A Biblical Theology of Corporate Prayer
Biblical theology seeks to uncover the theology contained in the Bible itself, tracing the development of the Bible’s themes through redemptive history in its canonical shape. This brief, inexhaustive consideration of the theme of corporate prayer will follow the salvation historical storyline as it unfolds from the Law, Prophets, and Writings of the Old Testament into the Gospels and Acts, the Letters, and the Apocalypse in the New. It will then offer several lessons for the Christian and the local church.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis deals mainly with patriarchs and their families, and so we do not find much material on corporate prayer until the people of God grow from a family to a nation. Nonetheless, we do see that the members of Noah’s family are saved through the favor that God shows to one righteous man, Noah. We also see that God promises to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham. The salvation provided on the ark for the few based on their relationship with the one and the promises made to Abraham, first for a nation and then for the world, point to the covenantal structures that typify how God always relates to those whom he will save: First, the way of redemption will always be established through a mediator. Second, God always uses a mediator to save a people. The path of redemption in this world is not for lone, vainglorious explorers; it’s traveled by pilgrims locked arm in arm, joined together both for the sake of giving and receiving aid on the journey but also, more than that, because their very identities are now joined by God.
Noah interceded between God and the people, as did Abraham. And it’s this idea of intercession which gives life to the very idea of corporate prayer. Corporate prayer exists, in other words, because God has determined to grant his shalom-restoring covenants through a mediator and to a people.
In Exodus the people collectively groan (2:23) and worship (4:31; 12:27), and we begin to get descriptions of what they said and how they prayed. A detailed account of what “Moses and the people” sang in prayer to Yahweh is recounted in Exodus 15, after the Lord has delivered Israel from Egypt. This is something of a spontaneous example of worship. Definite patterns are introduced into Israel’s corporate life at Sinai when they receive the Ten Commandments. Israel is not explicitly instructed to pray on the Sabbath, though it is likely that they were intended to use their time of rest meditating upon Yahweh’s acts, expressing trust in him, and petitioning his continued mercy. (Psalm 92 seems to have been composed for the Sabbath.)
The covenantal context of corporate prayer—the stage set through Noah and Abraham—continues with Moses and the Levitical priesthood. In addition to Moses’ prayer with and for the people in Exodus 15, it’s worth noticing Moses’ acts of intercession for the people when God threatened to destroy them entirely, even though it was not a “corporate prayer,” per se (Ex. 32:11-13). As we often see in prayers recorded in the Bible, Moses appeals to the fact that God has tied his name to his people, thereby binding his glory before the onlooking nations to his people’s salvation. In Leviticus, the high priest is instructed to pray what amounts to a representative prayer confessing the sins of all the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21). In addition, all Israelite males are to appear before Yahweh thrice yearly for holy convocations (Lev. 23). The “Psalms of Ascent” (120–34) were apparently sung as the people went up to Jerusalem for various festivals. Once the Psalms were written, many of them were probably prayed and sung by the people on Sabbaths and other occasions of rejoicing before Yahweh (Deut. 16:11).
Joshua intercedes for the people when Achan sins (Josh. 7:6–9), the people cry out to Yahweh when they find themselves oppressed by other nations in Judges (Judg. 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6–7, etc.). Samuel intercedes for the nation when they want a king (1 Sam. 8) and reminds them of the way the Lord answered their prayers in the days of the Judges (1 Sam. 12:10–11); and the people urge Samuel to pray for them (12:19), which he promises to do as he says that Yahweh will not forsake them “for his great name’s sake” (12:22–23).
The years of David’s reign seem to have been a fertile period of corporate prayer, as the sweet Psalmist of Israel, who receives the blessing of a covenant from Yahweh, gave much of the Messiah’s Prayer Book, the collection of Psalms, to the nation (see, e.g., the psalm in 1 Chron. 16). Solomon also leads the nation in prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8). Elijah prays a public prayer in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36–37), but due to the selective nature of these narratives much of Israel’s ordinary experience is passed over with little comment.
