Psalm 6:1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. 2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. 3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 7 My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 9 The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
This psalm is a desperate plea for deliverance offered in the midst of much and varied forms of suffering: physical illness, weakness, danger from enemies. David’s transparency and honesty are stunning; no attempt is made to hide or sugarcoat the truth about his true condition. Why should there be? All is known by the Lord.
In such circumstances, prayer should not be a forced or faked positivity but a brutal, violent outpouring of the soul. David’s anguish has brought him to the place where he realizes that only God can save. At the end of verse 3, as he reaches the point where his words begin to fail, David finds that he cannot rely even on his own praying.
It is interesting to note that much of this prayer is not supplication but complaint and weeping. Yet even here, God hears and will respond. As he who knows what we need before we ask, God answers the prayers not only offered in the form of praise and request, but also in the form of tears and silence.
As he moves to the conclusion of the psalm, David commands his enemies to depart and declares that they shall be put to shame. The fact that David speaks in the future tense, however, reveals that he is still in the same condition as before. At the end of the psalm, deliverance has not yet come. His circumstances have not yet changed, so what has? Only this — the Lord has heard.
For David, the fear and doubt and pain of the previous verses are outmatched by the simple knowledge that God has heard, even though his prayer was tainted by doubt and full of complaint. That is to say, the fact of God’s hearing is more sure than the fact of our asking. His answer does not meet us in proportion to our faithfulness, but in proportion to his own. As the apostle Paul would later put it, we do not live by relying on our own faith, but by relying on the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).
This, and not any obvious change of circumstances, is the basis of David’s (and our!) strength.
Psalm 5:1 Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning. 2 Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray. 3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. 5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. 6 You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. 8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.
9 For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. 10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.
11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. 12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield.
Whereas Psalm 4 is a song for the evening, Psalm 5 is a prayer for the morning. Though the psalmist has slept in confidence and peace (3:5), he awakes in turmoil and groaning. Such is often the experience of the faithful whose faith is often prone to faltering. In a fallen world where sin, pride, and falsehood abound, it is necessary that faith be attended to and renewed each day and every morning. We cannot presume on the presence of faith when the evil and corruption that threatens us from the world without also threatens us from our own hearts within.
Thus, the psalmist must turn his cry every morning to the only One whose faithfulness never fails, the King and God whose unwavering fidelity to his people does not fluctuate in accordance with their own wavering trust. How is it, then, that the psalmist can confidently declare that he will walk in faithfulness this day, even when surrounded by boastful, bloodthirsty, and deceitful people? Only on account of the faithful love of the Lord. Only God’s steadfast love—his covenantal, indefatigable, merciful, compassionate, and relentless affection for us—can sustain us in such a world.
Hence the need for assiduous daily prayer! The lies and flattery, the dangers and diversions, all of these demand that we continually beseech the Lord to make his righteous way plain and straight before us. We will always be tempted to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1), and thus God’s constant guidance is our daily bread.
The psalmist concludes his prayer on a characteristic note of hope. Falsehood will not speak the final word! Those who find refuge in God and his Word will be ever glad and singing for joy. Note well: God’s truth is indeed the victory over this world, but truth wedded to joy! God’s Word should always make our tongues sing and our hearts rejoice, especially when from the fullness of that Word—the Word clothed in flesh and dwelling among us—we receive grace upon grace upon grace (Jn. 1:16)! Indeed, when compared to the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus”, all other joys should appear as shadows and dust (Phil. 3:8). It was, after all, the desire of this Word that our joy be complete in him (Jn. 15:11).
Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men,how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah 3 But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah 5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?” Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord! 7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Intended as an evening prayer, Psalm 4 begins and ends with the request for and confession of confidence in the Lord’s presence and protection. It is God’s proven faithfulness in the past (Ps. 3) and the certainty of his covenant righteousness for the future that permit the psalmist — the Davidic King — to lie down in peace.
