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But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father, &c.—Mat. VI. 6-8.
I INTEND to go over the Lord’s Prayer; and, to make way for it, I shall speak a little of these foregoing verses, wherein our Lord treats of the duty of prayer, and the necessity of being much therein.
In the beginning of this chapter our Lord taxeth the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, which was plainly to be seen in all their duties their alms, their prayers, and their fasting.
I. For their alms: Christ deals with that in the first four verses. It seems it was their fashion, when they gave alms, to sound a trumpet; and their pretence was to call all the poor within hearing, or to give notice that such a rabbi giveth alms to-day. Now, our Lord showeth that though this were the fair pretence to call the poor, yet their heart was merely upon their own glory, their own esteem with men; and therefore he persuades his disciples to greater secrecy in this work, and to content themselves with God’s approbation, which will be open, and manifest, and honourable enough in due time, when the archangel shall blow the trumpet to call all the world together, 1 Thes. iv. 16, and Christ shall publish their good works in the hearing of men and angels: Mat. xxv. 34-36. Thus he deals with them upon the point of alms.
II. For their prayers: Christ taxeth their affectation of applause, because they sought out places of the greatest resort,—the synagogues and corners of the streets,—and there did put themselves into a praying posture, that they might be seen of men, and appear to be persons of great devotion, and so might the better accomplish their own ends, their public designs upon the stage (for the Pharisees were great sticklers at that time), and also their private designs upon widows’ houses, that they might be trusted with the management of widows’ and orphans’ estates, as being devout men, and of great sanctity and holiness.
In which practice there was a double failing:—
1. As to the circumstance of place, performing a personal and solitary prayer in a public place, which was a great indecorum, and argued the action to be scenical, or brought upon the stage merely for 5public applause. And certainly that private praying which is used by men in churches doth justly come under our Lord’s reproof.
2. Their next failing was as to their end: ‘Verily they do it to be seen of men.’
Object. But what fault was there in this? Doth not Christ himself direct us, in his Sermon, Mat. v. 16, ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven’? And yet the Pharisees are here taxed for praying, fasting, and giving alms, that they might be seen of men; how can these places stand together?
By way of answer:—
1. We must distinguish of the different scope and intention of Christ in these two places. There, Christ’s scope is to commend and enjoin good works to be seen of men, ad edificationem, for their edification; here, his scope is to forbid us to do good works to be seen of men, ad ostentationem, for our own ostentation: There, Christian charity to the souls of men is commended; and here, vainglory is forbidden.
2. Again, good works are to be distinguished. Some are so truly and indeed; others only in outward show and appearance. Good works, that are truly so and indeed, Christ enjoins there; hypocritical and feigned acts, that are only so in outward show and semblance, are forbidden here. To pray is a good work, take inward and outward acts of it together, and so it is enjoined. But hypocritical and superstitious prayer, which hath only the face and show of goodness, this is forbidden.
3. We must distinguish of the ends of good works; principal and subordinate; adequate and inadequate. First, the principal and primary end of good works must not be that we may be seen of men, but the glory of God; but now the subordinate, or less principal end, may be to be seen of men. Again, it must not be our adequate end, that is, our whole and main intention and scope; but a collateral and side end it may be. It is one thing to do good works, only that they may be seen; it is another thing to do good works, that they may not only be seen, but also be imitated, to win others by them to give glory to God. It is one thing to do good works for the glory of God, another thing to do them for the glory of ourselves. We may do good works to be seen in the first respect, but not in the last. We may not pray with the Pharisees merely to be seen of men, yet we may let our light shine before men, to draw them to duty, and give more glory to God.
4. Again, there Christ speaks of the general bent of our conversation, and here only of particular and private duties. It would argue too much hypocrisy to do these in public, though the whole frame and course of our carriage before men must be religious in their sight. And that is agreeable to what the apostle saith, 2 Cor. viii. 21, ‘We should provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.’ And, Phil. ii. 15, Christians are advised there to be ‘blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, shining among them as lights in the world.’ That which 6is obvious to the sight and observance of men, must be such as will become our holy calling. But our private and particular duties, which are to pass between God and us, these must be out of sight. I hope another man may approve himself to be honest and religious to me, though he doth not fall down and make his personal and private prayers before me. But to leave no scruple, if possible;
5. We must distinguish of the diverse significations of that phrase which is used here, ὁπῶς, that we may be seen. There is a twofold sense of ὁπῶς, or that. It may be taken two ways, as they speak, either causally or eventually. Causally, and then it implies and imports the end and scope why we do such a thing, namely, for this very purpose, that we may obtain it. And thus the Pharisees here did pray, ὁπῶς, that they might be seen of men, that is, this was their main end and scope. Thus that is taken causally. Secondly, that sometimes is taken eventually, and then it doth not import the end and scope, but only the event that will fall out and follow upon such a thing. Thus that is often taken in scripture. John ix. 39: Christ saith there, ‘For judgment I am come into the world, that they which see not, might see; and that they which see, might be made blind.’ It was not Christ’s scope to do so, but Christ foresaw that this would be the event of his coming into the world, and, therefore, he saith, that, &c. So Luke xiv. 10: Christ tells them there, ‘But when thou art bidden to a feast, go and sit down in the lowest room, that when he that bade thee comes, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.’ That is taken eventually, not causally; for Christ doth not bid them there to set themselves at the lower end of the table, for this very end, or to make this their scope: that is the thing he forbids—affectation of precedency; but that, hoc est, then it will follow, that is, this is likely to be the event; then the master of the house will come to you if you do this. Not that it should be your scope to feign humility, that you may obtain the highest place at the table. And so may Christ’s words be taken, ‘Let your light so shine.’ &c. This will fall out upon it then—men will be conscious to your Christian carriage and gracious behaviour, and by that means God will be much honoured and glorified. There it is taken eventually, but here it is taken causally. The Pharisees did it that they might be seen of men; that is, this was their scope and principal intention. And thus may you reconcile these two places of scripture.
Well, now, Christ having taxed them for these two faults: for their undue place, the synagogue and corners of the streets being unfit for a private and personal act of worship; and for their end, that they might be seen of men,—he saith, ‘They have their reward.’ That is, the whole debt is paid, they can challenge nothing at God’s hands. God will be behindhand with none of his creatures. As they have what they looked for, so they must expect no more, they must be content with their penny. The phrase is borrowed from matters of contract between man and man, and is a word proper to those which give a discharge for a debt. As creditors and money-lenders, when they are paid home the full sum which is due to them, then they can exact 7no more; so here they must be contented with the empty, windy puffs of vainglory, and to feed upon the unsavoury breath of the people: they can expect no more from God, for the bond is cancelled, and they have received their full reward already. Briefly, here is the difference in the several rewards that the hypocrites and the children of God have: the hypocrites, they are all for the present, and have their reward, and much good may it do them; there is not a jot behind, it will be in vain to expect any more: but now, for the children of God, your Father will reward you; they must expect and wait for the future. And yet in scripture we read oftentimes that the children of God have their reward in this life; but then the word in the original is ἔχουσι, which signifieth they have but in part; not the word which is used here, ἀπέχουσι, which signifies they have what is due, it is fulfilled, paid them. So those expressions in scripture are to be taken: ‘Ye have eternal life,’ ‘and he hath,’ ‘and that ye may have.’ It is often spoken in scripture of the children of God, so that they seem to have their reward too. They have their reward, but it is partially, not totally: there is something, the best things, yet behind. A child of God, he hath promises, first-fruits, some beginnings of communion with God here, but he looks for greater things to come.
Well, then, Christ, having disproved the practice of the Pharisees, seeks to set his own disciples right in the management of their prayers, as well as in their alms. Pharisaism is very natural in the best. We are apt to be haunted with a carnal spirit in the best duties; not only in alms, where we have to do with men, but in prayer, where our business lieth wholly with God; especially in public prayer; even there much of man will creep in. The devil is like a fly, which, if driven from one place, pitcheth upon another; so drive him out of alms, and he will seek to taint your prayers.
Therefore Christ, to rectify his disciples in their personal and solitary prayers, instructs them to withdraw into some place of recess and retirement, and to be content with God for witness, approver, and judge. ‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy doors, pray to thy Father which is in secret,’ &c.
In which words you may observe:—
I. A supposition concerning solitary prayer: ‘But thou, when thou prayest.’
II. A direction about it: ‘Enter into thy closet, and shut thy door, and pray to thy Father which is in secret.’
III. Encouragement to perform it: ‘And thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.’ Where two things are asserted:—
1. God’s sight: He is conscious to thy prayers when others are not.
2. God’s reward: ‘He will reward thee openly.’
To open the circumstances of the text:—
In the supposition, ‘But thou, when thou prayest,’ observe:—
1. Christ takes it for granted that his disciples will pray to God. He doth not say, if thou prayest, but when thou prayest, as supposing them to be sufficiently convinced of this duty of being often with God in private.8
2. I observe, again, Christ speaks of solitary prayer, when a man alone, and without company, pours out his heart to God. Therefore Christ speaks in the singular number: ‘When thou prayest;’ not plurally and collectively, when ye pray, or meet together in prayer. Therefore he doth not forbid public praying in the assemblies of the saints, or family-worship; both are elsewhere required in scripture. God hath made promises to public and church prayer, praying with men or before men: Mat. xviii. 19, ‘When two or three are met together, and shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.’ And when they shall agree in one public prayer, it seems to have a greater efficacy put upon it—when more are interested in the same prayer—when, with a combined force, they do as it were besiege the God of heaven, and will not let him go unless he leaves a blessing. Look, as the petition of a shire and county to authority is more than a private man’s supplication, so when we meet as a church to pray, and as a family, there is combined strength. And in this sense, that saying of the schoolmen is orthodox enough—viz., that prayer made in the church hath a more easy audience with God. Why? Because of the concurrence of many which are met there to worship God. Christ doth not intend in this any way to jostle out that which he seeks to establish elsewhere. Let your intentions be secret, though your prayers be public and open in the family or assemblies of the saints.
II. Let us open the direction our Lord gives about solitary prayer. The direction is suited so as to avoid the double error of the Pharisees; their offence as to place, and as to the aim and end.
1. Their offence as to the place: ‘Enter into thy closet, and shut thy door.’ These words are not to be taken metaphorically, nor yet pressed too literally. Not metaphorically, as some would carry them. Descend into thy heart, be serious and devout with God in the closet of thy soul, which is the most inward recess and retiring-place of man. This were to be wanton with scripture. The literal sense is not to be left without necessity, nor yet pressed too literally, as if prayer should be confined to a chamber and closet. Christ prayed in the mountain, Mat. xiv. 23; and Gen. xxiv. 63, Isaac went into the field to meditate. The meaning is, private prayer must be performed in a private place, retired from company and the sight of men as much as may be.
