Why should we pray, and when should we pray? Do we have a mystical god who gives magic luck powder to those who ask with the right formula, or do we have a God who rules the heavens and the earth and from whom, and through whom and to whom are all things? In times of relative peace these questions seem easy and their answers obvious, yet in times of war and greater strife when what one might pray about relates to life and death in a very direct way, the answers that our practices reveal change from those we give in times of rest.
How easy it is for a man in a time of peace and rest to say we trust our lives to God our sole hope and defender; yet, how hard it is for him to uphold such a prayer when the enemy is in steady assault and the lives of his community are in very real danger!
It is apparent that there cannot be two answers between which we alternate dependent upon circumstance, for there are not two gods but one God, world without end. Either we falsely trust in God during times of peace, or we wrongly limit God in times of strife. This article, through the text of the forty-forth psalm, seeks to discuss some of the arguments that surround this difficult issue and reflect upon how the position we give to prayer reflects the position we give to God himself.
1. We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us : what thou hast done in their time of old
2. How thou hast driven out the heathen with thy hand, and planted them in : how thou hast destroyed the nations and cast them out.
Can any man deny our knowledge of the great works that God has done for us? We do not rely on looking in awe on the majesty of the world, but have heard with our ears the deeds which his arm has done. This is not a mere conviction of heart, but knowledge imparted through the word of God which we hear unto this very day. We are not then in ignorance of God and trusting in him as a new revelation, for truly no generation has been without witness to him from that of Adam until the present day. Even from Cain and Abel who made sacrifices to the Lord, he was held in such remembrance that Lamech the father of Noah could assuredly prophesy “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief” (Genesis 5:29). And again, even from Noah until Abram, the Lord was remembered such that he needed no introduction or recapitulation of his deeds. Likewise most assuredly we too have heard with our ears what God has done for us in past times.
3. For they gat not the land in possession through their own sword : neither was it their own arm that helped them;
What is that great inheritance we have from the Lord? Is it not that us who as Gentiles were entirely cut off from the Lord are made as sons, being purified by the blood of Christ and made just before God through his atoning sacrifice? Even in defeat are we victorious, even in bondage are we free, and even in death are we in life. How then did we obtain such a great blessing and inheritance above all the kingdoms of the earth? Truly, in divergence to the Psalmist, it is through our own sword and the works of our own arm; for it is with our sword and the brutal force of our arm that the Christ, the very Son of God, was put to his death upon the cross. Our sole contribution to our own salvation has been to reject it, despising our Lord, scourging, humiliating, striking, piercing and crucifying God. What perversity indeed to believe that our salvation then comes about by means of our own might or merit! It should be abundantly clear that on the contrary our salvation is a work wrought by God and God alone, in spite of and in opposition to our every effort.
4. But thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance : because thou hadst a favour unto them.
How did Israel possess the promised land? Is it not through the work of God alone, a work of Love from God unto his chosen people? It is not because the people had a favor to God but that God had a favor to them; and this same favor is expressed in perfection in the words of Christ: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). By grace alone God has wrought for us, in us, and around us that work above all works, the very greatest gift for which we might possibly hope. Our salvation is beyond the might of nations or the majesty of kings, for that which was entirely impossible for mankind to obtain and yet was necessary for him to escape just punishment for his grievous sin has been purchased for him by the most costly blood of Jesus.
5. Thou art my King, O God : send help unto Jacob.
Who then is our king, to whom we might appeal for defense? Who then has demonstrated beyond all others both his loving care over us and his terrible power to save us? God is our King, and it is to our King that we must appeal for help in times of distress. Yet, our King has not neglected to provide us with an ambassador to hear our pleas and mediate between us and the Father. In his great mercy, has not God appointed unto us Jesus, even that same Jesus whom we killed upon the cross and whom God has raised from the dead, to be our advocate in heaven? Our mighty and merciful God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36), has invited us to bring before him our humble petitions; for he is our King. This then is prayer, to bring to our King our petition, secure in the knowledge of all that he has done for us – despite our rejection of him in every age, confident in his love for us – despite our hatred for his word and commands, and trusting in his mercy towards us – even so as to put his own Son to death for us.
6. Through thee will we overthrow our enemies : and in thy Name will we tread them under, that rise up against us.
How then are we to seek for ourselves rest from our enemies? Should we set out to subject them by our own might and our own means? Truly, to do so is to deny God. Surely our God who has saved our souls from the depths of hell through such a mighty work will defend us in a much smaller affair or worldly strife if it is proper that we be relieved. The Lord is our King, and no nation goes to war without the command of its king; indeed no nation declares war unless its King decrees it. We are not Kings but subjects, nor know we either the mind of God or his plan. If we trust in the Lord then we cannot doubt that he hears our petitions and responds to our complaints in the most loving, just and merciful way possible.
