The New Testament of the Bible teaches that God wants Christians to pray for the good of other people, even their enemies (see Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28; Colossians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; 3:1; Hebrews 13:18; James 5:16). However, the three following Old Testament verses of scripture suggest that sometimes God may want His people to not pray for the good of certain people:
Jeremiah 7:16: [The Lord said to Jeremiah] “Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, nor make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you.”
Jeremiah 11:14: [The Lord said to Jeremiah] “So do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry out to Me because of their trouble.”
Jeremiah 14:11: [The Lord said to Jeremiah] “Do not pray for this people, for their good.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
All three of the preceding scripture verses make it clear that the prophet Jeremiah was specifically instructed by the Lord (i.e., God) not to pray for the people of Judah (i.e., the Jews). This raises a few questions, including the following:
- Is what God told Jeremiah in these scriptures applicable to prayers for anyone other than the people of Judah at that time?
- Are there any other scriptures that may indicate that there are certain people for whom we should not pray?
Before we attempt to specifically answer these two questions, we will consider what various Bible commentaries say in regard to the three previously cited scripture verses.
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says with regard to Jeremiah 7:16 that Judah “had reached that stage in which men sin without any sense of guilt.” And, with regard to Jeremiah 11:14, Barnes asserts, “Prayer for others for the forgiveness of their sins avails only when they also pray. The cry of the people now was that of the guilty smarting under punishment, not of the penitent mourning over sin.” (Barnes does not comment on Jeremiah 14:11.)
John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible declares in regard to Jeremiah 7:16,
God, in order to exonerate his servant from every ill-will, forbids him [i.e., Jeremiah] to pray for the people. This might have been done for the sake of the Prophet, as well as of the whole people; for no doubt Jeremiah regarded the ruin of his own nation with great grief and sorrow. . . . He was doubtless anxious for the safety of his brethren, and he condoled with the miserable, when he saw that they were already given up to destruction. But God strengthens him, that he might courageously discharge his office; for pity has often melted the hearts of men so as not to be able, as they ought, to perform their office. Jeremiah might have been more tardy or more temperate in denouncing God’s vengeance, had not all impediments, which checked his alacrity, been removed. Hence then he is bidden to divest himself of sympathy, so that he might rise above all human feelings, and remember that he was set a judge over the people, or a herald to denounce their final doom.
With regard to Jeremiah 11:14, Calvin states,
That the Jews might understand that a sore calamity was nigh, and that God would not be appeasable, the Prophet himself is forbidden to intercede for them.
Now then that God prohibits Jeremiah to pray, this was not done for his sake only, but he had a regard also to the whole people, that they might know that a sentence was pronounced on them, and that there was no hope left. We hence see that God positively declares that it was his purpose to destroy the people, and that therefore there was no room for prayer.
There seems not to be a suitable reason given here, for God might have conceded to the Prophet what had not been denied to the ungodly and the rebellious: but he simply means that he would be a severe Judge in executing punishment, so that there would be no room for mercy: I will not then hear them; that is, “If even they cry, I will not hear them, . . . much less then will I hear thee for them.” But why was not God propitious to his servant? To this I answer, that God is more ready to shew mercy when any one himself calls on him, than when he is supplicated by others. The meaning is, that whether they themselves prayed or employed others to pray for them, God would not be reconciled to them.
And, in reference to Jeremiah 14:11, Calvin says,
God first forbids the Prophet to pray for the people, as we have before seen (Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14). But . . . this prohibition is to be understood as to their exile; for as God had already decreed that the people should be banished from the promised land, the Prophet was forbidden to pray, inasmuch as that decree was immutable. It is not, therefore, a general prohibition, as though the Prophet was not allowed to ask God’s forgiveness in behalf of the whole people. . . . God . . . did not strictly exclude all his prayers, but every prayer with regard to the exile which was soon to be undergone by the people.
