And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” – Genesis 17:18 ESV
Back in chapter 15 of Genesis, Abraham had expressed some concern with God regarding His plan to make of him a great nation. As far as Abraham was concerned, God’s plan had a couple of significant flaws: He and his wife, Sarah, were old, and she was barren. So he had suggested Eliezer, his servant, as a possible stand-in for the heir-apparent. But God would have nothing to do with it. That was not His will and He made it quite clear. “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4 ESV). So there would be no substitutes accepted. Then, to drive home His point, God had taken Abraham outside and had him look up at the stars. God then said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV). Point made. Case closed. And we’re told, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). Abraham got the message. He knew that God was going to give him a son, an heir, and from that son would come a great nation. Abraham believed the promise of God and was considered righteous by God for doing so. He expressed faith in God even thought he could not see the outcome of the promise. He had no proof, no evidence, other than a glance into the nighttime sky and a word from God. But that was enough.
Which brings us to today’s passage. Time had passed. Abraham and Sarah had gotten older. Sarah was still barren. Little had changed in their circumstances. Other than the fact that God had made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his offspring would end up living in a foreign country where they would be slaves, but then would return to live in the land 400 years later. In the meantime, Sarah had come up with her great plan to give Abraham a son through her handmaid, Hagar. The result of this less-than-godly plan, which Abraham wholeheartedly endorsed, was the birth of Ishmael. The logic of Sarah and Abraham was sound. God had promised to make of them a great nation. He had said that it would be through a son born to them. So they decided to help God out. By Abraham having a son through Hagar. But once again, this was NOT God’s plan. And God would patiently reconfirm His plan with Abraham. He told him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:4-8 ESV). God went on to reassure Abraham that He was going to give him a son of his own. “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’” (Genesis 17:15-16 ESV). God made Himself perfectly clear. He was going to give Abraham a son through Sarah, not Hagar. He was going to do the impossible. And what was Abraham’s reaction? “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17 ESV). None of it made sense to Abraham. It sounded ridiculous, far-fetched, impossible. Even for God.
It was at this point that Abraham uttered his small, seemingly innocent prayer. “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” It was as if Abraham was saying, “Won’t you reconsider?” He believed God was going to bless him and make of him a great nation. He even believed God would do it through one of his own offspring. He just didn’t believe God could do it through Sarah. But God had made Himself clear. He had said He would bless Sarah. He had said that Sarah would bear a child. And then to make sure Abraham got the point, God said gave Abraham an answer regarding Ishmael. “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Genesis 17:19 ESV). God had a plan and He didn’t need Abraham’s help. He simply needed Abraham to trust Him. Sarah’s barrenness was not a problem for God, it was simply an opportunity for Him to display His power. Rather than trying to convince God to settle for Ishmael, Abraham needed to be praying that God would bless Sarah. Instead of wasting his time trying to get God to accept the logical, Abraham needed to be asking for and expecting the impossible. Jeremiah the prophet wrote, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV). Abraham believed God could bless him and make of him a great nation. But he struggled believing that God could do it through an elderly, barren woman. Too often, our prayers are based on human reasoning and bolstered by logic. We limit our expectations of God based on what we can see and understand. But as God would eventually tell Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:14 ESV).