It does not appear so in our Bibles, but a new chapter of Genesis begins in 25:12, the 7th, with our Genesis chapter 1 as a prologue to the book. I will explain why shortly. It is characteristic of the presentation of the material in Genesis that the genealogy of the rejected line is given first, that of the chosen line is given second. So we had Cain’s line in chapter 4, before Seth’s in chapter 5. Later on we will get the list of Esau’s descendants before that of Jacob’s (36-37). And here we get Ishmael’s line before that of Isaac.
v.15 Most of these names are known from other references in either the Bible or ancient near eastern records. They were located across a large swath of territory from the Arabian Desert to Canaan, and from Mesopotamia to the border of Egypt. [cf. Sarna, 175-176]
v.16 That is, they were country people, not people of the town or city. Again, as before with Keturah’s descendants, from these figures would have descended tribes known to Israel. A confirmation of the historicity of this material is that at least a number of these would have been Arab tribes, but the word is not used. The term “Arab” does not appear in ancient near eastern sources until the 9th century B.C. We have here, in other words, material as it would have been written before the term Arab came into common use. In 17:20 the Lord had promised Abraham that Ishmael would father twelve princes. That God is faithful to his Word is a key theme of Genesis.
v.21 Once again the covenant family is threatened with an inability to produce the next generation. As Abraham could not sire a son, neither could Isaac. To Isaac’s credit, he did not resort to concubinage, as his father had done. A lesson had been learned.
v.22 Apparently Rebekah feared that her difficult pregnancy, made difficult by the violent interaction of the two babies (she did not know at this point that she was carrying twins), was a prelude to miscarriage. Her complaint seems to have been: if I was going to lose my baby, what was the point of praying to become pregnant? A heartfelt complaint uttered by vast numbers of believing women through the ages.
v.23 The narrative is tantalizingly short on details. [Sarna, 179] How the Lord communicated to Rebekah is not said. But the message exposes Jacob’s later intrigues to gain the position of heir to God’s promises as a failure of faith. God had already said that the older brother would serve the younger.
v.25 The sense is that he had a ruddy complexion. Esau sounds like the Hebrew word for “red.”
v.26 We read in Hosea 12:3 that Jacob attempted to supplant his brother already in the womb. The Bible knows nothing of the so-called “innocence” of children. Jacob can be read as a pun on the verb: “to seize the heel,” “to go behind someone,” or “to betray,” all of which, alas, Jacob will do.
Now I have read the account of the birth of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau. All seems straightforward enough. But, in fact, something is missing; something that would certainly have been noticed by an attentive hearer of the book of Genesis as it was read to the people of God chapter by chapter.
No book in all the world places such demands on the hearer or reader as does the Bible. No book says more with fewer words and no book’s every word is fraught with such importance. No book’s omissions are as important as the Bible’s and there is a most important omission here.
In v. 12 we read, “These are the generations of Ishmael…” Professor Waltke suggests a better translation would be “This is the account of the descendants of Ishmael…”  The Hebrew word is toledot, which is variously translated “generation,” “genealogy,” or “family history.” In all its uses in Genesis it is a superscription, that is, a title for what follows. So, when we read in v. 19 “These are the generations of Isaac,” what follows is not an account of Isaac’s life, but of the life of his sons Jacob and Esau. The title is, in fact, the chapter heading Moses used to divide and organize his material throughout the book. We encounter the word and so the beginning of the first “chapter” of Genesis in 2:4: “This is the generation or the family history of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” Our Genesis chapter 1 is thus the prologue or introduction to the book and the first chapter begins with the first toledot. Each chapter is not of equal length, as you see. The chapter that began in 25:12 is comprised of just seven verses. But the chapter that begins in 25:19 runs all the way to 35:29, ten and a half of our chapters. It is followed by Esau’s toledot in our chapter 36 and then by Jacob’s in 37:2. That toledot, Jacob’s, completes the book, extending to the end of chapter 50.
All the preceding material, the story of Abraham’s life, follows the toledot we find in 11:27. It reads: “This is the account of the descendants of Terah.” Terah, you remember, was Abraham’s father. So as you compare these various toledots it becomes clear that each one concerns not the man whose toledot it is, but his descendants. Terah’s toledot is about Abraham, Ishmael’s about his descendants, and Isaac’s about his twin sons Jacob and Esau. Both the toledots of Ishmael and, later, Esau, are simply a list of his descendants, a bare-bones genealogy. Jacob’s toledot is, however, the fascinating history of his twelve sons, especially Joseph and Judah.
