Saturday, June 06, 2015

An Old Testament Theology of Prayer

Goldingay3I am continuing to work through Volume 3 of Goldingay’s, Old Testament Theology, Israel’s Life. In this volume Goldingay is looking at how Israel was to live, “not the life Israel actually lived”, but “the life the First Testament reckons it should have been and should be.” I continue to post quotes from Volume 3 on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays. There will be a link to this blog post on my Facebook page where you can comment. Please comment there. I love how Goldingay wrestles with the text and is willing to let the textual tensions remain without simplistic resolution. We are supposed to wrestle together with the biblical text so I welcome a good discussion of this post on Facebook.

Chapter 3 continues the discussion of our master-servant relationship with God as expressed in Prayer and Thanksgiving. Because we are God’s servants we have a claim on Him and are able to call on Him to provide what is needed for our service. God is a good “lord” who encourages engagement and interaction with His servants and delight in meeting his commitment to us. We can cry out in confidence to God because, “our master is committed to us, under obligation to protect us as the other side of our commitment to serving him.”

Prayer is basically communication with God and there are many ways to do it with various types of content. We come to god “with empty hands” and expect him to act for us in certain ways. Prayer is a two-way conversation in which both parties are expected to come away from it with action. Prayer may be done in a traditional form or with individual creativity, it may be done in privacy or together with the community. It cannot be programmed, God’s divine word may interrupt at any time. God wants us to come to him and ask for him to follow through on his promises and be frank with him, although we always come as a servant. Goldingay also speaks of the “impossibility of silence” in heartfelt prayer and advocates the involvement of the whole body as well as the mind and spirit in our prayers.

"The art of praying is neither something ritual" in the sense of something that follows a set form and might be expected to work on that basis, "nor an individual meditation. Rather it is communication." Prayer involves words...It involves words addressed to someone else, not words that simply help me articulate something for myself; it is an exercise in person to person communication. 192

We pray because we are invited, because we are commanded, because we are grateful. 201

The nature of a master's relationship to a servant places obligations on the master, like those of a covenant. Indeed they are those of a covenant. The servant serves; the master provides and protects. As the people of God, we appeal to God on this basis. 203

The second section is concerned with the prayer of Protest. “Much prayer in the First Testament is neither temperate nor calm. It involves confronting, calling out, summoning, crying out, asking questions, asking for grace and attention and encounter, challenging and claiming.” (209) When it seems that Yhwh is not listening, the prayer needs to get his attention and encourage him to act. We cry out to draw attention to our pleading so we will be heard and acknowledged. These prayers often take the form of challenging Yhwh to remember his past acts and promises and bring the supplicant’s situation back into the proper relationship with Him and the world

Prayer does not have to express the niceties. It does not have to observe social or liturgical or theological proprieties. 213

An appropriate response when God is not doing what an earlier promise implies is to protest at what God has been doing, to remind God of what that word said, to urge God to act in accordance with that word, and confidently to acknowledge our dependence on God's doing so and our commitment to act in the light of that confidence. 228

Many of the prayers in the OT are a Plea for God to change the situation they are in. “A commonly articulated Christian conviction sees prayer as not designed to change God, but to change me...Christian faith has thus abandoned a key scriptural conviction about prayer...The First Testament sees prayer as designed to change the way God is acting, to change the circumstances and to change other people.” (230) These urgent challenges ask Yhwh to make a decision and take action. “Prayer does not accept things as they are.” Nevertheless, God sometimes will answer with a “No,” but the pray-er continues to keep asking. These prayers plead with God for mercy, restoration, relief, justice, protection and for setting things right. The prayer comes out of the weakness of the needy person and asks God to put down the powerful and reasons that, when this happens, God will receive praise and honor. Of course, the danger in this kind of prayer is when the ones making the prayer are oppressors themselves.

If we belong to the powerful not the weak- to powerful nations, powerful groups within nations- and want to become people of prayer, psalms such as this (69. 79) invite us to identify with weak people and pray with them and for them; we also need to find ways of evading the prayers that are properly prayed against people like us. 246

Using the Psalms involves being aware of the ease with which we can claim to be on the side of faithfulness but be wrong. The Psalter implicitly recognizes that all worshipers are inclined to see themselves as faithful and others as the faithless, but that it is easy to fool ourselves. 250

The OT always has several examples of the prayer of Confidence. These prayers express “confidence that God is trustworthy and will act.” Many psalms reflect God’s answer to their plea and teach that God will do similar things in the future. Thus the next time need or danger arises these prayers become confidence builders for the community. They also encourage the unfaithful to repent and depend on God because Yhwh is involved in His world. They encourage individuals and the believing community to remember, believe and have hope.

