RPM, Volume 15, Number 6, February 3 to February 9, 2013

Reasoning with God

Genesis 18:22-33

By D. Marion Clark


There was a TV series in which the star would receive a newspaper with headlines about some kind of tragedy to take place in the near future. His task then was to intercede in time to prevent the tragedy from occurring. Abraham had such an experience. God stopped by for dinner, and as he was leaving he told Abraham where he was going next. He was going down the valley to visit Sodom and Gomorrah, not to have a fun night out, but to verify that their evil merited judgment.

Abraham knew the cities, and thus he knew what awaited them — annihilation. Justice could bring no less. The action he chose became the first recorded intercession in the Bible, and presents us with the first of the prayers of the OT saints to examine. Our text picks up with God turning to leave.


Abraham's Plea

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

Abraham sets for the terms of his concern: Should the righteous fare as the wicked? This is not a question of whether the righteous must face the same trials of life as the wicked, but rather, Are they to face the same judgment of destruction as the wicked? "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked…put the righteous to death with the wicked…" The issue for Abraham is justice; at least, it appears that way. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

This is a rather bold statement from Abraham. He is after all (as he will confess) but "dust and ashes." Who does he think he is to question the justice of God? Abraham is not asking a question that he might be instructed. He is instructing God! I wish I could have been there for Abraham. I could have advised him! "Father Abraham, you really don't want to go there. Sinful man questioning holy God — this is not a good situation." Isaiah could have given good caution. "Abraham, if you had seen what I saw in the temple — the holiness of God unveiled — you would know better than to suggest God could learn something from you about justice. You are an unclean person with unclean lips."

Indeed, should God not answer Abraham as he did Job? "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2). We know the apostle Paul's view on the matter of questioning God's justice. "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'" Paul goes on to say a few verses later, "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" (Romans 9:14-15, 20).

And yet, the Sovereign Lord, replies to Abraham, "Okay."

26 And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

God's unexpected answer emboldens Abraham to keep whittling down the number. We can see that he is both nervous about pushing too far, and yet anxious to go as far as he dare.

27 "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes…30"Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak…32"Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once."

Abraham must be thinking, "I can't believe it. He let me knock the number down to forty. Could I try thirty? This is unbelievable. I'm still alive and he has yet to get mad. Twenty? He took it! I must be so close to crossing the line, but I'll try one more time — ten. Whew! He took it. I better stop while I can. Besides, surely there must be ten. There's Lot and surely he must have had some influence in his family and neighbors."

So, why did God not get angry with Abraham? And why the numbers game? Why did Abraham not simply say, "What if there are some righteous; will you not spare the city?" And why did God himself not get immediately to the bottom line? "I will judge myself what the number should be."

Let's think about this numbers game. Consider how Abraham couches the issue of sparing Sodom in terms of justice, rather than of mercy. He never says that he is concerned about the fate of the wicked. He doesn't contend that Sodom is not deserving of destruction. There is no call on his part for mercy. He just wants justice for the righteous. Even then, note that the term is "righteous," not "innocent." There is no plea for mercy towards innocent babies or the oppressed. His only expressed concern is for the righteous.

By the way, Abraham knows the dangerous ground he is treading. He certainly would not have needed my counsel nor even Isaiah's to grasp the holiness of God. He had his own coming-in-the-presence-of-God experience. Chapter 15 depicts the awe-filled scene where God seals his covenant with Abraham by passing through slain animals the Lord had him prepare. "As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him...When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces" (Genesis 15:12, 17).

Abraham knew who he was dealing with, and that is why he took the tactic to appeal to God's justice in order to obtain his mercy. Say what he may about preserving justice. What Abraham really wants is mercy. He doesn't want destruction to come. If his concern really was a matter of saving the righteous, he could have skipped playing the numbers when he made the case that the righteous should not fare as the wicked. Numbers are beside the point when it comes to right and wrong. It is not okay to kill some righteous people, at least not when it can be avoided. Surely, Abraham did not stop at ten, thinking that the death of nine righteous persons was just. Indeed, if saving the righteous were all that Abraham truly cared about, he could have asked God to do what the Lord eventually did — deliver the righteous out of the wicked city and thus from destruction. But Abraham is asking that there be no destruction at all. No, he shows his hand when he starts whittling down the numbers. And it is clear why he keeps going for a lower number. He doesn't think God will find many righteous.

So why not directly appeal to God's mercy? Others do in their prayers. The answer lies in verses 20-21: "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me." God tells Abraham that he will be determining if Sodom and Gomorrah deserves destruction for their sins. In other words, the time of God's patience has come to an end. He has been merciful allowing the city to exist. But now time for judgment has come. Abraham understands this. It is too late to appeal to mercy to the Judge of all the earth. Any chance he is going to have (at least he thinks) is to appeal to justice.

Why, then, does God suffer Abraham's impertinence. God did not ask Abraham's counsel. And yet, the Lord did bother to tell Abraham what he was doing, and he even says why: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him" (17-19).

The Lord confides in Abraham because, well, because Abraham is his friend whom he has chosen to bless and become a blessing. As Jesus explained to his disciples, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15).

All right, then. Abraham is God's friend, but even friends can overstep their boundaries. Surely Abraham must have. And yet, God is as agreeable as one can be in his response. What gives? I like John Calvin's answer:

I answer, that the sense of humanity by which Abraham was moved, was pleasing to God…There is no wonder that he is terrified at the destruction of so great a multitude. He sees men created after the image of God; he persuades himself that, in that immense crowd, there were, at least, a few who were upright, or not altogether unjust, and abandoned to wickedness. He therefore alleges before God, what he thinks available to procure their forgiveness.