But that means that there is a striking omission here, too striking to be unintended and certainly too striking not to have been noticed by the books original readers or, better, hearers. There is no toledot of Abraham! That is, there is no account of the life of Isaac. Just as the toledot of Terah is about Abraham and the toledot of Isaac is about Jacob and Esau, the toledot of Abraham would have been about Isaac. But there is no such toledot. It is the one, and the only one, that is missing in book of Genesis. We have to piece together material for Isaac’s biography from material found here and there. As one scholar of Genesis observes, “The data about [Isaac] are exceedingly sparse. Much of what is preserved…is integrated into the biography of Abraham […or of] Jacob. Nothing is recorded of the first twenty years of Isaac’s marriage.” [Sarna, 177] As a matter of fact, hardly anything is said about the first forty years of Isaac’s life.
These are facts easy enough to miss. I read Genesis many times before this was pointed out to me. But once you see it, you know that this is no accident. Of all the names we expect to see in the list of toledots in Genesis Abraham is chief among them and his is the missing one. This omission requires an explanation. And this is all the more the case given what we have already read and learned about Isaac as part of Abraham’s story. He was, of course, the child of the promise, born miraculously to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. He was the fulfillment of the promise God had made to them long before his birth. It was through Isaac that all the nations of the world would be blessed. His life began with great promise.
We suppose that his father raised him to love and serve the Lord because we read in Gen. 18:19 that God had chosen Abraham “that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” We have no reason to think that Abraham didn’t do that in Isaac’s case. Indeed we have every reason to think that Isaac was raised as a covenant child should be raised for we find him, as a boy or young man already obedient and faithful to a remarkable degree. We’ve all wondered about that young man when we read chapter 22 and his going with his father to the top of Mt. Moriah. He was old enough and strong enough to carry a load of wood to the top sufficient for a sacrifice. Surely once he realized what his father intended to do, old as Abraham was, he had the strength to resist him, to run or to fight him off. But Isaac loved and trusted his father and, so it appears, also his father’s God and so he helped his sorrowing father to prepare for his own execution and meekly awaited the knife, the knife that, by the grace of God, never came.
And then there was his marriage to Rebekah, a marriage made in heaven if ever there was one. And now we come to our reading today and even here we begin well. Isaac was 40 years of age when he married Rebekah and then they found they could not conceive a child. And Isaac did what a man of faith should do. He prayed. And the Lord heard his prayers. But did you notice: as we read in v. 26, Isaac was 60 when the twins were born. He had prayed for children for twenty years! If you’ve ever prayed, really prayed for something for twenty years you know how much faith it requires.
But, alas, we have come to the end of the good things we may say about Isaac. The rest does not reflect well on the man. He continues to be a man of faith, there can be no question of that. Our Savior, in Matt. 8:11, says that many will sit down at the feast in heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But his faith in God notwithstanding, Isaac finished his life badly. The great beginning and the solid middle were squandered. We will read some more of that sad story in the chapters yet to come, but we are given a startling indication of Isaac’s spiritual decline already here in v. 28. Read over that verse again. What a tragic thing to be said about a father and a believing father! Isaac favored his older son, the wrong one as we already know from v. 23, — not the one God had chosen – because he loved the game that Esau was so good at hunting. In a single stroke of the pen Isaac is portrayed as a “gourmand who loves his food,” [Wenham, II, 177] a man who is making major decisions in his life according to his taste buds. It is the sort of thing that was said about Solomon later in his life. He had come to care about the wrong things and to neglect the things that really mattered, the things that were his sacred responsibility as the king of Israel. He was, in this respect, no son of his father, who went to his grave caring about and caring for the covenant God had made with him and with his son.
It is going to be painfully obvious as the story proceeds that Isaac did not manage his home faithfully or well. And the tragic story that unfolds in the following chapters – the spiritual defection of Esau, the deceit of Jacob and the internecine bitterness that ensued – was the consequence of Isaac’s almost total failure as a father. Even in the gracious world of God’s covenant the “moral laws of reciprocity” still apply. One reaps what one sows. Isaac’s sensuality will cost him part of his family and his full place of honor in the history of the covenant. Looking over Isaac’s life, one writer went so far as to say that “it would have been better if the angel of the Lord had not stayed Abraham’s hand” on Mt. Moriah. [Cited by Waltke in his taped lectures on Genesis at Regent] That goes too far, but it forces us to reckon with the catastrophe of Isaac’s later life and the disintegration of his home that we will read about in chapter 27.
