GENESIS - CHAPTER 17
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
17:1. “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God: walk before me, and be thou perfect.”
If chapter 16 is the account of the failure that results from confidence in the flesh and lack of complete trust in God, chapter 17 is the record of recovery, of God’s drawing near in grace to bring hope out of the ruin resulting from having had recourse to fleshly expedient.
Abram sat disconsolate amid the ruin of his and Sarai’s schemes, and the prospect was even more hopeless than before. Not only was Sarai barren, she was now also too old to bear children, and as for himself, he too was old and “his own body now dead” (Ro 4:19). Discord and unhappiness dwelt in his home, and Ishmael, the child he loved, is found after all not to be the child of promise, not the seed through whom all the promised blessings were to come.
But into the midst of this darkness came God, “I am the almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect.” It was the same Almighty God Who had appeared amid the ruin of the original creation in Ge 1:2, bringing light out of darkness, cosmos out of chaos, life out of death. It was God, the God of resurrection. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity to come in and put forth His almighty power on man’s behalf, bringing out of the chaos of our wrecked schemes the same light, order and life that He brought out of the ruin of the original creation.
What was the cause behind the disaster of chapter 16? Was it not that God had said all His promises were to find fulfillment through a promised seed, but Abram had been looking at himself instead of at God to provide that seed? Don’t most of our troubles have the same origin? We look to self instead of God to make good the promises given in His Word. But instead of allowing Him, through the Holy Spirit, to produce in us Christ the true Seed through Whom all God’s promises are to be fulfilled, we turn to such worthless expedients as law-keeping.
God began the work of recovery by bidding Abram to look, not at self, but at Him. “I am the Almighty God.” That is where all recovery must begin. Whether it be the salvation of a sinner, or the recovery of a saint, the eye must be turned to God.
Then He revealed the next step, “Walk before me, and be thou perfect.” He leads us a step at a time, and for a very good reason: to reveal the end before we come to it would negate the operation of faith, and we are called upon to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Co 5:7), so that we might at the end receive the reward of faith, no small part of that recompense being the vindication of our faith.
The perfection spoken of here is not the perfection of sinlessness, but rather that perfection of heart that will have perfect faith in God, trusting Him implicitly “to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).
Chapter 16 is the record of man’s puny efforts, and the result is ruin. Chapter 17 is the record of the Almighty God at work on man’s behalf: “ I am,” “I will make,” “I will multiply,” “I will establish,” “I will give,” “I will be,” and the result is indeed beyond anything Abram could have asked or thought.
Chapter 16 contains no record of any conversation between Abram and God, for the simple reason that the activity of the flesh and communion with God can’t coexist. We are on dangerous ground when we permit the breakdown of that communion. Prayer is the human side of the conversation, for in prayer we speak to God. The Word is the divine side. In it God speaks to us.
In chapter 16 Abram was still capable of begetting offspring. It was a period marked by activity of the flesh and its attendant ruin. In chapter 17 he is ninety-nine and his body “dead,” and he sits in the midst of the ruin his folly has wrought, powerless to effect a remedy. This is where man must be in order for God to draw near and act on his behalf. Man must first see the failure of his own efforts, must realize his own helplessness, before God will reveal Himself and undo man’s ruin.
Abram’s age, 99, is further confirmation that resurrection is the theme of this section, for 3 is the prominent factor of 99, and 3 is the Biblical number of resurrection.
17:2. “And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.”
Having allowed Abram to learn the futility of fleshly activity, and having revealed Himself as El Shaddai (the Almighty God), God continues with the assurance, “I will make my covenant between me and thee....” In pure grace, and without any reason except His love for man, the Almighty God bound Himself by an unbreakable covenant to bless Abram, whose sole part was to accept this covenant, and allow God to fulfill it.
