Scriptural introduction to prayer

Written by Schalk_and_Elsa on. Posted in Prayer

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Prayer - silhouette of man with raised arms

Prayer is something we all take for granted. No believer whom I have met, has ever argued with the fact that we should pray. Thus, there is no need to do any study to convince believers that praying is a good thing. If we get into a bit more detail, we still find a lot of varying positions on specific aspects of praying. As usual, it is always sound to first turn back to the Scriptures to see exactly what we are told. Once we have studied this, we can see what difference exists and why these occur. Let us now focus on what the Scriptures teach us about praying.

What is most interesting is that there is nowhere in Scripture a commandment that clearly states: “thou shall pray” but a simple read through almost any book in the Scriptures will find a reference to some sort to prayer, blessing, thanksgiving or any similar words.

Let us start at the beginning.

First occurrences

The first occurrence of the word “prayer” in the New American Standard – Updated Edition (NASU) , can be found in Genesis 20:7:

Genesis 20:7
7 “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

This verse occurs at the part where YHVH speaks to Abimelech king of Gerar, who took Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Abraham had feared for his live and told everybody that Sarah was his sister (which was also true!) When YHVH appeared to Abimelech in a dream, he realized that he had another man’s wife. He realized this was a sin and wanted to save his life by restoring her to Abraham. Part of this restoring process was that Abraham had to pray for him that he may live. We see that in this case, it is referring to an action of intercession on behalf of Abimelech.

What is more interesting to me was the amount of time that had already elapsed before this. We know that YHVH spoke to Adam and Eve, while in the garden. Thus, it would not have been necessary for them to “pray” if they could simply “speak” to Him. After the introduction of sin, the method of communication was different.

We also see that “calling on His name” is something that has already happened before the word “pray”is first used.  Calling on His name was first mentioned when the sons of Seth had called upon the name of YHVH. Then later, we also see that Abraham makes an offering and calls upon the name of YHVH, as he gets to Bethel.

Genesis 4:26
26 To Seth, to him also a son was born; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call upon the name of YHVH.

Genesis 12:8
8 Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to YHVH and called upon the name of YHVH.

What is interesting here is that the Hebrew word “קָרָא (qā·rā(ʾ))” (Strongs H7121) being used in both verses can be translated in several ways.  According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages1 these include:

  • call
  • summon
  • proclaim
  • invite
  • read aloud
  • mention

In Genesis 4:26 the verb may not be referring to prayer, but rather indicate that the descendants of Seth started to proclaim YHVH as their Elohim.  This would be in contrast to the descendants of Cain that had gone the other way. According to Exodus 6:3, they may not have known His name at this time.

Exodus 6:2–3
2 Elohim spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am YHVH; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Almighty, but by My name, YHVH, I did not make Myself known to them.

When we look at Vine’s Expository dictionary, we also find some very interesting facts about this word:

This root occurs in Old Aramaic, Canaanite, and Ugaritic, and other Semitic languages (except Ethiopic). The word appears in all periods of biblical Hebrew.
Qara˒ may signify the “specification of a name.” Naming a thing is frequently an assertion of sovereignty over it, which is the case in the first use of qara˒: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Gen. 1:5)

…..

To “call” on God’s name is to summon His aid. This emphasis appears in Gen. 4:26, where men began to “call” on the name of the Lord. Such a “calling” on God’s name occurs against the background of the Fall and the murder of Abel. The “calling” on God’s name is clearly not the beginning of prayer, since communication between God and man existed since the Garden of Eden; nor is it an indication of the beginning of formal worship, since formal worship began at least as early as the offerings of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:7ff.). The sense of “summoning” God to one’s aid was surely in Abraham’s mind when he “called upon” God’s name (Gen. 12:8). “Calling” in this sense constitutes a prayer prompted by recognized need and directed to One who is able and willing to respond (Ps. 145:18; Isa. 55:6).

Thus, the sense of the word being used here indicates that the people chose YHVH as their Elohim and called upon His help in their lives.

