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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary

Prayer

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A request or petition for mercies; or it is "an offering up our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies." Nothing can be more rational or consistent than the exercise of this duty. It is a divine injunction that men should always pray, and not faint, Luke 18:1 . It is highly proper we should acknowledge the obligations we are under to the Divine Being, and supplicate his throne for the blessings we stand in need of. It is essential to our peace and felicity, and is the happy mean of our carrying on and enjoying fellowship with God. It has an influence on our tempers and conduct, and evidences our subjection and obedience to God. We shall here consider the object, nature, kinds, matter, manner, and forms of prayer, together with its efficacy, and the objections made against it.

I. The object of prayer is God alone, through Jesus Christ, as the Mediator. All supplications, therefore, to saints or angels, are not only useless but blasphemous. All worship of the creature, however exalted that creature is, is idolatry, and strictly prohibited in the sacred law of God. Nor are we to pray to the Trinity, as three distinct Gods; for though the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be addressed in various parts of the Scripture, 2 Corinthians 13:14 . 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 ., yet never as three Gods, for that would lead us directly to the doctrine of polytheism: the more ordinary mode the Scripture points out, is, to address the Father through the Son, depending on the Spirit to help our infirmities, Ephesians 2:18 . Romans 8:26 .

II. As to the nature of this duty: it must be observed, that it does not consist in the elevation of the voice, the posture of the body, the use of a form, or the mere extemporary use of words, nor, properly speaking, in any thing of an exterior nature; but simply the offering up of our desires to God, Matthew 15:8 . (

See the definition above.) It has been generally divided into adoration, by which we express our sense of the goodness and greatness of God, Daniel 4:34-35; confession, by which we acknowledge our unworthiness, 1 John 1:9; supplication, by which we pray for pardon, grace, or any blessing we want, Matthew 7:7; intercession, by which we pray for others, James 5:16; and thanksgiving, by which we express our gratitude to God, Philippians 4:6 . To which some add invocation, a making mention of one or more of the names of God; pleading, arguing our case with God in an humble and fervent manner; dedication, or surrendering ourselves to God; deprecation, by which we desire that evils may be averted; blessing, in which we express our joy in God, and gratitude for his mercies: but, as all these appear to me to be included in the first five parts of prayer, I think they need not be insisted on.

III. The different kinds of prayer, are,

1. Ejaculatory, by which the mind is directed to God on any emergency. It is derived from the word ejaculor, or dart or shoot out suddenly, and is therefore appropriate to describe this kind of prayer, which is made up of short sentences spontaneously springing from the mind. The Scriptures afford us many instances of ejaculatory prayer, Exodus 14:15 . 1 Samuel 1:1-28; 1 Samuel 2:1-36; 1 Samuel 3:1-21; 1 Samuel 4:1-22; 1 Samuel 5:1-12; 1 Samuel 6:1-21; 1 Samuel 7:1-17; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 1 Samuel 9:1-27; 1 Samuel 10:1-27; 1 Samuel 11:1-15; 1 Samuel 12:1-25; 1 Samuel 13:1-23; 1 Samuel 14:1-52; 1 Samuel 15:1-35; 1 Samuel 16:1-23; 1 Samuel 17:1-58; 1 Samuel 18:1-30; 1 Samuel 19:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:1-42; 1 Samuel 21:1-15; 1 Samuel 22:1-23; 1 Samuel 23:1-29; 1 Samuel 24:1-22; 1 Samuel 25:1-44; 1 Samuel 26:1-25; 1 Samuel 27:1-12; 1 Samuel 28:1-13 . Romans 7:24-25 . Genesis 43:29 . Judges 16:28; Luke 23:42-43 . It is one of the principal excellencies of this kind of prayer, that it can be practised at all times, and in all places; in the public ordinances of religion; in all our ordinary and extraordinary undertakings; in times of affliction, temptation, and danger; in seasons of social intercourse, in worldly business, in travelling, in sickness, and pain. In fact, every thing around us, and every event that transpires, may afford us matter for ejaculation. It is worthy, therefore, of our practice, especially when we consider that it is a species of devotion that can receive no impediment from any external circumstances; that it has a tendency to support the mind, and keep it in a happy frame; fortifies us against the temptations of the world; elevates our affections to God; directs the minds into a spiritual channel; and has a tendency to excite trust and dependence on Divine Providence.

