After the Death of Abraham

Sermon preached on Genesis 25:1-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/03/2023 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We come to the end of Abraham’s earthly sojourn. Verses 7 summarizes his life, noting he lived a good long life to the age of 175. He then died and was gathered to his people, surely a reminder that there is life beyond our physical life on this earth. Abraham was laid to rest in the same cave of Machpelah where his wife Sarah was buried. Like Sarah, he too died in faith, not yet having received the promises God had given him, but greeting them from afar. Like Sarah, his burial in in that cave in the Promised Land was a continued expression of his faith in the promises of God. God had promised Abraham a people and a place. The details of those promises included that the place would be the land of Canaan, and the people would be through an heir that Abraham had through his wife Sarah. Abraham in his long, blessed life began to witness God’s bringing about these promises as Isaac was born to them, and as they began to take some small ownership of things in the Promised Land with a well at Beersheba and a tomb at Machpelah. But much of Abraham’s life was one of waiting in faith for God to bring what he promised, knowing that the ultimate fulfillment wouldn’t be until after his death. Abraham’s life was not perfect, but he did, by God’s grace, continue in the faith, and was able to see these beginnings of God’s promises being realized. This passage then marks the culmination of this long section of Genesis that began back in Gen. 11:27 with the words “These are the generation of Terah, Terah [who] fathered Abram.”

So then, as we conclude our time with Abraham, this passage also gets us to think of his legacy, especially concerning the promises of a people and a place that God gave him in the Abrahamic covenant. But God also promised that nations (i.e. plural) would come from him, and we see some of that legacy here too. In contrasting his legacy through Isaac versus his other sons, we are confronted with the doctrine of election. That is one of the more difficult doctrines in the Bible. Yes, some doctrines are very simple to understand, like the basic gospel message. But, many doctrines have nuances that help you understand and apply them properly, and that is especially the case with more difficult doctrines of the Bible. So then, today we will have a chance to consider some of the nuances of the doctrine of election as we study today’s passage.

Let us begin by first giving some background and overview to the Bible’s teaching on election, and its corollary, reprobation. When talking about individual people, the basic idea is that God has predestined from before the foundation of the world whom he would save and whom he would leave to their sin, Ephesians 1:4. The elect are those God predestined to intervene in their sinful rebellion by effectually calling them to himself, so that in due time they realize their sin and condemnation, and see Christ as offered in the gospel, and turn to him and believe in him, and are saved from the coming judgment. In contrast, the reprobate are those God predestined to leave to their sinful rebellion, with the result that they will ultimately receive God’s terrible wrath on the coming day of judgment. So, the elect will ultimately enjoy a blessed eternal life in the age to come, whereas the reprobate will ultimately experience the curse of hell in the afterlife.

We should remember at this point, that the elect in themselves were not more worthy than the reprobate. The elect and the reprobate have all sinned against God and fallen short of his glory. Divine election to salvation is about God’s grace and mercy shown to the elect so that they are saved, not about the elect somehow doing something to earn their salvation. Similarly, note that election to salvation requires an active intervention by God’s Spirit at some point inside the elect person to make them born again. That is why the person ultimately repents and believes in Jesus. But for the reprobate, there is no direct work by God required in the person to make them wicked or to make them not choose Christ. This is called “preterition”, the idea that God passes over the reprobate, leaving them to their sin and its ultimate end.

Romans 9 also gives us some added nuance on this topic, especially in that it references the people we see in this chapter. Romans 9:7 quotes Genesis to point out that Isaac, not Ishmael, was predestined by God to be the chosen one to fulfill God’s covenant promises to Abraham. Romans 9 then also references how God chose Jacob over Esau, quoting verse 23 of this chapter. Romans 9 develops this idea that God had predestined a chosen people for himself, and that he formed this group from Abraham then through Isaac and then through Jacob whom he later renames Israel, and then through the twelve tribes of Israel. But Romans 9 tells us two more intriguing truths that add nuance to all this. It says that not all Israel are truly Israel, meaning that there are some from the genealogical line of Abraham through Isaac through Jacob and on that aren’t really predestined unto salvation. They are actually part of the reprobate. They are outwardly a part of Israel, but aren’t truly part of God’s saved people. This gives the importance nuance of distinguishing between the group and the individuals in a group, that there is the group called Israel that we call the elect people of God, but that there are people externally in that group that aren’t actually elect. Similarly, Romans 9 also says that there are people from other nations that God would graft into the Israel. In other words, there are elect individuals who have not yet been brought externally into this group Israel that we call the elect people of God. So, there is Israel as an external group that is supposed to be comprised of God’s elect, but we can think of the true Israel which is a spiritual group that represents all who are truly God’s elect. This is very similar to how we distinguish between the visible and the invisible church.

