Our prayers reflect our understanding of God. How do you pray? How do you address God? What is your posture? What is your attitude? How do you approach God? What do you say when you pray? Many Christians are not comfortable praying. We may feel comfortable reciting “Our Father who is in Heaven, hallowed be your name…” but few of us are comfortable with our own words.
What do our prayers tell us about God? In my recent study of the Old Testament, I learned five new things about prayer.
- Prayer was sometimes initiated by God. For example, God asked a pagan king to ask Abraham to pray for him (Genesis 20:6-7). Throughout the Bible God was identified as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Genesis 32:9; Exodus 3:6, 4:5; Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37; Acts 3:13; 7:32). God appeared to these men as “God Almighty” (Genesis 6:3).
- Prayer was not always practiced by the righteous or favored ones. God had a longer conversation with Cain before and after he killed his brother than with Abel who was favored by God (Genesis 4:1-15). God had two long conversations with Abraham’s Egyptian female servant, Hagar (Genesis 16:1-13; 21:8-19), and none with Abraham’s revered wife, Sarah, the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).
- God initiated prayer with pagan leaders, not godly leaders (Genesis 20:1-17).
- Women prayed directly to God in an era when women were not chosen to be priests and considered unclean (I Samuel 2:1-20)
- God sometimes initiated a conversation with a question rather than a command: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) “Why are you angry?” (Genesis 4:6) “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9) “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10).
Eventually three kinds of prayer emerged in the early pages of Scripture distinguished by three different Hebrew words: Intercessory prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “pa-lal”); A request or petition prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-tara”); and, conversational prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-mar”).
Some prayers contain a combination. Abraham’s servant (Eliezer of Damascus Genesis 15:3) was given the task of finding a wife for Isaac. Abraham told him God would send his angel to help. After he arrived in Abraham’s home town, he saw women come to the well to draw water. He prayed (a-mar) or spoke a prayer which was also a request:
“LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-27; 28-61).
Isaac asked God to give Rebekah children; a prayer of request. Rebekah asked God a question which God answered: conversational prayer. After Isaac married Rebekah, he prayed (a-tara) or requested that she would have children and the LORD answered. During her pregnancy, she felt the babies jostle with each other within her. So she asked God directly, “Why is this happening to me?” The LORD began a conversation initiated by her question: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21-23).
Isaac and Rebekah had twins they named Esau and Jacob. After Jacob tricked Esau and his father, he fled in fear. After many years, Jacob decided to reconcile with his brother and he prayed (a-mar) or speaks this prayer:
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper.’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray (entreat, beg), from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted’ (Genesis 32:9-12).
Though most of Genesis was about the life of Jacob and his twelve sons, God spoke to people inside and outside their family in dreams and visions (Genesis 31:11; 37:5; 40:1-23; 41:1-40; 46:1-4) rather than in conversational prayer. After many years, Jacob’s family became slaves under a new Pharaoh. After 400 years of captivity, God spoke directly to Moses in the burning bush and revealed his name and his character. After gaining his trust, God asked Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Each time the Pharaoh refused to let the people go, God sent a plague. So the Pharaoh, a pagan, asked Moses and Aaron to pray (a-tara) to the LORD. Pharaoh, who was considered a god, asked Moses to pray to the LORD, Moses’ God (Genesis 8:28). Moses allows the Pharaoh to set the time.
Moses replied, ‘I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray (a-tara) for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.’
‘Tomorrow.’ Pharaoh said.
Moses replied, ‘It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the LORD our God’ (Exodus 8:9-10).
Pharaoh asked Moses to pray against the flies (Exodus 8:28-32); against the hail (Exodus 9:27-30); and against the locusts (Exodus 10:16-20). Each time, Pharaoh admits his sin and begs Moses to pray for him and each time he reneged on his promise to let them go.
After the Israelites left Egypt, they wondered in the wilderness for 40 years. During that time, they complained about their hardships and the fire of the LORD burned among them. When they cried out to Moses, Moses prayed (pa-lal), interceding for his people, and the fire died down (Numbers 11:1-3). When the Israelites spoke against God and against Moses claiming they had no bread or water, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people and many of them died. After they admitted they sinned when they spoke against the LORD and against Moses, they asked Moses to pray (pa-lal) or intercede to the LORD which he did (Numbers 21:1-9).
“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 (call) to him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7).
Moses described how and why he prayed:
“When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the LORD your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded you. So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes. Then once again I fell prostrate before the LORD for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight and so arousing his anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the LORD listened to me. And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed (pa-lal) for Aaron too. Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain” (Deuteronomy 9:16-21).
