Notes on Prayer: Colossians 1:3; 4:2-3, etc

We conclude our series of studies on the references to prayer in the Pauline letters with a survey of the remaining letters—beginning with Philemon and Colossians, and then turning to consider the references in the disputed letters of Ephesians and 1 Timothy.

Philemon 4-6, 22

The letter to Philemon was, of course, written to an individual rather to the collective believers of a city or territory. Even so, the references to prayer follow the same pattern of the other letters addressed to congregations. The references occur in the introduction (thanksgiving) and closing (exhortation) sections of the letter-body, and are framed specifically in terms of the relationship between Paul and his audience. The prayer references in the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) could have easily been lifted right out of one of the other Pauline letters.

“I give thanks to my God for (His) good favor, always making mention of you in my (time)s of speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxai/], hearing of your love and trust which you hold toward the Lord Yeshua and (directed) to all the holy (one)s, so that the communication of your trust might come to be working in (the) knowledge about every good (thing) that (is) in you for (the sake of the) Anointed…” (vv. 4-6)

Several of the features here we have seen repeatedly:

    • Paul refers to making mention of the believers (here, Philemon) to God regularly during his times in prayer
    • He gives thanks because of their faithfulness in response to the Gospel (as it has been reported to him)—trusting in Jesus, demonstrating love, growing in faith and virtue and understanding
    • He expresses the wish that they continue to remain faithful

But Paul’s prayers are only one side of the relationship that he holds (as an apostle) with the congregations—they are also asked to pray for him. And so Paul would request this of Philemon as well, just as he does at the close of the letter:

“…but also make ready for me a place (of lodging) for the stranger, for I hope that, through your speaking out toward (God) [proseuxai/], I shall be given to you as a favor (from God).” (v. 22)

The middle-passive verb xari/zomai means “show favor, give (something) as a favor”; in the passive, it refers to the gift or favor itself. It is related to the verb eu)xariste/w in v. 4, which, in a religious context, refers to the favor shown by God, and the gratitude or thanks that we show to Him (in response) for this favor. Here, the favor God will show, through the cooperation of Philemon in his prayers, is to allow Paul the opportunity to visit him.

Colossians 1:3, 9

The prayer references in Colossians follow the same Pauline pattern. The first references occur in the introduction (exordium), which may be divided into two sections—the first containing the thanksgiving (1:3-8), and the second, Paul’s exhortational prayer-wish for the Colossian believers (1:9-14). The opening reference to prayer in the thanksgiving (v. 3) is virtually identical to the statement in Philemon 4 (cf. above). Notably, the statement in Colossians is given in the first-person plural: “We give thanks to God for (His) good favor…always over you, speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxo/menoi]”. In Colossians, Paul gives particular emphasis to his co-workers and fellow missionaries, and so the plural here is significant (cf. verse 7, and further below).

As is typical for Paul, his thanksgiving effectively takes the form of praise for the faithfulness of the believers he is addressing. Specific mention is made of their trust and love, remaining firm in the truth of the Gospel (vv. 4-5), as also of their growth in virtue and understanding (vv. 6-7), and of unity in the Spirit.

The second prayer-reference in the introduction, correspondingly, comes at the opening of the exhortational prayer-wish in vv. 9ff:

“Through [i.e. because of] this we also, from the day on which we heard (this), do not cease speaking out toward (God) [proseuxo/menoi] over you…” (v. 9a)

Paul’s wish (as a prayer to God) is for the Colossians to continue in faith and virtue, growing further in spiritual knowledge and understanding, etc.:

“…and asking (Him) that you would be filled (with) the knowledge about His will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b)

The remainder of the prayer-wish—also to be characterized as an intercessory request—is phrased in the typical manner of early Christian ethical instruction and exhortation, of which there certainly are a number of Pauline examples:

“…(for you) to walk about (in a manner) up to a level (worthy) of the Lord, into everything (that is) pleasing (to Him), bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God, being (em)powered in all power, according to the might of His splendor…” (vv. 10-11a)

Also typical of Paul, is the eschatological aspect of this exhortation—a theme that is developed throughout the letter—but nuanced here with a strong dualistic Christological emphasis:

“…(the Father), (hav)ing made us fit for the portion of the lot of the holy (one)s in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the power [e)cousi/a] of darkness and made (us) stand over into the kingdom of His (be)loved Son—in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the putting away of sins” (vv. 12-14)

On the Christological hymn (‘Christ hymn’) that follows in vv. 15-20, cf. my earlier series of notes.

