Our Great Reward
by Derek Thomas
In June 2006 in this section we commented on the way in which the story of redemption focuses on Abraham’s “seed” as the line by which the Messiah will come to save God’s people from their sins (Gen. 12:7; 13:15–16). This is but an outworking of the promise made in Eden that the “seed” of the woman will triumph over the “seed” of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). This now emerges once more in Genesis 15 — the chapter that inaugurates God’s covenant with Abraham.
Abraham (whose name at this point is still “Abram”) has been victorious in war against the kings of the east (Gen. 14) but has refused to become rich by confiscating the spoils of war (14:22–23). Altogether appropriate, then, in view of the possible reprisals that he now faces, that God would now reveal Himself to the patriarch with the words, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1). God is promising both protection and recompense.
It is an interesting and rewarding exercise to trace the occasions in which God comes to an individual and says “Fear not!” In Genesis alone, it occurs with considerable frequency (in addition to 15:1, see 21:17; 26:24; 35:17; 43:23; 46:3; 50:19, 21). It is an exhortation based on a word of promise already given. It is a peculiarly covenantal word — a promise made to needy folk by a sovereign God. Think of it! Abram did not possess so much as a square inch of the land; nor had he any children that could serve as a way to remind him of the promised “seed”! He had every justification to be afraid.
Moses’ original readers were in the same position — slaves in Egypt with no sign of promise like the one God had made to their fathers. It all seemed a hopeless dream as they labored to make straw-bricks for their Egyptian masters. They could readily resonate with Abram. As can we, faced with unfulfilled promises in environments of testing and deprivation. “Where is God now?” we ask as trials and tribulations make it impossible to see the way ahead. We can enter into Abram’s cry: “Behold, you have given me no offspring” (15:3). Is the promise of God just a pious wish, a divine longing from a God who may desire good, but cannot deliver? What is the point of “reward” if there is no heir to inherit it? Staggering, then, that God would escort Abram outside his tent and say, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring [seed] be” (15:5). And neither has God forgotten about the land either (15:7)! Shield, reward, offspring, land — a fourfold reassurance of divine intention given in circumstances that to the outward eye disclose no basis for hope. In our weakness, He shows His power.
Nor is Abram left to a bare word: God inaugurates a covenant requiring Abram to gather specified animals for sacrifice. Dividing the carcasses, God passes through the severed pieces in the form of “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” (15:17). This self-maledictory oath, interpreted this way by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 34:18, 20) was God’s way of saying, “So may it be done to me and mine, if I fail to fulfill this promise to you.”
Two things stand out for comment. The first is the “dreadful and great darkness” (Gen. 15:12). It is meant to be symbolic of some aspect of God. The promise was not yet fulfilled, nor would it be any time soon! We are to trust God in the dark. As William Cowper, the poet, puts it: “Deep in unfathomable mines, of never failing skill / He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will.” Or as the prophet Isaiah had said: “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (50:10).
Second is the ritual whereby the animals were divided in two (Gen. 15:10, “cut” in Hebrew). It is prophetic of what redemption would in fact cost: the severing of Jesus from the embrace of His Father in heaven. He would be “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8). Christ would have to experience the sight of His Father with a drawn sword in His hand wielded against Him (Zech. 13:7), that those who are under God’s curse might experience the blessing of Abraham (Gal. 3:13–14). God did not spare his own Son (Rom. 8:32) as he will Abraham’s son, Isaac (Gen. 22:12).
God has been faithful to His word of promise to Abram. He sent His Son into the world for us — that we might have no need to be afraid. He promises a heaven for His children and protection along the way against His and our enemies. And these “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4) are confirmed and sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Christ has uttered the “Amen” to these promises by taking the curse upon himself (2 Cor. 1:20; Rev. 3:14). What need have we to be afraid? “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1), for nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).