The story of Ishmael is full of hope for anyone who struggles with conflicts that are rooted in your family of origin. Ishmael was caught in an emotional, family triangle, and his life imploded during his teenage years. But God met him and blessed him, and He can do the same for you in your troubling situation today.
Ishmael had a difficult temperament. He was “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). He was wild at heart, unlike his brother, Isaac, who seemed to have a calmer temperament. Matthew Henry says that those who have turbulent spirits often have troublesome lives.
Ishmael grew up in a home where there was constant tension. His father, Abraham, loved him but did not love Ishmael’s mother, Hagar. As he grew up in this unhappy world of resentments, Ishmael learned about the God of the Bible who had promised that all nations would be blessed through the offspring of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Ishmael was Abraham’s only offspring until the news came that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant with Isaac.
From that moment, all the attention was on Isaac. But Ishmael despised and mocked him. Sarah saw what was happening and told Abraham, “Cast out [Hagar] with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). The idea of sending Ishmael away “was very displeasing to Abraham”, but he did so because God had said, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen. 21:11).
The family was torn apart, and this must have raised huge questions for Ishmael about his existence. How can God love me if he blesses my brother and takes me away from my father? The God my father believes in certainly doesn’t seem to care about me! I was a mistake. I seem to be trouble for everyone. It would be better if I had never been born.
It seemed that God himself was against Ishmael. It looked like the end of the road for Ishmael. His father couldn’t keep him. His mother couldn’t support him. His own strength was gone. But here’s the amazing thing: God’s hand was in all of this trouble. We read these remarkable words in Genesis 21:17: “God heard the voice of the boy.”
God’s Redeeming Purpose
Genesis 21 does not only tell the story of Ishmael’s trouble. Scripture also reveals God’s purpose in it. Here are three aspects of God’s plan for Ishmael’s troubled life.
Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation (Gen. 21:1).
This promise must have sounded remote to Hagar. She must have thought, Lord, we don’t have time to think about future generations right now. The problem is that we don’t have what we need to get through the day!
The promises of God may sound remote when you feel desperate, but the starting point of hope is always to believe God’s promises. The promise is that every blessing from God is yours in Jesus Christ. God is for you in Jesus Christ!
Right now, you may not be able to see how God is going to get you through the troubling situation you’re in, but hope begins by believing that He will—and trusting Him to do so.
With His redeeming power, God can take the mess created by our sin and folly, and bring blessing out of it. In eternity, there will be many people descended from Ishmael and redeemed by Jesus Christ, gathered in the presence of God.
The angel of the Lord called to Hagar from heaven… Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Gen. 21:17, 19).
Both of Abraham’s sons were saved by a miraculous provision of God—by His intervention alone. In one story, God provides a ram that is sacrificed so that Isaac may live. In the other story, God provides a well of water so that Ishmael may live.
This is of huge importance because Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace their roots back to Abraham. Muslims trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael. Jews trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac. Christians trace their heritage to Abraham though faith (Gal. 3:7, 9).
The stories of both Isaac and Ishmael point to Jesus. Isaac points to Christ, the sacrifice, whose life was laid down in our place. Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The story of Ishmael points to Christ, who is the well of living water, springing up to everlasting life (Jn. 4:14).
Christ is the provision of God for all the children of Abraham. To all people who identify themselves as Jewish, this story points to Jesus Christ as God’s provision for you. To all people who identify themselves as Muslim, this story points to Jesus Christ as God’s provision for you. To all people who identify themselves as Christian, this story points to Jesus Christ as God’s provision for you.
In Christ, God comes into our broken world, takes our sins upon Himself, and becomes the sacrifice, paying the price so that we may be saved. In Christ, God brings new life—life that begins now and will go on springing up forever. God offers this life to troubled people, in Jesus Christ.
And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow (Gen. 21:20).
To Ishmael, the troubled son, God said, “I am for you. I am with you. I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” God cuts his brightest gems from the darkest places.
He is the God of the difficult temperament. Think about Saul of Tarsus: angry, impulsive, and violent. Christ takes hold of him, and the wild impulses of his heart are directed into one of the greatest lives ever lived. The Apostle Paul later says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Think about Ishmael: with all the struggles of his temperament and all the tensions in his family, he is wild at heart, but God lays hold of him! God provides for him, and God blesses him.
For the most troubled person today, there is a promise and a provision for you in Jesus Christ. He is the sacrifice for you. He is the spring of living water for you. He intervenes in your life to be present with you today, and there is hope for you in Him.
This article is an adaption of Pastor Colin’s sermon, “The Troubled Son”, from his series, Faith for Fractured Families.