“The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (Ex 32:14)
Yesterday, we began to wrestle with a key question around the Bible’s teaching on prayer: ‘If God is completely sovereign, why should I pray?’ The question comes from the existence of two unavoidable biblical truths: God is in complete control of all things, and is working out his plans and purposes in deliberate fashion; yet prayer is not just encouraged throughout the Bible – it is commanded.
Moreover, the Bible’s writers didn’t believe prayer just changes our wills so they mesh more comfortably with God’s. The Bible consistently portrays prayer as actually changing things.
So how do we begin to think through these issues?
Today, let’s focus on maybe the clearest and best-known example of prayer changing things: Moses’ intercessory prayer for the people of Israel, recorded in Exodus 32. God’s people have been rescued from slavery (Exodus 1-19), they have heard God speak from Mount Sinai (20:22), and they’ve agreed to keep the covenant with the Lord (24:3, 7). But with Moses taking a long time up on the mountain, they brazenly break the covenant by making an idol and worshipping it with offerings and a feast. God is rightly angry, and says these stunning words to Moses: “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (32:10)
The Lord will start again with Moses, but the people must be destroyed because of their open rebellion against their Saviour and God.
However, in the very next verse, we read that, “Moses interceded with [some translations say he ‘implored’] the Lord his God” (v. 11). He appeals to the importance of God’s reputation among the Gentiles, and to God’s earlier promises to Abraham. He pleads with God, “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (v. 12, emphasis added).
And then, in one of the most breathtaking moments in the Bible, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (v. 14).
What’s going on here? How does this work?
To begin with, it seems clear that prayer is making a difference. That’s good, right? We have some clear biblical evidence that prayer actually changes things. But how? Does God, in fact, change?
A small but vital detail in the passage comes in verse 7. God tells Moses: ‘Go down’. “Go to your people. Go down at once, because your people have sinned, and they need you.” Why would God send Moses to the people if he intended to destroy them? Verse 7 gives us a clue that God intended to save them, through the intercession of their appointed mediator. God draws Moses along to intercede for the people – by telling him to go to them, and by describing their sin in detail. When he says, “leave me alone … that I may destroy them,” it’s almost like he’s saying, “If you leave me alone, then I will destroy them – but you need to intercede for these people.”
David Platt sums it up like this: “Moses is not changing the plan that God had offered. He is fulfilling the plan that God had ordained.”
There’s so much more to say, so let’s come back to this again tomorrow… For now, here’s a short quote from D.A Carson to sum up a biblical perspective: “Prayer is God’s appointed means for appropriating the blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus.”
Heavenly Father, thank you for hearing the prayers of Moses, and for responding. Thank you for relenting from sending your wrath on your people in the Old Testament. Thank you for relenting from sending your wrath on me, even when I deserve it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.