Word Study

We find a number of words in the Hebrew being used to describe the action of prayer. This most likely reflects all the different purposes of prayer.

Prayer - Hebrew words analysis

When we investigate the origin of the most common (84 occurrences) Hebrew verb “פָּלַל (pālal)”, we find a number of different etymological  theories as to the origin of the word. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) 3 these include:

  • the Arabic falla, “to notch the edge of a sword” and thus pālal, it was thought, meant “to cut or wound oneself,” and reflected the pagan custom of slashing oneself in a frenzy during worship, a practice forbidden by the law (Deut 14:1).
  • the Arabic falla but sees the connection between the two in the common meaning “to break, cut” with the subsequent development; to cut>to divide>to compare>to distinguish>to pass a judgment
  • Hebrew pālal and nāpal are developments of the same bilateral stem meaning “to fall,” emphasizing prayer and prostration.
  • See in pālal the meaning “to estimate, assess” on the basis of the reflexes of the derivatives.

What is most interesting is that 80 of the 84 occurrence of the verb is in the Hithpael stem.  In general, only 1.2% of verbs in the Tanach is in this verb form.  This verb form is normally used to express an action that is done to oneself (reflexive). This word also does not appear in the Tanach with the basic form – Qual. The other four occurrences of the verb occurs in the Piel stem – used to express an intensive type of action with an active voice.  These 4 occurrences appear in Gen 48:11 (expected – lit. meditated or judged), 1 Sam 2:25 (mediate), Ps 106:3 (interposed) and Ezek 16:52 (made judgment).  In this stem, the verb is associated with judgment being made. Based on the fact that the Piel is the more basic stem, we also have a theory that states the Hithpael stem would thus indicate to call YHVH as judge upon oneself (reflexive action). Now you should be able to see the potential connection back to the Arabic “falla” – “to cut or wound oneself.”

Other Hebrew verbs are also translated as “pray”.  These include:

  • נָא (nā(ʾ)) – Strongs H4994 – Please!  as in “I beg you” – Gen 32:11; Exo 33:13; 1 Kings 8:26; Jonah 1:14
  • שָׁאַל (šā·ʾǎl) – Strongs H7592 – to ask –  1 Kings 19:4; Jonah 4:8
  • נָגַד (nā·ḡǎḏ)- Strongs  H5046 – to tell or report – 1 Sam 23:11
  • צְלָה (ṣelā(h)) – Strongs H6739 – pray in intercession – Ezra 6:10; Daniel 6:10

In Greek, we also find a number of words that are translated as “pray” in English.

Pray - Greek words analysis

The main Greek verb being translated as “pray”is  προσεύχομαι (proseuchomai) Strongs G4336. This verb means “to speak to or to make requests of YHVH” (LN 33.178) according to the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon 4 – 2 Cor 13:7; Mt 14:23 and  James 5:15 . Louw-Nida also associates this word with “to desire something” (LN 25.6) as used by Paul in Romans 9:3. In the Septuagint, this is the word that is used to translate “פָּלַל (pālal).”

The word also has a synonym δέομαι (deomai) – Strongs G1189, that is used in the more generic sense of desiring something.  This is used normally to describe a person asking something from another person – Acts 21:39; Acts 8:34; Gal 4:12. However, we do have exceptions to this where this verb is used within the context of asking something from YHVH.  In these cases, the translators normally prefer to translate the verb in English as “pray” – example including Luke 22:32; Acts 4:31 and Romans 1:10. We also have the stronger form of the verb  προσευχῇ προσεύχεσθαι being used in James 5:17 as “he prayed earnestly.”

Another verb that is translated to “pray” is  ἐρωτάω, (erotao) Strongs G2065. This verb normally has a more generic meaning similar to δέομαι (deomai) but it is usually a little less intensive and good be rendered a “to ask”. This verb can also be used when asking something of YHVH as in Luke 16:27; John 14:16; John 16:26; John 17:9.

