Genesis 23:1-20 “Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, ‘I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so that I can bury my dead.’ The Hittites replied to Abraham, ‘Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.’ Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, ‘If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so that he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.’ Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. ‘No, my lord,’ he said. ‘Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.’ Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, ‘Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so that I can bury my dead there.’ Ephron answered Abraham, ‘Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead.’ Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants. So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field – was legally made over to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterwards Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were legally made over to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.”
So Abraham’s wife Sarah died in Hebron, near to the great oak tree of Mamre, where in fact they’d first lived when they came into the land of Canaan 67 years earlier. Sarah’s extraordinary lengthy life – reaching 90 years of age, but then becoming a centenarian; still going on . . . reaching 110 . . . and then 120 – seeming to be defying the grave, yet one day, at 127 years of age, God allowed death to come and take her. Sarah might have wanted to linger longer, but death, once it has received permission from God, is irresistible. It will take no denial, no negotiation and no bribes. Astronauts circling the globe can defy gravity, but men cannot defy death. So it was for Sarah; the appointed time had come; though Sarah for over half her lifetime had been a tenant in the land of promise now the great Landlord came and gave her notice that the lease had expired. Just like Sarah we will one day quit this earthly body. One out of one dies. So let us consider today briefly the death of Sarah, and then at more length how her husband responded. Dr. Lloyd-Jones once said, “There is nothing more fatuous about mankind than the statement that to think about death is morbid. The man who refuses to face facts is a fool.”
In other words it is most important for you to settle your own stance toward life, death, grief, sin, guilt, and of course, toward God. You cannot avoid such issues. They will not go away. In fact your own personal relationship to God and your own beliefs are central. If your talk and your walk are to come together at any point then it has to be here. Each one of you knows that he or she is going to die. What you believe about death, the future, the presence of God must impact you when death comes into your lives.
Let me lay my cards on the table; I am speaking to you from a conservative evangelical viewpoint – as a Christian who believes the Bible. I believe in historic Christianity, the Christianity of the confessions of faith, like the 39 Articles of the Church of England and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I believe that the summary of Christianity found in them is the truth of God, the Creator and Judge of the world. I want you to know precisely where I stand so that you will be able to evaluate what I have to say. Check up on it from the Bible. Listen carefully! I believe that what the Bible says about death is literally true. I do not believe that we are snuffed out at death. Neither do I believe that we return again and again to this world after we die and repeat the cycle of life and death returning sometimes as a human being and sometimes as an animal. I despise that teaching. I believe we are unique; we are made in the image of God; we live once and we die once and after death is the judgment because this is a moral universe and what you have sown in this life you will reap in the world to come. None of us is righteous. No, not one. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, but there is hope of forgiveness and redemption through trusting in what the Son of God, Jesus Christ, has done and making that all your plea before God. He is the only answer to man’s need in life and in death. He became the Lamb of God and he has taken away our sin so that we might have eternal life. The poverty of an uncertain or a skeptical or a fuzzy faith is never more apparent than in a funeral or at the gr
aveside. Do not ask us Christian preachers to turn up and take your pagan funerals. Take your own! We are not in the business of burying people. We are in the business of burying our own people.
- ABRAHAM LOST SARAH IN DEATH.
So Sarah died, and she is the only woman in all of the Bible whose death and whose age at death is recorded in the Scripture. We have no idea how old Eve was when she died, or Rebecca, or Rachel, or Deborah, or Ruth, or Bathsheba, or Mary, or Martha, or Lydia, but we know when Abraham’s wife died and where she died. When Sarah passed away she hadn’t received much of what God had promised – the possession of the land – had it become hers and her husband’s? No. What of a vast progeny, a dozen children, a hundred grand children, and you are losing track of the number of great grandchildren? None, one son alone. What of the coming of the Messiah, the Seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent’s head, and all nations being blessed by him? Sarah never saw him. She died without experiencing any of those things. She certainly died in faith believing that these things would happen one day. She welcomed them from 2000 years away. She died rejoicing in a husband who had loved her for over a hundred years, and a loving son of 37 years of age, the child of her husband Abraham. In the birth and life of Isaac she saw a dim reflection of the coming of the Messiah and the hope of all the earth. She could rejoice to contemplate that coming day, even though she saw it only in a shadow, and so Sarah died contented.
