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Etymology and Meaning of Term


1. Patriarchal Examples

2. Intercessions of Moses

3. The Progress of Religion, Seen in Moses’ Intercessions

4. Intercessory Prayer in Israel’s Later History

5. The Rise of Official Intercession

6. Samuel as an Intercessor in His Functions as Judge, Priest and Prophet

7. Intercession in the Poetic Books

8. The Books of Wisdom

9. The Prophets’ Succession to Moses and Samuel

10. The Priest and Intercession

11. Intercession in the Gospels

12. Intercessory Prayers of the Church

13. Intercession Found in the Epistles



Etymology and Meaning of Term:

The meaning of the word is determined by its use in 1Ti 2:1, "I exhort, therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all and men"; where the different kinds of prayers appear to be distinguished. Considerable discussion has arisen on the exact meaning of these words. Augustine refers them to the liturgy of the Eucharist. This seems to be importing the significance of the various parts of the ceremony as observed at a time much later than the date of the passage in question. "Supplications" and "prayers" refer to general and specific petitions; "intercessions" will then have the meaning of a request concerning others.

Intercession is prayer on behalf of another, and naturally arises from the instinct of the human heart--not merely prompted by affection and interest, but recognizing that God’s relation to man is not merely individual, but social. Religion thus involves man’s relations to his fellow-man, just as in man’s social position intercession with one on behalf of another is a common incident, becoming, in the development of society, the function of appointed officials; as in legal and courtly procedure, so in religion, the spontaneous and affectionate prayer to God on behalf of another grows into the regular and orderly service of a duly appointed priesthood. Intercession is thus to be regarded:

(1) as the spontaneous act of man for his fellowman;

(2) the official act of developed sacerdotalism;

(3) the perfecting of the natural movement of humanity, and the typified function of priesthood in the intercession of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

I. Man’s Intercession for His Fellow-Man.

1. Patriarchal Examples:

Many such prayers are recorded in Scripture. The sacrificial act of Noah may have been partly of this nature, for it is followed by a promise of God on behalf of the race and the earth at large (Ge 8:20-22). Such also is Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael (Ge 17:18); Abraham’s prayer for Sodom (Ge 18:23-33); Abraham for Abimelech (Ge 20:17). Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons is of the nature of intercession (Ge 48:8-22). His dying blessing of his sons is hardly to be regarded as intercessory; it is, rather, declarative, although in the case of Joseph it approaches intercession. The absence of distinct intercessory prayer from Abraham to Moses is to be observed, and shows how intensely personal and individual the religious consciousness was still in its undeveloped quality. In Moses, however, the social element finds a further development, and is interesting as taking up the spirit of the Father of the Faithful. Moses is the creator of the national spirit. He lifts religion from its somewhat selfish character in the patriarchal life to the higher and wider plane of a national and racial fellowship.

2. Intercessions of Moses:

3. The Progress of Religion, Seen in Moses’ Intercessions:

This extensive series of the intercessory prayers of Moses forms a striking illustration of the growth of religion, represented by the founder of the national life of Israel. It is the history of an official, but it is also the history of a leader whose heart was filled with the intensest patriotism and regard for his fellows. None of these prayers are perfunctory. They are the vivid and passionate utterances of a man full of Divine enthusiasm and human affection. They are real prayers wrung from a great and devout soul on occasions of deep and critical importance. Apart from their importance in the history of Israel, they are a noble record of a great leader of men and servant of God.

4. Intercessory Prayer in Israel’s Later History:

In the history of Joshua we find only the prayer for the people after the sin of Achan (Jos 7:6-9), although the communications from God to Joshua are numerous. A faint intercessory note may be heard in Deborah’s song (Jud 5:31) though it is almost silenced by the stern and warlike tone of the poem. Gideon’s prayer History of seems to reecho something of the words of Moses (Jud 6:13), and accords with the national and religious spirit of the great leader who helped in the formation of the religious life of his people (see Jud 6:24), notwithstanding the evident lower plane on which he stood (Jud 8:27), which may account partially for the apostasy after his death (Jud 8:33 f). Manoah’s prayers (Jud 13) may be noted.

5. The Rise of Official Intercession:

(The satisfaction of Micah at securing a priest for his house, and the subsequent story, belong rather to the history of official intercession (Jud 18; see below), as also the inquiry of the people through Phinehas at Shiloh (Jud 20:27 f), and the people’s mourning and prayer (Jud 21:2 f).)

6. Samuel as an Intercessor in His Functions as Judge, Priest and Prophet:

7. Intercession in the Poetic Books:

8. The Books of Wisdom:

In the Wisdom books there is little, if any, reference to intercession. But they deal rather with ethical character, and often on a merely providential and utilitarian basis. It is noticeable that the only reference to pleading a cause is said to be by the Lord Himself as against the injustice of man (Pr 22:23): "Yahweh will plead their (the poor’s) cause." Action on behalf of others does not appear to have been very highly regarded by the current ethics of the Israelite. A kind of negative helpfulness is indicated in Pr 24:28: "Be not a witness against thy neighbor without cause"; and it is significant that the office of advocate was not known among the Jews until they had come under the authority of Rome, when, not knowing the forms of Roman law, they were obliged to secure the aid of a Roman lawyer before the courts. Such practitioners were found in the provinces (Cic. pro Coelio c. 30); Tertullus (Ac 24:1) was such an advocate.

