Chapter 2: The Prayers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
by David McAllister, Zambia
Before considering the prayers of these three great patriarchs, it might be helpful to discuss the parameters used to determine what is meant by a "prayer", since it is not just as simple as it may appear. Does a one-line statement such as, "O that Ishmael might live before Thee" constitute a prayer? When Abraham enters into conversation with the Lord on behalf of the city of Sodom, continuing until the Lord states that He will not destroy Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people, could Abraham’s words be called a "prayer"? When Jacob speaks after his night at Bethel, it is clear that by the end of the chapter he is talking to God, but is it a prayer, and, if so, when does he start speaking to God during those verses?
In writing this chapter, the following simple rule has been followed: "If in doubt, put it in". Thus, any instance in which a person speaks to God will be included, as will any case in which he makes a request for God to do something. As for passages in which it is not clear where the speaking to God begins, it will be taken that the person is speaking to God unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
As a result, there may be some material covered in this chapter of which a reader may say, "I wouldn’t really call that a prayer". If so, then the writer understands such reservations, and would offer only two points in defence: firstly, that when there is a doubt, it is better to make the mistake of including too much, than to err by leaving something out; and, secondly, that, whether all the material considered constitutes a prayer, or not, it is part of inspired Scripture, and so is for our profit, even if it does not come strictly within the confines of the topic!
We could look at the prayers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from several different angles, but we shall have to content ourselves with one. For the purposes of this chapter, we will view them from the standpoint of considering on whose behalf those prayers were made. We shall see that there were prayers made for self, for a spouse, for a son, for one’s successors, for sufferers, and for sinners. We shall consider them in that order, as they represent a moving out: from oneself to one’s family, to one’s neighbours, to people largely unknown to the one who is praying.
One final introductory point: not surprisingly, most references in this chapter will be from the book of Genesis. Only when a Scripture reference is not from Genesis will the book name be given. For example, "15.2" means "Genesis 15.2".
There are five prayers that could be considered to be primarily concerned with the personal circumstances of the person praying. These vary greatly, but all can provide instruction for us, in the varied situations of life that we face.
A Problem – 15.2,3
The background here is very interesting. In chapter 14, Abram has had interaction with a huge variety of people, and, without exception, he has behaved himself in an exemplary way. He has:
mobilised his household servants; fought to rescue people who were in captivity (not only his nephew Lot, but the wicked people of Sodom who were in captivity with him)
received blessing from the mighty Melchizedek
resisted the subtle advances of the king of Sodom.
Now God comes to him in a vision, 15.1, and says, "Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." But Abram has a problem. He can muster three hundred and eighteen servants "born in his own house" to fight a battle, 14.14, but he has no son. His heir is "one born in my house" 15.3, for, as he says, "I go childless" v.2, and "to me Thou hast given no seed" v.3.
A heartless observer would perhaps find fault with Abram. He might well say to him something like, "Abram, what is your problem? God has promised to make a great nation of you, 12.2, and that your seed will be as the dust of the earth, 13.16. You have just won a famous victory. You have plenty of helpful and like-minded people around you. You are rubbing shoulders with, and being honoured by, the aristocracy. And, best of all, God has just told you that He is all you need. Why make an issue over the fact that you have no child?"
Yet, it is probable that just here many of us can identify with Abram. Yes, we have the blessed promises given to us in God’s Word. In addition, we have known spiritual victories, where God has proven His faithfulness to us. Moreover, we have enjoyed and benefited from the fellowship of other believers, the "aristocracy of heaven". Yet we have come home from it all, to face real problems that are personal to us, and which make us sad. Can we obtain any comfort from this passage in Genesis chapter 15?
We can indeed, for the manner in which the Lord replies to Abram is most instructive. Note that he does not chide Abram for his statement. The hypothetical words of the "heartless observer" noted above are totally absent from the Divine response. "For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust" Ps.103.14. We thank God that He is far more sympathetic than our fellow-men.
Not only so, but God responds in the exact way that Abram needs. Abram has spoken of his "heir" as "one born in my house". God’s answer is right to the point. He mentions the "heir" as being, not the one whom Abram has mentioned (Eliezer), but "he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels" v.4. The answer is direct, clear, and unambiguous. It is just what Abram needs.