2. Christ rectifieth them as to the end: ‘Pray to thy Father which is in secret;’ that is, pray to God, who is in that private place, though he cannot be seen with bodily eyes; wherein Christ seems secretly to tax the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who did rather pray to men than to God, who was invisible; because all their aim was to be approved of men, and to be cried up by them as devout persons. So that what the Lord saith concerning fasting, Zech. vii. 5, 6, ‘When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? and when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?’ So here, was this unto God? No, though the force and sound of the words carried it for God, yet they were directed to men. When God is not made both the object and aim, it is not to him; 9when you seek another paymaster, you decline God, yea, you make him your footstool, a step to some other thing.
III. Here are the encouragements to this personal, private, and solitary prayer; and they are taken from God’s sight, and God’s reward.
1. From God’s sight: ‘Thy Father seeth in secret;’ that is, observeth thy carriage. The posture and frame of thy spirit, the fervour and uprightness of heart which thou manifestest in prayer, is all known to him. Mark, that which is the hypocrite’s fear, and binds condemnation upon the heart of a wicked man, is here made to be the saints’ support and ground of comfort—that they pray to an all-seeing God: 1 John iii. 20, ‘If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knoweth all things.’ Their heavenly Father seeth in secret; he can interpret their groans, and read the language of their sighs. Though they fail as to the outside of a duty, and there be much brokenness of speech, yet God seeth brokenness of heart there, and it is that he looks after. God seeth. What is that? He seeth whether thou prayest or no, and how thou prayest. (1.) He seeth whether thou prayest or no: mark that passage, Acts ix. 11, ‘The Lord said to Ananias, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus; for behold, he prayeth.’ Go into such a city, such a street, such a house, such a part, in such a chamber, behold he prayeth. The Lord knew all these circumstances. It is known unto him whether we toil or loiter away our time, or whether we pray in secret; he knows what house, in what corner of the house, what we are doing there. (2.) He seeth how you pray: Rom. viii. 27. It is propounded as the comfort of the saints, ‘And he that searcheth the heart knoweth what is the mind of the spirit.’ God knoweth you thoroughly, and can distinguish of your prayers, whether they be customary and formal, or serious acts of love to God, and communion with him.
2. The other thing which is propounded here is God’s reward: ‘And he will reward them openly.’ How doth God reward our prayers? Not for any worth or dignity which is in them. What merit can there be in begging? What doth a beggar deserve in asking alms? But it is out of his own grace and mercy, having by promise made himself as it were a debtor to a poor, faithful, and believing supplicant. But ‘he will reward thee openly.’ How is that? Either by a sensible answer to thy prayers, as he doth often to his children, by granting what they pray for; as when Daniel was praying in secret, God sent an angel to him, Dan. ix. 20; or by an evident blessing upon their prayers in this world, for the conscionable performance of this duty. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that were men of much communion with God, were eminently and sensibly blessed; they were rewarded openly for their secret converse with him; or it may be, by giving them respect externally in the eyes of others. A praying people dart conviction into the consciences of men. It is notable that Pharaoh in his distress sent for Moses and Aaron, and not for the magicians. The consciences of wicked men are open at such a time, and they know God’s children have special favour and 10great audience with him; and he having the hearts of all men in his hands, can manage and dispose respect according as he pleaseth. And when they are in distress, this honour God hath put upon you, they shall send for you to pray with them; and those which honour him, though but in secret, God will openly put honour upon them: 1 Sam. ii. 30. But chiefly this is meant at the day of judgment; then those which pray in secret their heavenly Father will reward them openly. When thou relievest the poor, and showest comfort to the needy, they cannot recompense thee; but then thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just, Luke xiv. 14. There is the great and most public reward of Christians: 1 Cor. iv. 5, ‘Then he will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart; and then shall every man have praise with God;’ that is, every man that is praiseworthy, however he be mistaken and judged of the world; for the apostle speaks it to comfort them against the censures of men. And mark, this is opposed to the reward which the Pharisees pleased themselves with: it was much with them to be well thought of in such a synagogue, or before such a company of men; ‘but your Father, which seeth in secret, will reward you openly;’ that is, not only in the eyes of such a city or town, but before all the world.
The point is this:—
Doct. That private, solitary, and closet-prayer is a duty very necessary and profitable.
It is a necessary duty; for Christ supposeth it of his disciples, to whom he speaks: ‘But thou, when thou prayest,’ &c. And it is profitable, for unto it God makes promises: You have a Father which seeth in secret, and one day shall be owned before all the world.
First, It is a duty necessary; and that will appear:—
1. From God’s precept. That precept which requireth prayer, requireth secret and closet-prayer; for God’s command to pray first falls upon single persons, before it falls upon families and churches, which are made up of single persons. Therefore where God hath bidden thee to pray, you must take that precept as belonging to you in particular. I shall give some of the precepts: Col. iv. 2, ‘Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving;’ and 1 Thes. v. 17, ‘Pray without ceasing.’ These are principally meant of our personal addresses to God, every man for himself; for injoining with others, the work is rather imposed upon us than taken up upon choice. And that can only be at stated times, when they can conveniently meet together; but we ourselves are called upon to continue to pray, and that without ceasing; that is, to be often with God, and to keep up not only a praying frame, but a constant correspondence with him. Surely every man which acknowledged a God, a Providence, and that depends upon him for blessings, much more every one that pretends he hath a Father in heaven, in whose hands are the guidance of all the things of the world, is bound to pray personally and alone, by himself to converse with God.
2. I shall argue it from the example of Christ, which bindeth us, and hath the force of a law in things moral. As Christ’s word is our rule, so his practice is our copy. This is true religion, to imitate him whom we worship. In this you must do as Christ did. Now we often read 11that Christ prayed alone—he went aside to pray to God; therefore, if we be Christians, so it should be with us: Mark i. 35, ‘And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.’ He left the company of his disciples, with whom he often joined, that he might be alone with God betimes in the morning. And again you have it: Mat. xiv. 23, ‘And when he had sent the multitude away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray; and when the evening was come, he was there alone.’ And, Luke vi. 12, it is said, ‘He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.’ You see Christ takes all occasions in retiring and going apart to God. Now the pattern of Christ is both engaging and encouraging.
It is very engaging. Shall we think ourselves not to need that help which Christ would submit unto? There are many proud persons which think themselves above prayer. Christ had no need to pray as we have; he had the fulness of the Godhead dwelling in him bodily; yet he was not above prayer. And if he had need of prayer, he had no need of retirement to go and pray alone; his affections always served, and he was not pestered with any distraction, and all places and companies were alike to him; and yet he would depart into a solitary place that he might be private with God.
Then the pattern of Christ is very encouraging; for whatever Christ did, he sanctified in that respect—his steps in every duty leave a blessing. Look, as Christ sanctified baptism by being baptized himself, and made the water of baptism to be saving and comfortable for us; and the Lord’s supper, by being a guest himself, and eating himself at his own table, so he sanctified private prayer: when he prayed, a virtue went out from him, he left a strength to enable us to pray. And it is encouraging in this respect, because he hath experimented this duty. He knows how soon human strength is spent and put to it, for he himself hath been wrestling with God in prayer with all his might. His submitting to these duties gave him sympathy; he knows the heart of a praying man when wrestling with God with all earnestness; therefore he helpeth us in these agonies of spirit. Again, his praying is an encouragement against our imperfections. Christians, when we are alone with God, and our hearts are heavy as a log and stone, what a comfort is it to think Christ himself prayed, and that earnestly, and was once alone wrestling with God in human nature! Mat. xiv. 23. And when the enemy came to attack him, he was alone, striving with God in prayer. He takes all occasions for intercourse with God; and if you have the Spirit, you will do likewise.
3. I might argue from God’s end in pouring out the Holy Ghost; wherefore hath God poured out his Spirit? Zech. xii. 11-14, ‘I will pour out the Spirit of grace and of supplication,’ &c. He poureth out the Spirit, that it may break out by this vent: the Spirit of grace will presently run into supplication; the whole house of Israel shall mourn. There is the church, they have the benefit of the pouring out of the Spirit; and every household hath benefit, that he and his family may mourn apart, and every person apart; that we may go and mourn over our case and distempers before God, and pour out our 12hearts in a holy and affectionate manner. This argument I would have you to note, that this was God’s end in pouring out his Spirit, for a double reason, both to take off excuses, and to quicken diligence.
Partly, to take off excuses, because many say they have no gifts, no readiness and savouriness of speech, and how can they go alone and pray to God? Certainly men which have necessities, and a sense of them, can speak of them in one fashion or other to God; but the Spirit is given to help. Such is God’s condescension to the saints, that he hath not only provided an advocate to present our petitions in court, but a notary to draw them up; not only appointed Christ for help against our guilt and unworthiness, but likewise the Spirit to help us in prayer. When we are apt to excuse ourselves by our weakness and insufficiency, he hath poured out the Holy Ghost, that we may pray apart. Partly to this end, the more to awaken our diligence, that God’s precious gift be not bestowed upon us in vain, to lie idle and unemployed, he hath poured out the Spirit; and therefore we should make use of it, not only that we may attend to the prayers of others, and join with them, but that we may make use of our own share of gifts and graces, and open and unfold our own case to God.
4. That it is a necessary duty, I plead it from the practice of saints, who are a praying people. Oh how often do we read in scripture that they are alone with God, pouring out their souls in complaints to him! Nothing so natural to them as prayer; they are called a ‘generation of them that seek God:’ Ps. xxiv. 6. As light bodies are moving upward, so the saints are looking upward to God, and praying alone to him. Daniel was three times a day with God, and would not omit his hours of prayer, though his life was in danger, Dan. vi. 10; and David, ‘Seven times a day do I praise thee,’ Ps. cxix. 164; and Cornelius, it is said that he prayed to God always, Acts x. 2, not only with his family, but alone in holy soliloquies. He was so frequent and diligent, that he had gotten a habit of prayer—he prayed always. Well, then, if this be the temper of God’s people, then to be altogether unlike them—when we have no delight in these private converses with God, or neglect them, it gives just cause of suspicion.
5. Our private necessities show that it is a necessary duty, which cannot be so feelingly spoken to and expressed by others as by ourselves; and, it may be, are not so fit to be divulged and communicated to others. We cannot so well lay forth our hearts with such largeness and comfort in our own concernments before others. There is the plague of our own hearts, which every one must mourn over: 1 Kings viii. 38. As we say, no nurse like the mother; so none so fit humbly with a broken heart to set forth our own wants before the Lord as ourselves. There is some thorn in the flesh that we have cause to pray against again and again: ‘For this I sought the Lord thrice,’ saith St Paul, 2 Cor. xii. 7, 8. We should put promises in suit, and lay open our own case before the compassions of God. It is a help sometimes to join with others; but at other times it would be a hindrance. We have peculiar necessities of our own to commend to God, therefore must be alone.13
Secondly, This closet and solitary prayer, as it is a necessary duty, so it is a profitable one.
