2 Samuel Sermon Question
After last week’s sermon (“Murder He Wrote”) based on 2 Samuel 12, one of our DRC Community Group’s messaged me with some questions, which I thought would be beneficial to turn into a blog post in case others were also wondering similar things (If you missed the message or want to watch again click here https://www.delreychurch.com/sermons/sermon/2023-01-22/murder-he-wrote-1-22-2023 ). With the permission of this Community Group that is what this blog post will do, that is, share their question and provide an answer, along with reflections in response. As a pastor, I love seeing our Community Groups digging into the Scripture and raising theological questions to learn, share, fellowship, pray, and more. In this case, this group has raised some really good questions and I trust that those who were there really enjoyed the dialogue, so I am super thankful to invite our extended DRC family to muse with them around our Lord’s Day sermon. All of that said, below I will paste their original message to me and then I will offer a response for our blog and I pray everyone enjoys it. Here goes… question and then answer/reflection…:
“Theological question for our Home Group: David fasted hoping God would be merciful and (change His mind regarding the baby of Bathsheba)? Can our prayers influence God’s decisions? It seemed like the intervention of Moses’ prayers to God influenced God to not destroy His people in the Wilderness. But, the Scriptures also say “God is not a man that he should lie or a son of man that He should change His mind” Number 23:19. Why would David even think that God would change His mind?”
Hello Beloved DRC Saints,
Regarding the theological question from your Home Group about King David and prayer, yes, it appears in 2 Samuel 12:16 and 22 that David fasted hoping God would be merciful regarding the impending death of his son from the rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband. In fact, David says in verse 22 he hoped that “the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.” More than mercy, David was seeking grace from God. That said, verse 22 is worth highlighting in your Bible if you haven’t already. While David models very little in terms of good things in this section of Scripture, it is always good to seek God’s grace in the midst of our sin. With that said, make sure you have your Bible open and let’s dig into this important question.
Before answering the question at hand about David, it worth offering a preliminary hermeneutical observation, specifically that 2 Samuel is a narrative genre, so it is not prescribing any thought or behavior here, as much as it is describing a historical incident. We recently covered this in depth in our DRBI Wednesday night Hermeneutics class, but if you missed it allow me to offer a quick principle. In short, the biblical narrative describes what did happen, instead of what should. In this case, what King David may have hoped for is neither here-nor-there, in terms of developing a prescriptive theology around it for what we should think is happening to or with God when we pray today. The thing is, David could have wondered things that were wrong about prayer or even God, so we don’t want to build our theology around what David thought, let alone around what David did, which in this case would promote lust, adultery, rape, deceitfulness, and murder. In sum, what David did or didn’t think is irrelevant to us as readers of the sacred text of 2 Samuel 12 in terms of building a theology of prayer, let alone a doctrine of God and His perfect attributes, which could be compromised if we do not rightly answer this question.
That said, let’s return to the question about prayer and its possible effect on God, but quickly let me offer another short observation before tackling the question head-on. Before we get too far in this, it is important to stress that there is a world of difference between God changing His mind versus one hoping for God to be merciful or gracious in a particular situation. As quoted above in 2 Samuel 12:22 the text says David was seeking grace, not that He was trying to change God or His mind. Now then, as it relates to the idea of God changing His mind, we need to be very careful with such a thought or claim because of its disastrous implications for our understanding of God and its impact on our worship of Him. For starters, if God is changing His mind than He is not immutable (that means unchangeable). The problem with God being mutable (or changing) is that it entails He is not perfect or somehow lacking. Things that change do so in order to become better or to gain what they were not previously. If God needs to change His mind it would mean His previous decision was not good or that it (the decision) and/or God Himself were somehow lacking, like say His decision was based on God’s ignorance of not knowing David would fast, in which case not only would God not be immutable He would also not be omniscient (that means all-knowing). The scenario could imply that God did not know David would fast when He made the decision to take the child’s life, which makes God ignorant and lacking in knowledge. However, when God learned about David’s fasting, He then changed His mind or was psychologically manipulated by it (e.g. David’s fasting buttered God up), which would make God into a changing imperfect being who is not all-knowing and further is manipulatable by our religious rituals. It should go without saying that this is fundamentally what paganism posits, that is, the gods can be manipulated by human rituals and acts, whereas the biblical vision of God is drastically different. In Scripture, God is said to be a mighty rock and fortress who cannot be moved (Psalm 62:6, 125:1-2).