Except we bear in mind this circumstance, the prohibition might seem strange; for we know that it is one of the first duties of love to be solicitous for one another before God, and thus to pray for the wellbeing of our brethren (James 5:16). It is not then the purpose of God to deprive the Prophet of this holy and praiseworthy feeling, which is necessarily connected with true religion; but his design was to shew, that it was now in vain to implore him for the remission of that punishment which had been determined.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible asserts with regard to Jeremiah 7:16,
These are the words of the Lord to the Prophet Jeremiah, forbidding him to pray for the people of the Jews; which he either was doing, or about to do, and which, from the great affection he had for them, he was inclined unto; wherefore, to show how much the Lord was displeased with them, and how determined he was to punish them with captivity, he orders the prophet not to make any supplication for them.
In regard to Jeremiah 11:14, Gill states,
[The Jews’] temporal ruin was certain; the decree was gone forth, and there was no revoking it; and this is said, not so much by way of prohibition of the prophet, as by way of threatening to the people, to show that as their own prayers should not profit them, so they should not have the benefit of the prayers of good men, their sin was a sin unto death, at least temporal death, and must not be prayed for. . . .
And, with regard to Jeremiah 14:11, Gill says,
[P]ray not for this people for their good; or “for good things”. . .; for rain, that the famine might cease; and for deliverance from their enemies, that they might not go into captivity; for these things were determined upon by the Lord: he does not forbid him [i.e., Jeremiah] praying at all for them, or for their repentance and reformation; or for spiritual good things for them, for eternal life and salvation for the remnant of his own people among them; but not for external good things for the bulk of them.
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible declares in reference to Jeremiah 7:16,
God here forbids the prophet to pray for them [i.e., the Jews]. . . : “The decree has gone forth, their ruin is resolved on, therefore pray not thou for this people, that is, pray not for the preventing of this judgment threatened they have sinned unto death, and therefore pray not for their life, but for the life of their souls.” . . . Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, and yet prayed for their preservation, not knowing that the decree was absolute and it is the will of God that we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. . . . When God has determined to destroy this people, he bespeaks the prophet not to pray for them, because he would not have his prayers to lie . . . unanswered. . . . It is an ill omen to a people when God restrains the spirits of his ministers and people from praying for them, and gives them to see their case so desperate that they have no heart to speak a good word for them.
In reference to Jeremiah 11:14, Henry states,
What God had said to him [i.e., Jeremiah] before (Jeremiah 7:16) he here says again, Pray not thou for this people. This is not designed for a command to the prophet, so much as for a threatening to the people, that they should have no benefit by the prayers of their friends for them. God would give no encouragement to the prophets to pray for them, . . . not for their deliverance from the temporal judgments that were coming upon them and what other prayers were put up for them should not be heard. . . . Those that have so far thrown themselves out of God’s favour that he will not hear their prayers cannot expect benefit by the prayers of others for them.
And, with regard to Jeremiah 14:11, Henry says, “[T]hey [i.e., the Jews] had forfeited all benefit by the prophet’s prayers for them because they had not regarded his preaching to them.”
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible asserts with regard to Jeremiah 7:16,
Jeremiah was called on no longer to pray for the people of Judah because there was no longer any possibility that such a prayer would be heard . . . . And the reason for that was because of their total addiction to idolatrous worship. . . .
[A]t the very root of the problem was the fact that they had refused to hear Him [i.e., God], to obey Him or to walk in His ways. . . . And this situation had been exacerbated even more by the fact that He had sent to them His servants the prophets, to whom also they had refused to listen, just as they would now not listen to Jeremiah.
[God] now called on Jeremiah no longer to pray for the people of Judah because He simply would not listen to him. The end had been reached and mercy was no longer available. ‘Do not pray — nor lift up cry or prayer — nor make intercession’. Note the advancement in intensity, with intercession involving personal involvement. It was an emphatic statement for which there was to be no exception. It is a reminder to us that although God is continually longsuffering, there regularly comes a time when, because of people’s intransigence, He finally brings things to a conclusion, in order to begin again.