Sarah had fought for her boy Isaac, that he would receive all his inheritance, and not Ishmael. She was not Ishmael’s mother. Isaac was the one to receive the land as an eternal inheritance. It was a picture and shadow of the heavenly kingdom. The land preached the gospel to her son that he would yet receive a great inheritance. She desired this land for Isaac, a land full of symbolism, one that flowed with milk and honey whenever the people loved Jehovah. He was desperately in love with this land and its people. The God who was not ashamed to be called the God of Sarah was preparing a land for her, Abraham, Isaac and Sarah and all whom he loved who are the children of the Abraham.
Yet Sarah died. There was no escape from that. All the world is a hospital and every person in it is a terminal patient. Sarah had to die some time, but she died in faith, though not receiving the promises. They’d not been fulfilled in her lifetime. She and her husband were still strangers and foreigners in this land. They owned none of it. There was, of course, a well, one solitary well in Beersheba, that Abraham and his servants had built, a place where Abraham had exclusive rights to draw water. This was Abraham’s toe-hold in the land, but that hardly made him a landowner, any more than having an allotment today pumps you up to join the landed gentry. Isaac had been promised this land as his inheritance, but he was now 37 years old while Abraham wasn’t in possession of the land at 137 years of age. All he could leave to Isaac was access to a watering hole in the ‘deep south’ in Beersheba. That was all that Sarah saw with her eyes when she died. She didn’t know how God was going to keep his promises, but she died in faith in the promises. She died in Hebron. She died within the land of Canaan. She died in the land of promise, but where was the fulfillment of God’s great promises of a mighty progeny? Sarah did not see that. She had a single bachelor son – and neither she nor he possessed any land at all, and in that knowledge she went down to the grave. Only another mighty miracle of God could change that. Only a glorious resurrection could give Sarah a physical sight of the one who would bruise the serpent’s head and bless all the nations.
So the impressive Sarah died, and the Bible, while never telling us to follow the example of Mary, does tell us both in the Old Testament and in the New to follow the example of Sarah. In the opening words of Isaiah 51 they were told to look to Sarah who gave birth to them. She was part of the rock from which they, the Old Testament people of God, had been hewn. Then in the New Testament in I Peter chapter three the example of Sarah’s submission is described to New Testament Christians. In the church grandmothers are to have and will have a blessed influence in a congregation and the young ones will look to them. They are experienced, long in faith, walking with God for 50 or more years, sensitive, prayerful, always eager to hear the word of God, women of knowledge, intuition and the power to inspire, women who have never given up, never swerved from the path of life, never losing hope though the nation grows dark. They are to be treasured in a congregation. Ichabod is written over a congregation if it turns all its attention on the whims of youth, and drives the godly old folk out of the assembly by its stunts. Anyway, Sarah, in good old age, died.
- ABRAHAM MOURNED FOR SARAH AT HER DEATH.
We believe that there’s a moral distinction between grief and despair. Grief is proper and good according to the Scriptures. It is a blessing to witness a broken-hearted family at a funeral, but not to see despair. Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians about the blessedness of life after death, about the hope of Christ returning, the resurrection of the body and then our being always with the Lord. Comfort one another with these words, he says. Paul wants true grief to be there – as it was when David grieved over Absalom; “He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Sam. 18:33). Grief, yes, utterly essential, yes, let’s encourage it; none of this ‘stiff upper lip’ stuff of the English gentleman. I loathe it. Tears, yes, but not despair, what Paul speaks of as the grief of those who have no hope. Not that. There is Christian pain at the absence of the one you love.