1. It conduceth much to enlargement of heart. The more earnest men are, the more they desire to be alone, free from trouble and distraction. When a man weeps, and is in a mournful posture, he seeks secrecy, that he may indulge his grief. They were to mourn apart: Zech. xii., and Jer. xiii. 17, ‘My soul shall weep sore for your pride in secret places.’ So here, when a man would deal most earnestly with God, he should seek retirement, and be alone. Christ in his agonies went apart from his disciples. When he would pray more earnestly, it is said, ‘He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast:’ Luke xxii. 41. It is said, ‘He went apart.’ Strong affections are loth to be disturbed and diverted, therefore seek retirement. And, it is notable, Jacob, when he would wrestle with God, it is said, Gen. xxxii. 24, ‘And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.’ When he had a mind to deal with God in good earnest, he sent away all his company.
A hypocrite, he finds a greater flash of gifts in his public duties, when he prays with others, and is the mouth of others; but is slight and superficial when alone with God; if he feels anything, a little overly matter serves the turn. But usually God’s children most affectionately pour out their hearts before him in private; where they do more particularly express their own necessities, there they find their affections free to wrestle with God. In public we take in the necessities of others, but in private our own.
2. As it makes way for enlargement of heart on our part, so for secret manifestations of love on God’s part. Bernard hath a saying, ‘The church’s Spouse is bashful, and will not be familiar and communicate his loves before company, but alone.’ The sweetest experiences which God’s saints receive many times are when they are alone with him. When Daniel was praying alone with great earnestness, the angel Gabriel was sent, and caused to fly swiftly to him to tell him his prayers were answered: Dan. ix. 21. And Cornelius, while he was praying alone, an angel of God came unto him, to report the hearing of his prayers: Acts x. 3; and, ver. 9, Peter, when he was praying alone, then God instructs him in the mystery of the calling of the Gentiles: then had he that vision when he was got upon the top of the house to pray. Before we are regenerated, God appeareth to us many times when we do not think of it; but after we are regenerated, usually he appeareth upon more eminent acts of grace—when we are exercising ourselves, and more particularly dealing with God, and putting forth the strength of our souls to take hold of him in private.
3. There is this profit in it: It is a mighty solace and support in affliction, especially when we are censured, scorned, and despised of men, and know not where to go to find a friend with whom we may unbosom our sorrow. Then to go aside, and open the matter to God, it is a mighty ease to the soul: Job xvi. 20, ‘My friends scorn me; but mine eye poureth out tears unto God.’ When we have a great burden upon us, to go aside and open the matter to God, it gives ease to the heart, and vent to our grief; as Hannah in great trouble falls 14a-praying to God, and then was no more sad: 1 Sam. i. 13. As the opening of a vein cooleth and refresheth in a fever, so when we make known our case to God, it is a mighty solace in affliction.
4. It is a great trial of our sincerity, of our faith, love, and obedience, when we are alone, and nobody knows what we do, then to see him that is invisible: Heb. xi. 27;—when we are much with God in private, where we have no reasons but those of duty and conscience to move us. Carnal hypocrites will be much in outward worship. They have their qualms, and pray themselves weary, and do some thing for fashion sake when foreign reasons move them; but will they so pray as to delight themselves in the Almighty? Will they always call upon God? Job xxvii. 10. That delight in God, which puts us upon converses with God, affects privacy.
5. It is a profitable duty, because of the great promises which God hath made to it. This secret and private prayer in the text shall have a public reward; it will not be lost, for God will reward it openly. So Job xxii. 21: ‘Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace; thereby good shall come unto thee.’ Frequent correspondence with, and constant visits of God in prayer, what peace, comfort, quickening brings it into the soul! So Ps. xlix. 32: ‘His soul shall live that seeks the Lord.’ Without often seeking to God, the vitality of the soul is lost. We may as well expect a crop and harvest without sowing, as any liveliness of grace where there is not seeking of God. Could a man take notice of another in a crowd, whose face he never saw before? So, will God own and bless you in the crowds of the assemblies of his people, if you mind not this duty when you are alone?
Use 1. To reprove those which neglect closet-addresses to God; they wrong God and themselves.
They wrong God; because this is a necessary part of the creature’s homage, of that duty he expects from them, to be owned not only in public assemblies, but in private. And they wrong themselves; because it brings in a great deal of comfort and peace to the soul; and many sweet and gracious experiences there are which they deprive themselves of, and a blessing upon all other things.
But more particularly to show the evil of this sin:—
1. It is a sin of omission; and these sins are very dangerous, as well as sins of commission. Natural conscience usually smites more for sins of commission, than for sins of omission. To wrong and beat a father seems a more heinous and unnatural act, than not to give him due reverence and attendance. We are sensible of sins of commission; but yet God will charge sins of omission as well as commission upon you; and so will conscience too when it is serious, when, against the plain knowledge of God’s will, you can omit such a necessary part of God’s worship: James iv. 17, ‘To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin,’ —that is, it will be sin with a witness. Conscience will own it so, when it is awakened by the word, or by providence, or great affliction, or cast upon your death-bed. 15How will your own hearts reproach you then, that have neglected God, and lost such precious hours as you should have redeemed for communion with him! Sins of omission argue as great a contempt of God’s authority as sins of commission; for the same law which forbids a sin, doth also require a duty from us.
And sins of omission argue as much hatred of God as sins of commission. If two should live in the same house, and never speak to one another, it would be taken for an argument of as great hatred as to fight one with another. So, when God is in us and round about us, and we never take time to confer with him, it argues much hatred and neglect of him.
And sins of omission are an argument of our unregeneracy, as much as sins of commission. A man which lives in a course of drunkenness, filthiness, and adultery, you would judge him to be an unregenerate man, and that he hath such a spot upon him as is not the spot of God’s children. So, to live in a constant neglect of God, is an argument of unregeneracy, as much as to live in a course of debauchery. The apostle, when he would describe the Ephesians by their unconverted state, describes it thus: Eph. ii. 12, ‘That they lived without God in the world.’ When God is not owned and called upon, and unless the restraints of men, the law of common education, and customs of nations call for it, they live without God. So Ps. xiv. 1: ‘They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; there is none that doeth good, they are altogether become filthy.’ Every unregenerate man is that atheist. There is some difference among unregenerate men. Some are less in the excesses and gross outbreakings of their sins and folly. Some sin more, some less; but they all are abominable on this account, because they do not seek after God. And the apostle makes use of that argument to convince all men to be in a state of sin: Rom. iii. 11, ‘There is none that seeketh after God.’ The heart may be as much hardened by omissions (yea, sometimes more), than by commissions. As an act of sin brings a brawniness and deadness upon the heart, so doth the omission of a necessary duty. Not only the breaking of a string puts the instrument out of tune, but its being neglected and not looked after. Certainly by experience we find none so tender, so holy, so humble, and heavenly, as they which are often with God. This makes the heart tender, which otherwise would grow hard, dead, and stupid.
2. It is not only an omission in general, but an omission of prayer, which is, first, a duty very natural to the saints. Prayer is a duty very natural and kindly to the new creature. As soon as Paul was converted, the first news we hear of him, Acts ix. 11, ‘Behold, he prayeth.’ As soon as we are new-born, there will be a crying out for relief in prayer. It is the character of the saints: Ps. xxiv. 6, ‘This is the generation of them that seek thee,’ a people much in calling upon God. And the prophet describes them by the work of prayer: Zeph. iii. 10, ‘My supplicants’; and, Zech. xii. 10, ‘I will pour upon them the Spirit of grace and supplication.’ Wherever there is a spirit of grace, it presently runneth out into prayer. Look, as a preacher is so called from the frequency of his work, so a Christian is one that calleth upon God. ‘Every one that calleth on the name 16of the Lord, shall be saved:’ Rom. x. 13. In vain he is called a preacher that never preacheth, so he is in vain called a Christian that never prayeth. As things of an airy nature move upward, so the saints are carried up to God by a kind of naturality, when they are gracious. God hath no tongue-tied or dumb children; they are all crying, ‘Abba, Father.’ Then it is an omission of a duty which is of great importance as to our communion with God, which lieth in two things—fruition and familiarity; in the enjoyment of God, and in being familiar and often with him. Fruition we have by faith, and familiarity is carried on by prayer. There are two duties which are never out of season, hearing and prayer, both which are a holy dialogue betwixt God and the soul, until we come to vision, the sight of him in heaven. Our communion with God here is carried on by these two duties: we speak to God in prayer, God answereth us in the word; God speaks to us in the word, and we return and echo back again to him in prayer. Therefore the new creature delighteth much in these two duties. Look, as we should be ‘swift to hear,’ James ix. 19, until we come to seeing, we should take all occasions, and be often in hearing. So in prayer we speak to God, and therefore should be redeeming time for this work. In the word God comes down to us, and in prayer we get up to God; therefore, if you would be familiar and often with God, you must be much in prayer. This is of great importance. You know the very notion of prayer. It is a ‘visiting’ of God: Isa. xxvi. 16, ‘O Lord, in trouble have they visited thee; they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them.’ Praying to God, and visiting of God, are equivalent expressions. Now it argueth very little friendship to God, when we will not so much as come at him. Can there be any familiarity, where there is so much distance and strangeness as never to give God a visit?
3. It is the omission of personal and secret prayer, which in some respects should be more prized than other prayer.
Partly, because here our converse with God is more express as to our own case. When we join with others, God may do it for their sakes, but here, Ps. cxvi. 1, ‘I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplication.’ When we deal with him alone, we put the promises in suit, and may know more it is we that have been heard. We put God more to the trial; we see what he will do for us, and upon our asking and striving.
Partly, here we are more put to the trial what love we will express to our Father in secret, when we have no outward reasons, no inducements from respects of men to move us. In public duties (which are liable and open to the observance of others), hypocrites may put forth themselves with great vigour, quickness, and warmth, whereas in private addresses to God, they are slight and careless. A Christian is best tried and exercised in private, in those secret intercourses between God and his own soul; there he finds most communion with God, and most enlargement of heart. A man cannot so well judge of his spirit, and discern the workings of it in public, because other men’s concernments and necessities, mingled with ours, are taken in, and because he is more liable to the notice of others. But when he is with God alone, he hath only reasons of conscience and duty to 17move him. When none but God is conscious and our own hearts, then we shall see what we do for the approbation of God, and acceptance with him.
