Book Review: Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer, by J. Gary Millar
J. Gary Millar. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016. 264 pps. $24.o0.
A faithful couple began attending our Sunday evening prayer meeting, which I led by providing a list of gospel-centered priorities for us to pray. A few months later, the wife confessed that she initially bristled at “being told what to pray.” As she continued to participate in the Sunday evening prayer meeting, she concluded on her own that praying biblical, gospel-centered prayers was good for both her own soul and the corporate prayer life of the church.
That change of heart is what Gary Millar’s book can do, by God’s grace, for lots of Christians.
Millar proposes that prayer in the Old Testament is nothing less than calling on the name of the Lord “to deliver on his covenantal promises.” In the New Testament, then, apostles “understood praying in the name of Jesus to be the new covenant expression of calling on the name of Yahweh. Prayer, throughout the Bible . . . is to be primarily understood as asking God to come through on what he has already promised” (18).
The Pentateuch sets the biblical trajectory for prayer as the primeval culture, and the patriarchs ask God to provide the promised serpent-crushing seed. Nascent Israel, led by Moses, asks God to make good on his commitment to be their God and lead them to Canaan. Prayer in Joshua and Judges asks God to give his people victory in the conquest, and then (especially by the kings as recorded in Chronicles) to save his people from their enemies and to secure them in the land. David’s prayers are prayers not simply of self-interest and personal protection, but for the covenantal promises of Yahweh to be fulfilled by securing him for the throne (57). Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication asks God to come through on his promised forgiveness for his people when they repent (59–62).
The prophets pray that the nations would see God’s glory in salvation and judgment, as God had promised. And they pray that God would establish his people in his place beyond the exile (67–106).
Much of Millar’s thesis is implicit in the theological assumptions of the wisdom literature, where Job pleads for covenant blessing to replace his inexplicable suffering. In the exilic and post-exilic literature, “prayer continues to be understood as calling on Yahweh, particularly at moments when the future of the covenant hangs in the balance” (120). The argument crescendos in the Psalms, where David’s messianic prayers ask God to vindicate his chosen king and to use him to accomplish God’s saving plan for his people (137–166).
In the Gospels, the nativity narratives pray in response to God’s nascent fulfillment of his saving promises in the birth of Jesus. Millar rightly interprets the first request of the Lord’s prayer—“your kingdom come, your will be done”—as “a plea that God will act so decisively in judgment and salvation that his glory will be unveiled. . . . It is thus a prayer . . . for the consummation of the kingdom of God” (173). Jesus’ high priestly prayer calls on God “to complete what he has started (181). Jesus also models prayer at key points in the saving mission God gave him—in his baptism, at the selecting of disciples, at Gethsemane, and on the cross as he prays for the forgiveness of his executioners (167–189).
As we visit early church prayer meetings in Acts and the Epistles we hear them praying about God’s saving purposes in Christ and asking for boldness in preaching those saving purposes. They also pray for opportunities to proclaim the gospel and the power to confirm it in the hearts of those who hear (191–195). Paul’s prayers for the churches focus on the growth of the churches in the truth and grace of the gospel, so much so that “everything Paul prays for has already been achieved for us, and is held out to us in the gospel” (205). Millar writes: “For Paul to pray is simply to ask God to do the work of the gospel through him and in the lives of others” (208).
Millar’s biblical theology of prayer ends with John confirming Millar’s thesis: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). This is the heart of biblical prayer” (230).
One reason Millar wrote this book is his observation that “the church in many places has stopped praying” because “the prayer gathering has been replaced by a small-group programme” in which prayer is often shuffled off to a few hurried closing moments because small-group discussion has been so rich. Don’t worry; Millar is not a small-group hater. But he does call the church back to corporate prayer, since that’s the focus of the apostle Paul’s exhortations on prayer (see especially page 215).
In the book’s afterword, Millar helpfully reflects on the state of corporate prayer in the church today. He diagnoses our disease—ease, distraction, pragmatism, cynicism—and helps us to recalibrate our prayers (236) and re-engage in “learned desperation” for seeing God’s redemptive purposes fulfilled in and through us (236).
Once he gets to work, Millar offers numerous insights that make his work a treasure trove of light-bulb moments. I won’t spoil them all, but his stuff on men calling on the name of the Lord in Genesis 4:25–26 shows how that phrase ties into the larger narrative (19–22). His treatment of Nehemiah’s “remember me” prayers is the most convincing I’ve encountered. His solution to the deafening and muting demon in Mark 9:28–29 and Jesus’ enigmatic comment that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” can satisfy the inquiring mind (176–177). And Millar gives a fresh and persuasive interpretation of “prayer for the sick” in James 5 that has potential to recalibrate some charismatic conversations.