7. For I will not trust in my bow : it is not my sword that shall help me;
When we amass armies and ready ourselves for battle, forging weapons and training men to fight, have we not already rejected our God? We find it hard to believe that God can defend us unless we have provided him with resources sufficient to defend us, but did God not fell mighty Jericho with no more than a parade (Joshua 6)? Did not God reduce the army of Gideon from 32,000 men to just 300 to ensure that the victory was clearly from God and not from man (Judges 7:2), defeating the enemy with no more than trumpets (Judges 7:22)? Therefore it is clear that God has no need for our swords, our bow, our soldiers or our armies; for those whom God wishes to be defended he is always able to defend.
At this point perhaps some might object that we now live in a different age to that of Joshua and Gideon, or that they are of Israel and we of the nations. Truly, we are of a different age; for in our age we have what even David only dreamed of, for we have known the coming of the Messiah, we have been purchased by his blood, and it is to us that the Lord has revealed his plan for our salvation. Likewise, truly we are not the nation of Israel, for we are something greater. Although Israel was chosen to be the people of God, we are not only chosen as the people of God but are made as sons, being redeemed for the Lord in a manner far beyond the redemption of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt. Not only have our eyes seen the salvation of the Lord, but it is unto us that the salvation of the Lord has already been achieved.
8. But it is thou that savest us from our enemies : and puttest them to confusion that hate us.
If it is the Lord that saves us from our enemies, then most certainly we are saved from our enemies by the Lord. There is no call to over-think such a simple and powerful declaration of God our King and defender, the truth thereof is apparent to all but those who have hardened their hearts against his word. Do we therefore acknowledge the Kingship of God by trusting in his saving power, or do we persist in rejecting him as our King by commissioning another to defend us? If we trust in the Lord, then we must trust that he will hear our humble petitions and deal justly with us in answering thereof.
9. We make our boast of God all day long : and will praise thy Name for ever.
10. But now thou art far off, and puttest us to confusion : and goest not forth with our armies.
11. Thou makest us to turn our backs upon our enemies : so that they which hate us spoil our goods.
Is our defense then assured? Can we make a guarantee that if we pray to the Lord to defend us against an invading army, he will do so? Not at all. We, being human and selfish for worldly things, hasten to make a jump from knowing God as King to deciding that our King is under our command. That God hears our petitions and acts upon them is absolutely certain and guaranteed; we can be assured that “for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard” (Daniel 10:12). What is not promised nor even claimed is that God will agree with us on the course of action which is right in his sight. Isaiah rightly asks “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?” (Isaiah 40:13), and in the words of God himself writes that the ways and thoughts of God are not like those of man but are greatly higher (Isaiah 55:8-9).
In a human context, if a man appeals to his ruler, his ruler does not assist him in the way he has been asked without first considering whether that with which he wishes assistance is indeed right and profitable for the kingdom. Whether one side or both seek the ruler’s intervention, a just ruler forms an understanding of both sides and makes a decision for the common good. God is perfectly just and he knows all things on all sides, both past and future. We are protected therefore from the fear of our enemies, for we know that God who is just and righteous acts for us in all justice and righteousness; yet we cannot make that tempting leap to declaring us immune from assault by our enemies unless we can claim to know the mind of God.
12. Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep : and hast scattered us among the heathen.
What a testament this is to God, to attribute even the destruction of the people to his decision. It is truly an action of God not to defend just as much as it is an action of God to defend. Whilst we naturally frustrate ourselves trying to understand why being overrun by enemies is right in the sight of the Lord, yet we cannot doubt that it is the decision of the Lord that it proceed in such a way. To hold otherwise is to declare either that the Lord does not hear prayer, or that the living and loving God is powerless.
13. Thou sellest thy people for nought : and takest no money for them.
14. Thou makest us to be rebuked of our neighbours : to be laughed to scorn, and had in derision of them that are round about us.
15. Thou makest us to be a by-word among the heathen : and that the people shake their heads at us.
What then has God promised to us? Truly, he has not promised peace but persecution; he has not promised rest from our enemies, but enemies. Yet, despite the grimness of such promises, there is great comfort for we are assured that we are not deserted by God at such a time but that all these things shall come to pass. It is enough for us to cling to the word of our Lord, who beseeches us to love our enemies, blessing them that curse us, doing good to them that hate us, and praying for those who despitefully use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:44). This is obedience, not only to obey when obedience seems convenient, reasonable and comforting, but to obey in all things and against all trials and temptations. Our Lord died on the Cross, and yet God raised him to sit at his right hand; our salvation does not rest upon there being peace on earth or that we pass our lives without being mistreated by our enemies, and it is in that salvation that we find our true deliverance.
16. My confusion is daily before me : and the shame of my face hath covered me;
17. For the voice of the slanderer and blasphemer : for the enemy and avenger.
Putting to death our worldly desires and base instincts is hard; yet is it greater than the debt of gratitude we owe to the Cross, to which we owe our life itself? Our sorrow at what befalls us is very real and entirely proper, yet it is a sorrow of peace and not of anger. We have one who we know will ensure that justice prevails, who will recompense the wronged and punish the wicked according to their deeds. The world is most assuredly a den of thieves and a pit of vipers, a place where evil abounds and the truth is attacked on every side; and so it is the greatest calling of our love and obedience to our Lord not to repay evil for evil and wrong for wrong, but to share with others the great and glorious message of the Cross, proclaiming the Gospel for the salvation of both our enemies and our allies.
