This 11 part study on Prayer from the Old Testament was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2002. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
Sometimes we mistakenly think that good Christians don’t have any problems. We come to church and see others smiling and looking happy, and we think that they must have it all together. We wonder why we have problems.
Some Bible teachers convey that if you will just learn the secret of the abundant Christian life, temptations will just glance off you without a struggle. Your Christian life will be effortless. If you are struggling, they teach, you’re not abiding in Christ. I once heard a well-known Bible teacher say that his devotional times were always rich and rewarding. After his message, I asked him if he never struggled or went through dry times with the Lord. He wagged his finger under my nose and said, “Young man, expect nothing from God and you’ll get it every time!” In other words, my dry devotional times were due to my lack of faith!
We’re going to look at a devout family that had problems. They worshiped God faithfully, yet even in the middle of the worship service, there were tensions. The wife got so upset that she couldn’t even participate in the worship service. She went out to the car and cried her eyes out and refused to come in and eat at the potluck supper. The husband tried the best he could to comfort her, but he really didn’t understand why she was crying. But underneath it all, the wife really was a godly woman and she has much to teach us about how to deal with our problems through prayer.
Their story is in 1 Samuel 1 & 2. Elkanah, the husband, had two wives, which was a major source of conflict in his family. Although in Old Testament times God tolerated polygamy, the Bible never portrays it in a good light. God’s original plan is for one man and one woman to be committed in marriage for life. Any violation of that plan, whether several wives at the same time or a succession of wives (or husbands) due to divorce, creates problems.
In Elkanah’s situation, the tension was increased because one of the wives had many children (a clear sign of God’s blessing in that culture), while the other wife had none. To complicate matters, Elkanah favored the wife without children over the wife who had all the children. This led to jealousy and rivalry between the two women. When they went to worship at the tabernacle, as they did faithfully each year at the appointed time, Elkanah tried to balance the rivalry by giving double portions of food to Hannah, the wife without children.
But this only made things worse because Peninnah, the wife with all the children, would say to Hannah, the barren one, “You’ve got the food, but I’ve got the children!” Hannah would cry and Elkanah would wring his hands and try to comfort her by saying, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1:8). Hannah graciously would not answer that question! All she could think about was, “Why doesn’t God bless me with children? Why has He blessed this mean-spirited woman above me?”
So here you have this devout, “church-going” family with problems. Poor Elkanah never knew whether he would come home to an all-out civil war or to a temporary cease-fire. But on the best of days, there was just a tense truce. He always walked on tiptoe, ready to take cover, not knowing when another spark would set off another round of explosions.
Perhaps some of you relate to this family. But whether your problems are in the realm of family relationships or somewhere else, I know one thing for certain: Each one here has a set of problems. It goes with the turf of being human. And it is critical that we think biblically about our problems and learn to handle them as Hannah did. The first thing we need to see is that …
Granted, some problems are of our own making. But whatever the immediate source, God is the ultimate sovereign over the problems we face. You cannot escape this conclusion in Hannah’s situation. The text repeats it twice so we won’t miss it: “The Lord had closed her womb” (1:5, 6). Hannah emphasizes it in her prayer: “The Lord kills … He brings down to Sheol … The Lord makes poor … He brings low …” (2:6-7). It wasn’t just an accident of nature that Hannah was not able to conceive children. If modern medicine had been available then, the doctors may have found a reason. But behind the medical reason was the clear action of God: “The Lord had closed her womb.”
Many don’t like to give God this much sovereignty. We don’t like to think that God gives us problems, so we say, “God allowed this problem, but He didn’t cause it.” If that helps you mentally to get God off the hook, I guess that’s okay. But even if God allows a natural disaster to kill all our children, as He did with Job, we need to join Job in affirming that we must not only accept good from God, but also adversity (Job 2:10). Otherwise, we will not properly submit to Him as the Sovereign Lord and we will not view Him as adequately powerful to deal with our situation; thus we will not trust Him as we should. We must recognize that our problems come from God’s gracious, loving hand.
But that’s the rub, isn’t it? How could a loving and good God allow a small child to die or a young mother to get cancer? How could He permit a godly missionary to be brutally murdered? How can He permit tragedies such as wars, earthquakes, famines, and floods, where thousands of people are killed? But if God is not sovereign over such tragedies (Job 1-2; Isa. 45:7; Exod. 4:11), then either Satan is of equal power with God (= dualism, with no guarantee that God will ever defeat Satan); or you have a nice God who wishes that He could eliminate such terrible suffering, but He can’t because He gave us free will. Free will, not God, is sovereign!
Be careful here, because the Bible attributes the origin of evil to Satan, not to God. To the question, “Did God cause Satan to sin?” the answer is that in His inscrutable wisdom, God included Satan’s (and man’s) sin in His eternal plan. And yet both Satan and sinful people are fully responsible for their sin. Once Satan rebelled against God and caused the human race to rebel, God uses Satan and evil people to fulfill His ultimate purpose of being glorified (see The Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. V).
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). That “working together for good” will not be accomplished until eternity. We may not understand in this life how God can possibly do it. But unless we hold to His absolute goodness, sovereignty and power, even over the forces of evil, we cannot believe that He will be able to work it all together for good.
So when we face problems, even though intermediately they may stem from human wickedness or from satanic forces, we must recognize that ultimately the problem comes from the Lord. Otherwise we will not seek and trust Him as we should. Problems are God’s gracious way of teaching us to seek Him in a deeper way than we ever have before. Peninnah did not seek God as Hannah did, because Peninnah didn’t have the need.
We also need to keep in mind that being godly does not exempt us from suffering. Of these two women, clearly Hannah was the more godly. Yet she was the one with the problem. “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines” (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). Such discipline is not necessarily the direct result of some sin in our lives. Even Jesus learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Our problems are God’s gracious way of training us to become like His Son. So, what should we do with our problems? Hannah’s problem led to Hannah’s prayer (1:10-11).
As Christians, we all believe in prayer. But in practice, prayer is not our natural first response. Consider some of the other ways, besides prayer, Hannah could have dealt with her problem.
She could have become angry at God and blamed Him for closing her womb: “God, this isn’t fair! Peninnah has provoked me, but I haven’t provoked her. I’ve come to Your tabernacle every year and offered sacrifices. Why haven’t You given me a son? See if I serve You anymore!” She could have blamed everyone else: “Elkanah, if you hadn’t married this other woman, I wouldn’t be having these problems!” Or, “Peninnah gets me so stressed out! It’s her fault!”
Hannah could have accused Peninnah of being unfaithful and spread the lie all over town, hoping that Elkanah would divorce Peninnah. Hannah could have issued an ultimatum: “Take your pick, Elkanah! One of us has to go!” She could have drowned in self-pity and become a bitter, disagreeable, woman.
Hannah could have gone to a Christian therapist, who would have said, “You’re crying all the time. You’re depressed. You have an eating disorder. It’s obvious that you’re sitting on a lot of anger and suffering from low self-esteem. You need to let out all of your rage toward God. Hannah, you’re co-dependent and you need to set some boundaries. You’re enabling your husband and this other woman to carry on. You can’t really love your husband until you learn to love yourself. You need to start looking out for your own needs for a change. Let’s get you started on Prozac.”
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not against Christian counselors who help people understand their problems from a biblical perspective. Nor am I suggesting that all you need to do to solve your problems is to pray. But there are many counselors who claim to be Christian but who are telling God’s people that prayer, Bible study, and trusting God “don’t work” in dealing with life’s problems. I’m saying that learning to lay hold of God in prayer as your refuge and strength is a very real help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1).
Hannah poured out her soul to the Lord of hosts (1:11, 15) and the Lord met her need. “The Lord of hosts” is a common name for God in the Old Testament. But it’s significant that Hannah was the first to address God in prayer with this title. It emphasizes the fact that God is the sovereign of the universe who rules all the powers of heaven and earth, visible and invisible. If that’s who God is, then learning to come to Him in prayer is not just a nice, but impractical and impotent, thing to do when it comes to dealing with our problems. Prayer is our means of access to the all-sufficient God who alone can meet our needs!
Yes, we should seek godly counsel concerning our problems. Yes, we should get medical help if the problem is medically related. Yes, there may be some practical steps that will help resolve our problems. But prayer should permeate the whole process. Prayer isn’t just a tip of the hat to God before we get down to the real solutions. Prayer is laying hold of the living God who understands our deepest needs. Prayer is acknowledging that we are depending totally on Him. Prayer is the God-ordained way for believing people to deal with their problems.
By nature, we’re all self-sufficient. We think we can handle things by ourselves, with an occasional boost from God. So we keep Him tucked away in our back pocket for emergencies. But then God brings us up against something we can’t handle by ourselves. He wants us to draw near to Him, to learn to depend on Him in ways we never would if we didn’t have these problems. If we don’t learn to pray in our problems, we’re missing how God is seeking to work in our lives.
But we need to go deeper. Note that Hannah didn’t just pray, “Lord, give me a son.” So God gave her a son and she lived happily ever after. No, Hannah prayed something radical: “Lord of hosts, if you will give your maidservant a son, then I’ll give him to the Lord all the days of his life and a razor shall never come on his head” (1:11). That meant that she was dedicating her son to God as a Nazirite, one separated to serve God (Num. 6:1-21). This tells us that not only should we pray about our problems, but, also,
Hannah had a need and her prayer was directed to meet her need, to be sure. There is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But if we stop there, we do not understand prayer. Jesus said that we are to pray for our daily bread (to meet our need), but even before that, we are to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The purpose of prayer is not to solve all our problems so that we can live happy, trouble-free, self-centered lives. The purpose of prayer is to get God’s will done, to glorify Him.
To understand Hannah’s radical prayer to give her son back to God, we need to remember that she lived in a spiritually desperate time. It was the day of the judges, when every man in Israel did what was right in his own eyes. Word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent (1 Sam. 3:1). Eli’s wicked sons, who were serving as priests, committed immorality with women at the door of the tabernacle (2:22)!
God wanted to raise up a man who would hear from Him and speak His word faithfully. Hannah understood that God’s purpose for His people was to raise up His Anointed as King (2:10). “Anointed” is the Hebrew word transliterated “Messiah.” Through Hannah’s prayer, God raised up her son Samuel as the first of the prophets. Samuel anointed David the King and from David came God’s true Anointed, Jesus Christ.
Hannah knew that God’s purpose for His people superceded her personal desire for a son. So, while she prayed for a son, she also prayed for God’s greater purpose and willingly yielded her son to meet that purpose. That’s how God wants us to pray—not just to meet our needs, but for His purpose to be fulfilled through the answers to our prayers.
For example, let’s say that, like Hannah, you are unable to have children and you’re praying for children. That’s fine. But how about praying, “Lord, if you give us children, we’ll do our best to instill in them a vision for those who have never heard the name of Jesus. We’ll yield them to You to serve as missionaries some day”? The old hymn, “O Zion Haste,” has a verse that goes,
Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious;
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way;
Pour out thy soul for them in pray’r victorious;
And all thou spendest Jesus will repay.
Note 1 Sam. 2:21. It tells us that after Hannah gave her precious Samuel to serve God, He graciously gave her three more sons and two daughters. You can never give more to God than He gives back to you, in some form or another!
Or, perhaps you’re out of work and praying for a job. That’s legitimate. But, also, pray that when God gives you that job, you’ll be His ambassador there and you’ll give generously from each paycheck to further His work. Or, perhaps you’re sick and you’re praying for health. That’s fine. But, also, pray that when God restores your health, you’ll give of your time and energy to serve His church in some capacity. Perhaps you’re single and praying for a mate. A godly mate is a wonderful gift! But, also, pray that God will give you a mate, not just so you’ll be happy, but so that the two of you can serve God in some capacity.
I think you get the idea. But, remember, it’s always easier to make such promises to God than it is to carry them out. Can you imagine Hannah’s feelings when she had to leave her little boy (probably between three and five-years-old) at the tabernacle with Eli and return home childless again? God hadn’t given her the other children yet. What faith on Hannah’s part to keep her promise and give that much-wanted, much-loved little boy back to the Lord! So when God grants your prayer, don’t forget to be obedient in yielding the answer back to Him to fulfill His purposes!
Thus, God gives us problems so that we will pray in accordance with His purposes. The final result is:
When God answered Hannah’s prayer and she kept her promise and gave Samuel back to the Lord, instead of being depressed about the loss of her son, Hannah breaks forth in a hymn of praise to God (2:1-10). Her psalm exalts God’s greatness and human weakness. The theme is that God works through the weak, not the strong. Note (2:6), “the Lord kills [He brings our problems] and makes alive [He delivers us].” And, (2:9), “For not by might shall a man prevail.” How do we prevail? By going to God in our absolute weakness and calling out to Him, so that the answer is clearly His doing. Then He gets all the praise.
If God was looking for a prophet, why didn’t He pick one of Peninnah’s sons? She had plenty to spare. Why did He close (rather than open) the womb of a woman from whom He wanted to produce His man? Because God doesn’t help the strong. He doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who are helpless who call out to Him. That’s what grace means, that God showers His favor, not on those who deserve it, but on those who do not. By the way, the name Hannah, in Hebrew, means “grace.”
Our problem is not usually that we are too weak for God to work, but that we are too strong. We trust in ourselves; we think we can do it with just a boost from God. Sure, we ask God’s blessing, but then we use the latest methods that are guaranteed to work. Sure enough, the methods work and God gets a tip of the hat, but the methods get the glory. We tell others, “You’ve got to try this! It worked for me; it will work for you!” But where is the praise to God that comes from saying, “I was helpless and hopeless. I cried out to God and He delivered me! Glory to God alone!”
Hannah didn’t learn how to deal with her problems in this way from the religious establishment of her day. Eli, the priest, didn’t even recognize what Hannah was doing when she prayed. He thought she was drunk (1:13-14)! Eli’s sons were worse than he was. They didn’t even know the Lord (2:12). They were in the ministry for what they could get out of it in terms of material compensation (2:13-17) and sensual pleasure (2:22). Eli was too passive to confront their sin.
Today, we’ve got all sorts of seminars telling pastors how to have successful churches and telling Christians how to find happiness and success. But what we all desperately need is to learn how to come to God in prayer in our helplessness, so that He gets all the glory and praise when He delivers us. God is still looking for men and women like Hannah: People with problems, who will take their problems to God in prayer according to His purpose so that He gets the praise. We need to apply this both to our personal problems and to our problems as a church. This mother who gave away her son teaches us:
God gives us problems so that we will pray according to His purpose, resulting in praise to Him.
Hannah was just one woman out of thousands in Israel in her day. Yet the whole nation was blessed because this godly woman had a problem and prayed according to God’s purpose, unto His praise. Everyone benefited from Samuel’s ministry. Our nation desperately needs a godly remnant that will stand against the tide of even the religious establishment as people of prayer. Where do you start? What is your problem? Start there!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
One of the interesting things about traveling in a foreign country is the opportunity to bargain for goods in the marketplace. In America you know that if the price tag says $19.95, you’re going to pay $19.95, so you don’t bother to dicker about the price. But in Mexico, there’s a chance that the merchant is willing to haggle over the price. If you’re good enough at the game (which I’m not), you might only pay $10 instead of $20. You can get some good deals if you’re good at bargaining.
But can you imagine being bold enough to bargain with God? When you’re bargaining with a merchant, you hold the money and he holds the merchandise. You each have something the other person wants, so you have some bargaining power. But when it comes to God, He holds everything. Who could imagine bargaining with the God of the universe? Yet, surprisingly, the first instance of intercessory prayer found in the Bible shows Abraham bargaining with God!
At first you may think Abraham to be a bit brash to do such a thing. But as you examine the story, you discover that God was actually encouraging Abraham in this venture of prayer. God took the initiative by revealing His purpose to Abraham, His friend, who was moved to pray, based on what he knew of God’s character, for a city that teetered on the brink of judgment. The lesson is:
The knowledge of God’s purpose and God’s person should move us to pray for a world under judgment.
I want you to know that I’m doing this series on prayer as much for myself as I am for you. I need to be encouraged to pray more faithfully than I do. I struggle with prayer. It gets squeezed out of my busy schedule. Frankly, I find it tedious to pray through a list of things that God already knows about and for which I’ve already asked Him repeatedly.
And yet prayer is absolutely essential to a walk with God. We cannot make progress in the Christian life without growing in prayer. Wherever in church history or at present you see a genuine work of God, you can be assured that beneath it is a solid foundation of prayer. So I’m praying that God would use this study of some of the Old Testament saints and their prayers to stimulate us to be people of prayer.
Abraham was sitting at his tent door in the heat of the day when he looked up and saw three normal-looking men. In accordance with his custom, Abraham showered these men with hospitality. As he learned before the day was over, he was entertaining angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:2). I believe that one of the three was Jesus Christ in a preincarnate appearance (“the Lord,” 18:17, 19, 20, 22, 26, 27).
These men told Abraham that at this time next year, the long-awaited promise of Sarah bearing a son would be fulfilled. Then, as the men rose to go, they cast an ominous glance toward Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was living. As Abraham walked a short distance with his guests, the Lord spoke, probably to the two angels, but deliberately so that Abraham could overhear, and asked, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” That got Abraham’s attention!
Then He rehearsed the covenant promises He had made with Abraham (18:18-19). Speaking directly to Abraham, the Lord said that the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was very great, and (using human language) that He was going down to investigate the situation. Abraham picked up on God’s purpose and, based on his understanding of God’s justice, appealed to God to spare Sodom if there were but 50 righteous people there. From there Abraham bargained God down to sparing Sodom if only ten righteous people could be found there. The story reveals three lessons on prayer:
Prayer is not to get our will done, but to get God’s will done. To be effective, prayer must be in accordance with His will. If we want to be successful in prayer, we must grow in our knowledge of God’s purpose. Okay, but how do we do that?
Abraham was known as the friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). Verse 19 literally reads, “For I have known him ....” H. C. Leupold translates it, “For I acknowledge him to be my intimate friend” (Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:544). The Lord shares His secrets with His friends. Psalm 25:14 states, “The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He will make them know His covenant.” The Lord Jesus told His disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
We see this principle in everyday life. If a person shares the intimate details of his life with just anyone, we rightly say that he is a bit strange. We share the secrets of our lives only with friends who have earned our trust. In the same way, God only reveals His will to those who are trustworthy, who won’t abuse the privilege. So if you want to know God’s purpose so that you can pray accordingly, you’ve got to live obediently in the fear of God so that you’re worthy of His trust.
To the pagans living in the surrounding towns, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was an unfortunate natural disaster. If it had happened in our day, there would be footage on the evening news, along with explanations from geologists about how this sort of thing occurs. But no one on the news would say, “This event was the judgment of a holy God on a people whose iniquity was filled up” (Gen. 15:16), unless it was just to ridicule such a crazy religious fanatic. The world cannot appreciate God’s purpose.
But Abraham knew that Sodom’s destruction was not a natural disaster. It was the direct judgment of a holy God on a people who had spurned Him. He knew that it was a warning for people of all time that, while God is patient, He will certainly judge all sin. Abraham could rightly interpret the events of his world because he knew the purpose of God because he was the friend of God. If you want that kind of insight into our modern world, you’ve got to take the time to grow as God’s friend.
