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Importunate Prayer.

Importunate Prayer.

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BY THE REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D., LOCHWINNOCH.

' ' And Jacob said , I will not let thee go except thou bless me : and he blessed him there. " — Gen. xxxii. 26-29.
BY THE REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D., LOCHWINNOCH.

' ' And Jacob said , I will not let thee go except thou bless me : and he blessed him there. " — Gen. xxxii. 26-29.

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IMPORTU ATE PRAYER. BY THE REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D., LOCHWI OCH.

' ' And Jacob said , I will not let thee go except thou bless me : and he blessed him there. " — Gen. xxxii. 26-29. It is now many years since Mr Stewart of Liverpool called the attention of Christians to the important duty of united and earnest prayer for the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of reviving true religion at home, and promoting its dissemination throughout the world. At that time he recommended ministers to preach upon the subject, and in other ways to diffuse information with regard to the person and work of the Holy Ghost. He advised private Christians to spend a portion of time every Lord's day morning in prayer for the Holy Spirit, and heads of families to introduce the subject into their domestic exercises on Monday evening. On that occasion I have a full persuasion that many discourses were delivered on this subject throughout the Church, and I suppose many individuals and families have ever since observed the seasons of devotion recommended. The subject has not been dropt, but kept alive, and more generally taken up of late years. Mr Stewart coutinues to call public attention to it at this season of the year.* And first, a society of private Christians, and next, the Commission of the Free Church, have recommended an annual concert for prayer, to last a whole week, including two Sabbaths, and corresponding to the length of time spent by the disciples in devotional exercises in Jerusalem, before the Holy Ghost was poured out upon them on the clay of Pentecost. It would be wrong to conclude that our united and long- continued supplications have obtained no answer, and produced no effect. Who can tell how many sinners have been converted, and what an impulse has been given to pious affection and benevolent enterprise. There have been revivals of religion in various places in the course of the time specified. Scriptural views of the true nature of the Church of Christ have been

* This discourse was delivered during the time of Concert for Prayer at the beginning of this year 1846), which will explain the specialties it contains, and may serve as an apology, if that be wanted, for its not being more bread and general.

REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D. 181 unfolded and illustrated, and the most striking displays of religious prin-

ciples have been afforded. Men have become more alive to the important duty of promoting the interests of religion, both at home and abroad, and unwonted success has been experienced in the conversion both of Jew and Gentile. The most important events have taken place, and others of still greater magnitude and importance are opening up to the view of attentive and intelligent men. Still much remains to be done. The field expands as you proceed in the survey of it. The more that is done the more you discover remains to be done. o intelligent and right-hearted man is satisfied with the state of his own soul, nor the condition of his family, the state of the congregation of which he is a member, or the denomination to which he belongs, the country he inhabits, or the world at large. All, therefore, who have right apprehensions of these things will join heartily in the prayers which are to be presented for " the Spirit from on high*' in the closet and in family worship, in the social assembly and in the house of God, at this important season. The words of the text are well calculated to afford direction and encouragement in the performance of this duty, in the illustration of which there are three things which demand our attention — I. The objects. II. The manner, and III. The answer of Jacob's prayer ; or, in other words, the blessings implored, the manner in which they were asked, and the answer obtained. Allow me, then, to direct your attention — I. To the objects of Jacob's prayer ; or, the blessings implored. It need not be disguised that one of these was the preservation of his own life, and the safety of his family and substance. By falsehood and deceit he had obtained the blessing, which Isaac his father intended to bestow on Esau ; and having now got both the birth-right and the blessing, he had become his brother's supplanter, as the name Jacob imports. Esau was so enraged that he conspired against his life, and Jacob was obliged to fly from his father's house to his uncle Laban. This ungodly and avaricious relative deceived and imposed upon him just as he had done to Esau, which was an evidence of the righteous retribution of Providence, and a severe reproof to Jacob. At length he was by cruelty and oppression obliged to fly from Padan-aram, and return to the place of his nativity. In his way thither he was told that Esau, accompanied by four hundred men, was coming to meet him. Knowing the furious temper of his brother, and remembering the offence he had given him, he was alarmed, and suspected that he might now take summary vengeance upon him and destroy the mothers with the children, and take Xo. 120.— Ser. 110. vol. in.

