Through both Old and New Testament times, standing for prayer seemed to be the norm for public prayer. Such positions as sitting and kneeling were almost never practiced in public prayer, but were more often practiced in private prayers.
Shortly after the advent of Christ, however, kneeling began to be practiced more often, especially in public worship. In fact, according to an article written by a Markus Bochmuel, the first entire half of the service was practiced while kneeling, followed by the rest of the service in which the congregation stood. I presume that this new movement of kneeling in the service (during which a liturgy was said) began by the insistent teaching of the church fathers that kneeling was “a necessary expression of humility and submission.” No doubt, all these holy minded church fathers had a clear and lasting picture of what they knew and heard about Jesus and the way he would kneel to pray. And they also knew of James his brother, called James the Just; for it was reported that he was often found alone in the temple kneeling and praying for forgiveness for the people. It has been said that his knees became calloused like those of a camel.5
In time, about the year A.D.200, a consensus arose in the church that kneeling in public worship on the Lord’s Day was not proper.
Irenaeus insisted that kneeling is appropriate during the six weekdays as an expression of our sinfulness, but on the Lord’s day not kneeling manifests our rising again by the grace of Christ and being delivered from our sins. Others who agree with Irenaeus but ban kneeling both on Sundays and from Easter to Pentecost include Tertullian, Hilary, Epiphanius, Basil, Jerome, Augustine and numerous later church fathers and canons.6
Although kneeling had been banned for public worship on the Lord’s Day, private bowing and kneeling has always been more than appropriate, and a sign of great devotion to God. There have been numerous saints through the years who have exemplified such devotion. One man named Payson, it was said, “wore the hard-wood boards into grooves where his knees pressed so often and so long.” Another named William Branwell, “almost lived on his knees…He often spent as much as four hours in a single season of prayer in retirement.”7
But where are we today? I confess I really don’t know how people pray privately, nor is it any of my business; however, if most people pray in private like I have witnessed them pray in public prayer groups (myself included), it is no wonder that we are lacking in revival. I long for the time when we will (when I will) in private pray more regularly (daily) on our knees. What a time of refreshment that will be. Oh yes, confession is so good for the soul, and it gets us going strong for the Lord.
Public prayer I think can and should be short, but private prayer ought to be longer, more intense, and more often. Long prayers I don’t think are appropriate in a group, but in private long prayers on the knees are most acceptable; for our Lord sometimes spent whole nights in prayer.
5 Markus Bockmuehl, “Should We Kneel to Pray?” p.16.
6 Ibid., p.16.
7 E.M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan) 1979, pp.49-50.