In Genesis 17, God confirms and clarifies His covenant with Abraham. In verse 3, we see Abraham fallen upon his face and quietly listening to what the Lord tells him. God spells out the details of what He is going to do in his life: He renames him Abraham (formerly Abram), He confirms that the land will belong to his offspring forever, He institutes circumcision as a sign of the covenant, and He renames Sarah (formerly Sarai).
Abraham listens to all that the Lord tells him. He laughs joyfully at the prospect of truly having a child with his beloved, Sarah. Then a thought enters his mind. What about Ishmael? What about the son that he already has, born to him by the servant girl of his wife? Moved by a genuine love and compassion for this young boy, Abraham cannot contain his emotion and exclaims to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before Thee!”
Do we not often react in this same manner when God announces a new blessing He is bringing into our own lives? We rejoice over what He is bringing to us, but what of the things that we must release in order to make room for it? Abraham had grown accustomed to having Ishmael around these 13 years and had doubtlessly been preparing him to inherit all that he had. He had been teaching him the family business, grooming him to become his heir. Now, God tells him that another, namely Isaac, shall be the one through whom God will bring about His purposes. What will become of Ishmael, Abraham wonders, Will You not accept him to fulfill Your covenant?
God is concerned with the destiny of Ishmael, and He will tell Abraham as much in verse 20. “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac“, says the Lord (v. 21). The problem with Ishmael was not that God was unable to fulfill His purposes through him, the problem with Ishmael was that he was not the son that God had planned for Abraham to have. Ishmael was born through a union that God had not approved of, by a plan that God had not endorsed, from a person that was acquired in a land that Abraham had no business going into in the first place! Ishmael was the product of Abraham’s actions apart from the will of God from start to finish. It wasn’t Ishmael’s fault, of course, and God would bless the young man in spite of this, but He simply could not accept him as the seed of promise through whom His perfect will would be carried out.
Do we not also offer the works of our own hands, produced through our own efforts, to be used by God in order to fulfill His perfect will in our lives? God simply will not accept these things. He wants to achieve his purposes for us, but He will do it in no other way than His own. Like Abraham, we too grow weary of the sometimes lengthy wait that we are called upon to endure and we begin to busy ourselves with the tasks of preparing those things by which we ourselves believe the will of God must rely. When the Lord visits us in the time that He Himself has established, we are found having Ishmaels of our own, produced by our self-reliance and rashness. When God is ready to bring about His best plan for our lives, may we not be found in need of displacing our second-best in order to accommodate it.