Psalm lxi. 1
by John Dickie
HEAR my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed." These are the fervent words of David; and how forcibly they teach us the character of true prayer. It is a cry. It is the utterance of a heart overwhelmed by pressing dangers, and constrained, in its conscious impotence, to lift its earnest cry for help to a trusted and almighty Helper. We have prayer set before us in Holy Scripture under a variety of aspects, and it would be profitable to gather up any portion of the light that is shed on it; but, for the present, we purpose merely to glance at the subject for a little as presented to us under the emphatic word—-a cry.
How much does this word indicate in regard to the extremity to which the crying one is reduced! A drowning man, about to perish, cries for help; and so too does the traveller assailed by ferocious beasts, or ferocious men. But a sensible man will never cry unless he be in extremity of need. And oh, my reader, no words whatever can overstate the urgent need of an immortal soul, like yours or mine, set amid circumstances like ours. Unless God help us, we shall surely be swallowed up; and it is only those who are blinded by their unbelief that can refrain from continual crying. The word also indicates brevity. A cry is always brief. Not, indeed, that true prayer is always short, or ought invariably to be so; but that the kind of prayer described as a cry, in which the soul is wound up to the highest possible strain of tension, naturally expresses itself in brief, vehement utterances, that may be repeated, but scarcely prolonged. And what strong words does Scripture use, in setting before us the intensity of a believer's desires in prayer, an intensity derived from the felt extremity of his need. David calls his prayer "my roaring" (Ps. xxii. 1); in this describing also the experience of a greater than himself. "My groaning," he calls it again in Ps. xxxviii. 9. "The Lord hath heard thy affliction" said the angel to Hagar (Gen. xvi. 11), meaning by this her prayer. In Ps. cii 20, it is called the groaning of prisoners. In all this, it is scarcely needful to remark, the reference is not to the vehemence of the sound, but to the earnestness of the desire. Such desire will indeed be likely to express itself audibly, and in tones that indicate the deepest feeling; but still, it is the heart, and not the lips, that makes the loud outcry in the ears of God. We must not, however, confound this "groaning," "roaring," or "strong crying," with the wail of unbelieving wretchedness, which, even when it howls upon its bed, does not cry unto God with its heart (see Hos. vii. 14). The gracious God is as little honoured by the despairing misery of unbelief, as he is by the defiant prayerlessness of the perfectly careless. No; since God is seated on his throne, let us be careful to draw near with holy awe; but, since that throne is a throne of grace, let us be equally careful to draw near with holy boldness.
A cry contrasts too with the "secret speech" of Isaiah xxvi. 16, margin. The true cry has in it nothing of the craft of the cunning orator. It is as artless as the weeping of a new-born babe. Now, how much seeming prayer is made prayerless by its very oratory—-by its being worked up into anything rather than a cry. The real power of prayer lies, not in its wordy eloquence, but in hearty faith and fervent desire. Jacob at Peniel "had power with God; yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed" (Hos. xii. 3, 4). Wondrous conflict, and still more wondrous victory! And wherein lay the creature's power thus to prevail over the Omnipotent? Only in his cry; the very expression of helpless weakness; for it is added, "he wept and made supplication."
In the words of the psalm quoted, my prayer is called, my cry. Yes, it is mine. Though the Holy Ghost has inspired it, yet I have adopted it, and it is my cry. He showed me my infinite need, and in some degree, I have seen it; he set before me, the preciousness of the boon, and I have eagerly desired it. He taught me to understand the grace of the Father's heart, and the power of the Saviour's name; and, apprehending these, my longing heart cannot help lifting up its earnest desires in a believing cry. But while it is truly my cry, let me never forget that it is also the Holy Spirit's cry; nay, that I cry at all, only because God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into my heart, to cry within me. Apart from him, I could not so much as desire spiritual things. Moved by my earthly spirit, I would set my heart on things unfit for me; and, when I asked at all, I would ask for what my Saviour never would have asked in my behalf. Nay more, even yet, unless I be careful to "pray in the spirit," my selfish and carnal heart shall still have a share in inditing my prayers; and, misled by it, I shall ask for fancied blessings, which my great Intercessor may possibly be asking his Father to keep from me. How needful, then, in order to prevent such sad disharmony, that I walk in the spirit, and pray in the spirit.
