In these verses (along with verses 18-19) Moses records his response to the people’s sin with the golden calf. After rebuking them and making them realize the seriousness of their actions he rushes back to God and appeals to Him to spare the people. What drives him are God’s words in verse 14 – “Let Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.” Moses understands the stakes and so spends 40 days and nights praying for the people. In so doing he gives us a wonderful model of how to intercede for others.
Intercessory prayer makes up a large part of the believer’s prayer life [We should spend more time on our intercession for others than on our petitions for ourselves, not only out of charity but out of realism – because there are more others and therefore more needs – Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners]. We may pray for another’s health and safety, or for protection from sin and strength in the face of temptation. We may pray for restoration or for God to change their course, or at a more basic level for their salvation. Regardless of how or what we pray, we have many to pray for and so have much to learn from this passage about how to do it. This text may have particular meaning for parents.
I fell down before the Lord…forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water (18,25). Moses falls down before Yahweh in complete subjection and pours his heart out to Him. His attitude is in total contrast to the stubborn (13) and rebellious (24) people. He approaches God with deference and humility and does nothing but pray for an extended time. He knows the best thing he can do for the people is to appeal to God for their lives.
It is worth mentioning that the duration of his time in prayer is probably unknown. The phrase forty days and nights is used throughout the Old Testament and likely means a significant amount of time instead of a specific period. In this case it could be literal, but since it is used to describe totally unrelated events throughout scripture it is probably an idiom more than an exact measure. It does not take away from what Moses does, but we should probably not get too focused on the specific length of his praying.
That said – this is an incredible example of committed and concentrated prayer. He prays for days and weeks. He seems to pray virtually nonstop. He does not eat or drink so he can give himself totally to prayer. Nothing gets in the way of his appeal to God and nothing is more important during these weeks than praying. He completely commits to prayer.
How does he pray for so long? What does he say? The prayer listed in verses 26-29 takes only seconds to read – how could it take Moses 40 days to speak? It is worth noting that God speaks to Moses face to face like a friend (Ex 33:11) and that these two friends have just spent an extended period together going over the Law (another forty days and nights). They know what it is to be in each other’s company and are used to being together. Moses’ familiarity with God enables him to persist in prayer until God answers him.
This illustrates an important truth. Prayer breeds prayer. The more we pray the more we pray. Prayer is like anything else – the more we do it the better we get and the more comfortable it becomes. The more time we spend in the presence of God the more we want to be in the presence of God and the more it contrasts with the world around us. We will be better prepared to run to God in a crisis if we know the way to the throne.
The opposite is also true. Prayerlessness leads to prayerlessness. The less we pray the stranger and harder it becomes. Prayer is a habit that is hard to acquire but it is in fact a habit. As a believer this is one of the many dangers of unconfessed sin. Festering sin leads to dry times of no prayer – which lead to more dry times which then become habitual. The habit of not praying is extremely hard to break.
Another lesson to learn here is about time. Prayers do not have to be long to be heard and we do not have to spend a set time in prayer before God answers. However, there is something to be said for concentrated prayer and there is an element of persistence to prayer that only time can provide. Moses decides to pray until God relents, and to do nothing else until He does. Perhaps if we focused on praying for others until God answers and not quitting until He does, we would be more effective in changing the lives of those around us (as compared to addressing situations directly). Persistent prayer is a confession of dire need and utter dependence; we keep on asking because there is no one else to whom we can go – Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy.
What about fasting? Moses does not eat or drink for the entire duration of his praying – several weeks. Does this mean we must fast if we are serious about prayer? We are not commanded to fast under the new covenant (although Jesus seems to assume His followers will – Matt 6:16). And we do not earn points with God if we do. However, there is certainly benefit in refocusing our attention on God and living out the lesson that man does not live by bread alone but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God. God is more important than food and fleshly needs are secondary to our need for Him. Sometimes it is good to fast to remind ourselves that God alone satisfies. And what better way to spend a meal time than in prayer?
The last lesson Moses provides for us with his actions is his approach. He completely prostrates himself to show his humility and his station before God (he also does this with his address to God in verse 26 – “O Lord God” [O sovereign Yahweh]). Is there value in this? It is true that we are not required to assume any position to make our prayers heard. But just like fasting, it is sometimes profitable to remind ourselves of who we are in God’s presence by physically humbling ourselves when we pray. No one comes before a throne without bowing down.
