A Case of Worst-Case Scenario

Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:5-12 ESV

We all suffer from it on occasion – worst-case-scenario syndrome. The symptoms are easily recognizable: fear, doubt, a growing sense of panic, and visions of all kinds of disasters happening – one bad thing leading to another. Usually, it starts with a fairly pedestrian situation, one that is negative, but not catastrophic. But before we know it, we’ve conjured up images of mishap and mayhem. Our minds begin to play tricks on us, causing us to imagine all kinds of negative outcomes as we conjecture what is going to happen next. We start playing out a variety of circumstances in our heads, wondering what will happen if…

That’s exactly what the Israelites suffered from in this story – as they stood on the edge of the promised land, weighing out the two disparate reports given by the 12 spies. When these men had returned from their investigatory trek through Canaan, they had delivered a report that was equal parts good news and bad news. The land was wildly abundant and fertile, and they had even brought back samples as proof. But while Canaan was bountiful and rich, it was also filled with “giants” who would surely pose a formidable threat to the Israelites. This land that God had promised to Israel as an inheritance was already occupied and its current residents would be far from pushovers. They were powerful, plentiful, well-armed, and well-protected in their fortified cities.  And that part of the report was all the people of Israel heard.

Ten of the spies were convinced that any attempt to conquer the land of Canaan would end in disaster, so they launched a campaign of misinformation, blowing the negative elements of their report out of proportion and drawing conclusions that were NOT based on fact. Instead of trusting God, they decided to trust their very fertile imaginations. They stirred up the people with outlandish claims and false accusations against God Himself.

“Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:3 NLT

In a matter of minutes, these people had turned a bit of bad news into a forecast of complete disaster. And they had actually accused God of attempted murder. These men had whipped themselves into a frenzy of fright and faithlessness and infected the entire community. Suddenly, the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt through a series of miraculous plagues, and who had cared for them all throughout their journey to the promised land, was too weak to take care of them anymore. Their troubles were greater than their God. And the symptoms of worst-case-scenario syndrome began to appear throughout the camp.

Yet, Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua begged the people to trust God and not rebel against Him.

“The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!” – Numbers 14:7-9 NLT

But the people continued to respond with fear and anger, even threatening to stone Moses, his brother, and the two spies. Consumed by their lurid visions of wanton destruction, they refused to listen to what Moses and the others had to say. So, God intervened.

Then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the Tabernacle. – Numbers 14:10 NLT

God showed up in all His glory, and He was far from pleased. He informed Moses that He was determined to wipe out the entire nation and start all over again. Despite all He had done for them, they had dared to treat Him with contempt. They had hurled accusations against Him, declaring Him to be uncaring and unsympathetic to their plight. They had displayed a staggering degree of ingratitude for all His past mercies and miracles.

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are!” – Numbers 14:11-12 NLT

God had run out of patience with these ungrateful and disobedient people. So, He vowed to destroy them and start all over again with Moses. He would simply make for Himself a new nation. And He would have been perfectly just and right in doing so. After all, He had been the one who had chosen them in the first place. They had done nothing to earn His favor or to deserve His affections. God had set them apart as His people, not because they were a great and powerful nation, but because He was a covenant-keeping God. According to Moses, their unique relationship with God was totally undeserved and fully God’s doing.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His prized possession out of all peoples on the face of the earth.

The LORD did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than the other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 BSB

God had miraculously delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and brought them safely to the shores of the Jordan River. He had kept their sandals from wearing out. He had supplied them with water, manna, and quail to eat. He had guided and protected them along the way. But now that it was time for them to do their part of entering and conquering the land, they had reneged on their end of the agreement. Moses had made their God-ordained instructions perfectly clear.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to possess, and He drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you to defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.  – Deuteronomy 7:1-2 BSB

But they had decided to reject God’s command and go with their guts. They had determined that they knew better than God and believed a return to Egypt was preferable to a certain defeat in Canaan.

When we face difficult times, it is easy to succumb to worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s almost natural. We begin to doubt and fear. We blow things out of proportion. Our vision gets blurry. Our memory gets sketchy. We tend to forget things – like God’s history of goodness in our lives. We become weak and prone to fear, instead of faith. Worry replaces worship. Even little things get blown out of proportion. And the usual result is rebellion.

We refuse to believe, trust and obey God, and so we fail to experience His power in our lives. We miss out on the blessings. Like the Israelites, we stand on the edge of the promises of God but never get to enjoy them. But there is a cure for worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s called trust. Trust is putting our belief into action. It is stepping out and relying on God’s goodness. It is resting on His power even in the presence of problems. God doesn’t promise us a life free from problems. But He does promise to see us through them. He promises us strength. He promises us joy and contentment. He promises us His presence. He will see us through.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:25-14:4 ESV

For 40 days, the people of Israel anxiously awaited the return of the 12 men who had been sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. And each passing day must have fueled their growing doubts and concerns. The longer the delay, the more they must have wondered whether the spies had met an untimely demise at the hands of the land’s current occupants. Had they been captured and enslaved? Worse yet, had they been tortured and forced to disclose the location of Israel’s camp in the wilderness of Paran? Was a heavily armed force headed their way with plans to annihilate the rest of the Israelites before they could cross the Jordan River?

But much to the relief of the Israelites, the spies eventually returned, bearing news and “the fruit they had taken from the land” (Numbers 13:26 NLT). Rumors of their return spread quickly through the camp and soon everyone had gathered to hear their long-anticipated report. And as the people stood in breathless silence, they heard the spies deliver their findings.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. – Numbers 13:27 NLT

The spies had not returned empty handed. According to verse 23, they had gathered tangible evidence of the land’s fruitfulness and now used these props as a kind of show-and-tell.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13:23 NLT

It was as if the spies knew that their words would not be enough. Any attempts they made to describe the land’s abundance would fall short and be met with skeptical ears. So, they brought proof. And it was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before. A single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two men. This land was super-abundant and more than adequate for meeting the physical needs of the Israelites. It’s interesting to remember that, just recently, the Israelites had been reminiscing about the wonderful cuisine they had enjoyed in Egypt.

“We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

While their memories of the food they enjoyed in Egypt were probably a bit cloudy and far-from-accurate, they couldn’t argue with the evidence right before their eyes. Canaan was a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights. And it was just across the river Jordan.

But before the Israelites had time to take in the wonderful news about the fruitful land of Canaan, the spies poured a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm. They delivered the bad news.

“But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:28-29 NLT

If the size of the grapes had been enough to make their mouths water, this news must have made them sick to their stomachs. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. After all, what good was a fruitful and abundant land if it was filled with frightful and dominant enemies?

