“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he looked and beheld a ram behind him caught fast in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and went up to make a whole burnt offering of it instead of his son.”
Substitution is perhaps the word for the day when it comes to the redemptive work of God. God substituted the ground in the place of Adam and Eve when entering into the curse (Genesis 3:17), animals were repeatedly substituted for the sins of the people (see the book of Leviticus!!!), and ultimately, God would send his Son to substitute his divine person in our place. Justice must be done and rightful justice for sin is death eternal. God sent his Son to bear the weight of death eternal so that we might be given life eternal.
Here Abraham is given a substitute for Isaac but only because a greater substitute is coming. The blood of animals, in and of itself, cannot purify, but can only demonstrate to us the horrid nature of our sin. Think of how the blood flowed in ancient Israel — sacrifice after sacrifice made for millions of people. The blood of animals was but a pointer that there was a need for a perfect sacrifice to be made … not the blood of an animal, but the blood of a perfect man who could intercede for us. God was the only one who could substitute himself in our stead, which is why his Son took on flesh. And, soon after the sacrifice of Jesus the Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. And there is no need for rebuilding as Jesus’ sacrifice is the perfect and final sacrifice for his people.
The ram was a reprieve for Abraham and Isaac, pointing to the great Lamb of God who would come. It might be a bit of a stretch to compare the thicket in which this ram was caught to the tree (cross) upon which Jesus was hung, though it is worth noting that in this very place, the King of Glory would one day come to redeem mankind and perhaps here, in the redemption of his son, Abraham and Isaac not only got a taste for the grief of God in the death of his Son, but the joy of salvation.
How often, as Christians, we take the offer of salvation lightly and for granted. Arguably that is partly because we have such a low view of hell and the realty thereof. There are even some who reject the whole notion of Hell to begin with, considering it an antiquated tool to keep rambunctious children in line with the rules of the community. But the Bible does not let us draw such conclusions, indeed the Bible trumpets not only the reality of the place, but the horrors thereof. And the Bible insists that the only way one can avoid hell as a destination is through faith in Jesus Christ…something we neither deserve or can earn by doing good deeds. It is a gift of grace to those God equips and allows to believe. May we who have been given a gift we did not deserve be grateful for that gift. There is no questioning the extent of Abraham’s gratitude at this point in his life; may those who know us also say that there is no questioning the gratitude we feel for the work of Christ on our behalf.
“And to Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother. Behold it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you and to all that you may be found to be in the right.’”
In many cases, this is the kind of passage we might be tempted to pass over as simply Abimelek giving an additional peace offering to Abraham for having taken Sarah as his wife. And we might as well have glossed over the passage save for one word: tOwsV;k (kesoth). Literally, this means “covering” and in its most basic sense refers to the clothing that one would cover their body with, like a robe or a cloak. Yet, in ancient cultures, clothing also served to indicate your status in society as well as your status before God. In the ultimate sense, it reflects the work of atonement, hence after Adam and Eve have sinned, God kills an animal and makes for them clothes to wear, not simply for protection from the elements, but a sign of the work of atonement that has been promised in Christ.
Abimelek understands that he is making atonement for his sin and the silver offered is a sign that Sarah committed no sin. The principle is that there is a cost incurred when the law is broken. Just as with the civil law today, when an infraction occurs, there are fines typically attached to the infraction. If we drive too fast, we pay a speeding ticket; the worse the infraction, the more serious the fine. The seriousness of breaking a law is related proportionally to whose law is broken. Thus, breaking a county ordinance is typically not as serious as breaking a state law and breaking a state law is not as serious as breaking a federal law. In turn, most people are less concerned about being in the county jail than in the federal penitentiary. When we break the law of God, we are not offending a local, state, federal, or even an international body—we are offending the creator of the universe and his perfect, righteous character. He is infinite and thus breaking his law is an infinite offense. Thus, the fine is far greater than a few thousand silver pieces—the fine, the punishment matches the infinite greatness of the one we have offended: God himself!
