Praise and Prayer
THERE IS A SEASON for everything, and much depends on doing everything in its appropriate time. So it is with Praise and prayer. This not only applies to us in our daily life, but also to the conduct of God's saints throughout the past and future eras. What suited the saints under law is not at all ideal for us today. What was highly commendable in Daniel would be proof of apostasy in this period of transcendent grace. In the past prayer was occasional, intermittent, now it is vital and should proceed without cessation. Let us consider its exercise in the past, in Israel, and compare this with Paul's prescription for today.
In early Israel most prayers were occasional. Some need or crisis drew them forth. Not only so, but the temple was the official location for prayer. Either the people went there or directed their prayers toward it, wherever they were, as the Mohammedans do toward Mecca. I do not remember being in a mosque which did not have some indication of the direction of their sacred shrine, and the worshipers all prostrate with their faces toward it. In prolonged crises like the deportation, pious Jews seem to have had regular hours for prayer. Daniel opened his windows toward Jerusalem and knelt three times a day, and gave thanks. His prayer we shall consider later, but now it is helpful to see that there was no such thing as ceaseless prayer under the law.
In later Israel God was petitioned in the temple at the hour of prayer. There was a place and a time. At the ninth hour (about three o'clock) Peter and John went there and healed the lame man at the Beautiful door (Acts 3:1). And it was at that time that the messenger came to Cornelius and responded to his petitions (Acts 10:3,30). This seems to have been the set time for the Jews and the proselytes to perform their religious obligations. There was nothing in the law which made it mandatory, but it was one of innumerable man-made customs which came to be almost as binding as God's revealed instructions.
But Peter did not confine himself to the customary hour. It was at noon, about the sixth hour, that he went up on the housetop to pray. By this act, he severs himself from the populace, and is prepared for the great change in God's dealings which is impending. Here we have the opening wedge which eventually led to the conciliation of the nations. As we shall see later, even the place was propitious, for Simon, the tanner, with whom Peter was staying, lived on the seashore. In biblical symbols, the sea stands for the nations, and the solid land for Israel. Peter, so to speak, is already at a limit of the land, and is about to be pushed into the sea. But that is no place for a man. Neither is the home of a gentile fit for the presence of a Jew. So it is at noon, when nature is at its brightest, that Peter is convinced that God has some scraps for the other nations, and he is prepared for the descent of the spirit on Cornelius. In contrast, Paul, who also prayed at midday on the Damascus road, was arrested by a light above the brightness of the sun, according as his ministry to the nations was above Peter's in celestial glory (Acts 10:9; 26:13).
Nothing can impress us so powerfully with the apostasy of Israel as the tragic fact that they were saying their hypocritical prayers at the very hour when the Great Sacrifice cried out to the Deity, My God! My God! Why didst Thou forsake Me? Can we not visualize the scene as it appeared to the spirits above? All about were the religious Jews, holy hypocrites, seemingly in the divine presence in prayer, although their sordid sins demanded that they be put to death on the accursed tree. And, on the other hand, the high and holy Son of the Supreme, Who alone had the right to enter the presence of the Deity, forsaken by His God! What a setting for His supreme sacrifice, the severance from the presence and smile of His Father! All the prayers offered by Israel at the ninth hour never could sanctify the time as His single petition for their forgiveness (Matt.27:46).
Hitherto I have always pictured the so-called transfiguration, or transformation, of our Lord in the dark shadows of the night. But there is no intimation that it did not occur in the daytime. In fact, as a symbol of the glory of the coming kingdom, it must have occurred during the day, for that eon is always intimated by such terms as the day of Jehovah, and the time when the sun arises with healing in its wings (Mal.4:2). And, moreover, it will be the kingdom of the heavens, even though it will not be in heaven. Moreover, the light of the sun is said to be sevenfold in that day (Isa.30:26). On a similar occasion, the call of Saul was at midday, and the light was blinding in its brightness.
To agree with the spirit of the law, our Lord labored during the day. He did most of His praying at night, when the physical conditions corresponded with Israel's spiritual state. Even if He slept, He arose while it was yet night to pray, in preparation for the coming day (Mark 1:35). On one special occasion, when He was about to choose the twelve apostles from among His disciples, He spent the whole night in prayer to God, as it is usually translated. I do not like the phrase prayer to God. As we shall see, prayer originates in God. It is not telling Him what He already knows far better than we do, but communion with Him in regard to it. Hence it should be rendered, as in the inspired Original, the prayer of God. His Father was the One Who gave the apostles to Him (John 17:24), and He was in the prayer of God in order to discern His will, not to press His own.
