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A Discourse against long extemporary Prayers:
Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.
WE have here the wisest of men instructing us how to behave ourselves before God in his own house; and particularly when we address to him in the most important of all duties, which is prayer. Solomon had the honour to be spoken to by God himself, and therefore, in all likelihood, none more fit to teach us how to speak to God. A great privilege certainly for dust and ashes to be admitted to; and therefore it will concern us to manage it so, that in these our approaches to the King of heaven, his goodness may not cause us to forget his greatness, nor (as it is but too usual for subjects to use privilege against prerogative) his honour suffer by his condescension.
In the words we have these three things observable.
1st, That whosoever appears in the house of God, 406and particularly in the way of prayer, ought to reckon himself, in a more especial manner, placed in the sight and presence of God.
2dly, That the vast and infinite distance between God and him, ought to create in him all imaginable awe and reverence in such his addresses to God.
3dly and lastly, That this reverence required of him, is to consist in a serious preparation of his thoughts, and a sober government of his expressions: neither is his mouth to be rash, nor his heart to be hasty, in uttering any thing before God.
These things are evidently contained in the words, and do as evidently contain the whole sense of them. But I shall gather them all into this one proposition; namely,
That premeditation of thought, and brevity of expression, are the great ingredients of that reverence that is required to a pious, acceptable, and devout prayer.
For the better handling of which, we will, in the first place, consider how, and by what way it is, that prayer works upon, or prevails with, God, for the obtaining of the things we pray for. Concerning which, I shall lay down this general rule, That the way, by which prayer prevails with God, is wholly different from that, by which it prevails with men. And to give you this more particularly.
1. First of all, it prevails not with God by way of information or notification of the thing to him, which we desire of him. With men indeed this is the common, and with wise men the chief, and should be the only way of obtaining what we ask of them. We represent and lay before them our wants and indigences, and the misery of our condition. Which 407being made known to them, the quality and condition of the thing asked for, and of the persons who ask it, induces them to give that to us, and to do that for us, which we desire and petition for: but it is not so in our addresses to God; for he knows our wants and our conditions better than we our selves: he is beforehand with all our prayers, Matt, vi. 8. Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him: and in Psalm cxxxix. 2. Thou understandest my thought afar off. God knows our thoughts before the very heart that conceives them. And how then can he, who is but of yesterday, suggest any thing new to that eternal mind! how can ignorance inform omniscience!
2dly, Neither does prayer prevail with God by way of persuasion, or working upon the affections, so as thereby to move him to pity or compassion. This indeed is the most usual and most effectual way to prevail with men; who, for the generality, are, one part reason, and nine parts affection. So that one of a voluble tongue, and a dexterous insinuation, may do what he will with vulgar minds, and with wise men too, at their weak times. But God, who is as void of passion or affection, as he is of quantity or corporeity, is not to be dealt with this way. He values not our rhetoric, nor our pathetical harangues. He who applies to God, applies to an infinite al mighty reason, a pure act, all intellect, the first mover, and therefore not to be moved or wrought upon himself. In all passion, the mind suffers, (as the very signification of the word imports,) but absolute, entire perfection cannot suffer; it is and must be immovable, and by consequence impassible. And therefore,408
In the third and last place, much less is God to be prevailed upon by importunity, and, as it were, wearying him into a concession of what we beg of him. Though with men we know this also is not unusual. A notable instance of which we have in Luke xviii. 4, 5. where the unjust judge being with a restless vehemence sued to for justice, says thus within himself: Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
In like manner, how often are beggars relieved only for their eager and rude importunity; not that the person who relieves them is thereby informed or satisfied of their real want, nor yet moved to pity them by all their cry and cant, but to rid himself from their vexatious noise and din; so that to purchase his quiet by a little alms he gratifies the beggar, but indeed relieves himself. But now this way is further from prevailing with God than either of the former. For as omniscience is not to be in formed, so neither is omnipotence to be wearied. We may much more easily think to clamour the sun and stars out of their courses, than to word the great Creator of them out of the steady purposes of his own will, by all the vehemence and loudness of our petitions. Men may tire themselves with their own prayers, but God is not to be tired. The rapid motion and whirl of things here below, interrupts not the inviolable rest and calmness of the nobler beings above. While the winds roar and bluster here in the first and second regions of the air, there is a perfect serenity in the third. Men’s desires cannot control God’s decrees.409
And thus I have shewn, that the three ways by which men prevail with men in their prayers and applications to them, have no place at all in giving any efficacy to their addresses to God.