182 FREE CHURCH PULPIT. possession of all that he had. In this emergency he disposed of them in the most judicious manner, r,nd adopted the most likely means of appeasing his brother's wrath. And then, as his last and best resource, he retired to a secret place, and wrestled with God in prayer till the dawning of the day, that he would avert the sore calamity which lie dreaded. It would be doing Jacob injustice, however, to deny that higher objects than the preservation of himself, and of his family and substance, occupied his thoughts and prayers on this critical occasion. The very circumstances in which he was placed were calculated to call his sins to remembrance ; just as his sons were reminded of their unnatural and criminal conduct towards Joseph, by being thereby involved in difficulties in Egypt many long years after their sin had been committed. Jacob being reminded of the falsehood and deceit by which he had provoked the anger and vengeance of his brother, would humbly confess his sin and earnestly pray for the salvation of his soul, whatever might be the fate of his body at this time. Knowing that the souls of his family were as precious as his own, and remembering the relation in which he stood to them, and the duty that he owed them, he would be very importunate in prayer for their salvation also, though they should fall by the sword of Esau. But he would not despair of their preservation. He would remember the covenant of God with his father Abraham, and the promise that he would make of him a great nation, ai*d that in his seed, which is Christ, all the families qf the earth would be blessed. Similar promises were made to himself: and, in a special manner, God engaged to be with him in his journey to Padan-aram, and to keep him in all his ways, to bring him back in safety to the land of Canaan, and make of him a great nation. ow, as Moses in every emergency was wont to plead the covenant of Jehovah with the patriarchs, and to intreat him to have respect to his own honour, as well as the good of his chosen people, Jacob would not fail to make good use of the same plea on the present occasion. He would pray that he and his family might live to be witnesses for God in a world lying in wickedness, and might introduce the spiritual seed, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. eed I say that in all this Jacob has left us an excellent example for our imitation, especially in present circumstances. I have no objection to your praying for your own health and safety, and the preservation and prosperity of your family and substance, as Jacob did — ay, and the good of your kindred and country also. But I do not need to dwell

upon these things, because they are least likely to be neglected. What I want especially to press upon your attention, is the state of your own

REV. ROBERT SMITH. D.D. 183 souls, and of those of your family, the congregation with which you are connected, and the church to which you belong, the condition of all professedly Christian churches, and the propagation of religion throughout the world. Every man, who is at all acquainted with his own heart, will find there many reasons for prayer. In every congregation there are some, alas ! a large proportion of unregenerate men, who are the enemies of the true God, and the servants of the god of this world. They have turned their back upon heaven, and are posting on to perdition as fast as their feet can carry them. This year they may die — nay, this night they may lift up their eyes in hell, being in torment. O howearnest ought you, and especially they themselves, to be in prayer, that they may not perish, but obtain everlasting life ! They should cry mightily and constantly for mercy to pardon their sin, and grace to help in time of need, till they obtain a gracious answer. .Those who have" already passed from death unto life arc more sensible of their remaining corruption, and the iniquity that prevails against them, than the unregenerate are of their unpardoned guilt and unmitigated depravity; and I need not say how earnestly they should pray to be purified throughout, in soul, body, and spirit, and enabled to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord. And thus every head of a family, who looks round the domestic circle, may see one and another of his children who, he has reason to fear, is still far from God, and ready to perish. A pious parent sometimes starts with horror, lest the child, whom he loves as his own soul, should die in his sins, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and the glory of his power. Pie hardly knows how he could bear such a calamity, and rise above it. Oh ! how earnest, then, ought parents to be in prayer to God, that he would save them from so heavy an afHiction. They should give him no rest till they see all their children devoted to his service, and living under the influence of religion. But I should become tedious if I were to enlarge upon this subject. You can easily pursue it for yourselves. Whenever you see transgressors, you should be grieved, and pray for them. "Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not surfer sin upon him." Exhort one another daily, and so much the more as you see the day approaching. The wider the sphere of observation, the more reasons for prayer and supplication will rise up to your view. There are unscriptural and corrupt churches, and heresies among professing Christians. Popery and Puseyism are spreading in this country with alarming rapidity, and

have acquired a most dangerous influence among those who are at the helm of affairs. Every government in Europe is at this moment giving its power to the beast. The Jews still remain in unbelief, and hun-