As the crisis of His ministry approached, when He held up the heralding of the kingdom and began to announce His rejection, our Lord spent the evening in prayer alone (Matt.14:23). He had fed the multitude miraculously from a few morsels. As their bellies were filled they were about to make Him king (John 6:15). This was utterly foreign to His program, and demanded a special session with His Father. As a result, the whole course of His ministry is reversed. Thenceforth begins Jesus to show to His disciples that He must...be suffering much from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed... (Matt.16:21).
The next great crisis was Gethsemane, and once again He retires in order to pray in the evening. It was the most agonizing prayer that the world will ever witness. It was terrible, indeed, to be told that His ministry to Israel had failed, but now He enters the deepest depths of despair in view of His desertion by God Himself, when all others had forsaken Him, and He becomes the great Sin Offering for the whole world. The evening was doubtless dark, but to Him, it was only the symbol of the dense darkness that would cover the land and His own soul when He suffered for us the next day from mid-forenoon until mid-afternoon, when the brightest part of the day became as dark as the night (Mark 14:32; Luke 22:41,44).
We have considered the times when our Lord prayed, and when Peter made his petitions. Now let us turn to Paul. It is very striking to note how many times he prayed, yet we are hardly ever told when it was. The significance of this will be apparent later. But there was one occasion which should be full of interest to us. Right after his Macedonian call and his contact with the gods of the nations in the maiden obsessed by a python spirit, he and Silas are cast into jail, into the very dungeon, and their feet are secured in stocks (Acts 16:24). How humiliating a beginning, and how discouraging to be stopped at the very start of their God-appointed task of making known the evangel to Europe! When Peter was imprisoned we read that prayer was earnestly made to God for him. But not so with Paul and Silas. They were alone in a strange land. But they had such a glorious vitalizing message that they not only prayed for themselves, but sang hymns to God. And it was midnight. Here we begin to see the place of prayer in Paul's evangel for the nations (Acts 16:23).
In our very darkest experiences, in the most desperate circumstances, if our hearts are brimming with the evangel of God's grace, we will praise as well as pray. The whole atmosphere of this blessed deliverance is redolent with grace. This is further emphasized when we compare it with Peter's release. Paul was the means of salvation to the jailor, who considered himself lost. Peter was the cause of death to the guards who had done nothing amiss. Paul was justified by the city officials, who had to come and get them out. Peter had to slink away into oblivion even after he was released. Our midnight disasters are glorified by God's grace. They may seem the blackest black at the time, but prayer based on God's, grace is superior to every mental state, and we should sing as well as pray. Even if our voices are unmusical, our hearts are enabled to hymn His praise in the deepest depths of despair. And if we can praise at midnight, when all is black, then we surely can pray at all other times when the day is not so dark, and when the sun shines in splendor in the sky.
Through Paul's epistles, we read of persevering, unintermitting prayer. It is not an external, outer garment, to be worn on special occasions, but a vital internal organ, essential to the process which carries on our spiritual life. Even our Lord, in His kingdom ministry, told His disciples a parable that they must always be praying and not be despondent (Luke 8:1-8). But the motive back of it was very different. Even an unjust judge may be wearied by a widow so that he will avenge her. Should not God by all means be doing the avenging of His chosen ones who are imploring Him day and night? Shall we follow this example? I trust not! We are in no position to ask for justice or vengeance. On the contrary, we are not avenging ourselves, but give place to God's indignation, for it is written, Mine is vengeance! I will repay! If our enemy should be hungering, we should give him the choice morsel, if he should be thirsting, we should give him a drink, for so we will heap embers of fire on his head. We should not pray for vengeance at any time, but conquer evil with good (Rom.12:19-21).
But how can we pray without ceasing? Only a very few men are able to carry on more than one mental operation at the same time. Most of us can carry on a conversation while working, and that involves far more effort than communion with God. We must turn our thoughts into appropriate words and conform our lips and teeth and tongues to express the proper sounds and use our lungs to propel the air. It is really a rather intricate procedure to speak to our fellows. But we can do it without any great effort on our part. It is much easier for our spirits to take the attitude of praise and prayer to God, no matter what else is taking our attention, and no matter what other functions the body is performing.
