The Intercessory Prayer of Moses

November 18, 2015 at 11:42 am | Posted in Exodus | 4 Comments
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Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

Exodus 32:10

This is an example of anthropopathism. In Exodus 15 we learned about anthropomorphism (“man-form”), where human physical characteristics are used to describe God. Anthropopathism is derived from anthropos, meaning “man,” and “pathism,” referring to feelings or emotions. For example, “pathology” is the study of disease – or why people “feel” bad. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is feeling bad with someone. Someone who is “pathetic” is someone for whom we feel sorry. Anthropopathism is attributing human feelings to something (or in this case Someone) who is not human. It does not mean that God is faking His anger, but, unlike us, He is sovereignly and omnipotently in control of it. His feelings or emotions are real, but they are decreed by Him. They are controlled by Him. And they are exhibited in a way that lets us (finite beings) understand His attributes.

God also seems to be testing Moses in Exodus 32:10, telling him that He is mad at the people, and that He is going to demonstrate His anger and wrath, while at the same time making it clear that He is not mad at Moses. It is as if He is telling Moses to move aside while He deals with the people, and that He will start over by a making a new nation from the seed of Moses. God is not lying when He does this because He is not practicing deceit, but He is giving Moses a chance to demonstrate his own humility and faith – which, in fact, Moses does:

And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?

Exodus 32:11

A casual, out of context, glance would make it seem like Moses was disrespectfully questioning God, or just being obtuse, asking a dumb question. But what was really going on was that Moses was praying a prayer of intercession. He asked God to do something in a rather bold way, but he recognized this, and he tempered it with a formal Hebrew way of reasoning.

When you were in high school, you probably didn’t say to your father, “Dad, you’re wrong for not letting me drive the car!” At least not if you were thinking rationally. You probably said something more like, “Why would a kind, gracious man like yourself refuse something harmless and kind to a responsible and careful lad like myself?” So, even though it looks like Moses was questioning God’s wisdom, God really received this as a respectful and reverent prayer, with solid reasoning included, as Moses tried to induce God to have mercy. By reading closely, we can find some principles to emulate in our own intercessory prayers:

1. Moses appealed to God’s great past deeds on behalf of these people: “…why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?” As if he said, “Lord, you have gone to great lengths to redeem them, even though they don’t appear to appreciate it.”

2. He appealed to God’s glory

Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.

Exodus 32:12

As if saying, “The Egyptians (and the world) are watching. It’s going to look to them like You couldn’t finish what you started, or like You were playing a cruel trick in bringing them out of a bad condition, getting their hopes up, and then destroying them.” Moses asked God to “repent of evil,” but it’s not the same thing for Him that it is for us. The “evil” that Moses referred to was not moral evil. It was catastrophic consequences. The word “repent” here is the idea of “relenting” – of reconsidering what He’s thinking about doing. He respectfully asked God to “change His mind,” also reminding Him of the fact that they are “Thy people.”

3. He reminded God of His Own promises.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.

Exodus 32:13

For God to start over with Moses would pose a difficulty in making it seem like God was breaking His promise to Abraham, so Moses asked God to keep His side of the Covenant for Abraham’s sake, and, more importantly, for His Own name’s sake. This is not a “prayer-trick” to get God to do what we want. It is a God-ordained feature of prayer and one that pleases Him. He is far more interested in His Own glory than in our desires, comfort, or even needs.

Prayer is not really about getting God to change His mind; it’s about re-centering us on His will, His glory, His name, and His purposes. Some people think this whole exchange between God and Moses is just a set-up – just play-acting arranged by God – and, in an attempt to rescue the doctrine of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty, they say that Moses’s prayer was basically useless – that God was going to do what He was going to do anyway. If you say, no, prayer really works, Moses really did “get” God to hold back His wrath, then someone might say you are guilty of something called “Open Theism.”

Open Theism is a technical heresy that states either: (1) God does not and cannot know the future because, although He can know all the possible outcomes of free will choices, He still can not know what “free will agents” will choose; or (2) God has the power to know the future, but has chosen to limit His own knowledge so that His relationship with His creatures can be more “real” vis-à-vis reciprocal love.

It is not necessary to resort to Open Theism in order to believe in the omniscience of God and the real effects of Moses’s prayer. God simply chooses prayer (and even changing His Own mind, which is infinite and eternal) as the means to accomplish His perfect sovereign will and plans.

Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

Isaiah 46:9-10

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

Psalm 90:1-4

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  1. […] beseeching and pleading by appealing to God’s past deeds, glory, promises, and Word were […]

  2. […] Moses had plead with God to turn from His anger, but now he saw with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears, and he too expressed righteous anger, breaking these unique, precious tablets in view of all the people “beneath the mount.” This was the exact same spot where the people verbally agreed to be bound by God’s gracious covenant. They broke the Covenant figuratively; Moses demonstrated it literally. We speak of breaking God’s law – but it is God’s law that will break the sinner – just as jumping upward off a roof temporarily seems to break the law of gravity, but ultimately breaks the jumper. […]

  3. […] 31-32) 49. Syncretism and Sexual Sin (Exodus 32:5-6) 50. Corrupt Curving off Course (Exodus 32:7-9) 51. The Intercessory Prayer of Moses (Exodus 32:10-13) 52. The Personality of God (Exodus 32, 14:12) 53. When the Word of God Crashes […]

  4. […] trying to bargain with God. Abraham did this for Lot, as he tried to persuade God to spare Sodom. Moses did this for the people after their idolatry with the golden calf. Here Heman seeks to do it for himself, but he frames it […]


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