One of the great byproducts of Millar’s thesis is that it goes a long way toward resolving the conundrum between prayer and God’s sovereignty. He doesn’t develop this, but if the heartbeat of prayer is really asking God to make good on his sovereign, saving purposes, then much of the difficulty dissipates, since prayer itself is rightly understood as submitting to God’s sovereignty, not competing with it. It’s asking God to accomplish his purposes, not change them. This is in fact why God answers Moses’s prayer in Numbers 14 “not because of the character of the intercessor, nor his negotiating skill, but on the basis that the appeal is made to [God’s] prior ‘gospel’ commitments” (40).
Another strength is that Millar boldly offends our naturally self-centered mindset. When Moses asks God if he can go see the Promised Land before he dies, knowing God had forbidden him entrance based on his disobedience in the wilderness, God seems perturbed. Millar rightly notes that “for the first time in the Pentateuch we have a prayer that has no essential connection with the progress of the plans of Yahweh” (41–42).
Some people will want to throw the book across the room when they read that sentence, because it implies our prayers should be concentrated on God’s purposes rather than our own. Warning: don’t throw the book across the room when you get to page 41. Millar is right. Our prayers should focus on God’s purposes coming to pass, if for no other reason than God’s purposes are perfectly holy and comprehensively wise, and ours are, well, not. If you can’t believe that, then the heavens will seem an iron ceiling to you.
The greatest strength of Millar’s work, though, is that he sends us to the Bible itself to teach us what prayer is, and to pray in light of that. Pietistic evangelicals tend to view our own prayers as sacrosanct—too personal to criticize. But according to Millar’s work, that’s exactly our problem. Our prayers are often too focused on self—too personal, in a sense—and not focused enough on God’s purposes in the world. Maybe that’s part of what Paul means when he says we don’t know what to pray for as we ought (Rom. 8:26). Perhaps we’ve assumed all of our concerns are equally important to God. But what if our concerns are not as important to him as his concerns? What if he wants us to lose our concerns in his concerns? It’s time we listened to what God has to say about what we pray, and it seems Millar has his ear to the ground.
While the pros by far outweigh the cons, there are still a few points at which the argument becomes a little thin and Millar simply makes statements rather than arguments. I’m thinking here particularly of the section in Daniel and the idea that when Daniel prays toward Jerusalem, his orientation is best understood not geographically but salvation-historically (119). I appreciate that point, and I think I can agree, but this section lacked the textual incisiveness and rhetorical precision that marked the rest of the book.
Similarly, the section on Nehemiah seemed a bit more like special pleading for the thesis. Whereas Millar’s explanation of Nehemiah’s “remember me” prayers was a total eye-opener for me, and probably will be for others, his use of Nehemiah 9 left me scratching my head as to how that prayer supports the thesis. Millar infers from Neh 9:32–38 that “surely what is needed is the national transformation that can only come from a new covenant” (126). True enough, but he uses this observation as implicit support for prayer as “essentially calling on the name of Yahweh to keep his promises” (94). I struggle to see how this can be when Nehemiah 9:38 ends with “because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing.” We are the ones who make the covenant. It’s hard to see how Nehemiah leading his people to make a covenant equals asking God to make a new covenant. It may recognize the need for a new and better covenant, but Nehemiah isn’t asking God to make that covenant; he’s leading the people to make it themselves. It might have been more convincing to use Nehemiah 9 as a text asking God to make good on the promise of forgiveness. But as the argument stands, it feels like Nehemiah 9 is forced to fit the mold in a way that most other texts aren’t.
Even so, Millar’s thesis remains strongly intact, and for the most part he doesn’t over-argue. He acknowledges elsewhere that prayer may be more than praying God’s promises back to him, but it’s never less than that.
Bottom line? You really should read this book. It’s not a how-to book. It’s a why book that gives you a lot of “because.” Why pray certain things? Because the Bible tells you to from cover to cover. It will simplify, motivate, and focus your own prayer life.
If you’re a pastor or non-staff elder, then you should read it both to encourage you as you lead the church into corporate prayer, and to focus the church’s corporate prayers on asking God to do all he’s promised to do. And because your church will be asking what God has already promised, you will see more fruit from your corporate prayer life. It will also give you a good reason to say a gracious “no” when well-meaning members suggest we pray for their neighbor’s aunt’s gout problem at a prayer meeting or small group.
You’ll have to be careful applying this book as a church leader, though. People might want to throw you across the room for telling them how to pray. But part of shepherding the flock is training them in how to talk to God. And part of spiritual maturity is becoming “expert askers” (239), which means “the main preoccupation of our prayers should be the outworking of the promises of God, which all through the Scriptures is linked to God’s working through his Word” (194). Let’s lead our congregations to imitate John: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)