Abraham didn’t understand God very well (at least not early on). I don’t say that as a dig against the Patriarch. I don’t think any of us understand God very well either.
When Abraham discerns that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah he is bold enough to attempt to talk God out of it. To his credit, he seems to have genuine concern and compassion for the people who lived there. He does not want to see them destroyed. Of course, his nephew lives there, so that is an added motivation. But I don’t think we should assume that is the only source of Abraham’s concern.
I’m not so sure modern Evangelicals would plead with God for mercy toward a notoriously wicked group of people. Sadly, we’re more likely to start gathering the firewood for the roast. And we tend to be more like Jonah pulling up a lawn chair with a bowl of popcorn to watch those sinners get what they deserve.
On the one hand, we should be more like Abraham. We should ask, plead, and even beg God to show mercy on those who have rejected Him. However, Abraham goes about this all wrong. Here is how the conversation unfolds:
Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not doit, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:23-33)
Do you see what Abraham is doing? What is the object of his appeal?
Abraham is asking God to spare Sodom based on the righteousness of people who may live there. Starting at fifty and going down to ten, each time the number decreases, God agrees not to destroy the city if He finds that number of righteous people. Why does Abraham stop at 10? Perhaps he thinks surely there are at least ten righteous people in the whole city. Maybe he thinks ten is as low as God will go. Either way, Abraham makes two big mistakes.
Mistake #1: Abraham stops too soon. He should have taken it all the way down to one. He should have pushed the limits of God’s mercy, and in doing so he would have found that there are none.
Mistake #2: Abraham appeals to the wrong thing. The elusive object of Abraham’s plea is the righteousness of men.
The truth is there were no righteous people in Sodom. Not fifty. Not ten. Not one. There are no righteous people in any city (Romans 3:10-11). Not then and not now.
When God shows sinners mercy, He does so because of the righteousness of only One—the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). He is the One who should have been the object of Abraham’s plea.
Perhaps Moses was thinking of this very exchange between Abraham and God when God said the following to him:
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Does Moses try to talk God out of this by appealing to the righteousness of some of the Israelites? No. He appeals to the righteousness of God. He appeals to His name. His promises. And then what does God do?
“And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (Exodus 32:14)
When God shows mercy, He does so because of who He is and in spite of who we are. The tragic end of appealing to man’s righteousness (ours or someone else’s) is destruction. There is no righteousness to be found in us apart from Christ. The Christ who bore the wrath of God in place of a whole world of Sodoms and imputed His perfect righteousness to them by grace and grace alone.
When we ask for mercy from God for ourselves, or others, let’s ask based on who God is—righteous, merciful, gracious and full of steadfast love. The answer to that plea is always a “YES!”