Numbers 21:1-3 “Can You Bargain with God?” Sept. 22, 2013
Pastor Louis Prontnicki
Num. 21:1-3 “When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” 3 The LORD listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.”
It appears here that Israel is trying to make a deal with the Lord: “If You do this for us, we will do this for You.”
So, is it right to make deals with God? “Lord, if you get me out of this mess, I promise I will start going to church every Sunday.” “God, if you heal my child, I will get serious with you.”
How many times do we try to negotiate with God? “Lord, if you’ll just give me this promotion at work, I’ll be able to give more money at church.” “Lord, if you’ll just heal me, I’ll serve you all the years you give me.” “Lord, if you’ll put my marriage back together again, I’ll start going to church more regularly.”
Here’s the Question: Can we bargain with God? Well, yes… and no. Here’s the two-fold answer why/ why not.
I. God is sovereign and gracious if we try to bargain with Him.
A. Life Experiences:
i. Martin Luther: Martin Luther’s father, who worked as a miner, wanted his son to become a lawyer, so Martin studied law. He was almost done with his studies, when one day at the age of 21, he was caught outside in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. In the midst of his fear, Luther cried out to St. Anna, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, Saint Anna, and I shall become a monk!” God spared Luther, and he kept his vow, to the great disappointment of his father and his mother.
ii. Lynn’s mother. Lynn’s mother made such a vow to God when Lynn’s baby sister had meningitis, and it was a turning point for God working in the family.
iii. Think of times when you prayed a similar prayer….
The good news is that if we try to bargain with God, He is gracious to deal with us where we are, in our ragged theology and malnourished understanding of who He is, and because He is sovereign over all, God can even use our feeble attempts at negotiating with Him to accomplish His much more glorious purpose! God is sovereign and gracious if we try to bargain with Him.
B. Scriptural Examples:
Let’s briefly consider four examples in the Old Testament of “bargaining” with God:
i. Abraham, in Gen. 18:16-33, when he pleads with the Lord over the fate of Sodom.
Vv. 23-26: Then Abraham approached (The Lord) and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
ii. Jacob, in Gen. 28:20-22 The context is Jacob leaving his home and journeying to Paddan Aram to find a wife from among his people, and the Lord has just appeared to Jacob in a dream.
“Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
iii. Jephthah, in Judges 11:30-32 The setting is that the enemies of Israel, the Ammonites, have rejected Jephthah’s diplomatic appeals for peace, and then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and as he advanced his army against this hostile nation, we read “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’S, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’ 32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands.”
iv. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1:11 The context is that Hannah has been unable to conceive and bear a child, while her husband’s other wife had many children, and the other wife provoked Hannah about this, to irritate her. The we read: “And (Hannah) made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
What can we discern from these four examples?
All four of these situations could be considered as trying to bargain with the Lord:
Abraham trying to negotiate God’s peace with Sodom, in return for finding a certain number of righteous people in the city; Jacob willing to devote himself to the Lord in exchange for safety and provision on his long journey; Jephthah bargaining with what he assumes will be an animal of his to be sacrificed if the Lord grants him victory over the enemy; and Hannah willing to give any son the Lord gives her back to the Lord, if He opens her womb.
What else do all four have in common? All of these people were desperate; they had nowhere else to turn but to the Lord. Abraham couldn’t stop the judgment of God upon wicked Sodom, but his relatives lived there. Jacob was taking a long journey through dangerous and desolate areas, in search of a wife, and he knew he needed God’s protection and provision. Jephthah had tried diplomacy and it failed; now he was going to face a large and hostile army, and he vowed to God to seek His aid; and Hannah was barren, scorned, and looked down upon, so she offered any son that God would give her to be offered right back to God.
In all of these cases, God fulfilled their requests. He would have spared Sodom, but Abraham couldn’t find even ten righteous people in the whole city! He watched over Jacob. He helped Jephthah defeat the Ammonites. He gave Hannah a son. It appears that “bargaining” with God is not a wrong type of prayer. Might we say that because our God is a gracious God, He is willing to meet people where they are? Can we say that because God is the Lord who reigns over all people and all situations, he is able to accomplish His purposes even through the pleading/ negotiating/ and vows of people who, knowing their great need, cry out to Him?
