Great Moments in Bible History
Why Should Anyone Pray?
Jesus told us that God already knows what we need before we even pray about it (Matthew 6:8). Why, then, should we pray? This is a challenging question. In fact, the reality is even more challenging. In some cases, God has already determined what He is going to do before we pray and ask Him to do it! So what is the point? The story we will study in today’s issue will help answer that question.
In our last issue we followed the story of Abraham’s servant as he travelled to Haran to get a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Both Abraham and his servant knew that God would see to it that he got the right wife for Isaac. In the case of the servant, God gave him a clear sign that Rebekah was the one. The servant brought her back to the land of Canaan and Isaac married her. At this point in a fictional book we would be told that they lived happily ever after. Real life, of course, is never that simple. Though they were happy to be married to each other, their marriage had a problem. For many years they could not have children.
It is obvious that God intended them to have children. God had made it clear to Abraham that the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the sand that is on the seashore (Genesis 22:17) would be fulfilled through Isaac. And Isaac’s wife had been picked out by God Himself. They were exactly the right husband and the right wife, yet year followed year without any children. Finally, we read that “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived” (Genesis 25:21). Here is a blessing that God fully intended to give to Isaac (in fact, He had promised it to him), yet God refused to give it to him until Isaac prayed for it. Why would God require Isaac to ask for something that He planned all along to give him?
The reason for God’s seemingly strange behavior goes to the heart of our problem as sinners. God created us to need Him. We were not created to be able to live successful lives on our own. But left to ourselves we invariably think we can make it just fine without God. Eve demonstrated that attitude when she ate the forbidden fruit. All of us demonstrate it quite regularly in our own lives.
What might have happened if God had simply given Isaac and Rebekah the child they wanted within the first couple years of their marriage? Most likely, they would have failed to see God’s hand in their lives. They would have congratulated themselves that they were doing a good job bringing God’s promises closer to their fulfilment. One of the major themes in the book of Genesis is that humans are not the ones bringing about God’s promises. God is bringing about His promises in spite of humans, not because of them. We saw that illustrated when Sarah suggested that Abraham have a son by her slave Hagar. The resulting child was not the son of promise. In fact, he just complicated things for the promised child.
Fortunately, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case they did not do something on their own that would have complicated God’s plans. Instead, Isaac prayed to God (which was exactly what God wanted him to do). And when God answered that prayer, Isaac and Rebekah knew exactly why Rebekah was then able to become pregnant.
Although none of us today are in Isaac’s position (promised to be an ancestor of the Messiah) there are still things in our lives that God will only give us if we ask Him. This is not because He doesn’t want to give them to us and we have to somehow talk Him into it. (Anyone who has any idea of just how wise and powerful God is will recognize what a foolish idea that is.) Rather, it is because God knows it would harm us if we received the gift without knowing very clearly where the gift came from.
May each of us truly learn to live in daily dependence on God.
After waiting 20 years (and only after her husband prayed for her), Rebekah finally became pregnant for the one and only time in her life. The story does not tell us how she felt about it, but it is easy to imagine her excitement. It turned out that she was carrying twins, but the children were struggling with each other inside her. This concerned her greatly, so she asked God about it. God’s answer showed that the prenatal struggling of her children foreshadowed the future of their lives. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
In our society we do not make nearly as much of a difference between an older son and a younger one. In that society (and throughout the Old Testament), the older son was expected to carry on the family name and become the head of the family once his father died. As a result, he was given a larger share of the inheritance. It was called the birthright. In the case of a family with two sons, the older son would receive two thirds of the inheritance while the younger son would receive one third. So when God told Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger one, that was not the way it was supposed to work. It was turning things upside down.
Upon what basis did God choose to reverse things in this family? Did He look into the future and decide that the younger one would make better choices than the older? That is an attractive suggestion, because we humans like for these things to be in our control. If I just make the right choices, then God will bless me and make me stronger than my brother. (Or richer or more successful or more of something else that I want.) But when the apostle Paul commented on this story, he made it clear that God did not look at the future choices of those boys. He says God’s choice was made “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad” (Romans 9:11). Well then, if God’s choice had nothing to do with anything the two boys were going to do, then why did He make the choice? Paul explains that it was “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” In other words, God made this choice so that everyone would understand that He is the one controlling the future, not us. From beginning to end, this entire plan to rescue humans from sin was God’s idea and it was only because of God that it was accomplished. Along the way He used numerous people to bring it about, but this choice of the younger son is designed to show us that God does not need us. He is the one controlling the future. Nothing humans can do will prevent God’s plans, nor is God indebted to any of us for helping Him accomplish those plans.
God is still working in the lives of His children today. He controls our lives based on His own wisdom, not on how clever we are. God does not owe us anything. Even when we do great things in God’s service, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Another Dysfunctional Family
Rebecca’s twin boys were named Esau and Jacob. After they were born the story immediately jumps forward a couple of decades. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:27-28). Isaac’s favoritism ended up causing both himself and his sons a lot of trouble.
Dysfunctional families occur quite often in the Old Testament stories. The very first family ended up so dysfunctional that the older son Cain murdered his younger brother Abel (Genesis 4). At numerous points in the Bible story we find parents either favoring one child over another or spoiling their children so badly that they are stunted for life. The errors got passed down from generation to generation. Isaac favored his older son Esau. When his younger son Jacob grew up, he too favored one of his sons. In each case, the favoritism did a lot of harm.
If we read these stories expecting to find wonderful moral lessons of people who put God first in their lives, we will frequently be perplexed. Why are these stories of failure recorded so often in the Bible narrative? The answer is, because this is not the story of humans, but the story of God. God shows time and again that He is able to use these flawed people to accomplish He goal of saving the human race. He does it in spite of the sins of those people. In fact, He even uses their bad choices to accomplish His own goals for the human race. He demonstrates time and again that He is God.