God rehearses His covenant with Abraham (see Gen. 12:3) as the reason for sharing with him His purpose in judging Sodom. God’s purpose is that all nations would be blessed through Abraham, especially through the Savior, Jesus Christ, who would be Abraham’s descendant. But if that is God’s purpose, why would He destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why, in Moses’ day, would He command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites? How can His purpose of blessing be fulfilled if people are destroyed?
God is showing Abraham (and us) that though He will have some from every tribe and tongue and nation bowing before His throne, it is not His purpose to save every person from judgment. It would violate the holiness and justice of God if everyone were someday saved, in spite of and apart from their response to the Savior. The Bible clearly teaches that God will be vindicated and glorified, not only in the salvation of His elect, but also in the damnation of sinners who have proudly spurned God.
The subject of God’s eternal judgment is not popular in our day. A few evangelical theologians are arguing that sinners will be annihilated rather than suffer forever in the lake of fire. But, in addition to being unbiblical, such thinking grossly underestimates the infinite holiness of God and it grossly overestimates the goodness of man, which is as filthy rags in God’s sight.
In his sermon, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:668-679), Jonathan Edwards argues that since God is an infinitely perfect and holy being, any sin against Him is an infinitely horrible offense that justly deserves infinite punishment. He shows how all sinners tend to have too high a view of themselves and too low a view of the infinite perfection and holiness of God. By the end of the sermon, he has powerfully shown that none are deserving of heaven and that God would be perfectly just in damning us all to hell. But, in His mercy, He has made a way through Christ to save all who put their trust in Him.
Note that Abraham began his encounter with the Lord with an over-inflated view of the people of Sodom. He figured that there must be at least 50 righteous people living there. But as he proceeded, he grew less and less sure of his figures. Finally he whittled his most hopeful number down to ten. As it was, there was only one barely righteous man in the whole city.
As you grow closer to God in prayer, He reveals to you both His own holiness and the horrible sinfulness of the human race. You begin to see that there is none righteous, not even one. If the Lord should count iniquities, none could stand before Him. So you begin to pray that God would mercifully call out from this sinful world a people for His own glory. As you realize that God sees every sin in every nation and city, even as He saw the sin of Sodom, you cry out for His mercy on our land, that He would not enter into judgment with us. And you recognize that when He does enter into judgment, it is always based on His complete knowledge. The Judge of all the earth always deals justly.
Thus God reveals His purpose to His friends. His purpose is to bless some from every nation through Abraham’s seed, but not to save all from judgment. Thirdly,
Verse 19: “For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” Notice the interplay between God’s sovereign, gracious covenant with Abraham and the requirement for Abraham so that God’s covenant promises would be fulfilled. There is always this tension between God’s sovereign purposes and our responsibility to bring about those purposes.
The point here is that the family is essential in God’s purpose of blessing all nations through Christ, the seed of Abraham. Parents whom God has chosen and called to salvation are responsible to teach their children to live according to God’s ways, including the importance of prayer. If we’re not praying often with our children and showing them how to take all things to God in prayer, especially prayer for missions, we’re not being faithful to hand off our understanding of God’s purpose to the next generation as He has commanded us.
To sum up, to pray according to God’s purpose is to pray that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is to pray for nations and individuals, that God would graciously withhold His judgment until a people be raised up that will give praise to Him because they have experienced His blessing through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ. It requires training our children to follow the Lord so that they will grow up to be the channel of God’s blessings to others as they learn to pray. We cannot pray as we ought until we grasp God’s great purpose of glorifying Himself in human history through the salvation of His elect and the judgment of sinners.
Being the friend of God, Abraham knew God, including His character and attributes. This knowledge drew him on in prayer, to the point where he was bold enough to bargain with God.
At first glance, it seems as if Abraham was taking the initiative with God. But a more careful look reveals that the Lord took the initiative with Abraham. He first broached the subject (18:17-21), He then waited for Abraham’s appeal after the two angels left (18:22), He drew Abraham on from 50 on down to ten (18:24-32), and then He chose when to end the conversation (18:33).
The picture here is that of God as a delighted parent, holding up his infant and then letting go and stepping back a pace, so that the child has to take a step toward the parent. Then the happy parent says, “Good, good!” and repeats the process until the little one learns to take steps on his own.
Abraham’s prayer wasn’t perfect. He was concerned that if God struck down the righteous along with the wicked, He would look bad in the eyes of the world. Abraham erred, in that God’s temporal judgment sometimes falls on both the righteous and the wicked (Luke 13:1-5). The Judge of all the earth always does right, no matter how it may seem to sinful men. But even though Abraham’s prayer wasn’t perfect, God was graciously nudging him along. In the same way, His grace encourages us to come before His throne, knowing that He will receive us as our loving Heavenly Father, even if our prayers aren’t perfect.
Even though God graciously receives us as His children, we dare not come irreverently or brashly before His throne. He is the holy God who judges all sin. He is the powerful God who can easily call down fire and brimstone to wipe out a sinful city. Thus while we, as His children, can come confidently before His throne, like Abraham, we need to keep in mind that we are but dust and ashes (18:27), while He is the living God who spoke the universe into existence.
True humility—seeing ourselves as absolutely destitute and seeing God as all-sufficient—is the foundation for all true prayer. We don’t come to God as competent people who just need a little help. We dare not command God what to do, as those in the “name it and claim it” heresy brashly do! We come with an awareness of our frailty and desperate need and with reverence for God’s awesome power and holiness, yet with the confidence that because He is gracious, He will hear our prayers.
Abraham was aware that God is both merciful, in that He will spare even the wicked on behalf of a few righteous, but He is also just. He sees and will judge all sins, even those done behind closed doors, in every sinful city in the world. This knowledge of God’s person tempered Abraham’s prayer. Some fault Abraham for stopping at ten, saying that he stopped asking before God stopped giving. But I think that Abraham sensed that he was at the limit at ten. If he went beyond there, he no longer would be pleading according to God’s will. God answered Abraham by rescuing Lot and his family, even though He destroyed Sodom. Abraham’s prayer was balanced by his understanding of God’s mercy and justice.
We err when we think that prayer is a way to make everyone happy. People will say to me, “So-and-so is in the hospital; please pray for them.” The assumption is that I should pray that he will get well. But is that God’s purpose? Perhaps the person or a loved one has been running from God and this illness or accident is God’s way of getting his attention. Maybe God is graciously trying to teach some other lesson. His purpose is not that we get instant deliverance from suffering, but that He may be glorified. An understanding of God’s mercy and justice will lead me to pray that God would graciously use this situation to glorify Himself, perhaps by bringing someone to salvation or into submission to Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen that prayer must be based on the knowledge of God’s purpose. It must proceed according to the knowledge of God’s person. Finally,
A few years earlier (Gen. 14), Abraham had rescued his nephew Lot along with the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah after they had been taken captive by some warring kings. He had returned all their goods to them. It would have been easy here for Abraham to see himself as better than those ungrateful, sinful pagans and to say, “They should have learned their lesson! They deserve God’s judgment!” But there is no hint of such an attitude. Abraham humbly prayed as a sinner on behalf of other sinners, that they might be spared from God’s righteous, but terrible, judgment.
That’s how we should pray. It’s easy out of pride to look down on sinners who are suffering God’s judgment and think, “It serves them right! If they didn’t practice immorality, they wouldn’t get AIDS! If they wouldn’t use drugs and if they’d just go out and get a job, there wouldn’t be all those drive-by shootings in the ghetto!” I’m not suggesting that people aren’t responsible for their sin and its consequences. I am saying that apart from God’s grace, we all would be under His judgment. We who know Christ are fellow-sinners who have been called out from our sin by God’s mercy. We should have compassion on other sinners by praying that they, too, might experience God’s grace in Christ.
In 1872, D. L. Moody made a trip to England for rest, with no intention of preaching. While he was in London, a pastor spotted Moody and asked him to preach for him the next Sunday and Moody agreed. On Sunday morning the church seemed indifferent to his message.
But when he spoke that evening, the response was completely changed. After the sermon, Moody asked those who wished to become Christians to stand, and hundreds stood up. Moody thought that they must have misunderstood him, so he asked them to sit down and he repeated the invitation more clearly, asking all who wanted to become Christians to step into the inquiry room. So many people crowded into the room that extra chairs had to be brought in. Moody was amazed, thinking that they still did not understand. So he asked all of those who were in earnest to meet the pastor there the following night.
The next day, Moody sailed across the Irish Sea, but he no sooner reached Dublin than the pastor sent an urgent message for him to return, because more inquirers came Monday night than had been present on Sunday! Moody returned and preached for ten days, during which 400 people made professions of faith and joined that church.
Moody sensed that someone had been praying for this church. He began asking and finally was led to a bedridden girl, Marianne Adlard. She lay twisted and distorted by her suffering, but she spent many hours daily in prayer. She had been asking God to send revival to her church, which she never could attend because of her illness. She had read of Moody’s work in Chicago, and she specifically asked God to bring this man to her church to preach.
When her older sister returned from that lifeless morning service and told Marianne that a man named Moody from Chicago had preached, she spent the afternoon in prayer until the Lord gave her assurance that He would bring revival. Marianne Adlard prayed daily for D. L. Moody as long as he lived (taken from Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for Souls [Moody Press], pp. 161-162; and D. Edmond Hiebert, “The Significance of Christian Intercession,” Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-Mar., 1992, pp.20-21).
I don’t understand why or how God works out His eternal plan in cooperation with the prayers of His saints, but He does! Knowing God’s purpose, to call out a people for Himself from every nation; and, knowing God’s person, that He is both merciful and just; we who have experienced His mercy have the privilege of praying for a lost world. Someday we will have the joy of meeting in heaven those who were delivered from God’s judgment through our prayers! What could be more joyous than that!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
When you think of the word “repent,” you think of a sinner turning from sin back to God. But today I want us to look at a man whose prayer was so powerful that he caused God to repent. The King James Version translates God’s response to Moses’ prayer (Exod. 32:14), “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” The NIV translates it, “The Lord relented”; the NASB puts it, “The Lord changed His mind.” But any way you put it, there must be something to learn about prayer from a man whose prayer had such a powerful effect on God.
There is a great difference, of course, between man’s repentance and God’s repentance. Man’s repentance involves turning from sin to God. But when the Bible speaks of God repenting, there is no thought of sin. Neither is there any hint of vacillation, as if God wavers in His purpose or changes His plans in response to man’s doings. God is unchanging or immutable. His purpose has been fixed from eternity and He will establish it (Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). He does not change His mind as man does (1 Sam. 15:29).
So how do we explain the many Old Testament references to God repenting? (Most OT references to repentance refer to God, not to man.) When Scripture speaks of God repenting, it is viewing God from man’s viewpoint (called, “anthropomorphism”). From man’s viewpoint it seems as if God is changing His mind, although from God’s viewpoint, He never changes His mind and His purpose is always carried out. We refer to the sun setting, but that is only from our limited viewpoint. The actual truth is, the sun did not move; the earth revolved. But we speak from our viewpoint.
I want to answer the question, What kind of person does it take to get God, from our viewpoint, to “change His mind” in response to that person’s prayers? How can we move God through our prayers? We will examine four qualities in Moses’ life:
To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s person exalted, God’s promises enacted, God’s people established, and God’s presence experienced.
The background to this story is the infamous incident with the golden calf. Shortly after their exodus from Egypt, Moses had left the people and had gone up on the mountain to meet alone with God. When he didn’t return quickly, the people persuaded Aaron to make this golden calf and they fell into pagan revelry in worshiping this idol. God told Moses what was going on and said, “Let Me alone ... that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation” (32:10). In response, Moses prays on behalf of the people, basing his prayer, in part, on God’s reputation with the Egyptians. Moses wasn’t after a people called by his name, but he was concerned for God’s name. He wanted God’s person to be exalted.
The Lord Jesus taught this as the first requirement of prayer, when He instructed us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matt. 6:9). “Hallowed” means to be regarded as holy. Our main aim in our prayers should be that God would be exalted above all else.
Why would God offer to destroy this people and raise up a new nation out of Moses? I believe God did it as a test, to prove Moses’ character as the leader of the nation and the mediator of the covenant of the law. If Moses had a desire for personal glory, he very logically could have reasoned along with God’s proposal: “I’m a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God could destroy these disobedient people and raise up a new nation under me without negating His promise to the patriarchs.” And according to Deuteronomy 9:14, God even offered to make a mightier and greater nation out of Moses. So Moses could have reasoned that it would be better to allow God to do this thing. But Moses did not say, “Okay, God, if that’s what you want to do, here I am.” Moses sought God’s glory, not his own.
Note that God said, “Your people, whom you brought up ...” (32:7). This reflects that God didn’t stand with His people in their sin. But also, it was a test for Moses. He could have said, “Yes, I did do a good job in bringing up my people, didn’t I?”
But Moses knew that these people weren’t his and he hadn’t delivered them; God had. So he prayed, “Your people whom You have brought out ...” (32:11). Moses didn’t take any of the credit, but argued with God that these were His people whom He alone brought up from Egypt by His great power and mighty hand. Then (32:12) he further reflects his concern for God’s glory. If God abandoned Israel now, the Egyptians would have a good laugh and God would be dishonored. So he boldly asks God to “repent,” to change His mind. A basic lesson in prayer is that our focus always should be, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory” (Ps. 115:1).
Think about your prayers this past week and answer this question: How much did God’s glory motivate and direct your prayers? Rather than just asking for what you wanted, were you consumed with the burden that God’s person would be exalted, that His name would be hallowed, that His glory would be revealed? James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” With Paul, our aim should always be that Christ would be exalted through us, whether we live or die (Phil. 1:20). When God sees a heart that genuinely seeks His glory, He is moved to answer that person’s prayers.
Moses reminds God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob’s name of promise) and pleads with God to remember that promise. God must be true to His Word, and so we can lay hold of the things He has promised and expect Him to answer.
Of course, we need to be careful to interpret God’s promises in their context and in the full revelation of Scripture or we’ll fall into serious error. For example, those who take certain verses and argue that it is always God’s will to heal us if we have the faith, are misusing the promises of God, since many other Scriptures show that faithful Christians are not exempt from suffering and death.
Also, we need to remember that just because God has promised something does not mean that He has promised to do it the instant we ask. Moses did not live to see the fulfillment of this promise about the Israelites inheriting the land of Canaan. God’s promises will be fulfilled and so we can and should pray accordingly. But they may not be fulfilled in our lifetime. And, like Moses, we may have to expend much time and energy in working toward the fulfillment of God’s promises. Just because we pray doesn’t mean that we are free to sit back effortlessly and watch God do it. He usually involves our extended labor in the process.
In the 19th century, God raised up a man named George Muller who was concerned for God’s glory. He thought, “People don’t believe that God is the living and true God who answers prayer. I’d like my life to give evidence of the reality of God.” As he looked around Bristol, England, where he lived, he saw a number of orphaned children. He realized from Scripture that God has a special concern for orphans.
At that point, Muller could have just prayed, “God bless all the orphans in Bristol and meet their needs.” But he went much further than that. As he waited on God in prayer, he purposed that, in dependence upon God alone, he would establish an orphanage to care for these dear children. By making his own needs and the needs of the children known only to God in prayer, he would, by published reports after the fact, demonstrate to the world that God is faithful and that He answers the prayers of His children for His own glory. For over 60 years Muller saw God do just that. In reading his life you see that God will answer when His children pray that His promises would be enacted so that His person might be exalted.
Exodus 32:14 seems to be a summary explaining the events that are described in more detail in the rest of chapters 32 and 33. When Moses prayed in 32:11-13, he knew that the people had sinned by making this golden calf and worshiping it, since God had told him (32:8). But he didn’t yet grasp the extent of their sin. Then Moses and Joshua went down into the camp and saw the idolatry and revelry. Moses exploded in righteous anger. He smashed the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, took the calf, burned it, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. Then he confronted Aaron and called whoever was for the Lord to come over to him. He commanded those who came over to go out and execute those who had not come over, even if it meant killing their brother, friend, or neighbor. Three thousand (perhaps the leaders of the idolatrous rebellion) died.
Then Moses said to the people (32:30), “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then he returned to the Lord and prayed: “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” (Exod. 32:31-32).
Much could be said, but I limit myself to two observations. First, if we’re going to move God in prayer to establish His people for His own glory,
Moses first heard about the condition of the people from God. But when he saw it with his own eyes, he was so appalled and enraged that he ordered this execution squad to go out and kill even their own friends and relatives! Then he mentions, both to the people and to God, their great sin (32:30, 31). He did not paper over things or shrug it off. He confronted their sin and confessed it in prayer to God. Moses probably wasn’t the most popular man in Israel after he took such a hard line against sin! Those whose loved ones were executed probably accused him of being a cruel man. But he knew that for God’s person to be exalted, God’s promises enacted, and God’s people established, they could not tolerate idolatry in their midst.
Because Moses had been in God’s presence on the mountain, the sin of the people jarred him. Aaron, however, was not in God’s presence, and so the demand of the people to make the golden calf seemed reasonable to him. He excuses his own responsibility for it by telling Moses that he just threw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf (32:24)! But the truth was, he had deliberately fashioned the calf with an engraving tool (32:4)!
The point is, if we want to see God’s perspective on our own sin and on the sins of the American church, we must spend much time alone in His presence with His Word. Otherwise, like Aaron, we will blend in with the worldliness that surrounds us. We will hear of Christians who squander their money on pleasure, but who give a pittance to the Lord’s work, and conclude that it is possible, after all, to serve both God and mammon. We will hear of Christians who watch the filth on TV and in movies and defend them by saying, “We don’t want to be legalistic by suggesting that Christians can’t watch what the world watches!” Pretty soon there isn’t much observable difference between the church and the world.
True revival often begins with God’s people recognizing and confessing their sin as a result of the preaching of God’s Word. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Never has there been a revival but that some of the people, especially at the beginning, have had such visions of the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of sin, that they have scarcely known what to do with themselves” (Revival [Crossway Books], p. 157; see also, pp. 41, 101, 231).
In revival, God’s Spirit convicts Christians of the coldness of their hearts toward God and they renew their first love for Him. Husbands and wives recognize how selfish and unloving they have been toward each other, and ask forgiveness. Parents confess their sinful anger toward their children. Church members go to those toward whom they have had bad attitudes and seek reconciliation. To see God’s people established, we must pray that they would own up to their appalling sinfulness and worldliness, so that true revival might come.
Second, if we’re going to move God in prayer to establish His people for His own glory,
After he saw the appalling sinfulness of these people, it would have been easy for Moses to say, “Forget it! You lousy sinners can party in the wilderness until you rot! I’m out of here!” It’s easy to get disgusted with people and their sin.
But instead, Moses was so burdened for these people that he prayed a theologically incorrect prayer, that if God wouldn’t forgive their sin, He should blot Moses out of His book! He either means he would rather die if God won’t forgive this people, or that he would rather be eternally condemned! Paul, in a similar vein, exclaimed that he could wish that he were cut off from Christ if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3).
