(Un)Answered Prayer

The unspeakable had happened.
Jerusalem was destroyed.
The Temple was burned down.
Israel was exiled from their promised land.
It was the greatest calamity imaginable.

So Isaiah prayed this way:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!
How the mountains would quake in Your presence!
As fire causes wood to burn and water to boil,
Your coming would make the nations tremble.
Then Your enemies would learn the reason for Your fame!
When You came down long ago,
You did awesome things beyond our expectations.
And oh, how the mountains quaked!
(Isaiah 64)

What is Isaiah praying? He is praying for God to move like He did in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai.

The parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai were the defining events in Israel’s history. The psalmists and the prophets poetically portrayed these two events over and over until they became the iconic imagery of God’s power to deliver in the Israel’s imagination.

So when it had all gone wrong, Isaiah prays for God to show up like He did in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai:

Rend the heavens!
Come down!
Shake the mountains!
Give the Law again!
Make Yourself known!
Show the nations Your Fame!

Behind this prayer is Isaiah’s mental image of Moses and Mount Sinai.

Oh, God! If you would just do it again like you did in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai!

Now, here is my big question:

Did God answer this prayer?


And Yes.

It was an (un)answered prayer.

It was unanswered in that God did not do a repeat of Mount Sinai.

Mount Sinai II: The Revenge of Jehovah

That did not happen. God did not part the heavens and come down. No fire and smoke, no thunder and lighting, no quaking mountain, no voice of God booming out the Ten Commandments.

Israel just continued in exile.
Later some returned to land.
And history marched on.

And so I suspect that Isaiah felt his prayer was unanswered.

But it was not unanswered…it was only (un)answered.

That is, it was an answered unanswered prayer.

Let me explain.

Isaiah had some justification for praying that God would repeat Mount Sinai because at the end of his life Moses had prophesied that God would raise up another prophet like him and that Israel should look for and be ready to listen to this “new Moses.” (see Deuteronomy 18:15-19)

So when the calamity of the Babylonian exile befell Israel, Isaiah thought it would be a good time for the “new Moses” to show up and he began to pray for God to “do it again” like He had done in the days of the first Moses.

But it didn’t happen.

But it did.

Some five and half centuries after Isaiah prayed for God to “rend the heavens and come down” something big happened:

Jesus of Nazareth was baptized in the Jordan and the heavens were torn open and the voice of God was heard. Then Jesus went about selecting 12 apostles and 72 other disciples, hearkening back to the 12 tribes of Israel and Moses’ 72 elders. What was Jesus doing? He was recreating Israel. He was leading the new Israel in a new Exodus.

Then Jesus went up on a mountain and did something truly earthshaking:

He gave a new Torah!

During the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says five times, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus quoted the Law of Moses regarding anger, lust, oaths, revenge and hatred — and changed it! The only comparable thing would be to imagine a preacher getting up next Sunday in the First Baptist Church somewhere and saying, “The Bibles says…but I say to you” — and presuming to have authority to change Scripture! No wonder at the end of the Sermon on the Mount we are told the people were alarmed and astonished! Jesus did not teach like the scribes (who based their teaching on the authority of Scripture), instead Jesus taught as though he had authority himself…a greater authority than Moses! And even Moses had prefaced his law with, “Thus says the Lord” — but Jesus simply said, “I say to you.” What was Jesus doing?! Nothing less than claiming to be God!

The new Moses had come!
And more than that!
Indeed the heavens had been rent!
And God had come down!
Oh, yes, the mountain quaked!
And a new Law was given!


Make no mistake about it:
The answer to the prayer in Isaiah 64 is the Sermon on the Mount.
The “Mount Sinai II” event that Isaiah prayed for had happened at last!
It happened when Jesus went up on a mountain, lifted his voice and said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Behold the mystery of (un)answered prayer.
The anomaly of answered unanswered prayers.
It happened to Isaiah and it happens to us.
Because prayer is more mysterious than we know.

Prayer is mysterious in part because we think it begins with us. We feel a need, we have a desire, so we pray. It feels like it begins with us. But authentic prayer is always authored by God. What moved Isaiah to cry out in prayer, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!”? It wasn’t just Isaiah’s desperation — it was the Spirit of God.

But a deeper mystery of prayer is that we very often don’t know what we are praying for. Isaiah thought he was praying for a repeat of Mount Sinai (I have no doubt that was what he had in mind) — but it turns out that he was actually praying for the Sermon on the Mount! But he didn’t know it. How could he have known it?


The baptism of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recreating Israel was nothing like the repeat of Mount Sinai that Isaiah was praying for — but it was the true answer to Isaiah’s prayer.

Of course God could simply repeat history. God could have done in Isaiah’s day what He had done in Moses’ day. That’s what Isaiah wanted. But what would that have really accomplished? It would have just been a repeat of history and God is not interested in repeating history, but in advancing His purposes. And prayer paves the way…even if we really don’t know what we’re praying about!

The mystery of (un)answered prayer has to do with a limitation of human imagination. We can only imagine so much. But God can imagine so much more. Isaiah could not imagine anything better than a repeat of Mount Sinai…but God could imagine something better!

And that’s what Ephesians 3:20-21 is about:

Now glory be to God! By His mighty power at work within us [prayer],
He is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask
or imagine!

Here’s the best part of (un)answered prayers:

(Un)answered prayers are better than answered prayers!

Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes is way better than Moses on Mount Sinai!
But that was more than Isaiah could ask or imagine.
So God answered Isaiah’s prayer…
Not with a repeat of Moses on Mount Sinai,
But with Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes!

The glory of (un)answered prayer!

So we pray for revival.
And the only we can imagine what God can do–
Is to remember what God has done.

So (depending on your favorite flavor of revival) we pray:
God do it again!
Send another Reformation!
Send another Great Awakening!
Send another Azusa Street!
Send another Jesus Movement!
Send another Charismatic Renewal!
God do it again!

And there’s nothing wrong with praying that way.
(It’s probably the only way we can pray.)
But just remember, when God answers our prayer…
It will most likely be an (un)answered prayer.

This is true in big world-changing prayer…
And it’s true in your personal prayers.
That thing you’ve been praying for?
That hasn’t happened…
That seems an unanswered prayer…
Give it some time…
And wait for it to become an…
(Un)answered prayer!

And remember…

(Un)answered prayers and better than answered prayers!

So let this be an encouragement to you.
Pray…pray big…pray with imagination.
But then let God go beyond your imagination…
(Most likely after the death of your imagined answer)
And bring your the glory of an (un)answered prayer!



I preached a full sermon on this last Friday.
The podcast will be up soon.

Coming Attractions:
Friday: Sacred Mysteries
Sunday: The Unrevival

Yes, I know, I’ve got an “un” theme going.
Though not intentionally.
An alert emailer called to my attention my penchant for unsermons:
The Uncommon Man
The Unpopular Jesus
The Unvarnished Jesus
The (Un)Answered Prayer
And Sunday…
The Unrevival.

Next Monday: Bobshow at Starlight!
Monday after that: In the mountains!

So blogs will come as they will.