And partly, in some respects, this is to be more prized, because privacy and retiredness is necessary, and is a great advantage, that men’s spirits may be settled and composed for the duty. Sinful distractions will crowd in upon us when in company, and we are thinking of this and that. How often do we mingle sulphur with our incense—carnal thoughts in our worship! How apt are we to do so in public duties! But in private we are wholly at leisure to deal with God in a child-like liberty. Now, will you omit this duty where you may be most free, without distraction, to let out the heart to God?
And partly, because a man will not be fit to pray in public and in company, which doth not often pray in secret: he will lose his savour and delight in this exercise, and soon grow dry, barren, sapless, and careless of God. Look, as in the prophet Ezekiel, you read there that the glory of the Lord removed from the temple by degrees: it first removed from the holy place, then to the altar of burnt-offerings, then to the threshold of the house, then to the city, then to the mount which was on the east side of the city; there the glory of the Lord stood hovering a while, as loth to be gone, to see if the people would get it back again; this seems to be some emblem and representation of God’s dealing with particular men. First, God is cast out of the closet, private intercourses between God and them are neglected; and then he is cast out of the family, and within a little while out of the congregation; public ordinances begin to be slighted, and to be looked upon as useless things; and then men are given up to all profaneness and looseness, and lose all: so that religion, as it were, dieth by degrees, and a carnal Christian loseth more and more of the presence of God. And, therefore, if we would be able to pray in company, we must often pray in secret.
4. Consider the mischief which followeth neglect of private converse with God. Omissions make way for commissions. If a gardener withholds his hand, the ground is soon grown over with weeds. Restrain prayer and neglect God, and noisome lusts will abound. Our hearts are filled with distempers when once we cease to be frequent with God in private. It is said of Job, chap. xv. 4, ‘Thou restrainest prayer before God.’ That passage is notable, Ps. xiv. 4: ‘They eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.’ Omit secret prayer, and some great sin will follow; within a little while you will be given up to some evil course or other: either brutish lusts, oppression, or violence; to hate the people of God, to join in a confederacy with them which cry up a confederacy against God. The less we converse with God in private, the more is the awe of God lessened. But now, a man which is often with God dareth not offend him so freely as others do. As they which are often with princes and great persons are better clothed and more neat in their apparel and carriage, so they which are often conversing with God grow more heavenly, holy, watchful, than others are; and when we are not with God, not only all this is lost, but a great many evils to be found. It is plainly seen by men’s conversations how little they converse with God.18
But now, to avoid the stroke of this reproof, what will men do? Either deny the guilt, or excuse themselves.
First, Some will deny the guilt. They do call upon God, and use private prayer, therefore think themselves to be free from this reproof. Yea, but are you as often with God as you should be?
There are three sorts of persons:—
1. Some there are that omit it totally, cannot speak of redeeming any time for this work. These are practical atheists, ‘without God in the world:’ Eph. ii. 12. They are heathens and pagans under a Christian name and profession. We should ‘pray without ceasing:’ 1 Thes. v. 17; that is, take all praying occasions; therefore they which pray not at all, all the week long God hears not from them, surely come under the force of this reproof.
2. There are some which perform it seldom. Oh, how many days and weeks pass over their heads and God never hears from them! The Lord complains of it, Jer. ii. 32: ‘They have forgotten me days without number.’ It was time out of mind since they were last with
3. The most do not perform it so often as they should. And therefore (that I may speak with evidence and conviction) I shall answer the case; what rules may be given; how often we should be with God and when we are said to neglect God.
[1.] Every day something should be done in this kind. Acts x. 2: Cornelius prayed to God always, every day he had his times of familiarity with God. Daniel, though with the hazard of his life, would not omit ‘praying three times a day:’ Dan. vi. 10. And David speaks of ‘morning, evening, and noon:’ Ps. lv. 17. Though we can not bind all men absolutely to these hours, because of the difference of conditions, employments, and occasions, yet thus much we may gather from hence, that surely they which are most holy will be most frequent in this work.
[2.] Love will direct you. They which love one another, will not be strange one to another: a man cannot be long out of the company of him whom he loveth. Christ loved Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, John xi. 5, and therefore his great resort was to Bethany, to Lazarus’ house. Surely they which love God will have frequent recourse to him. In the times of the gospel, God trusts love: we are not bound to such particular rules as under the law. Why? For love is a liberal grace, and will put us upon frequent visits, and tell us when we should pray to God.
[3.] The Spirit of God will direct you. There are certain times when God hath business with you alone; when he doth (as it were) speak to you as to the prophet in another case, Ezek. iii. 22, ‘Go forth into the plain in the desert, and there I will talk with thee.’ So, get you to your closets, I have some business to speak with you. ‘Thou saidst, Seek ye my face: my heart answered. Thy face, Lord, will I seek:’ Ps. xxvii. 8. God invites you to privacy and retirement; you are sent into your closet to deal with God about the things you heard from the pulpit. This is the actual profit we get by a sermon, when we deal seriously with God about what we have heard. When God sends for us (as it were) by his Spirit, and invites us into 19his presence by these motions, it is spiritual clownishness to refuse to come to him.
[4.] Your own inward and outward necessities will put you in mind of it. God hath not stated what hours we shall eat and drink; the seasons and quantity of it are left to our choice. God hath left many wants upon us, to bring us into his presence. Sometimes we want wisdom and counsel in darkness: James i. 5, ‘If any lack wisdom, let him ask of God, which giveth to all men liberally.’ It is an occasion to bring us to God: God is the best casuist to resolve our doubts and guide us in our way. Sometimes we lack strength to withstand temptations; the throne of grace was set up for a time of need, Heb. iv. 16, when any case is to be resolved, and comfort to be obtained. We want comfort, quickening, counsel, and all to bring us to God. So for outward necessities too. Certainly if a man doth but observe the temper of his own heart, he cannot neglect God, but will find some occasion or other to bring him into his presence, some errand to bring him to the throne of grace. We are daily to beg pardon of sin, and daily to beg supplies. Now, certainly, when you do not observe these things, you neglect God.
Secondly, Others, to avoid it, will excuse themselves. Why, they would pray to God in private, but either they want time, or they want a convenient place, or want parts and abilities. But the truth is, they want a heart, and that is the cause of all; and, indeed, when a man hath no heart to the work, then something is out of the way.
1. Some plead they want time. Why, if you have time for other things, you should have a time for God. Shall we have a season for all things, and not for the most necessary work? Hast thou time to eat, drink, sleep, follow thy trading (how dost thou live else?), and no time to be saved—no time to be familiar with God, which is the great est business of all? Get it from your sleep and food, rather than be without this necessary duty. Jesus Christ had no such necessity as we have, yet it is said, Mark i. 35, ‘He arose a great while before day, and went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.’ Therefore, must God only be encroached upon the lean kine devour the fat—Sarah thrust out instead of Hagar—and religion be crowded out of doors? Felix illa domus, ubi Martha queritur de Maria,—That is a happy house where Martha complains of Mary. Martha, which was cumbered with much service, complained of Mary that she was at the feet of Jesus Christ, hearkening to his gracious counsel; but in most houses Mary may complain of Martha; religion is neglected and goes to the walls.
2. Some want a place. He that doth not want a heart will find a place. Christ went into a mountain to pray, and Peter to the top of the house.
3. Many say they want parts, they cannot tell how to pray. Wherefore hath God given his Spirit? In one fashion or other a man can open his case to God; he can go and breathe out his complaints, the Lord will hear breathings. Go, chatter out thy requests to thy Father: though you can but ‘chatter like a crane,’ yet do it with fervency and with a spirit of adoption. We have not only Christ given us for an advocate, but the Holy Ghost to help our infirmities. He hath given us ‘the Spirit of his Son, whereby we may cry, Abba, Father:’ Gal. iv. 6. A child can acquaint a father with his wants.20
Use 2. To exhort God’s children to frequency in this duty, and to much watchfulness and seriousness in the performance of it.
First, To frequency. For arguments again to press you:—
1. It argueth more familiarity to pray to God alone than in company. He that goeth to a prince alone, and upon all occasions hath access to him in private, when company is gone, hath nearer friend ship and a greater intimacy with him than those which are only admitted to a speech with him in the company of others; so, the oftener you are with God alone the more familiar. He loves to treat with you apart, as friends are most free and open to one another when they are alone.
2. Then you will have a more sensible answer of your own prayers; you will see what God hath done upon your requests. Dan. ix. 21, 22. Daniel was praying for the church, and an angel comes and tells him, ‘It is for thy prayers and supplications that I am come.’ Therefore surely a man would take some time to go and plead the promises with God. But further, by way of means:—
[1.] Consider the omnipresence of God, which is the argument in the text: ‘He is in secret, and seeth in secret.’ If men were convinced of that, they would make conscience of secret prayer. Look, as Jesus Christ says of himself, John xvi. 32, ‘You leave me alone, and yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’ So when you are alone you are not alone; there is a Father in secret; though nobody to see and hear, yet God is there. We are apt to think all is lost which men are not conscious to, and done in their sight. Acts x. 4: ‘Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.’ God keeps a memorial of your private prayers; there is a register kept in heaven, and never a prayer lost.
[2.] Consider the excellency of communion with God. Jer. ii. 32: ‘Can a maid forget her ornaments, and a bride her attire?’ Women are very curious and careful of their ornaments, and will not forget their dressing-attire, especially a bride upon the wedding-day, she that is to be set forth in most costly array—she makes it her business to put on jewels, to be seen in all her glory. God is as necessary to us as ornaments to a bride. We should be as mindful of communion with God as a bride of her dressing-ornaments. ‘Yet they have forgotten me days without number.’ Whatever is forgotten, God must not be forgotten.
[3.] Make God a good allowance; resolve to be much in the practice of it. It is best to have set times for our religious worship. For persons which are sui juris, at their own dispose, it is lawful and very convenient to dedicate a certain part and portion of our time to the Lord of time. Lazy idle servants must be tasked and required to bring in their tale of brick; so it is good to task the heart, to make God a fair, and reasonable, and convenient allotment of some part of our time. David had his fixed hours: ‘Three times a day will I call upon thee.’ And Daniel had his set times; he prayed three times a day. Though we cannot charge you to observe these hours, yet you should make a prudent choice yourselves, and consecrate such a part of time as will suit with your occasions, your course of life, according to your abilities and opportunities. It is an expression of love to God to give 21him somewhat that is your own; and it will be of exceeding profit to you, and make your communion with him more seasonable and orderly. This will make you careful and watchful how you spend your other hours, that you may not be unfit when times of prayer come. 1 Pet. iii. 7: ‘Husbands, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, that your prayers be not hindered.’ But do not propose a task too great for your strength, and perplex yourselves with such an unreasonable allowance as will not suit with your occasions. Men create a trouble to themselves, and bind themselves with chains of their own making when they propose more duty than they can well discharge.
The Second Part of the Use.
