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Followers of Christ know that God deserves our rapt attention when we pray. We yearn for prayer to be an astonishing experience of love, joy, awe, and reverence in the presence of God. But all too often our thoughts turn to other things. Attention to the Lord falls to the side.

Still, we can take heart. The Scriptures offer us many ways to give our minds over to the Lord when we pray. If we become familiar with these paths and follow them, we will draw near to God and He will draw near to us.

One such path appears in the opening lines of Psalm 123:

To you I lift up my eyes,

O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

As the eyes of servants

look to the hand of their master,

Behold, as the eyes of a maidservant

to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,

till he has mercy upon us. (vv. 1–2)

This psalm is designated “A Song of Ascents.” It is in a collection of psalms (Pss. 120–34) that Israelites recited and sang as they went up to Jerusalem to celebrate annual festivals at the temple. Many of the Psalms of Ascents turned the hearts of the faithful toward the Lord in anticipation of the astonishing spiritual experiences that awaited them in Jerusalem.

In the first two verses of Psalm 123, the psalmist mentions his own “eyes” and the “eyes” of his traveling companions four times. They were looking at something, but it wasn’t what you might expect. Their eyes were lifted toward the Lord on His throne in heaven. Needless to say, the psalmist does not mean that he or his company peered into heaven with their physical eyes. Rather, he speaks of the eyes of their hearts, the focus of their thoughts.

servants and masters

Later in Psalm 123, the psalmist reveals that he and his company were weary of “the scorn of those who are at ease”; they had had enough of “the contempt of the proud” (v. 4). So they lifted their eyes toward God because of something astonishing about His relationship with them. The psalmist compares their relationship with God with that of a “servant” with his “master” and a “maidservant” with her “mistress.”

In our modern world, such language usually stirs up negative reactions. What modern person wants to be anyone’s servant or handmaiden? But this psalm challenges us to leave these modern attitudes behind. Quite often in the Old Testament world, impoverished Israelites considered themselves tremendously blessed when their wealthier neighbors took them on as servants. On a human level, benevolent masters and mistresses were the only hope that many of the needy had for protection against severe deprivation, brutal violence, and death.

We need the Lord every moment of every day.

In much the same way, we are the Lord’s needy servants. But isn’t it easy to live day by day as if we don’t need God much at all? We are always on the run. But when tragedies strike, we come face-to-face with reality. We reach the top of our professions, only to learn that we have a serious disease. We strive for years to raise our children, only to see them rebel against everything holy. Suddenly, we come to realize what is always true in every circumstance: we need the Lord every moment of every day.

This firm conviction undergirds the full range of prayers in the Bible—laments, petitions, thanksgivings, and praise. In the Scriptures, God’s faithful people cry out to Him in desperate circumstances because they have no power in themselves to escape. They bring every petition to Him because He alone can meet their needs. They offer thanksgivings because He answers prayer. They shout praises to the Lord because He is glorious in every way.

Everything we read in Scripture confirms what we see in the example of the psalmist. We are needy servants and the Lord is our divine Master.

an intense gaze

Psalm 123:1–2 also reveals that looking to the Lord in prayer is not a casual glance but an intense gaze. As we read in verse 2, servants and handmaidens cannot take their eyes off “the hand of their master, . . . the hand of [their] mistress.” No daydreaming interrupts the prayers of those who know how much they need the Lord.

It isn’t difficult to see how the psalmist’s intense gaze stands in contrast with many of our prayers. We ordinarily begin by addressing God in some way and close our prayers “in Jesus’ name,” but for the most part this is nearly all the direct attention we give to God.

It is easy to reduce a time of prayer to little more than going through a spiritual shopping list. It’s as if we walk into God’s general store and give a perfunctory nod in His direction. Then we quickly turn to our main interest by looking over the shelves filled with the things we need. We focus on what we need to the neglect of the One whom we need.

Instead, rather than pushing past the Lord, we must make sure that He is the center of our attention, the object of our intense gaze. We must look to our Master, fill our prayers with stories that reveal how much we depend on Him, ponder what a good Master He is. Paying attention to His many kindnesses will draw us into His presence.

Every faithful follower of Christ knows that prayer should be a time when we give our hearts to the Lord. When we follow the example of Psalm 123 by recognizing ourselves as needy servants and the Lord as our benevolent Master, we will be able to give Him our rapt attention, the kind of attention He certainly deserves.
Editor’s Note: Adapted from Pray with Your Eyes Open by Richard L. Pratt Jr. © 1987. Used by permission of P&R Publishing.

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