THE BIRTHRIGHT; OR, THE PROMISE OF MANY NATIONS TO ABRAHAM
"Behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee."
Although it is not generally known, it is nevertheless true that God made two covenants with Abraham, or, rather, that he made one with Abram and another with that same man after his name was changed to Abraham. This change of name was made that it might harmonize with the new character and the new order of things as they pertain to the covenant man.
The first, or Abram, covenant was made when the man was ninety years old; but the second, or Abraham, covenant was not made until this man was called upon to make the one great sacrifice of his life.
The text of the first of these covenants is as follows: "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face; and God talked with him, Saying: As for me, behold my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God," Gen. 17:1-8.
We see at once that the great feature of this covenant is a multiplicity of seed for a man that hitherto has been childless; and that this multitude of people are to become, not one great nation, not simply a plurality of nations, but a large plurality, i.e., "MANY NATIONS."
With the great majority of Bible students, and with most schools of Biblical thought, the fact that the Lord, when making this covenant, promised Abram that he should become the father of more than one nation is entirely overlooked. The general trend of the teaching is, that, of all the people who dwell upon the face of the earth, the Jewish people are distinctively the people, the one nation only, which is composed of the seed of Abraham; and that they, and they alone, are the chosen people of God whose national story makes up the great bulk of Biblical history and prophecy. But such cannot be the case, for if God has fulfilled the first promise which he made to the father of the Jewish people, he has made it possible for the people of some of the other nations of earth to stand side by side with that one, and with them to say "We have Abraham to our father."
One special, and important, feature of this covenant is, that among this multitude of Abrahamic seed there is to be a royal, or kingly line; the posterity of which shall become the rulers of, at least, some of these nations which shall owe their origin to one common father. For the Lord not only promised Abraham that kings should come out of his loins, but when he reiterated the promises of his covenant to Sarai, the barren wife of Abraham, he said: "She shall be the mother of nations; kings of people [R. V., nations] shall be of her." And so her name was changed to Sarah, i.e., Princess, that she, too, might have a name which would be in harmony with her new character, for only a princess may be the mother of kings.
Another special feature of this covenant is, that there is a land consideration, which involves the land of Canaan in an everlasting bond -- not only of ownership, but of possession. Evidently the everlasting possession of that land by its lawful heirs has not yet begun, for, at this writing, it is in the hands of the "Unspeakable Turk."
One other feature of this covenant is, that it is wholly unconditional. That is, the Lord has promised, irrespective of the moral or spiritual character of the people themselves, so to increase the posterity of the Abrahamic lineage, that, nationally, they shall become all that the covenant promises.
Centuries after the giving of this covenant, when the Abrahamic posterity were quite numerous, and while they were still together in one nation, the Lord made a covenant with them which was conditional; but they broke faith with him, and violated its specified conditions. Since it is true, that, in contracting or conditional covenants, there is both a party of the first and a party of the second part, and the law is, that, when either party breaks the conditions, the other is not held, or bound by them, hence when the covenant people broke their part of the contract, God was no longer bound, and said: "They continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not." Thus that covenant was annulled. But in this covenant which we have under consideration, God has assumed all responsibility, and to his integrity alone must we look for its fulfillment. For while it is true that both God and Abraham are parties to this covenant, we well know who has pledged himself, and whose will it expresses, and whom to expect shall keep his word inviolate, and which will be to blame if this covenant goes by default.
The second covenant which God made with Abraham was not made until many years after the first, and was made at a time when Abraham had just offered his only son, who was the first of the promised many, as a sacrifice, in obedience to the command of him who produced that son, by his creative power, from that which was as good as dead, and as an expression of faith in the resurrective power of that same covenant-making God. It is recorded as follows: "And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice," Gen. 22:16-18.
Before noticing the one great feature of this covenant, we wish to call your attention to some of the minor points; the first of which is, that it also is unconditional, "By myself have I sworn," is the declaration of the covenant maker; hence this covenant can neither be broken nor annulled, because, as in the first, God alone is the responsible party.
Another point is, that there is a repetition and confirmation of the multiplicity of children phase of the first covenant, to which is added the first detail as to what shall be a national characteristic of Isaac's multiplied seed in their relation to other nations, namely: "Thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies."
The Lord usually gives himself two witnesses, or doubles his promises and prophecies, as in the case of Pharaoh when he had dreamed the same thing twice and Joseph told him the reason that the dream was doubled to him was because the thing which it signified was of God. So it was with this gate blessing. It was at a time, that, after consenting to accompany Abraham's servant and become the wife of Isaac, through whom must come this great multitude of people, this gate promise, together with that which pertains to the multiplicity of children, was given to Rebekah. It came as a parting blessing from her brothers, who, it seems, were imbued with the spirit of prophecy; for it is recorded that they blessed her, and said: "Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them."
But the one great special feature of this second covenant which God made with that one man, is most certainly couched in the following words: "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." It will take but little investigation to reveal the fact that this one phase of this last covenant is Messianic, and that it pertains especially to but one person. But, that the many to whom pertains the first covenant are involved in this, together with the one to whom it more especially pertains, and that the principal one of this covenant is involved, in the common bond of brotherhood, with the many of that first covenant, no one will deny.
