Carrying the Heart of God
In this article, we look at what intercessory prayer involves and the role of the interceding believer, we explore the importance of co-operating with the Holy Spirit and we take an inside peek at the dynamic of spiritual conflict.
Table of Contents
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Prayer is an all-encompassing word that refers to our communion and communication with God. The Scriptures go on to specify different kinds of prayer, the most well-known (and used) being “petition”—the prayer of “asking”. Jesus encouraged us to express our requests to our Father and the prayer of asking flows easily from a recognition of our basic need for God.
Intercession, however, is a distinctly different kind of prayer, one focused on others. No passage in the Scriptures give us better words and pictures to define intercession than these startling words through the prophet Ezekiel:
‘So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one. Therefore, I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; I have recompensed their deeds on their own heads,’ says the Lord GOD.”
(Ezekiel 22:30, 31, italics added)
Although the rampant corruption in Ezekiel’s day demanded justice, it was God’s desire to grant mercy instead. Our loving Father always looks for every possible way to bring redemption and offer forgiveness to those whose wickedness demands that, in His justice, a final account is required.
This passage makes it clear that one prerequisite for God to grant mercy, and thus withhold judgement, was … an intercessor—someone who’d come before God on behalf of the wicked, those exploiting the poor (Ezekiel 22:23-29). In this case, however, there was no intercessor at hand!
Although the word “intercessor” does not appear in this passage, we find a parallel passage in Isaiah that does use the word:
[God] saw that there was no man and wondered that there was no intercessor.”
Thus, from the phraseology expressed in this passage in Ezekiel we derive this Biblical definition of intercession:
Intercession is prayer made before God on behalf of others.
The Hebrew word for “intercession” (paga) is used 46 times in the Old Testament and literally pictures a supplicant appealing to a superior; thus, intercession involves entreating God for His favour on behalf of another. The Greek word for “intercession” (entygchano) captures the same intent as the Hebrew word; that is, to plead with a person on another’s behalf.
One of the most outstanding examples of God’s desire to give mercy and withhold judgement is in His dealing with the ungodly inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The “outcry against” them was “great” and their sin was “very grave” (Genesis 18:20). In other words, a final account was looming.
Yet God looked for an intercessor and found one in Abraham. Father God deliberately drew on Abraham’s compassion and concern for his own nephew Lot and allowed him to intercede on behalf of those corrupt cities. In a way, God held Himself accountable to a fair trial through this process, and when the accounting was done—and not even ten righteous could be found—justice was required. However, not before God allowed Lot and his family to escape (Genesis 18:16-19:29).
Intercession is prayer that centres on the heart of God; thus, it’s moved by His heart for others. Intercession is not driven primarily by the need of people, but by the Spirit (heart) of God. Yes, the need or plight of people will and should burden us, but when we connect with God’s heart, we’re moved by His compassion and pray more consistently with His will.
In the Ezekiel passage, God sought out an intercessor to plug into His heart and intercede on behalf of the land. The corruption and exploitation of the poor would have induced human reactions in a reasonable person, ranging from human sorrow to anger. However, God sought for someone to come “before” Him, going beyond mere human reactions to grasp His feelings. And out of the overflow of this fellowship with Him, the intercessor would intercede “on behalf of” the land in a similar way to the Psalmist’s intercession:
Restore us, O God of our salvation, and cause Your anger toward us to cease … Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your mercy, LORD, and grant us Your salvation.”
We can easily become overwhelmed by the plight of people, the state of our world or the failings of the church. However, as we come “before” God and respond to His heart, we intercede “on behalf of” others, the church, the nations and those who do not know Him with the intensity of God’s feelings and in the grace He provides.
The Intercessor’s Role
The imagery of a city with broken walls that Ezekiel employed gives us insights into what the intercessor accomplishes in intercession:
So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land…”
(Ezekiel 22:30, italics added)
On the one hand, the intercessor “stands in the gap” of a collapsed wall—protecting any areas of vulnerability and weakness against exploitation. The same idea is conveyed in Job’s “hedge” of protection (Job 1:10). As we intercede for others, we form a protective shield that restrains the work of the enemy (see Psalm 91:9-12; Ephesians 6:16, 18).
On the other hand, the intercessor “makes a wall”—repairing the vulnerable, weakened areas by ushering God’s restoring grace. As we intercede for others, we assist in releasing God’s will into their predicament or situation (see Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-21).
