This Psalm seems to be written either as a psalm of praise to God for some remarkable answer of prayer, in the bestowing of some public mercy; or else on the occasion of some special faith and confidence which David had that his prayer would be answered. It is probable that this mercy bestowed, or expected to be bestowed, was some great public mercy for which David had been very earnest and importunate, and that he had vowed to God that, if He would grant him his request, he would render Him praise and glory. This seems to be the reason why he expresses himself as he does in the first verse of the psalm: “Praise waiteth for Thee, O God, in Sion; and unto Thee shall the vow be performed” – that is, that praise waiteth for Thee which I have vowed to give Thee on the answer of my prayer, to be given Thee as soon as Thou shalt have answered my prayer; and the vow which I made to Thee shall be performed.
In the text, there is a prophecy of the glorious times of the gospel, when “all flesh shall come” to the true God, as to the God who heareth prayer, which is here mentioned as what distinguishes the true God from the gods to whom the nations prayed and sought, those gods who cannot hear and cannot answer their prayer. The time was coming when all flesh should come to that God who does hear prayer. Hence we gather this doctrine: It is the character of the Most High, that He is a God who hears prayer.
I shall handle this point in the following method:
- Show that the Most High is a God that hears prayer.
- Show that He is eminently such a God.
- Show that herein He is distinguished from all false gods.
- Give the reasons of the doctrine.
1. The Most High is a God that hears prayer. Though He is infinitely above all and stands in no need of creatures, yet He is graciously pleased to take a merciful notice of poor worms of the dust. He manifests Himself as the object of prayer, appears as sitting on a mercy seat that men may come to Him by prayer. When they stand in need of anything, He allows them to come and ask it of Him and He is wont to hear their prayers. God in His Word hath given many promises that He will hear their prayers; the Scripture is full of such examples; and in His dispensations towards His Church He manifests Himself to be a God that hears prayer. Here it may be inquired, What is meant by God hearing prayer? Two things are implied:
1. His accepting the supplications of those who pray to Him. Their address to Him is well taken; He is well pleased with it. He approves of their asking such mercies as they request of Him, and approves of their manner of doing it. He accepts of their prayers as an offering to Him; He accepts the honour they do Him in prayer.
2. He acts agreeably to His acceptance. He sometimes manifests His acceptance of their prayers by special discoveries of His mercy and sufficiency which He makes to them in prayer or immediately after. While they are praying, He gives them sweet views of His glorious grace, purity, sufficiency and sovereignty and enables them with great quietness to rest in Him, to leave themselves and their prayers with Him, submitting to His will and trusting in His grace and faithfulness. Such a manifestation God seems to have made of Himself to Hannah in prayer, which quieted and composed her mind and took away her sadness. We read (1 Sam 1) how earnest she was and how exercised in her mind, and that she was a woman of a sorrowful spirit. But she came and poured out her soul before God and spoke out of the abundance of her complaint and grief; then we read that she went away and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad (v 13), which seems to have been from some refreshing discoveries which God had made of Himself to her to enable her quietly to submit to His will and to trust in His mercy, whereby God manifested His acceptance of her.
Not that I conclude persons can hence argue that the particular thing which they ask will certainly be given them, or that they can particularly foretell from it what God will do in answer to their prayers, any further than He has promised in His Word. Yet God may, and doubtless does, thus testify His acceptance of their prayers, and from hence they may confidently rest in His providence, in His merciful ordering and disposing, with respect to the thing which they ask.
Again, God manifests His acceptance of their prayers, by doing for them agreeably to their needs and supplications. He not only inwardly and spiritually discovers His mercy to their souls by His Spirit, but outwardly by dealing mercifully with them in His providence in consequence of their prayers, and by causing an agreeableness between His providence and their prayers.
2. The Most High is eminently a God that hears prayer. This appears in several things:
1. In His giving such free access to Him by prayer. God in His Word manifests Himself ready at all times to allow us this privilege. He sits on a throne of grace, and there is no veil to hide this throne and keep us from it. The veil is rent from the top to the bottom; the way is open at all times; and we may go to God as often as we please. Although God be infinitely above us, yet we may come with boldness: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). How wonderful is it that such worms as we should be allowed to come boldly at all times to so great a God! Thus God indulges all kinds of persons, of all nations, “unto . . . all that in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours; grace be unto you” (1 Cor 1:2,3). Yea, God allows the most vile and unworthy; the greatest sinners are allowed to come through Christ.
