Volunteers for the Hill-Top.
by John Dickie
WHEN Israel, newly delivered from Egypt, had scarcely more than entered on the perils of the wilderness, the Amalekites, seizing the favourable opportunity, fiercely assailed them. To defend the Lord's host in this emergency, two steps were taken, doubtless by divine command. A sufficient number of able-bodied men, with such weapons as they might secure, were led forth by Joshua, to fight with Amalek in the wady and along the hill-side—opposing sword to sword and spear to spear. In addition to this step, Moses, taking nothing but the mystic rod of God in his hand, climbed the hill, accompanied only by Aaron and Hur, and there, by his persevering intercession, did more towards the securing of the final victory than Joshua with his fighting men was doing in the valleys around.
Now all this, historically true, is also an allegory (Gal. iv. 24). God's new-covenant Israel, brought out of Egypt, and journeying towards Canaan, is still in the wilderness, and is sorely pressed by fierce, relentless enemies. She must fight with Amalek; and blessed is every one who is manfully enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Under the leadership of the true Joshua, the Lord's host shall be more than conquerors. But we must not forget that in connection with Christ's great army, there is a second band, smaller than the fighting host—much smaller; so very much smaller, indeed, and withdrawn so completely from observation, that their very existence is unsuspected by Amalek—nay, their influence is estimated at scarcely more than nil, by the majority of their own fighting men. And yet it is on the secret wrestlings of this small—this very small—remnant of kneeling, weeping men and women, whom no eye notices but the eye of God alone, that the tremendous alternative of victory or of defeat is suspended; and it is just as their fervour waxes or wanes, that conquest draws towards the aide of Israel or towards that of Amalek. For though the final victory be secure—since the battle is not Israel's, but God's (2 Chron. xx. 16) —yet He will have His people know that it is to His grace, and not to their own prowess, that success is due.
With joyful thanksgiving, we acknowledge that never before have there been more fighting men in the valley, doing valiant battle with Amalek, than we have now; and that, on the whole, never were the soldiers of the Christian army more courageous or better equipped. We wish, however, to solicit attention to the fact that there is another section of the Christian host—a section whose efficiency should be rated even above that of the fighting men. True, this company is a small one—very small indeed, is placed entirely out of sight; and, even if it could be shown, its outward appearance, so insignificant, would on many a face, provoke a scornful smile. As an instrument of warfare, this company looks nearly as worthless as an old man kneeling on a hill-top with a staff in his hand. Judged according to the world's standard, no group of human beings would be considered less able to turn the battle to the gate. But the judgment of the world is once more wrong. That little group is beside the true Moses, and they have the rod of God in their hands. They hold the key of the entire position. It is only as they have power and prevail with God, that their comrades, who wield sword and spear, acquire power and prevail over man. For in this, as in every other department of spiritual effort, God has chosen the foolish things and the base things of the world— yea, the world's utter non-entities—to bring to naught the world's mightiest. And, while we heartily rejoice over every fresh recruit who is induced to strike in manfully beside Joshua and his fighting men, we wish to remind those who are interested in the fact, that recruits are equally needed for the less exciting, the less attractive, but the still more holy, more blessed, more effective ministry of the hill-top. Who among us will volunteer to go? Who?
For this service is especially a voluntary one, and every member of this praying company is preeminently a volunteer. Indeed, every department of Christian service is purely voluntary. Christ has not a conscript in all His host. He keeps no press-gang; and He never will. He that would serve, must serve from love. Whenever it is asked, in the words of the prophet, "Whom shall we send?" it is always added, "Who will go?" (Isa. vi. 8). The divine commission is always co-ordinate with the human volition. No man is sent but one who has responded to the query—"Here am I; send me.” It is true, indeed, that when a man freely wills to go, he does so because the Lord has touched his heart; but still, the man no less freely wills that God is working in him both to will and to do (Phil. ii. 12, 13). He loves the work, for he loves the Master; and even though he might go out free, he prefers to have his ear nailed to his Master's door-post. The apostles were divinely appointed to their special work, but they no less freely gave themselves up to do it (Acts vi. 4).
