Chapter One: Beginnings
The story of Abraham’s family begins with a little list of sons and daughters which comes to an abrupt stop; “but Sarai was barren she had no child”. Perhaps it’s something to do with the wonder of the inspired scripture but as I read the words, 40 centuries later, I can still feel the pain. She lives in the bosom of her family, in relative prosperity. She is a handsome woman with a loving husband. What more could she want? “But Sarai was barren she had no child”.
The book of Proverbs has lots of lists too. It lists four unquenchable hungers; things which cannot be satisfied or put off. Four hungers which know no rest and no respite; the grave, the barren womb, the parched earth, the raging fire. [Prov 30:16] The insistence of these four hungers submits to no reason. In Sarah this unsatisfied longing was to lead to a short term compromise whose repercussions are with us 40 centuries later, but that is farther into our story. Sarah’s hunger led her to the conclusion that ‘something must be done’ not realising, as Oswald Chambers said, that “despair is ever the gateway of faith”. It seems to me that frustration is always a call to prayer, never to action. Achievements motivated by frustration always carry bitter seeds.
My soul, wait thou in silence for God only; For my expectation is from him. [Ps 65:2 ASV]
The relatively new Hebrew word “frustration” did not appear in Hebrew until the mid-seventies, and in fact, before it was absorbed into the language, people who spoke only Hebrew were never “frustrated”. They may have been “angry” or “disappointed” or they may have experienced a sense of turmoil in certain situations, but the angry label of frustration itself was unknown to them until the word for it was translated from the English language. Sometimes it is good to force ourselves to use a different word. If we were not allowed to use the word ‘frustration’ and had to use another in its place we might make an interesting discovery. ‘Frustration’ always has a solution as long as someone else will do something. “I am frustrated, and it is his fault.” If I force myself to use the word ‘angry’ or ‘disappointed’ it opens up another solution; I am the problem. Christians have long had an alternative spelling for ‘disappointment’, they change the ‘d’ to an ‘H’. Frustration is usually just a sign that God is not allowing me to be god, and I am discovering that I don’t like the idea.
There are a surprising number of stories in the Bible relating to childlessness. When God introduced Himself to Moses He called Himself the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Did you notice that each one of these men had a wife who was barren? Was this part of the pain that caused them to seek God? We subsequently read that the sons of both Rebekah and Rachel were born in direct answer to prayer. [Gen 25:21, 30:22] but what of Sarah? Did she pray? Did Abraham? And when you have prayed, what do you do then?
another ‘hungry’ couple
There is a wonderful illustration of answered prayer in Luke’s gospel. The issue was the same; childlessness. Zechariah and Elisabeth have the greatest marriage testimony in scripture.
They were both righteous before God, walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. [Luke 1:6]
This would be exceptional if it referred to one person, but this verse plainly says both. Their walk together would have begun when they were young folk in the hills in Judaea. Their marriage would have been accompanied by prayer for children and Elisabeth would have breathed her silent amens. As the early years passed well meaning friends would have offered their condolences; “don’t worry dear, it will be alright, you wait and see.” And they did wait, and the years passed, and more years passed, and still they waited…
Through all these years of heartache, and it had other painful connotations in their culture, they maintained their walk in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They never became hard and critical, never became bitter, just kept on walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. What a pair! At some point in their long wait Zechariah had prayed. Of course, he had prayed often, but there was one particular time he prayed… How do I know? Because of Gabriel’s word to him;
‘Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer was heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear a son to thee, and thou shalt call his name John. [Luke 1:13 Literal]
This is a reference to a single prayer that was heard sometime in the past.
in His way and in His time
I have no doubt that Zechariah knew exactly which prayer Gabriel was referring to. I think that at some point he had poured his heart out to God. He had known it was different, that he had ‘got through’. Perhaps he returned and kept the secret in his heart, and the years passed, and more years passed. And the memory grew dim, and they ‘both were now well stricken in years’. The last hopes faded and still they walked in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. When God hears prayer He doesn’t always change things immediately, but change they will… in His way and in His time.
Sometimes when we pray we know that our prayer is heard. To continue to pray when we know the prayer has been heard would be pointless. Worse, we could conceivably pray ourselves from faith back into unbelief. There is no longer a need to pray when the prayer is heard. Now all that is needed is patient waiting upon God. This was Elijah’s pattern. He prayed once but sent his servant seven times, and while the servant was to-ing and fro-ing Elijah was waiting upon God, his face between his knees.
So what are your secret sorrows? From the outside all looks well and all your peers are impressed but deep within you have those deep-rooted hungers. Child of God, lay hold of God in prayer, let the tears flow, be honest, tell Him how you feel; God cannot change the person you are pretending to be! But when you know He has heard, stop pestering Him. Trust it all into His hands. Hold it before Him in expectation. David’s simple testimony was
this poor man cried, and the LORD heard him. [Ps 34:6]
It was from the pain and joy of her own experience that Elisabeth was able to bring a unique encouragement to a young woman who was just beginning to carry an amazing promise;
And blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord. [Luke 1:45]