To dwell a little longer on this weighty point; true prayer is his cry, and it is also mine. "The Holy Spirit helpeth our infirmities." He joins his strength to our weakness, he quickens our torpor of death by his energy of life; and, though he does not groan instead of us, he helps us to groan, and thus groaneth in us. The word rendered "helpeth our infirmities," is a very expressive one. It indicates that he does not take the business out of our hands, to do it alone by himself, but that he stirs us up to do all that we can, while he secretly ministers all the strength that is needed for the doing of it. In this respect, his work is wholly unlike the work of Christ. In bearing our guilt, Jesus took the whole work into his own hands, and "by himself, purged our sins" (Heb. i. 3). The Holy Spirit's work, on the other hand, while equally one of mere grace, is done in co-operation with our doing; not apart from us, but within us. He helps us to work out our own salvation, while it is he that worketh in us, both to will and to do. So, then, if I am not working, neither is God working in me; if I am not crying, neither is the Holy Ghost crying in me. For though the Spirit helpeth our infirmities, he is only a helper; and the proof, that he is working in us, lies in the fact that we are ourselves stirred up to work. While, then, the grace of the Holy Spirit takes away all ground for human glorying, it does not, in the faintest degree, affect the urgent need of human activity and earnestness. The Holy Spirit will not pray for us, but he will help us to pray. He will not wrestle for us with our foes, but he will help the tried disciple in his conflict with sore temptation; and if the man be only faithful, his divine helper will add to the impotence of the creature, the conquering energy of Almighty grace. Let us never then abuse the truth about this second greatest gift of God, the grace of his Holy Spirit, into an excuse for sinful sloth, but let us find in it our most powerful motive for continuing instant in prayer. For how shall God refuse to hear the cry that is not only our cry, but his own?
It is this "crying" that constitutes true prayer; it is this crying that Satan fears and hates. Though----
"Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees,"
it is only when that saint is crying. As for lifeless, formal praying, Satan will rather help than hinder it. It is one of the most destructive means of self-deception; and when coupled, as it is sure to be, with a worldly life, it greatly hinders the blessing of all around.
Now, is it not matter for confession and deep humiliation, that this very character of crying which constitutes true prayer, is the one quality which many of our prayers are most deficient in? They confess, they adore, they entreat; they have in them all that they should have, saving the one thing—-they do not cry. The heart has often in it no fervent desires for what the voluble lips may seem to be earnestly entreating; and it is to be feared that, not unfrequently, an instant answer, according to the very letter of his unearthly breathings, would be deemed, by the praying man, a great affliction. And even when the matter is far from being so bad as this, does not the fact that we really procure so little, in answer to our prayers, from a God who is so infinitely ready to bestow—-does not this sufficiently demonstrate, that much of our praying, even when it is not wholly lifeless, is nevertheless very feeble----in other words, that it lacks the "cry?" It does not "groan," nor "roar;" and is not like the pleadings of men who are "at their wit's end," and who "then cry unto the Lord in their trouble" (Ps. cvii. 27, 28). So far from this, the offerer frequently is unable to remember to-day what he specially prayed for yesterday; and he goes on his way, having his conscience pacified by the performance of a service, while his heart troubles him with no tormenting hunger-pangs for the return of the blessing. "How canst thou expect," said Cyprian long ago, "that God will hear thee when thou wilt not hear thyself?" Oh, for the abiding power of a lively faith, that will make all our prayers living prayers!
The word "cry" implies also a considerable degree of ignorance regarding the way in which help may be given us. Indeed, it is merely an expression of extreme need, and of earnest desire for help; while it leaves the form in which the help shall come, to the choice of him who helps us. The infant cries; but while it knows not the meaning of its own cry, its mother does; and, understanding the whole case, she hastens in her love to meet it. And the believer cries; but while he too comprehends little better than the infant does, the character of his wants, or the deep meaning of the glorious words he utters, his Father knows the whole—-knows his need, and what he really asks for; and in his love, he often gives rather according to the need than according to the formal meaning of a cry, which the crying one scarcely understands himself. For it often happens, that though we ask earnestly for something on which our hearts are set yet, at bottom, our real desires fix not so much on that thing, as on the results which we expect to follow from our having it. Now, God may see that these results can be attained more easily, and more safely, without the boon than with it, and so he gives us the desired results in some other way. In doing this, he has really granted our heart's true cry, though, in our childish ignorance of the meaning of our own cry, we may dream that he has refused it. For what are all the prayers of God's children, so far as they are helped of the Holy Spirit to pray, but this: "Father, glorify thy name?" And what are all his answers to our prayers but this: "I have both glorified it, and I will glorify it again?"
