It is important to remember, in undertaking a study of the uses of “pray/prayer” in the New Testament, that in the Elizabethan English of the KJV, “pray” did not necessarily have anything whatever to do with God, but “I pray thee” was merely a polite way of saying “please.” This is seen in fully half of the appearances of deomai, nine of which were traditionally translated “beseech”, primarily in Luke and Acts, and erotao, in which 23x the translators used “ask” (as in, to ask a question, make a request, or issue an invitation), “beseech” 14x, “desire” 6x, and “entreat” once, with the same sense in six of the 14 times where it is rendered “pray.” Consequently, we are dealing here with a concept in which context is critically important.
The actual lexical definitions of the five verbs and four nouns in this group are not so very different from one another. Classically, deomai was used by Homer as “to be in need or want”, by Plato and Herodotus as “to beg a thing from a person,” and by Plutarch and Thucydides as “to beg a favor.” Dei, as a particle, usually intends “It is necessary.”
Erotao is listed as “to ask a question, to beg, or to entreat, to make a request of a person”. Euchomai did refer to “prayer” as commonly understood, but also as “an unrealizable wish, to long for, to vow, or to promise.” Parakaleo, “to summon friends for help, to invite, to exhort, to encourage,” is dealt with in W.S.#53, “The Spirit”, and #138, “comfort”. Only proseuchomai refers exclusively to the prayer of worship.
Among the nouns, only deesis, “entreaty, petition”,and proseuche, “a prayer, or place of prayer” are commonly used. Enteuxis, “conversation, petition, intercession”, appears only once (I Tim.4:5), and euche, “a prayer, vow, wish, or aspiration,” is rendered once “prayer” (Jas.5:15), and twice “vow” (Ac.18:18 and 21:23).
Much more helpful in understanding is to address three questions:
Who is doing the praying?
To whom is it addressed?
What is the subject of the prayer or request?
A few examples can serve to illustrate the value of such observations.
Deomai, as noted above, half the time is simply one person making a request of another: Ac.8:34 – the Ethiopian asking Philip to explain what he was reading; Ac.21:39 – Paul requesting the commander to allow him to speak to the crowd; Lk.5:12 and 9:38 – people begging Jesus for healing; or II Cor.5:20 – Paul urging his readers to accept his message. When addressed to God, (Mt.9:38, Lk.22:32, Rom.1:10, Ac.8:22,24; I Thes.3:10), it is usually with a very specific request in mind, although that is not completely clear in Ac.4:31 or 10:2.
Erotao, similarly, is usually one person making a request or asking a question of another: Lk.5:3 – Jesus asking Peter to launch his boat; Lk.14:18,19 – guests begging off from the banquet invitation; Ac.10:48 – Cornelius asking Peter to stay a while; or Ac.23:18 – Paul asking the guard to take his nephew to the commander. However, in John’s gospel, and only there, it is used of Jesus’ communication with the Father (Jn.14:16, 16:26, 17:9, 15, 20). Might this be a testimony to John’s depth of understanding of the mutuality and equality of their relationship?
Euchomai, except for Jas.5:16 where the flavor is more like the requests represented by deomai, leans more toward the “wish” idea, as when (Ac.27:29) the sailors “threw out the anchors and wished for daylight”.
Likewise, parakaleo, except for Jesus’ statement in Mt.26:53, is almost entirely inter-personal: the healed man who asked to go along with Jesus (Mk.5:18), the “Macedonian call” to Paul (Ac.16:9), or Paul encouraging the sailors to take food (Ac.27:34).
Proseuchomai, on the other hand, never represents simply a person-to-person situation. It is always directed to God. Even more significantly, it seldom concerns a specific “prayer-request.” It is also the only one that occurs in the imperative mood. Only three times in the gospels is an object specified: praying for one’s persecutors (Mt.5:44, Lk.6:28), Jesus praying for the children (Mt.9:13), and the admonition to pray that the flight from Jerusalem not be in winter (Mt.24:20, Mk.13:18). The rest of the praying, whether by Jesus or others, 19x, has no object mentioned. Thirteen times, it refers to Jesus’ final night in the Garden
Curiously, proseuchomai does not appear in the writings of John at all, in either his gospel or his epistles – and only twice in the Revelation. I have never encountered any speculation on a reason for that – have you?
Jesus usually seems to have preferred a “solitary place” for praying (Mt.14:23, Mk.1:35, 6:46; Lk.5:16,6:12, 9:28), although on several occasions his disciples were present, and asked to be taught (Mt.6:9, Lk.9:18, 11:1,2). Lk.9:18 is particularly puzzling in this regard: “He was praying privately, and his disciples were with him”. (The traditional version says he was “alone”. Not sure what the “dictation theory” advocates do with that!)
Jesus emphasized that prayer was not the place (if there is one) for showing off one’s piety (Mt.6:5,6,7; Mt.23:14, Mk.12:40, Lk.18:10,11; 20:47); that one must forgive before (or in the process of ) praying (Mk.11:25); and one must pray in faithfulness (Mk.11:24).
In the early church, prayer preceded the commissioning of people for specific assignments (Ac.1:24, 6:6, 13:3, 14:23) and was a frequent corporate experience in the group, led, apparently, by both men and women (I Cor.11:4,5). Paul writes of his prayers on behalf of the churches (Rom.1:9, Eph.1:16, Phil.1:4,1:8; Col.1:3,1:9, 4:12; I Thes.1:2, II Thes.1;11; and also of his own felt need for their prayers on his own behalf (II Cor.1:11, Phil.1:19, Col.4:3, I Thes.5:25, II Thes.3:1, Phm.2), as well as encouraging their prayers for each other (II Cor.9:14, Jas.5:16, Phil.4:6).
Prayers are connected with healings (Ac.9:40, 28:8, Jas.5:14), release from prison (Ac.12:12, 16:23, Phm.22), and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ac.2, and 8:15), as well as taking leave of brethren (Ac.20:36, 21:15).
You may notice that this survey has left a large group of occasions – some already listed concerning Jesus himself, and some reporting about others – where nothing specific is said about the object of the praying: the Transfiguration accounts (Lk.9:29 and parallels), Jesus’ baptism (Lk.3:21), Saul in Damascus (Ac.9:11), Peter in Joppa (Ac.10:9 and 11:15), Cornelius at his home (Ac.10:30), Paul in the temple (Ac.22:17), and Paul’s admonitions in Rom.12:12, Eph.6:18, I Thes.5:17, I Tim.2:8, among others.
One student suggested, “It sounds like just sort of hanging out with the Lord!”
I rather like that. In fact, I think it sums up proseuchomai very well. Perhaps it is often simply making ourselves available, and waiting for instructions.
After all, (Rom.8:26) “We don’t even know how we ought to pray” – but that’s ok – the Holy Spirit can compensate for our ignorance, as long as we are “hanging out” and available.
“By means of all prayer and petition, keep on praying at all times in the Spirit, being constantly alert about it” (Eph.6:18).
“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer (proseuche) and petition (deesis), with thanksgiving, your requests must be made known before God.” (Phil.4:6)
Proseuchesthe “Keep on praying [hanging-out with the Lord!], incessantly!” (I Thes.5:17).