184 FREE CHURCH PULPIt. dreds of millions of Gentiles are bowing down to idols of gold and silver, wood and stone, the work of their own hands. You should therefore not merely pray for the ministers of religion among yourselves and throughout Christendom, but for the various missionaries that are scattered in foreign lands. I need not, however, occupy your time with an enumeration of the objects of prayer, which are as obvious as they are numerous. I shall therefore proceed call your attention II. To the manner in which tlu duty should be performed. Jacob said, " I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." I shall not, however, confine your attention to the single element of importunity. 1. He sought retirement for devotion. In the 24th verse it is said, " He was left alone." Of this matter you have an account in the preceding context (verses 22 and 23). " And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and two women-servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had." Having disposed of them in this manner, he remained alone, probably on the other side of the brook, that he might spend the night in prayer and supplication. You cannot fail to remark here the resemblance between the conduct of the patriarch and that of our blessed Redeemer. After he had sent his disciples away in a ship over the sea of Galilee, he went away into a mountain to pray, and continued alone in devotion during the greater part of the evening, till the fourth watch. ow, secret devotion is as necessary, I had almost said more necessary, for us than it was for the patriarch or our Lord, inasmuch as we have more sin to confess, and more wants to supply. Our Saviour had no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. And of all kinds of prayer, secret devotion is the first and most essential. It is here the foundation is, as it were, laid ; and we obtain in answer to private prayers a supply of the Spirit to enable us to engage with comfort and advantage in social and public duties. These are indeed more stimulating and refreshing, and may be profitable to others as well as to ourselves. But still we shall neither " get good, nor do much good," till our hearts be prepared for it by communion with God in secret devotion. We ought therefore, morning and evening, to retire from the world, and chase away its cares from our minds, enter our closets and shut our doors behind us, and pray to our Father in secret, and our Father who seeth in secret will reward us

openly. As this is a primary and essential duty, so it is one that is more frequently discharged than some others. Every man who does not live like the beasts which perish, or like an infidel, who is in some respects worse than the irrational and irresponsible tribes, prays occa-

REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D. 185 sionally in secret, were it only in cases of emergency, though he may neglect family worship altogether, and attend irregularly upon the houst of God. But many who keep up the form of godliness pray in an improper manner, and without the spirit of devotion. They rush away from the bustle and business of the world, and spend a few minutes in formal and distracted prayer, in which not even the understanding , and still less the heart, is engaged. The sacrifice of such persons is an abomination unto the Lord, and their very prayers are sin. I therefore go on to observe, 2. That Jacob spent a long time in prayer. We have seen how he disposed of his family in the evening ; and when he was left alone, he wrestled with God in prayer and supplication till the day began to break. You are also aware how exactly he typified, in this respect also, our divine Lord. And both have left us an example that we should follow their steps. Alas ! most professing Christians follow these steps at a very great distance. And yet we shall never enjoy a high measure of spiritual health, nor be remarkably useful to others, till we learn to be much alone, and to spend a considerable portion of time in secret devotion. Without this we shall not obtain such a supply of the Spirit as to enlighten and enlarge our views, quicken and mature our graces, affect our hearts, and influence our conduct, so as to merit the testimony borne even to the Church of Ephesus — "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst notbear them that are evil ; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and not fainted." The most eminent Christians have borne testimony both to the pleasure and advantage of holding much communion with God in secret. Abundant evidence of this is found in the life of the late singularly amiable and eminently pious Mr M'Cheyne in Dundee. Dr Doddridge used to spend a whole day every month in retirement and meditation, reading the Scriptures, and earnest prayer, and felt himself greatly refreshed and improved in this manner. When you go back to earlier and better times, to the ages of great men and stirring events, you find more striking examples. Luther, though he had less time to spare, and more work to perform, greater difficulties to surmount, and more formidable enemies to encounter than any man, perhaps, since the days of the apostles, never spent less than three hours daily in prayer ; and our own John Welsh of Ayr devoted no less than eight hours daily

to secret devotion. This was the grand source of their comfort and joy amid all their trials, and the great secret of their eminent piety and remarkable success in the service of their divine Master. These men would have thought such a concert for prayer as we have been called to observe, no hardship, but a great privilege. It does not make so