As soon as the Israelites heard the downside of the spies’ report, they went into a panic. And Caleb, one of the 12 men who had seen the land with his own eyes, tried to calm them down. He didn’t attempt to dismiss or discredit the presence of enemies in the land. He didn’t refute their existence or diminish the report of their superior power. Instead, he simply encouraged the people to do what God had commanded them to do.

“Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!” – Numbers 13:30 NLT

The spies had done exactly what Moses had instructed them to do.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:18-20 NLT

They had returned with a report and samples. But at no point were their findings intended to play a role in whether or not the Israelites entered the land. Their mission had been a fact-finding one. And when their report turned out to be a combination of good news and bad news, it should have had no bearing on God’s plans for Israel. It provided proof that the land was fruitful. But it was also provided evidence that the land was already occupied. While the first fact was encouraging, the second was disheartening. But both were intended to remind the people that God was their provider. Not only had He given them a land, but He would also give them victory over its more formidable occupants.

But for ten of the spies, the thought of the Israelites defeating the Canaanites was a pipe dream. There was no way a rag-tag army of former shepherds and slaves was going to conquer a land filled with “giants.” The Israelites would find themselves up against Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites. They would be out-numbered and under-equipped for the task. And the ten spies made their views plainly known.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” – Numbers 13:31 NLT

These men were more than scared. They were absolutely petrified and determined to convince the people to disobey God’s command to enter the land of Canaan.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Notice how they conveniently leave God out of the picture. It was all “us-versus-them.” It was giants against grasshoppers, the powerful against the weak. The odds were completely lopsided and any hope of victory was wishful thinking.

And their words had the desired effect. The people were devastated and demoralized. They wept and mourned. They regretted ever having left Egypt. And any encouragement they may have received from the sight of oversized fruit was crushed by the prospect of annihilation at the hands of their enemies.

Fueled by the disheartening rhetoric of the ten spies, the people railed against Moses and Aaron, questioning why they had ever left the land of Egypt in the first place.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

They had regrets. And they suffered from a severe case of good-old-days syndrome. When confronted with the less-than-ideal option of entering the land of Canaan, they began to long for their days back in Egypt. They preferred slavery to possible slaughter at the hands of the Canaanites. Their view of the promised land was anything but promising. Filled with pessimism and fueled by fear, they lashed out at Moses and Aaron. And then, anxious to derail any plans these two men may have had to lead them into Canaan, the people began to plot their overthrow.

“Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:4 NLT

Little did they know that they were thumbing their noses in the face of God Almighty. They were rejecting the gift of an inheritance that He had promised to Abraham. The land was theirs by right. But now, they were declaring their intention to return to slavery rather than obey the word of their gracious deliverer. They were rejecting the will of the One who had redeemed them from captivity and refusing to believe that He could provide them with victory over their enemies. And they were about to learn just how deadly their decision would be.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Wise Enough to Know Better

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:5-8 ESV

How is one to “count it all joy” when encountering “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2 ESV)? For James, the answer was simple; you need the wisdom of God. The divinely ordained ability to see things from God’s perspective.

Life is filled with confusing and sometimes contradictory circumstances that we can’t explain and try to avoid at all costs. Trials and difficulties seem to be antithetical to the good life that most of us want to experience during our time on earth. They are unwanted and seemingly unhelpful. But James suggests that the presence of trials in our lives should cause us to rejoice because they test our faith and end up producing endurance and spiritual maturity.

But this kind of positive outlook concerning trials isn’t a natural and normal response for most of us. We tend to take the glass-half-full approach and view trials as unexpected interruptions to our daily routine that produce pain, difficulty, and despair. We see them as undesirable disruptions to our normal way of life.

That’s why James suggests that we might have a wisdom deficiency. He seems to know that most of us have a difficult time rejoicing when tribulations and trials show up. Our natural tendency is to gripe and complain. We ask questions like, “Why me?” and “Why now?” We wonder what we might have done to deserve this far-from-pleasant fate. We may even shake our fists at God and demand that He remove whatever it is we are experiencing. But James states that an inability to find joy in the midst of trials may be a sign that we need a dose of godly wisdom. So, he suggests that we take that need to God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

Godly wisdom provides divine insight into the everyday affairs of life. It allows us to see things from God’s perspective. As human beings, we have a limited capacity for comprehending all that is happening around us. We can’t see into the future and determine the fallout of our present-day experiences. So, we’re left to question how anything we don’t enjoy for the moment can have any hope of producing a positive outcome. We deem anything that makes us uncomfortable or that we find inconvenient to be a personal affront to our happiness. But that attitude fails to take into account the sovereignty and providence of God.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

God’s ways are not our ways. He doesn’t operate according to our will or ask what we think would be best for our lives. He is all-knowing and fully capable of determining what is proper and appropriate for producing godliness in the life of His child. And the only way we can begin to understand the mysterious ways of God is through a good dose of His wisdom. And when we ask for it, He gladly responds and provides His children with the ability to view the difficulties of life from a new perspective. The apostle Paul provides an apt description of this wisdom-empowered capacity to see life from God’s viewpoint.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. – Romans 8:28 NLT

We may not like or enjoy what we are going through but, as God’s chosen people, we understand that He always has our best interest in mind. According to Paul, “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). Like a master craftsman or a painter, God is always perfecting His work, taking great pains to see that the final product is “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4 ESV). No detail is overlooked. No blemish is ignored or allowed to remain. And sometimes the art of perfecting His creation requires Him to make renovations that seem radical and unnecessary from our point of view. We view them as invasive and far too harsh. But God’s ways are not our ways. His methodology may not make sense to us but it’s difficult to argue with the final product He produces. 

The apostle John reminds us that we can trust God’s ways and find hope in the ultimate outcome of His redemptive plan.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

Wisdom is the key to weathering the present storms of life and maintaining a confident outlook regarding the future. When we begin to doubt the goodness of God or question the necessity of trials, we simply need to ask Him for an extra dose of His wisdom. But James would have us remember to do so with caution.

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. – James 1:6 NLT

It’s interesting to note that when most of us encounter trials in our lives, we turn to God, but not for wisdom. When we find ourselves experiencing overwhelming difficulties we acknowledge our need for God by asking Him to remove the unwanted circumstance. So, in a sense, we see the removal of the difficulty as the ultimate answer to our problem. Our hope is in the elimination of the trial, not in the power of God to use the trial for our good and His glory.

