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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Genesis 18

 

 

Verses 16-33

Genesis

‘BECAUSE OF HIS IMPORTUNITY’

Genesis 18:16 - Genesis 18:33.

I

The first verse of this chapter says that ‘the Lord appeared’ unto Abraham, and then proceeds to tell that ‘three men stood over against him,’ thus indicating that these were, collectively, the manifestation of Jehovah. Two of the three subsequently ‘went toward Sodom,’ and are called ‘angels’ in Genesis 19:1. One remained with Abraham, and is addressed by him as ‘Lord,’ but the three are similarly addressed in Genesis 18:3. The inference is that Jehovah appeared, not only in the one ‘man’ who spake with Abraham, but also in the two who went to Sodom.

In this incident we have, first, God’s communication of His purpose to Abraham. He was called the friend of God, and friends confide in each other. ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,’ and it is ever true that they who live in amity and communion with God thereby acquire insight into His purposes. Even in regard to public or so-called ‘political’ events, a man who believes in God and His moral government will often be endowed with a ‘terrible sagacity,’ which forecasts consequences more surely than do godless politicians. In regard to one’s own history, it is still more evidently true that the one way to apprehend God’s purposes in it is to keep in close friendship with Him. Then we shall see the meaning of the else bewildering whirl of events, and be able to say, ‘He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God.’ But the reason assigned for intrusting Abraham with the knowledge of God’s purpose is to be noted. It was because of his place as the medium of blessing to the nations, and as the lawgiver to his descendants. God had ‘known him,’-that is, had lovingly brought him into close relations with Himself, not for his own sake only, but, much more, that he might be a channel of grace to Israel and the world. His ‘commandment’ to his descendants was to lead to their worship of Jehovah and their upright living, and these again to their possession of the blessings promised to Abraham. That purpose would be aided by the knowledge of the judgment on Sodom, its source, and its cause, and therefore Abraham was admitted into the council-chamber of Jehovah. The insight given to God’s friends is given that they may more fully benefit men by leading them into paths of righteousness, on which alone they can be met by God’s blessings.

The strongly figurative representation in Genesis 18:20 - Genesis 18:21, according to which Jehovah goes down to ascertain whether the facts of Sodom’s sin correspond to the report of it, belongs to the early stage of revelation, and need not surprise us, but should impress on us the gradual character of the divine Revelation, which would have been useless unless it had been accommodated to the mental and spiritual stature of its recipients. Nor should it hide from us the lofty conception of God’s long-suffering justice, which is presented in so childlike a form. He does ‘not judge after . . .the hearing of His ears,’ nor smite without full knowledge of the sin. A later stage of revelation puts the same thought in language less strange to us, when it teaches that ‘the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed,’ and in His balances many a false estimate, both of virtuous and vicious acts, is corrected, and retribution is always exactly adjusted to the deed.

But the main importance of the incident is in the wonderful picture of Abraham’s intercession, which, in like manner, veils, under a strangely sensuous representation, lofty truths for all ages. It is to be noted that the divine purpose expressed in ‘I will go down now, and see,’ is fulfilled in the going of the two {men or angels} towards Sodom; therefore Jehovah was in them. But He was also in the One before whom Abraham stood. The first great truth enshrined in this part of the story is that the friend of God is compassionate even of the sinful and degraded. Abraham did not intercede for Lot, but for the sinners in Sodom. He had perilled his life in warfare for them; he now pleads with God for them. Where had he learned this brave pity? Where but from the God with whom he lived by faith? How much more surely will real communion with Jesus lead us to look on all men, and especially on the vicious and outcast, with His eyes who saw the multitudes as sheep without a shepherd, torn, panting, scattered, and lying exhausted and defenceless! Indifference to the miseries and impending dangers of Christless men is impossible for any whom He calls ‘not servants, but friends.’

Again, we are taught the boldness of pleading which is permitted to the friend of God, and is compatible with deepest reverence. Abraham is keenly conscious of his audacity, and yet, though he knows himself to be but dust and ashes, that does not stifle his petitions. His was the holy ‘importunity’ which Jesus sent forth for our imitation. The word so rendered in Luke 11:8, which is found in the New Testament there only, literally means ‘shamelessness,’ and is exactly the disposition which Abraham showed here. Not only was he persistent, but he increased his expectations with each partial granting of his prayer. The more God gives, the more does the true suppliant expect and crave; and rightly so, for the gift to be given is infinite, and each degree of possession enlarges capacity so as to fit to receive more, and widens desire. What contented us to-day should not content us to-morrow.

