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Topics Ancient Hebrew Vocabulary

Ancient Hebrew Words for Prayer

By Kathy Nichols

One of the words meaning to pray is Palal from the parent root PL which literally means “Speak to Authority”. The parent root letters being the picture of a mouth and the picture of a staff . The mouth, in this case, representing speaking, and the staff meaning authority- (hence modern day monarchs holding a sceptre or bishops a crozier.)

In our modern culture, prayer means mainly communication between man and God. This definition certainly does apply to some passages of scripture but it is not the full Hebraic meaning. The parent root pal has the meaning “fall”. Palal literally means to “fall down to the ground in the presence of one in authority to plead a cause.” A good example of this in Scripture is Isaiah 45:14 (the Sabeans fall down and make supplication to Cyrus). It is a coming to one in authority to intercede or plead on one’s own behalf or for another.

Recently, a good friend of mine was visiting a town 10 km from ours and happened to notice an African lady on her knees pleading to another local lady for a lift as she had been left completely stranded. As an asylum seeker from Africa this was a terrifying experience for her. The lady drove off disregarding the woman’s petition, perhaps due partly to the fact that she was completely taken aback by manner of the woman’s request. My friend went to help and brought the African lady and her young child to her destination. It is very unusual in our western culture to experience such intense pleading, but is still common in other cultures, especially where great respect is shown. No wonder Africans know how to pray!

This word Palal also means judgment. In Old Testament times the major judicial decisions were made at the gates and entrance to the city. One reason being it was a broad area and easy for people to gather there. If anyone had a grievance they would go and “speak to authority” to obtain the justice they were looking for. The ancient Hebrew concept of a “judge” is one who restores life. The goal of one that judges or rules is to bring a pleasant and righteous life to the people. We can now picture the people of the day hastening to the gates and when their turn comes, falling down and earnestly asking for intervention in their situation of injustice. The judgement is then what is determined out of the pleading. The people in Bible times had amazing concrete examples of pleading in their daily lives as the courts convened and they saw the daily pleading of those carrying grievances desperately looking for just answers. This picture also reminds us of the persevering widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18:6,7 “Notice what the corrupt judge says. Now won’t God grant justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Is he delaying long over them? I tell you that he will judge in their favour, and quickly! But when the Son of Man comes, will he find this trust on the earth at all?

In Psalm 106:30 we read that Phineas stood up and wrought judgement so the plague was stopped. The word judgement here is also Palal. In other words he intervened with zealous action and protected more people from dying by the plague. His action of intervention was counted to him as righteousness, to all generations forever. By honouring the Lord in such a way, Phineas is still being honoured today. Often during prayer we become enlightened on how to act or how to bring about God’s justice into a situation. A key aspect is that prayer and action can and ought to be closely related because prayer and justice are linked in God’s mind and in His language.

Palal is also used of Samuel in 1 Sam 12:23 “.. far be it from me to sin against Adonai by ceasing to pray (palal) for you! Rather I will continue instructing you in the good and the right way. ” Samuel’s role was to pray, but also to give instruction which together brought about righteousness and justice. Remembering that Samuel was a judge meant he understood his responsibility in prayer for the people. Here again we can see prayer and action clearly linked. In Hebrew often when the word “and/or but” is used it is not joining two separate sentences like in English, but two ideas which are linked. In our western culture we have been trained to separate things into definite categories, thus sometimes giving a different meaning to the one originally intended by the Biblical author. Some other words from the PL root are Paliyl and Peliylah which mean a magistrate and justice respectively. The magistrate renders the judgement, which we saw are “what is determined out of the pleading”.

In Ecc 4:17-5:1 we are reminded to guard our feet when we go to the house of God and be ready to listen and not be quick to speak. This is perfect advice for prayer if we truly desire to “magistrate” or “judge” situations as God wants us to because we need to hear from Him how to pray for something before actually praying. After all, a magistrate or judge would hardly give a verdict without hearing the case first. In the same way I think the Lord is surprised when we assume how to pray without discerning what He wants to do and thus what we should ask for.

