The paragraph before us this morning is one of those we characteristically pass over quickly as we read our Bibles, hurrying on to the next one that holds promise of some important instruction. But here it sits in the middle of Genesis and surely it is here for a reason. We are on our mettle to find in what way or ways this text also is profitable for training in righteousness, as Paul says that all Scripture is.
What we have in this paragraph is our last look at the life of Abraham, one of the central figures of biblical history. It is not for nothing that he is called the father of the faithful. Now what is interesting about this is that, collecting the information that we are given in Genesis, especially notices of Abraham’s age when Isaac was born – 100 years of age (according to 21:5) – and Isaac’s age when he married Rebekah (40 years of age (according to 25:20), Abraham was still alive when Isaac married, (indeed, according to our v. 7 he would live another 35 years). Indeed, by this reckoning, he would live until Esau and Jacob’s fifteenth birthday! But that is not the impression of the history itself. After these verses nothing further is said about him. I may have said in a previous sermon that Abraham was already dead when Isaac married Rebekah. Indeed, chapter 24 seems to imply that Abraham had died before the servant returned to Canaan with Rebekah. [Wenham, 140-160] It is not entirely clear how we are to read these various pieces of chronological information. But, however we read them, it is clear that when Isaac married, Abraham was no longer the functioning head of the family. It is possible that, since Abraham’s age at certain turning points is given in round numbers – for example, comparing his age at various events in his personal history, it appears that Abraham lived in the Promised Land for exactly 100 years – we cannot be entirely sure how old Abraham was when he died. Is the 175 in v. 7 a symbolic number? For example, the 110 years of age at which both Joseph and Joshua are said to have died, is widely taken in scholarship to be a symbolic number. Remember, the ancients did not have the same zeal for computational precision that we do and numbers were often used symbolically.
v.1 The fact that this information is given here seems to imply that Abraham added Keturah after Sarah’s death. Most commentators don’t think so, however, believing that all of this information is placed here as a summary, both to avoid disrupting the flow of the narrative and to demonstrate that God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled by the time of his death. In any case Keturah was not a true wife, but a concubine, as in fact she is said to have been in v. 6. Her sons, of course, are a witness that Abraham did, even in his own lifetime, become a father of many nations.
This disappoints us, of course. We want Abraham, the exemplar of the life of faith, to have lived a completely monogamous life, but he didn’t and neither will some other heroes of OT history. These were the sins of their times, it wasn’t acceptable even in those early days, but it was a widespread custom and even God’s people seemed to have no great conscience about it. I heard a few years ago a spokeswoman for NOW [the National Organization of Women] say that it was time for us Americans to accept that bigamy might not be all that bad, even a positive virtue for those women who found themselves needing reliable child care. But, it reminds us of the fact that other ages of the church, including our own, have been blind to sins of their time: the early church’s far too easy acceptance of an ascetic spirituality that denigrated the body and marriage; the 19th century church’s far too easy acceptance of the ideals of colonialism; the 18th and 19th century American Protestant church’s facile justification of chattel slavery; the modern church’s rampant materialism, the grotesque health and wealth preaching only the more obvious form of a far too common love of money among real Christians today. We can be, we often are, largely unaware of the dismal moral effect of our culture. It blinds us and deafens us to the teaching of Holy Scripture. So, in regard to Abraham’s concubines.
v.2 The importance of these sons of Keturah lies in the fact that they would have fathered peoples or tribes with whom Israel had to do in her subsequent history. An earlier reader of Genesis would have known who these people were. We will hear later, for example, of the Midianites, who were often a thorn in Israel’s side.
v.5 The Lord’s command and promise, “through Isaac that your offspring shall be reckoned” (21:12) governed Abraham’s actions to the last.
v.6 “Concubines” is in the plural because Abraham had two: Hagar and Keturah. Sons of concubines in the ancient world were not rightful heirs; they depended solely on their father’s goodwill. But Abraham is generous to them and gives them more than he has to.
v.8 Clearly “gathered to his people” means more than that he was buried in an ancestral grave, since Abraham was not buried with his fathers. He had bought the tomb himself upon Sarah’s death and was buried with her there. It is an intimation of life after death.
v.9 What does this suggest about the on-going relationship between these two sons of Abraham, estranged as they had been earlier? That would be interesting to know!
Now, the burden of this text is identified similarly by all the commentators on Genesis. It serves both to conclude and to sum up 1) Abraham’s life by demonstrating that God’s blessing rested upon this faithful man until his death, 2) that the promises God had made to him were fulfilled and the groundwork laid for a still more complete fulfillment in subsequent generations, and 3) that Abraham was a faithful man, living in the confidence of God’s covenant with him and obedient to its stipulations until the end of his life.
