On the Mount of the Lord

The mount of the Lord. The story of Abraham has been one long journey up the mount of the Lord. Here in Genesis 22, we reach the climax, the apex, the highest point of Abraham’s story. Everything in his life has been leading him (and us) here. For many of us this is a familiar story. It’s also a disturbing story. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once wrote, “There were countless generations that knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word. How many did it make sleepless?” Kierkegaard was incredibly disturbed by Genesis 22. He wrote a whole book wrestling with Abraham, the knight of faith, who was willing to do the unthinkable.

 

Because of Genesis 22, I think many of us treat Abraham with some hesitation. We know that we ought to admire him. He’s Father Abraham, the man of faith. And yet, because of this story, we don’t want to get too close. We don’t want to be too like Abraham. We shrink back, lest God call us to do the unthinkable.

 

This church has members who know the deep grief of losing children. It’s hard to imagine anything more grievous and heart–breaking. But what if God made us the agent of that loss? What if we were the angel of death? What if God called us to be Abraham? God sent angels to destroy Sodom. God sent Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. How many has this story made sleepless?

 

And the comparison to Sodom raises another troubling question. Why doesn’t Abraham protest? When God revealed Sodom’s fate, the prophet Abraham stepped up. He stood in the breach for his nephew Lot and any other righteous people in Sodom. He appealed to the justice and mercy of God to spare them. And now God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, and he’s silent? Where’s the protest? Where’s the pushback? Where’s the appeal to justice and mercy?

Putting Laughter on the Altar

You must feel this tension, especially after Pastor Jonathan’s sermon last week. Isaac is the son of laughter, the fulfillment of every ache in Abraham and Sarah’s heart. Remember God called Abraham and his barren wife when he was 75 and she was 65. Three years later, he promised countless offspring, and Abraham believed (Gen. 15:6). He took God at his word. Seven years of waiting later, he took matters into his own hands. He and Sarah implemented the Ishmael Plan. And for thirteen years, it worked. Sorta. Yes, Abraham has an heir, but there’s also strife and discord in his house between his wife and Hagar. And so, when he’s 99, God breaks in again and says, “I’ve got a better plan. Sarah will bear a son.” He tells Abraham in Genesis 17, and Abraham laughs. He says it again in Genesis 18, and Sarah laughs. And then, sure enough, a year later, God does it. He shows up and Sarah bears a son, and they both really laugh. Here’s what Pastor Jonathan said last week:

She’s laughing because the impossible has become reality. She’s laughing because faith has become sight, and now she is holding it in her arms. And what else do you do when that happens? What else do you do when you wanted something so badly, and you asked God to do it, and you hoped that he would do it but you were never really sure until now, in this moment, when you can feel the heartbeat of your prayer, and you can look him in the face? 

Sarah is laughing, because the invisible has become visible, and her emptiness is overcome with abundance, her heartache has been healed, her mourning is now mirth. Sadness to singing. Gloom to gladness. Pain to pleasure. Joy has won because God has come. God has visited her. Her boy is asleep on her chest, and for a moment this giant outhouse of a world is transformed to be heaven here and now — and so she laughs.”

And she’s laughing, and Abraham’s laughing, and everyone’s laughing. She’s laughing, in her wrinkled skin, under her white hair; every time she’s says his name, she laughs.

 

And then her God, the faithful God comes and says to Abraham, “Put Laughter on the altar. Take a knife and slaughter Laughter.” Countless generations know the story of Abraham by heart. How many did it make sleepless?

The Absurdity of Faith and Abraham’s Silence

Isaac is probably a teenager (or older) at this point, since he goes on the long journey and carries a large amount of wood up the mountain (22:6). Everything in this story is setup in the first two verses. We’re told that this is a test (22:1). God tested Abraham. We know that. Abraham did not. All Abraham knows is that God, who has given him joy and restored laughter to his long–suffering wife, is now asking him to burn it up. Whole burnt offering. The ascension offering. The offering where the whole animal ascends to God in the smoke. And not only that, but God knows exactly what he’s asking. He accents it three times. “Take your son (that’s one), your only son (that’s two), whom you love (that’s three).” The word for “only son” is yahid, your one and only. It will show up again in 22:12 and 22:15. It’s as though God looks him in the eye and says, “I know what I’m asking.”

 

Here’s a somewhat silly analogy for this moment. It would be like if my son asked for a toy for Christmas all year long. He begged and pleaded for it. And then on Christmas morning, he opens all his presents, and it’s not there. But then Dad pulls out one more box, and he tears into it, and there it is! And his face lights up and he yells and he runs around the room beaming at the gift. And he comes back full of joy, and is about to play with it, and then I look at him and say, “Son, I want you to take this hammer and take this toy, your favorite toy, that you love, and I want you to walk down the street to the school parking lot, and I want you to smash the toy. Smash it to pieces.” That would be the longest walk of his life. Just like the three day journey to Mount Moriah are the longest of Abraham’s life.

