Sarah lived 127 years…. And Sarah died…. And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:1–2). Sarah and Abraham had been married fifty-two years. He would live almost four decades without her (see Gen. 25:7). She was sixty-five when she married Abraham, who was ten years older (Gen. 12:4; see 17:17, where we learn that when he was 100, she was 90). Eleven years into their marriage, still childless, Abraham was eighty-six and took another wife, Hagar (Gen. 16:16). Fourteen years later, when Abraham was one hundred years old, Sarah at ninety years of age gave birth to Isaac.
Sarah was stunningly beautiful (Gen. 12:11), and up until she was ninety she was known as Sarai, meaning “my princess.” Despite her beauty, and possibly because of it, she was not the easiest of women to live with! John MacArthur is blunt: “She could throw fits and tantrums. She knew how to be manipulative. And she was even known to get mean. At one time or another, she exemplified almost every trait associated with the typical caricature of a churlish woman. She could be impatient, temperamental, conniving, cantankerous, cruel, flighty, pouty, jealous, erratic, unreasonable, a whiner, a complainer, or a nag…she may have been something of a pampered beauty; a classic prima donna” (Twelve Extraordinary Women, Nelson Books, 2005, p. 27).
The marriage had known its share of sorrows and struggles. Ten years of childlessness, and at seventy-five, desperation led her to do the unthinkable — suggest to her husband that he take her mistress, Hagar, as a second wife and bear him children (Ishmael). The ill-conceived idea signaled a lack of faith bordering on hysteria and was doomed to disaster from the beginning. Her subsequent mistreatment of Hagar and the boy, Ishmael, is understandable but mean-spirited — and the entire story, a symptom of marital dysfunction. Still, troubled marriages can persevere through thick and thin, and amidst the tension and strife, genuine affection can grow and flourish. There is no doubt that Abraham loved Sarah and mourned for her at her passing. He was 137 years old, and the sight of him weeping at her side is deeply moving (Gen. 23:2).
Grief over the loss of a loved one is a perfectly appropriate response, even for the people of God. Christ’s people leave this world for a better one, but the separation, though temporary, is real and painful. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonian believers was not that they should not grieve; it was rather that in their grieving they should demonstrate the hope of the Gospel (1 Thess. 4:13). Death brings a loneliness that is at one level impossible to repair. Just as the love of another invigorates, so the loss drains strength, sometimes for long periods of time.
The loss of Sarah reminded Abraham that this world was not his (or her) home. He was still a stranger in a foreign land, literally! He was living in Hebron, among the “Hittites” (Gen. 23:3), even though he had been promised a land that his offspring would call their own (Gen. 12:7). As yet, there was no sign of it. Just as the promise of “seed” had been tested, not appearing until Abraham was a hundred years old, a quarter century after his marriage to Sarah, so the promise of land was tested. He was still a “sojourner and foreigner” half a century later (Gen. 23:4).
Abraham’s request of the Hittites to be allowed to purchase a plot of land (the cave of Machpelah, Gen. 23:9) in order to bury her is a way of saying: “This land doesn’t belong to us yet, but it will. And when it does, Sarah’s body will be resting in it.” It was Abraham looking ahead, trusting the promise in the midst of pain and sorrow, living sub specie aeternitatis (from the standpoint of eternity: that is, in two-worldly terms, with this world seen as a path of pilgrimage to the next one). God, who had promised the land as an ‘achuzzah (“everlasting possession,” Gen. 17:8), is about to begin the fulfillment of it by way of a grave-plot.
The first piece of promised real-estate is a graveyard! It was a vivid ocular demonstration of the pilgrim status of the people of God in this world. The land was always going to be something better than the ground on which Abraham now knelt in sorrow at the side of his departed wife. “By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9–10).
Sarah’s tomb cried aloud that death had no power to destroy the promises of God. The grave cannot undo the Lord’s covenantal Word. Thus, we have an example of what eighteenth-century Methodists termed “dying well.” Abraham’s grief, though tangible, is not without hope. He would himself be buried in this same plot thirty-eight years later, as would Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 25:9), Jacob and Leah (Gen. 49:29–32). It was God’s down payment, his token of assurance to aging Abraham and his children that God’s Word cannot be broken. The grave would not see final victory. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”
(1 Cor. 15:57).