The only explanation for Genesis 17 is that there is more mercy in the heart of God than sin in the heart of Abram; that what sustains the covenant is not the faith of men, but the faithfulness of God.
Any way you slice it, Genesis 16 is an epic failure. On the heels of the Lord’s breathtaking gifts of assurance in Genesis 15, Abram is more persuaded by the logic of unbelief than the promises of God, and the Hagar Plan B is launched. Abram was 86 when Ishmael was born. Genesis 17:1 opens with the announcement that the Lord appeared again to Abram when he was 99.
Think of it: 13 years have passed. 13 years to regret the wrong decision. 13 years of living with the consequences of your compromise. 13 years of walking yourself back through the events and wishing you could rewrite history. 13 years to beat yourself up. 13 years of wondering whether you had permanently disqualified yourself, whether this latest mistake was the final straw that broke the covenant’s back.
And, suddenly, with no warning, at the end of the 13 years, the Lord appears to Abram (once again) and re-affirms (once again) His covenant with Abram. Not a word about Hagar or Ishmael. Not even the slightest hint of condemnation or recrimination. No incremental easing back into covenant graces, no probationary period. Instead, the Lord opens the floodgates of His heart full-tilt and the vastness of His grace is unleashed unrestrained upon Abram. If Genesis 16 proved the weakness of Abram’s faith, Genesis 17 proves the beautiful omnipotence of the Lord’s faithfulness. No wonder Abram falls on his face before the Lord (v.3).
This is what captures my heart about Genesis 17: it shows us (just like the rest of Scripture) that the logic of God’s heart is an alien logic. After Abram’s failure in Genesis 16, we might expect that the Lord would contract the scope of His promise to Abram, as a kind of interim probationary measure to test whether Abram would remain steadfast. As Genesis 17 proves, we would be totally wrong about that!
Rather than contract–or even merely restate–His covenant promises to fit the scope of Abram’s faith, the Lord actually moves in the opposite direction: He elaborates and expands upon them, unfolding their fullness more and more for Abram (vv.4-8). He introduces a new element that we haven’t heard explicitly before: “and kings shall come from you…kings of peoples shall come from her….” (vv.6, 16). Amazing!
As Abram’s faith weakens and appears to falter, as his grip on the Lord’s promises loosens (e.g. Ch.16), the Lord’s grip on Abram actually tightens! This is why Ch.17 includes the covenant sign of circumcision: among other things, it is an accommodation of the Lord’s grace to the weakness of Abram’s faith. By definition (since it is impossible for God to lie), the sign can’t add to the truthfulness or trustworthiness of God’s promise. But it can serve as a bulwark against unbelief in Abram’s heart.
In the most important of senses, there is nothing new in this chapter. It’s merely the latest episode in the story of God’s triumphant faithfulness. There is only one Hero of the covenant–the Lord. What sustains and propels the covenant forward–and guarantees its fulfillment–is never the faith of men, but the faithfulness of the Lord. Abram has learned this lesson once again, and I pray that I will as well.
As I look through Genesis 17 to the rest of redemptive history this morning, Romans 5:20-21 comes to mind: “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” The logic of God’s heart on display in Genesis 17 (i.e. kindness and faithfulness that flow against the grain of man’s unbelief and unfaithfulness) is the DNA of Calvary’s logic. Oh, how I love the logic of our Lord’s amazing heart.