Colossians 4:2-3, 12

The Pauline pattern continues with the prayer-references in the closing (exhortation) section of the letter (4:2-6). Typically, in these sections Paul emphasizes the other side of the prayer relationship between himself and the congregations—namely, that they should regularly be praying for him. He leads into this with a general exhortation for the Colossians to remain firm in prayer:

“In speaking out toward (God) [proseuxh/], you must be firm toward (it), keeping awake in it with thanks for (His) good favor” (v. 2)

The verb proskartere/w (“be firm/strong toward [something]”) is a key word characterizing the unity of believers in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4; 8:13; 10:7). Paul also uses it in Romans (12:12; 13:6), and the prayer context of its use in 12:12 is comparable to what we find here. The noun eu)xaristi/a corresponds to the related verb eu)xariste/w in 1:3 (cf. above), emphasizing again the relationship between prayer and the favor God shows to us. As Paul makes clear, there are two aspects to this relationship: (1) we give thanks for the favor God has shown, and (2) we ask that He will continue to show us favor, and that we will act in a manner that is worthy of His favor.

The prayer-emphasis shifts in verse 3:

“…at the same time, also speaking out toward (God) over us, that God would open up for us a door for the account [lo/go$], to speak the secret [musth/rion] of the Anointed, through which I have been bound”

The prayers believers are to make on his behalf typically relate specifically to his missionary work, defined in terms of preaching the Gospel. Here, two key terms are used, in a technical sense, for the Gospel:

    • lo/go$, “account,” that is, a spoken account, shorthand for the expression the “account of God” (Acts 4:31; 6:2, et al)—viz., the account of what God has done through the person of Jesus.
    • musth/rion, “secret” —on this usage, cf. the recent discussion on Rom 16:25-26, as well as my earlier word study series. The Gospel of Christ is a “secret,” hidden throughout all the ages past, and revealed only now, at the present time, through the kerygma (proclamation) by the prophets and apostles of the early Christian mission.

This is a regular theme in Paul’s prayer-references—that believers work together with him (and his fellow missionaries), through their prayers. We have seen repeatedly in our studies the importance of praying for the needs of others, rather than simply for our own needs. It is a key New Testament principle that such selfless and sacrificial prayer is assured of being answered by God.

As in the introduction (cf. above), Paul uses the first-person plural. Sometimes he does this in his letters as a rhetorical device, but here he is specifically including his fellow missionaries and co-workers with him. In the closing that follows in vv. 7-17, Paul mentions ten different persons, among them Epaphras in vv. 12-13. He was mentioned earlier in 1:7, and also in Philemon 23 (both in the context of the prayer-references, cf. above). Epaphras apparently was an apostolic missionary in his own right, and one who would have had much more frequent contact with the congregations of the region. Paul refers to him much as he does to himself, as a “slave” (dou=lo$) of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1). In 1:7 the word is su/ndoulo$ (“slave together with [me/us]”), while in Philem 23 he is called “one taken captive [lit. at spearpoint] together with (me)” (sunaixma/lwto$), i.e. “co-prisoner, fellow prisoner”.

Like Paul, Epaphras’ role as an apostolic missionary led him to pray frequently (and fervently) for the believers of that area. Paul describes this here in v. 12 as “struggling over you in his speaking out toward (G0d) [proseuxai/]”. The verb is a)gwni/zomai (“struggle”), used, viz., in athletic competitions; it is something of a Pauline term, as 6 of the 8 NT occurrences are in the Pauline letters (elsewhere, 1 Cor 9:25; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). The occurrences of the substantive (verbal noun), a)gw/n, used in a similar context, should also be noted—1 Thess 2:2; Phil 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7. In Paul’s usage, the verb alludes to believers (esp. missionaries) laboring—and enduring suffering—for the sake of the Gospel.




Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 2)

Psalm 59, continued

As noted in the previous study, there are two stanzas to the poem (miktam) of Psalm 59, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18). The poetic and thematic structure is as follows:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 2: VV. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11bc [10bc]

“(The) Mightiest shall go before me,
He shall let me look on (those) watching me.”

The opening verses of the second stanza follow a different meter—a 2-beat (2+2) rather than 3-beat (3+3) couplet. As discussed in the previous study, the traditional verse division here is incorrect, and the first line of verse 11 [10] (a) belongs with v. 10 [9].

The theme of the second stanza—God’s judgment on the wicked (i.e., the Psalmist’s adversaries)—is established here in the initial couplet. The Psalmist expects (and anticipates) that YHWH will answer his prayer (stanza 1), acting to protect and deliver him from his enemies. The first line expresses this clearly and concisely: “the Mightiest shall go before me,” using the verb <d^q* in the sense of “go first, go ahead,” so as to meet the Psalmist’s enemies and strike them.

The verb in the second line is ha*r* (“see”); the nuance of this common verb in the hiphil stem (“make/let me see”), in this context, is tied to the idea of the judgment/punishment of the wicked. I have translated it here as “let me look on (them)” —that is, look on their punishment (indeed, with some satisfaction). The enemies are described as “watchers” (from the root rWv [II]), that is, they watch his every move, with wicked intent, waiting for a chance to strike. There is thus a bit of semantic wordplay here, with the Psalmist looking on those who have been watching him.

Verse 12 [11]

“Mighty (One), slay them, lest my people wither;
stagger them with your strength,
and bring them down!
(You are) our protection, (O) my Lord.”

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 71) in vocalizing the initial word as la@ (“Mighty [One],” El, i.e., ‘God’), rather than the negative particle la^. Asking God not to slay his enemies makes little sense in context. Also reading the divine title la@ here provides a fitting parallel for the related <yh!l)a$ in the first line of the prior couplet (cf. above).

Quite possibly, the reference to “my people,” which otherwise seems somewhat out of place here, is a vestige of the royal background we see in many such Psalms. The king represents the people and serves as their protector; an attack on the king ultimately affects the people as well. The verb jk^v* is best understood in the specific sense of “wither” (rather than “forget”); this particular meaning may derive from a separate root jkv (II).

Military imagery is utilized in the second line, indicating that YHWH will defeat the Psalmist’s enemies. The two verbs (in the hiphil imperative) are u^Wn (“shake, waver, stagger”) and dr^y` (“go down,” hiphil “make go down, bring down”). To “go down” here carries the specific added meaning of going down to the realm of the dead (Sheol), i.e., being killed. The imperfect verb form in the first line is to be read with jussive force, matching the imperatives in the second line.

The specific motif is of YHWH (“my Lord”) as the Psalmist’s protection, drawing upon a covenantal theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms; the noun used is /g@m*, literally “place of protection”.

The rhythm of this expanded couplet is 3+3+2.

Verse 13 [12]

“(By the) sin of their mouth and pestilence of their lips,
may they be captured!
In their rising (up) and cursing and lying,
may they be counted!”

The meter of this verse also is irregular (loosely, a 4-beat couplet). One might be inclined to emend the text (along with that of v. 12) and reorder (or redivide) these lines to achieve metrical consistency (i.e., 3-beat couplets); cf. Kraus, p. 539. Indeed, the only way both stanzas of the Psalm could (originally) have been sung to the same melody, is if they had the same meter. Unfortunately, such consistitency is practically impossible to recover now (if it ever truly existed). It must be said that the poetic structure of v. 13, as we have it, seems to demand a 4-beat couplet format.

Each line ends with a niphal imperfect with jussive force:

    • Wdk=L*y] (“may they be captured”)
    • WrP@S*y] (“may they be counted”)

I follow Dahood (II, p. 73) in reading wrpsy as a niphal form, rather than the piel of the Masoretic vocalization (WrP@s^y+). The idea of being “counted” should be understood as being judged (by God) as wicked. The root rps can relate to the act of recording—i.e., of a person being written down. Quite plausibly the intended image here is of the wicked being recorded as destined for death (and Sheol); cp. Jeremiah 17:13. This is parallel to the image of the names of the righteous being recorded in God’s book [rp#s@] ‘of life’ (Exod 32:32-33, etc). To be “captured” (vb dk^l*) in this context means to be captured by death and the grave.

