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[Matthew Henry is greatly known for his magnificent commentary on the whole Bible. He also wrote a book proposing A Method for Prayer, in between writing volumes of that commentary. This overview of prayer is taken from the preface of that book.]
Prayer: An Overview,
by Matthew Henry (1662-1714)
Pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17).
Religion is so much the business of our lives, and the worship of God so much the business of our religion, that what has a sincere intention, and probable tendency, to promote and assist the acts of religious worship, I think cannot be unacceptable to any that heartily wish well to the interest of God’s kingdom among men. For if we have spiritual senses exercised, true devotion, that aspiring flame of pious affection to God, as far as in a judgment of charity we discern it in others (though in different shapes and dresses, which may seem uncouth to one another) cannot but appear beautiful and amiable, and, as far as we feel it in our own breasts, cannot but be found very pleasant and comfortable.
Prayer is a principle branch of religious worship, which we are moved to by the very light of nature, and obliged to by some of its fundamental laws. Pythagoras’s golden verses begin with this precept: Whatever men made a god of, they prayed to. “Deliver me, for thou art my God,” (Isa. 44:17). Nay, Deos qui rogat ille facit — whatever men prayed to, they made a god of. It is a piece of respect and homage so exactly consonant to the natural ideas which all men have of God, that it is certain, those that live without prayer, live without God in the world.
Prayer is the solemn and religious offering up of devout acknowledgments and desires to God, or a sincere representation of holy affections, with a design to give unto God the glory due unto His Name thereby, and to obtain from Him promised favors, and both through the Mediator. Our English word prayer is too strait, for that properly signifies petition or request; whereas humble adorations of God, and thanksgivings to Him, are as necessary in prayer as any other part of it. The Greek word proseuche, from euche, is a vow directed to God. The Latin word votum is used for prayer. Jonah’s mariners, with their sacrifices, made vows, for prayer is to move or oblige ourselves, not to move or oblige God. Clemens Alexandrinus (in Strom. 7. p. 722. Edit. Colon) calls prayer (with an excuse for the boldness of the expression) Homilia pros ton Theon—it is conversing with God; and it is the scope of a long discourse of his there to show that his Believer lives a life of communion with God, and so is praying always. He studies by his prayers continually to converse with God. Some, saith he, had their stated hours of prayer, but he prays all his life long. The scripture describes prayer to be our drawing near to God, lifting up our souls to Him, pouring out our hearts before Him.
This is the life and soul of prayer; but this soul, in the present state, must have a body; and that body must be such as becomes the soul, and is suited and adapted to it. Some words there must be, of the mind at least, in which, as in the smoke, this incense must ascend; not that God may understand us, for our thoughts afar off are known to him, but that we may the better understand ourselves.
A golden thread of heart prayer must run through the web of the whole Christian life; we must be frequently addressing ourselves to God in short and sudden ejaculations, by which we must keep up our communion with Him in providences and common actions, as well as in ordinances and religious services. Thus prayer must be sparsim (a sprinkling of it) in every duty, and our eyes must be ever towards the Lord.
In mental prayer, thoughts are words, and they are the first-born of the soul, which are to be consecrated to God. But if, when we pray alone, we see cause, for the better fixing of our minds and exciting of our devotions, to clothe our conceptions with words—if the conceptions be the genuine products of the new nature,—one would think words should not be far to seek, provided that words can be found. Nay, if the groanings be such as cannot be uttered, “He that searcheth the heart, knows them to be the mind of the Spirit, and will accept of them,” (Rom. 8:26-27), “and answer the voice of our breathing,” (Lam. 3:56). Yet through the infirmity of the flesh, and the aptness of our hearts to wander and trifle, it is often necessary that words should go first, and be kept in mind for the directing and exciting of devout actions.
When we join with others in prayer, who are our mouths to God, our minds must attend them, by an intelligent believing concurrence with that which is the sense and scope, and substance, of what they say, and affections working in us suitable thereunto: and toward this, the scripture directs us to signify, by saying “Amen”, mentally, if not vocally, at their giving of thanks (see 1 Cor. 14:16). And as far as our joining with them will permit, we may intermix pious ejaculations of our own with their addresses, provided they be pertinent, in order that not the least fragment of praying time may be lost.