But how can you compare that pain to the feelings of those who believe that death is followed by nothingness, that death is the complete and total end? They will never see their loved ones again, and that is what lies before them too, mutual non-communication in non-existence. That is crucifixion without resurrection – ‘Jesus once lived; then men killed him, and that was that. All his hopes and promises were nothing.’ Then we who have believed in him would be of all men most miserable; we would be without a living Lord and without hope in the world. So if you believe that what stance do you take? You become a stoic. Stifle your emotions; crucify your despair. Grin and bear it. That is not what Abraham did. He believed in God, yes! He believe in the resurrection, yes! But he still broke his heart because he loved Sarah. This is the only time we are told that Abraham wept. No doubt God was especially close to his friend at that time, and yet he wept. Sometimes people say that once you know that something is the will of God it’s easy. W
ell, it was God’s will that Sarah should die, but it wasn’t easy to Abraham. He broke his heart. We are not told that Abraham wept when he heard that his family and friends had been abducted by an invading king; Abraham didn’t weep when Sarah was taken from him to a harem in Egypt; he did not weep when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but when Sarah died the loving grief of a hundred years of friendship poured out.
I am saying to you that according to the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament sorrow is proper. Every emotion of God-created men and women is good. God has gifted us with the capacity of expressing both joy and sorrow. Each is proper in the appropriate situation to which it corresponds. Boy meets girl was the same wonderful story back in the days of Abraham some 4,000 years ago as it is today. There is all the joy and laughter of those days, and then the loss of your wife is the single greatest loss a man can experience. Then it is improper to hold back one’s tears as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death. At the grave of Lazarus even Jehovah Jesus wept. His emotional response was so evident that others standing by commented about his tears. They said, ‘See how much Jesus loved him!’ What Abraham did when Sarah died, shedding salty tears and weeping over her, was a grand and God-honouring emotion.
Let me tell you this story. A soldier’s wife was contacted by the army to be informed that her husband had been killed. She wept with her mother as she held the telegram in her hand, and then she told her that she was going up to her room and she did not want to be disturbed. Her mother called her husband to break the news to him and he came home from work straight away. He wanted to see his daughter and he went upstairs and quietly opened her door. He saw her kneeling by her bed, the telegram spread out before her with the news of her husband’s death, and she was saying, “Oh, my heavenly Father . . . Oh my Father , , , my heavenly Father.” He quietly closed the door and went back downstairs. “How is she?” said his wife. “She’s in better hands than mine,” he simply said.
Abraham wept over Sarah’s death, and that showed how much he’d cared for the one God had given him, but be aware of this, that that did not mean that Abraham wouldn’t marry again. Remarriage was no betrayal of Sarah. In fact he did get married; Abraham was joined in holy wedlock to Keturah and they had six sons, but he would thank God every day for his first wife Sarah and the life they had known together.
- ABRAHAM BURIED SARAH AT HER DEATH.
We are told that he “rose from beside his dead wife” (v.3). He dried his face, and squared his shoulders, and lifted up his eyes and faced his responsibilities. Now he must arrange her burial. You may be puzzled by the length of the account dealing with Abraham’s search for a place to bury Sarah. We are told nothing about Sarah’s last days, or her last words, but we are given 18 verses describing Abraham’s quest for a grave for her. There are a number of reasons for this;
i] We are considering Sarah as to her body. This is not some decaying flesh that you can play around with, feed to the pigs, or use as compost. This is Sarah as to her body. Her soul is in the presence of the Lord, but her dust is here, and that is precious to the Lord. It is precious to us too. Mary in the garden discovers that the tomb in which Jesus was laid is empty, and she sees people who are in fact two angels. The angels inquired as to her emotional state, “why are you crying?” (John 20:13) and she says to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.” She doesn’t say, “They have taken away Jesus’ body and I don’t know where it is.” Her Lord had been taken away. Where was he? Abraham was conscious that this was the body of Sarah and it needed to be shown respect and love. It must have a proper loving burial. It must be somewhere where no animals could dig it up. The natural processes of decay are already at work in a dead body, of course, but we have no right to disrespectfully hasten that process.
