The God Who Sees

Abram loses patience, but God’s mercy shines through in unexpected ways. on February 26, 2023
The God Who Sees
February 26, 2023

The God Who Sees

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Passage: Genesis 16:1-16
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Aimee showed me a video this past week taken from a news report of some people who were out walking in the winter. And they were talking to the news reporter about how great their winter footwear was and how grippy it was. And the camera followed them as they trotted away down the road, right up to the moment when the one person had their legs slip out from under them and they landed smack on their backside in front of a TV audience.

And we laughed. I don’t know why it’s funny to us to see someone else trip and fall. There’s hours of videos you can find on YouTube of people just slipping and falling, and for whatever reason we think it’s really funny.

It’s not so funny when people slip and fall in other ways, though, right? When we see people who are doing well in life and the walk of faith slip up and fall back into their old ways, it’s the opposite of funny. Especially when they do it again and again.

Kind of like Abram. There’s a pattern in Abram’s life where, after many of his most significant encounters with God, he goes right out and acts foolishly and faithlessly. And here in chapter 16 Abram has one of his biggest stumbles of all. He’s just had a powerful encounter with the living God, receiving promises and reasserting his faith and watching God cut a solemn covenant with him. And he turns around and acts like we see him act in this chapter.

I hope this is a good reminder to all of us again that this is not a story about Abram. He’s not the main character here. He’s just a supporting character who serves to highlight and reflect attention onto the main character, which is God.

1. Prologue: The Promise vs. The Reality (v. 1)

And let’s see how that happens by looking together here at verse 1. The first and the last verses in this chapter are like book ends, a prologue and an epilogue, binding the account together. Verse 1 tells us “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1).

This is where we see the promise of God vs. the reality. There’s been all kinds of promise about an offspring. Not just an offspring, but so many offspring that they can’t be counted. Like dust, like stars.

And yet Sarai still has not had a child. The promise and the reality are not lining up with each other.


a. Sarai speaks (v. 2a)

And so we move very quickly into Sarai’s plan, which begins with her speech. This is the first time in the account in which we’ve heard her speak. And what does the say? “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children” (Genesis 16:2a).

That’s interesting. She doesn’t just say “I don’t have a child.” She says, “The Lord has prevented me from bearing children.”

Is she right?

She’s absolutely right. Sarai understood the sovereignty of God. She understood that her womb was under God’s power, to open or close as He saw fit. If she has no children, that’s ultimately because of the Lord’s decision.

So far, so good, even if it’s a difficult truth. But things go sideways really quickly in the second half of verse 2, where we get to Sarai’s plan: “take my servant Hagar as your wife and have children with her.”

Where did Sarai get this idea from? She didn’t make it up herself. This was a practice in the ancient world. Jacob did this with both of his wives’ servants. It seems like this is what you did if your wife couldn’t have children.

And this has led some people to say, “There’s nothing wrong with what’s happening here. Abram and Sarai are just doing what people in that age did.”

But I’m not so sure we should jump to the conclusion that this was just okay. And the reason is that God has been promising Abram children. For years. And as Abram and Sarai kept being faithful to each other and waiting on God, God kept reassuring them and promising them a child.

Which means that he meant for Abram and Sarai to have a child. If God wanted to give Abram offspring through his wife’s servant, he would have told him so. Back in the last chapter when Abram said “I continue childless,” God could have said “Have you thought of Hagar?” Instead, he promised him a child, encouraging him to stay the course and keep waiting, because he was going to take care of this.

And we’ll see as we go on that Genesis drops some very big hints within the passage that this was a bad idea.

So Sarai’s plan makes sense on a human level, but it ignores the promises of God. This was a faithless thing to do, just one more example of someone who got tired of waiting for God, or got tired of obeying God, and decided to help Him out with their own little scheme.

b. Abram listens (v. 2b)

So, Abram has been patiently waiting, trusting in God. And here comes his wife with this great plan to get what he wants without much more waiting. What does Abram do? Look at the last part of verse 2: “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.”

