Someone sent me a copy of this story.1 An older couple stepped off the train in Boston. The wife was wearing a faded gingham dress, her husband a threadbare homespun suit. They walked from the train station to the campus of Harvard University and found their way to the outer office of the president of the University. The president’s secretary had the couple sized up in a second. She could tell that such unsophisticated country folk didn’t belong at a renowned institution like Harvard, and probably were not even worthy of a visit to Cambridge. She met their glances with a frown, the kind that was meant to send them a message. “We want to see the president,” the man said softly. “He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped. “We’ll wait,” the lady replied.
For a good while the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn’t. The secretary finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted doing. “Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she suggested. The president was perturbed. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have time to spend with such people. But because he detested people in gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office, he sighed in exasperation and nodded for his secretary to show the couple in.
The president, stern-faced, strutted toward the couple. The lady told him, “We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.” The president wasn’t touched; he was shocked. “Madam,” he said gruffly, “We can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.” “Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly, “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.” The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, and then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have spent over seven and a half million dollars on the physical plant at Harvard.”
For a moment, the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Perhaps now he would be rid of them. The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we just start our own?” Her husband nodded. The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. And so Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked away and went to Palo Alto, California, where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.
People aren’t always what they appear to be. In this case, a couple who appeared to be of little wealth or standing proved to be people of means, perhaps the biggest potential donors the president of Harvard had ever met. And yet, because of his thoughtless treatment of these grieving parents, he failed to benefit in any way from their encounter. Abimelech’s meeting with Abraham was similar, in some ways, to the Stanford’s meeting with the president of Harvard University. Abimelech didn’t really know who he was dealing with. Only in his case, he was enlightened before he took any foolish or hasty action.
This lesson is the first in a series on the Old Testament prophets. Over a period of time, I hope to cover the span of Israel’s history in Old Testament times, studying various periods in Israel’s history, and the prophets who spoke for God during these times. We will certainly not accomplish this goal quickly. My plan is to begin at the beginning, with Abraham, the very first prophet who is named as such in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. From Abraham, we will proceed to Moses, and then to the other prophets of old, prophets like Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha. This project is an ambitious one, and it will obviously take some time to complete it. Nevertheless, I am convinced it is a project well worth the effort, as I will now seek to demonstrate.
I assure you, studying the prophets is not only profitable, it is interesting. Let me suggest some of the ways a study of the prophets can be both fascinating and fruitful:
Many of our heroes—the great men and women of the Bible—were prophets or prophetesses. Years ago, John F. Kennedy wrote a book entitled, Profiles in Courage. It was about courageous people, whose character and conduct entitled them to a place of honor in history. The Old Testament prophets were also people of courage. Many of them died for their calling, and most of them suffered greatly for speaking the truth. As Stephen put it,
51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).2
When we study the prophets, we are studying those who paid a high price for fulfilling their calling. They were—in the main—the heroes of the Old Testament times. Among these “great men and women of the Bible” are Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, and Daniel. Many of these heroes are named or alluded to in the “hall of faith”—Hebrews 11.
The Old Testament prophets help us understand the Old Testament better. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I lost sight of my task for a while, but a short talk with Dr. Bruce Waltke put me back on course. All too often we lose sight of the “big picture” of the Bible. We tend to get lost in the details, missing the main message. Jesus put it this way to the legalistic Pharisees of His day:
23 “Woe to you experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness! You needed to do these without neglecting the other. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!”(Matthew 23:23-24).
The prophets reminded the Israelites of their day—as they continue to remind us—of the difference between “gnats” and “camels.” They help us keep the details in perspective, in the light of the bigger picture of God’s plans and purposes and guiding principles for His people.
8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
The prophets are to the Old Testament law what the Supreme Court is supposed to be to the laws of our land. The Supreme Court should interpret and apply the laws of our land in accordance with the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States. The Old Testament prophets’ task was to help God’s people interpret and apply the Old Testament law in the light of God’s purposes for giving it.