ii] Burial plans ought to matter to the people of God. Where and how his dear wife was to be buried was more than a matter of sentiment. Burying his wife was also a statement of faith. Have you considered what is going to happen to your body after your death. Where are you going to be buried? Have you drawn up a will? Do your loved ones know of your wishes? Have you thought of what you want said or sung at your funeral service? Who do you want to take that service? If you want one particular minister then you must contact him first of all and see when he is available. There was a minister’s widow who was once a member here and a great supporter, and she asked me to bury her, and I readily agreed. She told her niece that I was to take her funeral service. That person made all the arrangements as to the place and time and then announced it to me. I had another important booking on that day. It caused me a real dilemma. It is etiquette and manners to contact the minister early on and ask him if any days would be inconvenient. Burial plans matter to the people of God.
iii] Burying his wife was also a declaration that some day Abraham’s descendants would possess the land. They would be surrounding the place of burial and would live and die around her. God had promised that this would happen though the fulfillment lay in the distant future, and Abraham was fully convinced that God would keep his word. There is no way that Abraham would take Sarah back to Ur of the Chaldees, a thousand mile journey, to be buried surrounded by her pagan family. She was to be buried in the land God had given to him and his descendants. In fact, by the time you get to the end of the book of Genesis Abraham’s tomb is very full. Sarah is buried there. Abraham is buried there. Isaac is buried there. Rebekah is buried there. Leah is buried there. Then Jacob’s body is brought back from Egypt and it is buried there too. Joseph died in Egypt but where he was finally laid to rest was an important enough matter for him to give instructions that his bones be carried back to the promised land when they returned and he be buried there. More than 400 years would pass before that was carried out. Why this pervasive emphasis? Yes it was because members of that family wanted to be together in death as in life, and together for the day of resurrection. But more than that, Abraham and his descendants were making this declaration that some day God would give them this land as he had promised.
When you die the only piece of property you will own will be a plot in a cemetery. Everything else will belong to someone else. You get a shroud, a wooden box and a piece of dirt. That is it and all the rest is divide
d up. God’s workmen are dead and buried and God’s work goes on. We come on stage for a while; some of us preach opposite the bank and on the promenade and then we shuffle off and are replaced by someone else, but the whole engineering of redemption and the salvation of the world goes on and on. Death does not exhaust the promises of God. “No! Death. You don’t have the victory. No. Death. You’ve lost your sting.” Ever since Jesus Christ rose from the dead our whole attitude to death has changed. He says, “Because I live you shall live also.” When a Christian called Stanley Collins was fighting in the Second World War he and his friend came across a land mine. They tip-toed on their way past, but later that evening Stanley nearly passed out as he came into the barracks to see his friend asleep with his head on the same mine. Then he discovered that the firing pin had been removed and it was now as safe as any pillow. What had been an instrument of destruction had become a headrest for a weary soldier. So the Lord Christ has taken the sting out of death and he has given us victory over the grave. Today Abraham’s tomb is a vast mosque and it is filled with the patriarch’s bodies until this day, but there are no bones of Jesus turning to dust beneath the Syrian sky. It has been empty for 2,000 years. He is not there, he is risen!
- ABRAHAM NEGOTIATED LONG FOR A PLACE TO BURY SARAH.
i] In verses three through six we read of Abraham’s first attempt to purchase land. We are told that Abraham rose from beside the body of his wife and went straight to the Hittites and asked them to sell him some property so that she could be buried. There was some natural urgency. It is hot and she has been dead a certain time. The sons of Heth, the Hittites, owned this area, and so Abraham went to them and asked them if he could become a property owner. He had many men; they were brave fighters. He had the promise of God that this land was his and his people’s after him, but that was not the way to possess it then. So this is what Abraham said, “I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site so I can bury my dead . . .” (v.4). “I am a traveler, a nomad. I don’t own any land. I am dependent on the kindness of those who don’t hassle me. There is nothing I can call my own and nothing to leave to my son. His mother has died. Sell me some property where I may bury her. Let me become a landowner. Let me have a place that I may call my own with full property rights to pass down to my descendants as an inheritance. Change my status. I no longer wish to be an alien and a stranger but a resident.”