And He not only allows, but encourages, and frequently invites them – yea, manifests Himself as delighting in being sought to by prayer: “The prayer of the upright is His delight” (Prov 15:8). And in Song 2:14 we have Christ saying to the spouse, “O My dove, let Me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice”. The voice of the saints in prayer is sweet unto Christ; He delights to hear it. He allows them to be earnest and importunate – yea, to the degree of taking no denial and, as it were, to give Him no rest, and even encouraging them so to do: “Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give Him no rest” (Is 62:6,7). Thus Christ encourages us in the parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). So also in the parable of the man who went to his friend at midnight (Luke 11:5).
Thus God allowed Jacob to wrestle with Him, yea, to be resolute in it: “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me”. It is noticed with approbation when men are violent for the kingdom of heaven and take it by force. Thus Christ suffered the blind man to be most importunate and unceasing in his cries to Him (Luke 18:38,39). He continued crying, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me”. Others who were present rebuked him, that he should hold his peace – looking upon it as too great a boldness, and an indecent behaviour towards Christ, thus to cry after Him as He passed by. But Christ did not rebuke him, but stood and commanded him to be brought unto Him, saying, “What wilt thou that I should do to thee?” And when the blind man had told Him, Christ graciously granted his request. The freedom of access that God gives appears also in allowing us to come to Him by prayer for everything we need, both temporal and spiritual, whatever evil we need to be delivered from or good we would obtain. “Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil 4:6).
2. That God is eminently of this character appears in His hearing prayer so readily. He often manifests His readiness to hear prayer by giving an answer so speedily, sometimes while they are yet speaking, and sometimes before they pray, when they only have a design of praying. So ready is God to hear prayer that He takes notice of the first purpose of praying and sometimes bestows mercy thereupon: “And it shall come to pass that, before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Is 65:24). We read that, when Daniel was making humble and earnest supplication, God sent an angel to comfort him and to assure him of an answer (Dan 9:20-24). When God defers for the present to answer the prayer of faith, it is not from any backwardness to answer, but for the good of His people sometimes – that they may be better prepared for the mercy before they receive it, or because another time would be the best and fittest on some other account. And even then, when God seems to delay an answer, the answer is indeed hastened, as in Luke 18:7,8: “And shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.” Sometimes, when the blessing seems to tarry, God is even then at work to bring it about in the best time and the best manner: “Though it tarry, wait for it; it will come, it will not tarry” (Hab 2:3).
3. That the Most High is eminently one that hears prayer appears by His giving so liberally in answer to prayer: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not” (Jas 1:5,6). Men often show their backwardness to give, both by the scantiness of their gifts, and by upbraiding those who ask of them. They will be sure to put them in mind of some faults when they give them anything; but, on the contrary, God both gives liberally and upbraids us not with our undeservings. He is plenteous and rich in His communications to those who call upon Him: “Thou art good and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon Thee” (Ps 86:5); and: “There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him” (Rom 10:12).
Sometimes God not only gives the thing asked, but He gives them more than is asked. So He did to Solomon: “Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart, so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches and honour; so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee, all thy days” (1 Ki 3:12,13). Yea, God will give more to His people than they can either ask or think, as is implied in Ephesians 3:20: “Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think”.
4. That God is eminently of this character appears by the greatness of the things which He hath often done in answer to prayer. Thus when Esau was coming out against his brother Jacob with 400 men, without doubt fully resolved to cut him off, Jacob prayed and God turned the heart of Esau, so that he met Jacob in a very friendly manner (Gen 32). So in Egypt, at the prayer of Moses, God brought those dreadful plagues, and at his prayer removed them again. When Samson was ready to perish with thirst, he prayed to God, and He brought water out of a dry jawbone for his supply (Jud 15:18,19). And when he prayed after his strength was departed from him, God strengthened him so as to pull down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines – so that those whom he slew at his death were more than all those whom he slew in his life.
Joshua prayed to God, and said, “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon, and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon”; and God heard his prayer and caused the sun and moon to stand still accordingly. The prophet Elijah “was a man of like passion” with us, “and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit” as the apostle James observes (5:17,18). So God confounded the army of Zerah, the Ethiopian, of a thousand thousand, in answer to the prayer of Asa (2 Chron 14:9ff). And God sent an angel and slew in one night 185 000 men of Sennacherib’s army, in answer to Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Ki 19:14-16,19,35).