In contrast with the “many” who (once again) seek after vanity and lies (Cf. Ps. 1:2, because in such things they find their delight rather than in God’s Word), the King responds with the promise and truth of God’s election and favor (2:6), on the basis of which he knows that God will always hear and answer his prayer. As in Psalm 1, loving vanity and seeking lies will ultimately prove self-destructive. Those who delight in such things “have forsaken [the Lord], the fountain of living waters” and have “hewn out for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Yet they wonder why they can find no good thing. Is this not sheer absurdity?
In reality, as the King attests, there is no good apart from the Lord and the light of his face. Even the greatest pleasures that the world can offer — here represented by the finest wine and the richest food — are loss and rubbish compared with the surpassing joy of knowing the King Jesus (Phil. 3:8). Yet we come to know this only when illuminated by the light of the face of Christ, for it is in his face, and his face alone, that we behold “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6) that causes all else to appear as mere shadow.
Thus, it is the Lord Jesus Christ “alone” who is everything that we need. He is our joy, he is our peace, he is our rest, he is our safety.
1 O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. 4 I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. 6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
7 Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah
In reflecting on Psalms 1-2, we discovered that the interpretive key for the psalms, especially those of David, is that they are ultimately the songs and prayers of David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ. Whatever comfort or encouragement we may personally find in the psalms, we must always keep central this all-important fact.
Psalm 3 begins by describing the setting in which the king of Psalm 2 — the anointed one, the Christ — finds himself: surrounded by numerous foes who mock him because the victory of their plots against him seems sure. Their taunt that “there is no salvation for him in God” anticipates what Christ’s adversaries will say as they look upon his crucifixion in Matthew 27:43: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”
Yet despite the overwhelming foes arrayed against him, the king is able to lay down and sleep — the most vulnerable position thinkable! — because of his confident faith in God’s protection, presence, and power to answer his prayer. The Lord will indeed answer from his “holy hill”, the very hill upon which he has firmly established his Christ (Ps. 2:6). Paradoxically, that holy hill will be revealed as a hill of death, a hill of crucifixion, and it will be upon a rugged cross planted there that Christ will ascend to claim his throne and inaugurate his kingdom.
The cross will not be the end, however, as Christ prays for deliverance, which inescapably will involve judgment. Indeed, Scripture everywhere testifies that salvation is only ever through judgment. The good news is that Christ has endured that judgment for the sake of all his enemies, yet those who continue to oppose him will be struck down by teeth-smashing blows.
Yet the final word of this psalm is not judgment but salvation. The king is the representative of his people, and so his salvation means their salvation. It was for this reason that Christ endured the hostility of his foes, that in his deliverance we might gain his blessing. Included in his blessing is this: that we can take upon our lips Christ’s words in Psalm 3 (as well as in all the other psalms) and use his prayer as our own. As for the king, so for his people. It is thus through the mouth of Christ that we are given to pray to his Father.
A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him
[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God answers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.
In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….
Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….
“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.
The following post is excerpted from David Wang, “Lessons from the Prayer Habits of the Church in China,” in Teach Us To Pray, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 247-254.
The phenomenal growth of the church in China is nothing short of a sovereign move of God. How else can one explain the fact that China, which turned Communist in 1949, now has perhaps the highest number of Christians in any one country? By conservative estimates, there are about fifty million Christians in China today. These are not Christians by birth or by tradition, for there is no Christian tradition in China as in Europe or America. These are people who have made a personal decision to follow Christ, and they are fully aware off the price they may have to pay….
[A]lmost every person who has made contact with China’s Christians is impressed with their sincerity, enthusiasm and simplicity of faith. These traits are seen most clearly in their prayer lives. The following observations on the prayer patterns of China’s believers are derived through personal contacts, correspondence from China, and interviews with itinerant evangelists and pastors of China’s house church movement…. [S]ince the Christian population of China is around fifty million and still growing, my observation of China’s church is but a glimpse of the total picture. The glimpse does reveal, however, that there are certain patterns in the prayer lives in China’s believers … from which we can learn.