To a certain degree, we all share the belief that trials have no place in the life of a believer. We view them as anomalies and undesirable disruptions to our preferred way of life. So, when they show up we ask God to immediately remove them. Rather than asking for wisdom to see our trials from God’s perspective, we ask God to remove the trial altogether. This reveals that our true desire is for a trouble-free existence, not the sanctifying, life-transforming power of God.

James warns against exhibiting a wavering faith. He is referring to a faith that is fluctuating and unstable. It can’t make up its mind. One minute, our faith is in the goodness of God even in the face of difficulty. Then suddenly, we begin to believe that the difficulty is the problem and the only solution is its removal. And when God doesn’t remove it, we begin to doubt.

“The Greek word diakrinomenos, used twice in this verse, is better translated, ‘let him ask in faith, free from divided motives and divisive attitudes, for such a person is like an ocean wave . . .’” – David DeGraaf, “Some Doubts about Doubt: The New Testament Use of Diakrino,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Doubt is an everyday part of life. It’s normal and natural. But as believers, it should be constantly decreasing in its intensity and the influence it has over our lives. The wisdom of God allows us to see trials and difficulties from an eternal viewpoint that puts them into proper perspective. The apostle Paul knew what it was like to view his temporal, earthly circumstances from an eternal vantage point.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory that is far beyond comparison. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 BSB

And that ability to see things from God’s perspective provided him with an overwhelming sense of calm and contentment, no matter what trials or difficulties came his way.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

James describes those with fluctuating faith as wind-blown waves. They display discontentment with their circumstances and can’t seem to make up their mind whether they want to put their trust in God or in the hope of having their trials removed by God. James paints these kinds of fickle individuals in a less-than-flattering light.

Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. – James 1:7-8 NLT

The removal of trials will not produce contentment. A trouble-free life will not result in a godly life. Too often, we believe that the difficulties of life are what makes the Christian life difficult. But Paul and James would both declare that it is a lack of wisdom and faith that are the root of our suffering and discontentment. As long as we fixate on having all our problems removed, we will never experience the joy of having our faith strengthened by having our weaknesses exposed. And nobody knew this better than the apostle Paul.

…to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Dangerous Loss of Perspective

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 ESV

In just eight short verses, there are 29 instances of the word “time.” You might conclude that Solomon is trying to make a point about the topic. The Hebrew word he chose to use is ’eth and of the 300 times it appears in the King James Bible, it is most often translated as “time.” And it seems that Solomon is using this particular word to drive home the contrast between life as we know it on this temporal plane, and the timeless dimension of eternity.

Solomon’s dilemma, like every other human being who has ever lived, is that he is restricted in his ability to discern anything beyond what he can see. He makes the very astute observation that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” In other words, we have an innate awareness that there is something beyond this life, but we can’t perceive it. It lies beyond our limited vision.

As Solomon puts it, man “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT). We are temporal creatures, living our temporary lives on this earth, hamstrung by the limitations of our human senses and incapable of seeing what lies beyond the day we take our last breath.

It is important to remember that Solomon wrote this book sometime near the end of his life after he had veered from the course established for him by God. He had surrounded himself with wealth, women, possessions, and pleasures of all kinds. He had set up idols to false gods all over the kingdom and had become distracted from his faithfulness to the one true God. His ability to see things from a godly perspective had been harmed and hindered by his love affair with material things, worldly pleasures, and his man-made replacements for God.

Solomon’s worldview had become heavily influenced by the secular rather than the sacred. So, 29 times in these verses, he speaks of life in terms of time. And he does so by providing 14 stark contrasts that reveal his rather limited perspective. From Solomon’s vantage point, a life lived on this earthly plane and viewed from a human perspective is nothing more than a series of polar extremes.

The hope and joy of birth are contrasted with the sadness and seeming finality of death. Planting produces an eventual harvest, but then the relentless cycle only repeats itself, season after season. Killing is an inevitable reality in life, and starkly at odds with the need for healing. One takes away life while the other attempts to prolong it.

There are times when tearing down follows a season of building up. Why? Because nothing in this life is meant to last forever. Everything has a life cycle and an expiration date. Even the extravagant palace that Solomon built for himself was eventually destroyed and replaced by another.

Even weeping and laughter, as disparate and dissimilar as they may be, share a strange coexistence, equally impacting the lives of men for good or bad. There are times when frivolity is the appropriate reaction, but there are other times when tears are the proper response. They are aspects of human existence that, without a God-focused perspective, create a dissonance in the heart of man that can’t be understood or explained. Without an eternal perspective, we can’t comprehend or appreciate the necessity for times of sorrow. We long for full-time happiness and see sorrow as a setback to our personal agenda. And Solomon uses these two extremes as just another example of the cyclical, repetitive, and meaningless nature of human existence “under the sun” when God’s eternal viewpoint is left out of the equation.

Solomon acknowledges that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” There are those moments in life when we can enjoy the birth of a baby, the joy of laughter and dancing, the blessings of the harvest, the experience of loving and being loved, and the presence of peace in our lives and in the world. But that doesn’t keep him from asking the question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” In other words, what benefit does a man enjoy from all the effort and energy he puts into his life?

Whether he likes it or not, there will come a time when he has to replace the harvest he reaped. His wheat will run out. His wine vats will run dry. And he will be forced to sow yet again. He may one day be forced to watch the death of the child whose birth he witnessed and rejoiced over. He will experience the pain that comes when love turns to hate and gain turns to loss.

And Solomon summarizes all these things as “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Ecclesiastes 3:10 ESV). So, based on his secular-based viewpoint, Solomon concludes that the best outcome human beings can hope for is “to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 ESV). In light of the inevitability and futility of life, the most logical response is that of resignation. Since you can’t do anything about it, just give in and do your best to enjoy it.

So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NLT

And while this approach may seem a tad pessimistic, Solomon explains how he reached this conclusion.  

…this is God’s gift to man. – Ecclesiastes 3:13 NLT

What Solomon really seems to be saying is that if anyone can experience any semblance of joy and pleasure in the midst of all the meaninglessness of life, they should consider it a gift from God, and enjoy it while they can.

Solomon displays a strong belief in the sovereignty of God. He readily acknowledges that God is in control of all things, but his admission is tinged with a hint of sarcasm and resentment. Look closely at how he describes God’s preeminence and power.

…whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV

While this speaks of God’s sovereignty and providential control over all things, Solomon’s tone is far from positive. He doesn’t exude a spirit of peace and solace at the thought of God’s omnipotence and omniscience but instead, he displays a hopeless resignation. He further qualifies his view by saying, That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15 ESV).