2. Secret or closet prayer is another kind of prayer to which we should attend. It has its name from the manner in which Christ recommended it, Matthew 6:6 . He himself set us an example of it, Luke 6:12; and it has been the practice of the saints in every age, Genesis 28:1-22 : Daniel 6:10 . Acts 10:9 . There are some particular occasions when this duty may be practised to advantage, as when we are entering into any important situation; undertaking any thing of consequence; before we go into the world; when calamities surround us, Isaiah 26:20; or when ease and prosperity attend us. As closet prayer is calculated to inspire us with peace, defend us from our spiritual enemies, excite us to obedience, and promote our real happiness, we should be watchful lest the stupidity of our frame, the intrusion of company, the cares of the world, the insinuations of Satan, or the indulgence of sensual objects, prevent us from the constant exercise of this necessary and important duty.

3. Family prayer is also another part not to be neglected. It is true there is no absolute command for this in God's word; yet from hints, allusions, and examples, we may learn that it was the practice of our forefathers: Abraham, Genesis 18:19 . David, 2 Samuel 6:20 . Solomon, Proverbs 22:6 . Job 1:4-5 . Joshua 24:15 .

See also Ephesians 6:4 . Proverbs 6:20 . Jeremiah 10:25 . Acts 10:2; Acts 10:30 . Acts 16:15 . Family prayer, indeed, may not be essential to the character of a true Christian, but it is surely no honour to heads of families to have it said that they have no religion in their houses. If we consider what a blessing it is likely to prove to our children and our domestics; what comfort it must afford to ourselves; what utility it may prove to the community at large; how it sanctifies domestic comforts and crosses; and what a tendency it has to promote order, decency, sobriety, and religion in general, we must at once see the propriety of attending to it. The objection often made to family prayer is, want of time; but this is a very frivolous excuse, since the time allotted for this purpose need be but short, and may easily be redeemed from sleep or business. Others say, they have no gifts: where this is the case, a form may soon be procured and used, but it should be remembered that gifts increase by exercise, and no man can properly decide, unless he make repeated trials. Others are deterred through shame, or the fear of man; in answer to such we shall refer them to the declarations of our Lord, Matthew 10:37-38 . Mark 8:38 . As to the season for family prayer, every family must determine for itself; but before breakfast every morning, and before supper at night, seems most proper: perhaps a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes may be sufficient as to the time.

4. Social prayer is another kind Christians are called upon to attend to. It is denominated social, because it is offered by a society of Christians in their collective capacity, convened for that particular purpose, either on some peculiar and extraordinary occasions, or at stated and regular seasons. Special prayer- meetings are such as are held at the meeting and parting of intimate friends, especially churches and ministers; when the church is in a state of unusual deadness and barrenness; when ministers are sick, or taken away by death; in times of public calamity and distress, &c. Stated meetings for social prayer are such as are held weekly in some places which have a special regard to the state of the nation and churches: missionary prayer-meetings for the spread of the Gospel: weekly meetings held in most of the congregations which have a more particular reference to their own churches, ministers, the sick, feeble, and weak of the flock. Christians are greatly encouraged to this kind of prayer from the consideration of the promise, Matthew 18:20; the benefit of mutual supplications; from the example of the most eminent primitive saints, Malachi 3:16 . Acts 12:12; the answers given to prayer, Acts 12:1-12 . Joshua 10:1-43 : Isaiah 37:1-38 : &c. and the signal blessing they are to the churches, Philippians 1:19 . 2 Corinthians 1:11 .

