Psalm 65:2. O Thou that hearest prayer.
4. The reasons of the doctrine. I would give these reasons in answer to two inquiries.
Inquiry 1. Why does God require prayer in order to the bestowing of mercies? It is not in order that God may be informed of our wants or desires. He is omniscient, and His knowledge is unchangeable. God never gains any knowledge by information. He knows what we need a thousand times more perfectly than we do ourselves before we ask Him. For though God is sometimes represented as if, speaking after the manner of men, He were moved and persuaded by the prayers of His people, yet it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers, for it is no more possible that there should be any new inclination or will in God than that there should be any new knowledge. The mercy of God is not moved or drawn by anything in the creature, but the spring of God’s beneficence is within Himself only; He is self-moved. And whatsoever mercy He bestows, the reason and ground of it is not to be sought for in the creature, but in God’s own good pleasure.
It is the will of God to bestow mercy in answer to prayer, when He designs beforehand to bestow mercy, yea, when He has promised it; as in Ezekiel 36:36,37: “I the Lord have spoken it, and will do it. Thus saith the Lord, I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.” God has been pleased to constitute prayer to go before the bestowal of mercy; and He is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though He were prevailed on by prayer. When the people of God are stirred up to prayer, it is the effect of His intention to show mercy; therefore He pours out the spirit of grace and supplication.
Two reasons may be given why God requires prayer in order to bestowing mercy; one especially respects God, and the other respects ourselves.
1. With respect to God, prayer is but a conscious acknowledgment of our dependence on Him to His glory. As He hath made all things for His own glory, so He will be glorified and acknowledged by His creatures; and it is fit that He should require this of those who would be the subjects of His mercy. That we, when we desire to receive any mercy from Him, should humbly supplicate the Divine Being for the bestowment of that mercy, is but a suitable acknowledgment of our dependence on the power and mercy of God for what we need, and but a suitable honour paid to the great Author and Fountain of all good.
2. With respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us in order to the bestowing of mercy because it tends to prepare us for its reception. Fervent prayer tends to prepare the heart in many ways. Hereby is excited a sense of our need and of the value of the mercy which we seek, and at the same time earnest desires for it; whereby the mind is more prepared to prize it, to rejoice in it when bestowed, and to be thankful for it. Prayer, with suitable confession, may excite a sense of our unworthiness of the mercy we seek; and the placing of ourselves in the immediate presence of God may make us sensible of His majesty and, in a sense, fit to receive mercy of Him. Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency, that so we may be prepared to glorify His name when the mercy is received.
Inquiry 2. Why is God so ready to hear the prayers of men ? To this I answer:
1. Because He is a God of infinite grace and mercy. It is indeed very wonderful that so great a God should be so ready to hear our prayers though we are so despicable and unworthy; that He should give free access at all times to everyone, should allow us to be importunate without esteeming it an indecent boldness, should be so rich in mercy to them that call upon Him; that worms of the dust should have such power with God by prayer; that He should do such great things in answer to their prayers and should show Himself, as it were, overcome by them. This is very wonderful when we consider the distance between God and us and how we have provoked Him by our sins and how unworthy we are of the least gracious notice. It cannot be from any need that God stands in of us, for our goodness extendeth not to Him. Neither can it be from anything in us to incline the heart of God to us; it cannot be from any worthiness in our prayers, which are in themselves polluted things. But it is because God delights in mercy and condescension. He is herein infinitely distinguished from all other gods: He is the great fountain of all good, from whom goodness flows as light from the sun.
2. We have a glorious Mediator, who has prepared the way in order that our prayers may he heard consistently with the honour of God’s justice and majesty. Not only has God in Himself mercy sufficient for this, but the Mediator has provided that this mercy may be exercised consistently with the divine honour. Through Him we may come to God for mercy; He is the way, the truth and the life; no man can come to the Father but by Him. This Mediator has done three things to make way for the hearing of our prayers:
(1.) He hath by His blood made atonement for sin, so that our guilt need not stand in the way as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass. By His atonement He hath made the way to the throne of grace open. God would have been infinitely gracious if there had been no mediator, but the way to the mercy seat would have been blocked up. But Christ hath removed whatever stood in the way. The veil which was before the mercy seat is “rent from the top to the bottom” by the death of Christ. If it had not been for this, our guilt would have remained as a wall of brass to hinder our approach. But all is removed by His blood (Heb 10:17).
