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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Prayer (2)

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PRAYER.—For the Christian what is said in the Gospels is absolute as to the duty of prayer for himself and for others; but he need not fear that in fulfilling this duty he is doing what reason cannot approve. It does not fall within the scope of this article to attempt to find a scientific basis for prayer; nor need more be said about the reasonableness of prayer than to point out two considerations: (1) The practice of countless races of mankind throughout countless generations is not likely to be based upon a complete delusion. Untold millions of human beings, including a majority of the most gifted and enlightened, have prayed and continue to pray, because they believe that experience has taught them that prayer is efficacious. (2) We have been placed in a world that is full of good things which are suitable to our needs. Yet it is certain that the world is so ordered that very few of these good things can be enjoyed by us, unless we take the trouble to appropriate them. There is, therefore, nothing unreasonable in believing that the world has been so ordered that some of the blessings which are within our reach cannot be enjoyed unless we pray for them. In the laws which govern the Universe, provision has certainly been made for the operation of men’s wills and activities. Consequently there is nothing illogical or unscientific in believing that in those laws provision has been made for the operation of men’s prayers. The cases are not completely parallel, because demonstration is possible in the one case but not in the other; for the connexion between work and its results can be proved, while the connexion between prayer and its results cannot, for the obvious reason that faith is an essential condition of prayer, and proof would destroy faith. Nevertheless, the analogy between the two cases is sufficiently complete to show that there is no necessary antagonism between knowledge of the reign of law and belief in the efficacy of prayer.

In discussing the subject of prayer in reference to Christ and the Gospels, we may consider these topics: (1) the words used to express the idea of prayer; (2) places and times of prayer; (3) attitude in prayer; (4) Christ’s example; (5) Christ’s doctrine.

1. There are a few words for ‘prayer’ in the NT which are not found in the Gospels: εὔχομαι, εὐχή, ἐντυγχάνω, ἔντευξις, ὑπερεντυγχάνω, ἱκετηρία. But the majority of such words occur in the Gospels, and their distribution is of interest.

(1) τροσεὐχομαι, very frequent in the Synoptics, not in John; προσευχή, 8 times in the Synoptics, not in John; (2) δέομαι, Matthew 9:38; Matthew 9:8 times in Luke, not in John; δέησις, Luke 1:13; Luke 2:37; Luke 5:33; (3) ἐρωτάω, rare in this sense in the Synoptics, frequent in John; (4) αἰτέω and αἰτέομαι, in all four; σἵτημα, Luke 23:24. Of these four sets of words, the first alone is specially appropriated to the worship of God: it implies that the person addressed in prayer is Divine. The second implies personal need and a special petition to God and man for the supply of a want. The third (which frequently means to ask a question), when used of making requests, generally asks a person to do something (Mark 7:26, Luke 8:37, John 4:40; John 4:47; John 14:16; John 17:15; John 17:20). The fourth indicates a simple request to give something (Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 11:9-13, John 14:13-14), the middle voice sometimes adding intensity to the request. All except the first may be used of petitions to men, and have no necessary connexion with the worship of God.

2. Places and times of prayer.—The chief place was the Temple: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ (Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46). Christ called it ‘My Father’s house’ (Luke 2:49, John 2:16), and, as such, it is the type of heaven (John 14:2). St. Luke tells of others worshipping in the Temple: Zacharias (Luke 1:9), Simeon (Luke 2:27), Anna (Luke 2:37), the disciples (Luke 24:53), and (in a parable) the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:10). The worship in the synagogues was frequently attended by Christ, especially in the earlier part of His ministry (Matthew 12:9; Matthew 13:54, Mark 1:21; Mark 3:1; Mark 6:2, Luke 4:16; Luke 6:6, John 6:59; John 18:20); and no doubt His disciples frequently did the same. There is also the inner chamber (ταμεῖον, Matthew 6:6), and the guest-chamber (κατάλυμα, Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11) or upper room (ἀνάγαιον, Mark 14:15, Luke 22:12), in which the prayer of the great High Priest seems to have been offered (John 17, although some would place the scene of this in the Temple, cf. John 14:31), and in which Jesus and the Eleven ‘sang a hymn’ (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26) before going to the Mount of Olives. Nathanael’s fig-tree (John 1:48) and Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32) lead us to think of gardens as places of retirement for prayer. And there is also the mountain-top near Bethsaida (Mark 6:46), and that other which was the scene of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2, Luke 9:28), and which St. Luke tells us was ascended for the purpose of prayer.

