The Dangers of Success (Genesis 14:1-24)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles once again to the book of Genesis. Our passage for today’s sermon will be Genesis 14:1-24. If you do not have a Bible with you today, or if you’d like to follow along in the translation I will be preaching from, please make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find this passage located on page 10.

In last week’s sermon, we covered Genesis 13 and focused our attention on the dangers of wealth. In that passage, we saw how Abram and Lot’s newfound wealth resulted in bickering and quarreling within their family. We saw how it led Lot to make a really bad decision to leave the Promised Land and move his family to a place that would not be good for them. And, we saw how this newfound wealth not only led Lot into a bad decision but how that it also led him away from God and his blessings. So, let me reiterate again, that while money and possessions aren’t inherently evil, we must always remember that they can be very dangerous, and we must be on the alert for those dangers. The fact is, we are living in a country that has a great deal of wealth, and none of us are immune to the dangers associated with it.

So, having talked about the dangers of wealth last week, this week I’d like to shift gears just a bit today, and talk about the dangers of something else that is highly prized and sought after in this country—and that is the dangers that accompany worldly success. And just like last week, it is not that there is anything inherently wrong with success, but it is important for us to understand that there are always dangers lurking right behind any success we enjoy in this life. This is certainly true today, but as we are going to see in our passage this morning, it was even true for the father of our faith, Abraham.

The Setting

So, if you haven’t done so already, please turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 14 and follow along as I read the first twelve verses.

1 In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, 2 these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). 3 And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). 4 Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5 In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, 6 and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness. 7 Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar.

8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim 9 with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. (Genesis 14:1–12 ESV)

So there are a lot of difficult-to-pronounce names in that passage and a lot of strange sounding and unfamiliar places, aren’t there? For that reason, let me try to summarize what is going on here so that we can get the scene in our heads. First of all, without worrying about all the names and the places, notice in verses 1 and 2 that there are four kings listed in verse 1 who decided to go to war against the five kings listed in verse 2. Do notice that one of the kings listed in verse 1 is a man named Chedorlaomer who was the king of Elam. Well, Chedorlaomer was apparently the most powerful of these nine kings, and it seems that the other kings listed here were subject to him in some way, probably as part of a coalition of kings who are paying regular tributes to Chedorlaomer for protection. Well, according to verse 4, this arrangement had been in place for twelve years and had been going okay, but in the thirteenth year, five of these kings apparently got together and decided that they were no longer going to serve Chedorlaomer in this way. They probably wanted out of this particular coalition so that they could keep their money for themselves.

Well, Chedorlaomer obviously didn’t like their decision to rebel in this way and so he, and the other three kings that remained loyal to him (or in fear of him), decided to make war against the other five kings. And down in verses 8 and 9, we see that the five rebel kings come out to face Chedorlaomer and his other three kings in a place called the Valley of Siddim. And, as you read on you see that things didn’t go well for the five rebel kings, and they were ultimately defeated.

Now, the reason all this matters to us is because Abram’s nephew Lot gets caught up in all this mess. Remember, in our passage for last Sunday we learned that when Lot separated from Abram that he “moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Genesis 13:12 ESV). And the king of Sodom was one of the rebel kings who was defeated in this battle. Well, in Genesis 14:11 we are told that Chedorlaomer and the other kings “took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.” And in verse 12 we learn that “they also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.”

So, as we expected last week, the temptation of making his way into Sodom’s city gates would eventually be too strong for Lot to resist. And in this passage, we learn that it wasn’t long, indeed, before he made his home there. In verse 12 it says very plainly that Lot “was dwelling in Sodom.” So now, as a result of this bad decision that has followed another bad decision, he has gotten himself into a big mess. Yes, Chedorlaomer and the other three kings have defeated the rebels, and during that process, Sodom has been overthrown and Lot and the rest of his family, have been taken into captivity are now in a really bad situation.