 

So why does he do it? He just rises early, takes the boy, and sets off. No argument. No protest. No resistance. How should we think about Abraham’s response here? Kierkegaard thought that this story shows that faith is, humanly speaking, absurd. Irrational. It’s a blind leap in the dark. Abraham believed on the strength of the absurd. Don’t look for reasons. When it comes to true faith, there are none. Is that what’s happening? Faith doesn’t make sense at all, and we need to jump anyway, no questions asked.

Resurrection Faith and Reading Closely

Now at this point, we’re going to cheat. The New Testament tells us why Abraham responded the way that he did. Turn to Hebrews 11:17–19.

[17] 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, [18] of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [19] He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

So there you have it. Why didn’t Abraham protest? Because he believed in the resurrection. He considered that God could raise him, and in a sense, God did. But now the question is, “How does the author to the Hebrews know that?” Some people will say, “He’s a biblical author. God must have revealed it to him. It’s not in Genesis, but God told the author.” But I don’t think that’s the right answer. New Testament authors are showing us how to read the Old Testament. When they make claims about it, we ought to be able to go and see what they saw. In other words, we ought to be able to find Abraham’s belief in the resurrection in Genesis itself.

 

Hebrews says that Abraham believed in the resurrection because the biblical author is reading Genesis 22 very carefully. Abraham’s belief in the resurrection is found in one simple fact: plural verbs. The key sentence is 22:5. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Each of these verbs is plural, not singular. In English, it’s hard to see. In Hebrew, you can’t miss it. We will go. We will worship. We will come back. And I believe that the author to Hebrews saw in those plural verbs Abraham’s unwavering faith, even in resurrection. “Isaac and I are going to the mountain together. We will worship together. We will come back here together.”

 

And so the authoritative interpretation of Genesis 22 in Hebrews 11 underscores that every word in the Bible is precious. All Scripture is God–breathed and useful for edifying us. Plural verbs tucked away in a simple sentence have massive implications, if we have eyes to see them, just as the absence of a genealogy for a priest–king named Melchizedek has massive implications for whom he represents.

 

So Abraham didn’t resist God’s command because he believed in the resurrection. We know this because he told his servants that Isaac would be coming back with him after the sacrifice. Now the question is, “Why did Abraham believe in the resurrection? Was there any basis to it? Or, like Kierkegaard said, was it a blind leap in the dark?”

 

Two sources of Abraham’s resurrection faith. First, for years, since God appeared to him in Genesis 17, God insisted that Isaac is Abraham’s heir. It couldn’t just be any of Abraham’s sons. Ishmael was blessed by God, but he was not to be the heir of Abraham. Genesis 17:18–19 establishes this as clear as possible. Abraham says, “Oh that Ishmael may live before you.” And God replies, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” And again in 21:12, when Sarah wants to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. God says, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you. For through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” God has been adamant that the Abrahamic promise passes to Isaac and Isaac’s offspring. And therefore, Isaac can’t die without inheriting and passing on the blessing.

 

And remember Abraham’s inheritance isn’t just the land and his wealth. Abraham has been set apart by God to be the one through whom the nations will be blessed. All the families of the earth have gone their own way, like Adam. And Abraham and his offspring will be the ones to put the world back to rights. The crushing of the serpent, the rest from the curse, the establishment of God’s kingdom again—all of these are promised to Abraham, and Isaac is the heir of those promises. In other words, all of God’s promises rest with Isaac. If he dies and stays dead, God’s promises fail.

Will God Call Us to Be Abraham?

Incidentally, it’s vital that we stress Isaac’s uniqueness, because you’re going to read this story to your children as they grow up. And they’re going to hear it, and at some point, they’re going to realize what’s happening. The God that their parents worship and obey once asked a father to sacrifice his son. And when that hits, your kids are going to look at you and wonder, “What would my dad do, if God asked him?” And we need to be able to answer the question, “Dad, would you offer me up to God like Abraham did?” And the answer is “No, because God would never ask me,” and “Yes, we already did.”

 

The most important answer is “No.” God will not call anyone else to make this sacrifice. Isaac is unique. All of God’s promises rest in him. Therefore, Abraham’s confidence that Isaac will be raised from the dead is owing to the fact that God has bound himself to Isaac so that God’s righteousness and faithfulness depend on Isaac living and carrying on the promise. So if your child ever wonders whether God would ask you to do this, you can confidently say, “No, because I am not Abraham, and you are not Isaac. The redemption of the world does not rest with us.”

 

But, if you wanted to press further, you could say, “In a sense, we already did offer you to God.” That’s what these child dedications are. We surrender every earthly claim on the lives of our children in hopes that they will belong wholly to God (like the whole burnt offering). We dedicate them to God; we offer them symbolically, as a way of expressing our faith in him and our commitment to raise our children to hope in him.

 

In sum, Abraham believes that God can raise Isaac, because Isaac is unique. But that’s not the only reason that Abraham believes that God can raise the dead. Abraham believes in resurrection because he’s already seen one. Sarah’s womb was like a tomb, and God brought life from there. Barrenness is like death. It feels that way to the mother. The way of women had ceased with Sarah. And so, when God brought forth a son, it was like a resurrection. The barren womb became a full tomb, and then life burst forth.