This is one of the ways that Genesis tips us off that something not-so-good is happening here. Do these words sound familiar at all? There’s an echo here to Genesis 3:17, which speaks about Adam listening to the voice of his wife when she offered him the fruit. It’s the same language.

And this should make us think about that account, because it’s the same kind of thing happening here. Abram, like Adam, is passive, and instead of standing up for what’s right, he lets her tell him what to do. He lets himself be led into sin.

Married men, you know that if your wife says something sensible and wise and true to you, you’d be an idiot to ignore her. But I hope we can see from these two accounts the danger of blindly listening and passively following  your wife, or anybody, without carefully thinking and weighing and being willing to stand up for what’s right.

How much pain came into Abram’s life and the world as a result of him just going with the flow? But that’s what he does. The man of faith stumbles, big time.

c. Sarai acts (v. 3-4a)

And in response to Abram’s passive listening, Sarai acts. We might think that Abram would act, but look at how verse 3 is written: “So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Genesis 16:3).

Sarai is the actor here. Abram is just letting this happen. It’s interesting that “took” and “gave” are the same words found in Genesis 3:6 when Eve took the fruit and “gave” it to Adam. Once again, we see parallels between these stories as Abram just drifts with the sinful current.

And Sarai’s plan works. Verse 4 says that Hagar conceived.

d. Hagar responds (v. 4b)

Now, we get to the fourth stop here, which is Hagar’s reaction. Half-way through verse 4: “And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.”

This is the first of several times in Scripture where we see a bitter rivalry between two women, one of whom is pregnant, and the other who is not.

Hagar ain’t just Sarai’s little servant anymore. She’s Abram’s wife, and she’s pregnant. In the ancient world, bearing children was one of the most important things a woman could do. And Hagar had now arrived. She just got the promotion of a lifetime. She’s pregnant with Abram’s heir. And Sarai is still barren.

And whether Hagar rubbed it in, or stopped listening to her, or just smirked smugly at Sarai, their relationship is changed and not in a good way.


And this is the first indication that Sarai’s plan has backfired. If you want to know whether Sarai and Abram did the right thing, just look at what happened as a result.

By the way, this happens every time in the Bible that a man takes more than one woman as a wife. Some people say “they practiced polygamy in the Old Testament, and the Bible never says it’s wrong until the New Testament.”

That comes from a pretty shallow way of looking at Scripture. We just have to read to see what happens every time a man takes more than one wife, and it’s always bad news. It’s aways strife and tension and sorrow and pain. Just like what’s happening here. You’d never read all of the descriptions of polygamy in the Old Testament and think, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea. That sounds like it worked out for them.” No, it’s the opposite.

a. Sarai speaks (v. 5)

So what does Sarai do here as her plan backfires, and Hagar has responded by looking at her with contempt? What you can see from the outline here is that the same pattern is followed. Sarai speaks, Abram listens, Sarai acts, and Hagar responds.

Let’s see what Sarai says to Abram here in verse 5: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”” (Genesis 16:5).

Sarai is upset with how Hagar is treating her. But instead of saying “Wow, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. Maybe I should have kept waiting on the Lord” she blame-shifts. Again, like Eve. She tries to blame Abram as if this was his idea and his fault.

Now, as the husband, Abram did have responsibility here. But Sarai seems to be acting like Abram forced this on her. As if it wasn’t her idea. As if he deserves God’s judgement for Hagar’s bad behaviour.

This is what people so often do when they get into a bad situation that they caused themselves. They try to blame other people. And Sarai tries to make Abram out to be the bad guy here.

b. Abram listens (v. 6a)

And what does Abram do? Is this going to be the moment he stands up and acts like a man sets things straight?

Nope. Abram keeps being Mr. Passive. Verse 6: “But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.’”

Translation: “Yes, dear. Whatever you say.” Come on, Abram! That’s not just “Sarai’s servant” anymore. Hagar is your wife. You helped create this situation. You’re responsible. Deal with this.

But instead, Abram, who could be so courageous in battle against foreign kings, is weak and passive with his upset wife. And he does what I’m sure many other men have done throughout history, which is whatever it takes to make her not upset anymore.

