Genesis 18.22-33 challenges me every time I read it. On one hand, I admire Abraham’s tenacity and unashamed persistence in pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, I’m amazed that God listens and agrees to Abraham’s request every time – what mercy! Part of me wonders why Abraham didn’t press for mercy on account of five or even one righteous man. He was on a roll – why quit at ten? My curiosity isn’t currently satisfied: Genesis doesn’t tell us, and we shouldn’t get too creative about inventing a reason.
Now read more of the story, specifically Genesis 19.15-25. As Lot and his family flee Sodom, he falters, not believing that he can make it all the way to the mountains (where he had been commanded to flee). He asks for permission to stop and find refuge in a small village nearby (Zoar). It’s easy to miss how the angel responds to him in verse 21:
“Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.”
Let the implication of that statement settle in. The angel grants Lot’s request and removes that little village from the to-be-destroyed list. God spared an entire city for the sake of one righteous man.
Abraham didn’t specifically ask for mercy for the sake of just one man, but God’s mercy to Zoar is the necessary result of Abraham’s intercession. Abraham justified his plea for mercy by appealing to God’s character:
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?
God always does what is just (other English versions: “what is right”). In this situation, that means that God won’t destroy the righteous along with the wicked. Abraham doesn’t plead that God “won’t destroy more than one or two righteous with the wicked.” He states the broad truth about God’s character and then God responds favorably to each decreasing number that Abraham suggests.
Abraham prays for mercy for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, and 10. God demonstrates that he’ll show mercy for the sake of one. He is, after all, the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3.20).
Note: If you’re wondering why I think that Lot was a “righteous man” in spite of some pretty noticeable sins recorded in this story, I offer two defenses. First, Abraham had reason to believe that Lot was righteous. Second, Peter believed that Lot was righteous (II Pet. 2.7).