How to Pray : Seven Exhortations from 2 Samuel 17
In our time and place – in the midst of our post-modern and post-Christian culture in the West – there are so many things that seem to be against the very idea of prayer. Prayer assumes the existence of a powerful, personal God who actually hears our petitions and who cares enough to act. For many people – for most people, perhaps – that is asking too much. Even most Christians think it’s asking too much. We might not say so, but we betray ourselves – we betray what we really think about prayer – by our failure to devote ourselves to it. Look at how much time you devoted to prayer in the last week, and see if it isn’t so.
So why don’t we pray? Perhaps part of it is that we don’t really think we need God’s help. Perhaps we think we are really up to the task of managing life. But here’s something else that may be an even bigger issue for many of us: doubt. Is God really there? If he is there, does he really listen? Does he really care? Our doubt is encouraged (if I can put it that way) not only by the skeptical world that we live in, but also by the fact that there have been things that we have prayed for earnestly in the past, and we have waited for God to work, and nothing seemed to happen. Or maybe things even got worse. What are we to do with that? Doesn’t it undermine the whole idea of prayer?
But what should we expect to happen after we pray? What should we expect God to do? Should we expect him to immediately resolve whatever problem or challenge we’re facing after we’ve prayed about it? Say you have a difficult co-worker or boss, and you pray for God’s help. Should you expect that when you come into work the next day your co-worker will have been fired? Or if not fired, that (s)he will have been totally transformed overnight?
What should God’s answer to a prayer like that look like? How fast should the answer come? If it doesn’t come immediately and clearly and with no complications, is that sufficient reason to question the efficacy of prayer? What should we expect life to look like when God is answering our prayers?
2 Samuel 17 provides a marvelous glimpse into how to think about these questions. Here’s the essence of what happens: David’s son Absalom has led a rebellion against him, and David has fled the city of Jerusalem. David’s trusted advisor Ahithophel – a man who was so incredibly gifted that the narrator tells us (16:23) that “the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God” – has become a traitor and gone over to the dark side.
That is of course absolutely terrible news for David – that someone with Ahithophel’s ability and gifting and wisdom – and someone who knows David so well – should turn traitor and join the rebellion. David hears this very discouraging news as he is fleeing – climbing up the Mount of Olives – and when he hears it, he offers this little prayer (15:31b): “O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” That’s all he says. And it’s that little prayer that God answers in chapter 17. But the way God answers is complicated.
We want straightforward answers to our prayers. Isn’t it true? And God clearly is answering David’s prayer in this passage. But look how incredibly messy it all is. There is not one straight line through this whole account. There are terrifying events. There are near misses. There is huge risk. There is the fog of not knowing exactly what’s happening. And yet through it all, God is inexorably working out his good, sovereign purpose, through human means, and in answer to David’s prayer. He is blessing and training and sanctifying those who are faithful to him. And he’s seeking to do the same for us as we meditate on this passage.
Here are seven exhortations for prayer based on this account:
# 1 – Pray in keeping with what you know of the will and promises of God. David’s prayer – to which these events are the answer – is based firmly on his faith in the God of the covenant (2 Samuel 7), who had promised to preserve his kingdom. Absalom’s rebellion runs counter to that covenant – and David’s prayer is consistent with his understanding of the covenant. David prays consistently with what he knows to be true. So we too should pray in keeping with what we know and believe about the character and promises and will of God.
When we feel alone, we should pray in keeping with his promise never to leave us or forsake us. When we want to be a witness to someone, we should pray in keeping with his command to go and make disciples of all nations. When we have a wayward child, we should pray with a knowledge of the Jesus who told the parable of the prodigal son. Pray in keeping with the will and character and promises of God.
# 2 – Pray specifically – When you pray, pray as specifically as you can in the situation about which you are praying. David prayed, “O Lord, please turn Ahithophel’s counsel to foolishnesss.” That was precisely the need – and it was precisely what God did. We too should pray as specifically as we can in the circumstances of our lives.
# 3 – Pray big – Don’t be afraid to make big requests. Pray for small things too, of course, but if you are convinced that you are praying to the best of your knowledge in keeping with the character and promises of God, don’t be afraid to pray big. God is powerful and rich and generous – and we often think way too small. And we pray too small. David here asked that God overturn – turn into foolishness – the counsel of the man who was arguably the wisest man in his kingdom. That is no small request. But it is precisely what God wanted to happen, and it is precisely what God did. Don’t take this as a call to pray presumptuously or selfishly, but rather to think highly enough of God to pray big, for his honor and glory.
#4 – Don’t give up when things don’t seem to be working out in answer to your prayer. Rather, persevere in faith. Look at all the things that seem to go wrong in this chapter. Ahithophel gives great counsel – the best counsel that could be given. That’s terrible for David. And Absalom and all the elders seem to see it as great counsel. That’s terrible for David too. Why does God allow these things to happen, if he is answering David’s prayer? And then even after they accept Hushai’s counsel, the men taking the message are seen and pursued and come within a hair’s breath of being caught. And if they are caught, all of Hushai’s counsel will be for nought. Why does that happen? Does the messiness of this situation remind you at all of the messiness of your own life? This is indeed what real life is like – full of tests and trouble and uncertainty – and we are being taught to pray and to persevere in faith in a God who cares and acts – through all of the tests and uncertainties of life.
#5 – Pray, resting in the sovereign will of God – Pray knowing that undergirding your righteous prayers are the sovereign power and will and purposes of God. It’s so important that we see that. Our prayers in the end are not the underlying cause of anything, but rather are a means that God has ordained to accomplish his will. Here in this chapter we see fundamentally why Ahithophel’s counsel was defeated: it wasn’t, fundamentally, because of David’s prayer but rather – verse 14 – because that is what the Lord had ordained. And God was at work in David’s heart to pray in keeping with what he had ordained. Did David know that as he prayed? Undoubtedly not. Yet he could rest in the conviction that if this was the will of God, it would be done. And we can rest in that conviction too.
#6 – Be at work for the kingdom; you might be the means God has ordained to answer someone else’s prayer – In this chapter look at Hushai. Look at Zadok and Abiathar. Look at Jonathan and Ahimaaz. Look at the servant girl carrying the message. Look at the woman covering the well to hide those two young men. All working for the kingdom – as God-ordained means in support of a prayer that they probably didn’t even know had been made. Look at how much is required of them! Look at the risks that God asks them to take. They do it out of love and loyalty to God and his king and because it’s the right thing to do. And we too should be at work for the kingdom – stepping up to what God may require of us. Who knows how God might use us as means in answer to someone else’s prayer.
#7 – Let this story of the prayer of David, and God’s answer to it, strengthen your faith and your resolve to pray. Pray with deeper faith and pray with greater appreciation for this complex interplay between the physical and the spiritual. Meditate on this passage and get deeply into your hear what God does, and what he requires, so that you will not be so easily discouraged from praying.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21)