Abraham’s Finest Hour
In Genesis 22, we find Abraham ascending up a dangerous mountain. The patriarch takes us up the treacherous slopes of Moriah, an arduous journey for a man who was old enough to be retired. Yet, Moriah will prove be the summit of his devotion to God. Israel’s destiny will be shaped by what happens there. In this short chapter we will discover what supreme devotion to God looks like. You see, the highest character of a trial is when our love and loyalties are placed in the crucible of divine scrutiny and the heat is turned up. God will test us in areas we hold tightest and dearest. What are you holding on to this morning? Our refusal to let go is often what holds us back from experiencing God in fresh new ways. It is hard to let go – to finish a favorite chapter in life and to begin to write a new one. Yet we are never too old to face new challenges, to fight new battles, to learn new truths, to make a fresh discovery of our unchanging God. Abraham was no stranger to trials from His heavenly Father. He left loved ones and familiar surrounds to go to a new land, when famine hit and everything failed he went to Egypt, when a range war broke out with his brother he gave Lot his choice of land, he said ‘no’ to the King of Sodom’s wealth, and he ‘failed’ a test because he got impatient and Ishmael was conceived…but the ultimate TEST of all was now before him. Look at God’s terrible request – Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (22:1). We know from the outset that what God is about to ask of him is merely a test designed to find out what lies within his heart. Though this softens the full impact of God’s horrific command for us, it certainly doesn’t for Abraham. He will embark on a journey that will rip his heart open. In typical fashion, he responds with that obedient servant’s ready reply, “Here am I,” or, “Behold me.” His keen expression of availability will expose him to a vulnerability previously unknown to man. God continues…And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” (22:2).
Our faith is not really tested until God asks us to bear what seems unbearable,
to do what seems unreasonable, and to expect what seems impossible.
Faith does not demand explanations – it rests on the promises of God. There are times in your life when your whole future seems to balance on a single decision. Isaac was the heir of promise, the child of his old age, the laughter of his life. It would appear that everything Abraham had was wrapped up in his son – and now it was going to ‘go up in smoke.’ Yet…”he staggered not at the promises of God through unbelief” (Rom.4:20). Isaac was the son of Abraham’s old age – he was 100 and Sarah was 90. The English translation misses some of the subtle nuances of the original. God’s request opens with the polite ‘please’ take – this is very unusual for a divine command. It is a hint that the LORD appreciates the costliness of what He is asking. The Hebrew term ‘olah’ comes from the verb “to ascend” signifying the whole sacrifice is consumed by fire and thus “go up in smoke.’ It was an apt symbol to express one’s complete dependence on God. But placing those two terms, Isaac and ‘olah, together is beyond comprehension. Thus we can appreciate the horror descending on Abraham as he tries to come to grips with what “complete dependence” means. So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (22:3). In typical fashion, Abraham does not debate or delay when obedience is demanded. Early in the morning he rises and prepares for the painful departure. We don’t know his inner feelings, but the brief details of his actions betray something of his confused state of mind. Gathering all that he needs for the trip, donkey, servants, and son, Isaac’s name is mentioned last, thus sharpening the edge of anguish that runs through the tale. Abraham’s swinging an axe and cutting things apart draws out our deepest fears. Finally, the fact that he cuts the wood after saddling his donkey shows his torn state of mind. Whatever his state of his mind, we are awed that Abraham simply did as he was told. His obedience was immediate – no bargaining, arguing, rationalizing, resisting, or doubting
On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” (22:4-5) Abraham treks for three days with his beloved Isaac before their destination comes into view. Finally, on the third day (Exodus 2:18; 5:3), Abraham raises his eyes and sees that dreaded place from afar. We are left to imagine the pang that shot though the father’s heart when he caught sight of it. At this point Abraham leaves his donkey and servants to travel the rest of the journey alone with his son. Was the ascent too steep? Did God tell him to go it alone? Was it too painful to have witnesses present? The text does not say. Worship is my adoring response to all that God is, all that God does, and that God says. When you’re worshipping God you don’t feel that you have to explain His ways. But now we hear Abraham’s first words in the story. They conceal almost as much as they reveal. He asks his servants to remain at the foot of the mountain while he and Isaac go into the unknown beyond. He refrains from using the personal name “Isaac,” or the more intimate term “son.” Instead, he merely calls him “the lad.” This may suggest that he can do what he is about to do only by turning off his affections. Abraham’s next statement, “we will worship and return to you” is the centre of the story. It is the apex of his faith in knowing what is about to take place. The author of Hebrews says this is a sign that Abraham holds onto the promise, “through Isaac your descendents shall be named,” with such tenacity that he believes God will raise the boy from the dead (Heb 11:19). As they walk, Isaac breaks the silence with the affectionate, “my father.” The pathos of the dialogue is incomparable. Abraham answers with his characteristic “Hinneni” (“Behold me”) and answers the son’s affectionate “my father” with the equally endearing “my son.” Then we hear the inquisitive curiosity of the boy who points out the missing ingredient for worship: “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep?” Once again, Abraham’s reply is one of faith wrapped in ambiguity, designed to protect a son from things much too heavy to carry. “God will provide for Himself,” is literally, “God will see for Himself.” Here Abraham’s faith presses to see beyond what he cannot see, into a future that outlives death itself. The answer must have satisfied the son, for the boy inherently trusts his father. When you know your Father loves you, your not afraid to do what he tells you, even when you do not understand.