5. This truth appears in that God is, as it were, overcome by prayer. When God is displeased by sin, He manifests His displeasure, comes out against us in His providence and seems to oppose and resist us. In such cases God is, speaking after the manner of men, overcome by humble and fervent prayer. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas 5:16); it has a great power in it. Such a prayer-hearing God is the Most High that He graciously manifests Himself as conquered by it. Thus God appeared to oppose Jacob in what he sought of Him; yet Jacob was resolute and overcame. Therefore God changed his name from Jacob to Israel; for, says He, “as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Gen 32:28). A mighty prince indeed! “Yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept and made supplication unto Him” (Hos 12:4). When His anger was provoked against Israel, and He appeared to be ready to consume them in His hot displeasure, Moses stood in the gap, and by his humble and earnest prayer and supplication averted the stroke of divine vengeance (Ex 32:9ff and Num 14:11ff).
3. Herein the most high God is distinguished from false gods. The true God is the only one of this character; there is no other of whom it may be said that he heareth prayer. Many of those things that are worshipped as gods are idols made by their worshippers, mere stocks and stones that know nothing. They are indeed made with ears, but they hear not the prayers of them that cry to them. They have eyes, but they see not (Ps 115:5,6). Others, though not the work of men’s hands, yet are things without life. Thus many worship the sun, moon and stars, which, though glorious creatures, yet are not capable of knowing anything of the wants and desires of those who pray to them.
Some worship certain kinds of animals, as the Egyptians were wont to worship bulls, which, though not without life, yet are destitute of that reason whereby they would be capable of knowing the requests of their worshippers. Others worship devils instead of the true God: “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils” (1 Cor 10:20). These, though beings of great powers, have not the knowledge necessary to capacitate them fully to understand the state, circumstances, necessities and desires of those who pray to them. But the true God perfectly knows the circumstances of every one that prays to Him throughout the world. Though millions pray to Him at once, in different parts of the world, it is no more difficult for Him who is infinite in knowledge to take notice of all than of one alone. God is so perfect in knowledge that He doth not need to be informed by us in order to have a knowledge of our wants, for He knows what things we need before we ask Him. The worshippers of false gods were wont to lift their voices and cry aloud, lest their gods should fail of hearing them, as Elijah tauntingly bid the worshippers of Baal do (1 Ki 18:27). But the true God hears the silent petitions of His people. He needs not that we should cry aloud; yea, He knows and perfectly understands when we only pray in our hearts, as Hannah did (1 Sam 1:13).
Idols are but vanities and lies; in them is no help. As to power or knowledge, they are nothing; as the apostle says, “An idol is nothing in the world” (1 Cor 8:4). As to images, they are so far from having power to answer prayer that they are not able to act; “they have hands, and handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat”. They therefore that make them and pray to them are senseless and sottish and make themselves, as it were, stocks and stones like unto them (Ps 115:7,8). And “they are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil; neither also is it in them to do good” (Jer 10:5). As to the hosts of heaven, the sun, moon and stars, although mankind receive benefit by them, yet they act only by necessity of nature; therefore they have no power to do anything in answer to prayers. And devils, though worshipped as gods, are not able, if they had disposition, to make those happy who worship them, and can do nothing at all but by divine permission, and as subject to the disposal of divine providence.
When the children of Israel departed from the true God to idols, and yet cried to Him in their distress, He reproved them for their folly by bidding them cry to the gods whom they had served, for deliverance in the time of their tribulation (Jos 10:14). So God challenges those gods themselves, “Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods; yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed and behold it together. Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought; an abomination is he that chooseth you” (Is 41:23,24). These false gods, instead of helping those who pray to them, cannot help themselves. The devils are miserable tormented spirits; they are bound in chains of darkness for their rebellion against the true God and cannot deliver themselves. Nor have they any more disposition to help mankind than a parcel of hungry wolves or lions would have to protect and help a flock of lambs. And those that worship and pray to them do not get their goodwill by serving them; all the reward that Satan will give them for the service which they do him is to devour them.
1. This sermon, dated 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, on October 5; he died in 1758. The sermon has been taken from vol 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. The two-volume set is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.