But he that is the mouth of others in prayer, whether in public or private, and therein uses that freedom of speech, that holy liberty of prayer which is allowed us (and which we are sure many good Christians have found by experience to be very comfortable and advantageous in this duty), ought not only to consult the workings of his own heart (though them principally, as putting most life and spirit into the performance), but the edification also of those that join with him: and both in matter and words should have an eye to that.
It is desirable that our prayers should be copious and full; our burdens, cares, and wants are many; so are our sins and mercies. The promises are numerous and very rich. Our God gives liberally, and has bid us open our mouths wide, and He will fill them, will satisfy them with good things. We are not straitened in Him, why then should we be stinted and straitened in our own bosoms? Christ had taught His disciples the Lord’s prayer, and yet tells them in John 16:24 that hitherto they had asked nothing, i.e., nothing in comparison with what they should ask when the Spirit should be poured out to abide with the church forever. Then “ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). We are encouraged to be particular in prayer, and in everything to make our requests known to God, as we ought also to be particular in the adoration of the divine perfections, in the confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgments of God’s mercies.
But since, at the same time, we cannot go over the tenth part of the particulars which are fit to be the matter of prayer without making the duty burdensome to the flesh, which is weak, even where the spirit is willing (an extreme which ought carefully to be avoided), and without danger of entrenching upon other religious exercises, it will be requisite that what is but briefly touched upon at one time, should be enlarged upon at another time. And herein this store-house of materials for prayer may be of use to put us in remembrance of our several errands at the throne of grace, that none may be quite forgotten.
And it is requisite, to the decent performance of the duty, that some proper method be observed. That which is said should not only be good, but said in its proper place and time, that we offer nothing to the glorious Majesty of heaven and earth which is confused, impertinent, and indigested. Care must be taken, then more than ever, that we be not rash with our mouth, nor hasty to utter anything before God; that we say not what comes uppermost, nor use such repetitions as evidence of not the fervency, but of the barrenness and slightness of our spirits; but that the matters we are dealing with God about, being of such vast importance, we observe a decorum in our words, that they be well chosen, well weighed, and well placed.
And as it is good to be methodical in prayer, so it is to be meaningful. The Lord’s prayer is remarkably so; and David’s Psalms, and many of St. Paul’s prayers, which we have in his epistles. We must consider, that the greatest part of those that join with us in prayer will be in danger of losing or mistaking the sense, if the periods be long, and the parenthesis many; and in this, as in other things, they that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak: Jacob must lead as the children and flock can follow.
Although the examples of prayer given in the Bible are great examples to follow, yet I am far from thinking we should always tie ourselves to them. Our prayers may be varied, as well as the expression. Thanksgiving may very aptly be put sometimes before confession or petitions, or our intercessions for others before our petitions for ourselves, as in the Lord’s prayer. Sometimes one of these parts of prayer may be enlarged upon much more than another; or they may be decently interwoven in some other method.
There are those, I doubt not, who, at some times, have their hearts so wonderfully elevated and enlarged in prayer: such a fixedness and fullness of thought; such a fervor of pious and devout affections, the product of which is such a fluency and variety of pertinent and moving expressions. If the heart be full of its good matter, it may make the tongue as the pen of a ready writer. But this is a case that rarely happens, and ordinarily there is need of proposing to ourselves a certain method to go by in prayer, that the service may be performed decently and in order; in which yet one would avoid that which looks too formal. At these times, it is wise to follow the patterns given in the Bible for prayer.
But, regardless of the form of prayer, the intention and close application of the mind, the lively exercises of Faith and Love, and the outgoings of holy desire towards God, are so essentially necessary to Prayer, that without these in sincerity, the best and most proper language is but a lifeless image. If we had the tongue of men and angels, and have not the heart of humble serious Christians in Prayer, we are but as a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It is only the effectual fervent prayer, the inwrought inlaid prayer that avails much. Thus therefore we ought to approve ourselves to God in the integrity of our hearts, whether we pray by, or without a pre-composed form.
This article is taken from: Henry, Matthew. A Method for Prayer. Glasgow: D. Mackenzie, 1834. (Originally published in 1710). A PDF file of this book can be downloaded, free of charge, at: