Wilderness Experiences :: by Matt Ward

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways obey him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3: 5-6)

The first reference to “love” in the Scriptures is “aha vah” and it occurs as a description of the love that Abraham had for his only son, Isaac. Abraham truly and deeply loved Isaac. Isaac was the fulfillment of all Abraham’s hopes and dreams and a tangible demonstration of the faithfulness of God in his life. All of Abraham’s life and future hopes were bound up in his son; the two things were irrevocably linked together.

Yet despite this love, Abraham was still wholly determined to offer his son’s life in obedience to God. Abraham was going to kill him. After receiving the frankly terrifying direction from God that he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham moved with singular intent.

There is not one word of protest from Abraham recorded in Scripture. To anybody who is a parent, it is almost unimaginable. There is not a single plea, not a single argument, not a word. Unlike Abraham’s earlier intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, in the case of his son, he remained utterly silent.

Jewish tradition even suggests that the biggest test, once the sacrifice of Isaac had begun, was not whether Abraham would offer his son to God, as commanded, but whether he would actually listen to and obey the voice of the angel instructing him to stop the execution, such was his unwavering determination to carry out the LORD’s will.

It is even possible to sense the urgency in the voice of the angel at the place of sacrifice,

“And he said, ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him.’ Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)

God stopped Abraham and provided the necessary sacrifice himself. It is an almost perfect foreshadowing of what God would do many thousands of years later in exactly that same spot with his very own, beloved son, Jesus.

Yet the next time there was to be a sacrifice, in 33 AD, God did hold back as he did with Abraham. This next time, God allowed His own son to be slaughtered on behalf of all who would come to believe (John 3:16-18). There was no ram caught in the thickets on this occasion. There was no other way out for the Son of God but deep humiliation, bloodshed, pain, immense suffering and ultimately death.

So significant a weight and burden was the knowledge of what was to come for Jesus, so massive was the physical, emotional and intellectual strain of what was going to happen to him, that Jesus actually sweat great drops of blood,

“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

This documented phenomenon is found only very rarely in people who are under the most extreme forms of anguish, duress or stress. In every possible sense, Jesus literally had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the anguish of this stress in the Garden of Gethsemane was physically breaking him. So great was the burden and so huge was the debt he was about to pay that Jesus’ body started to actually physiologically break down under the strain.

The sacrifice of Isaac on top of Mount Moriah is a perfect prophetic picture of what was to come when Messiah Jesus later took away the sins of the world as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Isaac and Jesus were both miraculously born and conceived, Jesus of a virgin and Isaac of a mother long since barren through extreme old age. Both Jesus and Isaac were “only begotten sons,” both were intended to be sacrificed by their own fathers on Mount Moriah, both Jesus and Isaac willingly went to their places of execution.

Both were real demonstrations that one life can be exchanged for another, the ram for Isaac and Jesus for mankind.

Isaac, just like Jesus, also suffered intensely from his own unique “passion” experience. The passion that Isaac went through is rarely considered, nor is the sheer agony it must have meant for him, but it was nonetheless real.

In modern times we have grown up with the concept of Isaac being a child when he was to be sacrificed at the hands of his father. However, that is not how Judaism has always interpreted this scene. In Jewish tradition Isaac is about 37 years old when Abraham, an old man by this point, ties him down in order to sacrifice him to God.

Yet even though Isaac is potentially 37 years old, there is no voice of complaint from him, no physical protest recorded in scripture. Isaac knows full well what is going to happen to him and he willingly allows himself to be offered, even though it would have been easy for him to escape from the hands of an old, old man if he had wanted to.

Isaac willingly goes to his place of execution, as did Jesus Christ all those years later.

It was a three day journey for Isaac to make with His father Abraham, before they got to Mount Moriah. On this three day journey to the sacrifice the Bible is completely silent about any conversations that might have taken place between the two. Isaac doubtless knew what the plan was and he must have been horrified by it.

Yet Isaac did not say a word. He was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that would later come, when Jesus Christ would also go to his death quietly and willingly,

“…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7)

The attempt at sacrifice is then made, the Angel stops Abraham’s hand and the ram is offered in Isaac’s place. Abraham is lauded for his obedience and commitment to God,

“I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 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, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).

An immense triumph of faith, yet the repercussions of this one act of unceasing loyalty for Abraham’s family are absolutely huge. Devastating even. This one act of obedience had the most profound effect upon each member of Abraham’s family.

The text shows Abraham returning alone from the mountain. Where is Isaac? Jewish tradition holds that Isaac was so traumatized by the experience that he actually fled from his father off Moriah and sought refuge with Noah’s son Shem, a man widely regarded in Jewish tradition to be the man known as “Malki-Tzedek” or Malchizidek.

