The Sight of God

“Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness” by Francesco Cozza, circa 1665

One Bible story that has resonated with me for some time is the account of Hagar, the maid of Abram’s wife Sarai through whom he became the father of Ishmael. The story tends to receive attention these days for political reasons, but I see it as a shining example of God’s grace in reaching out to a woman who was in great distress.

Hagar enters the story of Abram (later Abraham) when he and Sarai (later Sarah) are unable to conceive…even after receiving God’s promise that they would have a child. The custom at the time was evidently for the patriarch of the family take on a concubine and raise up heirs through her. Thus, Sarai gave her maid, Hagar, to her husband. The two of them slept together, and Hagar indeed became pregnant. Predictably, Sarai had a change of heart about the whole situation. She complained that Hagar now despised her. Abram allowed Sarai to deal with his pregnant concubine however she pleased. When she began to be treated harshly, Hagar ran away. That is where we pick up the story.

Now the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. He said, ‘Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?’ And she said, ‘I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.’ Then the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.’ Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.’ The angel of the Lord said to her further,

‘Behold, you are with child,

And you will bear a son;

And you shall call his name Ishmael,

Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.

He will be a wild donkey of a man,

His hand will be against everyone,

And everyone’s hand will be against him;

And he will live to the east of all his brothers.’

Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’; for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

Genesis 16:7-14

The thing that fascinates me about this passage is how Hagar chooses to refer to the Lord: “a God who sees”. What did she mean by this? God does not have physical eyes like a human being (apart from the Incarnate Christ), but He is certainly sovereign, omnipresent, and omniscient. Even so, I do not think Hagar was merely referring to God’s knowledge of what takes place on planet earth. She was speaking of something much more intimate.

While God certainly sees everything that occurs, Hagar experienced Him in a more intense way. “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” she asks. Here it is useful to point out that the phrase “angel of the Lord” is often interpreted by biblical scholars as referring to the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. Hagar certainly believed that she had met God in that hour. Therefore, her statement that God had seen her can be partially attributed to the fact that he met her close up rather than viewing her from “afar”.

There is another sense in which we can understand Hagar’s words. As a woman and a servant, she was at the bottom of the societal food chain. More to the point, she was an impregnated female domestic servant who had run away. She no longer had any means of subsistence. We get a clear enough picture of the situation in verses 1-6 of this chapter. Abram and Sarai never call her by name. She is always “my maid” or “your maid”. The first person in the story to call Hagar by her own name is God Himself.

Imagine how she must have felt. Hagar was something close to a slave. She did not pop into work in the morning and go back to her own family at night. She was part of Abram’s household and a servant of Sarai to the extent that she could be given to her master for sexual purposes. It is impossible to know exactly how Hagar felt about this at the start. Was she horrified that her body was no longer her own? Did she take some pride in the fact that she would be providing children to her master and thus receiving a place of greater honor within the household? Whatever she felt at the beginning and whatever hopes she might have had for advancement, they were surely dashed when Abram allowed Sarai to deal with her in an abusive manner.

We know that the situation got bad enough that Hagar decided she would rather roll the dice and run into the wilderness than remain where she was. She would rather be a single mother with no hope of financial security than stay in that household another day. So she fled into the wilderness, and it was there that she was met by the Lord: not one of the foreign gods with which she may have been raised, but the same one that spoke to Abram. The God of the universe was talking directly to her and using her name.

It must have been a bit of a blow when God told her to return to Sarai. Indeed, the Lord never denied this part of Hagar’s identity. However, we must note that the Lord was by no means diminishing Hagar by calling her Sarai’s maid. He was not telling her to submit to abuse without end. No, He gave her a promise: “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” (v. 10) The angel of the Lord gives Hagar the good news that she is carrying a son, and that son will be named Ishmael. The name is significant because it means “God hears”. She is told to use this name because “the Lord has given heed to your affliction”. (v. 11)

God did not see Hagar in some kind of passive sense. He did not meet her merely to rebuke her. He came to give a new identity to her and her son. Whereas she had no hope for the future when she fled into the wilderness, God gives her the same promise that He gave to Abram: He will multiply her descendants greatly. That was an extraordinary enough promise for a man, but to give it to a woman was simply unfathomable. More than that, the Lord acknowledged Hagar’s affliction. He let her know that the injustice she had suffered would be made right. Hagar began to see her life not in terms of her master and mistress’s plans, but the promises of God.

There is more to Hagar’s story, and the Lord certainly kept His promises to her and her descendants. However, I would like to transition at this point and consider how Hagar’s experience of God’s sight relates to the rest of Scripture. The Old Testament often talks about God seeing things, occasionally using the phrase “the eyes of the Lord”. At times, this is a very comforting concept, similar to how the Lord saw Hagar’s affliction and heard her cries of distress.

The patriarch Jacob had two wives who were also sisters: Leah and Rachel. Rachel was the one that he always loved and desired. Leah was only married to him through trickery, and thus she did not have her husband’s affection. This story reveals something of the Lord’s sight. “Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, ‘Because the Lord has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’” (Genesis 29:31-32) Here again we see God’s concern for an afflicted woman and how He brought her honor by giving her a son.

