On Commentaries

As many of you know, this is my favorite kind of book in theology. It makes up more than half of my library. there are many out there who either do not like commentaries, or do not think that they are exceptionally useful. To those people is directed this comment from Spurgeon. I quote from Derek Thomas’s The Essential Commentaries For a Preacher’s Library, pg 5. Thomas quotes from the lectures given by Spurgeon in his book Commenting and Commentaries.

“In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition…It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others…The temptations of our times lie rather in empty pretensions to novelty of sentiment, than in a slavish following of accepted guides. A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past, might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences. Usually, we have found despisers of commentaries to be men who have no sort of acquaintance with them; in their case, it is the opposite of familiarity which has bred contempt.”

Amen. I couldn’t have said it any better.

The Lord Visited Sarah

Genesis 21:1-7
We love to visit people, especially our family, but also our close friends. Probably most of us visited some people over Christmas and New Year’s. We think that it is important to visit other people, because we know them and want to know them better. We also do it so that the people whom we visit will feel loved. I know of very few people who would refuse to be visited by anyone. Why is that? Because we are social beings. There was a study done once wherein a child was raised without any contact with anyone. That child grew into a perfect savage. The only difference is that savages typically relate well to people in their own tribe. This person could communicate with no one. That was an experiment that ought never to have been attempted.

But what happens when the Lord visits His people? Salvation! We continue to remember what barrenness meant in the ancient world. Barrenness was the equivalent of death. Now, the Lord had promised earlier that Sarah would have a son. This is what He said: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son. The Lord repeats Himself later on: “At the appointed time I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” This is in chapter 18. And now we see the Lord fulfilling His promise to Abraham and Sarah. From this we learn, as John Calvin says, “God does not feed mankind with empty promises.” If the Lord promises something, then be sure He will fulfill His promise. The Lord is not like us in this respect. For us, promises are like children’s drawings: often made, but rarely kept! No, the Lord fulfills His promises. The Lord promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, and now look: they have a son! Finally, after all the waiting, all the doubt, all the detours, after all of that there is fulfillment of prophecy, fulfillment of promise. The Lord promised salvation to Sarah: a son shall be born to her. That son is now finally here. We have waited ten chapters for this fulfillment. Abraham and Sarah have waited much longer than we have waited.

The words in verse 1 express God’s attention and intervention. God firstly attends to His promises and pays attention to His people. But secondly, God also intervenes in human history to bring about His plan. In this case, He accomplishes these two goals by visiting Sarah and Abraham. Visiting is important in the Biblical record. The other important time it is mentioned in Genesis is in the very last chapter where Joseph commands the people to take his bones up out of Egypt, because the Lord will visit His people and deliver them from oppression. There again we see that when the Lord visits His people, salvation is the result. That is seen supremely when the Lord came to earth to visit us in our bondage to sin. The result is salvation for those who will trust in Him.

From this passage we also learn that the Lord is in control of the womb. The Lord opens and closes the womb. That is hard for us to believe in our technologically advanced era. Nevertheless, despite our attempts to leap-frog over nature’s boundaries, God is still firmly in control over the womb. Now, we should not come to the conclusion that because someone is barren, (or because someone has many children!) that therefore God has judged that person. There is no indication in the entire text of Genesis that God was judging Sarah by making her barren for most of her life. On the contrary, the indication is that God was preparing a way to make His glory known in a spectacularly miraculous way, by giving a ninety-year-old woman a son!

This also teaches us then about prayer. It is quite possible for us to pray to God for something that is a good thing to have, such as children, or a spouse, or many other things that we could mention. I wonder, however, if we are prepared for the answer, “No.” God answers prayer, but not always with a “yes.” This is immensely important for us to remember, since we are constantly tempted to think about God as the great cosmic vending machine: you put in your prayer, and out comes what you want. Prayer changes us first and foremost, not God. Therefore, we should not be so quick to say that God didn’t answer our prayer, when the reality is, that God didn’t see fit to answer our prayer the way we wanted Him to answer it.

The next thing we see is Abraham circumcizing Isaac on the eighth day. This is extremely important. Isaac is the very first person to receive the sign of circumcision on the eighth day recorded in Scripture. And he was the child of the promise! What did circumcision mean? It meant that Isaac was now in the covenant. Remember that the covenant is God’s way of relating to His people. It refers to that relationship between God and His people. We in the Reformed faith believe that there is only one covenant all the way from Abraham to us today. There is only one people of God. And circumcision was the mark of the covenant in the OT times. It symbolized in physical form a spiritual reality. The physical sign was the cutting off of the foreskin. The spiritual reality to which that sign pointed was the circumcision of the heart.

Are you circumcised in your heart? In Colossians 2:10-11, we read this: “You have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” What does this mean? It means that the spiritual reality to which circumcision points still applies to us today. When our hearts are renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit, what happens is that the old part of us, that sin nature, is cut off. All that remains is living flesh. So, I ask again, are you circumcised in your heart? Have you taken that old man, and put it to death? Have you put aside your old life, and embraced the new life of faith in Christ?

In verse 5, we see that Abraham wasn’t exactly a spring chicken when his son was born to him. He was 100 years old! This means that the fullness of time had come, and Isaac was ready to be born. 100 years is a full century. This could also be seen as completion of the time appointed, as symbolic of a perfect amount of time to wait on the Lord. Someone else would also come in the fullness of time: that person was Jesus Christ. It says in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

The fullness of time is not necessarily what we think of as the fullness of time. Obviously Abraham thought that the perfect time was long past for getting a son. We might think that Jesus delays too much in coming back. We might think that God is waiting an awfully long time in getting to our requests (demands?). The fact is that God always knows the perfect time. His timing is perfect. You may not be able to see it right now, but later on it will become clear. It is like a great Oriental rug (this illustration is by no means original with me): on the back side you see nothing but snarls of yarn, ugly to see, with hardly any pattern at all. On the front side, however, is a beautiful design, with everything in its proper place. Wait and see. Don’t be so impatient to know everything. That was Job’s problem. He wanted to know now what God’s plan was. He wanted to know “why” too soon. That is why God doesn’t answer Job’s questions at all. Rather, He asks Job questions, obviously none of which Job can actually answer. Job’s response is to cover over his mouth: he has said too much! Being too impatient is one of the biggest problems we face in the Christian life. If we don’t know everything about what God is doing, then we have no basis for hope or faith. It is madness to think this way. Besides, we do know what God is doing. He has revealed it in His Word. What he is doing is purifying us, and making us depend on Him for strength, not knowing for iron sure whether God will catch us as we fall. That is what faith is like. That is the lesson that Abraham and Sarah have finally learned. It is the lesson that Abraham will show that he has learned when he has to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.

Finally, we see that Sarah giving birth to Isaac is indeed called a miracle. Sarah said, “Who would have thought that this could happen?” But then Sarah says something quite unexpected: she says, “children” near the end of verse 7. Why the plural “children?” There was only one son, after all. The answer here is that Sarah has also finally learned to trust God. She is looking beyond Isaac to the myriad of children that will come from this one son. Indeed, she sees with the eyes of faith the entire church of God, who are the true seed of Isaac. Are you one of those whom Sarah sees? Be one of them.