Speaking of Scripture, the Community Group is absolutely right to reference Numbers 23:19, which clearly states that God does not change and hence this should caution us biblically from suggesting that we can do things—prayer or whatever else—to change God or manipulate Him. Consider also, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29); “But He is unchangeable, and who can turn Him back? What He desires, that He does” (Job 12:13); “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment.… But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Psalms 102:26–27; cf. Hebrews 1:10–12); “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Malachi 3:6); “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8); and, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).
In response to these clear passages that say God does not change, some critics will proof-text a small number of so-called ‘divine repentance’ verses in the Bible to claim that God does repent or change. There are three key passages that critics commonly invoke, beginning with Genesis 6:6 where it says (in the King James Version) God “repented” (other English version will say something like ‘was sorry’) that “he had made man on the earth” after seeing the mess they had made. Later on, in 1 Samuel 15:11, God says “it repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king.” Finally, in Jonah 3:10 we read about how “God repented” and allegedly changed His mind about judging Nineveh because the people responded positively to the prophet Jonah’s preaching. In each of these cases the critic has not proved their doctrine of a changing God, on the contrary they have failed to see a very simple literary feature known as anthropomorphism, which is when human authors use human terms (hence, anthropos) to describe phenomenon is a non-literal and non-technical manner. Consider for example that when the Bible speaks about God walking or His eyes seeing (etc.) we do not prooftext these to suggest God has actual physical feat or eyeballs, rather we rightly understand that authors are speaking anthropomorphically to describe things about God and what He is doing. Similarly, we ought not to read Genesis 6:6, 1 Samuel 15:11, nor Jonah 3:10 and think that God is actually sorry He made humans because He didn’t know they were going to sin, or upset with Himself that He made Saul King because He has no idea what a bum that guy would later become, or finally that God was embarrassed over His plan to judge Nineveh because He didn’t see their change of heart coming. All three of these passages being used in this faulty manner missing the anthropomorphic element of the text, not only mess up God’s immutability, but also His omniscience so it is worth next considering what the Bible says clearly in non-anthropomorphic texts about Himself being all-knowing or omniscient.
In addition to the above clear texts on God’s immutability (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:29, etc.), let’s consider what the scripture says about His omniscience. Here are just a few from the biblical witness: “Can anyone teach God knowledge?” (Job 21:22); “Be assured that my words are not false; one perfect in knowledge is with you” (Job 36:4); “Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?” (Job 37:16); “You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down, you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (Psalms 139:2–4); “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalms 147:4–5); “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29–30); and, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all…” (Acts 1:24). In summary, we can see from these samples of Scripture it is very clear that God knows everything and everyone. In conclusion, it is clear that is all-knowing and He does not change.
[Let me bracket a quick pastoral side bar here…. We should all be thankful that God does not change, otherwise the security of our salvation would be compromised, and it creates the possibility of God going back on His word, which removes all assurance and trust in our lives in general. If God could change it ruins our relationships to Him and personal relational knowledge of Him, because the God we know today could turn Himself into a different God tomorrow. We’ve all very likely gone through the pain of someone changing on you. How dreadful would it be if God could change on us?! If God is mutable or changing, then He is not dependable. He could change on us, or take back His word, or do any other sort of thing that changing humans do. Thankfully, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19). Okay, let’s get back to the questions at hand about prayer raised from 2 Samuel 12.]
Reflecting on the biblical doctrine of God’s immutability and omniscience causes us to naturally ask the question that the Community Group did, that is, “Can our prayers influence God’s decisions?” The answer can be yes (well, only in a certain sense), but it really needs to be qualified because as worded that can create some problems if we don’t qualify our yes, especially as it relates to the word “influence.” Let me explain. Why do I say it can be yes in a sense or that it needs to be qualified? Well, we must be careful with the word influence when we’re talking about God and what we mean by it. A divisive person in a church can influence others to join their divisiveness. Likewise, a disgruntled employee can influence a co-worker to have a negative view of their boss. Positively, a good friend can influence a straying friend into a good path or ‘talk them off’ a proverbial ledge. The examples of influencing others for good or bad are endless, but when it comes to God there are no examples because we simply cannot put Him under our influence or under a spell. If creatures can influence the Creator against His will or without His knowing than that is problematic because it would entail the above problem of God being imperfect and/or manipulatable by our influencing works like prayer, fasting, or whatever else. Those are intuitively problematic because the Bible uplifts a God who is perfect, all-knowing, and transcendent above creatures, and thus un-manipulatable. HOWEVER, this does not mean that prayer does not do anything. On the contrary, prayer does do things (and praise God for that!).