I. They pray at great length
A pastor from Hong Kong took several Christian youths to visit China. They enjoyed fellowship with a rural house church for four days. The services were lengthy, continuing from early morning till late evening. But what the Hong Kong pastor remembered most vividly was the time they spent in prayer. He later wrote that the participants felt the forceful leading of the Holy Spirit as the prayers continued at great length. On a couple of days, the prayers lasted three to four hours….
‘The lengthiness of our prayers is a consequence of our persecution’, an itinerant evangelist/pastor in China explained to me. ‘For so many years we had no pastors or Bibles or even songbooks. Therefore when we gathered together we could only pray. It became the major focus of our meetings. In fact it was only God’s omnipotence and the believers’ prayers that sustained our church.’…
II. They pray with intensity
‘They are storming the gates of hell and shaking the Throne of Grace,’ said a co-worker, describing her impression of the prayers of believers in China. ‘Even when they pray in dialects that I don’t understand, I can sense the earnestness of their prayers. I hear it in the urgent, pleading tone of their voices.’ She said she has yet to hear a prayer in China that sounds bland or insipid. Several years ago, elderly Pastor Wang Mingdao, a saint of the church in China, explained to me, ‘We have nothing — no pastors, no churches, no Bibles … nothing! We only have God. Therefore we go to him in desperation.’…
III. They pray with one accord
The Chinese Christians love the opportunity to pray together. First of all, they value the presence of other Christians. Christians may number fifty million in China, but they are still a minority among one billion Chinese. They live in an atheistic, unsympathetic environment. Hence the presence and fellowship of other believers are very precious and encouraging. When Christians get together, the most natural thing is to pray….
IV. They pray with the language of Scripture
[F]or 30 years Bibles have been in extremely short supply. For many of China’s believers, the Word of God consists of what they have memorised from a borrowed Bible, or a Scripture portion copied by hand. Scripture memorisation comes naturally to them, partly due to practice and necessity, but also due to a love of the Word. ‘Often they pray through their entire theology,’ a scholar of a leading Chinese Christian research centre commented. ‘They pray in Scripture language, not only as a reinforcement of what they have memorised, but also as a verbalisation of their theology — the way some of us recite the Apostles’ Creed. But their repetition of Scripture is personal and relevant to their current situation. We outsiders sometimes think that the person leading in prayer is trying to sermonise. This may not be the case, for often believers pray through their theology in their private prayers as well.’
Praying in Scripture language is actually being taught in a mushrooming house church movement in Henan province. I read in its handcopied ‘Pastoral Care Manual’ that using Scriptures in prayer is one certain way of praying according to the will of God. Our co-workers who have close contact with China’s believers all feel we should learn this lesson — that praying in the language of God’s Word brings God-glorifying results.
V. They pray on all occasions
… I believe this is so because in the lives of Chinese believers, so many occasions arise which necessitate prayer. Living under the Communist system, people constantly encounter obstacles and practical difficulties. Goods and services which we take for granted are often hard to come by because of the bureaucratic maze, apathy of service personnel, lack of efficiency, and simple lack of supplies. A rampant ‘back door’ system which is facilitated by gifts or personal ‘connections’ forces the most ethical and conservative Christians of China to turn to God on every occasion. They must acknowledge and rely on him in all things….
One of my co-workers who has regular contact with the Christians in rural China explains: ‘In most parts of rural China, poverty, disasters — both natural and man-made — and the lack of all kinds of resources, drive the Christians to total dependence on God. He is not their last resort. He is the first and only resort.’… In living out Ephesians 6:18, China’s Christians view prayer as an all-powerful means because it reaches the all-powerful God. From experience they know that they can survive without Bibles, churches, pastors and many other things as long as they have a ‘hotline to heaven’. And this they have fully used to move mountains. Answered prayer is probably the most common cause of new conversions in China.