But you will ask then, Upon what account is it that prayer becomes prevalent and efficacious with God, so as to procure us the good things we pray for? I answer, Upon this, that it is the fulfilling of that condition upon which God has freely promised to convey his blessings to men. God of his own absolute, unaccountable good-will and pleasure, has thought fit to appoint and fix upon this as the means by which he will supply and answer the wants of mankind. As for instance; suppose a prince should declare to any one of his subjects, that if he shall appear before him every morning in his bed-chamber, he shall receive of him a thousand talents. We must not here imagine, that the subject, by making this appearance, does either move or persuade his prince to give him such a sum of money: no, he only performs the condition of the promise, and thereby acquires a right to the thing promised. He does indeed hereby engage his prince to give him this sum, though he does by no means persuade him: or rather, to speak more strictly and properly, the prince’s own justice and veracity is an engagement upon the prince himself, to make good his promise to him who fulfills the conditions of it.
But you will say, that upon this ground it will follow, that when we obtain any thing of God by prayer, we have it upon claim of justice, and not by way of gift, as a free result of his bounty.
I answer, that both these are very well consistent; for though he who makes a promise upon a 410certain condition, is bound in justice upon the fulfilling of that condition to perform his promise; yet it was perfectly grace and goodness, bounty and free mercy, that first induced him to make the promise, and particularly to state the tenor of it upon such a condition. If we confess our sins, says the apostle, 1 John i. 9. God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Can any thing be freer and more the effect of mere grace, than the forgiveness of sins? And yet it is certain from this scripture and many more, that it is firmly promised us upon condition of a penitent hearty confession of them, and consequently as certain it is, that God stands obliged here even by his faithfulness and justice, to make good this his promise of forgiveness to those who come up to the terms of it by such a confession.
In like manner, for prayer, in reference to the good things prayed for. He who prays for a thing as God has appointed him, gets thereby a right to the thing prayed for: but it is a right, not springing from any merit or condignity, either in the prayer itself, or the person who makes it, to the blessing which he prays for, but from God’s veracity, truth, and justice, who, having appointed prayer as the condition of that blessing, cannot but stand to what he himself had appointed; though that he did appoint it, was the free result and determination of his own will.
We have a full account of this whole matter from God’s own mouth, in Psalm 1. Call upon me, says God, in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee. These are evidently the terms upon which God answers prayers: in which case there is no doubt but the deliverance is still of more worth than the 411prayer; and there is as little doubt also, that with out such a previous declaration made on God’s part, a person so in trouble or distress might pray his heart out, and yet God not be in the least obliged by all his prayers, either in justice or honour, or in deed so much as in mercy, to deliver him; for mercy is free, and misery cannot oblige it. In a word, prayer procures deliverance from trouble, just as Naaman’s dipping himself seven times in Jordan procured him a deliverance from his leprosy; not by any virtue in itself adequate to so great an effect, you may be sure; but from this, that it was appointed by God as the condition of his recovery; and so obliged the power of him, who appointed it, to give force and virtue to his own institution, beyond what the nature of the thing itself could otherwise have raised it to.
Let this therefore be fixed upon, as the ground work of what we are to say upon this subject: that prayer prevails with God for the blessing that we pray for, neither by way of information, nor yet of persuasion, and much less by the importunity of him who prays, and least of all by any worth in the prayer itself, equal to the thing prayed for; but it prevails solely and entirely upon this account, that it is freely appointed by God, as the stated, allowed condition, upon which he will dispense his blessings to mankind.
But before I dismiss this consideration, it may be inquired, whence it is that prayer, rather than any other thing, comes to be appointed by God for this condition. In answer to which; Though God’s sovereign will be a sufficient reason of its own counsels and determinations, and consequently a more than 412sufficient answer to all our inquiries; yet, since God in his infinite wisdom still adapts means to ends, and never appoints a thing to any use, but what it has a particular and a natural fitness for; I shall therefore presume to assign a reason why prayer, before all other things, should be appointed to this noble use of being the condition and glorious conduit, whereby to derive the bounties of heaven upon the sons of men: and it is this; because prayer, of all other acts of a rational nature, does most peculiarly qualify a man to be a fit object of the divine favour, by being most eminently and properly an act of dependance upon God; since to pray, or beg a thing of another, in the very nature and notion of it, imports these two things: 1. That the person praying stands in need of some good, which he is not able by any power of his own to procure for himself: and, 2. That he acknowledges it in the power and plea sure of the person whom he prays to, to confer it upon him. And this is properly that which men call to depend.
