In addition to the daily pattern of reciting a liturgical prayer at regular intervals on a daily basis (see earlier post), Paul and Jesus would have engaged in "continual prayer." This does not mean that they disengaged from life, hid themselves away in a monastery, and gave every conscious thought to prayer. Rather, continual prayer means being always aware of God’s presence and ever interacting with the God before whom we live. We see Jesus doing this in the Gospels, as he addresses God in the natural course of life (e.g., Matt 11:25–26; Luke 22:17, 19; John 11:41–42; 12:27–28), and Paul explicitly commands the Thessalonians to "constantly pray" (1 Thess 5:17). What would this constant prayer have looked like in the life of a first century Jew?
There is good evidence from the rabbinic material on prayers before and after meals (David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament: Prayer and Agriculture, 72–91). Further, the rabbis instructed people to bless God for all things—good and bad—and to pray when entering and leaving a town (ibid., 91–92). This is certainly reminiscent of Paul’s exhortation that Christians "give thanks in everything" (1 Thess 5:18).
This rabbinic evidence indicates that First Century Jews were well equipped with a fund of memorized blessings and prayers. Paul seems to assume that Christians will also have minds that are well vested with such phrases when he instructs them to speak "to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph 5:19; cf. Col 3:16).
We have to know the Psalms in order to speak to one another in psalms. This would seem to be an apostolic mandate to know the Scriptures so that we can pray them and speak them to each other. Similarly, we have to know hymns and spiritual songs in order to speak these things to one another. Many scholars think that Paul incorporates early Christian hymns and spiritual songs into his letters at certain points (e.g., Phil 2:5–11; Col 1:15–20). Given Paul’s poetic genius, we can assume that he was the author of these and many other hymns and songs (his skill with language can be seen in texts such as Rom 8:28–39; 2 Cor 4:8–9, 16–18; 6:3–10; Phil 3:3–14; 1 Thess 5:16–22).
Let us be those who are memorizing Paul’s prayers, memorizing Psalms, memorizing the words of rich hymns like "Thy Mercy, My God," and speaking these things to God and one another. In the process of repeating these words to ourselves over and over until we have them memorized, we will find our brains not only strengthened but also transformed.
May God give us hearts that are aware of his presence, minds that overflow with praise, thanks and petition to him, and the will to stock our minds with words of truth and beauty! (Phil 4:8)