(2.) Christ, by His obedience, has purchased this privilege: that the prayers of those who believe in Him should be heard. He has not only removed the obstacles to our prayers, but has merited the hearing of them. His merits are the incense that is offered with the prayers of the saints, which renders them a sweet savour to God and acceptable in His sight. Hence the prayers of the saints have such power with God; hence at the prayer of a poor worm of the dust God stopped the sun in his course for about the space of a whole day; hence Jacob as a prince had power with God and prevailed. Our prayers would be of no account, and of no avail with God, were it not for the merits of Christ.
(3.) Christ enforces the prayers of His people by His intercession at the right hand of God in heaven. He hath entered for us into the holy of holies, with the incense which He hath provided, and there He makes continual intercession for all that come to God in His name, so that their prayers come to God the Father through His hands, if I may so say, which is represented in Revelation 8:3,4: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God, out of the angel’s hand.” This was typified of old by the priest’s offering incense in the temple, at the time when the people were offering up their prayers to God; as in Luke 1:10: “And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense”.
Application: Hence we may learn how highly we are privileged in that we have the Most High revealed to us, who is a God that hears prayer. The greater part of mankind are destitute of this privilege. Whatever their necessities are, whatever their calamities or sorrows, they have no prayer-hearing God to whom they may go. If they go to the gods whom they worship, and cry to them ever so earnestly, it will be in vain. They worship either lifeless things that can neither help them or know that they need help, or wicked, cruel spirits who are their enemies and wish them nothing but their misery and who, instead of helping them, are from day to day working their ruin and watching over them as a hungry lion watches over his prey.
How greatly we are distinguished from them in that we have the true God made known to us, a God of infinite grace and mercy, a God full of compassion to the miserable, who is ready to pity us under all our troubles and sorrows, to hear our cries, and to give us all the relief which we need, a God who delights in mercy and is rich unto all that call upon Him! How highly privileged we are in that we have the holy Word of this same God to direct us how to seek for mercy! And whatever difficulties or distress we are in, we may go to Him with confidence and great encouragement. What a comfort this may be to us, and what reason we have to rejoice in our privileges, to prize them so highly, and to bless God that He hath been so merciful to us as to give us His Word and reveal Himself to us, and that He hath not left us to cry for help to stocks and stones and devils as He has left many thousands of others!
Objection: I have often prayed to God for certain mercies and He has not heard my prayers. To this I answer:
1. It is no argument that God is not a prayer-hearing God if He give not to men what they ask of Him to consume upon their lusts. Oftentimes when men pray for temporal good things, they desire them for no good end, but only to gratify their pride or sensuality. If they pray for worldly good things chiefly from a worldly spirit and make an idol of the world, it is no wonder that God doth not hear their prayers: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (Jas 4:3). If you request Him to give you something of which you will make an idol and set up in opposition to Him, or will use as weapons of warfare against Him, or as instruments to serve His enemies, no wonder that God will not hear you. If God should hear such prayers, He would act as His own enemy, inasmuch as He would bestow them to serve His enemies.
2. It is no argument that God is not a prayer-hearing God that He heareth not insincere and unbelieving prayers. How can we expect that He should have any respect to that which has no sincerity in it? God looketh not at words but at the heart, and it is fit that He should do so. If men pray only in words and not in heart, what are their prayers good for? And why should that God who searches the heart and tries the reins have any respect to them? Sometimes men do nothing but dissemble in their prayers and, when they do so, it is no argument that God is the less a prayer-hearing God that He doth not hear such prayers, for it is no argument of want of mercy.
Sometimes they pray for that in words which they really desire not in their hearts, as that He would purge them from sin, when at the same time they show by their practice that they do not desire to be purged from sin, while they love and choose it and are utterly averse to parting with it. In like manner, they often dissemble in the pretence and show, which they make in their prayers, of dependence on God for mercies, and of a sense of His sufficiency to supply them. In our coming to God and praying to Him for such and such things, there is a show that we are conscious that we are dependent on Him for them and that He is sufficient to give them to us. But men sometimes seem to pray while not sensible of their dependence on God, nor do they think Him sufficient to supply them, for all the while they trust in themselves and have no confidence in God. They show in words as though they were beggars, but in heart they come as creditors and look on God as their debtor. In words they seem to ask for things as the fruit of free grace, but in heart they account it would be hard, unjust and cruel if God should deny them. In words they seem humble and submissive, but in heart they are proud and contentious; there is no prayer but in their words.
It doth not render God at all the less a prayer-hearing God that He distinguishes, as an all-seeing God, between real prayers and pretended ones. Such prayers as those which I have just now been mentioning are not worthy of the name in the eyes of Him who searches the heart and sees things as they are. That prayer which is not of faith is insincere, for prayer is a manifestation of dependence on God and trust in His sufficiency and mercy. Therefore, where this trust or faith is lacking, there is no prayer in the sight of God. And however God is sometimes pleased to grant the requests of those who have no faith, yet He has not obliged Himself so to do; nor is it an argument of His not being a prayer-hearing God when He hears them not.