We also have the Greek verb αἰτέω (aiteō) Strongs G154 that means “to ask”, but in a stronger form.  This could be better used in the English form of “demand.” This is the Greek verb that is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew verb שָׁאַל (šā·ʾǎl).

Why should we pray?

Now that we know how the word is being used in Scripture, let us start investigating the practice of prayer. The first question should then be: Why do it? We do not find any explicit commandment that tells us we must pray or any verse that specifies what will happen if we do not do it.  However, from the word study alone, it is already very clear that it was done throughout the Scriptures. This means we need to look a bit more at the purpose of prayer to understand why it was done, and why we should continue doing it.  In a study of Scripture, you will find many reasons and motivations for why people prayed.

Before we start looking at some of the motivations and or objectives, let me first mention what I believe is a pre-requisite for prayer.  Most people will think that it is almost redundant to say this, but let us start right at the beginning. You first need to have faith! If you do not believe that YHVH exists, and that He alone rules, what is the use in praying? Thus, you need to have faith in YHVH in order to want to have communion with YHVH. The more faith you have in Him, the more you come to rely on Him.  This will lead you to want to spend more time in His presence. At the same time, I believe, the cycle works the other way as well. The more time you spend and the more things you bring before YHVH, the better your faith will become as you come to realize that you can rely on Him. For me this is a “No Loose” situation!

One of the primary reasons for prayer is the communion with YHVH. We want to talk with Him, and we want to know His ways. We see that Moses, who prayed a lot, prayed to know the way of YHVH.

Exodus 33:13–14
13 “Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people.” 14 And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”

When the prophet Jeremiah was still before YHVH, YHVH spoke to Him. YHVH provides Jeremiah with the assurance of an answer if the prophet calls on YHVH.  I am sure this was very welcome news for the prophet as he was confined within the king’s palace after his message not to resist the Babylonians. In his time of desperation her received the confirmation and assurance that if he communes with YHVH, he will know the important things.  I am sure that almost all of us would appreciate this confirmation!

Jeremiah 33:2–3
2 “Thus says YHVH who made the earth, YHVH who formed it to establish it, YHVH is His name, 3Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.

Much later we find that Paul also encourages the people of Philippi to take everything before YHVH in prayer.  If they should do this, the result will be the peace that only YHVH can bring to them.

Philippians 4:6–7
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to YHVH. 7 And the peace of YHVH, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Messiah Y’Shua.

Thus, we find the Scriptural proof for us to take everything before YHVH, and that He will answer us.

So what should we do if He does answer us? This leads me to the second reason in Scripture for prayer: thanksgiving! We have some beautiful prayers recorded in the Scriptures that show us the thanksgiving when YHVH answers the prayers of the believer. One of the best examples in Scripture is the prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  This prayer is recorded for us in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Another beautiful prayer that we have shared before, that is not in Scripture, is the prayer of the three friends of Daniel – Song of  three Youths.  You can find it in our post titled “All that YHVH has spoken we will do!”

In Scripture, we find more references to people using prayer to express their thanks to YHVH. An example of this thanksgiving without specifically mentioning and answer to a previous prayer can be seen in the description of how Daniel prayed every day.

Daniel 6:10–11
10 Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his Elohim, as he had been doing previously. 11 Then these men came by agreement and found Daniel making petition and supplication before his Elohim.

Y’Shua also thanks His Farther for hearing His requests after He had resurrected Lazarus.

John 11:41–42
41 So they removed the stone. Then Y’Shua raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 “I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”

Paul also instructs the community of Colossae to pray with an attitude of thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving;

Another reason for wanting to talk with YHVH would be to ask to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness.   Confession and repentance of our sins are topics we have addressed in a number of articles before including –  Obedience follows repentance. One of the ways to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness  is via prayer. Several verses in Scripture record a prayer that includes confession.

