Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shades of Meanings Behind Words of Prayer

Someone recently asked me to define "prayer". That's not easy to do because I know that our English word for prayer has various shades of meaning depending upon what Hebrew or Greek word is being translated. Does the word "prayer" when used in the Bible have God alone as the object and subject of the prayer? In other words, is prayer about God and our wonder of who he is, or does the very word when used in the Bible also have man as the subject of the prayer?

Our prayers should include praise and worship for Who God is (See Psalms 8, 19, 23, 46, 95, 100, 148). Yet, the word "prayer" in the Bible often has others as the subject of the prayer. For example, upon hearing of the affliction of the Jews back in Jerusalem, Nehemiah responded as follows: "Now it came about when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven" (1:4). The Hebrew word here for prayer is palal (see below), which emphasizes the humility and the specific request of the individual who is praying. The content of Nehemiah's prayer was for the afflicted people back in Jerusalem (See 1:6). The prayer was directed to God, but it concerned the well being of others. So the word "prayer" itself is often (See again the Book of Pslams) associated with prayer to God about man.

Having said this, what are some of the meanings of the words associated with prayer? For example, the Hebrew word palal places the emphasis on the humility of the person praying. Palal is also the appeal placed before God to act on a specific need. Atar places the emphasis on the intensity of the one praying. Sa'al means "to ask" or "to inquire" and it is used of those seeking God's guidance for their lives. Paga' is used of intercessory prayer, that is, the prayer of individuals on behalf of others. Hanan is the heart's cry to God for mercy (L. Richards, Bible Teacher's Commentary, 638).

Each of these words express the importance of a personal and intimate relationship with God. They emphasise the humility and the dependence we should have on God as Reedemer, Deliverer and Provider. Our prayers are answered not so much because of how we pray but because our Creator is gracious, kind and merciful. He longs to hear our voice and respond to our cry. The emphasis ultimately in prayer is on God who answers.

The Greek language also has various words that help us grasp the colorful aspects of prayer. Paul uses multiple words when writing about prayer. "With all prayer (proseuche) and petition (deesis) pray (proseuchomai) at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition (deesis) for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18, NASB). Then in Philippians 4:9 Paul writes, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer (proseuche) and supplication (deesis) with thanksgiving (eucharistia) let your requests (aitema) be made known to God." Proseuchomai is the term of indearment for prayer in the New Testament, which is contrary to the cold "calling on a deity" which characterized classical Greek Culture. Deesis is translated as "petition" and "supplication". Its use encourages us to pray for specific needs. James writes, ". . . The effective prayer" (or supplication) "of a righteous man can accomplish much" (James 5:16). Eucharistia denotes a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Paul uses other words as well in 1 Timothy 2:1 (Richards, 638).

As in the O.T., the New Testament's use of words on prayer convey an intimate relationship with God through prayer. Jesus reminds us to "ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you" (John 15:7; See also Matthew 7:7-8). Of course, this passage is in the context of abiding or remaining in Christ and his word. This intimate relationship with the Lord should guide the content of what we ask and seek. We should always seek God's will as we pray.

In his book on prayer, Bill Hybels gives four questions that we should answer as we place our requests before the Lord. He writes, "If God granted this request,
* would it bring glory to him?
* would it advance his kingdom?
* would it help people?
* would it help me to grow spiritually?
(Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be with God, 78).

So does the word "prayer" have to do more with our focus on God or on man? Both. Of course our prayers are always directed to God, but when the biblical authors use the actual word "prayer" they do not always have God as the subject or content of the prayer (that is, his praise). Although it can be argued that some verses in the Old Testament do have God as both the object and subject of those who "pray," the word most of the time (if not all of the time) must be understood to speak of the petitions, requests and intercessions made to God about others and ourselves, as well as prayers of thanksgiving for God's kindness and mercies.
What, then, is prayer? In the words of an old commentary writer, W. Barclay, "Prayer is nothing less than entering into the presence of the Almighty and receiving the resources of the Eternal" (quoted in G. Cowen, Sermon Starters from the Greek New Testament, 16). And I would only add, ". . . on behalf of others and ourselves to the glory of his Name."
Por Su Gracia y Poder

No comments: