“As for Ishmael, I have heard thee; behold, I have blessed him!” (Gen. 17:20). These words are uttered in God’s answer to Abraham’s prayer. Ishmael, by many, not by all, commentators is regarded as a reprobate. With them we disagree. Nor do we believe that the words quoted above mean only that God would in the future bless Ishmael not personally and individually, but in (a remnant of) his generations. None of us, of course, believe that in this text we have proof that God blesses even the reprobate. We do not hold with the opinion that God’s grace is general and common, since Scripture teaches clearly that God’s goodness is always particular and that this being true, neither do we make the false distinction that some blessings are temporal and for all men, while others are eternal and only for the elect. We all hold that God neither blesses nor loves the reprobate either in time or in eternity. Common grace and general love we do not believe. The giving of good gifts and earthly prosperity to men we know proved to be reprobate does not have God giving them blessing. Those earthly things only increased their condemnation. But now this article sees Ishmael as an elect. (Cf. The Standard Bearer, XXXV, 79, 430).
We touched upon the character of Ishmael in the previous article. It does not matter how offensive his character may have been. Manasseh lived a most offensive life; so did Zacchaeus, yet they were elect and therefore eventually converted. “Behold, I have blessed him.” As to the content of this blessing, “I will make him fruitful, and will multiply him,” see the BL article, “Hagar and the Angel of the Lord.” How did Abraham understand this answer of God to him? Not as having exclusive reference to some of Ishmael’s descendants, but in keeping with what he had asked and hoped for from God for this son, viz, the blessing of eternal life. Was Abraham in error in entertaining such an expectation? Not in view of the fact that the answer, “I have blessed him” is as personal as “I will bless her” (v. 16). “I will make him fruitful and will multiply him…twelve princes shall he beget” reveals an outlook as personal as possible. Abraham also correctly understood the word “bless” in both these instances to be used in the same sense—of gracious favor! If Sarah was blessed personally, then so was Ishmael. It is not a very satisfactory paraphrase to have it, “As for Ishmael, I have heard thee, heard thy prayer, ‘O that Ishmael might live!’—and, behold, I have cursed him; be satisfied with some of his descendants living before me.”
The blessing here referred to is principally the same as that given to Isaac (25:11; 26:3, 12, 24) and to Samson (Jud. 13:24), which is blessing according to election. The word is not “I will bless his seed (Nebaioth and Kedar), but “I have blessed him,” the past tense of eternal election as in God “hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings” (Eph. 1:3, 4). The pronoun “him” in “I have blessed him” is, therefore, quite personal. Nor is the name Ishmael a personification or representation of his descendants. The name Jacob does, indeed, often stand as a general designation for the people, whereas Isaac is only rarely so employed (Am. 7:9, 16) and Abraham never occurs as a mere tribal name. If Ishmael’s posterity (25:12-16) alone were intended, the Scripture would simply say, “As for Ishmael, I have blessed his posterity” (Heb.: dor), so rendering unnecessary the sinking of his individuality in the history of his race.
But that one statement of Scripture is sufficient, “I have blessed him.” A similar case we have in the rich young ruler. In a conversation with the Lord, he revealed himself a proud, self-righteous and Christ-rejecting man. Yet we read that “Jesus…loved him” (Mark 10:21). Why? We may ask, what was loveable about him? It could only be because he was one of the Lord’s own, whom the Father had given Him. What matters it that the Scripture never informs us of his eventual conversion in just so many words! Then what matters it that we do not read of Ishmael’s returning from his banishment in the wilderness to Abraham, the church center! When Lot separated himself from Abraham, he, so far from returning, went farther away to end in a cave with his sodomitical daughters. Of Lot we read that he was just and righteous (II Peter 2:7, 8). Of the rich young ruler we read that “Jesus…loved him,” which inescapably implies that he was at that time of the recorded conversation with Jesus an unconverted elect, but must have been at a subsequent period converted. For Jesus does not love reprobates. We may therefore expect to see both Ishmael and the rich young ruler in heaven; for they are both of the seed of Abraham. The Lord blessed the one, loved the other. Ishmael was in the covenant, although the covenant line did not stem from him and his generations, but rather from Isaac and his (vs. 21). “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac…” That is, the main trunk of the covenant line would continue in Isaac. Ishmael and some of his descendants (Nebaioth and Kedar) are, nevertheless, small branches from that trunk. Japheth was in the covenant, but the covenant line continued in the family of Shem. Lot was in the covenant, but the covenant line continued in Abraham and his posterity. All the sons of Jacob were in the covenant, but the covenant line continued in but one of them, Judah. Ishmael is not, therefore, excluded from the covenant and its blessing by these words, “but My covenant will I establish with Isaac.” It is only that Ishmael is not the link in the line of the seed through which Christ was to come.
