What is prayer? (Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus authorized you to approach the throne of the great king

Open Matthew 6:5-8.

Why was Daniel thrown into the lion’s den? Did that strike you as an excessive penalty for … praying?

Sure, it was a political ploy to bring Daniel down, but how could Darius’ advisors have convinced him to enact such a law? We need to understand how they thought about prayer in the ancient world.

By banning prayer “to any god or man” except Darius, the king could claim to be the one who provided everything his people received that month. If only he had been entreated, then he could present as the benefactor of the people, the one who provided what everyone needed. It was a master public relations exercise: even if some people had prayed surreptitiously, they could not admit it publicly, so the propaganda still worked. And that’s why Daniel’s prayer was so damaging: Daniel undermined the credibility of the king’s claim. (The Scriptures are consistently subversive in undermining human claims to hold God’s power.)

In the ancient world, prayer was understood as a petition to the ruler for help within his realm. The king could be petitioned if a part of his kingdom suffered a drought, came under attack, suffered violence, or faced disputes. Solomon’s wisdom in resolving issues for his people was “breathtaking” (1 Kings 10:4-5).

Viewed in a kingdom framework, prayer is petitioning the sovereign for help with some part of his realm. Daniel 9 is a brilliant example. Daniel addresses the heavenly sovereign, acknowledging his people have disobeyed him and deserved to be sent into exile, and then entreating the good character of this sovereign to restore his people so his name does not continue to be dragged through the dirt.

By Jesus’ time, Daniel’s prayer had been partially answered. Jerusalem’s walls and temple had been rebuilt, but the kingdom had not been re-established. Godly people yearned for Israel to be restored as God’s nation (e.g. Luke 2:25-35), praying and fasting for restoration (Luke 2:36-38).

So when Jesus spoke of hypocrites standing and praying in the synagogues and at the street corners to gain maximum exposure (6:5), these people were not airing their own personal failures and needs. They were community leaders who hoped, by their very public example, to remind everyone of their civic duty to petition the heavenly sovereign to restore his reign over their community. They fasted publicly for the same reason — to convince everyone to show the heavenly ruler their sincere desire for restoration as his people.

Setting agreed days for prayer and fasting was not the problem: that can be a very good thing (compare Jonah 3:5). Jesus critiqued Israel’s leaders for behaving as taskmasters, pressuring people to comply with their agenda. The rulers were not primarily petitioning their heavenly sovereign to restore his reign over them at all; they were acting as communal whips to shame people into complying with their agenda. They were “actors” (hypocrites) because their prayers were primarily designed for a human audience, not for their heavenly king.

To petition the heavenly sovereign, you don’t need a human audience. You can go where no one can see you. That way there is no question about who is your audience. For nothing misses the gaze of the heavenly king who sees into the secret places and knows — even better than you do — why you are doing something. Pray for an audience of one!

Did you notice what Jesus just did? He authorized the ordinary person to approach the divine sovereign directly! Outside the synagogue. Beyond the influence of the community leaders. This is enormous! You live directly before the face of God, our heavenly sovereign. You can approach him directly. Outside the church building. You don’t need a priest. Or a prayer line.

So how much time should you spend in prayer each day? Sorry, I had to ask you that, just to see you cringe. You know you don’t spend enough time in prayer, right?

What’s enough? 10 minutes? 30? 60? Actually, Jesus sends up that whole approach too. You don’t need to heap up phrases to impress God (6:7). That’s a heathen approach to prayer, as if God has to be convinced you really want what you’re asking for (6:8). God knows what you need before you ask, so don’t measure your prayer life in words or minutes. You have an audience with the king. That’s enough.

Is that liberating? To pray is not to play. Praying leaves you incredibly exposed. You can’t pretend before the sovereign who knows all.

It’s amazing what God does with people who are real with him.


What others are saying

Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2013) on Matthew 6:5c

Synagogues were the place of prayer for Jews, and for that reason perhaps the most typical word in the Greek-speaking world used for synagogues was proseuchē, or “house of prayer.”

There is nothing wrong with praying in a synagogue or reading Scripture aloud in a synagogue (Luke 4: 16– 20). Nor is there anything inherently wrong praying in a place as public as a street corner. What is wrong here is praying in order “to be seen by others.” Jesus focuses on intent. Instead of talking to God, as Adam and Eve did in the garden as a form of fellowship and worship and petition or as David does in the Psalms, hypocrites prayed to be seen.

John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985), 134–135:

Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus’ emphasis on ‘secret’ prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God. We must never use either of these exercises as a pious cloak for self-love.

Isaiah 65:24 (ESV)

Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.

[previous: A generous kingdom]

[next: The Lord’s Prayer]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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