Thus, the role of an intercessor is one of protection and restoration. A true-hearted intercessor has no intention of trying to control others or of manipulating a situation through their ministry of intercession. Rather they co-operate with the “Helper,” the Holy Spirit (parakletos; John 14:16), by coming alongside with His servant-heart to protect and restore. This self-giving, sacrificial act was, of course, personified in Jesus.
A further lesson we learn from this passage in Ezekiel may at first be hard to swallow.
Clearly, God’s intention was to mercifully restore the land; however, because there was no intercessor, His justice was delivered. In looking for an intercessor, God said, “but I found no one…” (Ezekiel 22:30).
From this we come to a mind-bending conclusion.
God doesn’t just want our intercession; God needs our intercession!
Let’s qualify this profound (and challenging) statement.
God does not need anything in a foundational sense. He is completely self-sufficient. However, the Scriptures repeatedly reveal that He has chosen to limit His activity to what He can get us to do.
He has chosen to limit Himself to our involvement, and our primary involvement lies in two words: prayer and obedience. He has chosen to put immense responsibility in our hands (and our prayers), and He invites us to share in His ministry of intercession so that His purposes can be released on this earth.
Without our intercession, God’s purposes are frustrated, but with our intercession God’s purposes are fulfilled!
Intercession is more than just praying a prayer; it’s a way of life.
Intercession involves carrying the heart of God on behalf of others. For this very reason, Jesus’ current ministry is, “at the right hand of God, [He] makes intercession for us” (Romans 8:34 c. Hebrews 7:25).
This does not mean that Jesus is always on bended knee, but it does mean that He carries the burden (heart) of His Father for all humanity. Jesus is the One who has come “before” God “on behalf of” humanity, and it is through His all-complete redemptive act that we can, by His grace, continue to carry the heart of God in intercession.
Paul is an excellent example of intercession as a lifestyle. He described his burden for the Jewish people as follows:
I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart … my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.”
(Romans 9:2; 10:1, italics added)
And again, in detailing the list of hardships he faced—including being beaten and stoned—he described his above-all, overwhelming burden:
…besides these other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.”
(2 Corinthians 11:28, italics added)
Although intercession involves time spent in prayer, intercession is more than just a time of prayer. Intercession is a life of prayer; it’s a burden carried, a heart wooed by His Spirit—properly “prayer without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
The Scriptures use an analogy that describes the intensely personal nature of intercession so well, captured in the old KJV translation: “travail.” Newer translations use the word “labour,” but it’s not merely a synonym for “work”. While intercession involves work in a spiritual sense, the word “labour” is, in fact, a reference to “children birth.” Yes, the labour of pregnancy.
A pregnant woman thinks, eats, sleeps … lives with one thing on her mind: her unborn child that she carries. She cannot switch it off at will; she cannot shelve it for later. She is pregnant: every waking moment she carries the burden of her child; an experience that only deepens and intensifies until the time of delivery itself. This is the concept behind “travail” seen in the words that Paul used in the verses quoted above: “great sorrow and continual grief” and “my deep concern”.
The intercessory heart of Paul is again expressed when he wrote to the churches in the province of Galatia,
My little children, for whom I labour [travail] in birth again until Christ is formed in you.”
As a faithful spiritual parent, Paul interceded for Christ to be formed in them.
The Womb of God
When Jesus spoke “concerning the Spirit” (John 7:39), He said,
He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
(John 7:38, italics added)
The word “heart” that Jesus used (Greek: koilia) literally means “womb” and is, in fact, translated this way in Luke 1:15, for example. Thus, we are the “womb of God” and as we allow His Spirit to impregnate us (travail), He brings His purposes to birth.
In interceding to end the drought in Israel, it is well-known that Elijah sent his poor servant to scale the mountain seven times to scan the horizon for the appearance of rain. What is not so well-known is that Elijah adopted the posture of a pregnant Hebrew woman in the act of childbirth in his intercession (1 Kings 18:42). While posture is not a critical aspect of prayer, and one certainly does not need to simulate any “pregnancy postures”, Elijah’s prophetic act does reveal to us the intensity of the spiritual activity involved in intercessory prayer.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God declared,
For as soon as Zion was in labour [travail], she gave birth to her children.”
