which God’s gracious dealings are to proceed are now distinctly laid down before Abraham. The clearer revelation, in this instance, is marked by the same general characteristics as belong to the advance of Scripture.
I. There is the announcement of things contrary to human expectation. The promises which had hitherto been made to Abraham included much, but were announced in a vague form. He had cause to hope in God’s Word, and he verily believed that he should be the father of many nations and kings, and a source of blessing to all the families of mankind. But he thought that the Divine purpose was to be fulfilled through that son which he already had. He thought he saw God’s way, and the foundations of his future greatness already laid. But now he is told that this beginning of his great destiny has yet to be made—that the promised seed is to be born of Sarah. The child who was to transmit his life to remote generations, and on whom the promise of his great family depended, was to be born in an extraordinary manner and against the course of nature. Thus all his human calculations were disappointed. The blessing is to come through a different channel from what he expected, and by a way in which he never would be likely to look for it. Man is liable to fall into mistakes when he attempts to reason beforehand concerning what God shall reveal, or anticipates the course by which His will is to be accomplished. Thus God baffles the efforts of human wisdom to discover Himself and His ways, and ever shows us that His thoughts are not as our thoughts.
1. Thus God preserves His own glory. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing” (Proverbs 25:2). God hides His purpose from man until the time comes for Him to reveal it more clearly. This concealment must tend to His glory, for it is rendered necessary by His infinite superiority to us. We who are but of yesterday cannot scan the designs of Him who is from everlasting to everlasting. The child cannot comprehend at once the reasons of his father’s dealings. If this be the case with respect to two finite minds, one of which is but a little in advance of the other, how much more must the plans of Infinite Wisdom be beyond the grasp of our narrow faculties! The great deep of God’s judgments is to us unfathomable.
2. Thus God preserves His independence of man. He has no need of our suggestions or advice. How can we contribute any light to Him who is the Fountain of Light? God does not take us into His council chamber to confer with us as to how He shall execute His government. Abraham had need of this lesson, for he had adventured to lend aid to God in fulfilling His purposes. He must now learn that God is quite independent of man.
3. Thus God humbles the pride of man. If we could calculate beforehand what God shall reveal, or what blessings He shall bestow, we might be tempted to pride ourselves upon our clear and sure reason. Our humility is promoted by that arrangement which renders it impossible for us to discover what God is pleased to conceal.
4. Thus piety is of necessity a life of faith. God so deals with mankind that if they are to serve and please Him at all they must trust Him. We are made to know enough of His goodness to commence trusting Him; and He still keeps much hid from us so that we may continue to trust Him. Abraham would now have additional reason for maintaining that faith which he had already exercised. Thus the man of God goes from strength to strength because he is drawn onwards by the Infinite.
II. There is an increased strain put upon the strength of our faith. Ever since Abraham had been called of God he lived the life of faith. But now Providence gives him an opportunity for performing a supreme act of faith—one which gives a special character to his religious life, and makes him the model believer for all ages. His faith hitherto had leaned to a considerable extent on human supports. It had been aided by his own wishes, and by his favourable interpretation of the appearances of things. He thought that the process of fulfilment was already begun. But now his faith must stand alone, unsupported by any human aids, and resting solely upon the word of promise. All hope that the promised child should be born of Sarah had long ago been cast off, but now he is told that through her God’s word is to be fulfilled. He stands now confronted with a natural impossibility. All his former hopes were destroyed. His faith is now challenged in the bare word of God. This is the point of resistance where the strength of his faith triumphed. “Against hope Abram believed in hope that he might become the father of many nations,” etc. (Romans 4:18-19.) The advance of revelation puts us in possession of enlarged knowledge, but, on the other hand, introduces us to new difficulties. Our faith is subjected to a severer strain. The word of the Lord tries us.
