Mysteries Of The Bible: Just How Common Was Intercession In Old Testament Times?

When I woke up rather bleary-eyed this morning, I found that at some point during the night one of my friends had asked me a question on social media concerning the passage in 1 Kings 8:35-36, which reads as follows: “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because you afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance.” My friend commented that he had been doing a study on 1 Kings for a while, and this passage had been in his head, as a clearly Old Testament passage that has all the New Testament themes of repentance, forgiveness, and a direct appeal to the Lord. He wanted to know the context, other Old Testament parallels, and traditional Jewish intercession prayers. So, how common was intercession in the Old Testament?

This is the sort of question that many people have, if they think to ask it. Those of us who consider ourselves Christians have certain understanding of the way that God works through Jesus Christ, and we are used to seeking His intercession for us for our sins, as Hebrews and the Epistles of Paul, and the behavior of people seeking healing and restoration in the Gospels make plain. Yet although we are familiar with the New Testament context of such matters, it is not often easy to understand that while the fulfillment of our human longing for intercession is in Christ Jesus, that the longing for divine intercession is as old as humanity itself, and that the direct appeal for forgiveness in the Bible has a long biblical, and even extrabiblical, history. Let us first note the context of 1 Kings 8:35-36 specifically, and then give at least the flavor of how widespread intercessionary prayers are in biblical times.

First, it should be noted that Solomon’s prayer is directly connected to the blessings and curses discussed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Leviticus 26:18-20 reads: “And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 28:23-24 read: “And your heavens which are over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land to powder and dust; from the heaven it shall come on you until you are destroyed.” Here we see that Solomon was aware of a particular promise that one of the penalties of disobedience was an absence of rain in due season, a disaster for any society, as all societies, even our own, depend far more than we like to realize on the availability of food and on the bounty of agriculture. Without good agricultural conditions, our food does not grow, and if our food does not grow, we starve, no matter how technologically advanced we are.

The other contextual matter here is something that relates to the themes of judgment as well. 1 Kings 8 is the biblical account of the dedication of the first temple. Yet the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was not the first place where God has set his name and that served as the host of the pilgrim festivals of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The prophet Jeremiah, in his famous Temple sermon in Jeremiah 7, speaks specifically of Shiloh, the early place of gathering after the conquest, the first temple that Solomon had dedicated, and the matter of intercession. It is worth quoting this passage at some length to see how all of these elements are connected, as it is written in Jeremiah 7:1-16:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter in at these gates to worship the Lord!’” Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will case you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.’ For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”

Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the Lord. But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all these works,” says the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear ,and I called you, but you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren—the whole posterity of Ephraim. Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, nor make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you.”

And on it goes, with a fierce denunciation [1]. Let us note the connections. The language recorded in Jeremiah 7 mirrors the language of Solomon, who speaks of Israel as a people called by God’s name, just as Jeremiah speaks of the temple being called by His name, and connects the judgment of God on the wickedness of Israel during the time of Samuel, when Shiloh was sacked by the Philistines and never rebuilt to its former glory, with the judgment that was soon to fall on Jerusalem. What is more, Jesus Christ Himself refers to this passage as a prophecy of the judgment that was soon to fall on Jerusalem shortly after He walked this earth for their own sins, in passages like Luke 19:45-48, when he cleaned the temple of the moneychangers and those who exploited believers in God by making the house of prayer for all nations (as it is written in Isaiah 56:7) into a den of thieves. No intercession was accepted by God when judgment had been determined in either case. Yet in Jeremiah 7:16 God specifically calls attention to the matter of intercession when judgment is pronounced, because the automatic response of a prophet of God towards the pronouncement of disaster would be intercession.

And that is precisely the pattern that we do find in scripture. When we read of God pronouncing judgment to or through a prophet, the automatic and instinctual reply of that prophet is to intercede for Israel. A few representative examples should suffice to demonstrate just how widespread this pattern is in the scriptures, if we will turn our attention to it:

Exodus 32:7-7-14: “And the Lord said to Moses: “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation. Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”

Amos 7:1-3: “Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, He formed locust swarms at the beginning of the late crop; indeed it was the late crop after the king’s mowings. And so it was, when they had finished eating the crass of the land, that I said: “O Lord God, forgive I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, for he is small!” So the Lord relented concerning this. “It shall not be,” said the Lord.”

2 Kings 20:1-6: “In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’” Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of my people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard our prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David.”’”

In fact, prayers of intercession were such an important and notable aspect of life in Old Testament times that where ones were not found in the Bible they were made up where suitable. One of the most intriguing examples regards that of Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh [2]. For example, of this notoriously wicked king, whose reign was the longest in Judah’s history, and among the worst, 2 Chronicles 33:10-13 laconically notes his own prayer of intercession before God in his own time of trouble: “And the Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon. Now when he was in affliction, he implored the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.” This record is striking, with painful detail of the humiliation that Manasseh suffered, but in ancient times an apocryphal work was written up that sought to supply the prayer of Manasseh, which is one of the works of the Apocrypha that was recorded by the Septuagint [3].

This does not exhaust the examples that could be found, but I would rather not exhaust the patience of my readers by going on at too much length when the point has been demonstrated sufficiently plainly [4]. Intercession is not only something that is found in the Old Testament (and not just the new) but it was a regular and consistent habit of those who knew God and who served as the intermediaries between God and the people at large, which is why we find intercession spoken of in the context of priests in the temple, of prophets seeking to avert God’s judgment, and of civil rulers like Solomon, Moses, Hezekiah, and Manasseh seeking to intercede with God on their own behalf as well as on the behalf of the people they ruled. This habit was so deeply engrained in ancient Israel that God had to specifically tell certain prophets (like Jeremiah) not to intercede on behalf of their people when judgment was certain because the ordinary response of a godly person to hearing prophecies about judgment would be to intercede on their behalf. That is what godly people do, seek God’s favor and mercy for others, out of love and concern. So it was for Jesus Christ and the early Church of God, so it was for the civil and religious leadership of ancient Israel, and so it is for us today. Solomon’s prayer of intercession for Israel is eloquent, and phrased in an elegant way that is particularly memorable, but it is not an isolated example of intercession, which can be found nearly everywhere in the Old Testament, wherever the people of Israel were rebellious and backsliding, where God pronounced judgment, and where godly men stood in the gap and appealed on behalf of their people before God, while appealing to those same people to repent in the face of present or impending judgment. And for this the prophets were tormented by the knowledge of God’s judgment while simultaneously being persecuted by the people who did not want to repent, and who completely disregarded and acted entirely unaware of the love and concern that the longsuffering servants of God had for their own ungrateful selves. Let us learn from their example. No one ever accurately said that interceding for God’s people was a pleasant task, after all.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] The prayer of Manasseh as recorded in the King James Version of the Apocrypha reads as follows:

O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen

“Prayer of Manasseh”. King James Bible Online. Retrieved 8 March 2016.

[4] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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