Sermon: Isaac and the Day of Small Things
Given 08-May-21; 70 minutes
Sandwiched between the extensive biblical narratives about Abraham and Jacob is the story of Isaac. Compared to the towering figures standing to his left and right, Isaac seldom takes center stage. For those of you who like to quantify things: The Hebrew proper nouns rendered Abraham and Abram appear in aggregate of 309 times in God’s Word. The Hebrew proper noun rendered Jacob appears 376 times. By comparison, the Hebrew proper noun rendered Isaac appears only 131 times. Those four names, Abram, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, appear a total of 816 times: Abram-Abraham together account for about 38% of those 816 occurrences, Jacob for about 46% of those occurrences, and Isaac only about 16%. This may give you a rough measure of the amount of space devoted to Isaac, relative to Abraham and Jacob. But, we dare not despise the days of small things.
For 180 years, Isaac stayed home—stayed put, held the fort, kept station, stayed the course, kept the faith—whatever metaphor suits you. He was faithful in the small things, in little things. As such, he was just like most of us, who lead perhaps somewhat hum-drum lives, perhaps only praying and paying, as we used to say, called by God to endure to the end. Let us pursue this line of thinking today.
Only in Genesis 26 do we find an extended section dedicated to Isaac—where he is the focus of the narration. And, even there, Abraham, though dead, is not far in the background. Abraham’s name appears eight times in that chapter. That is an important point: When you read about Isaac, Abraham is never far out of the picture. The Scriptures closely link the two of them, just as it links God the Father and His Son.
We shall be spending quite a bit of time in Genesis 26 today, but before we get there, we need to look at chapter 24. Please turn there as we focus for a minute on the first part of the chapter, where Abraham commissions the search for Isaac’s wife. This provides important background.
Genesis 24:1-8 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” And the servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I take your son back to the land from which you came?” But Abraham said to him, “Beware that you do not take my son back there. The Lord God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my family, and who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land; He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. And if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be released from this oath; only do not take my son back there.”
This passage supplements our understanding of Revelation 18:4. It is clear that, in telling His people to “Come out of Babylon,” God means, “Stay out of Babylon!” Generation after generation, decade after decade, stay out. Abraham’s instructions to his chief servant, probably Eliezer of Damascus, could not be much more emphatic, much more explicit: “[G]o to my country and to my family. . .” Abraham recognized that Isaac must marry of the same blood line and that he must remain in Canaan. The last thing Abraham wanted was that Isaac should return to Mesopotamia, especially to marry there. He knew he would settle down there. As I shall point out later, Abraham had internalized that God’s promises to him were “forever,” to all his descendants. Abraham could not conceive of his descendants going back east, away from God, relocating to Mesopotamia.
The intensity of Abraham’s rhetoric is reminiscent of Peter’s strongly worded comments in II Peter 2:20-22. There, speaking about those who “have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but who “again [become] entangled in them and overcome,” Peter concludes: “The latter end is worse for them than the beginning.” He applies the principle of staying out spiritually.
In verse 22, Peter graphically rests his case: “But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” Some of you have already linked these comments to John Ritenbaugh’s famous sermon, “Don’t Leave the House,” delivered in March, 1994 (#121A). It should be as unthinkable for us to leave the house of God, that is, the church, as it was for Abraham to consider Isaac’s forsaking Canaan for the old homeland in Sumer.
Importantly, in calling Mesopotamia “my country” (Genesis 24:4), Abraham is not exposing a deep-seated, lingering connection with his old home in Ur. He understood that God had promised him Canaan, but that he was only a stranger there at that time; he had not yet inherited Canaan. His comment about Mesopotamia being “my country” reflects that fact. Applied to us, we can properly call the United States or Canada (or wherever we might live) “my country” at this time, knowing full well that the Kingdom is a promise, but a land we have not yet inherited. Paul makes this clear:
The Phillips Paraphrase refers to “the magnificence and splendor of the inheritance promised to Christians—and how tremendous is the power available to us who believe in God.” The inheritance is the hope of those who share Abraham’s belief, his faith in God.
