“By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. “
Abraham was called by God, unconditionally, to leave Ur of the Chaldees. He went out, we read, not knowing whither he went. He knew nothing either of the country to which he was going or the way to that country.
In this scripture we now call attention to Abraham’s sojourn or pilgrimage in the land of promise. It must have been a sore trial for him when he finally arrived in the land the Lord would show him. He was a stranger in his own land! The land of promise was a strange country to him!
The Dutch translation is an improvement upon the English. It reads, and we translate: “For he looked forthe having foundations city (the emphasis falls upon the fact that this city has foundations – H.V.), whose architect or designer and builder is God.”
A sore trial!
Did Abraham expect improved conditions in his new country? Idolatry and superstition must have been common in Ur, as is also evident from Joshua 24:2. Already some four hundred years after the flood, the true service of Jehovah must have become very scarce; the people who served the living God must have been very few. Did Abraham think that the Lord was calling him to a better home, better surroundings, spiritually better neighbors in that new country? Did he, weary of all the idolatry in Ur of the Chaldees, look forward to new surroundings in which he would be free to serve the living God, unhindered by all the godlessness around him as had been the case in his native land? Was this his hope and expectation?
How disappointed he must have been! Indeed, he came into a rather populous country. Genesis 13:7 tell us that the Canaanite and the Perizzite lived in the land. Indeed, the land into which he came was worse than the country he had left. God surely did not call Abram out of Ur to preserve the true religion as it is sometimes alleged and taught in catechism books. Fact is, the country was inhabited by heathen tribes that were very numerous and desperately wicked. All we need do is think of Sodom and Gomorrah, the wicked cities of the plain.
This is not all. Abram could not even call this new country his own. True, he did receive more definite information about the future: that he would receive a seed, that that seed would become a great nation, that all the land would be given him and his seed for an everlasting possession. However, all this lay in the future. One may ask: why did not the Lord give him the land immediately? The answer must be: Abram must live by faith, not by sight. He must wait a long time; in fact, he himself would never receive any part of it, not even to set his foot on it -—see Acts 7:5. Shortly after he enters the land, he is forced into the land of Egypt because of a famine. Twenty-five years he must wait for a son, Isaac. In the meantime, he and Sarah had become old. And during all this time he is a complete stranger in the land. How disappointed he must have been when entering this new and promised land! How different may have been his expectations! This land must have been a far cry from that which he had anticipated!
Does not the same thing also apply to us? We find ourselves in the midst of afflictions. We probably have hopes that our troubles cannot become any worse. Yet, they increase! How disappointed we may be! And, the Lord continues to call unto us: where I lead you, you must follow. Why? Because we must live by faith. The Lord does not ask us to follow Him because we see the end of the road. We must not walk by sight. He calls to us: I know the end, and that is quite sufficient. Is it not quite enough that the living and unchangeably faithful God, the God of our salvation, knows all things, also the road on which He calls us to travel?
Abraham was a stranger, a sojourner. To be a stranger means literally to dwell beside or near someone. A stranger dwells near the people of his country, never with them. Abraham was no mixer. If you had seen him you would have been able to single him out immediately. He looked and acted like a stranger. Secondly, he dwelt in tabernacles or tents, as did Isaac and Jacob. Although the whole land was his by promise, nothing was his by reality. He settled nowhere; he built no city anywhere. He chose to live in a tent. A tent, we understand, emphasizes the idea of the temporary.
How remarkable! First, this was Abraham’s deliberate choice. He was a very rich man. He also has three hundred eighteen servants after he and Lot separated. Surely, he did not have to live as a foreigner. But he chose this life deliberately. How this becomes evident in the quarrel between his and Lot’s servants, and later when the king of Sodom offered him of the goods recaptured from Chedorlaomer! The country was not his own, and he never tried to make it his own. Secondly, notice the life he chose to lead. He never tried to return to Ur of the Chaldees. One may ask: why leave one’s country and go to another and then never try to make that new country one’s own? Of course, the answer is: this is the land of the promise. To be sure, the Lord promised this land to him and to his seed. However, the realization of this promise lay in the future. God would give it to him in His own good time. This explains Abraham’s sojourn. He was willing to wait until the Lord gave it to him.
