A Prayer for the Powerless

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

2 Chronicles 20:1-23 | January 1 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
January 1
A Prayer for the Powerless | 2 Chronicles 20:1-23
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

And perhaps what the Lord is telling to some of us and will bring to mind in this year, when you don’t know what to do, is say, “Sure you do. You can pray and you can sing.” Whether you like to sing or you sing well, you can turn to the psalter, you can turn to a hymnal, and you can make the Lord a joyful noise. You can trust Me, you can pray, you can count on Me.


Father in heaven, we ask once again that You would speak to us through Your Word and we might have ears to listen and believe. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I encourage you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Chronicles, chapter 20, in the Old Testament. Samuel, Kings 1 and 2, Chronicles 1 and 2. This is 2 Chronicles, chapter 20.

You will see there probably the heading in your Bible, “Jehoshaphat’s Prayer.” The point of this sermon is very simple. I am going to give you the conclusion and the application right here at the very beginning.

It’s not surprising on one level that we might reflect about prayer, the first day of the New Year. It is often a time where people are starting or restarting their Bible reading programs. I hope you have something, some sort of goal, even if you don’t meet it. A sure way to not have any accomplishments is to try for none of them. So it’s a time of year where we’re thinking about now, this year I’ll make it through the Bible, or the next two years I’ll make it through the Bible, and perhaps you’ve reinvigorated and reanimated your desire to pray more or to be more disciplined or use prayer cards or pray more faithfully for others. Lots of good things that we can do in the in New Year to think about prayer.

But what I want to give you from God’s Word is not a new prayer plan or a new technique or even to exhort you to pray more, put your phone away, turn off the TV, pray more, all of those things, would be good and justified words.

But rather from God’s Word I want to give you a simple prayer to pray, and very likely every one of us will have occasion, if we don’t already feel it tonight, we will have occasion during this year where this will be perhaps the most poignant, most relevant prayer we can utter. It’s not very long, and I hope that by the time we’re done, you’ll have it memorized. We’re going to work our way through this, but I want you to see it from the beginning.

So look, 2 Chronicles, chapter 20, verse 12. It’s in the middle of Jehoshaphat’s prayer, ““O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us.””

I’m going to make it easy. Just want us to look at this last sentence, and we can memorize it. Here’s Jehoshaphat’s great prayer: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” Repeat after me: “We do not know what to do, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” [congregation repeats] Very good. Now let’s all say it once together, at the same time: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” You can very easily swap out the “we” for the “I.” I don’t recommend swapping out the “we” for the “she” or “he” does not know what to do, but make it your prayer, our prayer.

It is a great prayer. If you’ve never seen this before, to make this you will have occasion, if not tonight surely sometime in this year, where you will be facing the same sort of predicament Jehoshaphat was in, powerless against some great fear in front of you, and you will not know what to do or say, but you can pray this: “O Lord, I do know what to do, but my eyes are on You.”

Think of the imagery. My eyes are on You, like a child might look to a parent. If you’ve ever had that, maybe on vacation or something, and trying to check into a hotel and they’re all there, bedraggled, wanting to get to their room, antsy, anxious, “I’m sorry, I’m not having a reservation come up under your name” and everyone in the family looks at you, parent. Now what?

Or if you are flying on one the airlines that wasn’t flying over the past week or so. Feel terrible for all of those stranded passengers and to have some opportunity where you have no idea how you’re going to get home and maybe you look at the person across from you or you look at the person you’re traveling with, “I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on You.”

Or perhaps in a more serious manner, some occasion with a doctor, an ambulance driver, a police officer in the midst of all sorts of chaos and tragedy and bad news, you don’t know what to do but you look at the one person who you think might be an expert, the one person who you think might be able to help you.

Maybe that’s mom. Spilled glass, glass on the floor, throw-up on the carpet, spills all over, people crying. I don’t share because I have any experience in our household with these sorts of things, but in the midst of all of that chaos and commotion and everyone’s eyes usually look – Mom will know what to do.

Our eyes, Lord, are on You. Why, why on the Lord? Because in the midst of all this, to look around at each other, I don’t know, but God, You can do something.