But some may reply, There is an universal dependance of all things upon God; forasmuch as he, being the great fountain and source of being, first created, and since supports them by the word of his power; and consequently that this dependance be longs indifferently to the wicked as well as to the just, whose prayer nevertheless is declared an abomination to God.
But to this the answer is obvious, That the dependance here spoken of is meant, not of a natural, but of a moral dependance. The first is necessary, the other voluntary. The first common to all, the other proper to the pious. The first respects God 413barely as a Creator, the other addresses to him as a Father. Now such a dependance upon God it is, that is properly seen in prayer. And being so, if we should in all humble reverence set ourselves to examine the wisdom of the divine proceeding in this matter, even by the measures of our own reason, what could be more rationally thought of for the properest instrument to bring down God’s blessings upon the world, than such a temper of mind, as makes a man disown all ability in himself to supply his own wants, and at the same time own a transcendent fulness and sufficiency in God to do it for him? And what can be more agreeable to all principles both of reason and religion, than that a creature endued with understanding and will, should acknowledge that dependance upon his Maker, by a free act of choice, which other creatures have upon him, only by necessity of nature?
But still, there is one objection more against our foregoing assertion, viz. That prayer obtains the things prayed for, only as a condition, and not by way of importunity or persuasion; for is not prayer said to prevail by frequency, Luke xviii. 7. and by fervency, or earnestness, in James v. 16. and is not this a fair proof that God is importuned and persuaded into a grant of our petitions?
To this I answer two things; 1. That wheresoever God is said to answer prayers, either for their frequency or fervency, it is spoken of him only ἀνθρωποπαθῶς, according to the manner of men; and consequently ought to be understood only of the effect or issue of such prayers, in the success certainly attending them, and not of the manner of their efficiency, that it is by persuading or working upon the passions: 414as if we should say, frequent, fervent, and importunate prayers, are as certainly followed with God’s grant of the thing prayed for, as men use to grant that, which, being overcome by excessive importunity and persuasion, they cannot find in their hearts to deny. 2. I answer farther, That frequency and fervency of prayer prove effectual to procure of God the things prayed for, upon no other account but as they are acts of dependance upon God: which dependance we have already proved to be that thing essentially included in prayer, for which God has been pleased to make prayer the condition, upon which he determines to grant men such things as they need and duly apply to him for. So that still there is nothing of persuasion in the case.
And thus having shewn (and I hope fully and clearly) how prayer operates towards the obtaining of the divine blessings; namely, as a condition appointed by God for that purpose, and no otherwise: and withal, for what reason it is singled out of all other acts of a rational nature, to be this condition; namely, because it is the grand instance of such a nature’s dependance upon God: we shall now from the same principle infer also, upon what account the highest reverence of God is so indispensably required of us in prayer, and all sort of irreverence so diametrically opposite to, and destructive of, the very nature of it. And it will appear to be upon this, that in what degree any one lays aside his reverence of God, in the same he also quits his dependance upon him: forasmuch as in every irreverent act, a man treats God as if he had indeed no need of him, and behaves himself as if he stood upon his own bottom, absolute and self-sufficient. This is the natural language, 415the true signification and import of all irreverence.
Now in all addresses, either to God or man, by speech, our reverence to them must consist of, and shew itself in these two things.
First, A careful regulation of our thoughts, that are to dictate and to govern our words; which is done by premeditation: and secondly, a due ordering of our words, that are to proceed from, and to express our thoughts; which is done by pertinence and brevity of expression.
David, directing his prayer to God, joins these two together as the two great integral parts of it, in Psalm xix. 14. Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord. So that it seems his prayer adequately and entirely consisted of those two things, meditation and expression, as it were the matter and form of that noble composure. There being no mention at all of distortion of face, sanctified grimace, solemn wink, or foaming at the mouth, and the like; all which are circumstances of prayer of a later date, and brought into request by those fantastic zealots, who had a way of praying, as astonishing to the eyes, as to the ears of those that heard them. Well then, the first ingredient of a pious and reverential prayer, is a previous regulation of the thoughts, as the text expresses it most emphatically; Let not thy heart be hasty to utter any thing before God; that is, in other words, let it not venture to throw out its crude, extemporary, sudden, and misshapen conceptions in the face of infinite perfection. Let not thy heart conceive and bring forth together: this is monstrous and unnatural. All abortion is from infirmity 416and defect. And time is required to form the issue of the mind, as well as that of the body. The fitness or unfitness of the first thoughts, cannot be judged of but by reflection of the second: and be the invention never so fruitful, yet in the mind, as in the earth, that which is cast into it must lie hid and covered for a while, before it can be fit to shoot forth. These are the methods of nature, and it is seldom but the acts of religion conform to them.
