Intercessory prayer is praying for someone else. What’s the logic of this? Why would the heavenly Father hold back giving help and good gifts to his children until someone else asks him to do so? Do such prayers actually work? For them to work, if they do, pleas from humans must affect God’s behavior–by doing something he wasn’t planning to do, or not doing something else, or by intervening in human events in some specific way. Yet if God’s will is perfectly set from the beginning and all things that happen are predestined to happen, then what is the point of praying if God cannot be moved? If God can’t be moved by our requests, why pray?
by Kenneth Westby
The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, spoke of God as an unmoved mover, which we will see contrasts sharply with the biblical Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The thought of mere mortals moving the divine into action was against the Greek concept of God, the ideal of God. The Hellenic (Greek) ideal of God is that he is an absolute, timeless and unchangeable being; a Being who is unconditioned, unchanging, impassible and totally in control. In short, God is a Being that cannot be affected by anything outside of itself. Praying to such a God would be a waste of time. He is above such interaction with fleshly humans.
Unfortunately, current theology is a blend of pagan Greek theism (the system of thought about what the perfect God is like) with biblical theism forming a confusing and often contradictory picture of God. This double origin of classical theism needs to be carefully separated leaving the biblical ideal of God as our guide. Only by understanding the being to whom we pray can we have a healthy relationship with Him.
Here, we each need to be theologians of a sort, establishing for ourselves a true concept of God and what he is like. Searching and sorting is required. We must be honest with ourselves in indentifying our presuppositions about God and finding precisely where we got them. The standard, conventional presuppositions about God picked up from the theological playground were likely left there by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.
As serious searchers of truth, we proceed wisely if we are led by the actual evidence of how God dealt with real people recorded in Scripture. Let the so called “church fathers” philosophize away with their metaphysical abstractions, and let the Greeks have their pagan idea of their unmoved mover, their static God.
We seek to know the God of Scripture, the true God of history. For the Yahweh of Abraham and Moses is not an unmovable cold stone, but he is a most moved mover bound in dynamic relationship with his sons and daughters made in his image. He is a God who invites our intercession on behalf of others. He loves to engage his people in genuine give-and-take relationships and share the decision making process. This world is both ours and His and he wants us to learn to deal with it and its inhabitants with His love and wisdom.
The First Intercessor
It is fitting that the first intercessor we come across in Scripture is Abraham, father of the faithful. He was no perfect guy, as the record shows, but he had a heart for God and he both knew and was known by Yahweh, the Creator. When called by God he forsook his polytheism and moved to where ever God directed him, he became God’s “friend” (Isa 41:8). When God had a matter to tend to in Abraham’s neighborhood he stopped by to talk it over with his friend. This is our starting point toward understanding the amazing dynamic of intercessory prayer. Read the story in the 18th and 19th chapters of Genesis.
“Yahweh appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre.” With the Lord were two other “men” who we later learn were two mighty warrior angels and members of the Divine Council. Abraham warmly welcomed these three special guests and quickly set about with the help of Sarah and his staff to roll out lavish hospitality including a huge feast. The banquet consumed most of the day.
After dinner God introduced the matter of Sarah having a child. It was a shock. Maybe Sarah, now old, had given up the hope of having a child. She privately laughed at the idea, and God took note. At this point the Lord plainly identifies himself saying, “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” Consider how amazing this scene is, how touchingly kind: God personally delivering an answer to a prayer this childless couple had been faithfully repeating for decades. Their requests for a son was not intercessory prayer (asking for someone else), but supplication, asking for oneself…to have a child. God invites both kinds of prayer. In this case, he even delivered the answer personally. “Too late,” Sarah thought, but was she in for a surprise a year later.
As dusk approached and the three prepare to leave, Yahweh asks his two companions, members of His Council, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” After offering the logic of inviting Abraham to participate in the matter of what to do about Sodom, he turns and lays out the problem to Abraham. Previously, Abraham has been told by Yahweh that he was destined to be a blessing to the world and shoulder a related obligation to the faithful exercise of authority. Now, Abraham is invited to take some responsibility for managing a most important undertaking.
Yahweh said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that 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 know.” At that point the two angels begin the long walk down to the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But then something strange happens. “The Lord stood yet before Abraham” (18:22, Masoretic Text). God has revealed to Abraham his intention, calamity is likely, but does not set about putting the intention into effect. He is standing eye to eye with his friend Abraham as if waiting for his thoughts on the matter, waiting to see his reaction. He wants to share with his servant the process by which decisions are taken and implemented in the world. We might expect Abraham to enthusiastically welcome Sodom finally getting what it deserved: “Good, it’s about time, burn them all!” Not so.