This is a picture of God’s love and grace to humanity. He has bound Himself by an immutable covenant to pardon the sins of every believer, and to bless that same believer with the gift of eternal life. There is one vast difference, however, between that covenant made with Abram, and the great eternal covenant of which it is but a type: the Abramic covenant cost God nothing, the covenant which bestows pardon and eternal life upon believing sinners cost the Lord Jesus Christ His life.
The promise, “and will multiply thee exceedingly,” implies the continuation of Abram’s progeny through endless generations, and therefore, the continuation of Abram’s own life, for a man’s life is perpetuated in his descendants. This is a picture of the endless life bestowed upon the believer under the terms of the covenant of grace sealed with the blood of God’s Son.
17:3. “And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,”
There is no activity of the flesh here. Abram, old, powerless, discouraged, listened while God talked. And the words he heard were the same as those poured into the ear of all who will take the same place of submission before God. It was no longer a question of what Abram could do - he could do nothing. It was now a matter of what God would do, for it was His covenant, and He had bound Himself to its fulfillment. And He is the Almighty God. He can do everything. Abram had no part in it except to receive its blessings, for when it was made and sealed with the blood of sacrifice in chapter 15 Abram was in “a deep sleep.” We would do well to remember that the covenant by which God has pledged to bless us, “with all spiritual blessings” (Eph 1:3) is one in which we have no part except to receive the blessings, for we were in the “deep sleep” of spiritual death when it was made and sealed with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If that Abramic covenant, sealed only with the blood of animals, guaranteed such blessings, well might Paul write of that better covenant sealed with the blood of God’s only Son, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Co 2:9).
17:4. “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.”
All the glory belongs to God. When Abram’s body was “alive” he could beget only a “wild ass man,” but now his “dead” body cannot beget even that. But El Shaddai, the Almighty God, the God of resurrection, will take up that “dead” body, as he will also the “dead” body of Sarai, and out of them bring the promised seed through whom their own lives would be perpetuated to endless generations. As has been noted already, Abraham represents faith, and Sarah, grace, so that God’s using these two to beget the promised seed, is the symbolic announcement of the truth that only the union of faith and grace can produce the true Seed (Christ) in the believer’s life.
This is a foreshadowing of the miracle of grace in which God takes up sinners “dead in trespasses and sins” and imparts His gift of eternal life. And the assurance that it is available to all men is given in the promise, “and thou shalt be a father of many nations.” “For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham, or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all. (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Ro 4:13-25).
17:5. “Neither shall they name any more be called Abram father is exalted, but thy name shall be called Abraham father of a great multitude; for a father of many nations have I made thee.”
In Scripture a change of name always indicates a change of state, e.g., Jacob he will take by the heel: supplanter, upon entering into a new relationship with God, became Israel he shall be prince of God. Saul requested became Paul little the great Apostle.
In Abraham’s case the change of state is greater than is sometimes realized. It would seem from the information given in chapters 11 and 12 that Terah was indeed exalted by Abram, for it is evident that it was he who influenced Abram to render only partial obedience to God in the matter of the divine command to leave Ur. It was not until after the death of Terah that Abram entered the land of promise. From a human viewpoint it might seem that that was the time when his name should have been changed, but the perfection of God’s timing will be appreciated all the more when we consider the circumstances under which the change finally took place. It was when “his own body was now dead.” It is when the perpetuation of the natural line is humanly impossible that God comes in with His promise, “a father of many nations have I made thee.”
The lesson isn’t difficult to discern. Before there can be spiritual life (typified in Isaac) there must be the death of all that belongs to the old natural life. Ishmael, begotten by the energy of the flesh, was the perpetuation of the old line, but Isaac, begotten by the power of God, was to be the beginning of a completely new line. God doesn’t remake the flesh. He sets it aside completely. Men begotten of the Spirit are a new creation. It was when the flesh in Abram was dead that God changed his name to Abraham and empowered him to become the father of a new line altogether. This principle governs all that belongs to the new creation. It is not until I see in my crucified Substitute, the death of all that was mine as being in the line of condemned Adam, that I find myself standing as a new creature in the line of the last Adam, taken by death out of that state of condemnation, and brought by resurrection into the enjoyment of a new state in which there is no condemnation.
