The Chief End of Man (17)
This story presses down upon us with questions that are fundamental to our understanding of human free will, God’s power and the nature of their interaction within the confines of time, space and relationship. The answers remain frustratingly just beyond our grasp. However, we must continue to strive even if satisfaction this side of heaven is not achieved.
221After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
So, God tested Abraham? The statement appears so straightforward, and yet raises such deep questions. Did God really not know the true nature of Abraham’s faith? Is the future as impenetrable to God’s mind as it is to ours, or, less so but still uncertain? To ask these questions is to be driven back into Holy Scripture in search of its truth. Here’s some of what the Living Word has to say on these questions.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:4,16b, NIV)
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44,45, NIV)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, NIV)
Does any of the above appear to describe a God who is trapped in time and to whom the mind of man is a mystery? I think not. And yet, Abraham is indeed in some way being tested.
My conclusion on this vexing question is that testing such as this by the Almighty is for our benefit. God was not in doubt concerning Abraham’s faith; but Abraham surely was and we readers down through the centuries surely have been, are and will continue to be.
2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
No words are minced. No implication is softened. The language is direct to the point of brutality. This “miracle son” born from bodies good as dead and now many years later even deader, is to be snuffed out in sacrifice to the same God from whom he was received. And, with Isaac’s death, so too apparently will die the promise of a future great nation through whom all peoples will be blessed.
The enormity of what God is demanding of Abraham staggers the mind, the soul. Knowing the story’s end barely mitigates the horror of this verse. The very fact that our LORD God chose to inflict such repulsive anguish upon a father shakes us to the foundations.
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”
The majestic beauty and pathos of these verses describing Abraham’s response to God’s demand can’t be reached by human words. Only Holy Scripture can adequately respond to their power.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-12, NIV)
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
Isaac’s first recorded words are spoken within the context of this terrible ordeal. Surely he sensed that there was something different, perhaps even ominous about this particular trip with his father. His question hits the issue of danger dead center. Could Isaac have had a premonition of the dreadful scenario within which he was apparently trapped?
Abraham’s response is mysterious. His use of the future tense – “will provide” – suggests that he may have been moving in faith that God would ultimately turn away from this command. Or, we could conclude that Abraham was simply sheltering Isaac from the awful truth.
Abraham may have been operating at a level of faith that we simply can’t grasp. Think back over the intimacy, the depth, and the frequency of his encounters with the LORD God. Perhaps Abraham no longer looked at this world and its events as relevant to the working out of such a God’s sovereign will. Perhaps whether Isaac was sacrificed or something else:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42, NIV)
9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
We can only imagine the horror that must have overtaken Isaac as it became apparent that he was to be the sacrifice, made by his own father. We are also amazed by the apparent absence of any resistance. Consider the impression that this event must have made on Isaac. Can it but have had consequences that reverberated throughout the rest of his life?
11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Note that the LORD doesn’t intervene until the last possible moment. Though the call to Abraham is an exclamation, his response is apparently one of calmness. The angel of the LORD now reveals the reason for this test. We are told nothing of Abraham or Isaac’s response. All that matters is the issue of faith.
13And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
A ram, not a lamb, is provided as substitution for Isaac. The day will come when a loving Father for the forgiveness of sin will sacrifice a Son and Lamb.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21, NIV)
15And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Now Abraham knows the true depth of his faith, as does Isaac of his father, as do we, as have all those saints that have gone before and all who will come after us. Could God’s plan have but been set on such a firm foundation?
And what if Abraham had failed? Perhaps God in His infinite wisdom would have used this failure to refine Abraham’s faith. What we cannot say is that Abraham’s will or actions ultimately could determine the keeping of God’s promise. Once God had ordained that it would be through Abraham that all nations would be blessed, it would be so. And when did our LORD God ordain such a plan that would lead ultimately to such a salvation? Why “before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4, NIV). The workings out of this in time, space and human will remains a mystery. We simply testify that the LORD God in His sovereign will would order all things so that Abraham yet would have been the father of blessing.
In the end, we must understand along with Abraham that the human details are not the point. The point is that God in His infinite love, mercy and power has determined to bless all nations. He has also chosen to do so within the context of human will, with all of its frailty, foolishness and fickleness. But He chose to do so before the foundation of the world was laid, deep inside the mystery of His infinite mind. That is, though played out on the stage of history, this is the working out of a predestined plan. Though we may never fully understand we can, no, must worship such a wondrous God.
In verses 22:20-24 we are informed of the sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Within the ensuing genealogical list, the name of Rebekah is introduced (daughter of Bethuel), who will become an important protagonist in the main line of this story.
 Though this passage is referring to the promise of Isaac’s birth, how much more must we consider it relevant to Abraham’s faithfulness towards God’s promise in this situation.