But I give myself unto prayer.' Psa 109: 4.
I shall not here expatiate upon prayer, as it will be considered more fully in the Lord's prayer. It is one thing to pray, and another thing to be given to prayer: he who prays frequently, is said to be given to prayer; as he who often distributes alms, is said to be given to charity. Prayer is a glorious ordinance, it is the soul's trading with heaven. God comes down to us by his Spirit, and we go up to him by prayer.
What is prayer?
It is an offering up of our desires to God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ.
Prayer is offering up our desires;' and therefore called making known our requests. Phil 4: 6. In prayer we come as humble petitioners, begging to have our suit granted. It is offering up our desires to God.' Prayer is not to be made to any but God. The Papists pray to saints and angels, who know not our grievances. Abraham be ignorant of us.' Isa 63: 16. All angel-worship is forbidden. Col 2: 18, 19. We must not pray to any but whom we may believe in. How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?' Rom 10: 14. We cannot believe in an angel, therefore we must not pray to him.
Why must prayer be made to God only?
(1) Because he only hears prayer. Oh thou that hearest prayer.' Psa 65: 2. Hereby God is known to be the true God, in that he hears prayer. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God.' 1 Kings 18: 37.
(2) Because God only can help. We may look to second causes, and cry, as the woman did, Help, my lord, O king.' And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee?' 2 Kings 6: 26, 27. If we are in outward distress, God must send from heaven and save; if we are in inward agonies, he only can pour in the oil of joy; therefore prayer is to be made to him only.
We are to pray for things agreeable to his will.' When we pray for outward things, for riches or children, perhaps God sees these things not to be good for us; and our prayers should comport with his will. We may pray absolutely for grace; For this is the will of God, even your sanctification.' 1 Thess 4: 3. There must be no strange incense offered. Exod 30: 9. When we pray for things which are not agreeable to God's will, it is offering strange incense.
We are to pray in the name of Christ.' To pray in the name of Christ, is not only to mention Christ's name in prayer, but to pray in the hope and confidence of his merits. Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it,' &c.1 Sam 7: 9. We must carry the lamb Christ in the arms of our faith, and so shall we prevail in prayer. When Uzziah would offer incense without a priest, God was angry, and struck him with leprosy.2 Chron 26: 16. When we do not pray in Christ's name, in the hope of his mediation, we offer up incense without a priest; and what can we expect but to meet with rebukes, and to have God answer us by terrible things?
What are the several parts of prayer?
(1) There is the confessors part, which is the acknowledgement of sin. (2) The supplicatory part, when we either deprecate and pray against some evil, or request the obtaining of some good. (3) The congratulatory part, when we give thanks for mercies received, which is the most excellent part of prayer. In petition, we act like men; in giving thanks, we act like angels.
What are the several sorts of prayer?
(1) There is mental prayer, in the mind.1 Sam 1: 13. (2) Vocal. Psa 77: 1. (3) Ejaculatory, which is a sudden and short elevation of the heart to God. So I prayed to the God of heaven.' Neh 2: 4. (4) Inspired prayer, when we pray for those things which God puts into our heart. The Spirit helps us with sighs and groans. Rom 8: 26. Both the expressions of the tongue, and the impressions of the heart, so far as they are right, are from the Spirit. (5) Prescribed prayer. Our Saviour has set us a pattern of prayer. God prescribed a set form of blessing for the priests. Numb 6: 23. (6) Public prayer, when we pray in the audience of others. Prayer is more powerful when many join and unite their forces. Vis unita fortior [A united force is stronger]. Matt 18: 19. (7) Private prayer; when we pray by ourselves. Enter into thy closet.' Matt 6: 6.
That prayer is most likely to prevail with God which is rightly qualified. That is a good medicine which has the right ingredients; and that prayer is good, and most likely to prevail with God, which has these seven ingredients in it: --
It must be mixed with faith. But let him ask in faith.' James 1: 6. Believe that God hears, and will in due time grant, believe his love and truth; believe that he is love, and therefore will not deny you; believe that he is truth, and therefore will not deny himself. Faith sets prayer to work. Faith is to prayer what the feather is to the arrow; it feathers the arrow of prayer, and makes it fly swifter, and pierce the throne of grace. The prayer that is faithless is fruitless.
It must be a melting prayer. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.' Psa 51: 17. The incense was to be beaten to typify the breaking of the heart in prayer. Oh! says a Christian, I cannot pray with such gifts and elocution as others; as Moses said, I am not eloquent;' but can't thou weep? Does thy heart melt in prayer? Weeping prayer prevails. Tears drop as pearls from the eye. Jacob wept and made supplication; and had power over the angel.' Hosea 12: 4.