3. It is no argument that He is not a prayer-hearing God that He exercises His own wisdom as to the time and manner of answering prayer. Some of God’s people are sometimes ready to think that He doth not hear their prayers because He doth not answer them at the times they expected, when indeed God doth hear them and will answer them in the time and way to which His own wisdom directs. The business of prayer is not to direct God, who is infinitely wise and needs not any of our directions, who knows what is best for us ten thousand times better than we, and knows what time and what way are best. It is fit that He should answer prayer and, as an infinitely wise God, in the exercise of His own wisdom and not ours. God will deal as a father with us in answering our requests. But a child is not to expect that the father’s wisdom be subject to his; nor ought he to desire it, but should esteem it a privilege that the parent will provide for him according to his own wisdom.
As to particular temporal blessings for which we pray, it is no argument that He is not a prayer-hearing God because He bestows them not upon us, for it may be that God sees the things for which we pray not to be best for us. If so, it would be no mercy in Him to bestow them upon us, but a judgement. Such things therefore ought always to be asked with submission to the divine will. God can answer prayer though He bestow not the very thing for which we pray. He can sometimes better answer the lawful desires and good end we have in prayer another way. If our end be our own good and happiness, God can perhaps better answer that end in bestowing something else than in the bestowing that very thing which we ask. And if the main good we aim at in our prayer be attained, our prayer is answered, though not in the bestowment of the individual thing which we sought. And so what was before asserted may still be true, that God always hears the prayer of faith. God never once failed of hearing a sincere and believing prayer, and those promises for ever hold good: “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you: for every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened”.
Another use of this doctrine may be reproof to those that neglect the duty of prayer. If we enjoy so great a privilege as to have the prayer-hearing God revealed to us, how great will be our folly and inexcusableness, if we neglect the privilege or make no use of it, and deprive ourselves of the advantage by not seeking this God by prayer! They are hereby reproved who neglect the great duty of secret prayer, which is more expressly required in the Word of God than any other kind. What account can those persons give of themselves who neglect so known a duty? It is impossible that any among us should be ignorant of this command of God. How daring therefore is their wickedness who live in the neglect of this duty! And what can they answer to their Judge when He shall call them to an account for it?
Here I shall briefly say something to an excuse which some may be ready to make for themselves. Some may be ready to say, If I do pray, my prayer will not be the prayer of faith, because I am in a natural condition and have no faith.
This excuses not from obedience to a plain command of God. The command is to all to whom it shall come. God not only directs godly persons to pray, but others also. In the beginning of the second chapter of Proverbs, God directs all persons to cry after wisdom and to lift up their voices for understanding, in order to their obtaining the fear and knowledge of God; and in James 1:5 the apostle says, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God;” and Peter directed Simon Magus to repent and pray to God, if perhaps the thought of his heart might be forgiven him (Acts 8:22). Therefore when God says, Do thus or thus, it is not for us to make excuses, but we must do the thing required.
Besides, God is pleased sometimes to answer the prayers of unbelievers. Indeed He hears not their prayers because of their goodness or acceptableness, or because of any true respect to Him manifested in them, for there is none; nor has He obliged Himself to answer such prayers. Yet He is pleased sometimes, of His sovereign mercy, to pity wicked men and hear their cries. Thus He heard the cries of the Ninevites (Jonah 3) and the prayer of Ahab (1 Ki 21:27,28). Though there be no regard to God in their prayers, yet He, of His infinite grace, is pleased to have respect to their desires for their own happiness and to grant their requests. He may, and sometimes does, hear the cries of wicked men, as He hears the hungry ravens when they cry (Ps 147:9) and as He opens His bountiful hand and satisfies the desires of every living thing (Ps 145:16). Besides, the prayers of sinners, though they have no goodness in them, yet are made a means of a preparation for mercy.
Finally, seeing we have such a prayer-hearing God as we have heard, let us be much employed in the duty of prayer; let us pray with all prayer and supplication; let us live prayerful lives, continuing instant in prayer, watching thereunto with all perseverance – praying always, without ceasing, earnestly and not fainting.
1. This sermon, which has the date 8 January 1736, was preached on a fast day “appointed on account of an epidemic of sickness east of Boston”. Edwards, the noted American theologian, was born 300 years ago and died at the age of 54 in1758. The sermon has been taken from vol 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. The first three heads, printed last month, were: (1.) The Most High is a God that hears prayer. (2.) He is eminently such a God. (3.) Herein He is distinguished from all false gods.