Does the Bible talk about bowing or kneeling in prayer?

Bowing in the presence of another is a sign of respect. For instance, subjects bow before their king, actors bow before their audience, and in some cultures students bow to their teachers. Kneeling is also an act of humility, which is why a lover kneels when proposing marriage to his beloved and why a noble kneels before royalty when being knighted. Bowing and kneeling are physical positions that can demonstrate submission to a higher authority. The Bible has many examples of people bowing and kneeling when entering God's presence through prayer and worship.

Most often people bowed before the Lord as part of worshipping Him in response to answered prayer. When God helped Abraham's servant find a wife for Isaac, the servant, "bowed himself to the earth before the LORD" (Genesis 24:52). He was so grateful that God directed him to the right woman, and that this woman and her family agreed to the marriage, that his natural response was to bow in thankful worship. Similarly, when King Hezekiah had cleansed the temple and restored worship there, "the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped… [The Levites] sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped" (2 Chronicles 29:29–30). The faithful people were so happy to see right worship restored to God's temple that their response was to bow before the Lord. Likewise, when King Jehoshaphat was assured the Lord would rescue him and his nation from their attacking enemies, "Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the LORD, worshiping the LORD" (2 Chronicles 20:18). They were so relieved for answered prayer that God would protect them that they fell to the ground in gratitude to Him. Interestingly, the next verse provides a contrast in that "the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice" (2 Chronicles 20:19). So bowing is not the only way in which people can express their gratitude to God and worship Him.

A few other examples of bowing in God's presence that were not a response to answered prayer are Balaam and Ezra. Balaam had been on his way to receive instructions from Balak, but the angel of the Lord stood in his way with sword drawn. At first, only Balaam's donkey could see the angel of the Lord, but "then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face" (Numbers 22:31). Balaam was displaying complete submission by bowing to the angel of the Lord in hopes of sparing his own life. He further demonstrated this submission by stating, "if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back" (Numbers 22:34).

Ezra fell to his knees when he begged God's forgiveness for the people in his community who had sinned by marrying pagan foreigners. He recounted, "But at the evening offering I stood up from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I bowed down on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God; and I said, 'My God, I am ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God, for our wrongful deeds have risen above our heads, and our guilt has grown even to the heavens… behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this" (Ezra 9:5–6, 15 NASB20). Ezra bowed in repentance while begging God on behalf of his people for forgiveness and mercy.

In the New Testament, we see three more examples of bowing in God's presence. A Samaritan leper who was healed by Jesus "fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks" as recorded in Luke 17:16. His bowing was in gratitude for the answered prayer for healing. When Jesus' disciples were shown His glory during the transfiguration and they heard the voice of God from heaven identifying Jesus as His Son, "they fell on their faces and were terrified" (Matthew 17:6). Seeing the divine glory of Jesus and hearing the direct voice of God caused these men to bow in God's presence in fearful recognition of their status as mere mortals in the presence of divine holiness. Finally, in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prepared to take on the sin of the world and suffer crucifixion and death, He prayed to God the Father. Jesus' posture during this prayer was the familiar posture of submission. Matthew 26:39 states, "he fell on his face and prayed, saying, 'My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.'" Jesus bowed in prayer as an expression of His complete submission to the Father's will, even when that plan would bring great suffering to Him. So bowing to express gratitude, worship, and submission was a practice that continued in the New Testament.

Kneeling is also a practice seen both in the Old and New Testaments. When dedicating the newly constructed temple, King Solomon "knelt on his knees in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven, and said, 'O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart'" (2 Chronicles 6:13–14). Because Solomon was the king, he was the wealthiest and most powerful person in the land, but he knelt down in front of the people to show reverence for God who is even more powerful than him. His posture of kneeling in prayer showed humility in God's presence and a dedication of all the honor Solomon held as king to be given to God for His glory. During this prayer, Solomon also asked of God that "whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing his own affliction and his own sorrow and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear from heaven your dwelling place… now arise, O LORD God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might" (2 Chronicles 6:29–30, 41). Solomon asked God to come dwell in the temple and answer the prayers his people would pray there in the future. By kneeling, Solomon presented these petitions as requests from a place of humility rather than as demands from a presumed position of power.

Likewise, people often knelt in front of Jesus when requesting His help of healing. "A leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, if you will, you can make me clean'" (Matthew 8:2). Again a synagogue "ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, 'My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live'" (Matthew 9:18). Both these men knelt to present their requests to Jesus.

Later when the apostles prayed to God, they also sometimes knelt. When Peter was summoned to raise Tabitha from the dead, he "knelt down and prayed" (Acts 9:40). And when Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesians at Miletus, "he knelt down and prayed with them all" (Acts 20:36). So kneeling in prayer is a biblical practice.

In fact, Psalm 95:6 says, "Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!" Everyone is invited to bow and kneel in this call to worship God. However, these two positions of bowing and kneeling are not the only biblical positions in which to pray.

We have already seen how the Levites "stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice" in 2 Chronicles 20:19. In the book of 1 Kings, Solomon is recorded to have "stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven" when he prayed (1 Kings 8:22). So standing in worship and prayer can also be a sign of respect similar to people standing in reverence when a judge enters the courtroom or wedding guests rising when the bride enters the sanctuary.

In contrast, sitting can even be a posture of humility. Sitting on ashes while wearing sackcloth in order to display repentance while praying for forgiveness and mercy was a regular practice of humble prayer in the Old Testament (see Jonah 3:6–9). In the New Testament, two blind men asked Jesus for healing while sitting by the roadside (Matthew 20:30). Being blind, these men were unable to move about freely; however, they could present their requests to Jesus just as they were. Acts records that after Jesus' ascension, His followers "were devoting themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14) and on the day of Pentecost "there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting" (Acts 2:2). So sitting while praying together as a group may have been a regular practice (see also Acts 12:12).

David lay prostrate on the ground when interceding for his infant son (2 Samuel 12:16). Abraham's servant prayed silently in his heart after arriving at a well (Genesis 24:45). Hannah prayed silently while weeping at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:13–15). Jeremiah chanted or sang a lamenting prayer when King Josiah died (2 Chronicles 35:25). The psalmists wrote down many prayers as poems (Psalm 72:20). Jesus often prayed alone on mountainsides (Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16), but He also prayed in public (John 11:42; 17:1–26).

From these myriad examples, we see that prayer can happen from any location, during any emotion, in any circumstance, and in any physical posture. Paul's exhortation to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is possible because we don't have to stop what we are doing in order to assume a particular position. We can "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). Sometimes, differing physical postures can help our hearts express humility, gratitude, or repentance, so each person should feel free to assume any physical position that will assist them in prayer, including bowing or kneeling.

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