Moses is desperate and afraid. He says as much in verse 19 – “For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the Lord was wrathful against you in order to destroy you.” He knows this is life and death. God is not kidding about wanting to destroy the entire nation. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. The people have violated one of the two most important commandments and they deserve the wrath God threatens. This drives Moses to prayer.
It seems to be true – because of our complacency and self-absorption – that we do not really understand prayer apart from crisis. If we have not gone through desperate times and trials we do not seem to “get” prayer. Prayer is unnecessary for the man with few needs. However, for those who have been in a place where there is no answer and no light and no apparent way out, prayer becomes a life boat. It may in some ways be unfortunate, but desperation drives prayer; and since God knows this, He often puts us precisely into that state.
Moses prays according to God’s will. He prays the way John tells us to pray in I John 5:14-15 and gets the results John promises. Moses says nothing about what the people deserve and does not try to justify them before God. He instead makes the subject of his prayer God Himself. Note the words he uses. “…do not destroy YOUR people, even YOUR inheritance, whom YOU have redeemed through YOUR greatness, whom YOU have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (26). “Yet they are YOUR people, even YOUR inheritance, whom YOU have brought out by YOUR great power and YOUR outstretched arm” (29). This prayer is all about God – not the people.
He appeals to God’s faithfulness in verse 27 by telling God to remember the patriarchs and His covenant with them. He also urges God to not look at the stubbornness of this people or at their wickedness or their sin. He wants God to focus on His promises rather than the people’s sin.
He appeals to God’s glory in verse 28. If God destroys the Israelites He will give the Egyptians cause to blaspheme by saying He was not powerful enough to displace the Canaanites or that He actually hated Israel and so destroyed it. God cannot do anything that will take away from His glory and nothing is more important to God than glorifying Himself. Moses understands this and so makes it the basis of his prayer.
This is hugely instructive. Moses’ prayer is focused on God and based in His will. It shows how a friend of God prays. Moses focuses weeks of prayer on God and saves a nation. It is worth noting that God’s children always benefit when God glorifies Himself (creation, redemption, His word). If that is the case, it makes sense that our prayers be centered on Him. Perhaps if we framed our prayers in the glory and attributes of God instead of our own comfort and happiness they would bring us closer to Him and become more vibrant and effective.
The following is from our study in I John 5:14-15 and applies well to our current text:
Effectively, when we ask FOR HIM – He hears us. When we ask for lives that honor Him, glorify Him, obey Him, testify to Him, praise Him – these are the prayers John says He is sure to hear. Note that these types of prayers are anything but self-centered. They are prayers that serve to submit our will to His. He does not promise to hear prayers according to OUR will – He hears prayers according to His own. And the longer and more frequently we pray in this way the more our wills conform to His. Perhaps the best result of prayer according to His will is that His will becomes ours. Prayer is the means that God uses to give His people what He wants – Robert W. Yarbrough. Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending His will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to His. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it – John Stott.
So when we pray for others perhaps we should bring them to the throne not because they cause us problems or we are worried about their welfare, but because we want God to glorify Himself through them. If they do not serve Him they cannot glorify Him. God is not honored by an apostate child or spouse. If we pray for others in God’s terms rather than our own then we let Him change them for His glory.
So can I pray like Moses prayed? Can I commit to prayer like he did? Are there people in my life whose very existence depends on my prayers (whether physical or spiritual)? Is someone I love in a crisis that cries out for prayer? And if so, am I willing to intercede like Moses? Am I willing to spend the time in prayer necessary to change a life? Or is prayer still so hard that even in the heat of God’s furnace I turn to it only grudgingly or with the little spare time I seem to have? Is the sin that keeps me from prayer more important than the lives I could change by praying? Would I rather just be discouraged and beaten down rather than work hard and persevere in prayer?
As a parent or spouse – how committed to praying for that person am I? Moses clears the decks and says nothing is more important than spending time in God’s presence because lives are at stake. Eating is not important, drinking is not important, daily responsibilities are not important, seeing and talking to others are not important – NOTHING gets in the way of 40 days of concentrated prayer because people are about to die. How many lives around us are at stake? If we have kids who have veered off the straight and narrow – are their lives not in the balance? If my spouse is estranged from God and so not treating me well – is his/her spiritual future not in play?
And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sin which you had committed in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke Him to anger. Desperate times call for desperate times of prayer. This is Moses’ reaction to crisis. Are we willing to commit to the same degree?