1. God’s gracious purpose is to throw our faith completely upon its own inherent power. Faith, in order that it might stand at a fair advantage, must be perfectly free. Faith must not be hampered by the operations of the intellect. If Abraham had followed the suggestions of his reason he would have looked for the fulfilment of the promise in a direction different from that which God designed. Reasoning from what he knew, he must have been led to far other conclusions. Faith must not be subjected to any restrictions whatever. It should be able to brave and defy the impossible, and like the woman in the Gospel, to press on to its object through all difficulties. Faith must not be hampered by the feelings of the heart. Our feelings, sometimes, lead us to look for the accomplishment of God’s Word in some way which His will has not ordained. Abraham’s heart turned to Ishmael and felt that through this son already given the blessing would come. But God has His own way. Our human feelings must give place to His declared will. Faith must be bold and strong enough to overcome these when they stand in God’s way.
2. Faith must look to God alone. Faith fastens solely upon the Word of God and allows no difficulties to come between. It has always a refuge in the goodness of His character, and in His power to accomplish; and with that is satisfied.
III. There is a revelation of human weakness in us. The faith of Abram, though it rose superior to trials, was yet mixed with some human weakness.
1. The weakness of a thoughtless amazement. The laugh of Abraham, when he heard the real direction of the promise, unquestionably had in it the elements of adoration and joy. But there was also in it a kind of unreflecting amazement—that unhealthy astonishment which paralyses. It was a joy which was yet half afraid.
2. The weakness of doubt. In Genesis 17:17, Abraham expresses a doubt. It was a momentary feeling, but at that time it rose irresistibly to the surface. The fact that he was an hundred years old and Sarah ninety presented a difficulty which seemed as if it would have overwhelmed him. The barrier of nature seemed to him as if it must prevail. When our pet schemes are suddenly dashed to the ground our first temptation is to doubt. We scarcely know where we are for the time, and we are taken in the moment of our weakness. God’s revelation serves to bring our difficulties home to us. But true faith has a kind of elastic force, so it soon recovers itself when the momentary pressure is removed.
3. The weakness of attempting to thrust our own way upon God. Abraham still clings to the suggestions of his own mind and heart. He desired God to accept his existing son as the heir to the promise (Genesis 17:18). He wished that Ishmael might live and be the appointed channel of the promised blessing. This is evidently the meaning of his prayer, though the contrary has been asserted by writers who are determined to find no flaw in the faith of Abraham. But the sacred historians are more true to nature. They paint men as they are, and not according to some desired ideal. Abraham had the natural impulse to thrust his own way upon God, and for the moment he could not repress it.
IV. There is an opportunity given for the glory of God’s goodness to shine forth. In every fresh revelation God is but showing Himself to His servants. He is showing His goodness more and more, and that is His glory. The qualities of the Divine goodness would now be manifested more clearly to the soul of Abraham.
1. This is seen by the supernatural character of the blessings promised (Genesis 17:15-16; Genesis 17:19). They were not to come in the ordinary course of nature, but in a way quite above and beyond it. They are thus seen to be manifestly Divine. They were above all that Abraham could ask or think. Such are the blessings of the Gospel revelation. They are supernatural. Such was Christ. He came not in the common way of nature, but was given to mankind by a supernatural grace. All the blessings of His Gospel are extraordinary, and wear the impress of the direct gifts of God’s great goodness. They are those good and perfect gifts which come down from the Father of Lights.
2. This is seen by the intrinsic excellence of the blessings promised. It was not meet that the bond-woman should be the mother of the Covenant-seed. God, in His surpassing goodness, willed it that His promise should be fulfilled through a nobler person and one who would show an extraordinary instance of His power. Thus the blessing had all the qualities of dignity and importance.
3. This is seen by God’s gracious provision even for those human desires which betray imperfection. God would remember Ishmael, after all, and in some way satisfy the yearnings of Abraham’s heart (Genesis 17:20). God does not chide His servant for those humanly natural longings. With all his imperfections, the heart of the patriarch was right at bottom, and his purpose to please God steady and sincere. If we have true faith, whatever desires there are in us which still betray some human imperfections, God will turn them into better courses, and show us His way. Amidst our ashes and smoke, if a spark of goodness is to be discovered in us, He will not quench it. We may, like His servant here, take all our griefs and anxieties to Him, even though they may show much human ignorance and infirmity. He will raise what is noble and destroy in us what is base. He has compassion upon our weakness, for “He knoweth our frame and remembereth that we are dust.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 17:15. Sarai is now formally taken into the Covenant, as she is to be the mother of the promised seed. Her name is therefore changed to Sarah, princess. Aptly is she so named, for she is to bear the child of promise, to become nations, and to be the mother of kings.—(Murphy.)