Zion is, of course, a prophetic picture of the church (Hebrews 12:22, 23), you and I yielded to the Spirit of God. God then delivered this incredible promise:
Shall I bring to the time of birth and not cause delivery? Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?”
God used a rhetorical question to motivate an answer and a response.
“No, Father, You not only bring to birth, You also cause delivery! And You not only cause delivery, but You will never shut up the womb!”
Armed with this confidence in His faithfulness, we pray: “Father, have Your way in me. Place Your desires in my heart so that Your will comes to pass!”
The Work of the Spirit
The opening chapter of the Scriptures reveal the brooding Holy Spirit at creation’s conception:
The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
(Genesis 1:2, italics added)
The word “hovering” is a reproductive term in Hebrew, highlighting the conception role of the Spirit. The Amplified Bible reads: “The Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding)…”.
In Psalm 90:2, Moses refers to this creative act of hovering with these words: “You gave birth to the earth and the world” (NASB). The brooding Holy Spirit brought creation to birth; in this case, in response to the Father’s word: “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
In the dramatic encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38), Mary responded to the news of her divine pregnancy in shock and wonder: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you…” (v. 35). The word “overshadow” is the Greek counterpart of the Hebrew word “hovering” (Genesis 1:2). Again, the Holy Spirit is revealed as the brooding One who brings God’s purposes to birth; in this case, physically, through Mary.
You may find it interesting that the word for “overshadow” is the same word used in Acts 5:15 where people “brought their sick … that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on … them”. It was not literally Peter’s shadow that contained healing virtue, but the brooding Holy Spirit, overshadowing Peter, who healed the sick.
From a place of communion with God, we are entrusted with the burden of God’s heart as the Holy Spirit broods over us. He impresses our heart with His desires and intentions—His thoughts and feelings—so that we can pray His will with power.
The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working].”
(James 5:16b, AMP)
We can be confident that as we intercede, the brooding Spirit of God uses us and our prayers to bring forth the purposes of God.
Co-operating with the Holy Spirit
Intercession is fundamentally about co-operating with the Spirit of God. Like worship, it is life-giving as long as it is Spirit directed. Like worship, nothing kills intercession like religious effort and soul-power. But when we come before God in intimacy, Jesus faithfully entrusts us with His intercessory burden: His deep passions, His intense emotions, His intimate feelings. We become the vessel through whom His Spirit can work.
Intercession is not sabotaging God’s Presence with our “shopping list of needs and wants”. Rather, intercession is coming before God, seeking to know and carry His needs and wants. And it is in this intimate place of communion that we can—and should—lift our requests to Him. Intercession involves more seeking than speaking, more waiting than waffling; more listening to His desires than listing our own. Intercession involves co-operating with the Spirit as He impresses our heart and mind with the thoughts and feelings of God. As we pray back these impressions—“with the spirit … and with understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15)—we sometimes only find release in “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
The word “weaknesses” does not refer to moral failure or flawed character; rather, it refers to “our inability to produce results”. We cannot produce results in our own strength, as God made abundantly clear through the prophet: “Not by might nor by power, but My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6).
The Holy Spirit “helps” us—that is, He does not pray in place of us, but literally takes part with us—making our weak and feeble words mighty and effective. The Spirit of God may burden us with the heart of God by either bringing to mind a verse or passage of Scripture or by enlightening the “eyes” of our imagination (Ephesians 1:18; 3:20) with a vision (prophetic picture), or by impressing our heart with His emotions. As we wait on Him and respond to His promptings, He enables us to intercede effectively.
For this reason, intercession is often an emotional experience. When God entrusts us with His heart it comes with the intense passions of joy, grief or even anger that He may feel. The elation felt by Peter (1 Peter 1:8), the grief experienced by Jesus (Hebrews 5:7), and the pain and anger expressed by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:19-21; 6:7; 9:1) are examples of God’s emotion expressed in intercession.
Even when we do have clear requests to bring before God, there is value in taking the time to wait on Him, to allow Him to impress His heart’s desire upon us rather than just going through each request by line and by rote. As we wait on Him, we grasp His heart for each request; we gain His perspective and are enabled to pray more accurately in line with God’s will. Hasty knee-jerk requests out of our immediate need is replaced with a wiser, more trusting and sincere request offered lovingly to the Father.
