Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for every one ---" (1 Timothy 2:1)
'The range (of words for prayer) is as wide as the terms used to describe human emotions: to entreat, to ask God for deliverance, to seek guidance, to beg for mercy, to intercede, to invoke God , to cry in distress, to sigh, praise, magnify, exalt, rejoice and adore'
(James Houston)

Very many different words or expressions are used in the Scriptures to speak of the activity of prayer (1). They imply both the willingness of God to be approached in prayer, and express what we do or are invited to do.

Prayer can be spoken of as a movement towards God. It is a coming to the Lord (Jer.29:12). Such was the invitation of Jesus to all who felt themselves "weary and carrying heavy burdens" to "come" to him (Matt.11:28). Micah 6:6 asks, "with what will I come before the Lord?", and in the New Testament 1 Peter 2:4-6 speaks of "coming" to him and "offering spiritual sacrifices". "Approaching" the Lord is the terminology used in Jeremiah 30:21, and in the New Testament Hebrews 10:22 says "let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (cf.Heb.11:6). Most eloquently Hebrews 4:16, with its great encouragement to prayer, puts it, "Let us -- approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." God's invitation and our response are summed up in the words of James 4:8, "Come near to God, and he will come near to you," but Isaiah 29:13 (quoted in the Gospels in Matthew 15:8-9 and Mark 7:6-7) makes clear that that coming near to God must be with the whole heart. The lament of Jesus over Jerusalem (Matt.23:37-39) shows his longing that people should truly come to him "in the name of the Lord". Movement towards God is at the heart of prayer, expressed in another way as people are spoken of as lifting up both hands and hearts to God (Lam.3:41). In the same spirit prayer for others can be seen as bringing them before God, entrusting them into his hands, as is the case where people were set apart for the work of the Lord in Acts 14:23 and 26 and 20:32.

Similar to the thought of turning to the Lord or coming to him, is the thought of looking to him, turning one's spiritual eyes to him. Isaiah 31:1 speaks of "looking to the Holy One of Israel", and the prophet in Micah 7:7 says, "I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation". Jehoshaphat (in 2 Chr.20:12) in his prayer said to the Lord "our eyes are on you", and Isaiah 17:7 speaks of those who "turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel". In the New Testament Hebrews 12:2 speaks of "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith".

The vocabulary of prayer in the Bible also indicates that movement toward God has often to be realised as a movement back, back from our self-chosen ways and from the attempt to be independent of God, to rely afresh on him. So the Scriptures often speak of "turning to the Lord" (e.g. 2 Chr.36:13, Dan.9:3 and Acts 26:20), turning to him with the whole heart and the whole soul (Deut.30:10). Or it can be spoken of as "returning to the Lord" (Deut.4:30, 30:2, 2 Chr.30:9, Hos.12:6). "Let the wicked forsake their way" says Isaiah 55:7, "and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." (cf. Hos.14:1-2) Israel could again be the people of God and the Lord their God, Jeremiah 24:7 puts it, when they return to him "with their whole heart" (cf. Hosea 3:5). Isaiah 30:15 says, "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength". Turning from wrong ways back to God involves sorrow for sin, and in such terms 1 Samuel 7:2 speaks of the way that a penitent house of Israel "lamented after the Lord".

Penitence and humility belong together, and often a humble turning to God is the way in which genuine prayer is spoken of in the Bible. Daniel 10:12 speaks of "humbling oneself before God". It is in this light that we should see the expression used frequently in the Psalms as well as other places in Scripture (e.g. Ps.27:14, 37:34, 52:9, Jer.14:22): to pray to is "wait on God" or to "wait for God". This implies that in taking up the privilege of prayer, it is not for us to tell God the time and the way in which he should act. Trust and humility require of us a quiet dependence and a submission to an all-wise and all-loving God. Lamentations 3:25-26 puts it, "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." Biblical promises are associated with such waiting on God, as Isaiah 40:31 most famously puts it, "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (cf. Isa.30:18). When there is that attitude people can come thankfully to make acknowledgment as in Isaiah 25:9, "Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."

Many of the expressions concerning prayer inevitably involve speech. Repeatedly prayer is described as a "calling" on God (Deut.4:7, Isa.55:6, Jer.29:12, Lam.3:8), or a "calling on the name of the Lord" (e.g. Gen.4:26, 13:4, 26:25, Isa.64:7, Lam. 3:55, 1 Cor.1:2), indicating that we call on him for who he is, revealed as the living God, loving, wise, strong, holy and true, Lord and Creator of all, Giver of every good gift. In Zechariah 13:9 the Lord says of his restored people, refined through what they suffered, "They will call on my name and I will answer them." A greater intensity of prayer is indicated when people "cry out to the Lord" (Ex.15:25, Lam.3:8, Joel 1:19), but again there is the reminder that if this is true prayer it must be a crying "from the heart" (Hos.7:14).

The strength and urgency of human requests are described also in terms of "interceding with the Lord" (Jer.27:18), "pleading" (Jer.31:18), "entreating the favour of the Lord" (Dan.9:13, Zech. 7:2, 8:21), "presenting one's supplication to the Lord" (Dan.9:20), "seeking mercy" (Dan 2:18, 6:11). The words "seek" and "search" are often used in both Testaments, important for the way that they indicate that prayer is not just an easy-going making requests of God. God wants to see in his human creation an intensity and whole-heartedness of desire to know him and to receive all that he wishes to give us for the fullness of life. So the Law expressed it (in Deut.4:29), "you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul." The prophetic books repeat the challenge of the Law. Jeremiah 29:12-13 is typical, "when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you seek for me, you will find me if you seek for me with all your heart (cf. Isa.55:6). In the history of the kings and people of Israel, moreover. the great criterion of judgment was whether or not people sought the Lord (2 Chr.14:4, 15:2,4,12, 16:12, 17:4, 20:3,4). This attitude of seeking the Lord is expressed vividly in the prayer of Isaiah 26:9, "my soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you." In the apostolic preaching in the New Testament the apostle Paul (in Acts 17:27) speaks of it as God's purpose that people should search for him and find him. Especially we should link with this the words of Jesus that we have already noted, observing the significance of his adding to "Ask and it will be given you", "search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you" (Matt.7:7). Strenuous seeking after the Lord and dependence on him are expressed also in terms of "leaning on the Lord" (Isa.10:20, Mic.3:11), and also of "taking hold of the Lord" (Isa.64:7). Such earnestness finds expression in what is said of Paul's colleague Epaphras "wrestling in prayer" on behalf of others (Col.4:12).

In two ways prayer to God is spoken of as 'asking'. There are in fact four Greek words used in the New Testament for 'asking'. Two (aiteo and deomai) mean to make specific requests, and there are corresponding nouns used of prayers as requests (e.g. in Phil.4:6). The frequency of the use of these words and of other nouns used in the sense of 'petition' or 'supplication' (found in 1 Tim.2:1 and in Heb.5:7) certainly shows the significant place of intercession in the New Testament. The other two verbs (erotao and eperotao) mean more the asking of questions. The latter may be linked with prayer being spoken of as "inquiring of the Lord" (as in 2 Sam.2:1, 5:19,23, 2 Chr. 34:21, Jer.10:21, Zeph.1:6), and "consulting the Lord" (as in Isa. 31:1 and Ezek. 20:3, 31).

If we were to carry this whole study of the principles of prayer in the Bible no further, we could appreciate that recognising the different terms used for prayer in the Scriptures teaches us volumes about the nature of true prayer, prayer that is acceptable to the One to whom we pray.