Hitherto, in this renewal of the Covenant, nothing has been said as to the line of descent in which it is to be established. Hagar’s child is not formally set aside; the Covenant, as yet, is merely established generally in the seed of Abraham; and the father’s affections, despairing of any other son, may still be set on Ishmael. But he must be completely stripped of all confidence in the flesh, and made to live by faith alone. It is not to a son born after the flesh, but to a son by promise that he is to look; not to one born of the bond-woman, and typical of the law of bondage, but to one born of the free-woman—the pledge of the law of liberty, even of the glorious liberty of the sons of God. The name of his wife, accordingly, as well as his own name, is changed. She is no longer “Sarai,” my princess, as if she stood in that honourable relation to her husband alone; but Sarah, generally and without limitation, a princess, or the princess—the princely and royal mother of nations and kings, of the very nations and kings of whom, in Christ, Abraham is the father.—(Candlish.)
God gives the name before the thing signified, as a support to weak faith.
Genesis 17:16. God’s blessing is not a mere empty sentiment of goodwill, but a solid good expressed in the gifts of His kindness.
Faith is challenged upon the simple word of promise, even against the impossible in nature. The soul must cast herself entirely upon God, leaving Him to deal with all difficulties.
God can bless His children by a way contrary to all appearances and natural prospects.
It was fitting that the Church of God, now to be established, should have a fair and noble origin. That Church, which is the kingdom of God, is a large and free fellowship. All her children are the sons of the free mother. (Galatians 4:26.)
“Kings of people.” The order which God’s Providence has established in the political world suggests to our minds that order which He maintains in His spiritual kingdom. That kingdom is ruled by law, but yet it is a law which must be swallowed up in love. Not, indeed, that it is hereby repealed, but rather glorified and transfigured, the hard outlines of it scarcely visible in the light of that love which fills all.
This is the first express mention of the destined mother of the seed promised to Abraham. This annunciation would, of course, correct the error into which both she and her husband had fallen, imagining that the prospect of her having a child was hopeless, and therefore, if the promise were fulfilled at all, it must be in Ishmael. But now all mistake on that head is precluded. God will give to Abraham a son of her, and kings of people shall be of her. Their former fault in resorting to a carnal expedient is not to be allowed to stand in the way of the execution of God’s purposes of mercy. The Divine goodness shines forth conspicuously in this, that notwithstanding men in their perverseness do so much to obstruct its course, it is still made to triumph over their unworthiness, and spend itself upon them, even in spite, as it were, of themselves.—(Bush.)
In our ignorance, we may think that we have found out what is God’s way; but when He fulfils His faithful word to us, then we see what His way really is, and how far it is above and beyond ours.
The faithful children of God shall find that His mercies are above all they ask or think. Abraham could never have expected so extraordinary a blessing as is here promised.
“Yea, I will bless her.” This is repeated for the greater comfort of this good old couple. I will doubly bless her, bless her with a witness.—(Trapp.)
Genesis 17:17. It is difficult to receive a great and extraordinary joy, at once, in all its fulness. We are, for the while, beside ourselves. Astonishment holds us, and our feelings require time to adjust themselves to conditions so altogether new and unlooked for.
The context shows that there was here nothing like contempt or derision of God’s Word, but quite the contrary. “Shall it be so indeed?” Can this be? This that was only too good to be thought of, and too blessed a consummation of all his ancient hopes, to be now at this late day so distinctly assured to him by God Himself. Yet it would not be wonderful if he also in his laughter expressed a hidden doubt of what seemed in itself so absurd, so ridiculous in its more natural aspects. And if so, then we can also understand his meaning in the ensuing passage.—(Jacobus.)