The Old Testament prophets instruct men how to live godly lives, and thus to live well. The prophets do not allow men the luxury of limiting biblical faith to abstract principles or even to impersonal rules. The prophets help show God’s people where “the rubber of divine revelation meets the road.” We can see this exemplified by the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist. In Luke 3:7-14, John called the nation Israel to repentance, in preparation for the coming of Messiah. His condemnation of sin and his declaration of the requirements of righteousness were very specific. The Pharisees were rebuked for supposing that their ancestry would get them into heaven. Those who had been blessed with an abundance of worldly possessions were reminded of their obligation to share with those in need. Tax collectors were told not to abuse their positions of responsibility by over-charging. And soldiers were admonished not to abuse their power by extorting money from those they were duty-bound to protect.
By heeding the instruction of the prophets, people are blessed. This is even true in the case of pagans.3 Take Pharaoh, for example. I am assuming that Joseph ministered to his own family, the cupbearer, the baker, and even Pharaoh as a prophet, when he interpreted and/or applied dreams relating to each of them. Because of Joseph, Pharaoh ended up even more prosperous after the famine than he was before this national calamity. By heeding the counsel of Joseph, Pharaoh not only minimized the impact of the famine, he ended up possessing the land and the cattle of the people of Egypt (except for the priests—see Genesis 47:13-26). Joseph’s prophetic ministry profited Pharaoh, enabling him to live well because he took heed to his prophecy.
Usually, the same will be true for us. To resist and reject the will and the Word of God spoken through the prophets (Old Testament and New) will be to our peril. To heed the message of the prophets will not only mean that we live godly lives, but that we live well, experiencing the fullness of God’s promised blessings. Many are those who seek divine guidance from other sources. They consult astrology or psychics concerning choices and decisions. They do so to their own destruction. Heeding the prophets is to our eternal benefit.
The Old Testament prophets help God’s people to better understand the world in which they live. The prophets were not only students of God’s Word, they were students of the culture of their day. While John the Baptist was raised and lived in seclusion, he had an amazing grasp of the sins of the culture of his day. We, too, have the inspired Word of God—the “prophetic word”—which enlightens us about the world in which we live:
16 For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” 18 When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: no prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21).
Let me attempt to illustrate how the “prophetic word” enlightens us in relation to contemporary events. In the last few weeks, a horrible drama unfolded in the hallways of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two very angry young men stormed their school, armed with guns and homemade bombs. Their intent was to kill as many people as possible. To some degree, they succeeded, though fewer than they had hoped died. Around the world, and especially in this country, people have been wringing their hands, wondering how such a thing could happen, as though such deeds are completely unexpected and unpredictable. Are they? Does such violence shock God? Is this far beyond what we may expect from men? It shouldn’t be. In fact, this violent conduct falls completely within what we should expect from fallen sinners:
10 My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent. 11 If they say, “Co me with us, Let us lie in wait to shed blood; Let us lurk secretly for the innocent without cause; 12 Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, And whole, like those who go down to the Pit; 13 We shall find all kinds of precious possessions, We shall fill our houses with spoil; 14 Cast in your lot among us, Let us all have one purse”—15 My son, do not walk in the way with them, Keep your foot from their path; 16 For their feet run to evil, And they make haste to shed blood. 17 Surely, in vain the net is spread In the sight of any bird; 18 But they lie in wait for their own blood, They lurk secretly for their own lives. 19 So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; It takes away the life of its owners (Proverbs 1:10-19). 9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 3:10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,16 ruin and misery are in their paths,17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:9-18).
Our culture wrongly assumes that children are born innocent, and that it is our institutions which corrupt them. The experts tell us that if we teach these kids to love themselves and to have self-esteem, they will turn out right. The educational system has usurped the task of guiding our children to define their own values. And so in Littleton, Colorado, even when it was obvious that these young men were determined to make trouble, no one made any serious attempt to stop them. And now we act as though this situation was totally unexpected, unpredictable. Worse yet, many are already advocating even heavier doses of the “solutions” they assured us would work, but which have failed miserably. I would suggest to you that if you were to ask one of the Old Testament prophets about the problem we face with our youth, they would turn you back to the Old Testament Scriptures. They would tell you that parents are to teach their children about God, and His Word:
5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 “ And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9).