We understand that at the time these words were uttered, it would have been impossible to give them the fullness of meaning which the Holy Spirit has given them, as interpreted in the New Testament, for it was under the illumination given to the Apostle Paul, that their full import bursts upon us. It was when contrasting the law covenant -- the one which was annulled -- with this only-son covenant that Paul is careful to say: "Now to Abraham were the promises made, even for his seed, He does not say, and to the seeds," as concerning many, but as concerning one: "and to thy seed which is Christ."
We have here given the best translation, for clearness, that the text will allow. In it the Apostle makes no attempt to give an exact Old Testament quotation, but bases his argument on the strength of the subject noun being in the singular number. The subject with which he is dealing is the blessing that shall come upon all the Gentile nations through Abraham's sacrificed son, the one seed, who also was the Only Son of his Divine Father, just as Isaac, the type, was the only son of his father when he was offered in sacrifice.
It is not only the words, but also the circumstances connected with the giving of these promises, which are prophetic. God had said to Abraham that the many nations which he had formerly promised him should come through Isaac, his only son, but afterward called upon him to sacrifice that son, who was the only one through whom that promise could be fulfilled. But Abraham knew that God had accomplished that which was equal to a creation, when, through him and Sarah, who were both as good as dead, Isaac had been produced; so, being strong in faith, he offered him up, "accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure."
Could any analogy be more complete?
A Son of Promise, an only son, from whom so much is expected, sacrificed and accounted dead, then, in symbol, raised from the dead! And the two special reasons for this test, being, on the one hand, an encouragement to faith, and on the other, that the son might live to fulfill his God-ordered destiny. The prototype of this is another Son of Promise, an only Son, from whom so much -- so very much -- is promised and expected, sacrificed on the tree, dead. But that the two witnesses, the word and the symbol, of the promiser might not fail, the Divine Father, who gave back that other only son, raises from the dead his only Son, that he also might become the author and finisher of our faith, that he, too, might live and become all that was promised and expected of him, and thus fulfill his glorious destiny. We can ask no more, for both the lesser and the greater son, the type and prototype, are, "as concerning the flesh," sons of Abraham.
Throughout the world it is most generally known, and throughout Christendom it is universally known, that "the seed to whom the promise was made," did come; but it is not universally known, nor acknowledged throughout Christendom, that the many peoples are included in that same covenant with this one seed, without whom the entire structure of Christianity must fall, and that every argument for the Christ, from the covenant standpoint, must stand the crucial test of a numerous posterity from the loins of Abraham, or go down. And yet it is so.
True, the covenant with the people failed; true, the people sinned, and violated their obligations; true, the law was added, because of their transgressions, to bridge over, "till the [one] seed should come to whom the promise was made." But the argument in favor of the Messianic covenant against all this is, that "the covenant which was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect."
How could it? We, sirs, believe that it could not. All Christendom believes that it could not. And if it could not, neither can the promise concerning a multiplicity of children for Abraham be annulled.
For, with this same Messianic promise, there is a repetition of the metaphor of many seeds, as the stars of heaven and as the sands of the sea shore, together with the gate blessing; so we can just as reasonably expect that Christ could or would have failed, as to expect that the gate, the sand, and the star, promises shall have gone by default. But, at this late day in the history of the world, with the Divine light of prophecy shining upon well known facts, which once were only the subjects of prophetic utterances but are now the recorded facts of authentic history, we can say with a confidence, which is supported by the eternal Spirit, that neither have failed.
Elsewhere, when this same Apostle was making an effort to encourage the faith of believers in the faithfulness of God, he gives a word for word quotation from this same covenant promise, saying: "When God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he swore by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying l will multiply thee." This quotation, as you see, pertains to the multiplicity of seed, and not to the Messianic phase of the second covenant; but it proves to us that each individual feature of that covenant stands on the same secure foundation, and is just as sure of fulfillment as the other, for underneath every promise of that covenant there are two immutable things -- God and his oath.
So, we are safe in saying that God has made two unconditional covenants with Abraham, and that, if he has been true to those covenants, then there are "many nations" in existence on this earth today, the people of which must have descended from Abraham and Sarah; and that these nations are in possession of the gates, or entrances, of their national enemies; unless it be that the time has not yet come for those promises to materialize.
The facts, in either case, are revealed, and, as we proceed, we shall see which of these is true; but thus far it is evident that one of these covenants is Messianic; that the other is multitudinous; that each is contained in the other; that in them there is no contracting party of the second part; and that both alike do stand on the integrity of God.
These are the days of skeptical indifferentism on the one hand, and of rampant infidelity on the other; of narrow sectarianism, worldly churchianity, and the blatant headiness of higher (?) criticism -- days when “Endor-ism” is called "Spiritual-ism," when Buddhism is sanctified by the name of Theo-sophia, i.e., Divine wisdom, and when pure faith and true spirituality are dubbed "Fanaticism."
Then surely, in such days as these, all who believe that the promises of God are never broken will be helped and encouraged when proof, full and abundant, shall be given that not only the promise concerning the many nations, but all the predictions of "Moses and the prophets," as they pertain either to the Christ or to the many-nationed people, have been, are being -- on the strength of that which has been, and that which now is -- shall yet be fulfilled.