In the region of unbelief the doubt is of no moment. It has its importance in the life of believers, where it presupposes faith, and leads as a transition step to a firmer faith. (There is, however, a twofold kind of doubt, without considering what is still a question, whether there is any reference to doubt in the text). Luther thinks that Christ points to this text in John 8:56. Then the laughing also is an intimation of the overflowing joy which filled his heart, and belongs to his spiritual experiences.—(Lange).
When God’s great goodness is suddenly manifested to the soul, it is not to be wondered at that there passes over it a momentary shade of doubt. The gifts of His goodness are of so wonderful a kind that it is one of the great difficulties of our faith to believe them.
Considering our present situation, it is not surprising that obstacles should stand in the way of our perfect trust in God. The things of faith are far off and difficult to apprehend; they affect us but languidly; and we require considerable time to realise them at all.
Genesis 17:18. A doubt immediately occurs which strikes a damp upon his pleasure: “The promise of another son destroys all my expectations with respect to him who is already given.” Perhaps he must die to make room for the other; or, if not, he may be another Cain, who went out from the presence of the Lord. To what drawbacks are our best enjoyments subject in this world; and in many cases, owing to our going before the Lord in our hopes and schemes of happiness. When His plan comes to be put into execution, it interferes with ours; and there can be no doubt, in such a case, which must give place. If Abraham had waited God’s time for the fulfilment of the promise, it would not have been accompanied with such an alloy; but having failed in this, after all his longing desires after it, it becomes in a manner unwelcome to him. What can he do or say in so delicate a situation? Grace would say—Accept the Divine promise with thankfulness. But nature struggles; the bowels of the father are troubled for Ishmael. In this state of mind he presumes to offer up a petition to heaven: “Oh that Ishmael might live before thee.” Judging of the import of this petition by the answer, it would seem to mean, either that God would condescend to withdraw His promise of another son, and let Ishmael be the person, or, if that cannot be, that his life might be spared, and himself and his posterity be amongst the people of God, sharing the blessing, or being “heir with him” who should be born of Sarah.—(Fuller.)
The Syrian leper, when told to wash in the Jordan, that he might be clean, thought that he knew a shorter and better way: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” So Abraham, for the moment, hesitates to accept God’s way without reserve and entirely. He still clings to his old hopes.
When God beckons us onwards to better and higher things, we still take the last lingering look of sense. Through the strife of the flesh against the spirit, we come to the victory of faith.
The difficulties of our faith may arise from what God has already, in his goodness, given to us.
Life before God implies—
1. A share in the Divine favour.
2. The power and impulse of serving God. The energy of life is necessary to enable us to do our duty. The proof that a man has vigorous life is found in the fact that he is able to work.
3. The enjoyment of God for ever. This is life in its noblest and best sense.
Genesis 17:19. God does not withdraw His promises of better things, even though we may ask unworthily and strive to thrust our own way upon Him.
The assurance or conviction that God is true, and will fulfil His word, is the best cure for our doubt and hesitation.
When God accomplishes His designs concerning us we shall have occasion for great joy, even though His way should run contrary to all we had expected or desired.
Isaac. The name teaches that those who tread in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith will at times find cause for laughter in the unexpected, sudden, and great blessings they receive. There is reason in God, both for weeping and laughter.—(Roos.)
This was to be the Covenant son—the son of promise—the type of Christ—the channel of blessings to the nations. (Romans 9:7.) God finds and prepares His own men to carry out His work in the world, and often refuses those whom we appoint and, perhaps, think more worthy.
No wrong is done to any one when God chooses certain men to carry out His great purposes; because they are chosen, not simply for their own sakes, but for the benefit of the race.
I will establish My Covenant with him. My spiritual Covenant, containing the promises of the Messiah, and all its related privileges and blessings. Yet, from the fact that Ishmael was commanded to be circumcised, and that the rite was perpetuated in his family, the inference would seem fairly drawn that the Covenant, in some of its aspects, did properly pertain to him. So far as it had a temporal bearing Ishmael seems to have been made as much a partaker in it as Isaac, and Esau as Jacob. Nor are we authorised to conclude from the circumstance of the Covenant in its more spiritual features being restricted to the line of Isaac, that, therefore, the line of Ishmael was in any way injured as to the prospect of eternal life. The Covenant of peculiarity was indeed more especially established with the former; but as many who were included in it might fail of salvation, so many who were excluded from it might still become heirs of salvation. The door of mercy was always open to every one who believed; and in every nation and in every age he that feared God and wrought righteousness was accepted of Him.—(Bush.)