We do not think that the place and power of prayer, in its general bearing as an element in Christian living, is adequately recognized. Scripture makes far more of it than most of us do; and we fall a great way behind the early saints in the value which practically we assign to it. Perhaps it would not be too much to affirm that God gives no blessing at all to the believer, or to the Church, except in answer to prayer; and so, as Matthew Henry says, "When He designs mercy, He stirs up prayer for it." Even to Christ, the Father’s word is, "ASK OF ME, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance" (Ps. ii. 8); or, as Gesenius renders it, "Ask of me, in order that I may give." But while, on the one hand, we may stir up our languid hearts by the thought that if we wish for any blessing, we must pray for it, we may encourage ourselves by the equally confident assurance that there is no true prayer without its resulting blessing. With Henry Martyn, then, let us each one say: "If there be anything I do, if there be anything I leave undone, let me be perfect in prayer."
However, it is not of prayer in general that we wish to speak at this time, but of prayer as a ministry—that is, of intercessory prayer. And of all the functions assignable to the sphere of prayer, perhaps this of intercession is the least worthily regarded. The gentle censure implied in the complaint of the late Dr. John Duncan is too well grounded: "When I make known my case to my friends, they are more inclined to preach to me, than to pray for me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? We shall not heal ourselves by merely applying the labels in the apothecary's shop; and that is the most we can do for one another. The balm in Gilead must be applied by the Physician there." We have too much confidence in our own cumbrous efforts, and we do not feel our dependence, as we should, on the direct, almighty, and supernatural power of God. Hence, we have not, because we ask not.
In fact, when we look at Christian service in its true light, we are brought to feel, as Leighton puts it, "that frequent and hearty prayer is the bettor half of a Christian's whole work." And ofttimes when the Christian labourer, sorely oppressed with a sense of the greatness of his task, and of his own incompetency, is tempted almost to give up in despair, he takes fresh courage from the thought which cheered David Brainerd, "Blessed be God, that I may pray!"
One is struck when he notices the very prominent place which intercessory prayer was once held in Christian service. "I exhort therefore," says the apostle, "that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" (1 Tim. ii. 1). And this, "first of all," as the point to be chiefly attended to. In Acts vi. 4, where the apostles say, "We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word," prayer is spoken of first, as if it were allowed the precedence. Paul's own practice, both reproving and instructing us, shows us the key on which we should seek to pitch our entire lives. In almost every one of his epistles, he shows the value which he attaches to mutual intercession in two ways. First, he intimates the fact of his own earnest and constant remembrance in prayer of the party to whom he writes. And, secondly, he almost invariably begs of them their prayers in return. And his references to his own prayers are very impressive. Let us glance at a sample of them. To the saints at Rome, he writes: "For God is my witness, that without ceasing, I make mention of you always in my prayers." To those at Philippi he says: "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making request with joy.” On behalf of the Thessalonians, he speaks of himself as "night and day praying exceedingly;" and again he says, "We pray always for you." To Timothy he writes: "That without ceasing, I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day." One wonders how it could be possible for a man, whose life was doubly filled with such abundant labours, to find time for such persistent praying, until we remember that the familiar routine of the handicraft by which, on principle, the devoted apostle earned his living, would not seriously interfere with his mental exercises; and so, while his hands were busy with the tools of his calling, his spirit might be as actively occupied within the veil, in priestly intercessions for beloved ones everywhere.
And this same gracious spirit continued, in a modified degree, in the Church for a time. Speaking of the primitive saints, Neander says that "prayer was considered the soul of the whole Christian life. Even they who otherwise, from their bent of mind and habits of thinking, differed widely on many important points, were agreed on this." And while prayer in general was thus highly esteemed, intercession was not forgotten. The same historian, a few pages farther on, continues: "It was in prayer that the brotherly communion, the mutual sympathy of the members of the One Body, was especially to be shown; each was to pray in the spirit of all, and to commend the interests of all the brethren, which he must regard as his own, before the great Head of the Church, and through Him, before Eternal Love." And when we learn that this practice of mutual intercession was so prevalent among the primitive saints, we cease to wonder that it became a proverb in regard to them, "Behold these Christians, how they love one another." For there is no love-philter, no nurse of holy affection, like hearty prayer; and if we could only be induced to imitate their mutual intercessions, we should soon enjoy a restoration of the primitive love.
