The Morning and The Evening Sacrifice
Regulations of the Rabbis
There can be no doubt, that at the time of Christ, public prayer occupied a very prominent place in the ordinary daily services of the Temple. After the Jews had returned from Babylon, synagogues started springing up in many places and the practice of public worship soon became general. These synagogues were designed with two things in mind: to have a place where Moses should be read every Sabbath day; and to provide a place where the people could pray.
The works of the Apocrypha reveal painful evidence of how soon what was new and wonderful degenerated into a mere form of routine, and how prayer became a work of self-righteousness by which merit could be obtained.
This brings us to the Pharisees of the New Testament. Things had degenerated a huge amount with their outrageous displays of devotion, and the hypocrisy of their endless prayers which were full of needless repetitions and rigid formulas. The Pharisees had built a huge repertoire of things that one must do to be acceptable to God. It was much more than any person was actually capable of carrying out in their everyday life. In order to really pray like they should, they had to memorize long lines of special prayers, with different ones being used for different purposes.
These forms of prayer were not only used in the Temple, but in daily private devotions. The first trace of them appears as early as the Psalms in chapters 41 and 150. Many of these forms have been found and preserved. Some prayers that were taught by celebrated Rabbis of the day have also been preserved.
It was probably in accordance with this practice that John the Baptist gave forms of prayer to his followers, and how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.
The Lord’s Prayer
This prayer that Jesus gave them far surpassed anything that the Rabbis had ever thought up, even where some of its wording is similar to the prayers that they had taught. There were two parts of this prayer that the Rabbis had never mentioned, though. These are: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ and ‘Lead us not into temptation.’
When the people were in the Temple, they never ended their prayers with Amen, but always with the following benediction: ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever!’ This formula was traced up to the patriarch Jacob, on his death-bed. The feeling was so strong about the ‘kingdom’ that it was said: ‘Any prayer which makes not mention of the kingdom, is not a prayer at all.’
Attitude in Prayer
There was also a certain attitude that had to be observed during prayer. This was defined very boldly by the Rabbis.
the worshipper was to stand turned towards the Holy Place
to compose his body and his clothes
draw his feet close together
cast down his eyes, at least at the beginning of the prayer
to cross his hands over his breast
to stand as a servant before his master with reverence and fear
Even the priests were to look to the ground while they pronounced the priestly blessing. There were different ways also of bowing before the Lord. One could bend the knees, bend the head, or fall prostrate on the ground. The last was deemed as not ‘fit for every man, but only for such as knew themselves righteous men, like Joshua’.
The Two Elements in Prayer
The Rabbis taught that there were two main elements in prayer on the grounds of these being used by Solomon – thanksgiving and petition. The sacrifices were in no means prayers, but only preparation for them. The Tabernacle in olden times was the ‘place of meeting’ between God and Israel. The sacrificial service was the thing that made such a meeting possible and the priest was the person that God used to bring this about. Hence prayer could only follow after the sacrifice itself. Its appropriate symbol and time was burning of incense.
Burning of Incense
It is this very thing which is alluded to in the connection with the birth of John the Baptist. Zacharias had come up from Hebron in the hill country of Judaea to minister in the Temple. His ‘course’ was Abia which was on duty for the week, with the ‘house of his fathers’ being on duty for that special day. Even more incredible, the lot had fallen on Zacharias for the most honorable thing that a priest could do – burning the incense on the golden altar within the Holy Place. He had never been picked for this before, and never would be again. As he entered the Holy Place, he saw Gabriel standing between the altar and the table of shewbread on the right side of the altar. As far as we know, this was the first and only angelic appearance in the Temple. For a more detailed description of what happened while Zacharias was in the Holy Place, go to the text Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah 3-2004 No 10.
The next text will continue with the rest of the preparations that had to be done to prepare for the sacrifice itself.