The Bible clearly says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Also, in James 4:2 we read that there are things people do not have because they simply have not asked God for them. Jesus said, “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16). In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus taught his disciples to persist in relentless prayer with God the Father. Earlier in Luke chapter 11, Jesus gave two parables about persisting in prayer (11:5-13) and told His disciples “I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (v.9). So then, while it is clear from the Bible that God does not change and is not influenced or acted upon by creatures in a way that would make Him mutable, it is also clear that prayer does do something. This raises the question about what does prayer do? The answer is that it changes things in the creation, but not the Creator.
This last question we’re reflecting on raises a follow-up question, if prayer changes things in the creation and not God Himself, how does that work? Well, as discussed above God is immutable, so He cannot change His mind, nor Himself. Further, God is perfect and omniscient, so He doesn’t need to change His mind. As reasoned already above, if God could change or did change, then He would not really be all knowing or perfect because He needed to change Himself or alter a decision He had previously made that was going to be lesser-than His newly chosen plan to ditch His former plan. Therefore, we want to insist that our God not only does not change plans and even further that He cannot change Himself or His mind in response to our prayers. Sometimes when people hear “God cannot” they retort, “But can’t God do all things?!?” Yes and no. God can do all things according to His nature, will, and plans: however, God cannot do things in contradiction to them. For example, Titus 1:2 tells us God cannot lie and He cannot do this because God’s nature is true (cf. Jn 14:6). Similarly, because God is true, He cannot add 2 and 2 and get anything other than 4 because 2 + 2 = 4 and that’s the truth. That said, pastorally let me impress the importance that we not argue with the reality that there are things God cannot do. Instead, we should be thankful that God cannot lie, He cannot worship idols, etc. Further, we should fall down in worship of this amazing God who is always true to Himself and does all things according to His nature, will, and plans. As Job 42:2 reminds us, “no plan of Yours can be thwarted.”
With this in mind, let’s return to the topic of prayer and how God’s answering of prayer does not mean He is being influenced or changed. Here it is important to keep in mind something Jesus taught us about prayer. Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). Earlier I quoted Psalm 139 which similarly says, “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (verse 4). So then, if prayer is supposed to change God’s mind, then this would not be true, that is, since God knows before we ask what we are going to ask before we ask it, our prayers are not informing Him of anything in such a way that He would be influenced by them, let alone that they would change Him. The fact is, God knows our prayers before we pray them, not to mention He knows all things about what we will say and do in the future. The jaded person may ask, “Well then Jesus, what is even the point of praying?” This question misses the basic reality that prayer is fundamentally not about getting our way, rather it is about worshipping God and worship is about submitting to God for His way and not our own. Further, this question stems from a misunderstanding of how prayer works. So then, how does prayer work?
Let’s answer this question by getting into the mechanics of prayer. For help, let me enlist theologian Dr. Norman Geisler who helpfully explains: “When we pray (or have prayed), God not only knew what we were going to pray, but He ordained our prayer as a means of accomplishing His purpose. Prayer is not a means by which we change God; it is a means by which God changes us. Prayer is not a means of our overcoming God’s reluctance; it is a way for God to take hold of our willingness. Prayer is not a means of getting our will done in heaven, but a means of God getting His will done on earth” (Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, page 86). Amen! You see, when we pray, we are not changing God, rather God is changing us and/or things around us. When God positively answers what we have prayed it is not because we changed Him, rather it is because God beforehand chose to use our prayers to accomplish His will. This seems to be why John tells us that our prayers should be asked “according to His will” (1 John 5:14), for it is the will of the perfect all-knowing God that changes things and NOT the will of imperfect and ignorant humans.