Seeing then that the efficacy of a cry does not, in any degree, depend on any excellency of the crying one, but wholly on the loving-kindness of him who hears; let answered prayer always lead us to glory in the Lord, but never in ourselves. The mother's careful attention to the cry of her child is a proof of her own maternal love, but is no proof at all of the special goodness of the child. Let us give, then, no heed to Satan when he strives to puff us up through the great mercy of answered prayer. He succeeded in doing so with good King Hezekiah (2 Chron. xxxii 24, 25), and he will do his best to persuade us to set a high value on our own prayers. Value! Why, if there be anything that is more than another, a matter of mere grace, it is prayer, and the mercy bestowed on it. The very desire to get is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The words in which it prays are his suggestions; the plea it urges, the mercy it appeals to—-everything, from the first wish to the final answer, it owes to God. What, then, is ours? Nothing certainly to glory in, but much to be ashamed of; that we have so often stifled the divine promptings, and that with so many helps and encouragements to pray, we have nevertheless contrived to get so little.
Much of God's present dealing with us is designed to train us to cry. Possibly many of our straits and difficulties have scarcely any other end to serve, than to cast us upon God, and keep us crying. In this way we are taught how very weak we are, and how very gracious he is; we are trained to lean on him, and to rejoice in him, and to walk with him; and, as all this is perfectly essential to our spiritual life, our heavenly Father puts us into circumstances where our necessities do not permit us to be long out of his presence. Therefore, my afflicted brother, whose incessant troubles, crowding one on the heels of another, allow thee no rest, rather be encourag-ed than downcast on account of them, for God is dealing with thee in a way of special mercy. He wishes thee to rest in his bosom; and to constrain thee to this, he is spoiling thy rest everywhere else. While others visit him with more or less frequency, he will have thee to take up thine abode in the secret place of the Most High; and so long as thou dwellest there, as in a city of refuge, the prowling crowds of earthly troubles shall not come nigh thee to harm thee. Philip Melanchthon had not the physical constitution that is connected with animal courage, and, as a consequence, was continually harassed with needless terrors. When reproved for this, and exhorted to cast aside his groundless timidity, he replied, "No, I cannot do without it, for it is my best help to prayer. If I were at ease, I am afraid that I would pray but little; but my fears and terrors torment me, except when, in God's presence, I am casting them all by faith upon him."
In all ages God's servants have been crying souls, and the strongest servants have been known by the strength of their cries. The Model Servant, in the days of his flesh, cried with strong crying and tears (Heb. v. 7). Jacob cried, and Moses. Samuel and David were both eminent for crying. Hezekiah cried, and wept sore. Ezra was a crying man, and so was Daniel. Peter, too, and Paul, were trained to cry. Who can tell how much we owe, at this hour, to the midnight crying of the old Scotch Reformer, when his burdened soul could only vent itself in brief, spasmodic groanings, "O God, give me Scotland, or I die?" And who among us has not hung with awe over the recorded wrestling of Luther at Worms? a prayer—-like those of Moses in Exodus xxxii. 32, and Paul in Romans ix. 3—-not to be understood save by those who have, in some degree, been plunged into such depths, and, out of these depths, have cried unto God. "O God! O God! . . . O God! do thou help me against all the wisdom of the world! Do this; thou shouldest do this . . . Thou alone . . . for this is not my work, but thine. I have nothing to do here—-nothing to contend for with these great ones of the world. . . .But the cause is thine. O Lord, help me! . . . O God! my God! hearest thou me not? . . . My God, art thou dead? No! thou canst not die. Thou hidest thyself only. . . . Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it well. Act then, O God. . . . Stand at my side, for the sake of thy well-beloved, Jesus Christ." My brother, God has given to you and to me our life-work, as well as to Luther—-a work that should be as weighty to us as his was to him. Has our fear of failure in it ever sent us to our knees, to groan, and weep, and cry, after a fashion akin to this ?