Without pause Abraham aggressively begins to intercede on behalf of the righteous and challenges God: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He presses the point further saying, “Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
These are bold powerful appeals to the very character of God and to his sense of justice and fairness and mercy. Apparently he believed God would listen to his pleas and change plans. He gets God to agree that if there are fifty righteous in the city the entire city will be spared God’s judgment. He continues to get agreement on lesser numbers until he ends up with God agreeing to spare the place for but ten righteous souls. It wasn’t that Abraham was sympathetic to the perverse practices that characterized these cities, but held the hope that as long as there were righteous people perhaps the unrighteous might repent and be spared. No doubt this was the hope that taxed God patience for a long time until the deterioration into sin appeared complete.
Abraham dropped the bargaining at ten as his racing mind couldn’t come up with an awareness of even ten righteous people in that miserable city. There was one person, his nephew Lot, and maybe his wife and two daughters–only four! Abraham knew the king of Sodom and the leadership in the other cities of the plain having done business with them and on one occasion, years earlier, going to war to rescue them from defeat at the hands of an invading force of four kings led by Kedorlaomer. He knew names, knew families, knew children. Abraham was also well aware of the moral depravity that had spread among these valley cities and agreed with the need for God’s judgment, but was conflicted. They were neighbors, people he knew.
Still, God was going to be true to Abraham’s challenge and not kill the righteous with the wicked. The solution was to whisk the righteous out of town before the fire and brimstone rained down. The angels ended up actually grabbing the hands of a reluctant Mrs. Lot and daughters pulling them out of town. Abraham’s intercessory prayer got the stipulated result–the righteous did not die in Sodom’s judgment.
Lot and his daughters were saved, but while fleeing his wife exercised her free will to disobey the angel’s command (always a bad idea) to not stop or look back, but to keep running for their lives. She stopped and looked back, perhaps entertaining a return trip as she didn’t see any fire, just the warm lights of her home town. It was her final thought in life.
Joining God in Saving the World
God must have been gratified that Abraham immediately stepped forward on behalf of his neighbors. I think he wanted Abraham to assume responsibility for decisions involving his world and his fellow humans. He wanted Abraham to exercise some of the God-given power he had to bless and to also understand the power to curse.
Where does that power come from? Theologically it mirrors the basic commission given by God at the beginning: Speaking to the Divine Council God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule ….” (Gn 1:26). Man was given dominion over everything and herein lays the power to bless and curse, help or harm, do good or do evil. It is human power to bless and human power to curse, which Noah employed (Gn 9:25) and which to some degree we all have (see Lev 20:9 and NT guidance by Jesus and Paul, Lk 6:28; Rom12:14; Gal 1:8-9).
Intercessory prayer is exercising power to bless another by the participation of God. Abraham is the first prophet in the Bible and he is called such explicitly for his intercessory work on behalf of others (Gn 20:7, 17–Abimelech in this case). God does not like to act alone, but collaboratively. He created us with God-like qualities and commissioned us to share in the righteous management of life on earth. Intercession is one of the key ways human being can involve themselves in doing God’s work.
Moses, and all the prophets, functioned as lead intercessors on behalf of God’s people. Yahweh declares he is going to annihilate the people for perfectly just reasons. They had broken every covenant they made and forsook the true God for an Egyptian cow god and were celebrating their return to paganism in a drunken orgy. Moses intercedes with reasons why Yahweh should not do so–good reasons which could support a case for mercy. Yahweh is convinced and has a change of mind. Yahweh was moved by Moses’ intercessory prayer–a direct appeal toward his God on behalf of others.
Intercessory prayer is integral to prophecy as Samuel found out. Like the Aaronic priesthood which interceded for the people in presenting their offerings, Samuel interceded when the people were facing judgment for their sins. “The people all said to Samuel, ‘Pray to Yahweh your God for your servants so that we will not die….'” He did and they didn’t.
True prophets and ministers continually urge God to seriously consider mercy as they also urge people to take God’s wrath seriously. In addition to the troubles of the human condition–enemies, illness, disaster, discouragement, and spiritual weakness, there are other forces we fight including a heavenly accuser, called in Hebrew, hassatan, “the adversary.”
Jesus offered an intercessory prayer on behalf of his friend Simon Peter: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” Jesus asked his heavenly Father to give Peter the spiritual strength to endure the terrible ordeal. God did. A part of the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition to not be overcome by the evils of temptation or by the evil one. Can you think of a struggling someone that could use your intercession with God?