These meetings should be attended with regularity; those who engage should study simplicity, brevity, Scripture language, seriousness of spirit, and every thing that has a tendency to edification. We now come, lastly, to take notice of public prayer, or that in which the whole congregation is engaged, either in repeating a set form, or acquiescing with the prayer of the minister who leads their devotions. This is both an ancient and important part of religious exercise; it was a part of the patriarchical worship, Genesis 45:6; it was also carried on by the Jews, Exodus 29:43 . Luke 1:10 . It was a part of the temple service, Is. 56: 7. 1 Kings 8:59 . Jesus Christ recommended it both by his example and instruction, Matthew 18:20 . Luke 4:16 . The disciples also attended to it, Acts 2:41-42; and the Scriptures in many places countenance it, Exodus 20:24 , Psalms 63:1-2; Psalms 84:11; Psalms 27:4 . For the nature, necessity, place, time, and attendance on public worship, see WORSHIP. IV. Of the matter of prayer. "It is necessary, " says Dr. Watts, "to furnish ourselves with proper matter, that we may be able to hold much converse with God; to entertain ourselves and others agreeably and devoutly in worship; to assist the exercise o our own grace and others, by a rich supply of divine thought and desires in prayer, that we may not be forced to make too long and indecent pauses whilst we are performing that duty; nor break off abruptly as soon as we have begun for want of matter; nor pour out abundance of words to dress up narrow and scanty sense for want of variety of devout thoughts.

1. We should labour after a large acquaintance with all things that belong to religion; for there is nothing that relates to religion but may properly make some part of the matter of our prayer. A great acquaintance with God in his nature, perfections, works and word; an intimate acquaintance with ourselves, and a lively sense of our own frames, wants, sorrows, and joys, will supply us with abundant furniture. We should also be watchful observers of the dealings of God with us in every ordinance, and in every providence. We should observe the working of our heart towards God, or towards the creature, and often examine our temper and our life, both in our natural, our civil, and religious actions. For this purpose, as well as upon many other accounts, it will be of great advantage to keep by us in writing some of the most remarkable providences of God, and instances of his mercy or anger towards us, and some of our most remarkable carriages towards him, whether sins, or duties, or the exercises of grace.

2. We should not content ourselves merely with generals; but if we wish to be furnished with larger supplies of matter, we must descend to particulars in our confessions, petitions, and thanksgivings. We should enter into a particular consideration of the attributes, the glories, the graces, and the relations of God. We should express our sins, our wants, and our sorrows, with a particular sense of the mournful circumstances that attend them: it will enlarge our hearts with prayer and humiliation if we confess the aggravations that increase the guilt of our sins, viz. whether they have been committed against knowledge, against the warnings of conscience, &c. It will furnish us with large matter, if we run over the exalting and heightening circumstances of our mercies and comforts, viz. that they are great, and spiritual, and eternal, as well as temporal. Our petitions and thanksgivings, in a special manner, should be suited to the place and circumstances of ourselves, and those that we pray with, and those that we pray for.

3. It is very proper, at solemn seasons of worship, to read some part of the word of God, or some spiritual treatise written by holy men; or to converse with fellow Christians about divine things, or to spend some time in recollection or meditation of things that belong to religion: this will not only supply us with divine matter, but will compose our thoughts to a solemnity. Just before we engage in that work, we should be absent a little from the world, that our spirits may be freer for converse with God.

4. If we find our hearts, after all very barren, and hardly know how to frame a prayer before God of ourselves, it has been oftentimes useful to take a book in our hand, wherein are contained some spiritual meditations in a petitionary form, some devout reflections, or excellent patterns of prayer; and, above all, the Psalms of David, some of the prophecies of Isaiah, some chapters in the Gospels, or any of the Epistles. Thus we may lift up our hearts to God in secret, according as the verses or paragraphs we read are suited to the case of our own souls. This many Christians have experienced as a very agreeable help, and of great advantage in their secret retirement.

5. We must not think it absolutely necessary to insist upon all the parts of prayer in every address to God; though in our stated and solemn prayers there are but few of them that can be well left out. What we omit at one time we may, perhaps, pursue at another with more lively affection. But let us be sure to insist most upon those things which are warmest in our hearts, especially in secret. We should let those parts of prayer have the largest share in the performance for which our spirits is best prepared, whether it be adoration, petition, confession, or thanksgiving.