The Sons of Heth spoke to our father Abraham very respectfully. “You are a mighty prince, a prince of God, among us – among us!” In other words, “What is this talk of being an alien and a stranger. You live among us and so you can bury your wife among us. Use one of our burial places. Choose the best site and no one will refuse you.” They were kind words and generous words but they denied the most important part of Abraham’s request – “Sell me some property . . .” They didn’t want him to gain a permanent foothold in their country and all the rights that would go with it. They wished this powerful man could continue as a landless dependent, a recipient of their meager kindness. They wanted a culture of dependence to continue. So Abraham still had little joy from them, however, he had got something in this first exchange – the right to bury his dead in the land.
ii] In verses seven through eleven is Abraham’s second attempt. This time he stands in respect and then bows low. What an honour to give him such a right to bury his wife in any place he chooses, but Abraham believes in the promises of God concerning the future ownership of this land, and so he boldly asks for more. “Let me own that land where my wife will be buried.” Abraham asked them to mediate between him and a man named Ephron, Zohar’s son, important men, and convince Ephron to sell him some land. Abrham is now specific; he names a man and he offers a full price. Abraham wanted to buy the Machpelah cave. The name may mean the ‘double’ cave. Certainly it was a large enough burial place to accommodate Sarah, himself, Isaac and those of his descendants who’d die in the faith. “It’s not in the heart of his property. It’s on the edges. It won’t be an inconvenience to Ephron. I won’t trespass his boundaries to get to the cave. I’ll pay the full price. Let there be witnesses so that I have not been merely granted the use of the property. It has to be mine. I want everyone to acknowledge that I am the owner.” You see Abraham’s faith that God is going to give him this land as his inheritance. This small corner of the land is going to be the earnest, the deposit and the guarantee of the certainty of the whole land being his, one day possessed by his descendants.
Ephron himself replies and he is very polite and cagey. Now the middle-eastern haggling begins! Here is a bargaining match. The men maneuver to buy and sell the cave and field. I stumblingly do in car boot sales and garage sales. “I will give you the field and the cave,” he says to Abraham. He will give it publicly. “I give it to you,” he says, maybe gesturing generously towards the cave. So then Abraham could bury his dead. Three times Ephron says the word ‘give.’ Abraham could save money, but what is provoking this strange generosity on Ephron’s part? He doesn’t want to sign away any of his property. So he will ‘give’ this land to Abraham, but not as ‘property.’ Abraham may not pass it on to his descendants. He can use it while he lives, but after his death it passes back to Ephron. That is not the arrangement that Abraham seeks.
iii] In verses twelve through sixteen is Abraham’s third attempt. Again on this occasion he bows low. To the Greeks we are to become as Greeks, and to the Romans we are to become as Romans. To the Hittites Abraham became as a Hittite bowing to them as they did to one another, but he believes the promise God has made him and so he asks once again and he does so utterly publicly, everyone listening. “I will give you money for the field. I want to purchase it. I want the deed in my name. I will pay what it is worth.”
