Tuesday, April 10, 2007

El Shaddai and His Suzerainty Treaty

Genesis 17 is a crucial chapter for our understanding of what's happening in the Bible. But this is a chapter which raises all kinds of issues. In fact, even many Bible believing Christians disagree on many of the issues raised in this chapter. I believe God has some wonderful truths to reveal in this chapter. Let's read the text...

Read: Genesis Chapter 17

We are not going to deal with the whole chapter. We will leave the subject of circumcision for another time. But, apart from the significance of that sign, there are at least two powerful lessons for us to learn from this chapter...

I. God Sets The Terms of His Covenant.

We live in a day in which most "everything is negotiable". If you don't like something, just hold out for a better deal! Because that is such a widespread reality, we sometimes have difficulty understanding the nature of God's Covenant. As God presents His covenant, it is not like a labor contract, where everyone sits down at the negotiating table and works out an arrangement which is acceptable to all.

Instead, God's Covenant is more like an ancient suzerainty treaty

That is a treaty made by a big, powerful king with his weak, little neighbor. In such a treaty the strong king offers his protection, imposes his governing, and demands whatever he pleases (normally obedience and taxes) from the weak king. Of course the weak king has a choice:
He can surrender to the control of the strong king and enjoy his protection, Or, he can refuse and suffer the consequences. What he cannot do is renegotiate the terms of the treaty or covenant.

Now, that's how God deals with Abram in this chapter. In verse 1, God just appears and lays out the term of Abram's relationship to Him. "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless!"

The Lord claims total sovereignty, and expects Abram to relinquish his control of his life and do what God says! In fact, in those first eight verses, God says, "I will..." no less than seven times:

I will confirm my covenant...
I will greatly increase your numbers...
I will make you very fruitful...
I will make nations of you...
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant...
I will give as [you] an everlasting possession ...
I will be God [to your descendants] ...

And then in verse 9, God begins to say, "you must..." But, when we look for what exactly Abram must do, we find that his obedience is to be unconditional!

Christian Author Derek Kidner notes:

"The striking feature of the stipulations is their lack of detail. To be committed was all... The implications could be left unwritten (until Sinai), for [Abram] was pledged to a Master, only secondarily to a way of life."

Certainly, God promises some wonderful blessings here, but make no mistake... God set the terms of His covenant! That's one of the differences between chapter 15 and chapter 17.
In chapter 15, God privately enters into covenant with Abram and makes it very clear that His covenant is all of grace. Remember, God taking the covenant making walk down the corridor between the dismembered sacrifices – all alone, while Abram was helpless. Pure grace!

But here in chapter 17, God publicly confirms that covenant that he has made, giving a covenant sign, and now, the emphasis is not primarily on His grace, but on His sovereignty. God alone sets the terms of His covenant. Now, the truth is, we want a God of grace who will have mercy on us in the face of our failures. Abraham undoubtedly did too, for he had miserably failed the Lord in the affair with Hagar, right after God made such a wonderful covenant with him. But, most of us do not want a God who claims complete control over us.

Dr. Iain Duguid says it so clearly:

"Many people think they can decide what God will be like. They want to pick and choose what they will believe and what they will do – and they certainly don't want a God who makes too many demands on them. "My God isn't like that,' they sill tell you. In other words, they don't want a God who is God.

"The real question, however is not what you would like God to be like, but what he is really like. And he has revealed himself as the God who has made a covenant with his people. When the great king comes and offers to establish a covenant with you, you really have only two choices: you can accept the covenant relationship on his terms and receive its benefits, or you can refuse it and face the consequences."

But, God sets the terms of His covenant. Oh, I do not want to minimize God's grace in any way.
God's covenant is all of grace, or we have nothing, for none of us could stand on our own holiness. But the God of all grace, does claim absolute sovereignty over his people. When he says "I will be your God and you will be my people," He means it! He intends to be in the driver's seat – to be God to us! And that means we had better expect some changes! Think of the changes God immediately brought to Abram and Sarai. He changed their names.

Someone has said that a person's own name is the sweetest word in the world to their ears. Nothing is more personal, and strikes at our very identity, than our name! And God changed them! Changed Abram to Abraham and changed Sarai to Sarah.

Now, in the case of Abraham, though it seems like a minor addition, it was not small thing.
The name Abram meant "father of many." We can only imagine how many times someone asked Abram, "Oh, how many?" And for years he had to say, "none." Now, fortunately, at least he had Ishmael! But God says, "No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham..."

Abraham means "Father of a multitude!" Can you just imagine when Abraham announced this to his family? "Hey, I'm changing my name." "It's about time," some of his friends may have thought. "Enough of this Father of many. The guy is 99 years old, already!'

"So, Abram, what's the new name?" "From now on, you can call me, Father of a multitude!" Can you hear the laughter?! But you see, no matter how ridiculous it might have seemed to others, God sets the terms of His Covenant! I challenge you with this, for so often we are willing to have God's grace to bring us forgiveness, but we do not want him messing with our life! But, there is no such place to stand!

Our only hope is God's Covenant of Grace which He has brought to fulfillment in Jesus. But, he sets the terms of that covenant, And the terms are real simple: Hand over the reins of your life to the Savior! But that's not the only change God brought to Abraham. He also commanded him to be circumcised. Now, we are not going to get into circumcision now, except to make this point. If you think your name is personal, and changing it would be painful, think of this!

Iain Duguid again:

"This was faith that penetrated even to the most personal areas of Abraham's life in a most painful way."

How deeply does your faith penetrate your life? For so many, it only affects Sunday mornings. Few even worship on Sunday evening. Fewer still are known for their faithfulness to Christ at work. And even among those who everyone knows to be exemplary Christians ...

