Chapter 5: The Idea of Fellowship with God

A Guide to Understanding the Bible
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 5: The Idea of Fellowship with God

The meaning attributed to prayer is one of the most reliable tests of any religion, and developing quality in prayer is an inevitable accompaniment and indication of religious progress. Nowhere more clearly than in this realm do we find in the Bible the record of deepening spiritual life. Alike according to the New Testament and to the later Judaism, the individual soul had immediate access to God. Whether it was a psalmist praying on his bed at night (Psalm 63:5-6) or Jesus going into his chamber and shutting the door, (Cf. Matthew 6:6) communion with God was the privilege of sincerely seeking souls anywhere and at any time. Said an ancient rabbi: "It is as when a man utters his thought in the ear of his fellow, and he hears him. Can you have a God nearer than this who is as near to his creatures as mouth to ear?" (As quoted by George Foot Moore: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. I, p. 369)

For evident reasons, however, such praying was unthinkable in the early beginnings of Hebrew religion.

1. The primitive conceptions of Yahweh made him personally unapproachable. When first the tribes of Joseph met him at Sinai and he came down in "thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount," nothing remotely like the interior practice of the presence of God was suggested by the scene. Rather, "all the people that were in the camp trembled" (Exodus 19:16) and, far from desiring intimate fellowship with their new deity, "they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." (Exodus 20:19) So long as such fearful awe was central in the people’s attitude toward Yahweh, approach to him would be not direct but indirect; Moses and Aaron and their successors would address him on behalf of the tribe but, one by one, the tribesmen would have as little as possible to do with so dangerous a deity.

Moreover, quite apart from the fulminating fearfulness of Yahweh, as at first conceived, he was not, even in his most gracious aspects, so much the friend of individual souls as the leader and war lord of the tribal confederation. Dealing with him, therefore, was primarily a tribal matter. To be sure, individual needs were doubtless presented to any god the tribe believed in, but the characteristic approach to Yahweh on the part of the common people was at first public, and it could become private, involving so intimate a thing as inward communion, only when, long afterwards, the individual had escaped submergence in the social group and had become in his own right a recognized object of divine care. This idea, however, is only vaguely discernible before Jeremiah, and its effective popular influence on the meaning and practice of prayer was long postponed.

2. Another negative factor, making the later conceptions of prayer at first unthinkable, was the localization of Yahweh’s worship. The animistic habit of ascribing to a god a local dwelling-place and of going to the sacred spot if one wished to deal with the god persisted in manifold forms long after animism itself had been left behind. The early strata of the Old Testament are full of intimations that, far from being spiritually available to the seeking soul at any place or time, Yahweh was to be sought only at his special shrines -- "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come unto thee." (Exodus 20:24 [marginal translation]) The Old Testament as a whole represents an era from which the cruder practices of animism had been elided, but all the more impressive are the obvious remnants of the original primitivism, such as holy trees. It was under the sacred terebinth at Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7) and at the terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18:1ff) that Yahweh appeared to Abraham. Gideon was called to his mission by an angel of Yahweh "under the terebinth which was in Ophrah," (Judges 6:11) and at Shechem there was a sacred tree to which references are made from the legends of the patriarchs (Genesis 35:2-4) to the story of Joshua’s final charge to his people. (Joshua 24:25-29) One who has seen, all the way from Korea to Arabia, the persistent continuance of such cult practices as these references indicate cannot mistake the meaning of the tamarisk of Beer-sheba, (Genesis 21:33) the burning bush of sinai, (Exodus 3:2-5; Deuteronomy 33:16) the palm-tree of Deborah, (Judges 4:5) or the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh. (I Samuel 31:13) Indeed, as late as the eighth century Hosea denounced the popular religion of his day for its worship "under oaks and poplars and terebinths." (Hosea 4:13) Similarly there were sacred springs (E.g., Genesis 16:7) and sacred caves, (E.g., I Kings 19:9 and, in general, shrines so numerous that, when the prophetic demand for the centralization of worship in Jerusalem arose, Jeremiah described his people as playing the harlot "upon every high mountain and under every green tree." (Jeremiah 3:6; cf. Deuteronomy 12:2; Isaiah 57:5; I Kings 14:22-23)

Such sacred places, taken over from the Canaanites, and transformed by a process of syncretism into shrines of Yahweh, were assumed without complaint in the earliest traditions of Israel. Stories grew up around the local holy places, as at Bethel, where a typical legend records the way in which the patriarch Jacob discovered Bethel to be the "house of God." (Genesis 28:10-22) Even when the cruder forms of animism and fetishism had been outgrown, this persistent localization of Yahweh’s available presence long continued, not altogether surrendering its hold on the worship and popular imagination of Judaism until after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. From Hannah offering mental prayer without audible words before the Ark of Yahweh in Shiloh (I Samuel 1:9-13) to Daniel in exile, praying thrice daily with his windows open toward Jerusalem, (Daniel 6:10) many doubtless used the inherited idea of a local shrine as a trellis upon which grew a devout spiritual fellowship with God and a vivid sense of his reality. The Old Testament, however, as we shall see, clearly reveals the inner perplexity and the outward conflict involved as religious thought and practice moved from primitive shrines toward the idea of Jesus: "Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father.... God is a Spirit." (John 4:21, 24)

3. A further negative influence, inhibiting the approach to God in private prayer, sprang from the external nature of the methods traditionally used for securing superhuman guidance and support. In the primitive religion from which, as from a dim hinterland, the Hebrew faith emerged, approaching any god to learn his will and get his backing involved not so much the fulfillment of inward spiritual conditions as the successful working of a magical technique. According to repeated indications in the Old Testament, for example, casting lots, Urim and Thummim, before a sacred image, the ephod, was a recognized method of securing Yahweh’s judgment between two alternatives and so learning his will. David, we read, wishing divine guidance in his military strategy, "said to Abiathar the priest, . . . I pray thee, bring me hither the ephod. And Abiathar brought thither the ephod to David. And David inquired of Yahweh, saying, If I pursue after this troop, shall I overtake them? And he [Yahweh] answered him, Pursue." (I Samuel 30:7-8) It is clear here, as elsewhere, that the ephod was a piece of religious apparatus for ascertaining the divine will. That the ephod was a metal image which could be idolatrously used is evident from Gideon’s manufacture of one out of the jewelry of the Ishmaelites, after which, said a later writer, "all Israel played the harlot." (Judges 8:24-27) Far from being reprehensible at first, however, an ephod was an indispensable instrument of a priest’s technique, as when, for example, Abiathar "came down with an ephod in his hand," (I Samuel 23:6-12) by which David "inquired of Yahweh."

Moreover, the method of such inquiry seems from the record clear. Casting lots was a familiar way of thrusting a decision back on God, as even the late Book of Proverbs shows --

The lot is cast into the lap;

But the whole disposing thereof is of Yahweh. (Proverbs 16:33)

When, for example, the taboo of total abstinence from food, which Saul had announced in the midst of the battle, had been broken and Yahweh had withdrawn his guidance, lots were cast to locate the guilt. "Then said he [Saul] unto all Israel, Be ye on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side. And the people said unto Saul, Do what seemeth good unto thee. Therefore Saul said unto Yahweh, the God of Israel, Show the right. And Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot; but the people escaped. And Saul said, Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son. And Jonathan was taken." (I Samuel 14:38-42)

In this passage, as in others, the Greek Septuagint Translation of the Old Testament, begun in Alexandria around 285 B.C., apparently goes back to an earlier Hebrew manuscript than our English Versions represent. According to the Septuagint, Saul asked Yahweh to give Urim if he or Jonathan was guilty, and to give Thummim if the guilt lay with the people. That is, Urim and Thummim were the holy lots or dice by casting which before a sacred ephod the will of Yahweh could be ascertained. So, when Saul had forfeited Yahweh’s favor, "Yahweh answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets," (I Samuel 28:6) and this method of learning Yahweh’s will is reflected in Moses’ command to inquire "by the judgment of the Urim before Yahweh." (Numbers 27:21) When one endeavors, therefore, to reconstruct in imagination the religious life and practice of the early Hebrews, one must visualize them as presenting to their deity questions capable of a yes or no reply and then as casting lots with a cry like Saul’s, "Show the right," and as accepting the arbitrament of the dice as the revealed will of the Lord.

Later the ephod, together with the Urim and Thummim, was sublimated and rationalized, becoming part of the priest’s symbolical dress and no longer functioning as at first. (Exodus 28:6-35) Even after the Exile, however, the ancient emblems possessed almost, if not quite, magical significance, (Nehemiah 7:65; Ezra 2:63) and the Hebrew word for the Law, the revealed will of God, Torah, very probably goes back to the Hebrew word for casting lots, yarah. (Adolphe Lods: Israel from its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century, translated by S. H. Hooke, p. 297)

Important as this primitive method of dealing with Yahweh was, it did not stand alone. Dreams, for example, were given a high place as media of divine revelation; (Genesis 20:3; 26:24-25; 28:10-16; 31:24; 37:5; 41:1; 46:1-4; Judges 7:13-15; I Kings 3:5-15 etc.) omens were trusted, such as the first word to be uttered at an expected meeting, (I Samuel 14:8-15) or a chance action regarded as a sign, (Genesis 24:12-14) or wind in the mulberry-trees taken as Yahweh’s command to join battle; (II Samuel 5:22-24) and, in general, dealing with the superhuman world suggested nothing so simple and spiritual as private communion in prayer, but rather a whole array of magical techniques and, from the modern point of view, incredible superstitions.

4. Interpenetrating the negative factors already mentioned was the practice of animal sacrifice as the characteristic way of approaching God. After the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Jewish rabbis began teaching prayer as a substitute for the old offerings. So Rabbi Abahu said: "What shall replace the bullocks we formerly offered to Thee? ‘Our lips,’ in the prayer we pray to Thee. So long as the temple stood we used to offer a sacrifice and thus atonement was made; but now we have nothing to bring but prayer." (As quoted by George Foot Moore: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. II, p. 218) Such a statement correctly represents two significant historical matters: first, personal prayer had been developing within the framework; of the sacrificial system --

Let my prayer be set forth as incense before thee;

The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice; (Psalm 141:2)

and second, the approach to God by way of animal offerings had been so central in Judaism that, while the sacrifices were always accompanied by supplications, they had competed with personal prayer, had furnished for many people a public substitute for it, so that when the bloody altars were gone a devout rabbi could mingle his exaltation of private communion with the lament "We have nothing to bring but prayer."

Animal sacrifice among the Hebrews was, of course, rooted far down in the primitive customs out of which their later faith emerged. The Old Testament contains clear evidence that in the earlier days not only animal but human sacrifice as well had been the common practice: "Yahweh spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine." (Exodus 13:1-2) That the actual slaying of first-born children was here intended is made evident in the fifteenth verse of the same chapter. There a special codicil is added, "but all the first-born of my sons I redeem," which doubtless represents one of the most important developments in ancient religion, the allowance of an animal substitute for a first-born human child. As enough to leave no possibility of doubting the terrible meaning of this ancient law, it is reproduced in another passage -- first, the original, absolute requirement, "All that openeth the womb is mine," and, appended, the merciful codicil, "All the first-born of thy sons thou shalt redeem." (Exodus 34:19, 20; cf. Numbers 18:15) In one place, however, the original demand for the sacrifice of first-born sons, as of firstborn beasts, stands not only unmistakable in meaning but unrelieved by any exception: "The first-born of thy sons shalt thou give unto me. Likewise shalt thou do with thine oxen, and with thy sheep." (Exodus 22:29-30)

The archeological evidence in Palestine reveals with pitiful adequacy the common sacrifice of little children as offerings to the gods. That the worship of Yahweh was at times associated with this ancient abomination is clear from the indignant protests of the prophets. Not only are specific instances recorded -- the children of Jephthah, Ahaz, and Manasseh, (Judges 11:30-39; II Kings 16:3; 21:6) for example but as late as the eighth century the prophet Micah pictured a devotee appeasing Yahweh by offering up his son, (Micah 6:1-8) and in the seventh century Jeremiah vehemently denied that commands to slay the first-born had been given by Yahweh. (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35) In the next generation Ezekiel tried another apologetic: granting both that the command to sacrifice children was in the Law, as it obviously was, and that Yahweh was responsible for its presence there, he asserted none the less that; Yahweh had given "statutes that were not good, and ordinances wherein they should not live," for the ultimate purpose of punishing them with such desolation that they might recognize the divine hand in their tragedy. (Ezekiel 20:23-26)

In the end, animal sacrifice was altogether substituted for human sacrifice, and this provision, represented as a merciful evidence of Yahweh’s grace, was made picturesque in the legendary story of Abraham and Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-18) "Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering" -- such is the command, representative of ages of primitive custom, which Yahweh lays on Abraham. A more moving portrayal of the meaning of child sacrifice to a good father could hardly have been written than this story furnishes; the profound loyalty involved in child sacrifice, holding nothing back that religious obligation might require, is recognized; and the story’s obvious objective is reached when "Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son."

