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The God Who Sees

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 15, 2014

Genesis 16 The God Who Sees

We’re going to have an interactive beginning to our sermon today. I’m going to begin a sentence, and I want you to finish it. Ready? Here it is: “God helps those who…”

“…help themselves.” Very good. I thought that would be familiar to you. Now, a little bit harder question: Can anyone tell me where that line is found in the Bible?


That’s a trick question, because “God helps those who help themselves” is not a line you will find in your Bibles. It’s not something that comes from Christianity at all.

One of my pet projects is to collect sayings that people think come from the Bible, but don’t. I’ve always wanted to write a book, and one idea I’ve had for a book would be to take these clichés that have become so common in Christianity that we think they come from God Himself. I call them “Christian-isms”, and I’ve got quite a little list started, things like: “Love the sinner, hate the sin”; “God will never give you more than you can handle”; or “Charity begins at home.” They’re common sayings, and they often contain elements of truth; but none of them are in the Bible. Plus, in many ways they can be misleading—or even contrary to the Christian message.

And near the top of my list is this saying: “God helps those who help themselves.” That is most definitely not something the Bible ever says, and as our scripture story today illustrates, it is not the way God operates at all.

We are in the midst of a series on the life of Abraham. And the main theme of this series has been the promises of God. God makes a lot of promises to Abraham. Big promises. Promises Abraham wants to receive.

But it is not always so obvious these promises are going to happen. So Abraham is learning to trust.

And, of course, the biggest promise in Abraham’s story—and the one that most obviously hasn’t happened yet—is the promise that Abraham will be the father of a great nation. It’s the promise of a child.

But when our story for today begins, God has not yet kept this promise and it has been 10 years. 10 years have gone by since God first spoke of Abraham becoming a father, and it hasn’t happened! And Abraham wasn’t exactly a spring chicken when the promise was given! It seems like an awfully long delay, and it is this apparent delay that is the cause of all the excitement in Genesis 16. This is a chapter that my friend Matt says reads like the script of a modern day soap opera. It’s one of the more scandalous stories in the Bible.

The story before us today unfolds in two scenes. The first involves Sarah, Abraham, and an Egyptian maid named Hagar; and the second involves Hagar and the Lord. From these two scenes we will learn two important lessons about the kinds of people God is looking to help.

Living in Faith
I. First, we will look at verses 1-6 and we will learn that the Lord does NOT help those who help themselves. The Lord does not help those who help themselves.

Verse 1:

1Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.

The story begins with a setting of the problem: there is no child. The very first thing we learned about Sarah (11:30) was that she was barren. Now, 10 years later, she’s 75 years old and menopause has come. She’s past childbearing age, and there’s this promise from God, and it’s not happening…

You can almost hear the bitterness in her voice in verse 2 when she says: “The LORD has kept me from having children…” Things aren’t working out, and she’s blaming God. Either God made these promises to her husband and He’s too weak to pull it off, or He never meant to keep the promise in the first place. In either case, she wants a child, and it’s time to help God out.

Verse 1 again, into verse 2:

1Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

This is why Matt says this reads like a soap opera.

Actually, scholars tell us that this sort of surrogate motherhood was not unheard of in the ancient world. The word “maidservant” indicates that Hagar was a personal servant of Sarah (probably picked up while Sarah spent time in Pharaoh’s harem). If a wealthy woman gave her servant to her husband and that servant conceived, then the child could be considered the child of the wealthy woman. There were a number of ancient laws to regulate this practice, so it appears to have been fairly commonplace (cf. Gen. 30:3-12).

I can imagine Sarah coming to the tent one day saying: “Abram dear, you know the Millers? Alex and Karen, that Canaanite couple that lives over the hill? Well, they’ve been having trouble getting pregnant too. But Karen has this maidservant and, well, she gave her to Alex and, um, the girl had a baby and now Alex and Karen are raising him as their own and…er…they seem really happy… Maybe we should try…something like that…”

Maybe she didn’t think Abraham would take her up on the idea. Maybe she was so ashamed and desperate she was willing to try anything. Maybe she really believed she would be able to get past it, that it would really work.

But whatever she was thinking, she believed God needed help. And Abraham agreed.

The end of verse 2, and verse 3:

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maid servant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.

Abraham does not come off well in this story either. He’s not being the kind of husband he should be. He should have been the leader in his household, he should have set the spiritual tone. But he doesn’t.

In fact, that phrase: “Abram agreed to what Sarai said” is a Hebrew construction that only occurs one other time in the book of Genesis: to describe what Adam did when he went along with Eve (3:17). When it says that Sarai took her maidservant and gave her to Abram, it’s the same progression of verbs that are used to describe Eve giving the forbidden fruit to Adam (3:6; Waltke, 252). Clearly, God does not approve of what is happening here.

Considering that today is Father’s Day, here we get a pretty negative example of Biblical manhood. Abraham is passive. He’s not engaged. And, as we’ll see, he makes a terrible choice for his family.