It is significant that God speaks as though what He had promised were already accomplished, “a father of many nations have I made thee.” With God, promise and fulfillment are the same thing.
17:6. “And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.”
Abram, by the energy of the flesh, could beget only one “wild ass man,” but Abraham, now as the channel of the Holy Spirit’s power, was to be made exceeding fruitful. Abraham is the “father” of every believer, and his fruitfulness may be gauged from the impossibility of even beginning to number that vast multitude. Apart from the fact that Abraham is the literal father of the Jews as well as the Arabs, there is the transcendent fact that he is also the “father” of every believer, and his spiritual children are found in every nation under the sun.
The promise that he should be the father of kings has also been literally fulfilled - all the Jewish kings were descended from him, the crowning fulfillment of that promise, of course, being the Lord Jesus Christ, Who, according to human genealogy, came from Abraham.
17:7. “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
The emphasis is upon the fact that this is God’s covenant, and that He has bound Himself to fulfill it. Its eternal duration is indicated in the words, “thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant.”
The promise “to be a God unto thee,” doesn’t of course imply that God is just one God among others. It is rather the assurance that since the Covenant-maker is none other than God, then the beneficiaries are justified in expecting limitless blessings since God is not limited in what He has to give. That the covenant will be literally fulfilled in the Millennium is abundantly clear, but that its blessings will continue into the eternal state is equally clear.
17:8. “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
The promise is explicit: Abraham and his descendants are to be given the land of Canaan, and their possession is to be of no brief duration: the promise gives them “an everlasting possession.”
It might be well at this point to take time to note the circumstances under which the promise will be fulfilled. Other Scriptures make it clear that in the Millennium the land of Canaan will be occupied by literal flesh-and-blood Jews who will have been converted in the Tribulation, and who will have physically survived its horrors. The converts from the nations (saved in the Tribulation, and having also physically survived its carnage) will inhabit the remainder of the millennial earth. The saints of this present age, will be resurrected and raptured before the Tribulation begins. Then at the end of the Tribulation, the saints of the OT age, together with believers who will have died in the Tribulation, will be resurrected, and from the heavenly Jerusalem, which will then be poised over the earth, will reign with us over the millennial earth without actually being on it. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the millennial earth will be peopled by resurrected individuals.
Since the Millennium will be superseded by the new heavens and the new earth, it seems reasonable to take everlasting in its fullest sense of meaning eternal rather than just for the duration of time.
Reiteration of the promise, “I will be their God,” simply confirms that there is no limit to the blessings to be enjoyed by the beneficiaries of this covenant.
17:9. “And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.”
There is a wealth of spiritual instruction in this verse which we do well not to miss. While it is abundantly clear that God, of His own volition, made this covenant, and bound Himself to fulfill it, it is equally clear that the blessings were to be enjoyed only upon certain conditions: Abraham and his descendants were to obey God, their obedience being the evidence of their faith. Obedience is still the evidence of saving faith - a criterion that calls in question many of today’s professions. There is no Scriptural support for the notion that a loving God will set aside justice and receive every man into heaven eventually. Only men and women of faith will stand in heaven, for “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6).
The idea that a man may attain the right to enter heaven by good works is also refuted, for faith and works are two separate things which should not be confused. The fact that a genuine faith will of necessity produce good works, has led some to conclude, wrongly, that it is the works that bring salvation. It is God Himself Who warns, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20), but works without faith are equally worthless.
This also refutes the error that salvation is predestinated according to the arbitrary choice of a capricious God. Man is a responsible creature to whom God has given a free will, with the obligation to use that will to accept or reject salvation. Apart from faith Abraham would receive none of the covenanted blessings, nor would his progeny. And this applies to all men, for without faith there is no blessing.
17:10. “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: Every man child among you shall be circumcised.”
