1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And 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, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all who are yours.”
8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'”
14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
What’s the most number of times you’ve ever committed the same sin; a sin which you knew was a sin and had already suffered some measure of its consequences? Is it in the double digits? Triple? Quadruple? Well, in our passage for this morning we find Abraham in round two. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was a pretty notable sin. For a second time he led his wife into almost the exact same sin of deception and marital unfaithfulness (12:10-20). He tried, once again, to pass his wife off as his sister to avoid being harmed by a pagan ruler. Worse yet, as we’ll see, this was Abraham’s premeditated plan from the beginning (13). Right on the cusp of the birth of the promised son, Abraham and Sarah found one more way to test God’s patience and promise.
Through this repeat offense and the events that follow, however, we’re given a handful of vital lessons; lessons on the nature of worldly wisdom, God’s unbreakable promises, ultimate and immediate justice, God’s design for prayer in the life of the faithful, and we even get a step-by-step guide to repentance.
The main points that I want to draw your attention to in all of this are that (1) living by worldly wisdom is always foolish, (2) living according to God’s design is always wise, and (3) God’s promises, by God’s grace will never fail. Let’s pray that God would be pleased to grant us true understanding and true transformation as we engage this text.
ABRAHAM CONTINUES TO WANDER (1-2)
The last two chapters, 18-19, showed us a contrast between Lot who had a house in Sodom and Abraham who had a tent in Mamre. Lot had made a home while Abraham wandered as he awaited the fulfillment of the promise. This chapter picks up with a wandering Abraham.
Wandering Geographically (1)
He was wandering geographically.
1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. …
As best as we can tell, this means that Abraham set up his camp at the southeastern border of the Promised Land. He was close, but God had not yet handed it over. We are meant to see in this a metaphor of our own lives. Lot made himself comfortable in a pagan land while Abraham chose to endure difficulty as he awaited the home God promised. That’s our choice as well. One will be easier in the short-term but devastating in the long-run. The other will be much more difficult in the short-term but great beyond measure in the eternal run. How about it, Grace? Are you living like Lot, at home in this world, or are you living like Abraham, holding loosely to the things of earth as you await your true home?
Wandering Morally (2)
That Abraham was wandering geographically was an expression of his hope in God. But Abraham wasn’t only wandering geographically, he was also wandering morally..
2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.
As I mentioned in the introduction, this wasn’t Abraham’s first attempt at this stunt. Back in chapter 12 we saw that he did the same thing with Pharaoh in Egypt. It’s comical and almost impossible to imagine what kind of woman Sarah must have been. Even at 90 years old, everywhere she went the most powerful rulers in the world wanted her to be their wife. Likewise, if Abraham’s obstinacy wasn’t so tragic, it too would be comical. How could he be so foolish to try the same ridiculous routine after needing to be rescued by God from it the last time.
Abraham kept falling into the same traps of worldly wisdom. He cared more about his own safety and comfort than the well-being of his wife or the promises of God (to say nothing of the death sentence he put on those he was trying to trick). Do you ever make choices like that? Do you ever take the ungodly path because it’s easier? Is there any way you are doing that now? If so, learn from this story. A life lived based on hope in God is always infinitely greater (not to say easier) than a life of worldly wisdom.
GOD SPEAKS TO ABIMELECH (3-7)
Well, again, just like Pharaoh, Abimelech king of Gerar, was so smitten by Sarah that he took her to be his wife.
God’s Condemnation and Warning (3)
3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”
Though covenant-hope was something Abraham was fine letting go whenever it was convenient, God was not so reckless or fickle. God had given His word concerning the land and the child and He was determined (as He is with every one of His promises) to make it come to pass. Thus, in no uncertain terms, God (through a dream) condemned Abimelech to death for the adultery he was about to commit and the resulting covenant damage he would inflict. “You are a dead man” are not words that you want to hear from anyone, much less from God.
Abimelech’s Defense (4-5)
To this charge, however, Abimelech claimed both ignorance and innocence.
4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.”
Three things must be said about this. First, mankind is never truly innocent and so God is never unjust in putting us to death. In fact, ultimate justice requires our death. In that way, because we’ve all sinned, we will all die; either in Christ or in hell. Second, ignorance is never an excuse. Ignorance of God’s will is sin. Likewise, forgetting God’s will is a sin. Thus, “I didn’t know” or “I forgot” do not exonerate our sins, they are additional sins. And third, which we’ll see plainly in the next two verses, although ultimately justice means we have no case before God (point #1), that does not mean that God is indifferent to temporal, inter-personal injustices in the world. The fact that vertical justice must prevail doesn’t negate horizontal justice in the least. Temporal justice is the heart of Abraham’s plea for any “righteous” in Sodom in chapter 18 and Abimelech’s plea before God here.