When I was in seminary, we had a chapel speaker named Matt Prince who was a nephew of Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Seminary. Matt was gifted as an evangelist, and he had a heart of compassion for sinners. He told us how he longed to see his neighbor come to faith in Christ. One day as he was agonizing in prayer for that neighbor, the thought struck him, “What if he is not one of the elect?” Matt said that he prayed, “Lord, if he isn’t one of Your elect, then You put him on the list!” That was not a theologically correct prayer, but I think that God looked beyond the wrong theology to the heart. Jesus had compassion on sinners and so should we.
God gently corrects Moses by saying that He will righteously judge all who have sinned, which He does (32:33, 35). But the Lord looks beyond Moses’ words to his heart, and graciously promises restoration by saying, “But go now, lead the people where I told you” (32:34). Thus while Moses stood firmly against the people’s sin, he had such deep concern for them that he was willing to sacrifice himself so that they be established. As such, he is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His body on the cross.
While we may never achieve that degree of love, God is looking for those who would sacrifice themselves by standing in the gap in prayer so that His people would be established as a source of praise to His name. We must hate sin with a holy hatred, as Moses did. But we must also love sinners with the love of Christ, who did not spare Himself for us.
Thus, to move God in prayer, we must desire to see His person exalted, His promises enacted, and His people established.
God told Moses to go and lead the people (32:34), but that an angel would go with them, not the Lord Himself. God explained that if He went up in their midst, He would destroy them because of their sin (33: 3, 5). You would think that God’s promise to send His angel and to drive out the inhabitants of the land and give the land to Israel would have satisfied Moses. But he was not satisfied. So he sought the Lord until He promised that His presence would go with them (33:12-17). For Moses, the blessings of the land were nothing if God Himself were not with him.
One of the reasons our prayers often fall flat is that we are satisfied with God’s blessings apart from the ever-deepening personal experience of the very presence of God Himself. Lloyd-Jones applies it this way (ibid., p. 159):
Christian people, I am not asking you whether you are living a good life. I am not asking you whether you read your Bible, or whether you pray. I am not asking whether you are active in Church work, or some other form of Christian activity. What I am asking you is this—do you know God? Is he with you?
With Moses, do we say, “That’s not enough. Let me know Your ways that I may know You” (33:13)? He goes on to dare to ask God to show him His glory (33:18). Moses, what more could you want? You’re the man who saw God in the burning bush! You saw God do miracles in Egypt! You saw Him part the Red Sea! You went up on the quaking mountain, into the thunder and lightning and thick cloud, where you met personally with God for 40 days, so that your very face shone with the reflected glory of God! Isn’t that enough, Moses? No, Moses replies, I want to experience the glory of His presence in a deeper way.
Are you satisfied with where you’re at with the Lord? Of course, in one sense we should be satisfied with the Lord and His salvation. But we also ought to have a holy dissatisfaction that spurs us on to know Him more fully than we already do. Without that, you’ll never know God’s presence as Moses did.
The church today is so caught up with methods and techniques. On the personal level, people flock to the latest seminars or go to support groups or buy the latest self-help books to try to find relief from their problems. On the church level, successful pastors put on seminars on how to increase the size of your church. But what we need, both individually and corporately, more than anything else, is a vital, ongoing, deepening experience of the presence of the living God. To be effective in prayer, we’ve got to desire to know God Himself.
I have often prayed, not as fervently or faithfully as I ought, but I’ve prayed that God would do a work here that would be humanly inexplicable, so that people would know that the living God has been in our midst. I’m asking each of you to join me in praying that God’s person would be exalted, that His promises would be enacted, that His people would be established, and that His presence would be experienced in this, His church.
A moving of God’s Spirit in revival always begins first among the people of God. They recognize their lukewarmness of heart. They begin to see the awful sinfulness of sin and are moved to repentance. They begin to seek God’s glory and to experience His presence in a vital, fresh way. From the church, the wave spreads outward. People in the community hear what God is doing. They come, at first out of curiosity, to see what is happening. They come under the preaching of the gospel and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. They turn from their sin, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and are converted.
When people ask, “How did you do it? What methods did you use? Can you teach us the techniques so we can take them back and plug them into our church?” we reply, “We didn’t do it. The living God is responsible for what you see.”
Will you join me in such prayer, to see if we, like Moses, can move God to repent, that He might pour out His blessing on His church?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Do you sing? I don’t mean, “Do you sing well enough to join a choir?” I mean, “Do you find your joy in the Lord welling up so much that it spills over into singing?” When you’re alone and when you come together with God’s people, do you find yourself wanting to burst forth in heartfelt praise to God for who He is and what He’s done for you? If you don’t sing to the Lord, your prayer life is deficient. Singing praises to God is a vital part of prayer.
David, the man after God’s heart, sang many of his prayers to the Lord. David composed at least half of the psalms, which, we need to remember, were to be sung, not just read. He was always singing, even when he was in a cave, hiding to save his life (Ps. 57). He has much to teach us about prayer and, especially, about the aspect of praise in prayer.
Becoming a person of praise may not be at the top of your priority list—you’ve got practical problems to solve—but it ought to be! As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” or, as John Piper rephrases it, “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” One of the main ways we glorify God is through praise. The brief glimpses Scripture gives us into heaven indicate that a major part of eternity will be filled with praising God. To the extent that that activity strikes us as a bit boring, we lack understanding of the infinite perfections of God and of the tremendous joy of praising Him. We all need to become people of praise.
I’m convinced that one of the main reasons God called David a man after God’s own heart was that David was a man of praise. We could spend many messages exploring this theme, but I’m going to limit myself to one message from David’s Psalm 18. I could preach a series of messages on this psalm alone, so my treatment will be a bit sketchy. But I want to show three things from this psalm about becoming people of praise:
To be people of praise, we must come to the end of ourselves, flee to God as our refuge, and express it to Him in song.
These three elements are present in many of the psalms. The psalmist was under attack or in a difficult circumstance. In his distress he called out to the Lord who delivered him, leading to his outburst of praise in song.
There is both good news and bad news in this observation. The good news is that the psalms are intensely life-related. Every emotion and up-and-down of life is reflected in the psalms, so that we can relate easily to them. John Calvin called the Psalms, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” and added, “for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Preface to Psalms, p. xxxvii). The bad news is that to become people of praise, we’ve got to enroll in God’s school of hard knocks. And, we must advance in that school until we come to the end of ourselves:
David wrote Psalm 18 and sang it to the Lord “in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (superscription). This probably means that David wrote it later in life, as he reflected back on God’s faithfulness in his many troubles. It is an important enough psalm that the Holy Spirit saw fit to include it twice in Scripture (with minor variations, it is in 2 Samuel 22).
To appreciate what David had been through, you need to recall his background. David was in his late teens when he was anointed as king. But he was 30 before he actually became king over the southern part of Israel and 37 before the whole kingdom was united under his rule. During those years, God was shaping His man through adversity, putting David in situation after situation where he despaired of life itself and had to learn to trust in God alone. For over a decade, the mercurial King Saul pursued David over the Judean wilderness, so that David said, “There is hardly a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3). He lived in caves and moved constantly to avoid Saul’s relentless pursuits.
If you ever watched the old TV series, “The Fugitive,” you have some idea how David felt during those years. He could never let down, never relax; he always had to be on the alert. We talk about being under stress—how would you like to know every day and every night that an enemy with a whole army at his disposal was trying to kill you!
In Psalm 18, we don’t know whether David was writing about a specific incident, or just lumping together his many narrow escapes from death. In poetic language he describes (18:4-5) a man who is in turbulent water over his head. Weeds or vines are wrapping around him so that he cannot break free. In the terror of the moment, all he can think is, “I’m going to die!” He had come to the end of himself.
You may wonder, “Why would a good, loving God put a decent, clean-living young man like David in situation after situation where he despaired of life itself?” After all, David was a good kid. He obeyed his father. He was conscientious about taking care of his dad’s sheep. He didn’t get drunk or do drugs. He had more faith in God as a teenager than anybody in Saul’s army, so that he could kill Goliath. We’re not talking about an average kid. David was a choice young man. We may hesitate to say it, but we might think that for God to treat David as He did sounds a bit cruel!
But if we think that, we don’t understand God’s loving ways. “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom he receives.... He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:6, 10). The fact is, if God didn’t bring us to the end of ourselves, we would trust in ourselves, not in God. So He brings us into impossible situations where there is no human way out. The more impossible the situation, the greater will be our praise after He has delivered us.
The endemic human cancer that God is patiently, lovingly, cutting out of His people is pride. Since the fall, we all suffer from the sin of pride. Even those with so-called “low self-esteem,” who dump on themselves all the time, suffer from pride. At the root of pride is relying on ourselves rather than on God. Pride is looking within for our sufficiency rather than looking to Christ. It is thinking too highly of ourselves and too lowly of God. Pride thinks that God owes us something because of who we are or what we’ve done. In pride we think that our own righteousness commends us to God. Pride is putting ourselves above others, thinking that we’re better than they are. Everyone suffers from pride in one form or another.
This is crucial, because if we don’t grasp it, we don’t truly understand the gospel and we can’t present it clearly to those who are lost. In our day, the gospel pitch often goes, “Do you need help with your problems? Do you want a happier life? Invite Jesus into your life and He will give you what you need.” And so people who proudly think that they’re not too bad, who have no concept of the absolute holiness of God, ask Jesus to come into their lives and give them the little something extra they need. But they’ve never been humbled to see that unless God is merciful to them, they are under His just condemnation.
Note what David says (18:27): “For You save an afflicted people; but haughty eyes You abase.” God has to bring affliction into our lives to humble our pride. “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). When God humbles us so that we no longer trust in ourselves, then we call out to Him for salvation and He gets all the praise because we know that it was all due to His grace, not at all due to our merit.
Watchman Nee tells of a time when a group of Chinese Christian men were swimming in a river when one of the men got a cramp in his leg and began to drown. Nee motioned to another man, who was an expert swimmer, to go to the man’s aid. But to his surprise, the expert made no move. With panic, Nee and the others on shore began shouting, “Don’t you see the man is drowning? Do something!” But the good swimmer stood, calm and collected, without making a move. Meanwhile, the drowning man’s voice grew fainter and his efforts grew weaker. Nee thought to himself, “I hate this man! Think of letting a brother drown before his very eyes and not going to the rescue!”
But when the victim was actually sinking, with a few swift strokes the swimmer was at his side, and both were soon safely ashore. Later, when Nee got an opportunity, he aired his anger: “I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do. Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more.”
But the swimmer, Nee found out, knew his business better than Nee did. He replied, “Had I gone earlier, he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself.” (The Normal Christian Life [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 117.)
It’s a lesson we must learn in coming to God: We cannot save ourselves. We must come to the end of ourselves and call out to God. Then, when He saves us, we will sing His praises. It’s also a lesson we must keep on learning throughout our Christian lives. We are so prone to trust in ourselves, but we cannot praise God while we trust ourselves. The lower we see ourselves, the more we exalt God. So, God lovingly keeps bringing us into situations where we are helpless, where we’re forced to trust in Him alone. That’s the first lesson of Psalm 18: That to be people of praise, we must come to the end of ourselves.
To become people of praise, we need to know, as David did, practically how to flee to God and trust Him as our refuge in the midst of intense troubles. Three things will help here:
We can’t trust in or flee for refuge to a God we don’t know. The many metaphors which David uses here show that he knew God in a practical and personal way: “My rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (18:2). A number of these metaphors recall particular incidents in David’s history: “Rock” (1 Sam. 23:25-28); “fortress” (1 Sam. 22:4; 24:22; 2 Sam. 5:7); “my God, my rock” (1 Sam. 24:2). In other words, “David’s praises celebrate actual deliverances which he and the men with him could authenticate” (Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel Tyndale O.T. Commentaries [IVP], p. 287). Note also the possessive pronoun, “my,” as applied to God (18:2 [7 x], 6, 21, 28, 29, 31 [“our”], 46). David didn’t just know about God; he knew God as his own God.
If we want to be able to flee to God as our all-sufficient refuge, we must know Him. We must know His attributes as revealed in His Word. In times of trial, Satan invariably tries to shake our confidence in the goodness of God. He comes to us and whispers, “If this God of yours is so good and so powerful, then why is He letting you go through this horrible trial?” But if we fix in our mind who our God is, we can flee to Him as our refuge.
David goes on to describe God’s deliverance through a thunderstorm (18:7-15). This could be a poetic description to tell in general of God’s awesome power in rescuing His people. Or it could refer to an actual battle, not recorded in Scripture, where David was about to be defeated by a powerful enemy, but in response to his prayer, God sent a thunderstorm that sent the enemy army into confusion and gave David the victory.
But, David didn’t say, “Wow, I sure was lucky! A thunderstorm hit at just the right moment and I defeated my enemy!” No, David knew God’s way of delivering His people. Most often He uses natural means. Sometimes He violates the laws of nature and uses miracles. But David was very clear that it was God who rescued him, not his own strength or cleverness (18:16-19). In fact, this is the theme of verses 27-45 (note the frequency of “God,” “You” and “Your”), that even though David used the weapons of warfare, even though he was well-trained for battle, even though he fought the enemy, in all of this it was God who was at work. Without God’s working, David was helpless.
David could affirm that not only God, but also God’s way is perfect (18:30). God’s perfect way is to bring His people into difficult straits and humble them so that they are forced to rely on Him, so that He alone gets the praise. If we want to know God as our all-sufficient refuge so that we can flee to Him in our trials, so that we praise Him for His salvation, then we must know who He is and how He acts. Also,
This wasn’t just theoretical theology for David. He knew practically how to lay hold of God in these desperate situations. There are three factors that lie behind David’s trust.
First was prayer. David prayed (18:3, 6). The repeated word, “cry,” shows the urgency and fervency of David’s prayers. Our prayers are more fervent when we sense how needy we really are.
Second was the Word. David affirms, “All His ordinances were before me, and I did not put away His statutes from me” (18:22). Through God’s Word we can know how God wants us to live. God’s Word gives us examples of others who trusted God in incredibly difficult trials so that we can imitate their faith. If we aren’t feeding on the Word when things are relatively calm, we won’t know how to trust God when calamity strikes.
Third was obedience. David not only knew God’s ordinances; he obeyed them. Some stumble over David’s assertion of his own righteousness (18:20-24). On the surface, it seems to run counter to what I said earlier about humility. It sounds as if David is boasting in himself and saying that God owed him deliverance because he was such a good guy. But that is to misinterpret these verses.
We need to understand that David isn’t comparing himself with God, in whose sight no one is righteous, but with his enemies, who do not follow God. Also, David is not denying his own sinfulness any more than God was denying Job’s sinfulness when He affirmed Job’s righteous life to Satan. David acknowledges repeatedly that any integrity or strength that he had came from God, not from himself (18:28-36). Rather, David is here affirming God’s justice in vindicating His people and judging the wicked. Also, David is saying what other Scriptures affirm, that we can have a legitimate assurance when we know that we have acted in obedience to God’s Word. Finally, we must look beyond David to David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose innocence was absolute. God the Father rescued Jesus Christ from the cross because of His perfect obedience.
The point is, if we cry to God in prayer, if we know what His Word says about how we should live, and if we have a clear conscience that we have obeyed His Word, then we’ll be able to trust Him experientially in times of trial. And He will get the praise.
David expressed his gratitude to God by writing and singing this and many other psalms. But even if we can’t write songs or sing well, we can express our feelings by exuberantly making a joyful noise unto the Lord.
Don’t miss the intense emotions of this psalm (and all the psalms)! David begins with a burst of feeling: “I love You, O Lord, my strength.” He ends with another crescendo of praise: “The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock; and exalted be the God of my salvation” (18:46). Praise, if it is genuine, involves our emotions. If you don’t often feel love for the Lord for what He’s done for you, something is wrong with your spiritual life, just as if you never feel love for your mate, something is wrong with your marriage.
In A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards argues that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (= emotions). Of David and the Psalms, he says, “Those holy songs are nothing else but the expressions and breathings of devout and holy affections; such as an humble and fervent love to God, admiration of his glorious perfections and wonderful works, earnest desires, thirstings, and pantings of soul after him, delight and joy in God, [and] a sweet and melting gratitude for his great goodness (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:238, 240, italics his).
Some of you are thinking, “But, you don’t understand. I’m just not an emotional person.” Right! All I have to do is come by during the fourth quarter of close game when your team comes from behind in the closing seconds to win, and I’ll prove you wrong! Let’s be honest: our lack of emotion toward God just reflects the shallowness of our gratitude and love for Him.
Here are a few practical things that have helped me grow toward becoming a man of praise (I still have far to go!):
*Read the Psalms over and over. It’s no accident that it is the longest book in the Bible. God will use it to show you how to praise Him in the midst of the trials of life. Write some of the praise sections on cards and go over them frequently.
*Learn the great hymns of the faith. If you don’t know them, get a CD where they are sung and play it until you know the words and can sing along. I enjoy many of the modern praise choruses, but the hymns often have solid theology, and they link us to those who have gone before us. Luther stood against the powerful wickedness of the pope, in part, by singing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Charles Wesley used hymns like his, “And Can It Be?” to teach theology to illiterate working people in 18th century England. Hudson Taylor was sustained through his grief after burying his beloved Maria by singing his favorite, “Jesus, I am resting, resting, in the joy of what Thou art, I am finding out the greatness, of Thy loving heart.”
*When you come to worship, block out distractions and focus on what you’re doing. Apathy in worship is sin! I find it helps to prepare my heart before the worship service. Then, I have to deliberately concentrate on the words as I sing them to the Lord. And, I sing them to Him! I don’t care what others think about me when I’m worshiping. They shouldn’t be thinking about me, anyway! I want to offer to God the heartfelt praise that He is due for being such a great and wonderful Savior!
Some of you are in the midst of difficult trials right now. If you will come to the end of yourself, flee to God as your all-sufficient refuge, and then express your gratitude to Him in song, you’re on your way to becoming a person of praise, a person after God’s own heart.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Do you ever pray about the weather? A few times I have successfully prayed that a predicted snowstorm would be delayed until after church on Sunday. But on other occasions the Lord has not answered such prayers. Years ago, I prayed that the drought in California would end. The answer to that prayer came on March 1, 1991, when we got 15 inches of rain in 24 hours, resulting in a mudslide against my house. I should have prayed that God would relieve the drought gradually!
We should be praying that God would relieve the current drought in Arizona. But, more importantly, I want to encourage you to pray about the spiritual weather in our land. We are in a spiritual drought. The rivers of living water are dried up to a trickle and people are turning to other things to try to quench their spiritual thirst. Even many of God’s people have turned aside from Him, the only fountain of living water, to broken worldly cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). God wants His people to pray about this spiritual drought, that times of refreshing would come again from the hand of the Lord.
The great prophet Elijah prayed about the weather of his day—both literally and spiritually. James 5:16b-18 tells us, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17-19) teaches that
In ungodly times, godly people should pray for God to make His glory known by turning sinners to Himself.
Elijah was a godly man who lived in times that rivaled our times for ungodliness. But he prayed and his prayers made a significant difference in the history of Israel. I want us to look at the times in which Elijah prayed, at the man who prayed, and at the subject of his prayers. I pray that God would use Elijah’s life to stimulate us to pray and see God manifest His glory by turning sinners to Himself in these ungodly times.
