Do you have a vision problem? The book of Proverbs tells us that, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Think back with me for a minute to a time (maybe not so long ago for some of us) when you were hoping/longing/desiring something so much that it felt like your heart was actually sick. Maybe you even felt physically sick. Most of us well know what it’s like to live in a place where our hope is deferred; we know how desperate those moments are.
I want you to take that same mindset and walk through Genesis Chapter 16 with me. We’re going to enter into the real life heart sickness of a woman who’s hope has been deferred for such a long time that she’s lost her ability to really and truly see what is happening.
The promise and the vision problem
Our story picks up after God has made a promise to Abram in Genesis 12 that shapes the whole rest of the book. So take a look at that promise:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of your a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.Genesis 12:1-3
Abram and Sarai have left their homes at God’s direction and now find themselves in Canaan, still without an heir. So God, in His mercy, re-affirms His promise in Genesis 15:5. Abram has heard the promise, but he still has no heir. His hope is deferred. And that is where our story begins.
What we will see as this story unfolds is that Abram and Sarai have a vision problem. They think they see clearly how God’s promise will be fulfilled. But what we actually find is that it is God who sees, God who cares for them, and God who will be faithful. Because God is a God who sees and cares for His people, we can be confident and trust that He will fulfill His promises.
Abram & Sarai’s vision problem
Let’s take a closer look at Gen 16, vv. 1-3. The text clearly tells us that it’s been ten years since Abram and Sarai have come to Canaan. Ten years since the promise of descendants, ten years without a baby, ten years of growing older and hope growing dim. In verse 2, Sarai attributes her barrenness to God “the LORD has prevented me”. In one sense, she grasps God’s sovereignty. But as we’ll find later, that doesn’t always play out in an appropriate way in her life. Barrenness in the ancient Near East was a bit different than it is today. Women who were unable to bear children were looked upon as failures. The inability to have a child was seen as the woman’s fault.
Maybe you have a friend who struggles with infertility, maybe you do. While our culture may not communicate a stigma of barrenness, those of us who have faced that in our own story know the sting. Sarai knows the sting. So she puts forth a remedy. Sarai thinks she sees the way to produce an heir, but she has a vision problem. As unusual, and even a bit creepy, as her suggestion seems, the giving of a servant for a wife in order to obtain an heir was fairly common practice in the ancient Near East. Sarai was merely making a “normal” suggestion to help God fulfill His promise. To “help God” – hmm….there’s the problem. Not in the suggestion to take Hagar and obtain an heir, but in the desire to help God make good on His promise.
Are we ever tempted to do that? We’ve prayed for something, we’re not sure what to do…maybe we “phone a friend” for some “wisdom” and then we hatch a plan, no, wait, we “feel led” to act in a certain way to make sure we get what we want……The God who sovereignly prevented Sarai from bearing children is also sovereignly able to grant her children. He doesn’t need her help. And He doesn’t need ours either. And to make matters worse, what does Abram do? He doesn’t see a problem, and he goes along with the plan.
Hagar’s vision problem
And now the plan has been agreed, can you guess what happens next? Is anyone surprised that this plan goes badly? While the “slave wife to get an heir” plan was not uncommon, the troubles it produced were in fact so common that the ancient cultures actually wrote into law the means for sorting out all the chaos. Hagar is now the one with the vision problem – she sees that she’s pregnant and “sees” Sarai with contempt. Clearly the inability to produce an heir was not Abram’s problem. The wound of deferred hope goes a little deeper for Sarai and so she responds as so many of us do, with the blame game. She shifts things over to Abram (conveniently forgetting that the plan was her idea in the first place) and even calls for the LORD to judge. God in His mercy, does not. Abram refuses to to own any part in this domestic squabble and leaves Sarai to sort things out herself.
God does not have a vision problem
And so Hagar flees. Shur is on the way from Canaan to Egypt. Hagar, the Egyptian slave is going home. She’s pregnant, she’s alone, and she’s in the wilderness. Her chances of making it to Egypt are not good. She is in need of a rescuer, and that’s just who she encounters. This passage is the first appearance we have of “the angel of the LORD” in the Old Testament. Most commentators agree that this “angel of the LORD” is indeed God Himself, perhaps the pre-incarnate Christ. We see Him making promises as God, foretelling the future as God, and Hagar herself in verse 13 recognizes and refers to Him as God. This is a supernatural encounter.
