Prayer Changes Us, Not God

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.

“This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. – Isaiah 38:1-8 ESV

A key to understanding chapters 38-39 and their place in the chronology of the book of Isaiah is the first three words of verse one of chapter 38: “In those days…” This is a clear reference to the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem as described in chapters 36-37. Isaiah is providing additional information that will help shed light on all that took place in those dark days, but he is also prefacing the remaining chapters of his book.

During the height of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, King Hezekiah became deathly ill. We are not told the extent of his condition, but the prophet Isaiah delivered a divine prognosis that was anything but good news.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.’” – Isaiah 38:1 NLT

So, along with the pending invasion of the Assyrian forces and the likely fall of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had to deal with the threat of a terminal illness. All of this had to have weighed heavily on Hezekiah’s heart. He must have been confused by this unrelenting wave of bad news. After all, he had been one of the few kings of Judah who had tried to do the right thing, instituting a series of drastic religious reforms in an effort to restore the peoples’ worship of Yahweh.

Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah after the death of King Ahaz, who was the poster-boy for unfaithfulness and apostasy. The book of 2 Chronicles gives a summary of some of his exploits.

The king took the various articles from the Temple of God and broke them into pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s Temple so that no one could worship there, and he set up altars to pagan gods in every corner of Jerusalem. He made pagan shrines in all the towns of Judah for offering sacrifices to other gods. In this way, he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:24-25 NLT

But when Hezekiah took the throne at the age of 25, “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2 NLT). One of the first things he did was to reopen the temple and recommission the Levites so that the sacrifices to Yahweh could begin again. He also revived the celebration of Passover and called the people to worship Yahweh alone. As a result, “they smashed all the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and removed the pagan shrines and altars” (2 Chronicles 31:1 NLT). 

Yet, in spite of all his reforms and his efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah, God sent the Assyrians.

After Hezekiah had faithfully carried out this work, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified towns, giving orders for his army to break through their walls. – 2 Chronicles 32:1 NLT

And to make matters even worse, Hezekiah was told he was going to die. If anyone had the right to ask God, “Why?” it was Hezekiah. But rather than questioning God’s actions or doubting His love, Hezekiah simply asked that his acts of faithfulness be remembered.

“Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.” – Isaiah 38:3 NLT

Hezekiah was not bragging or boasting, but merely expressing his confusion over this latest bit of bad news. Isaiah describes the king as weeping bitterly. He was devastated by all that was happening to him and around him. The nation of Judah was under siege. It was just a matter of time before the Assyrians arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. And now, he was facing imminent death. It was all more than he could handle. So, he took his hurt, confusion, and despair to God. And his prayer was heard. God gave Isaiah a second message for Hezekiah.

“This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. Yes, I will defend this city.” – Isaiah 38:5-6 NLT

This raises the often-debated question: “Can the prayers of men change the mind of God?” Was God’s prescribed will somehow altered by the prayer of Hezekiah? The text is clear that, as a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life by 15 years. So, it would appear that Hezekiah’s death date was postponed because he prayed. But at the heart of the question lies the sovereignty of God. There is also the issue of God’s omniscience. He knows all. There is nothing that escapes His notice or that lies outside His awareness. While there are many occasions recorded in Scripture where it appears that God “changed His mind” because of the prayers of men like Moses, Abraham, David, and others, it is essential that we understand that God’s will is never altered by anyone. In fact, the book of Numbers tells us that God never changes His mind.

God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

So, what is going on here? Why did God determine to extend Hezekiah’s life? One of the things we need to always bear in mind is God’s complete and unwavering knowledge of all things. God knew Hezekiah’s heart. He was fully aware of how Hezekiah would respond to the news of his pending death. Hezekiah’s prayer didn’t change the heart of God, it changed the heart of Hezekiah. The king, faced with the news of his terminal illness, unknowingly prayed within the will of God, revealing his desire that his life be extended because he cared for the glory of God and the good of the people of Judah. God, because He is all-knowing, knew exactly how Hezekiah was going to respond and His “decision” to extend the king’s life had been part of His will all along.

God used the announcement of Hezekiah’s death to bring the king to the point of total dependence upon Him. The terminal prognosis was meant to get Hezekiah’s attention, not God’s. It was intended to bring the king to a place of total reliance upon the will of God and to remind the king of his own faithfulness. So much of this is about perspective. We see things from our limited vantage point as human beings. From our earth-bound, time-controlled view, we are incapable of seeing into the future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But God does. He knew all along that Hezekiah was going to live an additional 15 years because He knew how Hezekiah was going to respond to the news of his illness. Hezekiah didn’t change the mind of God, but Hezekiah’s mindfulness of God was dramatically altered. God wanted Hezekiah to know and not forget that faithfulness was the key to God’s graciousness. In a time when it could have been easy for Hezekiah to turn away from God and restore the former alters to the false gods, he remained faithful to Yahweh. He did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Even during this time of trouble, King Ahaz continued to reject the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus who had defeated him, for he said, “Since these gods helped the kings of Aram, they will help me, too, if I sacrifice to them.” – 2 Chronicles 28:22-23 NLT

