Most of us lock our doors at night. Some of us set alarms. But we no longer secure a peaceful night’s sleep with sentries pacing high walls. No one patrols the outer edges of our encampment. No one walks the ramparts, spear in hand, while we dream. No one tugs at our shoulder and whispers, “Wake up! It’s your turn to keep watch.” Our stone walls are decorative. Our high places are pleasure grounds for picnics and day hikes. But those watchmen of old weren’t only looking for threats. They also studied the distant line of the horizon with anticipation. They watched and waited for the merchant carrying good things, the messenger bearing joyful news, or the exile finally returning home.
The stories I read to my children each night are strewn with watchmen—perched in trees, pacing castle walls, peering through spyglasses. Perhaps that is why my children still practice the lost art of keeping watch. My daughter sits for long minutes on the window seat facing our driveway. While rain smears the window, she presses her forehead against cool glass and waits. She will be the first to tell us when Daddy has come home. Sometimes when I cut flowers in the bed across the yard from my sons’ second-floor window, I’ll hear a knock-knock-knocking. My boys are squished together in the top bunk, watching the world spread out beneath their window and tapping for my attention. They wave. I wave back.
I thought the watchmen of old inhabited only my children’s fairy tales and fantasies, but I recently found them while reading Isaiah: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; all day and all night they will never keep silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves; and give Him no rest until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:6-7). However, these are not the silent sentries of our bedtime stories. I closed my Bible and bowed my head, but before I could begin to pray, a question floated up in my mind: What if prayer isn’t something you do but a place where you stand?
What if prayer isn’t something you do but a place where you stand?
We know that places are at least relevant to the practice of prayer. Jesus often withdrew, seeking a quiet spot, in order to pray. He praised in parable the tax collector who did not push himself forward like the Pharisee but stood at a distance, praying in humility (Luke 18:13). And He also advised His followers to pray in their “inner room” rather than in public (Matt. 6:6). Of course, these prayer places are important primarily because of the interior posture they sustain. We seek a quiet place because, like Jesus, we long to hear the whisper of our Father. We pray in hidden privacy because we know prayer must not become a tool for raising our status in the eyes of others. But what about those watchmen in Isaiah? What of those who pace the high walls, reminding God of His promises? Up on a wall, the posture of prayer is one of waiting and watching. This is prayer as anticipation.
When we view prayer primarily as something we do rather than the way we are, it is difficult to comprehend the biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), let alone to put it into practice. Even if such a thing were possible, we tell ourselves, what an onerous burden that would be! If I closed the evening’s storybook and said to my daughter, “Please pray without ceasing,” she might ask with a frown, “Should I also brush my teeth without ceasing?” If prayer is something to do, if it is an item to tick off on some list, then it might seem as appealing as brushing our teeth all night long.
If our God has made so many good promises, and if we believe He has kept and will keep every single one of them, what holds us back from prayer?
But prayer as anticipation is something else entirely. It is not only possible to anticipate without ceasing; it is something my children do quite naturally in the days leading up to summer vacation or Christmas. And the anticipation of a special day is a delight we share. I write a lot of to-do lists in December, but I have never needed to remind myself, “Look forward to December 25th with gladness.” When I am steeped in an awareness of the season, anticipatory joy is easy.
If our God has made so many good promises, and if we believe He has kept and will keep every single one of them, what holds us back from prayer? What deters us from pacing the walls like watchmen, reminding God of those promises and watching with joy for the day of their keeping? Perhaps like too many watchmen before us, we have fallen asleep. Weary with the long wait, we doze off. Neglecting the far-off view, we close our eyes.
Maybe this is why the Bible resounds with one clarion call: “Wake up!” In Ephesians, we read: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14 NIV). In the same chapter where we are told to “pray without ceasing,” we also read, “Let us not sleep as others do” (1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Thess. 5:17). And one of the final blessings offered in the whole of the Bible is this: “Blessed is the one who stays awake” (Revelation 16:15).
Jesus taught us we cannot receive the kingdom of God unless we receive it like a child (Matt. 18:3). To be like a child is to be humble and aware of our own great need, but perhaps Jesus’ comparison also invites us to re-inhabit the child’s world of watchfulness and anticipation. If prayer is a place, it’s a spacious one where good things can be glimpsed from a long way off.
Blessed are those who watch and wait, faces pressed to the window glass.
Blessed are those who keep their eyes wide open, for they shall see God.
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Illustration by Eleni Debo