Furthermore, God gives Abram an object lesson to reinforce His promise. He takes him out to observe the night sky, and challenges Abram to number the stars, v.5. Obviously, he cannot, and thus receives the promise that it will also be impossible for him to number his seed.
Of course, this incident must not be taken out of context. God does not speak verbally to us today, nor does He take us outside to show us things. But we do have something that Abram did not have, namely the written Word of God, in which we do have plenty of evidence of His sympathetic character, His direct and appropriate answers to His people’s requests, and object lessons and illustrations which are a help to us. And, while our situations are mostly very different from that of Abram, nevertheless, the principles of this story still hold true. These are: God is sympathetic to the needs of His people; He does answer in the way that is best; and (in His Word) He provides us with the encouragements we need in order to rest on His promises.
And so, just as Abram "believed in the LORD" v.6, so can we. The fact that this verse is quoted three times in the New Testament, Rom.4.3; Gal.3.6; Jms.2.23, is proof sufficient that its lesson is for us. No matter how big the problem, He knows, He cares, and He is able. We can trust in Him for every situation.
A Place – 15.8
God speaks to Abram again, reminding him, "I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it" v.7. But, as in the previous case, Abram needs a bit more, and so he responds, "Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" v.8.
Once again, we see the sympathy of our God. He does not scold Abram for such a request, nor express impatience that, having been given a clear indication that God will give him a son, he should surely be prepared at face value to accept God’s Word regarding the land. No – God deals with him gently and kindly.
How does He respond to Abram’s question? By giving Abram His word, based on a solemn sacrifice, 15.9-21. He spells out exactly the geographical location of the land which Abram would receive, vv.18-21. Thus Abram is left in no doubt that God will keep His promise regarding the land, just as He will the promise regarding a seed.
How can we apply the above to our situation today? God has promised a place to us. The Lord Jesus speaks of it in Jn.14.2: "I go to prepare a place for you". He then promises to come again to take us to be there with Him, v.3. When the Lord Jesus makes this promise to His disciples, Thomas responds with a question not unlike that which Abram asks in our passage: "How can we know the way?" v.5. What reassuring words the Lord gives in reply: "I am the way" v.6. And, as for Abram, the basis of this promise is a sacrifice, but not of animals, (as was the case for Abram), rather the sacrifice of Himself.
Humanly speaking, there did not seem much likelihood of Abram and his descendants possessing the land. The many names of those in it at the time God spoke, vv.19-21, testify to that. But that in no way lessened God’s ability to do it. So it is for us today. The world in general will speak, perhaps in scoffing tones, of believers’ anticipation of heaven as looking for "pie in the sky". We should not be discouraged by such statements. Our trust is in a God Who keeps His Word, and Who is able to do as He has promised.
And so, Abraham’s prayer, or, rather, God’s answer to it, should be an assurance to us. How can we know that God will bring us to the place He has promised to us? We have His Word for it, based on the sacrifice of Christ. And this principle is seen in illustration right in the first book of our Bible.
A Promise – 28.20-22
We now turn to Jacob, on his journey to his uncle Laban, having had to leave his home in great haste. He has just had an experience that he will never forget: God has spoken to him during the night, and has promised rich blessings to him.
We read Jacob’s response in 28.20-22. At the beginning he speaks of God in the third person, but by the end he speaks of Him in the second person. So, when does he start speaking to God? We can reasonably take it that he is speaking to God right through. After all, the evidence is that he was alone, so he could not have been speaking to anyone else! Moreover, the whole statement is described as a "vow" v.20, which would have been made to God. So we will consider it as coming within the scope of the title of this chapter.
The "If … then …" nature of this prayer has, inevitably, led some to accuse Jacob of displaying the bargaining trait which he has already used with his brother Esau, 25.29-34, and will employ later with his uncle Laban, 30.31-43. However, there is a danger of us being too hard on poor Jacob. Let us just give credit where it is due: he has accepted God’s words to him; he realises that God has been gracious to him, and he responds in an appropriate manner, promising that the Lord will be his God; that the place where he had spent the night would be the house of God, and that he would give to Him the tenth of all that God would give to him.