With this background about the primacy of the concept of land in Abraham’s thinking, let us turn to Genesis 26, as we focus on Isaac.
Genesis 26:1 There was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines, in Gerar.
That famine, incidentally, may have provided the overplot to Esau’s selling his birthright for some “red stuff,” described at the end of chapter 25. Things were hungry out there at the time.
By way of background, there were in fact three famines in the narratives of Abraham and Isaac. The earliest one, recorded in Genesis 12, took Abraham down to Egypt. Genesis 26:1 mentions the second and third famines, apparently intertwining them as a pair, that is, two things which are best regarded as a unit. A pair of pants is made up of two parts, but neither of those parts are used separately. You cannot cut paper with only one side of a pair of scissors.
One part of the famine pair, recorded in Genesis 20, took Abraham to the Philistine city of Gerar and to her king, Abimelech. This incident in Abraham’s life took place shortly before Isaac’s birth, recorded in chapter 21. Eventually leaving Gerar, Abraham travelled south to Beersheba, where he stayed for an extended period of time, as Richard Ritenbaugh mentions near the end of his sermon “Abraham’s Sacrifice, Part One,” delivered March 6, 2021 (#1587). At Beersheba, Abraham entered into a covenant with the Philistines.
The second part of the famine-pair takes Isaac to the same Philistine city, Gerar. Eventually leaving that city, he follows his father’s footsteps, returning to Beersheba, where, as we shall see later, he too makes a covenant with the Philistines.
Incidentally, the term Abimelech is probably a local title of a king, not a name of the king. The accounts do not name the kings. Undoubtedly, the two patriarchs dealt with different men, though they could have been father and son. If that is the case, then father-and-son (Abraham and Isaac) covenanted with father and son monarchs, in itself an interesting turn of events.
Non-believing commentators claim that the three famine stories probably refer to one historical incident involving Abraham. They assert that the story became associated with Isaac later in history, even though they admit that there are significant differences in the accounts of the three famines. Well, these so-called higher critics are wrong, of course. They miss an important, almost shouting, point: What happened to Abraham also happened to Isaac. And, Isaac did what his father ultimately did, obeyed God. He followed his father’s teachings and he followed God’s instructions. Isaac was a follower. A good follower. As I said earlier, he kept the faith.
That said, let us return to the account of the famine in Isaac’s time. At the time, Isaac and Rebekah lived at Beer Lahai Roi, quite a bit south of Beersheba. This was an oasis, the well being the one which figures in the story of Hagar, where she encounters God as she and Ishmael leave Abraham’s encampment (Genesis 21). According to Genesis 25:62, Isaac first met Rebekah in this area, and the couple apparently settled there. Exigencies associated with the famine probably pushed Isaac a bit north, from Beer Lahai Roi to Gerar.
The famine was severe enough that Isaac was probably considering leaving Gerar and moving south to Egypt, just as his father had earlier done. Before he took that step, however, God intervened.
Genesis 26:2-4 Then the Lord appeared to him [Isaac] and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you. Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.
The promise as stated here to Isaac seems most closely to echo God’s statement to Abram.
Genesis 13:14-15 “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.”
Notice: Forever. I stressed earlier that Abraham understood that God’s promises to him were eternal, not a historical flash-in-the-pan for one generation, his own. That is why he did not want Isaac traipsing back to Mesopotamia. Stay away from that place.
Genesis 13:16-17 “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.”
This does not mean that Abram inherited the land at that moment. God clarifies through Stephen’s comments in Acts 7.
Acts 7:4-5 [God] moved [Abraham] to this land in which you now dwell. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him.
Paul echoes Stephen’s words,
Hebrews 11:8-9 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise.
Significantly, by giving Isaac the same promises he gave Abraham, God gave both patriarchs the same prophetic vision. Paul, in Galatians 3:8, personifies the noun “Scripture,” saying that it, the Word of God, “preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand.” Paul then tells how it did that: Abraham heard the gospel through the promises. Continuing in verse 8, Paul uses as an example the promise that all nations would receive blessings through Abraham. That blessing is most specifically a reference to the saving work of Christ, which would extend to the Gentiles.