You’ve heard that phrase “happy wife, happy life”? Forget everything, just do whatever it takes to appease her so that you can get back to feeling happy.

Husbands, there’s a word for that kind of behaviour, and that word is “wimpy.” Emotions, whoever’s emotions they are, cannot be allowed to dominate a home. And the irony is that a godly wife will be happiest, especially long-term, when her godly husband acts like a man and lays down his life to lead her instead of just appeasing her when she’s upset.

So instead of “happy wife, happy life,” we should think, “sacrificially-leading husband, happy wife.” I know that doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it gets at the truth.

But back to Abram and Sarai: even if Sarai didn’t know it, she needed her husband to step up here. To not be afraid of her emotions but to lovingly speak the truth to her. And to Hagar, whom he has now taken as a wife and whom he is responsible to sacrificially lead as well.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Abram’s passivity allowed this situation, and he stays the course, perhaps hoping that more passivity is going to fix things. “Sure, dear. Do whatever you want. You fix this however you’d like.”

c. Sarai acts (v. 6b)

And so Sarai, with no leadership from her husband but full permission to act on her upset emotions, “dealt harshly with her” as verse 6 says.

We don’t know exactly what form this took. Does this refer to cruel words? Physical actions? Was she making pregnant Hagar get up early to perform hard labour? We don’t know quite what form this abuse took, but we do know that verse 9 refers to Hagar’s experience as “affliction.” That’s the same word used in Exodus for the experience of Israel in Egypt.

d. Hagar Responds (v. 6c)

So this was bad. So bad that Hagar ran away. This is Hagar’s response this time. “She fled from her” (verse 6). Hagar reasoned that trying to make a journey alone and pregnant through the desert was a softer bet than sticking it out with Sarai. And so Hagar joins the many women throughout history who have nobody to help them and who will run anywhere to get away from their abuser.

And that could be the end of the story. How long to you think you’d make it alone in the desert? But there in the wilderness Hagar encounters someone she probably was not expecting to meet. And that brings us to our fourth major stop in the text this morning, where we meet Hagar’s God.


a. The Conversation (vv. 7-9)

And the first part of Hagar’s encounter with God is the conversation in verses 7-9. Verse 7 says that “The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur” (Genesis 16:7).

From what we know about “Shur,” it sounds like Hagar is on her way back to Egypt. She’s found some water in the wilderness, and it’s there that she is found by the angel of the Lord.

This is the first clear reference to an angel in the Bible. It’s also the first clear reference to this mysterious character known as “the angel of the Lord.” The word “angel” has to do with “messenger,” and so this being is God’s messenger.

In the ancient world, a king’s messenger spoke for the king and was to be treated with the respect due that king. That’s why mistreating a king’s messengers could trigger a war, like in 2 Samuel 10.

That helps explain some of the ways in which, when the angel of the Lord shows up, it’s almost as if God Himself shows up. In verses 8-10 we see the angel of the Lord speaking to Hagar. In verse 13 we read about “the Lord who spoke to her,” and she talks about seeing God.

Some people wonder if “the angel of the Lord” was an appearance of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, before His incarnation. But others point to this idea that seeing and hearing from a messenger was as good as seeing and hearing from the king who sent him.

Either way, this is very significant. Hagar, the runaway slave, is found by God through His angelic messenger.

And what does he say to her? Verse 8: “And he said, ‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’”

He knows her. He knows her by name. Not only does he know her by name, but he calls her by name. And this is significant because this is the only time in the Bible where a woman is called by name by God or one of His angels. And not only the Bible, but in any ancient near eastern document we’ve ever found.

That makes this very, very unique. She is not only found but named by the Lord through His angel.

And in response to this, Hagar responds with an honest account of what she’s doing in the second half of verse 8: “She said, ‘I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai’” (Genesis 16:8). That’s the truth, no varnish applied.

And in response, the angel says to her, verse 9, “Return to your mistress and submit to her” (Genesis 16:9).

She has to go back. As we’re going to see, it’s going to be important for, if only a season, her son is raised in Abram’s household and receives a measure of protection and blessing from that. Hagar needs to go back.

