Do you ever pray “directional” prayers? Some people pray TO something or TOWARD something. It may be positioning yourself to pray toward the east or toward the rising sun, or even toward a particular holy place. Some people pray to the moon or stars or a statue or image of a person. Some people pray rather aimlessly into the sky or the ceiling or the floor.
Does it matter? What does the Bible say?
In Exodus, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, He said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” In other words, no carved images of any animal or person that takes the place of God. For some people, this extends to icons and statues of Jesus; for others, it means only idols from other religious traditions.
However, later in Israel’s history, when King Solomon dedicated the first Temple, he prayed that when people prayed toward the Temple in Jerusalem, that God would hear from heaven and intervene. For many, this edict still holds true– they focus many, if not all their prayers toward the city of Jerusalem. Others specifically pray to the “Wailing Wall”– the last part of the Temple that still stands. Tradition states that the Spirit of God “dwelt” in the Temple– therefore to pray to the Temple was to pray to the God who lived there.
Jesus did not command His followers to pray toward the Temple itself, but rather to pray directly to “Our Father, which art in Heaven.” Throughout the Bible, the image of prayer is linked with the image of smoke or incense– rising toward Heaven. Jesus sometimes is described as looking up toward Heaven as He prayed. But other times He bowed or knelt as He prayed.
So what are we to conclude? Which is the “correct” direction for our prayers?
There is no conclusive answer in the Bible. And I think this is because God is Omnipresent. He is everywhere at once, so that we can pray anywhere, facing any direction, without a fixed focus point. There is only one direction that is “wrong.” And that is when our heart is facing away from (in rebellion to) God. We can pray aimlessly to nothing and no one, or to something that we know is NOT the One True God–to creation itself or to an invisible but remote “Force.” But the Bible IS clear that we are to pray to God alone– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– and directly and personally to Him. We do not need a personal altar in order to be heard; we do not need to be facing an icon or a building or the rising sun or an imaginary point in the stratosphere. God Himself, through Christ– will accept and respond to our prayers. God will hear us from anywhere, in any position or circumstance. Altars and images and icons may represent Christ and His Holiness– they can be helpful tools in reminding us of who we are in relation to Him–but they must never become replacements for His Spiritual Presence.
Our prayers end up– through whatever mysterious and wandering way– finding their true destination, which is the heart of God Himself, when we seek Him sincerely and whole-heartedly. In much the same way, God’s answers to us will find their way through His Holy Spirit, no matter where we are or what direction we are facing.
God transcends space and time, and can be found by those who seek Him from the ends of the earth. I am greatly comforted by this truth. My Father is in Heaven– and right beside me, and dwelling within me! He is always listening, and always available.
Within the last couple of weeks, several major news stories have broken in the United States, where I live. The Supreme Court has ruled on several major cases, with “game-changing” results. Important national issues, such as gun control, abortion, and freedom of religious expression were involved, and many Americans are either elated or upset by the decisions that were rendered.
My husband and I don’t have television; no 24-hour news channels, or opinionated talk shows, or even late-night comedian commentators reminding us of the “big news” of the day. But we have internet, and radio, and we talk to people who have access to TV. We would have to live under a rock to be uninformed of what has been happening. Yet we find that many people who have access to “news” have little or no understanding of what these decisions actually mean for our nation or its citizens. The Supreme Court did not “abolish” abortion; it did not eliminate gun controls or restrictions. It did not “bring prayer back into the schools.” What we “know” and what we have heard are not always the same.
The prophet Isaiah, writing to the people of Jerusalem (Judah), repeats the phrase, “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” The Jewish people were supposed to know God’s eternal character. They were supposed to have heard His laws, and heard the stories of His faithfulness throughout the years. But the message had become garbled, distorted, and even lost. The people were going to be disciplined– they would go into exile; yet God would bring them comfort and forgiveness and restoration. Isaiah reminds his readers and listeners of God’s timeless character– His power and authority; His compassion and healing; His care and His discipline for those He loves.
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah 40:21-31 NIV
It’s not that Isaiah’s fellow citizens had never heard about God; it’s not that they had no knowledge of God’s laws or of His character. But they had become complacent; they had knowledge, but no understanding; no insight. They knew about God; they no longer KNEW God.
How often do we hear a bit of news and react without understanding all of its implications? How often do we jump to conclusions about what God is like, or what His will might be? How many times do we assume that what we think or feel comes from the Bible, without consulting it? How often do we pray, not that God’s will should be done, but that God should do our will?
Violence (including shootings), abortion, religious intolerance and persecution– all have been around for centuries. Human laws and justice have a long history of being twisted, ignored, amended, rewritten, forgotten, and supplanted. Supreme Court rulings can be overturned; laws can be rewritten or struck down; cultural expectations and trends will change. While I may feel cause to celebrate some of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, or be discouraged by others, now or in the future, I cannot put my hope and trust in them. But I can put my hope and trust in the power and authority of God! God’s rulings are absolute and eternal.
And if I hear nothing else today; if I know nothing else for certain– I can rely on His truth and His faithfulness forever!
I’ve been reading in the book of Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem may strike a discordant note in today’s Western culture. Back in ancient times, most cities were enclosed with high walls. This kept invaders out, and gave protection and a sense of identity to those who lived within. Today, we have cities spilling into other cities in sprawling metroplexes. We have trains, buses, and airplanes constantly shuttling between cities. Walled cities are not practical. Even the borders between nations have become porous and flexible (except during times of war or distress!) It can be difficult for modern readers to share Nehemiah’s distress at the state of Jerusalem’s wall, or his passion to see the walls rebuilt. After all, Jerusalem was a conquered city, being ruled by foreigners–the invaders had already gotten in! The project seems to us like a waste of time, materials, and energy. Even in his own day, the project seemed problematic, and Nehemiah faced resistance on many fronts.