In a sense, the news of Hezekiah’s terminal illness had been a test. Not of God, but of Hezekiah. And God knew that Hezekiah would pass the test with flying colors. Hezekiah’s death date did not really change. But his view of God did. And in the remaining verses of this chapter, Hezekiah will reveal the profound impact this situation had on his life and his heart. He was drawn closer to God. His reliance upon and love for God deepened. And this enhanced understanding of God’s love and faithfulness was going to be needed in the days ahead.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is the proof that God gave Hezekiah to assure that all He had said was true.

“‘And this is the sign from the Lord to prove that he will do as he promised: I will cause the sun’s shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz!’” So the shadow on the sundial moved backward ten steps. – Isaiah 38:7-8 NLT

We know from the parallel story found in 2 Kings, that Hezekiah had asked God for a sign.

“What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me?” – 2 Kings 20:8 ESV

This was not necessarily an expression of doubt on Hezekiah’s part, but a request for some form of reassurance on God’s part. The news was almost too good to be true. So, Hezekiah asked God to provide him with a tangible sign that what He had promised would indeed take place. And God graciously and miraculously obliged.

What’s truly interesting is that God used something built by and named after wicked King Ahaz to provide faithful King Hezekiah with proof of His word. God caused the shadow of the sun to reverse itself. In a sense, time reversed itself. We are not told whether the sun itself moved backward in the sky or whether the shadow moved contrary to the position of the sun. In either case, God provided a miracle, a supernatural sign that provided Hezekiah with all the proof he required. And again, the impact of all of this on Hezekiah was profound, resulting in his penning of a poem of praise to God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Our Incomparable God.

And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” – 1 Samuel 2:1-2 ESV

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hannah’s in one of the more fascinating, yet little known, stories in the Bible. She was a wife who had the unlikely lot of having to share her husband with another woman. To make matters worse, she was barren and unable to have kids, but her husband’s other wife had been prolific. And the cause of her infertility? According to the Scriptures, it was God, because we read, “the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5 ESV). And as if that was not enough, her trouble was compounded by the ridicule she received from wife number two. “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:6 ESV). As a result of all this, Hannah was distressed and disturbed, and while visiting Shiloh one year to worship and offer sacrifices to God at the tabernacle, Hannah took her problem to God. “And she vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head’” (1 Samuel 1:11 ESV). In due time, and in answer to her prayer, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel. And when Samuel reached the age of about three years old, Hannah kept her vow to God and brought him to the tabernacle. “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:27-28 ESV). 

You would think that this would have been a very sad day in Hannah’s life. After all, she had waited so many years and suffered so much ridicule, and now that she had been blessed by God, she was having to give the most precious thing in her life to God. She was having to leave her small child in the hands of others and simply walk away. And while there was no doubt a high degree of sadness in Hannah’s heart that day, what she expressed to God reveals no regret, remorse and unhappiness. Instead, she said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:1 ESV). Having just placed her young son in the hands of the priest to raise, she rejoiced. She expressed joy in the Lord, thanking Him for what He had done. Not only had He given her a son, God had exalted her horn. That is a unique expression that doesn’t mean a whole lot to us in a modern context. But in an agrarian culture, the horn of an animal was a symbol of strength. An animal lifting up its horn became synonymous with strength and virility. Hannah’s strength had been renewed by God. She was confident and content with her lot in life because God had blessed her. She had once been childless, but now she could rejoice in the fact that God had showed her favor. And she was more than willing to keep her vow to God. He had saved her from her humiliation and allowed her to experience the joy of giving birth to a son.

In all of this, Hannah’s main takeaway was the uniqueness of her God. He was incomparable. Her God was not distant or disinterested in her problems. He cared for her greatly and took a personal interest in her life. He had taken her barrenness and turned it into blessing. He had replaced her humiliation with hope. Yes, she had just given her son to God, but she did so because God had given her son to her. It was the least she could do. She viewed the Giver as greater than the gift. And she could do all this because she recognized the greatness of God. She knew Him to be holy, set apart, and without peer or comparison. Her God was her rock. The Hebrew word she uses is tsuwr and it refers to a rocky cliff where one can find shelter. For Hannah, God was a refuge and protector from her enemies. No more would she have to suffer ridicule and endure the shame of her barrenness. God had done the impossible for her. And again, while she had handed over her son to Eli, the priest, Hannah didn’t wallow in regret and sadness, she rejoiced. She praised God. She was more than willing to give back to the one who had given to her. God hadn’t just given her a son, He had given her hope, joy, strength, and a new capacity to face the future with confidence. Her God was with her. He heard her. And He answered her when she called. As far as Hannah was concerned, her life and her son were both in good hands, because they were in God’s hands.