Genesis 17:20. God hears and answers even those prayers which are mixed up with much human imperfection and vain wishes.
Great blessings are not denied to those who are not included in God’s special Covenants. The lack of privilege does not form an effectual bar to the Divine goodness, or shut out from salvation.
God chose one nation to preserve His truth in the world. But He formed other nations also. They were His ordinance, they stood in certain relations to Him, and therefore were under the obligation of duty towards Him.
Meanwhile Ishmael should not be cut off. God’s Covenant with Isaac should not lead to the rejection and exclusion of Ishmael. He should also enjoy the Divine favour. Abraham’s prayer for him was heard. His blessings were to be chiefly temporal. He should become great and powerful—occupy large districts; twelve princes should descend from him—as twelve from Jacob (ch. Genesis 25:12-16); and the dread of his name should inspire respect and fear. But the salvation of mankind was to proceed not in the channel of earthly conquests and grandeur, but of spiritual gifts.—(Jacobus.)
In this instance, also, let us behold the marvellous condescension of God, and the overflowing of His love. He is not offended at the pleading of His servant, or by the outpouring of his natural longings and desires. He hears them, and, as far as may be, He meets and answers them. Ishmael is to be blessed, though Isaac still must be the heir. What blessed encouragement have we, in this example, to lay aside all reserve in our intercourse with God. Freely and frankly we may unburthen our hearts to Him, and unbosom all our grief. Whatever be our care or anxiety, and whatever our wish, we may speak of it to Him. We may tell Him, as if in confidence, all that we feel and all that we desire. Our very groanings need not be hid, and are not hid from Him; the Spirit makes intercession with them, and God knows what they are. If only there be the presence of the Spirit, and if there be submission to the will of God He is not offended. For He is patient and pitiful. If it be possible, He will let the cup pass, or mingle some drop of soothing comfort in it; He will speak peace to us, and send strength from on high.—(Candlish.)
Great nations do not spring from chance, or from the selfishness of man, or from social contracts, or the assertion of the rights of rulers. God is their Maker, and He has given them their peculiar work on this earth.
The Jews had certain national peculiarities, and a special destiny to fulfil in the history of mankind. So had the Ishmaelites. “I will make him a great nation.”
A great nation implies—
1. Law and order.
2. Energy and enterprise.
4. Loving fellow-feeling.
5. The spirit of wisdom and understanding.
The peculiar features of national character are not to be regarded as a sad variety, or an injury to the harmony of the race. They are rather necessary to that harmony, and owe their existence to the appointment of God.
Genesis 17:21. This is the thirteenth time that the Covenant is named in this chapter, saith an interpreter; and hereby is meant the promise of Christ and salvation by Him. A subject so sweet to every sanctified soul, that St. Paul cannot come off it. He names the Lord Jesus Christ ten times in ten verses (1 Corinthians 1:1-10.) It was to him honey in his mouth, melody in his ear, joy in his heart.—(Trapp.)
Isaac, a type of Christ.
1. He is born in a miraculous manner. He was the child given by promise, and came not in the ordinary course of nature. So Christ was long promised and miraculously born.
2. He was the Son of the House, while all others were His servants. So the position of Christ in the heavenly household was made by His birth. No circumstances could alter his relationship to that household. He was there by a natural necessity. Others may come and go, but the Son abides.
3. He was the progenitor of a free race. Isaac was the son of the free-woman, and the ancestor of a great and free people. Christ makes men free when they are born into the kingdom of God by His spirit, and thus belong to that holy nation whose children walk in perfect liberty.
4. He was the channel of blessing to all nations. Christ was the life and power which gave effect to that blessing. He was that blessing itself.
Isaac, a type of the regenerate man.
1. He was born by a distinct act of the will of God. So the regenerate man becomes God’s child, not by the course of nature, but by a special grace. He is eminently born of God.
