Prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures

One of my favorite parts about being a pastor is doing what is called pastoral care. Pastoral care is generally described as shepherding or caring for members of the church. I do a little talking and a lot of listening during pastoral care. I like to encourage others and I like to hear about the experiences that others have in their spiritual life. I also find it really useful to get a feeling of what is going on in people’s lives in order to help me write sermons that are responsive to the needs of the people in the church. Again and again people tell me that they are unsatisfied with their prayer lives. They may have a sense that there is one right way to do it and they have not yet discovered it. They might feel that emotional dryness gets in the way. They might feel they can pray at times and for certain seasons of their lives, but not during others. I hear all of this enough that I have come to think of it as commonplace and a problem of the average person… and perhaps the majority of people. That’s why I thought it was important to do a sermon series on prayer. My hope is that each of us can become more familiar with a variety of ways to pray in order that we might feel more comfortable with prayer in general. I want us to grow in confidence in how to pray. I want us to learn many examples so that when we are not sure what to pray, we might think of some of the prayers we have heard of here and try it instead of avoiding prayer in the face of uncertainty. I hope that when we feel spiritually dry we remember that prayer is not about emotion. Sometimes emotion comes with prayer, but sometimes it does not. Both prayers are equally heard by God. Both prayers are building up the practice of communication with God. I can remember going on a religious retreat in high school. It was an emotional ride. I felt a strong let down when I got home and went back to regular life and regular prayer. But I think this kind of experience can help remind us to hold onto prayer regardless of the emotional roller coaster that is life. Its ok to feel something or nothing when you pray…just keep praying.

Last week we talked about the basics of prayer. We discussed that prayer is communication with God and is for everyone, and to be done anytime and anywhere. Prayer is for all the occasions of your life. Prayer builds up our relationship with God and is comprised of both speaking and listening. Each person has their own individual way of communicating with God but can also learn new ways.

This week we turn specifically to the Hebrew scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, to learn about prayer. The Old Testament scriptures give us an account of the people of Israel’s early relationship with God. We see in the Hebrew scriptures examples of people communicating with God and discussing their beliefs about God. This is a window into the faith of the Jewish people. As followers of Jesus, we should also remember that Jesus was himself a 1st Century Palestinian Jew. That means that the stories and the prayers of the Hebrew scriptures were a large part of his worldview. It was the Hebrew scriptures and their interpretations that would have taught him to pray before he taught us to pray. Like Jesus, we can learn how to pray by looking at some of the prayers and types of prayers in the Hebrew scriptures. Looking at prayer in the Hebrew scriptures, we see a variety of methods and voices. There are no barriers as to who can pray. It is a universal call for relationship between God and humanity. That’s why we can say that prayer is for everyone, all the time, and everywhere…that is the example we see in the Hebrew scriptures.

Although we will be speaking today about the Old Testament, I chose a New Testament reading for our scripture because it is an excellent reminder that God is faithful to us, and that prayer can make a difference. Paul, himself a reader of the Hebrew scriptures, is rescued by the prayers of the people. Although we don’t know what exactly the church prayed, we know that God listened. We see examples of this in both the Old Testament and New Testament.

So what type of prayers do we see in the Old Testament? The answer is many. There are even two books of the Bible that are comprised of a series of prayers: the psalms and lamentations. Prayers also come up in the books that teach us about the history of the people or the teachings of the prophets. Prayer is woven throughout the entire series of books. Today we are going to look briefly at several types of prayer from the Hebrew scriptures which I think could be useful to us. These are meant to be mixed and matched with one another. That’s something we see displayed in the book of Psalms and book of Lamentations for example. Those types of prayer I wish to discuss today are: adoration, thanksgiving, confession, vows, intercession, prayer for transformation, prayers of lamentation, and supplication which includes prayers for deliverance, healing, or help. All of these prayers can be divided into these 3 types: prayers about relationship to God, prayers for others, and prayers for oneself. All three types of prayer are important parts of a prayer life. So let’s look at some types of prayer.

