The Essence of True Prayer

One of the most interesting sections in the Bible story is God visiting Abraham while the forefather of the Israeli and Arab peoples was standing in the doorway of his tent. The account reads like a homespun yarn that challenges our understanding of how God should act and think.⁠1 How is it that the Omniscient One should question:

I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know⁠2

The personal details here provide profound insight into God’s way of conversing with us despite our human limitations.  I compare this to a professor emeritus kneeling beside a pre-schooler to carry on a meaningful conversation with the child on his or her level (and this word “child” will come up again shortly)—only the disparity between God and Abraham is far greater, to put it simply.

God’s reason for telling Abraham was

Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.⁠3

This sounds like God is favoring Abraham when the Bible specifically tells us that God does not have favorites.⁠4  We read too little here and took this verse out of context. (A common problem⁠5). The King James version correctly translates the next verse:

For I know him,⁠6 that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD.

There is a lesson here that those who promote and live God’s Word, the Bible, who exemplify a holy life, will find a dynamic in prayer others cannot know.  They will have opportunity to know the God Who walks beside in a far more personal way.

After a discussion about stars and descendants—a story with which most believers are familiar, Abraham’s progeny would be innumerable—God turns to him and asks,

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?⁠7

The Early church fathers in Egypt translated this into Greek adding the words:  “My child.”

Shall I hid from Abraham, my child, ….⁠8 [This version of the Bible continues} “the things [plural] I intend to do?”

Our insight into God’s actions here might be fogged over by a cultural conscience that makes it difficult for us to understand God’s form of justice in this story (He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah⁠9). Consenting to the baffling idea that a loving God could even think to do such a thing, what should not escape our attention in this story line is God’s desire to discuss this matter with Abraham. On the use of the plural—“things” in the Greek Old Testament —God was by implication in the practice of sharing His heart and thoughts with His “children.” This was not some isolated incident.⁠10  Not uncommon in the Bible is God revealing ahead of its time some action He must take which is emotionally as catastrophic for Him as it is literally for those He judges worthy.  We call it prophecy or God foretelling some event.

The phrase often used in the Bible in this regard is “the burden of …” because that is exactly what it is to God—a heart rending thought.⁠11 The point here is that God shares these personal traumas with those of His children willing to walk with Him and talk about it.  We are too often focused on God’s words and not His heart⁠12 behind these words, the prophecy⁠13 and not the burden⁠14, the theological significance of His judgment and not, as we should, the disposition, the spirit, behind it.  Abraham understood.

In the course of their discussion Abraham asked God, rhetorically,

Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Can we not interpret this to be saying, “I know Lord that you must do what you must do!  I know that notwithstanding you are always just and right.  I support your decision (but may I ask…What if…”) And we know Abraham bartered with God for the souls of his nephew and his family.

One scholar correctly called this “the essence of true prayer.”⁠15

1 This account includes a banquet which the heavenly visitors seem to enjoy before going on their way.  Genesis 18:8 “He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
2 Genesis 18:21
3 Genesis 18:18
4 Acts 10:34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism
5 The NIV and NLT in verse 19 translates “For I have chosen him,” and “I have singled him out” suggesting the New Testament doctrine of election.  As sound as that doctrine is, this is not the context for it!
6 Some scholars translate the Hebrew word “to know” to mean “to acknowledge” and thus to choose.
7 Genesis 18:17.
8 ὁ δὲ κύριος εἶπεν μὴ κρύψω ἐγὼ ἀπὸ Αβρααμ τοῦ παιδός μου ἃ ἐγὼ ποιῶ
9 The modern names are Bab edh-Dhra, thought to be Sodom, and Numeira, thought to be Gomorrah. –
10 The Hebrew uses the word אֲשֶׁ֖ר meaning “that which” ….  The word translated “about to do” is a simple present action: “doing” which might have given the Greek translation its emphasis. “The things which God is doing…”
11 Isaiah 13:1, for example: The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. NKJV. See also Psalms 38:4 “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.”
12 The word burden can represent also an uplifting emotion, though, in Scripture, this seems rare.  See Ezekiel 24:25 “their heart’s desire,” i.e. The burden of the soul.
13 Isaiah 30:27, the NIV reads  ”his lips are full of wrath” which follows the LXX τὸ λόγιον τῶν χειλέων αὐτοῦ τὸ λόγιον ὀργῆς πλῆρες But the Hebrew reads מַשָּׂאָ֑ה שְׂפָתָיו֙ מָ֣לְאוּ זַ֔עַם which reads literally “The burden of His lips are full of anger”
14 Isaiah 13:1 in the NIV instead of “burden” reads: A “prophecy” against Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.  The word is “burden” in the Hebrew. There is here a paronomasia on the two senses burden and oracle.  see Jeremiah 23:33 NIV “message”; Ezekiel 12:10. See also Gesenius Hebrew/Chaldean Lexicon on מַשָּׂ֖א.
15 Keil-Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Errdmann Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI. 1980) vol I. p 231.
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