A condition must be met: every man child must be circumcised. Romans chapter four, however, makes it clear that the covenant was made with Abraham before he was circumcised, and that circumcision was nothing more than the outward sign of the inward faith which made him righteous in God’s sight, “... we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had being yet uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (Ro 49-12).
Physical circumcision was nothing more than the outward sign of an inward faith that trusted God completely, and renounced all confidence in the flesh. Today’s spiritual counterpart is different only in regard to the outward sign of the inward faith. The believer’s faith is just the same as Abraham’s, but the outward sign of that faith is no longer the cutting off of the flesh literally, but the “cutting off” of the deeds of the flesh. The righteous life is the outward sign or evidence of the inward faith. “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Ro 2:28-29).
“... which ye shall keep” emphasizes Abraham’s responsibility to be obedient. The lesson for all men is that salvation is a blessing to be enjoyed only by those who have fulfilled their responsibility to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, an obedient life being the confirmation of the reality of the profession.
It is scarcely necessary to note that the words, “every man child,” do not exclude women from the blessings of the covenant. Since the woman was taken out of the man, she is viewed as being comprehended in him.
17:11. “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.”
As circumcision was the visible sign of the Abrahamic covenant, an obedient life is to be the sign that marks the man who is under the new covenant. And as there was pain connected with receiving the mark of the one, so is there pain connected with receiving the mark of the other. To have its deeds cut off is always painful to the flesh, but the faith that led to Abraham’s compliance with God’s command is the same faith that will produce obedience in the life of the believer today.
17:12. “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.”
In the numerology of Scripture eight always signifies a new beginning, and God’s command to circumcise on the eighth day was the symbolic declaration that those receiving the sign were those who stood in a new relationship with Him. The spiritual truth being demonstrated is that there is a new beginning when man sees the hopelessness of the flesh and its works as a means of blessing, and is willing to renounce all confidence in it, leaving himself in God’s hands, for Him to bestow blessing in the new life which He brings out of the death of the old.
That God’s blessings are available to the Gentile as well as the Jew is declared in the words, “he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.” The Jew is the one “born in the house,” and the Gentile is the one “bought with money ... not of thy seed.”
As the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant were available to the obedient Gentile, so also are the blessings of the new covenant. The great difference, however, is that the Gentile in Abraham’s house was bought with money, but we who are members of the household of faith are there as the result of having been bought, not with silver or gold, “but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pe 1:19). For the one as for the other, it was not his national origin that determined his fitness to receive the covenant blessings: it was whether he was a member of Abraham’s house, and whether he had been circumcised. Translated into spiritual language, it is simply a question of whether the man is willing to trust in Christ, and renounce all confidence in the flesh.
17:13. “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”
Circumcision wasn’t an option: it was a command. He who would enjoy the covenant blessings must be circumcised. Holiness for the believer is not an option: it is a command. He who would be blessed must be obedient.
We must be careful, however, to distinguish between the obedience that brings pardon and eternal life to the sinner, and that which brings blessing to the saint. Obedience to God’s command to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, brings the blessing of eternal life, and that life can never be lost. But the obedience of the saint is connected with the enjoyment of that life. Salvation can’t be lost, but the enjoyment of it can; and the disobedience that robs me of joy here on earth will rob me also of eternal reward at the judgment seat of Christ. It matters a great deal how we live here on earth.
“... for an everlasting covenant,” reminds us that obedience is required, not just for a part of our lives, but for all of them, because the results are everlasting.
17:14. “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.”
This declares the fatal consequences of trusting in the flesh. Until all confidence in it is renounced, there can neither be life for the sinner nor blessing for the saint. He who will not “cut off” the flesh, must himself be “cut off” by God.
17:15. “And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.”