Allow me to enlist a second theologian for help on this topic before us. Dr. Robert Duncan Culver insightfully wrote, “The Christian God is the God of all creation. He has known all along about our prayers. ‘Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear’ (Isa. 65:24); ‘Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am” ’ (Isa. 58:9). God’s plans included the prayers. God not only recommends prayer, He commands prayer and moves our hearts to seek Him out in prayer. This should be kept in mind in reading how that ‘The eyes of the LORD are towards the righteous and his ears towards their cry’ (Ps. 34:15). Let us boldly assert that God’s plans are all-important in prayer. Three times in one terrible night Jesus asked God to let the cup of Calvary’s suffering pass from Him, yet added, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ He acknowledged that His death for sinners was planned from eternity and that Scripture predicted it (see John 1:29, 36; Rev. 13:8). Christ was and is the ‘lamb … foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times’ (1 Peter 1:19, 20 KJV). We may be sure that the will of God ought to condition all our requests in prayer. We cannot command God… effective prayer will certainly focus on God and His plans. Our plans will be adjusted to His” (Culver, Systematic Theology, 200).
Hopefully the above quotes from our enlisted theologians Geisler and Culver were helpful to you. Now, let me get to the final question from the Community group, that is, “Why would David even think that God would change His mind?” Before answering this specific question, let me remind the reader of my opening hermeneutical point about the descriptive nature of narrative genres and the irrelevance what David was thinking or not. As students of the Scripture we cannot get into the mind of a character in a narrative anyway, unless God provides us with a parenthetical narrator who tells us what is going on in a given character’s mind. Let us be reminded of what 1 Corinthians 2:11 tells us, that is, only God knows the mind of a man. In addition to this reality, whatever was in David’s mind when he fasted would not baptize it as good, after all he could have been motivated by bad motives or poor theology. In this case, if David thought God was in need of changing and he was the man to do it, well that would have been horrible theology for all the reasons this post explains concerning the immutability, perfection, and omniscience of God.
In summary, while God is all-knowing, perfect, and unchangeable, we still should also firmly believe that prayer changes things (just not God because He is perfect and all-knowing), based on God’s goodness and grace, as well, based on the mechanics of prayer, i.e., God has sovereignly ordained to use our prayers before we pray them to do His will. It is as Paul told us, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Surely, these good works prepared beforehand include prayer and so much more, with the point being that God is the sovereign who has ordained to use us to do His will, not that we have the ability to change His will or Him. Because of this, we have every reason to fast and pray and hope that God has ordained to work through our prayers to do amazing things in His creation and do so for His glory.
Before concluding this post on prayer, it is worth noting that these questions (or even objections, depending on where a person stands with God’s immutability, perfection, and sovereignty) about prayer are a lot like the question I am often asked about salvation and sharing the gospel. After hearing about the doctrine of God’s sovereign providence over all things and the sobering reality that humanity is dead in their sin, I am often asked (something like this), “If humans are depraved in their sin and only God can save a sinner what is the point of sharing the gospel?” The answer is that we share the gospel knowing it is the power of God—just like prayer—to do what God wills in His creation. The Apostle Paul tells us: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18–31). In 1 Corinthians 2:4–5, Paul explains how his preaching of the gospel was “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (cf. Romans 10:17, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”).”
The Bible is very clear that salvation comes to the lost through the divinely ordained means of the gospel proclaimed, which God powerfully uses to change sinners against their will (“There is none who seeks for God, all have turned aside…” – Romans 3:11b-12a). It’s not that God is mad at sinners for their sin and then He changes His immutable mind when they do something, namely ask for forgiveness and/or change their own wills to seek after Him. No, man does not convince God to save him or do something to merit it like seeking after Him or saying a sincere prayer. On the contrary, it is God who saves us and changes us. A technical term for describing this saving work of God is the word monergism, which is a compound word from the Greek word monos meaning one (in this case, God is the One) and ergon meaning work (i.e., God is the only One who does the work of salvation). We say God’s work of salvation is monergistic, that is, God is the One who does the work to save and hence those who are saved cannot boast (1 Cor. 1:29, Rom. 4:2) that they did something to merit such a wondrous and undeserved gift that we otherwise would not have desired apart from God doing the work by His Spirit of giving us new life (John 3:5-8) so that we repent of sin (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25) and receive the gift of faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8). This monergism is in contrast to those who would unbiblically be tempted to claim that salvation is synergistic. Regarding this term, the prefix syn means ‘with,’ implying there is more than one party doing something. As it relates to salvation, the synergist (at least some varieties of them) assert that humans do something to change God so that He forgives sinners. The Bible is very clear that such a kind of synergism is not the case when it comes to salvation, as Romans 9:15-16 tells us, “For He [God] says to Moses, ‘I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” The Bible is clear, salvation depends on God, which is monergism.
