The first mention of bowing the knee in the Bible is not about prayer, it is about acknowledging the authority of the one being bowed to. This is Genesis 41:43, when Joseph had been elevated to the second only under the Pharaoh of Egypt.
And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.
Kneeling shows that the person on her knees is entreating or begging the one to whom she is kneeling. This concept is shown in 2 Kings 1:13
Again the king sent the captain of a third fifty with his fifty. And the third captain of fifty went up and came and fell on his knees before Elijah and entreated him, “O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight.
The first example of prayer on one’s knees is Ezra, who just heard about the people pf Israel intermarrying, disobeying the LORD’s commandment, and so adopting idolatry and other traditions into their lives. Ezra 9:3-6 reads,
As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. 5 And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, 6 saying:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens
The position acknowledged God as King and showed Ezra’s penitence and remorse. The physical position expresses your heart’s attitude. It may also help you to concede that attitude to yourself. Does that make sense? Maybe, when you begin praying humility, submission, and contrition are not the way you feel, but being on your knees allows you to remember that you are submitting and repenting in your prayer.
Kneeling is an expression of worship. When you kneel before someone or something, you announce to the world that you worship the one you kneel to. 1 Kings 19:18 describes the worshippers of Baal as those who have kneeled to it.
Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.
Kneeling says, “I worship you, you are great! I choose to follow and obey you! You have my allegiance!”
Psalm 95:1-8 reads,
Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
3 For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
Another beautiful example of kneeling in prayer is Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the Temple in 2 Chronicles 6. Verses 12-14 read,
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands. 13 Solomon had made a bronze platform five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the court, and he stood on it. Then he knelt on his knees in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven, 14 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,
In Isaiah 45:22-25 The LORD said,
“Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.’
24 “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
to him shall come and be ashamed
all who were incensed against him.
25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
shall be justified and shall glory.”
This is what bending our knees to God proclaims! It says God is the LORD! It says we are committed and loyal to Him. It says we believe what He says. In Philippians Paul repeated this prophecy in the light of Jesus as the Messiah, Our Righteousness and Justifier. Philippians 2:8-11 says,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Bending our knees in prayer doesn’t mean our prayer has any more worth or value, but it does intensify the meaning of the prayer for us as it expresses without words so much of what we want our words to convey. I know personally, when I pray, I wish I could think of words that could describe my awe at His greatness and glory. I wish I could praise Him the way David did and describe His attributes like John did. I wish I could say all the things He deserves me to say, but my words are limited and don’t always know how to articulate my love, amazement, and reverence. But kneeling, bending my knees to the LORD, it says what words do not, it communicates my attitude and my position to Him without the verbiage.
James, the brother of Jesus and writer of the Book of James in the Bible was a man of profound faith, a man who described so beautifully what salvation is and what faith can do. Hegesippus, a man who lived just after the apostles wrote in his memoirs,
... [James] alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people (Eusibius, 325).[i]
Believer, I encourage you to enjoy the Lord in the position of bending your knees to Him. I encourage you to develop calluses on your knees instead of your heart and experience God as your King, your Authority, you Justifier, and your Righteousness.
[i] Eusibius. (325). Church History.