About three years after the birth of Isaac, the day came when Isaac was weaned, and it was a notable social occasion. Abraham would have planned the event carefully, but he had no idea what was going to happen. Ishmael, by now a teenager (he was fourteen years older than Isaac), was caught mocking Isaac by Sarah, and it was so bad that she insisted Abraham had to remove Hagar and Ishmael from their community. Paul tells us that Ishmael’s attitude was a form of persecution of Isaac (Gal. 4:). Ishmael’s words and taunts almost certainly were connected to this public display that Isaac was the heir, and Sarah resented Ishmael’s sinful comments.
Sarah’s demand seems very cruel to us, but it was accepted practice at that time for a person to ensure that rivals to an heir were moved away from the scene. Abraham himself did this later regarding the sons he had by Keturah (Gen. 25:1-6), so Sarah’s request was not unusual and would not have caused any public disrepute to Abraham.
Abraham initially did not sense that the Lord would use this incident to ensure that his purpose regarding Isaac would come to pass. To begin with, Abraham was very displeased with Sarah’s ultimatum. Yet I suspect that he prayed to God about the matter, which explains why God spoke to him about it and confirmed that her words were correct. This is the best way to respond to surprises. We should not trust our initial reaction, even if it seems appropriate. Instead we should always seek God’s counsel on the issue.
We have in this story a mention of prayer that may seem a bit surprising. Perhaps we would anticipate being told that Abraham was praying for Hagar and Ishmael, or that Hagar was praying for her son in his physical distress through lack of water. Instead the text says that Ishmael was praying: ‘God heard the voice of the boy’ (v. 17).
We don’t know what Ishmael was saying in his prayer, although he would have observed his father praying and would therefore know how to address God. Whatever Ishmael said, he was heard by God. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring a person to his senses. Perhaps Ishmael realised that his wrong behaviour had caused their expulsion from the household of his father. The incident is a marvellous example of the grace of God because in it the one who mocked the heir received kindness from the God who had given that position to the heir. Although he could not have Isaac’s place, Ishmael would receive his own place from God several years later, and in order to receive it his prayer here was heard. So God kept a promise by listening to the prayers of a sinful individual in need.
Ishmael was denied the place that God had sovereignly chosen to give to Isaac. Yet this did not mean that he was abandoned by God. Moses informs us that God was with Ishmael as he grew up (v. 20). I suppose it is possible to interpret that summary statement as meaning that God took care of Ishmael without providing him with saving grace. Matthew Henry’s comment regarding Ishmael’s rejection is wise: ‘we are not sure that it was his eternal ruin.’ What we do know is that Ishmael prayed in his distress, was heard by God on that occasion, and God was with him to ensure that he received what was promised to him by God. Ishmael’s experience displayed the meaning of his name, which is ‘God hears’.