By Randy McKinion
Have you ever listened to someone pray and wondered why you don’t (or can’t) pray as they do? From the first, we must remember that prayer is not rendered ineffective because of its lack of eloquence or theological vocabulary. At the same time, this is an area in which believers will consistently grow, not so they can flatter a crowd, but so that they might pray in concert with God’s will. Although it is probably not a good practice to compare the prayers of other men and women, it seems that a prayer—especially when prayed corporately—can vary in its effectiveness in both asking according to the will of God and reflecting with the body of Christ.
My supposition is simple: Praying Scripture promotes growth and effectiveness in prayer. Granted, Scripture must meet a heart compelled to believe in a God who is sovereign and therefore able to answer prayer. That is, a praying heart must trust in the God who desires to answer the prayers of His children. Such was Jesus’ expectation for His disciples (John 15:7). Yet, Scripture provides inspired vocabulary and theology for prayer that pleases the Lord.
Fortunately, Scripture has provided examples of what this looks like. Not only are we given prayers of God’s children through the text, but we also have an example of the manner and result of a servant of God who prays as a reflection of his meditation upon the word of God. We see this in the text of Daniel 9.
Daniel 9:2 makes an interesting shift in the book. Daniel had previously received revelation through visions and dreams. Here, the text shifts to the interpretation of Scripture. Instead of receiving a new divine vision, Daniel reads, tries to understand Jeremiah 25:1, and prays as a response to this text. The particular verse that mentions the 70 years is Jeremiah 25:11 (see also Jeremiah 29:10), but it is pretty clear based on his prayer that he was reading the whole chapter.
As a result of his understanding the text of Jeremiah, Daniel responded in the following manner: “So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Daniel literally “turned his face toward the Lord God,” which is a fitting description of prayer. In prayer, believers turn their face from the world, its allurements, and their preoccupation with themselves to the Lord their God. The focus of their mind turns to God Himself and His will for their lives. Daniel’s manner in prayer revealed a determined, fervent heart; not an in-passing, flippant approach to prayer. He was desperate, and he lingered long before the Lord in order to understand God’s will. This was not simply a quick request before reading Scripture to ask for God’s blessing; this was a prolonged time of fasting and sitting before the Lord in a humble state. We learn much from Daniel’s countenance, but we also learn from the way he approached both the text and his response to it. Though the passages resonates with the rest of the Old Testament, two examples suffice to make our point.
1. Daniel and Moses
Moreover, as an example for us, Daniel’s prayer demonstrates how he prayed in accordance with the text. For example, he begins his prayer, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Daniel 9:4). Consider the words of Deuteronomy 7:9:
Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.
Now, even if Daniel was not quoting from this text—which I believe he is doing—he is at least echoing the words of God given in the text. As such, there is a resonance between his words and those of the Pentateuch. As such, the implication is important. According to Moses in Deuteronomy 7:9, when God brought His people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and redeemed them from slavery, this should have served as a perpetual example of how God would be faithful to the covenant that He had made with His people. This covenant was the promise that God had made to Abraham that these people would be God’s chosen people. Godhad promised to bless them, to multiply their seed, and to give them the land of Canaan. Thus, Moses and Daniel recognized that God is one who keeps His covenant, that He would keep His lovingkindness (or loyal love). In fact, later in the prayer, Daniel reflects upon the Lord’s work in bringing His people “out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Daniel 9:15).
2. Daniel and Solomon
Daniel’s prayer continues: “We have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances” (Daniel 9:5). In setting these three phrases together, Daniel’s prayer seems to be bringing together the truths of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 1:1. When Solomon had finished building the temple and when the ark had been brought in, he prayed a prayer of dedication. Near the end, he acknowledged the sinful tendencies that they as a nation had, and so he made the following request of the Lord in 1 Kings 8:46:
When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near.
This was the exact case, the reason Daniel was in exile to begin with. God had given them over to their enemies because of their continued sin. Solomon continued:
If they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to You in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, “We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly.” (1Kgs 8:47)
These are the same words that Daniel uses to make confession. If God’s people were to find themselves in exile, the proper response was to confess that they had sinned, committed iniquity, and acted wickedly, just as Daniel confessed. He seems to have “taken thought” just as Solomon had prayed later readers would.
What is more, the balance of Daniel’s prayer seems to reflect the rest of Solomon’s as well:
If they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul … and pray to You … then hear their prayer and their supplication [plea for mercy] in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people … and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them. (1Kgs 8:47–50)
What Solomon had foreseen and prayed about, Daniel was living. He and his people found themselves in exile because of the sins of their fathers. Now the question remained: Would they respond correctly by not following the pattern of their fathers’ reaction? In this prayer, Daniel demonstrates that he was responding correctly, in line with Solomon’s prayer hundreds of years before.
I am pretty certain that good praying is not marked by its use of King James English. I think what sticks out in my mind about such individuals is that their prayers are well versed in Scripture. I think this is the reason that their prayers seem to be an expression of the heart of God. They know Him well, because they have spent time in His Word. This reflects itself in their praying as they view life through His lens, not their own.
