Back in the days of the Great Depression a Missouri man named John Griffith was the controller of a great railroad drawbridge across the Mississippi River. One day in the summer of 1937 he decided to take his eight-year-old son, Greg, with him to work. At noon, John Griffith put the bridge up to allow ships to pass and sat on the observation deck with his son to eat lunch. Time passed quickly. Suddenly he was startled by the shrieking of a train whistle in the distance. He quickly looked at his watch and noticed it was 1:07- the Memphis Express, with four hundred passengers on board, was roaring toward the raised bridge! He leaped from the observation deck and ran back to the control tower. Just before throwing the master lever he glanced down for any ships below. There a sight caught his eye that caused his heart to leap poundingly into his throat. Greg had slipped from the observation deck and had fallen into the massive gears! Desperately John’s mind whirled to devise a rescue plan. But as soon as he thought of a possibility he knew there was no way it could be done. Again, with alarming closeness, the train whistle shrieked in the air. He could hear the clicking of the locomotive wheels over the tracks. That was his son down there-yet there were four hundred passengers on the train. John knew what he had to do. So he buried his head in his left arm and pushed the master switch forward. The great massive bridge lowered into place just as the Memphis Express began to roar across the river. When John Griffith lifted his head with his face smeared with tears, he looked into the passing windows of the train. There were businessmen casually reading their afternoon papers, finely dressed ladies in the dining car sipping coffee, and children pushing long spoons into their dishes of ice cream. No one looked at the control house, and no one looked at the great gear box. John Griffith said, “I sacrificed my son for you people! Don’t you care?” The train rushed by, but nobody heard the father’s words. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12)
It wasn’t nothing to Abraham, who would have known exactly what John Griffith was feeling. God had already asked him many years before to sacrifice his past, by going out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, and going to the land which God would show him. But now God is going to ask him to sacrifice the future, his own son.
It says in verse 1 that this was a test. Well that’s fine for us listening to this story, but Abraham doesn’t know that. Abraham may not know it, but his whole life has been one long preparation for this test. It is the climax of the Abraham story. Even chapter 21 is a preparation for this moment. Abraham has already had to sacrifice Ishmael. Now, God is going to ask Abraham to sacrifice his one remaining son. He is going to be called upon to rest in God alone. Can Abraham resign himself to letting go even of the promise, the very Word of God? Will Abraham love the Giver or the gift more? Will Abraham be willing to say, “If I have God and God alone, I have everything I need for life and death?”
God is testing Abraham. But wait just a minute! I thought James says that God does not tempt mankind. This is true. But God still puts us to the test in order to strenghthen us. Therein lies the difference between how Satan tempts us and how God tests us. Notice that I used a different word. Satan tempts us in order to destroy us. God tests us in order to strenghthen our faith, and to make us more reliant on Him alone. God never had any intention of letting Abraham kill his son. It was rather to be a spiritual sacrifice of Isaac, giving back to God what God had given to him.
However, Abraham doesn’t know this either. To him, it looks like God has become his worst enemy. God had promised for his whole life that Isaac would come along. God finally gave him a son, and now God wants him back? We often think that when God is testing us, He is thereby abandoning us. But it is not true. God tests us so that we will go back to Him and rely on Him alone. Imagine that God says to you to jump out the window of a burning building. You can’t see anything because of the smoke. The Voice says, “Jump. I will catch you.” It is really a test to see if you fear God. Do you fear God more than the fire? That is what the test of Abraham meant for him. That is what God says to him in verse 12: “Now I know that you fear God.”
What does God say to Abraham? He says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Notice that God is extremely specific about this command. God doesn’t want Abraham to keep on thinking about the other son. It is Isaac who is meant. When God says “your only son,” He does not mean that Ishmael doesn’t exist anymore. He merely means “the only son you have left.” God says “whom you love.” The expulsion of Ishmael in the last chapter means that Isaac has only grown more precious in Abraham’s eyes, because he is the child of the promise. I don’t know what I would do if God told me to do that. But chances are I wouldn’t be so eager to do it as Abraham was. Notice how obedient he is! He gets up early in the morning. He doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet. Abraham knows that this must be done. However, his mind is in an absolute turmoil. We can see that from the order in which he does things: first he saddles his donkey, then he gets two servants, and then he gets his son Isaac, and then makes them stand around while he goes and cuts some wood! We can perhaps forgive him, because he’s just a little bit preoccupied!
Abraham is not just concerned about sacrificing a son. That is horrific in and of itself. But there is much more to the problem in Abraham’s mind. This was the whole ball-game! Isaac was the future! Isaac represents our future, too, by the way, since Jesus is Isaac’s descendent! (We are not to think of ourselves as outside this story; rather, this IS our story!) God had promised and brought about Isaac’s birth against all odds, and now it was all to be thrown away.
God tells Abraham to go to Moriah. Moriah is the place where the temple is located later on in Israel’s history. Every sacrifice offered there would be a reminder of Isaac’s sacrifice.
It takes Abraham a long time to get to Moriah. Three days is an eternity, when you are thinking about having to give up your child. John Calvin notes that God made it this way so that Abraham would have to persevere in his obedience. It was not to be a spur of the moment obedience. Abraham would have to keep on doggedly pursuing the end of his dream.