Again, Abraham is bold in appealing to a law to which God is bound to conform. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ is often quoted with an application foreign to its true meaning. Abraham was not preaching to men trust that the most perplexing acts of God would be capable of full vindication if we knew all, but he was pleading with God that His acts should be plainly accordant with the idea of justice planted by Him in us. The phrase is often used to strengthen the struggling faith that

‘All is right which seems most wrong,

If it be His sweet will.’

But it means not ‘Such and such a thing must be right because God has done it,’ but ‘Such and such a thing is right, therefore God must do it.’ Of course, our conceptions of right are not the absolute measure of the divine acts, and the very fact which Abraham thought contrary to justice is continually exemplified in Providence, that ‘the righteous should be as the wicked’ in regard to earthly calamities affecting communities. So far Abraham was wrong, but the spirit of his remonstrance was wholly right.

Again, we learn the precious lesson that prayer for others is a real power, and does bring down blessings and avert evils. Abraham did not here pray for Lot, but yet ‘God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow’ [Genesis 19:29], so that there had been unrecorded intercession for him too. The unselfish desires for others, that exhale from human hearts under the influence of the love which Christ plants in us, do come down in blessings on others, as the moisture drawn up by the sun may descend in fructifying rain on far-off pastures of the wilderness. We help one another when we pray for one another.

The last lesson taught is that ‘righteous’ men are indeed the ‘salt of the earth’ not only preserving cities and nations from further corruption, but procuring for them further existence and probation. God holds back His judgments so long as hope of amendment survives, and ‘will not destroy for the ten’s sake.’

Genesis

THE INTERCOURSE OF GOD AND HIS FRIEND

II

We have seen that the fruit of Abraham’s faith was God’s entrance into close covenant relations with him; or, as James puts it, ‘It was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God.’ This incident shows us the intercourse of the divine and human friends in its familiarity, mutual confidence, and power. It is a forecast of Christ’s own profound teachings in His parting words in the upper chamber, concerning the sweet and wondrous intercourse between the believing soul and the indwelling God.

1. The friend of God catches a gleam of divine pity and tenderness. Abraham has no relations with the men of Sodom. Their evil ways would repel him; and he would be a stranger among them still more than among the Canaanites, whose iniquity was ‘not yet full.’ But though he has no special bonds with them, he cannot but melt with tender compassion when he hears their doom. Communion with the very Source of all gentle love has softened his heart, and he yearns over the wicked and fated city. Where else than from his heavenly Friend could he have learned this sympathy? It wells up in this chapter like some sudden spring among solemn solitudes-the first instance of that divine charity which is the best sign that we have been with God, and have learned of Him. All that the New Testament teaches of love to God, as necessarily issuing in love to man, and of the true love to man as overleaping all narrow bounds of kindred, country, race, and ignoring all questions of character, and gushing forth in fullest energy towards the sinners in danger of just punishment, is here in germ. The friend of God must be the friend of men; and if they be wicked, and he sees the frightful doom which they do not see, these make his pity the deeper. Abraham does not contest the justice of the doom. He lives too near his friend not to know that sin must mean death. The effect of friendship with God is not to make men wish that there were no judgments for evil-doers, but to touch their hearts with pity, and to stir them to intercession and to effort for their deliverance.

2. The friend of God has absolute trust in the rectitude of His acts. Abraham’s remonstrance, if we may call it so, embodies some thoughts about the government of God in the world which should be pondered.

