Old Camel Knees: a brief reflection on the remarkable prayer life of James the Just

James_the_Just_(Novgorod,_16_c.)The fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, relates a story gathered from the lost works of Hegesippus during the second century about James “the Just,” who likely wrote the epistle of James and was the earthly brother of Jesus. In the midst of outlining the persecution of the church in his Ecclesiastical History , Eusebius details the death of James in Book II, Ch. XXIII:

3. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:

4. “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James.

5. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.

6. He 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.

7. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.

There is so much we could discuss here, but today I merely want to draw attention to point (6) above, which highlights James’ ongoing life of prayer, specifically his worship of God and petitions for forgiveness on behalf of others. His dedication to prayer is such that his physical body reflected it: “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” It is because of this phrase that James is often referred to as “camel knees.”

The idea of praying on our knees is mentioned frequently in Scripture (Psalm 95:6; Daniel 6:10; Luke 5:8; Ephesians 3:14). Praying on our knees conveys humility – an appropriate sense of who we are – and awe – an appropriate sense of who God is. Getting down on our knees tells us in a very tangible way – through the posture of our bodies – that something different is occurring in our experience that requires something different from our bodies. As one commentator writes, kneeling in prayer communicates something vitally important: “We recognize that God is everything for us and that without his merciful love, we are, literally, nothing.”

These days many of us, especially those within evangelical traditions, rarely get on our knees in prayer. In fact, it is so out of the ordinary that when I recently invited our church community to kneel, I had to take extra time to set it up ahead of time. Those in what would described as traditional churches likely find it more common to descend to a kneeler each week for the confessional prayer. Regardless of our worship tradition, I would like to suggest that all of us could learn quite a lot from the Apostle James in his example of dedicated, humble prayer through appropriate kneeling.

However, let me take it a step further, and say that pastors and ministers of all sorts should take a cue on prayer from “Old Camel Knees.” It would be an invaluable breakthrough in ministry practice if all of us serving in ministry left a legacy like James of dedication in prayerful worship of God and intercession before God on behalf of our people. May God give us grace that our bodies would be marked by our dedication in prayer.

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