Elijah blasted on the scene in the midst of the most corrupt reign in Israel’s history. The weak-willed Ahab had married the Phoenician princess, Jezebel, who introduced and aggressively promoted Baal worship on a wide scale (16:31-33). She had exterminated the prophets of Yahweh, except for 100 who were hidden by Obadiah, Ahab’s chief of staff, who was a secret believer (18:3, 13). Though they survived, those 100 prophets seemed to be silenced for the time being.
Baal was regarded as the god who controlled the rain and fertility in agriculture, animals and people. Accompanying Baal was his consort or mother, Asherah (18:19). Often, the Israelites blended the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal, so that people were blinded as to the extent of their idolatry (Jer. 2:23). Though there were 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed their knees to Baal (19:18), they, like the 100 prophets of Yahweh, seemed to be in hiding. No one was taking a public stand for the Lord, except Elijah. It was the darkest of times spiritually.
Certainly our times rival Elijah’s times for ungodliness. The American church desperately needs revival. Although polls show that at least one-third of Americans claim to be born again, a surface glance at our culture tells you that they understand something quite different than the Bible does by that term. Most Americans believe that there is no absolute standard of morality. Through the internet, pornography floods our nation at unprecedented levels. Church people, including Christian leaders, are falling into sin at alarming rates. I recently read the tragic account of an evangelical pastor who was arrested for soliciting sex with a teenage girl over the internet. Many American Christians are entangled with greed and self-centered living. In 1989, Tom Sine wrote,
I suspect that one of the reasons we are so ineffective in evangelism is that we are so much like the people around us that we have very little to which we can call them. We hang around church buildings a little more. We abstain from a few things. But we simply aren’t that different.…
As a result of this unfortunate accommodation, Christianity is reduced to little more than a spiritual crutch to help us through the minefields of the upwardly mobile life. God is there to help us get our promotions, our house in the suburbs, and our bills paid. Somehow God has become a co-conspirator in our agendas instead of our becoming a co-conspirator in His. Something is seriously amiss (Christianity Today [3/17/89], p. 52).
I don’t mean to be unduly pessimistic. But if we aren’t realistic about the condition of the church in our day, we won’t be moved to pray for the revival we so desperately need. It is at precisely such depressing moments of darkness that God often raises up a godly remnant to begin seeking Him. Through that praying minority, He changes the history of nations. So, rather than growing discouraged at the spiritual drought around us, we ought to be motivated to pray, knowing that with our God, all things are possible. One praying person plus God is a majority.
In his nourishing book, Revival [Crossway], Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasizes how important it is to know church history, so that we know how to pray and what we can expect God to do in our times. During the Reformation, things were as corrupt as they ever have been. Immorality and greed were rampant among the clergy. The common people could not read the Bible in their native tongue. Biblical teaching was almost non-existent. God raised up a few godly men, like Luther and Calvin, who turned the tide. The same thing has happened repeatedly. So the fact that we live in ungodly times ought to move us to pray that God would send revival.
Who are the people who pray at such times?
Elijah was a man who knew and served the living God. But, also, he was very human, “a man with a nature like ours.” Note four characteristics of Elijah that apply to us:
Elijah’s opening line with Ahab was, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1). God was no figment of the imagination or an abstract theological concept for Elijah. He knew God as the living God, the all-powerful God who made the universe and thus who easily could control the rain. Elijah knew experientially how to trust in this living God.
The kind of people who pray and see God act in spiritually dark times aren’t just playing church and going through the Christian routine. They know God as the living God. They depend upon Him for practical matters each day. They realize that if God were to withdraw His Holy Spirit from their lives, they would instantly be in trouble. Dr. Howard Hendricks used to ask us as seminary students, “What is there in your life that you cannot explain on any basis other than the supernatural?” It’s a haunting question that we ought to ask ourselves often, both personally and as a church. We need to know God as the living God by depending upon Him daily in prayer. Our lives and ministries should be a demonstration of His Spirit and power, not of the latest slick methods.
Elijah knew God as the God “before whom I stand.” The NIV translates the idea as, the God “whom I serve.” To stand before God meant to wait upon Him as a servant waits upon a master. Elijah realized that he was under God and would have to give an account to God for his life. So even though he was standing before a powerful, wicked king, who had killed many prophets, Elijah could speak boldly because he knew that God, not Ahab, was the ultimate judge to whom he would answer.
When I preach, there are times when I have to say some hard things. The Bible has a way of running cross-grain to the way we often live. I try always to say it in love, but I realize that no matter how kindly I say some things, there will be people who don’t like it. They may get angry with me and leave the church. But I always try to remember the words of the English martyr, Hugh Latimer, who often preached before the royal court. On such occasions, he would say to himself, “Latimer, Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty king, Henry VIII, who is able, if he think fit, to take thy life away. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, Latimer, remember thou art also about to speak before the King of kings and Lord of lords. Take heed thou dost not displease Him” (source unknown).
If we are going to pray and stand against the tide of ungodliness in our day, we need to know the living God and that we are accountable to Him.
Elijah had a zeal for holiness. When he met Ahab after the three and a half years of drought, Ahab said, “Is this you, you troubler of Israel?” (18:17). Elijah shot back, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and you have followed the Baals” (18:18).
Then he put forth his challenge for a show down with the prophets of Baal. Note his words to the people who gathered to watch (18:21): “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” You would think that some who were on the fence would have come over and stood with Elijah, but none did. Elijah, like many who have a zeal for the Lord and His holiness, had to stand alone.
Then (18:22) he points out the odds of the contest: One for the Lord; 450 for Baal. The 100 prophets of the Lord either didn’t know about the contest or they weren’t willing to come out of hiding and take a stand with Elijah. The Phoenicians thought that Mt. Carmel was the dwelling place of Baal. But Elijah figured that 450-1 were good odds, even if Baal had the home court advantage, because the one had the Lord on his side.
We also see Elijah’s zeal for holiness in his command to the people immediately after the contest, to slay all the prophets of Baal (18:40). Like Moses in the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32:26-28), so Elijah here asks those who were repentant to prove it by killing these false prophets, in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deut. 13:1-5).
One of the marks of those who pray for God to bring revival in spiritually dark times is that they have a zeal for holiness, beginning with their own lives. They get a new glimpse of the holiness of God that makes them recognize their own sinfulness in a deeper way. They confess their own sin and then pray that God’s people would experience the same zeal for personal holiness.
By this point, you may be a bit threatened by what I’ve been saying. You may be thinking, “The kind of person you’re describing is so far from where I’m at that I despair of ever getting there!” But even though Elijah knew the living God and His power, even though he was so bold and had such a zeal for holiness, he was not made of anything different than you or I.
James 5:17 tells us that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. He had his emotional ups and downs. Matthew Henry points out how God often raises up rough characters like Elijah for ministry in rough times. It took a rough man like Martin Luther to break the ice in the Reformation. It took an Elijah to stand against the likes of Ahab and Jezebel.
Elijah blasts onto the biblical page unlike many of the other prophets. There is no mention of his father or mother or what tribe in Israel he was from. Scholars aren’t sure where his home village of Tishbe was, except that it was on the far side of the Jordan. In other words, Elijah was a nobody from nowhere who came thundering on the scene in obedience to God and delivered God’s message. Then God took him back into seclusion to teach him some more lessons before his next public encounter. After his victory on Mt. Carmel, you would think that Elijah would have laughed at Jezebel’s threats. But instead, he fled in fear and then, paradoxically, asked God to take his life. If he really wanted to die, Jezebel would have obliged him!
The point is, even though Elijah was a godly man whom God greatly used, he wasn’t perfect. He had his weak areas. He was a fallen sinner in process, who depended upon God and sought to follow God, but who struggled against his own sins.
That’s always the case with the men and women God uses. One of the great benefits of reading Christian biographies is that you see the human side of some of the greats of the faith. You discover that God has used some rough instruments to do His work. Martin Luther was often crude and lacking in tact, to say the least. He blasted his critics by calling them names and ridiculing not only their ideas, but also them personally. He used rough language at times. He talked openly about how much he enjoyed sex with his wife—things unbecoming for a minister! Yet God used Luther as He has used few men since Paul.
John Calvin wasn’t crude, as Luther was, but critics have accused him of being stern and unloving. His enemies in Geneva coined a saying, “Better to be with Beza [Calvin’s understudy and successor] in hell than with Calvin in heaven!” Psychologist Erich Fromm said that Calvin “belonged to the ranks of the greatest haters in history.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls him the cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva. But Calvin stands even above Luther in the godly influence that he has had on the church. I agree with the Scottish theologian, William Cunningham, who said, “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done most good to mankind.” (The above quotes from Christian History [Vol. V, No. 4], pp. 2-3.) As you read Calvin, you see a man who was painfully aware of and struggling against his own sinful tendencies.
You find the same thing about any great man or woman of God—they had their weaknesses that caused some to oppose them. This doesn’t mean that we should excuse our faults or refuse to work on them. But it does mean that there is hope for us all! Being godly does not mean being perfect. If God could use a rough nobody from nowhere like Elijah, then He can use you and me!
Thus, the time to pray is when ungodliness is rampant. The people who pray are godly people. What do we pray for?
The reason we pray for revival during ungodly times is not so that we can have a thrilling experience or so that our nation will prosper or so that we will have successful ministries or happier lives. We should be concerned for God’s glory to be revealed so that sinners will turn to Him. We should want God’s name to be honored on earth as it is in heaven.
Note Elijah’s prayer (18:36): “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel, ...” And, (18:37): “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God and that You have turned their heart back again.” Elijah is praying that God would make His glory known by turning sinners back to Himself. God honored that prayer by sending fire from heaven and then by sending rain in response to Elijah’s next prayer. In the same way, we desperately need God to send His fire to cleanse our sins and His showers of blessing to refresh us, that everyone would know that He alone is God, so that many sinners would turn to Him.
Many years ago the Chinese evangelist, Watchman Nee, was preaching with a small team of men on an island off the coast of South China. The people politely received them, but there was little response. Finally, a young brother with the team suddenly asked the crowd, “Why will none of you believe?” Someone in the crowd explained that they had a god, Ta-Wang (“Great King”), who had never failed them. They had held a festival procession in his name for 286 years, and without fail that day had been clear and sunny. They determined the exact day by divination. It so happened that the day was only two days away. When he heard that, the young Christian impetuously blurted, “Then I promise you that it will rain that day.” The crowd cried, “If it rains that day, we will believe that your God is God!”
Nee was elsewhere in the village when the incident occurred. When he heard the news, which was spreading like wildfire, he panicked. At once they stopped preaching and gave themselves to prayer. They didn’t know whether they had made a terrible mistake or whether God would honor their prayer and send rain. As they were waiting on God in prayer, the word came to Nee, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14). It came with such clarity and power that he knew God had answered. He told the other men, “The Lord will send rain on that day.”
So they went out and announced everywhere that the true God would send rain on Ta-Wang’s festival day. They went out the next day and used the clear weather to preach. Three families turned to Christ and publicly burned their idols. They came back tired and rejoicing and went to bed.
The day of the festival, Nee was awakened by the direct rays of the sun through the window. He got up, knelt down, and anxiously prayed, “Lord, please send the rain.” He was rebuked, “Where is the God of Elijah?” So he went downstairs to breakfast. Everyone sat down in silence. As they bowed to thank God for the food, they again asked God to send rain. Even before their Amen, they heard a few drops on the tiles. As they ate their rice, there was a steady shower. They gave thanks and asked for heavier rain, which then began to fall in buckets-full. By the time breakfast was over, the streets were deep in water.
Meanwhile, in the village, some were shouting that there was no more Ta-Wang. But others carried the idol out on a sedan chair. Because of the rain, they stumbled and fell and the idol fractured his jaw and arm. Finally, they carried him back into the house. The village elders met and did some more divination. They determined that it was the wrong day. The correct day was three days later!
When Nee and his co-workers heard this news, they had an immediate assurance that God would send rain on the new day and they announced it. Meanwhile, the sky cleared and they enjoyed seeing over 30 people genuinely converted during the next three days of preaching. On the third day, at the hour appointed for the procession, they met again for prayer. Not a minute late, the Lord answered with more torrential rain. Satan’s power was broken. God had shown His power and many sinners turned to Him. (In Sit, Walk, Stand [Christian Literature Crusade], pp. 57-62.)
It may not happen that dramatically every time. But God wants us to join Elijah and Watchman Nee in praying about the weather—the spiritual weather—in our land. Though it is an ungodly time, through the prayers of the godly, God can make His glory known by turning many sinners to Himself.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
In 1991, I read J. C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness [James Clarke & Co., Ltd.]. The final chapter, “Christ is All,” is a wonderful exposition of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. I realized that this man of God, writing over a century ago, had put his finger on a major problem facing evangelical Christianity in our day: We have failed to direct God’s people to their resources in the all-sufficient Christ. Believers with problems are not being told, “Jesus Christ is sufficient for every problem in life. Here’s how you can lay hold of Him through faith and prayer.” Rather, they are being directed into all sorts of worldly techniques, therapies, and programs where Christ is peripheral, at best.
John MacArthur, Jr., makes the same point in Our Sufficiency in Christ [Word]. He writes (p. 19),
... a widespread lack of confidence in Christ’s sufficiency is threatening the contemporary church. Too many Christians have tacitly acquiesced to the notion that our riches in Christ, including Scripture, prayer, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and all the other spiritual resources we find in Christ simply are not adequate to meet people’s real needs. Entire churches are committed to programs built on the presupposition that the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42) aren’t a full enough agenda for the church as it prepares to enter the ... twenty-first century.
We continue our study of prayer by looking at an incident in the life of Elisha, in which the great prophet faced a major crisis: He was surrounded by a foreign army that intended to take him captive. Elisha’s servant went out one morning, looked up and saw this horde of soldiers, with horses and chariots. He rightly surmised they weren’t paying a social call! So he ran back inside crying, “Alas! What are we going to do?”
Probably none of us has ever walked out the door in the morning to confront an armed barbarian horde in the front yard waiting to do us bodily harm. But we all know what it’s like to be suddenly confronted with life-threatening problems beyond our control. And we all can relate to the servant’s panic in the crisis.
What seems strange is Elisha’s cool, calm response: “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (6:16). Then he prayed that his servant’s eyes would be opened. Suddenly the servant saw the unseen spiritual world that Elisha already saw: The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha! He strolled out to greet the soldiers, calmly asked God to strike them blind, led them to the capital city 12 miles south, where they were then surrounded by Israel’s army, and then asked God to restore their sight. Then he directed the Israelite king to feed them and send them on their way. And, for a while, the Arameans did not bother Israel.
This story has two main themes: The all-sufficiency of God to meet any crisis we face; and, that prayer is our means of access to the all-sufficient God.
Since God is our all-sufficient resource, believers should pray and not panic when trials hit.
The greatness of God’s knowledge, power, and sovereignty dominate this story. It’s interesting that of all the major characters, no one, except Elisha, is mentioned by name—not the kings or Elisha’s servant. Even Elisha is called three times “the man of God (6:9, 10, 15). One commentator says that this may suggest that readers should focus on the Lord and His prophet (Thomas Constable, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:549). When we look at God, we learn three things in relation to our trials:
He knows all things and possesses all wisdom. God knew what the Aramean king, Ben-Hadad II, was planning to do and revealed it to Elisha who, in turn, told the Israelite king, Jehoram. As Ben-Hadad’s servants told him, Elisha even “tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in you bedroom” (6:12)! It took the intelligence experts more than 2,500 years after this to be able to bug a room, but God is much more effective than the CIA! He knows every thought and motive of every human heart! Nothing is hid from Him (Heb. 4:13).
The Aramean king stupidly thought that he could send troops and take Elisha captive. Didn’t he realize that Elisha would know this in advance, too? Elisha could have hidden himself, but he knew that God wanted to solve this problem in a way that would teach the Aramean king and the king of Israel some lessons about the reality of the living God.
Our God knows everything. We are foolish to think that we can hide anything from Him. He knows all our secret thoughts, let alone words and deeds. His Word reveals to us what we need to know about how deal with life’s problems, whether major or minor. We can go to Him for the wisdom we lack. It is in the context of trials that James 1:5 says, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
He not only knows how to solve our problems, He has unlimited power to deal with the biggest problems we can conceive of. Is your problem as big as a hostile army that is trying to get you? David puts it (Ps. 34:7), “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” “Therefore, though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear” (Ps. 27:3). It was no big deal for God to strike all these men blind in response to Elisha’s simple prayer. There is no man or nation so powerful but that God can easily bring him or it to nothing.
That means that God is able to deal with any problem you have, no matter how big it is to you. I always chuckle when I think of the woman who came to the well-known Bible teacher, G. Campbell Morgan and asked, “Dr. Morgan, do you think we should pray about little things, or just about big problems?” He straightened up and in his formal British manner said, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?” Our God is omniscient and omnipotent. He spoke the universe into existence. Nothing is too difficult for Him (Jer. 32:17, 27)!
You may be thinking, “That’s nice, but it doesn’t work for me the way it worked for Elisha. If only I could utter a short prayer and all my problems were instantly solved just like these soldiers were struck blind!” That leads to the third thing we see here concerning our all-sufficient God:
If we belong to God, we can trust Him to protect us until the moment He calls us to be with Him. As Psalm 91:11 promises, “He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.” The Lord is stronger than the most powerful enemy we can conceive of. He’s protecting us even when we aren’t aware of it. Elisha’s servant slept peacefully all night, not knowing that these hostile forces were surrounding him. When he saw them in the morning, he panicked. But God’s protection was there, even though he couldn’t see it.
But you still may be thinking, “That’s great when it all works out as neatly as it did with Elisha. But what about when God’s people go through horrible trials and even death? Some godly people suffer for years or die through disease or persecution. Where is God’s protection then?”
The Lord provides a clue in a minor detail of the text that we might easily miss. Did you notice where Elisha was when this army surrounded him? He was in Dothan (6:13). It seems like more than coincidence that this town is mentioned only one other time in the Bible. It was the town where Joseph found his brothers when his father sent him to find out how they were doing (Gen. 37:17). He hadn’t been able to locate them and he was wandering in a field when a man told him that they had gone to Dothan. When Joseph arrived there his brothers threw him in a pit and were about to kill him when a caravan passed by heading for Egypt. So instead they sold him into slavery.
You know the story, how, after many years as a slave and prisoner, God finally appointed him over all Egypt under Pharaoh. As he sat in the pit in Dothan or as he traveled in chains to Egypt or as he sat in chains in the Egyptian dungeon, Joseph never had a vision of chariots of fire surrounding him. Where were the angels and chariots when Joseph was suffering? Joseph later looked back on the years of trials and told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). Even though he didn’t see any angels and even though he went through years of agony, Joseph knew that God was sovereignly directing all of his circumstances.
Even though you or I may never get a vision of God’s angels surrounding us, they are there! Even if you spend years in a dungeon, our sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent God has not abandoned you. Elisha’s servant was safe because he was with his master. Even so, we are safe because we are identified with our Master, Jesus Christ, who said that our Heavenly Father even has our hairs numbered! Therefore He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
But, how can we not panic when trials hit?
