Prayer as a Theological Problem

Moses Prayer: A Problem in the Making

Moses’ prayer not only provides a powerful example of intercession; it also presents a major theological problem: Does Prayer Really Change Things?

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the text makes Moses look like the good guy—the one who is emotionally stable–while God himself, looks like the bad guy.  To our twenty-first century sensitivities the impassible God looks bi-polar. Yet, such a reading misses the point and misunderstands God. Nevertheless, Exodus 32-34 is a hard one for understanding God’s relationship to the world. How should we understand Moses’ prayer and its effect?  Does he really change God’s mind? Let me make a couple observations.

  1. God is Moses’ maker.  He gives him life, breath, and everything else. As Moses learned in Exodus 4:11, God makes man mute or able to speak.  Voicing his prayer depends on God.
  2. YHWH sends Moses to be Israel’s mediator.  Thus, if Moses is advocating for Israel, it is because he is fulfilling God’s will for him. In other words, God’s pronouncement of judgment is matched by his provision of a mediator.
  3. Moses prayer is based on God’s previous promises.  Moses is only doing what God has previously revealed, commanded or promised. He is not opposing God; he is obeying God. His prayer flows from God (and his Word) back to God.

Letting the Whole Counsel of Scripture Speak

These observations are a start, but they don’t get us all away around the track.  We need a more full understanding of how God can both answer prayer and initiate prayer.  Fortunately, the doctrines of salvation and the Trinity give help.

First, Prayers do not shake the heavens, unless God has first saved us.Only those prayers offered by Christians who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ are acceptable to God.  Only those who know God and are known by him can offer effective prayer—can pray according to the will of God. Thus, prayer depends on God, and his saving initiative. This is true for the believer today, and for Moses who was a man called by God and given the Holy Spirit (cf. Num 11:16ff).

Second, prayer that is powerful and effective is Trinitarian.  The Father receives our prayers through the Son.  In Exodus, this is foreshadowed, where Moses himself is a type of Christ, interceding for his people.  In this way, Moses, who is human and not divine, is thrust into an office that is intended for the God-Man Jesus Christ. So, our prayers are powerful as they are lifted to the Father, through the Son.  But what of the Spirit?  Looking for help in all the Scripture, we find that we must pray “in the Spirit.”  We find this stated twice in the New Testament (Eph 6:18; Jude 20) and explained in Romans 8:25-26.  So lets read:

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

If we listen to what Paul is saying, the Spirit is the one who directs and empowers our prayer. Indeed, we cannot pray apart from the Spirit.  Prayer that is pleasing to God is initiated and guided by the Holy Spirit, which means that prayer mysteriously puts the believer somewhere between the Spirit and the Son on the way to the Father.  We do not become part of the Trinity, but when we pray we are participating in a spiritual dance of sorts with the Triune God. Therefore, true prayer is necessarily Trinitarian, and thus all the prayers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, and New Age Spiritist are worthless.  The Living God rejects them all.

Back to Exodus

So what should we say? Does Moses change God’s mind?  Yes and No.

Yes, Moses prayer changes things.  Verse 12, Moses asks God to “relent” and verse 14 confirms that God “relented.”  I fully believe that if Moses had not prayed, God would not have relented and Israel would have been wiped out.  Moses prayer was instrumental.  But did it change God?

No, Moses doesn’t change God or what God was going to do.  On the surface, it looks like God got mad, Moses stepped in the middle, and saved Israel by changing God’s mind.  But that is a very man-centered view. It makes God little better than a moody old man.

Still better: Moses prayer, while it is genuine, real, and passionate, is also Scripted.  The sovereign God who answers his prayer, also gives him his prayer.  That is to say that God sent Moses to intercede for Israel.  God circumcised Moses heart and gave him a passion for his people.  And then in this moment, Moses responded to the circumstance by pleading God’s mercy.

Maybe you are saying, “I still don’t understand.  How can Moses prayer be free and effective, and Scripted?” Let me take one more stab at it, again recruiting the analogy of other Scriptures.

  1. His prayer is not based on his own inventive reasoning.  Everything he says is based on God’s previous promises.  In this way, the Script is the Scripture.  God’s word, written on his heart.
  2. As we read the testimony of Romans 8, we learn that when we pray, God helps us, and gives us the words.  This is true in the OT and the NT.  So, he is praying by the Spirit.  Confirmation of this is seen in Numbers 11, when it says Moses is filled with the Spirit.
  3. Further testimony in the Bible says clearly that God knows the words that we will speak long before they cross our lips (Ps 139:4).  But even more amazing is that Scripture doesn’t say that God just knows our speech, he gives it to us.  Proverbs 16:1, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”
  4. Going one step further, since the mouth speaks what is in the heart (Matt 12:34), God must also be in charge of what is in the heart; which is confirmed in Proverbs 21:1, when Solomon records, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD, he turns it wherever he will.”

In the end, some may say, this is too deep, too mysterious.  And I agree that it is mysterious.  But I disagree that it is too deep.  God made you to go deep with him (Prov 25:2), and the reason why so many Christians are bored in church and flirt with pornography, gambling, and materialism is because they have never gone deep with God.  Here is the truth, as we go deep with God, the sovereign Lord who made us and redeemed us will fills us with joy eternal, and he will give us power to say no to ungodliness.  Moreover, he will enervate our prayer with life like we have never before experienced.  Moses prayer is a theological problem, but it is one worth thinking about deeply because it reveals so much of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss