Continuing our look at old covenant themes fulfilled in the new and our particular focus this month on elements of old covenant piety, we now turn to Genesis 18:16–33 and its famous account of Abraham’s intercession on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. This passage tells us much about the importance of prayer and how God responds to it.
First, note that Abraham’s prayer seems at first glance to change God’s mind. Abraham is apparently convinced that the Lord will find Sodom and Gomorrah to be as wicked as He has heard and will therefore destroy the two cities; otherwise, there is no reason why Abraham would ask for them to be spared. Is the patriarch not trying to change God’s mind, and is he not successful when the Lord relents and agrees not to destroy the towns should He find at least ten righteous men there? (v. 32). Can prayer change the mind of the Almighty?
The answer to this question is no. “God is not . . . a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). What He has ordained in His eternal decree cannot be altered, and the Lord always knows what He will do, what we will do, and how He will respond before we pray. The English poet John Milton recognized this important biblical truth in his epic poem Paradise Lost: “Prayer against his absolute decree / No more avails than breath against the wind / Blown stifling back on him that breaths it forth: / Therefore to his great bidding I submit.”
Understanding that God knows the end from the beginning, has decreed “whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1), and is sovereign over all actually gives us hope that the Lord does indeed respond to prayer. These truths are not to make us fatalistic and keep us from praying. God has not revealed to us His sovereign decrees. According to Deuteronomy 29:29, they are hidden from us and belong to Him alone. Still, what the Lord has told us is for us to know forever, and He has revealed in Scripture that He uses our prayers to accomplish His will. Our prayers move Him to act, which is, of course, due to the fact that He ordains even our intercession. But that is not our focus in prayer. Instead, we are to implore Him to act, knowing how He delights to hear from us and to grant our requests as they align with His purposes (1 John 5:14).