Commentary on the storyline that runs from Genesis through Kings comes in prophetic books such as Isaiah, through whom Yahweh declares that he does not listen to faithless prayer (Isa 1:15); Yahweh works for those who wait for him (64:4), those who tremble at his word (66:2).
When we look to the OT Writings, we find a great deal on corporate prayer, particularly in the Psalms spoken from the perspective of a first person plural (“we”) narrator, such as Psalm 44. Not every Psalm is explicitly messianic, of course, but David’s predominance over the Psalter, the messianic and Edenic connotations in Psalms 1 and 2, and the way the New Testament authors place the Psalms into the mouth of Jesus, which puts the appeals to the clean hands of a righteous man in a whole new light, are all hints that the Psalms must be prayed and sung by God’s people as they identify with a righteous covenantal mediator (see Heb. 2:10-18; 5:5-10).
Writing after the exile, the Chronicler highlights Jehoshaphat’s prayer and Yahweh’s answering deliverance (2 Chron. 20), an event not recounted in Kings. Other post-exilic writings also showcase corporate prayers, sometimes with fasting, called for by Esther (Esth. 4:16), led by Ezra (Ezra 8:21–23; 9:1–15), Nehemiah, and Daniel (prayed on behalf of but perhaps not in the presence of the people, Neh 1:4–11; Dan. 9:1–19). Ezra’s prayer appears to result in corporate repentance (Ezra 10), and the book of Nehemiah describes a corporate prayer confessing sin in response to the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:1–38). Interestingly, the prayers in Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9 are not only confessions of sin, they are themselves exercises in biblical theology as the narrative of Israel’s history is rehearsed and interpreted in light of statements made in the Pentateuch (esp. Lev. and Deut.). An intricate celebration of praise and thanksgiving marks the dedication of the wall (Neh. 12).
Having taken a cursory glance at when corporate prayer happens in the Old Testament, we can point to a consistent emphasis in these pleas: that Yahweh would act for the sake of his great name, that he would glorify himself, and that he would do this by saving Israel through the judgment of their enemies. Surely, it’s significant as well that the post-exilic Chronicler’s genealogies culminate in the person of David (1 Chron. 10:14) and that his mediating, messianic figure, of all the ancient heroes, seems to loom largest at the close of Old Testament history.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
When we come to the New Testament, biblical history begins anew with the birth of a son of David and Abraham (Matt. 1:1), who will eventually plead before the Father to keep his disciples from the evil one, to sanctify them in truth, and to make them one (John 17:15-21). This mediator of a new covenant taught not just individuals but a people to pray. After all, they are united under one Father (“Our Father”) and were to ask not just for their own bread and deliverance from temptation and evil, but for one another’s (“Give us …lead us…deliver us…,” Matt. 6:9–13).
After the Day of Pentecost, the early church devoted itself, among other things, to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We have another corporate prayer that rehearses biblical theology in Acts 4:24–30, and a corporate prayer meeting is held as the people plead for Peter’s release—a request the Lord grants (12:12–17). Corporate prayer and fasting also leads to the setting apart and sending out of Paul and Barnabas (13:1–3).
Paul states regulations for the behavior of men and women in corporate prayer in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and he asks the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians to pray for his ministry (Rom. 15:30; Eph. 6:19; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3–4; 1 Thess. 5:25). Among other things, corporate prayer should always be done in a manner that builds up the church (1 Cor. 14:16-17). He also instructs Timothy to lead the church in Ephesus to pray for all men, especially kings and those in high positions, and this is to be done without anger or quarrelling (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8).
In the book of Revelation the saints who have gone before are corporately petitioning the Father to avenge their blood (Rev. 6:9–11). The prayers of the saints are incense before the throne of God (8:1–4), to which God responds with judgment upon his enemies (8:5–13). The church responds to the Revelation of Jesus Christ with the corporate prayer, “Come!” (22:17).