That makes this paragraph, at first glance uninspiring, a summons and encouragement to us all. For surely such a paragraph – in terms appropriate to the circumstances of our own life and time – ought to be possible to write about us, about every believer at the end of his or her life. No doubt Abraham died with regret. He was a sinner and there were things he had said and done that he wished he had not and things he wished he had done which he had not. Abraham had not always acted in faith and obedience, as the Genesis narrative makes clear. He had on two occasions, in selfishness and cowardice, endangered Sarah’s life and purity and so jeopardized God’s promise to be both his God and the God of his children. He could hardly have children if his wife now belonged to another man. He must have winced every time he thought of it. The affair with Hagar and Ishmael must likewise have tortured him as he recollected the unhappiness that he had visited upon so many by his failure to count on the promise God had made to him and his stupid effort to take matters into his own hands. None of this is mentioned here. God passes over all of that. His grace has the last word.
But, all in all, Abraham was a faithful man, a true servant of God, a man who again and again demonstrated his loyalty to God and his understanding of what really matters in life. Surely this is what you and I ought both to want to be said about us and to strive to make it so. For, as you and I know only too well, it isn’t always so.
Only a few men in the Bible have their life story told in the detail in which Abraham’s story is told. David is another, but, faithful man that David was, model believer as he was in many ways, he nevertheless finished his life rather poorly. His sons, whom the Bible tells us he raised badly, far from joining hands to bury their father, were at his death squabbling over the throne. Unlike Abraham, who took great care to provide the right wife for his son and heir, David in his old age presided over a dysfunctional family bitterly divided by rivalry. Most of his sons had no interest in God’s covenant. Even Moses, another man whose life story is told in detail in the Bible, ended his life in disappointment, unable to enter the Promised Land because of his disobedience at Meribah. No major figure in biblical history ends his life as prosperously, as quietly, and apparently as much approved by the Lord as did Abraham, excepting perhaps Job or the Apostle Paul, who died as a martyr. If we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, then surely, Abraham’s example is one for all of us to aspire to.
This paragraph, the conclusion of the personal history of Abraham, enables us to consider a believer’s life in its entirety. We do not do this as often as we should. Young people, I can tell you, many can tell you that your years will pass much more quickly than you think. It seems to me that it was but yesterday when I was a young man, when I was a young husband and father, when I was a young pastor just beginning my ministry. But, in fact, it was nearly 40 years ago that Florence and I arrived in Tacoma. I know, you all will say that I don’t look a day older, but I am older, a lot older. I was struck again the other day by the fact that it has been 27 years since my father died. He died on January 5th 1990. It has been 20 years since my sister died. 27 years is some 40 per cent of my entire life and 20 years nearly a third, and yet I can remember both events as if they were yesterday. I’m sure even Abraham, old man that he was when he died, would have told you the same thing: it seemed but yesterday when he first came to the Promised Land, when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and when Isaac was born. The speed with which times passes forces upon us, if we are at all wise, these questions: how does a life become what it becomes and what will be said of it when it is done.
One of the great virtues of reading Christian biography or autobiography is just this. Accounts of an entire life teach us to see our lives as wholes, in their entirety, to consider our own life from beginning to end. It is so easy to live our lives day by day without really considering what we are making of them or what might still be made of them. What will be said of your life when your life is done? What will be said of it by your wisest and godliest friends, by those who really know what you became as a Christian man or woman and what you did as a follower of Christ, or, at least, as one who professed to follow Christ?
Life will go one when your life comes to an end. So it was with Abraham. The narrative goes on into the next generation, then the next after that, and still one more generation before Genesis is complete. Abraham is remembered, in some ways his life still exercises an influence, precisely because he was such a faithful man and because God used him as he did. But Abraham’s own life was over. He had been gathered to his fathers. His work was done. His long, important, and astonishingly fruitful life had ended. And those who stopped at his tomb to remember his life became fewer and fewer.
And it will be still more so in your case and in mine. We live smaller lives. Our life story is unlikely to be told by some later biographer. We rarely if ever appear in even the local press, much less are we a household name. The fact is the number of people who will miss us when we are gone is small. Not many years will pass before the only people who actively remember that we ever existed will be the succeeding generations of our immediate family and probably only a generation or two of them. This is one of the important purposes of the various genealogies that we struggle through when reading the Bible. These were ordinary people like you and like me. They lived their lives and died as you and I will live and die. Their names are the record of their existence and the reminder to us that the day is coming when all that will be left of us in the world is our name in some archive, that and the inheritance of faith we bequeathed to our children and grandchildren. The genealogies are the Bible’s testimony to the importance of the life of ordinary folk like you and me.
All of this biblical realism ought to make any Christian aspire to have lived a life that, when it is done, will have brought credit to God and to Christ, blessing and benefit to the generations that follow, and some measure of the abundance the Lord promises his disciples and to their families. We may not matter much as the world measures importance, but every godly life contributes something important to the kingdom of God, every godly life will receive God’s blessing in keeping with the measure of faith and obedience, and every godly life will be honored in the life to come, when we will sit down at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God!
A passage like this one invites us to consider our lives, in their entirety. Think of Abraham’s life. It began in Ur in a family of pagan idolaters. His was the life of a prosperous businessman who hadn’t a clue about the living God or the real meaning of life or its destiny. Then came, suddenly, the call of the Almighty, summoning him, of all people, to leave his homeland and go to a country God would show him, a call he found somehow irresistible. Then the pilgrimage to Canaan, the famine that led to the ill-fated sojourn in Egypt which the Lord turned to his blessing; his separation from his nephew Lot, his military adventure to rescue Lot and many others who had been captured by northern kings making a foray into Canaan, the visitation of the Lord before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the promise of a son in his old age, the long, confusing years that followed as no baby appeared, the birth of Isaac, the terrible test of his faith on Mt. Moriah, the purchase of a burial plot upon the death of Sarah, and the faithful provision he made for the marriage and then the inheritance of Isaac.
A long, eventful, and consequential life. Ours will not be as consequential; few are. But in other ways our life is and will be like Abraham’s. No doubt we could draw from the record of Abraham’s entire life a number of lessons, but let me mention two. They are the lessons that older writers of Christian devotion and godliness used to press home to their readers but which, I think, have largely disappeared from Christian thinking and reflection today.
- The first is that any believing life is a sequence of crises, key moments, or periods, usually relatively brief, separated by longer periods of plateau or stasis.
You see this in Abraham’s life very clearly. Consider his long life. We know the events of perhaps only a few years out of his long life. He lived for many years in Ur and Haran before coming to the Promised Land and we know almost nothing about that period of his life. Consider the entire length of Abraham’s life, then the events that are described in Holy Scripture, and we have only a small portion of the whole. We really have only the crises that punctuated his life. No doubt, most of his years were calm and relatively uneventful. He went about his business year in, year out, tending to his flocks and herds, and nothing much of earthshaking importance happened. But from time to time occurred those events that defined his life, that are recorded in Holy Scripture because they reveal God’s interest in Abraham and because they reveal the man. The promises made to him, the testing of his faith, the blessing that attended his obedience, the divine mercy that attended his disobedience, all of this is the measure of his life in the Bible. This is what God wanted you to know about Abraham’s story and about Abraham. And the same is true for the other heroes of the biblical history and, for that matter, of Christian history.
We tend to think of sanctification or the Christian life as a gradual ascent toward holiness and heaven. Our Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification encourages this way of thinking: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” And that is true enough as a general definition of sanctification. But, we are mistaken if we understand it to mean that progress in the grace of God and righteousness of life is gradual and steady. It is not. The Bible never says that it is and usually shows us that it is not.
A Christian life in the Bible, just like Abraham’s life as we have read it, is a matter of fits and starts, of peaks and valleys, of periods of intense activity and virtual calm, of advance and retreat. There are times of the Spirit’s presence and forceful activity in the soul and there are times when the believer feels that God is distant and even uninvolved in his or her life. The older writers used to preach and write at length about what they called “divine desertion,” those times in a Christian’s life when the Lord does not seem near, his Spirit is not stirring the soul, when spiritual progress is plodding or when there seems to be more slippage than advance in the life of faith. There were years of this in Abraham’s case as he waited apparently in vain for the promised son to appear. Everyone else was having children except Abraham and Sarah; and that was after the promise had been made.
The psalms are full of this as you know – these times when the life of faith is a struggle, when God seems unresponsive and his promises seem unfulfilled. Such is the life of faith. In other words, a Christian’s life is very much like the life of the gospel in the world: advancing mightily during times of the Spirit’s power, what is typically called a “revival,” and either holding its own or actually declining in influence in what are sometimes long years before the next surge forward. Jonathan Edwards pointed out that out of the entire history of the Christian church since Pentecost, all 1700 years of it in his day, the real advance of the gospel and the church could be compressed into a small fraction of that time. The rest of it was waiting, holding on, remaining faithful during long days of small things and building the church more by the faithful raising of her children than by the winning of the lost. (Not that there were not conversions all along — there were, of course, but in larger numbers sometimes and in much smaller numbers other times.) There has been a tremendous surge forward over the last half century in Africa and Asia, as we know, but not in North America. Here the tide is receding.
