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Genesis 19:1-29

The two angels who had received Abraham’s hospitality had left for Sodom before Abraham had interrogated the Lord about Sodom’s fate, the conversation we considered last Lord’s Day. We now pick up the interrupted thread of that narrative from verse 16 of chapter 18.

Text Comment

v.1       It was some miles from Abraham’s tent at the Oaks of Mamre to Sodom, so this was perhaps the evening of the second day. That Lot was sitting at the gate suggests that he was, by this time, one of the leading citizens of the town. That the two angels arrived as night was falling is perhaps an anticipation of the town’s impending judgment.

v.3       Like Abraham his uncle, Lot too was a hospitable man. Despite the errors of his life, and they were considerable, he will show himself throughout the following narrative to be a man who wanted to do the right thing. Remember, the Apostle Peter tells us in his second letter that Lot was a righteous man. Lot insisted that the men come to his house because he was a hospitable man, but also because he knew very well how his neighbors were likely to treat them if they remained in the city square. Indeed, he seemed to hope that they would spend the night and then slip quietly out of town early the next morning. Lot knew the men of Sodom.

v.4       The point is that the entire population of the city was thoroughly corrupt, the very conclusion to which Abraham had come in his conversation with the Lord about Sodom in the previous chapter. Ten righteous men could not be found.

v.5       “To know” someone is a typical biblical euphemism for sex.

v.8       This is some indication of how sacred the obligations of hospitality were in the ancient near east, but more to the pointLot’s compromise with the world had left him in a moral catch 22; either plan would be catastrophic and, so far as we know, had he done either, he would have consigned himself and his family to destruction with the city itself.

v.9       Even the most viciously evil people are highly sensitive to even the whiff of judgment. All Lot is proposing is that they not rape his guests, but they take offense at the implication that somehow or another he is morally superior to them. People in our culture talk like this every day.

v.11     Perhaps for the first time Lot realized that his guests were no ordinary men.

v.13     In the previous chapter the guilt of the city was still to be proved. But now it was beyond doubt and Sodom was to be destroyed.

v.14     Because of his accommodation to life in Sodom, Lot had lost any moral authority even over young men who were about to marry his daughters. Obviously these young men were insensitive to the moral evil around them. When push came to shove the men of Sodom did not regard Lot as one of them. No matter all his efforts to assimilate, his righteousness finally made him an outsider after all. [Sarna, 136]

v.16     Even believing as he did the promise of the destruction of Sodom Lot felt more secure in the city than outside it. This is the condition of vast multitudes in the world today: they may be concerned about the moral condition of the world in which they live, or their own moral condition, but not enough to separate themselves from it.

v.17     “The hills” would be the highlands of Moab to the east.

v.22     With disaster looming Lot bickers. He does not want to be sent to the country; he wants to live in town! Even at the most dangerous moment Lot is still thinking about his worldly comfort! “Zoar” means “little.” The town, originally named “Bela,” (14:2), was known to Moses and his audience, but archaeologists have not yet identified it.

v.25     The instrument of the destruction was probably an earthquake – common enough in the great rift that goes down the Jordan valley in Palestine and then down into Africa –  that released heat and gases, especially sulfur. The narrator combines the ultimate cause – the Lord – with the instrumental cause, the burning sulfur ignited by the heat from below or by lightning from above. Lightning is frequently present during earthquakes. [Sarna, 138]

v.26     We know nothing about this woman, whether Lot was married to her before he came to Sodom or whether he met her there. But, even more so than Lot, she longed for what she had left behind and perished as a result. Her identification with Sodom, her unwillingness to leave the place, will also explain why her daughters behave so badly in the next episode. They too were people of Sodom. [Wenham, ii, 59]

v.29     We are given the impression that Lot was saved in some significant part for Abraham’s sake.

The remarkable feature of this story of divine judgment – itself very like the account of the judgment of the flood (the total destruction of the wicked, but the rescue of one man and his family) – is that the man who survived the catastrophe was in many respects so unimpressive. It is clear that he was a man of faith. He knew very well how wicked the city of Sodom was and he was grieved by its wickedness; he sought to protect his guests from the evil of the place; he practiced hospitality as Abraham had done and was committed to the welfare of others; he wanted to do the right thing; and he believed the report he was given regarding the coming destruction of the city. But the man was a bungler and altogether too half-hearted. Abraham had his moments of weakness, as we have already noticed. His foray to Egypt in chapter 12 exposed his cowardice and he had struggled to believe God’s promise that he would have a son, he and Sarah being as old as they were. But Abraham was no Lot. He learned from his mistakes. He was both decisive and determined to follow the Lord without compromise. Abraham would never have chosen to make his home in Sodom. That much is clear.

