The Sarah Covenant Bears Fruit

Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD.—Isaiah 54:1

This text is cited in Galatians 4:27 in Paul’s comparison of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Law Covenant. Paul saw from Isaiah 54 that Sarah represented the covenant given to her husband Abraham about a seed of promise to bless “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 22:18). Paul’s purpose in discussing the subject was to show the brethren that the promised “seed of blessing” would not come through the Law (Hagar), but through the original Abrahamic Covenant (Sarah).

That seed is Christ, Paul said in Galatians 3:16, but it also includes those who are in Christ: “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). Paul then concludes, “We, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. We are not children of the bondwoman [Hagar, the Law], but of the free [Sarah, the Abrahamic]” (Galatians 4:28,31).

Therefore, it was wrong to insist that Gentile believers must keep the particulars of the Law. This was Paul’s reason for raising the matter, which was directed to “ye that desire to be under the law” (Galatians 4:21).

Isaiah 54

It is relatively easy to grasp Paul’s conclusion, and appreciating his apostolic authority, to accept our liberty from the Law. But to appreciate the details of the issue as Paul did, it is helpful to pursue the train of thought that led Paul to see the allegories he explains in Galatians. Paul tells us the basis by citing Isaiah 54:1 (in Galatians 4:27), applying the barren one to Sarah and “she which hath an husband” to Hagar. The (formerly) barren one was to be more fruitful than the other, just as the Abrahamic Covenant was to be more fruitful than the Law Covenant, even though the latter bore an entire nation of people before the Abrahamic Covenant even began to bear the promised seed with the advent of Christ.

Examining Isaiah 54, one may wonder how Paul knew when to apply the passage. Paul applied it from the advent of Christ forward, but what is the basis for this? One might surmise it is simply because his application seemed to fit, just as a key which opens a lock is evidently the correct key.

There is value to this approach. But there are two other foundation points which help establish the first advent context. 1) This prophecy immediately follows Isaiah 53, which is unmistakably about the advent of Christ. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief … he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows … he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:3-5). 2) Isaiah 54:13, part of the very prophecy Paul is considering, was applied by Jesus himself to his day: “All thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.” This is cited in John 6:45, and Jesus comments upon it: “Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” Though John recorded this late in his life, after the passing of the apostle Paul, no doubt these references of Jesus were circulated among the common body of information current in the early church, thus available to Paul.

The Barren One

Paul applied the barren one of Isaiah 54:1 to Sarah. This is consistent with the greater context of this part of Isaiah, for Isaiah 51:1,2 refer to “Abraham your father, and … Sarah that bare you.” Also, Sarah’s barrenness until the age of 90 is renowned. Putting this together, it became apparent to Paul that the prophecy of barren Sarah producing children future from Isaiah’s day must refer to the seed of promise, Christ, and his Church.

She was to produce “more” than Hagar (Isaiah 54:1). Because of her promised increase, she was to “enlarge the place of thy tent … stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations … lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes” (verse 2). This does not mean Sarah’s descendants, the Israelites, were to outnumber Hagar’s descendants, the Ishmaelites (whether or not they did). The key to the great quantity is “thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles” (verse 3). This began to be fulfilled when the gospel was opened to Gentiles to join the Body of Christ. “They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:7,8).

The spiritual classes developed in the Gospel age may number millions. But ultimately the great increase prophesied of the barren woman takes us to the kingdom when the whole world will be children of faith by coming into Christ and thus being blessed through the original covenant made to Abraham.

The “Married Wife”

In this prophecy the “married wife” is contrasted with the barren one, Sarah, and thus evidently refers to Hagar. This is confusing since all know that Sarah was the real wife of Abraham, and Hagar was merely her handmaid. The problem is solved when we recognize the idiom being used. The expression “married wife” comes from one Hebrew word, baal, Strong’s 1166, “a primitive root, to be master, hence … to marry.” As used of a woman it usually means to have a husband, or lord, baal, but in this case designates one who has produced child by a man. (Rotherham footnote: “the husbanded one.”)

Genesis 16:3 uses a similar concept: “And Sarai Abram’s wife … gave her [Hagar] to her husband Abram to be his wife,” where the last term means to be a child bearer, not to become a wife in the sense we normally use it.

Afflicted Ones

God, through Isaiah, addresses Israel in Isaiah 54. He acknowledges that Israel was forsaken because of her sins, “but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7,8). The affliction from which they are gathered is apparently the Babylonian exile. Israel’s return from this was mentioned in Isaiah 52:1-12, “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence” (verse 11), and the next prophetic episode is the appearance of Messiah (verses 13-15) and the blessing of the elect of Israel gathered into Christ at the first advent. “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace”—the Israelites who received Messiah and became part of his body (Romans 11:5).

Isaiah 54:11 describes these Israelites as “afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted,” but promises they would become a new city resplendent with precious jewels: “I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones” (verses 11,12). The reader will recognize this as the foundation of Revelation’s vision of New Jerusalem—the corporate Christ class—in Revelation 21:12-21. There the city functions for the benefit of the world. But presently the New Jerusalem of Isaiah’s prophecies operates for the blessing of its citizens, spiritual Israel, as the next verse suggests, “all thy children shall be taught of the LORD”—the very text applied by Jesus to his day, as discussed above.

It is this application of the prophecy which Paul had in mind in Galatians, “Jerusalem which is above … the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26). The citizens of a city are the “children” of the city, which is their “mother.” Thus in Galatians Paul uses two separate pictures regarding the saints: 1) We are children of the Sarah (Abrahamic) covenant; 2) We are citizens (children) of the corporate “Jerusalem” from above, spiritual Jerusalem.

Paul says the two women “are [represent] two covenants,” but “answer to [pertain to]” two different Jerusalems. The Hagar covenant pertains to “Jerusalem which now is … in bondage with her children [Israelites under the Law],” the Sarah covenant pertains to “Jerusalem which is above … the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

“This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD” (Isaiah 54:17). This is the rich favor we may receive, through consecration to God, whether Israelite by birth or grafted into the covenants of Israel through faith.