For those of us who struggle with this, praying in light of Scripture, I believe, is an important principle for modern believers. If God speaks to us in His word—and He does—and if we desire to pray according to His will—as we should—then we will consistently pray in light of the text. When we read Scripture, in other words, we learn what God’s heart truly loves and what He desires. Therefore, when we pray with the words of Scripture, we are assured that our requests are not self-centered or outside of His will. Our requests will be focused upon Him and His glory and in line with His larger plans. When we read the Bible for our devotions or when reflecting upon Sunday’s sermon, it would be helpful for us to rephrase what we have learned in a prayer. This will help us develop not only a better vocabulary for prayer but also train our hearts to respond to God in a way that pleases Him. In many ways, this is why the book of Psalms has been so well loved by believers. In it we find the writer dealing with the highs and lows of life, and we learn how he responds to those situations with his words. The same is true of Daniel in this passage. His mind was filled with the Word of God. Much of the language he uses in his prayer is not new to him; it is taken from what he was reading in Jeremiah. This prayer may leave you saying, “If I could only pray like Daniel!” Well, the good news is that you can, because he was simply a faithful student of God’s words, and he recognized their continued validity in his life.
So, through these couple example from Daniel’s prayer, the pattern emerges whereby God’s servant reads the text, works diligently to understand that text within the context of Scripture, and responds to the text with requests influenced and governed by God’s words. Following Daniel’s example can ensure that our prayers clearly articulate the will of God, with the full understanding that in our weakness “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Randy McKinion is a regular contribtuor to Expository Thoughts. He is a husband and father of three and Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at shepherds seminary in Cary, NC.
By Paul Lamey
Immediately after he passed away, a nurse came in and made an empty attempt at comfort, “He’s in a better place” she said. As soon as the words were uttered they seemed to bounce around the room with nowhere to comfortably land. For the sake of context, this was spoken to a dear woman, only nanoseconds removed from the loss of her husband and best friend of forty-eight years. Better place? Really? Is it wise to tell a woman who has just lost the closest of human relationships that your husband is better off because he’s no longer here with you? Regardless of intentions and whatever this might mean, I’m convinced that Christians can do better.
Now this is not to open a discussion on the nature of heaven. I believe that “heaven is for real,” not because some four year old has an out of body experience and lives to tell about it. Heaven, like hell, is real because the Bible assumes the veracity of both. Christians are often easily duped into throwing out the Bible and taking up second-hand experiences as proof of this and that. We should remember that the Bible is sufficient reason enough to believe that after our earthly existence, our souls will be immediately present with Christ and will await a future resurrection of our bodies in which the ultimate destination (i.e., place) becomes a new heaven a new earth. This I know because the Bible tells me so.
Could this be what that poor nurse was getting at? Was she attempting to emphasize that, “he’s in a better place”? If so, it would seem that the weight of scripture would be on her side. The great Apostle surely indicates as much, stating that to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (emphasis mine, 2 Cor 5:8). Also, we believe in the immortality of the soul so if it’s not here then it has to be somewhere. So if this were her intention she would be theologically correct on a number of points. However, I don’t think this is what she was aiming for.
The problem of the nurse’s hollow comfort is one that is painfully acute with Christians. We want to say something, anything that might bring comfort so we grab for aphorisms that have been handed down to us by our own experiences or from the self-help section at the Christian bookstore. In so doing, we grab the mantle laid down by the likes of Job’s friends. He too had questions about “place” and the afterlife. Poor Job wondered, “Man expires, and where is he?” (Job 14:10). His friend, Eliphaz, chimes in and says that such questions are “useless talk” and then proceeds to wax on about his life experiences.
You see the problem is not with the technicality of the answer from the nurse. On the theological merits, she was correct—he was in a better place. The problem is that the suffering widow was not asking a question. She was grieving, sobbing, and her mind was undoubtedly racing in many directions. The nurse was answering a question, that at least in that instant, no one was asking. In such moments it is imperative that Christians learn the discipline and wisdom of holding our tongues. This is not to say that we take up vows of silence when thrust into these situations but less is more.
The Proverbs speak of the delight of a “timely word” (15:23). If we were to unpack the fullness of what this means then we would see that it is a word that is measured with wisdom, truth, and patient compassion. A timely word can be a word delayed either in a letter, email, or note of sympathy. A timely word may be a conversation over coffee months later when important questions do arise. A timely word may be no word at all, at least in that moment.
I was recently reminded of this from the likes of an atheist no less. In a sad Vanity Fair essay Christopher Hitchens, who is suffering from esophageal cancer, says something that I was unable to forget:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
In the essay, Hitchens was bemoaning the dictum that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This line, probably adapted from Nitzsche who borrowed it from Goethe, rings hollow for Hitchens. It’s nothing more than a “facile maxim.” This led me to wonder, do we Christians have our own mottos that have a ring of truth in the moment yet fail to deliver (“live up to their apparent billing”)? You bet we do, so let us agree to part ways with them and redeem our conversations. This will mean that when we do speak, it will be the truth in love with the goal of helping one another mature in Christ (Eph 4:15).
