The Limits of Prayer
We have often been taught the great power of prayer; we have always been told the fantastic results of praying, yet I ask, Is there something that prayer might not do? Is there somewhere that prayer might not reach? Is there anyone that prayer cannot save? The simple Sunday school answer to all three questions should be, No, but the matter is not so simple, after all.
I have hitherto believed, and have had the Bible to my firm support, that the presence of righteous people in any land almost automatically averts divine judgment from that land; that, for as few as ten righteous persons in a sinful city or nation, that land could or would be spared the judgements of God. I am having now to unlearn my earlier theology in the face of scriptures other than the one leg on which I had hitherto stood, even though it had been a very stout one leg.
My One Good Leg
In the controversy between God and Sodom, and as Abraham the intercessor “stood YET before the LORD,” God assured him that if there could be found as few as only ten righteous persons in Sodom, He would “not destroy” the city for the sake of those ten. That was my one leg. Like Abraham also, I stood reasonably persuaded that God was too righteous to “slay the righteous with the wicked” (Genesis 18:22-33). Besides, I have read in Ezekiel 22:31-32 that when Judah was in danger of imminent judgment, God “sought for A man,” just one man, to “make up the hedge” and thus avert imminent danger. In other words, just one intercessor in the gap is sufficient to make a difference in the destiny of a city or a nation. In Isaiah also, I found support for my one leg:
And he saw that there was no MAN [singular], and wondered that there was no INTERCESSOR [singular]: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him (Isaiah 59:16).
If anyone wanted more, I had further prophetic support:
Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find A MAN [singular], if there be ANY [singular] that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I WILL PARDON it (Jeremiah 5:1).
Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses HIS CHOSEN [one man] stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them (Psalm 106:23).
I worry: Could I have heard from the mouth of such great prophets and intercessors as Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah (with the Psalms), and still have been standing on one leg? Could I have been standing on these many scriptures and had not been firm on the spot?
When God conceded to ten righteous residents in Sodom as a condition for saving that land, it was a response not to those anticipated righteous residents in Sodom but to the specific demands of an intercessor who “stood yet before the LORD”; it was God’s consent to a persisting man that “yet” continued to stand in prayers. It was not concession to the mere presence of passive righteous residents, like Lot.
(For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;) (2 Peter 2:8).
The Dangers of Lots
Lot was a righteous man daily vexed by the sins of Sodom, but he was a passive resident of the land that vexed him thus. There was no question about Lot’s righteousness or the degree of it; even Scripture acknowledged that he was a “righteous man” with a “righteous soul,” which many are not in my days. Beyond being righteously vexed, however, there is no record that he also prayed or ever cried about those ways or that land. Even though he got saved from the ultimate fires of judgment, it was only on account of another intercessor, Abraham his uncle.
And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, AND sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt (Genesis 19:29).
Can one righteous passenger save his drowning ship? Sometimes, Yes. Abraham’s righteousness, coupled with his intercession, saved Lot his passive nephew in Sodom. In other words, Lot’s own righteousness, flamboyantly vexed as it often got, had been insufficient to save him (let alone save his entire household) in those specific circumstances. In other words, righteous Lot might also have perished with the wicked Sodomites if it had not been for Abraham who “stood YET before the LORD.” That is the tragedy of mute righteousness; the tragedy of spiritually voiceless righteous residents, very plentiful though they might be in the land; it is the danger of a righteous multitude that daily grieves the wickedness of the wicked but does nothing practically about it. We have them abundantly in my land (and probably in yours, too): righteous people who grieve, who murmur and complain, but never pray.
That land is nearly doomed whose potential intercessors merely get vexed at what they see but miss the divine purpose of the ‘vexing’ of their souls. Abraham was vexed and he prayed; Lot was vexed and he complained, blamed the people, and sought compromised ways to appease them (Genesis 19:6-9). In the prayer Garden of Gethsemane, the Master “being in an AGONY …prayed MORE EARNESTLY,” sweating blood in sleepless prayers. The disciples, on the other hand, overwhelmed by similar emotions, were “sleeping for sorrow,”“drugged by grief” (Luke 22:44, 45, KJV, The Message). One lesson from Lot: the vexing of a righteous soul that does not provoke that soul unto prayers only prepares the land for swift fires from which even the vexed might not escape. The sorrows that drove the disciples to sleep finally forced them to flee wakefully in that same heavy-eyed night of Temptation (Mathew 26:41).
