Most people pray, whatever their religion. Prayer is a request to a deity. It may be a request to bring blessing and prosperity, or to remove anguish and struggle. It may be accompanied by a sacrifice or vow to demonstrate sincerity or convince the gods to act.
The practice of prayer predates Abraham. So, what is distinctive about prayer in the Judeo-Christian faith?
Let’s start with Judaism.
Israel’s distinctness was their covenant relationship with the Lord. The Sinai covenant established this unique relationship where Israel recognized only one God over them, and held a unique position as his chosen nation:
Deuteronomy 4:7 (NIV)
What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?
In the Sinai Covenant, God revealed the Name his people would use to call on him. This Name held such authority that God warned his people not to misuse it (Exodus 20:7). The foundation for Israel’s prayer was the unique covenant relationship between the Lord and his people:
Psalm 91:14–15 (NIV)
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him.”
When other nations prayed, they approached images of wood and stone that served as a kind of touchstone for getting in touch with a deity. For Israel, inanimate images could never stand in for the living God.
Israel did provide a house for the heavenly sovereign to live among his people, but it held no icon — just a seat between symbolic guards of the presence where the heavenly sovereign sat enthroned between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2). That’s where they turned in their need:
2 Kings 19:15–19 (NIV)
Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: “Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen … deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.”
Even after the nations overran Jerusalem and destroyed God’s temple, godly people still voiced their faith in the God of Israel and turned towards the place of his presence:
Daniel 6:10 (NIV)
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.
The Persian government regarded Daniel’s prayer as treachery. They regarded themselves as the rulers of God’s people. Reliance on the God of Israel rather than the king of Persia was the reason they threw Daniel into the lions’ den, and his friends into the fire.
It didn’t stop them praying to the One they regarded as the Lord of history, the sovereign over all nations:
Daniel 9:2–3 (NIV)
In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
There’s much more to say, but this is the heart of prayer in Judaism. For Daniel (as for Moses in Deuteronomy 9:25–29) praying meant listening to God, ruminating on what God had decreed, aligning with God’s purposes for his people, and responding with trust in the One who is the global sovereign and the saviour of his people.
The distinctive basis for prayer in Judaism is this reliance on God’s revelation of himself and his faithfulness towards the people who are called by his Name. We’ll talk about Christian prayer next time, but this is the foundation.
Prayer is the expression of who we trust, our reliance on the one who leads us.
What others are saying
The Mishnah (Jacob Neusner’s translation). m. Pirqe Abot 2 (quoting Rabbi Simeon):
Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema [Deuteronomy 6:4ff] and the Prayer [The Eighteen Benedictions]. And when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine. But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 350, 414:
In prayer we recognize our dependency on God and realize that every blessing, even life itself, is not earned but rather a generous divine gift. Prayers express our deepest feelings, the proper response to a world of what Abraham Joshua Heschel termed “radical amazement.” As Heschel wrote, “to pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments.” …
The first word of the Shema emphasizes the need to listen, stressing that prayer encompasses not merely talking to God but also includes hearing what God has to say to us.
E. Gerstenberger and Heinz-Josef Fabry, “pā·lǎl” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 11:577
In the prayer of the exilic and postexilic periods the traditions of individual and corporate prayer, of the festival and temple congregations, and of the prayers of godly individuals endowed with extraordinary powers coalesce. This is why the prayer of Israel is infinitely rich and theologically complex. The prayer tradition has preserved concepts of God emanating from different eras. Considered as a whole, however, Israel’s prayer always presents a partnership in solidarity with God, communicating delight in life, thanksgiving, and longing for help.
L. Paul Moore Jr., “Prayer in the Pentateuch,” Bibliotheca Sacra 98 (1941): 334:
As one reads the opening books of the Old Testament, he is profoundly struck with the seeming ease with which God, the Holy One, approaches man, either to command him or to converse with him. One is just as profoundly struck with the freedom, sometimes verging even upon impudence, with which man replies to God. And, in fact, it is the very freedom of intercourse which, for the reader of Scripture, makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish prayer from intimate conversation.
- Arguing with God (Gen 18:22-33)
- Should Christians use the divine name?
- What is prayer? (Mt 6:5-8)
- What makes Christian prayer distinctive?
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