Since the wages of sin is death, the payment that must be exacted for our infraction of the law of God is eternal death—eternal death not just for our sins as a whole, but eternal death for each and every sin we have committed. In the Old Testament, substitutes were offered for the sins of the people, but the blood of rams and goats could only serve as a reminder of the horror of our own sinful state. Animals died, but they were neither perfect nor infinite, and thus could not effectively stand in our place to pay the debt we owe. For thousands of years, blood flowed from the altars of the people. All to no lasting avail.
Yet, God himself provided a better substitute in his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully man, thus could identify with us and effectively take our place and he was fully God, which means he was without sin and infinite, thus able to pay an infinite debt. He owed God nothing, but chose to pay God everything in substitute for our sin. And thus, just as Abimelek, after making a payment of atonement for Sarah declares her to be righteous before all who would judge, so too, does Jesus Christ declare us to be righteous before his Father, the one who judges us according to his perfect law. While the atonement is more than a payment for sin incurred, said payment is a very important aspect of what it is that Jesus is doing, praise be to the Lord!
Loved ones, do not miss these shadows that God has blessed us with here in the Old Testament. We often read through these narratives without making much note of what God is pointing us toward, yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to have these encounters recorded for all time to be both a word of instruction and encouragement for us—to not take time to notice that encouragement, misses much of what God has given us. Jesus indeed has made a covering for us, not from silver or gold nor from the blood of animals, but instead from his own blood. Let us never take for granted this remarkable gift and let us celebrate and share that gift with others, telling them about the Good News of what God has wrought for sinful man.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!
We bless you from the house of Yahweh.
Yahweh is God and he has given us light—bind up the festival in thickets!
As far as the horns of the altar!”
While it may seem that these two verses are rather disparate at first glance, they are actually linked together by a common theme upon closer inspection. Verse 26 begins with a wonderfully Messianic statement: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!” This statement, of course, will later be used by the crowds as they come to greet Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion. It is a statement that has a clear hope toward the Messiah, and in the context of the “hosannas” that precede it, it is looking toward the Messiah’s kingly office and saving work. Notice, though, the singular use of the Hebrew participle: “blessed is the one…” This should not be seen as an error or as a generalization, but should be recognized as a very individualistic statement. Blessed is the one, the person, the individual, who comes in Yahweh’s name, representing him to the people of Israel. All hail the king who comes—all hail Yahweh’s anointed one!
As we move on in the psalm, though, there is a shift in verse 26 to the plural that continues through verse 27. The psalmist, being a good southerner (southern Israel, that is…) says, “We bless y’all from the house of Yahweh.” Sometimes in English, we miss the plural use of the second-person verb, but here we have the transition. The rest of this passage is not so much focused on the “one” coming in, but all of the believers—all of the faithful—coming in to God’s house to worship—all faithfully hoping and praying for the coming Messiah. How these festivals looked toward the fulfillment of this ancient promise; how sad it is that when the one who fulfilled that promise came, the Jewish leaders rejected him and put him to death. How narrow-sighted we can become when we are more concerned with our own agenda and tradition than with the truth.
So how does verse 27 tie into this picture. The first thing we must note is the very general principle that the festivals of ancient Israel all revolved around various sacrifices for sin and guilt. In and of themselves, the sacrifices had no power; it is the sacrifice of Christ, once and for all times, that gave efficacy to the older animal sacrifices. The sacrifices of the animals served two important functions: first, they were meant to show the horrific nature of sin that would require such a bloody sacrifice and second, they were designed to point toward Christ’s sacrifice to come. And because there is surety in the promises of God, these sacrifices could be performed earlier with effectiveness because of the absolute certainty that Christ was coming to fulfill what the earlier sacrifices only symbolized—a substitutionary and propitiatory atonement for sins through the blood of Jesus. Thus, the people looked forward to and celebrated these times as they represented forgiveness from sin, which separated them from a holy and righteous God.
