Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Prayer: 1 Word in English; A Bunch in Hebrew & Greek

Prayer Between Friends
Cultivating our friendship with God
Earl F. Palmer
Fleming H. Revell Company, Tarrytown, New York 1991

At this time a group of Jewish rabbis translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, because the majority of the Jews in Palestine and throughout the Mediterranean basin needed to have their Scriptures in the language commonly in use throughout the world. The Greek text these scholars produced is known as the Septuagint because, according to tradition, seventy rabbis became involved in the work.

The Septuagint had a profound effect on the New Testament Greek vocabulary. For example, the classical Greek word for "pray" at that time, euchomai, literally meant "to strike a bargain" with deity and described making a religious vow or a request acceptable to the gods of Greek mythology. This limited understanding served the purpose well in places like Job 22:27 (italics mine). "You will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows," and the translator of Malachi 1:14 also used euchomai, "Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it..." (italics mine).

But when the Septuagint rabbis wanted to more fully translate the rich meaning of the Old Testament word for "pray," they had to coin a new word, proseuchomai. The prefix pros means "to" or "toward." Adding the prefix to the classical word shifted the focus of the meaning away from the act of praying toward the One to whom we pray. In this way euchomai is reduced in status to the rank of a mild synonym, except where it is used in its generic sense of "vow."

The New Testament writers carefully followed the lead of the Septuagint rabbis. For example, they used the classical term in Acts 18:18, where Luke speaks of Paul cutting his hair because "he was under a vow." However, the word used overwhelmingly for "pray" in the New Testament is proseuchomai. "Pray toward" is the intent of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, " 'When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in the way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name....' " (Matthew 6:7-9).

In addition other Greek words are joined together to describe the same five kinds of prayer found in the Old Testament vocabulary. First, there are the praise words. Chara means "rejoice," as in Paul's instructions to the Christians at Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). And eucharisteo, translated "thanksgiving," is used when Paul says to the Philippian Christians, "I thank my God every time I remember you" (Philippians 1:3). This word has a robust, songlike character to it, very much like the song words of the Old testament Hebrew.

Two asking words for prayer appear throughout the New Testament. Aiteo means "to want something, to ask." This is the word Jesus gave to his disciples when he said, " 'On that day you will ask in my name....' " (John 16:26). An even stronger verb, erotao, means to ask or beg. This word was used by the Greek visitors who told Philip, " 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus' " (John 12:21). Paul used this word in the deeply moving prayer narrative about his thorn in the flesh, "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this..." (2Corinthians 12:8)

The Greek prayer word krazo literally means "to cry" and conveys the idea of crying for help. The Apostle Paul uses this word in writing to the Roman Christians, "...When we cry 'Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:15, 16). And the same "Abba! Father!" cry re-echoes in Paul's letter to the Christians in Galatia (Galatians 4:6).

The Greek prayer word proskuneo also strongly echoes the Old Testament. It means "to bow" and is used in a decisive way in the fourth Gospel, where it is translated by the English word "worship": "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him" (John 4:23).

We'll mention two more words that are used for prayer. Epikaleo means "to call and express confession." This appears in the story of Ananias of Damascus, when the Lord told him about Saul of Tarsus, who was on Straight Street, waiting for deliverance from the blindness that had struck him when the Lord spoke to him on the Damascus road. In response to the Lord's instructions, Ananias said, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority...to bind all who invoke ["who call upon," epikaleo] your name" (Acts 9:13, 14). Finally, we have deomai, which is used to express specific prayer requests. Paul uses this word in writing to the Christians at Philippi, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:6).

As we observed in our examination of the Old Testament prayer words, vocabulary has no life of its own, apart from its use in sentences and paragraphs. If we are to understand what prayer means in the Bible, we must watch the words as they connect with life. When we see people pray and when we listen closely to our Lord as he teaches his followers about prayer, we will learn the meaning of prayer and understand it as the language of our friendship with him.

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