The behavior of the wicked that results in their punishment (and death) is defined in terms of the evil that they speak. In the first line are the twin expressions “sin of their mouth” and “pestilence [rbd] of their lips”; in the second line, these are matched by the collective (verbal) nouns hl*a* (“cursing”) and vj^K^ (“lying”). There is a bit of wordplay in the first line with the word rbd, since rb*D* generally means “word,” while rb#D# means “pestilence” —i.e., the pestilence of the wicked is in their evil/sinful speaking.

Verse 14 [13]

“Finish (them) in your hot (anger), finish (them),
and may they no longer (be)!
Then they shall know that (the) Mightiest is ruling in Ya’aqob,
(even) to (the) ends of the earth.”

This is another long 4-beat (4+4) couplet, followed by an extra 2-beat line; the last line fits uneasily, and may be a secondary addition to the stanza.

The Psalmist’s call for judgment on his enemies reaches a high pitch in this final couplet, repeating the imperative hL@K^ (“finish [them off]!”). It is almost as though the protagonist is attempting to stoke the flames of YHWH’s hot anger (“heat,” hm*j@) himself. The extreme nature of this imprecation is indicated by the concluding word “may they no longer (be)”. This act of judgment, however, also has a higher purpose, beyond simply punishing (and putting to death) the wicked—it will demonstrate, in the most dramatic terms, that YHWH (the Mightiest, <yh!l)a$) is indeed the King and Judge over all the earth.

Refrain: vv. 15-18 [14-17]

This refrain matches that of the first stanza (vv. 7-10a [6-9a]); however, the wording is not identical. Only the points of difference will be noted below; for the remainder of the refrain, cf. the previous study.

Verse 15 [14]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

Essentially identical with v. 7 [6] (discussed in the previous study).

Verse 16 [15]

“Howling, they wander (about for something) to eat,
(and) if not satisfied, they do (not) stop for the night.”

This couplet holds the same place as v. 8 [7] in the first refrain, but differs entirely in wording (and emphasis) from that earlier couplet. Here the action of the wicked fits much better, contextually, with the image of a pack of hungry dogs roaming the city at night. Indeed, v. 16 continues the imagery of v. 15. I follow Dahood (II, p. 73f) in reading the initial word hmh as a verbal element (from the root hmh, “cry [out], howl, growl,” same as in v. 15), rather than the pronoun hM*h@ (“they”). Also (with him) I recognize an implied (second) negative particle in the second line.

Verse 17 [16]

“But I, I will sing of your strength,
and will ring out your goodness in the morning;
for you have been (the) place high up for me,
and a place to flee in (the) day of distress for me.”

This pair of couplets corresponds to the couplet in v. 9 [8], but they are altogether different, both in form and content. The lines here are more fitting for the conclusion of the Psalm as a whole, emphasizing the aspect of public praise and worship that we find frequently at the close of Psalms. The first couplet expresses this theme of praise, in traditional/conventional terms. The strength (zu)) of YHWH is praised in tandem with His goodness (ds#j#); the latter noun often connotes faithfulness and loyalty (in the context of the covenant-bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

The second couplet returns to the central theme of YHWH as the Psalmist’s protection. Two locative nouns are used, in parallel, to express this: (1) bG`c=m! (“place high up”), and (2) sonm* (“place [to which] to flee”, i.e., place of refuge).

Verse 18 [17]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

These lines are essentially identical with those of vv. 10-11a [9-10a] which close the refrain of the first stanza (cf. the previous study). In the second line of v. 10, the verb is rm^v*, while here it is rm^z`, but the meaning is certainly the same (“guard”). If rmz is correct here, then it would seem to be a stylistic variant, with no difference in meaning. It may reflect an older/archaic meaning of the root rmz (zmr), attested, it would seem, by the Ugaritic cognate root (¼mr).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).