Do it seriously, with caution, and warily. Here Christ gives direction: ‘When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and shut thy door, and then think of thy Father which is in secret.’ We need a great deal of caution; for:—
1. When you shut the door upon all others, you cannot shut the devil out of your closets; he will crowd in. When you have bolted the door upon you, and shut other company out, you do not lock out Satan; he is always at hand, ready to disturb us in holy duties; wherever the children of God are, he seeks to come at them. When the sons of God met together, Satan was in the midst of them: Job i. He meets in congregations, he gets into the closet. When Joshua the high priest was ministering before the Lord, Satan stood at his right hand, ready to resist him: Zech. iii. 1.
2. There needs caution; because in private duties there may be many failings and evils, which we are apt to be tainted with in our private addresses to God.
[1.] There may be danger of ostentation; therefore Christ gives direction here, that it should be managed with the greatest secrecy, both as for place, time, and voice. Let none but God be conscious to our drawing aside that we may be alone. Withdraw yourselves out of the sight and hearing of others, lest pride and ostentation creep upon you. The devil will seek to blast this serious acknowledgment to God, one way or other.
[2.] There may be customariness, for fashion sake. It is said of Christ, that ‘he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath-day, as his custom was.’ We may use accustomed duties; but we must not do them customarily, and for fashion sake, no more than Christ himself did; for though this was his custom, yet he was not customary in these his synagogue attendances. We are very apt to do so, because we have used it for these many years. Men go on in a tract of duty, and regard not the ends of worship—Zech. vii. 3—they come with a fond scruple and case of conscience to the prophet: they had an old custom among them to fast for the destruction of the temple; now when the temple was built again, ‘Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?’
[3.] Much slightness and perfunctoriness of heart you may be guilty of. Such is the wickedness of men, that they think God will be put off with anything; and though they would set off themselves with applause in the hearing of others, yet how slight are they apt 22to be when they deal with God alone! Consider, you must sanctify the name of God in private, as well as in public; you must speak to God with reverence and fear, and not in an overly fashion. Take heed of this slightness; it is a great wrong to the majesty of God. When they offered a sickly offering, saith God, ‘I am a great King, and my name is dreadful among the heathen:’ you do not consider my majesty.
[4.] There may be this evil: resting in the work, in the tale and number of your prayers: Luke xviii. 12, ‘I fast twice in the week.’ Man is very apt to rest and dote upon his own worth, and to build all his acceptance with God upon it; to come to God, and challenge him for a debt, as the Pharisee did. It is very natural to rest in those duties, and make them an excuse for other things.
[5.] There may be pride, even in the exercise of our gifts. There is a delight in duties, which seems spiritual many times when it is not; as when a man delighteth in the exercise of his own gifts, rather than in communion with God; when there is a secret tickling of heart with a conceit of our own worth; as when, in the carriage of a duty, we come off roundly, and parts have their free course and career. This complacency and pride, it may be not only in public, where we have advantage to discover ourselves with applause, but in private, between God and our souls. When a man is conceited of his gifts, they may end in the private exercise of them, to the wrong of God. When invention is quick and free, he may have such a delight as may make him rest in the work, as it is a fruit of parts, rather than as a means of communion with God. Therefore there needs a great deal of caution when we are alone with our heavenly Father.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard /or their much speaking. Be not ye, therefore, like unto them; for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. MAT. VI. 7, 8.
OUR Lord having spoken of the ostentation of the Pharisees, and their vainglory, he cometh here to dissuade from another abuse, and that is babbling and lip-labour. They prayed to be seen of men; but the heathens were guilty of another abuse. Here take notice:—
1. Of the sin taxed.
2. The reasons which our Lord produceth against it.
First, the sin taxed is set forth by a double notion. Here is βαττολογια and πολυλογια: the first we translate, ‘vain repetitions;’ and the last, ‘much speaking.’ Both may well go together; for when men affect to say much, they will use vain repetitions, go over the same things again and again, which is as displeasing to God as it is irksome to prudent and wise men.
But let us see a little what these words signify. The first word is βαττολογια, which we translate ‘vain repetitions.’ Battus was a foolish poet, that made long hymns, consisting of many lines, but 23such as were often repeated, both for matter and words; and Ovid brings in a foolish fellow, that would be often repeating the same words, and doubling them over:—
‘Montibus, inquit, erant, et eraut sub montibus illis.’
‘Et me mihi perfide prodis?
Me mihi prodis? ait.’
And from thence this word is taken, which is here used by the evangelist: βαττολογια, or idle babbling over the same thing. And the scripture representeth this vain going over of the same things: Eccles. x. 14, ‘A fool also is full of words; a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell?’ The most judicious interpreters do conceive there is a μιμησις, an imitation of the fool’s speaking. Groundless, fruitless repetitions are here reproved, or the tumbling out of many insignificant words, and the same over and over again; this is vain repetition. But the other word which Christ useth to tax the same abuse is πολυλογια, ‘much speaking.’ It signifieth affectation of length in prayer, or using many words, not out of fervency of mind, but merely to prolong the duty, as if the length of it made it more powerful or acceptable with God, or a more comely piece of worship. This is what our Lord here reproves; vain repetitions and much speaking.
Secondly, here are the reasons produced against it; they are two:—
1. That it is a heathenish custom, and that grounded upon a false supposition. The heathens were detestable to the Jews, and therefore their customs should not be taken up, especially when grounded upon an error, or a misapprehension of the nature of God. Now the heathens think they shall be heard for their much speaking, for their mere praying and composing hymns to their gods, with thundering names repeated over and over again.
2. It is inconsistent with the true nature of God: ver. 8, ‘Be not therefore like unto them; for your Father knoweth what things you have need of, before you ask him.’ Here we learn three things:—(1.) Christianity and true religion takes up God under the notion of a father, that hath a care of his children. This will decide many questions about prayer, and what words we should use to God in the duty: go to God as children to their father. (2.) He is represented as an omniscient God—one that knows all things, our wants and necessities. (3.) As an indulgent father, who hath a propense and ready mind to help us, even before we ask.
From the words thus opened, that which we may observe is this, viz.:—
Doct. That certainly it is a sin needlessly to affect length of speech, or vain repetitious in prayer.
Our Lord dissuadeth us from it here, and his authority should sway with us. He knew the nature of prayer better than we do; for he appointed it, and he was often in the practice and observance of it. So we are directed to the contrary: Eccles. v. 2, ‘Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth; therefore let thy words be few.’ Remember, you have to do with a great God, and do 24not babble things over impertinently in his ears. It is a truth evident by the light of nature: Paucis verbis rem divinam facito (Platinus). If you be to worship God, a needless prolixity doth not become addresses to him.
But because this text may be abused, I shall endeavour to clear it a little further. There are two extremes: the slight and careless spirit, and babbling.
1. There is the slight and careless spirit, who doth the work of an age in a breath, and is all for starts and sudden pangs, which pass away like a flash of lightning in a dark room; whose good thoughts are gone as soon as they rush into the heart. A poor, barren, and slight spirit, which is not under the influence and power of that celestial love which keeps the soul in converse with God, cannot endure to be any while with God. Alas! we need stroke upon stroke to fasten anything upon the heart. We are like green wood, that will not presently take fire, until it lie long there, and be thoroughly and well warmed; so until we have gone far in the duty, we can hardly get any warmth of heart. They which are short in prayer had need of much habitual preparation of heart.
2. The babbler is another extreme, who thinks the commendation of a duty is to be long in it, and affects to say much rather than well; whereas serious and short speech makes the best prayer: Prov. x. 19, ‘In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin;’ either to God or men, it is true; but especially when affected. So they do but beat the air, rather than pray to God.
These, then, are the two extremes: shortness, out of barrenness or slightness; or length, out of affectation; and we must carefully avoid these. Christ would not justify that shortness which comes from slightness and barrenness of heart, nor, on the other side, indulge the affectation of length in prayer.
Therefore let us a little see:—
I. What is the sin.
II. Give you the force of our Lord’s reasons here urged, or how conclusive our Saviour’s arguments are against this practice.
I. What is the sin? That is necessary to be known; for all repetitions are not vain, nor is all length in prayer to be accounted babbling.
First, for repetitions:
1. When they express fervency and zeal, they may be used. And so we read, Christ prayed over the same prayer thrice: Mat. xxvi. 44, ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ And another evangelist showeth that he did this out of special fervency of spirit: Luke xxii. 44, ‘Being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly.’ And so we read of the prophet Daniel, chap. ix. 17-19, ‘O our God, hear the prayer of thy servant; O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; O Lord, hear; Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not for thine own. sake, O my God.’ All this was out of vehemency; he goes over and over again the same request. When we use many words of the same kind and signification, and it be out of vehemency and fervency of spirit, it is not forbidden.
2. This repetition is not to be disproved2020 That is, ‘disapproved.’—ED. when there is a special 25emphasis and spiritual elegancy in it, as Ps. cxxxvi., you have it twenty-six times repeated, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever;’ because there was a special reason in it, his purpose there being to show the unweariedness and the unexhausted riches of God’s free grace, that, notwithstanding all the former experiences they had had, God is where he was at first. We waste by giving, our drop is soon spent; but God is not wasted by bestowing, but hath the same mercy to do good to his creatures as before. Though he had done all those wonders for them, yet his mercy was as ready to do good to them still. All along God saved and blessed his people, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever.’ But as there are repetitions which have their use, so there are useless tautologies and vain repetitions. And such they are when they neither come from the heart nor go to the heart; when they come not from the abundance of the heart, but rather the emptiness of the heart; because we know not how to enlarge ourselves to God, therefore fall upon idle and useless repetitions of the same words and requests. As a man that hath small skill in music doth only play over the same note, so when men have not a full spiritual abundance, they waste themselves in prayer in these idle repetitions. And then they go not to the heart, they do not conduce to warm the affections. A vain, clamorous ingeminating the same thing, without faith and without wisdom, merely to fill up the tale of words, or to wear out a little time in a religious exercise, that is it which is here condemned under the notion of vain repetitions.
Secondly, For the other word, πολυλογία, or ‘much speaking.’ Every long prayer is not forbidden; for our Lord Jesus himself ‘continued all night in prayer:’ Luke vi. 12. And in extraordinary duties of fasting, length seems to be very necessary: Esther iv. 16, ‘They fasted and prayed together for three days and nights, without eating any bread.’ And Solomon prayed long at the dedication of the temple.
But that which is forbidden is, when men speak words without need and without affection; a needless lengthening out of prayer, and that upon a conceit that it is more acceptable to God.
