Genesis 21  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 7
I have been thinking a little of Ishmael now and again lately, not only as in the book of Genesis, but as in the New Testament, as in God's house as well as Abraham's. It is well to watch him closely and to deal with him decidedly, specially now-a-days, when he is becoming a little bolder perhaps than he was wont to be. Ishmael is the Scriptural personification of the religion of ordinances.
If we follow him a little carefully through Scripture, we shall find that he has acted, though always in character, yet in different forms and energies. I think I see him there as an insolent one, an accuser or reviler, an angry, ill-humored man, a seducer and a persecutor.
In Abraham's house, where first he appears (we will say), he was insolent. (Gen. 21) Isaac was little more than a feeble suckling when he was a sturdy youth of fourteen years of age. He sports with this weaned infant, he mocks Isaac who was a fit mark for him. The flesh or strength of nature might well despise Isaac, for he was a child, he could not speak. He was weakness itself in the hand of his elder brother; he can do nothing for himself through very feebleness; another must take up his cause.
In the Pharisee's house (as also in Zaccheus's, Luke 19:77And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. (Luke 19:7)) this same Ishmael is a reviler. (Luke 7) The poor woman was, it is true, a sinner of the city. She could no more gainsay that, than Isaac could deny his insignificancy or feebleness. It was equally a fact. The poor woman must be silent under the reproach; she has earned it all.
In the house of the two brothers, Ishmael is again found, an angry, ill-humored man. (Luke 15) The reception of so worthless an one as the prodigal was the elder brother's high provocation. He stays outside in proud and angry refusal to go into a house that could thus lose its character, or so far forget itself as to hazard its respectability with all proper people. He is in heat and ill temper at the way of grace.
In the churches of Galatia, the same Ishmael lurks as a seducer.
He does not stay outside because of indignation at the way of grace, that grace which had filled the house; but he gets inside to seduce those who were there from faith, the answer, the only answer, which a sinner has to make to that grace. He acts as a serpent, seeking to corrupt the mind from the simplicity that is in Christ. The same Ishmael had been in the same character at Jerusalem and at Antioch, “spying our liberty.” (Gal. 2) Against the Apostle Paul, the Ishmael of Scripture was a persecutor. (Gal. 5:1111And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. (Galatians 5:11).) Foiled as a serpent or a seducer, he will not give up the field, but uses his strength as a lion, and as such has had terrible sport indeed; not only in the day or person of the apostle, but in times of papal as well as pagan Rome. Paul himself acted as a lion when he was of the mystic Ishmael. (Acts 26:1010Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. (Acts 26:10).)
This is the Ishmael of Scripture—this is the child of the bondwoman—this is the religion of flesh and blood—the religion of ordinances and impositions. And such have been its varied forms of action, mocking, reviling, hating, seducing, persecuting.
The same Ishmael is in full vigor still. He is as sturdy a youth as he was in the day of Hagar. But this is our comfort. If he be not changed, neither is the divine mind concerning him, the divine purpose about him, nor the divine dealing with him. And it becomes our consolation and our wisdom, to mark how this mind, and purpose, and dealing of God with the mystic Ishmael have been revealed from the beginning.
Abraham rejoiced over that feeble infant that was provoking Ishmael—scorn and sporting. And Sarah demanded that her Isaac should dwell alone in the house, and that the bond-woman and her son should be cast out. And all this joy of Abraham and purpose of Sarah expressed the mind of God. This voice of Sarah is called “scripture.” (See Gal. 4:3030Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. (Galatians 4:30).). The Lord would have it with the poor, helpless, insignificant soul that trusts in Him, as Sarah would have it with little Isaac, and rejoices over such as Abraham did.
So, in His day, Jesus was feasted and gladdened by the one whom the Ishmael-Pharisee was secretly accusing and reviling. Simon saw the poor woman as she was in herself; Jesus, while He allowed all that, saw her and boasted in her, and rejoiced in her, as faith and love had now made her. This was the divine answer to the Ishmael-reviling of a poor confessed sinner. And this is still God's own way, in the riches of His grace, silencing every tongue that would judge or accuse such. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? it is God that justifieth.”
So in the case of the prodigal, the joy of the father's heart, the delight of God in His own grace, answers the Ishmael elder brother. It was true, the younger son had been a great waster. And it was true, had his father's house cared only about its respectability in society, it would not have welcomed him back. But there was a heart in that house, such a heart as the morals or religion of respectable society does not understand. And the joy of such gratified affections is the excuse for the father's house and the answer given to the Ishmael ill-humor of the elder brother. “It was meet that we should make merry and be glad.” The feast is still spread in Abraham's house over the helpless one; in the father's house over the worthless one. “God delighteth in mercy.” And He will be God still, and have His way, in spite of Ishmael.
In his turn, as we already noticed, the apostle, in the energy of the Holy Ghost, has to do with Ishmael. He watches his practices and attempts as the seducer. He exposes them and rebukes them as of man, and against God's truth and way from beginning to end. He contends with them; insisting, like Sarah, that be to whom these practices belonged, and all connected with him, should be turned out of doors. He would resist him as a seducer even to the death, and so expose him as a serpent as to be ready to be torn in pieces by him as a lion. And this energy of the apostle tells us the mind of the Spirit, who was the spring of it all.1
Precious relief for our souls all this is! Doubly precious in a day like ours, when Ishmael is abroad again, in full vigor and activity. He changes, as we have seen, the form of his action, accommodating himself to circumstances. He must do that. He could not have killed many, but does when he can. He insults feebleness, reviles character, is indignant at grace, seduces from faith, or slays and tears those who still cleave to it: but in every form of his action he meets resistance from God.
Blessed, simple consolation! If we do not now-a-days suffer from his word as a persecutor, we do from his tongue as a reviler. And there is a measure of suffering from the scorning of his life and his eye. Liberty in Christ, independence of man's traditions and of the elements of the world, refusal of the religiousness of flesh and blood, are still reproached and challenged. But the Holy Ghost stands with us and helps us. And that is our victory and joy. He still encourages— “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made you free.”
With what awful power the witchery of the Ishmael or religious principle shows itself in Matt. 27:66And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. (Matthew 27:6) and 25. The Jewish rulers had purchased the blood of Jesus, but they own the purchase-money to be so defiled a thing that they will not put it to the uses of the temple. They own the presence of the house more awful than the presence of Him who dwelt in it.
So the Jewish multitude. They had been deeply moved by the things which Jesus had been doing and saying for years; but now, as in a moment, at the bidding of the religious authority, they change their speech and say, “let him be crucified.”
What solemn witnesses are these to the fascinating, infatuating power of fleshly religion, the religion of law, of ordinances, and traditions, and human authority!
1. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are thus presented in Scripture as in one mind touching the mystic Ishmael.