What if the child refuses to hear and to heed the word of his parents? The Old Testament prophets would once again point you to the Word of God:
18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, 19 “then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. 20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Let me put your mind to rest here and now. I am not advocating that we attempt to follow this law today. I am trying to show that the Word of God not only discloses the wickedness that is innate in every child, but that it prescribed the kind of action that was appropriate to deal with such sin. There was both preventative action and prescriptive (curative) action. God’s Word tells us that such things will occur, and how we should deal with them, both before and after the fact.
If we actually did what the law instructed the Israelites to do, it would be a very different world that we live in. Look at what the last verse (Deuteronomy 18:21) says. Putting rebels to death would not only “put away evil,” it would also send a very sobering message to any who might be tempted to take the same path of disobedience. All Israel, God said, would hear and fear. Immediately after the tragedy in Colorado, copycat crimes began to occur all around the nation. That incident in Colorado, along with other similar outbursts of violence in our schools which preceded it, was a lesson. It was not a warning to young hoodlums that such violence would swiftly be punished, and that no more Hitler-worshipping, trenchcoat-wearing rebels would be allowed in our schools. It was a lesson to similar rebels that this kind of violence really achieved what they (in their distorted thinking) wanted. It suggested that one could perpetrate acts of violence and thereby become a celebrity of sorts. According to Deuteronomy, the lesson would have worked the other way. When a rebellious youth was stoned to death, others would look on and learn not to do the same. In Israel, if the law of God were obeyed, copycat crimes would be few and far between.
Today, we wring our hands in dismay and frustration, as though there is no solution. The Bible teaches that parents are to instruct their children in the ways of the Lord, and they are to discipline them when they disobey. It teaches that the root of the problem is a sin nature, deeply rooted in every child. It teaches us to expect the kind of conduct we witnessed in Colorado, especially when parents and society refuse to assume their responsibilities. And, it teaches that when all else fails, God has ordained civil authorities to punish the disobedient (Romans 13:1-7). The psychiatrists of our day may be wringing their hands, but the Old Testament prophets would not hesitate to explain why such things are happening. They would probably tell us that these things are divine judgment on a nation which has rejected God and prayer in schools. We all know that when this tragedy struck in Littleton, there were many prayers being offered up in Colorado, in the schools!
The prophets teach us to do what they do. My understanding of the spiritual gifts has changed somewhat over the years. Early on, I thought that God gave some people the gift of giving so that they could bear the lion’s share of the financial needs of the church. I thought that evangelists did the bulk of the evangelizing, and that teachers did the teaching. There is some truth in this point of view, but the purpose for spiritual gifts goes beyond this. Every Christian is to give, to encourage, to teach, to help, and to evangelize (among other things). Those who are specially gifted aren’t intended to do all the work in their area of giftedness, so that those who are not similarly gifted can sit back and do nothing in this area of ministry. They are to teach others how to do what they do extremely well. I have learned how to give by observing those who have the gift of giving. I have learned how to share the gospel more clearly and effectively from those who have the gift of evangelism. Those with certain strengths are given to the church so that they can strengthen us in our areas of weakness. This means that we cannot excuse ourselves from certain activities by saying, “That isn’t my gift.” It means that we should look for those who are strong in these activities, and learn from them.
I believe this applies to the Old Testament prophets as well. Prophets can teach us a great deal about proclaiming the truth. I am not suggesting that studying the prophets will help us become prophets, too. I am saying that we are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We are to hold forth the word of life in a very dark world (Philippians 2:14-16). We are not instructed to proclaim new revelation to others, but we are to proclaim the Word which has been entrusted to us (Romans 10:13-18; Ephesians 5:18-19; 6:17; Philippians 1:14; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8; 2 Timothy 4:2). Surely a study of the prophets will help us learn how to better proclaim the truth. A study of the prophets will give us a better grasp of the “content” of the Bible, and also of the “methods” these divinely-inspired communicators employed to proclaim God’s truth to men. This will help us as we seek to proclaim the truth of God’s Word today.
