The complexities of life in our modern society put many to a severe test. Providing adequately for the needs of a growing family is a demanding and often wearisome task. In addition, leaders must spend time with their family and should participate in civic and community affairs. Where does God fit into this picture? Is it possible today to fulfill the exhortation of Jesus, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33)?
A dramatic chapter in the life of Abraham, recorded in Genesis 22, answers the question for all time. The patriarch in his old age was rejoicing in the company of Isaac, the son of promise. Life was flowing smoothly. Ishmael was gone and there was no more dissension in the camp. Suddenly Abraham’s life seemed to be shattered by a command from God, a command that burst on his calm, serene life like a bolt out of the clear sky. It was the most grievous trial of his life.
Ken Hanna (ThM, 1961; ThD, 1964) wrote:
“Life has a way of confronting us with crises when we least expect them. Secure in our routine, warm contentment marks most days. Then with the suddenness of an earthquake, a crisis shatters our peace of mind. Do you ever wonder about a God who allows your life to be disrupted by some unpleasant experience, by some tragedy? It is not difficult for us to see God’s hand in the enjoyable things that happen to us. That is clearly a God of love giving us what is best. But, how can misfortune be allowed by such a loving God? How can the loss of someone or something dear to us be for our good? Abraham learned by experience that you can trust God even in crisis.”
The command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering was designed to test Abraham’s love for God. Abraham had already done a great deal to prove his devotion. He had torn himself from his own country and relatives; he had become a homeless wanderer in a strange land; he had renounced the hopes built on Ishmael and had driven him from the camp—but his new test was a trial that had to come. Isaac was a child of Abraham’s old age, and the danger was that his great love for this special son would crowd out the love of God. The Lord, therefore, would test Abraham to determine who was first in his life: Isaac, his son or God?
Declared C. S. Lewis, “If we keep God at the center of things, it is possible to suppose that pain is his method for training us for better things than we understand. If a man really cherishes his dog, he will do things to it which from the animal’s point of view must at times impugn the goodness of the master. Thus love may punish where indifference would allow the dog its own way. When we ask God to love us, we may be getting more than we bargained for.”
And the test came to Abraham without a single word of explanation. Dr. Joseph Parker, the famed London preacher, declared, “The innocent ones are impoverished and scourged. Wealth honestly gotten is scattered beyond recovery. The most useful workers in the church are laid aside by sickness. Those who would gladly be foremost in the Lord’s work must stand aside because of pain and illness. No reason is given. Those who are nearest to God . . . bear the hardest trials, without His giving them a single word of explanation.” It has been said that the reason God does not explain the mystery of suffering is because He wants our confidence.
Abraham’s response to God’s call was immediate and decisive. Father and son arose early, perhaps to slip away before the lad’s mother was awake. Interestingly, the Bible does not record Abraham’s personal reaction to this test of faith and love. It may well be that Abraham tossed on his bed through the hours of the night for it seemed that God was contradicting Himself in requiring that Isaac be offered as a burnt offering. After all, the promise was that God would establish His covenant with Isaac and his descendants after him, yet Isaac was not even married and it appeared that his life would soon end. But Abraham trusted God. His reason was taken captive by faith and he obeyed the divine command.
For three days father and son traveled the fifty miles from Beersheba to the environs of Jerusalem. We are not told of their conversation on this painful journey. Upon arrival, Abraham and Isaac began the ascent up the mountain with the wood for the sacrifice laid on the back of Isaac. Abraham carried the knife, the means of destruction, and the fire. The tension of the narrative grows. Isaac called to Abraham’s attention the absence of the sacrificial lamb. No doubt father and son had often offered sacrifices and the piercing question touched Abraham to the quick. He answered prophetically, “God will provide for Himself a lamb.” Isaac, the submissive son, was bound. He lay on the altar gazing into the tearful eyes of the father.
But God did not abandon Abraham in the hour of his severe test. He never does. When the knife was raised high, its blade gleaming in the rays of the morning sun, God provided a way of escape. From the precise moment of Abraham’s obedience at the beginning of the journey, God began to make preparations for this hour. First, the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Christ, appeared to Abraham and said, “For I know that God is first in your life” (Gen 22:12, tlb). Abraham had passed the test. Father and son then joyfully offered the ram as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and worship.
The reward to Abraham for putting God first was one of great magnitude. The Lord reaffirmed His covenant with Abraham, promising to multiply greatly his descendants and to bless all nations through them.
Abraham was prepared to give Isaac, his only son, to God and thus proved his faith for all generations to behold. James wrote, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (Jas 2:21–22).