The Isaac Principle

By Victor Knowles

Several years ago I was driving west to Denver, Colorado. Somewhere in Kansas, I found a radio station playing a prerecorded sermon by someone whose name I can’t remember. But I have never forgotten his text. “Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well” (Genesis 26:25).

There are three nouns in this verse that can forever change the structure of your life. Understanding these simple words can help you determine proper priorities. In fact, the three words can assure you of a happy, fulfilling, and productive life. Those words are altar, tent, and well.

Isaac was the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age (Genesis 17:16). When Isaac was 40, he married a young girl named Rebekah. A famine in the land forced Isaac and Rebekah to leave home and live in the land of Philistia in Gerar. Isaac became a wealthy man. In fact, “he had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him” (Genesis 26:14). The resident Philistines took fiendish delight in pouring dirt into his wells—the same wells Abraham’s servants had dug when he occupied the land. Each time this happened, Isaac was forced to take down his tents and move to another place and try again, only to experience the same frustrating results. Finally, the king of Gerar told Isaac to pack his bags and move on to new territory altogether.

After the third failed attempt to dig a well, Isaac came to Beersheba, the southernmost city in Judah, a place where his father had once lived (Genesis 22:19). It was good for Isaac to be in a familiar place again. And there he did what every man should do.

First, Isaac “Built an Altar”

“From there he went up to Beersheba. . . . Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 26:23, 25). Isaac was probably in his 60s or older by this time. This may have been the first time Isaac built an altar. His father, Abraham, had literally left a “trail of altars” (Genesis 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18; 22:9) wherever he went.

You can trace some people by the things they leave behind: broken hearts, broken lives, broken homes. Now Abraham’s son was finally following in his father’s footsteps. But not before he had experienced repeated failures living among the Philistines. “Living among the Philistines” will always lead to heartache and sorrow.

What changed Isaac’s mind and pattern of behavior? Why did he build an altar at Beersheba? I believe it was because at long last he had a personal encounter with God. The verse that precedes our text tells us of that encounter. “That night the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham” (Genesis 26:24).

First, God revealed to Isaac his person. He said, “I am the God of your father Abraham.” God is a personal God. Second, the Almighty revealed to Isaac his presence. “I am with you.” How encouraging that must have been. Third, God reassured him with a promise. “I will bless you.” Without the blessing of God, a person cannot succeed in life, in marriage, or in one’s home and family.

In rapid response to this encouraging and assuring visit from God, Isaac built his first altar. He was now altering his life by building an altar. Please notice that Isaac not only built an altar, but he also “called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 26:25).

The first thing a man must do if he is to succeed in life is to establish a relationship with God. Henry Whitney Bellows said, “I have never known a man, who habitually and on principle absented himself from the public worship of God, who did not sooner or later bring sorrow upon himself or his family.”

Billy Graham said, “Let your home be your parish, your little brood your congregation, your living room a sanctuary, and your knee a sacred altar.” Simeon Strunsky said, “A dining room table with children’s eager, hungry faces around it, ceases to be a mere dining room table, and becomes an altar.”

Second, Isaac “Pitched His Tent” 

“There he pitched his tent” (26:25). People in Isaac’s day lived in large, roomy tents. Many nomadic desert tribes in the Middle East still do. In the past, Isaac had always made “pitching his tent” his first priority. But he had suffered all kinds of grief as a result.

When he came to Beersheba, where his father once dwelt, he first built an altar, and then pitched his tent. After bitter experiences he had learned a vital lesson. It is more important to have a relationship with the living God than to build a fine mansion in which you can live with your relations (i.e., your family members). Our crumbling modern society is cursed with derelict fathers. “Like a bird that flees its nest is a man who strays from his home” (Proverbs 27:8).

I believe God gave mankind three basic institutions: the home, civil government, and the church. The primary responsibility for the success of the home is placed on the shoulders of the man. God gave Adam a “helpmeet,” Eve, to help him meet this tremendous need (Genesis 2:18-24). William Shakespeare said, “The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.” Benjamin Disraeli believed that godly homes were “the best security of a nation.”

But God’s plan also calls for a man to leave his father and mother and to be inseparably joined to his wife in an indissoluble union. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). He is to leave his parents and “cleave” to his wife. Cleave (dabaq), in Hebrew, means “to cling or adhere.” We would say it means to “stick like glue.” God intended marriage to be a permanent institution.

A good family life does not just happen. It must be cultivated. Long ago, God set the standards.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

The above Scriptures contain three essentials for a godly home. First, there must be a revelation of God. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 4).

Second, there must also be a proper response to God’s revelation. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (v. 5).

Third, there is a two-fold responsibility. God’s Word must govern our hearts. “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts” (v. 6). God’s Word must also govern our homes. “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (v. 7).

Notice that the revelation of God must be first in our own hearts before we can ever transmit it to those in our home. Then it must be communicated in a variety of ways to our children: verbally, symbolically, and visually. “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (vv. 8, 9).

Charles Spurgeon said, “When home is ruled according to God’s Word, angels might be asked to stay a night with us, and they would not find themselves out of their element.”

Third, Isaac “Dug a Well”

“. . . And there his servants dug a well” (26:25). Wells were essential to survival in the arid Middle East. Water was necessary for cooking and bathing, to say nothing of quenching the thirst of man and beast alike. God expects a man to provide the basic necessities for his family (1 Timothy 5:8).

A man should work hard to support his family, but not to the exclusion of the first two principles we have suggested in “The Isaac Principle.” “Digging a well” does not mean digging a hole so deep that the wife and children never see you. Your presence is more important than all the presents you might buy for them. Even if your work is noble, you can still spend too much time away from home.

For more than 50 years I have traveled throughout the United States and around the world preaching the gospel, and if I have but one regret in life, it was all those days and weeks and sometimes months being away from my wife and our six children. If I had life to live over again, I would stay home more in my children’s formative years.

Family time is so important. Wayne Rickerson said,

If I were an enemy of the United States and had been told by my government to destroy the American family, I would start by sabotaging the family meal. I would deluge family members with so many separate activities that they would rarely be able to sit down to eat together. If they did happen to have a meal together, I would make a diligent effort to cause this time to be a real hassle: arguments, tenseness, and each family member wanting to ‘get on to his own thing’ as soon as possible.

I’m so glad I was raised in a Christian home where we all sat down together at the supper table. To this day, each Sunday, Evelyn prepares a nice Sunday dinner for the family members who still live in town.

“Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge” (Proverbs 14:26). “The family circle,” said Henry Drummond, “is the supreme conductor of Christianity.”

At Beersheba, Isaac discovered a forgotten principle that had worked for his father and would also work for him. After being frustrated by the Philistines three times, he finally got his priorities straight. And here is an amazing result: the Philistines, who had caused him so much grief, saw that the Lord was with Isaac. Abimelek, king of the Philistines, came to him and made a covenant of peace (Genesis 26:26-31). God’s promises are true. “When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them” (Proverbs 16:7).

And that’s not all! The same day Isaac’s enemies made a covenant of peace with him, his servants came running to him with the welcome news: “We’ve found water!” (Genesis 26:32). Perfect timing! Because Isaac honored the Lord and rearranged his priorities, he was blessed with peace and provision.

These blessings can be yours if you follow the order of “The Isaac Principle.”


Condensed from Stand and Deliver ©2017 by Victor Knowles. Used by permission. Stand and Deliver is available for $14.99 postpaid from Peace on Earth Ministries, P.O. Box 275, Joplin, MO 64802-0275.

Victor Knowles is founder and president of Peace on Earth Ministries, Joplin, Missouri. Victor and his wife, Evelyn, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year.

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