It is said of Luther, that, with all his intense activity in public labours, he devoted to prayer, daily, three of his best hours. Indeed, when speaking of the Reformation in France, D'Aubigne does not scruple to affirm, that "prayer was the power by which the gospel spread through the kingdom, and the great instrument by which the conquests of the Reformation were gained."
Wherever a heart is found under the influence of true faith and love—faith in God and love towards men—intercession will be regarded, not so much in the light of a duty, as a sheer necessity. The burdened heart—and every loving heart is, more or less, a burdened one—will be constrained to cast its otherwise unbearable burden on the Lord, whom faith recognizes as alone able and willing to help. And as the faith and love are lively, so will the desires become vehement, till they reach the degree of groanings which cannot be uttered. If then, we feel warranted to say, as is often said, that a prayerless man is shown by his prayerlessness to be an irreligious man, may we not go on to add, that the man who never or who rarely prays for others, ought to learn from this fact that his spirit is dangerously deficient in faith and love? If a man cannot be recognized as in possession of the filial spirit—the spirit of adoption—who never seeks with loving delight the Father's presence, how can he be regarded as being under the influence of the fraternal spirit, who is so heedless of the necessities, and the griefs, and the temptations of his brethren, that he is not led to pray for them?
No personal need will warrant us to overlook the needs of others, or to neglect them in our loving ministry of intercession. If there be any case in which the believer may warrantably forget these, surely it is when his own soul is clouded with gloomy consciousness of guilt, and he has lost for the time much, or most, or almost all of the spirit of adoption. Yet, even then, he should do as David did in a similar condition, when, after filling the 51st Psalm with the sad sounds of his penitential wailings, he closes it with an intercessory cry—"Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem."
The pattern prayer—the Lord's Prayer—teaches us to ask equally for others everything that we ask for ourselves. We say in it, not "My Father, forgive me my sins;" but we say, "Our Father, forgive us our trespasses." While we joyously remember that we have a gracious Father in heaven, we must equally remember that we have needy brethren beside us upon earth. Nay, the earlier petitions of that model prayer are all intercessory; indicating that it behooves us to set our desires first of all on what concerns the divine glory, before we think of our own personal necessities, however urgent.
And did space permit, we might illustrate this principle from the entire course of our blessed Redeemer's life. These illustrations, however, are so numerous, that we can merely refer to them. As Bishop Hacket says (quoted in Coleridge's "Aids to Reflection"), "When every man is his own end, all things will come to a bad end. Blessed were those days when every man thought himself rich and fortunate by the good success of the public wealth and glory. We want public souls, we want them. I speak it with compassion; there is no sin and abuse in the world that affects my thoughts so much. All seek their own."
And if, as we have said, no personal sorrow will justify our neglect of intercession, as little will personal joy. Nay, if our joy be truly joy in the Holy Ghost, the very greatness of the joy will constrain us to pray for others. In the closing verses of Romans viii., we have one of the most jubilant utterances that holy rapture ever poured forth on earth. The happy speaker might then have said of himself, what he said on another occasion—“Whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell." And yet, note what follows. The Epistle, as it was dictated to Tertius the amanuensis, had no artificial divisions into chapters and verses to disturb the connection of the thoughts; and so, without any interval, the 9th chapter continues the utterances of the 8th. Ere then, the ink which had written the glowing rhapsody of the 8th chapter was dry, the pen goes on without a pause to add—"I say the truth in Christ, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." What a cry is this last!—a piercing cry as of a breaking heart; and this cry following directly a hosanna burst of gladness worthy of being uttered amid the harpers on the sea of glass. How is it possible for any human spirit, within the brief compass of a single minute, to make such a sudden plunge from the highest heights of attainable blessedness to a depth of anguish so very deep as this? Nay, my reader, if you have any measure of Paul's spirit, you have yourself made similar transitions—so far, at least, as to make his experience easily intelligible to you. Let a Christian mother, for instance, in those favoured moments when she is admitted within the veil, recall, amid her own raptures, the dreadful condition of her Christless beloved ones; and, in a moment, her sorrow on their account will be just as keen as her joy had been lively on her own. She will not need to be bidden to pray for them, but will spontaneously do as the apostle did in reference to the objects of his concern:
"Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved" (Rom. x. 1).