So, both Abraham and Isaac heard the same gospel, the same promises. God inspired and motivated both men by means of the same prophetic vision. Of course, it is precisely the same prophetic vision—the same promises—that inspires and motivates us today. It is the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Back to Genesis 26; we shall look at one of the most standout scriptures I know. Why did God so favor Abraham with these promises?
Genesis 26:5-6 . . . because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” So Isaac dwelt in Gerar.
In the Hebrew, verse 5 contains six nouns, translated here as Abraham (a proper noun), voice, charge, commandment, statutes, and law. Four of those six nouns, charge, commandment, statues, and law all appear here for the first time. That fact, in and of itself, should tell us that Genesis 26:5 is extraordinary. And none of these are unimportant nouns. Law there is torah, its first use, appearing some 218 times in the Old Testament. The noun underlying command (often translated as commandment) appears 181 times. All four of these nouns are the common, principal words used in the Scriptures for their underlying concepts.
Now, someone might claim that these words appear together frequently, almost formulaically, as in the phrase “statutes and judgments and laws” of Ezekiel 44:24. Hence, their appearance here in one verse is not all that surprising. How often do these particular four nouns appear together?
When appearing separately in a verse, that is, only one noun, say torah, in a verse, these four nouns appear in aggregate 473 times.
What about any two of those nouns, say command and law, in any one verse? That happens 40 times, still not a high figure. There are 23,145 verses in the Old Testament. Forty is only 0.17 percent of the total number of verses in the Old Testament.
What about three nouns in a single verse, that is, any three of these nouns, say, charge, command, and law—in one verse? How often does that happen? Seven times. Not very many.
What about all four of these nouns in one verse? How often does that happen? Twice. Genesis 26:5 and I Kings 2:3, which narrates David’s charge to Solomon at his death. We are not going to look at that passage.
In point of fact, these nouns do not appear in combination with each other all that frequently. So, what we are talking about here—all four appearing in one verse—is not common: really quite rare.
But, hold on, there is more about this verse that wows me. To explain what that is, I need to talk about an aspect of ancient Hebrew verbs called the vav-consecutive.
Simply, prefixing a Hebrew verb with vav (that is the name of the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the origin of the English fricatives f and v) adds the meaning of and to the verb. The prefix carries the meaning of sequence, the order in which the action of the verbs takes place. Verbs so prefixed imply consecutive action, in the order they appear in the text.
English lacks any inflection even remotely corresponding to the vav-consecutive.
The sentence “He peppered and salted his beans” does not indicate or imply sequence. In fact, sequence is irrelevant.
The sentence “The boy ran and jumped and hopped all day at the picnic” neither indicates nor implies any particular sequence of action. By nature, a child gambols about in an apparently random fashion, based, among other factors, on whim, on the stimulation of other children, and on his energy level at any moment during the day.
The sentence “He opened the door and entered the room” does imply a sequence, but only through context, not through grammar. It is irregular for a person to enter a room without first opening the door. To clarify, English users would need to add words, as “He opened the door and then entered the room.”
Users of ancient Hebrew had the facility of indicating sequence by prefixing vav toverbs. They generally use this grammatical feature in narration, that is, in telling a story, where chronology is important. Clear examples of vav-consecutives appear in the narratives.
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.”
Here, the verbs conceived, bore, and said are vav-consecutives. Hence, the Hebrew grammar indicates that Eve first conceived, then bore, and then spoke to Adam—all in that sequence.
Now the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting.
God called first, then spoke.
And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
The order of the two vav-consecutives, here both translated was, indicate that the evening came first, then the morning, to make up the one day.
Vav-consecutives are prevalent in Hebrew narration; in telling a story, sequence and chronology become important. The book of Genesis, which is highly narrative, is filled with them. I found 50 vav-consecutives in Genesis 1, 26 in chapter 2, 34 chapter 3, and 36 in chapter 4. Ever wonder why there are so many ands as first words in verses? In Genesis 1, every one of the 31 verses, except verses 1 and 27, begin with an and in the King James Version. Well, the translators, especially the older ones, are just reflecting the prevalence of vav-consecutives.
