Prayer as Insurrection

Reading: Matthew 6:9-13

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising
against the disorder of the world.”
― Karl Barth

That is one of my two favorite quotes about prayer. And it is rooted in my favorite text on prayer in the Bible: The Lord’s prayer. You might not catch the connection initially. Between our culture and the English language this aspect of an uprising, a rebellion against the disorder of the world, might be missed in our reading of The Lord’s Prayer. In what follows, I suggest it is this uprising that is at the very heart of The Lord’s Prayer.

A Language Issue

The first three requests of the prayer which our Lord taught us might help us see the language issue. You may remember from your 4th grade grammar that an imperative is a command. In English we have 2nd person imperatives, meaning that we can say, in the case of the verb run, “You run.” That is an imperative. The person speaking (the first person) is telling the person they are speaking to (the second person) to run. The first person is not saying that the second person is running. They are telling them to start running. It’s a command. In other words, “It is imperative that you run.” (Maybe someone is trying to harm them.)

In English we don’t have a 3rd person imperative. In fact it is a someone difficult concept in English. The idea would be that the speaker is telling one person that another person (or thing) (the third person) is commanded to do something. New Testament Greek does have such a form. To use our illustration of the command to run, in this case, it is often translated, “Let Bob run.” The speaker is speaking to someone other than Bob, we’ll call her Sally, and telling Sally to let Bob run. But that sounds as if Sally is stopping Bob from running and simply needs to allow him to run. The idea of an imperative might better be said this way: “Sally, Bob must run.” That gets closer to the sense of an imperative.

These first three requests in the Lord’s prayer are in fact 3rd person imperatives. We are used to hearing the last two as, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done…”. But God is not stopping His kingdom from coming, or His will from being done. In these requests, we are speaking to God and insisting that these things must happen. So here is a way to read them with that sense in English.

9 Father of ours, the one in the heavens, your name must be hallowed; 10 your kingdom must come; your will [i.e. what you want] must become, as in heaven even on earth. (Matthew 6:9-10, my translation)

Do you sense the urgency in those requests? Your name must be hallowed; Your kingdom must come; Your will must become. It is as if the prayer is saying, “I won’t rest until it is done!” It captures the essence of Isaiah’s instruction to intercessors:

You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, 7 and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.” (Isaiah 62:6b-7 NIV; See also Lamentations 2:18.)

Jerusalem was the capitol of the kingdom of Israel. So to establish Jerusalem is to establish the kingdom (more on that below). The Lord’s Prayer captures this sense of Isaiah’s text and its urgency (no rest until).

I’ve written elsewhere about what those particular requests are, so I won’t focus on that here. I will, though, suggest that third one captures the first two and drives home the urgency: “Your will must become. I look around and everywhere see people violating Your will. Even Your people violating Your will. But I will give myself no rest until Your will becomes what is.”

“Your will must become. I look around and everywhere see people violating Your will. Even Your people violating Your will. But I will give myself no rest until Your will becomes what is.”

A Culture Issue

Culturally we may miss something else in these requests. “Your kingdom must come,” doesn’t speak about insurrection to us—uprising against those in power. Yet in a world where Caesar was Lord, and any coming kingdom was a threat to a sitting king or emperor, this request speaks of an uprising, an insurrection against the powers that be. And indeed that is exactly what prayer is: an uprising “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12 NIV)

Those three requests (and frankly all the other requests in The Lord’s Prayer) are just that: insurrection against the rule of darkness. I close, then, with my second favorite quote on prayer which is from David Wells. I believe his statement is rooted in Barth’s statement which I quoted above.

What, then, is the nature of petitionary prayer? It is, in essence, rebellion—
rebellion against the world in its fallenness, the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is pervasively abnormal.
― David Wells

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

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  • Sandy Kellogg says:

    WOW! Amazing concept, Jerry. It makes lots more sense than what I’ve believed all along. Thanks.

  • David Penley says:

    It’s always a blessing to discover something new in even a familiar passage like this. May my familiarity never breed contempt. Thank you for this insight. By the way – I like David Wells’ writing, too. Though I won’t be able to join you guys, I will be praying at my church, and will include praying for all of you.

    • Jerry Cisar says:

      You’re welcome. Wells started me thinking this way a number of years ago. Combining that with a study of the book of Job, it began to come together. For the last year, though, I’ve been spending much time thinking about the Lord’s prayer. Meet you in the throne room tonight! 🙂

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