Whatever We Ask?

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. – 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

1 John 5:13-21

Prayer is often a confusing and frustrating experience for the average Christian. It can also be one of the most misunderstood and misused disciplines in the life of the believer. The fact that we should pray is clear to most of us. That most of us attempt to pray is probably a safe assumption. But the experience of most believers when it comes to the subject and practice of prayer is one of inconsistency and impotency. Our prayer lives tend to be sporadic and powerless. Answers to prayer are rare and usually unexpected. So when we read a passage like the one above, we can either scratch our heads and wonder why what they promise doesn’t seem to be true in our own lives, or we can get overly excited and conclude that we have been neglecting a veritable no-limits gift card to get whatever we want.

But John would have us approach prayer excitedly, expectantly, but also wisely. So he includes some important conditions when it comes to prayer. This is not the first time that John has addressed the topic. Back in chapter three he gave us the comforting news that “we have confidence before God;  and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22 ESV). There are those intriguing words again – whatever we ask. It would seem that John is offering us some kind of carte blanche when it comes to prayer. He appears to be representing God as some kind of a cosmic genie in a bottle, ready and willing to grant our every wish. But John would have us tap the break and slow down our runaway excitement. He gives us a few caveats or conditions. We must keep His commandments and live in such a way that our lives please Him. This is not John’s attempt to offer some kind of works-righteousness as a means to get things from God. He is simply presenting a picture of what it means to live in relationship, in intimate communion with God. As we abide in Him; relying on His strength, depending upon His wisdom, and resting in His sovereign will for our lives, we will tend to have a better idea of what it is that He would desire for our lives. Which is why John adds yet another condition for prayer in verses 14-15 in chapter 5: “if we ask anything according to his will.” For many of us, prayer has become little more than an exercise in expressing our will. We come to God telling Him what we want. We bring Him our list of requests and petitions. We inform Him what it is that we need Him to do and we even give Him our preferred timetable for delivery of our request. But even Jesus knew better than to demand of His Father anything that would be outside of His will. In the garden, faced with the looming prospect of His own death, He made an impassioned plea to His Father, but added an important disclosure. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). Ultimately, Jesus wanted the will of His Father. He fully trusted His Father and placed His life in His hands. Coming to God in prayer is an incredible privilege, but it is also a right of every child of God. As John puts it, “we have confidence before God.” We can come into His presence. We can bring our requests before Him. And when we ask, we can know that He hears us. Not only that, “we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15 ESV).

But we have all had the unpleasant experience of having our prayers go unanswered. We have asked of God and then stood back and watched as nothing remotely like what requested has come about. But these moments of seeming contradiction speak more of our lack of knowledge of God and our misunderstanding of prayer. It helps me to think of my prayers like the requests of a small child to a loving parent. Children can be inordinately self-absorbed. They can also lack discernment. As a result, they can sometimes make requests that are unwise and potentially unhealthy. A loving parent would never give in to every request made by their child. In some cases, they might answer the request, but in a slightly different manner or on what appears to be a much slower timetable. But in their wisdom, they do for their child what they believe to be best for them. That is how God deals with us. He wants us to bring our requests. But He also wants us to trust His will. He wants us to understand that He knows best what will bring us good while bringing Him glory. God’s will is not our happiness, but our holiness. He is not here to grant our every wish. He exists to redeem, restore, renew, and rescue us from the damaging influences of a sin-filled world. We have to always remember that we are always susceptible to what John called the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life. Those things can weasel their way into our prayers. We can come before God desiring and asking for things that are outside of His will for us. And He is not obligated to give us everything we desire. Paul reminds us that God’s will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 ESV). He also encourages us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2 ESV). It is essential that we understand that effective prayer goes hand-in-hand with our ongoing spiritual transformation. The more we come to know God and understand what His will is for us, the more clearly we will pray within His will. And in those times when we still do not know His will, we will be content to leave the outcome to Him. We will want His will to be done. And we will trust Him to know what is best for us, because He loves us.

Kids In A Candy Store?

