Concerning Ishmael

There has come to my attention since the appearance of my article entitled “The Casting Out Of Ishmael” in the October 15 issue of The Standard Bearer (page 31) several questions concerning my presentation of the spiritual status of Ishmael. These were brought to my attention first in several private conversations and now in the appearance of a “Contribution” entitled “Ishmael Blessed” submitted by the Rev. R.C. Harbach. These responses are appreciated and I am every happy to use this article for a further explanation of my position. 

The question that arises is whether Ishmael in our study of Scripture is to be considered by us as regenerate or unregenerate, believing or unbelieving, and ultimately as elect or reprobate. A superficial perusal of the various passages of Scripture which have reference to Ishmael would seem to lend support to both propositions, leaving us with a sort of dilemma or apparent contradiction. To the serious student of the Scriptures, being convinced of the necessary inner harmony of God’s Word, this can only mean that the matter is worthy of a deeper and more intensive examination. Hence we welcome this occasion to examine the various passages in question. First we would like to review those passages which speak badly of Ishmael, and secondly those which seem to speak more positively. 

Those portions of Scripture that reflect negatively upon Ishmael are the following. 

1. The birth of Ishmael was occasioned by circumstances which were spiritually very unbecoming. Not only was Abraham’s union with Hagar bigamy, which although more frequent in Bible history is nonetheless never condoned by God, but it was perpetrated because of an expressed lack of faith by all that were concerned. Although God had specifically promised Abraham that he would bring forth a great and blessed seed, Sarai after many years had passed by doubted the promise of God and accused Him of having restrained her from bearing. Therefore she plotted to raise up a seed unto herself and Abram through the use of her handmaid Hagar. Abram also failed to use spiritual discretion and leadership in the home when he acceded to this scheme. Even Hagar cannot be counted guiltless for allowing herself to be used in such a way. We might feel, however, that this can not be counted against Ishmael for it would hardly be just to hold him guilty for the sin which his parents committed even though his birth was the result of the sin. Nonetheless Paul in Galatians does designate Ishmael as the one “born after the flesh” and evidently considers it to be an earmark of his spiritual character.

2. Perhaps of greater importance regarding Ishmael personally is the prophecy concerning him given to Hagar prior to Ishmael’s birth, and recorded in Gen. 16:12. This prophecy concerning him given to Hagar to Ishmael’s birth, and recorded in Gen. 16:12. This prophecy consists of three different parts. The first says of him, “He will be a wild man” or literally translated, “He will be a wild ass among men.” He is compared to the animal described in Job 39:5-8, “Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the driver. The range of mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing.” This would seem to designate Ishmael as a wild unruly man unwilling to be bound by law or the will of God but inhabiting the desolate unblessed expanses of the wilderness. The second element of this prophecy reads, “his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” Here it is said that Ishmael will be a pugnacious, warring man, a stranger to the blessedness of peace, and like his nephew Esau living by the sword. Finally it is stated, “He shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Geographically this had literal fulfillment as we read in Gen. 25:18 concerning Ishmael’s children, “And they dwelt from Havilah unto Sliur that is before Egypt, as thou goest toward Assyria.” But the text would seem to designate more—namely, that Ishmael maintained an existence independent from his brother Isaac, and for any one to maintain an existence independent from the promised line of Isaac and his seed can hardly be considered a blessing. 

3. That this prophecy very soon began to show its fulfillment is intimated by the prayer of Abraham recorded in Gen. 17:18, “O that Ishmael’ might live before thee!” It is no doubt true that this text has its primary significance in the fact that Abraham wished that the covenant promise might be carried on through Ishmael; but it also clearly implies that at that time already Ishmael showed himself to be unwilling to live before the face of God. Already at that time he was like the wild ass of the wilderness, unwilling to submit to the spiritual instruction of his father. 