18. And though all this be come upon us, yet do we not forget thee : nor behave ourselves frowardly in thy covenant.
19. Our heart is not turned back : neither our steps gone out of thy way;
Whilst we strive to walk in God’s ways, trusting in God as our King to answer our petition as He alone knows is right, we attest to the faith in which we gain our assurance of salvation. With every temptation comes the opportunity to declare our faith with more than a prayer, to show it with our deeds in listening to the word of God. From faith proceeds faithfulness, and so we may draw great strength in being faithful as it is a true witness to the faith wherein we are assured of salvation.
20. No, not when thou hast smitten us into the place of dragons : and covered us with the shadow of death.
Who then is it that permits us to be smitten with the sword of the enemy, if it is not God? Can any ill befall us if God does not allow it? In all that comes to pass, we may draw great comfort from this – that our God knows our faith and the sacrifices we make for his name, and that at the end of this life of trials we who have faith in him and the work of his Son shall still inherit life eternal.
21. If we have forgotten the Name of our God, and holden up our hands to any strange god : shall not God search it out? for he knoweth the very secrets of the heart.
Just as Job in grievous affliction did not sin against the Lord by cursing him for bringing affliction, so too must we bear the ill-treatment of the world because we call God our Father. Affliction, whilst terrible to us, does not excuse us from obedience to God. It is rather in affliction that we are given a treasured chance to exercise our faith in God, for that easy faith that costs a man nothing likewise is easily denied and almost as nothing. Though we ourselves would at all costs avoid being tried by fire, it is therein that we are purified and strengthened unto the Lord (see I Peter 1:6-7).
22. For thy sake also are we killed all the day long : and are counted as sheep appointed to be slain.
So then, do we resent ourselves being counted as sheep appointed to be slain, if the alternative is to be counted goats appointed for the condemnation? How much better to be slain a sheep and enter into God’s rest than to die a goat and enter into God’s wrath! The Lord is indeed our shepherd, and though he brings us through both evils and even death itself, in following him we shall assuredly “dwell in the house of the LORD
forever” (Psalm 23:1,4,6).
23. Up, Lord, why sleepest thou : awake, and be not absent from us for ever.
24. Wherefore hidest thou thy face : and forgettest our misery and trouble?
25. For our soul is brought low, even unto the dust : our belly cleaveth unto the ground.
26. Arise, and help us : and deliver us for thy mercy’s sake.
Let us then trust in the Lord, although we do not understand his ways or his thoughts (Proverbs 3:5); yet we have reason for great certainty that he does indeed hear our prayers and that he does without fail know of our suffering. Will he will deliver us for his mercy’s sake? Yes, most certainly he will, for he has already done so through the work of the Cross wherein we were delivered; and this for us is the great deliverance that makes all other trial and tribulation bearable. Therefore, it is surely right to ever humble ourselves before God, even with our souls brought low unto the dust, for he alone has done great things for us, our King and our Redeemer and it is in him alone that we put our trust.
As Luther’s moving hymn ‘A mighty fortress’ puts it:
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
I don’t see prayer as a means by which one obtains added power or extra luck; rather, it is a petition to Almighty God who alone has sovereign rule over all people, places and times. Both sides may pray, yet I think it a misunderstanding to feel that both sides are somehow aided in their partisan efforts by prayer.
Therefore, on what basis do we assume God is unable to tell us that he wants us to depart from his general command and to go to war? God is unchanging, and his love for us is undiminished. In recent centuries we have not prayed to God with the intention of putting the matter in his hands and trusting in his guidance; but rather we have prayed for help and blessing on a course of action we ourselves have decided.
If we have indeed prayed with trust in God as our ruler, yet God has not recently counseled us to go to war, does that mean he is unable and unwilling to counsel man any more, or that he has left it in our hands to decide what we think fitting? Consider for a moment the doctrine of ‘Just War’, which declares that God smiles upon our violent endeavour when it fulfills certain criteria; amongst which is the exhaustion of all other reasonable solutions. I put it to you that until prayer is exhausted then there is yet a reasonable solution, which is to continue to pray. If we deny this, then as has been discussed at length, we deny that God is King and rather treat him only as the giver of historical moral precepts. If we deny that prayer is always a more reasonable solution than deciding to go to war, then we are reducing the status of the petitions we make to our King to a magic charm to give us a bit of extra power in continuing down a path of our own decision.
It is a very dangerous doctrine to ascribe to God’s seeming inaction following prayer a license to act as if God were not our King. Our rational or emotional thought processes lead us to asking ourselves what we feel God might tell us to do if he were here, whilst forgetting both that God is yet with us and that even when he was here in bodily form his chosen course of action was to be put on the cross to die at the hands of us, his enemies. If God has not revealed to us that we should go to war, but rather directed us against such an action through his word, it must suffice for us to trust in him and mortify our own wishes and emotions.
Unless we are willing to put the word of God above the thought of man in every situation then we do not by any means acknowledge God as our King, but are like traitors and spies who maintain the outward appearance of citizenship but inwardly despise the King, ever plotting to undermine or depose Him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be ;
world without end. Amen