2 The Essence of Prayer
All too often, we feed back the way we use language into the way God uses it in Scripture- and His use of words and ideas is very different to ours. The way we conceive of prayer is a prime example. We tend to think of it as a conscious formulation of words, whether spoken or within our minds, requesting specific things from God. But this may not be how God sees prayer. If this is our view of prayer, a number of difficult questions arise when we examine our prayer experience closely. Frequently we have prayers answered when we really lacked faith in them. At other times, it seems as if God has heard a prayer and therefore done something in our lives, when actually we haven't prayed about it at all. Or (very commonly) we find we have requested specific things in prayer which we later see were totally inappropriate, and it was a blessing such prayers weren't answered.
Prayer: Not Just Words
My suggestion is that prayer is not necessarily specific words. It seems that the majority of " prayers" in the Bible are not specific, formalized verbal dialogue or requests, as, for example, we have in 'the Lord's prayer' . We would surely all recognize that there exists such a thing as unspoken language- the language of intention, desire. Husbands and wives are about this all the time, transmitting these things to each other in a non-verbal dialogue of life together. And prayer to God is part of our relationship with Him, too. And so prayer isn't merely words. Merely being in someone's presence is a form of dialogue with them. We do not pray for things, but rather because of our relationship with God. It just can't be that prayer is just a list of requests; for this is not how a relationship works. And this is why those who have problems verbalizing themselves need not feel that they are unable to pray well. In a sense, a man is his prayer. Thus Job said that he felt that his prayers were “pure”; but he is later rebuked for saying that he personally was pure (Job 16:17; 33:9). The best way to explain what I mean is by giving examples:
- Jonah prayed- but what he did was to 'look towards God' (as Solomon spoke of) and confessed his weakness. He made no specific request. Yet we are told that his prayer was answered by the fish vomiting him out on dry land (Jonah 2:10). God saw it as if this is what he had requested.
- Abraham prayed for the city of Sodom to be saved for the sake of ten righteous who might be there (Gen. 19:24). He didn't specifically mention what was his heart's desire- that Lot be saved. But God discerned the spirit of his prayer, and saved Lot, even though Abraham 'knew not what to pray for' and asked for the 'wrong' thing in order to obtain what he really wanted, i.e. the salvation of Lot.
- Heb. 11:33 says that the likes of Abraham obtained promises by their faith. Yet the Old Testament record clearly enough states that the promises were just given to them by God; they weren't requested by the patriarchs. Indeed, david was surprised at the promises God chose to make to him. Conclusion? God read their unspoken, unprayed for desires for Messiah and His Kingdom as requests for the promises- and responded.
- " I, even I only am left" was Elijah's cry to God as he realized the depth of Israel's apostasy (1 Kings 19:10). But this was interpreted by God as a prayer for God to condemn Israel (Rom. 11:2,3). God read what was in Elijah's heart, and counted this as his prayer.
- Josiah’s weeping and rending of his clothes was “heard” (2 Chron. 34:27); prayer is more than words.
- Nehemiah in his prayer of Neh. 1:11 simply repented and alluded to Scripture. He made no specific request for help to rebuild Jerusalem, although this was evidently in his heart, and was understood by the Father as his prayer.
- Ps. 6:8,9 makes a parallel between the weeping of David and his prayer ascending acceptably to God. Doubtless his weeping didn't include many well verbalized requests. But God heard " the voice of my weeping...the Lord will receive my prayer" .
- " I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears" (2 Kings 20:5) parallels Hezekiah's tears with his words. God interpreted his tears as a prayer. Hezekiah has earlier requested for God to both hear and see the words of Sennacherib (19:26), as if these too were to be read as a prayer for Divine intervention.
- In the time of Elisha we read that when a problem arose, the people concerned went indoors and shut the door. Going inside and shutting the door is associated with prayer, both by the Lord (Mt. 6:6) and Elisha himself (2 Kings 4:33). The other instances of shutting the door don’t involve prayer, but they involve obediently doing something in faith- the woman shit the door upon her sons and poured out the oil in faith; she shut the door upon her sick son (2 Kings 4:5,21). Perhaps the implication is that what she did in faith and hope was read by God as prayer, even though she didn’t apparently verbalize anything.
- Josiah sorrowed for Israel's sins, and God interpreted this as if Josiah was praying for the deferring of God's judgments, even though Josiah fully expected the judgments to come in his time (2 Kings 22:19).