Intercession, like all other kinds of prayer, must be earnest. We read that when the hands of Moses grew heavy, victory at once forsook Israel. And our intercessions will not be earnest, except in so far as true spiritual love loads us with the burden of our brethren's necessities, and a true faith in God fills us with unbounded confidence in His readiness to hear and His ability to help. We all remember the secret cry which the old Scotch Reformer was overheard to utter—"O God, give me Scotland, or I die!" And who can tell how deeply we are indebted to those midnight groanings, even to this hour?
And intercession must be persevering as well as earnest; for wherever there is faith, it is sure to be tried, and the faith that intercedes is likely to be severely tested. What an instructive example we have in the Syrophoenician mother! How completely her love identified her, as love invariably does, with the object of her intercession! "Have mercy on me"—not, "on my daughter," but, "ON ME." And she would take no rebuff. She can believe in the tenderness of Christ's heart, though she sees nothing on His face but a repelling frown. She can retain a dim sort of faith in His power to help her, even when she hears Him deny that His commission warrants Him to extend help to such as she is. Nay, she can endure to have Him cast in her teeth, the scornful epithet of Jewish bigotry, and speak of her and her people as very dogs. She can even turn on Him, His word of apparent contempt, urging it as a plea for succour: "Truth, Lord; I am indeed a dog; and therefore I may expect to receive a share of the waste fragments which are universally recognized as the perquisite of the dogs. "O woman, great indeed was thy faith!” May we, with a thousandfold clearer light, attain to half her persevering earnestness of faith!
And the soul that is in this way constrained by the double forces of faith and love will never be without errands to the throne of grace. We are to pray and to supplicate, to intercede and to give thanks, "for all men." We are to plead for kings and for subjects, for magistrates and for citizens, for the Church at large and for every known member in particular—"for all saints." The work of intercession that stands waiting to be done is actually unlimited. Ministers are to pray for their people, and people for their ministers; the parent for his children, and the child for his parents; friend for friend, and neighbour for neighbour. Is any one kind to us? Our chief return is prayer in his behalf. Is any cruel? For him we must be specially careful to pray. We pray for the sick and for the healthy, for the rich and for the poor, for the young and for the old. Each has his peculiar dangers and peculiar temptations; and therefore, we pray for all. It is said of Scott the commentator, that he was more scrupulously conscientious in regard to this duty of intercession than in regard to any other.
Among all those parties who have claims upon our prayers, let us be particularly careful to forget neither our benefactors nor our enemies. And we must be more heedful to remember our benefactors in those cases in which we are unable to return their kindness in kind. We then become their debtors; and we actually defraud them if we fail to acknowledge before God their kindnesses towards us and beseech Him earnestly to return the goodness done us to the doer's own bosom. So did Paul feel and act. And we must be equally observant not to omit prayer for our enemies. The more wantonly they wrong us, the greater is the need that we should pray for them. There is a twofold need, in fact—one on their side, and another upon ours. There is no prophylactic which can protect the soul from the venomous, the fatal feelings of resentment, like hearty prayer; but as an antidote, it is absolutely infallible.
As indicating to us the spirit in which we ought to watch for opportunities of exercising this ministry, we may refer to the conduct of the Apostle Paul, when he suffered shipwreck. He seems, on foreseeing the coming catastrophe, to have betaken himself at once to intercessory prayer on behalf of his fellow-voyagers; and, as a result, the lives of all on board—two hundred and seventy-six souls were "given" to him; that is, they were spared in answer to his prayers, as we infer from the use of the word "given." Let us seek to live in this spirit, and we shall be channels of blessing to all around us.