What does God do first? He calls her by name, by station and then He asks her a question. She is Hagar, she has a name, He knows her name. I have a friend who works as a telemarketer…I know, cue the groans. Nobody likes telemarketers, and my friend knows that. She has grown accustomed to people being rude and hanging up on her. But every once in awhile, someone remembers her name and uses it politely to end the conversation. She says that phone call will keep her going for the rest of her shift. Just to know that someone called her by name. Imagine God calling you by name.
But in his address, God also refers to her as “servant of Sarai”. He knows. He knows Hagar is running away; He knows who she is supposed to be serving. But He is so gentle in His rebuke – He asks the question about where she’s been and where she’s headed. She answers without any attempt to dodge. I find what God does next to be a bit striking – He commands her to return and submit. What? Go back? As bad as it is with Sarai, it is her only hope – she is a runaway, pregnant slave alone in the wilderness. Sometimes, God calls us to go into hard places and to do hard things. But Hagar is not without some hope of protection.
God makes promises to Hagar in vv. 10-12 that give her some measure of reassurance that He will protect her, that He will be with her. In fact, the promises are oddly reminiscent of the promises given to Abram in Gen 12 and 15. Wait…could this be the child of the promise? God in His mercy does not judge Hagar for fleeing, He doesn’t judge Sarai for her harsh treatment, He doesn’t judge Abram for His abdication of leadership. God in His great mercy provides for Hagar and her son. Will He not also provide for Abram and Sarai according to His promise?
Let’s take a look at Hagar’s beautiful response to this encounter with God in verses 13-14. Here we have another “first” in this book of beginnings – someone gives God a name. Hagar names God as the God who sees, He is the one who “looks after” her. He sees her situation, he knows her name, he sees what she’s facing, and He will look after not only her, but her child as well. God does not have a vision problem, and for this moment in time, that is clear to Hagar too.
So what does Hagar do now that she has seen the One who looks after her? She obeys. She returns and submits just as He commanded her to do. We can only surmise that at some point, Hagar told Abram the whole story of encountering “the God who sees” because Abram names the child Ishmael just as Hagar was instructed. But then the story closes with a reminder–Abram isn’t getting any older. When will the promise be fulfilled? Or is Ishmael the child of the promise? Does God see? Will He be faithful?
Our vision problem
What we see in this text is that God does indeed see. Sarai thinks she sees, and she tries to help God out. Abram refuses to see and completely abdicates his leadership in the home. Hagar sees a partial promise fulfillment, but uses it to antagonize Sarai. In the end, Hagar does see – the God who sees. He is the One who truly sees. And He is still keeping His promises. He sees their sin – Sarai’s lack of faith, Abram’s failure to lead His family in faithfulness, Hagar’s contempt for her mistress. But He doesn’t quit on this messed up family.
And you? He sees – those secret sins you hope no one else knows, the struggles you face, the difficult situations, those hopes deferred for years on end. He sees. And He doesn’t quit on you either. He will be faithful.
Correction for our vision problem
But why? Why does God seek Hagar out in the wilderness? Why does He see her and care for her? Why doesn’t He quit on His people in the wilderness? Because one day, that promise to Abram would take on the body of a man who wouldn’t be called just “the God who sees”. No, His name would be “Immanuel” – God with us, God in the flesh. And Immanuel would hang suspended on a cross and cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And for the only time, the seeing God looked away. God the Father was silent as God the Son hung there FOR ME, and for all who believe. And now we can be confident, as the writer to the Hebrews declares (Heb 4:16) that when we approach the throne of grace, we will receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.
Take a look at how the writer of Hebrews sums up Abram’s life in Heb. 11:8-16. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” For all who believe, He has prepared for us a city. Our hope will not always be deferred. One day, all our desires will ultimately be fulfilled when we are in that city – in the very presence of the God who sees.
God is not slow in keeping His promises as we might understand slowness. He sees, He cares, He is with us. We can trust Him to be faithful. Is your heart sick with a hope deferred? Maybe you have a wayward child, perhaps your nursery stands empty but the cemetery plot is full. Maybe your job seems like a wilderness with no way out. Maybe you are fighting battles that no one else sees. Take heart believer, God sees, He cares for you, and He will be faithful.