Adoration is another word for worship or veneration. The simple phrase, “God is good” is adoration. Praising God with mind, voice, or body is adoration. I like to start my prayers with adoration to get myself in the right mindset. It is also a simple way to pray when you don’t know what to pray for. Just say, “God you are holy” or “God you are wonderful” and you have completed a prayer of adoration. You could do a litany or list of the great things about God using attributes you find in the Bible or in your faith tradition. You can find many examples of adoration prayers in the psalms. Adoration prayers often go well with thanksgiving prayers.

Thanksgiving is the act of telling God how grateful you are and what you are grateful for. You thank God for the blessings in your life and the wonders in the world. When we acknowledge our blessings, we are communicating with God, and we are also growing in our ability to give thanks. The more you count your blessings, the more you are in tune with recognizing them. In Ezra chapter 3 verse 11 we find that the people sang their thanksgiving to God when the Temple was rebuilt. They shouted and played tambourines and cymbals as a part of their thanks to God. Another way to practice thankfulness is a gratitude journal. In a gratitude journal you write down a certain number of things you feel gratitude for each day. It helps one grow in the practice of thankfulness.

Prayers of confession are where we express to God that we have not lived up to God’s standards, and we are sorry for that. We ask for forgiveness and resolve to live better. In the psalms we see examples of confessions that are to be read from David to God. David sinned against God and his neighbor and was chastised by God’s prophet. The penalty for David’s sin was supposed to be death. Instead of making excuses or trying to shift blame, David confesses his sins and is forgiven. He does not pay the price of death but is spared instead. Like it was with David, our heartfelt prayer of confession is followed by God’s mercy.

Another form of prayer we see in the Hebrew scriptures is a vow. A vow is a promise or oath made to God, or to God and another person. A covenant involves vows. With a vow we state who we will be from now on. Sometimes this vow even comes with some change of identity within society afterwards, such as taking a vow into the priesthood of the Jewish people. Likewise, when Ruth says that she will go wherever Naomi goes and that Naomi’s people will be her people, and Naomi’s God will be her God, she is making a vow that will change her identity. It is a vow to Naomi and to God. Those of us who are baptized have also made vows. If you need a refresher on what the baptismal vows are, you can find them online for the United Methodist Church. If you are not yet baptized, it might be good to review what those vows are and think about whether you might be ready to take that step.

The prayer of transformation is a plea to God. We ask God to change us. This is a powerful form of prayer. Some even call it dangerous because it has such potential to uproot our lives. After all, we are asking for change. But we should not be afraid to pray that God might shape us and mold us and make us more like Christ, and this is exactly the kind of transformation we are praying for here. The writer of the psalms prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” That is a prayer of transformation. That is a prayer that calls power into your life. Have you taken the step of calling God’s transformative power into your life? I encourage you to do so.

Prayers of intercession are our prayers for other people. We ask for healing, blessing, deliverance, help, or mercy for someone else. Praying intercessory prayers unites us with the people we are praying for. The Hebrew scriptures are full of praying people who are praying on behalf of someone else. The first example of this is in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, when Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city of Sodom. God agrees that he will not if he can find a sufficient number of righteous people in the city. Abraham bargains with God on the number, continually pressuring God to be ever more merciful. In the end, the city cannot be spared, but those righteous people within the city are indeed spared perhaps specifically because of Abraham’s pleas on their behalf. God has called on God’s people to intercede for the world.

Prayers of lamentation involve crying out to God in times of great sorrow and suffering. It is an expression of loss or grief. It can be individual or communal. The book of lamentation in the Hebrew scriptures gives some great examples. It was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The people were downtrodden and suffering. They turned to lamentation prayers. When you feel a groaning in your spirit, you might try reading or even composing a lamentation prayer. A lamentation always end with a prayer of praise to God because we always have reason to hope and therefore praise God.

Finally, we have prayers of supplication, or asking, which includes prayers for deliverance, healing, or help for ourselves. We see many of these prayers in the psalms. Whenever someone cries out to God on their own behalf, it is a prayer of supplication.

Now that we have gone through this list, I want to remind you that it is not exhaustive. There are, as I said, many ways to pray. For whatever circumstances you encounter, you can find a method of prayer that is right for that situation. As we saw in the scripture reading today, prayer matters because God listens. That is the lesson of the Hebrew scriptures in regards to prayer: God is ever present and is ready to hear our prayers. God responds, so make sure you are reaching out!

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