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The Posture of Prayer, Part Two

A few weeks ago, when we considered the lead up to Daniel’s sleepover with the lions in Daniel 6, I wrote a reflection on the posture of prayer that started with Daniel’s physical posture. From Daniel’s posture on his knees as he prayed to God, we made the connection with our spiritual posture. Whether we pray on our knees or in another way, that physical posture should be a genuine reflection of the attitude of our heart.

As we engage with another example of Daniel’s prayer, and even another example of his spiritual posture in prayer, I point out in the sermon that we learn something about our own prayers: they are more than our words. This is what we read in Dan 9:3 (ESV): “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Considering the specifics of this text first, note that the substance of Daniel’s prayer, his words, are accompanied by outward signs that properly reflect the tone of his prayer. As he prays for mercy, he adopts external signs that reflect his internal emotional and spiritual state.

First, he fasts. “In Judaism the day of atonement is the only public fast day prescribed by the law (Lev 16:29-31; 23:26-32; Num 29:7-11). However, the OT also refers to many special public and private fasts, usually coupled with prayer, to signify mourning (1 Sam 31:12; 2 Sam 1:12), to show repentance and remorse (2 Sam 12:15-23; 1 Kgs 21:27-29; Neh 9:1-2; Joel 2:12-13), or to demonstrate serious concern before God (2 Chron 20:1-4; Ps 35:13; 69:10; 109:24; Dan 9:3).”[1]

Importantly, even in the Old Testament, proper fasting was only seen as an external expression of an internal reality. “Fasting that was not accompanied by genuine repentance and righteous deeds was denounced as an empty legal observance by the prophets (Isa 58; Jer 14:11-12).”[2] I should note here that fasting was a culturally acknowledged and often embraced external expression that reinforced the spiritual posture of the pray-er. It was a form by which Daniel could unite his material state with his spiritual state. Fasting itself has no intrinsic good, but as a symbol it can still be a powerful non-verbal element of prayer.

Second, Daniel wears sackcloth and ashes. For sackcloth, “The donning of this unique apparel was a cultural signal announcing to other mortals, to the Lord, or to both that the wearer was in some form of distress.”[3] The type of distress varied, but the central idea remained the same that the change of clothes reflected inward turmoil.

The addition of ashes furthered this external expression of an inward reality. “The association of ashes with images of destruction and grief makes it an appropriate symbol of human mortality and consequently of the humility required of human beings before their Creator and Judge.”[4] Thus, as Daniel prays, making confession for his sin and ultimately pleading for God’s mercy for his people and for Jerusalem, his clothing choice “speaks” with a unified voice, reinforcing the idea that our prayers are more than our words.

But we can broaden this idea. “Communicating with God entails much more than putting words together. … God pays attention to the inflection of our voices, our expressions, our posture, and other forms of body language.”[5] Indeed, just as our communication with one another is far more than the words that come out of our mouths, so it is with our prayers to God. Just as your neighbor knows by your tone and your body language that you’d rather be somewhere else, so God knows when we’ve checked out.

On the flip side, God knows the sincerity of our prayers even when we don’t have the words to express our hearts. Through our tone, body language, and other non-verbal communication—and especially with the help of the Holy Spirit—what we want to pray and how sincere we are about it is known by God. In that respect, praise God that our prayers are more than our words.

[1] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 438. [2] Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 438. [3] John A Beck, ed., Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 215. [4] Leland Ryken et al., eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 50. [5] Richard L. Pratt, Pray with Your Eyes Open: Looking at God, Ourselves, and Our Prayers (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987), 163.

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