Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
God Answering Prayer
by Daniel Rowland(1713-1790)
Text: Psalm 65:5
By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us.
The sum of the text is the following two conclusions:
1. That the Lord answers the prayers of his people by terrible things.
2. That however terrible his answers, yet all are done in righteousness, and he continues to be, in all these things, a God of their salvation, and the confidence of all his people.
The doctrine is this: That the Lord, by terrible things, answers his people's prayers. As the heavens hear the earth (Hosea 2:21), and that as well, when it is stormy and tempestuous, as well as when it is more fresh and temperate; and as the earth hears the corn, yet that which is sown is not quickened except it die (1 Corinthians 15:36); so the Lord answers his people many times in ways most unexpected and unpleasant to them at the present.
'O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places,' says David (Psalm 68:35). As great comforts come out of the holy places, so also terrible things. Not only to his enemies, no, but to his friends also. As Moses also informs us, 'Fearful in praises, doing wonders' (Exodus 15:11). A gracious answer to prayer was the carrying of Israel out of Egypt into Canaan, as is said in Exodus 3:7,8, 'I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.' Yet he brought them out by such a way, as many a time he made their hearts to tremble and faint; a witness to this is that their afflictions multiplied there before they came out, and their sad and grievous condition by the sea shore, together with their expostulations and complaints against Moses: 'Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?' (Exodus 14:11). Consider also the means he used with them afterward: he could have brought them to the mountain of his holiness in a few days, yet he leads them through a great and desolate wilderness, where there were serpents and scorpions, etc., [Deuteronomy 8:15] and thousands of them perished there. All this he did in answer to prayer; and upon the whole there was no loss, for it is said, 'He led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye' (Deuteronomy 32:10).
Another remarkable answer to prayer was the coming of our Lord in the flesh. 'Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like a fuller's soap' (Malachi 3:1,2). Therefore his day is called terrible. 'Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord' (Malachi 4:5). Likewise it is said in Joel 2:31, 'The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.' Peter in Acts 2:16,21 applies this prophecy to the first coming of our Saviour. Though Christ is sweet, yea most sweet, yet his fire, by which man is purified, is terrible.
Would you have a yet more remarkable instance than this? Then take that of Christ himself, who prayed to his Father for his glory; 'Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee' (John 17:1). His Father heard him, and granted his prayer, giving him a name above every name (Philippians 2:9), and exalted him 'with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour' (Acts 5:31). But 'ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?' (Luke 24:26). Yes; thus the Lord Jesus himself was answered by terrible things; yea, such things as made him cry three times to his Father, and that with tears, 'O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.' [Matthew 26:39]
Prayer makes work for prayer, by answering prayer. The Lord is waiting to hear many, for he desires to hear the voice of his spouse (Canticles 2:14). No one will be released by a single struggle, for he greatly loves the wrestlings of his children. Jacob prayed for his return home, and in his return he prayed, 'O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee' (Genesis 32:9). Observe carefully, when he gets the fullest answer, and conquers God himself, he is made lame and weak in a wrestler's strongest point. Another place for the purpose is Psalm 18:6-12: 'In my
distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed, hail stones and coals of fire.' All these verses are metaphorical expressions to show the terrible things that accompany the answers to prayer. Now, by the Lord's strength, I shall endeavour to give some reasons why it is so.
I. Whatever the Lord does for his people, take one thing with another, he does in order to crucify the flesh. What death more terrible than this? We imagine we pray for pleasing and sweet things, but as we are flesh and spirit, the flesh has still a part in every prayer; and sometimes we do not know what we ask for, but the answer from God is spiritual, which is crucifying to sinful flesh. The two sons of Zebedee desire preferment in the kingdom of Christ (Matthew 20:20). This was good in and of itself; but hear what our Saviour says, verse 22, 'Ye know not what ye ask.' He said this, not because there were no preferments in his kingdom, nor because they were altogether sinful in their request; no, but because they were partly carnal, and in order to slay the flesh, he adds, 'Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? etc. They thought they were asking for ease, but he showe d them that no one can enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, except by crucifying the flesh. We pray for pardon of sin; we imagine that there cannot be a more pleasant thing than this; but rightly understood, it is not so; rather it mortifies corruption, and rends the heart, and binds men to a holy life, which is death to flesh and blood.
