Prayer in the Old Testament
In the first part of this series, we saw that from the beginning of the Bible, prayer is basically asking God to come through on His promises (Gen. 4:26). In the generation of Enosh, people start to pray because they see both God’s commitment to us, and their own helplessness. In other words, from the very beginning, prayer has been gospel-
shaped. This basic perspective on prayer is reflected in almost every part of the Old Testament.
Prayer in the Pentateuch is surprisingly scarce, but when Abraham and his family pray, they are asking God to come through on His covenant commitments. So Abraham prays (foolishly) that Ishmael might be his heir (17:18), both the unnamed servant of Abraham and Isaac himself pray for the success of the “wife project” in Genesis 24 -25, and then Jacob memorably prays in Genesis 32: “And Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good”, I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude”.’” (Gen 32:9-12, ESV).
For Jacob, prayer is clearly asking God to do what He has promised, which involves protecting him so that the promises to his grandfather Abraham might be fulfilled. This basic perspective is replicated in almost every prayer in the pages that follow.
The Exodus begins with a prayer like this (Ex. 2:23-25), and Moses’ interactions with God throughout the journey are characterised by this concern that God do what He has promised (see Num. 14:13-20). Joshua picks up where Moses leaves off (Josh 7:6-9) and is reflected in the cycle of prayers for deliverance in the middle of judgment in Judges. Prayer is never less (and seldom more) than asking God to do what He has promised.
“Prayer is never less (and seldom more) than asking God to do what He has promised.”
This is even more striking when one considers the big prayers of the Old Testament. Hannah’s prayer in the wake of God ending her barrenness surprisingly focuses not on her own child, but on God’s commitment to work in our world by sending a rescuer (1 Sam 2:1-10). When Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8), he remarkably does not focus on the bricks and mortar but on the progress of God’s work in the world. In Hezekiah’s prayers, even when he focuses on his own misfortunes, God’s response graciously redirects him to the progress of His plans in the world. Similarly, the prayers in Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9 barely touch on the circumstances or needs of the individuals praying, but cry to the Lord to continue to roll out His promises on the stage of world history. Even the angst-ridden “confessions” of Jeremiah (e.g. Jer 12:1-12) derive their tension from the fact that God is apparently not doing what He has promised. By the end of the Old Testament, the need to cry out to Yahweh, pleading with Him to act is very clear. Chronicles, for example, records 10 more specific prayers than the comparable sections of Kings. In each case, the prayers focus on asking God to do His work in the world. Or to express it differently, the prayers are gospel-shaped.
In the next article, I will show how the special case of the Psalms fits squarely into this understanding of prayer in the Old Testament, before finishing off this series by outlining how Jesus both models this kind of prayer and teaches us to take up His words as we call on the name of the Lord.
Gary Millar is principal of the Queensland Theological College.