Read Exodus 32:32, 33:12-16, 1 Kings 19:4, Jeremiah 12:1-4
There are unique and unexpected answers to the prayers of God's people and there are also "unique" or strange prayers uttered by the people of God. This is an important topic because all our prayers are not well structured and often contain strange requests. It is well for us to note that the Bible writers struggled with the same problems as we do. They often prayed in a way that amazes us. How could God pay attention to such a prayer? He did and He does. We give only a sampling of the many strange prayers which former saints have uttered. There are many more and someone else might have made a different choice, but these will show, we trust, the difficulties we often encounter when we pray. Don't we sometimes pray for things for which we should not pray?
A Prayer to be Lost for Others
In the first Bible passage noted above we receive a glimpse into the heart of the mediator of the Old Testament, Moses. He was a great leader and a safe guide to the Israelites during all the years of wandering from Egyptian bondage to their rest in the promised land. His was a tremendously difficult task. He was placed over and had to lead an unappreciative and rebellious people. Not surprisingly, he, at times, lost patience with them, as at the time when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Israel had sinned deeply. Moses had gone to the top of Sinai to receive one of the most important revelations contained in the Bible, the law of God. While he was on the mountain the people encouraged Aaron to make a golden calf! They wanted a god which they would be able to see. Moses must immediately return to the people to correct them. What a vast disappointment! These people had seen great wonders done by their God, but they rebelled. They were now threatened by severe punishment.
Moses now revealed his deep love for these people. The men of Levi had been commissioned to go through the camp of Israel and kill those who were guilty, and three thousand people were slain. Now Moses addressed God and pleaded for His forgiveness. And, if He would not forgive them "then blot my name out of Thy book," said Moses. He would sacrifice his own salvation for the salvation of the people of God. So dear they were to him. This is, of course, an impossible request. God notified him at once that the one who sinned would pay for his sins. Neither Moses nor any other man can pay for the sins of others. Only One could do that — Jesus Christ.
We find almost a repeat of this sentiment of Moses in Romans 9:3 Paul is there speaking about the Jews, his kinsmen. These have first received the revelation of God but they have not followed Jesus Christ. If they do not repent, they will be lost. He says that he could wish himself to be accursed of Christ rather than to see all of his people lost. Again, this is impossible. Paul cannot give his life for others, any more than Moses could. But, what love he showed for his people! What a pastoral heart he had! It is almost impossible to imagine someone offering this kind of prayer! — to be eternally lost for the sake of others!
Prayer for God's Presence
In the second passage noted at the head of this lesson we still deal with the aftermath of that which was contained in the first passage. The Israelites could not remain in this place. They must go on toward the Promised Land. God had said, in answer to the prayer of Moses, that he would send His angel to lead them (32:34). This was already a great benefit for both Israel and Moses. This angel, whom God would send, would not lead them astray but would guide them on the road they had never travelled before. But, even though it was a great benefit, it was not the same as the earlier guidance when God Himself led them.
It is not enough for Moses to know that the angel of God will go before them. "No," he says, "if Thou Lord dost not go with us then let us stay right here." "I don't care to take one step toward the Promised Land if God does not go with us and before us. It is also the only way I know," says Moses, "that I have found favor in Thy sight." Better to stay here in the wilderness of Sinai with God, then to enter the promised land with only an angel as guide. If God will go before them, the promises which He has made to His people will be kept. Moses is bold in his request. Too bold? No, God hears him in this also. God Himself will go before the people. Thus they will come to the land which had been promised them. It is a sign that the people have been forgiven. Moses does not give up easily. He must have the assurance of Jehovah's presence in all the wilderness wanderings.
Praying to Die
In the third passage noted is a different kind of prayer, Elijah, the hero of Carmel, is now asking for death. Why this sudden change? At the top of Carmel he stood fearlessly against all the prophets and priests of Baal and called Israel back to the living God. However, the death of the Baal's servants so displeased Queen Jezebel that she sent word to Elijah that his life would be taken soon.
It is a strange episode! Elijah flees for his life and then asks God to take his life away! Is it his desire that God take his life rather than the wicked queen of Israel? No, he is plainly weary of life. He is filled with self-pity. "The children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, broken down thine altars, and I am the only one who is left that fears the Lord and now they are seeking to take away my life too." It is sad when an individual comes to the conclusion that he is the only one left who really serves the Lord. The Lord therefore also makes it clear to him a little later that the number of those who are still serving the Lord, though not many, still runs into thousands!
