Trials in the life of the Christian often reveal the true condition of the heart toward God. Just as a river takes the path of least resistance, so too many a believer in the midst of trial will look for the easy way around difficulties. The Scriptures remind us however that trials can be for our good. They can be used to uncover deficiencies and wrong priorities in our lives so that we redirect our spiritual course, establish a vital testimony for the LORD and thereby sense more fully His abiding presence. How trials serve to accomplish these purposes is vividly portrayed for us in the record of Isaac's sojourn into Gerar recorded in Gen. 26.
After being established in the land, a famine arose affecting Isaac and his family. The Bible records that this famine was different from the one experienced by Isaac's father who had lapsed in his faith under similar circumstances. (Gen. 12) Despite the matter of family record, Isaac sought the aid of Abimilech, king of the Philistines instead of seeking the LORD. Why he did not consult the LORD during this trying time is peculiar since he had done so previously when pleading on behalf of his barren wife, Rebecca. (Gen. 25:21) It serves as a clear reminder that one victorious episode does not ensure the next since the walk of faith is a day-to-day experience.
While in Gerar, the LORD appeared to Isaac to assure him of His presence, to reaffirm the Abrahamic covenant, and to warn him not to go down to Egypt. (vv. 2-5) These are valuable lessons for all of God's people whenever they are going through a time of testing. His presence and promises are as sure as His Word though at times it may seem to the contrary especially when the way is hard. But God's promise remains—I will never leave thee or forsake thee"— and it is foundational to our faith. Equally important is the charge to not "sell out" to the world during our trials. "Woe unto you that go down Egypt for help", the prophet Isaiah warned the nation of Israel many years later. (Isa. 31:1) The world, typified by Egypt, is at enmity with God and as such attempts to lead us away from dependence upon Him. Its promises of help during personal trial are alluring, yet the hardships that we so desperately want to be excused from are often compounded as we abandon the pathway of faith and exclude the LORD from our decisions.
Short of entering Egypt, Isaac dwells in Gerar and stays there for "a long time". (v.8) Afraid for his life, he had been caught lying about the identity of his spouse—the exact predicament experienced by his father during the famine in his day. Amazingly, God blesses him materially though there is no outward indication that he is actively seeking the LORD. His wealth increases to such a point that the Philistines envy him and demand that he leave the region at once. Isaac's sojourn into Gerar is instructive in that it demonstrates that there is a major difference between the blessing of the LORD and the approval of the Lord. Issac's spiritual condition was far from exemplary having headed immediately toward Gerar rather than looking to God in faith when the famine struck. The LORD's charge to not go down to Egypt indicated the direction of Isaac's feet as well as his heart. Gerar to the south was close enough to Egypt to "benefit" from the land without crossing its border. Likewise, lsaac`s fear of the Philistines and his lack of integrity was hardly an example of triumphant faith. Obvious in the account is the absence of Isaac calling upon the LORD. There is no indication at all that he maintained his pilgrim character, having dwelt in Gerar "for a long time". What it proves is that God will accommodate a lower spiritual level if we persist in our self-chosen way. As with the children of Israel the LORD may give us our request, but send leanness unto our souls. (Psalm 106:15) How careful we must be that we not make the mistake of confusing the material blessing of the LORD as an indication of His approval! Many can confuse these two, thinking perhaps that all is right in their lives when in fact their testimonies have burned to a flicker as they sought to increase in this world's goods—hoodwinked by the deceitfulness of riches. (Matt. 13:22) Scripture warns that this will be one of the prominent attitudes that will characterize the last days when men "supposing that gain is godliness" will veil their covetous motives under a cloak of religiosity. Ironically, the problems experienced during our trials can also be used by the LORD to lead us out of compromise. There is no evidence that Isaac ever intended to leave Gerar on his own. If it had not been for Abimilech putting the pressure on him, he might have been content to stay there even longer. But God used these turn of events for His glory. No wonder the Apostle James could say "My brethren count it all joy when you fall into various trials knowing that the testing of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work that you may be perfect and entire lacking nothing." (James 1:2-3) With this understanding then we should make every effort to respond properly to our trials in order to purge our lives of the spiritual impurities that stand as a barrier to a closer walk with Him.
After leaving the area, Isaac pitches his tent in the Valley of Gerar. Not far from the region that reminded him of his personal lapse of faith, it was nevertheless a strong indication that he was a man on the move and headed in the right direction. Next we read that he began to dig out the wells of water that Abraham his father had dug in earlier days which the Philistines had stopped up. (v.15) These wells were significant in that they represented key places where God made promises to His chosen people. That the Philistines deliberately filled them in showed that they recognized their importance. Philistines speak to the Christian of spiritual intruders who seek to cover up the truths of God's Word with the "dirt" of this world in an attempt to keep the believer from enjoying the refreshing waters that come from "the wells of salvation" (Isa. 12:3) The fact that there was strife between the herdsmen indicated that Isaac and his men were not completely free from the influences of Gerar. The spiritual progress being made in Isaac's life however is even more apparent the farther away he gets from Gerar. He travels to Beersheba (v.23) where the LORD reappears and reminds him of the covenant previously made. There Isaac builds an altar where he calls on the LORD, pitches his tent and digs a well. (vv. 24-25) Having come full circle, Isaac's faith is authenticated, even though it had been temporarily eclipsed. His experience in Gerar is but a memory and the reality of his faith is witnessed as we see him communing with the LORD in the place of blessing. Further, his testimony for God is clearly evidenced through the actions of Abimilech who requests that they join in a covenant together. Previously, Abimilech wanted nothing good to say about Isaac. But at this juncture he proclaims: "You are now blessed of the LORD" (v. 29) This statement substantiates that Isaac's testimony had a far greater influence now that he was truly walking with the LORD, rather than before when it only seemed that way.