The Whos and Whats of Prayer

ImageOne of my pastors, Mike Messerli, taught yesterday on the prayer of Jehoshaphat, king of Israel, found in 2 Chronicles 20:1-13. Mike did a wonderful job in calling our attention to the marvelous structure of the prayer and some really humble admissions by the king.

For those that don’t know, Jehoshaphat was one of many kings of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, the territory of southern Palestine that included Jerusalem. He was a king who was both foolish and good at various times in his life but his reign hit a crisis point when the armies of the countries east of the Jordan River/Dead Sea decided to make war with Judah. They marched in stealth around the southern tip of the Dead Sea and came within 10 or so miles of Jerusalem before the Judah armed forces knew what was happening. With a massive army to the east and little time to prepare for war, Jehoshaphat ordered fasting throughout the kingdom and then stood to pray publicly to the Lord:

“O LORD, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you. Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham? They have lived in it, and in it have built you a sanctuary for your name, saying, ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save.’ See now, the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy— they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession that you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

I love that phrase “for we are powerless.” There is nothing like major crisis to remind us of how weak and incapable we are of our own safety and security. We’re not bulletproof. And we don’t always know what to do. Pastor Mike pointed out three major components to this prayer that would be good for any one of us to emulate in our own prayer life. Each component begins with a phrase:

1. “Are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you.” All prayer should start with who God is. Are you praying to empty space or are you speaking to another being? If you’re talking to someone, who? Can they help you? Why? Jehoshaphat starts off by recognizing the nature and power of God. The phrase “God in heaven” is a simple statement of monotheism — there is one god and he reigns in heaven. Even more, he is sovereign over all nations on earth and he alone can execute power than mankind cannot withstand. Recognizing the person and nature of God is essential to not only one’s prayer life but also one’s entire spiritual life. Who you think God is determines what you will choose in your life and how you will treat others.

2. Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham? Here the king employs a motif that many Old Testament figures used in their prayers. It is a reminder to God of the things he has done in the past. The petitioner knows that God doesn’t forget his promises. He doesn’t have long- or short-term memory loss. But this is needed in prayer more for our sake — for us to be reminded of what God has done for us in the past. To call upon the character of God as we have experienced it — either personally or as we look back on history. As I often say, it is vital to look back on the past in order to understand the present and embrace the future. How did we get here? Jehoshaphat calls upon God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to the children of Abraham and reminds the Lord that the people have now settled the land and have now come before the Temple to petition him for help.

3. …will you not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”  This is Jehoshaphat’s call for God’s action. This is the petition of the prayer. Moab, Ammon and their axis of evil are threatening to destroy God’s Israel and the people of Judah cannot stand on their own without God’s intercession. The end of this prayer is a great confession of faith: “our eyes are on you.” Men, women, children… all are looking to God for an answer. This call to action is usually the first step in our prayers these days. It’s a simple, “do something!” instead of, “we know who you are and what you’ve done for us in the past, please act in our present.” We often skip the character of God stuff.

I love King Jehoshaphat’s honesty in this prayer. He’s dangling at the end of his rope and needs God to provide another 50 feet so he can reach solid ground. He knows that Judah is in a bad spot and so he opens up to the Lord in prayer. Are you not sovereign? Did you not settle us in this land? Will you not defend us now? Starting in verse 14 God responds and the country is saved by his miraculous work. It’s a fascinating read.

— John

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