Intercessory prayer is often referred to as a weapon that God has given us as we engage in spiritual conflict with the enemy. However, it’s more correct to say that prayer is not so much a weapon, as it is the battle itself. After giving us a clear description of the armour of God (Ephesians 6:13-17), Paul then calls us to wage the battle in prayer: “praying always with all prayer … in the Spirit” (v. 18).
As we stand secure in the armour God—a metaphor for Christlikeness (Romans 13:12, 14)—we use the offensive weapon of God’s Word in the battleground of prayer.
In this sixth chapter to the Ephesians, Paul made it clear that our battle is not against people.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
The advance of God’s Kingdom is opposed by demonic forces that seek to…
- Blind the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4)
- Oppose the growth of believers (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5)
- Cause as much pain and suffering as possible (John 10:10)
As we co-operate with God’s Spirit, our faithful intercession helps open the eyes of unbelievers to “see” the truth, strengthens believers to grow in the truth and advances the Kingdom of peace and joy in this ravaged, corrupt world.
An Inside Peep
The Scriptures offer us a wonderful inside peep into the spiritual dynamics of intercessory prayer. In Daniel Chapter 10, Daniel explains how, through a time of intense fasting and prayer over a three-week period, he experienced an angelic visitation (10:1ff). An angel arrived with good news, bringing Daniel the answer he’d been seeking, but explained his twenty-one-day delay:
Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael one of the chief princes, came to help me.”
(Daniel 10:12, 13, italics added)
Notice, God heard Daniel’s prayer on the very first day that he began to seek Him. This angel was dispatched immediately to bring Daniel his answer, but he was opposed for three weeks by the “prince … of Persia”. The prince of Persia was not a human, but demonic opposition to God’s will. Notice, too, how the two ‘stronger’ angels— “Michael one of the chief princes” and the opposition (see v. 20)—are called “princes”. There’s no doubt that this concept shaped Paul’s words when he wrote that our battle is “against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age” (Ephesians 6:12).
God’s will—and Daniel’s answer—was opposed for three weeks, and the battle was won because of Daniel’s steadfastness in prayer and fasting. More specifically, his persevering intercession ‘armed’ the archangel Michael to assist the angel in delivering the message to Daniel. It is completely reasonable to conclude that had Daniel failed to persevere in prayer, the battle may have been lost!
This leads to the following question…
If God wants to answer our prayers, why does He require us to be persistent in prayer?
Biblically, there are at least two reasons for this:
- Perseverance, an applied expression of faith, increases spiritual power.
The Scriptures reveal that there are degrees of spiritual power (c. Acts 1:8; 4:33; 6:8) and makes it clear that perseverance releases greater degrees of power (James 5:16).
- Perseverance purifies our motives and develops spiritual maturity.
Through perseverance our own motives are approved, and our own faith is strengthened (James 1:2, 3). God allows the enemy to conditionally oppose us as opposition develops purity and maturity in our character. In His sovereign wisdom, God allowed the Prince of Persia to oppose Daniel’s answer so that his heart would be better prepared to handle the answer given.
The Contents of Daniel’s Intercession
Knowing that Daniel was involved in full-scale spiritual conflict, the question that arises is: “What did Daniel pray?”
The point, of course, is not to then produce another prayer-book and quote it verbatim, but we can certainly learn lessons on effective intercession from the language Daniel used in prayer.
Studying this heart-wrenching flow of intercession in Daniel Chapter 9 (vv. 4-19), we note the following:
- There is no direct prayer “against” the devil and his demonic forces in Daniel’s intercession. His prayers are focused on God as he came “before” Him “on behalf of” the people of Israel (see Daniel 9:3-19). This is not to say that the Spirit will not lead us to specifically address and resist demonic power on occasion. He will and does. But our focus is to be clearly set on God, not on the enemy. It is our faith in God’s character and His will, as we persevere in co-operating with Him, which drives back the darkness and advances the Kingdom of God.
The point made here is that, while praying “against” the enemy may have some validity, there are more important key lessons we need to learn to be effective in spiritual conflict. Often an over-emphasis on praying “against” the devil means we miss these more important lessons.
Some have suggested that Daniel did not pray against demonic forces because he did not have any revelation on this issue. I do not hold to that view. Not only did Daniel, and the ancient Hebrew people, have a better understanding than we, as products of Western-world rationalism, do concerning the spiritual realm, but we have repeated examples throughout Scripture that spiritual conflict does not centre on praying “against” demonic spirits. The most notable example is Jesus Himself, whose victory in the Garden of Gethsemane and then on Calvary’s cross was achieved without praying “against” the devil. Jesus’ entire prayer life in those, most intense moments of battle, was completely centred on praying “to” the Father.
