The word “Supplications” (some translate “petitions”) is found only once in our New Testament but well worth the study. It was said of Jesus that
During the days … on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions [our word: supplications] with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.1
Scholarship calls this word “the olive-branch bound round with white wool, held forth by the supplicant.”2 “…suppliants approached the one whose aid they would implore holding an olive branch entwined with white wool and fillets, to signify that they came as suppliants.”3 The olive branch is used to denote a request for protection.4 Another scholar adds, “…approaching the one whose aid they would implore.”5 Supplication is, therefore, the defining moment when the supplicant surrenders unconditionally to one that is sought for their help. The battle for them is over. Their resources spent, their resolve to hold on in their own strength now past, they give themselves over to another for protection.
The context of the Savior’s prayer is not only necessary to understand its meaning but to understand why it is never used in the New Testament in reference to our praying.
Reverend Chuck Smith calls Jesus’ prayer here “a reference to Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane when He wept before God.”6 This is not meant to be a study of Jesus’ passion, but the more we understand His agony, the more we will understand his supplication. It was as a supplicant He cried “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.’7 According to the Apostle John’s witness, His soul was “heavy.”8 John Mark, who might have recorded the Apostle Peter’s recollection, recalled Jesus adding, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”9
Words fail us here. The Apostle Matthew recalled that our Savior was in pain and distress. Jesus’ reaction in that moment seemed desperate to find another way, a plan ‘B’ for our Salvation. But there was none. The Apostle John remembered Jesus remarking, “It was for this hour that I came into the world…..”10
This word for “supplication” is not used to signify our prayer life because He suffered so we would never have to suffer for our sinfulness. Jesus came to the end of His resources so that our supply would be infinite and eternal.11
(It is believed by some, including myself, that Jesus’ death was inevitable at this point. His strength and endurance was spent. His heart physically ruptured on the cross.) He now collapsed into the Father’s will for our Salvation. He came to the end of His road so that a road would be eternally laid before us to walk down.12 Jesus, as we know, was providing for our redemption.
This does not mean we should not pray for God’s protection or that we should not surrender unconditionally to God’s grace. We should. But God’s protection for the believer is a given13 because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we feel that circumstances have made us a supplicant, God would understand that, too. As a supplicant we recognized that our own resources are depleted, our strength exhausted, and our tolerance to suffering exceeded and we now live or die on an absolute dependence on God. David adjured,
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him [LXX 36:7: supplicate Him] ; do not fret when people … carry out their wicked schemes.14
2 Aeschylus, Eumen. 43, 44; compare Virgil, aen. viii. 116: ‘Paciferaeque manu ramum praetendit olivae;’ κλάδος ἀπὸ τῆς ἱερᾶς ἐλαίας ἐρίῳ λευκῷ κατεστεμμένος – holding an olive-branch entwined with white wool.
The only references in the Old Testament worth looking into do not draw out the meaning of this word as clearly and emphatically as does this reference in the Gospels.
And God speaking to Job scolded.
Job 41:3 (LXX 40:22) Will it [Leviathan] keep begging you for mercy [make supplication to you]?
Now just what the leviathan is, they’re not quite sure. Some think that it is perhaps a crocodile, some think that it’s perhaps even a dragon, while others think that it perhaps is a hippopotamus with a hefty hide. And so those are some of the opinions.
3 see https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2428&t=KJV
4 see Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1974). vol III.. p 297.
5 Joseph Thayers. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon. (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) p 301.
6 Chuck Smith. https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/smith_chuck/c2000_Hbr/Hbr_005.cfm?a=1138007
7 Matthew 26:39.
8 John 12:27-28.
9 Mark 14:34.
10 John 12:27.
11 Ephesians 2:7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
12 Isaiah 35:8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
13 Psalms 91:1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
14 Psalms 37:7.