The last part of his promise is very interesting. It was made long before tithing was instituted as a legal requirement by God. God had not demanded it of Jacob. Is this not evidence of a desire on Jacob’s part to give God His portion? Here, long before Paul wrote "God loveth a cheerful giver" 2Cor.9.7, we see the principle of a believer giving liberally to God, being practised. We can also ask from whence Jacob got this principle? A reasonable suggestion would surely be the example of his grandfather Abraham, who gave tithes to Melchizedek, 14.20. So Jacob is following the good example of his progenitor.
What can we learn from this? Not that we must follow tithing, as a legalistic system. In this age, it is clear that each is to give "as the Lord hath prospered him" 1Cor.16.2. No, there is an even wider principle to follow, which is, when we look at the blessings we have received from God, we should acknowledge that He is deserving of our all. Not merely our material possessions, but all that we have in terms of our treasures, our talents, and our time. And, as for Jacob, it should come from a willing heart; a heart full of appreciation for Who He is and all He has done.
Moreover, we also learn that, having made a promise to God, we need to keep it. We do not raise stone pillars, pour oil, or vow vows, in the manner that Jacob did, but when, in the light of God’s goodness to us, we tell Him what we will do for Him, how important it is that we keep our word, and that we allow nothing to stop us from keeping our promises to Him.
A Peril – 32.9-12
We now come to a different situation in the life of Jacob. In the case above, he was running away from his brother Esau; now, many years later, he is making the return journey, and is about to face the same Esau. Not surprisingly, he is very apprehensive, but he makes a most wise decision, by bringing the matter to God in prayer.
Hopefully few of us will face circumstances quite as acute as those which Jacob faced. Yet who among us has not, at some time in our experience, faced a situation in which we were fearful of what the outcome would be? And, to be sure, if we are left in this world much longer, we will face such situations again. In such circumstances, we can follow Jacob’s example and bring the matter to God in prayer.
Not only does Jacob’s action give us a good example to follow in general terms, but the specific points in his prayer are also exemplary. There are at least six aspects of his prayer that we would do well to emulate:
Acknowledging of the Character of God
He calls Him, "God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac" v.9. The same God Whom they knew and Who was faithful to them, would also be so to him. We know God in an even more wonderful way, as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" 2Cor.11.31; Eph.1.3; 1Pet.1.3. It is a good thing, before we move on to any requests, to approach God, as Jacob does here, in reverence, and in acknowledgment of the greatness of His Person.
Claiming the Promises of God
Jacob "reminds" God that He is the One Who has told him to "return unto thy country and to thy kindred" and that He has promised him, "I will deal well with thee" v.9. He knew that he was walking in obedience to what God had told him, and thus that he could claim God’s promises. If (but only if) we are walking in accordance with the Word of God, then we can have confidence to claim God’s blessing.
Confessing His Own Unworthiness
Jacob approaches God with humility: "I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shewed unto Thy servant" v.10. He is not claiming anything as his "right". He freely acknowledges that anything he has, or asks for, is solely because of God’s mercy, and for such he pleads. How well we would do to follow this example too, because our hearts easily can swell up with pride. Like Jacob, we have no "right" to anything that God gives to us, or that we ask from Him. It is all of His mercy and grace.
Stating God’s Blessings
"For with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands" v.10. Jacob now has such a big family, such a large household, and so many possessions that he has been able to split it into "two bands" v.7. What a contrast: one staff when leaving home; two bands when returning. But there is not a hint of any self-praise. He acknowledges that it is all of God. The lesson to be learned from Jacob is all that we have, material or spiritual, is of God, and we ought never to fail to express to Him our acknowledgment of all He has done for us.
Asking For God’s Deliverance
"Deliver me, I pray thee …" v.11. Jacob knows his situation is grave. Esau might take revenge, not only on him, but also on his family. But he comes to the right Person, to the Lord, Who is able to deliver him, and requests that He do so. How we need to do likewise! How many and varied are the difficult circumstances into which we come. The same God Who could come to Jacob’s aid is able to come to ours.
Quoting God’s Word
"And Thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude" v.12. Jacob quotes what God has said; not that God needs to be told what He has said in the sense that we do, He knows it all, and will never forget, but nevertheless Jacob wisely bases his prayer on God’s unfailing Word. How good it is that we should read God’s Word, the Bible, and be able to quote the Scriptures to Him in prayer, bringing before Him what He has recorded. It ought not to be forgotten, however, that, while all of God’s Word is for us, not all of it is about us, and, in particular, not all the promises refer to us. When our children were young, they had a cassette tape with a chorus in it which began, "Every promise in the Book is mine; Every chapter, every verse, every line". It was an attractive little ditty, but it was not accurate! We do not have to go outside our current passage to see this. God has not promised each of us that our seed will be "as the sand of the sea"! But we have received from Him "exceeding great and precious promises" 2Pet.1.4, and we can certainly quote these in prayer, and rejoice that they are ours.
