2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

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4. God’s Plan, not mine

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 4. God’s Plan, not mine

Gen 25:23   “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.”

Family Expectations: The awareness of being pregnant surely brings an anticipation of the days ahead, and indeed the years ahead. The creation of a family must surely be one of the greatest forces for raising expectations of the future – and also the potential for getting it wrong! How many children have suffered and been distorted from God’s design from them, by their parents own expectations. Again and again I watch young parents – and it may be the mother or the father – who works to do everything possible to provide the best for their child or children and guide and steer them to achieve something that is the image of the parents, Within the Hebrew people, there was a regular custom of giving a child a name in accordance with the hopes of the parent. The naming of the sons of Jacob is a classic of this found in Gen 29 & 30, although they tended to be to act as a reminder of the circumstances surrounding the birth. It’s not a practice we tend to follow!

But now we come to Isaac and Rebekah again. Previously we read, Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” (Gen 25:21) For twenty years Rebekah had anticipated being a mother – it’s what wives become, isn’t it! Eventually she conceives. At long last! Well it has happened, so what will we name our child, what will they be a boy or a girl, what will they be like? These are the sort of questions would-be parents ask. But then something happens: “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.” (v.22)

Rebekah seeks the Lord: Now I have the highest respect for Rebekah at this point (she doesn’t do so well later) because after having to wait for twenty years, she has become a godly woman. When something starts going wrong, she talks to God about it. If only more Christians today would build this into their life habits! But more that this, she doesn’t just talk at God (which today so many do in their superstitious prayers) but she enquires of the Lord, she asks Him – and then listens – and hears!  Again, oh, if only more Christians would learn to do this today! The Lord reveals to her that she is carrying twins, but He takes the opportunity of her listening heart to convey something about their future to her: “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.” (v.23).

The boys named: To understand the future we need to see what follows: “When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them” (Gen 25:24-26) Esau simply means ‘red’ and ‘hairy’ so naming a poor child that doesn’t really do much for his self-esteem as he grows up! But if that wasn’t bad enough, Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel” or ‘grabber’! It was no surprise that Jacob grew up to be that sort of person!

So, although I said I admired the way she sought the Lord, once the babies have arrived – and it may be a sign of her weariness after having had twins – she doesn’t do a good job giving them inspiring names. Maybe it was a sign of what both the parents felt about God after having had to wait for Him to turn up for twenty years. I don’t know.  If they were around today, Esau’s friends would probably unkindly refer to him as ‘that hairy mutt’. Jacob, well possibly, “here comes the grabber, hold on to your toys!” Not a good entry.

Upset causes divergence: All of this is followed, once they reach the age of maturity, by a rite of blessing and it all goes horribly wrong with Jacob conning his brother out of the best blessing (see Gen 27:1-40), but this is only after Esau has already shown he doesn’t care anything about his birthright (see Gen 25:29-34). In the long term the family tree of the people of God stayed with Jacob who became Israel, while Esau went off and married a Canaanite in a peak of anger (Gen 28:8,9) and becomes father of the Edomites who became enemies of Israel so often. (see Gen 25:30, 36:1-)

God’s Sovereignty? Now the apostle Paul uses this situation to demonstrate the sovereignty of God in choosing who He will (Rom 9:10-13) but a wider reading of Scripture suggests again and again, that ‘God’s sovereignty’, while clearly being that, is in fact based upon what He sees and knows from the outset before the world is even created. how unique individuals will use their free will to choose the life they will live, and in the light of that, He chooses who will be blessed, but it is simply those who turn to Him and follow Him. Thus in the story we have been considering, the Lord knew the outcome when he said to Rebekah, “one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger,” and knew that Esau would despise his family name, care little about his parents (thus dishonoring them) and go off contrary to the declared will of God (to bless the world through this particular family) and marry Canaanites. He knew that although Jacob would start off his life as a twister, he would end up a wise old Patriarch who we see prophesying over all his boys and thus growing into a nation that God would bless and use.

And Us? And so? Be careful with your expectations for your family. Pray your heart out for them for God to bless them and draw them to Himself but be careful not to have favourites who you spoil to the detriment of the others (as we’ll see in later studies), and don’t try and make your children something other than God has designed into them. Your child may be an artist. Let him be. Your child may be a scientist. Let her be. Guide them ethically and morally by all means, be the example we have spoken of before, of faith and righteousness, but don’t impose your image on them. Hold your expectations lightly as you pray for them daily, otherwise you may be working against the will of God!

