Prayer (in the Bible)

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There is no one definition of prayer that will completely cover all references to it in the Bible. Prayer is often described in terms of intercourse and spiritual communion with God, with or without the mediation of priests or heavenly beings; it is usually, but not necessarily, vocal. By it the petitioner's will and activities are identified with God, effecting an intimate personal contact and relationship with Him.

In the Old Testament. The most common Hebrew verb meaning to pray or intercede is hitpallēl; from it is derived the noun t epillâ (prayer), which is often used in the Psalm titles. Several other Hebrew terms also are used in the sense of praying, e.g., qārā ' (to call), hitannēn (to seek favor), āaq (to cry aloud), and šāpak nepeš (to pour out one's soul).

Prayer as expressed in the Old Testament was founded upon the realization of the Israelites that Yahweh was present in their midst and acting in their behalf; His personal presence invited their response [Ps 17 (18).7; 139 (140).710; 1 Kgs 8.2358]. The response on their part was the fruit of abiding confidence (see faith, 1) that God would hear and answer their prayer, because He had revealed His covenanted love [see love (in the bible)] for them and was powerful to help them. Later, as they came to realize Yahweh's constant active intervention in their behalf, they saw Him as creator and sustainer of the universe, and this idea, too, was frequently expressed in prayer [e.g., Ps 103 (104)].

The prayer of the Israelite was always deeply rooted in confidence in Yahweh's response [Ps 24 (25).14; 27 (28).67; 45 (46); 90 (91)]; a confidence so firm that accompanying expressions of thanksgiving appeared even in anticipation of the reception of favors they had petitioned [Ps 13 (14); 22 (23); 26 (27); etc.]. Yet on occasion seek favor), s a certain anxiety about prayers' not being answered introduced a note of pleading, challenging, and even wrestling with Yahweh, as in Jeremiah and Job.

Spiritual blessings and, more frequently, temporal prosperity were the objects of Israelite prayer [Ps 16 (17); 32 (33); 53 (54); 87 (88)]. They petitioned life in the full sense: good health, long life, prosperity, rich progeny, the happiness of seeing fellow Israelites flourish, and the joy of participating in the worship of Yahweh [Ps 38 (39); 41 (42); 83 (84); 125 (126); Tb 8.10; 1 Sm 1.1011]. Spiritual values of the highest order came to be embraced in their petitions. They desired to share in the praise of Yahweh and pleaded for the preservation of true religion, associated always, however, with the idea of triumphant vindication of Yahweh's own nation and the punishment of its enemies [Jgs 13.69; Ps 3; 10 (11); Jer 17.1418]. Their prayer involved intercession for others: for the king, for the country in which they were exiled, for their brethren in the faith, and in the latest period of their history, for those who had departed this life (1 Mc 12.11; 2 Mc 12.44).

Three types of prayer are evident: petition, thanksgiving, and those of a penitential character. Those of petition stated not only what was desired, but also frequently the reasons for the request (e.g., Jgs 16.28). Occasionally such prayers were lengthened by the adding of a summary of favors previously granted and often became so verbose in expressing the praise of Yahweh for earlier favors that they developed into a review of Israelite history [2 Chr 20.612; 1 Kgs 3.69; Ps 102 (103)]. Penitential prayers, requesting forgiveness of sin and remission of punishment following a simple confession of guilt, were sometimes joined to a plea for deliverance from threatening danger and a promise of amendment (Jgs 10.10, 15; 1 Sm 12.10; Est 9.615; Dn 9.419). Prayers of thanksgiving for blessings received usually included an admission of man's unworthiness to receive divine favors [2 Sm 7.1929; Ps 12 (13).6; 21 (22).26].

Some fixed formulas of prayer for certain occasions are found in the Old Testament. The priestly blessing (Nm 6.24) and the words said in offering the first fruits (Dt 26.3, 510) and tithes (Dt 26.1315) are examples of early liturgical prayer formulas. Later, certain passages from Scripture were used as fixed types of prayer, e.g., the confession of faith known as the Shema (Dt 6.49;11.1321; Nm 15.3741) and the Hallel [Ps 112 (113)117 (118)].

