Prayer Tips: The Word

In First Kings 8 we see King Solomon lead in corporate prayer and what stands out about his prayer is that it is Solomon pleading for what the Lord has already promised. He uses language like “keep for your servant David my father what you have promised” (verse 25) and “let your word be confirmed, which you have spoken” (verse 26). This is what the Puritans referred to as “pleading the promises”, a way of praying which brought the person praying closest to the will of God.

To be sure, this ought to be the habit and heart of every Christian’s prayer life, pleading the promises of God and praying according to God’s will. 1 John 5:14-15 tells us, “that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” What does it mean to pray according to God’s will? It means to pray according to the intentions of God’s heart. Of course, there is God’s secret will of decree that we can’t always know. Nonetheless we do have God’s revealed will, his word - be it His promises, His character, His warnings, or His threats. Here then is a solid epistemological ground from which we can boldly approach the throne of grace.

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) makes the staggering but obvious point that although God, “is everywhere present, yet he is invisible… the great Architect is concealed. As far as reason can lead us, we seem to be shut out from all intercourse with our Maker; and whether prayer is permitted would remain for ever doubtful, were it not for divine revelation.”[1] In other words, how foolish it would be to presume to know the will of God if he had never spoken and yet still offer up prayers with the expectation of divine approval! No wise man would dare come before a king and make a request unaware of whether or not the king was sympathetic to such a plea. “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right” (Proverbs 16:13).

And yet we do know that our God is ever attentive to his children’s requests, but we only know this because he has spoken; we only know this because of his word. Johannes G. Vos (1903-1983), in his excellent commentary on The Westminster Larger Catechism, says there is only one way to know how to pray in a God glorifying way, “and that is by studying the Bible, which is the revealed will of God. Apart from the light of Scripture, men have always gone astray and thought that many things would glorify God which are really contrary to God’s will and even hateful to God… when men deviate from the written Word, they will commit all kinds of errors in the name of the divine glory. We cannot pray aright unless we also study the Bible aright.” [2]

The best prayers then are those most conformed to the heart of God. Which means, that the best prayers are those prayers saturated in Scripture, baptized in the word of God. O. Palmer Robertson in surely right when he says that “the more closely a prayer is framed according to the wording of the Lord himself, the more certain will be God’s answer to that prayer. He has proven himself faithful to his word across the centuries. Not one word he has spoken has ever fallen to the ground. He delights in his own truth ‘re-presented’ to him in the form of the prayers of his people. He will hear and he will answer according to his Word.”[3]


This, of course, has implications for how we read Scripture. If our prayers should be filled with God’s word and as closely conformed to God’s word as possible, then certainly our reading of God’s word should likewise be as prayerful as possible. We must read the Bible on our knees, as it were. But when we pray upon our knees, we don’t mean a mere physical posture; we pray in spiritual submission to God’s word – we have humbly bowed ourselves under God’s word to request only that which our King has desired. Is this not the heart of Psalm 20:4 where we’re given the benediction that God “may grant you your heart's desire and fulfill all your plans!” Far from the name-it-and-claim-it theology of late 20th century America, this is language describing the heart of a precant who’s will is conformed to the will of God. A man who knows God’s word and believes God’s word will increasingly find himself praying in accordance with God’s word.

This also means that we should work hard at this; there should be, over time, an evidence of growth in how we pray. “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). Praying biblically saturated prayers takes work, concentration, and a keen attentiveness to what God has said. And let the obvious be stated: praying biblically saturated prayers means being someone who is himself saturated in the Bible. It means opening up and reading the Bible, daily meditating upon its life-giving and life-changing truths.

Speaking to young candidates for the ministry, pastor and Amherst College president Heman Humphry (1779-1861) gave weighted insistence to the importance of Scripture in our prayers, especially in the leading of corporate prayer. Listen and take to heart his wise and still timely counsel:

“I confess it appears to me, that many of our young ministers preach much better than they pray. And may not the reason be that preaching has some how come to be thought a much more important branch of public worship than prayer? But is this a right view of the subject? Our fathers did not think so. They laid great stress upon appropriate fervent prayer, and were remarkable for the apt and free use of scripture in their prayers. They seemed to think, that the more of the Bible they could bring in the better. I hope that your prayers will be eminently biblical, as well as fervent, comprehensive, and appropriate. Nothing so enriches the devotional exercises of the sanctuary as the language of the inspired writers. Nothing breathes into these exercises so much of the breath of spiritual life. Nothing elevates an assembly of devout worshippers so near to the gate of heaven. You cannot study the word of God too diligently with reference to this particular object.”[4]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Archibald Alexander, Practical Truths (Odom Publications, Keyser WV), p.36

[2] Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, edited by G.I. Williamson (P&R Publishing, 2002), p. 531

[3] O. Palmer Robertson in his introduction to Matthew Henry’s, A Way To Pray (Banner of Truth, 2010), p. xvii

[4] Rev. H. Humphrey, “XV. Public Prayer” in The Pulpit Cyclopaedia and Christian Minister’s Companion (New York: S. Appleton & Company, 1851), 491-492; quote found in Albert N. Martin, Pastoral Theology, Volume 3: The Man of God: His Shepherding, Evangelizing, and Counseling Labors (Trinity Pulpit Press, Montville, NJ, 2020), p. 326-327


Stephen Unthank