We can learn a lot from others about prayer, but often we forget to seek out the Bible and how others throughout biblical history prayed. Yet we can glean much from Old Testament prayers and those faithful few who prayed them and approached God humbly and expectantly.
Prayer has always been the way God has chosen to show himself strong on behalf of those who called upon him. If prayer is that powerful and has that kind of value, then the practice and habit of prayer ought to set a whole new direction for each of us.
The brief expositions that follow illustrate how three Old Testament prayers instruct us in this principle. As you continue reading, I suggest you have your Bible open to the appropriate passages, so you can refer to the text of each prayer.
Abraham (Genesis 18:22–23)
In many ways, Abraham’s prayer for his nephew Lot and the cities of the plain is one of the first formal prayers of intercession and serves as a model for how we, too, ought to pray.
The Lord himself reveals to Abraham that he is about to judge the cities of the plain (where Lot had gone to live) because a serious “outcry” of evil had come up to God (Gen 18:20–21). Abraham never doubts that the people’s wickedness is deserving of judgment. But, he argues, what if there were some righteous persons in those cities? He asks, as we would, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (18:23).
In this context, the man later known as the “friend of God” (2 Chr 20:7; Jas 2:23) raises one of the most difficult questions of life: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (18:25). This lays out a standard, not only for Abraham but also for us: Yahweh will do only what is right. He cannot do or be other than true to his nature as the just and righteous God. Abraham’s “question” is not a question in the usual sense but is meant to affirm Yahweh’s character: he is the judge of the whole earth and will only work justice for those deserving of it (the words “judge” and “justice” come from the same Hebrew root).
Even so, there must be discriminating distinctions in the coming judgment, Abraham suggests. God agrees that for the sake of 50 righteous persons, the greater majority of persons living in wickedness could be saved. Each time Abraham renegotiates this number, Yahweh graciously accedes. And with each reduction in the number of righteous required to save the cities, Abraham expresses an increasing sense of deference for the majesty and greatness of God.
It is amazing to see how intimate and frank this conversation is. Yahweh does not take umbrage at Abraham’s prayer request or even disagree with his line of reasoning (18:26–32). There is no indication that Abraham might be pushing God too far, for the Lord gives him no rebuke, only replies of agreement.
In the end, it seems that even 10 righteous persons was too much to ask for. Yet Abraham persisted in petitioning the Lord for forgiveness. This prayer shows Abraham as a real man of faith who engaged in daring conversations with his Lord. Here is encouragement for all of us, who also are “friends of God,” to likewise pray.
Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10)
The feast at Shiloh was meant to be a time of rejoicing for God’s blessing at the time of the harvest, but this was not at all how Hannah was feeling. Not only was she without children, but she also was the object of constant jibes about her barrenness (1 Sam 1:6–7). After the feast, Hannah rushes off to pray to the Lord. What is so remarkable is the freedom and confidence with which Hannah makes her request for a son.
Believers today are sometimes surprised to learn how these Old Testament saints prayed as though they had direct access to God. Didn’t they have to go through a bunch of rituals and pray in specific ways? Hannah’s prayer shows otherwise: she acts forthrightly on the assumption that God will hear her silent prayer—without her needing to go through any formal steps to prepare or wait for a priest who had more access to God. She simply pours out her complaint directly to the Lord as if speaking to a close friend.
God hears Hannah and blesses her with a son, and several years later she returns to Shiloh to offer a prayer of thanksgiving (2:1–10). This prayer, often called Hannah’s Song, may be treated in three parts. In verses 1–3, Hannah expresses her joy over Yahweh’s intervention. Verses 4–8 move on to a more general statement of how Yahweh works on behalf of those who call to him for help. Verses 9–10 further expand the scope, anticipating a time when Yahweh will reign personally over the whole world through his “faithful one.”
Hannah’s prayer shows God’s power to enrich and exalt, as well as his power to abase the proud and punish the wicked. It is better to leave such matters to God in prayer than to try to resolve them on our own. Hannah affirms that there is no one who can match the high and holy God, Yahweh of Hosts. He is without any comparison at any level!
Jonah (Jonah 2:2–9)
Jonah begins his prayer by recounting his trouble: “In my distress, I called to the Lord and he answered me” (2:2). This is a very familiar opening to such [Old Testament] prayers, especially in the book of Psalms. Jonah’s prayer has only eight verses, yet even in that short space, it contains seven quotations from Psalms.
In verse 4, Jonah quotes the psalmist as he admits he feels separated from God. The antidote is to take another look (perhaps in his memory) toward God’s holy temple and the divine presence residing there. Jonah then uses a battery of rich hyperboles to describe his situation: the currents swirl about him, the water threatens to engulf him, the seaweed wraps around his head as he descends deeper into the sea (2:5). Yet right in the middle of his prayer, Jonah announces, “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit” (2:6). He is certain of Yahweh’s power to restore a sense of God’s presence. The same Lord who had hurled Jonah into the depths is able to bring up his life.
The verb used here for “bring up” is the same one used when Israel was “brought up” out of slavery in Egypt. Just at the point where Jonah thinks his life is slipping away, he suddenly remembers Yahweh— and this recollection immediately drives him to prayer (2:7). But what is it about our Lord that comes rushing into Jonah’s mind? It is what verse 9 declares: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah had to learn—in the same way that the people of Israel had to learn over and over again—that salvation could only come from the Lord.
When trials and distresses come from the hand of God, they come for the purpose of correction and reproof. To ensure we do not miss the point of these trials, we must surrender in prayer to the will of God. God’s deliverance is always available, even to those who seem unlikely to be recipients of his grace.
This post about Old Testament prayers originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of Bible Study Magazine and was adapted from I Will Lift My Eyes unto the Hills: Learning from the Great Prayers of the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA) 2015.