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The “Here I Am” God

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I can often identify with the sentiment of the erstwhile Ragamuffin Band—
Sometimes I get the feeling
My prayers bounce right off the ceiling
And they spin around the room with me
And they never get to you.
(“Bouncing Off the Ceiling” from Prayers of a Ragamuffin, Word, 2000)
My prayers sometimes feel hollow: one-sided conversations in an ethereal relationship, exercises undertaken in the promise of a spiritual health that rarely materializes.
     Many believers can relate to this feeling. And it may have any number of causes. A good resource for thinking through biblical prayer is Tim Keller’s recent book on the subject.
     One major cause of ineffectual prayer is hinted at in Isaiah 58. There, the prophet condemns the people of Israel for the hypocrisy of their religion. The people themselves feel cheated out of their relationship with God, despite their conscientious religious observances:
Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? (Isa 58:3)
     I can relate to their frustration. But as it turns out, God has a pretty compelling answer for them. He refuses to bless their efforts at serving him because the whole time they’re pretending to be holy, they are simultaneously exploiting their workers and ignoring the poor (see Isa 58:3–4).
The Lord contends, Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa 58:6–7)
 When God’s people demonstrate their true love for him in these ways, he says, their fasting and prayers will have their proper reward in him:
  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.” (Isa 58:9)
      Here’s what I find stunning about this verse. The little phrase with which God responds to his people’s prayers is “Here I am.” This translates the Hebrew word hineni.
     This little word appears some 178 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Sometimes God says it and sometime human beings say it. When humans use this word, they are virtually always responding to the summons of an authority figure, often God himself. When used in this way, the word bears the nuance of, “I’m at your service.” Thus when God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, Abraham responds, “Hineni—Here I am, at your service!” When the ailing Isaac summons Esau into his tent in Genesis 27, Esau responds, “Hineni—Here I am, at your service!” When the Lord speaks to Moses out of the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses responds, “Hineni—Here I am, at your service!” Get the idea?
     When God uses this word, he is invariably announcing some mighty act, either of judgment or of mercy for his people. When used in this way, the word bears the nuance of “Watch what I’m about to do!” Thus when he announces his final judgment on the Egyptians in Exodus 14, the Lord says, “Hineni—Here I am, watch what I’m about to do!” When he announces his punishment of David in II Samuel 7, God says, “Hineni—Here I am, watch what I’m about to do!”
     When humans use the word, they are expressing their presence in terms of availability for service. When God uses the word, he is expressing his presence in terms of his majestic actions. Virtually all of the 178 occurrences of hineni fall into one of these two categories.
     There is only one exception to this pattern.
     Isaiah 58:9.
     In this one single verse, God uses hineni the way humans use it. He expresses his presence in terms of his availability to his people. They call and he says, “Here I am!” They summon and he responds, as it were, “At your service!”
     What breathtaking condescension! That God would make himself available in this way to his creatures!
     And what prompts this remarkable divine availability? Human love and humility. When we stop putting ourselves in the place of God as though everyone else were our servant, God will put himself into the place of a servant toward us. Our prayers will stop bouncing off the ceiling. We will experience the life-giving presence of God.

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