And while we would seek to honour this divine ordinance of intercession by our own joyous devotedness to it, let us equally honour it by attaching a high value to the prayers of God's children in our behalf. Let us regard intercession as indubitably a means of procuring divine help—as an instituted ordinance which God delights to honour, by making it a channel whereby He distributes His favours among His people. Let us not be slow, then, to solicit the prayers of the saints, as the apostles did; and let us ascribe efficacy to such prayers. Oh, it is a much greater matter than many think, to receive such tokens of spiritual love from the Lord's children. Such love comes to us in an indirect way, from the heart of Christ Himself. He not only loves us in His own person, but, as if that were not enough to satisfy His affectionate longings, He stirs up the hearts of His beloved little ones to yearn and melt towards us in holy tenderness. "I would rather," says Edward Irving, "have the gift of a brother’s faithful prayers than of his plentiful substance. And I feel that when I have given to a brother my faithful prayers, I have given him my best and greatest gift." And those who were familiar with the late Dr. John Duncan, remember well how frequently that humble-minded man of God begged the intercessions of his friends.
In this way, the true communion of saints is carried on. And one cannot but adore the Divine wisdom which is displayed in thus constituting each one of us the affectionate keeper of his brother, and the efficient helper of that brother's joy. We cannot here open up the subject, but shall merely refer to one gracious result that flows from this arrangement. When this duty, this privilege rather, of intercession is faithfully observed, it secures to all concerned, the maximum of blessing that is derivable through prayer. For true prayer works for blessing in a double way; it benefits the gracious man who prays, for it leads him into Divine communion, and strengthens, by exercise, his faith and love; and it benefits the person for whom he prays, inasmuch as it actually procures for him Divine blessings. Now, when every disciple is set to intercede for every other, then each one gets this twofold blessing—the blessing, namely, of the intercessor, as well as that of the person interceded for.
And what an extraordinary honour God puts upon us, in permitting and in qualifying us to exercise such a ministry! What a privilege, to enjoy liberty of access into His presence, to obtain needed help for ourselves; but how much greater the favour when, after assuring us of an abundant supply for every personal need, God invites us to ask, and to obtain, for our neighbours, our friends, our brother disciples! It is because thou art an Abraham, another "friend of God", that He not only enriches thyself, but hears thy intercessions for Abimelech. And what a wonderful appellation is that whereby the Holy Spirit designates such interceding ones: "Ye that are THE LORD'S REMEMBRANCERS" (Isa. Ixii. 6, marg.). As Vinet somewhere says, "He that prays is nearer to Jesus than the apostles were."
And, frequently at least, there is likely to be another joy in reserve for the earnestly interceding soul. A Christian, as we shall suppose, wrestles and groans, as if in very birth-pangs, for the soul of some dearly beloved one. What a joy to the praying man when God not only does for the dear one all that He has been asked to do, but when, in the doing of it, He takes up and uses as His selected instrument, the wrestling intercessor! And very frequently does He choose to act in this way. In the closing verses of Matthew ix. we see our Lord setting His disciples on intercessory supplications to the Lord of the harvest, that He might send out more labourers into His whitening harvest-field. And the next thing we read of—in the beginning of chap. x.—is the appointment of the intercessors themselves to do the very work about which they had been set to intercede.
Before closing our meditation, we desire to press this subject with special urgency on a certain class of Christians. There are not a few who have been burdened with weakly and diseased bodies, and who have been greatly benefited in spirit by this protracted discipline. So far as the higher and rarer qualifications are concerned, they have become more or less fitted for a useful ministry to the saints. But the same affliction which has helped to educate them spiritually, has unfitted them physically for the ordinary methods of serving. And sometimes such gracious souls are more distressed at what they deem the emptiness and uselessness of their lives than they are by any amount of personal suffering which they endure. Could some of these gracious mourners not find a happy outgate from their heaviest affliction in this direction? Though God evidently does not mean them to serve His gospel by fighting beside Joshua in the marshalled ranks, what if He does mean them, and has meant them all along, for eminent service, for most useful and influential service, beside Moses on the hill-top? And will they permit me to say it, that of the two classes of service, the latter is the more important? I could quite understand the feelings of the man who should account it a promotion to be transferred from a prominent leadership in the fighting brigade, to solitary wrestlings on the hill-top. But in your circumstances, my afflicted brother, there is no need of transfer. You are shut out from the one service, and only the other remains to you. Will you decline to follow God's leading? Will you refuse to hear His double call to you to undertake the most honourable function which any creature can discharge—that of being one of the Lord's remembrancers? Will you incur the censure, "Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty?”
