The Hebraic Approach to Prayer (5 of 6)
In Jesus’ world there were prescribed prayers. Prescribed prayers are prayers that were composed and written out, in many cases, generations before. You would say these prayers, not in just rote memorization, but with kavanah—with focus, with meaning. The early church copied or mirrored the Judaism of Jesus’ world by reciting the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. You can recite the Lord’s Prayer and it can be totally meaningless, but you can also focus on what you are saying and when you do so, even though it is a prescribed prayer that is written out for you, it takes on great meaning. Just because something is prescribed does not mean it has to be rote. In fact, in some ways prescribed prayers give greater vent to what is in your heart than you can do on your own because you often cannot find the words to express yourself. We enjoy reading Shakespeare because the words are so powerful and so eloquent that they give vent to the deepest emotions of the heart. He had a gift of language. So it is in prayer. There were many prayers that were composed and that were recited as part of the daily discipline of prayer. Let me read one to you that dates all the way back before the time of Jesus. This is one of the earliest prayers in the Prayer Book and it is dated at least to the time of the Maccabees. So in some form or another Jesus knew this prayer:
"May the time not be distant O God when Thy name shall be worshipped in all the earth, when unbelief shall disappear and error shall be no more. Fervently we pray that the day may come when all men shall invoke Thy name, when corruption and evil shall give way to purity and goodness, and when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind and idolatry blind the eye—when all who dwell on earth shall know that to Thee alone every knee must bend and every tongue give homage. O may all created in Thine image recognize that they are brothers, so that one in spirit and one in fellowship they may be forever united before Thee. Then shall Thy kingdom be established on earth, and the word of thine ancient prophets be fulfilled—the Lord will reign forever and ever."
The congregational response to that prayer is: “on that day the Lord shall be one and his name, one.” (Zechariah 9) I do not know about you, but that quickens my heart to read that prayer. It gives me words and content to what I am feeling emotionally. To have prescribed prayers is a great aid to prayer—that is why I encourage you to use scriptures as prayer. These prayers were memorized and uttered in great devotion. They were in the Hebrew language which has provided an unprecedented link between three millennia of generations. The very prayers in Hebrew being uttered to this day in many instances are prayers which were uttered in Jesus’ day. What an historic and fantastic sense of community and continuity! Did you know that there were ancient prayers that Paul quoted in the New Testament? We have two or three examples of this in the New Testament. In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul is quoting an ancient Christian prayer (scholars are convinced Paul is quoting a tradition that long preceded him—statements of praise, declarations of truth about God that were memorized and which were put in a very eloquent form and utilized by the early Christians). This has a certain rhythmic quality to it because it was committed to memory by the early church. It would be a wonderful scripture for you to commit to memory, and declare it in your prayer, in your praise of God. The scripture in 1 Timothy 3:16 was part of the early prescribed prayers of the Christians, the followers of Jesus. They were put in forms that were easy to remember, eloquent and declaring great truths about Jesus and about God. Do you see the rhythmic sense, the beauty of this great truth? Prayers were recited daily. Twice a day, observant Jews such as Jesus would quote the Sh’ma; three times a day they would recite the Amidah (the standing prayers which consist of 18 benedictions); a hundred times a day they would try to find an occasion to declare that God is King over nature, king over my life, king over what I eat, king over what I read, king over my sleeping, my arising, my going out and my coming in. The principle of this daily prayer is taken from Psalm 16:8, in which the psalmist says: “I will set the Lord before me continuously”. It is a favorite text that you often see in synagogues over an altar (for example). It is a scripture Paul knew when he said to pray unceasingly—to set the Lord before you at all times. Engage in biblical prayer. In all things give thanks, praise his name.