And that, apparently, is why there is no toledot of Abraham, no biography of Isaac. He was “gapped.” That is the term scholars of the literary techniques employed in biblical narratives use to describe an intentional and consequential omission. Isaac was left out on purpose; he was gapped. He was written out of the story. He didn’t deserve to have his biography included in the Bible. And any early reader or hearer of Genesis would have realized what had happened. He or she would have been waiting for the next toledot and it should have been Abraham’s. Surely the one toledot that they would expect would be that of the great man, the patriarch Abraham. But it is not there! It alone is missing! Ishmael is there; Esau is there; but Isaac is not! And then they would have read or heard what follows and gathered why it was missing.
Now Isaac isn’t the last person in the Bible to have started well and finished badly. Perhaps it is not too much to say that Isaac is the father of a multitude of people of whom that could be said. And some of them had their story told by writers of biblical books in which the material was organized differently. Think of Eli or David or Solomon. Or, think of King Asa, of whom we read that his “heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life” (2 Chron. 15:17). But then we go on to read of what Asa was like later in his life: how he threw one of the Lord’s prophets into jail for telling him the truth, how he oppressed his own people, and how he sought to protect himself by entering into a pact with a wicked king instead of trusting his safety and that of his kingdom to the Lord.
Simul justus et peccator. We know that. Believers are truly righteous. Their identity is in Christ and their hearts are his. They have true faith in him. They walk with him. They are new creatures. But, at the same time, they remain sinners and in some respects, all too often, great sinners, and in some Christian lives, more sinners at the end than they were at the beginning. But there is something especially melancholy when a man or woman who begins so well finishes his or her Christian life with a sigh. And, alas, it happens all the time. It happens to ministers, believe me. I worry that it might happen to me! Andrew Bonar, the devout Scottish pastor of the 19th century recalled some advice that was given to him at his ordination to the ministry by an old minister.
“Remember it is a remark of old and experienced men that very few men, and very few ministers, keep up to the end the edge that was on their spirit at the first.” [Diary and Letters, 349]
And listen to these bracing warning words of P.T. Forsyth from his marvelous little book The Soul of Prayer (68-69):
“How is it that the experience of life is so often barren of spiritual culture for religious people? They become stoic and stalwart, but not humble; they have keen sight, but no insight. … Whole sections of our Protestantism have lost the virtue of humility or the understanding of it. It means for them no more than modesty or diffidence. It is the humility of weakness, not of power. To many useful, even strong people, no experience seems to bring this subtle, spiritual intelligence, this finer discipline of the moral man. … They have no spiritual history. … There is no romance in their soul’s story. At sixty they are, spiritually, much where they were at twenty-six. … And they are just as juvenile in moral insight, as boyish in spiritual perception, as ever.”
Now for some such people it may be that they were never Christians at all. They didn’t grow in the Christian life because they have no Christian life, no heart pumping Christian blood through their body. They are simply not new creatures in Christ. As Paul would say, “They have a form of godliness but deny its power.” [2 Tim. 3:5] But with Isaac’s example before us this morning, we must also say that this spinning of the wheels, this sliding backward can also be true of a genuine believer’s life. He or she has grown weary in well-doing, casual about the high calling of Christian discipleship, far too often and too much indifferent to the eternal interests of the soul and of the kingdom of God. Isaac was such a man in the later years of his life. Indeed, perhaps we are meant to think that he only became such a man after his sons were born, after he was sixty years of age. After sixty years of pursuing godliness in heart and behavior he relaxed into sensuality and spiritual half-heartedness, at precisely the time his spiritual failures would have the worst consequences for his family.
How does this happen? We know it happens, but how? How does a man who began so well, whose faith was tested and tried, and who stood the trials, grow so lax and careless in his later years? Well, the Bible doesn’t tell us in Isaac’s case. It never addresses this specific phenomenon in other than a general way. We are taught to watch and pray that we enter not into temptation. We are taught to forget what is behind and to press on to lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of us. We are taught to be alert, awake to the wiles of the Devil, for, as the hymn-writer has it:
“For the foe, well we know, oft his harvest repeath
while the Christian sleepeth.
Above all we are warned not to grieve the Holy Spirit or to put out the Spirit’s fire (1 Thess. 5:19). We do that when we read his Word or hear it preached and do not respond in faith and obedience; when we are prompted by the Holy Spirit to some piece of devotion or obedience and do not act on that prompting; we do that when we give ourselves over to what we know is displeasing to God and then do not repent and confess.
This can happen, it does happen of course in a thousand ways, each peculiar to every Christian life. But here is one example. This is how Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher, saw it happen in some Christian ministers he knew.