Not much is said in the Gospels about times of prayer; but we read of Christ rising up before daylight and going to a desert spot to pray (Mark 1:35), and of His continuing all night in prayer before the choosing of the twelve Apostles (Luke 6:12). The evening before His arrest is another recorded instance.

3. The common attitude in prayer among the Jews was standing; and this our Lord assumes in His teaching (Matthew 6:5, Mark 11:25, Luke 18:11; Luke 18:13). But He Himself knelt in the garden (Luke 22:41): and it was perhaps in consequence of His example on that occasion that in the NT the first Christians are always represented as kneeling. Outside the Gospels no other posture for prayer is mentioned.

4. Christ’s example.—Much more important than terminology, or the mention of places, times, and postures for prayer, is the fact that Jesus Christ, by His own example, has taught us the duty of prayer. Not that we need suppose that He prayed merely in order to set us an example: prayer was one of those things which became Him, in order that He might ‘fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15). But example, as set by Him, is of the very strongest. If in such a life as His there was not only room but need for prayer, much more must there be room and need in such lives as ours. Nor were His prayers always prayers for others. In most cases we are not told why or for what He prayed: this we have to gather from the context. On one great occasion, in the garden, just before His Passion, we know that He prayed for Himself (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:35, Luke 22:41). An hour or two before this, just after the Supper, we know that He prayed for His disciples (John 17:6-19) and for the whole Church (John 17:20-26); and a few hours later He prayed for those who nailed Him to the Cross (Luke 23:34, a verse which is historically true, whether St. Luke wrote it or not). Moreover, He has left us an example of intercession, not merely for groups of persons, large and small, but also for an individual. He assured St. Peter, ‘I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not’ (Luke 22:32).

It should be noticed that the instances of Christ’s praying which are recorded in the Gospels are found just before or just after leading events in the Lord’s life; also that the majority of them are given us by St. Luke, whose Gospel is sometimes called ‘the Gospel of Prayer.’ There are, indeed, three recorded instances of His praying which are omitted by St. Luke. St. Mark (Mark 1:35) mentions His retirement for prayer after healing multitudes at Capernaum, where St. Luke (Luke 4:42) mentions only the retirement. Both St. Mark (Luke 6:46) and St. Matthew (Matthew 14:23) record His retirement for prayer after the feeding of the 5000, where St. Luke (Matthew 9:17) omits both retirement and prayer. And St. John (John 12:27-28) tells of His prayer when certain Greeks were brought to Him, where St. Luke omits the whole incident. As we might expect, the prayer for Himself in the garden of Gethsemane is recorded by all three Synoptists (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:35, Luke 22:41). Nothing in the Gospels is stronger evidence of the reality of our Lord’s humanity than that prayer, and it evidently established itself firmly in the earliest traditions respecting Him. But there are seven instances in which St. Luke is alone in relating that Jesus prayed: at His baptism (Luke 3:21); before His first collision with the Jewish hierarchy (Luke 5:16); before choosing the Twelve (Luke 6:12); before the first prediction of His Passion (Luke 9:18); at His Transfiguration (Luke 9:29); before teaching the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1); and on the Cross (Luke 23:34; Luke 23:46).

There are three other cases where prayer on the part of Christ seems to be implied, although it is not expressly stated. He looked up to heaven before breaking the bread at the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16). So also, before healing the deaf man who had an impediment in his speech, Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed (Mark 7:34). Still more clearly, before raising Lazarus, Jesus lifted up His eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou heardest me (John 11:41). We venture to count all three of these as occasions on which Jesus prayed.