When we first heard of Lot in Sodom, in 13:12, Lot had pitched his tent near Sodom. But by stages he had integrated himself into Sodom’s society. Accommodation to the world usually happens only gradually. By the time of Genesis 14:12 Lot had settled in Sodom. He had bought a house in the town. Once there and over time he had become so much a part of the community that, able man that he was, he was now one of the town elders, sitting at the city gate, where matters of local government were decided. [Sarna, 136] He was grieved by what he saw happening in what now his town. He didn’t himself participate in the wickedness of the place. But he had chosen to make his home there and when it came time to stand up for righteousness, he was thoroughly compromised and ineffective. Only divine intervention at the last minute saved him and his daughters.

Alexander Whyte says in his Bible Characters that if Abraham is the father of the faithful, Lot is “the father of all such as are scarcely saved.” And Lot was scarcely or barely saved. We might say that he was saved “by the skin of his teeth.” [Waltke, 277] Hesitating to the end, he was dragged out of Sodom by main force just before the Lord rained death and ruin upon the city, and even with all the divine help he was given, Lot did not even manage to get all his immediate family safely away. Had not the angels come to Sodom and insisted on Lot leaving with them, he and his entire family would have perished with his sons-in-law and all the others. And, even at the last minute, as much as Lot may have loved Sodom with a bad conscience, the grip of that community on this man’s heart remained far too strong. What a sad sight that is: watching Lot dickering with the angels just moments before death and destruction were rained down upon the cities of the plain. Lot was hard pressed to leave Sodom even after the men of the town had treated him with contempt and had rejected his counsel as if he were nothing but a visitor, an interloper, rather than an elder of the town!

Have you thought about this? Lot did his dickering in front of his wife and daughters. They knew now what power these angels had. They knew they had come to rescue them. They knew very well that these were not men to take lightly. But they had seen their husband and father still hesitate to leave and have to be virtually dragged out of the city. And now they listened to him complain and argue for a better deal, to be allowed to stay in one of the other cities of the plain. If Lot didn’t take what was happening seriously, why should they? Who is to say, but surely it is possible, if not likely, that if this man had left the city with alacrity, had done precisely what he had been told, had showed the proper deference to the angels, proper fear of the judgment about to fall; if he had set an example for his wife and daughters of strong faith and prompt obedience, his wife would not have looked back and his daughters would not have done what we will read they did in the sad epilogue to this narrative, the passage we will read next Lord’s Day.

Now, what makes this dramatic narrative so important is that, as Alexander Whyte reminded us, Lot is the patron saint of a large number of others who likewise are saved by the skin of their teeth. We are not used to thinking this way about salvation: that some are barely or scarcely saved. We Calvinists have been taught to think of salvation as a sure thing: the consequence of the immutable love of God, the perfect and infinitely valuable sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the irrevocable work of the Holy Spirit transforming the heart. And, from God’s side, so it is. But from man’s side, our side, the only side we are capable of judging, the side we have to consider, it is not so certain. On this side there are Abrahams and Lots, people who are certainly and securely saved, and people who are barely saved. Or put it this way: there are people who are smack-dab in the middle of the covenant and people who are perilously close to its outer edge!

And it is not only here that we are taught that this is so. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul teaches us the same thing. You remember the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 3. In talking about believers who build poorly on the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, he says,

“…each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, [almost all English translations capitalize Day because it is a reference to the Day of Judgment] because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Those references to destruction by fire make me wonder if Paul had Lot in mind when he wrote those words. In any case, Paul is unambiguous in his warning. It is possible, he says, to be, as one commentator put it, “pulled out of the rubbish heap just in the nick of time.” [Donfried, cited in Fee, NICNT, 144] Whatever else Paul may be intending to say in that text, he surely does say that there are different measures of salvation and some are saved by the skin of their teeth because of the way, as Christians, as righteous men and women like Lot, they lived their lives, the way they compromised their service of the Lord. And, what is more, while they may be saved but only as through fire, others who might have been saved with them, were lost instead. That is what we read here in Genesis 19 and that is Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 3.

In Amos 4:11 we find the same idea used in a summons to repentance. There we read the Lord say to rebellious Israel through his prophet, probably in reference to some natural catastrophe that had recently occurred (perhaps an earthquake then too):

“I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord.

