Rev. Hanko is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed, and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
The call came to Abraham when he was still in Ur of the Chaldees, in the land of Mesopotamia. The Lord of glory appeared to him and required of him that he leave his home to go to a land that God would show him.
This call meant for Abraham this: Forsake all thy former attachments and come to Me, thy God, in a land that I have set aside as an inheritance for thee and for thy future generations.
It was father Terah who, as head of the family, assumed the responsibility for the journey and led along the way his entire family, consisting of Abraham and Sarah, Nahor and his wife, and his nephew Lot.
This was an act of faith far greater than appears at first glance. There were the six main individuals, but there were also herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to be taken with them. It appears from later history that Abraham had his herd of cattle and flock of sheep, while Lot had his own, and likely Nahor did also. This required a large number of servants, both men and women. When we consider that when Abraham was in Canaan he had 318 trained men, born in his house, who accompanied him to war against the kings that had taken Lot and all his goods captive, besides those who remained at home to care for the household, we realize that they must already have had hundreds of servants.
The obvious route for this nomad group to take ran north-westward along the fertile banks of the Euphrates River, which offered food for a few hundred men and women and grazing for the cattle and the sheep. It was a long, strenuous, and wearisome journey of 650 miles from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran. Such a large company with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep could travel no more than a few miles each day, since the animals had to be cared for and driven, camp had to be set up each night, and meals had to be prepared for the family and for all the servants. They may even have stopped along the way to raise grain for their food and for fodder.
Therefore, after finally reaching the place that they called Haran, they settled down for a time. It is possible that here Abraham awaited further instructions from the Lord. In any case, it was here that Terah died. Abraham is said to be 75 years old. And God confirms His promise that He will give Abraham an inheritance, make of him a great nation, and make his name great upon the earth. But no mention is made of a son, a direct heir. He and Sarah are still childless.
Now Abraham is told to leave Haran and, possibly more specifically than before, to leave his kindred and his father’s house to go to the land of his inheritance. Only Lot accompanies him and Sarah, along with “the substance they had gathered and the souls that they had gotten in Haran” (Gen. 12:5).
This involved another long, arduous journey which, according to estimates, must have been about 400 miles. Abraham comes to Shechem, where the Lord assures him that he has arrived in the promised land, the land of his inheritance! In a sense, and only in a sense, his pilgrimage is ended! But his faith venture is not!
Without going into detail concerning the various experiences of the patriarch as he traveled through his inheritance, we see, first, that his inheritance is already occupied. There are no large cities, but throughout the land are numerous settlements, even small kingdoms with their kings. The question must have risen in Abraham’s mind, how his descendants could inherit a land that already is occupied by so many inhabitants.
Second, there is a famine in the land of promise. At this time it certainly is not a land flowing with milk and honey. In fact, it actually never was, except for short periods of time when God miraculously caused the land to produce abundantly. Abraham is commanded of God to travel back and forth throughout the land, but is also forced to do so because of lack of pasture for his cattle. Upon his return to Bethel, after having traveled through the south and into Egypt, Abraham and Lot are forced to separate because of the lack of pasture land for their cattle and their sheep.
Here Abraham is assured of his inheritance, but also promised a son and a seed as the dust of the earth. This promise was reaffirmed from time to time. But Abraham still had no direct heir.
Faithful to his calling to be a stranger in the land of promise, Abraham does not ally himself at any time with the inhabitants of the land. He does not even strike up a friendship with Abimelech or Melchisedec, who also knew and served God. He does set up an altar wherever he settles for a time. And there he calls upon the name of the Lord his God. There he worships with Sarah and his servants. God has made Abraham exceedingly rich, even as a stranger on the earth. God also repeatedly assures His servant that all this land, as far as his eye can see as he looks in every direction, is his. And he will be a “father of many nations.”
Only when Abraham is a hundred years old and Sarah is ninety, both of them dead as to being able to produce an offspring, God finally gives them the wonder-child Isaac.