Animal sacrifice, therefore, deeply rooted in traditional custom and congenial with contemporaneous Semitism, was the central act of Hebrew worship. No one idea of the meaning of such sacrifice can adequately cover the varied factors that entered into its significance. It was a gift to God, and the word commonly used to represent it, minhah, is used also of a present offered to a man or of tribute paid to a king. Such a gift might spring from varied motives -- gratitude, homage, or the desire to curry favor -- but obviously in the background of the practice of animal sacrifice was the idea that God liked this form of gift and profited by it. The fat and blood of the sacrifice were the "bread of God," (Leviticus 21:6, 8, 17, 21; 22:25; Ezekiel 44:7; Numbers 28:2, 24) and, however symbolical this idea became in later Judaism, its origin was as plainly literal as were identical ideas concerning pagan deities,

Which did eat the fat of their sacrifices,

And drank the wine of their drink-offering. (Deuteronomy 32:38)

Blended with such primitive conceptions was the idea of the sacred bond created between man and man and between man and deity, whether by sharing in a common feast or by having the blood of the sacrifice applied both to the sacred altar and to the persons of the devotees. (Exodus 24:4-8) And always in the hinterland of animal sacrifice lurked age-old ideas of the magical potency of blood as a powerful agency of deliverance if rightly used (E.g., Exodus 12:12-13) and a supernatural peril if wrongly handled. (E.g., I Samuel 14:32-35)

So long as animal sacrifice, interpreted in such terms, was the major method of approaching deity, it is clear that worshipers could not conceive an approach so simple and spiritual as solitary praying to the "Father who seeth in secret."


The fact that private prayer was not typical of the early life of Israel is disguised in the Hebrew stories of the patriarchs by their free and easy conversations with their god. Just as the Homeric heroes are on intimate speaking terms with the deities of Greece, so in the patriarchal narratives in the ancient worthies of Israel dealt with Yahweh. Abraham, in particular, is represented as entertaining Yahweh at dinner and extensively conversing with him as a familiar friend. (Genesis, chap. 18; cf. 12:1ff; 13:14-18; 22:1ff) That such stories represent the exceptional experience of the heroic figures only would be evident even if they were taken at their face value, whereas their actual worth lies in their revelation of later ideas and ideals, pre-Exilic to be sure, read back into early times.

The true state of the case is made plain when we trace the strange and fascinating change of meaning that took place in the word ‘holy’ as in successive ages it was applied to things divine. Beyond the power of anachronisms to conceal, this word moves through the Bible correctly representing in its altering significance the progress of the Hebrew-Christian idea of God and of the basic conditions of approaching him.

In its primitive meaning holiness was associated with the range of ideas and practices covered by our word ‘taboo.’ That is to say, anything holy was dangerous to meddle with, and, far from having ethical connotation, holiness meant unapproachableness. Repeatedly in the early records, for example, the adjective ‘holy’ is applied to the Ark, and the significance of the attribute was revealed when Uzzah, inadvertently touching the sacred fetish, fell dead in consequence, (II Samuel 6:6-9) or when the men of Beth-shemesh, looking into it, suffered such devastating penalty that they sent it from their borders, saying, "Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God?" (I Samuel 6:19-21) Whatever was holy was thus full of a mysterious and perilous potency with which the prudent would have as little as possible to do.

The fact that Sinai was the "holy mountain" accounted for the elaborate precautions taken that the people should not touch it. (Exodus 19:12-14) Repeatedly in the early laws the command to observe some negative taboo was reinforced by the penalties of violated holiness -- "Ye shall be holy men unto me: therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field."(Exodus 22:31) To say that the Sabbath is sacred is to say that it is inviolable -- "Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 31:14) If bread is consecrated, it may be eaten only by the priests at the appointed time; otherwise "it shall not be eaten, because it is holy." (Exodus 29:34) As H. Wheeler Robinson puts it, "Sacred objects can be touched only under the strictest precautions; they are as dangerous to the uninitiated as the switchboard of an electrical power-house might be to a child." (The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p. 131)

Early stories such as the encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush, where Moses was warned to put off his shoes because the spot was "holy ground," (Exodus 3:5; cf. Joshua 5:15) reveal the way in which this dread of holy things and places and this need of insulations against their dangerous potency issued in sacred rites and customs. Wherever the attribute of holiness was present, there some one or something was hedged about with sanctity, so that contact was dangerous unless meticulous care was taken to fulfill the prescribed conditions of approach. Out of this soil grew the luxuriant crop of ceremonial laws and customs which characterized the primitive religion of the Hebrews, as of all early peoples. Taboos on eating fat and blood, (Leviticus 3:17) rules concerning clean and unclean foods, detailed directions concerning the dress of the officiating priests, insistence on ceremonial exactness in sacrifice these and similar legalisms have as part of their background and explanation the sense of sanctity and inviolability in things divine, demanding punctilious care to make human relationships with them safe and profitable. And because the priests were considered the expert initiates who alone knew the ways of the god and therefore monopolized fitness to approach him, their developing power among the Hebrews, as among all early peoples, became immense. Far from being synonymous with goodness or righteousness, therefore, ‘holiness,’ at the first, suggested the aloofness and inviolability of the god. Even when later connotations began to appear, the earlier ones persisted, as Joshua’s words reveal: "Ye cannot serve Yahweh; for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God." (Joshua 34:19) One does not go into one’s room and shut the door to commune in secret with such a diety.

As the centuries passed, however, ‘holiness’ changed its meaning, and in the change can be seen the increasing possibility of private prayer. One of the ascending roads traveled by the idea carried it away from its old associations with perilous potencies in things divine into new associations with majesty, grandeur, and transcendence as attributes of God. Still the flavor of the ancient idea was recognizable when Isaiah saw the Most High seated on his throne, with the seraphim chanting above him, "Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh of hosts." (Isaiah 6:1-3) Such a God was not lightly to be approached; an inviolability not to be profaned lay deep in Isaiah’s thought of the Eternal; but reverence had taken the place of dread as the corollary of holiness, majesty had displaced the former dangerousness of the deity, and the response demanded from man by the holiness of the Most High had become thoroughly ethical.

Up this road Jewish thought traveled as monotheism became increasingly the faith of the people. Not unapproachableness in the old sense but greatness in power and righteousness in character came to be recognized as the qualities of God --

Thy way, O God, is in holiness:

Who is a great god like unto God? (Psalm 77:13 [marginal translation])

Of this changed meaning the "Holiness Code" in Leviticus (Leviticus, chaps. 17-26) is representative. An Exilic codification of moral, ritual, and ecclesiastical usages for Jews in general and for the new temple at Jerusalem in particular, it labored with exacting care to secure ceremonial purity. There is no mistaking the flavor of the old word ‘holy’ in the writer’s insistence on correctness of ritual in approaching Yahweh. The basis of all the rules and regulations is repeatedly stated: "I Yahweh your God am holy." (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 20:26; 21:18) Along with moral commands against such evils as child sacrifice, adultery, and sexual perversion are detailed injunctions concerning ceremonial observances, reminiscent of the old taboos. But to the writer God is no longer an anthropomorphic deity in the old sense; he is the one God, omnipotent and altogether righteous, transcendent in majesty and in rightful claim on man’s devotion; and his holiness is expressed in his exclusive right to Israel’s worship and service.

Behind this "Holiness Code" one feels the conflict of the exiles in Babylon, refusing to surrender their religious peculiarities to a contaminating heathenism, and marking off with new sharpness the distinguishing features of their faith. There is for them only one God -- he is holy, his land is holy, his nation is to be a holy people -- and while the indiscriminate mixture of moral and ceremonial elements carries over old ideas even while it ventures into new ones, there is an evident elevation of the idea of holiness into terms of the divine majesty, and of the Most High’s exclusive claim on man s devotion.

More important, however, for future religious development than this translation of holiness from primitive untouchableness into majestic greatness and exclusive sovereignty was the baptism of the idea into moral meanings. This was one of the major achievements of the prophets. They took a word, with its accompanying ideas, which at first had possessed no ethical significance at all, and they made it one of the great words in the moral vocabulary of the race. Isaiah of Jerusalem is notable for the way in which, far ahead of his time, he translated the idea of holiness into ethical meanings. Again and again he returned to this matter as though deliberately trying to take a word whose cogency every one acknowledged and make it connote a range of meaning it had never suggested before. "Ah sinful nation," he cried, "a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly! they have forsaken Yahweh, they have despised the Holy One of Israel," (Isaiah 1:4) and then he uttered one of the most solemn and moving denunciations of moral wrong and one of the most momentous pleas for social justice in ancient literature. As though it were the nub of his message, he said, "Yahweh of hosts is exalted in justice, and God the Holy One is sanctified in righteousness." (Isaiah 5:16) Then, in contrast with this view, having described the loose and cynical ways in which popular thought referred to "the Holy One of Israel," (Isaiah 5:18-19) he went on to announce with vehement earnestness the real meanings of holiness in terms of personal morals and social righteousness. Isaiah is thus one of the supreme examples in history of a religious teacher who, instead of discarding an ancient word, encrusted with inadequate and mistaken meanings, chose to reinterpret it. From the day when in the temple he saw the vision of the thrice-holy God and inwardly made the response of moral repentance and devotion, he saw holiness in terms of goodness.

What Isaiah of Jerusalem did so well, Isaiah of the Exile carried further-- "For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15) Here we find both the exaltation of the meaning of holiness into terms of transcendent greatness and, as well, the deepening of its meaning into terms of goodness and mercy. Primitive ideas of dreadful unapproachableness in deity had been left behind; the concept of divine sanctity had been sublimated into terms of transcendent purity; and instead of ‘holiness’ meaning aloofness, it could itself characterize a humble and contrite heart. The changing meanings of holiness in the Bible are thus among the most indicative signs of progress, and obviously by the time the Isaiah of the Exile wrote, some men were praying in secret to the holy God.

So far as popular acceptance was concerned, however, this reinterpretation of the idea of holiness was halting and unsure. Commonly the old connotations clung to the concept of the holy, whether in gross or attenuated forms. It outgrew the crude ideas of Yahweh’s terribleness but it still retained the idea of his exclusiveness -- a jealous god, with a special land and a chosen people. Holiness still meant separateness -- sanctity in nation and in temple hedged about with ceremonial precautions. The old ideas of taboo were there, although sublimated and refined. "In general," says Dr. John Peters, "throughout the later literature the exclusive idea rather than the ethical idea is prominent." (The Religion of the Hebrews, p. 304) Indeed, to the very last, the old associations of the word were retained in the architecture of the temple. There increasing holiness was denoted by increasing remoteness from the common man, until, farthest away of all, absolutely inviolable to the ordinary worshiper, the acme of sanctity and separateness, stood the Holy of Holies, into which even the high priest went only once a year.

All the more surprising, therefore, is the ultimate association of the word with the most intimate and inward experience known to the Bible "the communion of the Holy Spirit." (II Corinthians 13:14) No other word, used throughout the Book, so reversed in the end the most characteristic meanings with which it started as did the word ‘holy.’ At the beginning, Yahweh on Sinai protected his terrible sanctity from the approach of common men: "Yahweh said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto Yahweh to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, that come near to Yahweh, sanctify themselves, lest Yahweh break forth upon them." (Exodus 19:21-22) In the end, God dwelt not on a smoking mountain nor in temples made with hands, but through his Spirit in the inner man, and this Spirit, his renewing and sustaining presence within the soul, was designated by the adjective ‘holy,’ which once had stood for aloofness and unapproachableness. This complete alteration of meaning in a word continuously employed throughout the Book is one of the most notable evidences of the development that the Book records.

In only two Old Testament passages does the phrase ‘holy Spirit’ occur: once, in a late psalm where a devout soul prays,

Cast me not away from thy presence;

And take not thy holy Spirit from me; (Psalm 51:11)

and once in an Isaian confession of sin, where God is described as "he that put his holy Spirit in the midst of them." (Isaiah 63:10-11) What thus barely began in the Old Testament, however, became one of the early church’s most characteristic modes of thought and expression. In God, the Creator-Father, and in Christ, the revelation of the divine character, the first Christians fervently believed, but all this became inward and empowering only when the Spirit entered and possessed them. According to the New Testament, this experience of the indwelling presence of God is the essential source of the Christian’s power (Acts 18) and of his peace and joy; (Romans 14:17) it is the best gift which the Father can bestow on his children; (Luke 11:13; John 14:26) it is the secret alike of moral renewal (Titus 3:5) and of practical guidance; (Acts 13:2) it furnishes the interior standards of motive and behavior which must not be violated; (Ephesians 4:30) whatever else in Christian faith is valuable, even though it be the love of God, becomes effective only when this experience makes it inwardly real; (Romans 5:5) and the temple is easily dispensable since to every Christian it can be said, "Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you?" (I Corinthiasn 6:19) Moreover, in all these passages, as in many more, this most inward dealing of God with man, this climax of divine-human intimacy, is described as the work of "the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us." (II Timothy 1:14) How long a journey this use of the adjective reveals, since the tribesmen of Israel trembled before the holy mount!

