In Genesis 12:2 God made a promise to Abraham, that many Americans wanted to cash in on this election season: “I will make of thee a great nation.”
Four more times in Genesis God would affirm this promise, and reveal more to Abraham about how He would bring it to pass. And in this story of faith and struggle, we can find wisdom for America in the days ahead.
Abraham’s Hope #
Despite God’s promise, Abraham was without a son, and his wife Sarah was unable to bear children. Abraham did not understand how he could become the father of a great nation.
Genesis 15:2 And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
Through the word of God, Abraham understood that it would be of his own body that a child would be begotten whom God would make a great nation. Yet God still had not given Abraham a son.
Finally, Abraham and Sarah could wait no longer, and so Abraham fathered a son through Sarah’s maid, Hagar. And Abraham named him Ishmael.
Now Abraham had a son, born from his own body, through whom God could fulfill His promise. He could now finally see before his very eyes a tangible manifestation of that reality which God had declared. Abraham now had before him the physical token of that hope of God’s promise. He could now see that hope right there in front of him. That hope was now on its way to fulfillment, as Abraham watched that child grow, until he was five, ten, twelve, thirteen years old. Ishmael was approaching adulthood, and before long Abraham would have grandchildren. His great nation would have begun.
God’s Hope #
But God came along and told Abraham that that was not his hope. That it wasn’t through Ishmael that He was going to fulfill His promise. God now told Abraham that Sarah herself would bear him a son, and that it was through him that His promise would be fulfilled:
Genesis 17:15 And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.
16 And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?
18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
Abraham now could no longer bear children, much less his barren wife. But God’s offering of hope, his fulfillment of his promise, was not through Ishmael, but through a son yet to be born. A son that Abraham could not produce, and Sarah could not bear. But God rejected the work of Abraham and Sarah to produce Ishmael, and instead promised a work that He would do:
Genesis 17:21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
Genesis 21:1 And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken.
2 For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
And so God did the impossible, and gave Abraham a new hope, another son.
Abraham’s Response #
What was Abraham’s response when God dashed his hopes in Ishmael, and presented him an unseen hope in an unseen child that it seemed impossible to produce? We are told in the New Testament:
Romans 4:16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,
17 (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.
18 Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.
19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:
20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;
21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.
Abraham had a hope that he could see being fulfilled in Ishmael. But when he was presented by God with another hope, one which he could not see, he placed his faith in the hope that God offered. Against his hope in Ishmael, Abraham placed his hope in Isaac. Against a grown boy, Abraham placed his hope in a child not yet born.
Abraham believed God, and hoped against hope.
Our Hope #
Most of us are a lot like Abraham was. We believe in God’s promises, but are impatient for their fulfillment. And we often seek to help God along by making our own way for his promises to be fulfilled. We produce our Ishmaels. We have our hopes.
This life constantly presents us with offers of hope. These offers are especially loud in election years. And we’re especially eager to see them fulfilled. We are called upon to place our hope in various people, that through them we will become a great nation. Sometimes those offers are even made genuinely, by people who are truly seeking to make this nation great. Just as Abraham was seeking to make a great nation, through Ishmael.
But what Abraham had to come to see was that it was God who would fulfill that promise, and that it was in Him that he should place his hope. He was called not to hope in a hope that he could see, but in one that, at the time, he could not. God called him to hope against hope. And Abraham answered that calling.
But will we?
Now is a time when many will find it very easy to, like Abraham, think that their vision is on its way to fulfillment. That they can finally begin to see a hope that they have had being played out right before their very eyes. But this can quickly become a hope, not in God, but in the works of our own hands.
The Bible presents us with a higher calling. A calling to look beyond what we can see in the kingdoms of this world, and to place our hope instead in the coming kingdom of Christ. We are called to not hope in what we can see, but in a fulfillment of God’s promise through something that we cannot:
2 Corinthians 4:18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Our hope should be placed in the coming eternal kingdom of Christ, in a work that God will do, and not in our own temporal kingdoms, and a work that we will do.
We, like Abraham, may still beseech God that he would bless our earthly labors, just as Abraham cried out for Ishmael. And indeed God gave his answer:
Genesis 17:18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
And so it says that Abraham “against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations.”
God would make two great nations of Abraham, the extra one thrown in just because He could. But His promise would still come through His work, by His word. And Abraham, having received that admonition, set aside his hope in Ishmael, for a greater hope—not just a hope in Isaac, but beyond that, a hope in God. It was God who would both bless the nation that Abraham could see, and create the one that he could not.
And so today let us follow in Abraham’s footsteps. Let us hope against hope, in God, and not man. In His work, and not ours. And God forbid that we should cease to make supplication on the behalf of our nation. But let our hope for it rest in him, and in his work, and not in us, and in our own. Because only his blessing can make America great.