Here the word picture is of someone who was very near to death and had barely escaped. A brand plucked out of the burning is a stick that was so near the fire that it was charred, it wasn’t reduced to ashes, but it was blackened by the fire; it was almost too late as it had been too late for some others. When John Wesley was a boy of five, if you remember, he was saved in the nick of time from an upstairs bedroom where he had been asleep from a fire, a fire that destroyed his family home. He referred to himself ever thereafter as a “brand plucked from the burning,” so close had he come to death, so nearly had his life been cut short when he was just a lad. In none of these texts is physical death the true subject. It is spiritual death that is such a close run thing. It is not death in this world, but death in the next that some person escaped, just barely, or might have escaped, but didn’t, at the last minute.

How did it happen that Lot was but barely saved? Like Abraham, Lot had come to Canaan as a stranger and a pilgrim in this world, but, unlike his uncle, along the way Lot had become more and more comfortable in the world, less a pilgrim and more a settler. When he chose to live among the cities of the plain he knew full well their moral reputation. He also knew that he was leaving the immediate influence of his uncle, with whom God had made an everlasting covenant and upon whom God’s favor rested. Had he just said to his uncle what Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go I will go and wherever you lodge I will lodge,” — if he had simply said to himself that since the Almighty had made a covenant with Abraham, he was going to hang on that man’s heels everywhere he went, no matter the cost to his flocks and herdshe would never have brought himself and his family under the curse that befell them in the valley. But, the world was pulling him and Lot was inclined to be pulled.

He came among the men of Sodom and he convinced himself at first that they weren’t as bad as had been reported to him; their life-style was simply misunderstood in some ways, and, what is more, very soon his cattle were up to their bellies in green grass in that fertile plain. Life couldn’t have been better for him. And even when the kings from the north came and defeated the cities of the plain and took Lot and his family captive, Abraham’s intervention seemed to Lot to confirm not that he had made the wrong choice of a place to live, but that God had protected him and cared for him. After all, into every life a little rain must fall! Weren’t the blessings he was enjoying — the prosperity and the comfort — all signs of God’s approval? And like the vast multitudes of folk who are Lot’s spiritual descendants, as soon as his trial was over, as soon as the terror of spending the rest of his life as a slave had passed, Lot returned to his old life and his old ways as if nothing had happened. You know yourselves how quickly you can forget the strain of a tribulation and what you were thinking and promising God under that strain once it has passed and your old life and your old habits beckon.

And so it was that Lot found husbands for his daughters among the men of Sodom. Abraham would send his servant hundreds of miles to the northeast, back to the land from which he had come, to find a wife for his son. He wanted for Isaac a woman who was not like the Canaanite women whose sinful lives he observed every day. Isaac was forty years old when he married in part because his father would not let him marry any of the local girls! But Lot couldn’t be bothered to go to all that trouble. Perhaps he wasn’t overly impressed with the young men – we can well imagine that – but what else was he to do? Lot had come to accept his limitations; even a righteous man could only do so much!

If, as must have happened from time to time, Lot’s conscience was troubled by the things he saw and heard in Sodom, if at the dinner table some night he felt constrained as a believing man to remind his wife and daughters that they could not be like the people of Sodom in this way or that, why did he never decide to sell out, to pull up his stakes and move back to the hill country whence he had come? Why did he never face up to the danger he was courting, not only for himself but for his family? Peter reminds us that Lot had a bad conscience about living in Sodom, so why did he never leave?

And the answer is that Lot didn’t leave for the same reason so many other Christian folk through the ages didn’t leave their Sodoms and Gomorrahs. It is as simple as this: he had too much invested in Sodom and to leave now would cost him too much. He had livestock and crops, he had a home near the city square. He had become something and someone in this community. His was a comfortable life and he was proud to have been able to give that life to his family. What is more, he had been there long enough that his daughters were about to marry into that society. Their in-laws were to be Sodomites from generations back. Their new extended families knew nothing of Abraham or God’s covenant or the life of a pilgrim. He couldn’t take his daughters away from all of this now! This had become their world, such as it was. It was the new normal and he couldn’t imagine that he would have to leave it, comfortable and familiar as it was. As Alexander Whyte perceptively describes the situation:

“Lot is the father of all those men whose righteous souls are vexed with the life they are leading, but who keep on enduring the vexation.”

The number of Christian people, men and women, who will turn away from large profits and from the life of success and ease and from prospects for their children – sports or arts or college admissions or romantic prospects or high paying jobs — willingly to suffer the loss or at least the risk of the loss of all of that simply to satisfy a troubled conscience, I say the number willing to do that has always been vanishingly small. That’s why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and why the road that leads to death is broad and always so busy.