Prayer must be fired with zeal and fervency. Effectual fervent prayer availeth much.' James 5: 16. Cold prayer, like cold suitors, never speed. Prayer without fervency, is like a sacrifice without a fire. Prayer is called a pouring out of the soul,' to signify vehemence.1 Sam 1: 15. Formality starves prayer. Prayer is compared to incense. Let my prayer be set forth as incense.' Psa 141: 2. Hot coals were to be put to the incense, to make it odoriferous and fragrant; so fervency of affection is like coals to the incense; it makes prayer ascend as a sweet perfume. Christ prayed with strong cries. Heb 5: 7. Clamor iste penetrat nubes [Such a cry pierces the clouds]. Luther. Fervent prayer, like a powder engine set against heaven's gates, makes them fly open. To cause holy fervour and ardour of soul in prayer, consider, (1) Prayer without fervency is no prayer; it is speaking, not praying. Lifeless prayer is no more prayer than the picture of a man is a man. One may say as Pharaoh, I have dreamed a dream.' Gen 41: 15. It is dreaming, not praying. Life and fervency baptise a duty, and give it a name. (2) Consider in what need we stand of those things which we ask in prayer. We come to ask the favour of God; and if we have not his love all we enjoy is cursed to us. We pray that our souls may be washed in Christ's blood; if he wash us not we have no part in him. John 13: 8. When will we be in earnest, if not when we are praying for the life of our souls? (3) It is only fervent prayer that has the promise of mercy affixed to it. Ye shall find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.' Jer 29: 13. It is dead praying without a promise; and the promise is made only to ardency. The a tiles among the Romans, had their doors always standing open, that all who had petitions might have free access to them; so God's heart is ever open to fervent prayer.
Prayer must be sincere. Sincerity is the silver thread which must run through the whole duties of religion. Sincerity in prayer is when we have gracious holy ends; when our prayer is not so much for temporal mercies as for spiritual. We send out prayer as our merchant ship, that we may have large returns of spiritual blessings. Our aim in it is, that our hearts may be more holy, that we may have more communion with God and that we may increase our stock of grace. The prayer which wants a good aim, wants a good issue.
The prayer that will prevail with God must have a fixedness of mind. My heart is fixed, O God.' Psa 57: 7. Since the fall the mind is like quicksilver, which will not fix; it has principium motus, but non quietus [a principle of restlessness, not of peace]. The thoughts will be roving and dancing up and down in prayer, just as if a man who is travelling to a certain place should run out of the road, and wander he knows not whither. In prayer we are travelling to the throne of grace, but how often do we, by vain cogitations, turn out of the road! This is rather wandering than praying.
How shall we cure these vain impertinent thoughts, which distract us in prayer, and, we fear, hinder its acceptance?
(1) Be very apprehensive in prayer of the infiniteness of God's majesty and purity. His eye is upon us in prayer, and we may say as David, Thou tellest my wanderings.' Psa 56: 8. The thoughts of this would make us hoc agere, mind the duty we are about. If a man were to deliver a petition to an earthly prince, would he at the same time be playing with a feather? Set yourselves, when you pray, as in God's presence. Could you but look through the keyhole of heaven, and see how devout and intent the angels are in their worshipping God, surely you would be ready to blush at your vain thoughts and vile impertinences in prayer.
(2) If you would keep your mind fixed in prayer, keep your eye fixed. Unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens.' Psa 123: 1. Much vanity comes in at the eye. When the eye wanders in prayer, the heart wanders. To think to keep the heart fixed in prayer, and yet let the eye gaze, is as if one should think to keep his house safe, and yet let the windows be open.
(3) If you would have your thoughts fixed in prayer, get more love to God. Love is a great fixer of the thoughts. He who is in love cannot keep his thoughts off the object. He who loves the world has his thoughts upon the world. Did we love God more, our minds would be more intent upon him in prayer. Were there more delight in duty, there would be less distraction.
(4) Implore the help of God's Spirit to fix your minds, and make them intent and serious in prayer. The ship without a pilot rather floats than sails. That our thoughts do not float up and down in prayer, we need the blessed Spirit to be our pilot to steer us. Only God's Spirit can bound the thoughts. A shaking hand may as well write a line steadily, as we can keep our hearts fixed in prayer without the Spirit of God.
(5) Make holy thoughts familiar to you in your ordinary course of life. David was often musing on God. When I am awake, I am still with thee.' Psa 139: 18. He who gives himself liberty to have vain thoughts out of prayer, will scarcely have other thoughts in prayer.
(6) If you would keep your mind fixed on God, watch your hearts, not only after prayer, but in prayer. The heart will be apt to give you the slip, and have a thousand vagaries in prayer. We read of angels ascending and descending on Jacob's ladder; so in prayer you shall find your hearts ascending to heaven, and in a moment descending upon earthly objects. O Christians, watch your hearts in prayer. What a shame is it to think, that when we are speaking to God our hearts should be in the fields, or in our counting-houses, or one way or other, running upon the devil's errand!
