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[Here we continue a series of studies on Prayer. This study by Jonathan Edwards, concerns our God being a God who hears our prayers.]—Ed.
The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God, pt. 2
by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
O thou that hearest prayer. (Ps. 65:2, AV).
[In this study, Mr. Edwards is explaining this verse in the following manner:
1. Show that the Most High is a God that hears prayer.
2. Show that He is eminently such a God.
3. Show that herein He is distinguished from all false gods.
4. Give the reasons of the doctrine.
In the previous issue, he handled items 1 and 2. We pick up here with item 3.]
III. Herein the most high God is distinguished from false gods. The true God is the only one of this character; there is no other of whom it may be said, that He heareth prayer.
Many of those things that are worshipped as gods are idols made by their worshippers, mere stocks and stones that know nothing. They are indeed made with ears, but they hear not the prayers of them that cry to them. They have eyes, but they see not, etc. (see Psalm 115:5, 6). — Others, though not the work of men’s hands, yet are things without life. Thus, many worship the sun, moon, and stars, which, though glorious creations, yet are not capable of knowing anything of the wants and desires of those who pray to them. — Some worship certain kinds of animals, as the Egyptians were wont to worship bulls, which, though not without life, yet are destitute of that reason whereby they would be capable of knowing the requests of their worshippers. Others worship devils instead of the true God: “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils” (1 Corinthians 10:20.) These, though beings of great powers, have not knowledge necessary to capacitate them fully to understand the state, circumstances, necessities, and desires of those who pray to them. But the true God perfectly knows the circumstances of every one that prays to Him throughout the world. Though millions pray to Him at once, in different parts of the world, it is no more difficult for Him who is infinite in knowledge, to take notice of all than of one alone. God is so perfect in knowledge, that He doth not need to be informed by us in order to a knowledge of our wants, for He knows what things we need before we ask Him. The worshippers of false gods were wont to lift their voices and cry aloud, lest their gods should fail of hearing them, as Elijah tauntingly bid the worshippers of Baal do (see 1 Kings 18:27). But the true God hears the silent petitions of His people. He needs not that we should cry aloud; yea, He knows and perfectly understands when we only pray in our hearts, as Hannah did (see 1 Samuel 1:13).
Idols are but vanities and lies, in them is no help. As to power or knowledge, they are nothing; as the apostle says . “An idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4). As to images, they are so far from having power to answer prayer, that they are not able to act, “They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They, therefore, that make them and pray to them, are senseless and sottish, and make themselves, as it were, stocks and stones, like unto them” (Psalm 115:7,8) and in Jeremiah 10:5: “They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them for they cannot do evil; neither also is it in them to do good.” As to the hosts of heaven, the sun, moon, and stars, although mankind receives benefit by them, yet they act only by necessity of nature; therefore they have no power to do anything in answer to prayers. And devils, though worshipped as gods, are not able, if they had disposition, to make those happy who worship them, and can do nothing at all but by divine permission, and as subject to the disposal of Divine Providence.
When the children of Israel departed from the true God to idols, and yet cried to Him in their distress, He reproved them for their folly, by bidding them cry to the gods whom they had served, for deliverance in the time of their tribulation (see Joshua 10:14). So God challenges those gods themselves: “Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods, yea, do good or do evil, that we may be dismayed and behold it together. Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought, an abomination is He that chooseth you” (Isaiah 12:23, 24) — These false gods, instead of helping those who pray to them cannot help themselves. The devils are miserable tormented spirits, they are bound in chains of darkness for their rebellion against the true God, and cannot deliver themselves. Nor have they any more disposition to help mankind than a parcel of hungry wolves or lions would have to protect and help a flock of lambs. And those that worship and pray to them get not their good-will by serving them: all the reward that Satan will give them for the service which they do Him, is to devour them. — I proceed now
IV. To give the reasons of the doctrine, which I would do in answer to these two inquiries: first, Why God requires prayer in order to the bestowment of mercies, and secondly, Why God is so ready to hear the prayers of men?
INQ. 1. Why doth God require prayer in order to the bestowment of mercies?
It is not in order that God may be informed of our wants or desires. He is omniscient, and with respect to His knowledge unchangeable. God never gains any knowledge by information. He knows what we want, a thousand times more perfectly than we do ourselves before we ask Him. For though, speaking after the manner of men, God is sometimes represented as if He were moved and persuaded by the prayers of His people; yet it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing prayers; for it is no more possible that there should be any new inclination or will m God, than new knowledge. The mercy of God is not moved or drawn by anything in the creature; but the spring of God’s beneficence is within himself only; He is self-moved; and whatsoever mercy He bestows, the reason and ground of it is not to be sought for in the creature, but in God’s own good pleasure. It is the will of God to bestow mercy in this way, viz. in answer to prayer, when He designs beforehand to bestow mercy, yea, when He has promised it; as in Ezekiel 36:36,37: “I the Lord have spoken it, and will do it. Thus saith the Lord, I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.” God has been pleased to constitute prayer to be antecedent to the bestowment of mercy, and He is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though He were prevailed on by prayer. — When the people of God are stirred up to prayer, it is the effect of His intention to show mercy; therefore He pours out the spirit of grace and supplication.