Now there are different ways to look at this history, at what happened to Lot and his family. As so often is the case in the Bible, the narrative is thick with meaning. It has more than one important lesson.

We can certainly learn here something about the very nature of salvation. For if this history illustrates anything it is that salvation is by grace and grace alone. Just what God may have to do to deliver us from the things that so endanger our souls no one can say. But the Lord does know how to deliver his people and he does whatever that deliverance requires, even if he has to burn up all that we possess and all that tempts us with fire and brimstone. For that is what Lot’s salvation required — the laying waste of an entire valley and five cities. For Lot to get to heaven lush green pastures had to be turned into one of the most arid, almost lifeless deserts on the face of the earth. Why? Because if Lot had stayed much longer in Sodom he would never have left, not in this world or the next!

But the lessons of this text are more than that. Surely we can take some comfort from the fact that such a man as Lot was delivered from the judgment that befell wicked Sodom. There may be much to criticize in Lot’s life, as there is in ours, but sinner that he was, half-hearted as he proved himself to be in some ways, a compromiser as he had been, he was a believing man and the Lord saved him. Peter calls him a righteous man and means by that, of course, that he was a Christian man, a saved man, a man who had been given eternal life.

I don’t know and you don’t either how many such men and women there have been through the course of human history to this point – people who were barely saved, people who were saved but only as through fire – but surely the number must be considerable, perhaps immense. And no serious Christian, who from time to time is panicked by the realization of just how much a sinner he or she actually is and how half-heartedly he or she has lived the Christian life and how miserably he or she has honored the Lord Jesus in thought, word, and deed, can fail to take some comfort from Lot. If he, then perhaps I as well. If Samson – that sensual dolt of a man – can be found in the list of men of faith in Hebrews 11, then perhaps I belong there as well. What serious Christian has not taken comfort from such thoughts?

But, you know and I know that is not the greatest or primary lesson of this text. There is more warning here than there is comfort; more bracing realism than the soothing of fears. This history is not recorded for us primarily to encourage us with the prospect that before it is too late the angels of God will yank us out of the danger into which we have far too willingly placed ourselves. No one can read Genesis 19 and think that is the main point! The affair is too dishonorable and Lot’s losses are too heart-breaking for that.

When Paul wrote what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 – when he wrote  that depending upon how well a man has built, his work will either survive or be destroyed on the day of judgment; that a man who has built well will receive his reward, but the man who has built poorly will suffer loss, he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames – I say, when Paul wrote that he was certainly not intending to console the man who built poorly with the thought that he himself would still be saved. He was intending to warn that man, to solemnize that man, to frighten and worry and threaten that man, to awaken within him a sense of alarm. As Charles Hodge summarized Paul’s point in those verses:

“He will just escape with his life, as a man is rescued from a burning building. His salvation will not only be effected with difficulty, but it will be attended with great loss. [We are not used to hearing about salvation attended with great loss are we?] [And] He [himself] will occupy a lower place in the kingdom of heaven than he would have done.” [We’re not used to hearing about that either!] [First Corinthians, 59]

That was surely the case here. Lot’s wife was left behind. She did not escape the pull of the world and Lot must answer for that, for it was his decision to keep his wife and daughters in Sodom. His sons-in-law perished in the flames as well and for that too Lot was to blame, at least to some degree. For whether we consider these marriages as what he never should have allowed in the first place or as over which he should have exercised a more decided influence, verse 14 indicates clearly enough how little these young men were influenced by the faith of their father-in-law. And, finally, his daughters would prove to have been thoroughly ruined by their life in Sodom. They had, whatever their father had thought about it, become true daughters of the place, which is only to be expected when a father chooses to seek ease, pleasure, and prosperity for himself at the expense of the spiritual welfare of his family.

And what of Lot himself. Well, we cannot say. What the judgment day will reveal of this man’s life God alone knows. But, surely, Lot himself – because he was at bottom a righteous man — thinking back on the hill country and his days with Abraham and the lessons he had learned from his uncle and then reflecting upon the reasons that led him to Sodom and the results of that fateful choice – I say, Lot will be the first to day, “the saddest things of tongue or pen, to tell the things that might have been.”

Lot’s story is not meant to console us, but to solemnize us; not to comfort us in our worldliness but to make us fear its likely consequences. How Lot now wishes he had made other choices and had taken greater care of his own heart and those of his loved ones. He was saved – though as through fire – they were not, something he must regret forever! His salvation was bittersweet when it could have been altogether sweet! No man who is saved in the nick of time is ever glad he had to be!