His first abrupt question, flung out without any reverential preface, assumes that the character of God requires that the fate of the righteous should be distinguished from that of the wicked. The very brusqueness of the question shows that he supposed himself to be appealing to an elementary and indubitable law of God’s dealings. The teachings of the Fall and of the Flood had graven deep on his conscience the truth that the same loving Friend must needs deal out rewards to the good and chastisement to the bad. That was the simple faith of an early time, when problems like those which tortured the writers of the seventy-third Psalm, or of Job and Ecclesiastes, had not yet disturbed the childlike trust of the friend of God, because no facts in his experience had forced them on him. But the belief which was axiomatic to him, and true for his supernaturally shaped life with its special miracles and visible divine guard, is not the ultimate and irrefragable principle which he thought it. In widespread calamities the righteous are blended with the wicked in one bloody ruin; and it is the very misery of such judgments that often the sufferers are not the wrongdoers, but that the fathers eat the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. The whirlwind of temporal judgments makes no distinctions between the dwellings of the righteous and the wicked, but levels them both. No doubt, the fact that the impending destruction was to be a direct Divine interposition of a punitive kind made it more necessary that it should be confined to the actual culprits. No doubt, too, Abraham’s zeal for the honour of God’s government was right. But his first plea belongs to the stage of revelation at which he stood, not to that of the New Testament, which teaches that the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell were not sinners above all men in Jerusalem. Abraham’s confidence in God’s justice, not Abraham’s conceptions of what that justice required, is to be imitated. A friend of God will hold fast by the faith that ‘His way is perfect,’ and will cherish it even in the presence of facts more perplexing than any which met Abraham’s eyes.

Another assumption in his prayer is that the righteous are sources of blessing and shields for the wicked. Has he there laid hold of a true principle? Certainly, it is indeed the law that ‘every man shall bear his own burden,’ but that law is modified by the operation of this other, of which God’s providence is full. Many a drop of blessing trickles from the wet fleece to the dry ground. Many a stroke of judgment is carried off harmlessly by the lightning conductor. Where God’s friends are inextricably mixed up with evil-doers, it is not rare to see diffused blessings which are destined indeed primarily for the former, but find their way to the latter. Christians are the ‘salt of the earth’ in this sense too, that they save corrupt communities from swift destruction, and for their sakes the angels delay their blow. In the final resort, each soul must reap its own harvest from its own deeds; but the individualism of Christianity is not isolation. We are bound together in mysterious community, and a good man is a fountain of far-flowing good. The truest ‘saviours of society’ are the servants of God.

A third principle is embodied in the solemn question, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ This is not meant in its bearing here, as we so often hear it quoted, to silence man’s questionings as to mysterious divine acts, or to warn us from applying our measures of right and wrong to these. The very opposite thought is conveyed; namely, the confidence that what God does must approve itself as just to men. He is Judge of all the earth, and therefore bound by His very nature, as by His relations to men, to do nothing that cannot be pointed to as inflexibly right. If Abraham had meant, ‘What God does, must needs be right, therefore crush down all questions of how it accords with thy sense of justice,’ he would have been condemning his own prayer as presumptuous, and the thought would have been entirely out of place. But the appeal to God to vindicate His own character by doing what shall be in manifest accord with His name, is bold language indeed, but not too bold, because it is prompted by absolute confidence in Him. God’s punishments must be obviously righteous to have moral effect, or to be worthy of Him.

But true as the principle is, it needs to be guarded. Abraham himself is an instance that men’s conceptions of right do not completely correspond to the reality. His notion of ‘right’ was, in some particulars, as his life shows, imperfect, rudimentary, and far beneath New Testament ideas. Conscience needs education. The best men’s conceptions of what befits divine justice are relative, progressive; and a shifting standard is no standard. It becomes us to be very cautious before we say to God, ‘This is the way. Walk Thou in it,’ or dismiss any doctrine as untrue on the ground of its contradicting our instincts of justice.

3. The friend of God has power with God. ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?’ The divine Friend recognises the obligation of confidence. True friendship is frank, and cannot bear to hide its purposes. That one sentence in its bold attribution of a like feeling to God leads us deep into the Divine heart, and the sweet reality of his amity. Insight into His will ever belongs to those who live near Him. It is the beginning of the long series of disclosures of ‘the secret of the Lord’ to ‘them that fear Him,’ which is crowned by ‘henceforth I call you not servants; but . . .friends; for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.’ So much for the divine side of the communion.

