The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass, when Solomon had finished the building of the house of the LORD, and the king's house, and all Solomon's desire which he was pleased to do,Solomon's Prayer Answered
1 Kings 9
WE have just studied that most wonderful prayer of ancient history, and have been charmed first with its spiritual music; then with its great intellectual conception; then with its appreciation of human necessities, and altogether with its fine, genial, kingly sympathy with all classes and conditions of men. Placing ourselves at this point of history, and listening to the noble supplication which the king poured out to the majesty of heaven, we say instinctively, Never man prayed like this man: nothing has been omitted from the desire of his love; this man is not only king but subject, student, historian, philosopher, statesman, saint: the whole register of the human mind seems to be covered by this king whilst he is bending before high heaven, and talking to the sovereign and Father of the universe about profound subjects and immediate human necessities. Now the prayer is done. We have seen Solomon rise from his knees, and unclasp his hands, and stretch them forth and bless the people; and thus opening a new page in the history of Israel, and thus representing the dawn of a new era, in which surely there could have been no rebellion, no unkindness, no alienation, no war, no sin.
The prayer is done. It is doubled by the Amen of all the people who listened to it Now what has become of that prayer? Can such eloquence be lost? Will even the wind itself care nothing for it—or will it keep it as music, and breathe it upon the coming days, to tell them what did happen in the brightest hours of the Israelitish history? Do such events go for nothing? Do such prayers perish in the air? Lay the emphasis upon the word such. Do not speak merely of prayers, because that sacred word may be so coldly spoken as to be deprived of all spirit, fire, impulse, and vital meaning; but such prayer—so complete in its range, so exquisite in its expression, so sympathetic in its whole spirit. If that can be lost, it is useless to talk about immortality; for this prayer is the soul, and if it be can lost—burst into air and nothingness—then immortality is but a phrase, and the hope of it a wild man's dream. It is in vain to talk about the immortality of the soul if what the soul does be wholly mortal: if its noblest thoughts, its finest poetry, its loftiest aspirations, its sweetest charities all go for nothing: what a mockery to the soul itself that it shall keep beating and throbbing on while all the beating and throbbing must end in nothingness! We argue the immortality of the soul from what may be termed the necessary immortality of all goodness, brightness, music, vital affection, and sacrificial sympathy.
What became of the prayer? Read the third verse: "And the Lord said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me." The man who offered such a prayer was not likely to turn immediately to the practice of lying. There are some things we cannot believe. Who could think, after having heard the great prayer, that no sooner had the Amen died from the quivering lip than that same lip gave hospitality to falsehood, began to tell lies, and to bear iniquitous testimony in the face and hearing of the people? We have, then, this point to deal with, and it is not a light point. If we deny the prayer, we must not make the suppliant himself a liar. He thinks he was answered: he says he was answered; he gives the words of the answer. It is injustice, therefore, to treat all this as so much verbiage, or to charge a perverted imagination upon the man who uttered this prayer. If the prayer had not been before us it would have been easier to charge Solomon with a species of fanatical spiritual extravagance: but unfortunately for the hostile critic the prayer itself is here, open to intellectual and literary inquiry, as well as to spiritual and religious inquest; and our contention is that the man who could utter such a prayer could not turn round from the altar and say he had received what had never been bestowed upon him. We have personal testimony, therefore, in the instance of Solomon to the truthfulness of the doctrine that prayer is answered. Nor does the personal testimony lie in the remote region of ancient history alone. It is the testimony of men today. They feel by the warmth of the soul that the sun has not been far away; they feel by the enlargement and sweetening of charity that they have touched at least the hem of the Saviour's garment; they know by the dissolving of the cloud, the clearing-up of the perplexity, and the new gladness in the soul, that some communication has come from heaven. This is our testimony and we abide by it; we live in it. If we had not this testimony we could not pray again, for our life is too precious to ourselves to be wasted in an eternal process of doing nothing. The answer of one prayer is the inspiration of another. Christians should be more positive and definite with regard to this matter of prayer. They should bear their testimony less hesitantly; nay, they should bear it more gratefully, not with any audacity or boasting, but with simplicity, and with a sense of what is due to him who has communicated to the heart assurances and comforts which have made that heart strong.
