Are Our Prayers Covenental or Selfish?
There’s a fascinating part of Gary Millar’s book, Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer.
The only unique prayer in Deuteronomy is the prayer of Moses before his death, reported in 3:23-26:
“And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.”
This is the first example of a prayer in the Bible that is explicitly rejected. Not only does Yahweh refuse to answer this prayer, but he is ‘angered’ by the request. Why is this? This is a vital question, as any attempt to outline a biblical theology of prayer must say something about the delicate and pastorally sensitive issue of ‘unanswered prayer.’ So why is the prayer of Moses, the great intercessor, portrayed in such a negative light, and why does it receive such a severe rebuke from Yahweh?
Yahweh’s response here is completely predictable, because it is completely consistent with everything we have seen about prayer in the opening books of the Bible. Prayer is inherently covenantal, and is both drive by and based on the commitments Yahweh has made concerning the future of his covenant people, and his plans to reveal his glory to all nations. How does Moses’ prayer fit with all this? The short answer is, ‘It does not!’ Despite beginning with an admirable statement of the greatness of God, it moves quickly on to a request that can only be described as ‘selfish’. Moses’ prayer may be completely understandable from a human point of view, but, for the first time in the Pentateuch we have a prayer that has no essential connection with the progress of the plans of Yahweh. Moses, it seems, should have known better.
What about our prayers? How “covenental” are they, really? How centered are they on God’s revealed word? How much do they lean on his promises? How many are merely selfish desires robed in Christian language?