1. In the general, prayer should be short, as all examples of scripture teach us. And the Lord’s Prayer, you see how concise and short it is, for presently upon this our Lord teacheth his disciples to pray; for prayer is a spending rather than a feeding duty. Those which affect long speaking many times run into this: they make it a feeding duty, for they mingle exhortations with prayer, which is a great abuse. A man can bear up under the hearing of the word for an hour or two better than half an hour in prayer, with that necessary vigour of spirit which God hath required. Therefore the general rule is, let your words be concise, but full of affection. Look, as in vast and great bodies, the spirits are more diffused and scattered, and therefore they are more inactive than those which are of a smaller compass; so, in a long prayer, there may be more of words, but less of life.
2. The affectation of prolixity is naught. Usually it comes from some evil ground, either from pride and ostentation of gifts;—thus we read the Pharisees were taxed for making long prayers, Mat. xxiii. 14, that, under the colour of them, they might devour widows’ houses; that is, be credited and trusted with the management of their estates;—or else it may come from superstition, such as is in the heathens, who had unworthy thoughts of God, as if he were harsh and severe, and delighted in much speaking, and needed to be quickened;—or it may come from folly, for folly abounds in words, though it be scanty in true affection and hearty respect to God. A wise man is content with words enough to express his mind: choice and measure of speech discovereth wisdom.
3. So much time should be spent in prayer, and so many words are necessary as may be convenient and profitable both for ourselves and others. For ourselves, when we are alone, so much as may express faith, and may argue a great plea in the promises, and so much as may reach fervent desire. While the fervency continues, the speech should continue; and so much as may express our filial dependence, that we have a sense that God is our Father, which are the ends for which prayer was appointed. And so as it may suit with the conveniency of others, that they may be warmed, but not tired, and may not be exposed to the temptations of weariness, and wanderings, and distractions in their mind, when things are spun out unto an unreasonable length; for then it is neither pleasing to God nor profitable to men. Thus I have stated the offence our Lord forbids, what are those vain repetitions and idle babblings, such as arise from weariness of soul and misconceit of God, or some other base grounds; not that plentiful expression which comes from a large and free heart, pouring out itself before the Lord. And if we be swayed by his authority, these things should be regarded by us, and we should remedy these sins in prayer.
II. Let us come to examine our Lord’s reasons which are produced against it, and see how conclusive they are in the case, and you will discern the drift of Christ’s speech.
Our Lord reasons:—
First, From the practice of the heathens: ‘But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathens do.’ In this reason several propositions are couched and contained, which deserve to be weighed by us.
1. This is implied: that the heathens had a sense of the necessity of worship, as well as the being of a God. Though natural light be inferioris hemisphærii, of the lower hemisphere, and chiefly reacheth to duties of the second table, of commerce between man and man; for that light which was left in the heart of man since the fall, more directly respects our carriage towards men, and there it is more clear and open; yet it so far reaches to the duties of the higher hemisphere, as that there is some discerning too of the duties of the first table, of piety as well as honesty; as that there is a God; and if there be a God, he is to be worshipped; for these two notions live and die together. The rude mariners were sensible of a divine power which was to be called upon and consulted with in case of extremity, and that the way of commerce was by worship: Jonah i. 5, when the storm arose, ‘they called every man upon his god.’
2. Though heathens were sensible of the being of a God and the 27 necessity of worship, yet they were blind and dark in worship; for Christ saith, ‘Be not as the heathen; for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.’ Usually a half light misleads men. The heathens, though they had some notions of an eternal Power, yet when they came to perform their worship, Rom. i. 21, ‘They glorified him not as God; but became vain,’ ἐν τοις διαλογισμοῖς, ‘in their imaginations;’ that is, in their practical inferences. They saw an infinite, eternal Power, which was to be loved, trusted, worshipped; but when they came to suit these notions to practice, to love, trust, and worship him, there they were vain, frivolous, and had misconceits of God.
3. Their errors in worship were many. Here our Lord takes notice but of one, that they thought to be heard for their much speaking. And there the original mistake of the heathens, and that which compriseth all the rest, was this, a transformation or changing of God into the likeness of man, which is very natural and incident to us. Upon all occasions we are apt to misconceive of God, and to judge him according to our own model and scantling: Ps. l. 21, ‘Thou thoughtest I was altogether such an one as thyself.’ So did these. Because man is wrought upon by much speaking, and carried away with a flood of words, therefore they thought so it would be with God. This transformation of the divine nature into an idol of our own shaping and picturing, the turning of God into the form of a corruptible man, this hath been the ground of all the miscarriage in the world.
But more particularly: their error in this matter was charging weakness and harshness upon God, or not worshipping him according to his spiritual nature.
[1.] Charging weakness upon God, as if many words did help him to understand their meaning, or to remember their petitions the better. Hence that practice of Baal’s priests, 1 Kings xviii. 26, ‘They called on the name of Baal from morning till night, O Baal, hear us.’ They were repeating and crying again and again, ‘O Baal,’ as if their clamour would awaken their god. Whence Elijah’s sarcasm, ‘He sleepeth, and must be awaked.’ As those that for two hours together cried out, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ Acts xix. 34.
[2.] Their ascribing harshness to God, as if he were hard to be en treated, and delighted in the pain of his creatures, and would be more affected with them, because they wearied themselves with the irksomeness of a long prayer. Penal satisfactions are very natural. Superstition is a tyranny; it vexeth the soul with unreasonable duty, affects outward length to the weariness of the flesh. The general conceit is, that man thinks God must be served with some self-denial, and the flesh must be displeased; but it shall be displeased but in a little, and in an outward way, as Baal’s priests gashed themselves; as if God were pleased with our burdensome and long exercises.
[3.] There was error in it. They did not conceive aright of the spiritual nature of God; as if he were pleased with the mere task, a long hymn, and an idle repetition of words, without sense and affection. Whereas the Lord doth not measure prayers by prolixity, but 28by the vehemency; not by the labour of the external work, but by the inward affection manifested therein. And words are only accepted with him as they serve to quicken, continue, or increase our affection.
Secondly, Our Saviour’s next reason is drawn from verse 8: ‘Be not ye like unto them; for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before you ask him.’ It is inconsistent with the true notion of God. Here are three propositions, all which are of force to draw us off from babbling, or affectation of many words in prayer. As:—
1. That God is a Father, and that both by creation and covenant. By creation, to all mankind; so he will be ready to sustain that which he hath made. He that hath given life will give food; he that hath given a body will give raiment. Things expect supply thence from whence they received their being. But much more by covenant; so he is our Father in Christ: ‘Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us,’ Isa. lxiii. 16. Well, but what is this to the present purpose, that God is a Father? This is a check to babbling; therefore we should go to him in an unaffected manner, with a child-like spirit and dependence, with words reverent, serious, and plain. Children do not use to make starched speeches to their fathers when they want bread, but only express their natural cry, and go to them for such things as they stand in need of. There they speak, and are accepted; and a word from a child moves the father more than an orator can move all his hearers. Even such a naked address should we make to God in a plain mariner; for when we come to pray, Christ would have us take up God in the notion of a father, and to behave ourselves in a natural way to him; for affected eloquence or loquacity in prayer is one of the main things Christ here disproves.2121 ‘Disapproves.’—ED. Prayer ought to be simple and plain; therefore the great business of ‘the Spirit of adoption’ is to make us cry, ‘Abba, Father:’ Rom. viii. 15.
2. He is such a Father as is not ignorant of our wants. The care of his providence is over all the creatures he hath made. God hath an inspection over them, to provide necessaries for them; much more over his people. His eyes run to and fro, to find them out in all the places of their dispersion; and he doth exercise his power for their relief: 2 Chron. xvi. 9. Now this thought should be rooted in our hearts when we come to pray to God: I go to a Father, which hath found me out in the throng of his creatures, and knows what is good for me. This is a great ground why we should not use battology, because God knows what my needs are. Words are not required for God’s sake, but for ours; not to inform God, but that we may perform our duty the better. Well, then, so far as they are useful, so far they should be used; to bound our thoughts, to warm our affections, to strengthen our faith. (1.) To bound our thoughts; for an interruption in speech is sooner discerned that an interruption in meditation. (2.) And to warm our affections. Words at first are vent to affection, but afterwards they continue to increase the affection; as a hearth is first warmed by the fire, and then it serves to keep in the fire. (3.) And they conduce to strengthen our faith, while we plead promises in 29God’s hearing. We wrestle with God, that we may catch a heat ourselves. And therefore words should be only used as they conduce to the strengthening our faith, or continuing our affection to God; longer than they serve that end in prayer, they are babbling and vain repetitions, and much speaking, which Christ here forbids. Consider, there is not a change in God, but a change in us, wrought by prayer. It is neither to give information to God, that he may know our meaning, nor to move him and persuade him to be willing by our much speaking, but only to raise up our own faith and hope towards God.
3. He is such a Father as is not unwilling to relieve us. Your heavenly Father is very ready to give you such things as you stand in need of, as Christ expresseth it, Mat. vii. 11, ‘If ye, being evil, know how to give good things unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask him?’ And, Luke xi. 13, it is, ‘How much more shall your heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit?’ When you come to beg for grace, consider what earthly parents would do for a child. Their affections are limited, they are in part corrupt; and poor straitened creatures have not such bowels of compassion as God; and yet, when a child comes to them with a genuine cry, with a sense of his want and confidence of his father, he cannot harden his bowels against his child. This also checks much speaking; for we do not pray to stir up mercy in him, as if he needed much entreaty, and were severe, and delighted to put the creature to penance. No, he is ready before we ask; he knows our wants and needs, and is ready to supply us with those things we stand in need of, only will have this comely order observed. Some times he prevents our prayers before we ask: ‘Before they call, I will answer; and I am found of them that sought me not.’ Before we can have a heart to come, the Lord prevents us with his blessing. And sometimes he gives us what we ask. This is the condescension of God, that when you call he will answer; and when you cry, he doth in his providence say, ‘What will you have, poor creatures?’ And he gives more than we ask; as Solomon asked wisdom, and God gave him more than he asked—wisdom, riches, and honour.
Object. But here is an objection. These notions seem not only to exclude long prayer and much speaking, but all prayer. If God know our wants, and is so ready to give, whether we ask or no, what need we open them to him in prayer at all?
I answer, it is God’s prescribed course, and that should be enough to gracious hearts that will be obedient to their Father. Whatever he intends, though he knows our wants and resolves to answer them, yet it is a piece of religious manners to ask what he is about to give: Jer. xxix. 11, ‘I know my thoughts towards you, thoughts of peace, yet will I be inquired of you for these things.’ God knows his own thoughts, hath stated his decrees, and will not alter the beautiful course of his providence for our sakes, yet he will be sought unto. So Ezek. xxxvi.: God purposed to bless them, and therefore promiseth, ‘I will do thus and thus for you’; yet, verse 37, ‘I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.’ I will do it, but you shall milk out the blessing by prayer. This course is also necessary, and that both for his honour, and our profit and comfort.30
1. It is necessary for his honour, that God may still be acknowledged, that the creature may be kept up in a constant dependence upon God, and may go about nothing, but may ask his leave, counsel, and blessing: Prov. in. 6, ‘In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’ We ask God’s leave that we may do such a thing, for he hath the dominion over all events. And if we are doubtful, we ask his counsel, whether we may stay here or there, or dispose of ourselves and families, and we ask his blessing upon our resolution. Now that we may know God doth all, that he governeth all human affairs, that we may live upon his allowance and take our daily bread from his hands, and that we may see we hold all these things from our great landlord, therefore we pray unto him. We are robbers and thieves if we use the creature without his leave. God is the great owner of the world, who gives us our daily bread, and all our supplies; therefore he will have it asked, that we may acknowledge our dependence.
