Praying the Scripture: A Case Study
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.