Then Ephron agrees and he tosses away a price that he says he thinks is its worth, almost in passing as he says “but what is that between you and me? We are both men of means.” What is the price? It is quite colossal! Four hundred shekels. Almost a hundredweight of silver. It is a rip-off trading on the pressure Abraham is under to bury his wife and his longing to own a piece o
f this land. To give you some idea of the exorbitance of this price, later David paid only an eighth of that, 50 shekels, to buy a site on which the mighty Jerusalem temple was erected. Later the prophet Jeremiah would pay 17 shekels for an entire field 1500 years later, and consider the rise in inflation in such a period (see the probable reference to that in verse 16). Ephron wanted 400 shekels for a burial site. Of course it includes the field that comes with the site, and all the trees (v.17), they now belong to the one who planted his tamarisk tree in Beersheba. The whole package is bought legally, lock, stock and barrel, by Abraham (see the emphases on the field ‘deeded’ to him in both verses 17 and 20). Let’s learn from the people of the world how to do business. Let’s not be sloppy about details when we ought to be precise. Sometimes a verbal agreement and a handshake is not enough. Don’t say, “Let’s not worry about the small print.” It’s the fine print that can often get us into a mess.
Ephron expected a day of haggling with pauses for roast lamb and wine. No. Abraham doesn’t pause. He didn’t wriggle and maneuver. I suppose he beckoned to some servants carrying heavy bags; they came up to him and Abraham weighed out to Ephron, shekel by shekel, the full price requested. It was done immediately and publicly with everyone in the city gate watching (v.18) so that the legal title of this field and cave passed to Abraham in perpetuity. There would be no quibbles from Ephron’s sons in twenty years’ time that their father had been cheated out of the field and cave by a meager below-market price. Abraham became a property owner. Ephron went away winking at his buddies thinking of what he would buy with the 400 smackers. What a fool Ephron was! He had sold heaven – like the man who opts to work each Sunday and never comes to hear God speaking in his word. Abraham alone knew the true value of this land and everything it signified. All the wealth of the world is nothing compared to the inheritance God offers. What does it profit a man if he gains a hundredweight of silver and loses his own soul? Poor Ephron! He lost a crown of glory and gained some silver. When Samuel Rutherford lay dying in St. Andrews the angry king in London sent a demand to him that he come and give an account of himself in the royal court. Rutherford sent back a reply, “Go and tell your master that I have a summons from a higher court, and ere this letter reaches him I’ll be where few kings or great folk ever come.”
- THROUGH SARAH’S DEATH ABRAHAM AT LAST OWNED LAND.
Abraham buried Sarah in testimony to his faith. Even death could not separate them from God’s promises. We are told relatively little about Sarah’s death, how Abraham mourned her, what burial clothes she was dressed in, or how he made his last farewells before he rolled a great stone across the mouth of the Machpelah cave. But from that moment on that field and cave were deeded to Abraham. He had wandered about as an alien for 62 years but now he’d got this token of the promised inheritance – a deposit and guarantee – to pass down to Isaac and to his children’s children for ever. It if were mere real estate that he’d wanted then he’d have stayed in Ur or moved back to it and bought a few skyscrapers or streets there, but Abraham had turned his back on all that to own a picture of the inheritance of the heavenly country that Abraham desired. The burial of Sarah there was his pledge of belief in the promises of God.
But Christ, the seed of Abraham has inherited the real thing. He is today a prince in the kingdom of heaven possessing all authority and power. Abraham then owned a symbolic portion of that inheritance. The Holy Spirit which every Christian possesses is the down payment of our inheritance. We cannot be parted from it, and so we despise the glittering prizes of this world that ignore and defy God as idols. Our priority is the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Though it cost you everything still sell all you have and give to the poor and gain an eternal inheritance. It is hidden with God in Christ. No one can take it from you. There are things that you have put behind you. Forget about them, and press on toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. This chapter is about persevering to the end, trusting in God and his promises, waiting on him when our dreams are unfulfilled.
We stand exactly where Abraham stood 4000 years ago. We have not yet received the fulfillment of all God has promised, far from it. But we have the down payment, the inner witness in our lives and the promises in the Word. We will die, but the promises of God live on after us. He who has been with us so far will not leave us when we depart from this world. Gently and slowly most of us will leave it, perhaps very, very slowly. But he will be with us on the whole journey and escort us home
22nd November 2009 GEOFF THOMAS