And the same also applies to us. Indeed, we must surely live in the world, near the world. But we must never live with the world. We must be strangers and foreigners, live antithetically, as a people who are completely different by God’s grace. . . .
What motivated Abraham, this father of believers? He looked, we read, for the city that has foundations. Now this certainly does not mean that he looked for an earthly city, the earthly Jerusalem. How impossible is this view! First, how disappointed this man of God must have been, inasmuch as he never owned a foot of land in this new land! He looked for an earthly city? Secondly, this earthly view is exactly what the writer of this epistle is opposing throughout the epistle — seeHeb. 12:22; Hebrews 11:16. Thirdly, this earthly view is in conflict with this text. It certainly could not be said of the earthly Jerusalem that God was its builder and maker in that literal sense of the word. These words surely apply to the Jerusalem that is above.
God is this city’s Builder or Architect. He is the Architect or Designer of the heavenly Jerusalem that has foundations, the city, therefore that will abide forever. He planned it. It is the City of God, God’s City, in which God will be all in all, everything revolving about Him and His glory, and then as centrally revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. And the Lord is also its Maker. Indeed, who else would be able to build this city?! This city must be built upon the ruins of sin and death, is built by the living God through Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, in the way of the cross and resurrection, and by the power of God’s almighty grace.
And Abraham looked for this city. He looked for it, expected it, and waited for it. He had his eye of faith upon it, looked for it, not naturally, but spiritually, was homesick for it, longed to dwell in it.
This motivated Abraham’s sojourn. He was a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem. The life of that city was in his heart; the love of God had been shed abroad in his heart. He had been born again, from above. He was therefore a sojourner in the land of promise, was so different from all the people round about him, could therefore never mix with them. And, in the measure that he dwelt or sojourned among them, he looked for this heavenly city; his homesickness grew for the City that is above.
Need we say that the same thing must also characterize us, the people of God, and throughout the ages? Yes, this must always be said. Strangers we are and must be in the midst of the world. It should not be at all difficult to “spot” the people of God here below and as in the midst of the world. We, too, must live in tents — spiritually, of course! We must never set our hearts upon the things that are below. We must be known by the world as strangers, and also treated as such, all because we are foreigners in the world, born from above, strangers who are enroute to the City of the living God.
Indeed, how hopeless is apparently our lot! It was surely hopeless for Abraham. He lived in the Old Dispensation, in the age of the shadows, before the coming of Christ into our flesh and blood. How far removed he was from the heavenly City!
However, our lot is surely just as hopeless! What guarantee does the afflicted, despised, hopelessly outnumbered people of God have that they will inherit heavenly life and immortality? Are not all thingsagainst us?
Is anything for us? This is possible only by faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith trusts in God, and in the word of His promise. Everything is invisible: God is invisible; His Christ is invisible; His cross (what it really is) is invisible; that He is highly exalted is also invisible. Faith, however, is this evidence, is itself this evidence. Faith takes hold of God and of His promises in Christ. We need not prove things. Of course, we can never prove these things to the world. But we need not prove them. Fact is, I believe, and therefore I know. And faith is also the substance of things hoped for. Faith itself is the ground for this hope, is itself this hope. Faith, as rooted in Christ, reaches out to the life that is above; believing, we hope and reach out to the future, are not only pilgrims and strangers, but also consider it a rare privilege of grace to be such, rooted as it is in God’s sovereign and unconditional election. Besides, is it not wonderful to suffer in behalf of Christ, that all our suffering and affliction serves the glorious purpose of setting forth the power and glory of God’s grace as revealed in and through Jesus Christ, our Lord?
Yes, we look for the City of our God. We consider all things but loss in the light of it. We believe all our affliction to be worthwhile. Worthwhile? Indeed, we know that all the suffering of this present time is never to be compared with the glory that shall follow. The apostle sings of this wonderful expectation in the eighth chapter of his epistle to the Romans, and the Church of all ages has learned by the grace of God to sing it after him. And the same apostle Paul also sings of this unbelievably wonderful expectation in the fourth chapter of his second epistle to the Corinthians: our present light affliction which is but for a moment works for us an exceeding and eternal weight of glory. This is our calling, and our unspeakable privilege by divine grace.