4. By far the most revealing facts about Ishmael are those recorded in Gen. 21 and reflected upon by Paul inGal. 4:22-30. In these passages Ishmael is revealed not only to be “born after the flesh” but he is compared to the covenant of Sinai, “The one from Mount Sinai which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.” Gal. 4:24, 25. It is true that this is an allegory; but, if the allegory is properly drawn as it must be, because it is found in Scripture, it must mean that Ishmael in his life was actually in bondaged to the law. The thought is that Abraham, even so many years before the formal law was given from Sinai, maintained the rules of a Godly life, within his household. He insisted that all of the members of his household should live in accord with the principles of the Divine Will. To the child of the promise who was spiritually alive, life under this strict rule of his father was a life of freedom for it served to lead him in the way that his inner heart desired to go. So it would have been for Ishmael if he had been spiritually regenerated. But, in fact, for Ishmael life within the household of Abraham was a bondage. He had no desire for the Godly life, and for him to have to observe the strict rule of Godly life only served to irritate his soul. This irritation of soul finally erupted in his mockery and persecution of Isaac at the great feast that was held on the day that Isaac was weaned. Had Ishmael been spiritual he would have held Isaac as being very dear to his heart, for he would have recognized Isaac as being the first fulfillment of the covenant promise and the one through whom God would ultimately work salvation. But Ishmael did not care for Salvation; and, therefore, he recognized Isaac as nothing more than his competitor for supremacy within the family. He mocked Isaac and persecuted him, thereby spurning the promise of God, spurning the covenant, and in reality spurning the Christ. It was but proper that Ishmael should be cast out for he was spiritually dead. He was at the command of God as much as excommunicated from the church. 

This conclusion would no doubt be generally accepted if it were not for the fact that there are other passages which seem to speak more favorably of Ishmael. 

1. The first of these passages is found in Gen. 16 where we read that the angel of the Lord met Hagar, instructed her return to her mistress, told her to name her son “Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction,” and gave certain prophecies concerning Ishmael. This passage might be used to show that there yeas spiritual life in Hagar and that she found favor with God; but even then we should be very careful because we know from Scripture that at times God deals with people within the sphere of the covenant as if they were true members of the covenant, while in later life these same people fall away and are never again restored. The prime example of this is of course King Saul. Concerning Ishmael personally, however; this passage has very little to say apart from the prophecy which “e have already treated and which could not be counted as a favorable promise in any sense of the word. 

2. More important in this respect is the answer of .God to the prayer of Abraham found in Gen. 17:20, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold; I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” We should note concerning this that the passage is concerned in the greater part with the temporal seed of Ishmael and the extent to which it should be multiplied. This is nothing more than God had already told Hagar in Gen. 16:10 and does not in itself imply a favorable disposition by God,—that is, it partakes of the nature of a prophecy more than of a blessing. Nonetheless the actual word “blessed” does appear also in this passage for it states, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him.” The question arises, therefore, whether there is any record in Scripture of an actual spiritual blessing in connection with Ishmael; and such a blessing we do find. From Gen. 25:13 we learn that the two oldest sons of Ishmael were Nebajoth and Kedar. Concerning these two sons we read further in Isaiah 60:7, “All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister unto thee: they shall come up with acceptance on mine altar, and I will glorify the house of my glory.” Thus God had ordained eternally a blessing for Ishmael, not personally, for personally he was like a wild ass that would not submit to the rule of the covenant; but an elect segment of his seed was chosen to be converted from the wild ways of their father so as to submit to the easy yoke of Isaac’s seed.

3. One other passage which might seem to cause difficulty in this regard is found in Gen. 21:20. There we read concerning the later life of Ishmael, “And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.” Although this passage might seem to imply a certain favorable disposition of God toward Ishmael, it need not signify anything more than that God in His providence watched over Ishmael so that His prophecies concerning Ishmael might be fulfilled.

In conclusion we would reiterate our position that Ishmael stands in the Scriptures as a type or symbol to all ages of the unregenerate seed that grows up within the sphere of the covenant. Although they received the best of covenant instruction, it finds no place within their hearts. All of this rich covenant instruction and guidance only serves to irritate their souls and drive them farther into sin, until at last they must be cast out from the Church. 

In regard to this symbolic significance, however, Ishmael differs somewhat from Esau. Esau is typical of the reprobate; for such there is no possibility of salvation, but they are inevitably hardened unto perdition. Ishmael is typical of the unregenerate seed within the covenant. Many, if not most, of these may be also like Esau, reprobate which can never be renewed unto repentance. But there may also be those who begin their life in the unregenerate state, and who nevertheless in their later life are by the grace of God regenerated and converted to take their place, like Kedar and Nabajoth, with the elect of all ages. 

Nonetheless, in regard to Ishmael personally, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest or necessitate the belief that such a conversion ever took place. From all that the Scriptures tell us, he is only the son born after the flesh who “shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman,” and that heritage which he did not receive is ultimately Christ. 

—B.W.