32 Then he [Abraham] 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.” (ESV)
(To get the context it would be beneficial to read the entire passage of Genesis 18:16-32)
Setting Abraham’s ulterior motives aside I see his interaction with God as a sort of contest that changes contestants before it’s over. Obviously Abraham is thinking of his nephew, Lot, and his family who were living in (or at least had a house in) Sodom at the time, but that seems to have become the springboard for a deeper issue. Abraham begins by appealing to God’s sense of justice and fairness by calling Him out to say that destroying the wicked AND the righteous with one sweeping motion would be out of character for Him. The he promptly starts the countdown: “Would You burn 50 good people with the wicked? How about 45, is that enough to stay your hand of judgment? 40? 30? 20?”
Abraham was inching down the road of questioning who God really was. Essentially this “how-low-can-you-go”, brimstone-limbo was Abraham’s way of testing God, albeit with the present motivating factor being the life of his nephew. But not long before this particular exchange there was a conversation between Abraham and God that had revealed a doubtful Abraham. He found himself laughing in disbelief when he was faced with the promise of God for a son. Then, just before the conversation about Sodom, there were words between God and Sarah, who had also laughed as she heard God’s plan to give a couple of geriatrics a son. So there had been some laughing going on as if the joke was on God, and now Abraham begins to try to see just how merciful this God really was (almost certainly with these two episodes in the back of his mind).
The real beauty of what happens here is found in verse 32. Abraham lowers the number of righteous people required to ten. Ten righteous people among thousands of unrighteous; would God save the city for a mere ten?
But an important question lingers: why stop at ten?
What happened to pushing God to see His limits? Maybe, just maybe, the issue wasn’t God’s limits, but Abraham’s. What if Abraham couldn’t fathom saving an entire city for less than ten? It was Abraham who had started this, it was Abraham who was choosing the numbers, and it was Abraham who decided when to stop.
I wonder how apt we are to confuse God’s limits with ours. How often do we let our ideas of mercy, grace, forgiveness, usefulness, prosperity, beauty, and value define our perception of God’s ideas? Doesn’t Paul say that we “see through a mirror dimly” for now (1 Cor 13:12)? Abraham was a man renowned for his faith in God and he could only imagine God rescuing a city for ten good people. It wasn’t until much later that we would see the depth of God’s mercy, love, and grace as He announced that the entire world would be spared for the sake of one righteous Man. Paul told the Romans about this grace that ran deeper than anyone had dared to “push” God:
17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (ESV)
Just when we think we are too far gone, or too filthy from sin, or not talented enough, or whatever “line” we’ve drawn and crossed and given up hope…it’s in that place and at that moment that we must realize that our “lines” are not God’s “lines”, He goes much farther than we do. In fact, He goes farther than we even though possible:
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You. (NIV)