Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
A lot of people question the point of praying. After all, if the Lord operates outside of time, knows everything, and already has his plans mapped out in heaven then what do our small, time-restricted prayers mean to him and the grand scheme of everything he’s set up? Understanding that God controls the whole universe calls into question our own free will, so how can we even think of changing God’s mind? I mean, check out how God responded to Job complaining about his life turning to shambles:
Can you raise your voice to the clouds
And cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who endowed the heart with wisdom
Or gave understanding to the mind? (Job 38:34-36).
Keep in mind, God let the devil take Job’s children, wealth, and health; and then he reminds Job that he controls the whole universe so Job shouldn’t complain so much. Or look at what God says in Isaiah 45:9,
Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker,
To him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
“What are you making?”
Does your work say,
“He has no hands”?
When reading stuff like this, it kind of makes it difficult to pray, because after all, God has a plan and prayer is sorta just us voicing our opinion at the omnipotent; isn’t it? Well, today the Holy Spirit wants to make clear just how powerful prayer can be.
It was the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash in Israel. God, preparing to destroy the northern kingdom for wickedness, called Amos in order to warn the people. We read,
This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”
So the Lord relented.
“This will not happen,” the Lord said (Amos 7:1-3).
God was planning on killing off Jacob (or more specifically, his descendants, the nation of Israel) through a locust-based famine, but Amos asked the Lord to stop, so he did. But, Israel was really wicked, and God wasn’t through planning;
This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”
So the Lord relented.
“This will not happen either,” the Sovereign Lord said (Amos 7:4-6).
Although God was fairly intent on destruction, he was persuaded by Amos’ prayer for mercy towards his people. Finally, after two times of being prayed off of Israel’s case, God changed his plan. We read,
This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
And the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
With my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam” (Amos 7:7-9).
God gave into Amos’ pleas and instead focused his destruction on the sinful rulers of the nation of Israel and their places of idolatry; as opposed to a complete shock-and-awe wipe of the nation (which ended up coming later). Amos had just saved Israel –twice.
What makes God so responsive to prayer? For one, the Lord originally made us in order to have a relationship with us. Genesis records the beginning of the human race:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he crated him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
The Lord specifically made us in his image so that we’d be able to connect to him and talk with him and walk with him. In fact the Lord doesn’t even want to be just “God” in our relationship; he wants to also be our friend. Check out what Jesus said to his disciples,
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).
But being friends with God isn’t a new concept introduced by Jesus. No, the Lord had friends before Jesus sacrificed himself to repair our relationship with God. The patriarch Abraham had been more than a follower of the Lord; for it is written, “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend” (James 2:23). Ok, well that was from the New Testament too, even though it was about one of Israel’s forefathers. But even the Law, the part of the Bible known for being not very fun or happy, records friendship with God. We read, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent” (Exodus 33:11). The Lord ultimately desires friendship with his followers, and friends listen to each other. If God just told us what to do and didn’t listen to our input he wouldn’t be a very good friend, now would he? So one reason why prayer is effective is that it’s part of our friendship with the Lord.
Another reason why prayer works so well with God is that it is the best way for him to speak back to us. Psalm 120:1 tells us, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.” …Actually, a few of the psalms have a line like this, as does the book of Jonah. When you pray, it means that you’ve sent your message to God; therefore you should assume he heard you and will be answering back (in his own way). Since you’re expecting his answer, it should be easier to tell when God does start moving. Sometimes the Lord will answer directly (as he did to Job), other times circumstances will move in such a way that you can see your requests play out. Scripture speak of us, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). If you’re praying at the air, assuming that God isn’t listening, then…well…he probably isn’t. But if you trust in your heart that the Lord is on the other side of the conversation, then how can you do anything but wait in eager anticipation for his response?
…But what about when he doesn’t respond? Why doesn’t the Lord answer all prayer? Well, first off, sin separates us from God. It is written,
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
Nor his ear to dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
You from your God;
Your sins have hidden his face from you,
So that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
If any normal person on the street prays to God, there’s a fairly good chance that person won’t get anything from the Lord. Due to original sin, we’re born with a bent away from God; we’re not born his friends and our further sins do nothing to help our already broken relationship with him. Romans 5:12-13 reminds us of our sinful condition,
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned- for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.
We’re all born separated from God, and unless our relationship is repaired through Jesus, there’s no reason to ever expect the Lord to answer any prayer you send his way. But even those who have been saved through Christ’s sacrifice might find themselves ignored by the Almighty. James 4:3 reminds us, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” The Lord doesn’t answer selfish prayers. Does he sometimes allow us to get things we can spend on ourselves and allow us to live in luxury? Yes. But he does so for his image to flourish, not our own; for he has told us,
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another (Isaiah 48:11).
So it very well could be that the Lord isn’t pulling you out of debt or answering whatever else you might be praying for because it won’t serve any greater good at this time. Again, the Lord doesn’t do this to deny us, but to keep us (and those watching us) on the right track; for although he withholds riches at times, he also provides to his followers at other times. We read,
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (2 Timothy 6:17).
It’s all about where our hearts are when we pray. Think of Amos, he wasn’t acting entirely in self-defense, but he was also trying to save his people; God thought that was awesome (and might improve his wrathful Old Testament image) and so he held back his hand (and then at the same time allowed it to be advertised in the Bible so that one day people would use the story to write about how great God is).
For the unbeliever who prays to air, don’t worry; your situation can change. Jesus frees you from your sins and repairs your relationship with the Lord. Paul tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Although you may be steeped in your own personal sins (along with original sin), you can be freed because Jesus Christ already did the work for you through the sacrifice of his body on a cross. And because of the work he did, you too can be saved. We read, “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved- you and your household’” (Acts 16:31). Through the forgiveness that Jesus Christ brings, you will find yourself considered righteous in the Lord’s eyes, forgiven of all sin; past, present, and future. And as a saved person, your prayers are not directed at air, but at the ear of the Almighty Sovereign Lord. And so we read, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). You can go from talking to the wind to being a person wielding the great power of the Lord in prayer through the work of Jesus Christ. Who knows, you could be the one to save your people!