 

And this is why Kierkegaard is wrong. Faith isn’t a blind leap in the dark, a confidence based on the strength of the absurd. Faith is taking the God who is at his word. Abraham has seen God’s faithfulness firsthand. He’s seen it. And therefore he clings to that promise—through Isaac shall your offspring be named—in the face of God’s test. Abraham doesn’t blindly leap in the dark. He journeys those three days to Moriah with eyes wide open in unwavering faith in the faithful God who raises the dead.

 

Seeing the basis of Abraham’s faith doesn’t make Abraham’s experience any easier. God still asked him to do the unthinkable. How many times has God been manifestly faithful to you in your life? Does his past faithfulness make your present struggle with faith a walk in the park? No. But now we can see how Abraham’s three–day journey can be a model for us in our own struggles of faith. Picture Abraham, walking to Moriah with unwavering faith. That doesn’t mean easy faith. Cheap faith. It means that he’s journeying with his son and inside he’s repeating the promises of God, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. Through Isaac. Through Isaac. Everlasting covenant. Hope for the nations. Isaac shall be your heir.” Abraham journeys to Moriah, clinging to those promises for dear life. All he’s got is those promises and God’s past faithfulness. He won’t make it without those promises. And neither will you.  

God’s Un–Toppable Oath

And Abraham’s faith is rewarded. As he takes the knife to slaughter his laughter, his joy, God stops him and substitutes a ram for the offering. Father Abraham has passed the test. And Father Abraham recognizes and names the significance of this moment. He names the place “Yahweh yireh,” the Lord will provide.

 

But God isn’t through yet. He speaks a second time in response to Abraham’s obedience.

“By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, [18] and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Don’t miss the significance of this climactic promise from God. First, this promise is in response to Abraham’s obedience. “Because you have done this… I will” (Gen. 22:16) and again in 22:18, “because you have obeyed my voice.” Second, four major elements of God’s promise are here: blessing, offspring, victory over enemies, and blessing to the nations. Third, God intensifies his promise with Hebrew doubling. The word “surely” bless and “surely” multiply reflect a Hebrew way of intensifying a claim. “Blessing I will bless you…Multiplying I will multiply you.” And then, the ultimate guarantee. “By myself I have sworn.” Maybe you don’t feel the force of that phrase, again the author to the Hebrews knows what is happening. When we swear an oath, we swear by something greater than ourselves. We swear by something of great worth or sanctity or power or reverence. We’re saying, “My word is as sure and fixed as the value of this amazing reality. My mother’s grave. The Bible. The altar of the Lord.” And so, in this moment, when God wants to impress upon Abraham the unchangeable character of his purpose, he swears by the most valuable reality in the universe—himself.

 

In verse 2, God had looked Abraham in the eye and said, “I know what I’m asking. Your son, your only son, your beloved son.” And now, after Abraham has passed the test, God looks him in the eye again and says, “Hear what I’m saying. Blessing to you. Offspring like the stars. Victory over your enemies. The nations restored in your seed. I swear to you, Abraham, by my own worth, it shall be.” In this moment, God binds himself with the strongest possible oath to bless Abraham, and through Abraham to bless the world. He can’t swear by anything greater. There is no way to top this oath. Abraham’s entire life has led to this moment, face to face with God Almighty. From Ur to Haran. From Haran to the promised land. Down to Egypt and back with plunder. From out beneath countless stars to circumcising his son on the eighth day. From Ishmael to Isaac, and over and around countless obstacles and impediments—everything led him here so that God could look him in the eye and say, “My righteousness, my faithfulness, my God–ness, my glory is now bound unchangeably to you and your offspring.” You can’t top this.

 

And then, God tops it. All of us who read this story in light of Jesus can see the gospel here. We’re Isaac, bound to be killed. And then God provides a substitute, Jesus, a lamb without blemish, in our place so that we go free. But that’s not what I want us to see here. I want you to see how God tops the un–toppable promise. And it’s found in 22:15: “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son.” Or it might be translated, “because you have not spared your son, your only son.” And the significance of that statement was not lost on the apostle Paul. So that when he reached the apex, the highest point of his argument in the book of Romans, chapter 8, Paul couldn’t help but reach back to Genesis 22 and say, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things?” God didn’t spare his own Son. What will he not do for you? What will he withhold from you? Nothing! He’ll give you everything. He’s sworn by himself and he’s given his Son, his yahid, his only Son whom he loves…for you. What will he not give you? It doesn’t matter what you’re facing in your life. It might be barrenness. It might be loss. It might be sickness and pain. It might be relational strife. It might be a wayward child. It might be a hope or a fear or a longing or an ache or regret. It doesn’t matter. He did not spare his only Son for you. He’ll give you everything.

The Table

That’s how God tops Genesis 22. That’s what Genesis 22 is all about. And that’s what this table is all about. At this table, God erects a monument that he didn’t spare his only Son so you can have strong encouragement that he will give you everything. At the climax of Abraham’s story, we come to Father Abraham on a mountain, and Father Abraham points us higher, to another mountain, to the hill of the skull. Father Abraham points us to God the Father who did not spare his only beloved Son so that by the Holy Spirit he can and will give us every good thing forever.