Very few realize how many things the human body does at one time. No matter what our principal occupation may be, we keep on breathing; the lungs expand and contract, the blood absorbs the oxygen from the air and gives off the deadly carbon dioxide. At the same time, the skin is reacting and may be exuding moisture. Besides this, the complicated operations necessary to the digestion of food are going on in the stomach and beyond. Special fluids are added and churned into the mass, which, in turn, is separated so that a part is absorbed by the blood and the rest eliminated. It would take a considerable laboratory and a very able chemist to perform these operations properly outside the body. Then there are other organs, all operating at the same time. The heart pumps the blood throughout the body, so that the eyes may see, the ears hear, the nose smell, the tongue taste, and all goes on without a conscious effort on our part while we are working and talking to our associates. It is no great thing to add one more function, and keep in touch with God along with the rest.
How much easier it is to speak, or rather think, to God! How often we are at a loss for words to express some vague, but urgent, feeling of need, in view of our service, or of some crisis in His work! As we have already shown, we are ignorant as to what is best, for the future is hid from us, and we are not aware just what God has in view, so that we may conform to His will, for the life we live is far too intricate to be fully comprehended. Then we need only to lift our hearts to God in spirit, like music without words, and find ourselves in tune with His spirit, and rest in His peace, for He does know what we need, and will assure us that all is well, even when it appears to be unutterably ill. If we prefer, we may use words. In fact, in one case that I know of, the prayer, if we may call it so, arises spontaneously, and consists merely in the mental ejaculation, Gracious God, if it please Thee! Nothing more is needed. No definite request is necessary. This comes up unbidden, in the midst of affairs, whenever the load on the heart needs to be lightened.
Praising and praying, are not strange, abnormal functions for which man has no organs. On the contrary, mankind was especially designed by its Creator for this very vocation. Man was given a tongue to communicate with his fellows. At best it is a stammering and imperfect method of making known his thoughts. Words are scarcely ideal as a means of expressing ideas. Too often they are misunderstood and falsely construed. Even the most perfect of all literature, the Word of God, which refines its own vocabulary, has led to innumerable interpretations. When speaking and writing I seek to keep the background of my hearers or readers in view, so that it will be intelligible to them rather than to myself. I use the devices found in Sacred Writ to insure apprehension. I often state a matter twice, using synonyms to more fully cover the ground. But none of this is required when communicating with the Deity. He Who made us for Himself, Who intends to be our All, understands our needs much better than we do ourselves, He reads our hearts, not our heads.
Like a musical instrument, man was made to praise the Deity. He has all the necessary equipment, so that he can do this at all times, without interrupting his vital functions. In fact, the stomach and lungs and heart must continue to operate, just as they do when talking to others. It is better, of course, that we be alone, away from the distractions of human fellowship, but this is not absolutely necessary in this administration of spiritual realities. It may help to get down before God on our knees or face, as this is in accord with our spiritual posture before Him. But, again, today there is no need of this, if our spirits are prostrate in His presence. I would be much embarrassed if I should pray publicly, like a Moslem, but I do not hesitate to bow to the ground in spirit in the presence of anyone, at anytime, no matter how much I may be abashed to speak to them, or even to be under their eye.
But to reach such a vast variety, saints and sinners, young and old, spiritual minors and mature, from many different countries, with strange customs, and even more denominations and divisions to reach them all with the same words is almost as difficult as to reach all mankind with the same language. My grandson, who was sitting on the front seat in a meeting, asked me afterward why I sometimes spoke "over his head." He was then too young to understand all that I said. So I told him that I had to do it to reach the others, who sat behind him! I am sure that they would not have cared for the milk he needed, for some of them had been mature before he was born, both physically and spiritually. This could be remedied very simply. All that is needed is for every listener or reader to know all things. Then they would easily catch my meaning, even if my words failed to convey it.
With characteristic confusion, earnest and devout movements today, not understanding the times, have adulterated grace with law even in praying. Prayer is held in temples without intermission, instead of at three o'clock, as in Jerusalem. In one such temple, they boasted that prayer had been held without ceasing for many years. It was kept going in relays day and night. Like a watch in wartime, each group was relieved every so often, so that there should be no break in the continuity. I do not know how they explained our Lord's condemnation of prolixity or loquacity in prayer (Luke 20:47), or the use of needless repetitions (Matt.6:7). But we may be sure that the early church did not understand Paul to mean any such thing. It is little better than the prayer wheels of the heathen, who think that they can worry their gods into acquiescence with their own wills. It tends to cover up the fundamental truth that every saint is to keep in vital contact with God at all times.
Let us, then, pray without ceasing. Nevertheless let us make an occasional special petition along the lines proposed by Paul, for the promotion of God's work in the world. Of this, we will learn more later when we come to consider the special petitions that the apostle has offered for us, and those for him and all who follow in his ministry. May God Himself encourage us to have communion with Him at all times!
A. E. Knoch
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