a Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Three years ago I wrote two Bible study guides, Prayers of the Old Testament and Prayers of the New Testament. Last night I had the privilege of visiting a home group that has been using the Old Testament guide for the past couple of months.
Lots of Jews and Christians understand that the psalms are prayers, and some people find it helpful to use the words of the psalms as their own prayers. Many people, however, don’t know there are several dozen other prayers in the Bible. So when I wrote the eight studies in Prayers of the Old Testament, I wanted to introduce individuals and small groups to some of those prayers that are outside the psalms.
As I wrote the guide, I was particularly concerned about two things. I wanted to encourage people to actually pray the words of prayers in the Bible. I had always found benefit from doing this. I began with praying the Psalms and Paul’s prayers in the epistles, and later I prayed other prayers as well. I love Samuel’s simple prayer in 1 Samuel 3:10: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” I find myself saying Samuel’s words from time to time. And Jeremiah’s passionate prayers of anguish (such as Jeremiah 12:1-4, 15:15-18 and 20:7-13) have given me words for my own prayers many times.
My second priority in writing the guide was to help people see that God invites us to bring all our emotions, pretty and not so pretty, into God’s presence. This is true in the Old Testament as well as in the New, and the psalms and many other prayers in the Bible give witness to this encouraging and life-sustaining reality.
When I visited the group last night I asked if one of the eight prayers in the guide had particularly jumped out for each individual there, and I wondered if the studies had encouraged people to pray those actual words.
Each person shared which of the prayers had moved them the most. One woman was surprised by Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:22-53 because it is so unexpected in the Old Testament. Another woman liked Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the whale in Jonah 2. The group had spent two sessions on Habakkuk’s prayer in Habakkuk 3, trying to tease out the specifics of Habakkuk's argument with God in the three chapters of the book. Several group members talked about the power of Habakkuk’s words at the end of chapter 3, where Habakkuk affirms his trust in God even though God was going to destroy Israel at the hand of a people more evil than Israel.
One of the men said that he always thought you were supposed to make yourself stop feeling negative emotions. He found the prayers in Jeremiah and Habakkuk to be transforming for him, because he saw that we don’t have to suppress negative emotions in God’s presence. Instead, we can be honest about them and ask God to meet us in them.
Several members of the group talked about a discussion they had had on anger. Is anger always a negative emotion? Aren’t there times that anger is actually a righteous emotion? They said that as they discussed that question, they realized how hard it is to identify righteous anger in the midst of all the other kinds of anger we expereince, and then how hard it is to know what to do with righteous anger.
The study guide grew out of my practice of praying scripture, but no one in the group had used the words of the Old Testament prayers for their own prayers. But all of them had experienced growth in prayer. So I was delighted.
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.