II. Because the way and means by which the Lord exalts his people are terrible. The best and fittest way the wise God saw to exalt his Son was by sufferings. 'For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings' (Hebrews 2:10). He, who has all power, could have chosen any way; but wisdom selected this, that is suffering, as the best for his purpose. Thus he deals mostly with all his people. Thou prayest for the death of some corruption that is in thee; and in order to answer thee, perhaps he will slay thy firstborn, or thy best friend; perhaps he will ruin thine estate, or name, or that which is dearest to thee in the world. Why? only because they are fuel to thy corruption, and draw thine heart away from God. The spiritual preferments of the people of God are, mostly, by sufferings: the Christian that conquered is the one that suffered . 'I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan' (Revelation 2:9). This was the Spirit's message to the church of Smyrna, which was under severe persecution. And St. Paul says, 'Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory' (2 Corinthians 4:17). It is said in Haggai 2:7, 'And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.' Prosperity and peace are the desire of all nations, but the way it is had is often by suffering a long and bloody war. Thus, I say, though the things are sweet, yet the means by which they are had is bitter.
III. Because we are not as willing to receive the effect of our prayers as we judge. There was much praying for the coming of Christ, but who may abide the day of his coming? Many prayed for the blessing of the promised land, but when they came in reach of the blessing, they would not go in to possess it, (Numbers 14:4) but speak of making captains to return to Egypt. We pray for strength against a sin, yet are not willing that it should die; sin is in our own flesh, and everyone by nature cherishes and loves it. We pray for pardon, but something must be done to us before we agree to this. Those who were invited did not come (Luke 14:18). To Jerusalem it is said, 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not?' (Matthew 23:38). We pray for liberty, for deliverance, and reformati on; but when these are offered us, we refuse them, living in bondage, despising deliverance, and hating reformation; therefore God gives us a bitter medicine to purge our filth. We do not know how things taste until we try them, and so we dislike them; likewise many times the Almighty, as it were, forces our mouths open by some crosses, and when we try it we say, 'It is sweet, give me more.'
Furthermore, the Lord prepares his people so that they are fitted to receive his blessings. It is usual for women to boil their new pots so that there will not be any residual taste on them, and then they will not taint any good thing put in them; likewise the Lord by a fiery trial, fits his children to receive mercy. If he were to give us a blessing, as we are in ourselves, without being cleansed, it would be a curse rather than a blessing. A man calls for comfort, without being ready for it. He asks for an earthly gift; if it were granted, it might be his ruin. Were it not that men, yea good men, lived in fear of their enemies, it may be, they are of such a temper, as to fall upon each other to their utter ruin and destruction. Homo Homini Lupus [Man a wolf to man]. If we were at peace with everyone, it is likely that the world would take too much of our hearts, and we would say, 'But it is good to be here', when Christ says, 'Arise, le t us go hence.' He desires to bend and subdue us here, so that we will not be in eternal torment. Thus he was forced to carry Israel into Canaan by the wilderness, wandering long, and suffering much in order to prove them (Deuteronomy 8:2).
IV. The church of Christ is left to go to a terrible and dreadful state in the eyes of the world, and in its own eyes like the wilderness of Arabia. See Psalm 102:6-9: 'I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop. Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me. For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.' True, it is not so all the time, for sometimes he keeps his saints' feet from slipping; other times, when they slip, he raises them with his right hand. Sometimes there is sorrow and weeping for an evening, but deliverance and rejoicing come by the morning. But often, indeed most often, they are brought to the most wretched state before they receive the sweetest mercies. Thus the Israelites were in Egypt in affliction, in an iron cauldron, and in Babylon their bones were scattered (Psalm 141:7). The chu rch was heard lamenting like a bird in a snare. Why are the people of God brought to such trouble?
1. Because of themselves, that is, their foolishness. See Psalm 38:5-7: 'My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: and there is no soundness in my flesh.' O! they vex their gracious God with their iniquities, and remain unrepentant for their sins, and full of all filth, eating sin as bread, and drinking iniquity as water; they do not acknowledge their sin, and their uncircumcised hearts are not humbled within them, therefore I shall give them up until they acknowledge their sin. They are left with the prodigal son to desire the swine husks, without anyone giving them anything (Luke 15:17). In this state they see the value of their Father's house. The scarcity of things makes us see their value.