Prayer is our means of access to our all-sufficient Savior. As Paul wrote from prison (Phil. 4:6-7), “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Major trials can hit so suddenly! Elisha’s servant went to bed peacefully, with no thought of being surrounded by a menacing army the next morning. He woke up, saw this army, and no doubt thought, “I could die today!” Life is just that uncertain! Let’s face it, there are a lot of ways that we could be dead before today is over—a terrorist attack, a major earthquake, a fire, an accident on the highway, a blood vessel in our brain ruptures, etc. Life is fragile! That’s why it’s foolish to live for this life only, as if there were no eternity. The uncertainty of life should make us live every day in dependence upon God.
There is an obvious contrast between the panic of Elisha’s servant and the peace of Elisha. The difference is accounted for by Elisha’s consistent communion with God in prayer. Although the text doesn’t state it directly, obviously it was through prayer that he had gained supernatural knowledge of the enemy’s planned raids.
I believe that Elisha knew how God wanted him to deal with this crisis because he had prayed. Elisha’s mentor, Elijah, had called down fire from heaven to consume some soldiers who came to take him captive (2 Kings 1:9-16)! On a previous occasion Elisha himself had cursed in the name of the Lord a bunch of young men who taunted him, resulting in some bears killing 42 of them (2 Kings 2:23-24).
But on this occasion, I think that Elisha knew through prayer that God wanted to deal differently with this foreign army. The Aramean king had already seen evidence of the reality of Israel’s God when Elisha had healed Naaman, the captain of his army (2 Kings 5:1-14). Israel’s wicked king, Jehoram, son of Ahab, also should have known that Yahweh is the only true God. Through Elisha’s gracious treatment of these soldiers, both kings and both armies had further evidence of God’s kindness and power. Though it is not stated directly, I believe that Elisha had gained the wisdom to know how to handle this trial the way he did through prayer.
God may or may not grant us miraculous insight and power, as He did here with Elisha. But if we are people of prayer and commune with God through His Word, we will have unusual wisdom for dealing with trials when they hit.
But there are two warnings we need to take to heart. First, the time to gain such wisdom is before trials hit. Proverbs 1:20-33 tells us that if we neglect to get wisdom during calm times, we will not have it when calamity strikes.
The second caution is that we must act on what we know or it won’t do us any good. Elisha warned the Israelite king of where the Arameans would attack. If the king had not followed up on that warning, it wouldn’t have helped him. God’s Word warns us of where our enemy will strike. It warns us of the consequences of sin. But those warnings only profit us if we obey them. It’s like the many warnings we hear about the dangers of smoking, of eating too much fat, or of not buckling our seat belts. These warnings only help if we follow them. If we will learn the warnings of God’s Word and obey them, communing daily with Him through prayer, then we will have His wisdom for dealing with trials, and panic will be replaced with His peace.
Most of us determine reality by our physical senses. If we can see, hear, feel, smell, or taste it, it must be real. I’m sure that for Elisha’s servant, reality was thousands of soldiers, mounted on powerful war horses, who could wipe out the whole town of Dothan before nightfall. But for Elisha, that wasn’t reality. For him, reality was the even greater and more powerful army of angels surrounding the city. These angels were there all along. The problem was, Elisha’s servant didn’t have eyes to see them. But his not seeing them didn’t make them unreal or non-existent. Elisha’s prayer opened his eyes to see spiritual reality. And spiritual reality is the ultimate reality, superceding the reality of what we perceive with our physical senses.
The Apostle Paul knew how to see the unseen. He was suffering terrible persecution on behalf of the gospel, but he said that this momentary, light affliction wasn’t the real thing. The real thing was the eternal glory that awaited him in heaven (1 Cor. 4:16-18)! He also said that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Remember, he was chained to a very real Roman guard as he wrote that! But, he said, that isn’t where our struggle takes place. Our real struggle is against these unseen forces of darkness in the heavenly places. And the way we combat these forces is through prayer (Eph. 6:10-20). Prayer opens our eyes to spiritual reality and links us with God’s winning majority.
The “Global Prayer Digest” (9/91) told about a medical missionary to Africa who was speaking at his home church in Michigan. He told about how he often had to travel by bicycle through the jungle to a nearby city for supplies. It was a two-day trip that required camping overnight at the halfway point. When he got to the city, he would go to the bank, get money, and buy medicine and supplies to take back. On one of these trips, he saw two men fighting. One had been badly injured, so the missionary treated his wounds and witnessed to him about Christ.
He returned home without incident. On his next trip to town, the man he had treated came up to him and said that he knew the missionary was carrying money and supplies. This man and some friends had followed him into the jungle, planning to kill him and take his money and drugs. But just as they were ready to move into his campsite, they saw that he was surrounded by 26 armed guards.
When the missionary heard this, he laughed and said that he was all alone out at that jungle campsite. But the man insisted, “No, not only I, but also my five friends saw and counted the 26 guards. Because of them we were afraid and left you alone.”
At this point in the church in Michigan where the missionary was telling the story, a man jumped to his feet and asked, “Can you tell me the exact day this took place?” The missionary thought for a moment and was able to give the exact date. The man in the church continued, “When it is night in Africa, it is morning here. That morning I was preparing to go play golf. As I was putting my golf bag in my car, I felt the Lord leading me to pray for you. This urging was so strong that I called the men in this church to meet here and pray for you. Would all of those men who met with me on that day, please stand up?” All together, 26 men were standing!
Opening the servant’s eyes to see the angels, closing and later reopening the soldiers’ eyes, were humanly impossible feats. Elisha’s prayer was not for his servant to do what he already could do or to use some ability he already possessed. His prayer was for God to do something humanly impossible, to open his eyes, which saw the soldiers perfectly well, so that he could see the angelic forces that protected him.
So often when we pray, we forget that we are asking God to do the humanly impossible. When we pray for the salvation of another person, we are not asking God to help them out just a bit. We’re asking God to do what is humanly impossible. Every lost person is spiritually blind. Only God can open blind eyes! We may realize this when the one we’re praying for has big problems. We say, “He’s an alcoholic. It would take a miracle to save him!” But it also takes a miracle to save the good, moral person who goes to church every week. God must open blind eyes to bring sinners to Himself (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim. 2:24-26).
These Aramean soldiers had an easy job that they were confident they could do: “Take a single, unarmed man captive? No problem! We can do it!” But through Elisha’s one-sentence prayer, these proud men were humbled into groping after the prophet, completely at his mercy. Then their eyes were opened in response to Elisha’s next one-sentence prayer, and they realized that they were in big trouble!
In the same way, God must humble the self-confident sinner so that he realizes that he is spiritually impotent. Then God must open their eyes to see their desperate condition, that they are doomed unless God is gracious to them. Then God graciously sets before them the banquet table of the riches of Jesus Christ, freely given. Though they had deserved His condemnation, He shows them His mercy.
In his wonderful section on prayer in The Institutes (ed. by John McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles [Westminster], 3:20:1), John Calvin writes,
For in Christ [God] offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son ….
But after we have been instructed by faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ … so that we may draw from it as from an overflowing spring, it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what we have learned to be in him. Otherwise, to know God as the master and bestower of all good things, who invites us to request them of him, and still not go to him and not ask of him—this would be of as little profit as for a man to neglect a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him.
In Christ we have access to God as our all-sufficient treasure. If we will learn to know God as Elisha did and to pray as he prayed, we will not panic when trials hit.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
As many of you know, there has been some controversy in the church over the issue of “Calvinism.” Some have asked me, “Why make a big deal out of a theological controversy that can’t really be resolved and that has not much practical bearing on how we live?” That question reveals a misunderstanding of the issues at stake. The basic issue is, “How big is God, how small is man, and therefore, how much do we have to cast ourselves upon Him for grace and mercy, both in salvation and at every moment thereafter?”
Your theology on these crucial issues will affect not only your understanding of salvation, but also your understanding of how to deal with life’s trials, which are both highly practical subjects! On our recent trip to Alaska, I read John Piper’s excellent book, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway Books], subtitled, “The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.” In the introduction, Piper brings up the views of the Arminian theologians who argue that God is not sovereign over the decisions that we make and that He does not even know what we will decide until we decide it (called “Open Theism”). Here is where that theology leads them with regard to suffering:
“God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil…. When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.” “When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for ‘the purpose of God’ in the event…. I know Christians frequently speak about ‘the purpose of God’ in the midst of a tragedy caused by someone else…. But this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking.” (Piper, pp. 23-24, citing John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence; and, Gregory Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic).
As Piper goes on to show, “For John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, the loving purpose of God in pain was one of the most precious truths in the Bible and one of the most powerful experiences of their lives” (p. 25). As Bunyan, who spent over 12 years in jail for preaching, put it, “Suffering comes not by chance or by the will of man, but by the will and appointment of God” (Seasonable Counsel, or Advice to Sufferers, in Piper, p. 30).
Whether our trials are of the crisis sort or whether they are the more steady, relentless pressures that just wear away our resistance, we’ve all got them. And, while most of us know that we should pray more and trust God more, for some reason, we don’t do it. I struggle with the question, “Why don’t I pray as I ought to pray?”
The answer, I think, is simple: I don’t pray as I ought because I’m self-reliant, which the Bible calls pride. My pride makes me think, erroneously, that I can handle things by myself, with a little help now and then from God. So, I rely mostly on myself and a little bit on God. I don’t really believe Christ’s words, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So God graciously brings me trials to show me my great need so that I will look to my great God in prayer and trust Him to work on my behalf.
The story of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, provides us with helpful instruction on the subject of prayer and trusting God when we face severe trials. Jehoshaphat was basically a good king who sought to follow the Lord and bring God’s people back to Him (19:4-11). He ruled in the southern kingdom at the same time that the wicked Ahab ruled in the north.
But although he was a good king, Jehoshaphat had a character flaw: He made wrongful alliances with the godless Ahab. He went into battle with Ahab and almost lost his life. He arranged for his son to marry Ahab and Jezebel’s wicked daughter, Athaliah. She later slaughtered off all of the Davidic line except for the infant Joash, who was hidden from her murderous intent. Jehoshaphat also formed an ill-fated business alliance with Ahab’s son, Ahaziah. His motive in these alliances may have been good, to reunite the divided kingdom. But he was unwise and wrong.
One morning Jehoshaphat was shaken when his intelligence sources came running in with the horrifying news, “A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, out of Aram [or, better, Edom] and behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar (that is Engedi)” (20:1, 2). This enemy coalition was about 15 miles south of Jerusalem, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Jehoshaphat’s life and his entire kingdom were on the brink of extinction! Talk about a reason to panic!
What would you do if you heard some threatening news that affected your future and maybe your life? This godly king did the right thing: He called a national prayer meeting and encouraged the people to trust God in the face of this overwhelming crisis. They did it, and literally won the war by prayer alone, without swinging a single sword! Their story teaches us that ...
Our great need should drive us to prayer and faith in our great God.
In 20:1-4 we see their great need; in 20:5-13, Jehoshaphat’s prayer reveals their great God; and in 20:14-30 we see their faith in their great God and the victory that He brought about.
That’s obvious to any believer, of course. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it automatic.
It’s easy to read this story and miss what a great thing it was for Jehoshaphat to call the nation to prayer over this crisis. It would have been very human to panic. When he heard the news of this army within his borders, we could understand if he yelled, “Call all my top generals! Get the army mobilized immediately! We don’t have a second to waste!” As soon as the troops were mustered, if there was time, he could have stopped for a quick word of prayer. But for Jehoshaphat to turn his attention to seek the Lord and to call the nation to prayer and fasting was not automatic.
Not only could Jehoshaphat have reacted with panic, he also could have felt angry toward God. The text states, “Now it came about after this” (20:1). After what? He had just instituted a number of reforms to bring the nation back to the Lord (19:4-11). It would have been easy for Jehoshaphat to have said, “What’s the deal, God? I tried to bring the nation back to You. I taught them to put away their idols and follow You because You’re worthy to be trusted. And now we’re facing annihilation at the hands of this pagan coalition! I don’t deserve this kind of treatment!”
Many people feel that way when they’ve tried to follow God and then get hit with difficult trials. They complain, “God, this isn’t fair! I was trying to follow You, but I get hit with trouble, while my pagan neighbor enjoys the good life!” So they get angry at God and feel sorry for themselves. But Jehoshaphat didn’t do that. He did what was not automatic in a crisis: He prayed.
Another natural reaction would have been for Jehoshaphat to trust in his army. Chapter 17:12-19 tells about the organization and might of his forces. He was equipped for war. It would have been easy to think, “We’re prepared for this. Call out the army! Let’s go get them!” But Jehoshaphat, rather than trusting in his army, publicly admits his lack of strength and calls on God as his only help in this crisis.
He put prayer first. He realized that he could do some things after he had prayed, but he could not do anything worthwhile before he prayed. Prayer was his strongest weapon. So he resisted the temptation to panic, to get angry at God, or to trust his army. He recognized his great need, so he prayed.
You say, “That’s what I want to do the next time a problem hits.” Do you? Be careful before you glibly say that! To understand this story, we have to see that Jehoshaphat’s call to prayer was a humiliating thing for him to do.
Jehoshaphat was the king of Judah. In the ancient Near East, kings were a proud bunch. They had an image to maintain. Leaders have to be tough and inspire confidence in their leadership. What kind of leader admits in front of his people, “I’m afraid, folks, because we’re helpless against our enemy!” That’s not good politics!
But that’s what Jehoshaphat did. He admitted his fear, called a national prayer meeting, and then prayed in front of everyone about how weak he was (20:12). Surely, it would have been better politically to pray in private, but then to get up in front of the people and say, “We’ve got a little problem, folks! But our side is strong. Our troops are going to wipe them out! Pray for us while we go out and defend our nation against these intruders.”
But Jehoshaphat wasn’t worried about politics or his public image. He knew that he was in deep trouble if God didn’t answer, and so he openly admitted his weakness and called upon the Lord.
I have been reading The Works of John Bunyan [Baker]. He has an excellent treatise titled, The Acceptable Sacrifice: The Excellency of a Broken Heart. He is expounding on verses like Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” And, Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” He says, “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think…. It is wounding work, of course, this breaking of hearts, but without wounding there is no saving” (cited by Piper, p. 65).
This biblical theme, that we must humble ourselves before God, runs counter to the current wave of worldly teaching flooding the church, that you need to build your self-esteem. We should be more concerned about whether or not we have God’s esteem. The Lord says (Isa. 66:2, NIV), “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (See also, John Calvin on prayer, Institutes [Eerdmans], 3:20:8.)
If we’re self-sufficient and don’t admit that we’re needy, we rob God of His glory. But when we recognize our great need, we will humble ourselves and pray, not just by ourselves, but with other Christians who can bear our burdens with us.
Once our need drives us to God in prayer, we need to understand how to pray. Jehoshaphat’s prayer gives us some important instruction in how to seek God in prayer.
There are two things to see here:
Note verse 3: “Jehoshaphat ... turned his attention [lit., “set his face,” i.e., “determined”] to seek the Lord.” Verse 4 states that the people not only sought help from the Lord, but also that they sought the Lord. This was nothing new for Jehoshaphat. He is described as a king who “sought the God of his father” (17:4). The Hebrew word “seek” means, literally, “to trample under foot,” to beat a path to God because you frequent that way so often. It’s significant that in Jehoshaphat’s prayer, the first four verses (6-9) focus on God Himself; finally, in the last three verses (10-12) he gets around to mentioning the problem. But even in mentioning the problem, God is prominent.
I wonder, if we were facing imminent annihilation, would we be so God-centered? In a crisis, I usually pray, “God, get me out of here!” I want relief and I want it now! But in so praying we miss something crucial: In a crisis, we aren’t supposed to run and get God off the shelf, like Aladdin’s genie, rub Him the right way, get what we want, and then put Him back until the next crisis. Trials should cause us to seek God Himself, because He is what we need. God is our sufficiency, our very life. If we have God and cling to Him, then even if we aren’t delivered from our crisis, we can go through it—even through the loss of children, possessions, and health, as Job went through—because, as is said here of Abraham (20:7), the living God is our friend.
This is at the heart of the current controversy over the role of psychology in the church. Is God Himself, His indwelling Spirit, and His Word (and the many provisions given in it, including Christ’s body, the church) sufficient for a believer in the crises of life, or must we turn to the world’s therapies and techniques to enable us to cope? Incredibly, many Christian psychologists say that God and His Word are not sufficient; we need psychotherapy!
But if we turn to the world for help, the world gets the glory. If we turn to God as our only refuge and strength, He gets the glory. Our trials should force us to lay hold of God in new ways that we would not have done if we had not been driven to cast ourselves completely on Him through prayer. We should come away, not just having presented our requests to God, but also knowing God better as our refuge and strength in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1).
Jehoshaphat’s prayer is steeped in Scripture. He starts by (20:6) reciting God’s attributes: “You are the God of our fathers” (implying, “You took care of them.”) “You are God in the heavens, the ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations” (including those threatening to wipe us out!). “You are so powerful and mighty that no one can stand against You.” Why is he telling God all this? Certainly not for God’s information! It was to rehearse in his own mind and in the people’s minds the greatness of God, so they could trust in Him.
Next he recites God’s actions (20:7): “You drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and You gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever.” (Abraham is called God’s friend here, in Isa. 41:8, and James 2:23.) He reminds God of His covenant to hear the prayers of His people when they cry to Him in their distress (almost a direct quote from the dedication of Solomon’s temple, 2 Chron. 6:28-30).
Then Jehoshaphat mentions the problem which, he reminds God, stems from the fact that Israel had obeyed Him by not wiping out these very people who are now invading the land (20:10-11)! They are about to drive Israel out, not of their possession, but of God’s possession. Finally, he calls attention to God’s ability to deal with the problem, in contrast to Israel’s inability (20:12).
That’s a great prayer because it’s saturated with Scripture. It focuses on God as He has revealed Himself in His Word! If we fill our prayers with the greatness of our problems, our faith will shrink. But if we fill our prayers with the greatness of our God and how He has worked down through history, our faith will grow. God delights to answer believing prayers where we put our finger on the promises and truth in His Word and ask Him to make it so in our case.
Our great need should drive us to prayer; knowing our great God should direct our prayers. Finally,
As the people were gathered at the Temple in prayer, the Spirit of God came upon a prophet (20:14) who encouraged them not to fear and assured them that God would undertake for them in this battle without their fighting at all (20:15-17; not God’s usual means!). When they heard this word through the prophet, everyone fell down and worshiped and then they stood up and sang loud praises (20:18-19).
By the way, we again see Jehoshaphat’s humility here. If he had been proud, he would have said, “Wait a minute! I’m the king! I called this prayer meeting! Who does this prophet think he is to get a message from God? God has to give the message through me!” But he was humbly willing to submit to God’s word through this other man.
Then, based on the prophet’s word from God, the people got up the next morning and marched out to the battlefield, led by a choir singing praises, of all things (20:21)! That took some faith, to go into battle with your front line consisting of a choir! God caused the enemy armies to turn against each other, so that all Israel had to do was collect the spoil and celebrate the victory! Two thoughts:
The promise given through the prophet (20:15-17) was one thing; believing and acting on it was another. These singers were staking their very lives on the truthfulness of that word from God. They were doing a crazy thing—marching unarmed in front of the army, singing praises to God, against a powerful enemy that was armed to the teeth! As they went out on this seemingly crazy mission, Jehoshaphat encouraged the people by saying (20:20), “Put your trust in the Lord your God, and you will be established. Put your trust in His prophets [i.e., His Word] and succeed.” The evidence of their trust is seen in the fact that they kept marching!
This deliverance is a picture of our salvation. In salvation, we cannot do anything; God does it all: “Stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf” (20:17). Even faith is the gift of God, so that we cannot boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Yet at the same time, our faith that lays hold of God’s salvation is not just intellectual assent, where we say, “I believe” but don’t act on it. Saving faith is always obedient faith. Just as these singers’ faith was demonstrated by their marching out to battle, armed only with songs of praise, so genuine faith in Christ as Savior will be demonstrated in a life of joyful obedience to His Word. “Faith” that says, “I believe,” but does not result in obedience, is not saving faith (1 John 2:3-4).
He never fails those who trust Him and obey His Word. That is not to say that He delivers everyone who trusts Him from suffering or even death. There are many who have trusted God and lost their heads (Heb. 11:36-40)! But this earthly life isn’t the final chapter. All who suffer loss for Jesus will be richly rewarded in heaven or God is a liar! Just as Israel was enriched literally by the spoils of victory, so we will always be enriched spiritually through our trials if we recognize our great need, pray to our great God, and trust in Him alone, not in the arm of the flesh.
Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to inland China in the last century, went through numerous, difficult trials. He lost his wife and at least one child in death. His own life was often in danger. He used to say, “It doesn’t really matter how great the pressure is; it only matters where the pressure lies. See that it never comes between you and the Lord—then, the greater the pressure, the more it presses you to His breast” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor [Moody Press], p. 152).
Corrie Ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place and survivor of the German concentration camps, used to have people come up to her and say, “Corrie, my, what a great faith you have!” She would smile and reply, “No, it’s what a great God I have!”
We should join Jehoshaphat in rejecting all self-confidence and acknowledging, “O God, we’re powerless and we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You!” Our great need should drive us to prayer and faith in our great God.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
In the early years of my ministry, I attended a lot of pastor’s conferences and seminars because I felt overwhelmed with the demands of the ministry and I was looking for any help that I could get. But I soon began to realize that such conferences typically offered some method or strategy for ministry, but they left me feeling empty and not helped. While I still feel overwhelmed by the demands of the ministry, and I feel especially inadequate to preach on a text like this, I believe that the main method that Christ uses to build His church is godly men who devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).
I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Revival [Crossway Books], p. 310; I am indebted to his final two chapters, pp. 291-316, for this sermon), who observed that never before has the church had so many methods available to us, but at the same time, so little experience of the power of God. Christians need to know the living God in a deeper way. And, we need to entreat God to pour out His Spirit through a revived church, so that His power in salvation would turn millions in repentance and faith to Him.
Through God’s Spirit, the prophet Isaiah saw a desperate future time in Israel’s history. Because Isaiah predicted conditions that would take place about 100 years after he wrote (after the Babylonians conquered Judah), liberal critics have said that Isaiah couldn’t have written this. But I believe that God revealed the future to the prophet and led him to pray this prayer as a gracious way of teaching us how to lay hold of Him and His power in times of great spiritual need.
Isaiah pictures God as shut up in heaven, removed from His people who are suffering because of their sin. In an emotional outburst, the prophet calls upon God to rend the heavens and come down in great power, even as He did at Sinai, to restore His people and to make His name known among the nations. We learn that …
Those who feel the lack of God’s working should cry out to Him to come down in power to make His name known.
We might call Isaiah’s prayer, “revival praying.” Our text reveals five characteristics of “revival praying”:
The mood of this prayer is Isaiah’s overwhelming sense of the desperate situation of God’s people. He feels as if God is up in heaven and not even noticing what is happening (63:15). God’s former power is not being experienced: “Where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds?” His former mercies are not known. Isaiah boldly complains that God is emotionally cold toward him (63:15)!
Furthermore, God’s cities have become a wilderness. His temple is burned to the ground and trodden under foot (64:10-11; 63:18). None of God’s people are calling on His name; they’re all under the power of their sin (64:6-7). It’s as if they had never been under God’s rule or called by His name (63:19). Isaiah deeply feels the desperate need of God’s people, and so he prays with urgency and strong emotion.
Lloyd-Jones emphasizes Isaiah’s emotion in this prayer by pointing out the word “Oh” in 64:1:
Is there an ‘Oh’ in your praying? That is ... a very good test of prayer, that this ‘Oh’ comes in. ‘Oh, Lord.’ Or are you such good people, and doing such excellent work, as evangelicals, busy with this organisation [sic] and the other, that all you need do is to ask God to bless you and to keep on ...? Do you know what it is to say, ‘Oh, Lord’? ... Somebody once said that a sign, the best sign, of a coming revival is that the word, ‘Oh’ begins to enter into the prayers of the people (ibid., p. 301).
His point is that complacency with the existing low spiritual condition among God’s people is the enemy of revival. Remember the lukewarm church at Laodicea? They were content: “We’re rich and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” But God’s evaluation was that they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
I know of two ways to keep yourself from lapsing into lukewarmness and thinking that it is normal. First, steep yourself in the Bible so much that when you hear of the worldliness of the modern church, you are appalled. If you spend your time watching TV and movies, those worldly sources will flavor your view of what is normal. You will hear of worldliness in the church and shrug it off as no big deal. God’s Word must shape your worldview.
Second, read church history and read some of the great men of God from the past. You will learn how God has worked in history, and you will read men who were not tainted by our modern worldview. Of course, they were somewhat tainted by the view of their day, as we all are. But the fact that they wrote in a different time and culture will often jar you to see how far we have drifted. That is the start of revival praying—when some of God’s people begin to feel the lack of His working in our day.
Isaiah knew God as revealed in His Word and he laid hold of God and appealed to Him based on His holy and gracious nature. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 4:373) observes, “The most prevailing arguments in prayer are those that are taken from God himself.” That’s what Isaiah does here. His prayer is a lesson in applied theology, as he teaches us a number of things about the character of God. To pray as Isaiah prayed, we need a correct understanding of who God is. Note four things:
“Look down from heaven, and see from Your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). Immediately, Isaiah recognizes that there is a great gulf between himself and God. Isaiah is on earth below; God is in heaven above. He must look down to behold things here. So Isaiah begins his prayer as Jesus instructed us: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” Years earlier Isaiah had had a vision of the Lord in heaven:
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke (Isa. 6:1-4).
It was a devastating, yet transforming, experience for Isaiah. Now, when he comes before God, he recognizes the great separation between himself as a sinful creature and God in His glorious holiness. So he approaches Him with the proper humility. Leonard Griffith (This is Living [Abingdon Press], p. 134) wrote,
Too often we start to pray at the wrong place. Prayer should begin not with ourselves but with God—a conscious awareness that we stand before him as creatures before the Creator, subjects before the King, servants before the Master, children before the Heavenly Father. A university student, burdened by a personal problem, spent an hour with Phillips Brooks, the great Boston preacher. When he returned to the college, a friend asked him, “What did Dr. Brooks say about your problem?” The student looked surprised. “I forgot to mention it,” he said. “It didn’t seem to matter anyway when I talked with Phillips Brooks.” That should be the effect of prayer and it will be the effect if we come consciously into the presence of God. Before ever becoming a recital of our own problems prayer is a devotional exercise whereby we lose ourselves in God and rise from our mortality to his eternity, our smallness to his greatness, our weakness to his power.
“Where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds?” (63:15). “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence—as the fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (64:1-2). Isaiah knew God as the mighty God. When He comes down in His power, everyone trembles before Him.
Isaiah is referring here to God’s power as revealed in the exodus. God had performed signs and wonders in Egypt, He parted the Red Sea and led His people safely across. He closed the sea on top of Pharaoh and his pursuing army. He led His people to Mount Sinai, where He called Moses up the mountain to Himself, to give him the Ten Commandments. On that awesome occasion, God warned that neither man nor beast should come near the mountain, lest they die. There were thunder and lightning, the mountain was covered in a thick cloud and smoke, there was the sound of a loud trumpet, and the whole mountain shook violently (Exod. 19:16-19).
The exodus in the Old Testament is a type of God’s power in redeeming His people. That type is fulfilled at the cross of Christ. It takes the same mighty power of God to save a lost soul from Satan’s domain as it did to deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s domain.
I believe that we put too much emphasis on the human decisional aspect of salvation and not enough emphasis on the fact that salvation requires God’s mighty power to change hearts that are captive to sin. The crucial question is not, “Did you make a decision to invite Jesus into your heart?” The crucial question is, “Has God changed your heart through His mighty power?”
If God has saved you from your sins, you are a different person than you were before (2 Cor. 5:17). It is not that you never sin after salvation. But now you hate sin and fight against it, whereas before you went along with it. Now you love God and the things of God, whereas before you were indifferent or hostile toward God. If there is no change in your heart, there is good reason to question whether God has saved you. Revival praying calls upon the mighty God to come down with power to transform the hearts of hardened sinners.
Isaiah asks a bold question (63:17): “Why, O Lord, do You cause us to stray from Your ways, and harden our heart from fearing You?” Some want to tone this down, to mean that God has permitted, not caused, Israel to stray and grow hardened. But the Hebrew verb is causative. H. C. Leupold, a conservative commentator, says that this is an example of how a man under distress can get entangled in his illogical thoughts (Exposition of Isaiah [Baker] 2: 347)! But many other Scriptures affirm that God hardens the hearts of sinners (Isa. 6:9-10; Exod. 4:21; Deut. 2:30; Josh. 11:20; John 12:40; Rom. 1:18-32; 9:18; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Geoffrey Grogan is more on track when he writes, “[Verse 17] recognizes that God has established that moral law in which sin hardens the heart and does so by divine design …” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 6:343). Isaiah is not blaming God for Israel’s sin nor making God the author of sin. Rather, he is affirming that God righteously has judged His sinning people by giving them the fruit of their ways.
What does this mean for us? Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 300) expresses the warning like this:
… it is a terrible and a dangerous thing for God’s people to be disobedient. For sometimes God punishes our disobedience not only by turning his face from us, by leaving us to ourselves, but he even seems to drive us into sin, and into error, and to harden our hearts....
Be careful how you treat God, my friends. You may say to yourself, “I can sin against God, and then, of course, I can repent and go back and find God whenever I want him.” You try it. And you will sometimes find that not only can you not find God but that you do not even want to. You will be aware of a terrible hardness, a callosity in your heart. And then you suddenly realize that it is God punishing you in order to reveal your sinfulness, and your vileness to you.
So, when we come to God in prayer for revival, we must see that God is the holy and glorious God who dwells in heaven. He is the mighty God who acts with awesome power. He is the sovereign God who judges sin, sometimes by allowing sin to take its hardening course in our lives. But, also,
“For You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not recognize us. You, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is Your name” (63:16). “But now, O Lord, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; behold, look now, all of us are Your people” (64:8-9).
Isaiah is laying hold of God as the gracious, compassionate Father of His people who will restore them, no matter how much they have sinned, if they will turn back to Him and cry out for mercy. As Isaiah 55:6-7 puts it,
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
Revival praying knows God as the holy, glorious, mighty, sovereign God who judges sin, but also as the gracious Father who will forgive and restore when we turn back to Him.
Thus, revival praying begins when some of God’s people feel the lack of His working in our day. It lays hold of God as He has revealed Himself.
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment [the Hebrew means, “a menstrual cloth”]; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities” (64:6-7). Isaiah doesn’t blame God, but rather confesses the people’s sin and acknowledges sin’s devastating effects because of God’s righteous judgment. One mark of revival is that God’s people stop blaming God or others for their sin, and own up to it for what it is.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (p. 40) that people hate the doctrine of sin and the doctrine of God’s wrath. He also emphasizes (pp. 41, 101, 157, 231) that a sure sign of revival is that people begin to groan and agonize under the conviction of sin. They become so conscious of their unworthiness and wretchedness that they feel that they cannot live. Some who have been Christians for years begin to doubt whether they ever have been Christians. Why? Because a fallen sinner cannot draw near to a holy God without becoming even more conscious of his own sinfulness.
I’ve had Christians tell me, “Steve, I grew up in an abusive home. I was always put down. I don’t need to see how sinful I am. I need to focus on how much God loves me so that I can build my self-esteem.” There is a mixture of truth and error in those words. The truth is, we are new creatures in Christ, and we should not dwell on what we were in Adam, but rather on what we now are in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24). But the errors are that we are to build our self-esteem and ignore our sinfulness. Rather than focusing on ourselves, we are now to see ourselves in Christ so that we esteem Him and extol His grace and love.
And the fact is, the closer you draw to God, who is light, the more you see the darkness of your own sinful heart (Job 42:6, Isa. 6:5; Luke 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). If you truly know Christ, this will not drive you to despair, but it will cause you to be on guard against your own propensity toward sin and to glory all the more in the cross of Christ, where His grace freely flows. Show me a man close to God and I’ll show you a man who is painfully aware of his own sins and quick to confess and forsake them.
Notice the devastation which sin brings the people of God (64:10-11). Cities where people had enjoyed life, where children had laughed and played in the streets, were destroyed. The people were slaughtered or carried off into slavery in a foreign land. God’s temple, where His people had formerly sung His praises, was burned and in ruins. But in spite of all this pain, Isaiah didn’t pray, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down to make us all happy once again!”
No, Isaiah, like all who pray effectively, was motivated by something higher than man’s happiness. He was moved to pray because he wanted God to be glorified. He wanted God’s name to be known. He wanted the nations to tremble in God’s presence (64:2). Even so, those today who pray for revival must be moved above all by the fact that God’s honor is tarnished because of the sin of His people. We must pray for His glory to be revealed that the nations may tremble in His presence!
There is a strange irony in Isaiah’s prayer. He openly confesses the great sin of God’s people, yet at the same time he boldly appeals to God to act on their behalf. He prays some rather gutsy things here! “God, You’ve closed up Your heart toward me!” (63:15). “You’ve caused us to stray from Your ways!” (63:17). “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Lord? Will You keep silent and afflict us beyond measure?” (64:12). How can he say these things? Isaiah understood that we don’t come to God based on our merit, but based on His unmerited favor.
God’s grace never gives us warrant to sin so that grace might abound (Rom. 6:2). Isaiah here points out that God acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him. He meets with the one who rejoices in doing righteousness, who remembers God in His ways (64:4-5). God’s abundant grace should motivate us not to sin. But His grace also means that if we do sin, if we will turn from our sin back to God, He, like the father of the prodigal son, will come running to meet us with open arms. He’s that kind of gracious God!
Del Fehsenfeld Jr., the founder of Life Action Ministries, used to ask this searching question: “If revival in this land depended on your prayers, your faith, your obedience, would we ever experience revival?” (Cited in “Spirit of Revival” [2/99], p. 11.)
Today, we see many of God’s people who are hurting. Many are in captivity to sin. Many churches are offering worldly programs, techniques, and counsel that heal the wound of God’s people superficially (Jer. 8:11). True healing can only come when the living God moves powerfully in hearts to convert sinners and to bring repentance and revival to His people. We need to join Isaiah in praying, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down!”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Suppose a real estate agent called you and said, “I’ve got a choice property in the mountains with a luxury hotel on it. The building is worth $20 million, easily. I’ll let you have it for $20,000. What do you think? Oh, by the way, it’s located in Afghanistan.”
Buying property in a war zone is a high-risk investment, at best. But to buy a piece of property that is already under enemy control, when it’s obvious that the enemy is on the verge of overthrowing the entire country, would be crazy. Yet that’s exactly what God asked His prophet Jeremiah to do. Jerusalem was under siege, on the brink of falling to the Chaldeans. Jeremiah was in prison because he had been preaching that the nation was going to fall and that God wanted them to surrender.
While he was in prison, with the sound of the enemy army just outside the city walls, Jeremiah’s cousin came and offered him the family right of redemption to purchase a piece of property in Anathoth, which was already in Chaldean control. We can only guess at the man’s motives, but clearly he wanted to cash out of a hopeless situation. God told Jeremiah to purchase the land and go through the proper legal proceedings as a prophetic drama to emphasize to Israel that God would keep His gracious promise of restoring them to the land.
Jeremiah obeyed, but then he got a bit confused. Had he done something dumb? If God was going to overthrow Israel by the Chaldeans, as Jeremiah had been preaching and as seemed imminent, then why did God tell him to buy this land? So after the transaction was completed, Jeremiah prayed, and God granted him the answer he needed to endure. His prayer teaches us some lessons on how to pray by faith in a bleak, confusing situation.
Most of us can relate to being in confusing, seemingly hopeless situations. If we’re not there at the moment, we have been there and we will be there again! Perhaps you’re facing a financial crisis and you’re wondering where the money is going to come from. Maybe it’s an impossible family problem, where you see no hope and you don’t know what to do. Maybe it’s an overwhelming health problem. Or, you may be facing a pressing decision where it seems that none of the options are any good. You’re confused and wondering what to do. Jeremiah’s prayer shows that…
By faith we must pray for God graciously to fulfill His promises, no matter how bleak the situation.
That’s easier said than done! So let’s look at Jeremiah’s situation and prayer so that we can learn to pray better.
Jeremiah’s prayer occurs in a context and we would be remiss to consider the prayer apart from that context, which is, Jeremiah’s obedience to some very difficult commands from God.
First, God told Jeremiah to preach against Jerusalem, telling the people that the Chaldeans would overthrow the city and nation. If they fought against them, they would not succeed. To give that message in that situation would be like getting up after President Bush called our nation to war after 9/11 and saying, “We won’t win; you might as well submit to the Taliban now!” It was not a popular or patriotic message, to say the least! Obviously, the king wasn’t thrilled. And, the people weren’t very happy with it either, since it meant that they were going to suffer the consequences of their own and their fathers’ sins. It wasn’t an uplifting, encouraging message. But, Jeremiah obeyed God and preached it anyway.
May I remind you that God has not called pastors to give upbeat messages each Sunday so that you leave feeling warm and cozy! The modern evangelical church, sad to say, has often deliberately the marketing strategy of the secular business world. If you want to attract and keep your customers, you’ve got to give them what they want. Otherwise, they’ll take their business to your competitor who does a better job of meeting their needs. So churches have fallen into giving people what they want to hear, rather than lovingly, faithfully telling them what they need to hear, which is the straight truth of God’s Word (see 2 Tim. 4:1-5).
Jeremiah’s message was the truth, even though it wasn’t popular. The question you need to ask when you listen to preaching is not, “Do I like it?” or “Does it make me feel good?” but rather, “Is it the truth?” I cannot pray by faith that God would build His church here if I’m not obedient to His sometimes difficult command of preaching His truth, especially when it runs counter to what people want to hear.
The second difficult command that God gave Jeremiah was to spend his money to buy this field that was already under enemy territory. It seemed like an insane thing to do! It was like buying property at the base of Mt. St. Helens after geologists said, “It’s unsafe to be within 30 miles of that place.” At any moment, the country was going under. The Chaldeans had surrounded the city. Their siege mounds had almost reached the top of the wall, so that they could sweep into the city. And here’s Jeremiah, still in prison, going through an escrow to buy this piece of land. A lot of people no doubt thought that the man had lost it!
But he wasn’t crazy; he was being obedient to God’s difficult command. The point was to illustrate, by faith, that houses and fields and vineyards would again be bought in Israel (32:15). In Jeremiah 31, God had promised and Jeremiah had proclaimed that the days were coming when God would form a new covenant with His disobedient people, where He would write His laws on their hearts and forgive their sin, where they would be His people and He would be their God. By purchasing this field, God was asking Jeremiah to put his money where his mouth was. To pray by faith that God would fulfill His promises of restoring His people, Jeremiah had to be obedient to this difficult command.
The principle is just as valid today as it was then. You cannot pray by faith for God to fulfill His promises to you or to His church if you’re not obeying Him at whatever points obedience is difficult. Maybe you’re single, and you want a godly mate. You can’t pray by faith for a godly mate unless you’re growing in godliness yourself. If you’re married, you cannot pray by faith for God to bless your marriage unless, in obedience to His Word, if you’re a husband, you’re loving your wife sacrificially. Or, if you’re a wife, you’re submitting to your husband as unto Christ. You cannot pray by faith for God to bless your children if you aren’t modeling a godly life before them and seeking to train them in His ways.
Or maybe you’re praying that God would bless the missionaries or His work through this local church. That’s wonderful, but you can’t pray that by faith unless you’re obeying God by giving both time and money to His work. And, as I said, I cannot pray by faith that God would build this church unless I am obeying Him by faithfully preaching His Word, even when it’s not a popular message. To pray by faith, we must be obedient to God’s difficult commands.
Like Isaiah’s prayer which we studied last week, Jeremiah’s prayer shows that he knew God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. If we pray to God as we would like Him to be, contrary to how He has revealed Himself to be, we have no assurance that our prayers will be answered, because we are praying to a figment of our imagination. But if we pray to the living God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, we know that He hears us and will answer according to His will.
“Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (32:17). God reaffirms the same truth to Jeremiah in verse 26. No matter how bleak the situation, God knows that we’re in it (in fact, He brought us into it, 32:23) and He has the power to accomplish His sovereign will. Jeremiah appeals to God’s power as the Creator of the universe.
In our day of supposed scientific knowledge, we Christians have wrongly let evolutionists undermine the awe that we ought to feel as we consider God’s power as seen in His creation. Marla and I love to pack a picnic lunch, hike to a beautiful spot and drink in God’s handiwork. Often, as we take in the sweeping view of the wilderness and see hawks or eagles soaring on the thermal currents, I have said, “We’re supposed to believe that all this happened just by accident. Those hawks evolved from some lower life form and somehow they survived for millions of years before the rodents that they eat evolved, and then the whole thing balanced itself out so that there are plenty of rodents for the hawks and hawks for the rodents!” And the scientists say that they don’t have enough faith to believe in a creator God!
Take another example, the great horned owl. This intricately designed bird flies silently because of soft, downy feathers on the front of its wings, enabling it to swoop down on its food source undetected. Its eyes are 100 times more sensitive to light than human eyes, which enables it to see by starlight. The owl’s left ear is about an inch lower than the right ear, which allows sound waves from the left ear to get to the brain a split second faster than from the right ear. Its brain instantly computes the exact source of the sound. Also, the saucer-shaped disks of feathers around the owl’s eyes serve as receivers (like a dish antenna) to collect sound and transmit it through sound tunnels that go from the eyes to the ears.
The owl swallows its prey whole. Its stomach has powerful acids that digest the flesh, but not the fur, teeth, and bones. These useless parts stay in a top section of the stomach where a special muscle squeezes them into a small pellet. A special gland in the owl’s throat coats this pellet with mucus and the muscle pushes this slippery pellet up the owl’s throat so it can spit it out. Without the gland, the bones would get caught and tear up the owl’s throat. Even in 10 billion years, how could all of that have happened by chance adaptation to its environment, apart from a Creator? We could multiply millions of examples of God’s design.
Can any problem you or I have be too difficult for such a powerful Creator to handle? When we come to God in prayer, we are coming to the all-powerful Creator who made the heavens and the earth!
He shows lovingkindness to thousands (32:18). Jeremiah goes on to chronicle God’s past gracious and powerful redemption of His people from Egypt (32:20-22). The Hebrew word translated “lovingkindness” comes from their word for stork. The Hebrews observed that the stork took extraordinary care of its young. There’s nothing quite as homely as a baby stork—all mouth and no feathers. But in spite of this, the parent storks protected their young by making their nests in the top of fir trees. They spent their whole day collecting food for their young and stuffing it down their gaping mouths. The Hebrews saw that and said, “That’s like God’s loyal love toward His homely, squawking people!” Even today, we associate storks and babies!
When you come to God in prayer, you come to a gracious God. That means that you do not approach Him based on your own merit or worth, but on the merit and worth of the Lord Jesus Christ. He receives you into His presence based on the work of His Son on the cross. Paul says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). You can come to Him as a child comes to a loving parent.
My children have always had access to me at the church office or by telephone. Others may have to make an appointment or wait until I can call them back, but my kids have access to me at any time and know that I will welcome them because of their relationship to me. Even more so, God’s children through faith in Christ can come into His presence because He is a gracious God.
Many Christians misunderstand God’s grace. On the one hand, they think that they somehow must measure up to be worthy or to earn it. But if we must earn it, it’s not grace. Grace is extended to those who do not deserve it. God didn’t save any of us because He saw something in us worth saving. He saved us in spite of our sin, not because of our goodness (which none of us have in His sight, anyway).
The other misunderstanding is that somehow God’s grace means that He either overlooks our sin or stops the consequences of it. This leads to the third aspect of God’s character that Jeremiah mentions here:
In the next breath after mentioning God’s lovingkindness, Jeremiah says that He repays the iniquity of fathers into the bosom of their children after them (32:18). In the next verse he affirms that God sees everything we do and renders to each person according to the fruit of his deeds. In 32:23 he recognizes the direct connection between Israel’s sin and the present calamity. And, in 32:30-35, God affirms Jeremiah’s words by stating that the reason for His anger was Israel’s repeated sin. He lets Jeremiah know that He isn’t going to do any miracles to deliver Israel from the consequences of her sin.
We live in a day of tolerance toward sin. The only person we don’t tolerate is the one who is not tolerant of others’ sins. I am amazed at how many Christians think that we’re supposed to be tolerant toward those who claim to be Christians but who are living in disobedience toward God. They think that grace means that we just love and accept everybody. Often, they erroneously think that in the Old Testament, God was an angry, judgmental God, but by the time the New Testament was written, He had mellowed out into a nice old guy who doesn’t get all that upset about sin.
But God’s grace and His wrath against sin are revealed in both the Old and New Testaments. His grace doesn’t mean that He shrugs off the sins of His people. He sometimes deals severely with our sins because He is holy and He loves us too much to let us continue in sin. We need to see, as Paul put it, “the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). We need not only to love God, but also to grow in holiness because we fear Him (2 Cor. 7:1). We cannot pray in faith unless we are obedient to God’s difficult commands and unless we appeal to the character of God as He really is: All-powerful, gracious, and yet settled in His wrath against all sin.
God’s sovereign purpose is to be glorified both through the salvation of His elect and the just condemnation of the wicked (2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rom. 9:21-24). In spite of how much it may seem that the wicked prosper without any adverse consequences, while they trample God’s people under foot, God will save those whom Jesus purchased from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9), and He will judge all the wicked.
This theme runs throughout Jeremiah 31-33. In chapter 31, God promises to make a new covenant with His people and to reestablish them in the land. In chapter 32, He tests Jeremiah’s faith by telling him to buy this field in the face of the Chaldean victory, which clearly is a judgment on Israel’s sin. In the face of both this terrible enemy and Israel’s great sin, Jeremiah gets confused and wonders how God can put it all together—the hard facts of the present (32:24) and His promises for the future (32:25). Yet even though he’s confused, he affirms that what God has spoken has in fact come to pass (32:24b). Knowing that God’s sovereign purpose will be fulfilled, Jeremiah can trust God to bring the nation through this terrible time.
Sometimes I get discouraged because I see the sad condition of God’s people and how the enemy is running over the church. The American church is shot through with worldly attitudes and values. It is doctrinally shallow and often in error. God’s people are often indistinguishable from people who do not know God.
And yet Christ promised, “I will build My church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). He said, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). When we understand God’s sovereign purpose and His power, instead of despairing, we can pray by faith that He would fulfill His promises, because we know that what God has purposed He will do, in spite of the present overwhelming difficulties.
Jeremiah had a difficult life and ministry. He had faithfully preached for years, but no one listened. Instead, he suffered persecution and imprisonment. He was on the brink of witnessing inexpressible horror, as the Chaldeans would take Jerusalem, burn it and its temple to the ground, slaughter many of its inhabitants, and take most of the others into captivity. Even the few that were left in the land would not listen to Jeremiah, but stubbornly went to Egypt against God’s command (42:1-43:7).
But the God who delivered Israel into the hands of the Babylonians also promised Jeremiah that He would gather them out of the lands where He had driven them and bring them back to Jerusalem and make them dwell in safety. He would be their God and they would be His people, and He would never turn away from His covenant to do them good (see 32:37-41).
Remember, Jeremiah never lived to see those promises fulfilled. But because he believed in a sovereign God who would fulfill all of His promises to His people, Jeremiah could obey God’s difficult commands and trust that God would do the humanly impossible. Through Jeremiah’s prayer in this difficult and confusing situation, God granted him the understanding he needed to endure.
B. B. Warfield was a world-renowned theologian who taught at Princeton Seminary for 34 years until his death in 1921. Most of his insightful books are still in print today. But what many do not know is that in 1876, at age 25, Warfield got married and took his bride, Annie, on a honeymoon to Germany. While there, Annie was struck by lightning and permanently paralyzed. Warfield cared for her every day for the next 39 years, until he laid her to rest in 1915. Because of her extraordinary needs, Warfield seldom left the house for more than two hours at a time.
How did he endure this trial with patience and joy without growing bitter at God? His thoughts on Romans 8:28 may reveal the reason:
The fundamental thought is the universal government of God. All that comes to you is under His controlling hand. The secondary thought is the favor of God to those that love Him. If He governs all, then nothing but good can befall those to whom He would do good… Though we are too weak to help ourselves and too blind to ask for what we need, and can only groan in unformed longings, He is the author in us of these very longings… and He will so govern all things that we shall reap only good from all that befalls us. (This story and quote are from John Piper, Future Grace [Multnomah], p. 176.)
You may be in what seems to be a hopeless situation. But no matter how bleak and discouraging your circumstances, remember Jeremiah, who bought property in a war zone. By faith you can join him in laying hold of our all-powerful, gracious, holy God who will fulfill His promises on our behalf.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Every Christian wrestles with two problems: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers sometimes? And, why does God allow the evil to prosper while the righteous suffer? We especially wrestle with these two questions when they converge on us personally. When an evil person is harming us or someone we love and we pray, but God does not answer, it is especially tough.
Just recently Martin Burnham, a missionary to the Philippines, was killed in an attempt to free him and his wife from terrorists who had taken them hostage over a year before. His wife escaped with a bullet wound in the leg. Those close to him are left wondering, “Why didn’t God get him out of there alive?” God’s people were praying for his release. The men who kidnapped him are evil to the core, bent on killing others to obtain their objectives. God could have protected him, but He did not.
The prophet Habakkuk wrestled with these sorts of questions. He is unique among the prophets in that he did not, in his written message, speak for God to the people, but rather spoke to God about his struggles over these basic human questions. Why does God allow evil to go unchecked, especially when the righteous cry out to Him for justice?
We cannot be certain about the exact time of Habakkuk’s ministry, but the most likely scenario is that he wrote just after the godly King Josiah was killed in battle and the wicked King Jehoiakim had succeeded him. It was hard to understand why God would allow Josiah to be killed by the Egyptian army in that he had instituted many much-needed spiritual reforms in Judah (2 Chronicles 34-35). He was only 39 at the time of his death, and easily could have served for another 25-30 years.
But now his son, Jehoiakim was on the throne. Jeremiah confronted this king: “But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:17). No doubt Habakkuk and other godly people in Judah struggled with the question, “Why does God allow the increasing evil in Judah to go unpunished?” And, “Why isn’t God answering our prayers?” (Hab. 1:2-4).
Then God answered Habakkuk’s prayer and he now had a bigger problem! The Lord said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m going to send the Chaldeans to punish Judah’s sins” (1:5-6). Habakkuk thought, “No way! Those guys are far more evil than the evildoers in Judah that they’re coming to punish! How can a holy God do such a thing?”
To put this in perspective, suppose that you were burdened about the sinful, worldly condition of the American church and you prayed and prayed, but got no answers. Then the Lord answered and said that He was going to use Muslim terrorists to take over our country and destroy all of our Christian places of worship! Many Christians would be slaughtered. Others would be taken captive to Islamic countries where they would serve as slaves. You would think, “Wait a minute, Lord! The cure is far worse than the illness!” That’s similar to what the Lord told Habakkuk in answer to his prayers about ungodliness in Judah. The Chaldeans were going to wipe out the country!
So Habakkuk honestly shares his struggles as he works through this difficult issue, until he comes out at the glorious closing affirmations of 3:17-19, that no matter how bad things got, he would exult in the Lord and rejoice in the God of his salvation. From his experience we learn that…
When we wrestle with the problem of evil, we should go deeper in understanding, faith, and prayer, finding joy in our sovereign God.
Note four things:
Many of the Psalms, but especially Psalm 73, wrestle with this problem. If there is a righteous and powerful God in heaven, why do evil men seem to prosper, but the godly suffer? In the New Testament, the problem cries out from the graves of the godly martyrs, John the Baptist and Stephen.
In philosophy courses in college the problem is often put as a syllogism: If God is all-powerful and loving, He would put a stop to evil. Evil has not been stopped. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful or He is not loving. In his best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner argued that God is loving; He just isn’t able to stop evil. While that is obviously not a satisfactory solution, many Christians fall into essentially the same error. They try to escape the problem by saying that God permitted evil by giving man free will, but He did not ordain or cause evil.
Obviously God gave Adam free will and Adam chose to sin. But as John Calvin pointed out, this does not resolve the problem. He asked whether God permitted sin willingly or unwillingly (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1:18:3). If God willingly gave Adam free will, knowing full well that Adam would plunge the human race into sin, then sin had to be under God’s sovereign decree. Thus there is really no difference whether you say that God permitted it or He willed it, since He permitted it willingly. Calvin rightly insisted, “[God’s] will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are” (3:23:2, 8).
If you deny this, you fall into dualism, the view that there is an evil power equal to or greater than God. But, while insisting that “man falls according as God’s providence ordains,” Calvin also insisted, “but he falls by his own fault.” He exhorted, “Let us not be ashamed to submit our understanding to God’s boundless wisdom so far as to yield before its many secrets” (3:23:8). In other words, there is a limit to human understanding, and we err to press farther than Scripture allows.
Habakkuk took his questions and complaints to the Lord and worked through them in prayer, waiting on God for answers. When you wrestle with doubts on difficult issues like the problem of evil, you must proceed with caution. Some wrongly withdraw from God and His people into their own world of depression and pouting. Others angrily pull the plug on God entirely and go their own way into the world, convincing themselves that God must not exist or He wouldn’t allow the terrible things that go on every day in this evil world. Still others hang on to their faith, but it becomes a mindless, anti-intellectual, subjective experience where they just don’t think about disturbing questions.
But as James Boice puts it (The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:401), we must proceed as we do after a snowstorm, when the walks have been cleared but are still icy. You walk carefully, putting your feet on safe ground. Remind yourself of the things that you know to be true. Think and live carefully in line with the solid truths of God’s Word, working through the difficulties by prayer and waiting on the Lord.
That’s what Habakkuk did. He kept crying out to God for an answer, and when God’s even more difficult answer came, he stationed himself at his guard post to keep watch until the Lord would speak and reprove him (2:1). God’s second answer included the great verse, “The righteous will live by his faith” (2:4b). Thus when Habakkuk comes to his final prayer (3:1-19), he doesn’t have all the answers, simply because we cannot fully understand the ways of the sovereign God. But he had grown in understanding and he could by faith pray with joy, knowing that God was his salvation and strength. What understanding did Habakkuk’s struggle gain?
Let me highlight five things:
Sometimes we get so self-focused that we forget that God is painting on the canvas of world history, directing the nations according to His kingdom purposes and glory. God tells Habakkuk, “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (1:6). I’m sure that the Chaldeans would have had a different analysis of their military exploits! They would have attributed their might to their strong warriors or their disciplined troops or their superior weaponry. Some in Israel may have argued that it was Satan, not God, who was behind this fearsome enemy. But God clearly says that He raised them up to bring His judgment on His sinning people! He is the Lord of history, who raises up kings and peoples and takes them down again according to His sovereign purpose.
But it’s easy to lose sight of this when you face personal trials! For Habakkuk personally, it meant that life as he had always known it would come to a frightening, permanent change. The Chaldeans destroyed the nation of Judah, leveled the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and slaughtered countless Jewish people. They forcefully deported many more as slaves and left a weak remnant in the land as caretakers. Never again in Habakkuk’s lifetime would he or his family know life as they had known it. But he and the rest of the godly remnant had to submit their individual lives to God’s greater purpose in kingdom history. Likewise, we need to view our lives within the greater picture of God’s purpose in history.
In answer to Habakkuk’s second question, of how God could use an evil people like the Chaldeans to punish His people Israel, God shows the prophet that the victims of the Chaldeans can take up a taunt song against them (2:6). Five woes (three verses each) against the wicked follow, showing that God knows about their evil and He will judge them for it. He pronounces woes against illegal gain (2:6-8); trusting in illegal gain for security (2:9-11); violence (2:12-14); seduction of people and raping the environment (2:15-17); and, idolatry (2:18-20). The final verse (2:20) shows that none of these wicked things disturb the Lord or cause Him to panic: “The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.” As Habakkuk’s final prayer shows, in His time God will trample the nations and save His people (3:12-13). We don’t need to fear that evildoers will escape justice. They will not!
God didn’t have to scramble at the last minute, saying, “Oh, no! The Chaldeans are marching toward Jerusalem! What am I going to do?” As Habakkuk states, “You, O lord, have appointed them to judge; and You, O Rock, have established them to correct” (1:12). Also, the vision of what God would do through the Chaldeans was “for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal and it will not fail” (2:3). God ordained the exact minute that they would breach the wall of Jerusalem, and they were not a minute late! As Martyn Lloyd-Jones observes, “All history is being directed by God in order to bring his own purpose with respect to the kingdom to pass” (Faith Tried and Triumphant [Baker], p. 38).
This means that God was not surprised by the 9/11 terrorist attack or by the corporate scandals that have caused the stock market to nosedive in the past few weeks. And it means that as His people, we can trust Him in these and other troubling current events, even if these events have adverse effects on our loved ones or on us.
As Habakkuk puts it, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor” (1:13). “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Thus we must affirm, with The Baptist Confession of 1689 (modern version, “A Faith to Confess” [Carey Publications], 3:1), “From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners.” In ways that we cannot understand, God can remain apart from evil and yet use evil nations and people for His purposes, while holding them accountable for their sin (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
As Habakkuk 2:14 puts it, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In Habakkuk’s prayer (3:4-15), he shows in poetic language how God will “strike the head of the house of the evil to lay him open from thigh to neck” (3:13). “Selah” (pause and think about that)! The Book of Revelation is clear that God will permit Antichrist to deceive the nations for a season, and then God will throw him into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone forever and ever.
The point is, as we wrestle with the problem of evil we should go deeper in our understanding of God and His ways, as revealed in Scripture. We should not push things farther than Scripture allows. Calvin frequently warns about being impudent in going too far in challenging God. He states (Institutes, 3:23:2), “But we deny that [God] is liable to render an account; we also deny that we are competent judges to pronounce judgment in this cause according to our own understanding. Accordingly, if we attempt more than is permitted, let that threat of the psalm strike us with fear: God will be the victor whenever he is judged by mortal man [Ps. 51:4…].”
There will be times, especially when evil strikes us personally, that we simply do not understand God’s purpose or ways. What do we do then?
Habakkuk did not totally understand why God was going to do what He said regarding the Chaldeans, but he submitted to God by faith (2:4, 20), and his faith expressed itself in the joyful prayer that ends the book (3:1-19). Three lessons:
“Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith” (2:4). In the context, the proud one refers to the Chaldeans. Their pride will lead to their downfall and judgment. But the one who is righteous will live by trusting in God. The Talmud declares that this verse summarizes all 613 precepts that God gave to Moses (Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 212).
This significant verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). Paul uses it to argue that God justifies sinners through faith alone, not through our works. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. No one can be righteous before God, because we all have sinned and fall short of His glory. Jesus Christ lived the perfectly righteous life that God demands. His blood shed on the cross pays the penalty that we, as sinners, deserve. If a sinner will put his faith in Jesus, God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to that sinner’s account. It was Martin Luther’s breakthrough in understanding this truth that freed him from the futile system of works-righteousness that he struggled under. “Faith alone in Christ alone” was the foundation of the Reformation.
We begin the Christian life by taking God at His Word concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, that He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and that we can do nothing in ourselves to earn His salvation. Then we continue living by faith, basing our lives upon God’s Word of truth. Either you are trusting in yourself and your righteousness to get into heaven, which is pride; or, you are trusting solely in what God has done in Jesus Christ. Faith also trusts God when we do not understand His ways. When evil things happen to us we must trust that God is in charge and that He will reward us and punish the wicked, if not in this life, in eternity.
Habakkuk heard what God said and submitted to it by faith. But this does not mean that he calmly prayed, “I see, Lord. You’re going to use these wicked terrorists to destroy our nation. So be it!” His prayer is “according to Shigionoth” (3:1), which the margin says is “a highly emotional poetic form.” Habakkuk admits that when he heard what God was going to do, his inward parts trembled, his lips quivered, decay entered his bones, and he trembled (3:16). He prays (3:2), “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.”
So the prophet has terror and trust all mixed together, and he honestly pours out his feelings to the Lord. His trust makes him submissive; he is not railing angrily against God. He recognizes that God is just in pouring out His wrath on His sinning people, but at the same time he pleads with God to revive His work and in wrath, to remember mercy (3:2). But even though he’s trusting God, the thought of what is about to happen makes Habakkuk tremble with fear. The application is that when we go through difficult trials, we can be honest before God with our intense feelings, and yet at the same time be submissive and trust in His sovereign ways.
The ending of Habakkuk’s prayer is (as Feinberg puts it, p. 220), “one of the most forceful manifestations of faith’s power recorded in the Bible.” Even if the worst happens and he and the whole nation end up destitute, Habakkuk resolves (3:18-19), “Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.” This reminds me of Paul’s triumphant close to Romans 8, where he affirms that absolutely nothing, including evil powers or death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Habakkuk has just rehearsed how God has acted in history, especially in the exodus, to deliver His people and defeat their enemies. Sometimes, when doubts crowd into our minds because of trials that we’re going through, we need to go back to the facts of how God has worked in history, especially in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior. When we stand there, we stand firm, because the God of our salvation is our rock and hiding place. Thus from prison, with Christians criticizing him and non-Christians after his life, Paul could say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
Last Sunday evening, I was moved by Dr. Lacy’s story of visiting an African prison on his recent trip to Zambia. The men were in filthy rags, the only clothing they owned. Many are there unjustly, due to the faulty criminal justice system. They get one sparse, plain meal per day. Most of them were covered with open, itchy sores. They have none of the creature comforts that we have. And yet many of them responded to the gospel message. When they sang, Dr. Lacy said, they really sang with obvious joy in the Lord.
Yet here we are with far more worldly goods, with the world’s best health care, with freedom, with plenty of food and other good things, and we have an epidemic of depression in our land. Why the difference? Could it be that because those men have nothing but the Lord, their focus is on Him? But our focus is often on all of our stuff, stuff that can never make us truly joyful.
When you wrestle with the problem of evil, go deeper in your understanding of God and His ways. Then, even if our land is invaded and we lose everything, we can join Habakkuk in living by faith and prayer, finding joy in our sovereign God!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Have you ever had connections that got you special treatment? Everyone else was waiting in a long line, when your connection took you to the front of the line. No one else could get tickets to the sold-out event, but your connection got you the best seats in the house. There were 50 applicants for the job, but your connection made sure your resume got special consideration.
When my uncle was an enlisted man in the Air Force, he knew a colonel who went to his church. One day at the base, the colonel saw my uncle in the enlisted men’s mess line and came over and invited him to join him at the officer’s mess. He even carried my uncle’s tray through the line! The other enlisted men thought, “Wow! That guy must have something on the ‘old man’!” He had connections! As they say, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know, that counts!”
If you need connections, the best connection of all is to have connections with God. If you can get through to God so that you get special consideration from Him—that’s going straight to the top! He’s what you might call, The Ultimate Connection.
But maybe you’re thinking, “Does God have favorites? I thought that He received everyone equally. Can we really have connections with God?” The answer is, God may not have favorites, but He does have intimates. Some people have connections with God in a way that others do not. When they pray, God listens. I’d like us to see how we can join them.
In at least two Scriptures, God acknowledges that certain men had special influence with Him. In Jeremiah 15:1, God tells the prophet that even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before Him, His heart would not be with this people, so great is their sin. The implication is that these two men normally had special influence, although in this case, even they would not prevail. But since we’ve already studied Moses, I want us to look at another text, Ezekiel 14:14, where God tells Ezekiel that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were to pray for this people, He would not grant deliverance, except to these men alone. Clearly, Noah, Daniel, and Job had connections with God.
Chronologically, these events occurred about five or six years before Jeremiah’s prayer (32:16-25, which we studied earlier) during the siege of Jerusalem. A number of Judeans, including Ezekiel, had been taken captive to Babylon, but Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed. Nebuchadnezzar had set Zedekiah over Judah. He chafed under Babylonian rule for a while, but then he foolishly disregarded Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings and rebelled, leading to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city and the temple.
But five or six years before that final destruction, some Israelite elders living in Babylon came to Ezekiel to inquire as to whether the Lord would spare their homeland. The Lord revealed to Ezekiel that these men, who were outwardly pious, inwardly had set up idols in their hearts (14:3). So after exhorting them to put away their inward idols, Ezekiel gave them this word from the Lord, that Israel’s sin was too great for deliverance. Even if these three godly men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were to pray, it would be in vain.
Some scholars doubt whether this Daniel is the contemporary of Ezekiel because the spelling of his name varies slightly from that in the Book of Daniel. They postulate that this is a Daniel not mentioned in the Bible, but rather one (whose name also is spelled slightly differently) mentioned in an ancient Canaanite epic who was mainly known as a dispenser of fertility, but also as an upright man (John Taylor, Ezekiel, Tyndale OT Commentaries IVP], p. 129). I find this incredible! The Jews in exile would not have held up such a pagan mythic figure as a man having influence with God. Even though he was a young man, Daniel already had distinguished himself as a man of prayer by interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Clearly, the biblical Daniel is intended, even though the spelling varies slightly (see Ralph Alexander, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 6:808).
As to why he is listed in the middle of two men who lived over 1,500 years before, we can’t be sure. All three men were noted for their righteousness, which is why God picked them for special mention. Some suggest that the order reflects an increasingly stringent application of the principle: Noah delivered his own family from God’s judgment; Daniel delivered his three friends; but Job lost even his children during his trial (Patrick Fairbairn, An Exposition of Ezekiel [Sovereign Grace Publishers], p. 75). But at any rate, God mentions four times that in the present situation, these three could only deliver themselves (14:14, 16, 18, 20). Twice God says that the cause of their deliverance would be their righteousness (14:14, 20). Clearly, it was their righteousness that gave these men connections with God.
To pray effectively, we must be righteous people.
“Righteous” is a rare word in American Christianity in our day. It may sound a bit strange in your ears. There are dozens of best-selling Christian books about how to find fulfillment in your personal life or marriage, but there are very few that tell you how to be righteous. If you were invited to have lunch with a man known for his righteousness, would you even want to go? Do you want to be known as a righteous man or woman? But it’s the righteous person who has connections with God. James 5:16 tells us that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” Let’s see what it means to be righteous so that we can pray effectively.
The Bible uses word “righteous” in two ways. It is used of the righteousness of faith, which is called imputed righteousness (Rom. 3:21-4:25). This kind of righteousness stands in contrast to our good works. Paul states, “By the works of the Law [‘good works’] no flesh will be justified [‘declared righteous’] in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). A few verses later he repeats, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). Our works cannot justify us because God is perfectly holy. One sin is enough to separate us eternally from God in His holiness. All the good works in the world cannot cover our sin.
Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, is the only one who ever lived a sinless life. His death on the cross satisfied God’s justice as payment for our sins. When a person believes God concerning the work of Christ in dying for his sins, God credits the righteousness of Jesus Christ to that person. He views that person judicially just as righteous as Christ is. That is imputed righteousness. We know that Noah had been justified by faith because Hebrews 11:7 states that his obedience in building the ark shows that he was “an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” In other words, by Noah’s faith, God counted him as righteous. That faith manifested itself in his obedience in building the ark.
It is essential that you understand and appropriate this truth personally or you will be hopelessly frustrated in your attempts to be a righteous person. There is one prayer that any unrighteous person, no matter how great his sin, can pray and know that God will answer: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (see Luke 18:9-14). The instant a person by faith lays hold of God in that way, on the basis of grace, apart from good works, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to that person. Until we have appropriated this righteousness which is by faith, we have no basis for approaching God and expecting to be heard. Everything else I’m going to say assumes that you have this righteousness by faith in Christ.
This is the second way the word righteousness is used in the Bible, to refer to right conduct which stems from being justified (“declared righteous”) by faith. It means “conformity to a standard” and points to the behavior of those who live by God’s revealed standards of right and wrong. When Genesis 6:9 says that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time,” it’s referring to his conduct. Because Noah had found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8) through faith (Heb. 11:7), he had a right standing with God which now revealed itself in his right conduct. Genesis 6:9 adds that Noah walked with God. That’s true of all who have been declared righteous through faith: They walk with God. That means at least five things, as seen in the lives of these three men:
Here I mean not just saving faith, but also a life of constant trust in God. Faith means believing God concerning the unseen, even when the things we see seem to contradict what God has said (see Heb. 11:7). God warned Noah about the coming judgment of the flood. It probably had never rained on the earth to that point, since the earth was watered by a mist that came up from the ground (Gen. 2:6). Certainly there had never been anything close to a flood that destroyed everything. Noah had to take God’s word by faith and act on it, in opposition to what he saw with his eyes. He built his whole life around this word of God apart from any tangible evidence that it would happen.
Daniel demonstrated that same practical faith in God throughout his long life. When Nebuchadnezzar was going to kill him and his friends because no one could interpret his untold dream, Daniel waited upon God for that information. Later, when he was thrown into the lions’ den because he would not stop praying, he trusted God to protect him.
The same was true of Job. When his children had been killed, his riches were gone, his body was racked with pain, and his friends accused him of secret sin, Job affirmed, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job. 19:25-26).
That’s what the Christian life is all about—counting upon God’s Word concerning the future reward of heaven and the judgment of hell. We’ve gotten away from this. We emphasize the present benefits of being a Christian. Christianity is being marketed as a product that can do everything from help you lose weight to make you a successful salesman. But righteous people live daily by turning away from the glitzy visible things of this world and trusting in the unseen promises of God.
Noah obeyed God and built the ark in the face of intense ridicule, no doubt. He obeyed by getting on board the ark before there was any evidence of a flood. Twice we are told that Noah did according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Gen. 6:22; 7:5). Daniel obeyed God and asked to be excused from eating the king’s defiled food. Later, he obeyed God by continuing his daily prayers in disobedience to the king’s edict. Job submitted to God even though he didn’t understand why he had to suffer as he did.
And, each of these men obeyed God over the long haul, in the face of opposition and adversity. They had what Eugene Peterson calls, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” It probably took Noah 120 years to build the ark (Gen. 6:3). For 120 years he was the laughingstock of the area. It must have been a favorite pastime to go over and watch old Noah working on his ark. There it was, a 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, 45 feet high ship sitting high and dry in Noah’s back yard! Can you imagine the kind of jokes Noah and his family endured? “He says that God’s going to flood the whole earth because of our sin! Ha! What a nut!”
Daniel and Job also obeyed God over the long haul, in spite of opposition and adversity. Daniel was in his eighties when he got thrown in the lions’ den. Some might have thought, “What a reward for a life of faithfulness to God!” But Daniel submitted to God’s sovereign control over the situation. Job didn’t understand why God was treating him as He was, and he admitted his intense frustration, but he never defied God or said, “If that’s how You’re going to treat me, see if I follow You any more!”
I fear that many obey God as long as it gets them what they want out of life, but if they have to go through extended trials, forget it. When you peel it all away, it’s really self, not God, whom they are serving. But righteous people walk with God, which means obedience over the long haul, in spite of opposition or trials.
Both Noah and Job were said to be “blameless” (Gen. 6:9; Job 1:1, 8; 2:3), which means “to be complete or whole, to have integrity.” Although the word is not used, the description of Daniel by his enemies describes this quality: they could find no ground of accusation against him (Dan. 6:4-5). When used of speech (Amos 5:10), it refers to what is entirely in accord with truth and fact (Brown, Driver, & Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford], p. 1071). That these men were blameless does not mean that they were sinlessly perfect. Rather, it means that they were not hypocritical; they didn’t put on a good front before others, but live in sin secretly. In contrast to the elders who came to Ezekiel, they didn’t openly profess to follow God, but hide idolatry in their hearts.
How do you get this kind of integrity? In a word, by being honest with God and with others. You’ve got to walk openly before God on the heart level, not hiding sin or thinking that He doesn’t see some part of your life. He sees even our thoughts and motives (Heb. 4:12-13). So you live each day with the awareness that God sees your life and you will give account to Him someday (1 Thess. 2:5, 10). You judge every wrong thought and confess it immediately to Him.
Also, you’ve got to put a premium on honesty in your relationships with others. If you fudge on the truth (a nice way of saying that you lie), you’ve got to make it right by confessing it to the Lord and to the one you lied to. God is the God of truth; His people must work at being truthful with Him and toward others.
All three of these men lived in especially ungodly times. In Noah’s day, the ungodliness was so rampant that God was sorry that He had made man and decided to judge the entire earth by the flood. In Job’s day (probably about 2000 B.C.), there was no unified people of God, so far as we know. God may have called Abraham about the same time, but there were few who called upon His name. Daniel and his three friends seem to be the only ones who took a stand for the Lord at Nebuchadnezzar’s court in Babylon. There were strong pressures on all these men to compromise, but they stood apart from the world and alone with God.
Walking with God means that you will face situations where you must stand alone against the crowd. Of course, you’re never alone, since God stands with you. But you may be the only student in a classroom, the only one at a social gathering, or the only one at work, who says, “No, I will not do that because I’m a Christian!”
It is stated that Noah walked with God. Though not stated, it is certain that Job and Daniel both walked with God as well. The word “walk.” implies fellowship. As I said, you’re not alone when you have to stand alone, because you enjoy fellowship with God.
Marla and I like to hike together. That time walking and talking, enjoying the scenery, the trees, the birds, and the animals, builds closeness in a relationship. You share together, which is the essence of fellowship. The Christian life is not just obedience to God’s commands; it’s also fellowship with Him in all of life.
Thus, righteous people have appropriated the righteousness that is by faith. As a result, they walk with God, which means trusting Him, obeying Him, being honest with Him, standing alone with Him, and having fellowship with Him.
It’s interesting that while the Bible often says that God spoke to Noah, there is no record of Noah praying to God. Yet we can be sure that he did! Job no doubt interceded for his children and he prayed for his three “friends” (Job 1:5; 42:8-10). There are many instances of Daniel praying for himself and others (Dan. 2:18; 6:10-11; 9:3; 10:2-3, 12). You can see it with many other godly people in Scripture—they interceded with God on behalf of others.
Who knows what the world owes to righteous people who pray? We won’t know until we’re in heaven. God will play back the video of our lives and we’ll be surprised as we see it: “Look at that, when I was kept from sin that time, my godly mother was praying for me! That time I was protected from an accident, a godly friend was lifting me before the throne of grace! That time when I was so discouraged, I was kept from quitting because a godly church member was praying!” Most of us owe our conversion, humanly speaking, to some righteous person who prayed us into God’s kingdom. Righteous people pray for others. But,
That’s the context of Ezekiel 14. The city of Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed, but it now was inevitable because God had determined that it must be judged as a testimony of His separation from His people’s sin. God had graciously warned them over and over for centuries. But finally they had crossed the line. Now, not even the prayers of righteous Noah, Daniel, or Job could prevail.
We make a serious mistake if we think that God’s patience has no limit. His grace is great. His patience goes much farther than human patience ever could go. But there is a limit. There’s a limit nationally, when God sovereignly says, “That’s enough!” He told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in another land for 400 years and then they would return to the land of Canaan. Then God added, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). God was patient with the immoral Canaanites for over 400 years, but then He said, “That’s enough!” and commanded Israel to destroy them in judgment. Nations, like ours, that turn from the knowledge of God are presuming on His grace.
Also, there is a limit to God’s patience personally. If we have not responded to His grace, we face that limit at death, which can strike at any moment. But, also, it can come when a person repeatedly hardens his heart against God. He crosses a line where he is so confirmed in sin that even the prayers of the righteous for his salvation will not prevail. We never know for sure when that line is crossed. We know that God is both just and merciful. But the fact that the line exists ought to make us tremble at the thought of continuing in our sinful ways. “Seek the Lord while He may be found” (Isa. 55:6)!
The president of a large city bank was seen standing in front of the automatic teller one day while it performed a transaction rather slowly. After a brief wait, he was heard to say, “Come on—it’s me!” Being the president of a bank doesn’t give you special connections with the ATM! But being a righteous person does give you connections with God. If we’re righteous people—declared righteous by faith in Christ, and living righteously by walking with Him—then we can intercede on behalf of a lost and hurting world and know that our prayers will accomplish much.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.