2. He was free born. So each child of God is made free from all bondage. He needs not the commands of law to compel him to obedience, for he obeys from love of his Father. Thus Isaac was the type of the evangelical dispensation, as Ishmael was that of the legal.
In Holy Scripture, the points of time are laid down and determined along which we are able to trace those lines of history leading up to the manifestation of the Son of Man.
The Bible notices nations and men as they effect the development of God’s kingdom. Isaac stood in a certain relation to that kingdom, therefore the exact time of his birth assumes a special importance, and the mention of it has an appropriate place in that Book whose subject is Christ.
Genesis 17:22. Revelation continues only while the necessity for it lasts. God leaves off speaking with men, so that they may return to duty and service.
The moral miracle of the continued presence of God in immediate converse with us would be too much for our spiritual strength. Such a state of awe and rapture would put too severe a strain upon our faculties, and unfit us for the practical work of life.
Abraham was specially privileged in dealing with his God, who was personally present under some visible form. But all the children of faith can commune with God and receive His word. Miracles may pass away when the special reasons for them are no longer in force; but we still have prayer, by which we speak to God; and we still have the teaching of His Spirit, by which He reveals Himself to us.
There are those who, while they do not deny His existence, yet say that God has never spoken to man—that no revelation has been given. But shall we not render God justice? We claim for man the right of communicating his thoughts to his fellow man—the right of free speech. And shall not that right also be yielded to God? Is He who has given man the faculty of thought and speech to be precluded by any law of ours from disclosing His mind in language? There are reasons why God should speak. Revelation is necessary if we are ever to know Him and attain to His glory.
Genesis 17:25. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised.] From this circumstance has followed the usage of the Arabians, who circumcise their males in the thirteenth year.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 17:23-27
OBEDIENCE TO THE DIVINE VOICE
God had ceased speaking, and went up from Abraham (Genesis 17:22). The end of every Divine revelation is not to satisfy curiosity, or even our desire of knowledge for its own sake, but to impart unto us light and strength for our duty. God’s word is intended to teach us how to live. Nothing remained for Abraham but to do what he had heard. He had to turn all his thought and feeling into action. Like St. Paul, he was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision. We have here some characteristics of his obedience.
I. It was prompt. In that self-same day Abraham carried God’s command into execution (Genesis 17:23). He made haste and delayed not. He reasoned not with himself, he did not leisurely survey his duty, but rushed into it at once. When God once commands, so that we are clear as to what our duty really is, we should not hesitate, but immediately obey.
1. To delay is to despise God’s authority. In some cases we have to dispute the commands of our fellow-creatures, because they may be unreasonable or opposed to virtue. But when such commands are lawful, when the authority is properly constituted, it is our duty to obey. To despise it is lawlessness. God’s authority is paramount, and admits of no dispute. To refuse to submit at once to it is rebellion.
2. It is safest to act upon moral impulses immediately. In the affairs of this life, it is wise to act upon the maxim that “second thoughts are best.” They often prove themselves to be a “wiser first.” The prudence of business is deliberation—taking time to consider. The first prospects of schemes which promise us riches or advancement may be dazzling, but how often is the charm dissolved when we have taken time to weigh and consider. But this maxim of worldly prudence does not stand good in the things of religion. In all matters regarding duty and conscience first thoughts are best. On questions concerning the lawfulness of actions, the nature and obligation of duty, our first convictions are sure to be right. If we take time to consider we only give temptation the opportunity to acquire a dangerous strength. The light which comes from conscience is instantaneous, and our highest wisdom is to accept it at once as our guide. St. Paul, in giving an account of his conversion, tells us how he made no pause, but suddenly acted upon his conviction: “When it pleased God … to reveal His Son in me … immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” Moral convictions are only weakened by delay to obey them. Our safety lies in turning them at once into duty.
II. It was unquestioning. Abraham did not begin to argue or dispute—to trouble himself with inquiries as to why such a painful rite had been so long delayed in his own case, or why it should be necessary at all. He stayed not to investigate the rational grounds of the command. It is sufficient for faith that God has spoken, and His will is both law and reason. Our position as creatures forbids all questioning. He who made us has the right to command us. He knows the reasons of all His dealings with us, though to us they seem obscure. The servants of God should have the spirit of true soldiers who have devoted their lives to maintain the honour and power of their country. “Their’s not to reason why; their’s but to do and die.”
