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Answers for Unanswered Prayer
Exodus 2:22-23

Chaplain Max Helton prayed beside the car of Dale Earnhardt prior to the start of the 2001 Daytona 500.   Earnhardt told Helton, "Just pray that I'll be wise in putting the car at the right place at the right time . . . and be able to drive with wisdom."  Holding hands, they prayed for wisdom and safety.  In that very race, Earnhardt lost his life in a final lap crash. 

We have all had the experience of unanswered prayer.  We pray for God's healing for a loved one.  We pray for God to bring revival and renewal to our churches.  We pray for the suicide bombings to end and for our troops to come home.  Why does nothing seem to change when God has promised us, "Ask and you will receive"?  Is Jesus being totally truthful when he tells us, "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it"? 

We will never have all the answers to unanswered prayer, but the story of the exodus in the Old Testament provides us with some important perspectives when we are struggling with the silence of heaven.  In Exodus 2:23, Israel cries out for God to deliver them from their bondage in Egypt.  The people waited for twelve long chapters, a wait that must have seemed like forever, before God completely answered their prayers.  What we learn from their waiting will help us the next time we are struggling with unanswered prayer or God's answer is not what we have asked for or expected. 

I.  We need to remember that God is answering our prayers even before we pray them. 

Before the people ever pray for deliverance, God has already begun the process of providing a deliverer.  A baby at the beginning of chapter two is the unknown answer to the prayer at the end of chapter two.  Even when Moses goes from being a prince in Egypt to a fugitive in Midian, there is a reminder that God has a special purpose for Moses's life.  In Midian, Moses drives away a bunch of bullies who are harassing the daughters of Jethro and he waters their sheep.  It foreshadows precisely what Moses is going to do for Israel — he's going to confront the biggest bully of all and then spend 40 years of his life taking care of God's sheep.  

When you're waiting for an answer to prayer it helps to remember that God already has the answer worked out before we are even aware enough to know our need or articulate the words of our prayers.  God knows the beginning, middle, and end of every circumstance and situation.  Jesus reminds us that "your Father knows what you need before you ask him."  Israel needed a deliverer and the Lord knew about it before Israel even asked.  

II. We need to remember God's care and concern even when our prayers are not being answered. 

God's complete answer to Israel's prayer in Exodus 2:23 doesn't come for twelve long chapters, but notice what follows immediately in Exodus 2:24 — a reminder of God's concern for his people.  As soon as Israel "groans" and "cries," God "hears."  God is immediately touched by the cry of his people.  

The name of "Yahweh" is prominent in the book of Exodus.  When Moses asks for God's name at the burning bush, God answers that his name is "I AM" (the first-person form of Yahweh) (Exodus 3:14).  What does that name mean?  Why does the disclosure of the personal name of the God of the universe sound like the old Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on first?"  This name "I am" could mean self-existence; it could mean eternality, but those ideas are really too abstract for what is conveyed in this story.  Yahweh is God's covenant name, and it means that He is the ever-present helper who is there for his people.  It means that God hears the cry of His people as soon as the cry goes up. 

You don't have to use a magic formula to get God's attention.  You don't have to build up enough faith to earn his answer.  You don't have to weary God into giving in.  God is concerned at the very moment we come to him with our needs and requests because we belong to him. 

III.  We need to remember that when we pray, things may get worse before they ever get better.

In the story of the exodus, the children of Israel prayed and things got a lot worse before they ever started to get better.1  In Exodus 5, Moses tells the Pharaoh, "Let my people go!"  The Pharaoh's response was not to say, "Thank you, Moses, for bringing this gross injustice to my attention.  I'll start the paperwork to expedite their release right away."  His response was to take away the straw that the Hebrews had used to make bricks.  Moses's career as a labor union negotiator did not get off to a brilliant start.  The Pharaoh became more hard-hearted and oppressive than ever.  Right before the ultimate deliverance at the Red Sea, Israel was between a rock and a hard place — the Red Sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them.  God chose not to answer fully and finally until things were as bad as they could possibly be.  

God has the freedom to answer our prayers in ways that we don't anticipate or understand.  Jerry Sitser reminds us that prayer does not normally "send an arrow straight to the target" but rather more often than not "shoots an arrow that curves and ricochets and even appears to fall short."2  Because of a recent move, our family has been praying for the home that we own in Ohio to sell for more than a year.  Then, we finally received an offer, had a contract, and our prayers were answered.  While waiting for the deal to be finalized, a rain storm flooded the lower level of our house and now our house is back on the market. 