(Psalm 13) recognizes that it takes God to fix things. Other gods cannot do so, political agencies cannot do so, and we cannot do so. Prayer lies in the space between trust and its vindication, and lives with the tension of what is and what will be. 258

Psalm 94 confronts stupid people in a similar way...It would be impossible to imagine that Yhwh is involved only in religious questions or questions of the spirit, though Yhwh certainly is so involved. As a statement of confidence, the psalm affirms that Yhwh is also involved in the rest of our lives...As a statement of confidence, the psalm affirms that we can also look for that involvement now. 260

"There is no private piety in the Psalms." People pray in the company of their family and friends, appeal to the way Yhwh is committed to the people corporately, and when their prayer has been answered, give thanks before the "great congregation" (Ps 22.25). 267

Most OT prayers are for others: Intercession. Intercession involves standing before the court of heaven urging it to make a decision on behalf of the people we are concerned for, and then to implement that decision.” (267) God invites and expects his people to work with Him to serve his people through intercessory prayer. Somehow, prayer changes God’s mind. Goldingay points out that most often the intercessors are the prophets and it is part of their commission. Telling the prophet not to pray (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) is a sign of terrible, impending judgment. The intercessors are  seen as “lookouts” who pray for the city and then are able to call it to repentance. Interestingly there is both a call to pray for enemies and against the faithless. In intercession we identify with the powerless and suffering and focus our rage and protest into asking God to address the situation.

Prophets who want to do their job properly and safely will focus on prayer as much as on prophecy. 276

The Psalms make the assumption that Yhwh is or should be committed to the powerless, the neglected and the falsely accused. It is an assumption with a basis in Israel's experience; it matches Yhwh's actions in delivering Israel from Egypt. It is an assumption that is further vindicated by the incarnation and crucifixion. These events express in the most vivid way possible God's identifying with the powerless, the neglected and the falsely accused. The exodus story and the prayers in the Psalms presuppose this identification. We seek to draw people into prayer that accepts this assumption. 286

Another very important type of prayer in the Old Testament is the prayer of Penitence. “The essential nature of penitence involves owning what we have done and turning from our waywardness.” (287) This involves “coming to your senses,” confession, acknowledging guilt, and turning from it. There is a realism about our own weaknesses and general sinfulness and an expectation of hope that God understands and will forgive. This must happen on both an individual and corporate level. It involves appeal to Yhwh to cover.carry away our sin, to remove it, pardon it and renew his people to right and joyful relationship. The penitent would then respond to this with sacrifice and praise.

Confession of sin is about facts more than feelings. Praise, prayer and thanksgiving all focus as much on what Yhwh has done or not done, on what other people have done and on what has happened, as on my emotional response to it. Expressions of penitence do that with remarkable rigor. They can involve a sense of shame and disgrace, and grief like that of a mourner (Ezra 9.6, 10.6) but they are more characteristically an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a turning from it. 291

It is integral to the notion of confessing sins that we do so publicly. This reflects the fact that nothing we do fails to affect other people. Our holiness contributes to the holiness of the community and builds it up before God. Our wrongdoing takes away from the holiness of the community and imperils its relationship with God. 297

Wherever I look in my life, I see waywardness, great waywardness, so all I can do is ask Yhwh not to look in that direction but to focus instead on "your compassion/commitment/ goodness" and to pardon me "for the sake of your name," in light of who you have reveled yourself to be (Ps 25.11). Act in light of who you are, not in the light of who I am. (summary of Psalm 25) 303

Goldingay concludes his discussion of prayer with a discussion about the prayer of Thanksgiving. This prayer looks back to the act of God in the past, but also looks forward to the future in anticipation of how God will answer the pleas of the future. It is a response to an act of God. It is done publicly with words, music and acts of sacrifice. It may involve public confession or testimony to teach others about God and how He acts. The move from plea, to penitence to thanksgiving changes us into what God wants us to be.

"Praise perfects perfection" and "thanks complete what is completed." It makes the praiseworthy act "overflow into the present and the future." 308

Thanksgiving thus has in common with penitence that publicly acknowledging something is integral to the notion. It is this that makes thanksgiving testimony. While thanksgiving can take place in the privacy of the heart (though only with difficulty, because thanksgiving implies enthusiasm), in its capacity also as testimony it cannot do so. And a reluctance to give public testimony to what Yhwh has done would cast doubts on the genuineness of the gratitude. 317

Praise, protest, plea and thanksgiving (and penitence and a life of commitment) work in a dynamic interrelationship. This interrelationship is not linear but circular, or rather spiral. Prayer may begin with praise or protest or plea or thanksgiving according to the circumstances of the worshiper. It may simply undertake that form of address of God, or it may move that distance around the circle, and it may then go round it again. Indeed one's life with God involves repeatedly navigating this circle, though not in a repetitive manner, because each time I come to a staging point in that circle, I am a different person relating to God in different ways from what was true the last time. 322

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