That the meaning of prayer must inevitably have changed in the course of this development is obvious. At Sinai it meant the approach to Yahweh of a single representative, who spoke for all the people; in late Judaism and early Christianity it meant the immediate access of soul to Oversoul, spiritually conditioned and inwardly achieved, each man for himself "praying in the Holy Spirit." (Jude, vs. 20) One does not mean by this that other elements of the original tradition are not present in the New Testament’s thought of holiness. A certain awe is implied in the word’s use, a sense of inviolable sanctity, (E.g., Hebrews 8:2 [marginal translation; II Corinthians 7:1]) but always the implications are ethical. "Holiness and sincerity," (II Corinthians 1:12) "righteousness and holiness," (Ephesians 4:24) "holy and without blemish before him in love" (Ephesians 1:4) -- such are the associations of the word. To be holy means to have "a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other." (Colossisans 3:12-13) And when Peter, in his First Epistle, harked back to the old code in Leviticus, he lifted its meaning out of ceremonial exclusiveness into universal morality: "Like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy; for I am holy." (I Peter 1:15-16; cf. I Thessalonians 3:13; Hebrews 12:9-11; Romans 12:1; Ephesians 5:27; etc.)

This development from the unapproachableness to the immediate accessibility of God, and from magical and ceremonial conditions of divine fellowship to the moral fitness of a sincere soul, represents one of the most permanently valuable contributions of Hebrew-Christian religion. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was historically correct when at this point he set the new dispensation in contrast with the old:

For ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that no word more should be spoken unto them; for they could not endure that which was enjoined, If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned; and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake: but ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God. (Hebrews 12:18-22)


The Old Testament indicates two main highways up which the idea and the practice of fellowship with God moved into more spiritual meanings, and, strangely enough, one of them ran not around but through the vast sacrificial system with its bloody altars and ritual observances. Indeed, the modern mind misjudges the ancient situation when it centers attention on the prophets as the creators of the dominant attributes of Judaism. They were the most notable series of ethical teachers in the ancient world and the fountainhead of the noblest moral qualities in the Hebrew faith, but the great prophetic writers were comprehended within four centuries, and not only the legal but the sacrificial system preceded, underlay, and outlived them all. Had not the sacrificial system itself, therefore, been adaptable to spiritual uses, so that devout souls could find in it ever deepening meanings, the religion of Israel would never have reached the heights that it attained. However one may prefer prophet to priest, two facts about priestly rites may not be forgotten if religious history is to be understood -- first, forms of ritual stubbornly persist while the interpretations of them fluidly change; and second, so varied may these interpretations be that the most illiterate peasant and the most erudite philosopher can devoutly observe the same ceremonial, each seeing in it what each brings eyes to see. This is true in Christianity today and, even with regard to animal sacrifices, it was true in ancient Israel.

Originally, as in all nomadic societies, the priestly offices were functions of the tribal chief. The father of the family or the patriarch of the clan slew the animal and poured or rubbed its blood upon the sacred stone or altar as the portion of the god. (Cf. I Samuel 14:33-35) There was no order of hereditary priests, and the sacrifices, long after the settlement in Canaan, were apparently few in kind and simple in observance principally the peace-offering, where the fat and blood were given to Yahweh and the people feasted on the flesh, and the burnt-offering, where the whole animal was burned upon the altar. With increasing complexity in Israel’s social life, however, came corresponding developments in ritual and priesthood, especially after royal families began copying, in temple architecture, modes of worship, and priestly prerogatives, the models of Phoenicia. The priesthood became hereditary, a separate, professional class, and the sacrifices so increased in number and in the complexity of their attendant rites that one scholar points to the change as "perhaps the most striking and convincing proof of development the Old Testament affords." (H. Wheeler Robinson: The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p. 144; cf. John Punnett Peters: The Religion of the Hebrews, chaps. 7-8)

Two new kinds of sacrifice of major importance were added after the Exile the trespass-offering, a sacrifice of restitution either for wrong done to man or as tribute due to Yahweh, and the sin-offering, an expiation for the unwitting guilt of the people. Together with the peace-offering and the burnt-offering, inherited from earlier times, these constituted the four main types of sacrifice in the second temple, and around them grew up a vast and complicated network of punctilious observance. (See George Foot Moore: "Sacrifice," in Encyclopædia Biblica, edited by T.K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black) In these offerings of slain beasts, whatever form they took, the mysterious efficacy of the blood was assumed. The ancient taboo continued to the end -- the blood must not be eaten. (Leviticus 7:27) Sometimes it was sprinkled on the altar; (Leviticus 1:5) sometimes it was poured out at the altar’s foot; (Leviticus 4:7) in either case it was given to God, for whom the altar stood. With such primitive, animistic ideas the sacrificial system of Israel was thoroughly impregnated, so that, if one is to understand the problem of an intelligent and ethically minded Jew in the post-Exilic era, one must imagine him, with animistic ideas no longer in his head, bound by the ties of inheritance, tradition, and sacred custom to the animistic practice of animal sacrifice. As always in similar situations, the first solution was not the abolition of the sacred custom but its reinterpretation.

In general, the method of this reinterpretation seems plain. The sacrifices stood in the Law as the command of Yahweh, ordained by his grace as a means of approach to his favor. The more definitely the written law became established as canonical and regarded as infallibly inspired, the more surely could the explanation of the sacrifices be transferred from the realm of animistic superstition, where they really started, to the realm of sacred observance ordained by God and for that reason faithfully to be maintained. They could be entered into, then, with no knowledge of or sympathy with the original ideas associated with them. They could be seen as God’s provision for the confession and pardon of sins and the re-establishment of personal and national relationships with the Most High. If to sophisticated thought the irrationality of bloody altars as a means of divine placation and fellowship became troublesome, the use of symbolism could come to the aid of the devout worshiper, as it has done in every other developing religion, Christianity not least of all. So meanings could be read into the sacrifices that were not seen there at first, and what the spiritual vision of the devotee saw to be true about God and man and duty he could find pictured in the liturgies of the temple.

Obviously, even animal sacrifice, shocking to modern sensibilities but universal in the ancient world, was susceptible of such symbolical interpretation. While some, therefore, among the great prophets turned away from it as too misleading to be useful, others, like Ezekiel, clung to it and, by giving it sublimated meanings, made it a servant of their spiritual lives. Circumcision also originated in primitive, animistic ideas, but as early as the seventh century it was given an ethical significance: "Yahweh thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Yahweh thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul." (Deuteronomy 30:6; cf. 10:16) Similarly, one of the most radiant of the psalms, (Psalm 27) written con amore by a soul whose trust in God was intimate and sustaining, reveals a spiritual experience, which, far from being troubled by the temple and its smoking altars, found there delight and sustentation:

One thing have I asked of Yahweh, that will I seek after:

That I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life,

To behold the beauty of Yahweh,

And to inquire in his temple.

In consequence, it is not alone to the prophetic tradition, with its distaste for priestcraft and animal offering, that we must look in the Old Testament to find personal prayer. Intimate, interior, spiritual communion with God flourished in association with the temple ritual; it found there encouragement and inspiration; it even used the sacrificial system as a trellis to grow upon. Today, though a Christian be as thoroughgoing as the Quakers in discarding ritual, he must none the less appreciate the often superior quality of inward spiritual life and outward social service on the part of those who in the sacrifice of the Mass see Christ verily present. So the true saints of Judaism were doubtless often to be found not with the prophets, who scorned the temple ceremonies, but with the devotees whose hearts were lifted up with the evening sacrifice.

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example, represent the passionate devotion of the post-Exilic community, rebuilding the holy city and temple and restoring the sacrifices. From the inception of the enterprise in the decree of Darius, "Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be builded, the place where they offer sacrifices," (Ezra 6:3) to the festal celebration of ultimate success -- "They offered great sacrifices that day, and rejoiced" (Nehemiah 12:43) the religious life of the restorers of Zion centered in the altar. Writes Professor George Foot Moore:

There is no doubt that the Israelites in all ages firmly believed in the efficaciousness of sacrifice to preserve and restore the favor of Yahwe. In times of prosperity they acknowledged his goodness and besought its continuance by sacrifice; in times of distress they multiplied sacrifices to appease him and make him again propitious. The worship of God by sacrifice and offering was, indeed, the central thing in their religion, we might almost say was their religion. ("Sacrifice," pars. 46:47 in Encyclopæ dia Biblica, edited by T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland black)

Certainly one could say this of Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet the latter especially was one of the most notable exemplars of personal prayer in the Old Testament. All his labors were "begun, continued, and ended" in prayer. His narrative is interlarded with swift, ejaculatory appeals to God, (E.g., Nehemiah 4:4; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29) sometimes ethically dubious as when he calls down divine wrath on his enemies, sometimes high-minded and devout, but always revealing an intimate sense of the spiritual presence and availability of the living God. When in the royal audience he prepared to make his plea for Jerusalem’s rebuilding, he inwardly "prayed to the God of heaven"; (Nehemiah 2:4) when he and his fellows labored on Zion amid bitter enemies, he reports, "We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night"; (Nehemiah 4:9) and when he laid down his finished work, he exclaimed, "Remember me, O my God, for good.’ (Nehemiah 13:31) Clearly, to men like this the sacrificial system was not a substitute for the interior practice of God’s presence but rather the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

Similarly the Book of Daniel, written in the second century B.C., represents a type of Judaism in which new apocalyptic hopes were blended with the old devotion to temple and sacrifice. According to the story, indeed, it was when the heathen king was sacrilegiously dishonoring the vessels "taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem" that the king’s fate was sealed and his doom announced. (Daniel, chap 5) Daniel, however, even though pictured in exile, far from the ruined site of Jerusalem and its desolated altars, was not far from his God. Personal prayer runs through the entire book, and thrice daily, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, Daniel communed with the God of Israel. (E.g., Daniel 6:10; 2:17-18, 20-23; 9:3-19)

It is in the Psalter, however, that the development of personal prayer within the sacrificial system is most convincingly made evident. The Forty second and Forty-third Psalms belong together -- a moving song of inward spiritual struggle and triumph. The experience revealed was intimately personal --

My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.

The ultimate hope of peace for the psalmist’s troubled soul, however, led straight to the temple and its altar --

Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me:

Let them bring me unto thy holy hill,

And to thy tabernacles.

Then will I go unto the altar of God,

Unto God my exceeding joy.

Nothing more inwardly personal is easily imaginable than the experience represented in the 116th Psalm. The entire hymn is written on the theme of confidence in and gratitude for the privilege of prayer --

I love Yahweh, because he heareth

My voice and my supplications.

Because he hath inclined his ear unto me,

Therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.

Yet, here also, the climax of the psalmist’s experience was reached in the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" --

In the courts of Yahweh’s house,

In the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.

Praise ye Yahweh.

While, as we shall see, not all the Psalter can be truly called the hymn book of the second temple, wide areas of it are correctly represented by that title. (See Julius A. Bewer: The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, pp. 347ff) Many of the psalms were sung by temple choirs as an accompaniment to animal sacrifice, as one post-Exilic description makes vivid and picturesque: "When the burnt-offering began, the song of Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, together with the instruments of David king of Israel. And all the assembly worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt-offering was finished." (II Chronicles 29:27-28) Such was doubtless the usage of Psalm Sixty-six, a hymn of gratitude, which, however public and national in its deliberate significance, could have been written only by a devout soul with a profound religious life. Here, as elsewhere, we find mingled together an inner experience of divine-human fellowship and a sacramental experience in the public sacrifice:

I will come into thy house with burnt offerings;

I will pay thee my vows,

Which my lips uttered,

And my mouth spake, when I was in distress.

I will offer unto thee burnt-offerings of fatlings,

With the incense of rams;

I will offer bullocks with goats.

. . . . .

If I regard iniquity in my heart,

The Lord will not hear:

But verily God hath heard;

He hath attended to the voice of my prayer.