God sometimes puts us in difficult situations so that we will cry out to Him and get serious about following Him!
The good news here is that God is sovereign and gracious, if we try to bargain with Him!
But on the other hand….
II. We don’t need to bargain with God because He is sovereign and gracious
We don’t need to bargain with God, because such negotiating with God:
(A) Reveals a low view of God
How does bargaining with God reveal a low view of God? Consider Rom. 11: 35: “Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?” Answer: No one. Since everything is from God and through God, He already owns all things and we can never give Him anything that is not already His, right? Which means that we can never put Him in our debt. There is absolutely no negotiating with God. We have no bargaining position. We are utterly owned by Him and we are squatters on His land. Every breath we take is a gift from Him. Every virtue we perform is because of His grace. As Paul reminds us in Acts 17:25: “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, for he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.”
We don’t need to bargain with God, because such negotiating with God:
(B) Encourages the wrong kind of prayer.
Prayer is about putting God’s will before ours; it is not about working out a trade. Therefore, even when we read about people in the Bible seemingly bargaining with God, or when we say to the Lord, “If you do this, I will do that,” we must remember that God owes us nothing; we are complete debtors to Him, and that we have no bargaining chips to offer God.
Rather, we when we say, “Lord, if you rescue me here, I promise I will do this…” we are simply acknowledging that we are at the end of our rope, that we have no resources of our own to solve our problem, to heal our disease, to provide for ourselves… and therefore, we cast ourselves completely on His grace and mercy. So in reality, when we say to the Lord, “if you do this, I will do that,” we are telling God that we are repenting from our idols and that we are turning fully to trust in Him and to serve and love Him.
Illustration: Picture a treasonous army officer (such as Benedict Arnold) who has led a rebellion against his commanding general, but now he has been captured, and he is kneeling, tied up, before the same general. At that point, imagine the rebellious officer telling the general: “I deserve death for what I have done, but if you show me undeserved mercy, if you spare my life, I pledge that I will serve you faithfully all my days.” Is that bargaining? No. The officer has nothing to bargain with. He is simply saying that he sees the error of his way, and if his life is spared, he will turn it around and serve and obey the general, as is his duty. (This is what Robert Bruce did with his nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph).
Or consider God’s gracious invitation to sinners in Isa. 55:1-3 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost….Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.”
Here the Lord is saying to us: “You are in no position to bargain with me, for you have nothing! “Come, everyone who thirsts and has no money—no resources, no bargaining position, no track record, no power, no prestige, no pull. I am inviting you to enjoy the banquet of salvation!” We don’t need to bargain with God because He is sovereign and gracious, and we have nothing to offer to Him,
So we realize that as we reach a certain level of Christian maturity, bargaining with God simply won’t work anymore. We’re past that. By that point we have a lot more faith in the way God answers prayer, and we’re much better able to hear Him, and don’t have to resort to trying to negotiate. No bargaining is necessary. Rather, we say to the Lord, “Your will be done.”
Analogy: A child has been badly misbehaving in class, and he knows he’s going to be in big trouble when his parents find out. But he says to his folks, “if you take me to Disneyworld at the end of the school year, I promise that I will be the most well-behaved student in my class for the rest of the year!”
“Ridiculous,” you say! The child has no bargaining chips. He has no negotiating position. He’s in deep trouble and deserves a punishment and a loss of privileges. His parents know this too. But because they are firmly in charge here, and because they love their son and want to make this a learning opportunity for him, they “agree to his bargain”… but then they use this as an opening into their child’s heart, to express to him their unconditional love…
That is how God deals with us.
Let’s respond to him accordingly, with full trust and obedience.
Bottom Line: God is sovereign and gracious if we try to bargain with Him, and at the same time, because God is sovereign and gracious, we can’t bargain with Him! So trust Him.
What is God calling you to trust Him for, in your life?
For your health? Your future? Your children? Your marriage? Remember: God is sovereign and gracious, and therefore you aren’t called to bargain with Him; you are called to trust Him and to submit to Him.