Even as Abraham’s life was a venture of faith, so also are the lives of Isaac and Jacob. In fact, Isaac refuses to fight for the wells of water which his servants have dug to supply water for his household and his cattle, and which are stolen by the people of the land. If we consider how difficult it must have been in those days to dig down into the bowels of the earth without our modern equipment, we can only marvel that Isaac is willing to move from place to place, each time digging a new well until the Lord gives him rest. This would almost seem cowardly on the part of Abraham’s son, yet we must bear in mind that he was “heir of the same promise,” and he must have been well aware of it. Of him it is certainly true that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Jacob spends twenty years outside of Canaan, only to return and to experience that his sons marry daughters of the land, bringing pagan women into his camp. The Lord saves the covenant family by bringing them into Egypt, where Jacob dies, and where Joseph’s coffin stands as a silent testimony that God in covenant faithfulness will fulfill His promises to His servants as heirs of the land of promise.
They lived and died, not able to set their foot upon a spot of ground that they could call their own.
These all died as pilgrims and strangers on the earth, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off.
They held the unique position of being the friend-servants of God among the people and nations of the earth. In the office of believers they were prophets, priests, and kings under God. True, they did not have the inspired Scriptures as we do, but they did have the tradition handed down from their fathers, which from time to time was enriched by direct revelation or by the Angel of Jehovah and sealed to their hearts by His indwelling Spirit. They gathered their large households about them and as prophets instructed them in the fear of Jehovah. As priests they gathered them all about the altar to worship God in true humility and trust. As shepherd-kings they ruled over their divinely entrusted kingdom.
They knew that the land which was promised to them as an inheritance would not be theirs, but was intended for their future generations. They died in faith, seeing with an eye of faith God’s covenant promises realized only in their future generations.
In fact, they saw the day of the coming of the Christ. Even as they laid their bloody sacrifices upon the altar and bowed in worship before them they were reminded by the stench of burning flesh of their sin and misery. But they also saw in the bloody sacrifice the promise of the Savior, whereby God would make atonement for their sins. They saw the sufferings of Christ and the glory that would follow, not only for them, but for the church of all ages that was in their loins. They saw a multitude of believers like the stars of the heavens to be born in their generations. Therefore they could worship in thankfulness, depending on the God of their salvation to strengthen them in their often faltering faith even until their journey was complete.In all their pilgrimage they experienced their spiritual separation from the world and their covenant fellowship with the only true and living God. By their lives they showed that they looked beyond their earthly inheritance in the land of Canaan, even beyond the coming of the Savior to the day when all God’s rich promises are realized in heavenly perfection and in a glorious kingdom in which God will be their all in all.
They sought a city. Not merely a land, a country, but a city! God had included in His repeated promises an intimate covenant life of fellowship with their Shepherd-King and their fellow believers. There in the assembly of the saints they would rejoice in and glorify the God of their salvation even into all eternity. There they would find their inheritance, their rest, their home. That city God was preparing for them and for us in the heavens.
Are you and I pilgrims and strangers on the earth, even as they were? In principle, yes, for God has begun a good work of grace in our hearts. We do experience a small beginning of the new obedience to God and His promises. We are spiritually different from the world round about us. We speak a different language, have different goals and ambitions, live a different life. We have here no abiding city, but we seek one to come. We are poor, yet rich; possessing, yet as stewards not possessing; living one day at a time, but absolutely certain of the future. In one word, our hope, our treasure, is in heaven. We have an inheritance, incorruptible and undefiled, that fadeth not away, kept in store for us in the heavens.
Yet we have but a small beginning of the new obedience. Our flesh still clings to the things of this world. The luxuries round about us attract and weigh us down on our pilgrimage. We are often so complacent in our present situation that we hardly yearn for the eternal city in the heavens. We must be torn up by the roots before we are ready to live in eager expectation and longing for our heavenly home.
We are a separate people, a royal priesthood, called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, to trust in Him, to wait upon Him as watchers wait for the morning. At journey’s end is our eternal home. Home at last!
With the church of all ages we sing:
I am a stranger here,
Dependent on Thy grace,
A pilgrim as my fathers were
With no abiding place.