Prayer in Helpless Times

Now here’s a story. “The Moabites and the Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle.” By all accounts, this was very bad news. The messengers called them “a great multitude,” and the Chronicler assures us: “Jehoshaphat was afraid.”

So, he “set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” He gathered the people and stood up to speak, likely with the somber, presidential demeanor we see on TV in times of national crisis. He took a deep breath, and he prayed: God, you are God. The outcome is in your hands. These armies could take everything, everything that you have promised. With empty hands, he concluded:

O our God, will you not execute judgement on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

-2 Chronicles 20:12

The odds were too stacked for the onlookers to be fooled. He could only admit his helplessness, declare God’s faithfulness. What must “all Judah…with their little ones, their wives, and their children” have thought? Did the appeal to Yahweh stir up courage in their blood, or did panic spread from murmur to murmur? Perhaps some stepped forward as others tried to edge their way out to the gates, to the hills.

But the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah…And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”

-2 Chronicles 20:14-17

They bowed down and worshipped the LORD, then stood up to praise the LORD. They rose early in the morning, marched out of the city, trusted God, sang and praised, and arrived at the battlefield only to find the wastes of an army that had defeated itself. God had promised; God delivered.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these war stories. They were to go out to battle; that doesn’t mean we should find a fight to pick. God’s promise to Jehoshaphat through Jahaziel is not a promise to us through the Chronicler; in fact, it doesn’t even assure us that the wars we fight are right. The commandment to love our enemies, the commendation of peacemakers, Christ tearing down the dividing wall between Israel and the nations—these all complicate conflict for Christians today.

What we find complicated often unsettles us, so we carry 2 Chronicles around, but we rarely open those pages. However, here’s what we lose if we never do: We forget this day when God delivered. We miss the reminder that God came through in a more life-threatening situation than I have ever faced. In fact, we may even forget that despite our self-assurance, we do encounter situations we cannot fix. If there is a God who looks toward us, then all we can do is look to Him. Jehoshaphat’s story reminds us that there is that God, that that sometimes is all we can do, and that looking to Him is worth more than we might think.

We are not the Israelites, but our God is this God. In our own lives, in the small things (as I write this, I’m afraid that my bags are about to get left in the Phoenix baggage system), big things (I’m also afraid I’m going to get derailed on my dissertation this year), and huge things (we’re about to be responsible to raise a child), we too can pray: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” Even in our own matters of war and geopolitics, we too can pray: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

In the midst of sentiments like #actionotprayers, Christians must pause and remember that if there is a good, mighty, and immanent God, praying is one of the most practical things we can do.The admission “we do not know what to do” warns us against foolhardy reactions; the confession “but our eyes are on you” prepares us to give God the glory for whatever good transpires. More importantly, the God who heard the Israelites hears us, and while tragedy still strikes each day, we have good reason to believe that God’s promised justice and mercy will transform and redeem God’s people and this planet before long.

Our eyes are on you, dear God. We trust you.

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