God says some pretty shocking things sometimes. He’s constantly surprising me. I will never figure Him out (which is a good thing since He’s God, after all). But anyhow, He did it again. Here’s the latest. Three times—count them—God told the prophet Jeremiah not to pray.
You don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. See for yourself—here they are:
“As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.” (Jeremiah 7:16)
“Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (Jeremiah 11:14)
“The LORD said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people.’” (Jeremiah 14:11)
God was fed up with Judah. For years, the people of Judah persisted in brazen rebellion against Him. They were ripe for judgment. Jeremiah refused to give up on them, however. He kept preaching, warning, and praying. But the people refused to repent—they kept sinning, oppressing, and chasing after idols.
Finally, God told Jeremiah to save his breath. But did he? Did Jeremiah stop praying?
No! Jeremiah did not stop praying. If anything, his prayers took on even more urgency than they’d had before. In chapter 8, he appealed to God with words so plaintive you can almost hear his voice tremble:
“O my Comforter in sorrow, my heart is faint within me. Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away; ‘Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?’ … Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (8:18-19, 21-22).
In chapter 14, he appealed to God on the basis of His name:
“Although our sins testify against us, O LORD, do something for the sake of your name. For our backsliding is great; we have sinned against you. O Hope of Israel, its Savior in times of distress, why are you like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night? Why are you like a man taken by surprise, like a warrior powerless to save? You are among us, O LORD, and we bear your name; do not forsake us!” (7-9)
And in another prayer recorded in chapter 14, he reminded God of his covenant with Israel:
“O LORD, we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you. For the sake of your name do not despise us; do not dishonor your glorious throne. Remember your covenant with us and do not break it. Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, O LORD our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.” (20-22)
I’m not sure what to make of it all. I can’t really imagine that God would ever tell me to stop praying for someone. But if He did, I don’t know what I would do. Would I dutifully resign from my pleadings? Would I give a secret sigh of relief, glad to be relieved of my intercessory duties? Or would I wrestle with God, persisting boldly, as Jeremiah did?
We may wonder what effect Jeremiah’s intercession had. Did God listen to him? That question isn’t answered directly. We know that Jeremiah’s intercession did not cause God to relent from taking Judah off to Babylon. God still judged His people for their sin.
However, God mingled His judgment with mercy. Could that be an effect of Jeremiah’s prayers?
The book of Jeremiah contains some of God’s most beautiful promises. Who doesn’t love the promise He gave to prosper (and not harm) Judah and give her “hope and a future” (29:11)? Or His promise to put His law in their minds and write it in their hearts (31:33). Or how about this one—it’s my favorite: “They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them; I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me so that they will never turn away from me” (32:38-40).
Should Jeremiah have stopped praying when God told him to stop? Or was Jeremiah just doing what godly men before him had done—men like Abraham and Moses, men who stood in the gap for the sinners? I can’t answer that. But I can’t help but think, once again, that God actually likes it when we wrestle with Him over the souls of sinners. After all, He’s the one who said that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).