The first real prayer found in the Bible shows us how to pray
Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,’ I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children. For You said, ‘I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered’” (Gen. 32:9–12 NASB).
This is the first real prayer found in the Bible. Of course, there were many times before when people spoke to God and it is recorded, but this is the earliest example of someone praying directly to God. This prayer is not only simple, but earnest. Not only humble, but also bold. Not only short, but inclusive. Let’s see what we can learn from it.
First, Jacob addressed a specific Person in his prayer—Elohim, the God of his fathers, who is also Yahweh, the great I AM, the ever-existing One (v. 9). Though we don’t have to use God’s name when we pray, it helps us to concentrate on who God is as we approach Him. God had promised Jacob land and descendants (Gen. 28:13). His prayer is based on that.
God had also told Jacob to leave his uncle Laban and return to Canaan (v. 9b, also 31:3). In obedience, Jacob was now on his way home. Furthermore, before he presented his request to God, he humbled himself before God. He called himself a servant (v. 10), who is unworthy of God’s goodness toward him. This is not the man who brazenly stole his brother Esau’s birthright (Gen. 25:27–34) and then his blessing (27:1–29). He is not the man who, meeting God in a dream at Bethel, was afraid (28:17) and seemingly bargained with God (“If God will . . .” 28:20). His experiences since then had changed him and now God was his God. He realized that it was God who had blessed him all along (32:10). Before we make any requests of God, we need to acknowledge who He is to us and what He has done in our lives.
Now Jacob was ready to make his request (32:11). He was honest about his fear. Times of fear should be times of prayer. Whatever causes us to fear should drive us to our knees. In Jacob’s case, God had blessed him with two companies (v. 10), including his wives and their children. Jacob was worried for them. His brother Esau was coming toward him with 400 men (v. 6), with unknown intentions. So Jacob asked God to protect his family (v. 11).
This request was not presumptuous, though. It was based on who God was and what God had said and done in the past. That is important. God had promised to make his “descendants as the sand of the sea” (v.12). Jacob was holding God to His promise. We can be bold in asking God to fulfill his promises in our lives, even when circumstances seem to deny the possibility.
So in this simple prayer, we see that Jacob recognized God for who He is and showed gratitude for what He had done for him. He humbled himself before the Lord who had done such wonderful things. But he was also fervent in his desire for God to answer his prayer for protection for him and his family. He based that on God’s promises to him. May we, too, approach God in humility and boldness, knowing that He loves to answer our prayers according to His promises and according to His will.
“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).