Children of Divine Promise, not Human Works

Children of Divine Promise, not Human Works

We saw last week that with the death of Sarah and the marriage of Isaac, the son of promise, the Messianic baton had now been passed from Abraham and Sarah to Isaac and Rebekah. And as we noted the passing of Sarah last week, we will note the passing of Abraham this morning before turning to their son, Isaac, and his wife, Rebekah.

The beginning of Genesis 25 begins to wrap up Abraham, the great patriarch’s, life. As the chapter opens we’re told, “Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah.” Unlike Sarah whose only son was Isaac, Keturah had a number of children—six in all—whose names are stated along with some of their descendants in verses 2–4.[1] Though as stated in verse 5 upon Abraham’s death he “left everything he owned to Isaac,” we’re also told in verse 6 that “while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines[2] and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” Keturah, like Hagar, was a concubine, or a lesser wife. I should add that though it was common in this culture to have more than one wife, this practice is never upheld in Scripture. And as Abraham did with his first son Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s servant, so he did with his sons by Keturah—he sent them away.

Next we’re told of Abraham’s death starting in verse 7: “Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” This was just as the LORD had promised him.[3] And if he died at the age of 175, this means that for 100 years Abraham lived as a foreigner and stranger in the land God had promised to give him. And as also noted last week, he was buried in the same cave where Sarah was buried.[4] Interestingly, verse 9 states that both Isaac and Ishmael buried him so it must be that though Ishmael had been sent away when he was but a teenager, his whereabouts were known to Isaac, his half-brother. Lastly, we’re told in verse 11, “After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi.” Again, with this we see emphasized that the Messianic baton had now been passed to Isaac, the child of promise, rather than to Ishmael.

But though not the child of promise, Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn by way of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, was not forgotten by God. Verses 12–18 provide a brief synopsis of his life. As had been promised to Hagar by the angel of the LORD, Ishmael, too, would have “descendants…too numerous to count”[5] for Ishmael ended up having twelve sons[6] who, as noted in verse 16, became “twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps.” This was in fulfillment of what the LORD had promised Abraham concerning Ishmael.[7] And so we see that between the descendants of Isaac, Ishmael, and his sons by Keturah, Abraham certainly did become the father of many nations as the LORD had promised and assured him throughout his life.[8] And as the angel of the LORD had foretold when he appeared to Hagar, the twelve descendants of Ishmael, as stated at the end of verse 18, “lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them.”[9] With verse 17 we have yet another ending to the story of Abraham as we’re told that “Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people.” Since Ishmael would have been 89 years old when his father died,[10] this means that he lived 48 years beyond the death of his father Abraham.

But then our passage returns to the nearer present chronologically. Having followed up on both Abraham and Ishmael, we now turn to Isaac beginning in verse 19, “19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.” Again, our focus is brought back to Isaac, the son of promise, to whom the Messianic baton had now been passed along with his wife Rebekah.

As we saw last week, God graciously guided Abraham’s senior servant in leading him to Rebekah—granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor and his wife Milkah who lived in Abraham’s homeland—to be Isaac’s wife. The first thing we’re told about this couple is that they hadn’t been able to have a child despite God having declared to Abraham that it was through Isaac that his promise of many descendants would be fulfilled.[11] Therefore Isaac did as we’ve seen his father so often do—he prayed. Specifically, as stated in verse 21, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” Now we don’t know at what point in their lives Isaac prayed this. It’s certainly possible that he and Rebekah had continually prayed this prayer over the course of the twenty years that they had been married for Isaac was now 60 and therefore Rebekah was probably around 40 when their children were born.[12] What we do know for certain is that it wasn’t until twenty years after they had been married that the LORD chose to answer this prayer for the end of verse 26 states, “Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth….” Interesting to consider as well is that if Isaac was sixty years old when his twin sons were born, then Abraham was still alive at this point for he didn’t die until Isaac was 75.[13] In other words, Abraham lived to see the first fifteen years of his grandsons’ lives. But since the Messianic baton had been passed to his son Isaac, we’re told nothing about what his interactions with his grandsons may have been throughout this time.

