The teaching of the Word of God, beyond all dispute, appoints standing as the most appropriate posture for public prayer.
It is written in 2 Samuel 7: 18 that King David went in, and “sat before the LORD” (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:16). This may mean no more than that he sat back while on his knees; but the Hebrew word here translated “sat” conveys the basic idea of “remaining” or “continuing” (as in Genesis 24:55 and 29:19), without any allusion to a particular posture. David spent time before God. That is not in dispute. But that he actually “sat” when in the exercise of prayer cannot be proved from this verse.
In the New Testament, Acts 2:1–2 records that “when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.” On the basis of this scripture, some have argued for sitting, rather than standing, in public prayer. But what is said here is only that when the Holy Spirit came, in that extraordinary and miraculous way, the disciples were sitting. It is important to notice that it is not said that they were praying. It may well have been that they were singing psalms or, more likely, that they were listening to Peter.
If we would have warrant for any given practice, we must make very sure that it is clear and certain warrant – and not just mere surmise or conjecture.
In the history of the Christian Church, many believers have faithfully held to the biblical teaching on posture and therefore have maintained the practice of standing in public prayer.
Justin Martyr (AD 155) observed that, after the minister had concluded his sermon, ‘they (the Christians of his day) rose up and offered their prayers to God’.
Origen, born around eighty-five years after the time of the Apostles, said at the close of one of his sermons, “Wherefore, standing up, let us beg help from God that we may be blessed of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen”. At the close of another, he said, “Wherefore, rising up, let us pray to God that we may be made worthy of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion for ever and ever, Amen.”
Cyprian (died AD 258) exhorts that “when we stand to pray, we should watch and join in the prayers with our whole heart.”
Chrysostom (AD 347-407) refers to the form of the expression used when calling to prayer: “Let us stand in a becoming manner.”
Augustine (AD 354-430) wrote, “We pray standing, which is a sign of the resurrection”.
John Climacus (AD 570-640) writes, “Stand trembling during this prayer...”
In AD 325, The Council of Nice ordered that the churches everywhere should conform to the custom of standing in prayer: “That all things may be uniformly performed in every parish...it seems good to the holy synod that prayers be made to God standing.”
Joseph Hall, the godly Anglican (1574-1656), said, “God is Lord of my body also: and therefore challengeth as well reverent gestures inward devotion. I will ever, in my prayers, either stand, as a servant, before my Master; or kneel, as a subject, to my Prince.”
John Willison, the Scottish Minister, wrote in 1712 or 1713: “If weakness of nature require(s) a person to sit in time of public prayer, I do not quarrel it, but, when no just cause can be pleaded for it, I cannot say that it is a suitable posture at public worship. A lazy, sluggish posture in prayer tends to bring on sleep and drowsiness, and makes us forget what we are about; whereas, when we stand up, and universally change our position when public prayer begins, it helps to awaken people to think upon the solemn addresses they are making to the great God.”
Isaac Watts, the eighteenth century Independent Minister, taught in his book, “A Guide to Prayer”, that “standing is a posture not unfit for worship”, and he added that “standing seems to have been the common gesture of worship in a large and public assembly, 2 Chronicles 20:4,5, 13”. “I cannot think” says the Doctor, “that sitting, or other postures of rest and laziness, ought to be indulged in solemn seasons of prayer.”
Samuel Miller, an American Presbyterian and a Professor at Princeton Seminary, wrote in one of his books about “standing” in Prayer, and he said: ‘this it is well known, was the posture in the Church of Scotland; by our fathers, the Puritans, in England; and by the descendants of both on this side of the Atlantic. There is much to recommend this posture. We spontaneously rise in the presence of a superior. It is expressive of respect and reverence.”
Francis Wayland, a nineteenth century Baptist, makes mention of both kneeling and standing in prayer; but then he adds, “To stand is expressive of reverence, when we approach into the presence of God. To sit listlessly gazing around, when we profess to be offering up our supplications to God, can surely be justified neither by religion nor good taste.”
The practice has been retained in many congregations in Scotland and Ireland, but, sadly, in England, along with other departures, standing for prayer has for some time been discontinued. However, and thankfully, there are signs in some quarters of a growing concern for the purity of worship and, in consequence, there has been a return to the biblically recognized posture for public prayer. It is our prayer that other churches will follow the lead given and that soon we shall see a general reformation in this area.
Thomas Watson wrote, “posture in worship is too often imposture.” This, of course, is true, and great care should therefore be taken to ensure that when praying together we really do seek His face. It would be a very serious fault indeed if we glorified God with our bodies only, and not with our spirits (as required of us in 1 Corinthians 6:20).
Let us resolve to worship in a way that is pleasing to Him, being mindful of the counsel He has given in His Word. If He has taught us to stand, then we should stand in prayer. Of course we are mindful of the aged and the infirm who, although they might wish to stand with the congregation, cannot do so by reason of their physical weakness. They may sit, assured that the Lord accepts the “will” for the “deed”, “for if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted...” (2 Corinthians 8:12). To such the Lord says, as He once said to David, “thou didst well that it was in thine heart” (1 Kings 8:18).
As Samuel Miller once observed, “It is, undoubtedly, desirable that there be uniformity in our habits of worship. This uniformity is not likely to be attained or established without the employment of means for the purpose. Every Pastor is responsible for much in this respect, and has much in his power. Let him drop a hint in the pulpit, and let him impart a suggestion, now and then, to the young and old in his parochial visits, and he may generally arrest undesirable practices in the bud, and keep most external habits in the a state of decorum and order”.
Reformation is urgently needed, and some measure of uniformity is most desirable: therefore let us all consider the Scriptures, and then be found to be as the “doers of the word”. Whatever is done in the worship of Almighty God must never be done on account of preference, but always on account of obedience to His revealed Will. Although sitting for prayer is contemporary practice, standing is evidently required by the clear teaching of God’s written Word.
[ This article is a continuation of Standing for Prayer; both articles have been published in a single booklet. ]