Here is yet another reference to the repetitive and futile essence of life lived under the sun. No sense of eternity. No expression of hope in what is to come. It is almost as if Solomon is painting God as some kind of cosmic puppet master in the sky who toys with man, determining his destiny, and relegating him to a hopeless existence featuring equal parts toil, trouble, joy, and pleasure.

But Solomon had a warped perspective. He had lost his ability to see life through the lens of God’s love and faithfulness. His abandonment of the eternal God had left him with nothing but a temporal view of life. He had become blinded to the sovereign will of God that is always accompanied by the loving mercy of God. His sense of purposelessness was the direct byproduct of his lack of faithfulness. God was not the one who had changed. God was not the one who had moved. Solomon’s loss of hope was due to this loss of his trust in God.

The Lord God had become a distant deity to Solomon, but it was not because He had abandoned His servant. No, Solomon had been the one who walked away from the relationship. He had failed to remember and take seriously the promise that God had made to him years earlier.

“…if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 9:4-5 ESV

Somewhere along the way, Solomon had lost sight of eternity and had become fixated on the here-and-now. It had become all about him – his kingdom, his pleasure, his reputation, his own life “under the sun.” But God is eternal and His focus is always on the future. He had great things in store for Solomon but His real emphasis was on the One who would come and sit on the throne of David and rule in righteousness “forever.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Heart of the Matter

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. His gloomy rhetoric portrays him as a glass-half-empty kind of guy. But it might be more accurate to say that his glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. And recognizing his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, Solomon deigned to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money, and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon repeatedly refers to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is the state of his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void that existed there. His focus on external remedies was an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The spiritual condition of his heart.

Solomon even viewed the wisdom given to him by God as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. From his perspective, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or foolish.

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praiseworthy, would be left in the hands of another. His wealth, possessions, palace, and even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else. And this thought cast a dark shadow over all of Solomon’s many successes.

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And his conclusion was simple: “This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement, and he is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether. He is addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spends such much time discussing the inevitable futility of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

We have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT).

This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up to this point. He recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others. He is preaching a message that promotes finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. This perspective was echoed by James. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God rewarded those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in the here-and-now. We get our rewards in this life. And for Solomon, this was further proof of the futility of it all. Even if you worked hard, it really didn’t matter because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone He deemed as more worthy.

But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews understood.

…without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to Him. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involves the life to come. While God does shower us with many blessings and graciously allows us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life under the sun, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of immediate significance and satisfaction. He wanted it all and he wanted it now. But no matter how hard he worked and how much he achieved, he always came to the same disappointing conclusion: “This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.

In his head, Solomon was convinced that satisfaction could only be found in the things of this world. But nothing could fill the void in his heart. Even the temporal blessings of God were unfulfilling because they could be lost or would eventually be left behind. But Solomon was learning the painful yet crucial lesson that nothing would ever fill the God-shaped hole in his heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Spiritual Wake-Up Call

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:9-16 ESV

In an attempt to encourage the Ephesian believers, Paul paraphrased a verse from one of King David’s psalms.

You ascended on high,
    leading a host of captives in your train
    and receiving gifts among men… – Psalm 68:18 ESV

As a former Pharisee and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, Paul knew that this passage was written by David as a praise song to God, thanking Him for His divine assistance against Israel’s many enemies. In verse 18 of David’s psalm, he describes gifts being given to God as an expression of gratitude and praise for His divine intervention in their military affairs. But Paul takes this Old Testament passage and repurposes it to drive home his point about God having given the gift of grace to all who believe in His Son (Ephesians 4:7).

“Paul made a valid application of Christological significance to the Old Testament passage. On the one hand, according to Psalm 68:18, God ascended Zion as a victorious king worthy of being the recipient of gifts of homage. On the other hand, according to Ephesians 4:8, Jesus also ascended to the heavenly Zion as the victorious Lord who lovingly bestowed on His church the gifts of ministry essential to her future well-being.” – Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991):335-36

In Paul’s application of this verse to the Ephesian context, he portrays Jesus as the one who, having accomplished a mighty victory over the enemy, ascended back into heaven. But rather than receiving gifts from men, Jesus poured out the gift of the Spirit on His church. This gracious outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the provision of divinely-enabled gifts to assist the church in its ministry. Paul mentions just a few of those gifts in verse 11 and explains their purpose.

…he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

In his other letters, Paul provided a series of lists that contain other gifts provided to the church. They include the speaking gifts such as apostleship, prophecy, teaching, evangelism, exhortation, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. But he also lists gifts of service that include leadership, helps, mercy, giving, faith, healing, and miracles. Paul fully believed that Jesus had provided His church with everything it needed to not only survive but thrive.

Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus, the Son of God, had descended from on high and taken on the role of a lowly servant. He had left His rightful place at His Father’s side and chosen to take on the form of a man. Paul eloquently described the “descent” of Jesus in his letter to the church in Philippi.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

And as a result of His incarnation and crucifixion, God raised Jesus from the dead and “elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9 NLT). And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and equip His followers with the power to use their God-ordained gifts and display the fruits of a righteous life – all so that the body of Christ might be built up or edified. In his letter to Timothy, Paul described the church as the household of God and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). Jesus poured out gifts on the church so that all of its members might be adequately taught and prepared to carry out His mission on earth.

And, according to Paul, the goal of this “work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 ESV) is the spiritual maturity of every believer. It will continue unabated and uninterrupted until “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). This is a lofty and seemingly impossible goal. But Paul’s point is that it is the work of the Spirit, not the flesh. God sent His Son so that sinful humanity might be restored to a right relationship with Him. But Jesus sent the Spirit so that redeemed men and women might have the power they needed to experience the full potentiality of their new nature. Their spiritual transformation was to be ongoing and evidenced by an ever-increasing capacity to thrive in a hostile and often harmful earthly environment. 

In verse 14, Paul telegraphs where he is headed with this line of reasoning. He is preparing his readers to receive a stern but loving lecture regarding false teachers. And he does so by reminding them that their ongoing spiritual maturity is both non-optional and extremely vital. When the members of Christ’s body are growing effectively, they “will no longer be immature like children…tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching,” and they won’t be easily deceived by those who try to trick them “with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

This was all intended as a set-up for Paul’s main point. He is preparing the Ephesian believers to receive his not-so-flattering assessment of their current spiritual condition. In a sense, Paul is describing them as immature children who are being tossed about by every wind of new teaching. Rather than growing up in their salvation, they have remained like helpless and defenseless children who lack discretion and discipline.