Friends, this is often how things play out. You make a bad decision which leads to another bad decision which results in a slow drift away from God, and eventually, you find yourself living in and among wickedness, and then, before you know it, you are in bondage to it and have little to no hope for escape. Now, fortunately, Jesus came to set the captives free. And, since at one point, we were all captives—at one point we were all living in captivity to sin and were in desperate need for someone to rescue us—this is very good news for us. And Lot’s situation is an excellent illustration to us of that reality. And the rescue attempt that is about to take place is an excellent illustration of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

The Rescue

Pick up reading with me in verse 13.

13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people. (Genesis 14:13–16 ESV)

So, fortunately for Lot, word gets to his uncle Abram about what had happened. And Abram puts together a group of 318 men from his own household, and with the help of some friends named, Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner, Abram pursues and defeats his nephew’s captors and rescues Lot and his family from what must have been a very scary situation.

The Real Battle

So hopefully that sets the stage for us. But the truth is, all of what we have just discussed is really just background information to the portion of the passage that I want to focus on for the remainder of the morning. There is no doubt that it says a great deal about Abram’s faith and his character that he would go to such great lengths to rescue his nephew. But, the real test for Abram is only about to begin.

You see, what he has accomplished was pretty impressive. Abram has done what five kings could not do—defeat this powerful coalition led by Chedorlaomer. And Moses has gone out of his way to make clear that Chedorlaomer’s forces were no joke. We kind of skipped over this earlier, but in verses 5-7 we see that before Chedorlaomer and his armies even arrived to deal with the rebel kings, that they put on a great display of their military strength by defeating the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, the Horites, the Amalekites, and the Amorites. Again, what Abram has accomplished is no joke. And the question before us this morning is what affect his success is going to have on him. He has already shown that he is not above stumbling and making a mess of things, and we know from observing our own world that success of this magnitude is something that many people find difficult to handle. So, as the commentator, Derek Kidner explains, “For Abram the harder battle [now] begins.”1 There are two paths he can take at this point. He can give the credit to God and continue on as a man of faith. Or he can credit himself with the success he has enjoyed, and drift further away from the faith.

So, let’s pick up reading in verse 17 and see which path he takes.

17 After [Abram’s] return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.” (Genesis 14:17–24 ESV)

So, the real test for Abram had nothing to do with his fight with Chedorlaomer and his armies. The real test for him was how he would respond to these two kings who approached him after the battle for Lot was over. And what we see in this passage is that in his success, Abram remained faithful to God. We see this in four different ways.

Committed to worshipping and giving to God

First, we see that how that in his success Abram remained committed to worshipping and giving to God. Yes, after his victory, Abram is approached by these two kings—the king of Sodom and the mysterious Melchizedek who was both the king of Salem and a priest of God. The king of Sodom is the first to approach Abram, but Melchizedek, who greets Abram with bread and wine, is the first to speak. And he speaks not as a king, but as a priest, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19–20 ESV).

Friends, the simple truth is, that worldly success leads people away from God much more often than it leads them to God. It is much more common for someone who is in a pit of despair to cast themselves upon God than it is for someone who has been wildly successful in this world to do so. When we are successful, it is easy for us to become convinced that we have things under control and that God is not all that important or necessary. Well, fortunately for Abram, Melchizedek got to him before the king of Sodom did because Melchizedek reminded Abram of the source of his blessings. “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,” is what he says in verse 19. And then in verse 20, he reminds Abram that it is God who has really won the victory. It is God who has delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand.

Now, Abram might have reached this conclusion on his own, but I believe he was fortunate to have Melchizedek preach this mini-sermon to him as quickly as he could. And friends, let this be a good reminder to you. If you ever start enjoying a great deal of success in this world, you better keep yourself in God’s Word which reminds you that every good thing you have in this life has come to you from God—all your possessions, all your money, all your talents, all your skills, all your abilities, all your victories. Yes, you might have worked hard to achieve success, but there are always people who have worked harder than you who have not achieved success. And if anyone deserves praise for what you have, it is not you; it is your God.