6. We should suit the matter of our prayers to the special occasion of each particular duty, to the circumstances of the time, place, and persons with and for whom we pray. This will direct us to the choice of proper thoughts and language for every part of prayer.

7. We should not affect to pray long for the sake of length, or to stretch out our matter by labour and toil of thought, beyond the furniture of our own spirit. Sometimes a person is betrayed by an affectation of long prayers into crude, rash, and unseemly expressions; we are tempted hereby to tautologies, to say the same thing over and over again. We are in danger of tiring those that join with us. We exceed the season that is allotted for us in prayer, especially when others are to succeed in the same work." V. Of the method of prayer. "Method, " continues Dr. Watts, "is necessary to guide our thoughts, to regulate our expressions, and dispose of the several parts of prayer in such an order, as is most easy to by understood by those that join with us, and most proper to excite and maintain our own devotion and theirs. This will be of use to secure us from confusion, prevent repetitions, and guard us against roving digressions. The general rules of method in prayer are these three:

1. Let the general and the particular heads in prayer be well distinguished, and usually let generals be mentioned first, and particulars follow.

2. Let things of the same kind, for the most part, be put together in prayer. We should not run from one part to another by starts, and sudden wild thoughts, and then return often to the same part again, going backward and forward in confusion: this bewilders the mind of him that prays, disgusts our fellow-worshippers, and injures their devotion.

3. Let those things, in every part of prayer, which are the proper objects of our judgment, be first mentioned, and then those that influence and move our affections; not that we should follow such a manner of prayer as is more like preaching, as some imprudently have done, speaking many divine truths without the form or air of prayer. Yet it must be granted that there is no necessity of always confining ourselves to this, or to any other set method, no more than there is of confining ourselves to a form in prayer. Sometimes the mind is so divinely full of one particular part of prayer, that high expressions of gratitude, and of devoting ourselves to God, break out first. I am persuaded, however, that if young Christians did not give themselves up to a loose and negligent habit of speaking every thing that comes uppermost, but attempted to learn this holy skill by a recollection of the several parts of prayer, and properly disposing their thoughts, there would be great numbers in our churches that would arrive at a good degree of the gift of prayer, and that to the great edification of our churches, as well as of their own families."

As to expression in prayer, it may be observed, that though prayer be the proper work of the heart, yet in this present state, in secret as well as in social prayer, the language of the lips is an excellent aid in this part of worship. Expressions are useful not only to dress our thoughts, but sometimes to form, and shape, and perfect the ideas and affections of our minds. They serve to awaken the holy passions of the soul as well as to express them. They fix and engage all our powers in religion and worship; and they serve to regulate as well as to increase our devotion. The directions to attain a treasure of expressions are these:

1. We should labour after a fresh, particular, and lively sense of the greatness and grace of God, and of our own wants, and sins, and mercies. The passions of the mind, when they are moved, do mightily help the tongue; they give a natural eloquence to those who know not any rules of art, and they almost constrain the dumb to speak. There is a remarkable instance of this in ancient history. When Atys, the son of Croesus the king, who was dumb from his childhood, saw his father ready to be slain, the violence of his passion broke the bonds wherewith his tongue was tied, and he cried out to save him. Let our spiritual senses be always awake and lively, then words will follow in a greater or less degree.

2. We should treasure up such expressions, especially, as we read in Scripture, and such as we have found in other books of devotion, or such as we have heard fellow Christians make use of, whereby our own hearts have been sensibly moved and warmed.

3. We should be always ready to engage in holy conference, and divine discourse. This will teach us to speak of the things of God. It should be our practice to recollect and talk over with one another the sermons we have heard, the books of divinity we have been conversant with, those parts of the word of God we have lately read, and especially our own experiences of divine things. Hereby we shall gain a large treasure of language to clothe our thoughts and affections.

4. We should pray for the gift of utterance, and seek the blessing of the Spirit of God upon the use of proper means to obtain a treasure of expressions for prayer; for the wise man tells us, that "the preparation of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the Lord, " Proverbs 16:1 . The rules about the choice and use of proper expressions are these:

1. We should choose those expressions that best suit our meaning, that most exactly answer the ideas of our mind, and that are fitted to our sense and apprehension of things.