Blessed be God,

Who hath not turned away my prayer,

Nor his lovingkindness from me. (Psalm 66:13-15, 18-20)

Indeed, no such abbreviated statement as we here are making, with a few quotations from the Hebrew Psalms, can begin to do justice to the Psalter as a compendium of all the moods and attitudes, conflicts, desires, and aspirations of the human soul in its relationships with God. There are psalms of personal religion, craving inward fellowship with God or rejoicing in the experience of it, and there are patriotic psalms pleas for national deliverance, praise for national success, songs of battle, and pæans of victory. There are private psalms, springing from the most intimate experiences of trust and fear, of joy and woe, and there are public psalms in which the great congregation expressed the common need, hope, gratitude, and praise of all. There are royal psalms voicing the festival spirit of celebration at the court, praying for help in the king’s need and for blessing on the king’s rule, and there are psalms in which the common man poured out his hope and trust in God amid the ordinary happiness, suffering, and drudgery of daily life. There are teaching psalms, not so much characterized by supplication as by affirmation, and there are psalms of desperate petition and intercession, welling up out of profound need. As for spiritual quality, the Psalms range from dire, vindictive pleas for vengeance to aspirations so high and timeless that no generation can outgrow them. The Psalter comprehends all kinds of prayer. Petition is there, penitence and confession, thanksgiving and praise, the experience of trustful serenity, the affirmation of confident faith, the enjoyment of divine companionship, the inward conquest over temptation and trouble, the rededication of the life to God, the triumphant consciousness of released power.

When, therefore, the wide ranges of the Psalter associated with the services and sacrifices of the temple are taken into account, the progressive spiritualizing of the sacrificial ritual becomes evident. Even in the early days, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, came to the shrine of Yahweh to pray concerning a personal and family matter,(I Samuel 1:9ff) and in the second temple, as the Psalter reveals, the individual, as such, had part in the sacrifices, not simply as a member of the nation but in the light and right of his own private needs. (See Juius A. Bewer: The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, pp. 371ff.)

Come, and hear, all ye that fear God,

And I will declare what he hath done for my soul (Psalm 66:16) --

that is personal gratitude.

Judge me, O Yahweh, for I have walked in mine integrity (Psalm 26:1)

that is a personal protestation of innocence.

So will I compass thine altar, O Yahweh;

That I may make the voice of thanksgiving to be heard (Psalm 26:6-7) --

that is personal praise.

. . . I will declare mine iniquity;

I will be sorry for my sin (Psalm 38:18) --

that is personal penitence.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words

of my groaning? (Psalm 22:1) --

that is personal despair. Granted that, as in modern hymnals, expressions of religious need and aspiration originally born out of individual experience were often used in public application and became the voice of the whole people, still that very poignancy that made them thus generally applicable came from the intensely intimate experience in which they started. And when one recalls that, as Professor Bewer puts it, "Alongside of the public worship for the whole community there were certain occasions for the individual worshipper when he poured forth his thanksgiving or his petition in the temple," (Op. cit., p. 371) it is evident that the old sacrifices had been progressively spiritualized into new meanings.

To multitudes the assurance of reestablished fellowship between God and his children that the liturgies of the temple brought to the worshiper deepened the interior experience of personal communion. When, therefore, the sacrifices were finally abolished with the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D., Judaism, like Christianity, was not without resource. What had been solidly built within the ritual scaffolding remained secure, and the rabbis taught the people that "just as the worship of the altar is called worship, so prayer is called worship." (As quoted by George Foot More: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. II, p. 218)


Long before Roman armies demolished the temple on Zion, however, the sacrificial system had been attacked by the prophets as a peril to true religion. All sacramental systems lend themselves to two uses -- they can be either supports to a genuinely spiritual faith or substitutes for moral character and conduct in seeking the divine favor. This ambiguous meaning of temple rites was obvious in Israel. The sacrifices were confided in by good men as the outward symbols of forgiven sin and reestablished fellowship with God, but they were also confided in by evil men as an efficacious technique for placating God regardless of one’s ethical life. This latter fact bulked so large in the thought of the greatest of the prophets that, even had they granted the best elements in the sacrificial system, they would still have felt that the perversion of the best was the worst.

Alongside the growth of personal prayer within the liturgical framework, therefore, went its development not only apart from the sacrifices but in opposition to them. From the standpoint of the prophetic conscience, the offering of animals as a placation of Yahweh and the punctilious rites associated with the temple’s smoking and bloody altars, were either altogether an abominable superstition or else were a once meaningful tradition dangerously corrupted by misuse. The more the prophets interpreted God and his holiness in terms of goodness, the more exclusively did goodness constitute the sole path to the divine favor. And beyond moral indignation at liturgical substitutes for goodness, the scorn which some prophetic passages pour on animal sacrifices suggests intellectual contempt as well. That the holy God should have prearranged the punctilious offering of beasts as a technique by which his own feelings and attitudes were to be affected involved an imagination of God far too childishly anthropomorphic for the prophetic mind to credit or respect. Apart from the sacrificial system, therefore, and commonly in positive aversion to it, prophetic thinking blazed a new trail into the experience of prayer.

Before the Exile the written law was still plastic and uncanonical, in the making rather than set and rigid. Amos, therefore, felt free to doubt even the existence of a sacrificial system during the idealized days of Israel’s pristine loyalty to Yahweh -- "Did ye bring unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?" (Amos 5:25) The negative answer expected to this question was made more explicit in the next century by Jeremiah’s representation of Yahweh saying, "I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices." (Jeremiah 7:22) Clearly, then, one prophetic doctrine taught that the entire system of animal offerings was a late accretion, beginning not with Yahweh’s original law but in the degenerate influences of Canaanitish baals. Even when sacrifice was not so drastically eliminated from Israel’s early tradition, the prophetic conscience denied all efficacy whatever to animal offerings. They furnished no true way of approaching Yahweh, said Micah -- "Wherewith shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?" (Micah 6:6-7) Such liturgies of blood and smoke, said Amos, were the objects not of divine acceptance but of divine contempt --

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt-offerings and meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

If Hosea puts milder words upon Yahweh’s lips, the meaning is none the less clear -- "I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings." (Hosea 6:6) As for Isaiah of JerusaIem, words can hardly carry a heavier weight of indignant aversion than the passage that begins -- "What unto me is the multitude of your sacrifices? saith Yahweh: I have had enough of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats." (Isaiah 1:11)

The two perennial temperaments of religion -- the ethical and the liturgical -- thus had representatives in the development which the Old Testament records. Personal prayer emerged from both, but with a difference. The great prophets were inwardly laid hold on by a sense of divine compulsion. The "word of Yahweh" took possession of them with an oppressive and yet exhilarating mastery, in which a consciousness of first-hand dealing with the living God was inherent. "The Lord Yahweh hath spoken; who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8) said Amos. "Yahweh spake thus to me with a strong hand," (Isaiah 8:11) cried Isaiah. In such experiences nothing external stood between the soul and God; the divine Spirit was an immediate, personal presence, awesome and masterful, directing thought and compelling action. To the prophet, therefore, prayer was no appendage to a sacrificial system and required no smoking altar for its support. Rather, prayer was the immediate response of man to God’s approach, involving inward communion and ethical devotion, and was itself the fountainhead of whatever moral value any public ceremony might possess.

It is significant that with Elijah, first of the succession of outstanding prophets, is associated a story that ever since in the Hebrew-Christian heritage has represented this profoundly inward concept of prayer. At the sacred mountain, whither he had fled in desperate need of spiritual reinforcement, Elijah faced first a strong wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire, but in these outward shows of physical power God was not present. Then came "a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him." (I Kings 19:9-13) This ancient portrayal of a prophet’s communion with his divinity -- so impressive that even Mendelssohn’s music can hardly heighten its meaning -- represents truly the immediacy of access to God that the prophets experienced and that later, both in Judaism and in Christianity, wielded a profound influence as the highest type of prayer.

In the Old Testament, Jeremiah is the chief expositor of this heritage. In his young manhood he supported the Josian reform by which local high places were abolished and sacrificial worship centered in Jerusalem. Whatever may have been his attitude at that time toward animal offerings on Zion, in the end he lost confidence in their value, discredited their origin, and denied Yahweh’s pleasure in them -- "Your burnt-offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing unto me." (Jeremiah 6:20) Even the temple itself, used as a pious substitute for social justice, he scathingly denounced, and threatened it with the same destruction that had fallen on Yahweh’s former shrine at Shiloh. (Jeremiah 7:1-26) In his own experience, prayer, associated with neither temple nor altar, was an intimate, familiar colloquy between his soul and God. To any one with stiff and formal attitudes in religion, Jeremiah’s prayers are even today positively sacrilegious. He argued with God, questioning him -- "Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?"-- and contending with him because all they are "at ease that deal very treacherously"; (Jeremiah 12:1-2) he accused God of acting as though he were a mere wayfarer in Israel’s land instead of being one who deeply cared for it, and cried, "Why shouldest thou be as a man affrighted, as a mighty man that cannot save?"; (Jeremiah 14:8-9) he complained at God’s seeming desertion, saying, "Wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?"; (Jeremiah 15:18) and in his despair he pleaded with God in terms that knew no restraint -- "Hast thou utterly rejected Judah ? hath thy soul loathed Zion ? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us ? . . . Do not abhor us, for thy name’s sake; do not disgrace the throne of thy glory: remember, break not thy covenant with us."(Jeremiah 14:19, 21)

With only three characters in the Old Testament are prayers like this associated -- Moses, (Exodus 5:22-23; Numbers 11:11-15) Job, (Job 10:2-21; 13:24-14:6) and Jeremiah -- and in each case not doubt but assurance of God is in the background, and the very intimacy with which the soul bares its complaints and carries on its struggle in prayer is testimony to the utter genuineness of the experience. Only those who know God as Jeremiah did -- "My strength, and my stronghold, and my refuge in the day of affliction" (Jeremiah 16:19) -- can so make free with him. With entire unconstraint Jeremiah found thus in solitary prayer immediate entrance into the divine presence and, sensitive, poetic spirit though he was, lacerated by national calamity and individual rejection, he was accustomed to go out from this interior resource to face the world again, having heard Yahweh say to him, "I will make thee unto this people a fortified brazen wall . . . I am with thee." (Jeremiah 15:20) It is not strange, therefore, that when temple and altar were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and the exiles in Babylon, bereft of their sacrificial system, were in confusion, Jeremiah’s faith was expressed in a message to them concerning personal prayer --anywhere, in any land, sacrifices or no sacrifices, the God of Israel was saying to his people, "Ye shall call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith Yahweh." (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

In this approach to personal prayer the influence of the prophets was by no means confined to the prophets, and of this fact the Psalter gives abundant evidence. Hymn and prayer book of the second temple it may have been, but obviously some of the psalms could never have been sung in connection with the sacrifices, and may well be grouped, as Professor Julius Bewer suggests, under the caption, "Private Worship outside of the Temple."(The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, pp. 377-394)

For thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it;

Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:

A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51:16-17) --

such a psalm is a direct reflection of the prophetic spirit, and must have been distinctly displeasing to the priests until some later hand added the incongruous anticlimax,

Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion:

Build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then wilt thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness,

In burnt-offering and whole burnt offering:

Then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar. (Psalm 51:18-19)

In this typical contrast within the present Fifty-first Psalm, the recurrent conflict of prophet and priest in the Psalter is made explicit. Devotees of the sacrificial system are well represented, as we have seen, but with catholic inclusiveness, like a true hymnal, the Psalter gives large place to the attitude of the prophets:

Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in;

Mine ears hast thou opened:

Burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required. (Psalm 40:6)

I will praise the name of God with a song,

And will magnify him with thanksgiving.

And it will please Yahweh better than an ox,

Or a bullock that hath horns and hoofs. (Psalm 69:30-31)

I will take no bullock out of thy house,

Nor he-goats out of thy folds.

For every beast of the forest is mine,

And the cattle upon a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the mountains;

And the wild beasts of the field are mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell thee;

For the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.

Will I eat the flesh of bulls,

Or drink the blood of goats ?

Offer unto God the sacrifice of thanksgiving;

And pay thy vows unto the Most High;

And call upon me in the day of trouble:

I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. (Psalm 50:9-15)

The prophetic influence, therefore, was effective far beyond the ambit of the prophets themselves and, as the Book of Proverbs shows, became part of the homely common sense of many of the people:

To do righteousness and justice

Is more acceptable to Yahweh than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to Yahweh;

But the prayer of the upright is his delight.(Proverbs 15:8)

Thus, both within the sacrificial system and in antagonism to it, personal prayer developed as the characteristic approach to God, and the way was prepared for the typical attitudes and ideas of the New Testament.


