"Oh that Ishmael might live before You!" If you look back to the
commencement of Genesis 17, you will get something of the force of
"And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord
appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am God Almighty (El
Shaddai, the Lord all-sufficient); walk before Me, and be thou
perfect. And I will make my covenant between Me and thee, and
will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and
God talked with him, saying, As for Me, behold, My covenant is
with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of
nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram
(exalted father), but thy name shall be called Abraham (father
of a multitude); for the father of a multitude of nations have I
made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will
make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I
will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed
after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting
covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. And
I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of
thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting
possession; and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:1-8 A.R.V.).
And there is more like that later, from verse 15. But that is
enough for the moment to give us the background of this
exclamation, "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!"
After all that the Lord had said, the repeated assurances, the
reiterated "I will", "I will", "I will", the great vista of Divine
intention presented and opened up to Abraham, we might have
expected something rather different as Abraham's response. Such a
vision and such a powerful assurance might have brought from him a
very strong and wholehearted capitulation to the Lord, an
embracing of the Divine intentions. Indeed, we should have been
surprised if Abraham had not got very excited, taken hold of it
all with great enthusiasm, but we find that this is the form of
his reaction: "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!"
Now, before we can get the full force of that, we must think just
a little more widely, and remind ourselves of God's purpose with
Abraham. That purpose with Abraham was all His purpose concerning
His Son, the Lord Jesus, for Abraham had a link back with eternity
past and the Divine counsels in that eternal purpose in Christ,
and Abraham was himself a link between those counsels of God from
eternity and the Lord Jesus Himself and all the realisation of
those counsels in the ages to come. That purpose of God, as we
well know, concerned a heavenly people living in the very fullness
of God, and in relationship with God's Son governing spiritually
in this universe. You find that Abraham is always linked in some
way with the Lord Jesus and God's purpose in and through Him.
In the Gospels you have a fragment which issued from the lips of
the Lord Himself, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and
he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56). Abraham saw the day of the
Lord Jesus and rejoiced. We are never told in the Old Testament
exactly how, when, or where he saw that day, but there is the
statement made by the Lord Jesus. No greater authority can be
found for a statement. Then you pass into the book of the Acts and
come to chapter 7, Stephen's great discourse, beginning with
Abraham, "The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham".
Then Stephen traces from that appearing of the God of glory to
Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, the whole course of Israel's
history right up to the Lord Jesus and links Abraham and the Lord
Jesus as the beginning and end of a Divine history. He points out
that the whole of that history from Abraham onwards, had its
consummation in Christ, and Stephen brought home to the Jewish
rulers responsibility for the whole history. "Ye stiff-necked
and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the
Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do ye" (Acts 7:51),
bringing home to them that God's history from Abraham onwards was
all directed to the Lord Jesus, and found its fullness of meaning
in Him, and they had slain Him. They were responsible for all
You pass from Acts into Romans, and you know what a large place
Abraham has in the early chapters of Romans, especially chapter 4.
There you have Abraham's faith on the basis of resurrection over
against the impossibility of nature, issuing in righteousness
which is the righteousness of Christ, and so linking a spiritual
seed by faith with the Lord Jesus on the ground of absolute
justification. You see Abraham there figuring again as the link
with the Lord Jesus by faith for a spiritual seed in acceptance
So you go on and you come to Hebrews. You know the place that
Abraham has there in chapter 12. The point is that, beginning with
Abel, faith is set forth in all, and in Abraham faith was related
to God's end, God's great purpose in Christ. And faith is that
which brings to God's end and its realisation. There is Abraham
figuring largely in that again.
Now you see that Abraham is a very important link with God's full
thought and purpose, which is heavenly, spiritual, and eternal.
Unto that Abraham was called and all that was bound up with that
and issuing from that of universal blessing and a people dwelling
in the full light of the Divine favour and so much more, but that
is enough for the present purpose. Now, unto all that, Abraham was
called, for that he was chosen and apprehended of God. God came
and said that to him, summed it all up in a few sentences, with
this repetition of assurance, "I will", "I will", "I will", "thou
shalt". Abraham comes back on all that with "Oh that Ishmael
might live before You!" Why? Why such a drop? Why such a
I venture to say that that exclamation of Abraham's has had an
echo in the heart of everyone who has been called in the way of
Abraham, and I venture to say that it has found an echo in our
hearts too at some time. Why? Because of the exceeding difficulty
of that way to the flesh. All that had to be realised
without any human hope of realisation, all that had to be
accomplished without there being anything in nature to guarantee
it. For its realisation and accomplishment, man who is chosen in
relation to it will be stripped stark of everything that in
himself could give any hope or help whatsoever and that is the
difference between Ishmael and Isaac. You see, the situation is a
very difficult one. Abraham is ninety-nine years old; Sarah, his
wife, is aged. The situation is a hopeless one, a humanly
impossible one. There is nothing in the whole realm of men that
forms a precedent for such a thing. There is nothing known in the
realm of man by nature which can justify any hope of this; that
can form a basis for any assurance of this. It is out of man's
hands, out of man's wisdom, outside of man's ability, mind, heart,
will, spirit, soul, body. All is at an utter discount.
But Ishmael is something different; Ishmael is something that I
can do. Ishmael is in my hands, Ishmael is something that I can
see, that I can grasp with my senses, that I can understand.
Ishmael, yes, is something which I can produce. This other - how
unreal, how intangible, how uncertain, how impossible! Ishmael?
There is not very much difficulty along the line of Ishmael.
Ishmael is a fairly simple proposition. Ishmael's is a straight
course, no tortuous, winding, labyrinthine way of spiritual
experience in all mystery and bewilderment and strange dealings of
God. None of that about Ishmael; it is straightforward and
immediate, we can get through at once. That is only another way of
saying: "Oh that I might be saved from this way of faith, this
heavenly way of the unseen and the intangible and without any
precedent. Everybody else goes the way of Ishmael. I am called to
go a way so different from the way which everybody else is called.
Mine is a way that no one else has ever been called upon to take!"
Abraham might well have said all that; it would have been true. A
strange way! So different from all the way that all others have
gone! Surely it cannot be right? There is something about this
that is not safe, is not sound. "Oh that Ishmael might live
before You!", he is a fairly sound, solid proposition to
human reason! That is the position.
It is in that way that this echo is found in the heart of those
who are called into God's purpose with which Abraham is linked,
for it is the same purpose. We are in exactly the same thing as
Abraham was chosen for. It is that eternal purpose which is in
Christ Jesus. Have we not all at some time in the way of faith's
testing concerning God's call, God's apprehending of us, God's
heavenly purpose, God's eternal, spiritual purpose - not in these
words exactly, but in the same sentiments, said, "Oh that
Ishmael might live before You!" "Oh, that I might be able to
serve and work for God as the majority do! This is so different!
Oh that I might be able to do that which will show something for
my energy, for my life, something that I can have in hand now."
You remember what Paul said (and we missed Galatians when we were
talking about Abraham). He puts his finger upon the principle,
using the principle in this specific way, as law and grace: "This
Hagar is mount Sinai... the Jerusalem that now is" (Gal.
4:25). The Jerusalem that now is, and when faith is tried, it is
tried on the point of that which is not seen, which we do not
possess now, that which calls for a faith that, although we may
not see it in our lifetime, it shall be. But "Oh that Ishmael
might live before You!" means, "Oh, to have something now, to have
it now! This indefiniteness, this postponement, this call for
patience in faith, steadfast endurance unto the end..." - "after
you have done the will of God, you have need of patience."
And we come back under the pressure, "Oh that Ishmael might
live before You!" "Oh that he might be acceptable to You!
Oh, that this which is not such a difficult way might be the
acceptable way of the Lord for me!" You know that you can put that
in many ways.