Well, fortunately, Abram recognized that Melchizedek was right in all this, and he took a tenth of the spoils of war and gave it to him as an offering. And this offering, friends, was not a gift for Melchizedek, it was a gift to God and an act of worship on Abram’s behalf. And so, for those who like to say that tithing was only something that was part of the Old Testament law, and is not something that New Testament Christians need to worry about any longer, let me remind you that in this story we are still hundreds and hundreds of years before God gave Moses the Old Testament law. Giving financially to God is an act of worship; it’s not law. And that is what Abram was doing here. He was worshipping the God who had given him victory over his enemies. And, since Jesus has won a victory for us over the enemies of sin, death, and Satan, we too ought to worship God in this way.

Committed to keeping his vows to God

Okay, so the first thing we see in verses 17-24 is that in his success, Abram chose the right path and remained committed to worshipping and giving to God. But, the second thing we see in these verses is how that in his success Abram also remained committed to keeping vows he had made to God.

Now, at one point or another, we have all said something to God that goes like this: “God, if you will just do such and such for me, then I will be so appreciative that I will do this and that for you.” Or, “If you will get me out of this mess, I will never do anything like that again.” Have you ever had a conversation like that with God? Well, of course, you have. We all have. But the sad truth is, we are not very good at keeping our end of the deal on those things, are we? We typically renege on our promises pretty quickly when God answers our prayers the way we wanted him too, don’t we?

Now, I don’t want to go into all the specifics here, but there are appropriate ways and inappropriate ways to make vows to God. The truth is, the psalms are full of instances of people making vows to praise God if he will deliver them from trouble. This is not bargaining with God, or holding a carrot out for him—remember, he doesn’t need anything we can give him. But there are appropriate ways of making vows to God and these appropriate ways typically involve making a promise to praise God publicly when he shows us favor or mercy. Honestly, the one and only thing we can do for God is we can glorify him. In fact, that is why he created us in the first place. Isaiah 43:7 makes this very clear. God created us to spread the fame of his name across the globe.

Well, apparently Abram had made some sort of vow to God that if God would help him rescue Lot, he would not keep any of the spoils of war. And so, when the King of Sodom, tells Abram he can keep the “goods” for himself, Abram has a decision to make. Will he keep his vow to God? Or will he, like we so often do, succumb to this temptation, and break his vow? The people of Israel would later fail on this point many times during their conquest of the Promised Land, and you can’t help but think that Moses is intentionally making a point to them about this by including this detail in the story. In fact, you can’t help but think that Moses includes this story to show the people of Israel a whole lot of things about the father of their faith right before they enter into the land that was promised to him—including how he was able to conquer massive armies with much smaller forces because God was with him. But, I digress.

Well, in verses 22 and 23 we see that Abram passes this little test. In response to the king of Sodom’s offer, he says, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours.” Yes, when he could have easily, broken his vow, and made himself richer in the process, he remained committed to the pledge he had made to God. God is the one who had promised to make him into a great nation and to bless him with the land and with offspring. He didn’t need help from a human king when the King of the universe had made him these promises. And this is something we’d do well to remind ourselves today when we are walking through the dangerous minefield that always accompanies worldly success.

Concerned about God’s glory

Now, after telling the king of Sodom that he didn’t want anything that belonged to the king, Abram tells us why at the end of verse 23. He says, “I don’t want anything of yours lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” In other words, Abram’s reason for not keeping any of these spoils shows us that in addition to being committed to keeping his vows to God, that he was also concerned about God’s glory. Yes, God’s glory is the third thing Abram remained concerned about while enjoying worldly success.