According to Paul’s assessment, the Ephesian church was not where it needed to be spiritually. The leaders of the church were not effectively doing their job of equipping “God’s people to do his work” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And, as a result, God’s people were not edifying one another and strengthening the body of Christ. Paul calls them to course correct, demanding that they “speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). They needed to express their love for one another by being honest in their assessment of one another. There is a sense in which love must be hard and unforgiving, pointing out the flaws and failings of one another so that the body of Christ might be healthy and whole. Paul is recommending the truth found in Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” He is echoing the sentiment expressed by King David in another one of his psalms.

Let the righteous man strike me; let his rebuke be an act of loving devotion. It is oil for my head; let me not refuse it.

Paul’s heartfelt desire was that the Ephesians would experience all the gifts that Christ had poured out on their behalf. He wanted them to experience the unity that Christ had died to make possible. He longed for them to display the spiritual maturity that the Spirit made available. And he prayed continually that their lives would reflect the character of Christ that God’s grace had made attainable. As far as Paul was concerned, there was no reason for the Ephesians to be living in doubt, fear, immaturity, disunity, or impurity. God had provided everything they needed. He had done His part. He had sent His Son and His Son had sent the Spirit. Now, it was up to them to live out what God had ordained for them.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Why Is This Happening?

19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.”

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.  Genesis 25:19-28 ESV

Ultimately, the book of Genesis traces the history of a single man, Abraham, and his subsequent descendants. But along the way, the author has provided an essential background story to Abraham’s life by chronicling God’s creation of mankind and the entrance of sin into the plotline. It was the ubiquitous and all-pervasive presence of sin that led God to destroy the world with a flood. But in His grace and mercy, God spared one man, Noah, and his family, charging them with the divine mandate to multiply and fill the earth. The following chapters of Genesis reveal that from that one man and his family came a multitude of nations that spread over the face of the earth. But sadly, as they spread, so did sin. So, God chose a man named Abram, who lived in the land of Mesopotamia and promised to make of him a great nation. God called Abram out of his homeland and led him to the land of Canaan, which He promised to give to him as an inheritance.

But by this time in the story, Abraham has died and his son, Isaac, is married but childless. The “great nation” that was to have come through Abraham’s line consists of one man. Yet, Ishmael, Isaac’s disinherited stepbrother has fathered 12 sons. Even Abraham fathered six more sons after the birth of Isaac, but they would not share in the inheritance with their step-brother. It seems that the non-elect nations of the earth were continuing to grow and spread, while the elect line of Abraham remained stalled and facing yet another case of barrenness that would result in more fruitlessness.

Everything about this story screams futility and failure. Yet, behind the scenes, God is working His sovereign plan. While, at first glance, it may appear like that plan has hit another roadblock, these verses reveal that God is in full control. Yes, the patriarch of the family is dead, and Isaac, the sole heir of the family inheritance remains childless. To make matters worse, his wife Rebekah is barren. And this sad state of affairs will remain unchanged for 20 long years. For two decades Isaac and Rebekah would long for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham.

“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:6-8 ESV

“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

God had kept His word and Isaac had been born. But 60 years later, Isaac and his wife were still waiting to have a child of their own. Where was the offspring that God had promised? How was Isaac to share the inheritance of the land if he and his wife could have no children?

It is essential to understand the futility of Isaac’s circumstances. He was living in the land of Canaan, the land God had promised as an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants. But Isaac was still living a nomadic lifestyle, just as his father had. He owned no land, occupied no cities, and remained an insignificant minority surrounded by much larger clans, tribes, and nations. And, year after year, the seasons would come and go and Isaac’s flocks would bear new lambs, but he remained childless.

And how did Isaac handle the repeated disappointment of childlessness? The text indicates that he prayed. And it seems unlikely that this was a one-time occurrence. Isaac repeatedly and passionately pleaded with God.

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. – Genesis 25:21 ESV

He knew what the problem was, and he took it straight to Yahweh. Moses doesn’t divulge the content of Isaac’s intercessions, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this man prayed year after year. With each new spring, he must have called out to God, asking for Him to open Rebekah’s womb. Isaac would have known the miraculous nature of his own birth. His father and mother had waited years before God stepped in and caused Sarah to conceive.

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. – Genesis 21:1-3 ESV

But while Isaac was familiar with the story, he still longed to see his own wife’s battle with barrenness broken. He desperately desired to have a son. And for 20 years Isaac prayed and waited. And God heard those prayers. He was not ignoring Isaac or punishing him for some sin he had committed. He was simply following His preordained timeline. And, one day, at just the right time, God answered Isaac’s prayer.

And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. – Genesis 25:21 ESV

God opened Rebekah’s womb. To Isaac, this would have appeared to be a 20-year delay. But to God, it was all according to His providentially prepared timeline.

The news of Rebekah’s pregnancy must have thrilled Isaac. He would have been beside himself with joy and eager anticipation as he waited for the nine months to pass and the baby to be born. But things took a turn for the worse. Rebekah ended up having a difficult pregnancy. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was carrying twins, and the two babies “struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). The pain must have been unbearable, leaving Rebekah concerned about the viability of the baby and worried about her own health. She took the matter to God, asking, “why is this happening to me?” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). She couldn’t understand what was going on. Her joy had turned to fear and apprehension. Thoughts of losing the baby must have crossed her mind. But God reassured her.

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

God informed Rebekah that she was carrying two sons. This news must have thrilled her and helped to calm her fears. And God went on to explain that the “struggle” taking place within her womb was a sign of the future struggle that would take place between her two sons. In a sense, Rebekah was bearing two future nations that would end up in a perpetual state of conflict and acrimony.

This announcement from God must have left Rebekah as perplexed and confused as ever. While she was comforted to know that her difficult pregnancy was the result of twins and not a serious medical problem, she would have been displeased to hear that the relationship between her two sons was destined to be adversarial.

God was informing Rebekah and Isaac that they would be used to produce two nations through whom He would accomplish His divine plan of redemption. God could have blessed this couple with a single child but He had other plans. At this point, His purpose for placing two sons in Rebekah’s womb remains obscure and difficult to ascertain. And His plan for those two sons to result in two nations that stand diametrically opposed to one another remains a mystery.

Rebekah and Isaac are given little in the way of explanation. So, they simply had to wait and see what God was going to do. It’s not clear from the text just how much of God’s message Rebekah shared with Isaac. Other than the news that she was carrying twins, she might have withheld the details concerning the prophecy concerning sibling rivalry.

