Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Comfort of God's Faithfulness and Compassion

When I teach biblical hermeneutics to my college students I tell them to take the biblical text very seriously. Many questions must be asked concerning the text including, "Why does the Bible say what it says in the way it says it?", and "What does God want us to know about Himself in this text before us?" Often approaching the text in such a way will enable us to perceive, with meditation and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, some important truths that are meant to be extrapolated from the text.

I was reading Genesis 21 today, and I was struck by two verses that seem to shout out a marvelous truth about the nature of God's sovereign goodness and faithfulness - verses 1 and 17. Verse 1 reads, "Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised." The application and reference concerning the content of this verse is the conception of Isaac in Sarah's womb in keeping with God's covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that though they were childless, He would give to them a son through whom God's covenant to Abraham would be realized. This verse (above) speaks about the person and nature of God in light of that promise. God did not forget His promise, and God kept His word to Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah had disobeyed the Lord by trying to work out God's promise on their own. They had utilized an ancient culturally acceptable arrangement whereby a man could have a son to call his own by having a child through a female servant of Sarah's (Hagar, Genesis 16). But when Sarah had her own son, the promised son, friction developed between she and Hagar and Hagar's son, Ishmael. The result was that Hagar and Ishmael were driven away into the wilderness of Beersheba (Genesis 21:14). There, destitute and without any resources for survival, Hagar thought both she and her son would die. One can hardly imagine the emotional trauma this mother felt as she gently and lovingly laid Ishmael under the shade of a bush knowing that soon he would die without water. She could not bear to endure the suffering of her son, so she moved a distance away because she did not want to watch him die. There she wept in agony of heart and soul (Genesis 21:16). But in verse 17 the Bible says, "God heard the lad crying." It also says in the same verse that the angel of the Lord called to Hagar from heaven and said, "Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is." The angel of the Lord gave her the promise of the Lord's provision and pointed her to a nearby well where water was available for them. And they both survived.

Now, why did God put this passage here? Why does God tell the story in the way He tells it? What is God wanting the reader to grasp from the story and how the story is presented? Perhaps, as some would suggest, this story essentially describes the origins of the descendants of Israel and the Ishmaelites (nomadic Arabic tribes in northern Arabia). But I feel differently on the matter. As interesting and helpful as this information in the story is concerning the ancient genealogical referencing of people groups, I think more is being said here. I believe something is being said about God; God wants us to see Himself in the story. What can we learn about God in this passage?

1. God is the God who sees, understands, cares, and acts.
There is an essential, absolute, transcendent goodness in the character and nature of God. And God is involved in His creation and human history in such a way that His wisdom, truth, and goodness are seen in evidential means giving hope and purpose to history. This will be ultimately demonstrated in the application of the Lordship of Jesus Christ at the end of history. The Bible wants us to know that God sees, and this should comfort us. God understands what we are going through, and He cares about us. And God acts in accordance with His eternal decrees, sovereign wisdom, and providential will to bring about goodness for us in our circumstances. This is our hope.

2. God never forgets His promises.
The very fact that God makes promises to humans is a phenomenal truth. God's promises can be categorized into a number of categories including promises regarding the physical continuance of the earth and seasons and His promise not to flood the earth again, but most of God's biblical promises are identified with His covenant of redemption and the people He has chosen in that covenant. All through the Scriptures God is shown to be trustworthy and faithful, keeping His promises to His people (Numbers 23:19; Joshua 21:45; 23:14) . God cannot fail to keep His promises to His people, because God is the faithful God. God can be counted upon to stand by His Word absolutely and undeniably.

3. God is compassionate and merciful.
God delights in showing His compassion and mercy in the lives of people. This is most powerfully seen in the life of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 20:29-34 two blind men cry out to Jesus to heal them as He was passing by. When Jesus asked them what they wanted, they replied, "Lord, we want our eyes to be opened (verse 33)." How simple and straightforward this request is, and yet it is so full of pity and pain. The very next verse says (verse 34), "Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes..." God is moved with compassion; He is full of mercy, grace, tenderness, and compassion. Thus, did God declare Himself as He prepare to pass by Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock in Exodus 33:19.

4. God is the Master of the big picture.
There is one more point to which I turn my mind for our deliberations this day. Even though God showed His faithfulness and mercy to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael, there is something greater being revealed here. We must not miss the underlying point in all of the story - God is working on a larger scale to bring about His redemptive plan and will for the benefit of the world and His own glory. If we think God is simply present to help us because we are so important to Him, we miss a bigger point that is included. We must understand that our lives are part of the larger historical and eternal mosaic of divine glory. Everything that happened to the people in the story in Genesis 21, and everything God did for them, resulted in blessing to many other people. And ultimately redemption is achieved in accordance with God's plan, and God is shown to be the glorious God that He is. We must never lose the understanding of the purpose of our individual lives as connected to God's greater plan.


  1. Could we approach every verse this way? Always asking "what is God trying to teach me about Himself in this passage."

  2. Yes, ask yourself, "Why did God put this verse, passage etc. in the Bible?" "What is the main idea being presented?" "How are things presented?" "What does God seem to want me to get from this? Are there ideas that keep popping up? Are there themes that seem to be under the surface?" One might make a misjudgment on occasion, so it is important to be humble. But this is a good place to start.