Lo, these many years sweet Penelope has waited for the return of Odysseus. If he should be dead, she will have to yield to the claims of one of the many suitors gathered nearby. In desperation she prays to all the gods, vowing that she will offer 100 oxen as a sacrifice in the hope that Zeus might some day respond.
In classical Greek the word “pray” (euchomai -- YOU ko my) included the elements: “ask,” “wish,” and “vow.” The prayers typically involved an attempt to bargain for an answer through sacrifices or promises, and were often vaguely addressed in the direction of “the gods.” (Socrates prayed “to Pan and as many other gods as might be in this place.”)
Interestingly, in the New Testament the word “pray” almost always comes in a revised form (proseuchomai - pross YOU ko my). The added prefix means “toward,” and gives the word “pray” a more focused direction. By contrast, the weaker word of classical authors (which they used 93% of the time) is used sparingly in the New Testament (only 8%). A remnant of the weaker classical usage is found in Acts 27:29, where the storm-tossed sailors “prayed” or “wished” for daylight.
The N.T. choice of proseuchomai for “pray” teaches us that Christian prayer is not the same as pagan prayer. Our prayers are not vaguely directed to whatever gods may be around; nor are they a part of a bargaining process. Unlike the pagans, we are taught to pray, “Our Father . . .” (Matt 6:9). We approach the throne with confidence, address the God we know personally, and pray with the certainty that our prayers are heard.