Sarai my princesses is now to be called Sarah a princess. As has been noted already, Sarah represents the principle of grace, and as Abraham’s wife, she represents grace joined to faith, for Abraham is the representative of faith. As Sarai my princesses she seems to represent Abraham’s conception of grace up to this point in his life, the plural meaning of her name indicating that he viewed grace simply as consisting of a number of blessings, rather than as an exclusive principle governing all God’s dealings with him, and with all men of faith. It would seem that he had the same very inadequate conception of grace as is entertained by many today: they see it only as consisting of blessings given as reward for works. Having learned the worthlessness of all self-effort, he is now taught the true meaning of grace: it is God’s outpouring of unlimited blessing upon one who can do nothing to merit it. Grace is not reward for works: it is the bestowal of blessing upon those who deserve nothing but judgment.
Henceforth his wife’s name is to mean a princess, a princess of the nations and kings of which she is to be the mother. Whereas her former name seems to speak merely of blessings, her new name speaks of the great principle which governs God in bestowing His blessings.
In the attempt to produce the promised seed by fleshly expedient, Sarai was compelled to share her royal dignity with an Egyptian maid, who eventually mocked her; but now as Sarah, the one who alone is to bear that seed, she is to share her dignity with none. She is to be in every sense a princess. Such is grace.
Abraham’s correct conception of the nature of grace - indicated by his wife’s changed name - came only when he had first learnt his own worthlessness, and the equal worthlessness of all his own efforts. It comes to men today in exactly the same way.
God would set before us here more than the record of Sarah’s exaltation: He would have us learn the royal dignity of grace. We become the beneficiaries of grace, not as beggars receiving charity, but as sons and daughters in God’s royal family, enjoying the riches of a Father Who is also God. It is only the distorted vision of the fleshly mind that sees God’s gracious giving as charity bestowed on beggars. There is that false pride and blindness in man that will insist upon working for salvation, refusing to accept it as the unmerited gift of grace, saying in fact, if not in actual words, “If I can’t earn it, I won’t accept it.” God never treats us as beggars. Even in the matter of salvation we don’t have to beg. It is He Who entreats us, for the eternal life offered by God as a gift is priceless, beyond the ability of any man to buy.
His attitude towards us is beautifully displayed in the story of the prodigal son. Even in his rags he was never regarded by his father as a beggar (that was his own right estimate of himself), but as his son returned. What is ours under grace is a Father’s bounty bestowed on His royal sons and daughters. There is a world of difference between the beggar at a rich man’s door receiving of that man’s money, food or clothing, and that same man’s children enjoying his riches because they are his children. There is a royal dignity connected with grace that we often fail to see. Sarah (grace) is indeed a princess.
17:16. “And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.”
Having been brought to an end of his own resources, and having learned that all must be of God, Abraham was then shown what God would do now that there was nothing of the flesh to impede His work. He learned that the promised seed would come, not through the activity of the flesh in conjunction with law, but by the power of God working through grace.
Sarah was to become the mother of the promised seed, and the lesson God would teach us is that true blessing is His production of Christ (the true Seed) in every believer. We fall far short of understanding the meaning of blessing when we equate it with wealth, ease, fame, honor, health, pleasure, etc. True blessing is in our being perfectly conformed to the image of Christ; and in spite of all that the flesh would do to hinder, God will fulfill His purpose, for His Word assures us that, “... whom he did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Ro 8:29). (It is to be noted that this not a predestination to eternal life, but to conformity to the image of Christ in those who have already obtained eternal life through their free-will choice of Christ as Savior).
Just as Abraham had turned to Hagar (representative of the principle of law) in an attempt to produce the promised seed, so had the Galatians turned again to law-keeping, and Paul had to rebuke their folly, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Ga 4:19). Grace, and grace alone will produce Christ in us, and conform us to His image.
Sarah was to become the mother of nations and kings. In this God would teach us that it is the union of grace and faith that will produce the vast multitude of worshippers out of all nations described in Re 5:9-10, “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on (over) the earth.”
The confession of the redeemed through eternal ages will be, “All through grace.”
17:17. “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?”
