Immediately following the statement “Abram believed” (Genesis 15:6) Abram asks, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” Notice, however, the shift in the conversation. The promise that Abram believed was that a son would be born to him from his own body. He was given the sign of the stars—as many stars as he could count, so great would his offspring will be in number.
This was not a demand for a sign, nor was it doubt and unbelief asking for another sign from God. To require a sign from God before believing His Word and as a necessary condition for belief is sin. It would be dictating to God the conditions of our relationship with Him. However, a living faith is constantly renewed, refreshed, and invigorated. An example of this would be the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament is not for the purpose of creating faith, but for strengthening our faith. By it, we are renewed and refreshed in our assurance. We cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Abram believed that the promise would be carried through him. That was his earnest desire. It was not enough to be wealthy if Eliezer were to be his heir; he wanted a son. And not just any son. Abram wanted a son who would be an heir to the promises God had given to him earlier—a son who would be a blessing to those who blessed him and a curse to those who cursed him. He wanted a son who would see the promise of one day taking possession of the land. He wanted a son who would crush the head of the serpent and lead God’s people to the city not built by hands but built by God.
An Elaborate Ceremony
The Sovereign Lord responded to Abram by reaffirming His promises and establishing a covenant with Abram by means of a very elaborate ceremony. This ceremony was not unusual for the time period in which Abram lived. It was often used by kings as they made treaties with one another. The kings would cut various animals in half and walk between the pieces of the slaughtered animals. They would then call upon themselves to suffer the same fate as the bloody carcasses if they did not keep the conditions of the new treaty.
In giving instruction to Abram to prepare the animals for the covenantal ceremony, God treated Abram not as a nomad, but as a king. As King of Canaan, Abram prepared the animals for the sacred ritual. He then made sure that the elements of the ritual remained intact by chasing away the birds. Then, as the sun was setting and the ceremony about to begin, Abram fell into a deep sleep.
In a thick and dreadful darkness, God revealed Himself to Abram as a smoking fire pot and a blazing torch. He informed Abram that his descendants would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. That could not have come as a cheerful prospect to Abram. Prosperity would come only after years of slavery and turmoil. Yet it was in those years of slavery and turmoil that the descendants of Abram would be refined as precious metal was refined by a refiner’s fire. As the smoking pot, God illustrated how He would use this period to purify His people. Throughout the generations to come, God would use the illustration of the smoking fire pot and the refiner’s fire as an illustration of how the church of God is cleansed from all her impurities. “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10).
As the blazing torch, God illustrated that His divine presence would continually be with His covenant people. The blazing torch kept Pharaoh’s army from advancing; it appeared at Mount Sinai when the Law was given and again during the dark evenings of the wilderness as the cloud of fire. It appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. Indeed, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
God guaranteed His word by entering the sacred area alone. God alone spoke. God alone made promises. God alone placed Himself under the conditions of the covenant. Abram did not participate. Instead, God took upon Himself the full weight of the covenant. How incredibly amazing the sovereign, eternal, and holy God is! He, not Abram, walked between the dead carcasses. He, not Abram, declared that He would rather be torn apart like the dead animals around Him than break the oath He swore to Abram.
That God entered between the carcasses alone is extremely significant. First of all, the covenant is a unilateral covenant. That means it is one-sided. It was established by God and God alone. Abram did not negotiate the terms of the covenant, nor were there any terms placed upon Abram in order to fulfill the covenant. God took the promises and the terms of the promises upon Himself. God placed Himself under the obligation to keep the terms of the covenant.
In addition, it is an eternal covenant. Because the eternal God entered into the covenantal relationship, the terms of the covenant will remain the same through the ages. He established the terms, and they will not change. That means that the covenant is also irrevocable. Since the eternal, unchanging God has set the terms, He will not change His mind, nor will He change the conditions of the covenant.
Finally, it is a gracious covenant. Abram did absolutely nothing to deserve God’s call or promises. He had nothing that He could give to God in return for the promises he had received. The same is true for all of Israel. Moses made very clear in Deuteronomy 7 that the Lord set His affection on Israel not because they were a great, numerous, or strong nation, but because He chose to love them (Deuteronomy 7:7).
The same is also true for the New Testament church. We have done nothing to deserve the promises of God. Can any person truly stand before the throne of God and declare his right to be forgiven or his right to enter into the eternal kingdom? God is under no obligation to enter into any kind of covenant with us. Yet He does. He comes to His people while we are infants and gives to us the promise that He will be our God and we will be His people.
The Majesty of God
Several promises were renewed and expanded upon by God as Abram slept. First of all, Abram would live to a good old age. This promise testified to the accuracy and vastness of God’s knowledge. That God foretold of Abram’s children becoming slaves revealed how God knew the distant future well in advance. His promise to rescue them gave Abram assurance of God’s power. Not only does God know the future; He controls the future. God was creating for Himself a people who would have to pass through the darkness and then enter into the Promised Land. That entrance would be gained when the sin of the Amorites reached full measure. God is longsuffering; He will allow evil to prosper for a time, but the day of judgment would come. In God’s time, Abram’s children would be the agents of justice against the evils in Canaan.
The future of Abram’s descendants is not just unfolded for Abram alone. Future generations—those in Egypt and later those in Babylon—would be encouraged by the promises God had given to the patriarch centuries earlier. God knew what was going to happen. God controls the events of history, and when the sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure, God would bring His chosen people into the Promised Land. One day they would inhabit the land from the Euphrates to the Nile. This was not intended to define Israel’s bounds as precisely as borderlines are drawn today by little red lines on a map. The earlier promise was that wherever Abram had placed his feet, his descendants would one day own. Twice—once under Solomon and again under Jeroboam the Second—these boundaries were approached.
Notice, however, that in verse 18 that God says to Abram, “To your descendants I have given this land.” He does not say, “I will give this land,” but “I have given this land.” This is not some future promise. God spoke as if the deed had already been accomplished. God declared the land as belonging to the future generations of Abram—in the time of Abram. Although it would take place in the future, God declared it as theirs already. From the day He made His covenant with Abram, the land was theirs.
God displayed His majesty not only to Abram and to Abram’s children, but for the benefit of His church, as well. He has declared to His chosen people, “I have forgiven you.” In Isaiah 53, God declared that His Son was “crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Notice the present tense of this future prophesy. Like those in the Old Testament who believed that the future Promised Land would one day be in their possession because God had declared it as already theirs, those who believed their sins were forgiven by the future actions of the Messiah were in fact already forgiven.
Likewise, those in the New Testament church who trust in Jesus Christ stand perfected before God as they are clothed in His perfect righteousness. The words, “It is finished” spoken from the cross are proof that the work needed to accomplish their forgiveness has been completed. Even as God walked between the carcasses in the Old Testament, so He took upon Himself a human nature to face the covenant curse His covenant-breaking children deserved—death itself. Jesus Christ has paid the price. He has already provided the perfect sacrifice for the sins for His covenant people—past, present, and future. All their sins are viewed as past history because of the grace of God. Those who confess Jesus as Savior can declare God as their God and themselves as His people.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. In what ways is the faith of the believer strengthened today?
2. Why is it significant the only the Lord passed between the pieces?
3. In what ways is it significant that the covenant is unilateral? Eternal? Irrevocable?
4. Why is it significant that God established this covenantal relationship alone?
5. How does God refine His church? Give examples from history and also from your own experiences.
6. How was God a light to His people in the past? How is He a light to the church today?
8. How might those held in captive in Egypt have found comfort in the promises given to Abram?
9. How does the covenant God established with Abram bring confidence and comfort to you?