God is pleased that Abraham grieves for his fellow man. He is not like James and John, Jesus' disciples who were quick to ask God to rain fire on a Samaritan town because the citizens were not welcoming. Nor is he like Jonah angry with God for being merciful to a heathen city. No, Abraham is more like Christ who wept for the coming destruction of Jerusalem. And so he does what he can do. He intercedes in his bungling way, trying to reason with God who neither seeks nor needs human counsel.

Yes, God is pleased that his chosen friend, like himself, does not delight in the death of the wicked. "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23). God is pleased and accepts Abraham's simplistic effort at reasoning with the Almighty God. For after all, he does approach God humbly. He really isn't questioning God's justice as Job borders on and as the questioners do whom Paul is addressing in Romans. Abraham is not raving at God; rather, he is meekly pleading with the Sovereign God who has demonstrated wondrous grace to him in making and sealing a covenant.

Now, we know what happened, and it is poignantly rendered in chapter 19:27-28:

And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.

What Abraham saw was that his intercession had failed. And yet, it couldn't be said that God failed to keep his promise. In truth, Abraham stopped short of the number of righteous available — one. But Sodom and Gomorrah did not fall because Abraham wasn't savvy enough or God found a loophole. They were destroyed for their sins and the time for judgment had come. Even so, Abraham succeeded in a way he did not know.

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.

Would Lot have been caught in the destruction without Abraham's intercession? I think that is what the Scripture indicates — God remembered, not Lot, but Abraham. And so he was heard and answered in a way he did not know on that fateful morning.


What can we take away from this first intercession recorded in the Bible? For one thing, we can learn that it is pleasing to God that we intercede for the world. We should pray for our communities, for our city and other cities, and for the world. For understand this: like Abraham we know that the Day of Judgment is coming. There may be days of temporal judgment to come for certain areas. Where and when we do not know, but full and final judgment will come to the whole earth. Intercede now, while there is time, for the wicked. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a warning to the world, which the world ignores. We who do heed such warnings in God's Word, then, must be the ones to intercede.

Indeed, who else can intercede? We are the children of Abraham; we belong to God's covenant mediated by Christ. In Christ, we are adopted as children of God. In Christ we may come before God the Father and be heard.

How do we do so? How are we to pray? Abraham sets the pattern. We are to pray humbly like Abraham, acknowledging who God is (the Judge of all the earth) and who we are (dust and ashes). Abraham was not presumptuous before God. "Sovereign Lord, you made a covenant with me to bless the nations through me. I think now is the time to ante up." And yet we at times say something to that affect to God. "I've given up a lot for you God, and you've promised me blessings. You owe me." We may be created in the image of God and re-created as new creatures in Jesus Christ, but we are still human entangled with sin and, as our bodies will someday prove — we are but dust and ashes who stand before the Eternal, Holy, Almighty God.

Pray humbly, but ardently — reasoning, pleading, going as far as you dare, stretching your faith as much as you can. Some commentators are a bit embarrassed by what they do consider to be presumptuous behavior by Abraham. Really now, daring to instruct God about justice? Trying to actually work him down to Abraham's conditions? But God, far from being perturbed, is agreeable. I think God was pleased that Abraham was moved. I think he liked Abraham daring to ask for more, to push the limits beyond his own comfort zone, as Abraham did. I think he likes a child of his being honest in his passion.

People will ask me if it is all right to get mad with God. My response is to direct them to the psalms where they will find the all gamut of emotions — anger, unabated joy, despair, confusion, childlike faith, courageous trust. It is not right to accuse God of being unjust, or doing wrong; but our Heavenly Father is more than willing to hear the honest cries of his children. Christianity is a religion in which one is allowed to acknowledge suffering and fear and worry. Our God is one who values honesty over religious pretense; he is more pleased with the heart-felt prayer lifted to him than the calculated speech couched with supposed theological correctness. Do you love Philadelphia? If not, why don't you? It is filled with people like you. If you do, pray for her; intercede for her ardently; for her crimes are great; her judgment is deserved. Pray for her, because her inhabitants are human creatures like you, needing the grace and mercy of God as you did.

One more word about effective intercession. God made one further observation about Abraham in verse 19: For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.

God is not a mere indulgent parent who can't help but give his children whatever they ask regardless of how they live. Abraham was chosen not because he was righteous but that he might be righteous and live before the world in such a way that they know what true righteousness and justice are. I am not about to tell you that God will only answer your prayers according to how well you live for him at the time of praying. But I will say that we cannot disregard our obedience. Scripture says that is we have offended our brother, we need to make amends before offering sacrifice to God. He tells husbands that if they want their prayers heard, they need to be considerate to their wives. And how will he hear our prayers for the city when our behavior does not distinguish us from the secular citizen who disregards God? We may be in the city and in the world, but we are citizens of a heavenly city and sojourners looking for the new creation to come. It is the prayers of such citizens and sojourners that will make the difference for this present world.

The real issue for us is not how sort-of-righteous we can get the world to be, but living out the righteousness to which God has called us. And as the descendants of Abraham, we are to carry on the blessing that comes from the promise to him and through his Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. How do we carry on the blessing? By praying for, witnessing to, and exhibiting the gospel before our neighbors. The world may reject us, even disdain us; but let it not be said that we were not passionate for her salvation.

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