A land with its multitude of righteous residents might still perish if those righteous residents do nothing more than merely announcing how better than the sinners they are, and how vexed by the wicked they get. The vexed but dumb are cousins of Lot. They themselves are an endangered clan in need of intercession. The mere abundance of righteous people in a land therefore, does not automatically save it. This is the other leg.
My New Leg
One active righteous voice might save a drowning land, agreed. Sometimes, however, a land sins itself beyond the reach of prayer and mercy. Sometimes, the iniquities of a people assume such thickness that the righteousness of the righteous, even with their most intense intercession, is not sufficient to save any other but the righteous persons alone. In other words, besides the matter of passive righteousness and lots of Lots that only grieve but do no more, there is the other matter of an active potent prophetic voice in a land that has so sinned that God says to the intercessor, “I have heard you. In the present circumstances, however, you can save none other but yourself only.” That was where the nation of Judah once found itself, as God sadly had to inform Jeremiah the Weeping Prophet, the revered national intercessor.
Then the Lord said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel [combined their prophetic intercessory powers and] stood before me pleading for these people, even then I wouldn't help them – away with them! Get them out of my sight! 2 And if they say to you, ‘But where can we go?’ tell them the Lord says: ‘Those who are destined for death, to death; those who must die by the sword, to the sword; those doomed to starvation, to famine; and those for captivity, to captivity.’ 3 I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers,” says the Lord: “the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the vultures and wild animals to finish up what's left” (Jeremiah 15:1-3, The Living Bible).
In this case, according to the very God who processes prayers, the land had sinned itself beyond further reach of private intercession. May no land ever get there where even the combined prophetic forces of reputable global intercessors becomes futile in their rescue. Prophet Ezekiel, like Jeremiah his elder contemporary, also found himself in similar frustrations. Hear that intercessor,
12 The word of the LORD came again to me, saying,
13 Son of man, when the land sinneth against me by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will break the staff of the bread thereof, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off man and beast from it:
14 Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were [present and resident] IN IT, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 14:12-14).
Beyond the Reach of Prayers
According to Ezekiel 14:12-14 that we have just read, the mere presence of righteous residents does not automatically save a land, especially when they are lots of Lots. Even when there might be a viable voice or two among the lot, sometimes a land so sins that even the concentrated combination of such “threefold” anointings as those of Noah + Daniel + Job (righteous men, powerful prophets, men of prayers), becomes useless in saving that land in those circumstances of grievous trespass. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken,” according to Ecclesiastes 4:12, but not in this case, according to God in Ezekiel 14:12-14.
Once more, may we hear Jeremiah the mighty intercessor report his distress on this matter in dealing with the God that answers prayers:
Therefore pray not thou for THIS PEOPLE, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I WILL NOT HEAR THEE(Jeremiah 7:16);
Therefore pray not thou for THIS PEOPLE, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I WILL NOT HEAR THEM in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble (Jeremiah 11:14);
11 Then said the LORD unto me, PRAY NOT for this people for their good.
12 When they fast, I WILL NOT HEAR their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and an oblation, I WILL NOT ACCEPT them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence (Jeremiah 14:11-12).
In one case, God said He would not hear the intercessor on the subject of those particular people, “this people.” The prophet was free to raise any other prayer point, but not for “this people”(Jeremiah 7:16). In the other case, God said He would not also hear the people themselves nor accept their sacrifices and ‘faith seeds,’ no matter how big the sacrifice (Jeremiah 11:14; 14:12).
Does God really sometimes say to an intercessor, “Don’t pray to Me on this matter” and “Never call her name to me in your prayers”? (1 Samuel 28:6). Do we sometimes fail to hear His objections? Have we sometimes proceeded to raise sentimental prayers on matters He does not want to hear? Do we sometimes please men that God has refused, by trumpeting their names in prayers that He would not hear?
And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets (1 Samuel 28:6).
Grace will always be grace and God is ever merciful, but sometimes a people get so intoxicated with grace that they never know when the line of mercy is crossed, which was how Samson tipped over and lost his eyes tragically (Judges 16:19-21). Some sin is too much risk; it throws one beyond the reach of redemptive prayers. Mercy lost might sometimes be regained, but even then, sometimes, only through the inevitable tunnel of reparatory great tribulations. May your land never get there. Amen.
From The Preacher’s diary,
December 23, 2015.