He who is to pray, would he seriously judge of the work that is before him, has more to consider of, than either his heart can hold, or his head well turn itself to. Prayer is one of the greatest and the hardest works that a man has to do in this world; and was ever any thing difficult or glorious achieved by a sudden cast of a thought? a flying stricture of the imagination? Presence of mind is indeed good, but haste is not so. And therefore, let this be concluded upon, that in the business of prayer, to pretend to reverence when there is no premeditation, is both impudence and contradiction.
Now this premeditation ought to respect these three things: 1. The person whom we pray to: 2. The matter of our prayers: and 3. The order and disposition of them.
1. And first, for the person whom we pray to. The same is to employ, who must needs also nonplus and astonish thy meditations, and be made the object of thy thoughts, who infinitely transcends them. For all the knowing and reasoning faculties of the soul are utterly baffled and at a loss, when they offer at any idea of the great God. Nevertheless, since it is hard, if not impossible, to imprint an awe upon the affections, without suitable notions first formed in 417the apprehensions; we must in our prayers endeavour at least to bring these as near to God as we can, by considering such of his divine perfections as have, by their effects, in a great measure, manifested themselves to our senses, and, in a much greater, to the discourses of our reason.
As first; consider with thyself, how great and glorious a Being that must needs be, that raised so vast and beautiful a fabric as this of the world out of nothing with the breath of his mouth, and can and will, with the same, reduce it to nothing again; and then consider, that this is that high, amazing, in comprehensible Being, whom thou addressest thy pitiful self to in prayer.
Consider next, his infinite, all-searching knowledge, which looks through and through the most secret of our thoughts, ransacks every corner of the heart, ponders the most inward designs and ends of the soul in all a man’s actions. And then consider, that this is the God whom thou hast to deal with in prayer; the God who observes the postures, the frame and motion of thy mind in all thy approaches to him, and whose piercing eye it is impossible to elude or escape by all the tricks and arts of the subtilest and most refined hypocrisy. And lastly, consider the great, the fiery, and the implacable jealousy that he has for his honour; and that he has no other use of the whole creation, but to serve the ends of it: and, above all, that he will, in a most peculiar manner, be honoured of those who draw near to him; and will by no means suffer himself to be mocked and affronted, under a pretence of being worshipped; nor endure that a wretched, contemptible, sinful creature, who is but a piece of living dirt 418at best, should at the same time bend the knee to him, and spit in his face. And now consider, that this is the God whom thou prayest to, and whom thou usest with such intolerable indignity in every unworthy prayer thou puttest up to him; every bold, saucy, and familiar word that (upon confidence of being one of God’s elect) thou presumest to debase so great a majesty with: and for an instance of the dreadful curse that attends such a daring irreverence, consider how God used Nadab and Abihu for venturing to offer strange fire before him; and then know, that every unhallowed, unfitting prayer is a strange fire; a fire that will be sure to destroy the offering, though mercy should spare the offerer. Consider these things seriously, deeply, and severely, till the consideration of them affects thy heart, and humbles thy spirit, with such awful apprehensions of thy Maker, and such abject reflections upon thyself, as may lay thee in the dust before him: and know, that the lower thou fallest, the higher will thy prayer rebound; and that thou art never so fit to pray to God, as when a sense of thy own unworthiness makes thee ashamed even to speak to him.
2. The second object of our premeditation is, the matter of our prayers. For, as we are to consider whom we are to pray to; so are we to consider also, what we are to pray for; and this requires no ordinary application of thought to distinguish or judge of. Men’s prayers are generally dictated by their desires, and their desires are the issues of their affections; and their affections are, for the most part, influenced by their corruptions. The first constituent principle of a well-conceived prayer is, to know what not to pray for: which the scripture assures us 419that some do not, while they pray for what they may spend upon their lusts, James iv. 3. asking such things as it is a contumely to God to hear, and dam nation to themselves to receive. No man is to pray for any thing either sinful, or directly tending to sin. No man is to pray for a temptation, and much less to desire God to be his tempter; which he would certainly be, should he, at the instance of any man’s prayer, administer fuel to his sinful or absurd appetites. Nor is any one to ask of God things mean and trivial, and beneath the majesty of heaven to be concerned about, or solemnly addressed to for. Nor, lastly, is any one to admit into his petitions things superfluous or extravagant; such as wealth, greatness, and honour: which we are so far from being warranted to beg of God, that we are to beg his grace to despise and undervalue them: and it were much, if the same things should be the proper objects both of our self-denial and of our prayers too; and that we should be allowed to solicit the satisfaction, and enjoined to endeavour the mortification, of the same desires.