On the human side, we are here taught the great truth, that God’s friends are intercessors, whose voice has a mysterious but most real power with God. If it be true, that, in general terms, the righteous are shields and sources of blessing to the unholy, it is still more distinctly true that they have access to God’s secret place with petitions for others as well as for themselves. The desires which go up to God, like the vapours exhaled to heaven, fall in refreshing rain on spots far away from that whence they rose. In these days we need to keep fast hold of our belief in the efficacy of prayer for others and for ourselves. God knows Himself and the laws of His government a great deal better than any one besides does; and He has abundantly shown us in His Word, and by many experiences, that breath spent in intercession is not wasted. In these old times, when worship was mainly sacrificial, this wonderful instance of pure intercession meets us, an anticipation of later times. And from thence onwards there has never failed proof to those who will look for it, that God’s friends are true priests, and help their brethren by their prayers. Our voices should ‘rise like a fountain night and day’ for men. But there is a secret distrust of the power, and a flagrantly plain neglect of the duty, of intercession nowadays, which need sorely the lesson that God ‘remembered Abraham’ and delivered Lot. Luther, in his rough, strong way, says: ‘If I have a Christian who prays to God for me, I will be of good courage, and be afraid of nothing. If I have one who prays against me, I had rather have the Grand Turk for my enemy.’

The tone of Abraham’s intercession may teach us how familiar the intercourse with the Heavenly Friend may be. The boldest words from a loving heart, jealous of God’s honour, are not irreverent in His eyes. This prayer is abrupt, almost rough. It sounds like remonstrance quite as much as prayer. Abraham appeals to God to take care of His name and honour, as if he had said, If Thou doest this, what will the world say of Thee, but that Thou art unmerciful? But the grand confidence in God’s character, the eager desire that it should be vindicated before the world, the dread that the least film should veil the silvery whiteness or the golden lustre of His name, the sensitiveness for His honour-these are the effects of communion with Him; and for these God accepts the bold prayer as truer reverence than is found in many more guarded and lowly sounding words. Many conventional proprieties of worship may be broken just because the worship is real. ‘The frequent sputter shows that the soul’s depths boil in earnest.’ We may learn, too, that the most loving familiarity never forgets the fathomless gulf between God and it. Abraham remembers that he is ‘dust and ashes’; he knows that he is venturing much in speaking to God. His pertinacious prayers have a recurring burden of lowly recognition of his place. Twice he heralds them with ‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord’; twice with ‘Oh let not the Lord be angry.’ Perfect love casts out fear and deepens reverence. We may come with free hearts, from which every weight of trembling and every cloud of doubt has been lifted. But the less the dread, the lower we shall bow before the Loftiness which we love. We do not pray aright until we tell God everything. The ‘boldness’ which we as Christians ought to have, means literally a frank speaking out of all that is in our hearts. Such ‘boldness and access with confidence’ will often make short work of so-called seemly reverence, but it will never transgress by so much as a hair’ s-breadth the limits of lowly, trustful love.

Abraham’s persistency may teach us a lesson. If one might so say, he hangs on God’s skirt like a burr. Each petition granted only encourages him to another. Six times he pleads, and God waits till he has done before He goes away; He cannot leave His friend till that friend has said all his say. What a contrast the fiery fervour and unwearying pertinacity of Abraham’s prayers make to the stiff formalism of the intercessions one is familiar with! The former are like the successive pulses of a volcano driving a hot lava stream before it; the latter, like the slow flow of a glacier, cold and sluggish. Is any part of our public or private worship more hopelessly formal than our prayers for others? This picture from the old world may well shame our languid petitions, and stir us up to a holy boldness and persistence in prayer. Our Saviour Himself teaches that ‘men ought always to pray, and not to faint,’ and Himself recommends to us a holy importunity, which He teaches us to believe is, in mysterious fashion, a power with God. He gives room for such patient continuance in prayer by sometimes delaying the apparent answer, not because He needs to be won over to bless, but because it is good for us to draw near, and to keep near, the Lord. He is ever at the door, ready to open, and if sometimes, like Rhoda to Peter, He does not open immediately, and we have to keep knocking, it is that our desires may increase by delay, and so He may be able to give a blessing, which will be the greater and sweeter for the tarrying.

So the friendship is manifested on both sides: on God’s, by disclosure of His purpose and compliance with His friend’s request; on Abraham’s, by speech which is saved from irreverence by love, and by prayer which is acceptable to God by its very importunity. Jesus Christ has promised us the highest form of such friendship, when He has said, ‘I have called you friends: for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you’; and again, ‘If ye abide in Me, . . .ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.’

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Genesis 18:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/genesis-18.html.

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