Was the answer worthy of God? We reply: It was a great answer, and, therefore, was by so much worthy of him who "is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." Solomon had desired in this prayer (see chap. 1Kings 8:52) "that thine eyes may be open unto the supplication of thy servant." Solomon desired that God's eyes might be upon the temple. What does God reply? He says, "Mine eyes shall be there perpetually." But that is simply covering the line of the prayer, and not extending that line by one point Then look again; for we must have omitted somewhat in our quotation—"Mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually" (1Kings 9:3). Solomon asked for observation: God promised the presence of His heart: his love should glow in the place; his heart should be rendered available to the uses of the people. A sanctuary without a heart! what is it but a gilded sepulchre? What men want in the sanctuary is God's heart—that great love-presence, that holy love-inspiration, that peculiar sympathy which touches human life at every point, and fills the house with a sense of impartiality as if all might equally enjoy according to individual capacity the love and light and help which come from heaven. When we are called upon, then, to bear testimony to answered prayer, we must not allow ourselves to be limited by these terms. If God merely answered prayer, then in some sort would our minds be equal to God's mind; for we had measured exactly the capacity and precisely the blessing required for the occasion. God never under-answers his people: it is a denial full of love, or an answer which surprises the receiver by its redundance of blessing.
Does the answer end with the third verse? Was the transaction so easy—a great prayer and a generous reply without detail? The answer proceeds much further: it was a conditional reply. Hear these modifying and guarding words:—"And if thou wilt walk before me" (1Kings 9:4); "But if ye shall at all turn from following me" (1Kings 9:6). This is sad; yet it gives one deepening confidence in the answer itself. Even from the modifications of the reply we may argue the solidity and significance of the answer. The very cautions may be so interpreted as to leave no doubt about the reality. Thus it is great life comes; thus it is that liberty is limited, and becomes, as we have ever seen in these studies, only liberty to obey. God's promises are hinged upon explicit conditions. Ye have not because ye ask not, or because ye ask amiss. And the lightnings cannot run so quickly as God's thoughts run, and as God's judgments find their way upon the earth amongst the children of men; if, between offering the prayer and receiving the answer, we have had one contrary thought, one unholy impulse, or have done one unworthy deed, the message may be spoiled even in the course of its transmission from heaven, and may come down upon us like a dagger, or like a blast of fire, scorching the men it was intended to bless. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Did the matter end even there? God would surely terminate his communication with a caution rather than with a judgment? No: "Then will I cut off Israel." (1Kings 9:7.) It is like cutting off his right hand; but he will do it! Read the awful words in an appropriate tone—"Then will I cut off Israel," a tone full of reluctance, pathos, heartbreak. He would rather shut up the constellations, and turn back the sun; but he will do it! He cannot afford to do otherwise. The universe without righteousness is a contradiction in terms. There must be law at the head of things and the heart of things. Our security is in this very spirit of judgment. We tremble before it, and wonder why God cannot mitigate the severity of his judgment, forgetting that the severity of God is as the rock which underlies the soil on which the flowers bloom. Nor does the matter end here. The temple itself shall go for nothing when Israel turns away from God. We have seen the great pile—great, not in dimensions, but in costliness and value—rising course by course; we have seen cedar wood overlaid with gold; we have seen the hinges of the doors to be of gold, and the lamp, and the bowl, and the spoons, and the snuffers to be all of gold: we have seen the temple on Mount Moriah, a high place, seen from afar. God will love the temple whatever the people may do? No: "And at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss" (1Kings 9:8). The house is nothing if the child be wrong. Home is "sweet home" no more when the hearts that make it are perverted and full of bitterness. Write Ichabod upon the house, for God hath forsaken his temple when the people who inhabit it have turned away from his commandments and followed inventions and impulses of their own. Think of the temple being hissed at; men wagging their heads as they pass by it, and calling it by contemptuous names, saying, "Because they forsook the Lord their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the Lord brought upon them all this evil" (1Kings 9:9). So it shall be with our professions. The very greatness of our services shall be the measure of the contempt which is poured upon us in the day of our unfaithfulness. Evil spirits will laugh and say, "Ha, ha! hast thou become one of us? Thou wast son of the morning, favourite of the stars, brightest of the Pleiades,—hast thou left thy place and fallen down into our society?" To be mocked by our own prayers, to be taunted by our own professions, to be reminded of the days when our orthodoxy was without a speck, and then to be compelled to contrast our present selves, apostate and lost, with our former selves, when we held the key of heaven's door and could pray the day long and receive replies from God,—say, is there any torture keener, any anguish more exquisite, any hell so hot?
We have before us, then, the solemn lesson that it is possible to spoil our prayers by our disobedience. Whilst this is a solemn lesson, it is also one that is full of solid spiritual comfort. The universe is watched at both ends. There is no neglected spot in all the sanctuary; there is no corner consecrated to evil; the light smites every angle and fills the whole impartially. We cannot live upon public prayer, or Israel never could have died after the prayer of Solomon. That prayer was in itself a history, and seemed to fill up all that was needful once for all in the whole life of the people. But every man must pray for himself. It is good and profitable to hear the public prayer, to enjoy all the stimulus and comfort of Christian sympathy, and to know the confidence and warmth of spiritual masonry; but when the public prayer is said, each man must utter his own prayer, in his own way, according to his own pain and need; and God will communicate an answer to every suppliant. The heart knoweth its own bitterness. We cannot tell in open words and audible sounds all we want to say to God. Blessed be his name, he has been so condescending as to say, through Jesus Christ his Son, "When thou prayest"—poor bruised heart, poor needy soul, in-eloquent man, short of words, but feeling deeply—"When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret"—just in thine own way, brokenly, lispingly, feebly, self-correctingly, advancing so far into a sentence, and then withdrawing to amend it or abolish it or replace it; but in the secret closet have it out between yourselves—you and God—and stop there till you get the answer.