2. It is most for our profit. Partly, that our faith should be exercised in pleading God’s promise, for there we put the promise in suit. Faith .is begotten in the word, but it is exercised in prayer; therefore it is called the ‘prayer of faith.’ In the word, we take Christ from God; in prayer we present Christ to God. That prayer which is effectual, it is an exercise of faith: Rom. x. 14, ‘How shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed?’ And as it concerns our faith, so also our love, which is both acted and increased in prayer. It is acted, for it is delight in God which makes us so often converse with him. Thus the hypocrite: Job xxvii. 10, ‘Will he always call upon the Lord? Will he delight himself in the Almighty?’ They that love God cannot be long from him, they that delight in God will be often unbosoming themselves to him. It doth also increase our love, for by answers of prayer we have new fuel to keep in this holy fire in our bosoms. We pray, and then he gives direct answers: Ps. cxvi. 1, ‘I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplication.’ So our hope is exercised in waiting for the blessing prayed for: Ps. v. 3, ‘O Lord, in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.’ That looking up is the work of hope, when we are looking and waiting to see what comes in from pleading promises. It is much too for our peace of conscience, for it easeth us of our burthens. It is the vent of the soul, like the opening of a vein in a fever. When our hearts swell with cares, and we have a burthen upon us, and know not what to do, we may ease ourselves to God: Phil. iv. 6, ‘Be careful for nothing; but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanks giving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God shall keep your hearts.’ Oh, blessed frame, that can be troubled at nothing here in this world, where there are so many businesses, encounters, temptations! What is the way to get this calmness of heart? Be much in opening your hearts to God. Let your requests be made known to God. Look, as in an earthquake, when the wind is imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, the earth heaves, and shakes, and quakes, until there be a vent, and the wind be got out, then all is quiet; so we have many tossings and turmoilings in our minds, till 31we open and unbosom ourselves to God, and then all is quiet. Also it prepareth us for the improvement of mercies, when we have them out of the hands of God by prayer: 1 Sam. i. 27, 28, ‘For this child I prayed,’ said Hannah, ‘and I will lend him unto the Lord.’ Those mercies we expressly prayed for we are more thoroughly obliged to improve for God. What is won with prayer is worn with thankfulness.
Use 1. To caution us against many abuses in prayer, which may be disproved and taxed, either formally, or by just consequence. I shall instance in five.
1. An idle and foolish loquacity, when men take a liberty to prattle anything in God’s hearing, and do not consider the weight and importance of prayer, and what a sin it is to be ‘hasty to utter any thing before God:’ Eccles. v. 2. It is great irreverence and contempt of the majesty of God, when men go hand over head about this work, and speak anything that comes into their mind. As men take them selves to be despised when others speak unseemly in their presence, surely it is a lessening and a despising of God, when we pour out raw, tumultuous, undigested thoughts, and never think of what we are to speak when we come to God: Ps. xlv. 1, ‘My heart is inditing a good matter.’ The word signifieth, it ‘boils or fries a good matter.’ It is an allusion to the Mincah, or meat-offering, which was to be boiled or fried in a pan, before it was to be presented to the Lord, that they might not bring a dough-baked sacrifice and offering to the Lord. Such ignorant, dull, senseless praying, it is a blaspheming of God, and a lessening of the majesty of God.
2. A frothy eloquence, and an affected language in prayer, this directly comes under reproof. As if the prayer were more grateful to God, and he were moved by words and strains of rhetoric, and did accept men for their parts rather than graces. Fine phrases, and quaint speeches, alas! they do not carry it with the Lord. They are but an empty babble in his ears, rather than a humble exercise of faith, hope, love, and child-like affections, and holy desires after God. If we would speak with God, we must speak with our hearts to him, rather than with our words. This is a sin of curiosity, as the other was of neglect. It is not words, but the spirit and life which God looks after. Prayer, it is not a work of oratory, the product of memory, invention, and parts, but a filial affection, that we may come to .him, as to a father, with a child-like confidence. Therefore, too much care of verbal eloquence in prayer, and tunable expressions, is a sin of the same nature with babbling. Though men should have the wit to avoid impertinent expressions and repetitions, yet when prayer smells so much of the man rather than of the Spirit of God, alas! it is but like the unsavoury belches of a rotten breath in the nostrils of God. We should attend to matter, to the things we have to communicate to God, to our necessities, rather than to words.
3. Heartless speaking, filling up the time with words, when the tongue outruns the heart, when men pour their breath into the air, but their hearts are dead and sleepy, or their hearts keep not time and 32pace with their expressions. We oftener pray with our tongues than with our minds, and from our memories than our consciences, and from our consciences than our affections, and from our affections, as presently stirred, than from our hearts renewed, bended, and inclined towards God. Be the prayer long or short, the heart must keep pace with our tongues. As the poet said, disticha longa facit, ‘his distichs were tedious,’ so it is tedious and irksome to God, unless we make supplication in the spirit: Eph. vi. 18. Remember God will not be mocked.
4. When men rest in outward vehemency and loud speech, saith Tertullian, Quibus arteriis opus est, si pro sono audiamur! ‘What lungs and sides must we have, if we be heard to speak to heaven by the noise and sound!’ In some there is a natural vehemency and fierceness of speech, which is rather stirred up by the heat and agitation of the bodily spirits than any vehemency of affection. There is a contention of speech, which is very natural to some, and differeth much from that holy fervour, the life and power of prayer, which is accompanied with reverence and child-like dependence upon God. It is not the loud noise of words which is best heard in heaven, but the fervent affectionate cries of the saints are those of the heart rather than of the tongue. Exod. xiv. 17, it is said, ‘Moses cried to the Lord.’ We do not read of the words he uttered; his cry was with the heart. There is a crying with the soul and with the heart to God: Ps. x. 17, ‘Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble.’ It is the desires God hears: Ps. xxxix. 9, ‘Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my groaning is not hid from thee.’ The Lord needs not the tongue to be an interpreter between him and the hearts of his children. He that hears without ears can interpret prayers though not uttered by the tongue. Our desires are cries in the ears of the Lord of hosts. The vehemency of the affections may sometimes cause the extension of the voice, but alas! without this it is but a tinkling cymbal.
5. Popish repetition, and loose shreds of prayer often repeated, as they have in their liturgy over and over again; their Gloria Patri, so often repeated; their Lord have mercy; and in their prayer made to Jesus, sweet Jesus, blessed Jesus; and going over the Ave Maria, and this to be tumbled over upon their beads, and continuing prayer by tale and by number: surely these are but vain repetitions, and this is that much speaking which our Lord aims at. Thus I have despatched the abuses of prayer.
Use 2. To give you direction in prayer, how to carry yourselves in this holy duty towards God in a comely manner.
I shall give you directions:—
1. About our words in prayer.
2. About our thoughts in prayer.
3. About our affections in prayer.
First, about our words. There is a use of them in prayer, to excite, and convey, and give vent to affection: Hosea xiv. 2, ‘Take with you words, and turn to the Lord, and say, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously.’ Surely the prophet doth not only prescribe that they should take affections, but take with them words. Words have an interest in prayer.33
Now, these may be considered either when we are alone or in company.
1. When we are alone. Here take the advice of the Holy Ghost: Eccles. v. 2, ‘God is in heaven, and thou art upon earth, therefore let thy words be few.’ How few? Few in weight, conscience, reverence. Few in weight, affecting rather to speak matter than words; concisely and feelingly, rather than with curiousness, to express what you have to say to God. Few in conscience. Superstition is a bastard religion, and is tyrannous, and puts men upon tedious services, and sometimes beyond their strength. Therefore pray neither too short nor too long; do it not merely to lengthen out the prayer, or as counting it the better for being long. The shortness and the length must be measured by the fervency of our hearts, our many necessities, and as it tendeth to the inflaming our zeal. As it can get up the heart, let it still be subservient to that. Few with reverence, and managed with that gravity, awfulness, and seriousness as would become an address to God. As Abraham, Gen. xviii. 31, had been reasoning with God before, therefore he saith, ‘Let not God be angry if I speak to him this once,’ when he renewed the suit. Thus alone.
2. In company. There our words must be apt and orderly, moving as much as may be, not to God, but to the hearers; managed with such reverence and seriousness as may suit with the gravity of the duty, and not increase, but cure the dulness of those with whom we join. And what if we did in public duties choose out words to reason with’ God, as Job saith, chap. ix. 14, ‘Choose out my words to reason with him;’—if we did use preparation, and think a little before hand, that we may go about the duty with serious advice, and not with indigested thoughts? But this hath the smallest interest in prayer.
Secondly, Our thoughts; that we may conceive aright of God in prayer, which is one of the greatest difficulties in the duty.
1. Of his nature and being.
2. Of his relation to us.
3. Of his attributes.
First, Of the nature and being of God. Every one that would come to God must fix this in his mind, that God is, and that God is a spirit; and accordingly he must be worshipped as will suit with these two notions. Heb. xi. 6, ‘He that cometh to God must believe that God is,’ and then that God is a spirit; for it is said, John iv. 24, ‘God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’ Oh, then, whenever you come to pray to God, fix these two thoughts, let them be strong in your heart: God is; I do not speak to an idol, but to the living God. And God is a spirit; and therefore not so much pleased with plausibleness of speech, or tunable cadency of words, as with a right temper of heart. Alas! when we come to pray, we little think God is, or what God is. Much of our religion is performed to an unknown God, and, like the Samaritans, we worship we know not what. It is not speculations about the divine nature, or high-strained conceptions, which doth fit us for prayer: the discoursing of these things with some singularity, or terms removed from common understanding, this is not that which I 34press you to; but such a sight of God as prompteth us to a reverent and serious worshipping of him. Then we have right notions of God in prayer, when we are affected as Moses was, when God showed him his back-parts, and proclaimed his name: Exod. xxxiv., ‘He made haste, bowed his head, and worshipped.’ When our worship suiteth with the nature of God, it is spiritual and holy, not pompous and theatrical. Well, then, these two things must be deeply imprinted in our minds that God is, and that he is a spirit; and then is our worship right.
