With this initiative in mind, several of us who write for the Carroll blog have decided that we need to address prayer in our writing. For my part, I am going to take the next few weeks to look at some examples of prayer from the Scripture. In these examples, we will see the richness and vitality of prayer as a discipline. We will also see the diversity of its expression as people confront new challenges with new insights into God’s character and purposes.
Ancient Prayers of Intercession
Today, I want us to look at two ancient incidents where one person prayed for another. They may not seem to have a lot in common, but, when read together, they teach us about some of the basics of prayer.
The first example is found in Genesis 25:21. Here, Isaac prays for his wife Rebekah. They have been married for twenty years, and she has not yet borne him any children. This was a serious matter in the ancient world, and so Isaac approaches the Lord on his wife’s behalf.
The second example can be found in Exodus 7-10. Moses has been sent by God to the king of Egypt. His task is to deliver the people of Israel from slavery and take them back to their ancestral home in Canaan. Pharaoh, of course, is not particularly keen on this plan; he likes having Hebrew slaves around. So, God brings a series of plagues upon Egypt. As part of the back-and-forth between Pharaoh and Moses, Exodus records several instances where the king asks Israel’s representative to pray for him.
Praying within the Plan and Purposes of God
Praying in accordance with God’s will might at first seem to be a New Testament concept, but it is an idea that binds together these seemingly different examples of prayer. Isaac was the child through whom God’s promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled (cf. Genesis 21:1-2). The promise was that God would make a great and special nation out of Abraham’s offspring (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). So, when Isaac prays on behalf of Rebekah, he is really praying that God will bring about the things that He has promised.
As we have already noted, God had called Moses to deliver His people from the land of Egypt (cf. Exodus 3-4). But God had also warned Moses that Pharaoh would not give up his slaves easily. As the story unfolds, we see that Pharaoh’s stubbornness was itself part of God’s plan, for it allowed God to show His power in various ways both to the Egyptians and to the descendants of Jacob.
So, when Moses prays for Pharaoh, it is part of God’s larger purpose. But it is also in accordance with God’s specific plan. The plagues were never intended to be permanent blights on the land of Egypt. They were temporary displays of God’s power. It is not surprising, then, that Moses would ask God to take away the plagues, although it is not at all clear that his prayers were a necessary prerequisite to the cessation of the plagues.
Now, it is important to note that Isaac and Moses offered the prayers for reasons other than simply to fulfill God’s will. Isaac loved Rebekah, at least when they first married, and he wanted her to avoid the disgrace and sense of personal failure that often accompanied (and sometimes still accompanies) infertility. Moses was obligated by the dictates of honor to pray for his apparent benefactor (Pharaoh), although in each case the king reneged on his part of the bargain. But the presence of these other motives does not change the fact that these prayers were offered within the framework of God’s plan and purposes.
Expanding Our Horizons
We do more than present requests to God when we pray, and yet requests are an important part of nearly every prayer we offer. We are taught by our Lord to make those requests within the context of God’s will. But I think that the two examples we have touched on today help us understand better what that means.
When I think about praying in accordance with God’s will, I think in terms of what God wants for the specific issue that I am bringing to His attention. That is certainly part of the equation, but it is only a part. We want our prayers to also be expressed within the framework of God’s overall purposes for us. We want them to be prayers that are consistent with what God is trying to accomplish in the world at large (His redemptive purpose) and what God is trying to accomplish in us in particular (His sanctifying and/or providential purposes). When we think about our prayers in these wider contexts, we are more likely to be alert to the ways in which God is at work for our good, and we are more likely to receive His negative responses with gratitude and faith.