In all of the Bible there are so many outstanding prayers. While yet at Biola, many years ago, I did a study in a class on prayer for Dr. Mitchell. I found thousands of verses on prayer, or which were prayers themselves, and most of the prayers were answered. A few of the exceptions were those offered while in obvious sin, like Saul did often when he was king. But the record of answered prayer is so great that it almost defies imagination. God hears our prayers, and Jesus tells us that now that we have the Holy Spirit living within us, the record of answered prayer is truer to even a greater degree. Jesus repeats his promise at least 3 times: “And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23, 24). Whatsoever, Jesus says. And we are not to ask Jesus, but rather the Father who loved us enough to send us the Son, and to give us the forever gift of the Holy Spirit. But who in the Bible prayed the greatest prayer? I am going to give you seven possibilities of the greatest prayer, but this is by no means a definitive answer, rather it is an opinion of someone who delights in the sovereign record of God answering his children.
First, it seems very hard to beat the intensity of the prayer of Jonah, answered so affirmatively by our Lord. Jonah, a type of Christ, in that he spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the great fish, as our Lord spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the earth. But for all of that, I find Jonah to be a weak type of Christ in that he was an unwilling witness to the Gentiles in contrast to our Lord who came as a babe in the manger that he might grow into a willing sacrifice for us. Even in the end of Jonah, we find him watching the great city of Nineveh, hoping to see the judgments of God poured out. What a difference there was in our Lord, who came the first time in the guise as a mere servant, that we might be found ready for the second time he comes, as our Lord and our Master.
However, when I imagine myself in Jonah’s position, somewhere in the belly of the fish, it is easy to imagine the desperation of his prayer. Could any prayer be more desperate? I want to note for the record that God hears prayers even when we are disobedient. How often I would remonstrate the incautious Christian, who sins and then cries out to God! I would exclaim that you should not use God as a crutch, but that is exactly what Jonah did do—he disobeyed himself into a great quandary, and turning to God he sought deliverance. How I ought to learn of the mercies of our Father! He is willing, more than willing, to be our Father even when we are the naughty child. He loves us with a boundless love, and he does not stop being our Father when we are not following him. What a great comfort it is to know that God hears us even when we have been disobedient!
Of course the book of Daniel suggests two prayers that could easily be nominated as the greatest prayers of the Bible. Daniel in the lion’s den suggests awesome prayer—just think, Daniel spent all night with those lions, for all we know, staring at their dinner. What did he pray? The same with the three in the fiery furnace. They at least are more open about their prayer. God is able to deliver us, they declare, but whether he does or not, we will not bow down to your image. I connect these two prayers on the basis of their both being commands of the King to worship other than the true God, something that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all refused to do. How refreshing it is to learn of men of God who would not leave their faith because of new kingly morality! They were willing to stand on principle, even if it meant their deaths. How unlike the men of faith are compared to American Christians today, who seem to be willing to be anything, and follow the winds of heathen morality wherever it may lead.
It seems to me that in scoring their prayers, Daniel and company earn some extra points. Theirs was not disobedience, like Jonah. Rather their aim was to remain faithful to the most high God, whatever the cost. Their cry, for all of that, was meaningful, loud, and plaintive. They needed God’s intercession, and they needed it immediately. Their prayers, like that of Jonah, were necessarily short, abrupt, and to the point. “God help me!” Theirs was not a flowery prayer, built on hours of praising God, but rather on the needs of the next few seconds. Daniel and his friends stand in contrast to Jonah here, for we are told that they frequently prayed, and being trained as they were, undoubtedly had learned all the right ways to express gratitude and praise to God. But, like Jonah, the needs of the moment swallowed up all the needs to think about and praise and thank God. Could any of them prayed anything but, “God help me!”
David gives us the next prayer, a prayer that I think we dare not forget. It is the prayer of David for forgiveness, when his sin became known before all of Israel, before God, and all of his deceit became exposed by the light of day. It comes to us in Psalm 51. “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin,” David cries aloud to God. Now he had sinned, definitely in the murder of Uriah, but as much in the adultery with Bathsheba, and perhaps against the nation of Israel itself, because he involved his general in the murder plot, and tried to hide his behavior with intrigue and deceit. But what does David say? “Against thee, and thee only have I sinned.” There is a sense in which all sin that we do is against God, principally and chiefly. Thus, it was altogether proper for David to say, against thee, and thee only have I sinned. Leaping ahead in progressive revelation, long before it was revealed to us in teaching, David exclaims for God to take not his Holy Spirit from him, but to restore unto him the joy of his salvation. All of which God was more than willing to grant.