2 Chronicles 30:18–20
18 For a multitude of the people, even many from Ephraim and Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun, had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Elohim pardon 19 everyone who prepares his heart to seek YHVH, YHVH Elohim of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” 20 So YHVH heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

Daniel 9:20–21
20 Now while I was speaking and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before YHVH my Elohim in behalf of the holy mountain of my Elohim, 21 while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering.

In the book of Psalms we also hear from King David what happens if we do or do not confess our sins to YHVH via prayer.

Psalm 32:3–5
3 When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away Through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.Selah. 5 I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to YHVH”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.Selah.

As mentioned earlier in the post, the objective of the first occurrence of prayer was intercession. We find this objective quite often in prayers. Intercession can be for a specific person for a particular issue, or it can be much broader.  Here you can see two examples of these:

Genesis 25:21
21 Isaac prayed to YHVH on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and YHVH answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived.

Numbers 14:19
19 “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”

Samuel felt that he as the priest was required from YHVH to intercede for the people.

1 Samuel 12:23
23 “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against YHVH by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way.

Nehemiah and Daniel interceded for the nation that was still in exile.

Daniel 9:4–5
4 I prayed to YHVH my Elohim and confessed and said, “Alas, O Elohim, the great and awesome El, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 5 we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances.

Nehemiah 1:5–6
5 I said, “I beseech You, O YHVH Elohim of heaven, the great and awesome El, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 6 let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.

We see that Y’Shua also followed this practice as He interceded for His disciple Simon.  He takes the purpose of intercession much further.  We are even instructed by Y’Shua to intercede and pray for those that mistreat us.

Luke 22:31–32
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Luke 6:27–28
27 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

In the writings of Paul, the word “pray” occurs 25 times in the NASU translation. In the epistles that the apostle Paul wrote to all the communities, we find the concept of intercession occurring frequently. Paul often requests that people pray for him, and he also states frequently that he prays for others. It is quite common to find a request for prayer from Paul in the closing verses of his letters.

1 Thessalonians 5:25
25 Brethren, pray for us.

Ephesians 6:19
19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,

In his epistles to the communities in  Philippi and Colossae, we find reference to the fact that Paul was praying for these people.

Philippians 1:9
9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,

Colossians 1:3
3 We give thanks to YHVH, the Father of our Lord Y’Shua the Messiah, praying always for you,Prayer - a woman with a head covering

Thus, we see that from the Scriptures, we can find many reasons for why we should be praying, including:

  • Communion
  • Thanksgiving
  • Confession
  • Intercession

Now that we have established why we should pray, let us try to see what we could achieve when we pray.

What do we achieve?

In the previous section, we have learned that YHVH will listen to our prayers. How do we know that YHVH has listened to our prayers?  We normally expect to see some change in our lives. These changes can take a number forms.  We find in Scripture several results of the prayers of the believers.

One of these results is that YHVH blesses those that pray. We find several instances in the Scriptures where women are blessed with children after prayer.  In some cases, the prayers were done by their husbands, and in other cases, like Hannah, the prayer was by the woman.  In these cases, YHVH had blessed them with children shortly after the original prayer.

Genesis 25:21
21 Isaac prayed to YHVH on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and YHVH answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived.

1 Samuel 1:19–20
19 Then they arose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, and returned again to their house in Ramah. And Elkanah had relations with Hannah his wife, and YHVH remembered her. 20 It came about in due time, after Hannah had conceived, that she gave birth to a son; and she named him Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked him of YHVH”

The blessings may also be bestowed not on an individual but on a group or nation. We see that YHVH will restore His blessing upon the nation if they return to Him and confess their sins.  Once the restoration has taken place, the nation is again blessed, and the rain will return to the land. We see that the prayer of confession of sins of the nation results in a blessing on the nation.

1 Kings 8:33–36
33 “When Your people Israel are defeated before an enemy, because they have sinned against You, if they turn to You again and confess Your name and pray and make supplication to You in this house, 34 then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your people Israel, and bring them back to the land which You gave to their fathers. 35 “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, 36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land, which You have given Your people for an inheritance.