Pett does not make any significant comments about Jeremiah 11:14, but in regard to Jeremiah 14:11, Pett states,
Once again we learn . . . that God no longer wished Jeremiah to pray for His people (compare Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14). The time when He would respond to prayer for them was past. . . . They had rebelled against Him once too often. It is a reminder to us that there does come a time when God has been so rejected that the time for mercy ceases, and only judgment awaits. We cannot go on putting Him off forever.
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible declares in reference to Jeremiah 7:16,
God forbids his prophets to pray for them [i.e., the Jews] in any kind by any cry or intercession; or, running upon me, which shows that God is resolved to root them out, seeing he will admit of no intercession; according as he charged Moses (Exodus 32:10) and the like (Jeremiah 11:14). For God had been wont to suffer himself to be prevailed with by the mediation of his servants . . .; but now he would admit of no intercession. . . . This charge seems to be laid upon the prophet, partly to take off the envy of the people from him, when they knew he was commanded to do no otherwise; partly to embolden him in this unpleasing work, laying aside all compassion.
With regard to Jeremiah 11:14, Poole provides several possible explanations, including the following, which are of the most relevance to this article:
[W]e must not understand these words as an absolute prohibition to Jeremiah, but for the terrifying of the people.
God speaks only of a temporal evil, and willeth Jeremiah not to be too positive in his prayers for them, that they might be delivered from that; but he might pray for the pardon of their sins, and their deliverance from the eternal vengeance of God.
He [i.e., Jeremiah] might not pray for the obstinate part of this people, but for the elect of God amongst them.
(Poole does not make any significant comments in regard to Jeremiah 14:11.)
The Pulpit Commentaries states in reference to Jeremiah 11:14, “Jehovah declares that even the intercession of the prophet will be of no avail (see Jeremiah 7:16), and then that the belated supplications of the people themselves will be ineffectual to avert the calamity.” No significant comments are made by The Pulpit Commentaries with regard to either Jeremiah 7:16 or Jeremiah 14:11.
Summary and Conclusion
The Bible commentaries that we have cited are in agreement that God wanted to make it clear to the people of Judah that He would not change His mind with regard to bringing judgment on them. Evidently, this information was disseminated by Jeremiah’s informing the people that God had instructed him not to pray for them.
Probably, the primary reason why God made the irrevocable decision to bring a harsh judgment on the nation of Judah was that, for many years, the Jews had consistently failed to demonstrate sincere repentance for their sins – most notably, idolatry – despite the preaching of Jeremiah and other prophets who had been sent by God. As a result, God decided that the Jews had been given sufficient opportunities to demonstrate their faithfulness to Him and that it finally was necessary for Him to disciple them as a nation.
As to the type of prayers forbidden to Jeremiah, these prayers probably pertained primarily to the subsequent exile of the Jews, but they may have also concerned other temporal matters, such as receiving ample rain.
There does not seem to be any valid reason to think that what God told Jeremiah is applicable to prayers for anyone other than the people of Judah at that time. The three verses in Jeremiah that we have discussed apply to a specific man (i.e., Jeremiah) in regard to a specific situation (i.e., when God was about to bring His judgment on the people of Judah). And, since God has not instructed us as Christians to not pray for our own nation, we can – and should – do so on a regular basis.
With regard to whether or not there are any other scriptures that may indicate that there are certain people for whom we should not pray, we have found only one possibility and it is dubious: Exodus 32:9-10. This scripture states,
And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”
Although this scripture does not specifically mention prayer, it does indicate that God told Moses not to bother Him as He was preparing to bring His severe judgment on the Israelites for their unfaithfulness to Him. However, as we concluded with regard to the three scriptures in Jeremiah that we discussed, there does not seem to be a valid reason to believe that what God told Moses in this scripture is applicable to prayer (or other form of verbal intervention) for anyone other than the Israelites who were living at that time.