The things that we are to pray for are either, 1st, Things of absolute necessity: or, 2dly, Things of unquestionable charity. Of the first sort are all spiritual graces required in us, as the indispensable conditions of our salvation; such as are, repentance, faith, hope, charity, temperance, and all other virtues that are either the parts or principles of a pious life. These are to be the prime subject-matter of our prayers; and we shall find, that nothing comes this way so easily from heaven, as those things that will assuredly bring us to it. The Spirit dictates all such petitions, and God himself is first the author, and 420then the fulfiller of them; owning and accepting them, both as our duty and his own production. The other sort of things that may allowably be prayed for, are things of manifest, unquestionable charity: such as are a competent measure of the innocent comforts of life, as health, peace, maintenance, and a success of our honest labours: and yet even these but conditionally, and with perfect resignation to the will and wisdom of the sovereign disposer of all that be longs to us; who (if he finds it more for his honour to have us serve him with sick, crazy, languishing bodies; with poverty, and extreme want of all things; and lastly, with our country all in a flame about our ears) ought, in all this, and much more, to overrule our prayers and desires into an absolute acquiescence in his all-wise disposal of things; and to convince us, that our prayers are sometimes best answered, when our desires are most opposed.
In fine, to state the whole matter of our prayers in one word; Nothing can be fit for us to pray for, but what is fit and honourable for our great mediator and master of requests, Jesus Christ himself, to intercede for. This is to be the unchangeable rule and measure of all our petitions. And then, if Christ is to convey these our petitions to his Father, can any one dare to make him, who was holiness and purity itself, an advocate and solicitor for his lusts? Him, who was nothing but meekness, lowliness, and humility, his providetore for such things as can only feed his pride, and flush his ambition? No, certainly; when we come as suppliants to the throne of grace, where Christ sits as intercessor at God’s right hand, nothing can be fit to proceed out of our mouth, but what is fit to pass through his.421
3dly, The third and last thing that calls for a previous meditation to our prayers is, the order and disposition of them; for though God does not command us to set off our prayers with dress and artifice, to flourish it in trope and metaphor, to beg our daily bread in blank verse, or to shew any thing of the poet in our devotions, but indigence and want; I say, though God is far from requiring such things of us in our prayers, yet he requires that we should manage them with sense and reason. Fineness is not expected, but decency is; and though we cannot declaim as orators, yet he will have us speak like men, and tender him the results of that understanding and judgment, that essentially constitute a rational nature.
But I shall briefly cast what I have to say upon this particular into these following assertions:
1st, That nothing can express our reverence to God in prayer, that would pass for irreverence towards a great man. Let any subject tender his prince a petition fraught with nonsense and incoherence, confusion and impertinence; and can he expect, that majesty should answer it with any thing but a deaf ear, a frowning eye, or, (at best,) vouchsafe it any other reward, but, by a gracious oblivion, to forgive the person, and forget the petition?
2dly, Nothing absurd and irrational, and such as a wise man would despise, can be acceptable to God in prayer. Solomon expressly tells us in Ecclesiastes v. 4. that God has no pleasure in fools; nor is it possible that an infinite wisdom should. The scripture all along expresses sin and wickedness by the name of folly: and therefore certainly folly is too near of kin to it, to find any approbation from God in so 422great a duty: it is the simplicity of the heart, and not of the head, that is the best inditer of our petitions. That which proceeds from the latter is undoubtedly the sacrifice of fools; and God is never more weary of sacrifice, than when a fool is the priest, and folly the oblation.