And yet, the plan works. Verse 4:

4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

See? God helps those who help themselves, right? God promised a child, and He was just waiting for Abraham and Sarah to show a little ingenuity. Now there’s a child on the way. They just had to make it happen. Everything is going to be great now, right?


Sarah’s plan works, and that’s when the problems really begin. Verses 4 through 6:

4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.” 6“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.”

More soap opera. Hagar, the maidservant, sleeps with the man of the house, gets pregnant, and begins to “put on airs.” She knows that her mistress can’t have a child, and now she starts to rub it in her face. She forgets her place.

And Sarah—whose idea this all was, remember—doesn’t like it. And she blames Abraham. Now, finally, she calls on God. But not in faith, in anger.

And Abraham—well, Abraham—he doesn’t do so good. He abdicates. He drops the ball. Instead of taking charge of his household, he passes the buck.

The result? The end of verse 6:

Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The result is a fractured household, and an outcast slave.

Now, let’s pause here a moment, and think about what’s going on.

Abraham and Sarah were getting impatient for God to keep His promises. They decided the time had come and gone when God could actually keep them through Sarah, so they thought they would help God out a little bit. The Lord helps those who help themselves. A little creativity, a little hard work, a little luck and (voila!) God’s blessings can be had.

But that isn’t how God works. God does not need our help. God has everything under control and He plans to keep His promises His way, in His timing. He’s promised a child and (as we’ll see) there’s a child coming: despite Abraham’s old age, despite Sarah’s old age. God doesn’t need our help to keep His promises.

The Lord does NOT help those who help themselves. You won’t find it in the Bible.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God doesn’t use our efforts. This is not an argument against self-initiative. It’s not a justification for those of us who tend to be lazy in our spiritual lives. “Oh, just wait for God to do something—remember what happened with Abram and Sarah.” That’s not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that if you want God to be a part of your life then you need to live your life in such a way that leaves room for Him to act. You need to live by faith.

I have a book on church health in my office that talks about the importance of designing your church around a commitment to faith. He says that the motto of every church should be: “Attempt something so great for God that it is doomed to failure unless God be in it.” He says that if the programs of your church can be run without any help from God, then they aren’t worth doing. If a church can survive on human initiative, without any divine dependence, then it isn’t existing by faith in God. (Randy Pope, The Prevailing Church, p. 60)

And I think what he says about the Christian church specifically applies to the Christian life generally: Are you living your life in such a way that you need God to make the things you attempt succeed? Are you operating by self-reliance, or God-reliance?

Sometimes we are simply too pragmatic Instead of asking: “Is it God’s will?” We ask: “Is it possible?” And then we choose the route that seems practical, not the route that requires faith. Often, that route involves making an immoral or foolish decision. Proverbs 28:26 says this:

26 Those who trust in themselves are fools,
but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.

Really, if you ever find yourself uttering the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” as a way of justifying something you know is foolish or wrong—then you know you’ve gone from trusting God to trying to do God’s job for Him. Think of the person who finds a wallet on the ground and utters “God helps those who help themselves” before emptying it of all its cash. Or the investor who says “God helps those who help themselves” before buying into a business that operates strip clubs. You might just think you’re being practical, but it’s not being wise.

That’s what Abraham and Sarah were doing here: they were just trying to be practical. God had promised to build a nation through Abraham, and Sarah had reached menopause. It seemed rather self-evident that the nation building wouldn’t happen through her. So they looked for another way. They looked for a practical solution.

But the problem is, the solution they chose didn’t require God. If Sarah’s plan works, it brings glory to her, not to God. There’s no faith here. They left God out of the equation.

The great Chinese preacher Watchman Nee says this:

Abraham was wrong, not in his goal but in his source. His goal was to see God’s promise fulfilled, but he was wrong to fulfill it by his own strength…Not only will God reject those who do things that are not pleasing to him. He will reject even those who do things that are pleasing to him, but who do them according to themselves. (57)

I’ll say it again: if you want God to be a part of your life then you need to live your life in such a way that leaves room for Him to act. In fact, I’ll make it stronger: if you want God to be a part of your life then you need to live your life in such a way that depends upon Him acting. Live by faith.

God does NOT help those who help themselves. He does not appreciate those who try to circumvent the life of faith.

Living in Dependence
II. Let’s look at the second scene then, verses 7-16, and we will learn that the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves. The Lord does help those who cannot help themselves.

Verse 7:

7The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.

Hagar runs from the cruelty of Sarai and heads back toward Egypt. She’s made it about 70 miles. She’s pregnant, scared, and alone. And God sends an angel—His personal, heavenly representative. Verse 8:

8And he said, “Hagar [by the way, this is the only known instance in all ancient Near Eastern literature where a deity addresses a woman by name, Waltke, 254], servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

The Lord knows her. He knows her name. He knows her position. He certainly knows why she’s here. But He draws her out with a question. She answers:

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel’s response isn’t very comforting, but it is precisely what she needs to hear. Verse 9:

9Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”

Hagar is still a maidservant. The way for her to advance “is not by discarding social boundaries, but by honoring them” (Prov. 17:2; 27:18; Waltke, 254). Her place is back with Abram and Sarah.