As to the birth of Abraham’s grandsons, apparently it was a difficult pregnancy for Rebekah—understandably, given her age. As we read in verse 22, “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.” In this we see that Rebekah, too, was a follower of God for she turned to him in the midst of her travail. The answer to her prayer is stated in verse 23: “The Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’” The actual physical jostling Rebekah was experiencing was emblematic of the nations that would descend from her future sons who, as we’ll see in the coming weeks, similarly “jostled” against one another throughout the course of their lives. But notice that from the womb God, who knows all things for he has made all things, told her, “the older will serve the younger.” In other words, against cultural practices of the day, the twin born second, not first as dictated by custom, would in time have the Messianic baton passed to him—although the firstborn twin would also head up a nation.

The birth of the twin boys is related in verse 24–26: “24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau”—some of your Bibles may note that the name Esau may mean “hairy”—”26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.” Jacob’s name similarly describes one of his features for it means “he grasps the heel.” But perhaps more importantly, in Hebrew, “he grasps the heel” is an idiom for “he deceives.” Regrettably, we’ll see that Jacob conformed to this latter meaning of his name as well.

Now though they were twins, these two boys couldn’t have been more different not only physically but also in their interests. As stated in verse 27, “The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.” And we perhaps have a foreshadowing of events to come in verse 28 where we’re told, “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” This competing parental favoritism reminds us that Scripture presents the history of real, flawed people. In the chapters to come we’ll see this favoritism play out as Isaac and Rebekah similarly jostle against one another due to the respective interests each has in one son over the other.

With the account that begins in verse 29, we see yet another way—beyond their respective vocations—that these two young men, though having once shared their mother’s womb, nonetheless continued to separate from one another as the LORD had told Rebekah. For “[o]nce when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’”— a parenthetical note then adds, “That is why he was also called Edom” since “Edom” means “red.” This also tells us that the Edomites were descendants of Esau. Now before sharing some of the stew he was cooking with his brother, we begin to see Jacob living up to his name as he took advantage of his brother’s great hunger by replying, verse 31, “First sell me your birthright.” Jacob sought to take away his famished brother’s birthright by manipulating him when he was at a point of weakness. Have I mentioned that Scripture portrays people as they actually were, warts and all?

This tactic worked for next we see how Esau’s desire for food got the best of him as he quickly acquiesced to Jacob’s request saying, verse 32, “Look, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?” Esau was a man who lived for the present. He typifies the proverbial fool spoken of in Scripture who says, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”[14] For it’s highly unlikely that Esau was “about to die” literally despite his great hunger following a day of hunting. Even so, in taking advantage of his brother’s weakness, Jacob metaphorically and once again had grabbed his older twin, Esau, by the heel as he demanded from him an actual oath rather than a glib reply driven by his hunger. As recorded in verse 33 he told Esau, “Swear to me first.” This Esau did. As the end of the verse states, “So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.” With this act what the LORD had told Rebekah at the time of her pregnancy began to be fulfilled for in acquiring his older brother’s birthright, Jacob had acquired the greater portion of their father’s inheritance with the result that, as foretold concerning the twin infants yet in their mother’s womb, verse 23, “the older” would indeed “serve the younger.”

Next, as stated in verse 34, Esau received “some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.” For a little bread and stew, Esau had sold his future. Or, as the editorial comment at the end of the verse states, “So Esau despised his birthright.” He despised his birthright for how else to describe his giving up a future inheritance for the sake of a little food and drink? But what is more important to note is that in despising his birthright, Esau had also despised the promises of God, including the ultimate promise of Messiah, God’s Redeemer, Jesus Christ. As the author of Hebrews later warns in the context of exhorting followers of Christ to be holy, “16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.”[15] Some actions cannot be undone. This was one of them.