With that background, let us look at the subject verses, Genesis 26:5-6. No, the verbs kept and obeyed in verse 5 are not linked as vav-consecutives; no sequence is indicated. Verses 5 and 6, however, are sequentially connected via vav-consecutives: Kept in verse 5 and dwelt in verse 6. Abraham kept God’s charge and Isaac then followed that same charge by staying in the land of Canaan. He did not go to Egypt. Yes, the grammar speaks for itself, we could say.
The point is this: Isaac did what Abraham his father did. Abraham kept God’s change, and Isaac did the same. He followed in his father’s footsteps, something Eli’s sons did not do, something Samuel’s sons did not do, something David’s son Solomon ultimately did not do. Although Isaac did not do things perfectly, he did not turn to the right or left frequently or extensively. As I said, he stayed the course.
God’s comments in Genesis 18, as He walks to Sodom, are germane to this point. He is speaking of Abraham:
Genesis 18:19 “For I have known [or chosen] him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.”
Translators often render the verb spoken there as “promised.” Abraham did teach Isaac. And Isaac did follow those instructions, to the end that God will be able to bring about the promises He made to Abraham. That is how important God considered Isaac’s work of obedience. In this way, Isaac prefigures the father/son relationship between God the Father and Christ. Christ speaks of His Father’s instruction—and His obedience to that instruction.
Isaiah 50:4-6 “The Lord God [here, the Father] has given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away. I gave My back to those who struck Me.”
Isaac, like Christ, made the decision to be obedient rather than rebellious. Both Christ and Isaac followed their respective father’s teachings, in Isaac’s case even to the point of permitting himself to be sacrificed at Moriah.
Now, in Gerar, Isaac falls into the same trap his father did there. Genesis 20:2 tells us that Abraham lied about Sarah, a beautiful woman, noising it about that she was his sister. Likewise, Isaac told the men of Gerar that Rebekah was his sister.
Genesis 26:7 And the men of the place asked about his wife. And he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” because he thought, “lest the men of the place kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful to behold.”
Apples do not fall far from the tree, do they! Isaac carried on this ruse for “a long time” (verse 8), until Abimelech looked out his window and deduced that the two were, in fact, man and wife. Well, this king seems to have been an honorable man; he told his subjects “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death” (verse 11). That defused the situation.
Genesis 26:12-16 Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him. The man began to prosper, and continued prospering until he became very prosperous; for he had possessions of flocks and possessions of herds and a great number of servants. So the Philistines envied him. Now the Philistines had stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, and they had filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.”
The English word hundredfold appears for the first time in God’s Word here in verse 12. In Hebrew, that word is made up of two words which appear together nowhere else in the Old Testament. Those words literally mean “a hundred measures,” the idea being 100 times the original, but obviously meaning “a maximum blessing,” where there are not enough storehouses available to store the yield.
This refers to what I call the principle of “gracious capacity,” the state wherein we find the surplus associated with God’s blessing so great that we seem unable to use it all. If it is food, we cannot eat it all lest we become gluttonous. If the blessing is money, we cannot spend it all lest we become irresponsible, profligate. If that blessing is a spiritual blessing, like wisdom, we find it far, far more than a sufficiency. Storage and use become issues. God is watching to see how we make use of such a blessing, whether we squander it on one hand, or, on the other, hoard it. Or, do we use it for the furtherance of His work in us. Gracious capacity is the same principle the prophet mentions regarding tithing.
Malachi 3:10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.”
Christ Himself alludes to this principle of gracious capacity in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:38 [Common English Bible] “Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap.”
Blessings like this are attended by the challenge to be more giving than ever before, and therefore more like God. Incidentally, in Elijah’s day, the widow’s unfailing bin of flour and jar of oil is another application of the principle of gracious capacity, rehearsed in I Kings 17:8-16.
Another intriguing thing about Genesis 26:12 is the phrase “in that year” or “in the same year.” While the Hebrew word year appears some 875 times in the Old Testament, here in Genesis 26:12 is only the second appearance of a particular inflection or form of that Hebrew noun, which form appears a total of 49 times in the Old Testament. To me, it is a remarkable time-marker, for the first use of this particular grammatical inflection also appears in the context of Isaac, in fact, in the context of the first mention of the name Isaac. God is speaking to Abraham here,
Genesis 17:21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you [Abraham] at this set time next year.”