The magnitude of God’s grace was too much for even Abraham to grasp, for he still had his eye on self, and what he saw there produced the laughter of unbelief. In chapter sixteen only Sarah was too old to bear, but now Abraham also is too old, humanly speaking, to hope for children. When God is left out of our reckoning the sphere of possibility becomes small indeed. But it is against the dark background of dead nature that the glory of the Almighty God shines forth in all its splendor, for out of death he brings forth life, and not just the same kind of life that has died, and which must therefore die again. He brings forth a life which is as far above nature as He Himself is above man. The life which the God of resurrection brings out of death is spiritual, immortal. It is His own Life. The believer will never die. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26).
17:18. “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!”
Still failing to grasp the extent of God’s power, and still not having learned that there is nothing of the flesh which is acceptable to God, Abraham pleads that Ishmael, - who, like every firstborn, represents the flesh - might be accepted as the promised seed. How slow we are to learn the lesson that the flesh is fallen, ruined, corrupt, and that even the best it can produce is tainted with that contagion! “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.... Ye must be born again.... Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3,6,7). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Co 15:50).
17:19. “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.”
Sarah, and only Sarah, can be the mother of the promised seed, for she represents grace, and the new life which Isaac here represents, comes only from the union of grace, and faith, which Abraham represents. The only life acceptable to God is that which He Himself provides, for it alone is free from nature’s corruption. It is resurrection life (Isaac came out of two bodies as good as dead, see Ro 4:19), coming only when we see ourselves as being dead in trespasses and sins; coming through faith in Christ, crucified with Him, but then raised up as new creatures possessing His life, His nature. And man has no part in producing it. It must be received by grace through faith, as God’s gift.
The promise is accompanied by a command, “Thou shalt call his name Isaac he shall laugh,” for joy and laughter are characteristic of the new life which Isaac represents. The look at self can produce only the laughter of incredulity; but when the eye is turned to God the hollow laughter of unbelief is replaced with that of joy and gladness.
It is through the one whom God Himself gives, that the covenant is to be established, and as it was with Abraham, so is it also with the believer: God’s covenant is established eternally with the man who has Christ, the One of Whom Isaac is but a type.
17:20. “And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.”
In God’s sovereign choice of Isaac the secondborn, over Ishmael the firstborn, it is clear that we have another demonstration of the operation of the principle annunciated in Heb .10:9, “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.” God would remind us repeatedly of the need to be born again. Flesh must be set aside and replaced with spirit.
In the divine promise to bless Ishmael, however, God would guard against the wrong assumption that in being rejected as the promised seed, he was thus being predestinated to lose his soul. The divine appointment of his position was for time, not for eternity. He had no choice in the matter of whether he would be the promised seed for the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, but there is nothing in this that deprived him of the freedom of choice in regard to the salvation of his soul. The divine appointment that gives one man wealth, and another poverty; one man health, and another sickness, never deprives the individual of the freedom of choice to accept or reject God’s gift of eternal life.
The literal fulfillment of the promise that Ishmael would beget twelve princes is recorded in Ge 25:12-18. There can be little doubt, however, that the full measure of fulfillment awaits the Millennium. Just as Isaac represents Abraham’s spiritual posterity, Ishmael represents his literal physical descendants, and their full measure of earthly blessing will come in the Millennium.
17:21. “But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.”
In His choice of Isaac as the promised seed, God would teach us that there are two aspects of the divine will: one is directive; the other, permissive. Within the sphere of the latter, man is free to exercise his own will, including the decision to accept or reject God’s gift of eternal life. There are many things, however, which do not lie within that sphere. Man, for example, has no choice in regard to his birth. He is born at the time appointed by God; of parents chosen by God; with physical and mental endowments which are according to God’s choice. Many of the things which befall him are beyond his control, e.g., illness or accident. (The believer recognizes that there are no accidents with God, however. The seeming accidents are but the means by which God accomplishes His Own sovereign purposes).
It is clear that in exercising His divine prerogative, God does not act capriciously. We may not always be able to discern it, but He has a reason for everything He does.