In other words, although Abimelech stood condemned before God in the greatest sense, in the issue at hand he had a case. In a very real way, he was the victim of injustice in this situation and it was right of him to bring this before God (as it is for us as well; we should pray to God about injustices we see). Whatever else he was guilty of before God and man, Abimelech was not planning to commit adultery with Sarah. He had been deceived.
God’s Intervention (6-7)
Given all of this, we’re left wondering how God would respond. Because He is just, He cares about justice on every level. Thus,
6 …God said to [Abimelech] in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all who are yours.”
We see here that God worked to prevent Abraham’s injustice from two would-be consequences. First, God worked to protect Abimelech from committing adultery under false pretenses. And second, God worked to protect the purity of the covenant. To the first, God acknowledged the “integrity of [Abimelech’s] heart”. Further, God kept Abimelech from sinning and therefore from its consequences. What amazing grace this is for a pagan king. What a remarkable display of justice this is.
And to the second, we see that God not only meant to preserve and accomplish His purposes and plans, He also meant to do so through a holy people; and that meant protecting Abraham and Sarah from themselves.
In addition, we must see that God refers to Abimelech’s potential adultery as a sin against God (“I …kept you from sinning against me”). Again, we must remember that every sin is first against God. This has really important implications for our handling of our sins. We’ll come to this more at the end, but here I want to point out that because of this: 1) There are no small sins, and 2) It is never right to leave sin undealt with; that is, unrepented of.
In response, then, God called Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham and hope that Abraham would intervene in prayer on his behalf. If Abimelech refused to repent or Abraham refused to pray, Abimelech and all his family would be (justly) destroyed by God. Such is always the case with sin. From the first time we heard these words in the garden (2:17), through Abraham’s time, even to today, if you sin you will surely die. We have all sinned and therefore our only hope is God’s intervening grace.
Perhaps most importantly, then, in all of this we see that although Abimelech acted in this matter with greater integrity and honor than did Abraham, God’s favor is not based on our righteousness, but His sovereign grace. Abraham’s faithlessness put the covenant “in danger,” but God worked to ensure its success. Abraham was willing to trade obedience and covenant fulfillment for safety, but God refused to trade anything for His covenant faithfulness. It’s never been more clear than right here that if the covenant was going to be fulfilled it would be because God did it according to His grace.
ABIMELECH REPENTS (8-18)
In other words, in the sins of Abraham and Abimelech we’re reminded of the fact that we are saved by grace, through faith. That is, our salvation is a gift from God that we receive in faith. The kind of faith that the bible talks about is like a coin in that it has two sides. Biblical faith has belief on one side and repentance on the other. God requires that we believe in Him and repent of our sin (that we have faith) if we are to know forgiveness of sins and fellowship with Him. This means that having a clear understanding of belief and repentance is absolutely critical.
In another sermon I’ll talk more about the belief required by faith (which Abraham had and Abimelech lacked). In this sermon I mean to talk more about the repentance required by faith (which, ironically and unfortunately, Abimelech possessed and Abraham lacked in this instance). I mean to do this because in the final verses of our passage we’re given a remarkable example of genuine repentance. This really is a gift to us. We need this.
Abimelech Reports His Offense (8)
In v.8, albeit subtly, we see the first two steps to genuine repentance. See if you can identify them.
8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid.
What does repentance look like? First, Abimelech possessed genuine fear of the LORD and second, he acknowledged his sin (publically at that). There is a great deal more that ought to be said about the nature of Abimelech’s fear of the LORD, but the simple fact remains that God threatened him with death on account of his sin and Abimelech believed God enough to fear him and feared him enough to repent. Likewise, there is a lot more to be said about the nature of Abimelech’s acknowledgment of his sin, but the simple fact remains that he acknowledged the wrongness of the sin trajectory he was on. Grace, the beginning of repentance (the faint outline of which we see here) is the fear of the LORD and the acknowledgement of sin against Him.
Abimelech Confronts Abraham (9-10)
Abimelech wasn’t done with his repentance, but in a brief interlude we find an exchange between Abimelech and Abraham that helps us see the contrast between an act of repentance and unrepentance.
9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?”
Abimelech needed to have a conversation with Abraham concerning the injustice Abraham committed against him. His main question was why Abraham had done this unprovoked. Abimelech simply wanted to know what made Abraham think he would mistreat him. Abimelech was not denying the fact that he might have sinned against God apart from God’s help, but he was denying that he’d given Abraham any reason to set him up as he did.
Abraham’s Response (11-13)
This would have been the perfect opportunity for Abraham, the man and prophet of God, to acknowledge his sin and repent himself. Instead, he made excuses.