After the Israelites settled in their new land promised to them by God, an angel of the LORD appeared to a woman (Judges 13:3). She told her husband a “man of God” said she would become pregnant. Her husband prayed (a-tar) to the LORD to let the “man of God” appear again which he did. The term “angel of the LORD” appeared many times during this account (Judges 13:13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21). The angel said his name was beyond understanding (Judges 13:18) which is probably why the couple sees the angel as a man rather than a spirit. When the husband realized he had actually seen the angel of the LORD, he feared they will die because they had seen GOD (Elohim, the supreme God of the Universe). His wife reassured him they would live. Their baby was raised a Nazarite, but Samson was not so pure. Yet, Samson prayed (qu-ra: summon):
“Sovereign LORD, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28).
Hannah’s prayers surpassed them all. She was the wife of Elkanah who had two wives. Peninnah had children. Hannah had none. Though Hannah was loved by her husband, her inability to have children caused her great distress. In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the LORD, weeping bitterly. However her attitude is not bitter nor prideful. She does not expect God to do her bidding. In her deep anguish, she makes a vow:
“LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (I Samuel 1:12-13).
After making a vow, she kept praying silently in her heart. If she was silent, who wrote her prayer on the pages of Scripture? (I Samuel 1:10-13)? If her prayer was not heard by anyone but God, did she pen the words herself or did she recite the prayer later to her son, Samuel?
As we read Hannah’s prayer, we discover she is a theologically astute woman. She wrote this psalm before David was even born. This is her psalm, her tribute to the LORD she knows quite well:
“My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.
The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (I Samuel 2:1-10)
What does Hannah know about God? She knows the LORD delivers (I Samuel 2:1). She also knows the LORD is holy and strong like no other (I Samuel 2:2).
Hannah is familiar with the song of Moses: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (I Samuel 2:3). “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).
Many years later, David uses Hannah’s words in his song to the LORD. Hannah wrote: “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (I Samuel 2:2). Later, David wrote: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Samuel 22:2-3). David described the indescribable God with the same metaphor: “For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God?” (2 Samuel 22:32).
Hannah also says the LORD is “a God who knows” (I Samuel 2:3) echoing the words of Joshua “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows!” (Joshua 22:22).
King Solomon agrees with Hannah that “by him our deeds are weighed” (I Samuel 2:3b). Solomon wrote: “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Proverbs 16:2).
King David uses her very words: “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength” (I Samuel 2:4). David later wrote: “But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken” (Psalm 37:15).
God reveals himself to Hannah in a very personal way, a way only a woman would know: “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away” (I Samuel 2:5).
Hannah also believes the LORD has resurrection power! “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (I Samuel 2:6a).
Hannah’s understanding of God is stated over and over again in Scripture and affirmed by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Hannah prays: “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (I Samuel 2:6b-8).
King David repeated her words and promoted “the miraculous God” who is able to give barren woman children: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people. He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the LORD” (Psalm 113:7-9).
Hannah is the first to claim “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world” (I Samuel 2:8b) though first stated by God who asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4).
Again King Solomon restated Hannah’s words, “He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness” (I Samuel 2:9). Solomon wrote: “For he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones” (Proverbs 2:8).
Hannah was inspired by God’s power: “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be broken” (I Samuel 2:9b-10a).
King David used Hannah’s words to describe God: “The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the Earth” (I Samuel 2:10b). He wrote: “The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded” (Psalm 18:13). David expands on her theology stating God is the Most High judge who dispenses true justice to an unjust world: “Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (Psalm 96:13). David believed along with Hannah that the perfect One overrides imperfect justice missed by flawed human beings: “Let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9).
Most importantly, Hannah prophesies about the future King of Israel before there were any kings: “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (I Samuel 2:10b).
Hannah did not intercede for anyone. She did not request anything from God. She did not have a conversation with God. Instead, her prayer was a theological masterpiece.
Hannah may have prayed silently at Shiloh, but her prayer continues to teach people about God. The prayer she uttered over 3000 years ago was written down. Because her prayer was written down, it has been read in worship services throughout the world. Her public pronouncement is unparalleled in Scripture. The words that were inspired by the God she knew, taught future kings and inspired them to repeat her very words.
Today most people petition God when they are in need. Only a few practice intercessory prayer. Fewer still hear from God in conversation. Rare is the prayer that teaches others about God. So when we pray, let us be faithful to the tradition that has been practice for millennium. Prayer reminds us that God wants a relationship with us. Jesus reminded us that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”
What is your understanding of God? How do you pray and why? Are your prayers only prayers of request or complaint or do you seek to have a relationship with God? Do you desire to love the God who loves you? A relationship requires conversation. If you do not pray, you are missing out on the most precious gift God gave to humankind.