- God heard the cry (often used concerning prayer) of Israel in Egypt (Ps. 106:44). Their complaint, even though it was said by idol worshippers who had precious little real faith, was seen by God as their prayer, and He answered them by delivering them. Yet Is. 64:3 says that the Exodus deliverance was something which Israel " looked not for" . They didn't ask for it, but God read their groanings as if they were specifically requesting this, and granted it to them- even though they didn't actually ask for it, and the 'answer' to their 'prayer' was a surprise to them.
- The complaint of the believer-labourers cheated by their masters is paralleled with the cry of the wages which they were owed. This cry entered into the ears of the Lord of judgment (James 5:4). The situation was counted as the prayer of those brethren against the brethren employing and deceiving them.
- Balaam, in his heart, didn't want to bless Israel; he wanted to curse them so he could get his hands on the riches Balak promised him if he did so. Balaam knew if God had told him to bless Israel, there was no way of changing things. But God says that He refused to hear Balaam's prayer to curse Israel (Josh. 24:10). It seems that Yahweh read Balaam's latent, unexpressed desires as prayer to Him.
- On one level, we are granted our heart's desires. The sinner receives his heart's desire, and so do the righteous, for they desire salvation (Ps. 10:3; 21:2). These desires are effectively our prayer.
- Hezekiah put the situation before God in prayer when he was surrounded by the Assyrians, and asked for deliverance from them. But God saw his prayer and attitude in quite a different light: " The virgin the daughter of Zion (Hezekiah and the faithful remnant in Jerusalem) hath despised thee, and laughed thee (Sennacherib) to scorn...shaken her head at thee" (2 Kings 19:21). Hezekiah's desperate plea for deliverance (" O Lord I beseech thee, save thou us out of his hand" ) was seen as a confident shaking of his head at Sennacherib. God sees our prayers very differently to how we do. Hezekiah simply put the situation before God: " Incline thine ear, O Lord, and hear [the reproach]; open thine eyes, O Lord, and see" (Is. 37:17); and yet this was understood as him praying to God against Sennacherib (Is. 37:21). Hezekiah encouraged Isaiah to pray, because “The Lord they God will hear all the words of Rabshakeh…to reproach the living God…wherefore lift up thy prayer…” (2 Kings 19:3,4). Isaiah’s words of prayer would be parallel with the words of Rabshakeh’s words; and God would surely hear Rabshakeh’s words and count them as a prayer to Him to do something. He would count the situation as the prayer, and Isaiah’s praying was to be in harmony with this. That attitudes are read as prayers is reflected in the way that Rabshakeh’s arrogance against Yahweh is described as him lifting up his eyes against God (2 Kings 19:22). By contrast, Hezekiah prayed at the same time: “Unto you do I lift up my eyes” (Ps. 123:1). ‘Lifting up eyes’ is therefore an idiom for prayer. Rabshakeh didn’t consciously pray blasphemous words to God, but his attitude was counted as a prayer. Also in a Hezekiah context, we read of how his own heart was arrogantly ‘lifted up’ to God (2 Chron. 32:25,26 cp. his repentance for having a lifted up heart in Ps. 131:1). He made the same mistake as his opponent Rabshakeh- a lifted up heart was read by God as a heart / mind / eyes lifted up against Him. He noticed the attitude of heart in a man as a ‘lifted up’ to Him prayer.
- Likewise when Hezekiah was sick unto death, " he wept sore" and asked God to remember that he had lived a good life. He isn't recorded as making any specific request. But because God " heard thy prayer" , He healed him and promised to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians (Is. 38:4,5). Yet it seems Hezekiah did not specifically request these things. Perhaps in Hezekiah's heart he reasoned: 'I've been righteous, so save Israel from death for the sake of my righteousness, and raise me up from this bed of sickness so I can achieve this for them, so that they might share my salvation" . And God heard this attitude of mind as a prayer, and therefore promised to revive Hezekiah and save Judah. Thus Hezekiah's attitude at this time was exactly that of the Lord Jesus. Note that Isaiah 53 was primarily concerning Hezekiah at this time.
- Cornelius had his generous gifts responded to in the same way as his prayers- in that Peter was sent to teach him the Gospel and baptize him (Acts 10:4). This suggests that our good deeds are seen as an expression of our essential self, and are treated as prayers. Yet those good deeds are not in themselves verbalized requests. It is also doubtful whether Cornelius was specifically praying for more knowledge and the opportunity of baptism. But this is how his prayers were interpreted by God, and this passive though unexpressed desire was interpreted and responded to.
- David perceived the Kingdom to be one long prayer: " To enquire in his temple...all the days" (Ps. 27:4). He didn't see the Kingdom as eternally requesting things, but enquiring deeper into the Father.