This event profoundly affected the relationship between father and son, but that is not the end of the matter. What of Sarah, Abraham’s beloved and aged wife? Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was 91 years old, (Gen 17:17) and she died when she was 127 (Gen. 23:1). Sarah died when Isaac was about 36-37 years old, and although Scripture does not explicitly state it, the silent implication—Abraham’s later actions and Jewish tradition strongly suggest that the sacrifice of Isaac and the death of his mother are linked.

In Scripture the death of Sarah is placed directly after the attempted sacrifice of her son, Isaac. Within Judaism it is believed that Sarah died from shock after learning of Isaac’s ordeal on Mount Moriah. Just like Mary, the mother of Jesus who would later have a, “sword that will pierce your own heart” (Luke 2:35); so Sarah when discovering what had happened between her lifelong husband and her only child could not bear what had happened, and her own heart gave way because of it.

It was in returning directly from Moriah that Abraham learned of Sarah’s death and it left him bereft and devastated, “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to cry out for her,” (Genesis 23;2).

This was no doubt a second and third major test for Abraham. Straight from the biggest challenge of faith in his entire life, Abraham now immediately faces two more. His son is gone and now his beloved wife is dead. Perhaps this final test of faith was an even greater one than sacrificing his son was.

Would he now doubt that he had done the right thing in obeying the LORD? Would he wish that he had not obeyed and instead interceded for mercy before the sacrifice took place? Would he curse God for his family now laying in ruins? Would he question the goodness of his God?

In Scripture the words used to describe Abraham’s grieving for Sarah indicate his grieving was somewhat tempered, like a silent inward groaning of deep private pain and suffering. Abraham controlled himself. Even in the midst of his greatest grief, he did not allow himself to utter words of condemnation or contempt for God’s command, nor did he question God. He still believed unquestioningly in the character of his God, even if he did not understand and was forced to endure terrible, terrible pain.

In this respect, Abraham is successful where another of his contemporaries would fail. Job, who would eventually come to question God and curse the day he was born for the tragedy brought upon his own life and family, in a very similar fashion failed, where Abraham succeeded.

Yet after Abraham’s greatest triumph comes soul destroying anguish and crushing pain. Isaac is gone and not mentioned again in scripture for some time and his beloved wife is also gone, taken by death. He is alone. Completely and utterly alone. Bereft, in pain and almost completely broken. What now of the promises made to him by God, with his son gone and his wife now dead? How would they be fulfilled?

All Abraham has left is his faith and it was his faith alone that got this man of God through. This is why Abraham is rightly known as, “…the father of faith.” (Romans 4:15)

How often in our spiritual lives do our own experiences mirror Abraham’s? After a great triumph, we come crashing down in some kind of sin or snare of the evil one, or our whole world seems to fall apart around us and we are left feeling wretched, abandoned and sometimes also very much alone?

God is refining you and me, just as he refined Abraham. The pain Christians feel today is no different or less real than the pain and suffering Abraham endured all those millennia ago.

At some point He will pass each of us through our own fire, one every bit as real as the fiery furnace Daniel’s friends were later to be thrown into in Babylon, (Daniel 3). These are our own wilderness experiences, times of profound loneliness and sometimes desperation.

They can be times of indescribable pain and suffering, times of overwhelming loss and grief. Times when we have no answers to give and no words to speak. They can be times of such profound pain and suffering that words will not suffice because other people simply will not understand what we are going through. Only time and the hand of God bring us out of such times, fueled by our own precious faith,

“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7)

This world is fallen. Utterly, irretrievably fallen and is hurtling towards a time known in the bible, for good reason, as “Jacob’s trouble.” Believers in Jesus Christ will escape this time but many who will later come to faith will feel its full weight and force. Many today who claim Christianity, but do not really know the Lord, will also experience the full horror of the Tribulation period.

Yet before that a time, a testing is coming. As the hand of restraint is increasingly removed, evil is seeping into the vacuum that is left. Persecution will likely be a consequence of it. If the Lord continues to tarry, and he loves humanity deeply wanting all to come to faith before it is too late, he may well tarry and real persecution will come to us in the West.

Its ominous shadows are already on our collective horizons. Soon persecution will become an increasing reality in all our lives and that may mean hardships and suffering the likes of which we have not ever seriously before considered.

The example given to us by Abraham shows us exactly how we must act in such times. With unquestioning loyalty and unswerving hope in the God of all creation. Only through our faith in our God will we overcome. Faith that all things work out for the good for those who love him (Romans 8:28).

So what eventually did happen to Isaac? Where did he go and what did he actually do after Moriah?

Although Jewish tradition provides suggestions, Scripture never explicitly tells us. But the next time we do see Isaac in Scripture, Isaac, this foreshadowing of the Messiah, is seen returning for and with his gentile Bride.

The next time this world experiences Jesus Christ, and it will be soon, he will be returning for His own gentile Bride. Jesus will be returning for you and me if you have repented and placed your faith in him. That day fast approaches.

“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).