Throughout Scripture, we find repeated warnings that God does not hear the prayers of the wicked. In Jeremiah 14:11–12, for example, we read: “The Lord said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them.’ ” Proverbs 28:9 tells us that the prayer of a lawless man “is an abomination.” Over and over we read that God does not listen to the prayers of the wicked (e.g., Ps. 66:18; Prov. 21:13; Isa. 1:15; Jer. 11:11–14). What does this mean? Is God not omniscient? Does He not know all things? Of course He does. Scripture tells us that God knows all things and that no creature is hidden from His sight (Heb. 4:13). God knows every thought in our minds (1 Chron. 28:9), and He knows the words we are going to say even before we speak them (Ps. 139:4).
How, then, can the Bible also say that He does not hear the prayers of the wicked? In order to understand what Scripture is saying, let us first consider Isaiah 59:1–2. Here, the prophet writes: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (emphasis added). The prophet affirms that God can hear. In other words, God is omniscient. He can hear the prayers of the wicked in the sense that He knows that they are praying, and He knows what they are praying. God is omniscient.
However, Isaiah then immediately turns to note that the problem is not God’s omniscience. The problem is the wickedness of the ones praying. Because of their wickedness, “he does not hear.” What this means is that God is not going to listen to those who flout His law. As Zechariah makes clear, “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear” (7:13). If unbelievers persist in wickedness, God will not grant their requests. They pray in vain.
There is one prayer that a wicked person can pray, however, that will be heard by God. It is the prayer of repentance. We see an example of this in 1 Kings 21:17–29. Here God condemns the wicked king Ahab (vv. 17–24). Upon hearing the words of judgment, Ahab repents in sackcloth (v. 27). The Lord sees his repentance and declares that the judgment will fall on Ahab’s descendants rather than on Ahab himself (vv. 28–29). Consider also the repentance of the Ninevites described in the book of Jonah. When the king of Nineveh heard the words of the prophet, he and the people repented, and God relented (Jonah 3:1–10). God knows and hears all things, but the only prayer of the wicked to which He will listen is a prayer of genuine repentance.
Dr. Keith A. Mathison is professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla. He is author of several books, including The Lord's Supper.