Remember that heart ache of a story when God could find no one motivated to intervene to save Israel. “I sought for someone from among them as a repairer of the wall and one who would stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land [an intercessor], so that I would not destroy it; but I did not find anyone” (Ezek 22:30; see Isa 62:6-7 for a similar occasion). We are to be as watchmen praying to God on behalf of our nation that God would be merciful and lead it away from sin.
Shortly after the birth of Jesus, God honored two very special, faithful intercessors, Simon and Anna. They were the first named saints to recognize the Holy Child, the Son of God, Israel’s Anointed Savior. Read the story in the second chapter of Luke. Simon was praying that God would send a savior and a light to the Gentiles and on that dedication day God directed him to Mary and Joseph. He took the baby Jesus in his arms and gave a powerful prophecy about how Israel would be forever changed. Then God brought Anna to see the baby, that dear eighty-four-year-old saint, praying daily in the Temple for the redemption of her people. Her years of prayer for Israel were now to be answered and she with her own eyes beheld the Lord’s Anointed.
It is in this sense that Paul writes,
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…’ (1 Tim 2:15).
In that one paragraph, with some serious meditation, can be found dozens of important needs, things, situations, and people to pray about. If God is seen as real and involved in our world we can be passionately involved in bringing people to know Him, and his glorious Son.
Standing in the Place of People
The writer of Hebrews pleads for Christians to remember people who are in prison or who are being tortured. This very moment thousands of Christians are is that stressful state in dozens of countries simply because they are Christians. Thousands have been killed in just the past few years in Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Iran, Egypt, China, India and many other countries. Persecuted and killed mainly by Muslims but also by radical Hindis and others who resent their Christian confession.
Remember them “as though you were in prison with them…as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb 13:3). The “as though” puts us in the place of the people suffering; we stand with them, and for them, and plead their case before our God that he would provide them with strength to endure and mercy to escape.
Jeremiah’s lamentations were meant to be prayed not merely by the afflicted but by those who were standing with them. Intercessory prayers are offered to the hurting and oppressed by people who identify with them. We must learn to stand in another’s shoes and so feel her loneliness and needs that we are moved to intervene with God on her behalf. Many in serious need may not know how to pray for themselves or be ignorant of the fact that they have a loving heavenly Father than can repair what is injured and forgive their sins. They need someone. Someone like you or me. Will we stand in their place and talk to God about what needs to be done?
You Can Influence God
We want God to influence us so that we can become more like him in mind, character, and loving action. God also wants us to influence him since he has invited us to share in the decision making process here below. There is an amazing approachableness in God’s character, an instinctive self-humbling that draws us to him and frees us to open up with our most private needs, desires, and sins. It is the “goodness of God that leads us to repentance,” Paul notes. Jesus personified this aspect of God’s nature and declared:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 12:28-29).
Jesus is our prime example of an intercessor on our behalf. He urges us to love others as he loves us, which means asking help on the behalf of somebody else.
The Bible tends not to use special religious words for religious activities and we can take a cue from that. “Prayer” has the patina of a religious word, but it simply means “to ask,” “to request.” The Bible doesn’t layer itself in religious jargon but speaks plainly without the churchy talk so common among the religious. Apparently churchy people think sprinkling a lot of religious salt and pepper talk is what God wants to hear or what will impress their fellow church people.
What God wants is that we “bear one another’s burdens” and so love our neighbor as ourselves. A practical expression of that is struggling in prayer to move God to act on behalf of someone else. This is a ministry, plain and simple. It is also a gift to be used in God’s service. It is also a responsibility to be taken. To see a need and ignore it is not what the Good Samaritan did.
Helping others doesn’t always mean reaching for your wallet, but it always means praying on their behalf that God would also help. Yahweh says, “You will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”
 Throughout his career Abraham build altars and offered sacrifices (Gn 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18) and the places sacred to him were often marked by trees, a token of his intention to stay in the land (13:18).
 Or perhaps his agent, The Angel of the Lord. The Bible frequently uses the principle of agency where the agent speaks for God and must be obeyed just as if God were there speaking.
 See John Goldingay’s fine book, Key Questions about Christian Faith–Old Testament Answers, Baker Academic, 2010, 345 pages. See his section, How Does Prayer Work? pp. 182-189.
 Exodus, the 32nd chapter
 1 Sam 12:18
 Luke 22:31
 Rom 2:4
 Jer 29:12-14