Sermon: “The God Who Sees My Affliction” (Genesis 16)
In the previous chapter, we studied two critical elements in the life of Abram. First, the Scriptures clarified the nature of Abram’s faith: Abram “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Second, Yahweh confirmed the truthfulness of his promises by entering into a covenant with Abram (Gen. 15:18). Both of these elements reflect the strain on Abram’s faith during the time before Yahweh fulfills his promises to Abram. So, to clarify the spirit in which Abram asked all his doubting questions (Gen. 15:2–3, 8), the Scriptures tell us that Abram is asking these questions from true, living faith. Then, to assure us that Yahweh’s words are not empty, Yahweh swears by covenant that he will go so far as to have his own body broken and blood shed to uphold everything he has promised for Abram. If Yahweh simply fulfilled his promises, though, neither of these elements would be necessary. Abram would no longer need to walk by faith, and Yahweh would not need to supplement his word with a covenant, since Abram would already have by sight what Yahweh promised by faith.
We cannot understand Genesis 16 unless we recognize this great strain on Abram’s faith. Remember, Abram ends up living in the Promised Land for twenty-five years before his son Isaac is born as the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises (Gen. 12:3; Gen. 21:5). Over that long period of time, Yahweh progressively draws Abram to himself, encourages Abram’s faith, and shepherds Abram toward repentance and faith after failures. Furthermore, Abram is not the only one whose faith is tested. Abram’s wife, Sarai, must not only wait for the promised offspring long past normal child-bearing years, but she must also endure the shame of childlessness that was profound in those days. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue praying to God for him to keep his promises. Is God still even listening to them?
In the midst of all this unfulfilled longing, Genesis 16 tells the story of one of Abram’s and Sarai’s largest lapses of faith. Intriguingly, Abram and Sarai falter not because they want something Yahweh has forbidden, nor because they abandon hope in Yahweh’s good promise. Instead, their failure arises when they become so desperate for the good gifts God has promised them that they are willing to do absolutely anything to lay hold of those gifts immediately, rather than waiting on God’s timing. Just like in Genesis 12:10–20, Abram and Sarai begin to doubt God’s promises, so they conspire to take matters into their own hands. In this passage, however, the big idea takes a more constructive shape by encouraging us to press on in our faith: Even when God seems silent, God sees and God hears.