1 And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar. 2 Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? 5 “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” 8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid. 9 And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.” 10 Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?” 11 And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. 12 “But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 “And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” 14 Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 Then to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; indeed this vindicates you before all who are with you and before everybody.” Thus she was rebuked. 17 So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; 18 for the LORD had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
This is a most unusual story, is it not? Abraham and Sarah went to the land of Gerar, in the southern part of Palestine, south of Gaza, and not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Here Abraham once again passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah, intending to make her his wife. God awakened Abimelech with a startling dream, informing him that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and that he would be a dead man if he touched her. Abimelech then confronts Abraham, though very carefully, because God had informed this king that Abraham was a prophet. Abraham gives a pathetic excuse for his conduct, and prays for the healing of Abimelech and all his people, so that they once more may be able to bear children. Abimelech grants Abraham and Sarah permission to dwell in his land, under his protection.
It is in the midst of God’s revelation to Abimelech that He informs this king that Abraham is a prophet. From this account, we learn some important lessons about prophets. Let me point out some of these lessons.
Abraham, the prophet, lied to Abimelech. There is no denying it; Abraham lied. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister. Half-sister though she was, the important truth which Abraham concealed was that she was his wife! If Sarah were only Abraham’s sister, she would be eligible to marry Abimelech. As Sarah’s wife, she was not eligible at all. Abraham lied, and when he was confronted with his lie, he quibbled about technicalities, and failed to fully confess his sin. Abraham, the prophet, lied.
Abraham, the prophet, was a liar. To say that Abraham lied to Abimelech on this one occasion is not enough. Abraham had made it his practice to tell this lie. He had, of course, lied to Pharaoh in the same fashion, many years before this (Genesis 12:10-20). Now, we read in Genesis 20 that he has lied again. But from Abraham’s own words we learn that this was what he did everywhere he went (Genesis 20:13). Lying about Sarah had become a lifestyle.
Abraham, the prophet, involved his wife in his lifestyle of lying. It was not just Abraham who lied to Pharaoh and to Abimelech; Sarah lied as well. Abraham had conspired with Sarah to lie wherever they went. It was not Sarah who proposed this deception, but Abraham. Nevertheless, she went along with it.
Abraham, the prophet, seeks to minimize and rationalize his sin of lying to Abimelech. In effect, he tells Abimelech that he felt he had to lie because this king and his people were pagans. He tells Abimelech that he thought there was “no fear of God in this place.” It was one thing for Abraham to tell the truth where men were civilized, but here in this “God-forsaken” (in his mind) place, what else could he do? After having unsuccessfully attempted to transfer some of the blame for his deception to Abimelech and the people of Gerar, Abraham next seeks to minimize his sin by claiming that his words were partially true. It is as though Abraham had said, “Well, it all depends on how you define the word ‘sister.’” Sarah was his half-sister, so didn’t this make his words a ‘half-truth’? Not really. The issue was not whether Sarah was in some way related to Abraham, but whether she was his wife. By claiming that Sarah was his “sister,” Abraham was also implying that she was not his wife. One does not walk away from this story feeling good about Abraham. His words sound more like regret than repentance.
Abraham’s lie stemmed from his lack of faith in God. “Situational ethics” is not a modern invention. Abraham practiced “situational ethics” in his day. Abraham had concluded that “there was no fear of God” in that place, and thus he reasoned that God was not able to keep him, and Sarah. Abraham’s lack of faith prompted him to conclude that he had to resort to pagan devices (deception) in order to survive. In this situation, Abraham reasoned, he had to lie. It was his only way to survive. Abraham is certainly lacking in faith here.