(7) Labour for larger degrees of grace. The more ballast the ship has the better it sails; so the more the heart is ballasted with grace, the steadier it will sail to heaven in prayer.
Prayer that is likely to prevail with God must be argumentative. God loves to have us plead with him, and use arguments in prayer. See how many arguments Jacob used in prayer. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother.' Gen 32: 11. The arguments he used are from God's command Thou saidst to me, Return to thy country;' ver 9; as if he had said, I did not take this journey of my own head, but by thy direction; therefore thou canst not but in honour protect me. And he uses another argument. Thou saidst, I will surely do thee good;' ver 12. Lord, wilt thou go back from thy own promise? Thus he was argumentative in prayer; and he got not only a new blessing, but a new name. Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God, and hast prevailed;' ver 28. God loves to be overcome with strength of argument. Thus, when we come to God in prayer for grace, let us be argumentative. Lord, thou callest thyself the God of all grace; and whither should we go with our vessel, but to the fountain? Lord, thy grace may be imparted, yet not impaired. Has not Christ purchased grace for poor indigent creatures? Every drachm of grace costs a drop of blood. Shall Christ die to purchase grace for us, and shall not we have the fruit of his purchase? Lord, it is thy delight to milk out the breast of mercy and grace, and wilt thou abridge thyself of thy own delight? Thou hast promised to give thy Spirit to implant grace; can truth lie? can faithfulness deceive? God loves thus to be overcome with arguments in prayer.
Prayer that would prevail with God, must be joined with reformation. If thou stretch out thy hands toward him; if iniquity be in thy hand, put it far away.' Job 11: 13, 14. Sin, lived in, makes the heart hard, and God's ear deaf. It is foolish to pray against sin, and then sin against prayer. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.' Psa 66: 18. The loadstone loses its virtue when bespread with garlic; so does prayer when polluted with sin. The incense of prayer must be offered upon the altar of a holy heart.
Thus you see what is the prayer which is most likely to prevail with God.
Use one. It reproves (1) Such as pray not at all. It is made the note of a reprobate, that he calls not upon God. Psa 14: 4. Does he think to have an alms who never asks it? Do they think to have mercy from Cod who never seek it? Then God would befriend them more than he did his own Son. Christ offered up prayers with strong cries. Heb 5: 7. None of God's children are born dumb. Gal 4: 6.
(2) It reproves such as have left off prayer, which is a sign that they never felt the fruit and comfort of it. He that leaves off prayer leaves off to fear God. Thou castest off fear, and restrainest prayer before God.' Job 15: 4. A man that has left off prayer, is fit for any wickedness. When Saul had given over inquiring after God he went to the witch of Endor.
Use two. Be persons given to prayer. I give myself,' says David, to prayer.' Pray for pardon and purity. Prayer is the golden key that opens heaven. The tree of the promise will not drop its fruit unless shaken by the hand of prayer. All the benefits of Christ's redemption are handed over to us by prayer.
I have prayed a long time for mercy, and have no answer. I am weary of crying.' Ps 69: 3.
(1) God may hear us when we do not hear from him; as soon as prayer is made, God hears it, though he does not presently answer. A friend may receive our letter, though he does not presently send us an answer. (2) God may delay prayer, yet he will not deny it.
Why does God delay an answer to prayer?
(1) Because he loves to hear the voice of prayer. The prayer of the upright is his delight.' Prov 15: 8. You let the musician play a great while ere you throw him down money, because you love to hear his music. Cant 2: 14.
(2) God may delay prayer when he will not deny it, that he may humble us. He has spoken to us long in his word to leave our sins, but we would not hear him; therefore he lets us speak to him in prayer and seems not to hear us.
(3) He may delay to answer prayer when he will not deny it, because he sees we are not yet fit for the mercy we ask. Perhaps we pray for deliverance when we are not fit for it; our scum is not yet boiled away. We would have God swift to deliver, and we are slow to repent.
(4) God may delay to answer prayer, that the mercy we pray for may be more prized, and may be sweeter when it comes. The longer the merchant's ships stay abroad, the more he rejoices when they come home laden with spices and jewels; therefore be not discouraged, but follow God with prayer. Though God delays, he will not deny. Prayer vincit invincibilem [conquers the invincible], it overcomes the Omnipotent. Hos 12: 4. The Syrians tied their god Hercules fast with a golden chain, that he should not remove. The Lord was held by Moses' prayer as with a golden chain. Let me alone;' why, what did Moses? he only prayed. Exod 32: 10. Prayer ushers in mercy. Be thy case never so sad, if thou canst but pray thou needest not fear. Psa 10: 17. Therefore give thyself to prayer.