Now we go to Genesis 21, where we read of the removal of Ishmael from the household of Abraham. The occasion of his removal was his persecution of Isaac. “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar” mocking. It was not mere hear-say or second-hand information she had to go on; she was an eye-witness to the evil. To indicate something of how Sarah must have felt, Ishmael is not mentioned by name, but is rather referred to as “the son of Hagar the Egyptian,” emphasizing the heathen origin of his mother, thus casting reflections on him. His sin was that of mocking, which included laughing and jesting in a way of disrespect (19:14; 39:14, 17) and scorn (Ezek. 23:32). “God takes notice of what children say and do in their play and will reckon with them if they say or do amiss, though their parents do not!” (Matthew Henry).
Sarah shows her concern for Isaac (v. 10). We cannot believe that Sarah was motivated by cold hatred of Hagar’s son, even though she was not altogether without sin in expelling Ishmael. Nor can we believe that she was moved merely by motherly jealousy for her own son. Something more than these human foibles moved her. She was a woman of faith and was motivated by faith. This did not make her sinless, but it made her to act, principally, according to righteousness. We may then attribute her severe counsel to her clear conception of and zeal for the covenant, its promise and inheritance, which saw Isaac as the child of promise, the father of the covenant line and the heir, so that nothing must jeopardize his place or prospects as covenant head. Hence, Sarah, peremptorily prescribes, “Cast out the bondwoman.” This she said, as intimated, not without sin, for she showed some spite and imposed command on her husband. She made the motion, which was unusual, because according to the order of Israel, women had not this right. Nevertheless, God seconded her motion (v. 12). Her counsel was approved by God, not her conduct; as Rahab was commended for her faith, not for her lie. Yet, although there was sin in this, the hand of God was also.
So Ishmael was expelled. “Cast out this bondwoman and her son,” for he “shall not be heir with my son.” This is akin to the experience of Adam and Eve in Eden who, through pride, were flattered by “ye shall be as God” (Elohim), fell for it, and, as a result, were driven out. But for all this we do not conclude that they were cast out of the pale of salvation. The coats of skins witness otherwise. For the same reason, we do not conclude from Ishmael’s general rough character, his dwelling alone, his former misconduct, his removal or the allegorical explanation of his expulsion from the family of Abraham, that he lived and died a reprobate and so destitute of the grace of God. Adam, Eve and Ishmael are not reprobates, yet their being cast out is representative of the sentence against all reprobates, hypocrites and carnal seed, all born after the flesh and never born again, all who rest in the law and reject the gospel.
We now turn to the Galatians allegory as found in Galatians 4:21-31, and since this passage is more accurately expressed in the American Standard Version, we shall adhere rather closely to that version and suggest that the reader make a careful comparison of the King James Version with the ASV. Here, then, follows a translation of the passage which we believe to be much more accurate than that of the KJV.
22 Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid and one by the freewoman. 23 Howbeit, the son of the handmaid has been born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman through the promise. 24 Which things are an allegory: for these women (fem.) are two covenants, one from Mt. Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. 25 Now the thing Hagar is (represents) Mt. Sinai in Arabia and answereth (ranks with) to the now Jerusalem: for she is in bondage with her children. 26 But the above Jerusalem is free, which is our mother. 27 For it is written, Rejoice thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that hath the husband. 28 Now ye, brethren, as Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so it is now. 30 Howbeit, what saith the Scripture? Cast out the handmaid and her son; for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman! 31 Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the freewoman.
But we will enter into this the next time, D.V.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 2 April 1969