The biggest reason people don’t pray much is that they don’t have time, but that’s really a matter of just rearranging priorities and hunting down the little time-wasters in your day. Probably the second biggest reason people don’t pray like they should is because they don’t know how. If you don’t know how to do a thing, that makes it a little tough, but there is a remedy.
The Bible is meant for our instruction1, and there are a powerful lot of examples. When I looked up “pray*2” in the Blue Letter Bible, it came back with 545 references in the King James Version, 343 in the New King James Version, 415 in the New Living Translation, and 345 in the New International Version.
Don’t worry. We’re not going to look at all 545 references. Most of them aren’t relevant to our topic but rather a quirk of the English language at the time anyway.
Let’s look at five prayers.
Start with Solomon’s prayer dedicating the Temple in 1 Kings 8, starting in verse 23. This prayer was very public and began with an acknowledgment of God’s majesty and glory. Then Solomon recounts the Davidic Covenant, that there would be a man of David’s line on the throne forever. Some view this as a conditional covenant that was fulfilled until Israel blew it and failed to follow God (Not the “Replacement Theology.” This is different because there’s no assumption that the Church takes over the blessings for Israel). Others suggest that this hasn’t been fulfilled yet but will when Jesus takes his rightful place as the Son of David. Given what I’ve seen in prophecy with one declaration having two or more valid applications, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Solomon continues his prayer with a long series of circumstances where he petitions God hear his people if they mess up, realize it, and turn back to him. Finally, Solomon acknowledges the special favor God has separated Israel for.
So, if you look at the parts, you get adoration, remembrance, petitions, and adoration. Put another way, acknowledge God’s glory, remember what nifty things he’s done for you, raise your concerns that you have, and acknowledge his glory. Your mileage may vary, but that worked for Solomon at a time before he went apostate.
Now flip over to 2 Kings 19. Here we find Hezekiah’s reaction to the Assyrians threatening to wipe out Jerusalem. The first thing Hezekiah does upon hearing the report is humble himself and go to the Temple to check in with God while sending his counselors to go talk to a prophet and get godly advice. Hezekiah gets his answer in verses 6 and 7, but the Assyrians send a message to Hezekiah before they leave. Check out verse 14. Hezekiah takes the letter to the Temple and spreads it out before the altar as if God would read it. Hezekiah’s prayer is verses 15-19. He acknowledges God’s greatness, spends the next three verses laying out his concerns and reasons for being concerned, and then makes a petition for help so that all those witnessing will learn about God’s greatness. Up through verse 36, you get God’s response, ultimately culminating in one angel showing up in the Assyrian camp one night and wiping out 185,000 soldiers. That wasn’t all of them, by the way. The text says “when they arose…” The antecedent for the pronoun “they” would be the Assyrians. Can you imagine going to bed with nearly 200,000 soldiers around you and waking up to find you’re one of the few still alive?
Hezekiah’s prayer has some similarities to Solomon’s. Both started with adoration. Hezekiah, however, skips the remembrance bit and goes straight to the petitions. Both end with adoration again.
Our next stop is Daniel 9. First, notice what spurred Daniel’s prayer. He was reading the book of Jeremiah and learned that the Babylon captivity would be ending soon. He took the passage he read very seriously. The 70 years Jeremiah spoke about weren’t “some code that could mean a really long time.” Daniel took that to mean a literal 70 years. You’ll notice that when you see someone in Scripture referencing Scripture, there’s not a lot of allegorizing.
Anyway, Daniel’s prayer is verses 3-19. Notice that like Hezekiah, Daniel humbled himself before God. He started by an acknowledgment of God’s nature then moved to confession of not just his own sins, but the sins of his people. There are other phrases of adoration peppered through these confessions. Then he remembers what God has done for the people. Finally he intercedes on the behalf of the people and petitions for God’s mercy, not because the people deserve it in any way but because but because God’s glory will be furthered by his mercy. Unfortunately, we don’t see how the prayer would have ended because at this point, an angel, Gabriel, appears to interrupt Daniel and gift him with what is called the “70 Weeks Prophecy3.”
Do you see the pattern going here? Daniel, Solomon, and Hezekiah all start with adoration. Daniel moves to confession, then petitions for forgiveness.
Our fourth pray-er is Jonah. Go to Jonah 2. Remember Jonah was told to go tell Nineveh that judgment was coming. He really didn’t want to and tried to run to Tarshish, and God had a huge fish swallow him. The ironic bit? Jonah was headed to Nineveh. Their chief god there was a fish god4. Anyway, while “relaxing” in the gut of the fish, Jonah realized he blew it and prayed to God. Jonah acknowledged that God was just, then Jonah repented, and finally he thanked God for the affliction (When was the last time you thanked God for the disasters in your life?) and declared that salvation comes only from God.
Once again, Jonah humbles himself, offers adoration for God’s justice, confessed sins, expressed thankfulness, and ended by declaring God’s mercy.
The last of our examples is Jesus himself. Who better, right? We’ll look at the most famous of his prayers. It is called the Lord’s Prayer, but in truth Jesus couldn’t pray that one. Being sinless, what sins did he have that needed forgiving before he was made sin for us on the cross? Still, everyone calls it the Lord’s Prayer, so I won’t buck the system. Have you heard the adage “Familiarity breeds contempt?” I think we suffer from that when it comes to this prayer. We say it so often that I wonder if we really know what it’s saying. Go to Matthew 6:9-13 for the most complete text. There’s another incomplete account in Luke, but most scholars agree that Matthew’s quotations of Christ are more accurate because of Matthew’s training as a tax collector5.
Look at the petitions one at a time: adoration, adoration, petition, confession, petition, and adoration. It generally fits the pattern, doesn’t it?
So, if you get stuck with figuring out how to pray, start by admiring the glory and greatness of God. Move on to confession, thanksgiving, and petitions then end with adoration again. By keeping adoration of God as bookends for our prayers, we remember the significance of just who he is.
1 Romans 15:4, 2 Timothy 3:16
2 the * indicates a “wildcard,” which means the search would include any word that starts “pray” like prayer, prayed, praying, etc.
3 Missler, Chuck. The Book of Daniel: A Commentary. Koinonia House. If you haven’t made a study of the last 4 verses of Daniel 9, you really ought to. It’s complicated, but well worth the digging. Among other things, you’ll find that the Triumphal Entry is predicted to the day. What’ll really strike you funny when you read the Triumphal Entry account in Luke 19:41-44 is that Jesus expected them to know that. How many prophecies are there about Jesus’ second coming? Do you think he might expect the same from us?
4 Missler, Chuck. The Book of Jonah: A Commentary. Koinonia House.
5 Luke 5:27