It’s one of my favorite prayers in the whole Bible. I have prayed it many times, and you should, too. It’s a prayer of trust.

Look at what’s going on in this passage, verse 1: “After this the Moabites and the Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi).”

So this is bad. You have Moabites, they’re to the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. You have the Ammonites, who are to the north. And you have the Meunites, who were from Mount Seir, well to the south of the Dead Sea. From the east, from the north, and the south, an alliance forms in Moab and they travel around the south end of the Dead Sea, back up north to Engedi, about 25-30 miles away from Jerusalem. This alliance of three kingdoms coming against the king in Judah, King Jehoshaphat.

Verse 3. Well, what’s his response? “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid.” Of course he was afraid. It’s three against one. Judah was outnumbered. They were about to be destroyed, or so they thought. How do you respond when you’re afraid? Now just don’t look ahead at what Jehoshaphat’s going to do. What do we do when we’re afraid? Denial? Nope, no problem here, everything will be fine. Nope, just, just think good thoughts. It’s all going to turn out all right.

Or is it just the opposite? Panic? This could not be any worse. You catastrophize every situation.

Or maybe it’s self-pity. I can’t believe this is happening. This always happens to me. What have I done to deserve this. No one has had to face what I’m facing. Life is so much easier, so much better, for other people. Self-pity feels good in the moment; it’s not ultimately helpful.

Maybe it’s anxiety. What am I doing to do? What if this is the end? I can’t imagine how am I going to survive?

Maybe it’s just utter despair. What’s the point? There’s no hope. Nothing will ever change.

Jehoshaphat was afraid. Now the Bible talks about fear in a lot of different ways, and there’s the sort of “perfect love casts out” a certain kind of fear, but then there’s the very understandable fear.

I’ve been reading through Aquinas on the cardinal virtues and at one point he’s talking about fear and he actually says it’s a sin never to be afraid. Now of course there’s a wrong way to be afraid. The Bible is constantly helping us to overcome fear, but sometimes we just say very casually, “Well, you know, faith triumphs over fear. You should never be afraid of anything.” Oh, really?

And his point was if you never fear, you never love. If you can suffer loss, you can fear, because you love your own life. More than that, you love your friends, you love your family, you love your children. You love all sorts of things. So of course there’s fear.

The emotion of fear to well up within you is not automatically that you’ve sinned and that truly spiritual people are never anxious, never afraid. It’s what do you do with that fear?

Well, look at what Jehoshaphat does.

“Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.”

Did you hear it? Three times. What did he do? Seeks the Lord. He proclaims a fast. He gets all the people together, seeking the Lord. Of course, this isn’t seeking the Lord, “Where is He? I can’t find Him? Where’s Waldo? I don’t know him.” No, this is seeking His face and His favor.

There are lots of things in life to make us afraid. It sounded very good, I’m sure, when Roosevelt said it, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” I might actually, you might be able to make a list of many other things actually to fear besides fear itself.

The point is not that nothing ever presents itself that would cause us panic or despair or anxiety. The question is what do we do with it? Here Jehoshaphat is afraid, he seeks the Lord. When we are in big trouble, do you believe that God is prepared to do big things?

Then here’s the prayer. Verse 5: “Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In Your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand You. Did You not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham Your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for Your name, saying, ‘If a disaster comes upon us, the sword, the judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before You—for Your name is in this house—and cry out to You in our affliction, and You will hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom You would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy— behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of Your possession, which You have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.””

Let’s say that sentence altogether: We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.

This is a great prayer. Jehoshaphat starts with praise, You’re powerful, You’re mighty, You rule over all, and then he rehearses God’s faithfulness. That’s part of what You do, you should do, when we’re afraid. What do we do when we’re afraid?

You’ve heard me say before, I got the line from someone else, “Anxiety is living out the future before it gets here.” You start living out tomorrow and you live out a week from now and you live out a year from now, and the pain that you’ll have and this will never get better, and you start living out the future before it gets here. You start rehearsing the future that hasn’t arrived.

What Jehoshaphat does is he rehearses the past of God’s faithfulness. You drove out the inhabitants of the land. You gave this to us. We built this house. And then he expresses his confidence in God. You will hear us when we cry out. You will save us.