A Plea – 32.26-29
Before finally encountering his brother Esau, Jacob encounters "a man" v.24, with Whom he wrestles. We later read that it was "an angel" Hos.12.4, and Jacob says that he has seen God "face to face" v.30. So this is an encounter with God Himself (while a detailed discussion of this matter is beyond the scope of this chapter, we do believe that it was a "Christophany", and that the One Who appeared was the Lord Jesus Christ, in a pre-incarnate appearance). Having put Jacob’s thigh out of joint, the Lord wants to go, but before He does, Jacob says, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" v.26.
God certainly wanted to bless Jacob. But before doing that, Jacob has to learn a lesson given physically and one given verbally.
The lesson given physically was the disablement Jacob received, by the Lord touching him in his thigh, v.25. Doubtless this was a significant action in a number of aspects, but one of them must be that it was showing Jacob that he could not depend on his own strength. The Lord was merciful in dealing with him. Of course, He could have killed Jacob, or dealt him a much greater injury. However, what He did to him was a relatively minor thing, but enough to show him which of the two of them was the stronger, despite Jacob’s valiant struggle.
The lesson given verbally comes in the question with which the Lord responds to Jacob’s request: "What is thy name?" v.27. The previous time (as far as the Biblical record is concerned) that Jacob was asked to identify himself by name was in 27.18,19, when his lying response was, "I am Esau". Did Jacob recall, with a sense of guilt, this incident, as he replied with the minimum of words, "Jacob". As so often in Scripture, the name denotes the nature. Jacob was the "Supplanter". He had to confess his true nature.
God tells him that Jacob will no longer be his name; rather he will now be "Israel". This was a name that would not only be his, but that of the great nation that would come from him; a name denoting his dealings with God. What a privilege!
Then Jacob asks the Stranger what His name is, v.29, but he is not told. Why does the Lord not reveal His name to him? We suggest that it is to show that, not only is the Lord greater than Jacob in strength (as the "thigh out of joint" incident shows), but that He is altogether different from him in nature also. If the Lord had told Jacob His name, it would have put the two of them on a similar level (that Jacob could demand and be told the Lord’s name, just as the Lord had demanded and been told his); by refusing, the Lord was showing that He is greater than Jacob in character.
And then Jacob receives the blessing he requested, v.29. So his prayer has been answered, but on God’s terms, not his own. Blessing came when God’s strength was shown to be greater than his own, and when God’s character was shown to be different from his. And God will answer our prayers for His blessing upon us today. But, like Jacob, blessing is received on God’s terms, not ours, when we see ourselves as we really are, compared with His strength and holiness. In this knowledge, we will have no confidence in the flesh, Phil.3.3, and our sins will be confessed and dealt with, 1Jn.1.9.
SPOUSE – 25.21
On viewing the title of this chapter, the great and eloquent prayers of Abraham and Jacob come readily to mind – but is there anything written about Isaac? Does the Scripture record him as having prayed? Yes, it does, and a very precious prayer it is. It is found in 25.21: "And Isaac intreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren".
Each of these three patriarchs had a beloved wife who was barren, Sarah, 11.30; Rebekah, 25.21; Rachel, 29.31. A comparison of how each situation was handled is exceedingly instructive. In Abraham and Sarah’s case, the "solution" was to bring in another woman to bear a child for Abraham, 16.2; for Jacob and Rachel there was a heated argument, with a similar "solution", 30.1-4. In both cases, the matter was not handled according to faith, nor in a way that was sensitive to feelings, nor in accordance with the mind of God. And, in both cases, the consequences were far-reaching and negative.
