Righteous Prayers Rejected

Righteous Prayers Rejected

Prayer is a very powerful thing in the hands of a righteous man. It can change events. God will listen to a request and grant it if the person is righteous. James says in chapter 5:16,

"Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."

or as the RSV says,

“The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

James goes on to give the example of Elijah, a man just like us, whose prayers were heard so that there was no rain. And then again when he prayed for rain, it came. So we should pray with believing hearts that our prayers will be answered. If we have enough faith God will move mountains for us.

Sometimes though we doubt whether God really hears our prayers at all. There may be a circumstance in our life where we earnestly, with all our hearts, turn to God to intervene yet nothing happens. There may be a loved one, close to death yet there is no sign of remedy. We’ve seen miraculous healings occur but often things do not go the way we wished. There may be troubles in the ecclesia which we do not understand why God would distract us with such things, yet they continue to plague us. There may be something in our lives to do with our personal goals which are being hindered. Does God care? Does he hear? Of course he does but sometimes we find his answer to be “no”.

Our comfort in a negative answer is that we are not alone. Men such as Moses, David, Paul and even our Lord Jesus Christ had prayers that were rejected. If these giants of faith did not receive a favorable reply to their prayers then how much more comforting it is that sometimes our prayers are not answered for similar reasons. We are going to spend our time this morning looking at the four examples of these men. Their prayers were rejected for one of two reasons:

  1. Moses and David both suffered for their sins. Even though they were forgiven they still had to suffer the consequences. Prayer, no matter how ardent, cannot remove the consequences because God is just in his dealings. Sin cannot go unpunished.
  2. Paul and Jesus’ prayers were rejected because God was teaching them lessons through the things which they suffered. We must accept suffering as something that brings humility. We must accept that God is in control and that although we suffer for a short time now---God will eventually see it to our benefit.


We turn to our first example of Moses, who was frequently termed the servant of Yahweh even after his failings at the waters of Meribah. It had been his whole desire to enter into the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob yet for this one mistake he was not allowed to go in to possess the land. The event is recorded in Numbers 20:1-13,

(Num. 20:1-13) "Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. {2} And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. {3} And the people chided with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! {4} And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? {5} And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. {6} And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them. {7} And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, {8} Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. {9} And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. {10} And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? {11} And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. {12} And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. {13} This is the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them."

In Psalm 106:33 it says that Moses spoke “unadvisedly” or “rashly” with his lips. We’ve all been there. That sudden burst of anger, we react to quickly, words fly, we do something we regret but there’s no going back.

Imagine how Moses must have felt. Many years he had faithfully represented the God of Israel and now for this one failing he does not get to realize his dream. We do not get the reaction[1] of Moses here but we find later how much this tormented him. It wasn’t until they had reached the borders of the promised land that he seems to fully realize the seriousness of his sin so he turned to Yahweh to seek some sort of alternative. His petition is recorded in Deut. 3:23-27 (ESV),

“And I pleaded (KJV besought) with the Lord at that time, saying,‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please (KJV I pray thee) let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you (KJV let it suffice thee); do not speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan.

We can certainly feel for Moses. Was his sin as serious as it seems? The record says that he did not believe (or trust) and he did not sanctify Yahweh (Num. 20:12), while in other places God says that he rebelled against his commandment (Num. 27:14) and that he transgressed (Deut. 32:51). We cannot take away from the seriousness of the charge. Moses, under provocation of the people, had lost control of his temper and gone against the pattern that God had set out.  In Numbers 20:8 God said to “speak” unto the rock while Moses “smote” the rock twice (v. 11). Moses took Aaron’s rod that budded (v. 8,9), yet he used his rod to strike the rock (v. 11). In addition to this Moses said, “must we bring forth water” (v. 10) thus eliminating God from the picture to sanctify Him in the sight of the Israelites (v. 12).

The pattern that God was trying to establish was very important. You see, Christ was symbolized in that rock as Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:4 about the Israelites,

"And [they] did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ."

You see, Moses had already struck the rock at the beginning of the wilderness wanderings with his rod, the serpent rod (Ex. 17) and that symbolized the crucifixion of Christ. Now God wanted Moses not to strike the rock but to speak to it so that it might bring forth its spiritual drink. Once Christ was crucified all we have to do is speak and we will be refreshed, but Moses destroyed the type by striking the rock again and again, crucifying the Son of God afresh. Moses thus became one with that rebellious generation which died in the wilderness and he also became a type of the law which could not save man or bring him into the kingdom. No, it was to be Joshua the type of Jesus Christ to bring them into the promised land. Thus Moses and the Israelites were to be sanctified in the eyes of Yahweh.

It was hard for Moses to accept this as it is hard for us to accept some of the things that happen to us. Three times in the beginning of Deuteronomy (1:37; 3:26; 4:21) as he is recounting the story to the children of Israel he mentions that Yahweh was angry with him for their sakes. It was because of them and the holiness of God that he could not enter the good land. Yet God did give him some consolation and he let him see the land.

(Deut. 3:27) "Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan."

Implicit in these words is the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 13:13-15). There is no doubt that what God was saying to Moses was that you shall not cross over this Jordan at this time but later. Moses will receive the inheritance along with us.


Our second example of King David is much like Moses. Here we have a very righteous person. One who is called a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet we are shown all his blemishes. His terrible sin of adultery and murder has been on display for hundreds of years to teach us some gigantic lessons. It was during this time that the prayers of David were answered in the negative for he had to pay the consequences of his sin. We also learn the lesson that sometimes our evil actions effect more than ourselves. We’ll pick up the story in 2 Samuel 12:13-14,

"And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. {14} Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die."

Instantly the egregious sins of adultery and murder were forgiven yet the fruit of this evil was just beginning to be manifested. We too in life might have the grace to be forgiven yet we must realize that we and others will still suffer from the effects of sin.

