When God Said “Do Not Pray”

     There are two instances in Scripture—that I’m aware of—when God told someone not to pray, for He would not hear their prayer. Moses is the first example, for though he’d been faithful to God most of his life, he was told by the Lord he’d not enter the land promised to Israel because of his disobedience as a leader when he struck the rock (Num. 20:8-12). Moses pleaded with the Lord, saying, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the fair land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon. But the LORD was angry with me on your account, and would not listen to me; and the LORD said to me, ‘Enough! Speak to Me no more of this matter’” (Deut. 3:25-26). God’s decision concerning Moses was final. Moses would not enter the Promised Land, for the Lord said, “Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes to the west and north and south and east, and see it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan” (Deut. 3:25-27; cf. Deut. 1:37; 31:1-2). God explained to Moses why He would not hear his prayer, saying, “because you broke faith with Me in the midst of the sons of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not treat Me as holy in the midst of the sons of Israel” (Deut. 32:51). No amount of prayer would change God’s mind, so He told Moses to stop praying about it.

     Do not pray-2The second example is the prophet Jeremiah. God told him not to pray for his fellow Israelites. Three times God told Jeremiah, “do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you” (Jer. 7:16; cf. 11:14; 14:11). The reason behind God’s command was that He had decided to judge and punish His people (Jer. 7:20) because they’d repeatedly broken their covenant with Him by disobeying His commands and pursuing other gods, which He had forbidden (Ex. 20:2-4; cf. Ezek. 20:4-24).[1] Israel’s idolatry was terrible in Jeremiah’s day and included human sacrifice, as many caused their children to be burned alive (Jer. 19:4-5; cf. Ezek. 16:20-21; 20:25-26, 31). Over and over again, Israel disobeyed God’s commands and would not change their behavior (Jer. 7:21-26; 11:1-13).[2] Though Jeremiah had repeatedly spoken God’s Word to them for over two decades (Jer. 25:3), the people openly defied His message, telling him, “As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we are not going to listen to you!” (Jer. 44:16). Their hearts were hardened to God’s Word. If Israel had listened to God and turned back to Him from their idolatry, God would have reversed His discipline and provided blessing instead (Jer. 7:3-7). Until they changed their ways, no amount of prayer was going to change their situation. God would not be moved by their pleas, or the petitions of His prophets.

     The New Testament teaches that God will discipline His disobedient people (Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19; 1 Cor. 11:32), even to the point of death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:27-30, 1 John 5:16-17). However, there are no examples in the New Testament of God telling anyone not to pray. Instead, we are commanded to be “devoted to prayer” (Rom. 12:12; cf. Col. 4:2), to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17; cf. Luke 18:1). This means the believer is to look to God always for wisdom and strength to do His will, lifting others before His throne of grace, requesting He will intervene as we ask, for His glory and their benefit.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] God had formed a covenant (בְּרִית berith) with the nation of Israel after He’d delivered them from Egyptian captivity (Ex. Chapters 3-14). The nation of Israel became a theocracy, and God gave them a total of 613 commands that were to guide their relationship with Him and others. God promised to bless Israel if they abided by the stipulations of the covenant (Deut. 28:1-14), and He promised to curse them if they did not (Deut. 28:15-68). God was being faithful to His word.

[2] The sin of idolatry was widespread in Jeremiah’s day, including Israel’s king, princes, and elders (Jer. 44:17), down to the basic unit of society, the family (Jer. 7:18). It’s an evil thing when parents lead their children away from righteousness and into gross immorality.

The Sin of Idolatry

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol [פֶּסֶל pesel – an idol or carved image], or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship [שָׁחָה shachah – to worship, bow down] them or serve [עָבַד abad – serve, work] them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me. (Ex. 20:3-5)

What is idolatry?

     Idolatry is the selfish sin of substitution in which we devote ourselves to worship something or someone in the place of God.  It is foremost a sin of a covetous heart that leads us to desire more than what God provides, and to trust something or someone lesser than God to satisfy our wants and needs.  Paul addresses the heart of idolatry when he writes that covetousness “is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).  Covetousness is idolatry because the covetous heart desires things and pleasures more than God.  The believer who is satisfied with God is content with what he has (1 Tim. 6:7-11; cf. Phil. 4:11), but the covetous heart is never content and always seeks more (i.e. money, success, friends, etc.) in order to feel secure or to please the flesh. 

