Do We Have to Lift Our Hands When We Pray?
Lift up holy hands in prayer, and praise the LORD.
Although I usually use the Psalms as the basis for my reflections only on the weekends, I thought it might be helpful to say a bit more about yesterday's text from Psalm 134:2. As you may recall, it reads: "Lift up holy hands in prayer, and praise the LORD." Though I don't want to draw undue attention to the issue of raising hands in prayer and praise, I think it's something that some Christians wonder or even worry about. Perhaps I can offer a bit of wisdom and encouragement concerning this subject.
In my last reflection, I shared some of my own experiences growing up in a Christian tradition that did not raise hands in prayer and worship. Though this gesture was once controversial in my segment of the Christian family, it has become quite common among a wide range of Christians. In many churches today, worshipers feel free either to raise their hands in worship or not to do so, as they feel comfortable. The gesture is simply one way for people to lift up their hearts to the Lord. This, it seems to me, is a good thing.
But, you might wonder, what about the imperative of Psalm 134:2? Doesn't Scripture tell us to lift up our hands in prayer and praise? How can we ignore this command? Moreover, many passages throughout the Bible associate prayer with the lifting of hands. Shouldn't we follow the biblical example? Even more striking, in Paul's first letter to Timothy, he writes, "In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy" (1 Tim. 2:8). How can we ignore this biblical request?
I would never suggest that we ignore any part of Scripture. All of Scripture is God-breathed and authoritative for our lives. Yet, as you know, the books of the Bible were not written directly for us and our culture. They were written for specific communities of people who lived two thousand years ago or more, in cultures vastly different from our own. Faithful understanding and obedience to Scripture requires, therefore, that we wrestle with the wide cultural gaps between biblical times and our own. Often we have to translate, not just the words, but the significance and application of the words.
Take the issue of lifting hands in prayer, for example. This was a normal (if not the normal) practice among people in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was as common among Jews and Christians as folding hands, bowing heads, and closing eyes was common in my early church experience. So, for example, when 1 Kings 8:54 describes Solomon's prayers during the dedication of the temple, it mentions that "he had been kneeling with his hands raised toward heaven." The lifting of hands was not associated only with praise and worship, much less with ecstasy. In Psalm 143, for example, we read: "I lift my hands to you in prayer. I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain" (v. 6).
Therefore, when Psalm 134:2 says, "Lift up holy hands in prayer, and praise the Lord" (literally, "Lift up your holy hands and bless the Lord"), it's not laying down a law that says, "All people in all times must lift their hands when they pray." Rather, this psalm is calling for prayer in the mode that would have been most common for the people of that time. It would be like saying in the church of my youth, "Bow your heads and bless the Lord." Or it would be like saying in certain liturgical churches, "Kneel and bless the Lord." Or, one might also say in many churches today, "Raise your hands and bless the Lord." The exact posture of the worshiper is not the main thing. Rather, the main thing is focusing our attention on God and worshiping him with all that we are, including our bodies.
In tomorrow's reflection, I want to say something more about how we might use our bodies in worship. Today, however, I want to underscore the fact that the cultural translation I have explained in the reflection is not for the purpose of twisting biblical truth or avoiding biblical commandments. On the contrary, we wrestle with Scripture in its cultural context and how this fits within our culture in order that we might rightly understand and apply God's truth. Our purpose is right understanding and faithful obedience.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Why do you think God revealed himself in Scripture that we embedded in particular cultures? Does this make it harder or easier to understand and obey God's Word?
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits Thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
may I know Thee more clearly,
love Thee more dearly,
follow Thee more nearly, day by day.
Prayer attributed to Richard of Chichester, 13th century, England.
Images sourced via Creative Commons.