The force of the Hebrew is “at this same time next year.”
I am unable to prove it, but it is my guess that Isaac sowed in faith during the famine in Gerar, and the next year, when the famine was still going strong, realized a miraculous harvest, a huge blessing from God. The next verse, Genesis 26:13, indicates that this is just the beginning—Isaac began to be prosperous and to grow exceedingly great. I imagine that his hands had to search high and low to find the capacity, enough storage space, for the silage, which they stored as food for the herds and flocks in the winter. Isaac probably gave some of it away. In verse 28, which we will get to in a few minutes, we hear Abimelech telling Isaac, “We have certainly seen that the Lord is with you.” This blessing was a clear witness from God to the Philistines, to the Gentiles, who were probably still suffering from the effects of the famine.
But, considering human nature and the way of the world, it is not at all surprising that the Philistines, rather than turning from the worship of their false fertility gods, became envious—covetous—of Isaac.
Genesis 26:16-20 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” Isaac departed from there and pitched his tent in the Valley of Gerar, and dwelt there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham. He called them by the names which his father had called them. Also Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found a well of running water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.”
Rather than respond positively to the witness of Isaac’s prosperity, the Philistines throw him out. The relationship sours. Further, the mighty Isaac, for his part, rather than using his wealth to enforce his “rights,” which is exactly what many carnal people would have done in this same circumstance, simply packs up and moves on. He goes to the Valley of Gerar, probably slightly to the west of Gerar proper. There, his workers re-dig the wells Abraham had earlier commissioned. More than mere refurbishment, Isaac restores their original names, the names Abraham gave them. The Philistines showed poor land management by filling in the wells. If you want water, seize the wells and maintain them. Do not just fill them in with dirt out of spite—especially if you live in an arid climate. We shall come back to the matter of proper land use in just a minute.
The account also indicates that, along with destroying the wells, the Philistines had renamed their locales. They probably did so in an attempt to obliterate Abraham’s memory from the area, similar to the destructive act of toppling statues today. The Philistines wanted to rewrite history. Isaac would have none of that sort of culture cancelling, as we term it today.
Many of you are aware that the Muslims have been culture cancelling for centuries, changing the names of biblical venues to suit themselves. There are many examples: Shechem is Tell Balata.
One of the best examples is that of the Romans. In 130 AD, about 60 years after the fall of Jerusalem, the Roman emperor Hadrian renamed Judea to Syria Palaestina, a name which sticks to this day. Some historians believe that he chose the name Palestine, based on the word "philistine," in order to stamp out Jewish cultural attachment to the land of promise. Hadrian also renamed Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, dedicating the city to the non-god, Jupiter, building a temple for him near where God’s Temple once stood. He turned the city into a Roman colony, like Philippi.
Hadrian expelled all Jews from the city and forbade circumcision. The purpose was to remove Canaan and Jerusalem as part of Israel’s past, present, and future, to make Jerusalem just like any other city—a secular city. Jerusalem’s new name lasted for centuries before falling into disuse. I suspect that someone will attempt to rename Jerusalem once again before Christ returns and that part of His work of restoration will be to restore the city’s name.
As Isaac’s was a work of restoration, so will Christ’s work focus on restoration and reconciliation. Peter refers to Christ’s residing in heaven until the “times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). “All things” there indicates more than the restoration of wells, of course, and seems to me to include the restoration of the ancient names. In Isaiah 58 God refers to those who resolutely keep the Sabbath in these terms:
Isaiah 58:12 Those from among you shall build the old waste places; You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
The New International Version has it: “[Y]our people,” perhaps those people we rule in the cities Christ gives us, “[Y]our people will rebuild the ancient ruins,” just as Isaac’s people restored the old wells Abraham initially founded.
All this effort at restoration—whether done directly by Christ or by us under His auspices in the early years of the Millennium, probably will include the renaming of venues, just as Isaac did. God may be referring to this renaming activity when, in Zephaniah 3, He writes
Zephaniah 3:9 “For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord.”