How refreshingly different is the response of Isaac to his wife’s barrenness. No scheming; no scolding; just supplicating. Isaac and Rebekah did not try to think of some carnal means of "solving" the problem. Nor did they resort to bitter argument and accusations. They simply brought the matter to God in prayer. And God answered. How long did they have to wait for the answer? We do not know. The prayer and the answer are both recorded in the same verse, and can be read in one breath. However, it is likely that the time gap was considerable. The birth of their twin sons was twenty years after their marriage, 25.20,26. In all probability, Rebekah’s barrenness was discovered early in their marriage, and thus it is likely that the praying went on for a long time. But they did not give up. They depended on God and waited patiently for Him to answer.
Before continuing, we should note that God eventually removed the barrenness of both Sarah and Rachel. How much better it would have been for them and for their husbands if they had waited for God’s own time, as Rebekah did.
Married couples can surely learn from the sweet example of Isaac and Rebekah; and the application goes far beyond the area of childbearing. For there are many difficult circumstances which couples face. How often such circumstances can lead to temptation to take actions that are contrary to Scripture, which have far-reaching and disastrous consequences. How often too such difficulties can lead to needless disagreement and bitterness. How much heartache and sorrow would be avoided if such things were to be taken to God in prayer, and left with Him, patiently waiting for Him to answer.
The subject matter of this prayer of Isaac was very private and very personal. It mattered a lot to him, but would not have been regarded as very significant in the eyes of anyone else. But an ever-loving and sympathetic God was more than willing to hear and answer his cries: "the LORD was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived" 25.21. Truly we can take heart since all our concerns (however personal and insignificant in the sight of others they may be) are known to God, and He cares deeply.
SON – 17.18
We return to Abraham, now in chapter 17. He has a son, Ishmael, who is now thirteen years old, 17.25. The circumstances of his birth and of his early life have not been happy. He was born because of lack of faith and patience, 16.1-4. The whole matter brought a breakdown in relations between Sarai and Hagar, 16.4,6, and tensions between Abram and Sarai, 16.5,6. Future years would bring further trouble; so much so that Ishmael and his mother would have to leave, 21.9-21.
God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to have a son, and he is the one in whom the promises of God to Abraham are going to be fulfilled, 17.16,19. In the midst of this, Abraham says, "O that Ishmael might live before Thee!" v.18.
What are we to make of this cry regarding Ishmael? It is certainly possible to view it from a negative standpoint, and to state that Abraham is being slow to come to terms with God’s plan and purpose. While he is not denying God’s purposes regarding Isaac (indeed, the last few verses of Romans chapter 4 show that he fully believes them), there is perhaps the suggestion that Abraham is longing that God would have carried out His purposes through Ishmael (almost an "If only …" statement).
However, while not denying this view, it is also possible to view Abraham’s statement in a more positive light. We suggest that, while Abraham realises and accepts that the covenant blessings are to be Isaac’s, nevertheless, he deeply loves his son Ishmael, and also desires blessing for him. Abraham knows very well that (as far as Ishmael’s birth is concerned) things have not been done as they should have been, but this in no way lessens his love for his son, nor does he try to "walk away" from him, and pretend that he does not exist. Although the future does not look promising as far as Ishmael is concerned, this does not stop Abraham from praying for him and earnestly seeking his blessing.
We would do well to follow Abraham’s example in this. Many of us have children at the teenage stage (as was Ishmael), but whether younger or older, every stage has its difficulties and we wonder, with much concern, what the future holds for them. Like Abraham, our desire is that they would be men and women of God. Superficially, the prospects are often not encouraging, but this should never stop us from crying to God on their behalf.
Is there encouragement for us in this? Yes, for God says to Abraham, "As for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him" 17.20. No matter how discouraging the circumstances, we have a God Who hears and answers the prayers of His people for their families. We should never give up praying for them.
SUCCESSORS – 48.15,16
We now move from a prayer for a son to a prayer for grandsons. We are in chapter 48, and Joseph has brought his two sons to his father Jacob. In vv.15,16, Jacob prays for them. In this brief prayer, Jacob acknowledges God in three ways, namely:
He is the God before Whom his fathers Abraham and Isaac walked – a personal God.
He is the God Who fed him all his life long, right up to this day – a providing God.
He is the Angel Who redeemed him from all evil – a protecting God.
Then he asks God for three things for the grandsons, namely: that God will bless them; that the name of himself, and of Abraham and Isaac, be named on them; that they would grow into a multitude.