For this reason, I’m not particularly fond of the term warfare prayer. Firstly, the Scriptures never makes this distinction. Second, the Scriptures make it clear that all prayer has an element of warfare. In a very real sense, intercession is warfare from beginning to end, but using the term “intercession” reminds us that our focus in first and foremost on God Himself.
- The first key lesson in Daniel’s prayer is what we call intercessory repentance. Daniel so identified with the sin of his people that he repented “on their behalf”. For example, Daniel repents, “we have not made our prayers before the Lord” (9:13), yet we know he was himself not guilty of this (6:10).
Daniel was a man of prayer, yet he repented on behalf of his nation’s prayerlessness. He was a man who walked righteously before God yet repented on behalf of his nation’s ungodliness. Daniel, thus, properly captured the heart of intercession by humbling himself and identifying with those he was standing in the gap for. This is, of course, what Jesus Himself personified on the cross as the Ultimate Intercessor.
- The second key lesson in Daniel’s prayer is what we call intercessory appeal. Daniel became desperate and in this “honest identification” appealed to God to intervene. He so identified with his people’s sin that he began to cry out to God with such emotional intensity, one would almost believe that his own life was at stake: “O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act!” (9:19).
These were not arrogant demands, but desperate pleas for God’s intervention: “O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and fury be turned away … for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds (because “we have none”, is the implication), but because of Your great mercies” (9:16-18).
God’s power is fully released through our intercession—not when we get all “psyched-up” and yell at the devil, but when we humble ourselves, acknowledging how undeserving we are (on behalf of those we pray for), and thus desperately appeal to God’s great mercy.
Obviously, our repentance and appeal does not absolve those we pray for from their individual (or corporate) responsibility to do so. The role of the intercessor is not to take away another’s responsibility—that’s not possible. However, the intercessor does, through intercessory repentance and appeal, remove the blinders from an individual or a group, enabling them to better exercise their freewill to make the necessary response to God that they alone can make.
As we intercede for those who are lost without Christ, we are to identify with their self-seeking pursuit (which we can all intimately identify with), knowing that as we repent and appeal before God on their behalf, we enable them to “see” Him better and “hear” His call.
As we intercede for His people—for those who may be struggling in their faith walk, for the church to make an impact, for leaders to be wise and effective, and the like—we are to identify first with our tremendous lack and inability without His enabling power. Then we are well placed to appeal to Him to intervene.
For an excellent video series on the Biblical author’s understanding of spiritual beings, see the BibleProject’s Spiritual Beings series.
The Responsibility of All
Too often intercession is associated with a few elite believers who “pray a lot”. However, the teaching and example of Scripture clearly entrusts the responsibility of intercession to every believer.
Yes, some believers are clearly gifted by God to intercede. Those with the gift of intercession usually find it easy to spend several hours in prayer, derive tremendous personal fulfilment out of their prayer life and experience an “above average” effectiveness in prayer.
However, in the same way that we’re not all evangelists yet are all called to share our faith, we’re all called to intercede regardless of whether we have a gift of intercession or not.
Man and Woman those Stations
The apostle James was known for his incredible devotion to intercessory prayer. According to Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter XXIII, James was nicknamed, “Camel Knees,” due to the calluses on his knees from prayer.
The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
He then reminds us of Elijah’s intercession:
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three year and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.”
(James 5:17, 18, italics added)
James’ appeal is, of course, this: Elijah was just a man, a human being, who affected history through his intercession: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”. Yet, in making himself available, God’s divine nature was released in demonstrations of power. The history of any person (and any church or ministry or organisation or business for that matter) is written in their prayer lives.
Even as Isaiah prophesied that God would “set watchmen on [the] walls [of] Jerusalem” so God looks now for those who will answer His call to intercede on the walls of His church; those who “never hold their peace day or night” until He makes His glorious Bride “a praise in the earth” (Isaiah 62:6).
Come, man of God … woman of God … pray!
[The Message of Jesus, Part 1]
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. Jesus peeled back the curtain of heaven to re-reveal the Father-heart of God. In so doing, He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood.
[The Message of Jesus, Part 2]
Reuniting humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.