The reality of monergistic salvation—like God’s immutability and perfection as it relates to prayer—is likewise not a reason for us to not share the gospel, anymore than it would be a reason for us to not pray for the lost to be saved. We must pray for the lost and we must go and share the good news. In Romans 10:14, Paul rhetorically asks “How then will they [the lost] call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” The answer is they will not without a preacher. Why? Because God has ordained to use human preaching of the gospel to execute His monergistic work of salvation. God has chosen to use our preaching of the gospel of Jesus to change people, which is just like how God uses prayer to change things. God has ordained to use prayer in advance, just as “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4) to come to Christ through hearing the gospel (as it says in Acts 13:48, “When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and honored the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed”).
With this question before us concerning why we preach to the lost if it is really true that only God saves who He wills, it is worth turning to the disciple Luke who explains to us in Acts how this ought to motivate us to actively go and share, rather than to stay in silence. We go into the city preaching because God has chosen people out there whom He has ordained to save through our preaching and that is incredibly exciting and motivating for us to get out there! Listen to these verses in Acts 18:9–10, “And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” Isn’t that clear and exhilarating?! God has people out there He has ordained to save through His people sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that the modern missions movement was paved by those who believed in monergism. In fact, the face of modern missions is none other than William Carey (1761–1834), who was a committed monergist in the Particular Baptist tradition of his day. Men and women like Carey and groups like the Calvinist London Missionary Society risked their lives to go and share the gospel of Jesus, believing that the fact that it is the immutable God alone who saves we have every reason to go and expect Him to work through us, not because we would be changing Him by our efforts, but because He is gracious and good to ordain to use us to do great and mighty things.
Earlier I shared about the mechanics of how prayer works and here it is worth musing on mechanics of salvation, more specifically on the person of the Holy Spirit who is at work in these mechanics to bring about salvation. You see, it is the Holy Spirit who works through prayer (Romans 8:26-27) just as He—the Spirit—works out the will of the Father to save sinners by the work of the Son through the gospel being preached (Titus 3:5). In fact, on the topic of prayer, when we pray for sinners to be saved, we are joining with the divinely ordained means of preaching the good news which the Spirit uses to regenerate sinners, therein washing them and saving them. Prayer and preaching work together in the powerful ministrations of the Spirit and in the divine providence of the triune God. While salvation is out of our human control and what God wills to do in the present or future is also outside of our control, we nonetheless have been called to participate with God in prayer and also in preaching to change things in the present/future, especially in the lives He changes through His saving grace in the mechanics of intercession and proclamation. As it relates to proclaiming or preaching, we must—like prayer—rely on the Spirit of God. It is by the person of the Spirit that dead sinners come to repentance and faith receiving the gift of new, not to mention the fact that God commands us to share the gospel. It is our job—indeed a sacred calling and joyful privilege—to share this bless news and His labor in prayer that God would save. That said, this is true of prayer as well. God has commanded us to pray, so we should pray. And it is His job to ordain to use some of our prayers to do things in His world.
We don’t know what God has ordained to use in terms of our prayers or in our sharing of the gospel, but we do know that God is good, and that these are the supreme means He has ordained to use to change things in the world and souls in this life, so in hope and joyful obedience we offer our prayers and share the good news. Further, we do know that it is God who is sovereignly in control of all things, “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 46:10). God’s control is not a reason for us to not pray or not witness, on the contrary it is a profound encouragement for us as we labor in our mission field in Los Angeles for it is He—the triune God—who will accomplish His work. It is not our work to save, let alone to try to engage in rituals to manipulate God (which to the original question if that was what David was doing with his fasting then shame on him for it, but again the text doesn’t tell us that, so who knows?). Rather than fretting over what we cannot control or being upset that we can’t change God to do what we want, we must submit to Him and bow at His feet in worship and awe of His immutable, omniscient, and perfect being. Further, we must go on mission. While it is not our job to save or change people, it is nonetheless our job to pray and preach, trusting God to do what He alone can do—save sinners. We cannot change people, but God can change us. The prophet Jeremiah reasoned that a man cannot change the color of his skin, nor a leopard change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23), but with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). Left to his own a man would never save himself, but thankfully God has chosen not leave us all in this state of sin and rebellion. Praise God that He is merciful and mighty to save. In conclusion, let us—saints of Del Rey Church—remain steadfast in prayer and witness in Los Angeles that the Lord may—if He wills—bring a revival to the city for His glory and our joy. Soli Deo gloria!