The parallels between his threefold acknowledgment and his threefold asking are not difficult to spot. In short, what God was to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, the grandfather requests that He would be to them: the protection and provision that he knew, he also wanted for them. His description of what God has done is the same as his desire for what God would do.
Much is involved here, regarding God’s covenant relationship to the patriarchs, and the future of the tribes of Israel, with Ephraim and Manasseh taking their full place among the tribes. We will pass over all that, and go to a practical lesson for us today: how we should desire and pray for God’s rich blessing upon those who, if the Lord be not soon come, will continue to bear the name of Christ after we have gone home to heaven.
In this connection, the case of Timothy comes to mind. Speaking to him, Paul, like Jacob, looks back to the past and looks forward to the future. He mentions those who have had a godly influence on this young man, both his literal ancestors, Lois and Eunice, 2Tim.1.5, and his spiritual father, Paul himself, 2Tim.1.2; 2.1. As he looks to a time when he will not be there, Paul tells Timothy that he is to commit the truths he has been taught to "faithful men" 2Tim.2.2. And the chain does not stop there, for they will "teach others also".
How important it is that we ever seek to help and encourage and pray for those who are rising up among God’s people, and if the Lord be not come, who will bear testimony in days when we will not be there. Jacob and Paul are exemplary in this regard. Jacob prayed for people and circumstances that he knew he himself would not live to see; so should we. There is no thought of caring only for one’s own generation, and taking no interest in those who will follow. There is every thought of encouraging, teaching, and praying for those who will continue the work in days to come.
The God before Whom we seek to walk; Who provides for us; Who protects and preserves us, right to this day, is the same God Who can do it for generations to come. May it ever be our prayer that He will do so, until the Lord Jesus Christ comes again.
SUFFERERS – 20.17
All prayers considered so far have been either for the person himself or for his family. We now move out, to consider a prayer for non-relatives.
In chapter 20 the circumstances are sad. Abraham has said that Sarah is his sister, v.2, to avoid difficulty for himself, v.11, and so Abimelech (the king) has taken Sarah into his household, v.2. Because of this, God has made the members of the king’s household incapable of bearing children, v.18, and, in a dream, He tells Abimelech the true position, and warns him that he must return Sarah to Abraham, and that Abraham would pray for him. Moreover, if Abimelech fails to do so, then he and his household would die, vv.3-7. Abimelech responds in the right way, doing what God tells him, and chiding Abraham and Sarah for their duplicity, vv.8-10. Abraham does pray for him, and he and his family are healed, v.17.
There are many lessons we can learn for ourselves from this story, such as:
the need to depend on God, not our own schemes;
the trouble we cause when we seek to deceive;
if a "half-truth" (Sarah was a "half-sister" of Abraham, v.12), is presented as the whole truth, it is an untruth;
that our wrongs affect not just ourselves, but many others;
that it is a sad thing when unbelievers behave in a more honourable way than believers, and when they have to point out our wrongs to us;
that we should learn from previous mistakes (a similar incident had already taken place in Abraham’s life, 12.14-20);
the bad influence that our mistakes can have on our family (Isaac made a similar mistake years later, 26.6-11).
However, this chapter is about prayer, so we will not pursue any of these points.
So what can we learn from this passage about prayer?
Firstly, that true prayer to God can only be made by those who have a relationship with Him. God would answer Abraham’s prayer, "for he is a prophet" v.7. Abimelech seems to be an honourable man in many ways, yet he does not know God, and God does not tell him to pray for himself. Only the prayers of a righteous man will avail with the Lord. This is an important lesson for us. There are many respectable people in the world today, who may even conduct religious activities, but if they do not know God, then their prayers are of no value before Him. The privilege of true and effectual prayer to God is for those who know Him, and them alone.
Secondly, those who desire that God would answer prayers for them ought to be obedient to Him. God’s promise to Abimelech: "He shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live" v.7, is conditional upon the previous instruction: "Now therefore restore the man his wife". If we are not being submissive to God’s Word, then we have no right to expect our prayers to be answered.
Thirdly, that God is gracious; a God of restoration – failure does not have to be final. Abraham does not emerge from this story with full credit, but when he was shown his wrong he put matters right, and then God was willing to use him in prayer for the restoration of Abimelech’s household. How thankful we are that He is patient with us (despite our failures), that He delights to restore our communion with Him and deigns to use us in prayer, and in other aspects of service for Him.
