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“The Righteous Judge”

Genesis 18:1-33
Bob DeGray
October 15, 2006

Key Sentence

Faith learns to trust that the Lord will do right.


I. The Righteous Judge sees righteousness (Genesis 18:1-8)
II. The Righteous Judge sees doubt (Genesis 18:9-15)
III. The Righteous Judge sees sin (Genesis 18:16-21)
IV. The Righteous Judge does right (Genesis 18:22-33)


        One of my favorite moments in the writings of C. S. Lewis is in the science fiction novel Perelandra. The novel is set on the planet Venus, conceived by Lewis in 1944 as a warm watery world with floating islands of abundant vegetation. The main character is named Ransom, and his enemy is Westron, an atheist scientist more and more controlled by Satan. At several points in the novel they more or less debate theology, and in one of these Westron admits that there is such a thing as spiritual reality and even of spirits; that he is being used by spirit for a purpose. Ransom says “Look here, one wants to be careful about this sort of thing. There are spirits and spirits, you know.” “Eh?” said Westron. “What are you talking about?” “I mean a thing might be a spirit and not be good.” “But I thought you agreed that spirit was good? I thought you religious people were all out for spirituality? Didn’t we agree that God is a spirit? Don’t you worship Him because he is pure spirit?” “Heavens no!” Ransom replies, “We worship Him because He is wise and good.”

        That line has long stuck in my head: “We worship him because he is good.” Not because he’s ‘Spirit’, not just because he is all powerful, all knowing or everywhere present, but because he’s good: just, loving and merciful. Yet it’s the very goodness of God that causes many to stumble. There are circumstances and times in people’s lives that cause us to wonder whether God is good, whether justice happens, whether mercy is shown to the needy, whether God intervenes to care for his people. I’m sadly certain you can look at your life or the lives of your friends and think of some situation in which God could have intervened to do good or to justice, and from your perspective he just didn’t. I also hope, though, that you can see times when God truly intervened for good. I think one of the hallmarks of growing faith is a growing ability to trust that though God is God and we can never fully understand his ways, he is working for good. In Genesis chapter 18 we see Abraham learning to trust that the Lord, the righteous judge, will do right. You and I need to be at the place where faith learns to trust that the Lord will do right.

I. The Righteous Judge sees righteousness (Genesis 18:1-8)

         It’s a long chapter and we’re not going to be able to touch on every verse or every topic, but the first few verses show that the righteous judge sees righteousness. Genesis 18:1-8. The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way--now that you have come to your servant." "Very well," they answered, "do as you say." 6So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread." 7Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

        Once again we return to the great trees at Mamre near Hebron. Abraham was in the same place last time place was identified in chapter 13. Now, sitting in the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day, ‘The Lord appeared to him’. This was not an appearance of God in glory, as was the case in the last chapter. Instead it was in the form of a man and two friends traveling through Hebron. The context makes it clear the other two men were angels. The leader of the three must have been the Lord himself, and as I’ve said before, in my opinion, probably a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.

        The thing that jumps out is the earnest hospitality shown by Abraham. It was no doubt the custom of men in the East to be hospitable, and that’s some of what we’re seeing: Abraham wants to do right to the three strangers. But you get the impression some of his urgency comes because he soon suspects that this is a visit from the God who has called him. First, Abraham hurries from the entrance of the tent and bows to the ground. The word bows is a word that can be used of human courtesy, but in the Old Testament it becomes uniquely associated with worship of God so that when Psalm 95 says “Come, let us worship and bow down”, this word is the one translated worship. Second, when Abraham addresses these men it is as “My Lord”, using the singular Hebrew Adonai, which can be a term of human courtesy, but is also a way of addressing God. Finally, notice that Abraham calls himself their servant, which is yet another example of human courtesy, but it’s interesting that God later calls Abraham ‘my servant’: “Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, for the sake of My servant Abraham."

        So Abraham worked hard at this hospitality. His words minimize the provisions and the trouble it would take to prepare them—a little water, a piece of bread, a short rest. But what was provided was a sumptuous meal. A large quantity of bread was freshly baked; a choice calf was butchered and prepared, curds and milk were served. And Abraham refused to sit with his guests, but stood to serve them. Any of us would gladly have prepared this feast if we had known the identity of the guests, but I don’t think Abraham knew yet. In fact this is probably the incident the writer to the Hebrews had in mind when he said “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

        This whole preparation process must have taken several hours. Gail tells me it would take at least that long to bake bread from flour as described. It would also take quite a while to butcher and cook the meat. And after all that Abraham stood as a servant, attentive to the needs of these three.