2. When the godly are in a terrible and needy state, they are most skillful at pouring out their prayers before the Lord; and whoever is not answered, those who are in this state are sure to be answered. This can be proved from many passages in scripture; here are some in place of many: 'Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted' (Isaiah 49:13). David, who understood the sum and substance of prayer, and knew of passages in the Scriptures, from which he could find the best arguments in order to succeed with God, spoke thus: 'But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer: O Lord, make no tarrying' (Psalm 70:5). As if he had a right to be heard in his need, or else the Almighty would fail in his truth: and this is most reasonable, because
Firstly, Those who are gracious and in need pray their prayers; their prayer is the pouring out of the soul to God; as it is said in the title of Psalm 102: 'A Prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.' Now, you know that when God's own people have freedom and ease, without any hardship, they usually pour out words rather than prayers, and speak in a manner that is external when the inner man is totally unfeeling. They ask without the heart, but the poor and needy make their lively requests before God, pouring out their soul and spirit; and this is true praying indeed.
Secondly, These have no one but the Lord alone to run to. And the Lord binds himself in his word, that he will not wholly forsake any who seek him (Psalm 72:12). The poor man looks on his right hand, but no one acknowledges him; his refuge has failed; no one inquires of his soul; he only has a melting heart and tearful eyes, and these are settled on God alone.
Thirdly, Those who are in great need, and terrible crosses, prize an answer to their prayers, the least mercy is of great value to those who are straitened and hard in their souls. Some alms to a beggar who is perishing at the door, if it is only a crust fit for a dog, is received as acceptable with many thanks. 'When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them' (Isaiah 41:17).
Fourthly, The Lord answers them because his fatherly affections know that there is no one else in more need of his help; he has set the like affections in earthly beings, as they are more prepared to help the weakest and sickliest than the strong. The tenderhearted mother does not have, among all her children, an advocate more likely to succeed with her and others, than a sick baby; so also our good God knows the condition of the poor, and how they are trodden under foot like worms; he does thus considers the weak. 'He that is ready to slip with his feet is as a lamp despised in the thought of him that is at ease' (Job 12:5). It is known that few notice the needy, except to despise and scorn them, and turn their backs on them; therefore he himself loves them, and answers the voice of their prayer. He commands us to give our bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out into the house, to cover the naked, and to satisfy the needy soul (Isai ah 58:7,10). Yea, he commands his enemies to take care even of his outcasts. 'Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab; be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler: for the extortioner is at an end, the spoiler ceaseth, the oppressors are consumed out of the land' (Isaiah 16:4). How much more are his affections kindled towards them. It is very often seen that those who are humbled by terrible things, though they are answered, having been much humbled and abased in their own sight, that of all there is no one who begs and pleads for the prayers of their friends more than they. When they see those with great gifts possessing a happy spirit, and walking in great liberty, they think 'O how good to have such like plead for me! O,' they say, 'I beseech you pray for me. O I beg you, remember me before the throne of grace.' But in truth, if we were to judge rightly, these are bettered by their prayers, not them by the prayers of the others. O! the poor in spirit are the best mediators between men and the true Mediator, Jesus Christ the Lord; for whoever he neglects to hear, he is sure to hear to these. Listen now to this the wretched, the sad, and those who are beaten by storms, and thou who judgest that thou hast been utterly rejected by the Lord. Continue! O! that you may have grace to continue to pour out thy soul into his bosom: thou hast strong grounds of succeeding in the end, because he hears the destitute (Psalm 102:17). Think that the terrible things in the text are thy fears, troubles, and thy tribulations, by which Christ answers thee.
V. We are bound in the text to judge at all times, under every circumstance, that the Lord is a hearer and answerer of prayer. However unlikely this is in our own eyes, we could bring many scriptures to prove it, such as Psalm 31:22: 'I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications when I cried unto thee.' How long was the Israel of God in Egypt lamenting, afflicted, and crying out, as if the Almighty had forgotten to be merciful. Their burdens became heavier each day, as if God had utterly rejected them: but as soon as he spoke, these were his words: 'I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows.' (Exodus 3:7) The pleadings of this people are arrayed before the eyes of the Most High. 'And let these my words, wherewith I have made supplication before the Lord, be nigh unto the Lord our God day and night, that he maintain the cause of his servant, and the cause of his people Israel at all times, as the matter shall require' (1 Kings 8:59). They are in his book of remembrance. They are called a memorial (Acts 10:4). Hearer of prayer is one of his attributes. 'And the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John' (Luke 1:13). It is also said that he remembers their supplications, and carries them in his thoughts. O how great and numerous are the exhortations we have out of the word of truth, to persevere in prayer, however threatening, cloudy and terrible it may appear without and within. Remember how long Abraham prayed for a son, yet he grew old, and his wife also, until they were finally in a condition where it was wholly unlikely that they would have children. It might be thought that he had given up praying, yet, by these terrible things he had a son, and not so much of nature as of promise. So also did Zacharias and Elizabeth. Those under the altar are heard (Revelation 6:10,11), and their answer will come.