When the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, he told him, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.” (Exodus 3:7b) When Moses and his brother Aaron went to meet the elders of the Jewish people, they performed signs by the power of God. We then read, “So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.” (Exodus 4:31)

Further positive aspects of God’s sight are described elsewhere. We are told about the Promised Land, “…the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11:12b) Elsewhere we read, “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” (2 Chronicles 16:9) The Psalmist assures us that, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous / And His ears are open to their cry.” (Psalm 34:15)

There are other passages where this sight of the Lord seems like it could go either way. One of the most famous places where this occurs is in the story of the Prophet Samuel’s visit to the house of Jesse. He is told not to anoint one of the older brothers as king. “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is good news for a person whose heart is in the right place, but decidedly not so for those who are only pretty on the outside. God’s sight penetrates into the deepest recesses of our souls. He sees not only our actions, but also our motivations.  Proverbs 5:21 says, “For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, / And He watches all his paths.” Later in the same book, we read, “The eyes of the lord are in every place, / Watching the evil and the good.” (15:3)

Those verses start to get at another aspect of God’s sight. He is not only looking upon us for the purpose of comfort, but also for the purpose of judgment. Whereas the way that God saw Hagar’s affliction was heartwarming, His gaze is also upon the wicked, and He burns with anger in response to sin. In that same passage where it says, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous / And His ears are open to their cry,” we are told in the very next verse, “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, / To cut off the memory of them from the earth.” (Psalm 34:15-16) Elsewhere, the Psalmist tells us,

The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven;

His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.

The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,

And the one who loves violence His soul hates.

Psalm 11:4-5

This aspect of God’s sight is not at all comforting. We must acknowledge that the Almighty is a God of wrath as well as mercy. Amos prophesied, “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom, / And I will destroy it from the face of the earth”. (Amos 9:8a) Yes, the Lord is certainly looking upon us to judge as well as deliver. There is another passage that we must consider in this regard. Job was a truly righteous man, for he repented of his sins and received the forgiveness of the Almighty. He endured terrible suffering, not on account of any unrighteous deeds, but rather for purposes that he could not fully understand at the time. In one particular passage, Job describes the sight of God as a most painful thing.

Will You never turn Your gaze away from me,

Nor let me alone until I swallow my spittle?

Have I sinned? What have I done to You,

O watcher of men?

Why have You set me as Your target,

So that I am a burden to myself?

Why then do You not pardon my transgression

And take away my iniquity?

For now I will lie down in the dust;

And You will seek me, but I will not be.

Job 7:19-21

When Job called the Lord a “watcher of men”, he does not mean it in a benevolent sense. He practically begs the Lord to stop looking at him. He questions why God should cause him to suffer, or why He refuses to forgive. Now, the truth of the matter is that Job was not being punished because of sin, nor was the Lord causing him to suffer arbitrarily. Yet in that moment, Job took no comfort in the sight of God. Rather than connecting it with the relief of his affliction, he felt it was the cause of his affliction.

Job’s experience speaks to something that we must acknowledge: the sight of the Lord cuts both ways. The same vision that makes God a righteous judge makes Him our merciful Savior. A God who is not the “watcher of men” spoken of by Job cannot be the God who saw Hagar’s pain. A God who is blind to evil is no comforter to the afflicted. A God who did not watch His Son die cannot be said to feel any of your grief. God’s sight is connected with His role as judge and also His role as comforter. In this as in everything else, He is both a consoling force and a consuming fire.

Does God know what it is like to be a woman cast out: used for sex and then banished, as Hagar was after the birth of Isaac? Does He know what it is like to hold a thirsty child as Hagar did, alone in the desert with no hope of rescue? Does He know what it is to be cursed and demeaned, the victim of societal injustice? Does He know what it is to lose a child, as Job did? Does He know what it is to be in pain?

Perhaps we should recall that Jesus went and suffered outside the gate. He was praised when He was deemed useful, then disposed of when He became a liability. He was thirsty and cried out for a drink. He was spat upon by His Roman oppressors. God the Father watched His Son die. God the Son felt the sting of the whip and suffocating pain of the cross.

Yes, the Lord not only saw the pain of both Hagar and Job, but He actually participated in it. His ability to see them was not only on account of His omniscience. He is joined with His children in a very real way, because He became incarnate as a human being. If we are part of His body today, then He sees us in the same way He saw Hagar. He is just as sovereign over our destiny and just as concerned for our welfare. As the Apostle Paul wrote,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5

One of the passages that seems to bring together all of these aspects of God’s sight is in the book of Hebrews. It acknowledges the power of God’s sight and His Word to convict us of sin, but it also states that we may have confidence in the perfect mediator Jesus Christ.

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:12-16

That is the great comfort that we have as Christians. Even as God saw Hagar’s affliction and looked upon her for her good, granting her a promise and a new identity, so the Son of God has passed through death to be our comforter and secure our salvation. We no longer live in fear of a wrathful judge, but in the arms of a beloved Father. We are no longer under a sentence of condemnation, but adopted sons and daughters of God Himself. This is the promise by which we can live in hope: the God who sees has set His eyes on us for good.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

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