How ironic this story is. Does Abraham think that because they are in this distant, pagan place there is no “fear of God”? Does he conclude that this distance shortens the hand of the sovereign God? God seals every womb in the land, and strikes terror in the hearts of Abimelech and his people. The hand of God was surely not shortened by distance.
From a human point of view, Abraham’s lie put the promised “seed” of Abraham and Sarah at risk. There is an even more serious transgression here. Twenty years earlier, Abraham had lied to Pharaoh and was taught a very painful lesson. But when he lied this time, it was worse. For one thing, he should have learned his lesson earlier, after his painful experience in Egypt. But in addition to this, God has just recently made a very specific promise to Abraham and Sarah, which Abraham’s actions appeared to jeopardize.
20 “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” 22 Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham (Genesis 17:20-22, emphasis mine).
9 Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 He said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. 12 Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” 13 And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ 14 “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son” (Genesis 18:9-14, NASV, emphasis mine).
Genesis 20 must have occurred shortly after the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah in chapter 18. If this is so, then Abraham and Sarah now knew for certain that God was going to give them a child. Abraham was to be the biological father, and Sarah the biological mother. The promised “seed” would not be a child born of Hagar (Genesis 16), nor the child of some slave (Genesis 15:3). The time that Abraham and Sarah were in Gerar must have been the time when Sarah was to conceive. And yet, at this very time, Abraham passes his wife off as his sister, and the result is that Sarah is about to be found in Abimelech’s honeymoon suite, rather than in Abraham’s bed. Knowing what Abraham now knew (that he and Sarah were about to conceive the child of promise), Abraham’s lie is even more incredible.
Abraham’s lie put the lives and well-being of many others at risk. Abraham’s deceit certainly put his wife at risk. And, as we have shown, it certainly appeared to put the promised seed at risk. But his lie also had a very adverse impact on the people of Gerar. Abraham was called to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth”:
1 Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. 2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine).
Abraham’s lie was no “blessing” to Abimelech or to his people. It put them all at risk. God told Abimelech he was as good as dead for taking Abraham’s wife. Something happened to all the women of the land so that they were not able to conceive. In addition, God did something to Abimelech.4 I believe that God incapacitated him sexually. This not only meant that Sarah would be unable to conceive, it meant that Abimelech and Sarah never had sex, and never would have! What a curse Abraham’s presence was to these people. It was only when Abraham began to behave like the prophet he was that he was profitable to the people of Gerar.
From this story of Abraham and Sarah we can see a number of principles, which apply to all prophets. Let me conclude by identifying some of them:
Prophets are not perfect, and they are not always pious. It should be unnecessary to say this, but unfortunately it is often assumed that one’s prosperity, spiritual gifts, or religious office is proof of his or her spiritual status. In Corinth, it was assumed that possessing certain spiritual gifts made one more pious than those possessing some other gift. The Pharisees assumed that being wealthy was proof of piety. And in a similar way, it is often assumed that anyone who is a prophet must be more pious than someone who isn’t. That’s why we’re so eager for Jonah to repent in the Book of Jonah, even though he does not. It is why we wish to think of Balaam as a believer, when it is virtually certain that he is not. We know that Caiaphas prophesied about the necessity of our Lord’s death, and he most certainly was not a believer (John 11:49-52). This is why we are uncomfortable to find that Abraham is called both a liar and a prophet in the same chapter. Prophets are people,5 and thus we know they are not perfect. We know that God chooses the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27-28), so why should it shock us that some prophets are not all that we would wish they were? Prophets are people; prophets are not perfect. We see this also with Miriam, who is a prophetess (Exodus 15:20).
Prophets are not right in everything they say. There is also the temptation to assume that everything which comes from the mouth of a prophet is true. This is not the case. Prophets are not constantly inspired, so that every word they speak merits a “Thus saith the Lord.…” Abraham was not speaking the truth about his wife, Sarah. He was not even fully truthful about his deception. Nathan, the prophet, was wrong to give David the “go ahead” concerning the building of the temple (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). If we were to ask the wife of any prophet, they would be the first to tell us that their husband was not always right.
