It would be expected of a man who had such rich promises as Abram that he would do a great deal of thinking about them. And Abram did do exactly that. He lived in the hope of their fulfillment, and these promises were with him every day. The evidence of this is found in Genesis 15 when God appears to him and tells him that He is his shield and great reward.
Abram had just returned from rescuing Lot from the four kings of the north and east. He had refused any reward from the king of Sodom. And he had given tithes to Melchizedek and had been blessed by this priest of the most high God. Then it is that God appears to him in a vision and tells him that He is his shield and great reward.
In answer to these comforting words Abram asks, “Lord Jehovah, what canst thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward (heir) of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?” This shows that Abram had been thinking very seriously and very much about that covenant promise of being a great nation. More and more he came to the painful awareness that all this could not be realized as long as he did not have a son. Implied, of course, in God’s promise of making him a great nation was the promise of seed. But God had never said in so many words what he now declares to Abram, that “he that shall come out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.” He had merely promised to make of him a great nation and to give him this land. And Abram had believed God. But as the years went by and he became older and Sarai remained just as sterile, it caused much thought in Abram’s mind and life as to the fulfillment of this promise. And now when God tells him that He is his shield and great reward Abram reveals how close to the surface, how frequently before his consciousness was this promise and the need of a son for its fulfillment. Apparently entirely out of context Abram speaks of the need of a son to be his heir. And yet it is not so out of context at all. For God being his shield and God being his exceeding great reward mean nothing if the covenant promise is not fulfilled. Abram must be shielded from shame and disappointment as far as the covenant promises are concerned as surely as he must be from all the Canaanites who resented having him in their land. And what reward is there and how is God Abram’s exceeding great reward if all these covenant promises are not fulfilled?
God is Abram’s and our exceeding great reward only in Christ. He is our exceeding great reward, and Abram’s as well, only when He comes into our flesh, dwells with us, saves us by His blood and takes us up into that covenant life which He has promised in the new Jerusalem, the holy city. But all this requires seed. A son must be born to Abram that will in time bring forth this Christ, this Seed of the woman that will give us the victory and shield us forever from our sin and guilt.
And realizing that he must have a son, Abram had been thinking not only about these covenant promises; he had been looking to see how God was going to fulfill them. He had looked to Lot, but God took Lot away and removed him far from Abram’s side. Now he is looking at his servant Eliezer of Damascus. If nothing happens, if God does not give him a son before he dies, Eliezer will inherit all his goods, and it will have to be through him that God fulfills His promise.
Understand well that Abram does not doubt God’s promise. We read that he believed God and that it was accounted unto him for righteousness. He believed. And his cry, “What canst thou give me (as long as thou givest me no child)?” is not at all a complaint. It is no accusation of unfaithfulness on God’s part. It is a question that had been turning around in Abram’s mind for a long time. How can God do this when He gives me no child? It was puzzlement, bewilderment perhaps, but it was not doubt and certainly not unbelief.
And God—who knows the exact moment for every point of revelation—speaks to Abram a new detail in the promise: “he that shall come forth out of thy bowels shall be thine heir.” At a time when Abram needed encouragement and stood in need of a fuller revelation of the details of the covenant promise God is there to tell him that he will have a son of his own.
And a former detail is enhanced by a reference to the stars of the heavens. God had said that He would make of him a great nation. Now He points out that it will indeed be an innumerable host, so that if Abram can count the stars in the heavens, he can count all the multitude of seed that God will give him. Now Abram can see that God is indeed his shield and great reward. In this way he can see that all the covenant promises can be and will be fulfilled by God. And what a wonderful vision this turned out to be!
Abram’s further request, “Lord Jehovah whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (this whole land) is likewise not gendered out of doubt and unbelief, but out of faith and its eagerness for that which is promised. Abram was not questioning God’s ability, nor His faithfulness to His promises. He was asking for a sign because he wanted so badly to rejoice in this which God promised. He did not doubt. He was not guilty of unbelief. But he did not want to doubt or disbelieve in the future either. He wanted to believe and to be strong in his faith; and therefore he asks for a sign, for a word from God that will keep him from falling into unbelief and doubt.
God gives him a most wonderful and significant sign. Abram is called to gather and arrange an heifer, a ram, a she goat, a turtledove and a young pigeon. For such was the custom in that day in that part of the world from whence Abram came when one made a covenant with another. The animals were to be cut in two, and the two halves were to be separated from each other at such a distance that a man could walk between the two parts. The same was true of the two birds which were placed one on each side but were not divided. And then the two parties drawing up the covenant would pass between the parts with the understanding that if the one or the other would be unfaithful in the covenant, all his cattle would be slain and divided. It was a method of swearing by a ritual. It was expressing their seriousness and intent to be faithful to the covenant drawn up between them.
But Abram does not pass between the parts! He sees—after he had all day driven off the wild birds that came to devour the flesh—God, in the form of smoking furnace and a burning lamp (the only form of fire known in Abram’s day) passing between the parts. God swore to His faithfulness. He did not demand or allow Abram to swear his faithfulness to the covenant.
This is not simply due to the fact that Abram had requested a sign and God had not requested one from Abram. It is due to the fact that there is only one party in God’s covenant, and that party is God Himself. We are of the party of God and are not a little party next to the big Party. As our Baptism Form has it, there are contained in all covenants two parts. But there is in God’s covenant only one party, and that is God Himself.
For this reason God’s covenant is certain. Lord Jehovah has sworn, and He has passed between the parts, giving His word that He will keep every detail of that promise. A covenant that rests on our faithfulness is bound to fail. And the next chapter indicates how miserably Abram failed in that covenant when he took Hagar to be his wife in order to raise up this seed that would come out of his bowels. The covenant would have failed, before this son out of Abram’s bowels, namely, Isaac, could be born!
Yes, Abram drives off the fowls, the unclean birds that came to eat up the flesh. But he did this with strength that God gave him; and even then a deep sleep fell upon him and an horror of great darkness. So frail is man that he will fall asleep on the job. And any covenant founded on his faithfulness and dependent upon it falls before it can be begun.
It is well for us to remember this and to hold on to it in the Arminian age in which we live. On every side we are bombarded with philosophies and theories of men that present God’s promises as conditional. There is that which man must first do. There is the indispensable requirement which he must fulfill before God will act and send His blessing. A pleading and eager God is presented Who cannot save until man has expressed his desire for sa1vation. A willing God is preached Who has stipulated the condition of faith so that if man will only meet this simple requirement of God, He on His part will be only too glad to save and bless everlastingly.
But all this insults the living God and distorts the whole truth of Scripture. And it all makes salvation so utterly hopeless for us. It never tries to explain how a spiritually dead man can even hear the call to fulfill the condition or want the salvation. And it never tries to do this because it simply and boldly denies that man is spiritually dead. It wants to believe in a man who is spiritually sick and desperately weak, but left with enough power to desire the “offered” salvation. It ignores completely the fact that there is absolutely no suggestion of any conditions to God’s covenant in .this entire chapter.
God does not tell Abram that He will be his shield and great reward if . . . : Unequivocally God declares that He is his shield and is his great reward without any bargaining with Abram. The same is true as far as giving him a son that comes out of his own bowels. It is not promised conditionally. God declares what HE is going to do and what HE is going to give to Abram. And exactly to teach Abram—and us—that all His promises stand because of His great faithfulness, He gives Abram a part to fulfill together with the ability to do so. And this He does in answer to Abram’s request for a sign. The sign God gives is one that declares to Abram and to us that God—while we only look on and watch—fulfills all the requirements of His covenant and swears by Himself that He will keep His word.
And lest we and Abram’s seed begin to doubt His faithfulness, God also reveals the future history of Abram’s seed predicting the long bondage in Egypt. This was not a case of God being unfaithful to His promise but biding His time because the measure of iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full. And carried over into our age it means that even though the Antichrist comes with his dreadful persecutions and temporary victories, we must not immediately cry out of God’s unfaithfulness but realize that the hour of His Son’s return is not yet come according to an eternal and unchangeable counsel. God will fulfill His promise in its minutest detail. He will keep His word and is both our shield and great reward. He will not become such. He is such right now, and in flawless covenant faithfulness He is working all things together for good to those that love Him.