But the day finally came when Rebekah gave birth, and just as God had said, she delivered two healthy boys. But there was something unique about this delivery. The two babies, while twins, appeared to be nothing alike.

The first one was very red at birth and covered with thick hair like a fur coat. So they named him Esau. – Genesis 25:25 NLT

Not exactly a flattering description. And it doesn’t appear that Moses was using hyperbole in describing the baby’s appearance, because Isaac and Rebekah named him Esau, which means “hairy one.”

And when the second baby appeared, hanging on to one of Esau’s hairy heels, they named him, Jacob, which means “God will protect.” But in Hebrew, Jacob sounds similar to the word for “heel.” So Jacob would earn the nickname of “heel-grabber.”

With the births of these two boys, the scene is set for the next phase of the story. And Moses fast-forwards past the early days of their lives and straight to their adulthood. And the differences between the two young men become increasingly more pronounced with time. Esau became an outdoorsman and a hunter, while Jacob was more of a homebody. They displayed different temperaments and dispositions. Over time, they looked and acted less and less like siblings. No one would have ever guessed that they were twins. And even their relationships with their parents reveal a growing familial conflict brewing.

Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating the wild game Esau brought home, but Rebekah loved Jacob. – Genesis 25:28 NLT

The stage is set. God has established the next set of players in His grand drama and the story is about to take yet another dramatic and decisive turn. And as the events unfold, the readers of this story will echo the words of Rebekah: “Why is this happening?”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

And the Lord Did As He Had Promised

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 21:1-7 ESV

Moses opens this epic chapter with the simple, yet profound words, “the Lord visited Sarah.” After all that has transpired in the preceding chapters, they come across as rather anticlimactic. This is the moment for which Abraham and Sarah have long-awaited and about which they had their fair share of doubts. God had repeatedly promised that Sarah would bear a son, and now the time had come. The long wait was over. The promise was to be fulfilled. And while Moses’ words may lack an air of excitement, they display a strong sense of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. And three separate times in the first two verses, Moses emphasizes the faithfulness of God.

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said

…the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised

And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son…of which God had spoken to him

That simple statement, “and Sarah conceived” is (excuse the pun) pregnant with meaning. God had done the impossible. He had performed a miracle by creating life in Sarah’s lifeless womb. The odds had been against Sarah. When Moses first introduced her in chapter 11, he had declared her unfortunate condition.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. – Genesis 11:30 ESV

Yet, in the very next chapter, God had issued His call to Abraham and announced His promise to produce through him and Sarah a great nation. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 at the time. And 25 years later, God had reconfirmed His promise to Abraham.

Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” – Genesis 17:17 NLT

So, now Sarah’s barrenness was complicated by the curse of fruitlessness that accompanies old age.

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. – Genesis 18:11 NLT

And Sarah seemed to believe that her long struggle with infertility had been God’s doing.

So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Yet, at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign plan, Sarah conceived and bore a son. Against all odds and contrary to everything we know about human anatomy and physiology, a 90-year-old barren woman became impregnated by her 100-year-old husband and carried that baby for nine months. And Moses makes it clear that this pregnancy was the work of God. He had done what He had promised to do and He had done it according to His divine timeline. The 25-year delay had been a part of the plan. At no point along the way had God been exasperated by Sarah’s inability to get pregnant. He had not made a mistake in choosing Abraham. Sarah’s barrenness had not been an oversight on God’s part. Even when Sarah and Abraham kept attempting to come up with alternate plans to fulfill God’s promise, He kept reiterating His intentions to use the two of them.

God displayed His power and confirmed His covenant faithfulness through the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy and her baby’s eventual birth. A year earlier, God had predicted that this moment would come and He had even provided a name for the son who would be born to Abraham and Sarah.

“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

When Sarah had heard this promise from God, she had reacted with disbelief and scorn, saying, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (Genesis 18:12 NLT). And God had calmly and patiently responded, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14 NLT).

Now, God had answered His own question with an irrefutable demonstration of His power that should have clearly ended all speculation regarding His faithfulness. Sarah’s barrenness proved to be no problem for God. Yes, it had caused Sarah great pain and left her questioning the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. It had frustrated Abraham, causing him to consider and, at times, implement other strategies for becoming the father of a multitude of nations. Both Sarah and Abraham wanted what God had promised, but her barrenness seemed to be an insurmountable barrier to achieving their desire. And a quarter-century of waiting only made matters worse.

But at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign timeline, the Creator spoke into the darkness of Sarah’s despair and brought about life. And with that life, a light broke into the darkness that permeated Abraham’s world. It would be through this child that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

God had clearly promised to do something significant through the offspring of Abraham. He had added, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). This boy was destined for great things. And while he would bring great joy and comfort to Abraham and Sarah, he would become the hope of the nations. Through Isaac would come another son, whose birth would also come about through miraculous means. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah would predict the coming of this child.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

And Isaiah would go on to describe the circumstances in which this child would be born.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil. – Isaiah 9:2-3 ESV

The birth of Isaac brought great joy and hope to Abraham and Sarah. And in a similar, yet even more significant way, the birth of this future offspring of Abraham would bring joy to the entire world.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV

At the moment of Isaac’s miraculous birth, the 90-year-old Sarah and her 100-year-old husband found themselves basking in the joy of that momentous and long-awaited occasion. Sarah’s derisive and scornful laughter had been transformed into joyful hilarity at the sight of her miracle baby. As she held her bundle of joy in her arms, she exclaimed, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!” (Genesis 21:6-7 NLT). And the grin on Abraham’s face must have stretched from ear to ear.

What a sense of relief and gratitude this elderly couple must have felt. And you can sense Abraham’s thankfulness in the way he faithfully subjected his newborn son to the God-ordained rite of circumcision.

Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. – Genesis 21:4 ESV

God had done His part, now it was Abraham’s turn. In circumcising Isaac, Abraham was dedicating his son to God. This rite was meant to be a sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants.

“This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 NLT

And God had made it clear that all those who remained uncircumcised would have no part in His future blessings.

“All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” – Genesis 17:13-14 NLT

Abraham wasn’t taking any chances. He wasn’t about to curse his newborn son to a lifetime of alienation from God. He had waited too long for this moment and he knew that Isaac was the key to all that God had promised.