And when is it that we are to cry to God? Nay, rather, when is it that we are to refrain? We are to cry, and to faint not in our crying (Luke xvii. 1). God's elect are characterized by this, that they "cry unto Him day and night." Even the promises of God, graciously given to comfort us, are not meant to suppress, but to excite our further crying. On the other hand, there can be no case beyond hope of help from crying. If ever a man would have been warranted to despair of God's help through prayer, surely it was Jonah in the whale's belly. Seized in the very act of committing most heinous sin—-cast away into circumstances of extremity, in God's manifest anger—-might well have felt as if he were beyond the reach of mercy. But, no; Jonah had the heart to cry, and God had the heart to hear his cry. Oh, thou afflicted, Jonah-like soul, overwhelmed with the double load of conscious sin, and of sharp chastisement on account of it, not knowing whither to turn; turn to God. He is expecting thee to come; He is waiting to hear thine outcry. Nay, do not feel, in thy despondency, as if the distance to heaven were impassable by backslidden feet like thine, for he himself passes over the entire distance: "He looketh down from the height of his sanctuary, to hear thy groaning" (Ps. cii. 19, 20). In truth, we are never, even at our worst, beyond the help of God; nor are we ever, even at our best, above the urgent need of his grace; so that, in one important sense, our best and our worst are much alike to God, and, were our faith not so feeble, they would be more nearly alike to us.
Let us never speak or think of hindrances to prayer. There are no real hindrances, except our own unbelieving hearts. The very circumstances which the slothful soul makes into hindrances, the lively soul uses as helps. If a robber were trying to stifle the outcry of his victim, the very attempt would excite to the utmost vehemence of crying. Let Satan's opposition to our praying have the same effect with us; let it deepen our sense of danger, and provoke to a more importunate cry. Thus did the rebuke of the crowd affect blind Bartimeus, when they bid him hold his peace; but he only cried the more a great deal. When it was suggested to Luther in prayer that God was far away in heaven, and did not hear his words, "Very well," said he, "I will only need to cry the louder."
Satan is ever very busy in regard to the prayers of believers. As the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, so the enemy expends his strength in hindering our prayers, seeking either to keep us from crying, or, if he fail in this, to spoil our cry. With unwearied activity, he assails us through our numberless points of contact with earthly things, and tries to get us sucked into a perfect whirlpool of cares about lawful matters, so that the distracted heart shall not have leisure for quiet prayer. On no side, perhaps, does he so successfully attack believers as on the side of worldly cares; craftily persuading us to burden our hearts with them, under the name of duties, till, like Martha, ever cumbered, and careful, and troubled, we have neither heart nor time for Mary-like sitting at the feet of Jesus. Let us get rid of all our cares, by casting them on him who truly careth for the least of them; and, as for daily duties, let us look on them only as the service which he has appointed us, and let us make out of them constant errands to his throne of grace. Even then, Satan will follow us, and often disturb us with hosts of idle thoughts; and this sometimes with such a vehemence, that only they that have had experience of it can understand the sorrow. On the other hand, if we have had any little measure of liveliness in prayer, he will try to spoil the whole by insinuations that tend to pride, as if we were less dependent, or less unworthy beggars, because our begging had been sincere, or, in some little measure, successful. Nay, more; he will even contrive to thrust his tongue into our very prayers, and set us on asking for ourselves the materials for our own ruin. But God will guard us against Satan's wishes, even though we be foolishly persuaded to endorse them. We need, therefore, to trust him with their supervision, as we trust him with their answers; for oft-times he might say to us, "Ye know not what ye ask."
In a world like this it is quite unsafe to go forward, for a single hour, without having grace in such activity as shall vent itself in constant crying. Medical men tell us that the feeble habit of body, indicated by the soft, languid pulse, is peculiarly subject to the evil influence of infectious disease. Whether the case be so or not in bodily disease, it is so in spiritual. The listless feebleness of spirit, indicated by the fact, that it does not, cannot raise its earnest cry, lays it open to all the contagions of evil that constantly surround us. Ah! we have need to keep ourselves at the crying pitch of faith; for none, but souls with such a healthy tone, is safe to "walk the hospitals" amid the frightful influences that everywhere abound.
Let us, then, cherish unbounded faith in prayer that is, faith in God. If we have little faith in its efficacy, we will be little engaged in it; we shall ask but little, and get but little. Let no philosophizings of vain man shake in the least, our most assured confidence in the living God, who bids us call him, "Thou that hearest prayer." Laws of nature! Yes; but there are spiritual laws as well as material; and one of them is this: "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me." If men appeal to their statistics and registers of facts, let our trusting hearts fall back on God's exceeding great and precious promises, and on his authentic register of facts. When they speculate and argue, let us seek with greater simplicity to believe. For our God is the living God, who "rideth upon the heaven in our help," and who, if he do not work a miracle to deliver us, will no less deliver as by his providence without the miracle. Blessed is he who is no orphan, though he dwells in an orphan world, but who has the God that made the heaven and earth for his covenant Father.