There may be two reasons given why God requires prayer in order to the bestowment of mercy, one especially respects God, and the other respects ourselves.
1. With respect to God, prayer is but a sensible acknowledgment of our dependence on Him to His glory. As He hath made all things for His own glory, so He will be glorified and acknowledged by His creatures; and it is fit that He should require this of those who would be the subjects of His mercy. That we, when we desire to receive any mercy from Him, should humbly supplicate the Divine Being for the bestowment of that mercy, is but a suitable acknowledgment of our dependence on the power and mercy of God for that which we need, and but a suitable honour paid to the great Author and Fountain of all good.
2. With respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us in order to the bestowment of mercy, because it tends to prepare us for its reception. Fervent prayer many ways tends to prepare the heart. Hereby is excited a sense of our need, and of the value of the mercy which we seek and at the same time earnest desires for it, whereby the mind is more prepared to prize it, to rejoice in it when bestowed, and to be thankful for it. Prayer, with suitable confession, may excite a sense of our unworthiness of the mercy we seek; and the placing of ourselves in the immediate presence of God, may make us sensible of His majesty, and in a sense fit to receive mercy of Him. Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency them so we may be prepared to glorify His name when the mercy is received.
INQ. II. Why is God so ready to hear the prayers of men. — To this I answer,
1. Because He is a God of infinite grace and mercy. It is indeed a very wonderful thing, that so great a God should be so ready to hear our prayers, though we are so despicable and unworthy: that He should give free access at all times to every one: should allow us to be importunate without esteeming it an indecent boldness, should be so rich in mercy to them that call upon Him, that worms of the dust should have such power with God by prayer; that He should do such great things in answer to their prayers, and should show himself, as it were, overcome by them. This is very wonderful, when we consider the distance between God and us, and how we have provoked Him by our sins, and how unworthy we are of the least gracious notice. It cannot be from any need that God stands in of us; for our goodness extendeth not to Him. Neither can it be from anything in us to incline the heart of God to us; it cannot be from any worthiness in our prayers, which are in themselves polluted things. But it is because God delights in mercy and condescension. He is herein infinitely distinguished from all other gods: He is the great fountain of all good, from whom goodness flows as light from the sun.
2. We have a glorious Mediator, who has prepared the way, that our prayers may be heard consistently with the honour of God’s justice and majesty. Not only has God in himself mercy sufficient for this, but the Mediator has provided that this mercy may be exercised consistently with the divine honour. Through Him we may come to God for mercy; He is the way, the truth, and the life; no man can come to the Father but by Him. This Mediator hath done three things to make way for the hearing of our prayers.
(1.) He hath by His blood made atonement for sin; so that our guilt need not stand in the way, as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass. By His atonement He hath made the way to the throne of grace open. God would have been infinitely gracious if there had been no Mediator; but the way to the mercy-seat would have been blocked up. But Christ hath removed whatever stood in the way. The veil which was before the mercy-seat “is rent from the top to the bottom,” by the death of Christ. If it had not been for this, our guilt would have remained as a wall of brass to hinder our approach. But all is removed by His blood, Hebrews 10:17, etc.
(2.) Christ, by His obedience, has purchased this privilege, viz. that the prayers of those who believe in Him should be heard. He has not only removed the obstacles to our prayers, but has merited a hearing of them. His merits are the incense that is offered with the prayers of the saints, which renders them a sweet savour to God, and acceptable in His sight. Hence the prayers of the saints have such power with God; hence at the prayer of a poor worm of the dust God stopped the sun in its course for about the space of a whole day; hence Jacob as a prince had power with God, and prevailed. Our prayers would be of no account, and of no avail with God, were it not for the merits of Christ.
(3.) Christ enforces the prayers of His people, by His intercession at the right hand of God in heaven. He hath entered for us into the holy of holies, with the incense which He hath provided, and there He makes continual intercession for all that come to God in His name; so that their prayers come to God the Father through His hands, if I may so say; which is represented in Revelation 8:3,4. “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer, and there was given unto Him much incense, that He should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God, out of the angel’s hand.”
This was typified of old by the priest’s offering incense in the temple, at the time when the people were offering up their prayers to God; as Luke 1:10. “And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.”
(This study will continue in the next issue.)