But Hagar is speechless. She has nothing to say.

b. The Promise (vv. 10-12)

So in verse 10, the angel goes on and here he delivers his promise to her. Verse 10: “The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (Genesis 16:10).

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Because Hagar’s child is from Abram, he will participate in this promise of uncountable offspring. Hagar will not just have one son but uncountable offspring.

Well now Hagar is really speechless. She still has nothing to say. So in verses 11-12 the angel goes on and with a formal pronouncement makes this promise in lofty terms:

“And the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.’” (Genesis 16:11–12). There is something to being from Abraham.

Once again, these words should sound somewhat familiar to us. This is the first but not the last significant birth pronouncement in the Bible. And this is one of only a handful of times where a child is named beforehand. Isaac is named like this, as is Immanuel in Isaiah 7, and then there’s John he Baptist and Jesus. Hagar is in a very exclusive group here.

And she is told to call her son’s name Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And the reason, explained in the rest of verse 11, is that God has listened to her affliction. She cried out under the affliction of Sarai’s abuse, and God heard her. And her child’s name will forever be a reminder to her that God listens.

Verse 12 goes on to tell her what kind of a son she’ll have. “He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 16:12).

I don’t know how encouraging this would have sounded to Hagar. This doesn’t exactly sound like a bright future. “Wild donkeys” are known for their stubbornness and inability to be subdued (Job 39:5-8). Ishmael won’t fit in with social conventions. He won’t be the favourite uncle at family gatherings. He’s going to be a man of conflict and domination.

But what this means is that he’s going to live. That was never a given back then. Lots of babies and moms died in childbirth. Hagar would have rejoiced to know her son would live and have a future. And Hagar perhaps took comfort from the fact that he won’t be pushed around. He won’t be a slave. Through conflict, he’s going to come out on top and rule.

But I’d suggest that the bigger reality here isn’t about Ishmael and his character. It’s about the fact that Hagar knows that she is known by God. Her suffering hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s been heard and seen and given a future by the living God.

c. The Name (vv. 13-14)

And Hagar responds in verses 13-14 by giving God a name. Verse 13: “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me’” (Genesis 16:13).

God gives her son a name meaning “God hears.” And in response she gives God a name, “El Roi,” “You are a God of seeing,” or, “You are a God who sees me.” She knows that in all of her suffering, she’s been seen by God. And in some mysterious way, she has seen Him who sees her.

“Seeing” has a big place in this story. When Hagar saw that she was pregnant, she looked with contempt on Sarai. But that’s all faded away now as she knows she’s been seen, and in some mysterious way has seen, God. And she’s astonished by this.

Do you know that Hagar is not only the only woman in the Bible to be called by name by God, but she is the only person in the Bible to directly confer a name on God. This is the only time anybody directly gives God a name. Abram doesn’t do this. Moses doesn’t do this. But Hagar does.

Naming someone is profound. And for God to allow this and record this for all time in His word is profound. Hagar has been known by God in a unique way as she’s been heard and seen and named. And she has come to know Him in a unique way as she has heard and seen and named Him in response.

5. Epilogue: the Reality vs. the Promise (vv. 15-16


And so what does Hagar do? She goes back. Because verse 15 says that she bore Abram a son. And Abram called his name Ishmael. Evidently they talked. Evidently Abram listened to her and believed her and gave his son this name that the angel gave to Hagar.

And the chapter closes out by telling us that “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Genesis 16:16). That’s a book-end that refers back to the way this chapter opened: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, and borne him no children.” Abram ends this chapter with a child, but not from Sarai.

And now we find ourselves in a situation where the reality and the promise are once again in conflict, but not in the way we expect.

At the beginning of the chapter, the promise of God was in tension with the fact that Abram didn’t have a child yet. At the end of the chapter, that promise is still there, but it’s not in tension with the fact that Abram does have a child, but with the wrong person and in the wrong way.