To an Israelite, this would have sounded just like their promises. God had promised to them to take them out of Egypt, and then God tested them in the wilderness. Interestingly, they were to go out for three days into the wilderness to offer a sacrifice. This similarity would not have been lost on the average Israelite who had come out of Egypt. For Abraham, those three days would have been pure agony. What an eternity they must have seemed! Finally, he lifted up his eyes (he probably had his eyes mostly on the ground), and then immediately had a pang shoot through his heart, much like John Griffith when he looked up and saw his son. There was the mountain!
But Abraham does not falter. He even has a statement of rather amazing faith: “We will come back!” He means that he and Isaac will come back. This is what Paul means in Hebrews, when he says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” But this is getting ahead of ourselves. We are not there yet.
Notice that Isaac has to carry the wood on his back. This is much like Jesus carrying the cross on His back. Abraham and Isaac continue without the disciples- I mean, servants-, and go on in silence, one of the most eloquent silences in all of literature, says one author.
Not quite silence, however. Isaac asks Abraham a question that must have pierced Abraham more deeply than ever his knife would have pierced Isaac. The question pierces to the heart of the issue, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham speaks better than he knows. Right now, he thinks that God is providing Isaac for the burnt offering. However, even this answer must have made Isaac suspect that he himself was the lamb. By the way, Isaac is not a young boy, if he can carry wood up the side of a mountain, enough wood for a burnt offering. It is far more likely that he is in his late teens or early twenties. Isaac is far stronger than Abraham. This insight leads us to another: Isaac’s faith is just as powerful and strong as Abraham’s in this chapter. He trusts his father implicitly. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7.
When Abraham starts getting everything ready, Isaac knows at last that he is the lamb. He does not bolt, or overpower his father, or do anything else. Instead he let himself be bound. This word for “binding” is interesting. It is the word from which the Jews get the title for this chapter, the “Aqedah.” Normally sacrifices were not bound, especially not burnt offerings. They were slaughtered first. Thus, there was no need normally for the sacrifice to be bound. Here, however, we have a type of Christ, who was bound and flogged, and yet did not complain.
The preparations are all ready (notice how the action slows down: it is as if every action causes Abraham pain now): the altar was built, the wood was on the altar, Isaac was bound and laid on the altar, and the knife was in his hand. He raises the knife and…
J.R.R. Tolkien talks about the situation when all looks the very blackest that it can possibly be. Everything looks like a complete catastrophe is about to occur. But right at the very moment when disaster is supposed to come, salvation occurs. He calls this “eucatastrophe.” The two letters “eu” mean “good” in Greek. So it is a “good catastrophe.” That is exactly what happens here. God stops Abraham from killing his son. Instead, a ram is put in Isaac’s place.
Notice that the ram also has ties to Jesus. The ram was caught by the horns in a thicket, much like Jesus had a crown of thorns. The ram was a substitute, just like Jesus. So the ram and Isaac were both types of Jesus, who combined the two into one person.
In verse 12, we see God saying that He now knows that Abraham fears God. Notice that God did not say, “Now I know that you believe in Me.” He says, “Now I know that you fear me.” Abraham feared God more than he feared losing the promise.
The reward was nothing less than the promise of the church. It says in verse 17 that the seed of Abraham will possess the gates of its enemies. Jesus would confirm that promise by saying that the church of God would prevail against the gates of Hell itself, surely the greatest enemy. God even swears by Himself, telling us just how firm this promise is going to be.
Now God doesn’t learn anything new here. The language might make us think that God didn’t know before, but now He does. That is not what the language means. It rather means that God knows now in an experiential way what he knew before in His mind. He knows now in the fruit what He knew before in the root, as one writer says.
This “eucatastrophe” is a picture for us of what happened to Jesus on the cross and at the resurrection. Just when we thought that the picture was blackest, and Jesus had actually been crucified and died, unlike Isaac, who had been spared (thought the sacrifice had to be made: hence the ram), the resurrection breaks through with breathtaking power and beauty. It is nothing like anything we have seen before. Truly the Lord provides. It was not nothing to Abraham. He would have knows the hurt of John Griffith. But Abraham had the hope of the resurrection.
So for us, what we need to do is to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, for this is our logical act of worship. Because of what Jesus has done, who is the greater Isaac, we need to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. That might mean giving up perfectly good things that are getting in our way. It might also mean that we have to give up our favorite sins. As Gurnall says (modified), “Soul, take your lust, your only lust, which is the child of your dearest love, your Isaac, the sin which has caused most joy and laughter, from which you have promised yourself the greatest return of pleasure or profit. If ever you want to see my face with comfort, lay hands on it and offer it up. Pour out the blood of it before me; run the sacrificing knife of mortification into the very heart of it. And this freely, joyfully, for it is no pleasing sacrifice that is offered with a countenance cast down. And all this now, before you have one embrace more from it.” He goes on to note that these lusts do not lie on the altar nearly as patiently as Isaac did. This is difficult. However, it is the price of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. If we have been spared, when Jesus, the pure Lamb of God, was sacrificed, then we are bought with a price. There is no sacrifice so great that we will put God in our debt. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” It had better not, or God will pass you by.