Prayer. For many Christians, the word evokes feelings of guilt. Who is content with their prayer life? It can be easy to blame our modern age. Or our busy lives. But I think our lack of prayer is often due to a lack of understanding. What really is prayer and what does it do? We need to think about prayer. We need a theology of prayer. Of course, there are lots of books about prayer. However, most approach the topic from a systematic or devotional viewpoint. Gary Millar, in Calling on the Name of the Lord, takes a different route that fills a niche.
Calling on the Name of the Lord
As is the norm for volumes in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (see my other reviews), Calling on the Name of the Lord takes a biblical-theological route that traces prayer across the canon. Each chapter covers a section (with the OT following the Hebrew order), and the final chapter gives a brief afterword. The only exception is the Psalms, which rightly receives its own chapter.
For Millar, prayer is primarily “asking God to come through on what he has already promised” (p18). Prayer is build upon a covenant relationship with God that recognizes his many promises to provide for his own. There is a right kind of expectancy in prayer, given that Yhwh has committed himself to relationship. There should be no confidence in prayer otherwise. Millar notes that the most important of promises is that of the Messiah in Gen 3:15. It’s significant then, that prayer begins in Gen 4:25-26, when mankind is anticipating the fulfillment of Gen 3:15. Millar tests his thesis throughout the canon, establishing that the majority of prayers are linked to God’s covenant promises. Many are directly connected to the Messianic hope.
Prayer in the Former Prophets
I’ll draw from his content on the Former Prophets as an example. Millar notes the “almost universal connection between the prayers of the judge and the desire for ‘salvation’. This is even so where “Yahweh graciously responds to some highly deficient prayers” (p49). A prime example here is Samson (Judg 15:18). Another is Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam 2:1-10), which is soaked in allusions to OT texts elsewhere and climaxes in the coming of an anointed king. Another key prayer is David’s, when he desires to build the temple (2 Sam 7:28-29). So too, Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple (1 Kings 3) is tied to Yhwh’s promises to both David and Abraham.
How is this to be read?
One oddity was that I regularly wondered how Millar intended this book to be read. It is a survey of prayers in the whole Bible, with Millar repeatedly making essentially the same point. There are long quotes of prayers in Scripture, which is “deliberate” (p17). However, this often results chunks where there is little more than a quoted prayer, some summary, and then comments on how the prayer fits Millar’s thesis. For this reader, portions of the book were tedious. This is especially so in the less significant prayers, which usually consists of little commentary. A notable exception is the chapter on the Psalms, in which Millar surveys key Psalms scholarship and argues that the Psalms are primarily the prayers of the Messiah.
Millar’s thesis that prayer is intimately tied to covenant, promise, and the Gospel is convincing. This realization alone is powerful and has the potential to revitalize prayer. However, is an entire book necessary to make this point? Also, Millar missed the opportunity to provide a concluding chapter that summarized and synthesized the data. Millar ends with an afterword questioning why the church today prays less, and appealing for a renewed devotion to prayer. It’s likely that the ideas within Calling on the Name of the Lord is the kindling that many need. Considering that this fills a niche caused by the many devotional and practical books on prayer, it is a surprisingly accessible and devotional work itself. I would recommend Calling on the Name of the Lord as a crucial resource for anyone who wants a Biblical grounding for prayer.
Buy Calling on the Name of the Lord
Many thanks to IVP Academic for providing a review copy.