Upheavals in Life

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.1

The Old Testament is a rich source of human experience and especially experience in respect of God. Human life is full of questions and so in this new series we will consider a wide variety of questions raised by people from the Old Testament, that people still ask today.

Gen 25:22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?”

Life in this Fallen World often seems a roller coaster. One minute it is the slow climb to the heights of blessing, which is followed by a period of peace and you rejoice in the goodness of God and how wonderful life is. The next minute you are on the downward rush and everything seems out of control and you find yourself screaming (inwardly at least), “God where are you? Why is this happening to me?” Uncertainty is a most common characteristic of this world. This is not being pessimistic to say this; it is just being realistic, for this is just how life is. It is a mix of ups and downs.

Gen 25:21-24 reveals a classic ‘roller coaster of events. Let’s check it out. It’s the story of Isaac and his wife Rebekah. Isaac is forty when he marries Rebekah (v.20) and sixty when she has her children (v.26), so they waited twenty years for her to conceive. That’s a long time and in that time it is easy to lose hope and give up the thought of ever having children. Now we are not told a great deal about Isaac in the Bible but one thing we should note: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” (v.21a). We aren’t told when he started praying but it would appear that he probably prayed for a long time before we find, “The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” (v.21b). Now these two things put this pregnancy on a special footing. As far as they were possibly concerned, it was just a nuisance to have to wait that long, but the reality was that this was not just a normal, casual pregnancy; this was a pregnancy that for some reason had been held back until God stepped in and enabled Rebekah to conceive. There has now a divine element to it which is significant.

Now we have to remember that this was not a day when they had scans and were able to see what was going on in the womb. All Rebekah knows is that she is now pregnant and then suddenly it’s not just a case of “The baby is kicking!” but there seems total turmoil within her. Suddenly she is concerned and suddenly we arrive at the question with which we start this series: “Why is this happening to me?” [No superficial answers – “Because you’re pregnant!”  No she wants to know what is going on and why.]

Unfortunately it is so easy to read these things and skim over the words without taking in what is going on. It is the cry in the face of unexpected and upsetting circumstances. We are not omniscient like God, and so we don’t know everything; we don’t know why this is happening and we don’t know where it is leading, so it leaves us in a place of concern. That is a very gentle way of putting it!  Actually sometimes the circumstances can bring extreme anxiety with them. It’s funny really, when we cry, “Why?” it almost assumes there has got to be a clear reason or purpose behind what it going on. We actually don’t think things happen randomly. We believe that actions have consequences and if we are suffering the consequences we want to know what brought this about.

If the circumstances are illness, accident, infirmity etc. our cry might be, “Why me?” which implies, why I have I been picked out for this to happen to? Now do you see that there is implied here, a hand behind what is happening.  If life was pure blind chance, such questions are meaningless, but we ask them because we don’t want it to be that.   Solomon had a sense of this when he wrote: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11). What he was saying was that God has put something in us that has a sense that there is more to life than this materialistic moment. We have a sense that there is something much more yet, when we struggle to reason it out on our own, we cannot see it.  Oh yes, every cry of “Why?” implies a rational reason, a reason that suggests there is a purpose to what is going on – and I don’t know what it is!

Now Rebekah is an excellent example to us. If we can face the implications of our cry, then Rebekah’s response is the only response, the logical response: “So she went to inquire of the LORD.” (v.22). If God is behind this, why not ask Him what He’s doing? Then see something beautiful: “The LORD said to her….” (v.23). She gets an answer! The Lord explains to her, somehow, what is going on. There are two boys struggling within her, not one. Suddenly Rebekah is no longer on the outside, she is on the inside of understanding, she knows what God knows, she knows this is God’s activity. He’s on her case!

So, can we recap? When circumstances occur that are unexpected and upsetting, and we cry, “Why?” realize that you are assuming there is a rational explanation for them, there is a hand behind them, and that hand must be God.  Now if that is true and God has a purpose for my life, then it must include what is going on, and the obvious thing to do is ask Him about what is happening. And if you ask what is happening, expect an answer. Take time to sit quietly before the Lord and ask and listen, and dare to believe you are getting an answer. Sometimes the answer may take a while to come, or perhaps it may take a while for your way of thinking to be changed so that you can hear and take in God’s answer, but it will come. How do I know that? Because he’s said so! “Ask (and go on asking) and it will be given to you.” (Mt 7:7). So, talk to the Lord about your, “Why?” and expect an answer!