Indeed, both the priestly and the prophetic heritage entered into early Christianity Jesus himself taught a faithful observance of the Law. (Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17; Matthew 8:4; Luke 5:14; 17:14; Matthew 23:23) He was a lover of the temple (Mark 11:15-17: Matthew 26:55) and a pilgrim to the sacrificial feasts, (Luke 2:41-42; Mark 14:1-2 and his first disciples, far from breaking with the ceremonial requirements, continued to be such thoroughgoing Jews that the ultimate surrender of circumcision and of kosher food nearly disrupted the church. (E.g, Galatians, chap. 2) Even after the inhospitality of Judaism had outlawed the Christian movement from the sacrifices and the destruction of Jerusalem had finally ended them, the Old Testament was still the Christian Bible, and some disposal had to be made of its ceremonial codes. In Judaism this problem was solved, in part, by substituting the reading of the laws of sacrifice for their outward observance. God was represented by one of the ancient rabbis as saying, "When they read before me the laws about sacrifices, I will impute it to them as if they offered the sacrifices before me, and will have mercy upon them for all their misdeeds." (As quoted by George Foot Moore: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. II, pp. 14-15) Christian ideas, however, soon moved too far away from either the practice or the perusal of sacrificial laws as a means of reconciliation with God for the early Christian to be content with such a solution.

A typically Christian way out is offered in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is represented as the temporary foreshadowing of an eternal truth. The temple in Jerusalem was "a sanctuary of this world," (Hebrews 9:1-10) a mere preparatory symbol of "the true tabernacle" (Hebrews 8:2; 9:11) in which God and the soul deal with each other in intimate spiritual fellowship. The offering of unwilling beasts was morally ineffective -- "For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4) -- and the only redemptive offering is voluntary self-sacrifice such as that of Christ who "offered up himself." (Hebrews 7:26-27; 9:14) The Jewish priesthood was a temporary makeshift, bringing oblations which needed constantly to be repeated, (Hebrews 10:3) with no final efficacy in reconciling the soul and God, and so they were the dim foreshadowing of Christ’s true priesthood, who has "entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption." (Hebrews 9:12) Thus the writer moves from one element of the old system to another, interpreting each as a transient intimation of abiding spiritual experience. As a result, the literal and tangible sacrificial apparatus of the Jews became to the Christians symbolic of another kind of religious system altogether, whose temple is heavenly, not earthly, whose high priest once for all has entered the holy place of divine communion, where believing souls may follow him, (Hebrews 10:19) whose sacrifice is voluntary self-giving, and whose consequence is an open way for all to "draw nigh unto God." (Hebrews 7:19;10:22)

While, however, New Testament Christianity disposed of the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament so that the ancient rites were sublimated into Christian meanings, by that very process the ancient rites were given an extended influence. A large area of historic Christian theology would have been completely altered if ideas of atonement, especially as related to the blood of Christ, had not been carried over from primitive concepts associated with animal sacrifice. (E.g., Hebrews 9:13-14 Christianity left the rubric of bloody altars far behind, but mental patterns are too stubbornly persistent to be so easily cast off, and even yet semimagical ideas concerning the potency of blood, from the earliest documents of the Old Testament, are woven into some Christian hymns, sermons, and prayers. In this regard Judaism has escaped from its own cult of sacrifice more completely than has Christianity.

Influential as the old sacrificial system continued to be in Christian thinking, it was the prophetic tradition with reference to personal prayer that more powerfully affected the New Testament. Jesus may have reverenced the ceremonial heritage of his people, but he himself was in the true succession of the prophets, especially Hosea and Jeremiah. Reared in Galilee, his spiritual life had been nourished in the synagogue. "For the vast majority of Jews, "writes Professor George Foot Moore, "not alone in the dispersion but in Palestine itself, the synagogue had become, long before the destruction of the temple, the real seat of religious worship, though so long as the temple stood they may not have used of it the word ‘worship’ historically appropriated to the sacrificial cultus." (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. II, p. 12) In the synagogue, therefore, as well as in the temple, Jesus prayed, but neither temple nor synagogue sufficed for his fellowship with God. Twice he quoted Hosea, on the ceremonial law, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,"(Matthew 9:13; 12:7) and his indignant distaste for hypocrites who "love to stand and pray in the synagogues" (Matthew 6:5) was openly expressed. Alone with the door shut, in desert places, or among the hills (Matthew 6:6; Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:23) Jesus was accustomed to pray; and even when in the Garden of Gethsemane his disciples were with him, we read, "He was parted from them about a stone’s cast; and he kneeled down and prayed." (Luke 22:41)

It is this habit of private prayer that, rather than ceremonial worship, characterizes the New Testament. The disciples were devout Jews, trained not only in the ritual of their faith but in the more mystical fellowship that could say, "The nearness of God is my good," (Psalm 73:28 as translated by J. M. Powis Smith in The Religion of the Psalms, p. 152) and

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High

Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalm 91:1)

Yet when they heard Jesus in his personal devotions, the experience seemed to them so fresh and new that they said, "Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1) From this beginning prayer moved out into the early church and so into the New Testament. With the ancient altars no longer standing, with the sacrificial cultus interpreted as a mere foreshadowing of the access to God that Christians spiritually enjoyed, with the growing rituals of the new churches still plastic and unformed, personal prayer became the typical method of divine fellowship. Men were to pray "without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17) and "in every place." (I Timothy 2:8) Indeed, the New Testament lives and moves and has its being in the atmosphere of informal, unconventional, spontaneous, intimate prayer.

This involved the complete suppression of those limitations which at the beginning of Hebrew history had made such praying unthinkable. Far from being unapproachable, God’s dwellingplace was within the spiritual life of his children. Whether this immediacy of God was described in Pauline terms as God’s Spirit, carrying the divine presence and power into the Christian’s inner life, (I Corinthians 3:16) or in Johannine terms, as God himself dwelling in his people, (John 14:23; I John 4:12) the accessibility of the divine grace and help was everywhere proclaimed. No longer interested merely in the destinies of corporate groups, God was conceived as caring for persons one by one, so that prayer was a transfiguring individual experience -- "As he was praying, the fashion of his countenance was altered." (Luke 9:29) Instead of being localized in any shrine, the early church rejoiced in the liberation of the divine presence from all Gerizims and Jerusalems to the universality which the Fourth Gospel announces -- "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:20-24) Instead of involving bizarre and ominous signs or magical apparatus, dealing with God was an affair of interior communion, and while a few stories still reflect belief in dreams (Matthew 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19; 27:19) as a means of divine revelation, and once the casting of lots (Acts 1:24-26) is used to secure divine guidance, the characteristic and habitual practice of early Christians in approaching God was direct and simple prayer. Instead of allowing any unethical substitutes for spiritual fellowship with God, God was so conceived in terms of goodness that there could be no companionship with him without ethical likeness to him. (I John 4:7-8) As for the sacrificial system, that had been displaced by a moral and universally applicable substitute --"Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. "(Romans 12:1)


This development of deepening meaning in fellowship with God was accompanied by significant changes in the idea of faith. Always the possibility of fellowship with God is dependent upon one’s faith. As the Epistle to the Hebrews says, "He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him." (Hebrews 11:6) In general the characteristic emphasis of the Old Testament is not upon belief but upon obedience, and the test of religious rightness is not one’s faith but one’s deeds. Indeed, in no particular is the distinction between the Testaments much more marked than in the slight stress on faith in the Old and the centrality of it in the New. Even in a familiar passage, where Habakkuk says, "The righteous shall live by his faith," (Habakkuk 2:4) the marginal rendering is doubtless correct, "in his faithfulness, "and as when Isaiah foresees ‘`the righteous nation which keepeth faith" (Isaiah 26:2; cf. Hosea 4:2) -- this ethical significance, akin to fidelity, is the familiar meaning of faith in the Old Testament. (See, however, Genesis 15:6)

In the New Testament, however, faith, meaning something other than faithfulness, is central in the religious experience, and its various phrasings furnish a valuable clue to the dominant ideas of the writers.

1. In the Synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke faith is a humble, hearty confidence in God’s power and goodness and a potent laying hold on his proffered help. In Jesus’ first preaching it is associated with repentance "Repent ye, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15) -- as though to turn from old sins were the negative, and to exercise a new faith were the positive, aspect of becoming his disciple. Everywhere in the Synoptics, faith is the precedent necessity if any mighty work is to be done or any divine help received, (E.g., Mark 10:52: Matthew 9:22; 13:58; 15:28) and when real faith is present, even though it be "as a grain of mustard seed," it releases such power that it can move mountains. (Matthew 17:20) "All things are possible," said Jesus, "to him that believeth." (Mark 9:23)

2. In Paul’s writings this meaning of faith is casually present (I Corinthians 13:2) but he goes much further. In the background of his experience and thought is a different set of ideas and problems from those familiar in the Synoptics. The Jewish legal system, now left behind, had once been the means by obedience to which he had sought ‘justification’; now faith -- the whole-hearted self-committal of a man to Jesus Christ by which the entire personality is transformed -- is the sole ground of any one’s acceptance with God. (Romans 3:21-22, 26, 28; 4:22-25; 5:1-2) The cross of Christ, "unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness," (I Corinthians 1:23) is to Paul the cardinal element in the divine self-revelation, and faith is the attitude toward Christ of acceptance, trust, appropriation, by which the salvation offered in the cross becomes effective in the believer. (Romans 3:24-25) Goodness had once been the work of a strenuous will endeavoring to obey God’s law; now, to Paul, goodness is the overflow of an inner life which by faith has welcomed the indwelling Spirit. (Galatians 5:4-6) Religious experience had been to Paul a difficult struggle; now by faith he is so joined with Christ that there is a mutual interpenetration of the divine and the human, so that "it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me." (Galatians 2:20) At every point, therefore, faith means to Paul that vital self-committal to Christ which so opens the life to him and appropriates his spirit that by it men become sons of God. (Galatians 3:26) Far from being primarily opinionative, faith is an act of the whole personality, so appropriating the divine that a good life inevitably ensues -- "with the heart man believeth unto righteousness." (Romans 10:10)

3. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the reader moves into another set of ideas altogether. There, after the Neo-Platonic fashion, are two worlds -- visible and invisible, temporal and eternal, earthly and heavenly, shadow and substance, foregleam and fulfillment. Such is the cosmic outlook that everywhere dominates the thought of the Epistle, and faith means the power by which we can live in both worlds, grasping the assurance of things hoped for ere the fulfillment has actually come, and holding a conviction of things not seen even while we are pressed upon by the visible. (Hebrews 11:1) This is the quality of all the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter: in one world they live as though another world were real; on one level of being they grasp the surety of a higher level; amid the transient they are convinced of the permanent; and so they endure, "as seeing him who is invisible." (Hebrews 11:27)

4. In the Fourth Gospel we move into still another set of ideas which strongly affect the phrasing of faith. Throughout the Gospel, John is concerned with the persuasive presentation of the doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God, and his primary aim is to win men to believe in Christ as such. (E.g., John 1:34, 49; 3:18; 9:35-38; 10:35-36; 11:4, 27; 20:30-31) This determines the principal significance of faith in the Fourth Gospel -- it means both an intellectual conviction that Christ is the Son of God and a personal self-commitment to him because of that. The Gospel, that is, reflects the kind of experience doubtless familiar in a Hellenistic city such as Ephesus, as converts were won to Christianity. First, they were attracted to Christ; going deeper in acquaintance with his life and ministry, they found in him the satisfaction of their religious needs; through this experience they progressed in knowledge of him until at last they believed in him as the Son of God. That is to say, in John’s Gospel faith is not so much the beginning as it is the end of the process of conversion.

In the Synoptics, for example, faith is the precedent condition of Jesus’ miracles while in the Fourth Gospel faith is the consequence of Jesus’ miracles -- "Believe me for the very works’ sake"; (John 14:11) "Though ye believe not me, believe the works"; (John 10:38) he "manifested his glory; and his disciples believed on him," after his first miracle; (John 2:11) and, when a nobleman’s son was healed, he "himself believed, and his whole house." (John 4:53) To put the matter another way, in John’s Gospel faith does not generally come before knowledge, but knowledge before faith. Men are drawn by the attraction of Christ, his works and his cross, (John 12:32) and, entering into a satisfying experience with him, come first to know him and then to believe on him as the Son of God. They "knew . . . and they believed" (John 17:8 [but see John 6:69]) is the distinctive Johannine order. Uniquely characteristic of John though this phrasing of faith is, at the heart of it is still the vital self-commitment of person to person -- "Every one that beholdeth the Son, and believeth on him"; (John 6:40) "He that believeth on me"; (John 12:44; 14:12) "Believe in God, believe also in me." (John 14:1) Such faith is not simply doctrine; it is an intellectual connection born out of a profound, spiritual experience.