Perhaps you recall the famous line from 2 Chronicles, earlier in the book, chapter 7. We read, my page is stuck, 2 Chronicles 7, verse 13: “When I shup the heavens so that there is no rain or command the locusts to devour the land or send pestilence among My people, if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

The United States is not the covenant nation like Israel was, so it’s not a 1 to 1 correspondence, and yet surely we’re right to see that this is a prayer that God’s people ought to pray and God will listen to us.

Verse 19 in chapter 7: “If you turn aside and forsake My statutes and My commandments that I have set before you, go serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from the land that I have given you.”

Chapter 7 presents to us the two options that the prophets always put before God’s people when they’re in trouble. You have two options when you’re afraid – turn from God or turn to God. It’s that simple.

That’s what he says here. You can turn from God, you continue following your own idols, forsaking His ways and His commandments and He will pluck you from the land. Or you can repent, you can believe, and you can turn to God.

Jehoshaphat’s prayer is so poignant because he admits what we don’t like to admit, that he’s powerless. He’s the king, after all. He probably had some advisers who said, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s not going to go over well with the people. You ought to present strength, fortitude, encourage, and if you seem like you don’t know what to do, no, you present yourself. We have lots of options. We have it all under control.”

But that’s not what he does. He cries out to the Lord, “We are powerless. We do not know what to do.” What makes this prayer so great is that Jehoshaphat’s first and driving inclination is to seek help from God.

We could be so much better at going to God first with our problems. Lots of people come to God after they try for four or five or six other things. Get angry, get worried, get impatient, last resort, [knocking], “Sorry to bother you, God. I’m in a jam. Can You do something?”

Here Jehoshaphat his first inclination.

Is this what you’re praying? O God, ultimately as a parent we are powerless with our children. We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You.

We don’t know what to do with this diagnosis you’ve given to us, but our eyes are on You.

I’m not sure what job to take, or who to marry, or if I will be married, but my eyes are on You.

Lord, I’m not sure how to lead my family or lead this church or lead this business, but our eyes are on You.

You can pray this prayer. So often, though, we wouldn’t say it quite this boldly. What we really think is I’m very confident in my ability to do anything, Lord, and I just need You to kind of give me a nudge in the right direction rather than having the humility to say, “God, I’m utterly confused and bewildered. I’m at the end of my self. I have no clue what to do, but I bet you do, and I’m begging you, begging you for some help.”

The Lord likes that kind of help. Now as human beings, we reach our limits, but God has no limits. As human beings we can eventually get tired of the friend or the neighbor who is so needy and always is after something, but God’s mercy is inexhaustible. He loves to hear of your need.

Most teachers would love a roomful of students who are not full of themselves but are eager for the teacher’s help. Now you have the kids who ask the questions that are just showing-off questions, just to show how much they know, or the questions that just feel obligatory. Then there are the students who are just without any guile, ready to say, “Mr., Mrs., Miss, I don’t know what’s going on. Can you come? This math problem doesn’t make any sense to me.” Most every teacher, every good teacher, is going to tell you that they would love to work with those children.

Would you, Christian, dare to be, I’ll put in quotes, “the dumb kid” in God’s class? I’m not saying the people who ask questions are dumb, you get what I’m saying. But would you be the quote/unquote “dumb kid” in God’s class who’s always willing to raise his or her hand and say, “God, I don’t get it. Can you explain that again?”

You know that verse in the Bible that says God helps those who help themselves? It’s not in the Bible.

Much more biblical is God helps those who know that they’re helpless. That’s Jehoshaphat’s prayer. We don’t know what to do, but You do.

And look at what they do, verse 13.

“Meanwhile all Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.”

It’s quite a poignant scene. Your whole family here. Many helpless persons.

“And the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.””

Verse 13 may look like they’re not doing anything, but they are doing the very thing that is hardest for us to do. They’re waiting. We’ve prayed, and we wait. Will the Lord do something?

