Every day, an old man walks down my street. His head juts forward on a skinny neck, his back hunches with age, and his feet shuffle more than they step. In his hands, he clutches two small weights. With forearms at right angles to his body, he pushes dumbbells ahead of his torso. His progress is glacial. From my window, I can see him coming; minutes later, even after I’ve put in a load of laundry or started the dishwasher, he still won’t be past my house. I’ve never met him, but he’s become a familiar part of life on my street.
In a neighborhood of fast runners outfitted in sleek gear, this man is an oddity. His movement is slow, and his rumpled clothing isn’t much to look at. But what impresses me is his faithfulness. No matter the weather, there he is, walking down the street, one foot in front of the other.
To temple attendees in first-century Jerusalem, Anna was probably a similarly familiar figure. “Here comes Anna,” we can imagine the priests saying to one another as the old woman slowly shuffled through the temple gate and across the courtyard, just as she did every day.
As we consider our own lives, Anna has much to teach us about what it means to be faithful over decades despite hardship and often amid loneliness. In particular, Anna shows us that God’s people in exile ought to be people who pray.
Exile Among Exiles
Anna’s place in the Bible’s story occupies only three verses. We meet Anna in Luke’s Gospel as Mary and Joseph are bringing the newborn Jesus into the temple:
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)
Anna’s story may be brief, but we shouldn’t underestimate her significance in redemptive history as a faithful exile—and her usefulness to us as an example.
In just a few verses, Luke tells us that Anna was an exile from among the exiles. A prophetess at a time when there were no prophets, an Asherite where the tribal line was thought extinct, an old woman from a decimated generation, an Israelite in Roman territory, a woman without a family, a faithful believer in a faithless world. Year after year, the Lord had stripped away from Anna all the things that would have made her feel at home on the earth.
And every day, she came to his temple to worship him.
‘She Did Not Depart’
Anna’s life task was the work of persistent prayer. And when we, too, feel like exiles—when we live in neighborhoods and belong to families where seemingly no one else shares our deepest convictions—we can learn from her.
Year after year, the Lord had stripped away from Anna all the things that would have made her feel at home on the earth. And every day, she came to his temple to worship him.
Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37). Only in eternity will we know exactly what Anna prayed, but, as a faithful Jew, she would have asked the Lord to supply all her needs. In this way, her prayers were probably not much different from many of our own.
But Scripture leads us to believe that Anna’s prayers were more than lists of temporal needs. Her commitment to fasting and her dedication to round-the-clock intercession over many decades point to prayers that rose above simple reactions to daily needs and desires. Anna’s prayers weren’t dictated by the concerns of the moment. Anna’s prayers were for the fulfillment of the greatest promise God had ever made: redemption.
Anna knew that what she and the rest of God’s people needed wasn’t merely a nice life, or even a life in their own land. What they needed was redemption from their sins, reconciliation with their God, and re-creation of their hearts. What they needed was the Messiah—promised to Adam and Eve in the garden and looked for by the faithful ever since. When she prayed, Anna asked Yahweh to send the Christ.
And Anna didn’t give up praying. To pester the Lord like Anna did—day and night for decades upon decades—would be audacious, except that God himself had commanded it: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:6–7).
Anna came boldly because God told her to be bold. Anna kept asking because God told her not to quit. Like another famous widow in the parable that Jesus would later tell, Anna didn’t stop begging God. And like that widow, Anna teaches us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Exile is hard, and it’s all too easy to allow the daily struggles of life in a fallen world to consume our prayers (or to keep us from the place of prayer altogether). When we pray for decades for the salvation of loved ones, the growth of the church, and the revelation of Christ among people who aren’t even looking for him, we often see few quantifiable answers. Year after year, the world around us continues to seek hope everywhere but in Christ. Meanwhile, we exiles still need to get dressed, eat, and pay the bills.
To pester the Lord like Anna did—day and night for decades upon decades—would be audacious, except that God himself had commanded it.
Praying for the advance of Christ’s cause in the world can seem futile, and, over time, our prayers dwindle to short lists of temporal needs or perfunctory requests without much expectation of God’s answer. But Anna invites us to pray for more and to pray for it more often. She invites us to confidently ask God to do what he has already promised he would: to redeem his people.
As we walk among people living in darkness, we can dedicate ourselves to praying that God would shine the light of the Messiah in our hearts and in theirs, giving new life and glorifying Christ. Anna’s example also invites us to pray for the Lord’s appearing, not as a baby this time but as the triumphant King. In the discouragement of exile, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus—looking expectantly for his work in the world now and for his final revelation one day soon. Like the saints of old, we keep praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).