Abraham: Promises, Priorities, and Provision (Gen. 22:9-12)
The time was long ago and the man was named Abraham. The back-story was that he and his wife Sarah had not been able to have children and the Lord had promised them a special son. This child would be Abraham’s heir through whom his multitude of descendents would come. The fact that Abraham and Sarah were quite old at the time caused them to laugh out loud at God’s promise of a child. It was such an outrageous blessing that when the boy was born they named him Isaac, He laughs, Abraham’s first reaction to the idea! God had truly been good to Abraham and Sarah.
But then came the test—the most profound examination of commitment of Abraham’s life. This was the event which had the attention of heaven riveted upon what the response would be. How would Abraham react to God’s command to take his precious son to a distant mountain and offer him up to God as an act of worship? The answer to that question would reveal the priorities of Abraham’s life. Did he love God with all his heart, or did he love God’s blessings more?
Though the bible is silent on Abraham’s emotional state, there must have been a flood of feelings swirling through his heart and mind. Who could imagine a father laying down his beloved son as an offering of worship? What must it have felt like to take all the hopes and dreams for the future and place them on a lonely altar in the wilderness? This must have been an enormous undertaking for Abraham. Where was the laughter in this moment? Yet he responded.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:9-12)
And heaven must have let out a sigh of relief. Abraham had passed the test of his priorities. He had honored his God above his most beloved son. He had demonstrated through a difficult act of worship that God was the rightful owner of everything in his life, even his family.
Encounters of true worship invariably lead us into a deeper understanding of the character of the God whom we worship. As a result of this experience, Abraham learned that God is Jehovah-Jireh: the God who Provides. Even as the angel stayed the hand of Abraham in sacrificing his boy, God provided the offering through a nearby ram whose horns had been caught in the thicket. But the truth of the matter is that Abraham’s heart had already been laid on that altar. He had willingly demonstrated what he had been saying for a long time: “Lord, you are the most important reality in my life.”
Moses and God’s Compassionate Heart
Moses and God’s Compassion (Exodus 4:31)
Even when circumstances seem to contradict it, God has always had a plan. But if you had been a Hebrew in the years following Joseph’s death, you might have wondered. As a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, hadn’t God promised to bless them and give them a land “flowing with milk and honey?” What had gone wrong? In the midst of their cruel slavery, they were tempted to ask, “Where is God? Has he forgotten us?” They toiled long and hard under their Egyptian taskmasters, with no help in sight. Their plight seemed hopeless. During those long days filled with nothing but turmoil and suffering, God’s beloved children were unable to see any sign that God cared for them.
But God always has a plan…and this one was called “Moses.” As a Hebrew child arriving on the scene just as Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male babies were to be killed, Moses’ survival in and of itself was a miracle. What are the odds that, as his mother hid him in a basket along the reedy banks of the Nile , he would escape death, be discovered by an Egyptian princess who would unknowingly hire his mother to care for him, and later would be taken to Pharaoh’s palace where he would grow up. Only God could write a living screenplay that incredible. At the time even Moses didn’t understand his life in terms of the future purpose God would have for him.
Moses lived in two worlds. He had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and had grown up in the finest household of Egypt . But he had also been raised early on by his very own Hebrew mother. He had learned from her that he was a part of a very special people. Even though he lived with the Egyptians, he identified with the Hebrews as his brothers.
One day, as the young man witnessed an act of social injustice against one of his Hebrew brothers, Moses murdered the offending Egyptian. This event triggered his flight from Egypt to the land of Midian , where he would live as a shepherd for forty years. There, in a worship encounter inspired by a burning bush, Moses would understand the heart of God to rescue His people and fulfill the covenant He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible reports it this way:
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt . I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt .” (Exodus 3:7-10)
It is probably an understatement to speculate that Moses was overwhelmed with the encounter with God and with the mission God had given him. It was not without its struggle, but eventually Moses, along with his brother Aaron, returned to Egypt to meet with the Israelite elders and, accompanied with miraculous signs, gave them the news of what God was about to do: lead them out of slavery and give them the fulfillment of the covenant promise:
Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. (Exodus 4:29-30)
Notice the reaction of the people in the next verse:
And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. (31)
The Hebrews had been badly treated for decades. Things were bad before Moses had left as a young man. Forty more oppressive years had gone by. There must have been many a day when the slaves questioned in the recesses of their heart: “Where is God in all this?”
But God always has a plan…and now they heard it with their own ears. And as Moses told them about their God—how He had not turned a blind eye to their situation, how He had indeed heard them crying out, and how He was concerned for them—they were moved to bow before Him and worship Him, out of grateful hearts that they had not been forgotten by their God.