This gives us, in all, fourteen instances: two in all three Gospels, one in Matthew and Mark, two in Mark alone, two in John alone, and seven in Luke alone. They cover the whole of Christ’s public life from His baptism to the moment of His death, and show His dependence upon His Father for help and strength and refreshment. To say with Victor of Antioch (Swete on Mark 1:35), that Christ prayed οὐκ αὐτὸς ταύτης δεομενοςἀλλʼ οἰκονομικῶς τοῦτο ποιῶν, is not adequate, even if in some sense true. Hebrews 5:7-8 places us nearer to the truth. We ought to beware of suggesting that our Lord’s prayers were in any way unreal. It was out of the fulness of His own experience in a life of absolutely unique difficulty, toil, and suffering that He said, ‘Ask, and it shall be given you.’

5. Christ’s doctrine.—In addition to His weighty example as to the duty and blessedness of prayer, we have Christ’s frequent sayings on the subject. That men ‘ought always to pray and not to faint’ was evidently a marked feature in His teaching, and it appears in three different forms: (1) On two occasions, apparently, once spontaneously (Matthew 6:5-15), and once at the request of a disciple (Luke 11:14), Christ gave His followers a definite form of prayer. If, however, as some think, there was only one occasion on which this was done, then St. Luke rather than St. Matthew gives the historic setting. (2) He devoted certain parables to the subject. (3) He uttered a variety of sayings, enforcing and completing the teaching of the parables.

(1) The Lord’s Prayer is the subject of separate articles, to which the reader is referred.

(2) There are five parables, three of which bear directly and two indirectly on the subject of prayer. Two, both of them in St. Luke only, teach that prayer must be importunate and persevering. These are the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8), which follows the giving of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8). So far as the two parables differ, the former teaches that prayer is never out of season, the latter that it is sure to bring a blessing and not a curse. But we must beware of supposing that either parable teaches that by constant prayer we at last overcome God’s unwillingness. The argument in both parables is a fortiori, and is strongest in the second. ‘If an unrighteous judge would yield to the importunity of an unknown widow, who came and spoke to him at intervals, much more will a righteous God be ready to reward the perseverance of His own elect, who cry to Him day and night.’ God’s desire to help is always present; by perseverance in prayer we appropriate it. In the helpful illustration of the anchored ship, pointed out by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iv. 23), the sailors who pull the rope seem to draw the anchor to the ship; in reality they draw the ship to the anchor.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, which also is preserved by St. Luke alone, and is placed by him immediately after that of the Unjust Judge, teaches the frame of mind in which God must be approached in prayer, viz. a deep sense, not only of need (as in the other two parables), but of unworthiness. Before Him we have no claim to merit, no ground for self-congratulation. The parable indicates that downcast eyes and beating of the breast are natural accompaniments of a penitent’s prayer. Less directly, and apart from its main purpose, the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches a similar lesson. The lost son’s prayer, as planned before his return and as actually uttered, is touching in its humility.

In both these cases, the Publican and the Prodigal, the chief thing prayed for is forgiveness, as must constantly be the case with sinful man. And there is yet another parable which teaches what is requisite, if this most necessary of all prayers is to be rightly offered: the sinner himself must have a forgiving spirit. The Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) by asking for forgiveness for himself thereby bound himself to be forgiving to his fellows. His refusal to recognize this obligation became fatal to his own forgiveness. The great truth, that one who asks to be forgiven must be ready to forgive, had been clearly seen by the more spiritual among the Jews. There is a striking anticipation of Christ’s teaching in Sirach 28:2-5.

(3) Besides the parables, there are frequent sayings of Christ on the subject of prayer, and these are found in all four Gospels. The necessity of a forgiving spirit is repeated in Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25, with obvious reference to the Lord’s Prayer. Two other things are stated as necessary accompaniments of prayer: watchfulness (Mark 13:33; Mark 14:38, Matthew 26:41) and faith (Mark 11:24, Matthew 21:22). This last is specially emphasized, as being the test of reality and the condition of success. It is the result of the human will being brought into complete union with the will of God, producing absolute trust in the fulfilment of His promises. And we may be all the more sure of success in our prayers if others join with us in making them (Matthew 18:19). Prayers which are approved by many are more likely to be right. Desires in which we cannot ask others to join are likely to be selfish.