- When the priests in Hezekiah's time blessed the people, " their prayer came up to (God), even unto heaven" (2 Chron. 30:27). But the blessing of the people was not a prayer to God, but words spoken by the priests to the people: " (May) The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee..." (Num. 6:24,25). Yet God saw these words of the priests as a prayer. It's rather like us saying 'God bless you' to a brother as we leave his house; God may read this as a prayer, and do something about it. But this isn't how we conceive of prayer. Consider too how the faithful speaking spiritually to each other was treated by God as a prayer to Him (Mal. 3:16). This may explain the enigmatic passage in 1 Sam. 20:12,13: " And Jonathan said unto David, O Lord God of Israel, when I have sounded my father...if there be good toward David and I send not unto thee [David]...and the Lord be with thee" . Jonathan's conversation with David seems to be merged with a prayer to God- perhaps indicating that the conversation was read by God as a prayer.
- The blood of Abel cried to God, as if it itself was a prayer. The situation cried to God, it was as if Abel cried to God in prayer for vengeance, even though he was dead. James 5:4 is a crystal clear example of the same thing: " The hire of the labourers which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped (the labourers) are entered into the ears of the Lord" . The cry of their wages was their cry; the situation was read by God as if it was their prayer. Or again, God saw the affliction of Israel, and heard their cry by the Red Sea (Neh. 9:9); seeing the situation and hearing the prayer are paralleled. And in a more negative context, God sees the behaviour / situation of the wicked as a cry ascending up to Him, as prayer does. Sodom's cry reaching unto Heaven is the obvious example (Gen. 18:20,21; 19:23); but Ps. 74:23 also speaks of the voice of God's enemies 'rising up' [Heb.] to Him in Heaven.
- Realizing this, Asa in his better days did not ask God to rush in and help , when he was faced with the crisis of the Ethiopian invasion. He showed his faith in the principles of God's knowledge: " Lord, it is nothing for thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us" (2 Chron. 14:11). There is no bleating on about the actual problem, rather does most of the prayer focus on reciting, in real faith, the characteristics of God. Coming down to earth, " Make the car start! Make the car start!" will give way, in spiritual maturity, to a praiseful recounting of God's character, with almost an incidental mention of the overbearing situation we are up against. We will request in spirit, but without making this explicit. Jn. 11:21,22 is a beautiful example of this. Martha understood Christ's power to help, and she prayed to Him (Jn. 11:22 cp. 16:23). But she didn't make the obvious, blindingly desperate request which filled her heart: to bring Lazarus back to her. She simply stated that the Lord could do all things. And she knew He would read her spirit, and see what she wanted.
- The Canaanite woman simply prayed: " Lord, help me" . The Lord's response was to heal her daughter, with the comment: " Great is thy faith. Be it unto thee even as thou wilt" (Mt. 15:25,28). She didn't specifically ask for anything, but the Lord understood her few words as expressing her hidden will, and treated this as her prayer.
- Moses asked God to relent on destroying His people because then, the promises to Abraham would go unfulfilled, and the surrounding nations would mock them (Ex. 32:11-13). These reasons were somewhat unfounded; for the nations did mock Israel in the end, and surely God would have fulfilled His promises to Abraham through the line of Moses. Yet God heard the essence of Moses’ prayer and responded. The details weren’t so important; it was the essence of what was in Moses’ heart that God responded to.
- The ‘hearing’ of the situation of the unbelieving Rachael [for she still worshipped other gods] is repeated in God’s ‘hearing’ of the groans of Israel in Egypt- even though they had not yet been taken unto Yahweh for a people, and did not know Yahweh as their God (Ex. 6:5,7). God ‘heard’ their situation, reported to Him by their representative Angels in the court of Heaven, and responded. He didn’t demand their unqualified acceptance of Him nor their quitting with Egypt’s idols before He ‘heard’ them through 'hearing' their situation.
- Manoah asked for the prophet (whom he thought the Angel was) to come again and tell them how to train their new child. His prayer was answered (Jud. 13:9)- but actually, his request wasn't specifically dealt with. The Angel came- not a prophet, as he asked- and confirmed to Manoah that really his wife was going to have a child. The spirit behind his request was understood and answered, rather than the actual words which he spoke.