And we’re going to see in the next chapters how this tension between the promise of God and the schemes of man plays out. Abram and Sarai thought that taking matters into their own hands and having a child with Hagar would solve these tensions and dilemmas. It didn’t. The promise and the reality continued to be in tension with each other. Faith just had to wrestle with a new reality. And like I said, the following weeks are going to flesh that out for us.

And Us?

As we think about just this morning’s passage, I hope we can see some pretty big truths for us to take home as we walk our own walks of faith. We’ve seen many so far, no doubt, but let’s zoom out and focus on three big ones.

1) Faithful Waiting

The first has to do with the relationship between faith and patience. If we learn anything from Abram and Sarai in this story, it’s the danger of getting impatient with God’s timing and trying to make things happen ourselves. And if it was a temptation for Abram and Sarai to do that, how much more for us who live in an instant society. High speed internet, microwaves, airplane flights—everything is fast. It’s so hard to wait. But we have to learn.

This may apply to you and in specific ways. Perhaps the Lord has you on a waiting journey right now, where you’ve asked Him for things, or He’s promised you things in His word, and they’re not happening on the timeline you’d prefer.

Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s for a relationship, or for a relationship to be mended. Maybe it’s for a child or a loved one to come back to the Lord. Maybe it’s for some good to come out of your suffering. Didn’t He say He’d provide for you? Didn’t He say He’d work all things for good? And you’re just not seeing it.

It’s so easy to get impatient and act unwisely or even disobediently. To manipulate and scheme and try and make stuff happen on your own. In the worst situations, people end their own lives, either with or without the help of a doctor. Or even worse than this, I’ve watched people lose their faith entirely because they ran out of patience for God.

How we need to learn the lesson of faith from the life of Abram. And from the big story of the Bible as a whole. God doesn’t work on our timescales. He promised a saviour and waited thousands of years to fulfill that promise. Jesus promised to return, and should it surprise us that it’s been longer than we expected?

If God waits, He waits on purpose. How we need to trust Him both with our individual lives and with our blessed hope.

So wherever you are on your walk of faith, would you cry out to God and ask Him for supernatural patience to wait on Him? And to trust Him to hold you fast as you wait?

2) Suffering to Know God

The second major focus for us comes out of the second half of our passage, where Hagar meets God. Isn’t it a comfort to know that in our suffering and our struggle, we are seen, and known?

What did Hagar gain from her suffering? Same thing that Job gained from all of his suffering. The knowledge of God. Was it worth it? If you were to ask them both I think the answer would be 100% “yes.”

And so many of you in this room know that so well. You’ve suffered and walked through deep valleys and in those valleys the living God has met you and you’ve come through knowing Him better. You’ve come to know Jesus in the fellowship of His sufferings and you’d testify today that it’s so worth it.

We need that perspective as we face the future. No matter how much each of us has suffered, each of us in this room is going to suffer at some point. And when it comes, how we need to not panic and freak out because we don’t know what’s happening. How we need, right in the moment of impact, to know that God is breaking us to bring us more of Himself.

Wasn’t that job’s perspective? As the bad news arrived, he grieved, but what came out of his mouth? “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Whether your suffering is past or present or future, cry out to God for the eyes of faith to see and know Him deeper and better through it.

3) His Mercy is More

Finally, we can’t miss what’s perhaps one of the most obvious points in this story. Abram blew it. He lost patience. He was a poor husband to Sarai. He took Hagar when he shouldn’t have, and when he did he didn’t do anything to protect her.

The man of faith blew it. And did that mean his story was over? No. There were consequences for his actions, painful ones, but in those God was at work because, like we’ve sang this morning, His mercy is more.

Already, like we saw last week, God had committed to atone for Abram’s sins. And as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, Abram’s stumbles in the walk of faith could not derail God’s promises.

Some of you might still feel in chains to past sins. You’ve confessed them and asked for forgiveness but you’re still hanging on to this crazy idea that your sin is the special kind that God’s grace isn’t able to handle. That when Jesus said “it is finished,” he meant that for everybody else but you.

And you have to let that go. There is grace and mercy in God for Abram, and for Hagar, and for you (1 John 1:9). Would you ask God for the faith to believe that?

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