It is of note that the noun peoples there is not goy(im), but another noun which first appears in Genesis 11 in reference to the peoples’ common language at the Tower of Babel:
Genesis 11:6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.”
In the Millennium, Christ will take steps to reverse the confusion of languages. Before I pass off this topic, I want to mention Genesis 26:33, where Isaac names a new well Shebah, part of the place name Beersheba. The narrator continues: “[T]herefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.” The phrase “to this day” indicates a degree of permanence; the name Isaac gave the place did not change. In fact, even the Muslims have not renamed the city. Its pronunciation and spelling have changed somewhat, but the name remains largely intact. What Isaac did has an element of permanence to it.
In their well-digging endeavors, Isaac’s people even find a spring, that is, running water, so rare and so valuable in that area. The Philistines quickly confiscate it. Verses 21 and 22, which we did not read, notify us that this happens a second time. However, Isaac is able to hold on to his claim of a third spring his workers discover. Things seem to be going well. But notice the sudden turn of events:
Genesis 26:23-25 Then he went up from there to Beersheba. And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you and multiply your descendants for My servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord, and he pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
God quiets Isaac, telling him not to fear. Perhaps something had spooked him, forcing his relocation to Beersheba. Remember, that is the same area where Abraham had made a covenant with Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-34). Beersheba was one of Abraham’s favorite places, where he had put down roots, so to speak, by planting there a tamarisk tree. Genesis 21:34 tells us Abraham lived there “many days.” In moving to Beersheba, Isaac is reclaiming the land his father had loved and developed. There is also a good chance that Isaac grew up around Beersheba, so he had childhood roots there.
To Beersheba comes Abimelech, along with perhaps a top counselor and the commander of his army. One commentator indicates that the Hebrew suggests that a full high-level delegation travelled with Abimelech. I get the idea that Abimelech felt threatened, maybe having become aware of a plot, an internal attempt to overthrow him. On the other hand, another commentator connects Abimelech’s visit to the growing influence of the Hittites in the area. A note in Genesis 26:34 informs us that Esau had married two Hittite women. Perhaps Abimelech feared that the Hittites might attempt to leverage these marriages into a full alliance between them and the powerful Isaac, turning the “balance of power” against the Philistine Abimelech.
The Philistine king did not want to lose the weather gage, so to speak, the advantage of the earlier covenant with Abraham. To prevent that development, he may have journeyed south to Beersheba, which was arguably on the fringes of his own sphere of influence, in hopes of capitalizing on Abraham’s earlier covenant with the Philistines in order to get Isaac on his side—to beat the Hittites at their own game. It is to be noted that Abimelech did not ask Isaac to visit him; he is willing to travel some distance—outside his own domain—to meet with Isaac.
Genesis 26:26-29 Then Abimelech came to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath, one of his friends, and Phichol the commander of his army. And Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, since you hate me and have sent me away from you?” But they said, “We have certainly seen that the Lord is with you. So we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, between you and us; and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, since we have not touched you, and since we have done nothing to you but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.’ ”
Abimelech actually condemns himself with his own words, does he not, admitting that he recognizes Isaac to be a godly person, but still sent him away! It is also noteworthy that the king has no scruples in using God’s name in his efforts to gain his objectives, something at which modern politicians remain adept as well.
At any rate, I am not sure how peacefully the Philistines sent Isaac away up there in verse 16. Remember, the context of Isaac’s departure from Gerar, as stated in verse 14, is that the Philistines envied Isaac—coveting his wealth. Relations had become strained—as reflected in the frequent and apparently protracted struggles over water rights. But the Philistine diplomats paint the picture in sanguine colors, referring to their “peaceful” relationship. These were consummate politicians.
Genesis 26:30-31 So he [Isaac] made them a feast, and they ate and drank. Then they arose early in the morning and swore an oath with one another; and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace.
Remember, Abraham’s dealings with the Philistines and Isaac’s dealings with them form a pair, a unit. So, the two covenants made with the Philistines, by Abraham and later by Isaac, obviously invite comparison. There are physical and spiritual lessons here.