“Failure at a crucial moment may mar the entire outcome of a life. A man who has enjoyed special light is made bold to follow in the way of the Lord and is anointed to guide others… He rises into a place of love and esteem among the godly, and this promotes his advancement among men. What then? The temptation comes to be careful of the position he has gained, and to do nothing to endanger it. The man, so lately a faithful man of God, compromises with worldlings, and to quiet his own conscience invents a theory by which such compromises are justified and even commended. [This, by the way, is precisely what Isaac will do in the next chapter!] He receives the praises of ‘the judicious,’ he has, in truth, gone over to the enemy. The whole force of his former life now tells upon the wrong side…. To avoid such an end it becomes us ever to stand fast.” [In I. Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, 161-162]
I don’t know what happened in Isaac’s case; how the great beginning and the solid middle of his life were then squandered at the end. But it is a warning to us all and a warning the Bible repeats often enough to prevent anyone from supposing that the same thing can’t happen to him or to her. If a man of Isaac’s spiritual heritage and stature can fail so badly – so badly that he is written out of the book of Genesis – how much more you or I! And what else is required of us but that we acknowledge the real danger of such an outcome, the real possibility of such a creeping spiritual lethargy in our own case and then determine, before God and man, that it will not be so in our life, in yours or mine.
Many years ago I preached a sermon on the same general theme from the account of the life of King Asa as I made my way through 2 Chronicles. He too started well and finished badly. The Bible assures us that he was a believing man, but tells nonetheless the sad tale of his later years. And I warned the congregation, much smaller in those days, against allowing the same thing to happen to them. I warned them not to allow themselves to be numbered among the far too many Christians who were much less a credit to the Lord in their age than they had been in their youth.
Now I was a younger minister then and perhaps I should have anticipated such a reaction, and perhaps I should have taken steps to forestall any possible misunderstanding. Perhaps I should have said plainly that I wasn’t singling out anyone for criticism; that I wasn’t even suggesting that there were such people in the congregation. The sermon was general and addressed to everyone as a warning, a warning that is very obviously front and center in that text in 2 Chronicles.
But I found out later that there were people in the church that Lord’s Day who were offended by the sermon. They thought I was talking about them! They thought they were being criticized from the pulpit. As the Lord is my witness, I wasn’t intending to criticize any one. It was an evening sermon and, by and large, it was the faithful, the serious believers who came to the evening service in any case. But some were offended.
Now, here is the lesson and its application. Anyone who takes offense at this sermon, at this warning from Isaac’s life – his good beginning and his miserable finish – is precisely the one who needs to take this lesson most immediately to heart. If you are worried more about what others think of your Christian life than what God thinks about your life before him right now, you are worried about the wrong thing! There is but one faithful response to the history we have read this morning: a humble pleading with God to keep you from making the same mistake, a determination that you will follow after the Lord seriously and conscientiously for the rest of your life, and a promise to God and to the Lord Christ that to the very last day of your life you will love him and serve him at least as well as, if not better than you have at your best so far. A man or woman who remembers the danger and repeats these commitments to the Lord again and again will not do what Isaac did.
The great hymn writer, James Montgomery (think of “Angels from the Realms of Glory” or the hymn we sometimes begin our morning worship with, “Stand up, And Bless the Lord”) had a friend, a Thomas Taylor, a Methodist minister. One Sunday night Taylor had said in his sermon that he hoped to die as an old soldier of Jesus Christ with his sword in his hand. That very night, suddenly and unexpectedly, he died in his sleep. James Montgomery celebrated the passing of his friend with a poem.
Servant of God! Well done;
Rest from thy loved employ;
The battle fought, the victory won,
Enter thy Master’s joy.
The voice at midnight came;
He started up to hear:
A mortal arrow pierced his frame.
He fell – but felt no fear.
Tranquil amid alarms,
It found him in the field,
A veteran slumbering on his arms,
Beneath his red-cross shield;
His sword was in his hand,
Still warm with recent fight,
Ready that moment at command,
Through rock and steel to smite.
The pains of death are past,
Labour and sorrow cease,
And life’s long warfare closed at last,
His soul is found in peace.
Soldier of Christ! well done;
Praise be thy new employ;
And while eternal ages run
Rest in thy Saviour’s joy.
Now, brothers and sisters, pray and work that the same may be said of you and to you when you come to die. Take Isaac to heart. Let there be no reason for the Christians who know you to have to apologize for your later years; and certainly let there be no reason for you to be written out of the story.