The moment they arrive at their destination, Abraham immediately goes about his assigned tasks. With actions that are swift and deliberate he builds the altar, arranges the wood, and most powerfully – he binds his one and only son. You get the sense that during the long hike Abraham strengthen his resolve by refusing even to speak to his son lest he be deterred from his terrible task. Was he able to look Isaac in the eyes as he laid him on the altar? What amazing resolve! But Isaac’s silent submission is equally remarkable. This vibrant young man is so trusting of his father’s love that he allows himself to be bound and laid upon an altar, without resisting. The uniqueness of the event is highlighted by the fact that this verb “bind” is used only once in the Old Testament. The Jews memorialized it calling this story “The Aqedah” (“the binding” of Isaac). Once the sacrifice is prepared, Abraham hurriedly reaches for the cleaver lest his emotions get the better of him. But, as he stretches out his hand to perform what would be his last act as Isaac’s father, a voice calls out from heaven. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (22:11-12) At the last moment Abraham hears his name echoing like thunder from the sky, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Father of the multitudes, father of the multitudes!” The angel calls from heaven just as he is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. At the centre of the story, Abraham’s hand holds the knife. Isaac is promised to become the father of a great people. For a third time in the story we hear Abraham’s “Here I am.” But for the first time, his words resound with relief. He learns what we already know: this was merely a test. Now the angel of the LORD says he knows Abraham’s fear of God is supreme in that he has not withheld anything from his devotion to God, not even his son.
Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place The LORD Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided.” (22:13-14). God’s provision is known AFTER Abraham’s complete obedience is carried out. God knew what Abraham would do – it was Abraham who needed to see it. Ironically, the symbol of the ram’s strength, its horns, becomes the very means for its sacrifice. Quickly, Abraham offers up the ram “in place of his son.” Never was the scent of a sacrifice sweeter to a father than on that day. Once the offering goes up in smoke, Abraham eternally sanctifies the place with a name. What was earlier known in our story as that unknown “place” of dread is now named as the high place of vision. The place name means, literally, “the LORD sees” – YHWH-jireh. The phrase at the end can mean either, “On the mountain of the LORD He sees,” or “he will be seen.” The ambiguity allows us to adopt both ideas, since on the mount the LORD was seen in the provision of the ram. God reveals Himself in new ways to those who live by faith.
As the smoke ascends into the heavens, the angel of the LORD speaks to Abraham a second time. Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (22:15-18). Now the LORD seals Abraham’s worship with an oath. This, the only divine oath in the patriarchal narratives, shows how deeply our obedience moves the heart of God. Yet we must not confuse Abraham’s obedience of faith with salvation by works. While the promises of God were originally given to Abraham by grace alone through faith alone, they are now sealed by his obedience on Moriah. This act is the demonstration that Abraham’s faith was real; and in the act of obedience his faith was perfected.
In response to Abraham’s obedience the covenantal promises are now reiterated and amplified. The certainty of the blessing is stated as emphatically as is possible in Hebrew. Abraham’s fertility is so magnified it can only be described in metaphors so large that they overwhelm his visual senses: whether the sand by day or the stars by night. For the first time we learn that his descendants’ possession of the land will come about through a great military victory, for they “will possess the gates of their enemies.” And, lest Abraham have any doubts about his significance in history, God concludes by saying that his seed will be the spiritual centre of the universe. Some future descendant of Abraham’s will be the source of all blessing to all nations. All of this is given to Abraham for the devotion he showed to God that day…“because you obeyed My voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at Beersheba. (22:19). After this event, Abraham returns to the young men, exactly as he said. What was the return trip like? Did they speak, father and son? Could their eyes even meet? Was Isaac weeping that his life was spared? Surely Abraham was. I am sure that tears of gratitude and devotion flowed all the way down the mountain. No words can describe it. Isaac is not mentioned again until he is seen coming to meet his bride – (Gen.24:62). The narrator leaves it to our impassioned imaginations to fill in the details of a love that is better than life. He concludes that in their next journey, to Beersheba, the father and son were united in purpose as in their journey to Moriah, and there, in Beersheba, Abraham settles down. This text describes the height of devotion, the very summit of worship.
Here at the highest peak we gain a clear vision of where our journey of faith is going to lead each of us.
It is both terrible and supremely wonderful.
This is the paradox of true spirituality: the cost is terrible, the blessing indescribable.