And let no one misconceive this matter of intercession, as if it were a work too slight to be dignified with the name of a service. To discharge it worthily will task the best energies of the strongest. We read of Epaphras (Col. iv. 12) that he laboured fervently in prayers, without intermission, for the saints of Colosse. He not only uttered desires, but these were so fervent that he agonized on behalf of his people. The original word here rendered "laboured" is a very strong one. It is the word "agony," applied to our Lord's sore exercise in Gethsemane. It is the same word used in Luke xiii. 24, "Agonize to enter in at the strait gate.” What instancy in prayer (Rom. xii. 12) is indicated by the use of this word!
Of all certainties, there is none of which we may feel more assurance than that prayer has power with God. If we give up faith in this, we may give up faith in all. "This is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him." Now, what can be more in accordance with the Divine will than the blessing of His children, the success of His servants, the hallowing of His name? Since it is so, how delightful to realize that the weakest among us may aid the cause of Christ in every quarter of the globe. You, the helpless invalid, cannot go to China to labour there; but you may go into the Holy of Holies to intercede for labourers in China. In this way, you may so efficiently help them that they shall receive actual benefit through your prayers. And you may also help labourers in India, and in Africa, and in twenty places besides—all in a single day. You may distribute your beneficial influences over the whole earth, from the icy North to the burning Tropics. Nay, lands and places shut out from missions are open to your prayers. It has been said of the Jesuits that they may be compared to a sword, with the hilt of it at Rome and the point everywhere; and the same simile may, without extravagance, be applied to a believing intercessor's prayers. The spiritual sword of such a faithful one may have its hilt in the bed-chamber of some unnoticed invalid, while its keen edge can cut at a thousand points, and pierce the King's enemies in every country under heaven.
And what a happy service this would be, though mere enjoyment should be the last consideration. To have it for one's special work; to dwell in the secret place of the Most High, and to transact the most weighty business with the King of Grace, on His throne of grace, and about His work of grace; beholding His glory as far as men in flesh can do so. And besides this, to have it for one’s divinely appointed work, to carry out a ministry of love—of love the purest in kind, and the most fervent in degree! Why, to love is to be happy; and to be in God's presence as His beloved child is to be happy; but both to exercise love for man and to enjoy communion with God is surely to be doubly blessed.
We should gladly have dwelt a little on the qualifications needed to discharge this ministry, but space forbids. Let a single brief suggestion suffice. To carry on this service, there is no need of great riches, no need of physical strength, no need of unusual gifts of intellect or fluency of speech; no need of immense learning or of extensive influence among men; there is need only of simple faith and fervent love; such faith and love as lead their possessor to "addict" himself (1 Cor. xvi. 15) to this service with the most whole-hearted and self-denying consecration.
And with equal brevity must we glance at two or three of the peculiar inducements to undertake this ministry. The faithful servant shall, by his fidelity in this sphere, attain the maximum of actual usefulness and of spiritual enjoyment. He shall be led into the closest fellowship with Christ that is to be had on earth; and, as a result, his own growth in every grace shall be unusually rapid. He shall have the joy of obeying Christ's commands and shall be held a partner in hundreds of blessed ministries. And though, for the present, his actual share in these may be very obscure, even to himself, yet all shall be amply recognized in that day when no work and labour of love is forgotten. Let me close with the words of a fervent young disciple, gone to her rest, whose course was as rapid as it was brief: "I want you to do a great work for the Lord in prayer. It is wonderful what great and glorious things are done by a praying one. Ah, dear sister, the day of Christ will let all the closet labourers be known."
Who among us is ready to accept the call to be a "closet-labourer"?
By the author of: "The Golden Mouth: A Story of Old Constantinople."
“The Family Treasury” 1878