9. The Prophets’ Succession of Moses and Samuel:

In the Minor Prophets intercession rarely appears; even in the graphic pictures of Jonah, though the work itself shows the enlarging of the conception of God’s relation to humanity outside of Israel, the prophet himself exhibits no tenderness and utters no pleas for the city against which he had been sent to prophesy, and receives the implied rebuke from the Lord for his want of sympathy, caring more for the perished gourd than for the vast population of Nineveh, whom the Lord, however, pitied and spared (Jon 4). Even the sublime prayer of Hab 3 has only a suggestion of intercession. Zec 6:13 relieves the general severity of the prophetic message, consisting of the threatenings of judgment, by the gleam of the promise of a royal priest whose office was partially that of an intercessor, though the picture is darkened by the character of the priesthood and the people, whose services had been selfish, without mercy and compassion (Zec 7:4,7). Now the spirit of tenderness, the larger nature, the loving heart, are to be restored to Israel (Zec 8:16-23). Other nations than Israel will share in the mercy of God. In Mal 2:7 we find the priest rebuked for the loss of his intercessory character.

10. The Priest and Intercession:

How far intercession was regarded as a special duty of the priesthood it is not very easy to determine. The priestly office itself was undoubtedly intercessory. In the Priest and offering of the sacrifice even for the individual, and certainly in the national functions, both of the regular and the occasional ceremonies, the priest represented the individual or the community. In Joe 2:17 the priests are distinctly bidden to "weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Yahweh." Mal 1:9 appeals to them for intercession to God, and the graphic scene in 1 Macc 7:33-38 shows the priests interceding on behalf of the people against Nicanor.

11. Intercession in the Gospels:

It is needless to review the cases in the other Gospels. But the statement of Mr 6:5 f, that Christ could not perform mighty works because of unbelief, sheds a flood of light upon one of the important conditions of successful intercession, when contrasted with the healing conditioned by the faith of others than the healed. One of the most distinct examples of intercessory prayer is that of the Lord’s intercession for Peter (Lu 22:31 f), and for those who crucified Him (Lu 23:34). The place of intercession in the work of Christ is seen clearly in our Lord’s intercessory prayer (see Intercession of Christ), where it is commanded by definite precept and promise of acceptance. The promise of the answer to prayer in the name of Christ is very definite (Joh 16:24). Christ’s high-priestly prayer is the sublimest height of prayer to God and is intercessory throughout (Joh 17); Joh 16:26 does not, as some have held, deny His intercession for His disciples; it only throws open the approach to God Himself.

12. Intercessory Prayers of the Church:

13. Intercession Found in the Epistles:

II. Intercession Perfected in Christ’s Office and in the Church.

This review of the intercession of the Scriptures prepares us for the development of a specific office of intercession, perfectly realized in Christ. We have seen Moses complying with the people’s request to represent them before God. In a large and generous spirit the leader of Israel intercedes with God for his nation. It was natural that this striking example of intercessory prayer should be followed by other leaders, and that the gradually developed system of religious worship should furnish the conception of the priest, and especially the high priest, as the intercessor for those who came to the sacrifice. This was particularly the significance of the great Day of Atonement, when after offering for himself, the high priest offered the sacrifice for the whole people. This official act, however, does not do away with the intercessory character of prayer as offered by men. We have seen how it runs through the whole history of Israel. But it is found much more distinctly in the Christian life and apparently in the practice of the Christian assembly itself. Paul continually refers to his own intercessory prayers, and seeks for a similar service on his own behalf from those to whom he writes. Intercession is thus based upon the natural tendency of the heart filled by love and a deep sympathetic sense of relation to others. Christ’s intercessory prayer is the highest example and pattern of this form of prayer. His intercessions for His disciples, for His crucifiers, are recorded, and the sacred record rises to the supreme height in the prayer of Joh 17. In this prayer the following characteristics are to be found:

(1) It is based upon the intimate relation of Jesus to the Father. This gives to such prayer its justification; may it be said, its right.

(2) It follows the completest fulfillment of duty. It is not the mere expression of desire, even for others. It is the crown of effort on their behalf. He has revealed God to His disciples. He has given to them God’s words; therefore He prays for them (Joh 17:6,7-9).

(3) It recognizes the Divine, unbroken relation to the object of the prayer: "I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep," etc. (17:11).

(4) The supreme end of the prayer is salvation from the evil of the world (17:15).

(5) The wide sweep of the prayer and its chief objects--unity with God, and the presence with Christ, and the indwelling of the Divine love. The prayer is a model for all intercessory prayer.


III. Intercession of the Holy Spirit.

In connection with the subject of intercession, there arises a most interesting question as to whether the Holy Spirit is not presented in Scriptures as an intercessor. The text in which the doctrine seems to be taught is that of Ro 8:26 f: "In like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." By far the larger number of expositors have understood by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. The older commentators, in general, refer to the Holy Spirit. Tholuck, Ewald, Philippi, Meyer, most of the American theologians and English commentators, as Shedd, Alford, Jowett, Wordsworth, interpret it in the same way. Lange and Olshausen refer it to the human spirit. Undoubtedly, the "groanings" have led to the denial of the reference to the Holy Spirit. But the very form of the word translated "helpeth" indicates cooperation, and this must be of something other than the spirit of man himself. The undoubted difficulties of the passage, which are strongly urged by Lange (see Lange’s Commentary on Ro 8:26), must be acknowledged. At the same time the statement seems to be very clear and definite. An explanation has been given that the Holy Spirit is here referred to as dwelling in us, and thus making intercession. The Divine Spirit is said to be a Spirit of supplication (Zec 12:10). The distinction which is made between the intercession of Christ in heaven in His priestly office and that of the Holy Spirit interceding within the souls of believers, referred to by Shedd (see Commentary on Romans), must be carefully used, for if pressed to its extreme it would lead to the materialization and localization of the Divine nature. Moreover, may not the intercession of our Lord be regarded as being partially exemplified in that of the Spirit whom He has declared to be His agent and representative? If Christ dwells in believers by His Spirit, His intercession, especially if subjective in and with their spirits, may properly be described as the intercession of the Holy Ghost.

See also

  • Prayer