What Difference Will Prayer Make?
Why the Sovereignty of God Brings Us to Our Knees
Few truths have proved as precious to me as the sovereignty of God over all things.
The longer I walk with him, the more comfort I find in passages like these from Isaiah:
I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)
The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.” (Isaiah 14:24)
I experience stability, refreshment, and contentment knowing I have been “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:9–11).
“God’s promises are not excuses to relax and pray less, but give us confidence and urgency before the throne.”
As many of us first discover the sovereignty of God on page after page of the Bible, however, a strain sometimes emerges (in our immature thinking) between what he has planned and how we pray. Why would I pray if God has already planned what will happen? Our prayers can begin to feel small, peripheral, even unnecessary next to the vastness of all that God will inevitably do. He will accomplish his purpose, we might think, whether I pray or not. We wonder what difference our prayers might really make.
Where Prayerlessness Leads
While we, as modern people, may feel some tension between the sovereignty of God and prayer, desperate, faithful, praying saints in Scripture do not seem to share our struggle — and God certainly is not afraid to intimately knit his sovereignty and prayer together, especially in times of serious need. In fact, in some of the tensest moments, the two lean and rely on each other, as if God were holding them up to our face, saying, “See!”
We could listen closely to Moses’s prayer that really saved the people from the fury of God’s righteous wrath (Exodus 32:11–14), or marvel again at Joshua really stopping the sun in the heat of battle (Joshua 10:12–14), or watch Jonah really pray his way out of his grave in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:1–10), but at least one other desperate situation really accentuates the preciousness of God’s sovereignty for prayer.
When Hezekiah was king of the southern kingdom called Judah, before the nation was sent into exile, the Assyrians assaulted Jerusalem until the people were left utterly hopeless (Isaiah 36:1). Because Ahaz, the wicked king before Hezekiah, had refused to seek the Lord’s help (2 Chronicles 28:24–25), Judah was now firmly lodged between a rock and a horrifying enemy. How much of Israel’s tortured history is meant to warn us about the awful price of prayerlessness — of looking anywhere but heaven for the help we need most? Hezekiah had done what was right (2 Chronicles 31:20–21), trying with all his might to undo what had been done, but they were still forced to eat the awful fruit Ahaz had left behind.
“When God makes and carries out his plans, he plans for us to pray.”
The Assyrian ambassador, called the Rabshakeh, taunted Judah, “Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ . . . Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (Isaiah 36:18, 20). While they were left begging on the precipice of starvation, the messenger humiliated them (Isaiah 36:12). Their dreadful end was sure and soon, and probably worse than any of us could imagine.
What God Promises
So, with everything to fear and nowhere else to go, Hezekiah did what good kings do: he turned to God. He sent for the prophet Isaiah, seeking mercy and help from above. And despite all the evil the previous generation had done, God listened to their prayer, and went to war for them. Isaiah answers,
Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land. (Isaiah 37:6–7)
Against everything they feared, and everything they could see, and everything they deserved, and everything that seemed so sure to happen, God promised that they would win this war. And not only win, but their oppressor will not even attack. And not only will Assyria not attack, but their king will be killed, and not on the battlefield, but in the relative safety of his own land.
Judah, do not be afraid, God says (through his prophet). Though you are outnumbered, by far, and though you are weaker, by far, you will win because you asked me to fight for you.
“The absolute sovereignty of God, over every detail of our lives, is the hope and foundation for our praying.”
Prayer warriors pay close attention to the promises of God. They patiently persist in prayer by clinging to his words, as if letting go would ruin them. His promises do not become excuses to relax and pray less, but give them confidence and urgency before the throne. They know their next prayer might be the very means God has appointed to keep his promise, demonstrate his power, and display his worth. They do not draw near to God without a promise, and they refuse to stay away long because of what he’s promised.
Why Pray If God Promised?
God immediately, in the very next verse, begins to fulfill his promise to Hezekiah. The king of Assyria heard a rumor, returned to his land, and began fighting another army (Isaiah 37:8). God is doing precisely what he had planned and promised to do. The Rabshakeh defies the Lord all the more, though, and fires back at Hezekiah: “Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 37:10–13).
What should Hezekiah do now? God made his promise, and even began fulfilling his very specific promise. Why not simply leave God to do what he said he would do? Because when God makes and carries out his plans, he plans for us to pray — to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Son of God himself later teaches us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Watch carefully how Hezekiah handles this vulnerable and dangerous moment. “Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord” (Isaiah 37:14). Knowing full well what God had promised (and already begun to do!), Hezekiah still spread his fate before the Lord. He did not assume prayer was redundant or unnecessary. Rather, he assumed that his prayers really mattered — that God meant to win this war through prayer.
William Gurnall, a seventeeth-century English pastor, explains how such prayer magnifies the sovereignty of God:
Prayer is a humble appeal from our impotency to God’s omnipotence. . . . We give him the glory of his sovereignty and dominion, and acknowledge that he is not only able to procure for us what we ask, but can give us a right to, and the blessing of, what he gives. (The Christian in Complete Armour, 299)
Hezekiah did not rob God of his sovereignty by pleading for his intervention; he exalted God’s all-powerful, all-wise, all-purposeful commitment to do precisely what he had planned and promised to do — what would most glorify his name (Isaiah 37:35). And Hezekiah knew, and treasured, that God often does that work — his work — through our prayers.
His Sovereignty Inspires Our Prayers
Not only was Hezekiah not deterred from praying by the sovereignty of God, but when he prays, he runs directly to the sovereignty of God.