        So these verses are an elaborate description of hospitality, certainly something that we should take as a model, to be applied in ways appropriate to our culture, whether in our homes or in Starbucks. But the main point I take from this is that Abraham behaves righteously toward these would-be strangers. There is no hesitation and no holding back in his application of the command Jesus will later call one of the two greatest: love your neighbor as yourself. Abraham succeeds in righteousness.

II. The Righteous Judge sees doubt (Genesis 18:9-15)

        But sadly, when the righteous judge comes to see his people, he does not always see righteousness or faith. In the case of Sarah, he sees doubt. Verses 9-15 9"Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him. "There, in the tent," he said. 10Then the Lord said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" 13Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." 15Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."

        Last week, when God announced the birth of a son to Abraham, Abraham laughed. And God didn’t critique him for it, but expanded on the promise and foretold that the child would be named Isaac, laughter. Now God wants to make sure Sarah has received the same promise: it may be that Abraham hadn’t had the courage to get her hopes up. But the Lord says in her hearing, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." Moses makes it clear that “Sarah was past the age of childbearing” and then tells us that like Abraham, Sarah “laughed to herself: After I am worn out and my master is old, will I have this pleasure?" Like Abraham she may have laughed with wonder and surprise after all the years of fruitless hoping. But the fact that the Lord questions the laughter probably indicates significant un-belief. Verse 13: Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14Is anything too hard for the Lord?” At this point Sarah may have come out of the tent, or called from within the tent. She had heard all that the Lord had said, and afraid of being considered unfaithful, she lies to God and says “I did not laugh." And God contradicts her, though I suspect he does it gently “Yes, you did laugh.”

        But this unbelief is the occasion for a great statement from the Lord: “Is anything too hard for God?” As one commentator says, the question answers itself. Jeremiah says “Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” The angel Gabriel says to Mary when he announces Jesus’ birth “For with God nothing is impossible.” The word ‘hard’ verse 13 can be translated ‘wonderful’ - nothing is too wonderful for God.

        So there is never an occasion in your relationship with God when you can legitimately say “Oh, that would be too wonderful. Getting that job, having that baby, resolving that conflict is too much to ask.” But nothing is too wonderful for God. And this thought is a key step toward our key thought. We’re saying that faith learns to trust that the Lord will do right. But we can only trust he will do right if we first trust he can do right, that nothing is beyond the reach of a sovereign God. Sarah was right: bearing a child at her age was impossible. But he is the God of the impossible, as her body would soon prove, even if her faith did not yet grasp it.

III. The Righteous Judge sees sin (Genesis 18:16-21)

        So the first episode teaches that nothing is too hard for God. Now we must learn to trust that God will do right. Genesis 18:16-21. When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17Then the Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him." 20Then the Lord said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know."

        The great trees of Mamre must have been on a high place overlooking the valley. When the Lord and the two angels got ready to leave, it was not hard for them to look down toward the city of Sodom. As they do the Lord asks, almost rhetorically, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” No, not considering the key covenant role Abraham is playing: he “will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” Verse 19 adds to that thought. First, the Lord puts into words a central part of the story not yet directly stated, “For I have chosen him”. God’s sovereign choice of Abraham is the foundation of the covenant. Second, God expresses his purpose in choosing, and this too goes beyond what has yet been stated: “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just." God has repeatedly said that Abraham’s descendants will inherit the covenant. But now the covenant response is extended to them as well, not only circumcision but integrity of heart. Abraham is to direct that they keep the way of the Lord and do what is right and just. Notice the two words ‘right’ and ‘just’, two extremely common words often applied to the moral integrity of God’s people, but even more often to the moral integrity of God: he is righteous and just in all his ways. And it is in light of this internalized commitment to God’s ways that the covenant promises will be received. God isn’t making the covenant promises conditional, but he is saying that the blessings will be seen in the lives of those who seek him with integrity, and that Abraham and his descendants have a responsibility to model and communicate this integrity to the generations that follow.

        And if not? God the righteous judge does see sin. Verse 20: “Then the Lord said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.” The sin of Sodom is so great it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution. God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’ to deal with it; down in this case from the hills to the valley, though God’s presence to judge is often pictured as rending the heavens to come down. God had previously said the sin of the Amorites, among whom Abraham was living, was not yet full. But the sins of the cities of the plain, where Lot dwelt, were a stench in God’s nostrils; the time of judgment was at hand.

