“But he departed to the wilderness areas and prayed.” (Luke 5:16) (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, Vine of David)
Jesus often rose early in the morning, well before the sun arose, and spent time praying. Why? If he is the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world”, and the Holy Son of God, for what purpose did he need to devote so much of his time to prayer, especially alone? Wouldn’t this time have been better spent teaching his disciples, or praying with them, or, heck, how about sleeping? He had a lot to do, and very little time to do it, after all. It seems rather counter-intuitive that, with so little real time of ministry ahead of him, that he would seek to be alone so often.
What was he praying about? He knew his mission. He knew the will of the Father. For what was he seeking? Well, while no-one can know for certain the full measure or content of the Lord’s prayers to his heavenly Father, what we can know are some of the ways he would have prayed.
We know, as a devout Jewish man, he would have prayed according to the traditions, which means he would have used established liturgy, and he would have prayed morning, afternoon and evening. This is one clue. But, of course, he would not in any way have been limited by those traditions, so that is an incomplete answer.
Another thing we know is that, as the heir of the throne of David, and as the Redeemer after the pattern of Moses, that his prayer life would in some way connect to those men, according to their respective offices, since the Lord fulfills both the role of Moses and the role of King David.
It turns out the Talmud has a number of clues for us concerning how and why the Messiah would pray. In tractate Berakhot, we see several examples of prayer as it relates to Messiah and his role as king and leader and prophet, as well as the agent of God’s redemption, doing the will of the Father.
First, we see David taking on the role of servant in prayer, allowing himself to become ritually defiled in order to provide reconciliation between a woman and her husband. Further, we see David portrayed as consulting, without shame, the advise of Mefivoshet (the son of Jonathan), his junior, in matters of prayer and judgment:
“But I consult my teacher, Mefivoshet, with regard to everything I do. I say to him: Mefivoshet, my teacher, did I decide properly? Did I convict properly? Did I acquit properly? Did I rule ritually pure properly?…And I was not embarressed. Forgoing royal dignity should make me worthy to be called pious.” (Berakhot, 4a, Noe edition)
We see illustrated in this passage the humility of King David, who consults and considers those below him. Meek. A servant. How similar to Christ:
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.’ Peter said to him, ‘Never shall you wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.'”(John 13:6-8)
In other passages in the Talmud, we also see David being portrayed as getting up at midnight to both pray and to study Torah.
But it does not end there. We also see a picture in the Talmud of Moses as the Great Intercessor, a role fulfilled by the Messiah.
“Moses requested three things from the Holy One, Blessed be He, all of which were granted him. (The first two are found in) ‘For how can it be known that I have found grace in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in that You go with us, so that we are distinguished, I and Your people, from all the people that are on the face of the earth?'(Ex.33:16) Lastly, Moses requested that the ways in which God conducts the world be revealed to him…as it is stated, ‘Show my Your ways and I will know You (Ex.33:13)….Rabbi Meir disagreed with Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion, saying that God did NOT reveal to Moses the ways in which He conducts the world. As it is said: ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.'(Ex.33:19)…According to Rabbi Meir, the way in which God…bestows grace and mercy was not revealed even to Moses.” (Berakhot 7a)
This idea comes immediately after a curious discussion in the same Daf of the Talmud, in which the question is asked: “What does God pray?” and “To whom does He pray?”
What a fascinating question! Consider the answer proposed by the Gemara:
“May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger…and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes…and may I conduct Myself toward My children, Israel, with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law.” (Berakhot 7a)
In addition to all this, it is considered the work of the truly righteous to labor in the devotion of sacrificial prayer. Would it then be unusual for our Lord to conduct himself in this manner? No, it would be not only normal, but expected.
Why did the Lord pray for so long? What did he pray for?
He prayed as a servant of his people, his subjects, as King David. Like David, he was sacrificial in his devotion to prayer. He prayed as an intercessor, like Moses, on behalf of the children of Israel, that the Divine Presence would not leave them. Finally, he prayed as God prays, for His attribute of mercy to overcome the attribute of judgment, even “beyond the letter of the law”.
It should not be lost on us either, that Jesus fulfilled the expectation of the truly righteous to be continually devoted to prayer, a practice his disciples were careful to emulate after the resurrection.
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” (Mk.1:35)