But then, the angel adds a promise:

10The angel added, “I will so increase you descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”

It’s the same promise as that given to Abraham, except that God isn’t promising to bless the rest of the world through these descendants. If Hagar was afraid that her baby would perish, she need not be. She will be the mother of many.

But there’s more. Verses 11 & 12:

11The angel of the LORD also said to her: “'You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 12He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers."

There’s a lot here. In a world long before ultrasound machines, Hagar is told that the child in her womb will be a boy—a son. She’s given a name for that son, and she’s told that he will be free and unconstrained (that seems to be the symbolic meaning of the wild donkey). Now, that doesn’t sound very flattering, but for a slave woman, the news that her son will be free and unconstrained has got to be good news.

Moreover, since the Arab peoples trace their roots back to Hagar’s son, and since Ishmael’s “brothers” here in v. 12 include the Israelites descended from Isaac, it seems we have our first prediction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 4000 years in advance!

What we want to see, though, is what happens in verses 13 and 14:

13She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: 'You are the God who sees me,' for she said, 'I have now seen the One who sees me.' 14That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi [which means "The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me"]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

Hagar gives God a name. She responds to this God who has sought her out by honoring Him with a name. And she calls Him: El Roi. The God who sees. This is where I got today’s title. Hagar marvels at the God who sees her.

And I don’t think she means: this God has eyes. She doesn’t just mean, “He knows what’s going on.” She means: “This God sees me, and knows what has happened to me, and He cares.” That’s what she’s so amazed about: This God cares about her.

The names are very important here. Ishmael, the name she’s supposed to give her son, means: “God hears.” For, verse 11 says, “The LORD has heard of your misery.” This helpless, low-account, foreign, pregnant, runaway slave is all alone and scared and helpless, and God comes along and says: “I have heard of your misery. I see. I care.”

This God is a God who is concerned about the oppressed and the mistreated. He’s a God who delights to help those who cannot help themselves. He sees, and He cares.

Again and again the Bible calls God the “Father of the widow and the fatherless.” Why? Because of all classes of people in the ancient world, those were the people least able to help themselves. God loves to pour out mercy on the humble. He is all eyes and ears for those who are at the end of their rope.

So instead of helping those who are always trying to fix themselves; instead of coming to the aid of those who are always striving in their own power to change things and make themselves acceptable to Him; God delights to help those who recognize that they can’t do it on their own. God loves to lavish His grace on people who know they are helpless by themselves. As Jesus says in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” In other words: God is looking for those who know they need help.

Hagar stands in great contrast to Abraham and Sarah in this story. They were supposed to be the ones living by faith in God, but they struck out on their own and tried to make things happen by their own strength. Hagar, on the other hand, even though she is outside of the covenant, recognizes that she has just met with God and returns in humble obedience to His command. Verses 15-16:

15So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she
had borne. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

God does NOT help those who help themselves, but He loves to help those who are helpless. He’s a God for the needy. A God for those who are ready to recognize that they can’t do it alone.

The Gospel
Really, this is the message of the gospel. My friend Matt has a great little saying that I think is so true. He says: “The Gospel is not a ‘Help Wanted Sign.’” That is, God isn’t out there desperate for you to sign up with Him because if He doesn’t get enough help He’ll go bankrupt and He’ll look bad.

Rather, Matt says, “The Gospel is a ‘Help Available Sign’”. God is saying to you that you can’t do it on your own, you can’t achieve salvation by your own efforts. But God stands ready in Jesus Christ to do the work on your behalf. God is ready, if only you will “make a declaration of DEPENDENCE and be needy (not helpful) before God.” (Mitchell, May 4, 2003)

The gospel is not a “Help Wanted Sign”, it’s a “Help Available Sign.” God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Too often we want to do things ourselves. We think we know better than God. We think it’s best to be practical. We’ve just got too much pride to admit we need help. But that way leads to death. It’s a trap. We’ll never make it that way.

In the book of Galatians (4:21-31), Paul draws an analogy from Hagar and Sarah. The analogy is that of trying to please God by works (like the earthly way Sarah put forward Hagar) instead of pleasing God by faith (which is how Abraham and Sarah will eventually have a son).

The independent way doesn't work. God is not pleased by our efforts to earn salvation. God is pleased by faith, trusting in His provision for our salvation. That's the dependent way, the humble way, the honest way.

Our God is a God who sees the needs of the helpless, but rejects our efforts to engineer His plan for Him. God grant that we may order our lives in such a way that we always leave room to depend upon Him in faith.