IV. The Righteous Judge does right (Genesis 18:22-33)

        As the Lord talked with Abraham, the two angels departed to go to Sodom. Abraham, having sensed what was about to happen, remained in the Lord’s presence to make intercession for those in the cities who hadn’t joined in evil. Verses 23-33: Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" 26The Lord said, "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake." 27Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?" "If I find forty-five there," he said, "I will not destroy it." 29Once again he spoke to him, "What if only forty are found there?" He said, "For the sake of forty, I will not do it." 30Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?" He answered, "I will not do it if I find thirty there." 31Abraham said, "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?" He said, "For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it." 32Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?" He answered, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it." 33When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

        This is a great example of intercessory prayer. Speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never before seen. Abraham’s concern may have been for his nephew Lot, but also for simple justice: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” If God’s people are called to justice and righteousness, must not God himself continue to meet this standard? The solution Abraham offers is to count heads: if there are enough righteous in the city, say fifty, the city should be spared. He boldly reminds God of his own character: ‘Far be it from you to do such a thing. Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

        That phrase is the second pillar of this text. We’ve already learned that there’s nothing too hard for God; faith must believe that God can do anything. But the growing edge of faith for so many is the confidence that God is good; that he will do right, that he has good in mind for his people. Scripture gives us good reason to believe that God the righteous judge does good. Over and over the Psalmist says “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.” Psalm 27 says “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And confidence in his goodness is Biblically the same as confidence in his righteousness and justice. Isaiah 5:16 is one of my favorites: “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.” We have every reason to be as bold in our prayers as Abraham was because God is exalted by his justice; he is shown holy by his righteousness. He will not ever be untrue to his character. We we have every reason to be confident that in our own situations God works for the good of those who love him, which is a New Testament truth and a contemporary truth as well as an ancient one. Bottom line: we can pray with faith “will not the judge of the earth do right?” because we believe he can do all things, and we believe he will do good.

        And this is a truth that should go home with you today. All of us face situations in which we might be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Disease and sickness, financial crisis, rebellion and anger, and even world events like war and famine, disaster and poverty can lead us to doubt that God does do good. It is a characteristic of growing faith to learn to see God’s goodness in the midst of these discouragements. One reason we can do that is because we’ve already seen his ultimate goodness in Jesus. A God who loved us so much that he would send his Son, a God who would lay our sins on his Son so we could be forgiven, a God who would rescue sinners as a free gift, is a God who has proven his goodness beyond doubt. Romans 8 teaches us to say “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” So God is good to his people, but normally he works his goodness subtly in the midst of these evils, like a flower growing in the crack of a sidewalk, so that though evil continues, he redeems situations, he rescues people, he bestows joy and beauty and goodness in a very individual and a very loving way. Faith - the faith that you and I have, the faith that is a gift, the faith that grows - learns to see those things.

        Abraham’s faith was learning to see that. As he continues to intercede with God, he asks successively that the city might be spared if fifty righteous people are found in it, then forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten. Each time God agreed, so that if only ten righteous people could have been found in Sodom, God would not have destroyed it. But why did Abraham stop with ten? Why not go on to five or even one? Some say he didn’t dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I don’t believe he would have stopped until he was confident that Lot and his family were safe.

        The number ten should have provided that protection with a margin of safety. With Lot and his wife, his two unmarried daughters, his married daughters and sons-in-law, and perhaps sons also, ten righteous surely could be found. But we’ll see in chapter 19 that these hopes exceeded reality. Lot would have been lost, were it not for God’s bountiful grace, which always exceeds our expectations. In the final analysis the four or three that escaped did so by grace alone. God heard Abraham’s prayer. He didn’t answer it the way Abraham expected. He did good - but he did it his own way, in a way consistent with his righteous character and his desire for justice.

        So faith learns to trust in God’s goodness. Nathan and Elizabeth Hughes have had a recent example of that. For many years Nathan worked a job that wasn’t real challenging and definitely wasn’t high paying even with overtime. A few months back he started to actively look for a new job, but there wasn’t much out there that he could fit into or even be trained for. Then he found an opening for a police dispatcher in the city of Webster. Trying not to get his hopes up he went through the application process, the preliminary interview process, the examination process, the drug testing process, the background check and the final interview process. At each stage he became more convinced that this would be a great job for him, and one with a lot of potential - especially since they would provide complete on-the-job training. It was almost a ‘too good to be true’ ‘too wonderful for God to do’ situation. But not very many weeks ago he got that job, and now Nathan is heavily into the training process - studying hard, but enjoying it. Their faith, already growing, has learned even more to trust that the righteous God does good.