Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Everyone (even in other religions) wants to know how to pray more effectively. There are numerous books and articles written about it and lots of totally unhelpful advice from other Christians (“You have to cast out the devil!” “Did you repent first?” “Don’t forget to mention the blood of Christ!” “Make sure you end with ‘In Jesus’ name, amen’” etc). Everyone who prays wants to know how to pray so that God will hear them. Luckily, the Holy Spirit has a message for you: No prayer falls on deaf ears; for it is written, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear to dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1). Now, the very next verse does have a clarification in it:
But your iniquities have separated
You from your God;
Your sins have hidden his face from you,
So that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:2).
Some have interpreted this to mean that if you have sin in your life that God can’t hear your prayers- that’s absolutely not true. The fact is, everyone has sin in their lives and if it wasn’t for the Lord hearing my prayers pre-salvation, I wouldn’t have been saved. It does however mean that God is less inclined to listen to and act on prayers offered while in sin. But the Lord is able to hear all prayers; those to him and those to other gods. While it is true that he only usually acts on the prayers of believers (with the obvious exception of the “sinner’s prayer”), that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know everything that’s going on. Jesus taught us in Matthew 6:7-8,
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Remember, God is omniscient; he knows everything. He most certainly knows what you’re praying for, no matter who you are.
So how do we pray in a way that invites action from the Lord? That’s the real question isn’t it? How do I pray so that I get an answer? Oddly enough, the prophet with the worst reputation might hold the key. Most people know of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet called to save a gentile (and evil) city. He didn’t want to so he ran away and God had a giant fish (or whale) swallow him. Then, after deciding that doing his job was better than sitting in stomach acid, Jonah half-heartedly preached to the city (Nineveh) and then got angry when the Lord forgave them. His story is not exactly a prime example of being a good follower of God. But that’s the thing; Jonah didn’t even try hard and he saved a huge city full of people! History records,
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed in God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:3-5).
To accomplish such a feat, Jonah had to have been absolutely overflowing with the Spirit of God. Not only that, but Jonah was also on a conversation-level of communication with the Lord. Check out their chat at the end of the book:
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:8-11)
The two of them speak like old friends (or frenemies?), very casual and direct. God only does this sort of communication for a select few; like Abraham or Moses:
With him I speak face to face,
Clearly and not in riddles;
He sees the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against my servant Moses? (Numbers 12:8)
So aside from the whole fish/whale incident, Jonah must have been doing something right.
This brings us to today’s topic. Jonah had a really unique prayer style. Let’s check it out in action. Alright, so Jonah was inside of a fish, alone; the passage begins,
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
And he answered me.
From the depths of the grave I called for help,
And you listened to my cry” (Jonah 2:1-2).
He was at that time feeling the wrath of the Lord for trying to avoid his prophetic duties:
You hurled me into the deep,
Into the very heart of the seas,
And the currents swirled about me;
All your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said, “I have been banished
From your sight;
Yet I will look again
Toward your holy temple” (Jonah 2:3-4).
He was at that time in certain danger:
The engulfing waters threatened me,
The deep surrounded me;
Seaweed was wrapped around my head (Jonah 2:5).
Keep in mind; during this prayer he was still inside the fish/whale:
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
The earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
And my prayer rose to you,
To your holy temple (Jonah 2:6-7).
And so, in current danger, he repented:
“But I, with a song of thanksgiving,
Will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
Salvation comes from the Lord.”
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (Jonah 2:9-10).
Did you notice anything strange? Well, it’s hard because of this article’s format, but Jonah’s prayer is entirely in the past-tense, as though everything he was talking about had already happened- as opposed to it going on as he prayed at the time. It’s a little odd, since usually when someone prays in the Bible such things are written in present tense to give you an idea of their situation. But Jonah’s prayer isn’t recorded in the present tense suggesting that when he prayed inside the fish, he was actually using the past tense. There’s some precedent for this though. Jesus taught believers; “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). So the Lord is telling us that when we pray we should think of said prayer as already being answered. Jonah realized that God heard him when he prayed and he believed that the Lord would answer the prayer- or more to the point, that the prayer was already answered. So in his faith, he prayed as though God had already responded. The Gospel records,
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:21-22).
So a lesson throughout the Bible is that when we pray we should believe that the Lord has already answered us. After all, God is without time, so theoretically, all of your prayers have already been heard and answered since the beginning of the world.
So, is grammar important to prayer? No! Even Jonah prayed differently at different times. Here’s an example of him just praying normally to God:
He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3).
The key, rather, is to realize God’s power and understand his love for you; and his desire to help you. Remember what Christ told us in Matthew 7:11, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Don’t throw your prayers out into the open air, but direct them – if it helps, visualize that you’re talking to Jesus himself (because you are!) God is listening, no matter who you are or what your situation is. So pray and talk to the Lord about everything and expect a response. James 4:2 says, “You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” So just pray, you literally have nothing to lose because the Lord already knows your heart and what you want and need. As it is written, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).