2. We should use such a way of speaking as may be most natural and easy to be understood, and most agreeable to those that join with us. We should avoid all foreign and uncommon words; all those expressions which are too philosophical, and those which savour too much of mystical divinity; all dark metaphors, or expressions that are used only by some particular violent partymen. We should likewise avoid length and obscurity in our sentences, and in the placing of our words; and not interline our expressions with too many parentheses, which cloud and entangle the sense.

3. Our language should be grave and decent, which is a medium between magnificence and meanness; we should avoid all glittering language and affected style. An excessive fondness of elegance and finery of style in prayer discovers the same pride and vanity of mind, as an affection to many jewels and fine apparel in the house of God: it betrays us into a neglect of our hearts, and of experimental religion, by an affection to make the nicest speech, and say the finest things we can, instead of sincere devotion, and praying in the spirit. On the other hand, we should avoid mean and coarse, and too familiar expressions; such as excite any contemptible or ridiculous ideas; such as raise any improper or irreverent thoughts in the mind, or base and impure images, for these much injure the devotion of our fellow-worshippers.

4. We should seek after those ways of expression that are pathetical; such as denote the fervency of affection, and carry life and spirit with them; such as may awaken and exercise our love, our hope, our holy joy, our sorrow, our fear, and our faith, as well as express the activity of those graces. This is the way to raise, assist, and maintain devotion. We should, therefore, avoid such a sort of style as looks more like preaching, which some persons that affect long prayers have been guilty of to a great degree: they have been speaking to the people rather than speaking to God; they have wandered away from god to speak to men; but this is quite contrary to the nature of prayer, for prayer is our own address to God, and pouring out our hearts before him with warm and proper affections.

5. We should not always confine ourselves to one set form of words to express any particular request; nor take too much pains to avoid an expression merely because we used it in prayer heretofore. We need not be over fond of a nice uniformity of words, nor of perpetual diversity of expression in every prayer: it is best to keep the middle between these two extremes. The imitation of those Christians and ministers that have the best gifts, will be an excellent direction in this as well as in the former cases. As to the voice in prayer: in the first place, our words should be all pronounced distinct, and ought not to be made shorter by cutting off the last syllable, nor longer by the addition of hems and o's, of long breaths, affected groanings, and useless sounds, &c.

2. Every sentence should be spoken loud enough to be heard, yet none so loud as to affright or offend the ear. Some persons have got a habit of beginning their prayers, and even upon the most common family occasions, so loud as to startle the company; others begin so low in a large assembly, that it looks like secret worship, and as though they forbid those that are present to join with them. Both these extremes are to be avoided by prudence and moderation.

3. we should observe a due medium between excessive swiftness and slowness of speech, for both are faulty in their kind. If we are too swift, our words will be hurried on, and be mingled in confusion; if we are too slow, this will be tiresome to the hearers, and will make the worship appear heavy and dull. As to gesture in prayer: all indecencies should be avoided. Prostration may be sometimes used in secret prayer, under a deep and uncommon sense of sin; but kneeling is the most frequent posture; and nature seems to dictate and lead us to it as an expression of humility, of a sense of our wants, a supplication for mercy, and adoration of and dependence on him before whom we kneel. "Standing is a posture not unfit for this worship, especially in places where we have not conveniency for the humbler gestures: but sitting, or other postures of rest and laziness, ought not to be indulged, unless persons are aged or infirm, or the work of prayer be drawn out so long as to make it troublesome to human nature to maintain itself always in one posture.

The head should be kept for the most part without motion; the whole visage should be composed to gravity and solemnity. The eye should be kept from roving, and some think it best to keep the eyes closed. The lifting up of the hands is a very natural expression of our seeking help from God. As to other parts of the body there is little need of direction. In secret devotion, sighs and groans may be allowed; but in public these things should be less indulged. If we use ourselves to various motions, or noise made by the hands or feet, or any other parts, it will tempt others to think that our minds are not very intensely engaged; or, at least, it will appear so familiar and irreverent, as we would not willingly be guilty of in the presence of our superiors here on earth." VI. As to forms of prayer. We find this has been a matter of controversy among divines and Christians, whether such ought to be used, or whether extempore prayers are not to be preferred. We shall state the arguments on both sides. Those who are advocates for forms, observe, that it prevents absurd, extravagant, or impious addresses to God, as well as the confusion of extemporary prayer; that forms were used under the Old Testament dispensation; and, in proof thereof cite Numb. 6: 24, 26. Numb. 10: 35, 36. On the other side it is answered, that it is neither reasonable nor Scriptural to look for the pattern of Christian worship in the Mosaic dispensation, which, with all its rites and ceremonies, is abrogated and done away; that, though forms may be of use to children, and such as are very ignorant, yet restriction to forms, either in public or private does not seem Scriptural or lawful. If we look to the authority and example of Christ and his apostles, every thing is in favour of extempore prayer. The Lord's prayer, it is observed, was not given to be a set form, exclusive of extemporary prayer.

See LORD'S PRAYER.

It is farther argued, that a form cramps the desires; inverts the true order of prayer, making our words to regulate our desires, instead of our desires regulating our words; has a tendency to make us formal; cannot be suited to every one's case; that it looks as if we were not in reality convinced of our wants, when we want a form to expess them; and, finally, in answer to the two first arguments, that it is seldom the case that those who are truly sensible of their condition, and pray extempore, do it in an impious and extravagant manner; and if any who have the gift of prayer really do so, and run into the extreme of enthusiasm, yet this is not the case with the generality, since an unprejudiced attention to those who pray extempore must convince us, that, if their prayers be not so elegantly composed as that of a set form, they are more appropriate, and delivered with more energy and feeling. VII. The efficacy of prayer. It has been objected, that, "if what we request be fit for us, we shall have it without praying; if it be not fit for us, we cannot obtain it by praying." But it is answered, that it may be agreeable to perfect wisdom to grant that to our prayers which it would not have been agreeable to the same wisdom to have given us without praying for. But what virtue, you will ask, is there in prayer, which should make a favour consistent with wisdom, which would not have been so without it? To this question, which contains the whole difficulty attending the subject, the following possibilities are offered in reply:

1. A favour granted to prayer, may be more apt on that very account to produce a good effect upon the person obliged. It may hold in the divine bounty, what experience has raised into a proverb in the collation of human benefits, that what is obtained without asking, is oftentimes received without gratitude.

2. It may be consistent with the wisdom of the Deity to withhold his favours till they be asked for, as an expedient to encourage devotion in his rational creation, in order thereby to keep up and circulate a knowledge and sense of their dependency on him.

3. Prayer has a natural tendency to amend the petitioner himself; it composes the mind, humbles us under a conviction of what we are, and under the gracious influence of the Divine Spirit assimilates us into the divine image. Let it suffice, therefore, to say, that, though we are certain that God cannot be operated on, or moved as a fellow- creature may; that though we cannot inform him of any thing he does not know, nor add any thing to his essential and glorious perfections, by any services of ours; yet we should remember that he has appointed this as a mean to accomplish an end; that he has commanded us to engage in this important duty, 1 Thessalonians 5:17; that he has promised his Spirit to assist us in it, Romans 8:26; that the Bible abounds with numerous answers to prayer; and that the promise still relates to all who pray, that answers shall be given, Matthew 7:7 . Psalms 50:15 . Luke 18:1 &c. Philippians 4:6-7 . James 5:16 . Wilkins, Henry, Watts, on Prayer; Townsend's Nine Sermons on Prayer; Paley's Mor. Phil. vol. 2: p. 31; Mason's Student and Pastor, p. 87; Wollaston's Rel. of Nat. p.122, 124; H. Moore on Education, ch. 1. vol. 2:; Barrow's Works, vol. 1: ser. 6; Smith's System of Prayer; Scamp's Sermon on Family Religion.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Prayer'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/p/prayer.html. 1802.

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