WHAT THIS THEOLOGY TEACHES US
When we look closely at these corporate prayers throughout the Old and New Testaments, we see much more than there is space here to discuss. In terms of what the saints are praying for, several things can be noted. First, it is God’s sovereign power that summons forth prayer (see, e.g., God addressed as sovereign in corporate prayer in Acts 4:24 and Rev. 6:10, ESV). People pray to God because they believe that he is mighty to save, able to change the course of events, and willing to respond to the prayers of his people. Second, we often see confessions of the sin of the people and the righteousness of God in these corporate prayers. These prayers are laden with true theology and reminiscences of God’s past faithfulness. Third, these corporate prayers almost universally call on God to do exactly what he has promised to do, whether that be to return the people from exile (e.g., Dan. 9) or to cause the gospel to advance through the bold testimony of God’s people (Acts 4:29–30). When the Bible records what the people of God pray, it records them asking him to do what he has promised to do for the sake of his name. In short, God has always intended for his people to pray for his glory and their good.
Though we might fail to notice this in our individualized age, the Bible often assumes that God’s people will pray together. What’s significant about that fact?
A biblical theology of corporate prayer rests on the fact that God’s people are called to submit their entire lives—which includes their words—to a covenantal mediator. Every sinful individual needs a man to speak on his or her behalf, whose words we can make our own—a man about whom we can say, “Yes, yes! He speaks for me. I couldn’t say it, but he’s saying it! O Great King in Heaven, listen to him, for me.” If redemption and the life of redemption hung on “my” prayers alone, what hope would any of us have? The prayer of a mediator to which a repenting people—God’s people—can attach themselves is a clear provision of God’s rich mercy. This makes the declaration that Christ Jesus is interceding for us at the right hand of the Father one of the most precious truths in all the Bible (Rom 8:34).
What specifically, then, does a biblical theology of prayer teach we who sit in the church pew, or folding chair, or stadium seating, or couch? It teaches us to listen intently to the person leading prayer, while repeating to God, “Yes, yes, that person speaks for me and all those around me.” It teaches us not to be so arrogant as to think our religion hangs on our ability to articulate ourselves. It teaches us that the way of redemption requires us to lock arms with others, speaking for them when they can’t speak and listening to them when we cannot speak. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
It reminds us that the impulses of our individual hearts are not always reliable guides—we need the mediator’s intercession! It teaches us to submit our hearts to the praises, confessions, and intercessions of the mediator praying—and the Mediator who intercedes continually. It teaches us that God is so merciful and stoops so low that, not only does he lisp in words that we can understand, as Calvin said, he even places words of repentance and praise into our dumb, closed mouths. How gracious and kind and patient is he!
A biblical theology of corporate prayer teaches us that God’s people will become what they are—united in Christ—as we learn to speak to the Lord together. Speaking together, after all, trains the desires of our hearts to be united in faith, united in hope, united in love. Corporate prayer in the church requires the church to agree, to be without division, to be of the same mind and judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). It’s one way the church “stands firm in one spirit” and “with one mind strives side by side for the faith” (Phil. 1:27).
The corporate prayer of the pastor and his church, of the Bible study leader and her group of young mothers, of the father and his family, is a shadow and a type of the gospel itself—one person standing in for the many, making intercession for them (Heb. 7:25).
Which yields at least one more lesson for, not the people listening, but the person leading in corporate prayer: How slowly and reverently should Christians then approach the task of speaking on behalf of the many! How dangerous it is, apart from the blood of Christ, to stand in between God and sinners and to presume to speak for either party (see Lev. 10:1-3). Though Christians may approach God boldly to intercede for others, knowing that Christ’s sacrifice has sufficiently cleared the way to the Father, surely they should always go with carefulness, preparation, study, earnestness, brokenness, and thanksgiving.