Fourthly, that there is no one who should be beyond the scope of our prayers. Here is Abraham, a pilgrim and a stranger, without a possession in the land, praying for the king of Gerar himself, and for his family and household. Few of us will "rub shoulders" with those in the topmost echelons of society, as Abraham did, yet we are exhorted to pray "for kings, and for all that are in authority" 1Tim.2.2. We can be very good at criticising those in authority, (and we may well feel that they deserve it), but we would be better employed in using that time and energy in praying for them.
Finally, that our God is a God Who answers prayer. The impression obtained on reading v.17 is that the prayer was answered speedily, and fully. God delights to answer prayers that are in accordance with His Divine will.
SINNERS – 18.23-33
In our final case, we continue to look at Abraham. Now, he is not praying for himself, or his family, or those of his acquaintance, but for the sinners of Sodom, most of whom are probably not even known to him.
As is observed in the introduction, this is not a typical "prayer" situation, such as we would experience today. Here Abraham is face to face with the Lord (a careful consideration of this whole chapter, right from the first verse to the last, points to that conclusion), and it is a two-way conversation, in which he receives audible replies to what he says. Nonetheless, in this intercession which Abraham makes on behalf of the people of Sodom, we are given timeless principles which are applicable to us.
Firstly, one is immediately struck by the reverence with which Abraham approaches God. His language is full of respect. We would do well to note it, in a day when there is often a shocking disrespect in the way people speak of, and sometimes to, God.
Related to this is the humility of Abraham in God’s presence. It goes beyond his language, to the very phrases he uses, such as, "I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" v.27, and a similar phrase in v.31. We know that we have access into the presence of God, and we need have no terror in approaching Him in prayer (as, doubtless, later chapters of this book will show), but we should never forget that we are "but dust and ashes", with no merit of our own, and that it ever behoves us to come before Him with humility.
Another aspect of Abraham’s intercession which comes over clearly is his deep awareness of the righteous character of God. Verse 25 is particularly striking: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Abraham is pleading for God to take a certain course of action, and he is basing it, not upon his own whims, or sentimentality, but on God’s righteous character. This is also important for us to keep in mind in our day. In coming to God in prayer, we must ever remember that God will do righteously; He will not act out of character. Many in the world today try to accuse God of being unrighteous in His judgments and his actions. For such people, the problem is with themselves; not with God. He can be depended upon to do what is right.
Another aspect of this prayer, which should be of encouragement to us, is that Abraham, while coming to God in complete sincerity, does not yet know the full picture. As far as he is concerned, God will either have to save everyone in Sodom, or destroy everyone. It does not seem to occur to him that God could separate the righteous from the wicked, and save the former, while destroying the latter. Abraham is not objecting to God’s righteous judgment of the wicked. But his big dilemma is, how can God punish all indiscriminately? As we see in the next chapter of Genesis, Abraham need not have worried on that matter. He provided an escape for the righteous Lot. And for us, while we cannot always see the full picture, we can trust God, Who can see it all, and Who is not bound by our limited knowledge and understanding. Indeed we could do no better here than to quote Peter’s commentary on this selfsame event: "The LORD knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished" 2Pet.2.9. What we do not fully know or understand, we can leave to Him, Who does know and understand all.
Closely related to this point is another one we would benefit from considering, namely, God does not always answer prayers in the way we expect. Abraham’s primary concern was that the righteous would not be destroyed with the wicked. As Abraham viewed the smoke ascending from Sodom, 19.28, he may well have thought that God had not answered his prayer. But God had answered, in sparing the righteous, and doubtless, when Abraham came to know the true situation, he gave glory to God.
Last, but by no means least, an obvious point, but an extremely important one: God does answer prayer. This is made abundantly clear in 19.29: "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." The Holy Spirit is leaving us, the readers, in no doubt that Abraham was not wasting his time in making intercession to God.
As we consider the prayers of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we cannot fail to be impressed by their prayer life. Right from the first book of our Bible, principles of prayer are set before us, which are still applicable to us today. We have much to learn from them, and the goal of this chapter has been to try to bring out some of those lessons. May we, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, come to Him in prayer, in all our circumstances, Phil.4.6, at all times, 1Thess.5.17, and on behalf of all people, 1Tim.2.1, knowing that, like them, we come to a God Who hears and answers prayer.