We were all encouraged, growing up, to develop a good posture, standing and sitting with a straight back, and so on. While reading through the psalms recently I came across Psalm 123, and it seemed to speak to me about a proper ‘posture’ toward God, a ‘prayer posture,’ a posture of attitude. The NRSV titles the psalm ‘Supplication for Mercy,’ ‘A Song of Ascents,’ no doubt prayed and sung as pilgrims went up to the Jerusalem temple mount for worship. Here’s how it opens, ‘To you I lift my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us’ (v. 1-2). It’s poetic imagery, essentially describing our attitude as creature to Creator, servant to Covenant God.
H.L. Ellison suggests that such pilgrims were often scorned for their faith and lifestyle (v. 3-4). The only way the psalmist knew to rise above such scorn was to fix his eyes on the living God.
The opening verses also express a deep sense of dependence on God in every way.
Shortly after reading this psalm, a family member who had been holding down a job in a rather toxic institution for years, was encouraged to apply for work more in line with his skill-set, potential and passion. In our country, a caucasian male in his late thirties struggles to find employment not only because of his age but because of work reservation for those previously disadvantaged by apartheid. The family was asked to pray with him concerning this opportunity. Somehow I was led to pray, in the spirit of Ps. 123, a single sentence ‘Lord, have mercy.’ That’s all. One particular day I was prompted to pray this prayer once every 20 minutes or so. By late afternoon I felt no more need to pray in that way, sensing God had answered my/our petitions. I think it was a day or two later that the family member called to say that, against all odds, and having competed with a number of other applicants, he had been successfully interviewed and appointed to the position. Our hearts rejoiced with him and his family! Now I am not hereby suggesting some prayer mechanism or formula whereby we can manipulate God in our petitions for selfish ends. I have learned over many years that God will not be manipulated by anyone. Although of course we are encouraged to persist in prayer concerning our needs – think of Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 7:7-11 and the story of the needy friend in Lk. 11:5-13.
Ps. 123 also suggests an unshakeable focus. It has been suggested that the author was possibly reflecting on an experience as guest in a very rich household. At the banquet, though the servants lined the walls and could hardly see what the guests required, they were always ready to serve food and drinks as they were needed. The mystery was solved when he noted that the servants were looking at the host, not the guests. He was watching his guests and with little hand signs was indicating what was needed. Perhaps his wife told him afterwards that the same had been the case in the women’s quarters (please remember the historical context!). The psalmist had learnt to look to God like this, with neither eye nor ear for those that mocked and laughed at God’s covenant people. Whatever our present circumstances, let us not lose focus because of the scornful attitudes and words of folk around us who question our ‘misplaced trust,’ or the whisperings of satan that prayer is just speaking into the air. My wife has regular contact with an elderly man who claims to be an atheist. He often mocks her faith but finds his conversations with her something to look forward to, because of her contagious joy. This gentleman’s wife secretly tells my wife that he actually looks forward to these conversations – apparently he’s a real old grump at home!
Some may be helped by physical prayer postures, such as kneeling or even prostration. I think the key here is our heart attitude in communing with God.
Ps. 123 is also a corrective to the extremely laid-back and casual attitude of so many post-modern believers toward God as evidenced by cheap talk of ‘the man upstairs’ and our western, individualistic, ego-centric kind of faith, where it’s all about me, finding my destiny, etc. God is at my beck and call rather than I at his. I ‘get’ the incarnationality of God, and the wonderful intimacy of an Abba Father relationship, reflecting his total love and loveability. He is a God of unspeakable kindness and benevolence. Our earthly parents may have some ‘darkness’ in them, but there is ‘no darkness at all’ in God our Father who is totally ‘light’ toward us (1 Jn. 1:5ff). At the same time a proper understanding of who God really is, holy and loving, ‘safeguards the essential distinction between Creator and creature, which sin is ever seeking to minimise or obliterate’ (R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God). Sin is subtle, and easily erodes our thinking about God and ourselves, even as cleansed sinners.
I think Jesus puts it all together so beautifully in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in Mt. 6:9ff. Jesus has already exposed the Pharisees’ showmanship and hypocrisy in prayer and the Gentiles’ empty and endless babbling in prayer. ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…’ (v. 9-11). ‘Hallowed be your name’ is an interesting phrase. One little boy got it wrong at school when he asked his teacher, “Miss, why do we call God ‘Harold’?” As a teen at a youth camp I heard a godly Bible teacher put it this way, ‘It means to be in sympathy with God’s holiness.’ We know that ‘holiness’ betokens God’s otherness, majesty, purity, awesomeness, loveliness.
Let me wrap up with Dallas Willard’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which I think of as a kind of Prayer for All Seasons (he reminds us that ‘heaven’ should be translated ‘heavens’: meaning God as far ‘out’ imaginable to right down to the atmosphere around our heads, which is the first of the ‘heavens’):
‘Dear Father always near us,
may your name be treasured and loved,
may your rule be completed in us –
may your will be done here on earth
in just the way it is done in heaven.
Give us today the things we need today,
and forgive us our sins and impositions on you
as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.
Please don’t put us through trials,
but deliver us from everything bad.
Because you are the one in charge,
and you have all the power,
and the glory too is all yours – forever –
which is just the way we want it!’
(or, ‘Amen!’ or occasionally (?) ‘Who0pee!’) (And if you’re South African, ‘Hooray!’)