VI. They pray with empathy
My associate who has enjoyed fellowship with thousands of Chinese Christians during his 200-plus visits explained to me why the believers always cry during their prayers. It is not just a sign of their earnestness and desperation, or that the Chinese are more emotional; it demonstrates empathy…. For instance, on more than one occasion I have witnessed China’s Christians crying for the prevailing apathy of the church in Hong Kong. ‘Oh Lord, we are piercing your heart and nailing you to the cross again’, is a common lament. Perhaps because of their close communion with God, they tend to identify more sensitively with the grief and suffering of Christ (Phil. 3:10)….
[T]hey identify with those who are lost without Christ. I have listened to a tape of spontaneous prayer meeting when about fifteen pastors met in Canton … One by one they wept and interceded for the salvation of people in each province of China as well as for the world. One cannot but be moved by their earnestness in interceding for the lost. ‘Have mercy on us, Lord God, have mercy on us!’ they cried out to God for hours. And they repented that they had not done enough to reach the world, even though almost to a man they had been imprisoned for their faith and zeal. This type of prayer is common among ordinary believers as well, and even among new babes in Christ.
VII. They pray with thanksgiving
… One of our co-workers was taken to a house church prayer meeting in Swatow. The room was small, dimly lit and packed with people. There were a few rickety benches for people to sit on. Others were sitting on the bed which was just a board laid across two benches. Children and young people were even crouching underneath the bed! The room was stuffy because there was only one tiny window. To our co-worker, the place was anything but pleasant, and the believers there had few earthly possessions. But when they prayed, sounds of ‘Thank you, Father!’ filled the room. They prayed as though they were in heaven, totally oblivious of their surroundings. This thankful attitude is carried over into other aspects of life. It is quite obvious that as a whole, the Christians in China have ‘… learned to be content whatever the circumstances’ (Phil. 4:11)….
Dr James Hudson Taylor III, a great-grandson of Hudson Taylor and currently General Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, likens China’s Christians to the believers in the book of Acts. They were known as ‘those who call on the name of the Lord’. They were a people of prayer. And Dr Taylor asks, ‘I wonder if we (the Christians of the free world) would be described as such? Or have we lost something of that life of prayer?’
To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf,that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.
[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]
Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….
Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.
It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.
The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….
Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.
Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.
As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:
Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to tread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.
The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….
[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.
Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.
Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]
If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.
I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!
John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]
[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.
To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….
For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….
Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….
Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…
Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.
While there is certainly a place for prosaic instructions in learning to pray, there is also much to fuel the fire of our praying in the power of poetic pictures. George Herbert’s classic poem “Prayer (I)” does precisely this. As much as I have gleaned from reading books on prayer, perhaps nothing has impacted my prayer life more than the rich imagery that Herbert provides in the staccatoed cadence of his most famous sonnet. In reading the poem below, we need to allow the imagery first to wash over us with its tidal force, and then we will dive deeper into the verbal palette with which Herbert paints differing yet complementary portraits of the mystery that we call prayer.
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
In his book entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller (New York: Dutton, 2014) offers an excellent exposition of Herbert’s poem. On pages 28-32 he writes:
Prayer is “Gods breath in man returning to his birth.” Many who are otherwise skeptical or nonreligious are shocked to find themselves praying despite not even formally believing in God. Herbert gives us his explanation for that phenomenon. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” and “breath” is the same, and so, Herbert says, there is something in us from God that knows we are not alone in the universe, and that we were not meant to go it alone. Prayer is a natural human instinct.
Prayer can be “softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse”—the deep rest of soul that we need. It is “the souls bloud,” the source of strength and vitality. Through prayer in Jesus’ name and trust in his salvation we come as a “man well drest,” spiritually fit for the presence of the king. That is why we can sit down with him at “the Churches banquet.” Feasts were never mere feedings but a sign and means of acceptance and fellowship with the Host. Prayer is a nourishing friendship.
