The Word: Giving Faith to Prayer
The Word: Giving Faith to Prayer
by William Klock
The fall before I enrolled in Regent College to attend seminary I made a number of visits to see what I thought of the school and to meet some of the professors I would be studying under. At the time I was hoping to become a Hebrew, or maybe, an Old Testament professor. I chose Regent because one of the worlds finest Hebraists was teaching there at the time. On one of those visits I arranged to meet with him and while I was waiting for our appointment, J.I. Packer walked by and greeted me. I told him who I was and he asked me what I thought of the college and of Vancouver. I told him, but since the subject of Vancouver had come up, I decided to ask him about all the flashing green traffic lights I had seen and asked what they meant. When I met up with my parents later, I mentioned that while I was waiting for my future thesis advisor I had met Dr. Packer. My mom was thrilled that I’d met Dr. Packer and wanted to know if I’d spoken with him. I said that I had and that he had finally given me an explanation for all the flashing green traffic lights that had had us so puzzled. She thought I was crazy. There I was, face to face, with one of the finest theologians of the 20th Century and all I did was ask him about traffic lights!
Brothers and sisters, consider that through our Saviour, Jesus Christ, you and I have direct access into the presence of God. We’ve got far better than a chance meeting with a great theologian. We have access, through prayer, to God himself! But ask yourself how much you make use of prayer. Do you waste that opportunity, or do you really take advantage of it? Or maybe we need to ask: Do we avail ourselves of prayer at all? One of the simplest and most essential parts of the Christian life is the discipline of prayer, and yet it’s at the same time one of the things that vexes us the most. Far too many Christians struggle to pray at all. And when we do pray, we struggle with how to pray, what to pray, when to pray, how much to pray, when to start and when to stop praying, and a host of other questions. This morning we’ll be looking at verses 145 to 152 of Psalm 119. This stanza is all about prayer. David doesn’t answer every question we have about prayer, but he does give us a good look and I hope that after this morning David will have enrich all of our prayers.
As we make our way through these eight verses we’ll see how David prayed (v. 145), what he prayed for (v. 146), when he prayed (v. 147), how long he prayed (v. 148), what he pleaded (v. 149), what happened (v. 150), how he was rescued (v. 151), and finally his testimony as a result of the whole thing (v. 152).
Look with me first at verse 145 where David shows us how he prayed. He writes:
With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord! I will keep your statutes.
First, David cried out. Have you ever cried out to God—really cried out? Most of the time I pray either sitting at my desk or kneeling at a prayer desk. My head is down and my mouth is moving silently as I pray, but I don’t actually say anything out loud. I’m not particularly exercised. Even when I’m urgent about something in prayer, I can’t really say I “cry” out on a regular basis or even very frequently. And I’m sure that most of you are much like me when it comes to prayer. If you’re really concerned about something, maybe you furrow your brow as you pray. Some of this is culture. Just we men in our culture don’t generally cry streams of water when we’re grieving, we don’t cry out in prayer. In the ancient near east it was culturally acceptable for people, especially men, to show emotion more than it is in ours. This doesn’t mean you we have to literally cry out to God, but it does express the urgency of David’s prayer. Prayer was important to David. It wasn’t some duty or formality that he did each day so that he could check it off his list of religious obligations. People only cry out in prayer—they’re only earnest—when they really want God to hear them and when they have faith that through prayer they really do have access to God.
Notice, the cry is from his heart—from his whole heart. Bp. Cowper wrote, “As a man cries most loudly when he cries with all his mouth opened; so a man prays most effectually when he prays with his whole heart.” And remember, it’s the heart that God listens to. He wants your heart in life and he wants your heart in prayer—and not a piece or a corner of it, he wants the whole thing.
We so easily turn prayer into a duty or an obligation that we forget prayer is all about the heart. God doesn’t look at how elegant or well-crafted your prayers are, he doesn’t care whether they’re long or short, whether they’re logical or you have every one of your doctrinal i’s dotted or theological t’s crossed. No, he cares about the sincerity of your prayers and whether they come from your heart. It’s good to take care in how we address God. It’s good to take care that our prayers are according to God’s will and his character. But it’s entirely possible to do all those things just right and not have our hearts behind our prayers. Thomas Brooks wrote, “Prayer without the heart is but as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Prayer is only lovely and weighty, as the heart is in it, and no otherwise. It is not the lifting up of the voice, nor the wringing of hands, nor the beating of the breasts, not an affected tone, nor studied motions, nor seraphical expressions, but the stirrings of the heart, that God looks at in prayer. God hears no more than the heart speaks.”
And of course we can’t go on without looking at what David’s heart desired so much that he cried out to God for it. Notice the specific content of his prayer: “I will keep your statutes.” He goes on in verse 146, praying:
I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies.
Each of us needs to compare David’s prayer with our own prayers. When we pour out our hearts to God there are all sorts of things that we ask for, but David’s first concern was to walk in God’s ways. He couldn’t do it on his own and so he cried out for help. He cried out for grace. “Save me!” he prays. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. But notice, salvation doesn’t end with a cry to God to save us from the consequences of our sins. It’s “Save me” so that “I may observe your testimonies.” David wanted God’s salvation so that he could continue blameless before God; so that he could prove the testimonies of God true; and so that he could walk as a witness to the faithfulness of God.