What we see worked out in this passage is the mysterious intersection that is ever present between God’s will and our own. As already noted, while the twin babies were yet in Rebekah’s womb the LORD told her that the older would serve the younger. But as we’ve also noted that wasn’t the way it was done in this culture for the firstborn son, even if born first by minutes as is often the case with twins,[16] had certain rights and prerogatives not granted the second-born. Nonetheless this disruption in the usual inheritance order is what the LORD had foretold—and therefore this is what would come to pass. For as stated in our passage, years later when the twins had grown to be young men, we see how it came about that the younger brother Jacob rose to ascendancy over his older brother Esau. Though what each did was done completely and in accordance with their respective wills, it also took place in accordance with the will of God who made and called them into being. One way or another it was certain, since the time that they were in their mother’s womb, that the older Esau would come to serve the younger Jacob for Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac before him, was a child of divine promise. Therefore the Messianic baton would be passed to him rather than to his older brother Esau.

This is the very point Paul extrapolates upon in the passage read earlier from Romans 9. As stated in verse 2 of this chapter, Paul was expressing the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” he felt in his heart. For his own people, those of his own race, the people of Israel, verse 4, had rejected Jesus as the Christ even though by rights to them belonged “the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” What is more, verse 5, “[t]heirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” The ancestry of Messiah—the Hebrew form of the Greek word, Christ—had begun with the promise God made to the serpent at the time of the Fall.[17] And as we’ve noted over the past months, when Cain slew his brother, Abel, this Messianic baton was passed to another son born much later, Seth—and then to Noah—and to Shem—and to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people—and to Isaac—and now to Jacob. For as Paul states, this human Messiah is also “God over all, forever praised! Amen.” With the sending of Christ, his eternal Son, God the promise Maker magnificently demonstrated that he is God the promise Keeper.

But as we’ve noted before from this passage in Romans 9,[18] beginning in verse 6 Paul goes on to state, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” In other words, just as not all who attend church or even consider themselves to be Christians necessarily know or believe in Christ, neither did all of the Jews living in Paul’s time believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah promised by God. Paul underscores this point in verse 7 saying, “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Again, just as someone born into a Christian home isn’t necessarily a Christian, neither is someone necessarily a Jewish believer simply because their descendants are Jewish. For whether in the time of the Old Testament—or the New Testament—or now, followers of God are distinguished not by their forebears’ faith but by their own appropriation of faith, by their own response to God’s quickening, his awakening, his enlivening of their spirits as evidenced by their turning away from their sins and seeking to live according to God’s Word.

Paul goes on to highlight the importance of this by quoting the promise the LORD made to Abraham in Genesis 21:12: “On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’” If you’ll recall, this is what God said to Abraham when he was distressed over Sarah’s asking him to send away Ishmael, his firstborn, at the time at which Isaac was weaned.[19] Though God would go on to bless Ishmael as well, and though he like Esau was firstborn, he, like Esau, wasn’t the child of promise—Isaac was. Paul further underscores this point by referring to Genesis 18, verses 10 and 14, when God again affirmed this promise to Abraham saying, “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”[20] And so he did. For Isaac, born miraculously to parents who were beyond the age of childbearing and barren, clearly was a child of divine promise, not human works.

But Paul isn’t done making his case concerning divine providence for he then turns to Isaac and his children in verses 10–12. Quoting verse 23 from our morning’s passage in Genesis 25, Paul states, “10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” Again, if God spoke these words to Rebekah prior to her sons being born and, as Paul emphasizes, “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad,” then this choosing by God of Jacob over Esau makes it clear that Jacob, too, was a child of divine promise, not human works. And as we’ve seen, human choices made by Abraham and Sarah—and Ishmael and Isaac—and Isaac and Rebekah—and Esau and Jacob all played out in the ways in which God had foretold.