With that background and summary of election and reprobation, let’s return to focus more specifically on these verses, looking next at how we see election being seen and worked out here. We learn here about Abraham marrying this Keturah. We should understand that she is technically considered a concubine of Abraham, not having the official legal status of a wife, though there is a sense in which a concubine is a wife through their physical union and relationship. We know she was a concubine from the genealogical records of 1 Chronicles 1:32, and alluded to here in verse 6 as well. He has these several sons with Keturah, but then we come to verses 5-6 and see how he treated them differently than Isaac. He gives an inheritance to Isaac, but to these other sons, he gives them gifts, but ultimately sends them away to relocate to the east.

Why does Abraham do this? Why does he favor Isaac like this? Normally at that time, someone’s inheritance would be divided up among his sons equally, with the exception of the firstborn who would receive a double share. But that is not what happens here. Abraham does not give his other sons any inheritance. Yes, he gives them some gifts that will help them get started, but the inheritance goes in the full to Isaac alone. The reason Abraham did this is because God had told him, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” That was Genesis 21:12, the same quote I just mentioned referenced in Romans 9. That was when Sarah demanded that Abraham cast Ishmael, along with his mother, out of the family. Sarah specifically cited the concern there about the inheritance. She didn’t want any of the inheritance to be shared with Ishmael, but all to go to Isaac. Abraham didn’t want to do that, but God told him to do it and the reason was because of divine election. God there confirmed his plan according to divine election that he would fulfill his covenant promises through Isaac.

Abraham then rightly discerned that still applies with these new sons through Keturah. Still, Isaac alone would be the promised seed through which God would form a special people in a special place for Abraham. Thus, Abraham acts in faith, and gives all his inheritance to Isaac and sends out all the other sons out of the home away from the family. Surely, that is some of Sarah’s legacy of influence on Abraham working here too. But ultimately, Abraham is heeding the prophetic Word of God by which he was told that Isaac alone would be the promised seed.

So then, we see this election of Isaac confirmed by divine action in verse 11 when after Abraham’s death, God blessed Isaac. Then we are told about Isaac settling at Beer-laha-roi, which is in the south. This little reference in verse 11 is basically to say that now that Abraham has died, God will turn his focus to Isaac. We will see how God’s promised blessings to Abraham will be reiterated and advanced now in Isaac’s life. That new section on Isaac begins in verse 19 with the words, “These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” That section will continue until chapter 36. Through Isaac, we will see God continue to build his chosen people. But we will see that not all of Isaac will be of Isaac. Of Isaac’s two sons, God will elect Jacob over Esau. We’ll study that more starting next time.

Let us then turn now to our third point and consider these other sons of Abraham, who are not the chosen Isaac. By considering Isaac compared to his brothers, we can learn some more nuance on election. While Isaac is specially elected to be the seed of promise, we see God pass over these other sons, not only of Keturah, but also Ishmael. Let us consider Ishamel first. Ishmael actually gets a whole section in Genesis, though it is only 6 verses, so that shortness compared to the much longer account then of Isaac is part of the contrast, that Isaac, not Ishmael, becomes the focus of God’s promise. Starting then in verse 12, we see the typical new section marker, saying, “These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son.” Ishmael has twelve sons who each become prince of a tribe of people. It’s typically thought that Ishmael’s descendants are a major root of the Arab people today. It says that they settled east of Egypt in the direction of Assyria. Then we learn of Ishmael’s death at the ripe old age of 137 years.

As we see this brief account of his descendants, we should recognize God’s outward blessings upon him. Back in 21:13, God had promised Abraham, that while Isaac would be the chosen seed, that God would nonetheless also make Ishmael into a great nation. Indeed, there is a bit of parallel between Isaac and Ishmael here. Ishmael yields a twelve-tribe people, even as Isaac would ultimately yield the twelve-tribe people of Israel. And as Abraham was gathered to his people, so too is Ishmael gathered to his people. Ishmael was not annihilated at death. The closing reference in verse 18 that he settled over against all his kinsmen, reminds back to the prophecy God gave of him to Hagar back in Genesis 16 at the well of Beer-lahai-roi. That prophecy spoke of the conflict Ishamael’s descendants would have, but it also reminds us that God had a plan for his life. What I want us to recognize then, that even though God would work his redemptive plans through Isaac, that doesn’t mean God treated Ishmael badly. Indeed, Ishmael and his seed experience many temporal blessings and are allowed to grow and thrive in many ways.

We see something similar with Keturah’s sons. You have this list in verses 2-4 of all these peoples that end up coming from those sons. We don’t know a lot about these different names, though the descendants of Midian do feature quite a bit in the Biblical history. But just as God blessed Ishmael, so too Abraham gave these sons gifts as he sent them off. They are separated and distinguished from Isaac, but it’s not like Abraham kicked them out of the house and left them for dead. I believe we should recognize that the concern Abraham shows them surely infers that, like Ishmael, God showed care and concern for them too. Otherwise, they would not have been able to grow into these various peoples if God had not provided for them.