David’s prayer is a different sort than Jonah’s or Daniel’s. They were praying for their lives, that God might intercede for them. In Jonah’s case we have seen that he prayed to God in spite of his disobedience while Daniel prayed through to God with his obedience. Jonah did indeed pray that God might deliver him from the “hell” of being in the fish, perhaps metaphorically alluding to that greater hell also. But Jonah never seems to have a deep sense of his own corruption like David does. Jonah never seems to face the fact that he is in deep sin, but that is okay as we might not expect an early prophet to understand that which is not yet made apparent. David understands his folly, and I might expect that understanding to dismay and dishearten him, but quite the contrary happens. David looks at the mercies and love of God, and wants restoration, much like we would when we sin. What a joy it is to know that our Father loves us so!
The next prayer is that of Elijah while on Mount Carmel, and it simply is a spectacular prayer! Can you just imagine Elijah? He went to Ahab over 3 years before, and proclaimed to Ahab that there would be no more rain, “except by my word”, and then he disappears from Ahab. Ahab probably did not think too much about the crazy prophet dressed in a camel’s coat, hairy face, and perhaps a demented manner. But as the years passed and rain did not, did not, come, Ahab must have had second thoughts. In fact, the Bible tells us that Ahab scoured the land for this crazy man, this man that dared to face the king and stop the rain. At last, Ahab finds Elijah (not knowing it was the other way around—Elijah had found Ahab), and Elijah at last gets his confrontation. Summoning all the prophets of Baal, some 850 prophets, he takes them to the summit of Mt. Carmel. There he challenges them to get their god to answer by fire, and what a delight he must have had. I can quite imagine a line being drawn on the side of the mountain, with 850 prophets dancing and cutting themselves, and working themselves into a frenzy, trying to get the attention of Baal. What is Elijah doing all of this time? I can picture him by himself, on the other side of the line, lying down with a piece of straw in his mouth, watching the prophets dance their jig. The prophets of Baal work for hours, and Elijah mocks them. Then at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah rouses himself, lays the wood carefully, drenches it in water (where did they get the water?) three times, and then lays out his prayer to God. “Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.”
Oh, it was such a different prayer than those I have spoken about before! Elijah was engaging in something we term intercessory prayer—praying for others. Jonah’s prayer, and Daniel’s too, were used for others, but I think they were too caught up in the moment to worry about others. They were praying for themselves, but Elijah is praying for someone else besides himself—he is praying for the whole nation of Israel, and through the power of God, is about to pull off the biggest revival in the history of Israel. “Oh, that the people might know that you are the Lord God.” His prayer is built not on himself, but rather on God’s revealing himself to a lost nation. Does God answer? By the fires of heaven, in perhaps the most vivid and dramatic answer to prayer, Elijah has his answer. Elijah has yet to learn that God is found more often in the “gentle whisper”. It is enough for Elijah to know that his God is a God who answers by fire. I think in Elijah we see time to prepare that the others might not have had. The emergency was upon David and Jonah, but Elijah has three and one half years to pray, to get his thoughts marshalled for the big day. Thus, Elijah can teach us that preparatory prayer can be essential when we want to be used in the great event.
The next prayers I have selected to review are also intercessory prayers just as Elijah’s, and perhaps because they are prayers for others, we might deem them as a bit greater. The fifth prayer came from David’s son, Solomon. It came after the dedication of the temple, which Solomon was years in building. I think it must have been, like in the time of Elijah, a time of great revival. Actually, the first prayer of Solomon is also famous, and ought not to be skipped. Solomon prays not for riches, or wealth, or honor but for wisdom to govern the people of Israel. This prayer is actually done in front of the tabernacle, and it is years later, at the completion of the temple, that Solomon makes his longer prayer, again an intercessory prayer. Again and again, he represents the sinful people of Israel to God, asking God for mercies and justice and forgiveness in what may be the longest prayer of the Old Testament. Solomon, in both of these prayers, is a type of the Christ to come. Indeed, such a priestly prayer for people comes not again until John 17, the Lord’s prayer. In these prayers Solomon gives us a picture of the one who “ever lives to intercede for us.”
