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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Israel is a nation born of prayer. Abraham heard God's call (Genesis 12:1-3 ), and God heard the cries of the Hebrew children (Exodus 3:7 ). Moses conversed with God (Exodus 3:1-4:17 ) and interceded for Israel (Exodus 32:11-13; Numbers 11:11-15 ). By prayer Joshua discerned sin in the conquest community (Joshua 7:6-9 ), but was tricked when he did not discern God's opinion by prayer (Joshua 9:1 ). God also spoke to the Judges to deliver His people when the people called out to Him for deliverance. David's spiritual acumen is seen in his prayers of confession (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:1 ). Solomon fulfilled the promises made to David after praying for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5-9 ) and dedicated the Temple in prayer (1 Kings 8:1 ). God worked miracles through the prayers of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:19-22; 1 Kings 18:20-40 ). The writing prophets noted that genuine prayer calls for accompanying moral and social accountability (Hosea 7:14; Amos 4:4-5 ). Isaiah's call reflected the intense cleansing and commitment involved in prayer (Isaiah 6:1 ). Jeremiah's dialogue and intercession frequently voiced reservation and frustration (Jeremiah 1:1; Jeremiah 20:7-18 ), teaching honesty in prayer. The Psalms teach variety and honesty in prayer are permissible; they proclaim praise, ask pardon, seek such things as communion (63), protection (57), vindication (107), and healing (6). Psalm 86:1 provides an excellent pattern for prayer. Daily patterned prayer becomes very important to exiles denied access to the Temple ( Daniel 6:10 ).
New Testament Jesus' example and teaching inspire prayer. Mark emphasized that Jesus prayed in crucial moments, including the disciples' appointment (Mark 3:13 ), their mission (Mark 6:30-32 ), and the transfiguration (Mark 9:2 ). Jesus displayed a regular and intense prayer life (Matthew 6:5; Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35 ).Luke taught that Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22; Luke 4:1 ,Luke 4:1,4:14 ,Luke 4:14,4:18; Luke 10:21; Acts 10:38 ). John reported that Jesus sometimes prayed aloud for the benefit of those present (John 11:41-42 ). He also reported Jesus' prayer of intercession for the first disciples and future believers (John 17:1 ). Both prayers display Jesus' unity with the Father and desire to give Him glory (John 11:4; John 17:1 ).
The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4 ) is taught to disciples who realize the kingdom's inbreaking, yet await its full coming. Significantly, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray after watching Him pray (Luke 11:1 ). The prayer also provides a contrast to hypocritical prayers (Matthew 6:5 ). Although it is permissible to repeat this prayer, it may be well to remember Jesus was emphasizing how to pray, not what to pray. See Lord's Prayer.
Jesus also corrected some abuses and misunderstandings regarding prayer. (1) Prayer is not to be offered to impress others. Disciples should rather seek a storage closet or a shed and pray in private. Jesus did not reject group prayer, but his warning might apply to a believer who prays to impress a congregation (Matthew 6:5-6 ). (2) Jesus also prohibited long-winded attempts that try to manipulate God. While Jesus prayed for long periods of time (Luke 6:12; Mark 1:35 ) and repeated Himself (Mark 14:36-42 ), He called for people to trust their Father and not their own eloquence or fervor.
Jesus' teaching on persistence in prayer is linked to the inbreaking kingdom (Luke 11:5-28; Luke 18:1-8 ). God is not like the reluctant neighbor, even though Christians may have to wait for answers (Luke 11:13; Luke 18:6-8 ). The ironies of prayer are evident: God knows our needs, yet we must ask; God is ready to answer, yet we must patiently persist. Children of the kingdom will have their requests heard (Matthew 6:8; Matthew 7:7-11; Matthew 21:22; John 14:13; John 15:7 ,John 15:7,15:16; John 16:23; compare 1 John 3:22; 1 John 5:14; James 1:5 ), particularly believers gathered in Jesus' name (Matthew 18:19 ).
In Hebrew thought, the name was mysteriously linked to the person's character and prerogatives. Thus prayer in Jesus' name is prayer that is seeking His will and submissive to His authority (John 14:13; 1 John 5:14 ).
The church remembered Jesus' teaching regarding the Spirit, prayer, and the kingdom mission. The disciples prayed awaiting the Holy Spirit's outpouring (Acts 1:14 ). The early church is characterized by prayer (Acts 2:42 ). They prayed regarding selection of leaders (Acts 1:24; Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3 ), during persecution (Acts 4:24-30; Acts 12:5 ,Acts 12:5,12:12 ), and in preparing to heal (Acts 9:40; Acts 28:8 ). Calling upon God's name—prayer—is the first act and true mark of a believer (Acts 2:21; Acts 9:14 ,Acts 9:14,9:21; Acts 22:16 ).
Paul's ministry reflected his constant prayer of intercession and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 2:1; Ephesians 1:16; Ephesians 5:4; Acts 9:11 ). The Lord spoke to Paul in prayer (Acts 22:17 ). Prayer is crucial to continuing in the Christian life (Romans 12:12 ). The indwelling Spirit enables a believer to call God “Abba” (Romans 8:15 ); that is, the Spirit's work within the believer prompts him or her to address God with the confidence of a child (Romans 8:14 ). The Spirit must intercede because our prayers are weak; apart from the Spirit Christians pray without discernment. He takes up our petitions with an earnest pleading beyond words (Romans 8:26-27; Galatians 4:6 ).
Answered Prayers—Unanswered Petitions Not every petition is granted. Job's demand for answers from God was eclipsed by the awesome privilege of encountering Him (Job 38-41 ). Modern believers must also cherish communion with the Father more than their petitions.
Jesus, with His soul sorrowful to the point of death, prayed three times that His cup of suffering might pass, but He was nevertheless submissive to God's will (Matthew 26:38-39 ,Matthew 26:38-39,26:42 ,Matthew 26:42,26:45 ). Both the boldness of the petition to alter God's will and the submission to this “hard” path of suffering are significant.
Paul asked three times for deliverance from his “thorn in the flesh.” God's answer to Paul directed him to find comfort in God's sufficient grace. Also God declared that His power is best seen in Paul's weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8-9 ). God gave him the problem to hinder his pride. Ironically, Paul claimed that God gave the problem, and yet he called it a messenger of Satan. Paul learned that petitions are sometimes denied in light of an eventual greater good: God's power displayed in Paul's humility.
Faith is a condition for answered petitions (Mark 11:24 ). Two extremes must be avoided concerning faith. (1) With Jesus' example in mind we must not think that faith will always cause our wishes to be granted. (2) Also we must not go through the motions of prayer without faith. Believers do not receive what they pray for because they pray from selfish motives (James 4:2-3 ). Prayers are also hindered by corrupted character (James 4:7 ) or injured relationships (Matthew 5:23-24 ).
Theological Insights Dialogue is what is essential to prayer. Prayer makes a difference in what happens (James 4:2 ). Our understanding of prayer will correspond to our understanding of God. When God is seen as desiring to bless (James 1:5 ) and sovereignly free to respond to persons (Jonah 3:9 ), then prayer will be seen as dialogue with God. God will respond when we faithfully pursue this dialogue. Prayer will lead to a greater communion with God and a greater understanding of His will.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Prayer'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/prayer.html. 1991.