The most common noun for prayer in scripture is t’phillah – which also has the same PL root and in fact comes from the word palal. In Hebrew it is common for verbs to be formed into nouns as the language is very much action-based. This is very different to our modern western languages and culture which consider what we think or believe more valuable and separated from what we do.

Previously we have seen that the original meaning of to pray is to fall down and plead. This in turn brings about a judgment. Because we serve a God who is full of loving-kindness, He desires to bring about a positive judgment. This brings us to the next point.

Another word from the PL root is pala. Added to this root is the letter aleph which in its original picture form is an ox head meaning “strength”. This word means “perform” i.e. a great work (performed) as an act of intercession (out of a judgement). It is translated wonder, marvellous, and extraordinary. Pala is used primarily with God as its subject, expressing actions that “.. and in our eyes it is amazing! ” Psalm 118:23. Interestingly the first use of this word is in Gen 18:14 “Is any thing too hard (pala) for Adonai? ” Yet, on the other hand God does not require anything of us that is too difficult (pala). Deut 30:11. This certainly lifts our faith to new heights of trust in God for awesome things when we pray. In prayer for our own neighbourhoods, towns, counties God is waiting to do great miracles out of the pleadings of His people, because in His heart prayer and miracles are very much related. Miracles are the judgement God wants to bring about. To our 21st century minds this positive understanding of judgement can seem foreign, but is in fact soundly Biblical.

However, with our new understanding of these various words let’s now look at 1 Chron 16:12 “Remember the wonders (pala) He has done, His signs, and his spoken judgments.

Hebrew is also a very concrete language. In other words uses concepts that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled and heard.

Just on the fun side. In 2 Sam 17 when David’s friends brought supplies and food, beans were included. The word for bean is also from because of its bent shape as one bowing before one in authority. So whenever you see beans from now on, be reminded that our pleadings and prayers are making a difference to the One in authority who will bring about justice!!

The second word usually translated intercession is the child root “paga. You will recognise the (peh) which is the picture of a mouth. The first new picture form in this word is the picture of a foot which means to walk, gather, carry etc. It has the “g” sound. Paga means a chance meeting or encounter, or to place as a meeting. This could be an impingement, which figuratively means to attack with persistent requests. It can be persistently, even to the point of annoyance! When we read this, we are immediately drawn to the parables and sayings of Jesus concerning asking, seeking and knocking. No doubt God loves us to impinge on His wonderful grace to enable those we pray for to fulfill the role they were intended for. An unripe fig becoming ripe! In actual fact the parent root of “paga” the word pag means “Unable to fulfill the role intended for. An unripe fig!” The third picture added to this parent root is the picture of an eye which means experience, to see, to know and understand. In prayer we desire to ask for those who are living unfulfilled lives without the Lord, or lives with affliction and inability, because we have experienced and know what God can do for them. Having received this experience from such a benevolent and kind creator should challenge us to walk as close to Him as we can. This will enable God to touch our hearts in prayer to experience at times how other people feel and also how He Himself feels. This is an immense honour.

“while actually bearing the sin of many and interceding for the offenders.” (Is 53:12)

“Adonai saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice; He saw there was no one, and was amazed that that no one interceded. Therefore His own arm brought him salvation…” (Is 59:15b,16a)

Here the words for intercession are “paga”.

So what Isaiah is pointing out is that God desired to bring about justice, but there was no intercessor – no-one willing to impinge on Him and because of the terrible state of the land, and no-one praying, God was appalled and disappointed.

A fascinating use of “paga” is found in Isaiah 53:6 ..the Lord laid (paga) on him the iniquity of us all.” The word is meaning our sins “fell” on Jesus, (so we could become what He intended). If one reads through all the verses using “paga” a good number of them are about “falling on” someone and the person dying, so there is great intensity in this word.

