God now turns His promise into a covenant.
God’s promise to Abram included physical offspring. Here, Abram is questioning God. He is an old man and has not a single offspring. But God reaffirms His promise to Abram, and tells him his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And verse 6 is one of the most important verses in the Old Testament. Through faith, Abram was counted righteous (see Rom 4:3 and Gal 3:6).
God then enters into covenant with Abram. Notice the formula. God states Who He is and what He has done (see Ex 20:2). To ratify the covenant, God demands a sacrifice. Note that it was common practice for both parties involved in a covenant to walk together through the parts of sacrificed animals. It was a sign that communicated “If I break our covenant, let me be killed as these animals.” But here, Abram falls into a deep sleep, and God affirms His promise, and tells him what his physical offspring will endure before receiving the land. Then, God alone moves through the sacrifice, in effect taking on both sides of the covenant. If either side breaks it, God will be sacrificed. And He was. We see here how salvation is 100% God’s work, and how Christ paid the price for our failures.
In chapter 16 we see a problem common to fallen man. Abram and Sarai decide to do it themselves. Just like we do. Note Sarai’s regret after her plan works! And note Abram’s acquiescence to his wife’s demands, though Hagar is carrying Abram’s only child. This is what “our way” gets us. But God is gracious! He tells Hagar to return and accept her circumstances, and makes her a promise. Notice that Abram names the boy Ishmael, as God said he would. And we are told again of Abram’s age. He is now 86.
In chapter 17, thirteen years after the events of chapter 16, God again appears to Abram. God (here El Shaddai – “God Almighty”) appears and calls Abram to obedience and righteousness before Him, and God reaffirms the covenant. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham: Father of a Multitude.
Just think about this for a minute. it is now 24 years since God first called Abraham to leave everything and follow Him. It took 11 years for Abraham to have a child, but he is not the fulfillment of God’s promise. After 13 more years, God appears to Abraham and reaffirms the promise. And we are told that here, 24 years after his calling with God yet to fulfill His promise, Abraham worshipped God. Now think about how patient we are not, even when it comes to God’s promises…
Back to it… God again promises Abraham that his physical offspring will inherit a physical land, and gives him the physical sign of the covenant: circumcision. The physical promise will pass from generation to generation, and the mark or sign of the covenant is made in the flesh – the means of physical generation. And it is a covenant sign of blood.
God then promises (again) that Abraham will have a son with Sarah (her new name). And Abraham laughs. He asks God to just do the easier thing – what makes sense to him, Abraham: make Ishmael the child of promise. But God doesn’t do easy. He does miracles. He tells Abraham that the covenant and the promise will not pass to Ishmael, but to Isaac. Ishmael will be great from an earthly point of view. Isaac from a heavenly.
And Abraham obeys God. He circumcises Ishmael, and every male in his household. We are told twice that Abraham obeyed. 24 years. 24 years!! God has not yet physically kept His promise, and Abraham – 24 years after – is still obedient. And this is the faith we are called to have (Rom 4:12-13).
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. – Romans 8:25 (ESV)