“I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:6 NLT

And though Abraham had no way to comprehend the significance of this promise, the gospel of Matthew provides the future fulfillment to which it pointed.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1 ESV

Isaac would be a means to an end. He would be the conduit through which God would bring the ultimate blessing to the nations: Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A Barren Faith

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Genesis 20:1-18 ESV

With the opening of chapter 20, Moses returns the focus of his narrative to Abraham. And, despite God’s repeated acts of faithfulness and His assurances that Sarah will bear Abraham a child, we find Abraham has reverted to his old ways. This story bears a striking resemblance to the one found in chapter 12. In the early days of his time in Canaan, a famine plagued the land. So, this prompted Abraham to seek refuge in Egypt. But when he arrived in the land of the Pharoahs, he feared that Sarah’s beauty would attract the interest of the Egyptians, so he came up with a plan.

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:11-13 ESV

Abraham’s fears were justified because the Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive, and he offered Abraham a bride price to make her a part of his harem. But while Abraham’s plan had been successful in sparing his own life, he had put Sarah in a very uncomfortable predicament. And it was only by the grace of God that she was spared humiliation at the hands of Pharaoh. The Almighty intervened and delivered Sarah back to Abraham. It had been a close call, but a valuable lesson was learned. Or so you would think.

Fast forward to chapter 20 and we find Abraham reliving one of his least flattering moments. He has journeyed from Hebron to Gerar and, once again, he has decided to spread the rumor among the inhabitants that Sarah is his sister. As before, he is telling a half-truth. Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister. But she is also his wife and the woman through whom God has promised to deliver a son. Yet, everywhere Abraham went, he declared of Sarah, “She is my sister” (Genesis 20:2 ESV). It seems likely that the motivation behind this charade was the same as it had been in Egypt. Abraham was out to protect his own skin. Because he was a stranger entering into potentially hostile territory, he feared that his wife’s beauty would attract the interest of the locals. If they discovered she was Abraham’s wife, they might decide to kill Abraham so that they might have a legal claim on her as a widow. Even in the pagan cultures of Canaan, marriage was a respected institution.

But what is amazing to consider is that Sarah is 90-years-old. We would find it difficult to imagine that anyone would find a woman of that age particularly attractive. But Sarah must have been striking, even at her advanced age, because the story goes on to say that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah. The woman whom God had chosen to bear the offspring of Abraham was now relegated to the role of a concubine in the harem of a pagan king. Abraham’s plan had backfired again, producing a potentially devastating outcome.

Yet, just as before, God intervened. He came to Sarah’s rescue and turned Abraham’s ill-conceived and ill-fated ploy into a blessing instead of a curse. Nothing was going to prevent God’s sovereign plan from taking place.

Abimelech, oblivious to the truth concerning Sarah, received a disturbing vision from God, in which he was told, “you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife” (Genesis 20:3 ESV). As proof of God’s providence and His divine protection of Sarah, Moses reveals that Abimelech had not laid a hand on her. And the panicked king pleads his innocence before God.

“Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” – Genesis 20:4-5 ESV

How could he have known that Sarah was Abraham’s wife? He had been lied to and, therefore, had done nothing wrong. He had not intended to take another man’s wife.

This entire exchange is fascinating because, as a pagan, Abimelech would have had no prior knowledge of Yahweh, the God of Abraham. This was likely his first encounter with the Almighty, but he knew that he was dealing with a divine being of great power. And God let Abimelech know just how omnipotent and omniscient He was. He revealed to the frightened monarch that He was fully aware of what had happened and had actually prevented Abimelech from doing any harm to Sarah.

“Yes, I know you are innocent. That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her. – Genesis 20:6 NLT

Abraham had lied. Abimelech had lusted. But God had the last say. He was in full control of the entire situation and had been divinely orchestrating the outcome. A fearful and faithless Abraham and a lustful and godless king would not prevent God from accomplishing His plan. This story illustrates the truth of the proverb: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV). This same thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

If anyone is guilty in this story, it is Abraham. He knew that God had promised to give him a son through Sarah, and he should have understood that God would not allow anything to prevent that promise from being fulfilled. No harm was going to come to Abraham or Sarah. But Abraham was still having a difficult time believing that God was powerful enough to pull off this unlikely miracle. God had set the date for Sarah’s delivery and even provided a name for the son she would bear, but Abraham was still operating in fear and displaying a lack of faith. But God continued to display patience to Abraham, and even referred to him as His prophet. He commanded Abimelech to do the right thing and return Sarah to her husband.

“Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.” – Genesis 20:7 NLT

As soon as Abimelech woke up from his disturbing nightmare, he shared the Lord’s message with his servants. Then he ordered Abraham to be brought into his presence and proceeded to vent his well-justified frustration.

“What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin? No one should ever do what you have done!  Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” – Genesis 20:9-10 NLT

Abimelech was livid and rightfully so. Abraham’s deception had almost resulted in the annihilation of Abimelech and his people. This man’s little half-truth could have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. But, rather than apologize, Abraham attempted to justify his actions and even blamed his behavior on his circumstances.

“I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’” – Genesis 20:11-13 NLT

Abraham reveals that this strategy had been in place since the very beginning. He had implemented it in Egypt and had continued to use it wherever he went. This seems to be an admission that Abraham had been lying about Sarah the entire time he had been in Canaan. He had displayed a habit of deception that had been motivated by doubt and fear. Only on two occasions did Abraham’s lie produce negative consequences. But even those “close calls” did not stop him from relying on deceit rather than trusting in God.

Yet, despite Abraham’s revealing admission, God chose to bless him. Not only did God return Sarah unharmed, but He also directed Abimelech to give Abraham “some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants” (Genesis 20:14 NLT). Not only that, he offered Abraham his choice of land in Gerar and provided him with 1,000 pieces of silver as a form of compensation for the indignity shown to Sarah.

This pagan king showed great discernment and integrity. And his behavior stands in stark contrast to the “righteous prophet” of Yahweh. As a prophet of God, Abraham should have been a source of light in the darkness of Gerar, but instead, he had almost brought down the wrath of God on the unsuspecting citizens of that community.

Verses 17-18 reveal an interesting detail about this story. It appears that God had struck all the women of Gerar with barrenness. When Abimelech had taken Sarah as his concubine, he had inadvertently and unknowingly doomed his city to a future of fruitlessness. The disability that had plagued Sarah her entire adult life was visited upon the women of Gerar. Moses makes it clear that “the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18 ESV). And it wasn’t until the doubtful and deceptive Abraham prayed for them, that God lifted the curse.

Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. – Genesis 20:17 ESV

Think about the irony of that moment. The man who had continually doubted God’s ability to provide him a son through his barren wife was praying for God to heal the barren women of Gerar. And God heard and answered that prayer. What a powerful lesson this must have been for Abraham and Sarah. God has just rejuvenated the wombs of an entire city of barren women. So, could He not do the same for Sarah? And, as the next chapter will reveal, that is exactly what God was preparing to do.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Mask of Zoar

12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. 13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14 So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

15 As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17 And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” 18 And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. 19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. 20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” 21 He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22 Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. Genesis 19:12-22 ESV

As the crowd of blinded deviants groped helplessly outside Lot’s door, his angelic guests warned him of the seriousness of the situation. They wanted him to know that the most pressing problem he faced was not his sex-crazed neighbors but the wrath of a holy God.

“…we are about to destroy this city completely. The outcry against this place is so great it has reached the Lord, and he has sent us to destroy it.” – Genesis 19:13 NLT

Despite Abraham’s aggressive negotiation efforts and God’s promise to spare the city for the sake of 10 righteous residents, destruction was coming. The moral situation in Sodom was so bad that there was less than half that number of righteous individuals living in the city.

The angels ordered Lot to gather his family and prepare to leave the city before the wrath of God fell. It is interesting to note that they posed this command in the form of a question.

“Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. – Genesis 19:12 ESV

As messengers of God, they would have known exactly who was on the divine list of designated survivors. Yet, they give Lot an opportunity to choose those whom he would consider worthy of salvation. And Lot included the two Sodomite men to whom he had betrothed his daughters. Considering Moses’ earlier revelation that “the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13 ESV), and that “the men of the city…to the last man, surrounded the house” (Genesis 19:4 ESV), it is difficult to believe that Lot’s two son-in-laws-to-be were righteous. And when he attempted to warn them of God’s pending judgment, they refused to take him seriously.

As the morning sun broke over the horizon, the angels pleaded with Lot to take his wife and two daughters and escape for their lives. For the second time, they warned Lot of the looming judgment of God. The entire city and all its inhabitants were to be completely destroyed. “But he lingered” (Genesis 19:16 ESV). Consider the gravity of that three-word sentence. And to truly appreciate its implications, one must take into account their meaning in Hebrew. The word “lingered” is מָהַהּ (māhah), and it carries the idea of reluctance or doubtful hesitation. This wasn’t a case of Lot delaying his exit so he could pack another bag. It’s almost as if he too found the words of his two guests to be a bit hyperbolic and overblown. Or perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to believe that God would actually destroy all his friends and neighbors. But whatever his reasons, Lot’s hesitation revealed a reluctance to obey the word of the messengers.

So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. – Genesis 19:16 ESV

Once again, consider the implications of that sentence. In the face of divine judgment, Lot hesitated. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the gravity of the moment or the veracity of the warning. So, in His mercy, God had the two angels drag Lot and his family out of Sodom. We’re not told how the angels managed to navigate their way through the city streets undetected and unmolested. But there is a hint of the miraculous in this scene. And for the Jewish audience to whom Moses had written this book, the salvation of Lot would have reminded them of the liberation of their ancestors from Egypt.

When Moses declares that the angels “brought him out,” he uses the Hebrew word יָצָא (yāṣā’), which means “to bring out” or “to lead out.” It is the very same word that God had spoken to Moses when He delivered His plan to redeem Israel from their captivity.

“Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out (yāṣā’) of Egypt.” – Exodus 3:9-10 NLT

The other word Moses used was יָנַח (yānaḥ), a word that means “to cause to rest.” Lot and his family were led to a place of rest and security – outside the city walls and away from the pending judgment of God. They had been delivered from imminent danger and destruction and awarded with redemption and rest.

Standing outside the gates of the city, Lot found himself in a strange predicament. One doesn’t get the impression that he felt a sense of peace or rest. He had just packed up his belongings, dragged his wife and two daughters out of their home, and was now facing an uncertain future. And, once again, the angels were forced to deal with Lot’s continued reluctance to leave Sodom behind.

“Run for your lives! And don’t look back or stop anywhere in the valley! Escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away!” – Genesis 19:17 NLT

Their message was crystal clear. Lot was not safe as long as he remained anywhere in the vicinity of Sodom or Gomorrah. He may have been standing outside the gate but he remained well within the impact zone of God’s judgment. Time was running out and it was time for Lot to run for his life. God had done His part by mercifully delivering Lot out of harm’s way. But now Lot needed to leave Sodom behind.

Lot found himself facing the most important decision of his life. He had been saved by God, but now he needed to live out that salvation by taking advantage of the freedom he had been graciously given. His situation is similar to that of every Christ-follower. The apostle Paul provides a powerful admonition that could have proved beneficial to Lot.

…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Lot could have used the word of warning that Paul gave to his young protege, Timothy.

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

But rather than running for the hills, Lot delayed his departure once again by running his mouth. He chose to bargain with his rescuers. Instead of taking their advice and seeking refuge in the mountains, Lot expressed his preference for a less primitive and desolate destination. He had grown accustomed to the city life and feared that exile to the mountain wilderness would be the death of him.

“You have been so gracious to me and saved my life, and you have shown such great kindness. But I cannot go to the mountains. Disaster would catch up to me there, and I would soon die. See, there is a small village nearby. Please let me go there instead; don’t you see how small it is? Then my life will be saved.” – Genesis 19:19-20 NLT

What Lot failed to realize was that the same God who had just rescued him was fully capable of protecting and providing for him in the wilderness. Lot had grown comfortable living in the city, where all his needs could be easily met. He found the thought of returning to his former nomadic lifestyle unappealing and unacceptable. So, he bargained for an alternative landing place. And the angel of the Lord agreed to Lot’s request.

All right,” the angel said, “I will grant your request. I will not destroy the little village. But hurry! Escape to it, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” (This explains why that village was known as Zoar, which means “little place”). – Genesis 19:21-22 NLT

Lot got his wish. But there is a profound lesson to be found in Lot’s little victory. He had chosen a small village as his final destination. He even emphasized its diminutive size. It wasn’t really a city, it was just a small, insignificant village. But there lies the lesson. Through his bargaining to escape to Zoar, Lot was relegating himself to a life of insignificance. In Hebrew, the name, Zoar, comes from a root word that means “to be brought low, to grow insignificant.” By choosing Zoar over the mountains, Lot was dooming himself to irrelevance. By refusing God’s will for his life, Lot would never experience the power and provision of God for his life. To Lot, the mountains had appeared unattractive and foreboding. But the little village of Zoar seemed to offer just enough of the pleasures and comforts he had grown to love and appreciate. But God’s people were not meant to live lives of insignificance in Zoar. And it would be just a matter of time before Lot learned the painful reality of that truth.

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