“And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimeleck, king of the Philistines unto Gerar.
“And the Lord appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of:
“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee;”
We must be careful in evaluating the life of Isaac not to underestimate the extent of his faith. When we think upon the life of Isaac there is always one great fact that comes to the fore in our minds, that is, that he preferred Esau over Jacob, that he tried to give the blessing of the birthright to Esau, that he thereby refused to follow the clearly revealed will of God. That that was a sin, a very great sin, cannot be denied. Nonetheless, let us not forget that Isaac was a child of God; he partook of the grace of God. Thus his life also revealed positive fruits that manifested the excellency of the power of God that worked within him.
We read in Hebrews 12:6, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” Isaac was a son of God and thus it was that the Lord chastened and tried him also. The Lord sent to him, as He had to his father Abraham, a famine. It was the land of Canaan in which he dwelt, the land of promise, the land which was to be a blessing unto him and unto his seed forever. But that land became dry and unproductive before his sight. It withered and failed to bring forth the vegetation necessary for sustaining the life of his household. It became a test of Isaac’s faith to continue to look upon the land as that in which the blessings of God would be given to him and his children.
The reaction of Isaac to that trial was quite natural. As his father had done before him, he decided to remove himself to Egypt, a land which with its natural irrigation was spared from all but the most severe of famines. His discernment dulled by the pressing need of the moment; he allowed himself to forget the spiritual commitment of faith that bound him to the land of Canaan. He lived by faith in the promise of God which was to be realized in Canaan not in Egypt. But the hardship was great, and Isaac gathered his family around him and made his way toward Egypt.
But before this sin could be perpetrated God interfered. He stopped Isaac on the way, before he had left the boundaries of Canaan, and warned him not to go into Egypt. He repeated to him the covenant promise which had been given to his father before him laying stress upon the fact that it was to be fulfilled in the land of Canaan. “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father;” Gen. 26:3. So it was that Isaac was halted upon his way and came to settle in Gerar of the Philistines.
Gerar was within the boundaries of Canaan; but still it would have been better for Isaac that he had remained by the well Lahairoi. Gerar was a city; dwelling there he was in the midst of the enemy. The neighbors that surrounded him in Gerar were unprincipled people for they did not fear God. Isaac soon realized this and it made him afraid. When the men of the city asked him concerning Rebekah, he did not have the courage to say that she was his wife lest his own life should be endangered. But again the Lord was with Isaac, and before Rebekah could be defiled, He brought it to the attention of Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, that Isaac’s attitude toward Rebekah was not that of a brother but that of a husband. After reprimanding Isaac, Abimelech commanded that no one was to lay hands on either Isaac or his wife. It was the hand of the Lord that overshadowed Isaac and kept him from evil.
These actions of Isaac, of course, are not such as would commend him to us as an example to be followed. They rather manifest the gracious intervention of God which prevented him from becoming as involved in the results of his weakness as he might have. But neither should our condemnation of Isaac be overly harsh at this point. It is to be remembered that these sinful reactions were essentially no different than those of his father Abraham, who lived in closest communion with God, under similar circumstances. This does not excuse him, but it does remind us that the trial of these circumstances was very severe. Nor should we forget that under great economic trials we often yield as readily to deceptive words and actions. It is, however, not here but in that which followed that the strength of Isaac shines forth.
The person difficult to understand in this account is Abimelech. He was king of the wicked Philistines and was observed by Isaac to hate him. Yet he allowed Isaac to dwell in his land for a time; he forbade his people to molest Isaac or his family; he was eager to make a covenant or truce with Isaac.
This is not the first time that the name Abimelech appears in Scripture: In Gen. 20 and Gen. 21 Abimelech is mentioned in conjunction with Abraham under very much the same circumstances. Then too Abraham had gone to dwell in the land of the Philistines; there he had trouble with the inhabitants over water; and a covenant was made between Abimelech and Abraham. But that was nearly one hundred years before. From this we would conclude that the Abimelech which dealt with Isaac was not the same person which had dealt with his father. The name Abimelech was the royal title of the kings of the Philistines just as Pharaoh was the title of the kings of Egypt. The Abimelech that ruled over the Philistines in the time of Isaac was probably the son of the one that Abraham knew. This accounts for the attitude which Abimelech maintained toward Isaac. From his father Abimelech had learned about the divine power which overshadowed the family of Abraham causing them to prosper and protecting them from evil. He knew of the inheritance that the Lord maintained in the land of Canaan for the seed of Abraham. Therefore he both feared Isaac and hated him. He hated Isaac because he saw in him a contender for the possession of the land. But he recognized the greatness of Isaac’s God, and he was afraid to misuse Isaac lest the anger of Isaac’s God should come upon him.
