The second prayer in Exodus is the third intercession in the Bible so far. (Remember, an intercession is a prayer that is said on behalf of someone else.) This prayer is offered by Moses on behalf of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and takes place after the second of the ten plagues brought on the Egyptians by God.
Moses, directed by God, has gone before the Pharaoh to ask that he allow the Israelites to go out into the desert to worship and sacrifice to their God. Before Moses goes before the Pharaoh, God tells him what will happen: the Pharaoh will refuse, and this will allow God to demonstrate his power. There are two reasons for this result. First, and most obviously, it is to save the Israelites. But we should not miss the point that God also wants the Egyptians to know that He is the one, true God (7:5). This shows that God is not primarily concerned about punishment, but about giving people the opportunity to come to Him.
The events at the palace unfold just as God described. The Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go out into the desert to worship. Directed by God, Moses and Aaron perform a number of miracles to demonstrate the power of their God. The Pharaoh is not impressed, and directs his wizards perform similar, if less impressive, feats. God then inflicts the first plague: the waters of Egypt becomes blood. Pharaoh’s wizards perform a similar feat, so the Pharaoh still refuses to let the Israelites go.
Moses returns a second time to the palace and repeats his demand. When Pharaoh refuses again, the second plague begins and there are frogs everywhere. Though the wizards again perform a similar feat, the overwhelming nature of a country inundated by jumping amphibians appears to weaken the Pharaoh’s will. He asks Moses to pray that the land will be relieved of the frogs. Moses asks whether he will allow the Israelites to go worship. The Pharaoh relents and tells him that they can go worship their God—the next day. Moses agrees to pray that God takes away the frogs.
Verse 12 tells us that Moses left the palace and “cried” out to the Lord about the frogs. The word translated as “cried” is the Hebrew word yitzach, a word that means to cry for help, or to cry out in need, or simply to cry out to a god: a petition or an intercession.
God answers the prayer immediately: all the frogs died, and the people gathered them and burned them. Of course, the Pharaoh became stubborn again, and refused to let the Israelites go—as he would do eight more times.
We have encountered two other prayers of intercession in our journey through the Bible’s prayers. The first was by Abraham: he prayed that nothing bad would happen to Abimilech after he took Sarah, not knowing she was Abraham’s wife.1 There are many similarities between that prayer and this one: both were offered for a nonbeliever; it is at the request of the nonbeliever; and both are requests for relief from a punishment by God. The second intercession we studied was a prayer offered by Jacob/Israel for his sons as they headed back to Egypt for food and to attempt to get the Egyptian leader (Joseph) to release their brother Simeon.2 Though that prayer is not as similar as the first one, there are connections with Egypt, an Egyptian leader, and the fear of suffering or even death.
What do we learn about intercession from this prayer? First, we can see that it is not uncommon for these biblical characters to pray on behalf of an unbeliever who is suffering. While we might often think of praying for an unbeliever that they might come to believe, we might not think of praying for them just because they are in danger. Yet two of the three intercessions do just that.
Second, this intercession indicates something mysterious about intercessory prayer. God knows the Pharaoh will be stubborn. We assume that God even knew that Pharaoh would go back on his promise once He relieved the land of the frogs. Yet God heeded the prayer for the Pharaoh anyway. Most of us would do no such thing! If we knew someone was going to back out on a promise once we gave in, we would probably not give in. In fact, we often refuse to give in to others merely because we suspect they’ll go back on their word. But not God.
God is always about second chances. (And third chances, and fourth chances, and so on). Sure, at some point he has his limits (after the tenth time in this story, for instance). Unlike us, God abundantly offers chances for redemption, a chance to do the right thing, a chance to turn it around. God will go to ridiculous lengths for someone like the Pharaoh, long after we would have given up on him. Imagine what he will do for us.
In this case, the Pharaoh was never able to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean that someone you pray for might not turn their life around. Their response is not our concern: that is God’s business and their business. Our concern is to intercede for them — not only so they will come to follow God, but that their life will be free of suffering and deliverance from pain.
Today, think of a some people that you know who are not believers. Maybe they are even hostile to your faith. Choose one of these people who has some difficulty or suffering in their life. Pray for them—not only that they will “see the light,” but that their suffering or difficulty will be relieved. After all, God cares about them, too. Who knows? Maybe through your prayer they will not only be healed, but that healing will lead them to God someday.
1 Prayer 4: Abraham Intercedes for Abimelech (Gen 20.7, 17).
2 Prayer 12: Israel's Prayer for his Son's Success (Gen 43.14).