3dly and lastly, Nothing rude, slight, and care less, or indeed less than the very best that a man can offer, can be acceptable or pleasing to God in prayer: If ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? If ye offer the lame and the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now to thy governor, and see whether he will be pleased with thee, or accept thy person, saith the Lord of hosts. Malachi i. 8. God rigidly expects a return of his own gifts; and where he has given ability, will be served by acts proportionable to it. And he who has parts to raise and propagate his own honour by, but none to employ in the worship of him that gave them, does (as I may so express it) refuse to wear God’s livery in his own service, adds sacrilege to profaneness, strips and starves his devotions, and, in a word, falls directly under the dint of that curse denounced in the last verse of the first of Malachi, Cursed be the deceiver, that hath in his flock a male, and voweth, and sacrificeth to the Lord a corrupt thing. The same is here, both the deceiver and the deceived too; for God very well knows what he gives men, and why; and where he has bestowed judgment, learning, and utterance, will not endure that men should be accurate in their discourse, and loose in their devotions; or think that the great author of every good and perfect gift will be put off with ramble, and confused talk, babble, and tautology.423
And thus much for the order and disposition of our prayers, which certainly requires precedent thought and meditation. God has declared himself the God of order in all things; and will have it observed in what he commands others, as well as in what he does himself. Order is the great rule or art by which God made the world, and by which he still governs it: nay, the world itself is nothing else; and ah 1 this glorious system of things is but the chaos put into order: and how then can God, who has so eminently owned himself concerned for this excellent thing, brook such absurdity and confusion, as the slovenly and profane negligence of some treats him with in their most solemn addresses to him? All which is the natural, unavoidable consequent of unpreparedness and want of premeditation; without which, whosoever presumes to pray, cannot be so properly said to approach to, as to break in upon God. And surely he who is so hardy as to do so, has no reason in the earth to expect that the success which follows his prayers should be greater than the preparation that goes before them.
Now from what has been hitherto discoursed of, this first and grand qualification of a pious and devout prayer, to wit, premeditation of thought, what can be so naturally and so usefully inferred, as the high expediency, or rather the absolute necessity of a set form of prayer to guide our devotions by? We have lived in an age that has despised, contradicted, and counteracted all the principles and practices of the primitive Christians, in taking the measures of their duty both to God and man, and of their behaviour both in matters civil and religious; but in nothing more scandalously, than in their vile 424abuse of the great duty of prayer; concerning which, though it may with the clearest truth be affirmed, that there has been no church yet of any account in the Christian world, but what has governed its public worship of God by a liturgy or set form of prayer; yet these enthusiastic innovators, the bold and blind reformers of all antiquity, and wiser than the whole catholic church besides, introduced into the room of it a saucy, senseless, extemporary way of speaking to God; affirming, that this was a praying by the Spirit; and that the use of all set forms was stinting of the Spirit. A pretence, I confess, popular and plausible enough with such idiots as take the sound of words for the sense of them. But for the full confutation of it, (which, I hope, shall be done both easily and briefly too,) I shall advance this one assertion in direct contradiction to that; namely,
That the praying by a set form, is not a stinting of the Spirit; and the praying extempore truly and properly is so.
For the proving and making out of which, we will first consider, what it is to pray by the Spirit: a thing much talked of, but not so convenient for the talkers of it, and pretenders to it, to have it rightly stated and understood, In short, it includes in it these two things;
1st, A praying with the heart, which is sometimes called the spirit, or inward man; and so it is properly opposed to hypocritical lip-devotions, in which the heart or spirit does not go along with a man’s words.
2dly, It includes in it also a praying according to the rules prescribed by God’s holy Spirit, and held forth to us in his revealed word, which word 425was both dictated and confirmed by this Spirit; and so it is opposed to the praying unlawfully, or unwarrantably; and that either in respect of the mat ter or manner of our prayers. As, when we desire of God such things, or in such a way, as the Spirit of God, speaking in his holy word, does by no means warrant or approve of. So that to pray by the Spirit, signifies neither more nor less but to pray knowingly, heartily, and affectionately for such things, and in such a manner, as the Holy Ghost in scripture either commands or allows of. As for any other kind of praying by the Spirit, upon the best inquiry that I can make into these matters, I can find none. And if some say (as I know they both impudently and blasphemously do) that, to pray by the Spirit is to have the Spirit immediately inspiring them, and by such inspiration speaking within them, and so dictating their prayers to them, let them either produce plain scripture, or do a miracle to prove this by. But till then, he who shall consider w T hat kind of prayers these pretenders to the Spirit have been notable for, will find that they have as little cause to father their prayers, as their practices, upon the Spirit of God.
