The Best Medicine for Fear: Calvin on Gen. 14.1-15.1
"Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, and your exceedingly great reward." So says God to Abraham in the opening verse of Genesis 15. Upon first glance, Calvin admits, God's encouragement to Abraham "to be of good courage" seems strange if not "superfluous." In the immediately preceding chapter Abraham has waged a rather successful war against five local kings who had the cheek -- on the heels of their own successful military outing -- to carry off Abraham's nephew Lot and his belongings (along with the rest of Sodom's people and possessions). Abraham has also demonstrated his financial security (and, more importantly, faith in God's provision) by refusing the King of Sodom's generous (sycophantic?) offer to let him keep the town's recovered goods. And, most remarkably of all, he has received the blessing of "God Most High" (Gen. 14.19) from the upraised hands of the Priest-King Melchizedek, and in that process glimpsed an "image of Christ" himself, the true Priest-King whom Melchizedek prefigured. All in all, it would seem that "Abram's affairs were prosperous and were proceeding according to his wish." Why, then, the encouragement not to fear?
Calvin notes that some commentators, not seeing any obvious reason why Abraham should be frightened at this point in the biblical narrative, "conjecture" that the patriarch, "having returned after the deliverance of his nephew, was subjected to some annoyance of which no mention is made by Moses." Calvin, for his part, refuses to engage in such speculation about events which Scripture doesn't record, and succeeds -- through careful consideration of those which it does -- in discovering plausible reasons why Abraham might require such encouragement specifically in light of his recent achievements.
Calvin supposes, first of all, that Abraham might have rightly reckoned on reprisal from the kings he had so recently routed. "Abram had so provoked them that they might with fresh troops, and with renewed strength, again attack the land of Canaan." Calvin also notes that "as signal success commonly draws its companion envy along with it, Abram [likely] began to be exposed to many disadvantageous remarks, after he had dared to enter into conflict with an army which had conquered four kings." Calvin further guesses that Abraham's military feats would have engendered "an unfavorable suspicion" among his nearest neighbors that "he would turn the strength which he had tried against foreign kings" against them.
In short, Calvin judges that Abraham's accomplishments in Genesis 14 "rendered him formidable and an object of suspicion to many, while it inflamed the hatred of others." It is no big surprise, then, that come Genesis 15 Abraham "should have been troubled, and should anxiously have revolved many things, until God animated him anew, by the confident expectation of his assistance."
However curious Calvin's efforts to understand the fonts of Abraham's fear might seem, they ultimately serve to highlight the tender and timely fashion in which Almighty God addressed the patriarch. In Calvin's estimation God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15:1 in order to "soothe his sorrowing and anxious servant with some consolation." Interestingly, Calvin has emphasized -- in his comments on the immediately preceding recorded speech of God to Abraham (Gen. 13.14-17) -- God's concern to alleviate Abraham's sadness with his word of promise. Here the Reformer emphasizes God's concern to alleviate Abraham's anxiety with that same word of promise.
And God's word to Abraham is once again a word of promise. The imperative "do not be afraid," which introduces God's speech, is no bare precept (as it were), no injunction to buck up and cease being so cowardly without consideration of any positive reasons for courage. It is a precept rooted in a particular promise (or rather, two): that God himself is Abraham's shield and exceedingly great reward. "Although the promise comes last in the text," Calvin observes, "it yet has precedence in order; because on it depends the confirmation, by which God frees the heart of Abram from fear." And again: "The promise... that God will be Abram's shield and his exceeding great reward holds the first place; to which is added the exhortation, that, relying upon such a guardian of his safety, and such an author of his felicity, [Abraham] should not fear."
Rightly understood, the promises made to Abraham on this occasion are no less promises to us, and so equally means by which we might suppress our own anxieties. "Let us know that the same blessing is promised to us all, in the person of this one man. For, by this voice, God daily speaks to his faithful ones." In other words, God is our shield and our exceedingly great reward. But what do these things mean, and how might they encourage us in times of fear and trembling?
"God ascribes to himself the office and property of a shield, for the purpose of rendering himself the protector of our salvation; we ought to regard this promise as a brazen wall, so that we should not be excessively fearful in any dangers." Significantly, God's commitment -- by virtue of this promise -- "to defend us," "to preserve us in safety under his hand," and "to protect us by his power," is specifically one to safeguard our salvation. This promise does not, in other words, render us imperviousto every temporal foe; it does render us impervious to every eternal foe (sin, Satan, death, hell, etc.). Our paths may yet lead through darkness and the shadow of death in this world, but nothing can breach the wall (God himself) that safeguards our salvation and eternal inheritance.
Of course, the second part of God's promise tells us something significant about what that eternal inheritance is. "The other member of the sentence follows, in which God declares that he alone is sufficient for the perfection of a happy life to the faithful.... In God alone we have the highest and complete perfection of all good things.... [God] not only pours upon us the abundance of his kindness, but offers himself to us, that we may enjoy him. Now what is there more, which men can desire, when they really enjoy God?"
This latter promise reminds us that our salvation and hope consists not primarily in a place or possessions (even gold-plated ones), but in a Person -- or rather, Persons; i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eternal fellowship with the Triune God (and secondarily with other believers) is the true and happy end prepared for God's people, and that "reward" is and will be, well, truly rewarding. It is a pleasure we know now in part, but will know more fully in the life to come.
In sum, then, the promises which God delivers to Abraham on this occasion, much like his previous promises (rightly understood), serve to orient believers first of all to the redemption which is theirs in Christ, and secondly to the eternal inheritance which is theirs by virtue of Christ's person and work. As such they are proper medicine for fear of every conceivable kind. When our fears are fueled by some perceived jeopardy to our person or possessions in this life (as Abraham's fears apparently were, and ours so often are), these promises serve, at least by implication, to remind us that something much more fearful rightly belongs to us as sinful children of Adam (cf. Matt. 10.28). They simultaneously remind us that sin and its deadly consequences -- those things which should really make us afraid -- are, after all, nothing to be afraid of. God encircles us with a wall that cannot be breached. He will let nothing jeopardize our most valuable possession and inheritance, which is nothing short of himself (Rom. 8.28; John 17.3).
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.
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