Expanding Our Vision of Prayer
A book review of Praying with Ancient Israel: Exploring the Theology of Prayer in the Old Testament (ACU Press, 2015) In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray, he first responds by giving them a prayer and then additional instruction and teaching about prayer (Luke 11:1-13). I find this helpful when engaging any study on prayer. Prayer is not foremost a topic to be studied and discussed nor a discipline to be mastered. Prayer is first and necessarily an actual engagement with God and a means of living in relationship with the Divine. In short: prayer is part of a lived experienced of faith before it becomes an area of scholarly and academic pursuit.
Praying with Ancient Israel: Exploring the Theology of Prayer in the Old Testament recognizes this tension early and often. Praying with Ancient Israel presents a collection of nine essays by nine scholars exploring theologies of prayer expressed throughout different portions of the Old Testament. With chapter titles like “Prayer in the Pentateuch,” “Prayer in the Psalms,” and “Prayer in Daniel,” its structure is very clear. In each essay, the author determines a working definition of prayer, traces the trajectory of prayer through the assigned portion of Scripture, offers a number of different exegetical and theological reflections upon that examination, and provides some brief instruction on how their study might inform Christians and Christian communities in the practice of prayer. 
Editors Phillip G. Camp and Tremper Longman III express two desired outcomes for this book. First, that the essays in this book might contribute to the scholarly study of the theologies of prayer in the Old Testament. Second, that the essays in this book might help Christian believers better understand the practice of prayer and their own relationship with God.
Regarding the first desired outcome, I found the exegetical and theological insights provided to engage both the particular contours of the texts discussed and the larger scholarly community. These essays drew me deeper into the texts discussed and illuminated their meaning in thought-provoking ways. However, I am a working preacher and not primarily an Old Testament scholar or theologian. As such, I am much more interested in the second desired outcome—does this book help Christian believers better understand the practice of prayer and their own relationships with God?
The short answer to this question is “yes.” I found the essays contained in this volume to provide a number of insights that have influenced both my personal practice and theology of prayer, as well as opened up some new avenues for further reflection and opportunities for growth. Although there are many more, two examples will suffice for this review:
First, Timothy Willis’ exploration of recorded prayers in the Deuteronomistic History demonstrates how these prayers might function as models in both the content that is recorded, and in the posture of humility that is portrayed. In particular, Willis argues that the recorded prayers of Israelite kings would have been viewed by pious Israelites as models for their own personal devotion. This leads me to consider: how can those of us in leadership positions who desire to teach others how to pray embody a similar posture in prayer? How are we teaching and instructing by example?
Elaine A. Phillips, in her essay “Prayer in the Wisdom Literature,” traces the relationship between a person’s character and their prayer life through the book of Proverbs. Among other things, Proverbs cautions against wickedness, foolishness, and the desire for riches. All of these can prevent one from enjoying the delight of living according to God’s wisdom, which is characterized by listening and responding to God. Those who call upon God, but do not listen to God’s wisdom, may not know how to discern God’s response to their prayers. This leads me to ponder: how does the practice of prayer influence the ethical dimensions of our lives and vice versa?
One of my initial frustrations with this book stems from the lack of an agreed upon definition of prayer throughout the essays. Instead of offering one definition, each author defines prayer anew in each essay—and not all of these definitions agree with one another! However, by the end of the book, I found this diversity of definition regarding prayer and the diversity of theologies presented to be one of the book’s greatest strengths. In this sense, the subtitle of the book—Exploring the Theology of Prayer in the Old Testament—is a bit misleading. The essays included in this book do not uncover THE theology of prayer in the Old Testament, but many different theologies of prayer and many different expressions of prayer.
Praying with Ancient Israel extends an invitation to explore and discover many of the different theologies of prayer expressed in the Old Testament. By engaging a critical examination of prayer throughout these texts, it uncovers an expansive understanding of prayer. I imagine that thoughtful students of Scripture and faithful pray-ers who read this book will discover, as I did, that they will not walk away with a clear and precise definition of the theology of prayer in the Old Testament. Such a definition would not reflect the variety and nuance of texts under discussion. Rather, they will encounter an expansive examination of prayer that reflects the expansive nature of the God with whom we commune when we pray.
 Although the books of the Old Testament are included both the Jewish and Christian canons of Scriptures, the authors of this book are writing from a Christian perspective and primarily for a Christian readership.
Special thanks to ACU Press for providing a complimentary review copy of Praying with Ancient Israel.
Header image by Karim D. Ghantous. IMG_ 5786. June 20, 2013. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.