Reviewed by Kent Ellett.
Walter Brueggemann in his Great Prayers of the Old Testament has, with typical exegetical attentiveness, offered the church a very practical and accessible entry into the debate about the openness of God. Brueggemann argues that the “common, ubiquitous practice” of prayer—the inevitable assumptions that accompany any impassioned cry for help—simply must ignore the Enlightenment rationalism that reduces prayer into a purely subjective or psychological exercise. “New age” spiritualism which thinks of prayer as a psycho-spiritual “transaction” of the self with the self can’t seem to dispel the impulse to pray to a God that is “other.” Following Barth, Brueggemann insists, “God does not act the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence on God’s action, even upon his existence…God is not deaf, but listens: more than that, he acts.”
As Brueggeman surveys 12 Old Testament prayers from Abraham to Job, one cannot escape the fact that the biblical assumptions about prayer come crashing into the endlessly problematic god of classical theism. Divine impassibility may philosophically support some rigid notions of divine sovereignty and dependability, but rarely can one derive such notions from straight-forward exegesis. The doctrine of divine impassibility makes all talk of “relationship with God” an anthropomorphic sham. And neither the Bible nor the human heart can tolerate it.
In Abraham, we find a man bargaining with God over Sodom—whose prayer exhibits a relational audacity—one that dares to remind God of his promise and to summon God out beyond God’s first inclination to destroy. While God does not answer the prayer in the affirmative (his personal responses are consistently elusive) he does rescue Lot on account of Abraham.
In Moses, Brueggemann finds one who intercedes on Israel’s behalf again asking that God change his mind about destroying Israel. And again this is bold prayer, exercised out a love for community and respect for God as he has revealed himself. It’s prayer attempting to “push God beyond his own intentionality” by appealing to God’s own purposes.
Brueggemann’s book preaches. It’s full of with sections with uncommon rhetorical power. In the section on the song of Hannah he writes:
She [Hannah] sings that her family will continue. She sings that her people will have a future. She sings that through this little baby named “asked” there will soon be newness for the poor and needy and hungry and the feeble. She sings in the way singing is possible only among those who have felt the powerful invasiveness of YHWH’s newness where no newness was possible. She sings of the God who “brings life.” …Hannah is the voice of all those who still have ashes in their hair and in their throats, who find themselves on the way to royal banquets and safe places…all of this accomplished by the son for whom she had not dared to hope…but only prayed.
But this in no way is meant to suggest that God is captive to anybody’s persistent cries. Perhaps the most creative chapter treats Solomon’s dreams as a form of contemplative prayer in which God’s prayer partners are bound to covenantal faithfulness. In Solomon’s prayerful dream-state, God directly addresses the King. Solomon’s request for a wise and “listening” heart is rooted in his confidence that the Lord had shown covenantal kindness to David. (1 Kings 3) And, thus, Solomon continues to keep covenant by seeking what only what is wise and just for his subjects. Covenantal love becomes the basis of any ongoing relationship with God. Recalling the dream of chapter 3, 1 Kings 9 takes up this theme of covenantal faithfulness in another dream in which Solomon is not allowed to speak, for the Solomon by this time seems to have rejected the covenantal faithfulness that had propelled him to seek a listening heart 6 chapters before. Here God merely insists that ongoing relationship demands covenant keeping. And so Brueggemann concludes:
If we take only the generosity of YHWH, we destroy the context for viable communion. If we take only the uncompromising requirements, we miss the readiness of God to give “abundantly more than we can ask or imagine.” Mature prayer is the capacity to enter the dream communion with God who gives and summons. Every time we awaken from such a moment, we are propelled to act from the generosity of the God that attests to the wonder of the creator and the goodness of creation.
For Brueggemann, such genuine encounter with God is the essence of prayer. One wonders if this approach to the practice of prayer might not benefit from overtly making a distinction between God’s unchanging essence and his variable actuality with and in the world. But such questions are driven by concerns about the canonicity of other texts. For Brueggemann these questions do not arise in quite the same way, and at any rate they are not as urgent as simply recovering the church’s life of prayer. His thesis is simple: Much conventional theology “has made prayer anemic and polite, without urgent expectation because there is a quality of unreality in prayer with a God who is ‘omni.’ ” Such polite, and ultimately self-referential notions of prayer certainly are challenged in Brueggemann’s work if not on the pages of the Old Testament.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com