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that that scene from the first Incredibles movie where they’re in the witness protection program and they’ve seen Mr. Incredible then there’s that little neighbor kid on his tricycle and Mr. Incredible gets out and he’s seen him do it and he says, “Well, what are you looking at? What do you want to see?” and he says, “I don’t know, something amazing.” He’s like, “You lifted up the car before, do something amazing. I know you can do it.”

That’s what they’re doing. Waiting around. Would you do something amazing?

And this prophet, Jahaziel, speaks and says, “Listen, don’t, don’t be afraid.”

I wonder if people were saying, “Easy for you say, don’t be afraid. There’s three armies. It’s a horde. If now isn’t a good time to be afraid, when should we be afraid? Now we got the panic lever. When are we going to pull this thing if not now, Jahaziel?”

But he says, “Listen, the battle is not yours, it’s God’s.”

Do you know who’s even more concerned about the suffering in your life than you are? God is. You know who’s even more concerned about evil and injustice in the world than any of us? God is.

God is the one fighting the battle. The Lord is a warrior. He’s enlisted us in His service. But He is the one who is mighty in battle.

Look at what happens in verse 17. The prophet says again, “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed,” but this is interesting, “tomorrow go out against them and the Lord will be with you.”

So I want you to go out and I want you to go down there, except remember He’s already told them back in verse 15, “Do not be dismayed for the battle is not yours but God’s.” I wonder if some people are saying, “Wait a second, Lord. Um. You said the battle is yours. I liked that part. Now You said go down there where the armies are; I don’t like that part. I hear You saying You’re going to fight for us; love it, we’ll stand back here at a safe distance and we’ll watch the pyrotechnics. Or maybe do like Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Maybe send this Jahaziel guy in there, he seems pretty confident. Maybe he can do some sort of tricks and we’ll watch and we’ll celebrate. You’re going to fight for us, right?”

“Yes, I am. I’ll do it. But you need to go down. You need to trust Me enough to go,” and as we’ll see in a moment, they actually are not going to have to pull their swords and fight, but He says, “I will win this battle for you but you need to go down, stand your ground, don’t break ranks.”

It’s one thing to trust the Lord from the safety of the camp. The Lord sometimes, however, says I will be with you, I will win the battle, and I want you to get in the fight. It’s one thing if You tell Abraham, “I’ll give you a son,” it’s another thing when You say, “Oh, your only son, now I want you to kill him.”

But here’s the wonderful equation. Certain defeat plus the Lord equals victory.

Tomorrow go out against them, don’t fret, don’t worry, you’re going to be outnumbered. But with the Lord you always have a majority. You will not be alone. I will be with you.

And here’s what happens, verse 18.

“Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord.”

What did they do?

“Worshiping the Lord. And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice. And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. And when they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe His prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise Him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say, “Give thanks to the Lord, for His steadfast love endures forever.””

Some battle plan. Or like Jericho. What are you going to do? I want you to march around and I want you to be quiet and then I want you to yell.

Jehoshaphat calls on his people to trust the Lord. He says, “I want you to believe His Word, believe His prophets, He will not let you down.” What does he give them? Here’s what I give you, I give you a prayer and a song. I’ll give you a song to sing, “Give thanks to the Lord, for His steadfast love endures forever.” Could it be that they were singing Psalm 136, that great psalm, that antiphonal song that repeats over and over again and traces out the Lord’s mighty acts of salvation and deliverance for His people? You rescued them from Egypt, You defeated Og, King of Bashan, over and over and each refrain is the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord for His steadfast love endures forever, reminding themselves He did it in the past, He can do it again.

They must have felt like they were playing chicken with a bigger chicken, coming right at them. Sorry to think of battle scenes, but the movie Braveheart, see the TV version, and they’re coming down and the English are coming on their horses and Mel Gibson’s yelling at them, I do a very good Mel Gibson impression, “Freedom,” but I won’t do it now. I look just like him, my wife says. And they’re all there and they’re holding the spears; spoiler alert, you’ve had 20 years to see it, though; and they’re all there, “Hold, hold” and they’re just galloping and they’re galloping like they’re going to be run over by the horses, but then they uncover that they have the pikes, and no horses were harmed in the filming of it, and they all get impaled upon these sticks, just waiting, “not yet, not yet.”