But, Elijah wishes to die. Not by his own hand — perish the thought, but also not at the hand of Jezebel. Let the Lord take his life. He then adds a very peculiar reason for it. He says, I am no better than my fathers. There is indeed difference of opinion as to the exact meaning of these words. It seems to me that he is here simply appealing to the fact that even his fathers would not have been able to stand all the abuse which has been heaped on him. He is not made of steel! There is a limit as to what a man is able to endure! Lord, it is enough. I have done my best. Nothing works! Everything is lost! Take away my life!
Elijah was a hero of faith but he does not show his heroic character in this prayer. The prayer reveals to us the weakness of even the strongest. At the top of Carmel he feared nothing and nobody. Now he is afraid of everything. How are the mighty fallen.
Besides, Elijah may not pray this kind of a prayer. The time of his departure from this life will be determined by his God, and it is in good hands. Elijah feels. what's the use. God gives him another huge assignment in the same chapter in which he had prayed that his life might be taken away. Elijah's work is not finished.
An Impatient Prayer
The last passage noted gives us another prayer of a true child of God which is quite different from those already treated. Jeremiah lived during the closing days of the kingdom of Judah's freedom. It was his task to bring the news to the kings and the other leaders that Judah would surely go into captivity. He was not well-suited for the bringing of this kind of message. He was very sensitive — easily hurt. God had made him that way! And, even though He had made him that way, He gave him a message of doom for the people of his day. As a result, Jeremiah suffered greatly. He simply could not understand the ways of God. He saw the wicked flourishing while the people of God were sorely tried. This same theme is found in Psalm 73 and in the book of Job. Why must the righteous suffer while the ungodly prosper? Jeremiah could understand this no better than the author of Psalm 73 or Job.
Jeremiah attacks the problem differently from either Asaph or Job. He begins with the thesis. Thou art righteous! He should keep that in mind. God is not unrighteous when He deals with people in the way that He does. Jeremiah will soon lose sight of this statement, however, when he continues.
Even though God is righteous, Jeremiah would like to "debate" with Him about the way the righteous and unrighteous are treated in this life. God is responsible for the unrighteous people too. He has planted them. As a result, they grow and bear fruit, but it is not the kind of fruit one would desire. They may speak of God with their mouths but surely their hearts are far removed from Him.
In contrast, look at Jeremiah, "Thou knowest me. Thou seest me and triest my heart toward Thee." When God looks on Jeremiah He will find an Israelite in whom is no guile! Why then must he suffer while the wicked flourish?
Jeremiah would like to give the Lord some advice. This is always a very dangerous procedure! We are not His counselors. But, if the Lord would only follow the advice of Jeremiah the whole problem would be solved! Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter and prepare them for the day of slaughter! Make sacrificial animals out of them! Then the land will no longer have to mourn, the herbs will not wither and the beasts will not be consumed. Everything will be better. It is such a simple solution. Strange that the Lord had not thought of that!!!
The prophet Jeremiah is treading on very dangerous ground when he utters this very strange prayer. Does he know better than God? One doesn't like to put it that way, but, really, we often think ourselves wiser and more loving than God! This is dangerous. He started off in the right direction. "Thou art righteous, O Lord." Let him hold on to that! Even though he doesn't understand the ways of his God, He is righteous!
These prayers also belong to the Scriptures. They are not included in the prayers which we usually study for our spiritual benefit. Yet, they have much to teach us. The prayer remains on the lips of every child of God past, present and future. Lord teach us to pray!
Questions for discussion
- Can you conceive of anyone being willing to die eternally for the sake of others? What is the difference between such a prayer and David's wish that he might have died instead of Absalom?
- Why wasn't the leading of an angel sufficient for Moses? Wouldn't this kind of leading have had the same results as the leading of Jehovah Himself?
- How can Elijah stand on the mountain peak of faith at one moment and soon thereafter be despondent? Is such a change common among God's people?
- Why does God allow the wicked to prosper? Is there an answer to be found in the Scriptures? Why is this theme often struck in the Bible?
- What does it say to you that God even listens to and answers such prayers as have been treated in this lesson?