We have learned that in the sovereign purpose of God, Ishmael’s birth was permitted for one purpose at least: to teach man the folly of attempting to accomplish the divine will through an effort to keep the law, or, in fact, by any activity of the flesh. Ishmael was rejected as the channel of blessing, not because of good or bad in him, but because God in His wisdom had chosen another (also apart from good or bad in him), to teach us that the gift of eternal life is by grace through faith, without regard to good or bad in those to whom it is offered.
The great lesson of this verse is the helplessness of man, and the exercise of the divine sovereignty to meet that need. It is “My (God’s) covenant”; “will I (God) establish” - God would execute it; “with Isaac” - the one through whom it would be made good was the man of God’s choice; “which Sarah shall bear” - the woman who would bring forth the chosen man was herself the woman of God’s choice; “bear unto thee” - the seed would be produced by the power of God using a “dead” body as His channel; “at this set time in the next year” - all would be accomplished in God’s time. “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that are under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Ga 4:4-5).
17:22. “And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.”
The language of the KJ version here is ambiguous: it was God Who left off talking with Abraham. One of the lessons to be learnt here is that when God gives a command it must be obeyed before we can expect any further communication from Him. We must be obedient to the truth already possessed before He will impart deeper truth. Having commanded Abraham and his household to be circumcised, He then withdrew Himself, giving time for the command to be obeyed.
17:23. “And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.”
An outstanding characteristic of Abraham was the punctuality with which he obeyed God’s commands. When told to cast out Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 21, we read in verse 14 that he rose up early in the morning to obey; and in chapter 22, when commanded to offer up Isaac, we read again that he rose up early in the morning. And in the matter of circumcision, there was no delay in obeying the divine command. Obedience was yielded in the selfsame day.
Not only was he punctual in the matter of obedience generally: he was equally careful as to detail. God had said every manchild, and we read that Abraham circumcised every male - none was left out. A question we might well ask ourselves is whether we display the same meticulous care in obeying God’s commands.
17:24. “And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”
The factors of ninety are 2 x 3 x 5; and of nine, 3 x 3. The prominent factor is three (number of resurrection); but its being linked with two (number of witness or testimony), and five (number of responsibility), reminds us that the man of faith, whom Abraham represents, is responsible to testify by word and deed that he is one, who having become dead to the world through the cross of Christ, nevertheless now lives as a new man in Christ. His life is to be marked by holiness.
17:25. “And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”
From the oldest to the youngest, all were to be circumcised. People of all ages comprise the household of faith, but whether it be the babe in Christ or the mature believer, the need to cut off the deeds of the flesh is the same. “We are debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live” (Ro 8:12-13). “Mortify (cut off, put to death) therefore your members which are upon the earth....” (Ga 3:5).
Since thirteen is a prime number, we derive its meaning by separating one (the number of God), which leaves twelve (the number of divine government on display). We are responsible to live lives which demonstrate that we are men and women under God’s government.
The question may be asked, What is represented by the circumcision of Ishmael, since, as a firstborn, he is himself a type of the flesh? As noted in verse 20, he is a type also of the Israel that will inherit Millennial blessings, and the same holiness will be required of them as is required of believers in this present age.
17:26. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.”
This continues to emphasize the punctuality of Abraham’s obedience, as it continues to remind us of the need to yield the same prompt obedience.
17:27. “And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.”
As noted already, the one born in the house may represent the believing Jew; while the one bought with money of the stranger may represent the believing Gentile. The one is under the same necessity as the other to renounce all confidence in the flesh, and to cut off its deeds.
There is undoubtedly also the practical lesson for fathers to see that they govern their own houses according to divine standards, as far as it lies in their power; but there is clearly also a lesson here for the fathers of assemblies, i.e., the elders. They have a responsibility to see that those whom the Holy Spirit has placed in their care, walk as becomes those professing faith in Christ. That responsibility is to be discharged impartially. It is God’s Word that is to be obeyed; God’s honor that is to be maintained.