An Introduction to the Exposition of the Lord's Prayer Part 2A Practical Exposition of the Lord's Prayer by Thomas Manton (1620-1677) (Volume 1)
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An Introduction to the Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer Part 2
‘But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard for 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. 6: 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-abuse. 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 battologia and polulogia : 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 irksome to prudent and wise men.
But let us see a little what these words signify. The first word is battologia , which we translate ‘vain repetitions’. Battus was a foolish poet, that made long hymns, consisting of many lines, but such 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 erant sub montibus illis.’
‘Et me mihi perfidi prodis?
Me mihi prodis ? ait.’
And from thence this word is taken, which is here used by the evangelist: battologia, or idle babbling over the same thing. And the scripture representeth this vain going over of the same things: Eccl. 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 mimeisis, 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 polulogia ‘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 repetitions 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: Eccl. 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 not 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 extreme: the slight and careless spirit and babbling.
l.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 dash 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 front 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 recounted 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; O 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 disproved (i.e. disapproved) when there is a special emphasis 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 alone 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 Salvo 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, polulogia, 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 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 continue 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.
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 hemisphoerii, 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 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 ‘en tois dialogismois ‘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, I 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 entreated, 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 by the vehemency; not by the labour of the external work, but 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 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 has given a body will give raiment. Things expect supply thence from whence they received their being. But much more by covenant 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 child-like spirit and dependence, with words reverent, serious or plain. Children do not use to make starched speeches to their father 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 manner; 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. 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 than 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 God’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. Sometimes 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.
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. iii. 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 thanksgiving, 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 we 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 l. 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.
l. 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 anything 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 themselves 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 boil or fried in a pan, before it was to be presented to the Lord, that they might not bring a doughbaked 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 pace 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. 15, 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. xxxiii. 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.
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: Eccl. 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 or the length of it must be measured by the fervency of our hearts, the 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 dullness 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 beforehand, 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 he strong in your heart: God is; 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 press 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.8. ‘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 yourselves 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. 6, ‘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.
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 undertakes 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. xxiii. 26, ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ If you give him your heart 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 our 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 of mercies, though it may be you have no sense and feeling of his fatherly love to you.
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, O 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 commandment.’ 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 between lusts and groans, words and affections, and such words as are the belches of the flesh, an 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. 18: ‘I heard Ephraim bemoaning himself,’ etc. 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 want 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, pouring out our hearts before him; no sacrifices 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.