III. It was complete. God’s word was literally obeyed, and in every particular. Abraham caused the command to be extended to all who were the subjects of it. His son was circumcised and all his servants. He did not exempt himself (Genesis 17:24). Thus obedience should not be partial, nor measured by our own inclinations, but should respect the whole of the commandment. A particular and intense regard to God’s known will is the essence of piety. Thus did Abraham, and thus completely had he followed the Divine injunction given to him at this second stage of the Covenant—“Walk before Me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1).
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 17:23. That is, ordered it to be done; saw that it was done. As no express directions were given as to the operator, such agents might be employed as the head of the household saw fit. In Exodus 4:25, we see a mother performing it; but in modern times it is usually performed by some experienced person; and it is not only considered a great honour to be a circumciser (mohel), but the occasion is made one of great rejoicing and festivity. The conduct of Abraham on this occasion furnished a bright example to all succeeding ages of the manner in which Divine ordinances should be complied with.—(Bush.)
It is necessary that all the circumstances belonging to positive ordinances should be minutely detailed. Hence the particular description here given.
In selecting Ishmael as the first to receive the token of the Covenant, the rest would be encouraged to follow. They would see that Abraham was in earnest. He began with those nearest and dearest to him. We can only hope to bring others into the ways of obedience when we first set the example ourselves.
Nothing was said as to the time at which Abraham should begin to perform this rite. But he makes haste to obey. Such is always the impulse of a truly devoted and affectionate heart. To delay in keeping His commandments is an evidence of lack of love for God and His law.
The fact that even those who were bought with Abraham’s money submitted to this painful rite, is a proof of the strong influence of his religious character upon them. Not sudden enthusiasm, but a life of piety and obedience can command such influence.
It was a household dedication. The aged patriarch and the youthful son, and all the men-servants, no matter how they came into the household, were thus marked as sharers in the Covenant, and the patriarch’s house was stamped in their very flesh as the Lord’s. Domestic piety is beautiful. The Passover and Circumcision were both of them household seals, and so are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Everywhere there are the simple elements—a little bread and wine, and a little water—and what doth hinder? (Acts 8:36). And God is faithful. Christ is the Head of His house, as the Covenant Son, in whom we have all blessings. Parental fidelity God covenants to bless (ch. Genesis 18:19). (Jacobus).
Genesis 17:24. This obedience was yielded in old age, when the infirmity of nature is prone to plead off from engaging in anything new or different from that to which it has been accustomed. Yet it seems to be for the purpose of putting honour upon Abraham’s obedience that it is so expressly said, “Ninety and nine years old was Abraham when he was circumcised.” It is one of the temptations of old age to be tenacious of what we have believed and practised from our youth; to shut our eyes and ears to everything that may prove it to have been erroneous or defective, and to find excuses for being exempted from hard and dangerous duties. But Abraham to the last was ready to receive further instruction, and to do as he was commanded, leaving consequences with God.—(Bush.)
Genesis 17:25. He commanded his children and his household after him, that they might keep the way of the Lord (ch. Genesis 18:19). This boy of thirteen years of age, poor Ishmael, might have claimed to judge for himself, if he had been so trained as to be left to himself. This is the age at which a boy became a son of the law, and was regarded as of age to take the Sacrament of the Passover—twelve to thirteen years of age. Jesus went up to the Passover at twelve. Ishmael was now thirteen. Children, when they come to such years of discretion, should be taught their duty in regard to assuming sacramental obligations, and coming forward to the full benefit of the Christian church.—(Jacobus).
Genesis 17:26-27. The head of the household is responsible for the religious training of those committed to his charge—his children, his servants. All should receive the signs of God’s Covenant, and be placed in a position to obtain the blessings appended to it.
It is God’s plan to make good men the centres of light and privilege to others. All who in any way come under their influence are placed at a superior advantage, and may partake with them of the same blessings.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 17". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30