The power of prayer

“For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the Lord was wrathful against you in order to destroy you, but the Lord listened to me that time also” (Deuteronomy 9:19 NASB).

When we think of the effectiveness of prayers to God we generally think in terms of providential or even miraculous actions by which God responds. We turn to James 5:13-18 with its example of Elijah’s prayers for drought and rain. We also remember Jesus’ lesson to his disciples concerning the withered fig tree (Mark 11:20-24).

Not all prayer requires physical answers however. When Moses led Israel from Egypt, he faced many difficult circumstances including shortages of water and food. One of his most demanding situations was when Israel began idolatrous worship during his time on Mount Sinai to receive the Law. Their rebellion was so severe that God resolved to completely destroy them, and to rebuild the nation from the descendants of Moses alone (Deuteronomy 9:14).

Moses responded by prostrating himself on the mountain where he fasted and prayed for forty days and nights (Deuteronomy 9:18-19). In his recounting of that incident he told the children of that rebellious generation of Israelites, “The Lord listened to me.”

This is only one of many incidents in the Old Testament that involved the prayers of righteous people which resulted in God’s changing an announced intention.

  • We marvel at Elijah’s miracle of the rain, but it is an even greater testimony to the power of prayer that human pleading can result in God’s change of heart.
  • Abraham obtained a promise of the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous men were found to inhabit them (Genesis 18:32).
  • Moses interceded for Israel numerous times in the wilderness, with God sparing them on most of those occasions.
  • In addition he prayed on behalf of both Miriam (Numbers 12:11-14) and Aaron (Deuteronomy 9:20), with God showing mercy to both following his prayers.

We are prone to overlook the Biblical emphasis upon the righteous wrath of God. We do so at great peril.

  • “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
  • “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
  • “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thessalonians 1:6).
  • “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).

God’s wrath or anger against sin is just and righteous. He is the upholder of justice who cannot be deceived (Galatians 6:7), and who will mete out correct consequences for all without prejudice (Romans 2:6-11).

Yet even God’s righteous anger may be diverted by fervent prayer. Jonah understood that, and attempted flight in order to prevent divine mercy from being shown towards Nineveh (Jonah 4:2). No, our prayers cannot cause God to be unjust, but they can and do elicit compassion and mercy, both for ourselves and for others.

God not only hears our prayers; he listens to them and allows them to affect his decisions and behavior. That continues to amaze.

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