In the Biblical accounts involving prayer, oftentimes the petitioner’s posture is described. For example, Abraham fell upon his face before God (see Genesis 17:3, 17). Moses prayed with his hands outstretched (see Exodus 9:27–29). King Solomon both knelt and spread his hands toward Heaven in prayer (see I Kings 8:54). Jesus prayed while looking up to Heaven (see Mark 6:41, John 11:41, and 17:1).
Communication with God does not require a certain physical position, neither is a particular position prescribed for a particular occasion. However, our prayer postures can give expression to the attitudes of our hearts. For example, if we have an attitude of humility or gratefulness, certain postures can be an appropriate way to express these attitudes. The heart of the one who worships is what matters most to God. Let’s look at several postures and other aspects of prayer positions that God mentions in His Word, as well as the underlying heart attitudes which they may represent. We will also consider appropriate times and situations in which we may choose to incorporate them in our prayer times with God.
Lying Prostrate before God
No position symbolizes humility as much as being on our faces before God. This prayer position demonstrates being poor in spirit, which is the first heart attitude Jesus mentions in His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructed His followers to learn from His example of being “meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Lying prostrate on our faces indicates we recognize our utter unworthiness to be in God’s presence. In Revelation 1:17, the Apostle John wrote about his immediate response to being in the presence of Jesus: “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last.”
Interestingly, most occurrences of the Hebrew word rendered “bow” or “bow down” in the Scriptures refers to this type of bowing one’s whole body before the Lord. In today’s Christian culture, we tend to equate this word primarily to the act of bowing one’s head in prayer. However, the original meaning is that of falling prostrate bodily in the Lord’s presence.
One who bows in this way before God conveys an attitude of honor, gratitude, and worship, acknowledging that all things come from His hand. When Job suffered great losses, he bowed down on the ground: “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:20–21).
A wise way that we may begin each day is to get on our faces before God. Humbly, we can acknowledge our unworthiness, inadequacy, and inability to accomplish His will without Him. We should plead for His mercy as a beggar destitute of his own resources and trust that His strength and goodness will sustain us throughout the day. Lying prostrate before God may express the following attitudes:
- It acknowledges our total unworthiness.
When God made a covenant with Abraham, Abraham recognized his unworthiness before God and “fell on his face” before the Lord (see Genesis 17:1–3).
- It recognizes our need for God’s mercy.
When the leper came to Jesus for healing, he fell on his face and begged for mercy, saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” (Luke 5:12).
- It shows a proper response to a serious crisis.
Often when the leaders of Israel faced impossible situations and knew that only God could deliver them, they fell on their faces before Him and sought His aid (see Numbers 20:2–6 and Joshua 7:1–6).
- It expresses worship and reverence.
When God answered the prayer of Abraham’s servant, the man “worshipped the LORD, bowing himself to the earth” (Genesis 24:52).
Kneeling before God
When we repent of our sins, we appeal to the Lord for His mercy and forgiveness. Kneeling before God indicates a heart attitude of meekness as we acknowledge both His majesty and power as well as our humble dependence upon Him. We are in the presence of the King! Kneeling before Him is an appropriate response, as it can express the following:
- It acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Kneeling before God provides a visual image of submission to His authority. In fact, at a future point in time, Christ’s lordship over all will be acknowledged when one day every knee will bow before God, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God (see Philippians 2:9–11).
- It indicates an earnest appeal.
King Solomon began his lengthy prayer to God standing before the altar and his hands spread toward Heaven (see I Kings 8:22–23). However, by the end of his fervent appeal to the Lord for mercy, grace, and blessing upon the people and to bless the Temple, he was kneeling (see I Kings 8:54). Likewise, Elijah knelt in earnest prayer when he asked the Lord to send rain to end Israel’s drought (see I Kings 18:41–46).
- It demonstrates personal humility.
The psalmist humbled himself before the Lord and encouraged others to do the same by kneeling and bowing in worship: “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker” (Psalm 95:6).
Sitting before the Lord
In Scripture, we find that sitting before the Lord is a lesser mentioned posture for prayer. A seated posture could indicate a position of authority, such as that of a teacher (see Matthew 24:3) or that of the city rulers who sat in their official places to judge and to have their judgments carried out (see Deuteronomy 16:18 and Proverbs 31:23). While we do not exercise authority over the Lord when we sit before Him in prayer, this posture can reflect the position of authority we have as fellow-heirs with Christ. On the other hand, a seated position can demonstrate the heart of a learner receiving important instructions from his master or teacher (see Acts 22:3). Sitting together may also indicate friendship or fellowship (see Luke 24:29–30). Still also, there might be practical reasons for praying while sitting, such as weakness or fatigue. However, we note the following examples from Scripture:
- It reminds us that all believers are seated with Christ in Heaven.
When we recognize our sinful condition before God, repent of our sins, and believe in Jesus Christ, we are adopted by God. We are seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father (see Ephesians 2:4–7).