When Isaac came with his possessions into the land of the Philistines Abimelech did not dare to forbid him the right to tarry in the land. Rather he saw it to be to his advantage to obligate as powerful a man as Isaac to himself. For much the same reason he took care to warn his people not to molest Isaac, his wife, or his family. Abimelech was very much afraid of the retribution which might be brought upon him if he mistreated Isaac in any way.
When Isaac first entered the land, he had been merely passing through on the way to Egypt. But when God forbade him to leave the land of Canaan, he settled down in Gerar; and still Abimelech did not object. But when Isaac began to sow grain, difficulty arose. It was not the fact that he sowed the grain that bothered; it was the fact that his efforts brought forth a harvest of a hundredfold. Ordinarily that land brought forth a harvest of thirty to sixty-fold. But now a famine was upon the land and it was practically barren. Yet the fields of Isaac brought forth inconceivable bounty. The Lord was blessing the labors of Isaac. He was showing to Isaac that He could and would uphold him in the land even in the midst of a famine. For the Philistines, however, the prosperity of Isaac was an occasion for dissatisfaction. It moved them to envy to see the fields of a stranger far surpassing their own in productivity. Where there is envy, hatred does not take long to follow. Abimelech saw in the growing wealth and strength of Isaac a challenge to his own supremacy. He commanded Isaac to remove himself from Gerar.
Isaac was not one to strive unnecessarily, and he willingly left the city and pitched his tent in a valley not far removed from Gerar. Still the Lord was with him, and although the land was dry, when he digged a well it brought forth water. This was but a new occasion for the Philistines to envy him. Soon they came to use the water of his well and to claim it for their own. Peaceably Isaac refused to maintain a continued fight over anything as material as water. He quietly went on to dig another well in another place but the envious Philistines followed to claim also that well for their own. So he was finally forced to leave the land of the Philistines, and he came to Rehoboth, so named because there the Lord gave him room to dwell.
Perhaps we do not appreciate the meekness of Isaac by which he refused to fight for that which was rightfully his. We would rather see him stand up for his rights. We would rather see him challenge the Philistines to take his wells by force. We would rather see him demonstrate his might. But is it not because we do not fully appreciate the virtue of true meekness? Christ said, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also, And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away,”Matt. 5:39-42. This Isaac had learned to do. He had learned what it was to live as a stranger and a pilgrim upon the earth. Had it been a matter of principle he would have undoubtedly stood fast. Had the Lord commanded him to fight he would have done so. But it was merely a matter of earthly water. He was to wait patiently for the Lord to give him the land and not try to take it in his own strength. Thus he lived in a way often far more difficult. He meekly bore the affliction which came to him trusting only in the faithfulness of his God.
This determination of Isaac to live by faith in God and not by the strength of his own arm Isaac affirmed in the oath which he made to Abimelech. Even though Isaac had left his land Abimelech still feared the power which upheld him and made him to prosper. Abimelech went to him claiming to have done to him nothing but good and to have sent him away in peace. This Isaac recognized to be entirely false and told, Abimelech that he had sent him away in hatred. Nonetheless, he was willing to affirm, as his father had done before him, that he would not be the cause of hurt to the Philistines. This was not an affirmation of friendship but only a testimony to Abimelech that he sought the promised land not by the strength of his own hand. He trusted in the Lord to give him that land in the way and at the time that He saw to be proper.
This meeting took place immediately after. Isaac had moved to a new dwelling place at Beersheba. When coming there the Lord had appeared to him reaffirming the covenant promise given to his father, Abraham. There he built an altar to the Lord, and there he digged a well. It was after the meeting with Abimelech that we read, “And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac’s servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had digged, and said unto him, We have found water.” It was as a testimony from God that the way in which he walked was pleasing in His sight.