Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Genesis 17

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Genesis 17:1. And when Abram was ninety-nine years old — Full thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael. So long the promise of Isaac was deferred; 1st, Perhaps to correct Abram’s over-hasty marrying of Hagar. 2d, That Abram and Sarai being so far stricken in age, God’s power in this matter might be the more magnified. The Lord appeared unto Abram — In some visible display of his glory. And said, I am the almighty God — By this name he chose to make himself known to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, rather than by his name Jehovah, Exodus 6:3, and Genesis 35:11. And they called him by this name. It is the name of God that is mostly used throughout the book of Job, at least thirty times in the discourses of that book, in which Jehovah is used but once. After Moses, Jehovah is more frequently used, and this very rarely. I am El-shaddai. It speaks the almighty power of God, either, 1st, As an avenger, from שׁדד, he destroyed, or laid waste; a title, as some think, taken from the destruction of the old world: Or, 2d, As a benefactor, שׁfor אשׁד, who, and די, it sufficeth. Our old English translation reads it here, very significantly. I am God all-sufficient. The God with whom we have to do is self-sufficient; he hath every thing, and he needs not any thing. And he is enough to us, if we be in covenant with him; we have all in him, and we have enough in him; enough to satisfy our most enlarged desires; enough to supply the defect of every thing else, and to secure us happiness for our immortal souls. But the covenant is mutual; walk before me, and be thou perfect — That is, upright and sincere. To walk before God is to set him always before us, and to think, and speak, and act in every thing as those that are always under his eye. It is to have a constant regard to his word as our rule, and to his glory as our end, in all our actions. It is to be spiritual in all the duties of religious worship, and, wholly devoted to him in all holy conversation. We must remember that this upright walking with God is the condition of our interest in his all- sufficiency. If we neglect him or dissemble with him, we forfeit the benefit of our relation to him.

Verse 3
Genesis 17:3. And Abram fell on his face while God talked with him — Either, 1st, As one overcome by the brightness of the divine glory; as Daniel and John also were. Or, 2d, As one ashamed of himself, and blushing to think of the honours done to one so unworthy. He looks upon himself with humility, and upon God with reverence; and, in token of both, falls on his face.

Verse 4
Genesis 17:4. The promise is here introduced with solemnity: As for me, saith the great God, behold — Admire, and be assured of it; my covenant is with thee; and thou shalt be a father of many nations — This implies, 1st, That his seed after the flesh should be very numerous, both in Isaac and in Ishmael, and in the sons of Keturah. And the event answered; for there have been, and are, more of the children of men descended from Abraham, than from any one man at an equal distance with him from Noah, the common root. 2d, That all believers in every age should be looked upon as his spiritual seed. In this sense the apostle directs us to understand this promise, Romans 4:16. He is the father of the faithful, of those, in every nation, that, by faith, enter into covenant with God, and (as the Jewish writers express it) are gathered under the wings of the Divine Majesty.

Verse 5
Genesis 17:5. In token of this, his name was changed from Abram, a high father, to Abraham, the father of a multitude. This was to confirm the faith of Abraham, while he was childless; perhaps even his own name was sometimes an occasion of grief to him: Why should he be called a high father, who was not a father at all? But now, God having promised him a numerous issue, and given him a name which signified so much, that name was his joy.

Verse 7
Genesis 17:7. And I will establish my covenant — Not to be altered or revoked; not with thee only, then it would die with thee; but with thy seed after thee — Especially thy spiritual seed. It is everlasting in the evangelical meaning of it, from everlasting in the counsels of it, and to everlasting in the consequences of it. This is a covenant of exceeding great and precious promises. Here are two which indeed are all-sufficient: one is, that God would be a God to him and to his seed. All the privileges of the covenant, all its joys and all its hopes, are summed up in this. A man needs desire no more than this to make him happy. What God is himself, that he will be to his people: wisdom to guide and counsel them, power to protect and support them, goodness to supply and comfort them; what faithful worshippers can expect from the God they serve, believers shall find in God as theirs. This is enough, yet not all: The other is, —

Verse 8
Genesis 17:8. And I will give thee Canaan for an everlasting possession — As a type of heaven, that everlasting rest which remains for the people of God. This is that better country to which Abraham had an eye, and the grant of which was that which answered the vast extent of that promise, that God would be to them a God; so that if God had not designed this, he would have been ashamed to be called their God, Hebrews 11:16. As the land of Canaan was secured to the seed of Abraham, according to the flesh; so heaven is secured to all his spiritual seed for a possession truly everlasting. The offer of this eternal life is made in the word, and the earnest of it is given to all believers.

Verse 10
Genesis 17:10. The token of the covenant is circumcision, for the sake of which, the covenant is itself called the covenant of circumcision, Acts 7:8. It is here said to be the covenant which Abraham and his seed must keep, as a copy or counterpart. It is called a sign and seal, (Romans 4:11,) for it was, 1st, A confirmation to Abraham and his seed of those promises which were God’s part of the covenant, assuring them that, in due time, Canaan should be theirs: and the continuance of this ordinance, after Canaan was theirs, intimates that that promise looked further, to another Canaan. 2d, An obligation upon Abraham and his seed to that duty which was their part of the covenant, not only to the duty of accepting the covenant, and putting away the corruption of the flesh, which were primarily signified by circumcision, but in general to the observation of all God’s commands. They who will have God to be to them a God, must consent to be to him a people.

Verse 15
Genesis 17:15. Here is the promise made to Abraham of a son by Sarai, that son in whom the promise made to him should be fulfilled, that he should be the father of many nations, for she also shall be a mother of nations, and kings of people shall be of her, Genesis 17:16. Thus God reveals the purposes of his good-will to his people by degrees. He had told Abraham long before that he should have a son, but never till now that he should have a son by Sarai. Sarah shall her name be — The same letter is added to her name that was to Abraham’s. Sarai signifies my princess, as if her honour were confined to one family only; Sarah signifies a princess, namely, of multitudes.

Verse 17
Genesis 17:17. Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed — It was a laughter of delight, not of distrust. Now it was that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day; now he saw it and was glad; (John 8:56;) for as he saw heaven in the promise of Canaan, so he saw Christ in the promise of Isaac, and said, Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? — He doth not here speak of it as at all doubtful, for we are sure he staggered not at the promise, (Romans 4:20,) but as wonderful, and that which could not be effected but by the almighty power of God.

Verse 18
Genesis 17:18. And Abraham said, O that Ishmael might live before thee! — This he speaks, not as desiring that Ishmael might be preferred before the son he should have by Sarah, but as dreading lest he should be forsaken of God. The great thing we should desire of God for our children is, that they may live before him; that is, that they may be kept in covenant with him, and may have grace to walk before him in uprightness. God’s answer to this prayer is an answer of peace. Abraham could not say he sought God’s face in vain; nor shall we, if we seek it sincerely.

Verse 20
Genesis 17:20. As for Ishmael, I have heard thee; I have blessed him — That is, I have many blessings in store for him. 1st, His posterity shall be numerous: I will multiply him exceedingly. 2d, They shall be considerable: twelve princes shall he beget. We may charitably hope that spiritual blessings also were bestowed upon him, though the visible church was not brought out of his loins.

Verse 21
Genesis 17:21. He names that child Isaac, that is, laughter, because Abraham rejoiced in spirit when this son was promised him.