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. – 1 John 3:21-22 ESV

1 John 3:11-24

The two verses above sound almost too good to be true. They appear to be giving us some kind of divine carte blanche, providing us with a blank check from God to get whatever we want from Him. All we have to do is ask. Of course, there does appear to be some fine print attached to this too-good-to-be-true promise. John seems to indicate that we have to keep God’s commandments and do what pleases Him. The condition is that I have to live obediently and keep God happy, THEN I can get whatever I want from Him. That explains everything. The reason I don’t get all that I ask for from God is because I fail to measure up. Or is it? Is John saying my behavior is the key to getting what I want from God? A little bit later on, in chapter five, John brings up this matter again. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15 ESV). Did you catch the condition John placed in these verses? “If we ask anything according to his will.” Ah, now it’s all starting to make sense. I just have to figure out what God’s will is, then I can get what I want from Him. But wait a minute. Think about that last statement. God’s will and my desires are, in most cases, not one in the same. What I want and what God wants are not necessarily compatible. In fact, I would say that in most cases, our desires and God’s will are naturally and normally incompatible and at odds with one another. Paul reminds us, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). We have a sin nature, and it is diametrically opposed to the will of God. It has a mind of its own. Its desires are contrary to the desires of God. Earlier in his letter, John warned us about three things that are constantly wreaking havoc in our lives: the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life. The New Living Translation describes them in plain language we can understand – “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions.” So what I want is not always what God wants. And what I ask Him for is not always within His will.

So what is John trying to tell us? What is he teaching us about prayer that we need to know? First of all, he is NOT telling us that we can get whatever we want from God. God is not some kind of a cosmic genie required to grant our every wish. He is holy and righteous. He is sovereign and all-knowing. He is all-powerful and, while He is fully capable of giving us whatever we ask for, He is too loving to do so. He is our heavenly Father and is not going to give in to our every whim and sinful desire. God loves us too much to cater to us. Jesus had this to say about the Father: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11 ESV). But the key seems to be what we ask for must be within His will. So how do we know God’s will? And how do we live obediently, doing what pleases Him? Those things seem to create conditions that make getting what we ask for from God impossible or at least, highly unlikely. As always, context is critical. John has gone out of his way to establish the non-negotiable necessity of abiding in Christ. Jesus Himself established it as the key to fruitfulness. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). Abiding is the key to the behavior that is pleasing to God. God desires fruitfulness. Abiding in Christ makes it possible. But abiding also provides us with an intimate relationship with the Son and the Father that allows us to better know what their will is for us. As we abide, remaining dependent upon and energized by God, we discover what it is that He wants. We learn His will. And we begin to want what He wants. Our desires come in line with His desires. We become less and less driven by cravings for physical pleasure, cravings for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. So what we ask God for becomes increasingly more what He wants and less what we desire. Rather than ask for things that would simply make us happy, we begin to seek those things that would make us holy. Instead of simply asking God to remove the difficulties in our life, we learn to ask Him to use them to make us more like His Son. We begin to ask within His will. Our requests begin to fall in line with what God desires, not what we desire. As we abide in Christ, our hearts are slowly changed to reflect the will of God. So what we ask of Him, we receive. What we desire, He fulfills. Because our wills have come in line with His.

Psalm 108 – Day 1

Well-Placed Confidence.

“My heart is confident in you, O God; no wonder I can sing your praises with all my heart.” – Psalm 108:1 NLT

David is ready. He is prepared to face anything. He is strong and confident. Why? Because of God. This is not a case of self-confidence, but David’s confession that his hope and trust are in God alone. He knows that with God’s help he can face any situation with confidence and peace. He says, “With God’s help we will do mighty things, for he will trample down our foes” (Psalm 1087:13 NLT). There is no enemy too powerful or problem too big for God. David has learned that fearing is futile and pointless when God is on your side. Trying to take matters into your own hands is ridiculous when you have the God of the universe fighting for you. David’s awareness of this fact causes him to sing God’s praises. He can’t help but express gratefulness for God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. He has seen it in the past and he is confident that he will see it in the future, all because of what he knows about God’s unchanging nature. God has promised to rescue His people “by His holiness” (Psalm 108:7 NLT). His very character assures that He will do what He has promised to do. He will come through. He will answer.

But in the midst of the storm it is easy to forget that God is faithful. When surrounded by trouble, it is tempting to doubt that God will keep His promises. Like David, we can begin to question God, “Have you reject us, O God” Will you no longer march with our armies?” (Psalm 108:11 NLT). It is during those times we must remind ourselves that God is faithful. He rescues. He restores. He may not do it according to our schedule or exactly as we would like it done, but He will do it. The temptation for us during what appears to be those seasons of inaction on God’s part, is to turn to someone or something else for help. In many cases, we are tempted to trust ourselves for the solution we’re looking for, in spite of our abysmal track record. But David knew better. He said, “all human help is useless” (Psalm 108:12b NLT). Anything we turn to as a substitute for God will eventually fail us. But with God’s help we will do mighty things. This is a lesson only learned through experience. It can be taught, but it is rarely caught, until we are forced to experience it first hand. Relying on God takes guts. Trusting Him when everything in you says to take matters into your own hands takes faith. But as we grow in our understanding of His character, we become increasingly more confident and quick to place our trust in Him and Him alone.

Father, continue to teach me to trust You. Thank You that my heart is more confident in You today than it has ever been. I still have a long way to go, but You have never given me a reason to doubt You. Amen

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org