O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib [king of Assyria], which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands. . . . So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord. (Isaiah 37:15–18, 20)
“God makes our humble, dependent, expectant cries for help the instruments of what he does in the world.”
The sovereignty of God does not compromise or jeopardize prayer — quite the opposite. The absolute sovereignty of God — over all the kingdoms of the earth and over every detail of our lives — is the hope and foundation for our praying. If God is not sovereign, but simply waits on the whims of kings and armies and circumstances, then our prayers may well be in vain. But our God waits on no one. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
Our God does, however, turn those streams, and split seas, and open spiritually blind eyes through prayer. God makes our humble, dependent, expectant cries for help the instruments of what he does in the world. We should assume that God has very few plans for the world that do not involve the prayers of his people. His will will be done whether I pray or not, but his will will not be done without prayer, because he has chosen to make prayer indispensable. The sovereign God hangs the universe on the prayers of his people, and then inspires and empowers us to pray. He works in our praying, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
Can We Change God’s Plan?
When Hezekiah prayed for God to save Judah from the Assyrians, did he change the mind of God? Ultimately, no, he did not. In God, “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The psalmist says to the Lord, “You are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:27). God will never, ever change. Our great hope in prayer, therefore, is not to change what God has planned, but to bring about what God has planned. We do not strive to change the heart of God, but to draw out his heart in our circumstances. “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance,” says Martin Luther, “but laying hold of his willingness.”
When we pray, we do not change the mind of God as if he might have chosen wrongly. We act out the infinite wisdom of God, in the midst of all the brokenness in front of us, and welcome the inscrutable goodness he had always planned to do through our prayers. A.W. Pink warns us,
There is no need whatever for God to change his designs or alter his purpose, for the all-sufficient reason that these were framed under the influence of perfect goodness and unerring wisdom. . . . To affirm that God changes his purpose is either to impugn his goodness or to deny his eternal wisdom. (The Sovereignty of God, 168)
Pink goes on to say, “Here then is the design of prayer: not that God’s will may be altered, but that it may be accomplished in his own good time and way” (172).
“The sovereign God hangs the universe on the prayers of his people, and then inspires and empowers us to pray.”
We never change God’s eternal plan when we pray, but we are called to pray, and pray expectantly, for change. We are to pray that the sick would be healed (Acts 28:8; James 5:14). We are to pray that the lost would be saved (Matthew 9:37–38; Acts 26:18). We are to pray for all kinds of change in our hearts and bodies, in our neighbors, in our workplaces, in our nation, in the world, but never for any change in God. Christians pray, in whatever we pray, “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
God’s Mouth-Stopping Sovereignty
Sometimes the sovereignty of God may keep us from praying, though, because it unsettles us in God’s presence. If God is utterly in control of all that happens, how could he allow so much evil, like the cruelty of Assyria, or the apostasy of Israel? And if he allows so much evil in the world, and so much heartache in my own life, why would I entrust my heart to him?
In answering Hezekiah’s prayer, God himself presses home even further what John Piper calls the “purposeful, all-embracing, all-pervasive, invincible sovereignty of God.” The Lord says to Assyria, Judah’s wicked enemy and oppressor,
Have you not heard
that I determined it long ago?
I planned from days of old
what now I bring to pass,
that you should make fortified cities
crash into heaps of ruins,
while their inhabitants, shorn of strength,
are dismayed and confounded. (Isaiah 37:26–27)
Assyria, why do you boast as if anything you have done was ultimately your doing? I, the Lord, determined what great cities you would build. I planned, from days of old, what cities you would destroy. And I am now bringing it all to pass. Nothing has happened here that I, the Lord, have not planned for my glory.
I know your sitting down
and your going out and coming in,
and your raging against me.
Because you have raged against me
and your complacency has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
by which you came. (Isaiah 37:28–29)
God was utterly sovereign in Assyria’s rise, and he will be every bit as sovereign in calling them, and every other evil, to account (Romans 12:19). The most fearsome armies we can imagine are as but feeble livestock before the God to whom we pray. They all go where he pleases, when he pleases, and only as he pleases.
“Our great hope in prayer is not to change what God has planned, but to bring about what God has planned.”
Our discomfort with God’s sovereignty over evil depends on our assuming that we know better than he does — that we can imagine a better plan than the one he is unveiling, the one we are living. God certainly does not mean for us to understand his sovereign plan at every turn. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). We will spend most of our lives clueless to the next surprising twist and turn his infinite wisdom will take.
While he does not mean for us to understand his plan, he does mean for the glimpses we get of his sovereignty to inspire us to run to him, not away from him, and certainly never to rise up against him. He means for us to see the fury of Assyria’s evil, and the greater fury of his righteous judgment, and fall on our knees, praying and living in desperate dependence on him, never presuming on his grace and mercy.
Because You Prayed to Me
After Hezekiah prayed, Isaiah said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him” (Isaiah 37:21–22). Mark his words: Because you have prayed to me.
Prayer is not an afterthought in God’s plan. Prayer is not a Plan B, or a spare tire in case life breaks down. Under God, prayer runs the world. For sure, God does countless miracles in the world every day that no one ever mentioned specifically in prayer — after all, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). However, he does some of his most important work in the world, and in our lives, precisely because one of his children asked him to (James 5:16).
God fought for the nation because Hezekiah prayed. And in doing so, God did exactly what he had always planned to do through prayer.
And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. (Isaiah 37:36–38)
God did what Hezekiah could not do without God, and Hezekiah did what none of us can do without prayer. And God did precisely what God planned to do through prayer.