Rev. Hanko is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
I wonder if anyone was ever tried to the extent that God tried his friend-servant Abraham. This patriarch was a man of faith. God richly endowed him with the gift of faith and the necessary grace to walk in faith before His face. Scripture refers to Him as “the friend of God.” He had experienced various trials earlier in his life. God had called him out of Ur of the Chaldees to go to a land that God would show him. He was a stranger in the land of Canaan, moving from one part of Canaan to another. He waited long, even until all hope had vanished, for the birth of a son, the promised seed that would inherit this land and out of whom the Savior would be born. But never had he been subjected to a trial like this one, when his son Isaac was a lad, possibly in his late teens.
Genesis 22 says that “God did tempt Abraham.” Trials and temptations are closely related; in fact, the same word is employed for both in Scripture. God never tempts in the evil sense of the word, but He does try His people. When God tries us He is motivated by love, He does so in an open and sincere manner, often even warning us, and His purpose is to seek our welfare, that is, to strengthen our faith. It is Satan who tempts. His motive is hatred against God and His people, his tactics are cunning and deceitful, and his purpose is to cause us to fall into sin and bring God’s judgment on us.
Because of our sinful nature, trials readily become for us severe temptations. And on occasion we fall, even deeply. It is only by the grace of God that we can resist temptation. For that reason we pray, as our Lord teaches us: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
In this particular instance God tries Abraham by demanding of him that he sacrifice his son Isaac. God tells Abraham that He is well aware of the fact that he loves Isaac. Abraham even had a special reason to love this son. It was, after all, his son, his only son (Ishmael had been sent away), a son of his old age. Besides he was the child of the promise. God had promised Abraham: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). God had even added: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Gen. 21:12). Out of Isaac the promised Savior would be born, so that all Abraham’s hope of salvation centered in Isaac.
Yet God had said: Offer unto Me thy son, thine only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest. Had God suddenly taken him by death, that would have been extremely painful for Abraham. Or if he could have acted on the spur of the moment without giving much thought to all that it implied, that also would have been extremely difficult. But God demanded that he make a three-day journey. He must take Isaac with him, and go to the land of Moriah, where God would designate the mountain upon which the offering was to be brought.
We notice that Abraham does not hesitate to obey God’s demand, be it with anguish in his soul. He starts out early in the morning, takes Isaac and his two servants with him, and also the wood and fire for the burnt offering.
God has given him three days to consider all that is implied in fulfilling His demand. As he travels day by day he turns the whole matter over in his mind, and at night he lies awake under the stars, pondering all the implications involved in obeying God’s demand.
A sacrifice was not strange to God’s servant. He had built an altar wherever he dwelled. On that altar he offered a lamb or some clean animal as a sacrifice to God. It was a reminder of the coming of the Savior, in whose atoning blood was the forgiveness of all his sins, so that at the altar he could bow in worship, adoration, and thanksgiving before his God.
But now God requires of him that he offer up his son, his only son, Isaac. He would not question God’s right to demand this, for the earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. Isaac also belongs to the Lord. Abraham is also deeply aware that he is a sinner who adds daily to his guilt by his sins, and therefore deserves divine wrath and punishment. Who is he to say that God is unjust in His demand that Isaac be taken from him?
But never in all the past history had God ever demanded a human sacrifice. In fact, in later years God showed that a human sacrifice was an abomination to Him. Yet there is no doubt in Abraham’s mind that God demands that he must completely surrender Isaac unto the Lord.
God has reminded Abraham that He is well aware of the fact that Abraham loves his son and that it is hard to surrender him to the Lord. God is aware that it is especially hard to kill him with his own hand. Still worse, it is heart-rending to lay him on the altar as a sacrifice, and then, as a corpse smolders and burns, to bow down in worship, praise, and adoration. Yet God has spoken, and His servant has but to obey.
Even more is involved. If Isaac, the child of the promise, dies, how can God’s promise of salvation through the coming Savior ever be realized? God Himself had said that the covenant promise of a Seed centered in Isaac. All salvation in time and eternity rested upon God’s promise in Isaac.
There is but one solution to the entire problem. His son must die. Abraham must obey God in offering him as a sacrifice to the Lord. He must surrender him willingly, in humble worship before his God. But God’s promises cannot fail! God can and will raise Isaac, the son of his love, even from the dead!
Truly by the grace of God faith has triumphed!
Finally Abraham and Isaac, along with the servants, reach the land of Moriah. Abraham instructs his servants to remain at the foot of the mountain while he and the lad go up and worship, and come again to them.
Little does Abraham realize that he must go to mount Moriah because it would be near here that God Himself will offer up His own Only Begotten, the Son He so dearly loves, as a sacrifice and atonement for the sins of all His people.
Silently Abraham and the lad climb the mountain together. Then suddenly Isaac breaks the silence by asking the all-important question: “My father, behold, here is the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” To which his father responds: “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” This is as much as to say, whatever lamb the Lord may choose is the one that shall be our sacrifice.
We are not told what passed between father and son when they stood there together before the altar on which the sacrifice would be brought. It is sufficient for us to know that when the altar was prepared and the wood was laid upon it, Isaac was bound and laid upon it, and Abraham was ready to make the greatest sacrifice he could possibly make.
According to the account in Hebrews 11 Abraham does actually offer up the son he loved. In his mind he is fully prepared to make his son an offering to God. Nothing remains but to carry out the deed. He stretches forth his hand and is about to plunge the knife into the heart of Isaac, light the fire, and bow in worship before the Most High, his sovereign God.
It was at that very last moment that the Angel of Jehovah, the Old Testament manifestation of the Christ, intervenes. It is enough! The voice from heaven assures Abraham that this was sufficient evidence that he did not withhold his son from God.
We cannot help but pause to consider that Christ Himself intervenes at this moment. He is God’sassurance to His servant that from all eternity He has prepared His Son as the substitute, the perfect sacrifice for Abraham’s sins, for Isaac’s sins, and for the sins of all His people. The Lord even gives a visible evidence of that by causing at that very moment a ram to be caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham need but release the ram and bring that as a sacrifice to God in humble worship and adoration.
Isaac is spared. In fact, as Hebrews assures us, it was for Abraham as if God had raised him from the dead, “from whence also he received him in a figure.”
Abraham was given a glimpse into the future, when God Himself will set up the altar of the cross to give the only begotten Son of His love as a ransom for our sins. For whom there is no substitute, no ram caught in the thicket. He sees that God, as it were, plunges the knife into the heart of His only begotten as He commits Him to torments of hell in His holy justice.
Here already in prophecy God reveals that, even as Isaac was received from the dead in a figure, so God would raise His Son from the dead as the firstfruit of all those who die in the Lord. Christ is the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in Him, though he were dead, yet shall he live.
Quite fittingly Abraham calls this place Jehovah-jireh, that is, “God foresees,” or, as interpreted at that time, “In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.” From the dawn of history this was the appointed place where the temple would stand, the same area where God would offer up the only begotten Son of His love, and the Son would surrender Himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of His people. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.”
It is Christ who declares of Himself in prophecy:
The offering on the altar burned
Gives no delight to Thee;
The hearing ear, the willing heart,
Thou gavest unto Me.
Then, O my God, I come, I come,
Thy purpose to fulfill;
Thy law is written in My heart,
‘Tis joy to do Thy will.