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The object of this article will be to touch briefly on—
1. The doctrine of Scripture as to the nature and efficacy of prayer; 2. Its directions as to time, place, and manner of prayer; 3. Its types and examples of prayer.
1. Scripture does not give any theoretical explanation of the mystery which attaches to prayer. The difficulty of understanding its real efficacy arises chiefly from two sources: from the belief that man lives under general laws, which in all cases must be fulfilled unalterably, and the opposing belief that he is master of his own destiny, and need pray for no external blessing. Now, Scripture, while, by the doctrine of spiritual influence, it entirely disposes of the latter difficulty, does not so entirely solve that part of the mystery which depends on the nature of God. It places it clearly before us, and emphasizes most strongly those doctrines on which the difficulty turns. Yet, while this is so, on the other hand the instinct of prayer is solemnly sanctioned and enforced on every page. Not only is its subjective effect asserted, but its real objective efficacy, as a means appointed by God for obtaining blessing, is both implied and expressed in the plainest terms. Thus, as usual in the case of such mysteries, the two apparently opposite truths are emphasized, because they are needful to man’s conception of his relation to God; their reconcilement is not, perhaps cannot be, fully revealed. For, in fact, it is involved in that inscrutable mystery which attends on the conception of any free action of man as necessary for the working out of the general laws of God’s unchangeable will. At the same time it is clearly implied that such a reconcilement exists, and that all the apparently-isolated and independent exertions of man’s spirit in prayer are in some way perfectly subordinated to the one supreme will of God, so as to form a part of his scheme of providence. It is also implied that the key to the mystery lies in the fact of man’s spiritual unity with God in Christ, and of the consequent gift of the Holy Spirit. So also is it said of the spiritual influence of the Holy Ghost on each individual mind that while “we know not what to pray for,” the indwelling “Spirit makes intercession for the saints, according to the will of God.” Rom. 8:26, 27. Here, as probably in all other cases, the action of the Holy Spirit on the soul is to free agents what the laws of nature are to things inanimate, and is the power which harmonizes free individual action with the universal will of God.
2. There are no directions as to prayer given in the Mosaic law: the duty is rather taken for granted, as an adjunct to sacrifice, than enforced or elaborated. It is hardly conceivable that, even from the beginning, public prayer did not follow every public sacrifice. Such a practice is alluded to in Luke 1:10 as common; and in one instance, at the offering of the first-fruits, it was ordained in a striking form. Deut. 26:12–15. In later times it certainly grew into a regular service both in the temple and in the synagogue. But, besides this public prayer, it was the custom of all at Jerusalem to go up to the temple, at regular hours if possible, for private prayer, see Luke 18:10; Acts 3:1; and those who were absent were wont to “open their windows toward Jerusalem,” and pray “toward” the place of God’s presence. 1 Kings 8:46–49; Ps. 5:7; 28:2; 138:2; Dan. 6:10. The regular hours of prayer seem to have been three (see Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10): “the evening,” that is, the ninth hour, Acts 3:1; 10:3, the hour of the evening sacrifice, Dan. 9:21; the “morning,” that is, the third hour, Acts 2:15, that of the morning sacrifice; and the sixth hour, or “noonday.” Grace before meat would seem to have been a common practice. See Matt. 15:36; Acts 27:35. The posture of prayer among the Jews seems to have been most often standing, 1 Sam. 1:26; Matt. 6:5; Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11; unless the prayer were offered with especial solemnity and humiliation, which was naturally expressed by kneeling, 1 Kings 8:54; comp. 2 Chron. 6:13; Ezra 9:5; Ps. 95:6; Dan. 6:10, or prostration. Josh. 7:6; 1 Kings 18:42; Neh. 8:6.
3. The only form of prayer given for perpetual use in the Old Testament is the one in Deut. 26:5–15, connected with the offering of tithes and first-fruits, and containing in simple form the important elements of prayer, acknowledgment of God’s mercy, self-dedication, and prayer for future blessing. To this may perhaps be added the threefold blessing of Num. 6:24–26, couched as it is in a precatory form, and the short prayer of Moses, Num. 10:35, 36, at the moving and resting of the cloud, the former of which was the germ of the 68th Psalm. But of the prayers recorded in the Old Testament the two most remarkable are those of Solomon at the dedication of the temple, 1 Kings 8:23–53, and of Joshua the high priest, and his colleagues, after the captivity. Neh. 9:5–38. It appears from the question of the disciples in Luke 11:1, and from Jewish tradition, that the chief teachers of the day gave special forms of prayer to their disciples, as the badge of their discipleship and the best fruits of their learning. All Christian prayer is, of course, based on the Lord’s Prayer; but its spirit is also guided by that of his prayer in Gethsemane and of the prayer recorded by St. John, John 17, the beginning of Christ’s great work of intercession. The influence of these prayers is more distinctly traced in the prayers contained in the epistles, see Rom. 16:25–27; Eph. 3:14–21; Phil. 1:3–11; Col. 1:9–15; Heb. 13:20, 21; 1 Pet. 5:10, 11, etc., than in those recorded in the Acts. The public prayer probably in the first instance took much of its form and style from the prayers of the synagogues. In the record of prayers accepted and granted by God, we observe, as always, a special adaptation to the period of his dispensation to which they belong. In the patriarchal period, they have the simple and childlike tone of domestic supplication for the ordinary and apparently trivial incidents of domestic life. In the Mosaic period they assume a more solemn tone and a national bearing, chiefly that of direct intercession for the chosen people. More rarely are they for individuals. A special class are those which precede and refer to the exercise of miraculous power. In the New Testament they have a more directly spiritual bearing. It would seem the intention of Holy Scripture to encourage all prayer, more especially intercession, in all relations and for all righteous objects.
By William Smith