And there are two things specially to be avoided: parade (Matthew 6:5-6; Matthew 23:14, Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47) and prating (Matthew 6:7). In the latter passage the ‘vain repetitions’ of Authorized Version and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 is apt to mislead. The ‘bable’ of Tindale and the Genevan is perhaps better. Repetition of prayers, even in the same form of words, is encouraged by our Lord, both by precept (Luke 18:1-8) and by example (Matthew 26:44). It is the mechanical repetition of a formula (1 Kings 18:26), as if it were a magical charm, to compel the compliance of the Deity, that seems to be forbidden. Our petitions must have a worthy meaning, and we must think of the meaning.

Instruction is also given as to the right objects of prayer. We are to pray for spiritual progress (Luke 11:13) in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large. We are to pray that we ourselves may be delivered from temptation (Matthew 6:13; Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38, Luke 11:4; Luke 22:40; Luke 22:46), and that evil may be cast out from others (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29), and that missionaries for the conversion of the world may be multiplied (Matthew 9:38, Luke 10:2). In our intercessions our enemies are to be specially included (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:28). About temporal blessings we are not to be over anxious; yet prayer for them is not merely allowed but enjoined (Matthew 6:11, Luke 11:3); as also is prayer against temporal calamities (Mark 13:18, Matthew 24:20). The prayer of the disciples for help in the storm was heard (Matthew 8:26, Mark 4:39, Luke 8:24).

Parallels to some of the items of this teaching could be found in the OT. But there is one point with regard to the method of prayer which is absolutely new. Men had been taught to worship God and even to pray to Him as a Father: now they are told to pray to the Father in the name of the Son (John 16:23-24; John 16:26). Anything that can be rightly asked in Christ’s name will be granted (John 14:13-14); and there is no other limit. Any request which is consistent with His character and office, as represented by His name, may be made to His Father, with confidence that the prayer will be heard (John 15:7; John 15:16). The prayer of the sons of Zebedee for the right and left hand places in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:21, Mark 10:37) was not of this character, and was not commended. Nor, for the same reason, were they allowed to pray for a special judgment on the inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:54-55). Both requests were made in spiritual ignorance. It confirms our trust in the historical fidelity of the Fourth Gospel, that this remarkable development in the teaching of Christ respecting prayer in His name occurs in the farewell discourses.

There is yet another particular which is absolutely new, viz. worship offered to Christ Himself as to a Divine person: and once more the clearest instances of this are in the Fourth Gospel. St. Matthew often, and St. Mark once, mention the fact that people ‘worshipped’ (προσεκύνησαν) Jesus. But even where this worship is accompanied by a request that He would cleanse a leper (Matthew 8:2) or raise the dead (Matthew 9:18), this act of prostration does not necessarily imply more than that He was regarded as a great prophet (1 Kings 18:7, Daniel 2:46). The worship of Him by the disciples after the Resurrection (Matthew 28:9; Matthew 28:17, Luke 24:52) carries us further: yet it might be argued that this also is the worship of mere reverence. But about the meaning of the worship of the man born blind (John 9:38) there can be little doubt; all the less so, because St. John always uses προσκυνέω of the worship of God (John 4:20-24; John 12:20), never of mere respect to great men; and the use of the word in the Apocalypse is similar. Still less can there be any doubt as to the meaning of the adoring exclamation of the sceptical Apostle (John 20:28)—‘the loftiest view of the Lord given in the Gospels’ (Westcott), and the climax to which the scheme of St. John’s Gospel steadily leads up. In none of these cases did Jesus reject the worship, or rebuke those who offered it to Him.

Literature.—Works on the reasonableness and the efficacy of prayer abound, but they are outside the sphere of this article. Handbooks of Biblical Theology give little help. In Bible Dictionaries the art. on ‘Prayer’ in Hastings, iv. p. 42 ff., should be consulted; also in Schaff-Herzog, iii. p. 1879, and in Herzog-Plitt, art. on ‘Gebet,’ some information will be found.

A. Plummer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prayer (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/prayer-2.html. 1906-1918.

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Friday, August 14th, 2020
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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