Earlier, we saw how Melchizedek gave God the glory for Abram’s success when he said, “blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:20 ESV). And we have already said that Abram showed that he agreed with Melchizedek assessment when he gave a tenth (or a tithe) of what he had captured to God. He believed that God was the one who should receive glory for his success. He was serious about God getting the credit for what he had done. And, apparently, Abram knows enough about the king of Sodom, to know that if he takes any of these material possessions as gifts from him, that this wicked king will rob God of his glory by claiming that Abram’s riches are not from God, but from him. Yes, the last thing Abram wants is for the king of Sodom to get credit for God’s blessings.

But, what about us? When we have success in this world, to whom do we give the glory? Are we as in tune as Abram was to the fact that every good and perfect gift comes down from above (James 1:17)? Or do we tend to give ourselves credit for what we have achieved in this world? Do we tend to say, “It is nice that my hard work has finally paid off?” Or do we tend to say, “God has been good to me—better than I deserve?” I am afraid that when we have success in this world, we are tempted to rob God of his glory by taking it for ourselves. Because the only thing that makes success better is a little glory for that success. That is part of the danger all successful people face—the choice as to whether or not they will rob God of his glory.

Concerned about others

Well, in addition to being concerned about God’s glory, the final verse of this chapter makes it clear that in his success Abram also remained concerned about others. Read that verse one more time with me. In this verse, Abram is still talking to the king of Sodom, and he says,

I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.” (Genesis 14:24 ESV)

In other words, I don’t want anything from you, but you should compensate the young men who have gone to war for you, including the men from my own household who have earned their share of the spoils. And my friends Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, also deserve what they have earned. They stuck their necks out for my nephew and in the process have brought your wealth and your people back to you. While I don’t want a dime from you, because I know you will use that to rob God of his glory, they deserve to be compensated. My vow to God is not theirs. Pay them what they deserve.

Friends, how often is that people who achieve a certain level of success in this world begin to lose their concern for other people? How often is it that success allows us to insulate ourselves from others, including those who are working for us, to the point that we are no longer concerned about the needs and desires of anyone but ourselves? This is undoubtedly one of the dangers of success and something we must all be aware of if success comes our way. We must remind ourselves that the King of the universe “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7–8 ESV). Yes, friends, even God did not stand aloof from us in our greatest time of need. And if we, in our success, lose our concern for those who are in need of our attention, we are being great hypocrites. Remember, “To whom much is given, much will be required” (paraphrase of Luke 12:48). Friends, that did not come to us from Spiderman, that comes to us from the Bible—actually from Jesus himself.

Conclusion

If you have achieved a high level of success in this world, let this passage be a reminder that you are in great danger of forgetting to worship and give to God, of failing to keep the vows you have made to him, of allowing him to be robbed of the glory he deserves, and of no longer being concerned about others. Remember that the greatest protection against these dangers of success is to remind ourselves that everything good we have in this life is a gift from God. And for that reason, we must be more concerned about God’s glory than our own.

This a hard thing to do in a world where everyone is so self-promoting. We are told that no one is going to fight for you and that you must fight for yourself. Well, friends, God is fighting for you. In fact, he has already won the fight, the spoils of victory are ours, and they are awaiting us as a heavenly inheritance. And success in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than it does in the world’s eyes anyway. Jesus is the most successful person to ever live, but he had no place to lay his head, and he was arrested for treason and killed on a cross. Doesn’t sound much like success to us, but in God’s eyes, he accomplished everything he was sent to do. And when tempted by Satan, to take shortcuts to that success, Jesus did not waver in the slightest, but, like Abram, he continued trusting in God’s Word.

Friends, what are you trusting in today? Are you trusting in worldly success and all the dangers that go with that? Or are you trusting in Jesus Christ and his promises? We must all make a choice on where we will place our trust. And the choice we make will affect, not only the rest of our lives, but our eternities as well. For that reason, we must be wary of the dangers of success. And if we do achieve success in this life, we must be quick to praise God and give him the glory, while remaining to committed to serving him faithfully with what we have and remaining concerned about those who have not been as fortunate as us.

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  1. Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 131. ↩︎