The way the Ishmaelites and the sons of Keturah are treated with blessing, even though Isaac was the chosen seed of promise, gives important nuance the about the doctrine of election. We need to handle this doctrine carefully, so let’s slow down and do that now. God did not select Isaac over these other sons so as to have no concern for them. We might mistakenly think that all God cares about here is Isaac and his seed, that they alone are the chosen of God, and the rest must just be bidding their time until they end up in hell. That would be to utterly ignore the text. No, remember, Isaac is the child of promise, but the promise said the promised seed would bring blessing to all the families of the earth, Genesis 12:3. That ultimately comes to fruition in Isaac greater son, Jesus. But along the way this dynamic was supposed to be pursued, frankly from both directions. God plan was never just about saving Isaac’s physical seed, but to bring salvation to all the nations of the world.

So, when talking about election and reprobation, we should understand that ultimately those are distinctions about individual people. Elect humans have been predestined to salvation, and the reprobate humans have been predestined to damnation. It’s not most fundamentally about genealogical descent, otherwise Isaac’s son Esau wouldn’t end up excluded from the covenant. Yes, Isaac through his son Jacob would become the visible church of God’s chosen people of Israel. Yet, not all Israel are truly Israel. The terminology of chosen people can be applied to Isaac’s descendants, but it never meant that every descendant of Isaac was truly elect. Some would show themselves to actually be reprobate, and they’d be cut off from Israel. Likewise, some of the nations would show themselves to not be reprobate, but actually the elect, and they’d be incorporated into Israel. It was God’s plan all along, that he would use Isaac’s house through Jacob as the external group through which salvation is offered to all the families on the earth.

This fact is hinted at when Isaac settles in Beer-laha-roi. Remember, that location was named after how God appeared there to Ishmael’s mother, so she would know that God sees and hears her. Ishamael and his people were not cast off to keep them from having any possibility of salvation. Rather, it’s that they need to find that salvation through Isaac – through the Christ that would come from his line. In God’s providence, that’s why Isaac moves to Beer-laha-roi. That is the place where Ishamel should know that God sees him and cares for him. That now happens to be the same place that Isaac is. Ishmael can find blessing from God in coming to Isaac and in good connection with Isaac. And so, this separation of Isaac from the other sons was never meant to be absolute. We recognize that even in how both Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury Abraham. As God promised to Abraham, those who bless Abraham will be blessed, even as those who curse Abraham will be cursed. That is what Issac is to be to the other sons of Abraham as well as for all nations. Come in peace to find blessing in Isaac and his seed.

Sadly, too often the future generations of Ishmaelites and the sons of Keturah unfold, would not seek blessing from the seed of Isaac. Interestingly, several verses in the future seem to closely connect Ishmaelites and Midianites together, suggesting that some of their descendants mix together. Sadly, we see some of them afflict God’s people. Like in the time of the wilderness wandering where they try to get Balaam to curse Israel. Or during the time of Judges where they afflicted Israel and God had to raise up Gideon to deliver them. Yet, there are also opposite, positive examples. One example is how Moses later would find blessing from Jethro a Midianite priest, even marrying his daughter. Jethro comes to realize that the LORD is the one true God, and is invited by Moses to join with Israel in the Promised Land.

So then, the nuance we are supposed to understand in all this, is God never intended these other nations beyond Israel to think they are without hope, just cast off for reprobation. In Acts 14:17, it says that God gave different temporal blessings upon the nations so that they could recognize the God who sees and hears. The temporal blessings upon Isaac’ brothers and their descendants should call them to seek God. Likewise, Acts 17:27 spoke of how God’s plans were for all the nations to seek him. So, God chose to use Isaac to bring forth the blessing of Jesus, not just for his descendants, but for all the world. God’s plans always intended to bring salvation through his chosen people to all the nations. That continues today through the church of Jesus Christ, which is the ongoing outward expression of Isaac and his line of promise.

Because Abraham knew Isaac was the elect son, he gave him all his inheritance, and just gave good gifts to the rest. That was a very practical thing for Abraham to do, based on God’s revelation to him. But, we don’t know whether any particular person today is elect or not. God has not revealed that to us. But God has revealed that the church is the elect people of God, outwardly an imperfect mixed body, but nonetheless the chosen instrument to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. It will be through the church of Christ alone that God brings salvation to the world. Since we can’t operate on what we don’t know (who is actually elect or not), we should operate on what we do know, that the church is his chosen visible instrument to bring in the full number of the truly elect of God.

Let us then value the church, support the church, labor in the church, pray for the church, seek its peace, purity, and unity. There is an old latin phrase that the Roman Catholics have perverted, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the church there is no salvation. But the sentiment, properly understood, is correct. Ordinarily, salvation is in and through the church of Jesus Christ. The church is used to gather the elect from the nations through its gospel preaching. Let us be thankful then to be counted among the number of God’s people.


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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