Oh, that every one of us had a higher estimate of the privilege and blessedness of prayer! How many, like the dying Sutcliffe, say at the end of life, "I wish I had prayed more." Let us try to make the same discovery while it may be practically of use to us; and, realizing how much our service is one of prayer, let us reserve for it our best strength. How sadly do many of us fritter away energies which, if expended in this direction, would produce most blessed fruits—-in God's name glorified, our fellows benefited, and ourselves enriched. In needless controversies, for instance, how much heat of zeal is wasted, when the profitless wrestling with men might be happily exchanged for profitable wrestling with God! And when we do cry, how often is it for some poor gourd, which is not worth the cost of a single wish! God has set apart for us far better gifts than these; yea, he lifts his very choicest mercies in his hands, ready to bestow them on us, so soon as we truly set our hearts on having them. Alas! our desires are too often strong for things in regard to which they ought to be dead and buried; while they are "ready to die" where they ought to be most vehement and all-controlling.
The coming song of praise, even the everlasting song, depends upon, and shall be proportioned to, the present cry. They are inseparably connected, as the blossom and the ripened fruit. The joyous praises there can be reached only through the weeping prayer here. "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." To refuse, then, the weeping and the crying now, is simply to lose the resulting rapture. If, when Christ is bidding us, we pour into the water-pots little of the water of our tears, we shall draw correspondingly little of the wine of gladness; for the water is the measure of the coming wine, neither more nor less. Hannah's triumphant song in 1st Samuel, chapter 2, was the outcome of her most sorrowful cry in chapter 1, when her grief made Eli suspect her of drunkenness. Had she not then wept, she would not now have had such a song to sing. Oh, what a loss are tearless and lifeless prayers, robbing us of the sure fruits of rapturous praises! Let us stir ourselves up to cry; and, if we must needs begin so low, let us begin with a loud outcry for help to cry, and God shall soon "turn for us our mourning into dancing; he shall put off our sackcloth, and gird us with gladness." Old Frazer of Brea bears witness that it is never vain to call on God. He says: "Ever since I remember, proportionable to my diligence in seeking was my finding; nor made I any extraordinary mint to seek God, but I found something extraordinary."
And, to encourage our faith in crying, let us, above all, keep before our hearts the preciousness of the Name which we urge as our only plea. Our space now permits no more than a reference to this point; but it is the Alpha and the Omega of the whole matter. Our cry, because of the Name which it pleads, comes up with wel- come before God, "even into his ears." It is a joy for Him to hear it. "We have an Advocate with the Father;" and, for advocate, One who, though he was the Father's fellow, laid down his all, and even his life also, at his Father's bidding, in order to provide a righteous way for the ascent of our cry to God, and the descent of all his grace to us. Methinks that such an Advocate, and such a plea, would be sure to prevail with a neutral, or even with the most reluctant; how, then, can they possibly fail with a willing Father, who has a Father's heart and a Father's joy in giving to his children!
And if the reader be one who never cries to God—-at least with the heart—-let us remind him that his sins are crying loud enough, if he himself be silent. Like Abel's blood, like Sodom's guilt, his sins are lifting up their cry for vengeance on him, and are filling the ear of One who only delayeth for a little while to answer their cry. And if thou continue impenitent, the very Mercy, which now beseecheth for thee a brief respite, shall join her cry to the cry of thy sins, and injured, insulted Law and Mercy shall fill heaven and earth with their united outcry against thee. Ah! it is time for thee to begin thy cry; let the angels have it to say of thee, within the hour, "Behold he prayeth! "
And there is another voice loudly crying beside thee. Jesus lifteth up his earnest call of warning and of mercy. "Doth not Wisdom cry ?" and her word is, "Unto you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men." With all the urgency that the word implies, he crieth, crieth unto thee. Oh, give instant heed to him, lest it should come to pass, that, as he cried, and you would not hear, so you too shall cry, and he will not hear. Answer his cry with thine, and thou shalt soon have to say, with a joy hitherto unknown, "O Lord my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me."