That’s an important reminder for us today, as we live in a time in which many people around us are in bondage. They are hurting—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We have an important word for them as well: God loves them; so much so, in fact, that “he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) People around us need to know that God is concerned about them. He wants them to know that they, too, can be a part of the covenant, through a relationship with Christ. Jesus is God’s perfect plan!
Hezekiah the Snake-Smasher
It was quite a famous object to be sure. Everyone around recognized this icon when they saw it because it had been a part of the community long before anyone could say. Its shape, craftsmanship, and construction material were undeniable: it was the time-honored Bronze Thing—the very artifact in the shape of a serpent which Moses had lifted up on a pole way back there in the wilderness. In fact, it even had a name, “Nehushtan,” which literally meant “bronze thing.” But this particular day wasn’t a very good day for the snake. Its respected history was about to come to an abrupt end. It seems one of Judah’s kings had “gotten religion” and as a result, the bronze snake was about to be bashed to bits. What a bizarre ending for such a revered icon! (Read the story in 2 Kings 18.)
The famous metal snake dated from the time of the Exodus. It was created in response to a particularly low moment in Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. Somewhere along the way, the children of Israel had become impatient with Moses, and even with God. They grumbled about the lack of bread and water, and even went so far as to express their disgust with the manna from heaven God had graciously provided for them. As punishment for their sinful attitudes, God unleashed poisonous snakes among them, resulting in many of the Israelites dying from the snakebites. In panic, the people went running to Moses, begging him to intercede for them that the Lord would remove the plague of snakes. God’s merciful response was not so automatic, however. It required a specific act of faith on the part of the afflicted. Moses was to make a snake and lift it up on a pole. He was to instruct the people to look up at it for healing whenever they were bitten by the deadly snakes. (Numbers 21:8)
God could just have easily responded by removing the snakes from their midst. Instead, he chose to have the people turn their eyes upward to a bronze snake held high on a pole in order to be healed. Why have them do such a thing? Was the power to save them contained in the bronze object itself? No, the cure came in the form of a simple acknowledgement—an acknowledgement of their sinful attitudes and of God’s punishment for sin, along with a belief in God’s ability to restore those affected by the consequences of sin. Shifting their focus from the ground (where the snakes were) to the uplifted bronze snake was a simple matter of faith. Their attention had to move from the danger to the promise!
Fast-forward some seven hundred years later in Israel’s history to the time of Hezekiah, King of Judah. According to the account in 2 Kings 18, the bronze snake was still with the people of God. But instead of simply being an artifact and a reminder of how God had used it to heal Israel during their wilderness journey, somewhere along the way, the people had turned it into an object of worship. In violation of God’s command not to burn incense on the high places, the people were burning incense to the bronze snake! How ironic that the same object which had been used centuries earlier in the hand of Moses to turn peoples’ hearts back to God had over time become an object of worship itself!
As Hezekiah came to Judah’s throne, his first order of business was to clean up the worship mess that resulted from the idolatry of God’s people. How he handled the situation with the famous snake tells a lot about his commitment to lead according to the ways of God. He could have held an educational seminar to instruct the people not to burn incense to this snake, or hidden it away so they people couldn’t see it. He might have ignored the situation with the belief that there would always be some folks who would misunderstand the true meaning of the snake.
But none of these approaches would do for Hezekiah. The only solution was one of total eradication! The bronze snake—famous or not—had to be destroyed!
Why would Hezkiah do that? Because once an idol has been clearly identified, it must be removed—even idols that had not always been idols, even stuff that at another time had been used to restore healing to sin-sick people. The moment something moves into the domain of claiming what only belongs to God is the moment it must be dealt with in a serious manner. Hezekiah was on a mission to reform the nation’s worship of Holy God. Even the famous bronze snake was not excluded from the sweeping worship reform. It was an obstacle to true worship, and it had to go.
A few years ago a pastor in England felt that his church was missing the point about worship. In a startling move, he led the congregation to remove all the music from their services for a time, out of a sense that the music had become the central focus for the worshipers, rather than Christ. After the church experienced the cleansing results of refocusing their worship, the worship pastor penned the lyrics to the song “The Heart of Worship” (Matt Redman, Kingsway ThankYou Music, 1999):
Is it possible that today we are “burning incense” (paying homage) to certain things in our worship expression, which like that bronze snake, had once been tools to point to God? Is there anything in worship which might have subtly shifted to steal our hearts’ affection away from the true centerpiece of worship? The central focus in our gathered times of worship should not be a favorite song, not a certain style, nor a particular way of doing things. An authentic worship expression requires that our attention be directed toward God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, with grateful hearts, for His indescribable gift of salvation. As Jesus Himself said:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must
Let’s lift up Christ, and only Christ in our worship! And may God grant us the courage of Hezekiah to examine our hearts in order to make sure we are doing just that.