Abraham is a man who is known for his great faith, obeying God to the furthest extremes and even taking his own promised son up a mountain for a sacrifice at God's word. He is always included among the fathers of the faith, both for Christians and Jews, and Hebrews 11 lauds his tremendous faith. Were that we were all a little bit more like Abraham.
But there was a time before Abraham was, well, Abraham that he was Abram, and it is here that a quiet little scene takes place that adds a human depth to this man. The scene takes place in Genesis 15.
This chapter is interesting all in itself; it is thick in the promises of God. In this chapter alone, Abram has a vision of God, receives a promise from God, enters into a covenant with God, and then dreams a dream of God. In other words, God's word that Abram will be a father is spoken and confirmed four times in four different ways in twenty-one short verses. (It should also be noted that this chapter is one of those few places in the Scriptures where we see all three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit - in the same narrative; I believe I have written about this before.)
Any one of us would love to have God speak so clearly in such rapid succession.
But after the vision, after the promise, after the covenant, there's a strange word in this story that catches our attention. The word is "dread." Yes, dread.
It's in verse 12, which is the verse where Abram is falling into a deep sleep as the sun sets on his day full of visions and promises. The God's Word translation uses the word "dread;" the King James calls it "an horror of great darkness." And you know what happens next?
God confirms His promise again through a dream.
The difference now is that in his full-scale, techni-color dream, Abram sees for the first time what God's promise will really mean for him. He sees what it will require of him. He sees the emotional investment that living God's promise is going to take, and his heart breaks for all that he realizes here.
In this dream, God shows him the trouble that is coming for his children. God reveals to him the captivity that they will find themselves in, a lot sooner than you might think - just three or four generations away. In hindsight, we know - Abraham, Isaac, and then Jacob was eventually brought to Egypt by his son Joseph. That's all it takes.
Now, it's important for us to put all of this in proper context. Abram's dread, though it comes before the dream in a narrative sense, had nothing to do with Abram's unwillingness to see yet another vision from God. At this point, this man who has so long prayed to become a father must have been overjoyed with excitement at having three words from God already promising him just that. He's not in an horror of great darkness because God keeps telling him that his wildest dreams are about to come true.
Rather, his dread was God's preparation for what was about to come. God wanted him as emotionally invested in the future of his story as he was in the present of it. God wanted his heart to be ready to handle the news that God was going to reveal.
In other words, his dread did not come from inside of him; it was given to him from God so that he would properly feel the weight of the dream in the midst of his own great joy. Yes, he was going to be a father; no, it's not all throwing baseballs in the yard and teaching the kid to ride a bike. The dread was God's way to prepare him to hear the fullness of God's message, not just the good stuff.
Which does not at all mean that the promise was any less good. By no means!
It means that the promise was more vibrantly real. It was a God thing, yes, but it was also a deeply human thing. The kind of thing that any man at any time could find himself wrapped up in, except that this time, it happened to be the special blessing of God that was going to somehow make it more, as well.
Most of us would like to avoid dread, to skip right past this horror of great darkness, especially on a day on which God reveals to us four times His amazing, unimaginable promise for our lives. But I think we could use a little dread. I think we could use a little horror of great darkness. It reminds us of the fullness of God's promise that goes far beyond just our own wildest dreams and is this vibrantly real, tremendously human, absolutely supernatural thing that only God could do.
(And, by the way, He's doing it.)