There are private relationships, evil thoughts, sinful motives, secret sins that are off limits even to the Lord Himself! No, nothing is off limits. He intends to change us profoundly, from the inside out! That's the great mandate of Romans 12: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God And be not conformed to this world, But be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

There is no limit to that transformation which God has in mind. For this He sent His Son: to make you holy, through and through! Or, as He said to Abraham: "Walk before me and be blameless!" and, Abram fell face down in humility before the Lord! God sovereignly has set the terms of covenant faithfulness! Oh, but there is another great truth here – as encouraging as this one is penetrating...

II. God Is Able To Do What He Promised.

As we get older and wiser, we tend to lower our expectations. It's easy to begin to "flatten" God's promises – to take the supernatural, outrageous, radical element out, and "tame" them down to expectations we can understand, or even guarantee with the resources at hand.
But, here, we learn that God's ways are greater than our ways – His plans are beyond even our wildest dreams. ...at least they were for Abraham! Here we are reminded that God is able to do what He says! This truth first confronts us in the very first verse:

"The LORD appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty..."

The name God calls himself is actually "El Shaddai" – here translated "God Almighty" This is the very first time this name for God is used in the Bible. Why? What does it add to this discussion?

Well, this name of God speaks of His Might, over against the frailty of man. It has been literally translated, "God who is sufficient!" – El Shaddai

The great O.T. scholar Franz Delitzsch claims that El Shaddai designates...

"the God who compels nature to do what is contrary to itself and subdues it to bow and minister to grace."

In the very name by which God introduces Himself to Abraham, even before He says anything else God makes the point that He is able to do what He says! Now, this is important for throughout this passage, God intends to promise the impossible! For example: Years ago, God had promised Abram land and descendants – that's old news. But now, God promises, "I will make nations of you and kings will come from you" (vs. 6) Sarah "will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." (Vs 16) And for how long? "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant..."

And this wasn't just about Abraham's direct descendants, according to vs. 12,13, God intended to include every servant born in his house, everyone bought from a foreigner, even "those who are not your offspring." In other words, this blessing on the nations was intended to include the Gentiles from the very beginning! This was more than just a family thing! Furthermore, God was not satisfied with just using natural processes. You see, Abraham was perfectly happy with his son Ishmael, now thirteen years old. Surely God had given him this son through Hagar now, he had an heir and he was content. But God said, no, I will indeed bless Ishmael...

But my promises will be supernaturally carried out through the son which will be born to Sarah! Born to Sarah when she is ninety, and Abraham is 100! For, the covenant cannot be by Ishmael, for then it would have depended on man, working out God's promises. But God's covenant is not dependant on man's ingenuity or clever maneuvering. God is able to accomplish what He promised! Natural processes are not an obstacle to Him; He created them! His covenant is all His way, and all His power. What God made clear to Abraham concerning His Mighty Power – the power of El Shaddai, God Almighty – applies to us as well. I remind you of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "It is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes."

Now, that's important, for too often the promise of the gospel has been "flattened". Its promise has been distorted and reduced down to something more manageable. But, God has not just promised that he would make us feel better about ourselves. A hot shower will do that! Nor has God just promised to make us nice, middleclass families. A good income and decent education might do that. Nor has God just promised to make us more prosperous than those who are not His people. It's just not true! Jesus wasn't rich and you probably won't be either.

No, what God has promised is infinitely greater – greater than anything you or I could pull off by our own power and scheming. God has promised to remove the guilt of our sin for ever! – not just our guilt feelings, but the actual condemnation! God has promised to give us a new, spiritual life – reborn inside – a brand new creature in Christ Jesus. God has promised that He Himself, in the person of His Holy Spirit, will come and dwell within us all our days. God has promised that He will join us to His other new creatures, in a family relationship richer and stronger than blood ties! God has promised that death itself can no longer defeat His people, for we will live forever with Him. Death will be swallowed up by life.

Indeed, this is not just a spiritual thing, our physical bodies will rise from the dead to live forever in a new heaven and new earth. And God has promised that all the things he brings into our lives right now are working toward that goal – the day we will stand before him perfectly conformed to Jesus Christ. Now, you can manufacture a lot of religion – a lot of good Christian religion. But you cannot any more begin to do even one of those things, than Abraham and Sarah could have a baby when they were 100 years old! Oh, but the LORD – El Shaddai, God Almighty – is able to do everything He promised! He has proved it by the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus.

So, how should we respond? Well, according to vs. 17, when Abraham heard such impossible things, he fell facedown and laughed! But O, this was not laughter of scorn and derision... This was the sheer delight of faith – overwhelmed with joy, knowing and believing, that God was able to do everything He said. We know this was laughter of faith, for the New Testament tells us so.

Listen to the Holy Spirit's commentary in Romans 4:

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah's womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised."

And God said, "By the way, call that child of promise Isaac," which means "Laughter!"
I don't know what promise of God looks so impossible to you today, but the Lord has not changed. He is still El Shaddai! And He is still able to do what he promised!


we have been confronted with the covenant of which circumcision was a sign. This passage doesn't tell us everything about the covenant... That is the unfolding story of the whole Bible.
But this chapter does make a couple of things clear – things which do not change!

1. God sets the terms of His Covenant It is not ours to negotiate. Like Abraham, we must fall on our face in devotion and unquestioning obedience.

2. God is able to do what He promises. He has often told us things which are beyond our comprehension We need not feel any compulsion to reinterpret them – to tame them.

We just need to trust Him – laughing with joy if necessary!

adpated from: http://www.wiserlakechapel.org/17part1.htm

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