Substitute Solution

And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!’”—Genesis 17:18 (NKJV)

We’re at a very critical point in Abraham’s account here. After experiencing God’s supernatural intervention in his life over the past few years, Abraham is given a divine promise that seems beyond his ability to believe. The Lord declares that he and his wife, Sarah, would finally be able to have a child of their own after decades of being barren. 

Abraham finds this hard to believe and even laughs off the notion that God could do this for them. And then, he does something interesting and relatable in the verse above; he petitions that Ishmael be a substitute for this seemingly impossible promise. Remember, Ishmael was Abraham’s son through Sarah’s servant, Hagar. Understand, Ishmael was the premature human attempt to fulfill a divine promise. By referencing Ishmael, Abraham is essentially saying, “God, your promise can be fulfilled through our means.” Watch God’s unequivocal response: “God said: ‘No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him’” (Genesis 17:19 NKJV).

Ishmael would play a part in God’s plan (Genesis 17:20), but he would not be the fulfillment to this particular promise. The Lord didn’t want Ishmael, a child that didn’t represent faith, to be heir of the covenant He had established with Abraham. Instead, He determined Abraham’s heir would be a son whose life would forever bear the miraculous faithfulness of God. The son he and Sarah had long since given up on. A son whose very name, Isaac, would remind them of the laughter and the improbable context from which he came. The son who could only be from God and whose very presence would serve as a continual reminder of the One whose hand he had come from. 

We often feel compelled to further God’s promises, which can seem impossible, according to our own understanding. We present our own Ishmaels as substitutionary solutions that seem good enough to us. We often “settle” for something that does not carry His full blessing—a relationship that’s not pure, a dishonest way of getting something done, a compromise in our conviction of what’s right.    

But God has something else in mind, He has a different plan, and He doesn’t want or need our help. Instead, He wants us to cease from our efforts and trust He will fulfill what He’s promised. He wants us to embrace His Isaac instead of our Ishmael, because Isaac is the ongoing reminder of His goodness, faithfulness, and love over our lives.

DIG: What was Abraham doing by mentioning Ishmael?

DISCOVER: How do we unknowingly do the same thing?

DO: Where are you embracing Ishmael instead of Isaac and why should you change this? Think about ways you can change this.

About the Author

Pastor Dan Hickling

Pastor Dan Hickling serves our online community, also known as the Calvary Chapel Online Campus. He and his wife Becky have been married for 22 years and have two children, Lauren and Danny. Both Dan and Becky have been part of the CCFL church family for 22 years and have served in full time ministry for 20 of those years.