Dear brothers and sisters, there’s a reason we confess that our salvation is by the grace of God alone; by placing our faith alone—in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. For though we live in a time after which Messiah has been born—and lived and suffered and died and rose from death and ascended to heaven for us and our salvation—Paul reminds us that our spiritual birth in Christ Jesus is like those of Isaac and Jacob. For our births, too, are according to divine promise, not human works. In order to become children of God, Jesus taught, we must be born again; we must be born from above.[21] We cannot be born naturally into God’s family but must be born spiritually into it. And all spiritual birth is due to divine promise, not human works. For human works can never obtain the righteousness for which God has made us. At the end of Romans 9 Paul brings this point home by stating in verses 30–32, “ 30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” Again, as Paul states in verse 8, “it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” This is the very point Paul also make in his letter to the Galatians, “Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.”[22]

And aren’t we grateful that this is the case? For we, too, like Abraham—and Sarah—and Isaac—and Rebekah—and Jacob are flawed, and sinful, and imperfect. Left to our own devices, we probably wouldn’t ever seek God in the first place. And even if we did our best to do as he asked by our own power and efforts, we’d be unable to do so because of our fallenness. Yet because of the amazing grace our gracious God has extended to us, because he has destined us to be children of promise, we don’t have to rely on our human works but can rest upon his divine promise and favor knowing that now ours is “the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised.” And I hadn’t anticipated closing with this, but in God’s providence, two verses that were part of our Adult Ed class brought this point home. I’ll close by reading them before turning to prayer. First, 1 John 3:1: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! And John 1:Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” So, again, may Christ Jesus, the “Messiah, who is God over all, forever [be] praised.”

Let us pray and thank God for his gracious mercy.


[1] Genesis 25:2–4:She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.

[2] i.e., Hagar and Keturah.

[3] Genesis 15:15: You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.

[4] Genesis 25:9–10:His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, 10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites.[Or the descendants of Heth] There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.

[5] Genesis 16:10: The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

[6] Genesis 25:13–15: 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah.

[7] Genesis 17:20: And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.

[8] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”; Genesis 17:1–7: 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.; Genesis 22:15–18: 15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

[9] The angel of the LORD said to Hagar concerning Isaac as recorded in Genesis 16:12: He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.

[10] Since Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born, 175-86 = 89. See Genesis 16:16: Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

[11] Genesis 17:19: 19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.[Isaac means he laughs.] I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

[12] Verse 20 states that Isaac was 40 when he and Rebekah married and verse 26 that he was 60 when his children were born. Since Rebekah was said to have been a “young woman” when they married, she was probably in her late teens at the time at which she went to her 40 year-old husband. See also Genesis 25:14, 16: 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master….” 16 The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again…. Genesis 25:20: and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

[13] Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17: Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”). If, as stated in verse 7 of Genesis 25, Abraham lived to be 175 years old—and Isaac was 60 when his sons were born—then Abraham lived to see the early lives of his grandsons by Isaac.

[14] See, e.g., Isaiah 22:12–13: 12 The Lord, the Lord Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. 13 But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!” Jesus taught concerning a proverbial rich man who said in Luke 12:19–21: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”; 1 Corinthians 15:32: If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[ Isaiah 22:13 above]

[15] The entirety of the exhortation and warning are found in Hebrews 12:14–17: 14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.

[16] According to .”, “The average time between the birth of the first and second baby is generally about 17 minutes.” The website is referencing Rydhström H, Ingemarsson I. Interval between birth of the first and the second twin and its impact on second twin perinatal mortality. J Perinat Med. 1990;18(6):449-453.

[17] Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

[18] See sermon preached on August 30, 2020, Freedom in Christ, on Genesis 21:8–20.

[19] Again, see sermon preached on August 30, 2020, Freedom in Christ, on Genesis 21:8–20.

[20] Genesis 18:10, 14: 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son….”14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

[21] John 3:1–3: 3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”


[22] Galatians 4:28.