Surely, Judah must have felt like they were there, three against one, now what? Okay. You said believe the prophet, believe God’s word, all You’ve given us is a song to sing. When is this going to happen?

But it does. Verse 22: “And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, devoting them to destruction, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another.”

They must have looked, “I did not see that one. Did you see that? No, you did not see that one coming. Sure enough, the battle was the Lord’s. We didn’t have to unsheathe a sword. We just had to sing and pray and praise and worship.”

Some commentators think it was an ambush of angels, but it sure seems like the ambush that’s then described is one army against another. They end up destroying each other.

This is something that we ought to pray more than we do. It’s not a sinister prayer, it’s a strategic prayer. We think of the enemies arrayed against God’s Church and against His people and against the truth. We say, “O Lord, would You use their own jealousy, their own mistrust, their own greed, to turn on one another?” God doesn’t always have to use fire and plagues. He sometimes uses the pride and the division and the arrogance of the enemies of God’s people, and so He did here. Maybe He stirred them up with some sort of angelic spiritual ambush, but sure enough they turn on each other.

Do you trust God enough? Here’s the point. Do I trust God enough to walk into the battle with nothing but a song and a promise?

Now you have your brains and we strategize and we make plans and oftentimes the Lord uses all sorts of mechanisms, just like the people in Nehemiah’s day they prayed and then they put a guard on the wall. Sometimes God says, “Okay, you’re going to pray, but you’re also going to be ready. You’re going to do your part.”

Sometimes the Lord says, “You’re going into this battle and I want you to be there, and I want you to show up, I’m not going to put you at a safe distance, but you need to trust Me, that I know what I’m doing. So I’m not giving you a weapon to fight. I’m not asking you to brandish your fisticuffs. I want you to worship and I want you to believe.”

It’s hard to trust God at those times. It’s one thing to trust at a safe distance, it’s another to trust if He gives you at least a sword, but it’s hardest to trust when you feel most helpless and He says, “Here’s what I have for you. I’ll give you a prayer, then I’ll give you a hymn.”

But that’s exactly what He uses. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.

And perhaps what the Lord is telling to some of us and will bring to mind in this year, when you don’t know what to do, is say, “Sure you do. You can pray and you can sing.” Whether you like to sing or you sing well, you can turn to the psalter, you can turn to a hymnal, and you can make the Lord a joyful noise. You can trust Me, you can pray, you can count on Me.

What burden have you not brought before the Lord? Thinking that it’s too big, He’s too busy, it’s too painful, He just, He couldn’t, the sin is too deep, the problem is too massive. You haven’t brought the burden before the Lord.

Or perhaps you’ve brought it before the Lord but with a measure of defensiveness, justification, twisting of God’s arm, instead of simply saying, “We do not what to do, but our eyes are on You.”

Where are your eyes at the beginning of 2023? You can think of how many times in the movies, somebody hanging on a cliff, dangling off a building, climbing some massive tower, and someone will say, “Whatever you do, don’t look down.” Silly thing to say, that immediately makes me think what’s dooowwwnnn. Oh. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

Some of us, all we ever do is look down. We only ever look at our earthly circumstances. We ever only look at what we can see in our own surroundings.

Look up. It is such a picture of a child with a parent. Probably many of you have had the occasion through some harrowing experience or maybe something as simple as trying to cross the road or make your way through a crowded parking lot, and you grab the hand of your child, your grandchild, your niece, your nephew, and say, “Look at me, look, look up, look. I want you to look me right in the eye, okay? I’m with you. I won’t leave you. It’s going to be okay.”

I’m sure you’ve said that in the middle of a scary dream, in the middle of a crowded department store. Would you just look me in the eye and know that I love you and I’m with you and I have your hand, and you don’t know what to do, but I do. Hold on.

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear, what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, our eyes are upon You. The psalmist tells us, “To You I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens, behold as the eyes of servants look to the hands of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to You, O Lord, til You have mercy upon us. Hear us now, hear us throughout this week, whatever trials may come throughout this year, Lord, we often do not know what to do, but may our eyes always be upon You. In Jesus we pray. Amen.