LUTHER’S maxim, “To pray well is to study well,” is very appropriate for all of us in our duty to understand the Scriptures, whether we are ministers or elders, believers or unbelievers, parents or children.
We cannot overvalue a knowledge of the Scriptures. “But yet the knowledge we especially commend,” said the Westminster divines in their Epistle to the Reader in the Confession of Faith, “is not a brain-knowledge, a mere speculation; this may be in the worst of men, nay, in the worst of creatures, the devils themselves, and that in such an eminency, as the best of saints cannot attain to in this life of imperfection; but an inward, a savoury, an heart knowledge, such as was in that martyr, who, though she could not dispute for Christ, could die for him.” 1
This spiritual knowledge is to be sought by prayer, as well by searching the Scriptures. We must plead: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” Psalm 119:18. In commenting on these words, W. S. Plumer says, “It is vain for us to hope for increase in saving knowledge, except as we get light and wisdom from above.” 2 There is a necessary connection between prayer and understanding the truth. It would be well for us therefore to follow the advice of Thomas Boston, “Beg of and look to Him for His Spirit. For the Spirit, who dictated it, is He by whom we must savingly understand it; For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God,’ 1 Cor. 2:11.” 3
Robert Shaw says that although the Scriptures are clear in themselves, “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in them. This arises from the blindness and perversity of the human understanding, as now corrupted and depraved (see1 Cor. 2:14). If the enlightening influences of the Holy Spirit were unnecessary, then the greatest adept in human literature would be best acquainted with the Scriptures; this, however, is not the case (see Matt. 11:25). In the promises of God, and the prayers of the saints, the special illumination of the Spirit is represented as necessary to enable us savingly to understand the things of God. (see John 14:26, Psl. 119:18, etc.)” 4
Like the saints of old, we are to seek to know the truth and to have it as our daily bread. “You are bidden to pray for your daily bread, and it must cost you sweat besides,” says Thomas Goodwin; “and do you think to have bread of heaven without praying daily for it, and that sweating in prayer also? When the keys are laid aside that should unlock the cupboard, whence the children should have bread, they are like to lose their suppers. Now these keys are prayers.” 5
John Owen says that we are to “labour in our prayers that He would enlighten our minds and lead us into the knowledge of the truth. . . The importance of this grace unto our faith and obedience, the multiplied promises of God concerning it, our necessity of it from our natural weakness, ignorance, and darkness, should render it a principal part of our daily supplications. Especially is this incumbent on them who are called in an especial manner to search the Scriptures’ and to declare the mind of God in them unto others.” 6
Owen adds, “I shall, therefore, fix this assertion as a sacred truth: Whoever, in the diligent and immediate study of the Scripture to know the mind of God therein so as to do it, doth abide in fervent supplications, in and by Jesus Christ, for supplies of the Spirit of grace, to lead him into all truth, to reveal and make known unto him the truth as it is in Jesus, to give him an understanding of the Scriptures and the will of God therein, he shall be preserved from pernicious errors, and attain that degree in knowledge as shall be sufficient unto the guidance and preservation of the life of God in the whole of his faith and obedience.” 7
If the private Christian needs to pray for divine aid in interpreting the Scriptures, much more does the man who has the duty of teaching the truth to others. “Yea, I must say,” declares John Owen, “that for a man to undertake the interpretation of any part or portion of Scripture in a solemn manner, without invocation of God to be taught and instructed by His Spirit, is a high provocation of Him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from anyone who so proudly and ignorantly engageth in a work so much above his ability to manage. I speak this of solemn and stated interpretations; for otherwise a scribe ready furnished for the kingdom of God’ may, as he hath occasion, from the spiritual light and understanding wherewith he is endued, and the stores he hath already received, declare the mind of God unto the edification of others. But this is the first means to render our studying of the Scripture useful and effectual unto the end aimed at. This is the sheet-anchor of a faithful expositor of the Scripture, which he betakes himself unto in all difficulties; nor can he without it be led into a comfortable satisfaction that he hath attained the mind of the Holy Ghost in any divine revelation. When all other helps fail, as he shall in most places find them to do, if he be really intent on the disquisition of truth, this will yield him his best relief.” 8 Owen himself was mighty in the Scriptures because he practised what he preached.