One of the difficulties in this matter is that, whereas we might
step out as Abraham did into the purpose of God in faith - and it
may be a costly act, the very stepping out, the decision to move
out on this basis with God in faith - it requires a very much
stronger faith to occupy and to stand on the ground, than it does
to step on to it. You can take a step in faith and find yourself
somewhere that is not quite so difficult. It may be in a big
crisis, it may be a great difficulty, it may mean a big change,
but comparatively speaking, it is not so difficult to make the
step with God as it is to hold that position indefinitely when
once you have stepped on to it.
To step out on to a heavenly ground is one thing, and it may mean
a big step, but then there are all the reactions which come back
afterwards, all the people who are not on that ground and do not
agree with that ground at all! They say, "Let us be doing
something, let us be showing something!" "Oh that Ishmael might
live before You!" They have their Ishmaels, and Ishmaels are
real living propositions to the senses, and what have you got?
Well, you have got a promise, and what have you got to guarantee
it? Look at yourself, look at your circumstances, look at
everything around you, look at all that there is from which you
would naturally expect something to come. What have you got? Not
only nothing, but no prospect. You have only got the Lord, you
have only got the Word of the Lord. You have only got somewhere
down deeper in you than perhaps you realise at present: the
knowledge that the Lord told you so. When you come back to things,
you have to ask, "Now, was it someone else? - was it other people?
- where did it come from? No, it was the Lord, I can never go back
on that. The Lord gave me that guidance, showed me that purpose."
That is all you have got to go upon. That is just it. The Lord,
and perhaps the Lord in our hearts by a word, an assurance, a
call, a leading, a vision, over against everybody and every other
way of doing the Lord's work, the Ishmael way. You see how
important it would be to enlarge upon the difference between
Ishmael and Isaac and what they represent. I am not going to do
that now. You can go back to that.
We know, if we are going to turn in the direction of Ishmael, we
shall have an Ishmael on our hands, that is, we will have to take
responsibility for what we produce. Abraham found himself in a
very awkward predicament over Ishmael. Ishmael was his alternative
to a way of true faith in God; that was something of himself to
help God out, and he had Ishmael on his hands, something for which
he had to take responsibility. Isaac was never on Abraham's hands,
he was on God's hands. God took responsibility there in a
marvellous way. "In Isaac shall thy seed be called" (Gen.
21:12). My covenant is with Isaac. God is committed to Isaac, not
to Ishmael, as to His eternal purpose.
Now, this has many ways of legitimate application. It is not our
intention to try and make this application now, but to suggest a
principle. Here are two things: the way of Ishmael and the way of
Isaac, the way of the earthly and the way of the heavenly, the way
of man and the way of God, the way of doing something for God and
the way of God doing His own work through us. There is the way of
the things seen and the way of the things unseen; the way of the
possible to us and the way of the impossible to us. It is the way
of liberty as to God's full purpose, for Ishmael is in bondage -
that is Paul's word - "This Hagar... is in bondage with her
children"; the way of full liberty in relation to God's
ultimate purpose or the way of limitation, and we know it quite
well. Praise God, some of us have been delivered out of that way,
but as we look back we remember the awful limitation in spirit in
the things of God when we were working in that organised realm of
things in which the majority of Christian people are doing
something on the earth for God, running things for God. Oh yes, we
had the Ishmael on our hands right enough! He was our
responsibility, but oh! the sense of limitation and bondage
spiritually. Whatever may be our sense of limitation now, it is
not spiritual limitation. We have an open heaven; we have the
universe of God opened to us. Our limitation now is only along the
line of our imprisonment to the Lord, that we can only do what the
Lord allows us to do and tells us to do; nothing of ourselves. We
remember the Ishmael line, how we groaned and groaned against that
line of things. God has set us free.
Well, here are two alternatives, two ways. Now, do you feel
sometimes like that? Oh, this is a difficult way the Lord has
called us to, an impossible way, and along this way few there are
that agree with us, who understand, who believe that we can be
right. The majority take the other way and strongly so. Do you
sometimes feel, "Oh that Ishmael might live before You! Oh, that
it might only be acceptable to God to take that way!" May the Lord
strengthen our faith that we may not fail of the heavenly calling.
Edited and supplied by the Golden Candlestick Trust.