In a general sense idolatry is the paying of divine honor to any created thing; the ascription of divine power to natural agencies. Idolatry may be classified as follows: (1) the worship of inanimate objects, such as stones, trees, rivers, etc.; (2) of animals; (3) of the higher powers of nature, such as the sun, moon, stars; and the forces of nature, as air, fire, etc.; (4) hero-worship or of deceased ancestors; (5) idealism, or the worship of abstractions or mental qualities, such as justice.[1]

What is an idol?

     Stone IdolThroughout Scripture an idol is almost always a carved image, something crafted by human hand, made of wood or stone.  An idol can be either a physical object that symbolizes a deity, or it can be an abstract concept such as greed or justice.  A physical idol is merely the work of a craftsman (see Isa. 44:9-19).  There is no life in it (Ps. 115:1-8; Jer. 51:17; Hab. 2:18-20), nor can it deliver in times of trouble (Isa. 46:5-7).   Ultimately, an idol is the thing or person we trust more than God to provide, protect, or guide us in life.  Biblically, there is only one God, and He demands that His people worship Him (Ex. 20:3-6).  The exclusive worship of God is for His glory and our benefit. 

Can God’s people engage in idolatry?

     Yes.  We can engage in idolatry.  The record of Israel’s history—with the exception of a few generations—is a record of their unfaithfulness to God as they worshipped pagan idols (Ex. 32:1-6), which at times included human sacrifice (Deut. 12:31; 18:10; 2 Ki. 21:6; Ezek. 16:20-21).  The books of Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea (just to name a few) all reveal Israel regularly committed idolatry, and this caused them to suffer greatly under God’s discipline as He faithfully executed the cursing aspects of the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 28:15-68). 

The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas PoussinIdolatry is dangerous because it is connected with the activity of demons (1 Cor. 10:19-20), who seek to steal God’s glory and wreck our relationship with the Lord.  Many of God’s people have fallen into idolatry.  Aaron led Israel into idol worship (Ex. 32:1-6).  Solomon, by the end of his life, bowed down to idols (1 Ki. 11:6-10), and there is nothing in the biblical record that suggests Solomon ever turned back to the Lord.  The apostle Paul addressed idolatry in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33; 2 Cor. 6:16).  The apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).  John knew the sinful proclivity of all Christians and I believe this is why he warns us, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). 

Why do we commit idolatry? 

     Even though we are born again believers with a new heart (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23), we still possess a sin nature (Rom. 6:6; 13:14; Gal. 5:16-17, 19; Col. 3:9), and there is always a conflict within us (Rom. 7:19-25; Gal. 5:16-17).  We commit idolatry because we seek to satisfy our sinful desires over God and His will.  In American culture we tend to worship at the altar of self-interest, greed, personal achievement, personal security and self-satisfaction. 

How do we guard ourselves from falling into idolatry?

     First, realize our hearts are sinful and bent toward idolatry.  It is the natural proclivity of mankind to worship things and people in the place of God.  It comes very easy to us, even as Christians.  Second, be devoted to God.  Paul writes to Christians, stating, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1).  This is a lifetime commitment to God in which we bring all of our life under His directive will.  Third, constantly be in God’s Word, letting it guide our thinking and behavior.  As Christians, we do not worship the Bible, but neither can we worship God without it (John 4:24).  The Bible is God’s inerrant and enduring written revelation that tells us who He is and what He’s accomplished in time and space.  The Bible is written in understandable language and made acceptable by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14-16; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:3-4).  Our walk with God depends on rightly understanding and applying Scripture (John 17:17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18).  Fourth, surround yourself with Christian friends who will help you in your daily spiritual walk with the Lord.  Our fellowship with other growing believers is paramount concerning our spiritual health and growth.  The Bible is very clear when it states, “bad associations corrupt good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33).  This is true in every way, and it helps us to have growing Christian friends who influence us to worship God and stay close to Him always.  Fifth, make time to worship the Lord daily, singing to Him and praising Him for all His blessings (Ps. 95:2; 105:2; Eph. 5:18-21; Phil. 4:6; Col. 3:16-17; 1 Thess. 5:18).  A heart that is satisfied with God will not seek lesser people or things to fill the void that occurs when we turn away from Him. 

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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  1. Do God’s People ever Behave Poorly?  
  2. Restoring Fellowship with God.  
  3. I am a Saint. 
  4. I am a Sinner.  
  5. The Sin Nature Within the Christian.  

[1] Merrill F. Unger, ed. R.K. Harrison, “Idolatry” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).