5. In some later writings of the New Testament, however, faith is primarily belief in dogma. This phrasing of faith, impossible in the first years of the Christian movement, emerged only when the convictions of the church were so well formulated that the acceptance of orthodox teaching could be a major criterion of Christian discipleship. So in the Epistle to Titus and in the Epistles to Timothy faith is primarily intellectual assent to the standard convictions of the church. The ideal is to hold "faith and a good conscience" against heretics, (I Timothy 1:18-20) to be true to the "faith of God’s elect," (Titus 1:1) not to "fall away from the faith" (I Timothy 4:1) but to withstand contrary opinions, "which some professing have erred concerning the faith. "(I Timothy 6:20-21) This doctrinal conception James presents negatively, disparaging faith as compared with works, on the ground that, belief being a matter of opinion, "the demons also believe, and shudder" (James 2:19-20) and Jude presents it positively, exhorting his brethren "to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints. "(Jude, vs. 3)

So varied are the New Testament’s conceptions of one of the most central and influential ideas of early Christianity. Yet through all these diversities of phrasing -- whether faith was thought of as a power-releasing confidence in God, or as selfcommitment to Christ that brought the divine Spirit into indwelling control of one’s life, or as the power by which we apprehend the eternal and invisible even while living in the world of sense, or as the climactic vision of Christ as the Son of God which crowns our surrender to his attractiveness, or as assured conviction concerning great truths that underlie and constitute the gospel --always the enlargement and enrichment of faith was opening new meanings in the experience of fellowship with God and was influencing deeply both the idea and the practice of prayer.


Revelatory as are such changes in the concept of worship and of the faith that underlies it, it is the content of the prayers recorded in the Bible that most plainly reveals development in thought and life. In one characteristic realm after another, changing ideas of prayer were accompanied by changing substance in the prayers themselves.

I. There was, for example, an unmistakable growth in magnanimity. Many of the early petitions are demands on God for vengeance after the manner of Samson’s dying cry, "O Lord Yahweh, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes." (Judges 16:28) Between this petition and the prayer of the dying Stephen, the first Christian martyr, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," (Acts 7:60) lies a long road of ethical ascent.

This road, obvious as it is in retrospect, was not easily visible in advance, and some of the greatest souls in the Old Testament were laggards in traveling it. Jeremiah, pouring out before God everything he felt, poured out his vindictiveness: "Bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction"; (Jeremiah 17:18) "Deliver up their children to the famine, and give them over to the power of the sword; and let their wives become childless, and widows; and let their men be slain of death, and their young men smitten of the sword in battle.... forgive not their iniquity, neither blot out their sin from thy sight; but let them be overthrown before thee; deal thou with them in the time of thine anger." Jeremiah 18:21, 23) A notable amount of praying in the Old Testament is thus cursing, and lest Christians should assume too much credit in this regard, a similar abuse of prayer, all the more inexcusable because sinning against light, stands in the New Testament -- "How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (Revelation 6:10) The writer of Lamentations, bewailing the miserable estate of desolated Zion, cried, "Do unto them, as thou hast done unto me"; (Lamentations 1:22) Nehemiah, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, besought Yahweh against his foes, "Cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee" ; (Nehemiah 4:5) and in the Psalter are outbursts of vindictiveness the singing of which in the second temple seems scarcely credible:

Let their table before them become a snare;

And when they are in peace, let it become a trap.

Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see;

And make their loins continually to shake.

Pour out thine indignation upon them,

And let the fierceness of thine anger overtake them. (Psalm 69:22-24)

Let his children be fatherless,

And his wife a widow.

Let his children be vagabonds, and beg;

And let them seek their bread out of their desolate places.

Let the extortioner catch all that he hath;

And let strangers make spoil of his labor.

Let there be none to extend kindness unto him;

Neither let there be any to have pity on his fatherless children. (Psalm 109:9-12)

Sincere praying is always a revelation of character, and generosity in prayer waited of necessity for magnanimity in spirit. When Jeremiah bade the exiles in the city of Babylon "pray unto Yahweh for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace," (Jeremiah 29:7) we see the dawning of a better day, whose full light, however, did not come before Christ -- "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you"; (Luke 6:27-28) "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

2. The recorded prayers of the Bible disclose also a growing universality of interest and care. The tribal and national limitations of early Hebrew thought and life were necessarily reflected in Hebrew praying. Even when the petitions of the Old Testament concerning public matters are not vindictive, they are commonly nationalistic, as, for example, the Isaian plea for divine interposition in Israel’s desperate need, (Isaiah 63:15-64:12) or Daniel’s great prayer for his people, (Daniel 9:4-19) or the ejaculatory supplications of Ezekiel, (Ezekiel 9:8; 11:13) or the elaborate petitions in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Ezra 9:6-15; Nehemiah 9:6-37) Only occasionally does mankind as a whole appear as the object of intercession.

In the Psalter, however, the wider outlook finds expression:

God be merciful unto us, and bless us,

And cause his face to shine upon us;

That thy way may be known upon earth,

Thy salvation among all nations.

Let the peoples praise thee, O God;

Let all the peoples praise thee.

Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy;

For thou wilt judge the peoples with equity,

And govern the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise thee, O God;

Let all the peoples praise thee. (Psalm 67:1-5)

In this regard, Jewish prayer ranged over a wider ambit than Jewish law. To the very end the Law was particularistic -- its duties intended for Jews only, its rights fully accorded neither to foreigners outside the Jewish community nor to casual sojourners and slaves within it. The same limitation in the scope of law existed in Athens, where, in order to avail himself of legal rights, a sojourner had to secure a citizen as patron, where slaves were, generally speaking, outside the privilege of the laws altogether, and where the ‘barbarians’ beyond the borders were not within the legal purview. (R. M. MacIver: The Modern State, pp. 103-104) It was the glory of Roman jurists in the early centuries A.D. that they first conceived the jus gentium, the natural law of all peoples, as incorporating the duties and rights which belonged to human beings everywhere. In Judaism, however, prayer outran law, aspiration surpassed enactment, and the universal God was approached in intercession as

. . . the confidence of all the ends of the earth,

And of them that are afar off upon the sea. (Psalm 65:5 [To be sure, this may refer only to the Jews of the Dispersion])

Not only Christianity but the later Judaism was the enriched inheritor of this growing universality of interest and care. So a Jewish teacher of the fourth century A.D., Rabbi Joshua, said: "Hast thou ever seen the rain fall on the field of X who is righteous, and not on the field of Y who is wicked, or the sun shine upon Israel who are righteous, and not upon the nations who are wicked ? God makes the sun shine both upon Israel and the nations, for He is good to all." (As quoted by C. G. Montefiore in The Beginnings of Christianity, edited by F.J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, Part I, Vol. I, p. 40) Whether this passage is a reflection of Jesus’ words (Matthew 5:45) or Jesus’ words a reflection of similar teachings in the Judaism of his day, it is a true intimation of the growing universality of the better sort of Jewish teaching, and especially in praying the outreach of intercession to all humanity was perceived by some as the corollary of monotheism --

O thou that hearest prayer,

Unto thee shall all flesh come. (Psalm 65:2)

In the New Testament the world as the subject of redemption is continually present either in the foreground or in the background of the recorded prayers. Paul’s description of God as the "Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:15) is typical. Even in the intercessory prayer of Jesus for his disciples at the Last Supper, where he is represented as saying, "I pray not for the world," the world still remains the ultimate object of his care: "As thou didst send me into the world, even so sent I them into the world . . . . that the world may believe that thou didst send me." (John 17:18, 21) From the beginning of the gospel, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come," (Matthew 6:10) to the end of the New Testament with its dream of worshiping hosts, crying, "The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord," (Revelation 11:15) the range of Christian intercession keeps the whole earth in view.

3. The prayers of the Bible plainly indicate a deepening sense of sin. In the early days of Israel with their morality of outward custom, when wickedness was the violation of tribal taboos, penalty a tribal misfortune in consequence, and the cure public reform and obedience, the prayers of confession were congruous with such ideas. It is typical of Israel’s early repentances that only when the people were "sore distressed" by national defeat did they recognize that they had wickedly disobeyed Yahweh, and so cried unto him, "We have sinned against thee." (Judges 10:9-10) At the first, therefore, penitence was a public rather than a private matter, and the sense of sin concerned the violated customs of the social group rather than the inner quality of the individual. Far down in Israel’s history such ideas, associated with corporate personality, deeply affected the praying of the people. The sin confessed was not so much personal unworthiness as national misdeeds, and the misdeeds were not alone the evil work of the living but of the ancestral generations whose iniquities were still involving their offspring in penalty. Out of this range of thought came the reiterated confessions of sin for both contemporaneous and historic national sin: "We acknowledge, O Yahweh, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers"; (Jeremiah 14:20) "We have sinned against Yahweh our God, we and our fathers"; (Jeremiah 3:25) they "stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers"; (Nehemiah 9:2) "For our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are round about us." (Daniel 9:16)

This sense of corporate disobedience involving both present and past generations became more acute as national calamities increased. The Jews faced a difficult and momentous dilemma: either the accumulated miseries of Israel were due to Yahweh’s failure as a powerful god, or else he was the one true God who, with righteous judgment, had decreed their national distress as punishment. Many a nation, facing a similar dilemma, had chosen the former and easier alternative; it was Israel’s distinction that she chose the latter. In the face of abysmal wretchedness she asserted the sole sovereignty and the unfailing justice of her God, and interpreted her calamities as his appointment in punishment for her sins.

In Exilic and post-Exilic times, in consequence, the sense of guilt deepened in Judaism and the prayers of confession and penitence became poignant and, at times, almost abject. When Ezra cries, "Thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve," (Daniel 9:16) or a prayer in the Book of Nehemiah says, "Thou art just in all that is come upon us; for thou hast dealt truly, but we have done wickedly," (Nehemiah 9:33) or Daniel exhausts tautology in confessing, "We have sinned, and have dealt perversely, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled," (Daniel 9:5) we see the self-accusation which resulted from the acceptance of national misfortune not as an evidence of Yahweh’s weakness in protecting his people but as proof of his inflexible righteousness. It is characteristic of the worship of the post-Exilic temple, therefore, that the two forms of sacrifice added to the rubric were the trespass- and the guilt-offerings, both expiations of sin, and that, in general, the sense of public guilt in the later Old Testament is poignant and profound.

Indeed, so extreme is it that at times it seems to modern minds morbid, but this judgment is qualified when one recalls the historic setting. National self-accusation was the price paid by the Jews for two of their most valuable possessions -- their monotheism, for only by interpreting their public misery as the just penalty for their own sins could they assert Yahweh’s omnipotence and righteousness; and their social conscience, for only by thinking of Israel as a continuous community, irrefragably bound together across the generations by the eternal laws of moral cause and consequence, could they explain their fate. Those moderns who too superficially account for religion by Freudian formulas and, in particular, conceive it habitually as a mere mechanism of escape from disliked realities, should take the measure of this area of Judaism. The Jews, who might have blamed their calamities on Yahweh’s failure as a god and so might have evaded a crushing sense of their own guilt, chose not this easier path but one of the most difficult ever traveled by the mind of man. They accused themselves of sin so heinous as to deserve their suffering and at their best exhibited a spirit of contrition and humility which has entered into the abiding spiritual heritage of the race.

With the individual’s emergence from his primitive estate as a mere item in the social whole, prayers of confession gained a new dimension -- acknowledgment of personal unworthiness was added to national penitence. Moreover, the poignancy of the sense of public guilt was reflected in private self-accusation, and the issue is seen in such prayers as the psalmist’s confession of deep-seated sinfulness,

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity;

And in sin did my mother conceive me, (Psalm 51:5)

and in such cries as Job’s,

Wherefore I abhor myself,

And repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Here appears one of the major paradoxes of the spiritual life, of which the Bible gives vivid illustration -- the more self-respect men achieve, the more they are plunged into self-depreciation. Only when personality has emerged from the social mass into a high status of its own, as possessing spiritual value and possibility, can the sense of failure, in falling short of personality’s promise, become acute. The more elevated the standards, the more inevitable humility becomes; only when men think highly of themselves do they begin to think humbly of themselves, so that self-respect and self-depreciation, instead of being antithetical, are two sides of the same experience.