- It displays a hearing heart and a teachable spirit.
Once when the Israelites were desperate to hear and obtain direction from the Lord regarding their next steps for battle, they came to the house of God where they sat, wept, fasted, offered sacrifices, and enquired of the Lord (see Judges 20:26–28). On another occasion, David sat before the Lord in awe of a message received from the prophet Nathan that David’s kingdom would be established and his son privileged to build a temple for the Lord (see II Samuel 7:18–29).
- It symbolizes intimate fellowship.
At the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry, before He was to suffer, die, and be separated from His inner circle of beloved disciples, He chose to sit with them and share His heart with them around the Passover table, where they enjoyed close fellowship (see Luke 22:14–16). We, too, can enjoy this type of intimacy with our Lord as we sit with Him and share our hearts with Him and He with us (see Revelation 3:20). Another example is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who learned and worshipped at Jesus’ feet. She also sat before Him as one who had an intimate friendship with the Lord (see Luke 10:38–42).
Standing before the Lord
To “stand before” a ruler indicates that you have a legal right to be there, and you are equipped and well-suited to serve or be employed by that sovereign or other person. Only through the righteousness of Jesus Christ are we able to approach God as His children: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1–2). Although we have a right to stand before God, we also have a great need to come before Him as we depend on His mercy and grace. This position of prayer may reflect the following attitudes:
- It reaffirms one’s commitment to the Lord and His ways.
After the Israelites returned from exile, they reaffirmed their covenant to serve only Jehovah. After standing to read the Law, confess their sins, and worship, praise, and bless the Lord, they made “sure” the covenant by writing it down and sealing it. (See Nehemiah 9:1–38.) Another example is when King Josiah led the people of Judah to renew their covenant with the Lord after years of neglecting Him and His Word. They stood to commit to God their desire to walk after Him and to keep His commandments with all their hearts. (See II Chronicles 34:29–32.)
- It demonstrates a readiness to serve.
Daniel and his companions were to be prepared to “stand before the king” (Daniel 1:5) and to serve him. As we follow the truth of God’s Word, we too can “be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (II Timothy 2:21). Since we have been “made free from sin,” we become the “servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).
- It petitions for help in time of battle (literally or figuratively).
When the Moabites and Ammonites rose up against them, King Jehoshaphat stood with all the people of Judah to plead their cause before Jehovah, their Righteous Judge and Protector, to demonstrate both their desperate need for Him and their readiness to battle for Him if He would be with them (see II Chronicles 20:1–17).
Besides the postures one may assume in prayer, there are other physical expressions we may choose to use, such as bowing our heads, lifting our eyes, and stretching forth our hands or arms. Here we will briefly look at those three physical expressions.
Bowing the Head
As a child you may have been taught to “bow your head and close your eyes” when you pray. While there are practical reasons for doing so, such as to show reverence and humility or to help focus one’s attention, we do not see depictions of this idea in Scripture. Our modern-day connotation of bowing is usually to bow the head, while in the Bible this term, as mentioned earlier, generally is used in the context of kneeling (“bowing the knee” in Philippians 2:10) or prostrating oneself (“bowing himself to the earth” in Genesis 24:52). One who bows before God in this way conveys an attitude of honor, gratitude, and worship, acknowledging that all things come from His hand.
Looking Up toward Heaven
Looking at a person eye-to-eye and face-to-face indicates confidence and honesty. It is indicative of an open, trusting relationship. The Gospels record many instances when Jesus prayed, looking up to Heaven. Praying while looking heavenward may demonstrate that we know our help comes from God on High (see Psalm 121:1–2). Praying while looking up can also display confident faith (see John 11:41–42). Sometimes when we are in deep communion with our Heavenly Father, we may look up as if looking into His face. Jesus, Who enjoyed perfect fellowship with His Father, looked upward the night before His crucifixion, when He was pouring out His heart to His Father in Heaven (see John 17:1–2).
Lifting Up the Arms or Hands
In the Scriptures, uplifted hands were symbolic of seeking God’s mercy and blessing. This position of prayer reflects attitudes of worship and appeal for God’s blessing. Moses lifted his hands in prayer as he appealed to God’s sovereign power so that Pharaoh might “know how that the earth is the LORD’s” (Exodus 9:29). (See also Exodus 17:11). When King Solomon dedicated the Temple to God, he “spread forth his hands toward heaven” and prayed, worshipping God and petitioning Him for His blessing (see I Kings 8:22–23, 28–29).
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. . . . I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (I Timothy 2:1–2, 8).
Whatever posture you assume while talking with God, prayer is a vital part of your relationship with Him. While the position assumed in prayer can be meaningful to both the one praying and to God, the Lord is most concerned with the attitude of the heart. As we humble ourselves before Him and express our utter dependence on Him—no matter our posture—He will hear us and answer. The Apostle Paul challenges us to be faithful in this discipline of prayer: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).