186 FREE CHURCH PULPIT. large a demand upon our time, as they habitually and cheerfully gave for their own comfort and improvement, and from a regard to the glory of God, and the salvation of the souls committed to their care. But this is not sufficient. The Pharisees both fasted and prayed oft. For a pretence they made long prayers, and stood in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men. "And, verily," said our Lord, "ye have your reward.'' They obtained the admiration and praise of men, which was all they sought. But we must pray in a different spirit, and from different motives, if we expect a gracious answer from our heavenly Father. This leads me to remark, 3. That we must implore laivful things, and employ proper arguments to obtain them. This has been in some measure anticipated in the illustration of the first head ; but I must still remark, that God will not grant you every thing you may choose to ask, and for every reason you may assign. Especially, he will not bestow upon you every temporal blessing you implore, nor avert every affliction you deprecate, because this might not be for his glory and your best interests. I do not deny that Jacob might pray in faith for the preservation of his own life and for the lives of his family, because his heavenly Father had promised all this. But we have no such promise, and therefore we must implore every temporal blessing with entire resignation to the holy will of God. But we may ask positively and importunately all the spiritual blessings formerly enumerated. If we pray in sincerity and faith, we shall certainly obtain these blessings in some measure for ourselves, and it may be, for others also. With regard to the manner in which we ought to approach God, and the pleas we should use with him, we are better instructed than Jacob was. He did indeed plead the covenant of Jehovah with his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, of which Jesus Christ was the mediator ; but we are better acquainted with this mediator than he was. We must come to him in the name and through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and he will not receive us, nor listen to us, on any other terms. We must plead his merits, and depend entirely upon his righteousness and grace ; and we must cleave to him in the exercise of faith, in order that we may obtain out of his fulness every spiritual blessing. This entire de-

pendence upon the righteousness and grace of Christ, however, should not make us indifferent about the blessings implored, and, therefore, I remark, 4. That we ought to be earnest and persevering in prayer. I can produce no arguments and illustrations of this matter equal to those which the Bible supplies. Look at this passage before us, where we are told that Jacob wrestled with Jehovah till the dawning of the day; and the prophet

REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D. 187 Hosea tells us he wept, as well as made supplication before the angel. He struggled with him all nipfht with strong cryings and tears, and would not let him go until he obtained the blessing. Even when the angel " put his thigh out of joint," and shewed how easily he could disable and destroy him, he was not dismayed, but continued to contend with the Almighty, and positively declared, " I will not let thee go except thou bless me." This is not the only passage in which believers are represented as having power to prevail with God in prayer. The Lord said unto Moses, " Let me alone that my wrath may wax hot against this people, and I may destroy them, and I will make of thee a great nation," as if the prayers of Mose3 had paralysed the arm of the Almighty. But Moses would not accept of the proffered honour, nor let him alone, but continued to intercede for his people till he prevailed as Jacob had done before. Think also of the earnestness and importunity of David, who not merely "cried" to God, but "even roared " before him. In the ew Testament we read of disciples who not only strived but agonised in prayer. The best of all examples, however, in this, as in every other thing, was that of our Divine Redeemer, " who, in the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications with strong cryings and tears to him that was able to deliver him from death, and was heard in that he feared." And let it not be objected that these examples are taken from the history of inspired men, whom we need not attempt to imitate, and cannot hope to equal. I purposely selected such examples, because, if I had adduced those of uninspired men, they might have been treated as hypocrites or enthusiasts, but the sacred writers cannot be treated in this manner. Fortified by them, I now go on to remark, that the same spirit of devotion has extended beyond the age of inspiration. I need adduce no other proofs of this than those which have already been mentioned. I remind you again of John "Welsh, who not only spent eight hours daily in devotion, but rose to this duty during the night watches, and wondered how believers could sleep all night without rising to pray. He kept a covering beside him to protect him from the midnight cold, and at other times was wont to retire to the sea shore, or some other solitary place, that he might not be interrupted nor

disturb others, and wept and prayed, or, like his divine master, offered up prayers and supplications with strong cryings and tears. I shall only add 5. That we should pray hi faith and hope. Many do not approach God confiding in his mercy and believing his word, and still less trusting firmly in the righteousness and grace of Jesus Christ. If they honestly desire the blessings implored, they do not firmly believe that they shall obtain them. They only make a trial, so to speak, of the mercy

188 FREE CHURCH PULPIT. and truth of God, and are somewhat surprised when they obtain a gracious answer: o wonder, then, though it should happen to them according to their unbelief. They impeach the character of God, and give the lie to his holy word, cast discredit on the finished work of Jesus Christ, and call in question the purchased and proffered blessings of his Redemption. Instead of feeling and acting in this manner, we should approach God firmly persuaded that he is the rewarder of all those who diligently seek him. And whilst we neither impugn nor doubt his sovereignty, we should feel warranted on the authority of his Word to come boldly to a throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy to pardon, and grace to help in time of need. What the Apostle James says of wisdom may be affirmed of every other spiritual blessing we need. " If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not ; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering : for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James, i. 5-9.) The best evidence of the force of these observations is the fact recorded in the text. I, therefore, go on to call your attention very shortly. III. To the answer ivhich Jacob obtained to his prayers. God blessed him there. I can, however, now do little more than notice that he obtained a gracious answer. He, and all he had, escaped the vengeance which he dreaded at the hand of Esau, and he was met with more than fraternal affection. Jacob and his family continued to enjoy great worldly prosperity ; and though his sons grieved him long, by their depravity and sins, yet before they went down into Egypt their spirit and character seem to have been greatly improved, and I hope some, if not all of them, are now in the kingdom of heaven. I have already guarded you against asking positively, and expecting