- Prayer is likened to incense coming up before God. But so also is the almsgiving of Cornelius; his good deeds expressed a fine spirituality in his heart, and this was counted by God as prayer (Acts 10:4). Prayer is seen as an incense offering (Ps. 141:2); but the generosity of Mary (Jn. 12:3), the work of preaching (2 Cor. 2:16); living " a life of love" (Eph. 5:2 NIV); giving money to the needy (Phil. 4:18) are all seen as a fragrant incense offering. The act is the prayer. Mary's annointing was to be seen as a " memorial" (Mk. 14:9), but the only other times this word is used are in connection with the prayers of Cornelius (Acts 10:4, cp. the OT idea of prayerful people being God's 'rememberancers'). Likewise, prophecy does not have to refer to specific, lexical statements; it can refer to the spirit and implication behind the recorded words. Thus " the Scripture" prophesied Christ's resurrection after three days (Lk. 24:45; 1 Cor. 15:3,4); but nowhere is this explicitly prophesied. It is implied in the spirit behind the types, e.g. of Jonah and Gen. 22:4. So as 'prophecy' is not just the words but the spirit behind them, so prayer is not just the words, but the spirit in the man's heart who prays, even if the words come out wrong.
- The continual burning of incense, night and day, was a reminder that prayer (cp. incense) was a way of life, not only specific statements (Ex. 30:8). David's references to making constant prayer (e.g. Ps. 88:1) may allude to the constant rising up of the incense. We cannot be literally praying all the time, but our basic spirit of life can rise up as a prayer to God constantly. A man is, in a sense, his prayer. David asks God to hear him because he is righteous, and comments that " the foolish shall not stand in thy sight...the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man. But as for me, I will come into thy house...hearken unto the voice of my cry...for unto thee will I pray" (Ps. 5:1-7). " The foolish...deceitful" are put for their prayers; the man is his prayer. This is why rejection of prayer is a sign of God's displeasure with the man who offers it. Ps. 109:4 in the Hebrew text reads simply: " For my love they are my adversaries: but I prayer" . And it means just that: a man is his prayer. David knew he was being falsely accused, and saw his lifestyle and being as a prayer to God in response to it all.
- Hannah and Daniel asked God to open His eyes to the situation they were in, they brought it before God, they asked Him to look upon them, but didn't make specific requests. Yet God interpreted their words as requests, and responded.
- Passages like Lk. 11:10 teach that every one who seeks in prayer, receives. This just isn't true in terms of the words of our actual requests being answered. But once we understand that God sees the spirit behind our words and answers this rather than the specific request, then these promises become more realistically believable.
These principles are not only confined to prayer. The weeping, helpless standing afar off at the cross are described as still following the Lord Jesus and ministering to Him, as they did in the happier Galilee days (Mk. 15:41). They are described as 'seeking [the risen] Jesus' when they came mourning to the grave, thinking to anoint the body (Mt. 28:5). Their essential spirit was understood and credited to them, even though their actions seemed to belie this. Likewise our essential desires are read as our prayers, even if the words we use seem quite different.
In the same way as Paul could claim to be ceaselessly praying, David speaks of his cry in prayer being " all the day long" (Ps. 86:3 RV). Clearly enough, for these men were not living their lives in monasteries, prayer was an attitude of mind. Their desires, even if not formally verbalized, were read as prayers. The incense, which was a symbol of prayer, was to be " seasoned with salt" (Ex. 30:35 RV). And these very words are quoted by Paul about our speech being " seasoned with salt" - as if effectively, our speech is our prayer. This is why God tells Hagar that He " heard thy affliction" (Gen. 16:11; LXX " humiliation"), as if her situation and cry of desperation was received by Him as a prayer. The fact the Lord is mediating our prayers before the Father's throne ought to influence us as to what type of people we are. For who we are, not only our prayers, is reflected before Him in Christ. Our lives are in that sense our prayers. In passing, note that the Lord taught that he who humbles himself in prayer will be exalted (Lk. 18:14). Paul perhaps had this in mind when he spoke of how the Lord Jesus on the cross humbled Himself that He might be exalted (Phil. 2). Real prayer is a humiliating experience, a true humbling of self after the pattern of the Lord’s crucifixion. We really need to ask ourselves whether this is anywhere near true of our prayer life.
Two of the greatest types of the Lord's mediatory work are Esther and Joseph. Esther was perhaps ashamed to reveal that she was a Jewess because of her people's behaviour, but given their desperate need she did reveal it in order to plead with the King for their salvation. And only when Joseph really had to use his influence to save his brethren did " Joseph's race become manifest unto Pharaoh" (Acts 7:13 RV). Does the Lord experience the same sort of embarassment mixed with an urgent sense of our desperation, in His present mediation for us?