Many ministering servants of the Lord have left on record, or have had recorded of them, the great assistance they received when they cast themselves on the Lord and waited on Him. “Luther,” said Thomas Brooks, “professeth that he profited more in the knowledge of the Scriptures by prayer, in a short space, than by study in a longer.” 9 We read of R. M. M’Cheyne: “Anxious to give his people on the Sabbath what had cost him somewhat, he never, without an urgent reason, went before them without much previous meditation and prayer. His principle on this subject was embodied in a remark he made to some of us who were conversing on the matter. Being asked his view of diligent preparation for the pulpit, he reminded us of Exodus 27:20 and said, ‘Beaten oil – beaten oil for the lamps of the sanctuary’.”10 “He endeavoured at all times to preach the mind of the Spirit in a passage; for he feared that to do otherwise would be to grieve the Spirit of God who had written it. Interpretation was thus a solemn matter to him.” 11
The Rev. John Kennedy, Dingwall, was second to none, in the Highlands of Scotland and beyond, in unfolding the Scriptures, a fact that was undoubtedly the result of his being great in prayer. A godly man, Colin Forsyth, Killearnan, said of him, “He became a man of prayer before he became a preacher, and to my mind his prayers were always ahead of his preaching.” 12 At the early age of 21 we find him saying in his diary, “Experienced while engaged in prayer somewhat of soul satisfaction in viewing the sufferings of Christ”; “Engaged in reading and prayer. Felt somewhat of the power of the amazing love of Christ”; “In prayer I was led to a clear view of the security of those who are in Christ.” 13 Another Dingwall minister, the Rev. Donald Macfarlane, “had a special gift in getting at the meaning of the passage he was expounding, especially in its relation to the context,” his biographer tells us. “No preacher we ever listened to excelled him in this gift.” 14 He too was eminent in prayer. This is what he recorded in his diary one Saturday after praying in connection with the words of Isaiah 40:31, which came to his mind “with some degree of light and hope”: “I need the teaching of the Holy Spirit. He leads into the truth, and brings to remembrance the words which Christ had spoken.” 15 In 1904 he renewed a covenant with God, whom he thus addressed, “Make me more faithful in my endeavours to declare Thy whole counsel as that counsel is contained in the Bible, Thine own inspired Word. For this end grant me Thy Holy Spirit that I may grow in grace and that He may open my understanding to understand the Scriptures and enable me to divide the Word of truth aright.” 16
It was therefore good advice which C. H. Spurgeon gave to his students, “Your prayers will be your ablest assistants while your discourses are yet upon the anvil. While other men, like Esau, are hunting for their portion, you, by the aid of prayer, will find the savoury meat near at home, and may say in truth what Jacob said so falsely, ‘The Lord brought it to me.’. . Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer. How wonderfully were the books opened to Daniel when he was in supplication. How much Peter learned upon the housetop. The closet is the best study.” 17
Private prayer, said Thomas Brooks, is a key for the opening of the Scriptures. “There are many choice, secret, hidden, and mysterious truths and doctrines in the gospel, which Christ reveals to His people, that this poor, blind, ignorant world are strangers to. There are many secrets wrapped up in the plainest truths and doctrines of the gospel, which none can effectually open and reveal but the Spirit of the Lord, that searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. . .There are many that know the doctrine of the gospel, the history of the gospel, that are mere strangers to the secrets of the gospel. There is a secret power, a secret authority, a secret efficacy, a secret prevalency, a secret goodness, a secret sweetness in the gospel, that none experience but those to whom the Lord is pleased to impart gospel secrets.” 18
We leave with you this searching but encouraging quotation from Thomas Brooks, “Private prayer is a golden key to unlock the mysteries of the Word unto us. The knowledge of many choice and blessed truths are but the returns of private prayer. The Word dwells most richly in their hearts who are most in pouring out their hearts before God in their closets.” 19 Surely these words say to us, “Go, and do thou likewise.”
1. The Westminster Cinfession of Faith, p. 4.
2. Studies in the Book of Psalms, W. S. Plumer, p. 1030.
3. The Beauties of Boston, edited by Samuel M’Millan, p. 6.
4. The Reformed Faith – An Exposition of the Confession of Faith, Robert Shaw, p.18.
5. The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., Vol. 4, p. 256.
6. The Works of John Owen, Vol. 4, p.202.
7. Ibid. p. 204.
8. Ibid., p. 205
9. The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Vol.1, p. 292
10. Memoir and Remains of R. M. M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar, p. 52.
11. Ibid., p. 64
12. Life of John Kennedy, D.D., Alexander Auld, p. 7.
13. Ibid., pp. 12, 13, 25.
14. Memoir and Remains of Rev. Donald Macfarlane, Donald Beaton, p.66.
15. Ibid., p. 114.
16. Ibid., p. 146.
17. Lectures to my Students – First Series, C. H. Spurgeon, p. 41.
18. The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Vol. 2, p. 186.
19. Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks, compiled by C. H. Spurgeon, p. 194.