confidently, wealth or any kind of worldly prosperity. But I dare promise every believer a competent portion of the good things of this life. "Your bread shall be given you, and your water shall be sure." "My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus." But this is the extent of the promise. It is not for your interest to be highly exalted and greatly enriched, for thereby you would be exposed to the greater temptations and dangers. God, who knows what situation is best for his people in this world, has generally placed them in humble circumstances. " He hath chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. In the valley of humiliation, they not merely escape many dangers, but have an opportunity of recognising the hand of God more habitually in the means

REV. ROBERT SMITH, D.D. ISO of their support than if they were in more affluent circumstances. They have no inheritance to lean upon, and, when they are in difficulties, he sometimes answers their prayers in a marked and wonderful manner, and surprises them with his goodness. Their provision, like the manna, seems to come directly from heaven, and inspires them with a gratitude and affection which the rich never feel. With regard to spiritual blessings, which are of paramount and permanent value, I can speak in a more positive and unqualified manner. God has often promised pardon and justifying righteousness, grace and salvation, to all who ask him in sincerity and faith. And though he be sovereign in this, as in every thing else, and may not bestow these blessings at the time and in the measure we expect, yet so far from being niggardly in his favours, he will often do exceeding abundantly above all that you ask or think. Ye are not straitened in him, but ye are straitened in your own desires. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled. There is much more reason, however, to expect a blessing on our oivn souls in answer to sincere and believing prayer, than that we shall be heard on behalf of those who do not pray for themselves. Still, when God does stir up his ministers and people to labour and pray for the conversion of sinners and the dissemination of the gospel, it is an evidence that the times of refreshing from his presence are approaching. The Word of God, and the history of the "Church, alike confirm the truth of this observation. Look at Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones in the open valley. As soon as he began, in obedience to the divine commandment, to prophecy, (or preach), to the dry bones, there was a noise, and shaking among them ; they came together, bone to his bone, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above, and they assumed all the appearance of living men, though there was no breath in them. And

when he prophesied to the wind, that is, prayed for the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord entered into them, and they lived and stood up an exceeding great army. Although, therefore, we have not hitherto obtained all that we desire, yet I have no fear that our labours and prayers will be in vain. " For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater ; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth : it shall not return unto me void ; but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it." Let me say, in conclusion, that so far from wondering or complaining, because we have not obtained more obvious answers to prayer, when we think of the character of many prayers, we must acknowledge

190 FREE CHURCH PULPIT. they deserve no answer at all. " Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss that ye may consume it on your lust.'' Besides, some men do not sincerely and honestly desire the things they seem to implore, and would be disappointed if they obtained them. They may think they wish the pardon of sin and an inheritance in heaven ; but they are certainly not willing to forsake those sins they confess, and mortify those corruptions they seem to deplore ; and they would rather forfeit the blessings implored than make the sacrifices required for the enjoyment of them. You must, therefore, learn to pray as Jacob did before you expect a similar answer. The Apostle Paul, who belonged to the straitest sect of the Pharisees, had prayed often and made long prayers before his conversion, yet he had never prayed aright till the period when the Lord bore this testimony to him from heaven, "Behold he prayeth.'' In like manner, though unregenerate men should pray, as well as read the Scriptures, attend on public instruction, and use other means of grace, yet I am bound to say, that, so long as they remain in an unregenerate state, they will never present a sincere and acceptable prayer. They ought therefore, to come at once to Christ, and cleave to him in the exercise of faith, and say with his disciples, " Lord, teach us to pray. Pour out upon us a spirit of grace and supplication." And thus you will obtain such views of the evil and danger of sin, and of the guilt and misery that prevail in the world, of the paramount importance of the glory of God and the salvation of souls, that you will emulate those believers who wrestled and agonised in prayer till they obtained a blessing. Though God should still keep the times and seasons of refreshing, and of bringing in the latter-day glory, in his own power, he may honour you to be the instruments of much good in the world, and, at any rate, 3 r ou will obtain a rich blessing to your own souls, and be made unspeak-

ably and eternally happy in heaven. For they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever.

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