And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know. And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:20-25 KJV)
In one of the most amazing events recorded in the Old Testament, Abraham entertains three supernatural visitors who reaffirm the promise that he and Sarah would be blessed with a son. After eating a meal with Abraham (a sign that they are in covenant with him), they turn to go, and he walks out with them to see them on their way. Abraham finds himself in the presence of the LORD, who informs Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah face imminent destruction. Upon hearing this solemn pronouncement, Abraham draws closer to God and with surprising boldness appeals to Him on the basis of His own goodness and His promise to protect His people. Matthew Henry, who identifies this as the “first solemn prayer” in Scripture, regards Abraham’s attitude of “holy confidence” as that of a prince who has every right to approach the King’s throne. The most comforting element of this exchange is that this air of reverent confidence indicates that Abraham has not experienced God as an arbitrary tyrant. Abraham fully realizes that his question “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” can only be answered one way, and that is with a resounding “YES!”
It is important to note that this first solemn prayer in the Bible is one of intercession for a group of people who had become so wicked that God was ready to exact the ultimate judgment upon them. Though Abraham does not condone their behavior, he nevertheless understands that he is addressing the One whose property is always to have mercy. Henry observes that “though sin is to be hated, sinners are to be pitied and prayed for. God delights not in their death, nor should we desire, but deprecate, the woeful day.”
By specifically asking God to spare the wicked cities for the sake of the righteous, Abraham shows an understanding of three important truths. The first truth is that the death of the wicked is inevitable. God has patience, even with the rebellious, but in His time, He executes judgment on those whose only goal in life is to destroy His kingdom. Second, the presence of the righteous, though they are often rejected and persecuted by the very ones who benefit by their presence, is intended to be that purifying agent that Christ identified as salt and light. Earlier in this passage, God had identified the duty of the righteous in his assessment of Abraham: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:19) By living sacramental lives and evangelizing those whom we meet daily, we Christians serve as heralds of God’s grace and mercy to a world that is broken by its own rebellion and that is at war with the only Source of life and hope.
Third, Abraham’s prayer is an acknowledgement that God always protects His people. Abraham was convinced that God would not destroy these two cities while any of His people remained in them. While we cannot use this passage to assert that the righteous will never die in a catastrophe, we can say with confidence that God will not utterly destroy His faithful people in a fit of rage against the ungodly. This assurance is reinforced by the parable of the wheat and tares, in which Christ reassures us that the wheat will not be ripped up violently and destroyed with the weeds. Because we have God’s promise that He will do all things for our good and His glory, we know that regardless of whether we live or die, we remain eternally safe in Him.
We also learn from God’s response to Abraham’s persistence that He delights in our communion with Him. Rather than scold Abraham for importuning Him, God continues to grant his requests. Ultimately, not even ten righteous were to be found, and the city was destroyed after Lot and some of his family members escaped. But the fascinating barter between God and Abraham, grounded in God’s great love for his people and in Abraham’s intimate knowledge of God’s nature, provides a pattern for our intercessions on behalf of the ungodly of this world and on behalf of persecuted Christians who live in the midst of violently wicked people.
A Prayer for the Purifying of Our Nation
Almighty God, Ruler of all the peoples of the earth: Forgive, we beseech thee, our shortcomings as a nation; purify our hearts to see and love the truth; give wisdom to our counselors and steadfastness to our people; and bring us at last to that fair city of peace whose foundations are mercy, justice and good-will, whose Builder and Maker thou art; through thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From The Pastor’s Prayerbook by Robert Rodenberry. New York: Oxford, 1960)