These two things are certain, and I do particularly recommend them to your observation. One, That this way of praying by the Spirit, as they call it, was begun and first brought into use here in England in queen Elizabeth’s days, by a Popish priest and Dominican friar, one Faithful Commin by name; who counterfeiting himself a protestant, and a zealot of the highest form, set up this new spiritual way of praying, with a design to bring the 426people first to a contempt, and from thence to an utter hatred and disuse of our common prayer; which he still reviled as only a translation of the mass, thereby to distract men’s minds, and to divide our church. And this he did with such success, that we have lived to see the effects of his labours in the utter subversion of church and state. Which hellish negotiation, when this malicious hypocrite came to Rome to give the pope an account of, he received of him, (as so notable a service well deserved,) besides a thousand thanks, two thousand ducats for his pains. So that now you see here the original of this extempore way of praying by the Spirit. The other thing that I would observe to you is, that in the neighbour nation of Scotland, one of the greatest2626 Major John Weyer. See Ravaillac Rediviv. monsters of men that, I believe, ever lived, and actually in league with the devil, was yet, by the confession of all that heard him, the most excellent at this extempore way of praying by the Spirit of any man in his time; none was able to come near him, or to compare with him. But surely now, he who shall venture to ascribe the prayers of such a wretch, made up of adulteries, incest, witchcraft, and other villainies, not to be named, to the Spirit of God, may as well strike in with the Pharisees, and ascribe the miracles of Christ to the devil. And thus having shewn, both what ought to be meant by praying by the Spirit, and what ought not, cannot be meant by it; let us now see whether a set form, or this extemporary way, be the greater hinderer and stinter of it: in order to which, I shall lay down these three assertions.427
1st, That the soul or mind of man is but of a limited nature in all its workings, and consequently cannot supply two distinct faculties at the same time, to the same height of operation.
2dly, That the finding words and expressions for prayer, is the proper business of the brain and the invention; and, that the finding devotion and affection to accompany and go along with those expressions, is properly the work and business of the heart.
3dly, That this devotion and affection is indispensably required in prayer, as the principal and most essential part of it, and that in which the spirituality of it does most properly consist.
Now from these three things put together, this must naturally and necessarily follow; that as spiritual prayer, or praying by the Spirit, taken in the right sense of the word, consists properly in that affection and devotion, that the heart exercises and employs in the work of prayer; so, whatsoever gives the soul scope and liberty to exercise and employ this affection and devotion, that does most effectually help and enlarge the spirit of prayer; and whatsoever diverts the soul from employing such affection and devotion, that does most directly stint and hinder it. Accordingly let this now be our rule whereby to judge of the efficacy of a set form, and of the extemporary way in the present business. As for a set form, in which the words are ready prepared to our hands, the soul has nothing to do but to attend to the work of raising the affections and devotions, to go along with those words; so that all the powers of the soul are took up in applying the heart to this great duty; and it is the exercise of 428the heart (as has been already shewn) that is truly and properly a praying by the Spirit. On the contrary, in all extempore prayer, the powers and faculties of the soul are called off from dealing with the heart and the affections; and that both in the speaker and in the hearer; both in him who makes, and in him who is to join in such prayers.
And first, for the minister who makes and utters such extempore prayers. He is wholly employing his invention, both to conceive matter, and to find words and expressions to clothe it in: this is certainly the work which takes up his mind in this exercise: and since the nature of man’s mind is such, that it cannot with the same vigour, at the same time, attend the work of invention, and that of raising the affections also; nor measure out the same supply of spirits and intention for the carrying on the operations of the head, and those of the heart too; it is certain, that while the head is so much employed, the heart must be idle and very little employed, and perhaps not at all: and consequently, if to pray by the Spirit, be to pray with the heart and the affections; it is also as certain, that while a man prays extempore, he does not pray by the Spirit: nay, the very truth of it is, that while he is so doing, he is not praying at all, but he is studying; he is beating his brain, while he should be drawing out his affections.
And then for the people that are to hear and join with him in such prayers; it is manifest that they, not knowing beforehand what the minister will say, must, as soon as they do hear him, presently busy and bestir their minds both to apprehend and understand the meaning of what they hear; and withal, 429to judge whether it be of such a nature, as to be fit for them to join and concur with him in. So that the people also are, by this course, put to study, and to employ their apprehending and judging faculties, while they should be exerting their affections and devotions; and consequently, by this means, the spirit of prayer is stinted, as well in the congregation that follows, as in the minister who first conceives a prayer after their extempore way: which is a truth so clear, and indeed self-evident, that it is impossible that it should need any further arguments to demonstrate or make it out.
