Those first prayers of our lives are often the cries of the heart, or existential terror. And Paul urges Timothy to these. The psalmists use these pleas and cries of distress over and over, and we even suggested a couple of instances where Jesus engages in these supplications. So, what about “prayers”, the second word in Paul’s list in 1 Tim 2:1?
Again, let us imagine our normal experience. After we have said the “Jesus, take the wheel” prayer, and we start to calm a little bit. When we no longer need the paper bag to regulate breathing. What are our first thoughts? If you are like me you start thinking things like, “Ok, Jesus, the car is on the road, if you just let it be true that I didn’t do any serious damage to Dad’s car, I promise I’ll make church next Sunday.” After we know we aren’t going to die immediately, we start bargaining whatever we can think of, usually whatever we think might be holy or religious or what the god(s) might like, in exchange for “just make it alright”. Now depending upon the circumstance alright might be anything from the way it was before to fix this to give me more time to anything that we are sure will make our continuing existence better.
Now if you are at all a pious person you’ve been told by people like me – “God isn’t a galactic vending machine”. I like that phrase so much I want to defend it just a bit before deconstructing my own pious-BS. God isn’t a galactic vending machine in the sense that we have anything to put into it. When we start bargaining it is usually with one of two things: a) we promise to be much better boys in the future or b) we appeal to everything we’ve done in the past. Call it the prodigal and the elder son or the little-boy-blue and little-jack-horner camps. And if you know the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), when the prodigal gets home to Dad and starts into his “I promise to blow the horn next time” speech, Dad cuts him off at “I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called you son”. Dad doesn’t let him promise anything. The Father isn’t a galactic vending machine we put anything into, but he does provide. The older son does get to do his “what a good boy am I” routine, but Dad more or less says are you sure that is the line you want to use. Right now, all the good stuff and the party is inside, and you are standing outside.
Enough defense of my older-son piety (but God, I’ve never been so immature as to bargain with you), let’s tare it down a little. God may not be a galactic vending machine, but “prayer” as Paul uses it here, and as we will see by looking at a couple of Psalms, means bargaining in a sense or exchanging wishes. The invitation is not to bargain from our strength, because we have none, but to bargain from God’s promises. The invitation is to say to God, “I need this, I need your help here, and I think you should agree because Jesus did, or because you told us to do this, or because this is who you have revealed yourself to be.” The Ur-example of this might be the man from Ur himself, Abraham. When God told him he was off to destroy Sodom, Abraham negotiated with God. You can find that story in Genesis 18:22-33, but Abraham opens up the negotiation with this bargaining chip:
Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:23-25 ESV)
It is not the righteous within the city that he bargains with or their righteousness. He bargains over and for them, but he bargains with the nature of God as the Almighty has revealed himself. The Judge of all the earth will do justice.
I’ve put all the uses in the Psalms of “prayer” in this file, but there are two psalms that I want to give special attention to: Psalm 86 and Psalm 90. Please take some time to read each…ok, now that you are back, Psalm 90 first. Notice the inscription: A Prayer of Moses, The Man of God. I hope you know the story of Moses. If you don’t the Biblical book of Exodus is where you go. In that background of this prayer is the Exodus event. God has delivered his people from bondage. He has explicitly promised a land flowing with milk and honey, a restoration to the promised-land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he has given the law on Sinai’s height and exercised his judgment on the grumbling and wondering people of Israel. I hear that reflected in the first 11 verses. Moses acknowledges the God who has been their dwelling place and the majesty and power of that God. We know we have nothing. “You have set our iniquities before you…” So what does Moses ask for, what is he seeking? Wisdom (v12), pity (v13), satisfaction and gladness (v14-15), knowledge of God into the future (v16) and success in building (v17). I’d say those requests run our usually gambit. Everything from material success and happiness, to pity of our powerlessness, to wisdom and knowledge of God for us and our kin. Does Moses, the Man of God, offer anything for these? Does he bargain with anything Israel has? No. What he does is remind God of his promises and his steadfast love (v14). That word steadfast love is one of the key words of the OT. It is God’s Chesed, his steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness. Even when we fail, God says He is faithful to his promises. Moses’ prayer, his bargaining with God, is to live up to God’s promises. God, this is the stuff we heard when you said a land flowing with milk and honey, were we fooled? God, you promised to prosper us, yet we have been afflicted, How long? Let your work be shown to your servants.
Psalm 86 carries the inscription: A Prayer of David. David, as Moses is the OT lawgiver and type of the prophet and priest, David is the OT type of the King. David was the man who received a covenant from God for an eternal throne. Yet that throne seems to be in danger. David acknowledges his poverty – “I am poor and needy (v1)”. It may originally sound like that bargaining from what we have – “preserve my life, for I am godly” – but that godliness is defined as simple trust. “Save your servant, who trusts in you – you are my God”. And what is that trust based on? “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you (v5).” Notice the steadfast love again? When we are in need of forgiveness, when we have been faithless to the covenants, you remain faithful. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord/nor are there any works like yours (v8).” Now we should do the same as before, what does David want? Walk in God’s ways (v11), deliverance from insolent men (v14), a sign and shame on his enemies (v17). David’s bargaining with God is as with Moses a calling of God to live up to God’s promises. I thought my throne was for all generations, yet it looks like it won’t last this one, did I hear wrong? If I did, show me your ways, unite my heart to fear your name (v11).
So, what does this mean for our prayer life? There are two things I would recommend. First we authentically need stuff in the here and now. We should not be afraid or too pious to ask God for things. Moses and David’s requests were for real stuff. If you look at the rest of the psalms and how this word is used, it is often parallel to those cries and pleas. Our requests come out of that real need. Which leads to the second point, we should recognize our need. Prayer is a request or even a bargaining with God. Our authentic reaction is a good guide at least initially, but it fails us in what we offer. We are bargaining from absolute need. We pray because we have nothing in ourselves. The only thing we offer is what God has already given to us. Our bargains, our prayers of this type, should be based on God’s promise and love for us. God’s love might be shown by a Mercedes Benz, but part and parcel of both David and Moses’ prayers were requests for wisdom. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a M-B, and help me to drive always in the narrow path. You mean the narrow path is a walking path? But the Benz has plenty of trunk room for that cross, why walk. Carry it, but how will I bring my Benz? Oh, now I get it.
One last example from the life of Jesus in John 11:38-44. Jesus prays before calling out to raise Lazarus. Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days and he stinks. And Jesus prays. The prayer, in my hearing, is of this form. The promise to Jesus is that he is the Word of the Father, that he is the beloved, that we should listen to him. I promised them to see your Glory, and I said this so that they might believe you sent me. Lazarus, come out.
These “prayers” are things we need, with the Kingdom and the promises kept firmly in mind.
Next week we will talk about the next word in Paul’s list: “intercessions”. Just a hint, with this one we start to get out of our needs and start looking toward others.
Part 1 of this Series