If Solomon’s prayer is long, the answer is also long, and I know of no answer in the Bible to compare to it. God seems to take each part of Solomon’s prayer and provide a specific answer to it. He famously provides the verses which shall yet guide Israel in the future, the near future if my guess is right. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” God promises mercy towards the repentant, toward the humble. Blessed are the meek, says Jesus, and this is the starting point of our relationship with God.
What an encouragement this prayer of Solomon is to those of us who pray for lists. Solomon must have figured out all of the needs of his people, and prayed for them specifically. God answers those prayers in detail, giving us all encouragement as the things that we see in our lives mount up into lists. We have a God who knows our needs, and when we are interceding for others, are we not taking on the very image of the One who loved us and gave himself for us?
The sixth prayer is the prayer of a great prayer warrior Nehemiah. I would remind you of how much of a prayer warrior he is, for in the beginning of Nehemiah we find him mourning and fasting and praying for the nation of Israel. He was very conscious of the sins of Israel, confessing them before God, and being mindful of the fact that God would be faithful in restoring Jerusalem. So it is not that Nehemiah is not a great warrior in prayer, he is that and more. But his great prayer is not long, and is but practically instantaneous. Nehemiah, being sad, appears one day before his king. The king, seeing his sadness, asks Nehemiah why. Nehemiah begins to tell the king why he is said, and the king asks plainly what is your request? Nehemiah does not even record his short prayer, merely telling us, “so, I prayed to the Lord of heaven.” Did he take a break from the question, and tell the king I will get back to you on that? Not likely. Very likely instead, he said a short prayer to God, which may again have been as short as “God help me.” It was his greatest prayer! Like Jonah, like Daniel, and like all the others, God answered his prayer, and brought the people of Israel back from their captivity.
But the seventh prayer, the prayer that I think overshadows all the others is found in a prayer of our Lord, almost his last prayer before dying on the cross. He gazes out at mankind through his bloody eyes, his marred face, and his broken body hanging on the cross, and declares, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Can a prayer possible be greater than that which was so given before you and I were ever in existence? We are born into the world, and if we have received the grace of God, we have been reborn. We lived and walked in our sin, and how gracious is the God who hanging on the cross, cried out for our forgiveness. Never shall there be a prayer to top this one.
Remember the first six prayers? Each of them answered, and many of them in dire circumstances. But without the coming and giving of our Savior it would amount to nothing. Thanks be to God for sending his son into the world, that we might be forgiven for we know not what we do. Thanks be to God for restoring us that we might walk, and fellowship, and have our prayers set before him. Let me end this piece with the reminder of Revelation where God takes all the prayers of the saints of all time, and burns them in a sweet smelling offering in heaven itself. This means that God takes your prayers, precious saint, and saves them. They are so important to him. He listens to your every word for your sonship is important to him, just as a caring father might do for his son. We can pray. We can have confidence. We can come knowing that he hears us, that he knows our hurts, that he shares our pain, and that he is indeed our loving Father. For the prayer of Jesus is answered, and we have been forgiven.
Lessons for our prayer lives:
a. it is okay to pray expecting help even when you have been disobedient
b. it is comforting to realize when we are hurting God is listening
2. Daniel and friends
a. standing for what is right definitely gets God’s attention
b. refusing to do wrong, even when we do not know if God will protect us
c. praying steadfastly in other times builds the character to stand when challenged
d. all of them often prayed together, and gained strength through their community
a. know that we have a forgiving and merciful God
b. we can come with confidence and confession
c. our deepest shame is known about plainly to God, and he chooses to love us anyway
a. God is our strength especially when we are one against many
b. praying ahead of time builds our ability to pray effectively during stress times
a. there is great wisdom in seeking the welfare of others while in prayer
b. detailed prayer offered in faith can get detailed answers
a. being a prayer warrior puts you in a place where God uses you
b. building lists of prayers helps you focus sharply on God and his provision
c. prayer before you get to the emergency is fruitful
a. we are not worthless; Jesus gave his all that we might be forgiven
b. we often do not know what we are doing, but we do have access to one who does
c. even when we were against him, still he prayed for our forgiveness