Another reason that a lot of people pray is for deliverance, not from sin, but from sickness. Once again, we can pray for own healing, or we could also pray for the healing of others (intercession). We find several instances recorded in Scripture where the prayer has resulted in the healing of people.  We have discussed the topic of praying for healing in a previous article titled – The Plan of Man in Health and Healing.

Genesis 20:17
17 Abraham prayed to YHVH, and YHVH healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children.

Acts 28:8
8 And it happened that the father of Publius was lying in bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul went in to see him and after he had prayed, he laid his hands on him and healed him.

Prayer can also cause our relationship with YHVH to be restored. One of the best examples is the prophet Jonah. After being disobedient to YHVH, and thereby causing a separation between himself and YHVH, the prophet ends up in the belly of a fish. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah prays to YHVH from the belly of the fish to YHVH for his salvation. Please do take the time to read this prayer. It is recorded for us in  Jonah 2:1–9. The result of this prayer is that Jonah is saved from the belly of the fish and again receives a clear instruction from YHVH to go to Nineveh.  This time he is obedient.

As with all the other examples before, this prayer can also be done while interceding for others. We see that Daniel prayed for the people in exile to be restored to the land and the Temple to be restored. This prayer of Daniel is a combination of many elements of prayer, including intercessions and confession.  Daniel not only prays for himself, but for the nation of Israel to be restored.

Daniel 9:15–19
15 “And now, O YHVH our Elohim, who have brought Your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and have made a name for Yourself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked. 16 “O YHVH, in accordance with all Your righteous acts, let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become a reproach to all those around us. 17 “So now, our Elohim, listen to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplications, and for Your sake, O YHVH, let Your face shine on Your desolate sanctuary. 18 “O my Elohim, incline Your ear and hear! Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Your name; for we are not presenting our supplications before You on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Your great compassion. 19 “O YHVH, hear! O YHVH, forgive! O YHVH, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my Elohim, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.”

From the history of the nation, we know that YHVH did restore His nation to the land.  We also know that the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, just as Daniel had prayed. Daniel received a confirmation that his prayer had been heard. Gabriel again appears to Daniel and provides a prophecy to Daniel. This is known as the 70 weeks of Daniel.

Thus, we have seen from these examples that YHVH does answer our prayers with different outcomes.  These include:

  • blessing
  • healing
  • restoration.

Conclusion

We have seen from this study, that although we are not explicitly commanded to pray, that there exists many reasons why we should pray.  Most significant for me of these reasons is the pure fact that it creates and strengthens the relationship with YHVH. This alone is enough to motivate us to pray regularly.  Just as we long to speak frequently to the ones we love, so should we also seek to speak with our heavenly Farther. We know that He is a faithful Elohim, thus we know that if we maintain a good relationship with Him, He will respond to our prayers. This response can be in different ways, even in ways that we do not anticipate. Sometime, there is a delay, we need to rely on His perfect timing and His will for our lives.

References

  1. Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
  2. Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996.
  3. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke. electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
  4. Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
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Comments (1)

  • Trina Harris

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    You have provided a good and helpful overview of scriptures related to prayer, and some of the reasons and benefits of prayer. I think however you have not mined the wisdom in the Hebrew word palel for prayer that you talked about. The Hebrew view of prayer emphasizes this dimension of self reflection and self-evaluation. The rabbis have said that prayer does not necessarily change things, it changes US. It is transformative in its very nature, not just in what it sometimes accomplishes when God answers prayer. So it seems your treatment of the topic more closely follows the Greek idea of prayer as asking, rather than the Hebrew sense of prayer which is to evaluate oneself. These two views of prayer parallel the two views of God represented in Greek pagan religion versus Torah. The language cannot escape representing the cultural and religious context it is embedded in. Therefore the Greek word for prayer assumes a capricious god that one must beg and entreat. The Hebrew word for prayer assumes a loving but righteous God who has a relationship with us and we do not wish to disappoint. The Greek words will always misrepresent the Hebrew concepts that are in embedded in Scripture.

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