No Need for Ishmael | Galatians 4:21-31

“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which genders to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to Jerusalem, which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not: break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bond-woman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:21-31).

The first covenant was faulty. It was faulty in the promises; because it rested primarily upon the promises of the people wherein the people promised something that it was impossible for them to do.

Why, then, were they allowed of the Lord to enter into such a covenant? Did he not know that the people could not do what they promised? —To be sure, he did.

But the people did not know it. “Living [in Egypt] in the midst of idolatry and corruption, they had no true conception of the holiness of God; of the exceeding sinfulness of their own hearts; their utter inability, in themselves, to render obedience to God’s law; and their need of a Saviour. ALL THIS THEY MUST BE TAUGHT. God brought them to Sinai; he manifested his glory; he gave them his law, with the promise of great blessings on condition of obedience . . .. The people did not realize the sinfulness of their own hearts, and that without Christ it was impossible for them to keep God’s law; and they readily entered into covenant with God. Feeling that they were able to establish their own righteousness, they declared, ‘All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.’”

Since the people did not know these essential things concerning themselves; —“their utter inability, etc.; --since they would not believe God, so that they could know; —and since “all this they must be taught,” —the only sure means by which they could be caused to learn this which they did not know was to have them try, and fail; and so learn by experience that they could not of themselves establish their own righteousness as the righteousness of God. Then they would be willing to accept by faith God’s righteousness, which is established by faith.

This is all perfectly plain from the circumstances of the case.

As we have seen in a former study, before they left Egypt the Lord had said: “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 6:7). Now is it not perfectly plain that if they had believed this, they would have known that He was already the Lord their God, and they would not have needed to enter into this bargain to get the Lord to be their God, and to make themselves his people.

If they had believed, by his own word, that he was already their God, and that so they were already his people; and if they had known that he was already the Lord their God (Ex. 6:7), would they have needed to promise that they would keep his law “indeed” so that they might be his people, and he be their God? —Plainly, no.

If they had believed that the Lord would “give” to them “for an heritage” the inheritance that he had sworn to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Ex. 6:8), could there ever have been found any place for a bargain into which they would enter, and according to which they would, by works, earn that inheritance? —Plainly, no.

In other words: If they had received God, by faith, in these things which he had promised to them before they left Egypt, would they have needed to undertake to win him to them in those things, by their own works? —Plainly, no.

In other words: If they had known, and had been in, God’s covenant with Abraham, the everlasting covenant, would they have ever needed to know, or to enter into, this other covenant at Sinai, which in substance was only their own, because it rested only on their promises? —Plainly, no.

Following back the thought to its original in the parallel, in these verses in Galatians, the parallel question is, —

If Sarai and Abram had believed God’s promise and had held fast only to that, would Ishmael ever have found a place in the family of Abraham? Would two sons ever have been born to Abraham? —Plainly, no.

Plainly, then, there never was any need of Abraham’s having more than one son, the son that God had promised. Yet, “these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which genders to bondage, which is Hagar.”

And just as there was never any need of Abraham’s having but one son, —the son that God had promised, —so there was no need for Israel ever to have but the one covenant—the covenant of God with Abraham—the everlasting covenant.

Just as there was no need of those two sons, so there was no need of the two covenants.

And as, through unbelief and distrust of God, Hagar and Ishmael were brought in on the side; just so, through unbelief and distrust of God, the covenant at Sinai was brought in on the side.

And as Hagar and Ishmael never had any recognition at all in the promise that God made to give Abraham a son, just so the covenant at Sinai never had any recognition at all in God’s promise of salvation to mankind.

As Hagar and Ishmael had to be cast out, and all that had brought them in had to be utterly repudiated, in order that the son whom God had promised should have the place that belonged to him; just so the covenant at Sinai had to be cast out, and all that brought it in had to be utterly repudiated, on the part of the people, upon whose promises alone that covenant rested, in order that God’s original covenant—the covenant with Abraham—the everlasting covenant—should have the place that belongs to it, in the life and salvation of men.

Yet, as the troubles and the failure of Sarai and Abram in the scheme that brought in Hagar and Ishmael, were instrumental in bringing them at last to the point where they did trust implicitly in the promise of God alone; so the trouble and the dismal failure that Israel experience in the first covenant brought them to the point where they appreciated, and implicitly trusted in, God’s original covenant, —the covenant with Abraham, —his everlasting covenant, —which he had given them before they left Egypt at all.

For, as we have seen, Israel broke both the law of God and their covenant not to break it. And when Moses came down from the mount, having in his hands the table of the law that they had covenanted to obey “indeed,” and saw what they had done, “he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount” (Ex. 32:19), “thus signifying that as they had broken their covenant with God, so God had broken his covenant with them” (Patriarchs and Prophets, page 320).

They thus found themselves stranded, and utterly helpless, with all their resources utterly exhausted. For “they could not hope for the favor of God through a covenant which they had broken; and now, seeing their sinfulness and their need of pardon, they were brought to feel their need of the Saviour revealed in the Abrahamic covenant, and shadowed forth in the sacrificial offerings. Now they were prepared to appreciate the blessings of the new covenant” (Id., page 372).

Thus the covenant from Sinai brought them to the covenant with Abraham. The first brought them to the second covenant. The old covenant brought them to the new covenant. And thus the law, which was the basis of that covenant, —the broken law, —was the schoolmaster to bring them to Christ, that they might be justified by faith.

Please review this study closely and carefully; for, in the next studies, we pass from this to the new covenant.

[Advent Review and Sabbath Herald | July 17, 1900]