The sum of all this is; That since a set form of prayer leaves the soul wholly free to employ its affections and devotions, in which the spirit of prayer does most properly consist; it follows, that the spirit of prayer is thereby, in a singular manner, helped, promoted, and enlarged: and since, on the other hand, the extempore way withdraws and takes off the soul from employing its affections, and engages it chiefly, if not wholly, about the use of its invention; it as plainly follows, that the spirit of prayer is by this means unavoidably cramped and hindered, and (to use their own word) stinted: which was the proposition that I undertook to prove. But there are two things, I confess, that are extremely hindered and stinted by a set form of prayer, and equally furthered and enlarged by the extempore way; which, without all doubt, is the true cause why the former is so much decried, and the latter so much extolled, by the men whom we are now pleading with. The first of which is pride and ostentation; the other, faction and sedition.
1. And first for pride. I do not in the least question, 430but the chief design of such as use the extempore way, is to amuse the unthinking rabble with an admiration of their gifts; their whole devotion proceeding from no other principle, but only a love to hear themselves talk. And I believe it would put Lucifer himself hard to it, to outvie the pride of one of those fellows pouring out his extempore stuff amongst his ignorant, whining, factious followers, listening to, and applauding his copious flow and cant, with the ridiculous accents of their impertinent groans. And, the truth is, extempore prayer, even when best and most dexterously performed, is no thing else but a business of invention and wit, (such as it is,) and requires no more to it, but a teeming imagination, a bold front, and a ready expression; and deserves much the same commendation (were it not in a matter too serious to be sudden upon) which is due to extempore verses: only with this difference, that there is necessary to these latter a competent measure of wit and learning; whereas the former may be done with very little wit, and no learning at all.
And now, can any sober person think it reason able, that the public devotions of a whole congregation should be under the conduct and at the mercy of a pert, empty, conceited holder-forth, whose chief (if not sole) intent is to vaunt his spiritual clack, and (as I may so speak) to pray prizes; whereas prayer is a duty that recommends itself to the acceptance of Almighty God, by no other qualification so much, as by the profoundest humility, and the lowest esteem that a man can possibly have of himself?
Certainly the extemporizing faculty is never more out of its element, than in the pulpit; though even 431here it is much more excusable in a sermon than in a prayer; forasmuch as in that, a man addresses himself but to men; men like himself, whom he may therefore make bold with; as, no doubt, for so doing, they will also make bold with him. Besides the peculiar advantage attending all such sudden conceptions, that, as they are quickly born, so they quickly die: it being seldom known, where the speaker has so very fluent an invention, but the hearer also has the gift of as fluent a memory.
2dly, The other thing that has been hitherto so little befriended by a set form of prayer, and so very much by the extempore way, is faction and sedition. It has been always found an excellent way of girding at the government in scripture phrase. And we all know the common dialect, in which the great masters of this art used to pray for the king, and which may justly pass for only a cleanlier and more refined kind of libelling him in the Lord. As, that God would turn his heart, and open his eyes: as if he were a pagan, yet to be converted to Christianity; with many other sly, virulent, and malicious insinuations, which we may every day hear of from (those mints of treason and rebellion) their conventicles; and for which, and a great deal less, some princes and governments would make them not only eat their words, but the tongue that spoke them too. In fine, let all their extempore harangues be considered and duly weighed, and you shall find a spirit of pride, faction, and sedition, predominant in them all; the only spirit which those impostors do really and indeed pray by.
I have been so much the longer and the earnester 432against this intoxicating, bewitching cheat of extempore prayer, being fully satisfied in my conscience, that it has been all along the devil’s masterpiece and prime engine to overthrow our church by. For I look upon this as a most unanswerable truth, that whatsoever renders the public worship of God contemptible amongst us, must, in the same degree, weaken and discredit our whole religion. And I hope I have also proved it to be a truth altogether as clear, that this extempore way naturally brings all the contempt upon the worship of God, that both the folly and faction of men can possibly expose it to: and therefore as a thing neither subservient to the true purposes of religion, nor grounded upon principles of reason, nor, lastly, suitable to the practice of antiquity, ought, by all means, to be exploded and cast out of every sober and well-ordered church; or that will be sure to throw the church itself out of doors.
And thus I have at length finished what I had to say of the first ingredient of a pious and reverential prayer, which was premeditation of thought, prescribed to us in these words, Let not thy mouth be rash, nor thy heart be hasty to utter any thing before God. Which excellent words and most wise advice of Solomon, whosoever can reconcile to the expediency, decency, or usefulness of extempore prayer, I shall acknowledge him a man of greater ability and parts of mind than Solomon himself.
The other ingredient of a reverential and duly qualified prayer is, a pertinent brevity of expression, mentioned and recommended in that part of the text, Therefore let thy words be few. But this I 433cannot despatch now, and therefore shall not enter upon at this time.
Now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, three Persons and one God, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.434
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