Backstage at the opera recently, a friend of mine related an incident early in his acting career. He was in a production that required him to fall forward to die. Unfortunately nobody had taught him anything about stage falls, and he had no martial arts training to teach him to fall. He literally fell flat on his face. He broke a tooth and ended up with cuts and bruises. He had a scar which was normally hidden by his beard, but for this production he was required to shave. His action, though, seems to be a common one in the Bible. Frequently people are said to fall on their faces.
My friendís action seems to be mirrored in that of Balaam. Three times his ass sees the angel o God and balks. Finally, the ass speaks. When his mouth is opened, so are Balaamís eyes. He sees the angel, and what does he do. Like my friend he ďfell flat on his face.Ē (Num 22:31) He didnít just bow his head; he didnít just fall on his face. He fell flat on his face. That is pretty emphatic.
It seems that falling on oneís face is a common reaction when seeing an angel, or God. Abraham did it twice in one day. (Gen 17:3, 17) The whole nation of Israel did it when fire from God consumed the sacrifice at Aaronís ordination, and likewise when fire consumed the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. (Lev 9:24; 1 Kings 18:39) When Joshua met the captain of the host of the Lord upon entering the Promised Land, he fell on his face. (Josh 5:14) The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah and his wife to announce the birth of Samson. When they realized he was an angel, they fell on their collective faces. (Jdg 13:20) David saw the angel of the Lord about to destroy Jerusalem, and he fell on his face. (1 Chron 21:16) (The place where he did so became the location of the Temples.) Ezekiel and Daniel did the face-fall thing, as did the three apostles at the Transfiguration (Matt 17:6). Even in Johnís vision the angels and the elders fell on their faces before God. (Rev 7:11; 11:16) When confronting God, it seems automatic. In the cases of Joshua and Mr. & Mrs. Manoah, it appears that the angels may appear as normal people, but when they are recognized as angels, then comes the face plant.
People also fell on their faces before other people, usually those in authority over them. Ruth did it before Boaz. (Ruth 2:10) David (before officially becoming king) honored his friend Jonathan in this way (1 Sam 20:41), and was in turn honored by Abigail, who later became his wife (1 Sam 25:23). The book of 2 Samuel is full of people falling on their faces before kings. (2 Sam 9:6; 14:4,22; 18:28)
Jesus was the recipient of this honor from a couple of lepers, one before being healed (Lk 5:12) and one after (Lk 17:16). But Jesus himself fell on his face to pray to God. (Matt 26:39)
Apparently falling on oneís face before another is a sign of honor or respect. How interesting would it be if members of the church fell on their faces before the elders of the congregation? The elders, though, would probably be so humble as to tell them to get up, as they are mere men.
What is a proper position for prayer? It could be with upraised hands, or bowed heads, or kneeling. Jesus, in an extreme situation, felt that it was appropriate to pray on his face. Were we to do so, it would be to emphasize our position before God. That position, in any case, is as if we were flat on our faces.