We’ve all met people who prayed a prayer or walked an aisle, but never really experienced any change in their lives—who just keep on living the same lives they always did. Not David. He didn’t ask to be saved from the penalty of sin so that he could go on sinning without any more fear of the consequences. No. He cried out for salvation so that he would be just as free from the hold of sin on his life as he was free from the eternal death that sins brings. David had no idea of a salvation that would allow him to live in sin or continue in error. He knew that none of us can be saved as long as we live in disobedience—that there is no salvation without repentance.
In verse 147 he cries out again a third time and shows us when he prayed.
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.
How often does your heart so yearn to cry out to God that it gets you up before the sun? Again, David stresses just how important prayer was for him and it’s in stark contrast to how important prayer is for many of us. Most Christians, sadly, make no deliberate effort to set aside time for prayer, which says something about their hearts. There’s no earnestness to cry out to God, no passion to come before his throne. They squander the great gift that Christ has given us. Years ago when my job required me to leave for work at 6 a.m. I groaned at the idea of getting up at 5. I decided to move my prayer and Scripture study time to the evening. The problem was that it rarely took place. Everything crowded it out. Do you remember my illustration from a couple of weeks ago about the rocks, gravel, sand, and water in the jar? Daily time with God is the biggest rock you have and it has to go in first. For the vast majority of us, if we put everything else in first there will almost never be room for God. After several months I bit the bullet and started waking up at 4 a.m. so that I could have that hour with God. It was painful at first. It meant missing out on some things in the evening because I had to be in bed early. And yet it forced me to look at my life and ask what was important: staying up late to read a book or watch T.V. or time with God? I can say that God blessed that decision and, in fact, God blessed that time far more than he ever blessed the time I had spent with him so easily in the past at 6 or 7 a.m. when there was no challenge to it. It all comes down to an issue of priorities and what’s in our hearts. Is the desire of your heart for God or is it for other things?
Notice David says, “I hope in your words.” Do your prayers lack the earnestness of David’s? Are the desires of your heart focused on everything else but God? David was earnest in prayer precisely because he was steeped in God’s Word. He knew God’s promises, he had read in the Scriptures how God had always kept them, and he had experienced God’s faithfulness in his own life. Because he knew the Scriptures so well, he knew God and he knew God’s character and that strengthened his faith. In the midst of all the troubles around him, he had faith—he hoped in God’s words—and that drove him to God. David reminds us that if our hearts lack this desire for God and if our prayers aren’t as earnest as his, the solution is to spend more time getting to know the righteous and faithful Word of God. The Word gives life. The more life it gives, the more it gives us a hunger for more of itself. It’s a spiritual snowball or tumbleweed. The bigger it grows the faster it goes and that, in turn, makes it grow even bigger. Feed on the Word and let it build a hunger for fellowship with God in you—and then satisfy that hunger by taking in more of the Word. And as you satisfy your hunger, the Word will give you new hunger.
But it wasn’t just a matter of rising before dawn to pray. In verse 148 David gives an idea of just how long—how much of his time—he spent in prayer.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.
The Jews measured the night by their military watches—by the changing of the guard. The first watch was probably from sunset to about 10 p.m., another from 10 p.m. until about 2 a.m., and another from 2 a.m. until sunrise. David, first as a warrior and then as the king, certainly lived with those watches as part of his daily life. So he didn’t just wake before dawn to pray; he woke when he heard the changing of the guard and took those opportunities to pray, and undoubtedly to spend some time in the Word too. Verses like these in the psalms inspired the first Christian monastics to develop their own schedules for prayer, not only throughout the day, but throughout the night and early morning hours—opportunities to gather in the night, sing the psalms together, and offer their prayers to God.
Our offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are rooted in that same prayer tradition. By the middle ages, those monastic prayer hours had become very complicated and had been taken away from the laypeople of the Church. Archbishop Cranmer distilled them down into two simple offices, especially for the benefit of the laypeople, to encourage the whole Church, not just a select group of monks with few worldly duties, to begin and end each day with prayer. What’s disappointing is that so few even are willing to spare the time twice a day to read two passages of Scripture, pray through a psalm, and offer those simple, yet utterly profound prayers to God. David gives us an example of a man devoted to God and because of that devotion, devoted to so much more. When I wake up early in the morning, when it’s dark and I’d so much rather pull up the covers, roll over, and go back to sleep, I remember David. He preferred study and prayer to sleep.
