Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Not Exactly Synonyms

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people ...”

Sometimes the lists we find in scripture consist largely of different words that mean essentially the same thing; synonyms multiplied for the purpose of reinforcing the author’s intended meaning through repetition. Other times they do not. This is one of those cases: the four words are not exactly synonyms. While there is some overlap, each word Paul uses to describe types of prayer has a different shade of meaning and each conveys a new thought.

It’s probably a worthwhile exercise to re-examine each of these terms to make sure they really mean precisely what we think they do. I find studies of this sort produce the occasional surprise.


The phrase “prayer and supplication” is common in the New Testament. Prayer and supplication share some common territory, but the two are not identical. Supplication is fervent, passionate request, often associated with fasting. Zacharias and Elisabeth wanted a son, and so made supplication to God. Paul made supplication to God on behalf of Israel because it was his “heart’s desire”. Hebrews speaks of Jesus, who offered up supplications “with loud cries and tears”. Though the experience of supplicating God is intense, it need not be agonizing in every instance. Paul writes, “always in every supplication of mine for you all making my supplication with joy”.


Supplication is a subset of prayer. All supplication is prayer, but not all prayer is supplication. The Lord’s Prayer, so-called, is full of appeals for action: “come”, “be done”, “give”, “forgive”, “lead not”, “deliver”, which suggests that the primary purpose in prayer is request. But other prayers in scripture include passages which are descriptive, worshipful or observational. The believers’ prayer in Acts 4 ends, as we might expect, in supplication (“grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness”), but consists largely of quotations from the Old Testament (“Why did the Gentiles rage?”) and observations (“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth”, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate ...”). Solomon’s prayer of dedication contains numerous requests, but also many worshipful observations (“Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!”).


The Greek word translated “intercession” in 1 Timothy 2 is enteuxis, which primarily refers to an interview or conversation initiated for the purpose of negotiation, or making a deal. We read that the Spirit makes intercession for the saints, and that from the right hand of God, Christ himself intercedes for us, both of which refer to conversations with the Father initiated on behalf of believers with their good in view. However, the word also includes negotiations of other sorts. Elijah appealed [enteuxis] to God against Israel, saying, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” It would be rare for a Christian to appeal against another, but not entirely unheard of. Perhaps delivering a fellow believer to Satan for the destruction of the flesh falls into this category. Paul writes, “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” He prayed things for the sinner that the sinner might not appreciate if he knew about them, but always with his ultimate spiritual benefit in view. My father prayed those sorts of prayers for me. We might say that intercessions are a subset of supplications, which are a subset of prayers.


The word translated “thanksgivings” in the ESV is eucharistia, which will ring some bells with Catholic readers. It refers to the expression of gratitude — not a merely formal recitation of thanks, but appreciation that comes from the heart. Thanksgiving and “abounding” are linked in Colossians. The word reminds us that our prayer life is not to be a joyless, tedious exercise, but rather a well of life to our souls. Thanksgiving has a sanctifying effect. Like glory and honor, thanksgiving is prayer of the heavenly sort, it being fairly obvious that supplications accompanied by loud cries and tears — indeed, supplications of any sort — will be rendered all but unnecessary in the presence of God and the Lamb. To the extent that we are engaged in expressing thankfulness to God, we are anticipating and preparing for our role in eternity.

Praying for Others

So, no, these four words are not synonyms, and each is necessary to convey the full scope of the apostle’s intended meaning. Paul’s encourages Timothy to pray like this “for all people”, and he goes on to add “for kings and all who are in high positions”.

Now, it is surely easy to see how prayers, supplications and intercessions might be made on behalf of the secular authorities, as well as for others. Great responsibilities require great wisdom and much prayer support. But is it really necessary for Christians to express thanksgiving for the oppressive, inconsistent, incoherent or vacillating authorities to whom we may be subjected?

I think it is probably going beyond what Paul intended to insist that every one of these aspects be present each time we pray. The “and” which precedes “thanksgivings” in English is not present in Greek; the translators have taken it as implied. So it may be that the apostle lists four types of prayer with the intention that we discern the appropriate type in each situation, much as the prophets and apostles themselves did. For example, the prayer of Acts 4 in times of persecution certainly contains supplication, but is not explicitly a prayer of thanksgiving.

So then, some situations require intercession. Some require supplication. Some give us cause for thanksgiving. I cannot think of a single situation, however, when no prayer at all is appropriate.

Can you?

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