* This article has been excerpted from chapter 7, “Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III (P&R, 2003).
Recommendations for Improving Public Prayer*
Let us make several recommendations for the improvement of public prayer.
PRAY IN THE LANGUAGE OF SCRIPTURE
First, pray in the language of Scripture. Obviously this is our primary point. Listen to the voices from the past as they universally urge this practice. Matthew Henry says, “I would advise that the sacred dialect be most used, and made familiar to us and others in our dealing about sacred things; that language Christian people are most accustomed to, most affected with, and will most readily agree to.” Patrick Fairbairn urges that the whole prayer “should be cast much in the mould of Scripture, and should be marked by a free use of its language.” R.L. Dabney says, “Above all should the minister enrich his prayers with the language of Scripture,” explaining,
Besides its inimitable beauty and simplicity, it is hallowed and sweet to every pious heart by a thousand associations. It satisfies the taste of all; its use effectually protects us against improprieties; it was doubtless given by the Holy Spirit to be a model for our devotions. Let it then abound in our prayers.
Samuel Miller says,
One of the most essential excellencies in public prayer, and that which I feel constrained first of all, and above all to recommend, is, that it abound in the language of the word of God.
Thomas Murphy says,
The prayer of the sanctuary should be thoroughly saturated with scriptural thought and expression. The language of the Bible is that which the Spirit prompted, and which must therefore be most in accordance with the mind of God. For the same reason it must be Bible language which is best calculated to express those devotional feelings which are the work of the Spirit in the heart.
John Broadus counsels,
The minister should be consistently storing in his memory the more directly devotional expressions found everywhere in the Bible, and especially in the Psalms and Prophets, the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation…most of us greatly need in our prayers a larger and more varied infusion of Scripture language.
But perhaps some are still unpersuaded, or are concerned that what worked in the past may not work today. Consider the following.
1. This is the pattern found in Scripture itself.
This is not merely the opinion of the Reformers or of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century evangelical theologians. It is also the pattern that we see in Scripture. The biblical saints learned God-pleasing devotional language from the Bible. They often used the language and themes of Scripture to interpret and express their experience. Consider for instance Moses seminal revelatory experience in Exodus 34:6,7.
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
The echo of this revelation is heard on at least thirteen additional occasions in the Old Testament as later prophets learned from Moses how to praise God (Num 14:18; 2 Ch 30:9; Neh 9:17,31; Pss 103:8;111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; etc). As we have seen Mary at the annunciation drew upon the Song of Hannah (Lk 1:46-55, c.f., 1 Sam 2:1-10; Solomon at the dedication of the temple incorporated Psalm 132:8,9 (2 Ch. 6:40-42); Jesus on the cross used the words of Psalms 22:1 and 31:5 (Mt 27:46, Lk 23:46); and the early church in the face of persecution cited Psalms 146 and 2 (Acts 4:24-30). In each case the language of Scripture provided the language for prayer.
Where then are we to learn the language of Christian devotion if not from Scripture? That this is less than self-evident to a tradition whose defining principle has been that worship must be regulated by God’s word is surprising indeed. Since our minds are “factories for idols,” borrowing Calvin’s phrase, we must be taught the language of prayer. Isn’t that the point of the disciples’ request of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1)? Isn’t that indeed the point of the Book of Psalms? Were the Psalms not provided to teach the people of God the language of devotion with which God is pleased? If Jesus in the supreme crisis of his life drew upon the Psalter in order to understand and express His devotion and experience, then we can do no less.
2. There is a special efficacy in Scripture-based prayer.
It then follows that there is a special efficacy in Scripture-based prayer. No prayers more accurately reflect the will of God than those which use the language which God Himself puts into our mouths. No request is more sure to be granted than that which expresses what God Himself has promised to fulfill. No petition is more sure to be answered than that which pleads for that which God already commands. Pray the promises and commands of Scripture. This principle is evident in James 1. Does God command that we be wise? Of course He does. It follows then that we should ask for it. “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Similarly, pray the promise of 1 John 1:9, that if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Claim the promise of John 3:16 in prayer, that “whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish.” Plead that the people of God will be holy even as God is holy (1 Pt 1:16). Plead that they will love one another and bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). Faith comes by hearing the word of God doesn’t it (Rom 10:17)? The word prayed in the hearing of the congregation will be efficacious to the salvation of their souls.
3. There is a special comfort in scriptural prayer.
There is a special comfort in scriptural prayer. It is one thing to pray, “Lord, please be with us through this day.” It is quite another to pray, “Lord remember your promise, ‘I will never leave nor forsake you’” (Heb 13:5). Can’t you sense the difference? It is one thing to pray, “As we begin our prayer, we thank you for the privilege of bringing our petitions to you.” It is quite another to pray, “We come at Your invitation, O Christ, for you have promised, ‘Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.’ And so we come asking, seeking, and knocking” (Matt 7:7,8). It is one thing to pray in the midst of tragedy, “Lord we know that you have a plan.” That is a true, valid, and comforting thing to pray. Even so, it is quite another to pray, “O Lord, you have numbered the hairs upon our heads. You are working all things after the counsel of your will. Not even a sparrow may fall from a tree apart from you. You cause all things to work together for good for those who love you, and are called according to your purpose” (Matt 10:29,30; Eph 1:11; Rom 8:28). More effectively comfort the hearts of your people by echoing the promises of Scripture in your prayers. Continue reading