We can pray for our children to come back to the Lord and they become more determined than ever to go the other way.  We can pray for God to deliver a friend from an addiction and observe the addiction grip them more tightly.  We can pray for God to meet our needs and watch our bank account get smaller. 

We become frustrated or resentful (or perhaps even stop praying) in these situations because we believe that God's promise to answer prayer is our guarantee of a smooth and easy life with no bumps in the road.  We trust God and he fills the orders.  The reality is that God sometimes responds to prayer by bringing more difficulty into our lives.  That adversity deepens character, develops faith, and drives us to more desperately seek God.  The difficulty may even become the means by which God answers our prayers, just like it was for the Hebrew slaves down in Egypt.     

IV.  We need to remember that unanswered prayer is not an indication of God's lack of power.

The delay in Israel's answer to prayer had nothing to do with God experiencing a power outage.  God's power is all over the book of Exodus.  I like to envision the exodus story as a real-life "smackdown" between God and Pharaoh, not like those of the fake variety that you see watching wrestling on television.

In this contest, there is first of all a battle of dueling words.  In Exodus 5:1, Moses goes to Pharaoh and announces, "This is what the Lord says — 'Let my people go.'"  Then in Exodus 5:10, the slave drivers announce, "This is what the Pharaoh says — "No more straw to make bricks for these lazy Hebrews.'"  There's a challenge here — whose word is going to stand? 

The next thing we see is a battle of dueling snakes in Exodus 7.  Aaron's rod becomes a snake in front of the Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh isn't all that impressed because his magicians perform the same trick.  But then, . . . Aaron's snake eats up the Egyptian snakes.  What's the point?  The cobra was the symbol of the Pharaoh's power, and the Egyptians worshipped cobra-deities that were supposed to protect them.  The Pharaoh isn't ready to admit defeat, but Aaron's snake had the first "power lunch" in history. 

Then, there is a battle of dueling deities in the story of the plagues in Exodus 7-Exodus 13.  The plagues are not just neat special effects that spice up the story; they are carefully designed polemics to stress the greatness of the Lord over the gods of Egypt.  The Egyptians believed that Hapi protected the Nile, and so God turned the Nile into blood.  They believed that Re was the god of the sun, and so God turned out the lights.  They believed that the Pharaoh was a god incarnate, and so God took the life of his firstborn son. 

Finally, at the Red Sea in Exodus 14, there is a battle of dueling warriors, when God the Divine Warrior bares his right arm and destroys the Egyptian army.  The most powerful army on earth in that day was no match for the Lord.  It was said of the Pharaoh of the exodus, "He will make a ruler of the land whom no one can attack."3  The Pharaoh found out the hard way who had real power.

Unanswered prayer doesn't void the omnipotence of God.  There is nothing we can ask God that is beyond his ability to accomplish, but the greatest demonstrations of God's power are often found in his answers to our unanswered prayers.  Bob Mitchell prayed for the safety of five young missionaries who went to the jungles of South America in order to share the gospel with the Auca Indians, but Jim Elliott and his four companions were brutally murdered.  Years later, Mitchell attended a conference in Europe and met an evangelist who was one of the Auca Indians that had murdered Elliott and the other missionaries.4  Only God could orchestrate that kind of answer to an unanswered prayer. 

We see in the exodus that the power of God is not something placed at Israel's disposal with the flip of a switch or the pull of a lever.  The how and when of God's answer to prayer is determined by what brings him the greatest amount of glory.  When God answered, it was done in a way so that even Pharaoh himself could not deny that Yahweh was God over all.  Some of the greatest demonstrations of God's power we will ever experience come in God's answers to our unanswered prayers. 

We pray to the same God as these Hebrew slaves.  Whether God's answer to our prayers is "Yes," "No," or "Wait," his answers are always the perfect expression of his love and power in our lives.

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Gary Yates is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.

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1. For this aspect of the story, see Peter P. Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)
2. Jerry Sitser, When God Doesn't Answer Your Prayer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 191-92.
3. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 2:42; cited in Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 230. 
4. This story is related in Sitser, When God Doesn't Answer Your Prayers, 189-90.
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