Of this paradox the later Old Testament and all the New Testament are illustrations. Instead of being a passing phase of the social group, individual, personal life was progressively gaining a distinct and profound value of its own, and the higher personality thus rose in ideal, the farther it could fall by comparison. So the Book of Job, whose hero gives a consummate portrayal of a good man’s life, (Job, chap. 31) makes its hero say also, "Behold, I am of small account;" (Job 40:4) and the Fifty-first Psalm, whose writer sees that God desires "truth in the inward parts," is correspondingly penitent --

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity,

And cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions;

And my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:2-3)

This juncture of high personal self-estimate and profound personal humility is a main attribute of the New Testament’s thought. When Jesus set in contrast a self-righteous Pharisee, saying to God, "I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men," and a contrite publican, praying, "God, be thou merciful to me a sinner," (Luke 18:9-14) he was both summing up the best of his race’s teaching on the true spirit of confessional prayer and indicating to his disciples the self-depreciation which must follow any such estimate of personal worth and possibility as he himself believed in. Not many prayers are preserved for us in the New Testament, but one cannot read the Pauline and Johannine letters without feeling that the obverse side of such an ideal as Christ had brought was a profound humility about man’s moral estate. The Prodigal’s contrition -- "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son" (Luke 15:18-19) -- is implied in many a New Testament passage.

In this realm of confessional prayer, however, the New Testament still needs the supplementation of the Old. Social penitence did not rise naturally from the individualistic conditions that faced early Christianity. The great prayers of the Bible concerning national failure and social sin are still the gift of the Old Testament.

4. With these progressive tendencies toward increased magnanimity, inclusiveness, and humility in prayer went a deepening spirituality in the content of the petitions. In the early stages of Biblical history men regarded the major good of existence as physical -- ample creature comforts, a long life, a large family, and victory in war -- and for these benefits the Hebrews besought Yahweh. The Deuteronomic ideal of a people blessed of God was summed up in such details as a multiplying population, ample harvests, plenty of wine and oil, fruitful flocks, freedom from disease, and ability to "consume all the peoples" that were hostile. (Deuteronomy 7:12-16) With these for the main objects of petition, prayer was naturally evoked by their lack, and it was typical of early Hebrew as of all immature praying that the negative rather than the positive purpose of prayer was prominent. Like the sailors in the 107th Psalm who, "at their wits’ end" in a storm, "cry unto Yahweh in their trouble," or like the mariners with Jonah who, amid the "mighty tempest," "cried every man unto his god," (Jonah 1:4-5) men were driven to prayer by physical peril. So Jeremiah condemned his people for habitual neglect of Yahweh, to whom, however, "in the time of their trouble they will say, Arise, and save us." (Jeremiah 2:27)

In Old Testament times the problem of subsistence was frequently so difficult and national calamities fell with such repeated dreadfulness that much of the supplication recorded was motived by crisis and was aimed at material recovery. If the New Testament contains less of such petition than the Old, an important part of the explanation lies in the difference of circumstance. When in the Book of Lamentations we read of mothers under stress of famine eating their own children, (Lamentations 2:20) of women ravished, princes "hanged up by their hand," little children stumbling under their burdens, and the mountain of Zion become a haunt of foxes, (Lamentations 5:8-18) we cannot wonder that the people poured out their hearts "like water before the face of the Lord." (Lamentations 2:19) Quality in prayer depends not alone on spiritual insight but on social circumstance. So long ‘as wars are fought, prayers to the god of battle will be offered as they were in ancient Israel, (E.g., Numbers 10:35; I Samuel 7:8; II Chronicles 14:11; II Chronicles, chap. 20) and, so long as economic destitution remains, men who despite it believe in God will offer materialistic prayers. That men should pray for the reform of the social order is generally recognized, but it is less commonly recognized that on the reform of the social order depends in considerable measure the spiritualizing of prayer.

To the credit of the later Judaism, therefore, stands the deepening spiritual quality of its petitions despite the material evils afflicting the people. The Book of Deuteronomy, which in many passages gives color to Lord Bacon’s saying that "prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament," ("On Adversity," No. V of Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral) says also that "man doth not live by bread only." (Deuteronomy 8:3) The recognition of this fact is the glory of Israel’s praying at its best:

Give thy servant therefore an understanding

heart to judge thy people, that I may

discern between good and evil. (I Kings 3:9)

Search me, O God, and know my heart:

Try me, and know my thoughts;

And see if there be any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23)

As the hart panteth after the water brooks,

So panteth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

Whom have I in heaven but Thee?

and having Thee there is naught on earth that I desire. (Psalm 73:25 as translated by Julius A. Bewer in The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, p. 390)

Create in me a clean heart, O God;

And renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from thy presence;

And take not thy holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51:10-11)

This deepening spiritual quality in prayer is shown in the thanksgivings with which the Scripture abounds. When men receive what they have petitioned God for with an urgent sense of need, they are grateful. Typical thanksgivings in the earlier period were associated, therefore, with victory in war, (Genesis 14:19-20) or with the fertility of the land, "flowing with milk and honey." (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) The Hebrew mind was too realistic ever to outgrow the grateful sense of solid value in material blessings, and in this refusal of an ascetic spirituality showed its health. In the great psalms of thanksgiving -- the 103d, for example the physical basis of life was not forgotten as a cause of gratitude, but thankfulness ranged up into other areas also, such as forgiven sin, the visible execution of divine justice, and the saving experience of divine mercy. At their best the Psalms overpassed the gifts of God in gratitude for God himself --

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,

And into his courts with praise:

Give thanks unto him, and bless his name.

For Yahweh is good; his lovingkindness endureth for ever,

And his faithfulness unto all generations. (Psalm 100:4-5)

In the New Testament the chief office of prayer, whether in petition or thanksgiving, is concerned with spiritual welfare. Bread is not forgotten and, as the symbol of life’s physical basis, is made an object of request in the Lord’s Prayer. But the predominant and almost exclusive concern of early Christian praying with moral and spiritual quality is unmistakable. That the disciples may "stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God"; (Colossians 4:12) that they may be "perfect in every good thing to do his will"; (Hebrews 13:21) that in the face of persecution they may speak their message "with all boldness"; (Acts 4:29) that they "may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:9-10) --such are the characteristic petitions of the New Testament. Those who make the effect of prayer on material conditions the test of its efficacy have little rootage for their ideas in New Testament soil.

This is evident alike in early Christian thanksgiving and intercession. Paul thanked God for personal victory over sin, (Romans 7:25) for the church’s victory in the proclamation of its faith "throughout the whole world," (Romans 1:8) for the lives of faithful Christians, (Philippians 1:3; I Thessalonians 1:2-8) and for deliverance "out of the power of darkness" into "the kingdom of the Son of his love." (Colossians 1:12-13) When he interceded for his friends he desired for them abounding love, increasing knowledge, the fruits of righteousness, and discernment to perceive and approve moral excellence, so that they might be "sincere and void of offense." (Philippians 1:9-11) The great tradition of intercession, with which in the Hebrew writings the names of Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah were chiefly associated, (Jeremiah 15:1; cf. II Maccabees 15:14; The Assumption of Moses 12:2, 6) was fulfilled in the New Testament where prayer for one another was continually urged and exemplified. (E.g., I Thessalonians 5:25; Hebrews 13:18) Such intercession, however, uniformly concerned the spiritual estate of the church and its members, as in Paul’s petition for his Ephesian friends:

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Before the quality and range of such petition much of the historic and contemporaneous practice and theory of prayer in the church should stand ashamed. Supplication for material benefits was the primitive beginning of prayer, and the development of Biblical thought in this regard is measured by the distance between two typical intercessions:

God give thee of the dew of heaven,

And of the fatness of the earth,

And plenty of grain and new wine:

Let peoples serve thee, And nations bow down to thee:

Be lord over thy brethren,

And let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee

Cursed be every one that curseth thee,

And blessed be every one that blesseth thee. (Genesis 27:28-29)

They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth. . . . Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. (John 17:16-17, 20-21)

5. Accompanying such developments as we have noted in the substance of Biblical prayers, an even more profound change was in process: praying, employed at first as a means of persuading a god to do man’s will, grew to be used as a means of releasing through man whatever was God’s will. Primitive religion everywhere involves the endeavor, whether by sacrificial gifts or magical methods, to gain influence with superhuman powers so as to command their services. "O my Lord," said an Arab on a robber-raid, "I say unto Thee, except Thou give me a camel today with a water-skin, I would as it were beat Thee with this camel stick!" When, at evening, the raiders returned successful, the Arab said, "Now ye may know, fellows, ye who blamed me when I prayed at dawn, how my Lord was adread of me today!" (See Charles M Doughty: Travels in Arabia Deserta [3d ed., 1925], Vol. II, p. 241) At the stage of development represented by such an attitude, the value of religion was measured by the control given the devotee over superhuman powers and, so far as prayer was used, its object was to persuade a god to do the bidding of a man.

In early nomadic and agricultural society, for example, when the weather was the determiner of destiny for herds and crops, religion was utilized as a means of bringing rain. Prayers for rain, as well as imitative magic to produce it, were and are a commonplace in primitive faiths. In ancient Athens the people prayed, "Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, on the cornland of the Athenians and on the plains"; in Rome one writer set the old piety of folk who prayed to Jupiter for showers, and went home from the temple streaming wet themselves with the ready answer, in contrast with the then impiety, when, as he said, "we are no longer religious, so the fields lie baking" ; in Upper Burma in recent times the people prayed to their tree-spirit, "O Lord, have pity on us poor mortals, and stay not the rain"; and wherever primitive religion is found today it includes means, magical or otherwise, of so gaining influence over superhuman powers as to control wind and rain, and even the sun and moon. (See James George Frazer: The Golden Bough; A Study in Magic and Religion [abridged ed. 1925], pp. 159, 160, 118, 78-80)

This idea of prayer was obviously prevalent in early Biblical thought. In compliance with Joshua’s demand,

. . . the sun stood still, and the moon stayed,

Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies, (Joshua 10:12-13)

and while this story at first was poetry it was later taken as prosaic fact. As for rain, a man of prayer, like Samuel, powerful in his influence with Yahweh, was supposed to be able to dictate its coming -- "I will call unto Yahweh, that he may send thunder and rain; and ye shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of Yahweh, in asking you a king. So Samuel called unto Yahweh; and Yahweh sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared Yahweh and Samuel." (I Samuel 12:17-18) In the traditional stories of Elijah, his control over rain was represented as one of the major factors in his public power, for so had the disposal of the weather been put in his hands that he could say: "As Yahweh, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." (I Kings 17:1) Indeed, in the dramatic narrative of the contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the priests of Baal, Yahweh’s swift answer to the prophet’s prayer for lightning. decided the issue. (I Kings 18:37-40) Primitive ideas of prayer were thus thoroughly impregnated with the hope of gaining control over superhuman powers.

A less obtrusive but no less revealing evidence of this is the reluctance of any superhuman spirit to let his name be known. Possession of the name of either man or god conferred on the possessor control over him -- such was and still is the well-nigh universal belief of primitive religion. "Hence," says J. G. Frazer, "just as the furtive savage conceals his real name because he fears that sorcerers might make an evil use of it, so he fancies that his gods must likewise keep their true names secret, lest other gods or even men should learn the mystic sounds and thus be able to conjure with them." (See J. G. Frazer: op. cit., pp. 260-262) In the Old Testament, accordingly, when Jacob asked the superhuman wrestler his name, he was rebuffed; (Genesis 32-29) when Manoah asked "the angel of Yahweh" for his name, the answer was, "Wherefore askest thou after my name, seeing it is secret"; (Judges 13:17-18 [marginal reading]) and when Moses sought to learn Yahweh’s name, he received no clearer reply than "I AM THAT I AM." (Exodus 3:13-14) In consonance with this traditional attitude, the Jews, from reverential motives, substituted adonai, meaning ‘lord,’ for the sacred name in their reading of the Scriptures; as a consequence, in the thirteenth century Christian Hebraists mistakenly used the consonants of the name jhwh with the Hebrew vowels of adonai, thus getting Jehovah; but behind this later mystification lay in primitive times the recognized unwillingness of any god to surrender possession of his secret name, lest the possessor thereby gain control over him. As the centuries passed, such magical connotations of the holy name fell away; the ‘name of God’ became synonymous with his personality his dignity, character, and purpose; prayer in his name, which at first implied the supplicant’s desire to control the divine will, came at last to mean the supplicant’s submission to the divine will; and the remote and sublimated leftovers of this ancient idea still remain in prayers offered in the name of Christ.