Secondly, notice the language of this verse as we have translated it: “Bind up the festival in thickets!” Usually, this is translated in terms of binding up the festival sacrifice in cords, but that is not what the text says precisely. First of all, the term gx; (chag) refers to the festival as a whole, not the specific sacrifice on the altar. One could make the assertion that the heart of the festival as a whole is the sacrifice, making the language idiomatic (using language that reflects the whole to speak of the central sacrifice). I think that this misses what the psalmist is seeking to emphasize. The language that speaks of the whole being used in the context of the central sacrifice can also be used to make the point that all that is done in the festival is sacrifice. Given that this is a Hallel Psalm, it seems quite reasonable to see this whole psalm as a sacrifice of praise to our God—that indeed, all that is done, from the streaming down of the people into Jerusalem, to the sacrifices on the altar, to the rejoicing on the trip home—all of that was connected to this festival was a sacrifice of praise to our God.
We need to park here for a few minutes and remind ourselves of the evangelistic nature of so many of these Hallel Psalms. One thing that most believers forget is that they are being watched by an unbelieving world. One of the methods by which we witness the gospel is the way by which we live our daily life. Sure, we may witness to them by sharing our testimony, gospel tracts, and offering short Bible studies, but what impact will that witness have if they see us dragging our feet Sunday mornings on the way to church? If they see you grumbling all of the time, what will attract them to the kind of life you are living? Beloved, do not forget that part of your witness is the joy and peace that the watching world observes as you live out your faith day to day, and imagine the power of your witness if your unbelieving neighbors see you excited about going to church on Sunday mornings!
What then about the language of the “thicket”? The word that is used (and is often translated as “cords”) is the term tAb[‘ (avoth). Literally, this term refers to branches of trees or bushes, like a thicket in the woods. The idea of the sacrifice being bound in a thicket had significant theological connotations for the Jewish people, for Abraham, when taking his son up on the mountain for sacrifice, found a ram caught in the thicket to be sacrificed instead of his son (see Genesis 22). The idea of a sacrificial animal caught in a thicket, then is connected to the idea of God’s providing of a sacrifice (certainly and ultimately fulfilled in the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah). In the context of the festivals, indeed the provision of sacrifice was a provision that was seen as divine mercy and providence, not one of human works. Thus, the sacrifice of praise, from beginning to end, was taken to the horns of the altar, from entry to sacrifice to exit—a sacrifice to the Lord.
One final note about the language of the “horns of the altar.” While we don’t know the origin of the tradition, it seems that in Ancient Israel, people held the belief that clinging to the horns of the altar would provide them sanctuary and refuge from their oppressors. In 1 Kings 1:49-53, we find Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, running and clinging to the horns of the altar for protection. Soon afterward, as recorded in 1 Kings 2:28-35), we also find Joab doing the same. It seems that Solomon puts an end to this tradition, for while he pardons Adonijah, he has Joab slain while still clinging to the altar’s horns. In a similar vein, though this is a negative example, when God speaks through the prophet Amos, commanding him to speak of the judgment that is coming upon the people, one thing he states is that he will “cut off” the horns of the altar at the time of said judgment, implying that the presence of the horns on the altar was at least symbolic of God’s protection for his people—that in this judgment that is coming, there will be no place of refuge for the people to go (see Amos 3:14). True refuge is in the arms of the redeemer.
Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not make mention of the language of God having given his people light. This, of course, carries with it a double reference. First, it looks back to the creation account where on the very first day of creation, God said, “Be light!” and it was. Indeed, even before the sun or the stars were brought into being, God revealed the light of his glory, shining forth upon creation. In addition, light is a major Biblical theme that is connected with truth. From what other place do God’s people gain truth? It is found in God’s word and in God’s word alone. Yes, we may glean some things from the natural world around us, but unless they are interpreted through the light of God’s word, what is learned is shadowy and incomplete light indeed. It is God alone who dispenses truth and wisdom, and God has revealed that within his wonderful and glorious Word—indeed, the Word, the Bible, which points to the one who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the revelation of the glory of God. Beloved, let every moment of our worship reflect the joy we have in Jesus Christ in such a way that when the unbelieving world sees us, they see something in us that they don’t have, but want—and are drawn to Christ as a result. Rejoice, loved ones, rejoice in your Savior, that others may want to do so as well!
We praise thee, O God! For thy Spirit of light,
Who has shown us our Savior and scattered our night.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory,
Hallelujah! We sing;
Hallelujah! Thine the glory,
Our praise now we bring.