Both the Abimelech of Abraham’s day and the Abimelech of Isaac’s day seem to have the same motivation for seeking a covenant. They sue for peace. Abimelech tells Abraham, recorded in Genesis 21:22, “God is with you in all that you do.” Similarly, a later Abimelech tells Isaac, “We have certainly seen that the Lord is with you” (Genesis 26:28) and, in verse 29 “You are now the blessed of the Lord.” The pagan Gentiles, recognizing the prosperity of the people of God, seek peace with them. The two witnesses of patriarchal covenant with the Philistines probably establish an important leg of the business model Israelites will use in dealing with the Gentiles in the Millennium. Do not initiate covenants with Gentiles; do not sue for peace them; do not initiate action. But, make agreements with them when they sincerely want them. It is to be noted that, in the covenant made by Abraham, peace is not explicitly mentioned, but only a quid pro quo, as it were, stated in
Genesis 21:23-24 Now therefore [Abimelech is speaking to Abraham], swear to me by God that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity; but that according to the kindness that I have done to you, you will do to me and to the land in which you have dwelt.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
Abimelech seeks stability. Notice Abimelech’s addition, “and to the land.” The Abimelech who dealt with Abraham recognizes the importance of enhancing the land, not destroying it—not filling up wells—destroying infrastructure. The Philistines probably practiced the well-filling later on in response to the significant power evinced by Isaac.
Now, in the case of Isaac’s Abimelech, the terms of their covenant are much the same, although peace becomes an explicit concern, perhaps because the Abimelech of Isaac’s day feels politically or militarily threatened. Isaac’s Abimelech, however, fails to mention the preservation of the land. Apparently, the Abimelech of Isaac’s day did not have as much regard for the stewardship of the land as did Abraham’s Abimelech. The king says to Isaac,
Genesis 26:28-29 ‘[L]et us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, since we have not touched you, and since we have done nothing to you but good and have sent you away in peace.
Peace is an issue, but there is in this case no reference to land management.
In verse 31, after eating and drinking, the Philistines depart in peace. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the Gentiles seek the political and perhaps the economic benefits of peace, but do not want to live among God’s people. They are certainly not converted, you understand. The reference to Isaac’s making a feast in Genesis 26:30 is an application of Psalm 23:5. God is capable of setting a table before us in the presence of our enemies.
In the Millennium, Gentile conversion will come later rather than sooner, as God calls individual Gentiles into a New Covenant relationship with Him. But initially, many Gentile nations will sue for peace with Israel to gain economic benefits and perhaps to find protection from those ruffians in Magog and Togarmah, who—much to their regret—will later attack Israel.
As a second point in comparing the two covenants, it is noteworthy that both Abraham and Isaac covenanted with the Philistines before they were converted, that is, before the Gentiles expressed any interest at all in becoming part of the lifestyle of God’s people. Unlike modern, self-righteous, arrogant Israelite diplomats, neither Abraham nor Isaac establish ethical or moral preconditions to a covenant of peace, or a treaty. I mean, such contingencies as the establishment of democracy or policies of diversity or the acceptance of the existence of 30 genders. That kind of thing plays a major role in the diplomacy of apostate—and hypocritical—Israel today, as she deals with Gentiles. Neither Abraham nor Isaac establish any preconditions at all.
The apostle Paul expresses this concept in a New Covenant context at
Romans 5:6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The apostle John expresses the same thought in I John 4:19: “We love Him because He first loved us.” In verse 10, John associates this love with the expiation of sin: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Covenant precedes expiation.
The Greek word for world in John 3:16—“For God so loved the world. . .”—is kosmos, the world system, which God certainly does not love. The noun kosmos here stands for the people living in the system. God first loved those caught in the system through Satan’s deception, and gave Christ to cover their sins through His sacrifice. As David Grabbe mentioned at the close of his comments in “Passover, An Extraordinary Peace Offering” (#1588A), “The forgiveness of sins comes through the covenant, not before it.” As He did with us, God will enter into the New Covenant with Gentiles individually, and then deal with the Gentiles’ sin within the terms of the covenant.
