Summary: We pray for the glory of God. We consider that it is He who we have sinned against. We pray in solidarity with those for whom we pray. We don't try to restrict God.
PARADIGMS OF PRAYER
1. Solidarity with those for whom we pray (Exodus 32:30-32)
Moses presents us with an example of true, thoroughgoing, intercessory prayer. This is Moses’ prayer after the infamous ‘Golden Calf’ incident, when the people had committed idolatry at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:31). A mark of his leadership, and of all true Christian leadership, is that he doesn’t just bemoan the sin of the people but takes responsibility before God on their behalf.
This was a national sin on such a horrendous scale that even the massacre of 3000 of their number did not atone for it. So Moses commanded the people to ‘consecrate’ themselves to the LORD, ‘that He may bestow a blessing’ (Exodus 32:29). Then he returned to the presence of the LORD to seek atonement for their sin (Exodus 32:29-30).
The content of Moses’ short prayer is more than extraordinary. In his sermon on Exodus 33, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke of ‘this pause, this gap, this dash, as it were’: “If thou wilt forgive their sin --; and if not, I pray thee, blot me out of thy book” (Exodus 32:32). The Apostle Paul made a similar identification with his kinsmen, the people of Israel (see Romans 9:3-5).
Now if we could pray like this, not just blaming the ‘them’ of our ministry, but taking it upon our own shoulders to intercede on their behalf, wrestling in holy boldness with the Lord on their behalf: then who knows what results the church might see? This doesn’t just apply to ‘ordained’ Ministers, but to all who seek the LORD’s blessing in these days.
2. Zeal for the LORD as a motive for prayer (Joshua 7:6-9)
After the Israelites’ unsuccessful attack upon Ai, Joshua and the elders ‘put on mourning’, so to speak (Joshua 7:6). This is a similar reaction to that of Job, when disaster struck his livelihood, his household - and later his health (cf. Job 1:20). But Job’s afflictions were personal, whereas Joshua’s affected the whole people of God.
Joshua’s prayer sounds almost impertinent: “Alas,” he bemoans - why have you brought us over Jordan to destroy us (Joshua 7:7)? However, this is not petulance, but a zeal for the LORD’s great name (Joshua 7:9), and an implicit claiming of the promises (Joshua 7:8). We mustn’t mistake anguished prayer for either unbridled anger or wanton arrogance.
Joshua’s perplexity, and all Israel’s with him, was because the majority did not have cognisance of the fact that one of their number had committed a certain sin. Retrospectively, in this instance, we have (cf. Joshua 7:1). Is it too much to say that, one sin, unaddressed, can put the whole congregation in peril?
3. Recognising who we have sinned against (Psalms 51:3-4)
The Bathsheba incident is perhaps the greatest blot in the career of King David. Idleness led to lust. Lust led to adultery. Adultery led to murder - and murder also implicated David’s general. However - when challenged by the prophet Nathan - David admitted, ‘I have sinned against the LORD’ (2 Samuel 12:13).
Although our offences are often manifested in the pain which we bring to others, sin is first and foremost a slight to the character of God. I have wronged Bathsheba, David could say; I have wronged her husband Uriah; I have wronged my general Joab; I have wronged my people as their king: but above all, I have wronged God. Before I can even begin to go about my job of seeking reconciliation with these other people, I stand at the bar of God: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Psalms 51:4).
This is true repentance, focussed not on what we have done, or what might happen to us, but on the glory of God: acknowledging Him as our salvation, and thereafter singing His praises (cf. Psalms 51:14-15).
4. Remembering who God is (2 Chronicles 6:18)
Solomon’s prayer of dedication upon the completion of the building of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 6:12-42) provides the framework for this majestic statement: “Behold heaven, even the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built” (2 Chronicles 6:18). It is not wrong to acknowledge that God is so much bigger than even our best efforts for Him. He is transcendent.
He is above and beyond all our buildings, and all their decorations. He is over and beyond all our services, and all our service. And as we pray, we must recollect that we cannot contain God in a box! Amen.