Yet God put it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do this; He answered Nehemiah’s plea to soften the King’s heart, and provided Nehemiah with an abundance of materials and even protection for the journey. It seems as though it was important to God that these walls were rebuilt. Why? How does God feel about walls, anyway? Did He not give Joshua great victory by making the walls of Jericho collapse? Does He not command the Israelites to welcome and be kind to foreigners? Did the Apostle Paul not say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Galatians 3:28 ESV)? How do walls fit in with God’s plan for our lives?
Part of our confusion may lie in our understanding of walls in ancient cities. We know they provided protection from invading armies, but they did much more–and they represent much more in the Bible. Walls not only provided protection to ancient cities– they provided structure and definition. Walls kept strangers out, but they also had a series of gates to let people come and go in an orderly fashion. There were gates used for commerce, gates that served ceremonial functions, gates that smoothed travel through the city, and even gates that were mostly used to transport garbage and dung outside of the city.
Walls and gates also gave a sense of identity to people in and around the cities– some people lived close to (even in or on) the city walls. All those who lived within the city “belonged” to that city– and those who lived and farmed close by could claim the protection of the city walls in times of danger– whether from siege or natural disasters. They could also expect the city dwellers to be a ready market for their products or services. Travelers and traders could expect to be safe inside the walls of a friendly city– such protection could not be found on the open road, nor in many smaller towns. Cities tended to have more public services, better systems of laws and more stable economies. Walls could help control the flow of commerce, ideas, and loyalties.
Just before the book of Nehemiah is the book of Ezra. Ezra was a priest and historian who also traveled to the fallen city of Jerusalem. His mission was to help rebuild the Temple, and to make sure the priests were purified and re-establishing the Jewish religious practices after years of exile. At the end of the book of Ezra, it is discovered that many of the returning exiles have broken the Jewish laws by intermarrying with foreign women, and “adding” idol worship and pagan practices to their worship of the One True God. The city –and all of its structure and identity–had been destroyed; the Temple and the Walls were gone, and the area was open to all the peoples and practices of the surrounding cultures. Over time, even the priests had become defiled, no longer obeying, or even knowing, their own laws and customs! It is in this context that Nehemiah’s book begins to make more sense.
God is concerned about the “walls” in our lives– boundaries in our behavior and worship. Some walls may need to crumble and fall like those of Jericho– walls that keep us locked away, smug and proud, defiant and unapproachable. Walls that create barriers without providing protection or shelter. Walls that stand in the way of God’s authority in our lives. Other walls may need to be strengthened and rebuilt– walls pocked with compromises that have eroded our commitments; unguarded gates where lies and confusion have stolen in and weakened our faith; areas where the pressures and stresses of life have chipped away at the building blocks of our Christian walk.
In the very first chapter of Nehemiah’s book, there is a prayer– it is not about rebuilding a wall for power or protection–it doesn’t even mention the wall– rather it is about repentance, restoration, and recommitment:
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
Nehemiah 1: 1b-11 NIV
May we be willing to pray for the walls in our lives– those that need to come down, and those that need to be rebuilt!
In 2 Kings, chapters 18 and 19, we can read about the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah. During his reign, a mighty king, Sennacherib of Assyria, came to lay siege to Jerusalem. Sennacherib taunted King Hezekiah, sending him a letter boasting about the might of the Assyrian army, and all its conquests. In the letter, he also taunts King Hezekiah about trusting in God to save Jerusalem, suggesting that God was unable to rescue the Jews, while simultaneously suggesting that God had given the Assyrians His blessing.
Hezekiah had already made some provision for the coming siege. He had his workers divert the water supply that flowed out of the city, creating a system of tunnels that kept the water inside the city walls and filled pools and wells for the people to withstand the siege while depriving the invaders of a crucial resource. (Evidence of these tunnels has been discovered by archaeologists, including carvings by two work crews who were “competing” to see who could complete their part of the tunnel fastest!)
But Hezekiah did not trust in his preparations. He did not trust in diplomacy or alliances. He took the offending letter from King Sennacherib into the Lord’s temple and spread it out before the Lord (2 Kings 19:14). He prayed earnestly, never mentioning his own efforts and preparations, but reminding himself of God’s power and glory. He even acknowledged that the Assyrians had been victorious in their other conquests! But then he asks for God to rescue the nation– “then all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, O Lord, are God. “(v. 19).
I was struck as I read this recently. Hezekiah was a king. He had done a great deal to bring reform and renewal to the kingdom of Judah. He could have appealed to God on the basis of his own efforts. He could have asked for God’s help for his own sake, and for the sake of his people. He could have spoken about how Sennacherib taunted the army, or the king. He could have cried out in panic and outrage that God would allow Judah to be invaded. But he put it all on the table, literally, asking God to judge Sennacherib’s words and respond for the sake of His Sovereign Glory.
God DID respond, and the Assyrian troops were routed by the Angel of the Lord. Sennacherib returned to his home, and was assassinated in the temple of his false god by his own sons. Hezekiah’s troops didn’t even have to lift a finger!
What situations am I facing today, that need to be brought to God in prayer? What threats seem to hover over me? Do I respond as Hezekiah did? Or do I try to bring only the part that seems “too much” for me to handle? Do I bring my own agenda, or my own efforts to cloud the issue? Do I worry more about my own reputation than I do about God’s honor?
Lord, may I be more like Hezekiah–may I lay everything on the table before You, knowing that Your power is more than sufficient, and that Your honor and glory are greater than any force at work against me. Protect and defend those who humble themselves before You. Destroy those forces that would seek to exalt themselves and taunt Your Holy Name. Rise up, that “all the kingdoms of the earth will know that You alone, O Lord, are God!”