Prayer also is “a kinde of tune.” Prayer tunes your heart to God. Singing engages the whole being—the heart through the music as well as the mind through the words. Prayer is also a tune others can hear besides you. When your heart has been tuned to God, your joy has an effect on those around you. You are not proud, cold, anxious, or bored—you are self-forgetful, warm, profoundly at peace, and filled with interest. Others will notice. All “heare and fear.” Prayer changes those around us.
Prayer can be a “land of spices,” a place of sensory overload, of exotic scents and tastes—and a “milkie way,” a place of marvels and wonders. When that happens, prayer is truly of “Angels age,” an experience of timeless eternity. Yet no one in history has found that “land of spices” quickly or easily. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” and in Herbert’s time a pilgrim was someone who was engaged on a long, difficult, and exhausting trek. To be in pilgrimage is to have not yet arrived. There is a longing in prayer that is never fulfilled in this life, and sometimes the deep satisfactions we are looking for in prayer feel few and far between. Prayer is a journey.
Even in spiritually lean times, prayer can serve as a kind of heavenly Manna” and quiet “gladnesse” that keeps us going, just as the manna in the wilderness kept Israel moving toward its hope. Manna was simple food, especially savory, but hardly a banquet. Yet it sustained them wonderfully, a kind of travelers’ waybread that brought an inner endurance. Prayer helps us endure.
One reason for the arduousness is because true prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and no one who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.
Prayer is not all quiet, peace, and fellowship. It is also an “engine against th’ Almightie,” a startling phrase that clearly refers to the siege engines filled with archers that were used in Herbert’s day to storm a city. The Bible contains laments and petitions and pleadings, for prayer is rebellion against the evil status quo of the world—and they are not in vain, for they are as “church-bels beyond the stars heard” and indeed are “reversed thunder.” Thunder is an expression of the awesome power of God, but prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our petitions are not heard in heaven as whispers but as crack, boom, and roar. Prayer changes things.
Yet Herbert also states that prayer is a “sinner’s towre.” An arrogant spirit cannot rightly use the power of prayer’s siege engines. “Sinner’s towre” means that prayerful dependence on the grace of Jesus is our only refuge from our own sin. We cannot go into God’s presence unless we are dependent on Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness before God, not on our own. Indeed, prayer is the “Christ-side-piercing spear.” When we pray for forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, grace and mercy come flowing down even as the spear in his side brought water and blood gushing out. Prayer is a refuge.
Though prayer is a kind of artillery that changes the circumstances of the world, it is as much or even more about changing our own understanding and attitude toward those circumstances. Prayer is “a kinde of tune” that transposes even “the six daies world.” The six days is not the Sabbath day of formal worship but the workweek of ordinary life. Yet the one “houre” of prayer completely transposes it all, as the transposition of a piece of music changes its key, tone, and timbre. Through prayer, which brings heaven into the ordinary, we see the world differently, even in the most menial and trivial daily tasks. Prayer changes us.
As plumb lines measured the depths of waters beneath boats, prayer is a “plummet sounding heav’n and earth.” That means it can plunge us by the power of the Spirit into the “deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10). This includes the indescribable journey that prayer can take us through the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s saving love for us (Eph 3:18). Prayer unites us with God himself.
How does Herbert end this dazzling succession of word pictures? He concludes, surprisingly, that prayer is “something understood.” Many scholars have debated the apparent anticlimax of this great poem. It seems to be an “abandonment of metaphor … [yet] its final crowning.” After all the lofty images, Herbert comes down to earth. Through prayer “something”—not everything—is understood, and prayer’s conquests are indeed often modest. Paul says believers in this world see things only “in part,” just as the reflections in ancient mirrors were filled with distortions (1 Cor 13:12). Prayer, however, gradually clears our vision. When the psalmist was spiraling down into deadly despair, he went in prayer to “the sanctuary of God; then I understood” (Ps 73:17).
Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.
May Herbert’s poem enrich and empower your prayer life as it has mine!