Prophets are not always correct in what they think. Abraham thought that there was no fear of God in Gerar. He was wrong. He thought that if he did not lie about Sarah, he would be killed, and his wife would be taken. Once again, Abraham was wrong. Abraham thought that his wife Sarah would save him by lying about her identity. Again, Abraham was wrong. Abraham’s thoughts about the future were not based on faith, but on fear. A prophet is not always right in his opinions or in his statements. A prophet is right only when he is under the direct control of the Holy Spirit, so that God is speaking directly through the prophet.
Prophets do not just speak to men for God; they also speak to God for men. When God communicated with Abimelech, He did so directly—that is, through a dream—and not through Abraham. God did not say to Abimelech, “Abimelech, I have a message for you, and I will communicate it through Abraham. Ask him what I have to say to you.” Abraham communicates very little truth to Abimelech, but he makes a lot of excuses. When God introduced Abraham as a prophet, it was because he had a prophetic task for him to do. This prophetic task was not to speak to Abimelech for God, but to speak to God for Abimelech.
We see Abraham doing this earlier, in Genesis 18, when he interceded for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. We see it now when Abraham intercedes with God for the healing of Abimelech and his people. We see it in Daniel, who prays for the restoration of his people (Daniel 9:1-19). We see it when Elijah prayed—first for the rains to cease, and then for the rains to start (see James 5:16-18). We see it when Moses interceded for the Israelites (Exodus 32:11-14). While prophets do speak to men for God, they also speak to God for men. They are intercessors; they are, at least in a sense, mediators.
In this introductory lesson, we have sought to show why a study of the prophets is profitable. The prophets are not only “speakers,” they are “seers” (1 Samuel 9:9)—they see things more clearly, and thus they enable us to see spiritual truths more clearly as well. They not only speak to men for God, they speak to God on men’s behalf. They are far from perfect, and their every word is not a “Thus saith the Lord…” They do have much to say to us, and we can learn from them, both from their content and from their methods of communication.
As we conclude, I would like to do so by asking a final question: “Why did God identify Himself with Abraham here, and why did God choose to identify Abraham as a prophet at this point in time?” I hate to admit it, but if I had been God, I would have kept silent. I would not have owned Abraham as one of my saints. And I most certainly would not have indicated to Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet. Imagine it! At the very moment in time when Abraham had shown himself to be a liar, God called him a prophet. Why would God choose to identify with such a sinner before a pagan king?
God did not identify with Abraham because he had lived so well or spoken so truthfully. God identified with Abraham to save him, because of his sin. Abraham had lied to Abimelech. He had deceived this king. He had put Abimelech and all his people at risk. All things being equal, I think it is safe to say that Abimelech would have killed Abraham for his wickedness. One thing prevented this—God identified Himself with Abraham. God made it clear that Abraham was one of His, and that any harm done to Abraham or his wife would have serious repercussions. It was God’s identification with Abraham that saved him from the consequences of his sins.
Indeed, why would God ever choose to identify Himself with sinners? But this is exactly what He did in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh, adding sinless humanity to His undiminished deity. He chose to identify with us in our sin in order to save us. Our Lord bore the penalty for our sins personally, when He died on the cross of Calvary. It is only by our identification with Him that we are saved from the penalty of our own sins. Our Lord Jesus was not just a prophet; He was the Prophet. It is He who has spoken finally and fully to men for God. It is He who is currently in heaven, speaking to God for men. Have you trusted in Him as your Savior? He not only spoke the truth; He is the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father in heaven except through Him (John 14:6).
1 I have had several responses to this introduction, pointing out that the official web site of Stanford University has a different explanation of the origin of the university. I was not able to verify the accuracy of the account I have given, because it came to me as an undocumented e-mail message. The reader should therefore assume this story to be fictional, unless otherwise verified.
4 In Genesis 20:17, we read that God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maids. Thus, I must conclude that while the divinely ordained affliction kept the wives of Gerar from conceiving, it also kept Abimelech from having sexual relations altogether.