The child was struck by Yahweh so that it was very sick. David went into deep fasting and mourning. Stretched out on the ground praying to God for mercy to save the child. His servants tried to get him to eat but he would have none of it in his grief. On the seventh day (the day before circumcision, that is, coming into the covenant of Israel) the child died. And so lust when it has conceived brings forth sin and sin when it is done brings forth death.

The reaction of David once the child is dead and he knows his prayer will not be headed is very instructive. Picking up the story again in 2 Samuel 12:20-23,

"Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. {21} Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. {22} And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? {23} But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me."

So we too must act when our prayers are not answered. There is no reason to get angrier at God. Accept his will and get on with life. We pray hoping that God will be gracious but in the event he is not then we must continue with our journey of faith. Notice David’s first act is to clean himself up and go into the house of Yahweh to worship. Sometimes it is very hard after suffering and getting no answer from prayer to go back to the ecclesia, but it’s the first place we should go, seeking fellowship with God and the brethren. God does not expect us to be discouraged by unanswered prayer but to be accepting of his will.


Our last two examples have obvious reasons of sin to answer for the unheeded prayer but these next two examples are of a different character. Paul and Jesus asked for certain things to be taken away yet the answer was ‘no’. It was ‘no’ because God was working out his will in both of these men to bring out humility and obedience. We suffer in this present evil world for a reason. Paul gives the logical progression in Romans 5:3-5,

". . . we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; {4} And patience, experience; and experience, hope: {5} And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us."

So we are to rejoice when tribulations, persecutions, sickness, infirmities and sufferings come. I don’t know about you but I find it a very hard thing to swallow even when we know it is for our good. We are not alone though. Paul, while giving some great exhortations on endurance, also asked to be relieved of a certain malady but God said ‘no’. In 2 Cor. 12:7-10 we read,

"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. {8} For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. {9} And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. {10} Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."

There is nothing wrong with praying for the removal of suffering. Three times Paul pleaded with God to take away the pain. Whatever Paul had it was a hindrance and embarrassment to him. Why wouldn’t God take it away? Wouldn’t Paul be even more able to preach the gospel if God just took it away? But God knew Paul better than Paul even knew himself. The messenger of Satan was to keep him humble. There was an inherit danger in Paul that he might become puffed up so the Lord kept him low. When we are low then God is lifted up. When we are humble then we can best serve God. When we glory in our weakness then God can be the strong one.

What a wonderful phrase, “my grace is sufficient for thee.” What more do we need, brothers and sisters, in this life then the grace of God. To have his favor is better than anything that we could hope for. If we are in his grace then we know, of a surety, that all things will work together for good. If we could just be content with this knowledge then truly the power of Christ would rest upon us.

Jesus Christ

For me, there is no other place in the gospels that we feel Jesus’ struggle with the flesh then in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here was his greatest fight against his worst enemy, the flesh. He was alone, amid the dim moonlight shining through the olive trees when we see the Son of God in earnest prayer like we’ve never seen him before. As he prayed the sweat ran down his face like great drops of blood falling to the ground.

(Matt. 26:39) “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

There was no other way. Jesus knew this and we know it. God could have done anything but then how should the scriptures be fulfilled? It is hard to say why Jesus prayed this way for he certainly knew that he would be put to death and be raised again on the third day. But he was a man like you and I and no man looks kindly on death. It is a fearful thing. It shows us that even up to the end Christ was learning obedience. Hebrews 5:7-8 are very instructive about our Lord,

"Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from (Greek = ek, out of) death, and was heard in that he feared; {8} Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;"

Even though “the cup” could not pass, his prayers were answered for deliverance out of death, that is, resurrection. We cannot ask to escape the suffering of the cross. Each of us has to die to sin but equally we can ask for life in his Son Jesus Christ. As Jesus learned obedience so we too must learn obedience by the things which we suffered. The servant is not above the master.

In each of our prayers we need to acknowledge that it is only in accordance with the Lord’s will. We are called upon to bring our will in subjection to his. How much more than should our prayers be asking for this to happen. Jesus was quick to acknowledge this and so should we. It is comforting to know that even though Jesus prayer was not answered God did hear him and sent and angel to strengthen him. How did the angel do this? Through scripture? Reciting again those familiar Messianic Psalms? So too the Lord comforts us through the scriptures.

On an aside, it is interesting to note that Jesus prayed for the cup to pass three times. Paul also prayed thrice that the thorn in his flesh might be taken away. Equally Moses acknowledged three times that the Lord was angry with him. Is this a pointer that if a prayer is not answered that we should only allow for asking three times? Or does persistence in prayer sometimes call for more?


In summary we’ve seen that prayer is a powerful thing. We should never give up praying because it does make a difference. On the other hand we now know that just being a righteous prayer does not guarantee that it will be satisfied.

We’ve seen in the example of Moses and David that our sins sometimes get in the way of effective prayer. The consequences that we face for our actions have to be endured. Even though we are forgiven God in his righteousness deals out the punishment. We must accept these things and get on with life without any malice towards our heavenly Father.

In contrast we’ve seen that Paul and Jesus show that sometimes prayer is not answered because the lesson of humility and obedience has to be learned. We might have done nothing wrong yet God is allowing something to happen for our instruction and benefit. We have to humbly submit to the will of God knowing that all things will work together for good.

Recently some unanswered prayers have been hard to accept. I take comfort in men like Moses, David, Paul and Jesus Christ who shared our nature, our battles, and our infirmities. Let us learn the lessons from them and continue our journey of faith knowing that God is in control and whatever the answer to our prayers we know that his will is being done.


[1] It is brought up again in Num. 27:12-14 but Moses still doesn’t react, only to pray to God to set up a good successor.