Interestingly, the Latin word peccare “to sin”, is associated with the Hebrew word “pag” (unripe fig). Some believe that the tree of knowledge was the fig tree. Rashi (A well-known Jewish sage) says it has to do with the fact that they used fig leaves to cover themselves: “..which they had eaten, and by the very thing by which they were corrupted they were rectified.” Other commentators deduce this because the fig tree was obviously nearest them when they discovered they were naked.

(ShL) meaning to “draw out”. The new picture we have in ShL is the which is a picture of teeth meaning “to press, devour, eat and also double/two and is the “Sh” sound.

(Shael) is to draw out something that is not known. This word is used frequently in asking for God’s direction and counsel.

“…And the men sampled some of their food, but didn’t seek the advice of Adonai.” (Joshua 9:14)

“Seek the advice” is “shael”.

“‘Woe to the rebellious children’, says Adonai, “They make plans, but the plans are not mine; they develop alliances, but not from My Spirit.. They go down to Egypt, but don’t consult me (shael)….” (Is 30:2)

The Father of Zerubabel was Shealtiel which means “I have asked God”. No doubt he asked God many times for restoration, then saw the fulfillment through his own son – what a blessing.

The “shuwl” or edge of the robe worn by the priests when they ministered had pomegranates and bells on them. Isaiah saw the “shuwl” of God fill the temple. (Is 6). In Mathew 14, Mark 5 and Luke 8 we read of people touching the “shuwl” or hem of Jesus’ garment and being healed. One woman particularly had faith for healing, and when she touched the hem/shuwl of Jesus garment, was instantly healed. Jesus knew power had gone out of Him and so he asked the crowd to the surprise of the disciples watching the people pressing against Him. The woman came forward. She had certainly been healed by “drawing out” the power of God. Jesus answered her prayer and commended her faith.

Many times we may ask why some prayers take so long to answer. It is important that we trust and persevere in prayer, even when there is seemingly no solutions and the answers to our prayers are being “drawn out”. Like we read earlier in Luke 18 “... Is he delaying long over them? I tell you that he will judge in their favour, and quickly! But when the Son of Man comes, will he find this trust on the earth at all? ” Our “quickly” and God’s “quickly” many times don’t coincide because we like fast answers to prayers, especially when we are in a tight or difficult place. We may experience a lengthy delay before God answers some prayers. This can be because the overall purposes of God are more important to Him than our individual prayers or needs. Of this we can be certain - God will bring about His justice on His return. As Jesus says in the book of Revelation “I will come quickly”. From our human point of view it doesn’t seem quick at all, but God doesn’t lie and from his perspective the timing will be perfect. The important thing is that we trust in Him whether we receive immediate or delayed answers. We were pleased to receive a fast answer to prayer last week. My fourteen year old daughter told us two girls from her year which she knew had run away from home and the parents were obviously very anxiously trying to find them with the help of the Gardai (Police). Leanne and I prayed about the situation then and there during the afternoon. By 11pm that night we heard that the parents were on their way to collect the girls who were found safe and well outside Dublin, around three hours from where we live.

Solomon, the son of David, the man who loved wisdom. His name comes from shalam meaning peace and completeness. The root ShL “to draw out” enables us understand Solomon’s name even more when we remember the Lord appeared to him in a dream asking him what he wanted. (1 Kings 3). The word used for “ask” shael is also from the ShL root. Solomon pleased the Lord by asking for wisdom. Wisdom was the means by which everything was created. Solomon by lifting his voice for wisdom and seeking her foremost and above all else, was able to draw out the most precious treasures of God’s greatness and apply them to governing the people in justice, righteousness and with great prosperity and peace. (1 Kings 4:25) To prosper is a drawing out of what is needed. He also possessed great knowledge in understanding creation. All this in turn inspired the nations of the earth to come to hear, seek and draw out the wisdom of the God of Israel for themselves by coming to Solomon. (1 Kings 10:24)


Special thanks to my ongoing Hebrew teacher Fr John Durkan and also Jeff Benner for his awesome research and personal encouragement.

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