11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'”
Abraham merely made a worldly, faithless, and fearful excuse for his sin. His worldly-wisdom solution to his fear of Abimelech’s lack of fear of God showed his own lack of fear of God and faith in His promises. What’s more, again, he explained that this had been his plan all along. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Abraham felt conviction or remorse. Likewise, there’s no evidence that he sought Abimelech’s forgiveness for his injustice.
Grace, how often do you confuse an explanation (which all sin has) with an excuse (which no sin has)? How often do you spend vast amounts of time describing the circumstances around your sin rather than turning from it? May we be a people of repentance, not excuses. The kind of repentance that is acceptable to God acknowledges God as God and sin as sin. Abimelech did both, while Abraham did neither. And that leads us to the final section, 14-18, and the final step in true repentance.
Abimelech Makes Restitution with Abraham (14-15)
The third step in repentance is to make restitution to the offended parties. Abimelech did that first with Abraham and second, as we will see, with Sarah.
14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.”
In the way of restitution with Abraham, Abimelech gave him sheep, oxen, servants, and his choice of land. Most importantly, he returned Sarah. Just as there is no real repentance when there is no fear of the LORD or acknowledgement of sin, there is no real repentance when we hold onto the “gains” of our sin. You aren’t truly sorry for stealing if you keep the money. You aren’t truly sorry for lying if you don’t come clean with the truth. And you aren’t truly sorry for taking another man’s wife if you don’t return her to the man. More often than not, the only way we’re able to make restitution is with a godly apology, but that doesn’t negate the need for a godly apology. “In my anger I sinned against you by ___. That was sin and that was wrong. I’m sorry for that. Will you please forgive me?”
Abimelech Makes Restitution with Sarah (16)
Finally, then, Abimelech made restitution not only with Abraham, but also with Sarah.
16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.”
It’s notable that Abimelech showed concern not merely for Abraham and Sarah’s well-being, but also their reputation. He wanted there to be no doubt that Sarah was innocent in all of this. What’s more, God was concerned not only with preserving Abraham and Sarah’s marital purity, but also with their reputation. He would fulfill His covenant promises with a holy people even if doing so required miraculous intervention.
Abraham Prayed for Abimelech (17)
In light of all of this, Abraham prayed for Abimelech as God had required.
17 Then Abraham prayed to God…
I’d love to hit pause here and spend some time talking about how prayer works as this passage reveals a good deal about it. Instead, I’ll content myself by saying a few simple things: 1) Prayer isn’t about informing God. Clearly God already knew everything there was to know about the situation; 2) Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind or forcing His hand. God certainly didn’t need Abraham to pray for Abimelech in order to release him and He is only bound by Himself; and 3) Prayer is a means by which God kindly includes His people in His plans. God chose to work through Abraham’s prayer as a means of blessing Abraham.
These three things are always true of our prayers even though they’re not always as visible as they are here. Here God grants His people—He grants us—the privilege of seeing what happens behind the scenes every time we pray. This is a gift. There’s more to be said on prayer, but there’s not less.
God Accepted Abimelech’s Repentance (18)
This is not to say that Abimelech was a model of godliness in every way. It’s not even to say that he was accepted by God in the larger sense. His “integrity of heart” and “innocence” (5) were in the narrow sense. And yet it is clear that in at least this instance Abimelech feared God, acknowledged his sin, and made restitution for it. Thus, Abraham prayed for Abimelech. And as a result of these things God released Abimelech from his death-sentence.
17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
God is sovereign over all; not somewhat powerful over all or all-powerful over some. He rules over those who acknowledge Him as LORD and those who do not. He was just as in charge of the wombs of the pagan women in Gerar as He was over the womb of covenant Sarah. Likewise, God is able to (temporarily) release the ungodly from the effects of their sins as easily as He is able to rescue the godly from theirs. And God is as able to bring about temporal justice for both the lost as the found. Such is the nature of His sovereignty and common grace.
In conclusion I want to remind you of the main points of the sermon and the fact that the gospel is our hope to respond to them in a manner pleasing to God.
Do you remember the main points of the sermon? (1) Living by worldly wisdom is always foolish, (2) living according to God’s design is always wise, and (3) God’s promises, by God’s grace will never fail. I hope to have helped you see all three of these things clearly in the text.
I hope also to have helped you to see that none of us have truly lived according to them. That is, that all of us have sinned against God by falling short of them. Moreso, and finally, however, I hope to have helped you see that God offers His grace in Christ for all who will have faith in Him…grace to forgive us of our sins, grace to make us friends with God, grace to keep us in our faith, and grace to live with God forever and ever. Amen.