[1.] For the first notion, God’s being. Then is our worship right, when it doth proclaim to all that shall observe us, or we that observe ourselves, there is a great, an infinite, eternal power, which sits at the upper end of causes, and governeth all according to his own pleasure. Alas! the worship of many is flat atheism; they say in their hearts either there is no God, or believe there is no God. Therefore, do you worship him as becomes such a glorious being? Is his mercy seen in your faith and confidence, his majesty in your humility and reverence, his goodness in your soul’s rejoicing, his greatness and justice in your trembling before his throne? The worship must be like the worshipped, it must have his stamp upon it.
[2.] For the other notion, God is a spirit, therefore the soul must be the chief agent in the business, not the body, or any member of the body. Spirits they converse with spirits: the body is but employed by the soul, and must not guide and lead it, but be led by it. Therefore see whether there be the spirit, otherwise that which is most essential to the worship is wanting. To have nothing employed but the tongue, and the heart about other business, is not to carry your selves as to a God, and a God that is a spirit. Recollect yourselves; where is my soul in this worship, and how is it affected towards God?
Secondly, As there must be thoughts to direct us in his being and nature, so also in his relation as a father, as one that is inclinable to pardon, pity, and help you. We have the spirit of adoption given us for this very end and purpose, that we may cry, ‘Abba, Father;’ and, Gal. iv. 16, ‘Because you are sons, therefore he hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father;’ and, Rom. viii. 15, ‘We have received the Spirit of adoption, crying, Abba, Father;’ that we may come to God in a child-like manner, dealing with him as with a father, acquainting him with our wants, necessities, burdens, with a hope of relief and supply.
Object Ay, saith a distressed soul, if my heart be thus carried up to God, if I could discern such a Spirit of adoption prompting me to go to God as a father, then it would be better with me.
To this I answer:—
1. Many times there is a child-like inclination where there is not a child-like familiarity and boldness. What is that child-like inclination? The soul cannot keep away from God, and that is an implicit owning him as a father: Jer. iii. 19, ‘Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me.’ It is a child-like act to look to him for all our supplies, and to recommend our suit. As when a child wants anything, he goes to his father.35
2. There is a child-like reverence many times when there is not a child-like confidence. The soul hath an awe of God when it cannot explicitly own him as our God and Father, yet it owns him in the humbling way: Luke xv. 18, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am not worthy to be called thy son.’ Though we cannot confidently approach to God as our reconciled Father, yet we come with humility and reverence. Lord, I would fain be, but I deserve not to be, called thy child.
3. There is a child-like dependence upon God’s general offer, though we have not an evidence of the sincerity of our particular claim. God offereth to be a Father in Christ to all penitent believers. Now, when a broken-hearted creature comes to God, and looks for mercy upon the account of the covenant, though he cannot see his own interest; for then we come to God, though not as our Father, yet as ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ;’ and that is a relief in prayer, as Eph. i. 3, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ;’ and, ver. 17, ‘The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory;’ and, Eph. iii. 14, ‘I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Mark, when we come to him as the Father of Christ, we believe what God offereth in the covenant of grace—namely, that he will deal kindly with us as a father with his children; that he will be good to those that come to him by Christ. The term Father is not only to be considered with respect to the disposition or qualification of the persons, but the dispensation they are under. It is the new covenant. In the new covenant God under takes to be fatherly—that is, to pity our miseries, to pardon our sins, to heal our natures, to save our persons. Now all that come for refuge to take hold of this hope set before them, may come to God as a father, if they believe the gospel in general, though they are not assured of God’s love to themselves.
4. There may be a child-like love to God, when yet we have not a sense and assurance of his paternal love to us. God hath a title to our choicest and dearest love before we can make out a title to his highest benefits. We owe our hearts to him: Prov. xxxiii. 26, ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ If you give him your hearts, you are sons, though you know it not. God may be owned as a father, either by our sense of his fatherly love, or by our choice and esteem of him, optando, si non affirmando. Come as fatherless without him: Hosea xiv. 3; or, to speak it in other words, the unutterable groans of the Spirit do discover the spirit of adoption, as well as the unspeakable joys of the Spirit: 1 Pet. i. 8. There is an option and choice, though we be not assured of our special relation.
5. God is glorified by an affiance, and a resolute adherence, where there is no assurance. When you are resolved, let him deal with you as an enemy, you will stick to him as a father: Job xiii. 15, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.’ Faith can take God as a friend and father, and put a good construction upon his dealings, when he seems to come against us as an enemy. And we give glory to God when we can adhere to him as our only happiness, and trust his fatherly kindness and goodness, though he cover himself with frowns, and hide himself from our prayers; and you own him as the Father 36of mercies, though it may be you have no sense and feeling of his fatherly love to yon.
6. There is a difference between the gift itself and the degree. We cannot say we have not the spirit of adoption because we have not so much of the spirit of adoption as others have—I mean as to the effects. We may have the Spirit as a sanctifier, though not as a comforter; though he doth not calm our hearts, and rebuke our fears, yet he doth sanctify us, and incline us to God. The Spirit was only given to Christ without measure, but to Christians in a different measure and proportion; and usually as you submit more to his gracious conduct, and overcome the enemies of your peace, the devil, the world, and the flesh. The impression is left upon some in a smaller, and upon others in a larger character. All are not of one growth and size; some are more explicitly Christians, others in a riddle. Much grace doth more discover itself than a little grace under a heap of imperfection. Some are more mortified and heavenly-minded than others.
7. When all other helps fail, faith will make use of our common relation to God as a Creator, as we may come to him as the workmanship of his hands. It is better to do so than keep off from him; and we may come to him as the workmanship of his hands when we cannot come to him as children of his family. The church saith, Isa. lxiv. 8, ‘Now, Lord, thou art our father: we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thy hand.’ They plead for favour and mercy by that common relation, as he was their potter, and they his clay. And David, Ps. cxix. 73, ‘Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments.’ Surely it is some comfort to claim by the covenant of Noah, which was made with all mankind, when we cannot claim mercy by the covenant of Abraham, which was made with the family of the faithful. The scriptures warrant us to do so: Isa. liv. 9, ‘For this is as the waters of Noah unto me.’ All this is spoken to show that, one way or other, we should bring our hearts to depend upon him as a father, for succour and relief.
Thirdly, His attributes. This text offereth three. God’s omnisciency, ‘He knows;’ His fatherly care, ‘Your Father knows what you stand in need of;’ and his readiness to help, even before we ask.
[1.] He is omniscient: He knows our persons, for Christ calleth his own sheep by name: John x. 3. He knoweth every one of us by head and by poll, by person and name. Yea, and he knows our state and condition: Ps. lvi. 8, ‘Thou tellest my wanderings; put thou my tears into thy bottle; are they not in thy book?’ All our wanderings he tells them; all our tears he hath a bottle for them; to show God’s particular notice; they are metaphorical expressions. And he observes us in the very posture when we come to pray, and where. Acts ix. 11: Go to such a street, in such a place, and ‘inquire for one Saul of Tarsus; for, behold, he prayeth.’ The Lord takes notice, in such a city, in such a street, in such a house, in such a room, and what you are doing when you are praying. And he seeth, not only that you pray, but how you pray: Rom. viii. 27, ‘And he that searcheth the heart, knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints, according to the will of God.’ He can discern 37between lusts and groans, words and affections, and such words as are the belches of the flesh, and such as are the breathings of the spirit.
[2.] There is his fatherly care, for it is said, ‘Your Father knows what things you have need of.’ He knows what pincheth and presseth you. It is said, 1 Pet. v. 7, ‘Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.’ It is not said, that he may take care of you, but he doth take care. God is aforehand with us, and our carking care doth but take the work out of God’s hand which he is doing already. Our cares are needless, fruitless, burthensome; but his are assiduous, powerful, blessed. A small matter may occasion much vexation to us, but to him all things are easy. Upon these considerations, ‘We should be careful for nothing, but make known our requests unto God:’ Phil. iv. 6. Praying for what we want, and giving thanks for what we have; ‘For your Father knoweth you have need of these things:’ Mat. vi. 32. His fatherly love will not suffer him to neglect his children or any of their concernments. Therefore, if you have a temptation upon you to anxiety and carefulness of mind, and know not how to get out of such a strait and conquer such a difficulty, remember you have a father to provide for you: this will prevent tormenting thoughtfulness, which is good for nothing but to anticipate your sorrow.
[3.] The next is, his readiness to help. This should be deeply impressed upon your minds, and you should habituate these thoughts, how ready God is to help and to run to the cry: Ps. xxxii. 5, ‘I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.’ Before his purpose could be brought to pass: Isa. lxv. 24, ‘Before they call, I will answer, and whiles they are yet speaking, I will hear.’ So Jer. xxxi. 20: ‘I heard Ephraim bemoaning himself,’ &c. God’s bowels were troubled presently. He is more ready to give than you to ask. This will help and direct you mightily in the business of prayer; for God hath a care for his children, and is very ready to help the weak, and relieve them in all their straits.
Thirdly, For directions about our affections in prayer: three things are required, viz., fervency, reverence, confidence.
1. Fervency. That usually comes from two grounds, a broken hearted sense of our wants, and a desire of the blessing we stand in need of. For the broken-hearted sense of our wants, especially spiritual. Weaknesses are incident to the best. All Christians have continual need to cry to God. We have continual necessities both within and without. Go cry to God your Father without affectation, but not without affection, and seek your supplies from him. Let me tell you, the more grace is increased, the more sense of wants is increased; for sin is more hated, defects are less borne. And then, there must be a desire of the blessings, especially spiritual; our needs must stir up fresh longings and holy desires after God: Mat. vii. 7, ‘Ask, seek, knock;’ Luke xi. 8, ‘For his importunity, he will rise and give.’ We spend the earnestness of our spirits in other matters, in disputes, contests, earthly pursuits; our importunate earnestness runs in a worldly channel. No, no; it must be from simplicity and sincerity, 38pouring out your hearts before him; no sacrifice without fire: James v. 16, ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.’
2. Reverence. A reverent respectful carriage towards our heavenly Father: Ps. ii. 11, ‘Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’ Mark, there is in God a mixture of majesty and mercy; so in us there must be of joy and trembling. God’s love doth not abase his majesty, nor his majesty diminish his love. We ought to know our distance from God, and to think of his superiority over us; therefore we must be serious. Remember, ‘God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him,’ Ps. lxxxix. 7.
3. With confidence: Eph. iii. 12, ‘In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.’ There is boldness in pouring out our requests to God, who will certainly hear us, and grant what is good. We must rely upon his goodness and power in all our necessities. He is so gracious in Christ that he will do that which is best for his glory and our good, and upon other terms we should not seek it. If you would not turn prayer into babbling, much speaking to affectation of words, take heed of these abuses, and labour to bring your hearts to God in this manner.39
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