Prayer was not limited to the place of public worship, however, but was offered anywhere; it accompanied sacrifice [Ps 21 (22).26; 53 (54).8; 115 (116B).8; Jn 2.10] and the making of vows [1 Sm 1.11; Ps 64 (65)]. A quiet room in the home with a window facing Jerusalem was a favorite place for family prayer (Tb 3.11; Dn 6.11; 1 Kgs 8.38; 2 Chr 6.34). Prayer was often communal (Jl 2.1517; Jdt4.79; Jgs 10.10;20.2628). The Book of Psalms constitutes the inexhaustible source of relevant expressions for communication with God for all ages, places, persons, and conditions of earthly existence.

In the New Testament. The ordinary Greek terms used in the New Testament in regard to praying are προσεύχομαι (to pray) and προσευχή (prayer); several synonyms for praying, such as ατέω (to ask) and ε[symbol omitted]τυγχάνω (to intercede), are used occasionally.

The Gospels often describe Christ in prayer (Lk3.21; 5.16; 9.29; 10.21; 11.1; 22.32); He prayed, publicly as well as privately, before important acts and decisions (Lk 3.31; Mt 14.23; Heb 5.7). However, in virtue of His special relationship with the Father, He is presented as living in continuous prayer (Jn 1.51; 4.34; 8.29; 11.41). He taught His disciples to pray, giving them the sublime form expressed in the lord's prayer; yet, as is evident from its two variant recorded forms (Mt 6.913; Lk 11.24), He did not teach strict adherence to the formula, but to its spirit, "In this manner you shall pray."

The new relationship by which Christians come to the Father through Christ, that of adoptive sonship, forms the basis of prayer in the New Testament. A joyful awareness of this relationship evokes a deepened childlike loving confidence and tender intimacy whereby Christians come to pray to God with "unutterable sighs" of the Spirit (Rom 8.15, 26; Gal 4.6). The requisites for prayer are explicitly set forth: unshakable confidence born of faith (Mt 11.24; Lk 17.5; Jas 1.5); perseverance with urgent insistence (Mt 7.71; 15.21; Lk 11.113; 18.18; Eph 6.18; 1 Thes 5.17); absolute inner sincerity, as opposed to the hypocritical externalism of the Pharisee (Mt6.58); humility; and the loving fulfillment of God's commandments. Where prayer fulfills these conditions, its efficacy is unlimited (Mk 11.24). Particular efficacy is ascribed to communal prayer of the Christian community (Mt 18.10; 1 Tm 2.12).

The Acts and Epistles show that the prayers of the early Christians were dominated by interests of the kingdom of God and spiritual values (Acts 4.29; 16.25; Rom 15.30; 2 Cor 2.11; Eph 6.19). Objects of prayerful intercession included not only fellow Christians, but all men, especially those in authority (1 Tm 2.1) and even enemies and persecutors (Mt 6.44; Lk 6.28).

Usually in the New Testament, all prayer, private as well as public liturgical prayer, is addressed to God the Father through Christ. Yet, occasionally, prayer is directed to Christ as Lord (Jn 14.14; Acts 7.59; Rom 10.12; 1 Cor 1.2; 2 Cor 12.8; 1 Tm 1.12). The various doxologies and hymns of adoration and praise form a veritable treasure house of prayer formulas (Rom 9.5; 11.36; 2 Cor 11.31; 16.27; 1 Pt 4.11; etc.).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 18921901. w. hillmann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:53742. c. westermann and o. bauernfeind, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:121321. d. r. ap-thomas, "Notes on Some Terms Relating to Prayer," Vetus Testamentum 6 (1956) 22541. l. bouyer, "Les Psaumes, prière du peuple de Dieu," La Bible et l'évangile (Paris 1951) 22744. j. de fraine, Praying with the Bible, tr. j. w. saul (New York 1964).

[m. r. e. masterman]