(Paul Lamey is a husband and father of four. He is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL and the editor-in-chief of Expository Thoughts)
By Matt Waymeyer
[See Part One here]
In his book, He Is Not Silent, Al Mohler raises a provocative question: “If you picked an evangelical church at random and attended a Sunday morning service there, how likely is it that you would hear a faithful expository sermon, one that takes its message and its structure from the biblical text?”[i] In most communities the odds would not be very good. As Steven Lawson has suggested, when it comes to solid Bible preaching there is nothing short of a famine in the land.[ii]
In the eyes of many, expository preaching is simply no longer relevant because it fails to connect in any kind of meaningful way with the average person in today’s culture. This criticism, of course, is hardly new. Back in 1928, a prominent liberal Baptist minister named Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled, “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” In the article, Fosdick wrote:
Many preachers indulge habitually in what they call expository sermons. They take a passage from Scripture, and, proceeding on the assumption that the people attending the church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical exposition of the verse or the chapter, ending with some attendant practical applications to the auditors. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares (to start with) what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it. Nobody else who talks to the public so assumes that the vital interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken 2000 years ago.[iii]
Fosdick himself died in 1969, but his view of expository preaching lives on. Many still see it as the epitome of dullness and futility. Many still insist that it fails to connect to the vital interests of the average person in the congregation. Many still believe it is doomed to failure because it hasn’t kept up with the evolving needs of contemporary culture.
According to Mohler, this rapid decline of expository preaching has been one of most troubling developments of the last several decades.
Numerous influential voices within evangelicalism are suggesting that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations—messages that avoid preaching a biblical text and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.[iv]
Various alternatives to expository preaching may indeed connect with the masses and fill the pews, but at what cost? Time will eventually tell.
[i]Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 50.
[ii]Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003).
[iii]Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What Is the Matter with Preaching?” in Mike Graves, ed. What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 9.
By Matt Waymeyer
In September of 1982—more than a decade before the rise of the Internet—journalist Allen Neuharth launched a newspaper that would revolutionize the world of print media. What made USA Today so unique is that its approach and design were based on the most thorough market research ever performed on behalf of a newspaper. By surveying readers about their likes and dislikes, Neuharth was able to present the news in a way that catered to the desires of his potential audience.
In his research, Neuharth discovered that people liked lots of color, lots of pictures, and lots of graphics. They wanted short, easy-to-read articles that didn’t continue on a later page. They wanted less international news and more human interest stories. In short, they wanted something that reminded them more of television than a newspaper. So that’s what he gave them. And even though critics began referring to USA Today as “the junk food of journalism,” the end product was an amazing success, at least in terms of circulation.
Unfortunately, many churches today have taken a similar approach to designing their worship services. The trends reveal that people want less doctrine and more drama, less preaching and more props, less declaration and more dialogue. They want short, easy-to-listen-to sermons that don’t get too deep and that don’t focus too much on God and not enough on me. In short, they want something that reminds them of the Sunday morning edition of USA Today. And that’s exactly what they’re given.
In the process, essential elements of biblical worship are often compromised, if not abandoned altogether. One of the most common casualties is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. For this reason, churches that are committed to the expositional preaching of Scripture are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As David Jackman writes:
For every pulpit won, another seems to be lost, not necessarily to heresy, but to the Bible being relegated from the [driver’s] seat to the passenger seat, where it makes a useful companion, a map to be consulted from time to time, but does not really determine the direction of the car.[i]
One study of 200 evangelical sermons found that neither the content nor the organization of the message arose from a biblical passage in more than half of those sermons. In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon estimates that of all the sermons he has heard in the past 25 years, less than 10 percent were demonstrably based on a biblical text.[ii] Instead, the content of most sermons was simply asserted, presumably on the authority of the preacher himself. In too many churches the Bible has indeed been relegated to the passenger’s seat.
In contrast, the goal of expository preaching is to get back to the Book—to uphold the authority of Scripture by proclaiming the message of God Himself. The expository preacher has been divinely commissioned to stand before the people and declare with authority: “Thus sayeth the Lord!” He is, in a very real sense, the mouthpiece of Yahweh who has been called to speak forth the utterances of God (1 Pet 4:10). To those who believe that the relevance of expository preaching has long since past, this may seem naïve. But for those who take seriously the biblical mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2), it’s the only option worth considering.
The goal of this series is very simple—to clarify the nature of expository preaching and to explain why it is so crucial to the future of the church. This is not a manual on how to prepare a message or preach a sermon, but rather a call to exalt the supremacy of Scripture in the pulpit. Our ultimate desire is not only to strengthen and encourage those who have already committed themselves to the proclamation of God’s Word, but also to challenge those who may have exchanged that proclamation for something else. After all, junk food may be relatively harmless when it comes to reading a newspaper. But not when it comes to feeding the soul.
[i]David Jackman, “What’s So Special About Preaching?” Inaugural EMA Address on Preaching, 2006.
[ii]T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messenger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing Company, 2009), 18.
Matt Waymeyer is a regular contributor to Expository Thoughts. He is a husband and father of five and Instructor in Bible Exposition and New Testament at The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, CA.