WORSHIP THROUGH THE AGES (5) Prayer

In a previous post in this series we noted that the sacrifice Noah offered to God had an effect. It brought to God’s mind that man was sinful. It brought man’s weakness and need for mercy before him and he resolved to never again to curse the earth for man’s sake. He would never again destroy the earth with water.

In the record that followed, people offered untold numbers of sacrifices. Daily offerings were made before the tabernacle in the wilderness and later before the temple in Jerusalem. These, it would seem, were calculated to have an effect on man – to impress upon him how serious and how costly sin was and how helpless he is to do anything about his sin.

One thing we should notice is that the later sacrifices – those offered under the provisions of the Law of Moses – were offered through the mediatorial offices of the priesthood. In these, man was not approaching God directly. The priests stood between man and God. Thus, these offerings lacked the immediacy and personal nature of those earlier offerings made upon the altars built by the offerer.

But all during this time men could still approach God directly through means of prayer. With prayer, as with sacrifices, there is not much said in the earliest account of man unless we view calling upon the name of God as prayer. Strictly speaking, the word means “asking” or “pleading.” Used in this sense it is not always an asking for something from God it can be to anyone. When addressed to God, it is a recognition of the fact that by ourselves we are unable to supply our needs and turn to the one who has both the power and the willingness to supply our need. Thus, prayer is an act of humility and obeisance.

Prayer is essentially a conversation between an individual and God. There may be more people present, (Numbers 21:7), and one may address God regarding them or those people may join in and pray the prayer being led, but even then, theirs is a one-to-one communication with God with the supplicants joined in agreement in their approach to him.

God not only allows human beings to approach to him, but in the fact that he hears and answers prayer, we know he was affected by the prayers of both men and women. Of those whom God heard and to whom he responded we can see that it was not just the prayers of the most righteous, but sometimes of people who were far less than what God wanted of them. That God allows such an approach to himself by human beings speaks of his desire of having a relationship with man as well as his pleasure in that relationship as seen in his answer to prayer.

There are many examples of prayer we could look at, but I want to select a few to illustrate the power and significance of prayer. First, let’s think about Hannah. She and her husband, Elkanah had no children. Hannah desperately wanted a child, so she would go to the house of the Lord to pray about it. She would pour out her heart in tears before God. Once Eli the priest saw her as she silently prayed to God. He mistakenly thought that because she was only moving her mouth without sound that she must be drunk. Hannah’s defense before the priest was, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD” (1Sam.1:15).

Eli told her to “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” Some think that his words here were a petition in which he adds his prayer to hers. Whether that be the case or that Hannah interpreted his words to be a prophetic assurance that God would answer her prayer, we are not told. Anyhow, God did hear her prayer. He was moved to answer her prayer. We are told that “the LORD remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the LORD’” (1Sam. 1:20).

The next example is dramatically different from the example of Hannah. This time we want to look at the case of Manasseh, king of Judah. Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, one of the better kings of this southern kingdom, was only 12 years old when he began to reign. He was nothing like his father. The record says in 2Chronicles 33 that “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Instead of carrying on the religious reforms Hezekiah had initiated in destroying the idolatry the people had fallen into, he did exactly the opposite. He rebuilt the places of idol worship, restored their altars, and even burned his own sons in the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) as offerings to one of these gods. As the ultimate insult, he set up an idol in the temple of God in Jerusalem!

In time God brought the Assyrians against Manasseh and his people, captured the king, bound him and took him to Babylon. We are told that “when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (2Chronicles 33:12). Apparently God saw him as truly penitent because when He prayed to him… “God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God” (vs. 13).

Another of the kings over God’s people was David. He ruled the kingdom earlier before the division took place that resulted in the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah. David was a man of prayer. God had chosen him to be king because he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). David was a good man who made some very, very bad mistakes. Most remembered of his sins were his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband. It may seem odd to us that seemingly David did not at first realize the seriousness of his actions.

It took the prophet Nathan telling him the simple little story about a poor man who had one little ewe lamb which was very dear to him – the family pet you might say. The man’s rich neighbor who was unwilling to take a lamb from his own flock to serve a visitor stole the poor man’s lamb instead. David became angry and wanted to know who had done such a terrible thing. Nathan simply said to David, “You are the man!”

The pathos of guilt and remorse is seen in David’s confessional Psalm …

“Have mercy on me, O God,
     according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!
“For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,” (Psalm 51:1-4a).

David knew what God was looking for and expecting from him. He said …

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
     you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

It is this spirit of brokenness – of spiritual poverty – of being wholly dependent on God – that is the essence of prayer. Whether we in thanksgiving approach God or in penitent pleading, we must realize that we are the creature and he the Creator. We must realize that we are dependent upon him for all things we have received or ever shall receive. And when our relationship with the Lord is interrupted in some way we should want more than anything to have it restored.

And again as the psalmist expresses it in terms that relate more to the idea of spiritual survival …

“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psa 42:1-2).

These cries may not have been out of the depths of deep despair or for lack of something, but simply for fellowship with God. That is every bit as important to us as human beings as the need for daily food or forgiveness of our sin. Man was made for fellowship with God and nothing will take the place of that relationship. Prayer is a way of communicating with God and keeping our relationship with him active and the lines of communication open.

Prayer is a way of communicating with God and keeping our relationship with him active and the lines of communication open. When prayer is sincerely offered to God from a heart of faith we can be assured that God will be moved and will respond as a faithful Father who wants only what is best for his children. What would be the point of praying if we did not believe our prayers would move God to act for us in whatever way that is best?

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