Prayer: tefillah תְּפִלָּה (Strong’s 8605). [sound’s like t’fee-lah].
Root: פָּלַל palal- to pray
So last week we began our study on the popular catch-phrase, *thoughts* and prayers. We looked at how thoughts, from a Hebraic perspective, are plans for action. It’s not just saying, “I’m thinking of you”, rather it is saying “I’m coming up with a plan on how I can help”.
But what about prayers? Saying, “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” sounds less religious than saying, “I’m praying for you”. Are we using this phrase to mask our faith… to sound less preachy and more non-committal tolerant?
I searched all over the Tanakh (Old Testament) to find a grand definition of prayer, and there was none. But Hebrew scripture is full of shining examples of prayer: Hannah’s prayer of Joy (see below), David’s prayer of Thanksgiving (2 Samuel 7:22-24), Solomon’s prayer of Dedication (see below), Jabez’s prayer of Protection (1 Chronicles 4:9-10), Habakkuk’s prayer of Awe & Exultation (Habakkuk 3), Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (see below), just to name a few.
And so without a definition, what do these examples tell us about prayer?
Biblically prayer appears to be a personal, sincere, conversation with God. It’s that simple.
Prayer is Personal
How you speak to your Creator is different than how anyone else speaks to Him. Consider conversations with your Mom and how that is different from conversations with your friends, or your teacher, or your uncle. It is because you have different shared histories together, different inside jokes, different ways of looking at the world together. It is the same for God. Your relationship with Him is unique to you and Him, and your prayers will reflect that.
Praying in the Moment
Your life experience, at each moment that you pray, also shapes your conversations. If you’re angry at your co-worker it changes the tone of your conversation with them. If you are nervous about something the words you speak reflect that. Listen to Jeremiah’s prayer when he is aware of the corruption around him:
Righteous are you, O YHWH, when I complain to you. Yet I would plead my case before you:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root; they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth and far from their heart.
But you, O YHWH, know me;
you see me, and test my heart toward you.
There is a raw honesty in Jeremiah’s prayer. He asks God the tough questions. So should we!
Just as we can pray in our distress, we should also pray in our great joy! When barren Hannah asks God for a son, and God hears her prayer, she joyfully prays:
1 Samuel 2:1-2
“My heart exults in YHWH; my horn is exalted in YHWH.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in YOUR salvation.
There is none holy like YHWH, for there is none besides YOU;
there is no rock like our God!
Hannah highlights that YHWH is the One who brings Salvation. Her heart overflows with love for her son and love for the God who created him.
Just like a conversation with any friend, we can ask God the tough questions, we can be thankful, joyful, angry, sad. We can speak in awe and we can also speak candidly. We need to be honest in our communication with YHWH, otherwise it’s an empty prayer.
Yeshua (Jesus) was clear about making prayer personal and in the moment:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
So then, this is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name,
Your kingdom come, Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Prayer needs to be Sincere
God calls on His people to seek Him out and pray with a sincere and humble heart. Job is one of the most profound pray’ers in the Tanakh (Old Testament). He prayed with raw humility and a pure heart:
My face is red with weeping, and deep shadows circle my eyes;
yet my hands are free of violence and my prayer (u-tefillah-ti) is pure.
In the presence of those who were self-righteous and elitist Yeshua shared a parable about humility in prayer:
To some who trusted in their own righteousness and viewed others with contempt, He [Yeshua] also told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the other men—swindlers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and pay tithes of all that I receive.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Prayer needs to be a Conversation
As hard as it is for us to understand, prayers are not a one way street. It’s hard to have a conversation when you can’t audibly hear the response. But the Bible does show many examples of God’s response to an authentic prayer:
2 Kings 20:1-3
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was near death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him and said, “This is what YHWH says: ‘Put your affairs in order, for you are about to die; you will not recover.’”
Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed [from Hebrew root word palal- to intercede] to YHWH “Please, O YHWH, remember how I have walked before You faithfully and wholeheartedly, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
YHWH responds to Hezekiah’s prayer:
2 Kings 20:4-5a
Before Isaiah had left the middle courtyard, the word of YHWH came to him, saying, “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of My people, ‘This is what YHWH, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer (tefillah-teka); I have seen your tears. I will surely heal you…’”
In another example, King Solomon offers a prayer of dedication for the newly built Temple:
1 Kings 8:22-23, 28b-30
Then Solomon stood before the altar of YHWH in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven, and said:
“O YHWH, God of Israel, there is no God like You in heaven above or on earth below, keeping Your covenant of loving devotion with Your servants who walk before You with all their hearts…
…Hear the cry and the prayer (ha-tefillah) that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May Your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which You said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that You may hear the prayer (ha-tefillah) that Your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of Your servant and of Your people Israel when they pray toward this place. May You hear from heaven, Your dwelling place. May You hear and forgive…
YHWH responds to Solomon’s prayer:
1 Kings 9:3
And YHWH said to him,
“I have heard your prayer (tefillah-teka) and petition before Me. I have consecrated this temple you have built by putting My Name there forever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time.“
Notice that in both Hezekiah’s prayer and Solomon’s prayer God gives a quick, clear, response. Notice, also, how each of them pray. Hezekiah turned his face towards the wall and has a one-on-one conversation with YHWH. Solomon prays with his hands lifted high in front of a gathered assembly. Both are acceptable in God’s sight, as long as the heart is sincere.
Yeshua (Jesus) was particularly concerned about sincerity in prayer:
In the hearing of all the people, Jesus said to His disciples, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and they love the greetings in the marketplaces, the chief seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets. They defraud widows of their houses, and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will receive greater condemnation.”
Conversing with God without sincerity is not praying, it’s acting. It’s a show, a one-man play for the benefit of others. God is not interested in listening to the drama.
The conversation God seeks is with you. And although we may not hear audible words from God, it doesn’t mean there’s no answer to be heard. Listen to the still small voice. Listen to the Spirit within you! It’s not a word we are seeking but an answer in actions. That is how God speaks today… in actions… actions that change lives.
Prayer in Adversity
The world is full of adversity. It’s the main reason why we offer thoughts and prayers to our friends and family. One of my favourite Biblical prayers is from Jonah when he prays from the belly of the great fish. Not many knew adversity like Jonah did:
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to YHWH his God, saying:
“In my distress I called to YHWH and He answered me.
From the belly of Sheol I called for help, and You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current swirled about me.
All Your breakers and waves swept over me.
At this, I said, ‘I have been banished from Your sight;
yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.’
The waters engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me;
the seaweed wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I descended; the earth beneath me barred me in forever!
But You raised my life from the pit, O YHWH my God!
As my life was fading away, I remembered YHWH.
My prayer (tefillah-ti) went up to You, to Your holy temple.
Those who cling to worthless idols forsake His loving devotion.
But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You.
I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from YHWH!”
And YHWH commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah looks toward the holy Temple and seeks God out. Seeking God is a key component to prayer. Seek, call out and converse with your Creator. It’s what you were created for!
So next time you’re tempted to write, You’re in my thoughts and prayers, ask yourself this? Do you honestly plan on doing something to help? If ‘yes’, then by all means say thoughts. But if what you really mean is, “I will pray for you”, then say so, and do it.
We don’t have the resources and time actively take on every tragedy, but prayer is free and has no time limit. It doesn’t need a schedule. In the tiniest moments of your day you can pray. And sometimes, I believe, it’s the tiny heartfelt prayers that are the most powerful.
If we learn anything from these great pray’ers in the Bible, we should know this: Always praise God, but also take time to chat, share your happiness, get mad, cry out, question, and laugh with God. He is YHWH, full of gentle lovingkindness and He wants to hear everything you have to say.
Life is funny… it’s okay to say, “Good one God!”.
Life can be frustrating… it’s okay to say, “What’s going on, God?”.
Life can be hard… it’s okay to say, “Help me God”.
Say what’s on your heart! God is listening.
Next week: (The) Way
11 thoughts on “Tefillah- Debunking “Thoughts and Prayers” (Part II)”
What a thoughtful piece on prayer, Sarah! I am often struck by how we have revised the Lord’s Prayer to ‘deliver us from evil’ from ‘deliver us from the evil one’. Curious how that reads in the original Hebrew and how it has changed in various translations and paraphrases over time? Seems to me if Jesus prayed ‘deliver us from the evil one’, we should, too. And to your point about heartfelt, honest words in prayer, I totally agree. We should speak to our Creator and Saviour authentically, but with awe and reverence. Equally, as we speak, we must listen for his guidance and wisdom.