The earliest Hebrew petition, however, with its rootage deep in primitive religion, sought with unabashed desire the means of persuading or coercing God to do the bidding of a man. With this for their philosophy, men bargained with their gods as Jacob did, (Genesis 28:20-22) or argued with them, as the Hebrews from Joshua (Joshua 7:9) to Joel (Joel 2:17; cf. II Kings 19:16-19; Daniel 9:19) argued with Yahweh that if he did not save them his reputation would suffer loss. No development in Biblical praying is more important, therefore, than its gradual reorientation until God’s will, not man’s, became central and controlling. This change was bound to occur as the idea of God was elevated, until in him was seen to dwell not only power but wisdom and goodness. So Jeremiah’s companions in disaster asked him to pray that "God may show us the way wherein we should walk, and the thing that we should do" (Jeremiah 42:3) With God conceived as infinitely wise and good, reasonable prayer must be conceived not as a means of forcing on God the bidding of man, but as a means of releasing through man the purpose of God. So the greater praying of the Old Testament rose, as in the Fortieth Psalm, to say, "I delight to do thy will, O my God." (Psalm 40:8)

In the New Testament this radical reorientation of prayer became controlling. Still the older usages persisted. James even illustrated the efficacy of petition by Elijah’s power to prevent and produce rain, (James 5:17-18) but the characteristic and original quality of New Testament prayer is of another stuff altogether. "If we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us" (I John 5:14) -- that is the organizing idea of typical Christian praying. God’s will came first, infinitely wise and good, and prayer was intended not to change but to release it, not to gain power over it but to open the door for its complete expression. The pith of the Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is "Thy will be done." (Matthew 6:10) As New Testament Christians thought that they might understand the divine will, and as they labored to give it effective application, so they prayed that nothing within themselves might impede or balk it. Prayer was a means of alignment and cooperation with God, and its effect was not the substitution of something else for the divine will but the divine will’s powerful and transforming release into the world. With good reason, therefore, the essence of characteristic Christian praying has been found in the Garden of Gethsemane. There the clinging residue of primitive magic was entirely laid aside. The crude superstition of man’s prayer as a means of instructing God or altering his intention was overpassed and praying became both congruous with the Christian idea of God and effectively powerful in spiritual result -- "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me: howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt." (Mark 14:36)

From vindictiveness to magnanimity; from tribalism to universality, from the regret of penalized men over broken taboos to the penitence of humble men over personal guilt; from supplications for physical benefits to prayer as the fulfilling of interior conditions of spiritual growth; from the desire to impose man’s will on a god to the desire that God’s will should be done through man -- such are the developments revealed in the recorded prayers of the Bible.


Such developments, however, while they immeasurably deepened and expanded the meaning of personal prayer, did not solve the problem of public worship, which the early Christians only temporarily escaped when they left the temple and the synagogue. Jesus himself was reported to have said that "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," (Matthew 18:20) and very early in the New Testament’s narrative we are made aware of a strong, corporate solidarity in the nascent churches. The new disciples, whether with Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, found in the Christian community not only a transforming experience of divine grace but a sustaining experience of human fellowship, and, in whatever other ways this fellowship functioned, it was bound to express itself in corporate worship. Many a problem of inherited ritual the first Christians sloughed off in leaving the temple and synagogue, but many new ones faced them as soon as they inaugurated what the Epistle to the Hebrews called, "our own assembling together." (Hebrews 10:25) Indeed, so central were these problems to certain of the early Christians that Professor E. F. Scott can say of religion: "For some it is an inward fellowship with God, for some an inspiration to right living, for some the highest exercise of reason. There are others, and the author of Hebrews was one of them, for whom religion consists above all in worship." (The Literature of the New Testament, p. 201)

The fact that the Old Testament continued to be the Christian Bible made the earliest worship of the new assemblies by no means an innovation. At the beginning, their "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16: Ephesians 5:19) were probably taken over and adapted from the older heritage, and while the evidence on this matter is scant, the devotional services of the early churches doubtless leaned heavily on the Old Testament, especially the Psalter, and even on the customs of the synagogue. Such data as we have suggests informality and spontaneity as characteristic of the first Christian worship, held in private houses (Colossians 4:15; Romans 16:5) and unequipped with symbolic pomp and circumstance. Indeed, in Corinth the worship was accompanied by emotional ecstasies, plunging the devotees into mysterious trances and finding utterance in enthusiastic, although unintelligible, eloquence. On this disorderly emotionalism Paul put the stamp of his disapproval, (I Corinthians, chaps 12-14) but it indicates in how informal, spontaneous, and non-liturgical an atmosphere some, at least, of the first churches worshiped.

Such simplicity, however, was transient. The liturgical heritage of Judaism, the psychological and practical needs of the worshiping group, and the inexorable pressure of ideas and customs in the Mediterranean world, especially in the mystery religions, presaged the development in Christianity, as in other faiths, of ritual and sacrament. How specifically influential the mystery religions were in the formulation of the consequence is a moot matter. Certainly they were the most vital and popularly important religious movements in the social matrix where Christian worship took shape. At many points they were sufficiently akin to Christianity so that their prevalence furnished a favorable preparation for the gospel. They had inculcated a deep sense of sin and a conscious need of personal salvation; they had overpassed national and racial lines and had made religious faith a matter of individual conviction; they had emphasized faith in immortality and the need of assurance concerning it; they had bound their devotees together in mystical societies of brethren fired with propagandist zeal; and they had accentuated the interior nature of religious experience in terms of an, indwelling Presence, through whom human life could be ‘deicized.’ When, therefore, we find them also possessing sacraments, fairly magical in their efficacy -- especially baptisms, whether of water or of blood, and sacred meals that conferred union with the deity -- the query inevitably rises in how far in these regards they influenced Christianity. (See Samuel Angus: The Mystery-Religions and Christianity, for discussion and bibliography)

Whatever may be the solution of this difficult and perhaps insoluble problem, the evidence of the New Testament is clear that an organized cultus, with accompanying ideas of sacramental efficacy, was already in process of formation before the canon closed. Baptism was the normal, if not the indispensable, condition of membership in the church, (I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; Acts 2:37-38; etc.) and so magical an efficacy did some ascribe to it that, at least in Corinth, there were baptisms on behalf of the dead. (I Corinthians 15:29) The profoundest experiences of Christian conversion -- especially remission of sins, (Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21) the death of the old life and the resurrection of the new, (Romans 6:2-4; Colossians 2:12) and incorporation into the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13, 27; Ephesians 4:4-5) -- were associated with baptism. At first the ritual was doubtless figurative, a ceremonial cleansing in water, which was regarded as symbolizing, rather than effecting, the purification of the inner life, and the origin of which lay in the baptism of John and kindred customs rather than in the sacraments of the mystery religions. Paul even thanked God that he himself had baptized none of the Corinthians save two, together with the household of Stephanas, saying, "Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach"; (I Corinthians 1:13-17) in the Fourth Gospel John’s baptism in water is explicitly subordinated to Christ’s baptism in the Holy Spirit; (John 1:33) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews "the teaching of baptisms" is put among the rudimentary principles, to be accepted, indeed, but beyond which those need to go who are pressing on "unto perfection." (Hebrews 6:1-2) This, however, is not the whole story. The Fourth Gospel attributes to Jesus the words, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God"; (John 3:5) the Epistle to Titus says the same thing in other language -- "He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit"; (Titus 3:5) and in the Shepherd of Hermas, which in some of the earliest canons was included in the New Testament, the baptismal water is called "the seal of the Son of God" into which they descend "dead," and out of which they come "alive." (The Shepherd of Hermas, translated by Charles H. Hoole, "The Ninth Similitude," xvi, p. 146) Whether or not the sacramental ideas of the mystery religions directly affected Christianity, the New Testament indicates a budding sacramentalism whose rootage one would less expect to find in Judaism than in the Hellenistic cults.

As for the Lord’s Supper, it began so simply that at first every meal where disciples ate together was a sacred communion, and their ordinary bread and wine were memorials of their Lord’s sacrifice. This led to such disorders, however, at least in the Corinthian church, where, as Paul said, "one is hungry, and another is drunken," (I Corinthians 11:20-22) that the Eucharist was separated from common occasions and became a definite, symbolic act. As to this act’s precise meaning in the first churches, evidence is scarce and decision difficult. The original associations of the Supper were with the Jewish Passover, (I Corinthians 5:7) a corporate communion of God’s people protected by the saving blood of the paschal lamb. That the Eucharist was, therefore, a commemoration (I Corinthians 11:24) followed naturally from its origin. This, however, does not exhaust the meaning of the rite in the New Testament. Alike in the sacred meals of Judaism and of paganism, another idea had from primitive times been dominant -- by eating the sacrificed and dedicated food, union was consummated between the worshiper and his deity. Was this idea in Paul’s mind when he implied that eating of the heathen feasts was a real "communion with demons," and that in the same mystical sense the "cup of the Lord" and the "table of the Lord" conferred on Christians union with Christ? (I Corinthians 10:16-21) Was this the meaning of the Fourth Gospel also when it put on the lips of Jesus words of high sacramental import -- "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him"? (John 6:53-56) At any rate, even within the New Testament the Eucharist, along with baptism, was exalted as an essential element in the new Christian cult and so mystical were some of its suggested interpretations that Principal J. G. Simpson writes, "it must be frankly admitted that . . . none of the explanations which have divided Christendom since the 16th cent., not even the theory of transubstantiation when precisely defined, can be regarded as wholly inconsistent with the language of Scripture." (Closing paragraph of "Eucharist," in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, One Vol. Edition, p. 246)

While the New Testament, therefore, records the development of personal prayer as the habitual maintenance of an interior spiritual communion with the Unseen Friend, it also records the beginning of a new cultus. In place of the synagogue came the church; in place of circumcision came baptism; in place of the temple altars came the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper; and while only the first suggestions of the early Catholic rubric are within the canon, these suggestions are there, presaging, as they are seen in retrospect, the repetition of all the good and evil fortunes that in every age and faith have attended sacramentalism. The subsequent centuries have witnessed endless conflict over the Christian cultus, but one element in the long development of Biblical experience and thought concerning fellowship with God has remained as the common and unifying gain of all -- "Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:6)

No such statement as we have made can adequately portray the experiential meaning of such prayer to New Testament Christians. When, centuries later, Brother Lawrence described prayer as establishing oneself "in a sense of God’s presence by continually conversing with Him," (The Practice of the Presence of God the Best Rule of a Holy Life, "First Conversation.") he was true to the best tradition of the Gospels and Epistles. This interior divine fellowship, when a man fulfilled its conditions, became "in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life." (John 4:14) Prayer was not instructing God concerning human wants, for "your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him." (Matthew 6:8) Prayer was not begging a reluctant deity for his best gifts, as though he were an unjust judge or a surly neighbor in bed with his children unwilling to arise and answer a call for help -- although if patience in prayer could accomplish its end even in such cases, how much more with the righteous and merciful God! (See Luke 11:5-13; 18:1-8) Prayer was first of all the maintenance of an habitual spiritual companionship "I am not alone, because the Father is with me." (John 16:32)

From this central fountainhead new meanings streamed into practices that had long been traditional with praying people. Prayer in the New Testament church was, in part, a form of spiritual self-discipline, associated at times with ascetic usages such as fasting. (Acts 14:23; I Corinthians 7:5) Prayer was a process of purification from which forgiven souls emerged cleansed from old stains of unpardoned guilt. (I John 1:9; 5:16) Prayer was an appeal to the divine arbitrament against the condemnation and derision of the world, a protestation of innocence against the false judgment of men, an appeal to the future against the mistaken present. (Acts 4:24-31; II Thessalonians 3:1-2) Prayer was thanks giving and praise, the joyful overflow of gratitude and hope, even amid difficult or desperate circumstance. (Acts 16:25; Philemon, vss. 4-5; Colosians 1:12; I Thessalonians 5:18) Prayer was a means of securing divine guidance, so that a man, not only in general but in particular surrendering himself to superhuman direction, could know God’s will and do it. (Acts 1:24-26; I Timothy 5:5) Prayer was the affirmation of confident trust, the centering of attention on faith, not fear, on assets rather than liabilities, on the help of God rather than the troubles of life. (Cf. Ephesians 1:3-15; Hebrews 13:6) Prayer was a potent force which released divine power not only for spiritual peace but for bodily health, and which at times wrought miracles of healing. (James 5:14-15. See Alexis Carrel: Man the Unknown, pp. 147-150, for a modern scientific confirmation) Prayer was the overflow of an unselfish love seeking the welfare of one’s friends. (Colossians 4:12; James 5:16)

All such traditional usages of prayer, however, are in the New Testament illumined by a central sun. The believer lives in God and God in him; the soul has immediate access into the divine presence and is, indeed, the very temple in which God’s Spirit dwells; so that, whatever else may be granted or withheld in prayer, the sustaining companionship of the Unseen Friend is constant and assured. In this regard St. Augustine truly reflected the early Christian faith at its best -- "Give me Thine own self, without which, though Thou shouldst give me all that ever Thou hast made, yet could not my desires be satisfied." (As quoted by Mary Wilder Tileston: Prayers Ancient and Modern [new and revised ed.], p. 275)