It is a comfort to every troubled soul that judges that their prayers have not been heard, that they are answered by terrible things. Perhaps there are many in this congregation today who pray every day, seven times a day with David, even ten times, yet their hearts are ready to sink, and to abandon utterly the cause, because they see themselves as wholly unsuccessful. The ungodly judge that their sins are not remembered or accounted, because they think that divine vengeance is sleeping; so also poor gracious souls think that they are despised and disregarded by the great Jehovah, because he has not answered their prayers with more vigour and tenderness. Many times the poor souls are seen and heard crying out, mourning, and grieving in this manner: 'If the High and Lofty One, through the Lord Jesus, heard and accepted, my person and service, I would with David call upon him as long as I live,—'Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call up on him as long as I live' (Psalm 116:2). But I am such a bruised reed, and a reprobate creature (as I confess I well merit), I am almost disheartened and about to give up all hope. O! what shall I do? O! O! O! I beg mercy, and taste wrath; I beg grace, and feel corruption; I beg ease, and receive torment and pain; I beg love, and feel hatred: everything is topsy turvy: he has shut out my prayer, and me with it.' Silence, silence, O soul! Be quiet now, and I will speak: the answer to the saints supplications are not to be measured by our imaginings or our comprehension, but they are measured by his word, which word is a clear witness that the supplications of the poor are before him day and night: he does not fail by delaying. Many have cried out for a long time with David before they received. 'I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God' (Psalm 69:3). Paul had to suffer the buffeting of Satan, and the thorn in the flesh, though he pr ayed three times. Canaan was not granted Moses though he implored, but he had a better, that is heaven; so also thou, O soul, dost complain about thyself. If thy heart faileth, if thou art vile in thine own eyes, if thou failest to have pleasure of the creature, be it known that thou hast had answers ten thousand times better than if thou hadst had that which was comfortable in thine own eyes. The saints graces increase under heavy crosses. Israel increased greatly when they were oppressed by Pharaoh for two hundred and fifteen years. They were but seventy, but in their affliction they increased to 600 thousand, ready for war, apart from women and children. So the people of God increased and were sanctified in tribulations when they were watered with their own tears. Fish increase better in cold and salt water, than in warm and fresh water. We usually have the fullest harvest after the coldest winter. The camomile smells best when it has been trodden down. O! when is the chu rch as holy and precious in the sight of her bridegroom as when she is leaving his land? 'O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely' (Canticles 2:14, see also Psalm 45:10). Let me hear thee call upon me, and sing praise unto me. The best corn lies through the winter under the furrow when it is frost and snow.
Secondly, Yet consider the benefit of the terrible things; they are a strong medicine which prevents much sin and corruption. 'Therefore, behold, I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths' (Hosea 2:6). If the wall of the commandment does not keep us from transgressing. What mercy. O great mercy that he builds a wall of affliction: tribulations, with God's blessing, are a stone of stumbling on the way of sin. I have read that Augustine, by losing the way, was delivered from the hand of a foe who was going to kill him: so also, if it were not that tribulation turned us out of the way, we would have fallen into the hands of some sin that would have done us harm. Gregory said of Solomon that he left the house of wisdom for want of being instructed by crosses and affliction. Salt prevents putrefaction, something that honey does not.
Thirdly, Terrible things are an excellent means of mortifying our corruptions. 'By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away sin; when he maketh all the stones of the altar as chalkstones that are beaten in sunder, the groves and images shall not stand up' (Isaiah 27:9). When physicians purge the body, they cast out the good with the bad; it is not so with Christ, he only casts out the bad, this is the only result. Aloes kill the worms of the belly; so also terrible things kill worms of the heart, because all is good that we meet with from him. 'Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time' [1 Peter 5:6].
Fourthly, You know that the Almighty ordained that Manasseh would gain more profit under his chains than under his crown. It is said in Hebrews 12:10 that the Lord chastens his children for their good, etc. Love also increases in distress: the sheep also run together when the dog is behind them. The fire of discord destroys and spoils the church more than the fire of persecution. The first hinders growth, the second increases it. There is a great difference, says Luther, between a divine in great splendour and a divine under a cross. It is a very strange thing that one man's eyes should be opened by eating honey, like Jonathan (honey being success); but it is usual for our Teacher to put clay on the eyes of the blind to open them (clay being adversity). Men in tribulation, like sailors, see great things. 'They that go to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters: these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep' (Psalm 107:23, 24).