And yet again, we have to ask why. If we don’t understand his motivation it would be easy for us to fall into a legalistic pattern. Many monks have taken little more than a legalistic approach to the prayer offices. Many clergy, especially in England where the law requires them to say Morning and Evening Prayer every day, have turned it into a legalistic practice—a duty or an obligation done, but not one that comes from the heart. Again, David was eager and earnest to pray because he hoped in God. Again, he knew the Word, he knew the promises, he knew God’s faithfulness—he knew that God hears and answers the prayers of those who pray from the heart. All of us know at least one or two people who are eager to pray like David was—the Church’s great prayer warriors—and I guarantee if you talk to those people and get to know them, in every case you’ll find men and women who have strong and profound hope in God—men and women who know God, who understand the great value of Christ’s gift that allows us to enter the presence of the Father with our request, and men and women who know that God is always faithful when we pray. They are people who know the steadfast love of God and know that there’s no better way to experience it than through prayer. And that’s what David pleads for in verse 149:
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O Lord, according to your justice give me life.
David wanted life, but notice he doesn’t plead for life based on his own merit or deserving. No, he pleads for life on the grounds of God’s steadfast love—this is that wonderful word chesedagain, the word that refers to the everlasting, steadfast, and never-ending love and mercy and kindness of God. This is the same prayer that in which we admit that we are sinners, that wemerit nothing but death from God, but in which we also plead for life as we trust in the moving, merciful, and gracious death of Jesus Christ in our place. Some people might think that’s a prayer we pray once; the “Sinner’s Prayer” and once you’ve said it you’re good to go. But friends, this isn’t a prayer we pray once. Through the blood of Jesus, God declares us just once and for all, but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop pleading for the life the Spirit gives us a he grafts us into Christ. It doesn’t mean we should ever stop praying for help to be obedient. It doesn’t mean we should ever stop praying for the needs of others. And yet we continue to bring our prayers before God, not based on our merit, but on the merits of Jesus.
In verse 150 David gives us some background. This is part of the reason his prayers were so earnest.
They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law.
There’s a sense in which we can take comfort in knowing that God’s enemies are our enemies. We can take comfort in knowing that God’s victory is sure and, because of that, so is ours. David also wrote Psalm 46—the psalm that gave comfort and assurance to Martin Luther when he was surrounded by enemies; the psalm that inspired him to write “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. In that Psalm David wrote with assurance:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46: 1-2a, 10-11)
David knew that if God could give him life, he would also take care of that life—in his steadfast love, he could be trusted not only for salvation of the soul, but for salvation of his physical life. David points us forward to the promise of Jesus: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Without a doubt that was what David did. He sought to follow God and he sought God’s kingdom and in doing so he left the cares of the world to God, trusting that he would care for them. We know that God will triumph over his own enemies, and as long as we are following him—as long as we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness—our enemies are his enemies. God has already won the victory.
Notice, David calls on God because his enemies were drawing near, but notice too in verses 151, that God was already near to David.
But you are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true.
David knew that his enemies were after him precisely because he followed God. The men and women of the world are consumed with the lies of the Enemy—the same lies he told to Adam and Eve; the lie that we can be gods ourselves and call our own shots. David had found salvation in the truth of God’s Word—the truth brought him into humble submission to the Father and that had brought him to humble repentance and trust in the coming Messiah. David had known falsehood and he had known truth and so when the enemies of God and the lies of the world were overcoming him, David fell back on faith—faith rooted firmly in truth. He believed and he trusted because it was true.
Finally, as a result of all this, David testifies to the faithfulness of God’s Word. Look a verse 152:
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.
This is one of the verses that suggests that David probably wrote this psalm as an old man as he looked back on his life. David had been taught when he was young that God’s testimonies are a sure foundation, but he spent the rest of his life building on that foundation and proving it to be sure. A few times he tried to build on other foundations and those buildings failed him, and each time he went back to God and to his Word. He was man who knew that God’s Word was there before the world began, that it had never changed and that it never would change. He build on the solid rock and proved that it’s more solid than anyone can imagine, and for that reason he was not only confident in prayer, but earnest in prayer as he pleaded the promises of the Word back to God. Spurgeon put it this way, “It is sweet to plead immutable promises with an immutable God.” It was because of this that David learned to hope. Most of us have learned the mistake of trusting in men and women who do change, but David learned to put his confidence in the God who never changes. It was because of this that he delighted in being near to the Lord. He knew the joys of spending time with a friend who never changes.
There are all sorts of things out there competing for our attention. Worse, even in the church there are all sorts of things that will take our attention away from the solid rock laid before the foundations of the world. Every year there’s some new fad that we’re told we need to embrace, as if the Gospel somehow isn’t good enough on its own. Brothers and sisters, let us be satisfied with the truth—the truth established before the creation itself and that, because it lies with God, is forever and unchanging. Let us be content to worship the Lord, who is eternally the same. David reminds us here that things that are everlastingly established are the joy of established saints. Charles Spurgeon described prayer as rope down below that rings the great bell above in the ears of God. Some of us hardly stir the bell. Some of us give it an occasional pull. But, brothers and sisters, the one who has hope in the Word and faith in our righteous and faithful God, pulls that rope boldly and with everything he’s got—and that’s the man or woman who truly communicates with heaven.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, through your Son, Jesus Christ, you have given us access to your throne of grace. By him we have your ear. Remind us always of your faithfulness to hear and to answer that we might be encouraged not to squander this gift, but to make great use of it. We ask this through him who died that we might be reconciled to you, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.