God is sovereign and he proves that sovereignty in the life of his children, coming powerfully to them at one moment, leaving them to labor on with less visible manifestations of his presence for long periods of time, and then, suddenly, returning to them with power and wonderful effect. So it was with Abraham and so it is and will be with you and me. We have been shown the high points and the low points of Abraham’s life, because it was of those moments and in those crises that his life became the life of faith and influence that it became. And the lesson for us is that the crises of our lives – the opportunities set before us, the tests of our faith, the setbacks and sorrows, the periods of illumination and ecstasy – these will make our lives. They are not an interruption of our lives, they are our life! It is the exercise of faith in the critical times that made Abraham what he became and it will be the same for us. We are comfortable on the plateau, but it is the peaks and valleys that will make us the Christians we aspire to be. Our duty thus becomes to sail as far as we can when the wind is blowing and then, when it is calm again, to row as hard as we can be sure that we continue to advance, even if at a slower pace, and so don’t lose the progress we gained.
Abraham set his full complement of sails when the wind of the Spirit began to blow and so he traveled very far. He was then diligent to keep and preserve and build upon that progress, if slowly and unspectacularly, when the wind died down and it became calm again, sometimes for many years at a time. It is this that explains the glorious fact about Abraham’s life — that we see him still at his best at the end of his life, displaying the rich, beautiful maturity of Christian faith.
- The second lesson to be drawn from the life of Abraham seen as a whole is that the measure of a believing life will be the degree to which the whole weight of the supernatural rests upon that life.
This is the way Abraham’s life is measured in the Bible, this is what interests Holy Scripture about Abraham’s life. Whether in the periods of spiritual crisis or in the much longer periods of stasis and calm, here is a man who took it all very seriously! The Lordship of his God, the sanctity of his law, the summons of his covenant, the greatness of his gifts and love, the certainty of his promise, the death and dying of the world around him, the necessity of living by faith in the Word, the presence, and the faithfulness of God, the abomination of sin and the beauty of righteousness.
This is all, of course, hard for us to measure. In some ways it was for Abraham too, as his concubines demonstrate. We compare ourselves to others like ourselves and comfort ourselves in the comparison. We live in a spiritually decadent world and imagine so easily that we are devout because it seems as though we are as devout, if not more so, than some other believers we know. Of such complacency a holy life is not made!
Too often and too easily supernatural Christianity rests far too lightly upon us. Hardly a sick night for sin, too little feeling for the damned around us, too little reckoning with what our Savior was always saying about his true disciples taking up their crosses to follow him – sacrificing family, homes and fields for his sake, gouging out right eyes and cutting off right arms, beating their bodies so as not to be disqualified for the prize – this is the true measure of faith and life in the Bible. The love of God, gratitude for salvation, and a determination to set our hearts on things above: this is the life of someone who really gets it, really understands what God has said to him in his word! Abraham took it all so seriously, so wonderfully and manfully and thoughtfully seriously – that even with all his failures, he never sought to shift the weight of his calling or God’s salvation from his shoulders.
That is the challenge of Abraham’s life for you and for me. This is, by the way, what I have always so much loved about Alexander Whyte, the Scottish pastor who died in 1921. He was a cheerful, happy man, with many friends and much joy in his life – along with some sharp sorrows to be sure. But, what he did so well, I believe – and what comparatively few do as well – was never to allow the run of ordinary days, months, and years to dull his mind and heart to the terrible seriousness of our Christian faith.
Bunyan has a character in The Holy War named Mr. Meditation. He is only mentioned as the father of another character. Nothing is said about Mr. Meditation. But Whyte’s treatment of him in his Bunyan Characters has all of the genius and the insight and the power of expression for which Alexander Whyte was famous. Mr. Meditation, so Alexander Whyte imagined, had a secret plan for himself that he told no one else, a plan for what he would read about and think about each day of the week and reflect upon at certain hours of the day or night. “…in the old man’s tattered pocket-book, and written in his own hand, this was found by his minister after his death. ‘Monday, death; Tuesday, judgment; Wednesday, heaven; Thursday, hell; Friday, my past life back to my youth; Saturday, the passion of my Savior…’ And then, on another slip of paper: ‘Jesus, Thy life and Thy words are a perpetual sermon to me. I meditate on Thee all the day. Make my memory a vessel of election. Let all my thoughts be plain, honest, pious, simple, prudent, and charitable, till Thou art pleased to draw the curtain and let me see Thyself, O Eternal Jesus.’”
Well, Abraham was like that. Hebrews tells us that all his life long he was looking for the better country, the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. And he lived his life knowing all along and full well that his life was a pilgrimage and that he must therefore be a faithful pilgrim. That will be the measure of your life and mine: just how heavily the reality of our supernatural faith and our living God rests upon our souls. That was the measure of Abraham’s life and that will be the measure of yours and mine as well. That and nothing else. And what then will they judge your life and mine to have been when we have been gone a year, or two, or ten? Ponder that and act before the night comes when no man can work!