Broadly speaking, Genesis 26 portrays Isaac as an arch-conservative in business and political matters. Characteristically, Isaac seizes the opportunity to renew the covenant his father had built. He seems amenable, almost anxious to turn the clock back, rather than precipitously racing to turn it forward, to plow new ground. For example, an alliance with the Hittites would be just that, something quite new, something his father had not done. Isaac, like Christ, was careful to “do the works of His Father,” referencing John 14:10. What we see then is that Isaac restores what his father had built, refurbishing what had fallen out of use. He carries on the work of his father Abraham. He does not vastly expand it or break new ground; he certainly does not change its focus or its direction.
Please, turn to Matthew 25, the epilogue of the Olivet Prophecy. We shall break into Christ’s closing remarks in the Parable of the Talents:
Matthew 25:20-21 “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.”
The revised edition of the New American Bible has Christ saying, in verse 21, “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”
It is important to notice Christ’s audience. He did not give this parable to the people of the world. He gave it to His disciples who, as Matthew 24:3 tells us, had come privately to Him on the Mount of Olives. Matthew 25 shares that same setting, that same venue. Christ was speaking to His select students—to learners, to followers. Their responsibility at the time was to watch and listen attentively—to learn. Small, though significant, things. (Yes, occasionally, Christ sent them out to heal or preach, as at Matthew 10, but that was not their usual job at that time.)
Later on their responsibilities expanded, as they became apostles. Then, finally, they did some really big things. After all, through their auspices, Christ ensured that these same words, “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities,” appear in the Book for us. Using the apostles, Christ gives us the words we need today.
In the New Testament, we repeatedly read words like continue (as, “in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43), abide, stand fast, hold fast, things which may seem small. Christ was not so apt to use words like these when He spoke to Moses. Consider: “Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
Or, when He spoke to Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 1:10 “See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant.”
Or, when He spoke to Ananias regarding Paul, as recorded at Acts 9:15: “He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.”
Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, as well as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, David, Daniel did big things for God. Christ has not called us, today, to speak to kings, at least not generally. Yes, He will vastly expand our powers and responsibilities. But, as always, He will do that in His time. For now, He asks us to be faithful in the small things, not despising them. The verb despise in Zechariah 4:10 means to “consider insignificant.” God grants that they are small, but they are not insignificant, not to Him. Esau despised his birthright, deeming it insignificant—and look at what that cost him.
Strikingly, the first use of the Hebrew adjective “small” in Zechariah 4:10 is in Genesis 1:16, comparing the “lesser light” of the moon to the “greater light” of the sun. The moon, though smaller than the sun, is not insignificant by any means: it plays a major role indeed in God’s calendar, in determining our appointments with God on the holy days.
To those in the world, “small things” are not exciting. What is perilous is that God’s people too can come to deem these “small things” to be trifling, uninteresting matters, and, in time, grow weary in well doing, referencing II Thessalonians 3:13.
Watchman, sentries on the wall, have a pretty boring job—but by no means an unimportant one. If we are not careful, we can come to feel that our lives are humdrum, blah, prosaic, uneventful, ho-hum. Go to work; go to bed; go to work; go to bed. The ho-humness of life can become in itself a burden. Especially the younger people long for some excitement. Where is the promise of His coming? All things just seem to continue as in the days of the fathers, referencing II Peter 3:4. When will the really big things start happening and the days of small things end? We need patience. They will end. Big things are coming.
If we are not careful, this perceived ho-humness can lead to a deadening ennui, an apathy, manifesting itself even as physical fatigue, but a fatigue born of languor, and we become apathetic, and fall to sleep and slumber. We all know the dangers there, do we not!
We dare not respond to the work God has called us to do—whatever it might be, maybe small things like praying and paying—with a life-threatening yawn. The work He has given us is not insignificant. It simply is not.
Do not despise the days of small things. For 180 years, Isaac was faithful in small things. And, incidentally, it appears he was blind for about the last third of that period. Yet, he carried on the work of his father, living the way his father taught him, as we say, keeping the faith. Make no mistake about it: That was important to God, then, and it remains important today.
I shall close with:
Colossians 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard.