Abraham's Prayer for Sodom
Read Genesis 18:16-33
The Bible contains the prayers of individuals which were offered under various circumstances. David uttered a prayer in almost every Psalm he wrote. When we think of the prayers of our Lord and the prayers of Solomon and of Daniel, we realize that we are dealing with some of the best examples of prayer one would ever be able to find. While we need "a theology" of prayer, we must also learn from the examples of prayer which have been included in the Sacred Writings. No one year of study will ever be able to do justice to the whole field of prayer revealed to us in Scripture, but we seek to explain some of the prayers which have come to us.
Friend of God and Father of Believers
Abraham has an important place in the sacred history. He is called a "friend" of God. To him God makes Himself known as to no other man in his time. He exhibited a faith which has seldom been equalled and is included in the catalog of "heroes of faith" in Hebrews 11. He is even called the "father of believers."
He received the promise of a numerous seed and of a large land when he had no children and was living as a stranger in this land of promise. God had promised him! Therefore it is sure to happen! Although he is a hundred years old and his wife only ten years younger, God's word must stand!
It is, therefore, not surprising that Abraham was a man of prayer. He lived in close communion with his God and had constant fellowship with Him. In the verses previous to those we study in this lesson, God engages in a soliloquy. He is counseling with Himself. Should He withhold from Abraham the news of what He is doing in his community? Abraham will become great and a channel of blessing to the world and will instruct his family after him so that they may walk in the way of Jehovah. If he is to do this properly, he must also know the reason for the destruction which is about to take place. His children must do righteousness and justice. Abraham must be able to point them to the righteousness and justice of God. God will not hide the things which are about to happen from Abraham.
The setting for the prayer of Abraham is very strange. Moses is here speaking anthropomorphically, that is, he is speaking of God in a very human way. He is going "to go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know." The account leaves the impression that He must investigate to see whether the state of Sodom and the neighboring cities is as bad as has been reported! He is going to go down to Sodom so that He may be in possession of all the facts. Yet, only the two angels go down to Sodom and the Lord is still with Abraham. He is now, so to speak, taking Abraham into His council because he is His friend and he will have to teach the future generations. That which he will have to teach the coming generations is a warning. God is indeed merciful, but His justice will never be sacrificed.
The fact that the Lord takes Abraham into His confidence is an indication that He now elicits the prayer from Abraham. Abraham, as a child of God, is to pray for Sodom! Who is there in Sodom to pray for deliverance? He is to be the intercessor.
Abraham prays for Sodom — not only for the few righteous people who may be found in Sodom, but for the city! Jonah found something very similar in his lifetime when he was commissioned to the great city of Nineveh. He failed to pray for the city, for he could not understand that God would be gracious to a city like that. He stumbled at the grace of God! Abraham is not of the same mind as a Jonah. He prays for the thousands of people who are not able to discern between their right hand and their left (Jonah 4:11). This idea lies at the root of all mission fervency. Thousands of people are about to perish and should this not affect the true child of God? Abraham knows about the wickedness of Sodom and the other cities in the neighborhood. Their wickedness is indescribable. It is shown only a little later when the angels come to the house of Lot. Yet, Lord, is their not still place for mercy? This man, Abraham, whom the Sodomites may not even know, is the greatest friend they have. Lot is not interceding for them! He does not even seem to be aware of the impending doom.
But, how can a believer really pray for such a wicked city as Sodom? Is its wickedness not proof enough that it ought to be destroyed? Of course, but notice the way in which Abraham prays, that is, the structure of his prayer. He is the one who is standing in the breach between God and these godless cities. If God destroys the wicked, no one may question this action. They have deserved this destruction by their godless actions. But, says Abraham, wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? This is the ground on which he pleads. Surely, the righteous, that is, those who are not guilty of the same sins as the other inhabitants of these cities, should not have to pay for the unrighteousness of the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Abraham knows that it would not be right to cause the righteous to suffer the same fate as the wicked.
Abraham shows a certain boldness when he approaches God in this way. Is it conceivable that God might have had in mind to let the same judgment fall on both the righteous and the wicked? If so, Abraham would seek to dissuade Him! That be far from Thee! It should not even have to be said. Surely, God's righteousness would not allow this.
Is Abraham here pleading for God's mercy as opposed to His righteousness? It almost seems so. But God will not have one of His attributes played off against another. He will be righteous and He will be merciful. No one will ever be able to accuse Him of unfairness. Although we can never get the two, mercy and love, to agree, He can! He spoke of it already in Psalm 85 and showed it in His Son's coming. There mercy and justice meet. Abraham is living many years before that event. He would love to have been able to see the day of the Son of Man (John 9:56; Hebrews 11:13).
For a Godly Minority?
Suppose there are fifty righteous people in these cities. That is not very many. In fact, it would be such a miniscule percentage that it would hardly count. But, if there were so many, would God destroy the place, that is, the cities, if there are so many righteous? The answer is: No! God doesn't require many righteous to spare the whole place! Ye are the salt of the earth. It doesn't take much salt to preserve the whole lump. The wickedness of these cities has become proverbial, but, let us not fail to see the mercy which our God is still willing to extend to such places for the sake of a few righteous. The believers keep this world standing! This is not recognized by the world, but it is the clear teaching of the word of God. Notice that he is praying for the existence of these cities and not only for those few righteous who may still be living there.
As we follow the rest of the prayer of Abraham for Sodom we are indeed allowed to look into the heart of this true child of God. Does he have second thoughts? He has prayed for these cities if there are but fifty righteous people in them. Does he know fifty righteous people there? No, and therefore, the prayer takes on the particular structure of which we spoke in the beginning. He really fears to speak further. Behold, he says, I have taken upon me, who am but dust and ashes, to speak to Adonai, the Almighty Ruler! How dare he come with his petitions before this great God? That is the beauty of the teaching of Holy Writ: those who know themselves to be but dust and ashes may come into the presence of the God of heaven and earth!
Should there not be fifty righteous in these wicked cities, will Abraham's prayer have been for nought? How many righteous does it take to save the cities of the plain? He drops his figure by only five and asks whether God will save the cities if there are forty-five righteous people in them. The answer again is positive. The Lord will not destroy these cities if there are only forty-five righteous. He continues to drop the figure another five: for forty? No, the cities will remain standing even if there are only forty righteous. One can see that Abraham is groping — Lord, what if there are only thirty? If there are only twenty? Now let not the Lord be angry, but he will speak once more. Suppose there are only ten righteous people to be found in all the cities of the plain. The Lord assures him that if there are only ten righteous people there, the cities will be saved.
But, there were not even ten righteous people there! Consequently, the cities were destroyed utterly. There really was no preservative found in all these cities. There was Lot! His wife? She couldn't consent to leave it all behind. Their two daughters? They had been so infected with the prevailing sins of Sodom that they deliberately chose the way of incest to keep their names alive. In the final analysis there was only one righteous man in all these cities and we are indebted to the New Testament for the teaching that Lot was a "righteous" man (2 Peter 2:7).
Why didn't Abraham lower the figure once more? Certainly he didn't know fifty righteous people in Sodom but neither did he know ten. Yet, to lower the figure even below ten would have degraded his plea. It would also have been indicative of the fact that he was praying only for his relatives. No, this man of God is the intercessor for many more than his own blood relatives.
Was Abraham's prayer in vain? No, he obtained more than he could have hoped for. There were not even ten righteous in these cities and therefore they were completely destroyed. Yet, the righteous who were found in it were led out so that they would not persist in the destruction of these cities. This was because of Abraham's prayer (Genesis 19:29).
Questions for Discussion:
- Must we pray for the "world"? (Cf. John 17:9.)
- What type of prayer life is necessary to fulfill the mission imperative? Do we pray enough for those still in heathendom? How must we pray for them?
- Is it profitable for us to know, for our prayer life, that the Judge of all the earth will do right?
- Is the justice of God a comfort for God's people? Is it usually considered to be comforting?
- How can a merciful and loving God destroy thousands of people as He did in the destruction of Sodom and surrounding cities?
- What was the difference between the Sodom of Abraham's day and the Nineveh of Jonah's day?