We cannot live upon a prayer—that is, an individual and specific prayer; but we are to live in the spirit of prayer. There is all the difference in the world between these two conditions. A prayer—that is, a single and particular prayer—may be an utterance once for all. Occasional prayer is not prayer. Perhaps we have not sufficiently considered that solid and vital doctrine. We cannot say to ourselves, Now we will at this particular time pray; and then allow a long time to elapse and probably pray again. That is not prayer at all. To neglect God, to have no commerce with heaven, until the darkness is intolerable, and the pain can no longer be borne, and the sense of loss creates a void in the life without width or depth that can be measured, and then to cry mightily for the divine pity, is not prayer; it has no relation to prayer; it must not be imported into the discussion of the utility or answerableness of prayer; it is a blot upon the religious imagination, and it is an irony in the exercise of the religious conscience. What then are we to do? We are to pray "without ceasing,"—that is, we are not only to pray, but to be prayers, to live our supplications, to breathe them always—not audibly, but in an undertone, in a secret whisper; we are to touch nothing with hands that have not first been lifted up to heaven. Then say whether prayer will not be answered! We have quarrels or controversies about the answers, when we ought to have had severe and unsparing inquest into the prayers themselves. Why contend about the reply, when we are not sure about the thing to which the reply was given? When we are in doubt about the answers given to prayer, let us change the point of doubt and fix it in our own prayers themselves, and say with profitable frankness to our own souls, The prayer was bad; the prayer was selfish; the prayer was not offered in the right name, the prayer was not baptised with the sacrificial blood of the Son of God; the prayer was an effort in words, it was not the sacrifice of a humble, meek, lowly, contrite heart. Fix the attention of men on that point, and the whole atmosphere of the controversy will be changed; and instead of wrangling in words, we shall be bowed down in self-accusation and self-judgment, and say, "We have not, because we have asked amiss."
Almighty God, thou dost answer the prayer of the heart, and put to rest the soul that would know thee through Jesus Christ thy Son—the sweet rest of conscious pardon, the glad rest of celestial hope, whereby we overcome all the tumult of the present excited time and already enjoy the calm of thine own heavens. Thou hast great blessings to give. All thy blessings are great. When our need is large and acute, then how wondrous is thy reply to the desire of the soul! Thou art able to do exceeding abundantly, above all that we ask or think. When we have beheld somewhat of thy glory, we exclaim with wonder and thankfulness, The half had not been told us! We thank God the half never can be told, nor any part of it: so large is the whole that any part of it is as nothing. Behold, to this high estate hast thou called us, to this inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. We bless thee for thy riches, O Christ; they are unsearchable riches. Thine is the wealth of eternity, thine the precious treasure of heaven; and out of thine abundant fulness thou dost give grace for grace, grace upon grace; and thou dost challenge us, so that we may bring an offering unto thine house and prove thee, that thou mayest open the windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing until there shall not be room to receive it. We rejoice that we come to a king with our prayers. They are answered by the very fact of thy listening: when thou dost incline thine ear, thou dost also extend thine hand. What men need thou knowest. All the wordless questions of the heart thou understandest. What we would say if we could, thou dost know. All our wonder and doubt, all our shame and fear, all our trust and hope,—behold, are not all these before thee in the clear daylight? and surely when we come thus in the name of Jesus, Name above every name, thou wilt grant us answers that will make us glad, thou wilt give us communications which will make us solemn and thankful. Thou knowest what each most needs, and no man can interpret his brother's sorrow in all its depth and tenderness: the heart knoweth its own bitterness. We beseech thee, therefore, to read what we cannot speak, to interpret the mystery for which there are no words we dare pronounce aloud; and thus give us secret communications from heaven, blessed messages from the healing skies, sweet gospels from the uplifting cross: then we shall be rich, and strong, and young, and glad, triumphing even whilst fighting, and standing in heaven, even whilst praying upon the earth. We would see Jesus; we would behold the Lamb of God; we would have our vision fixed upon him who is the Saviour of the world, and would be able by the anointing of the Holy Spirit to read the mystery of his pain, the secret of his blood-shedding, the marvel of his sacrifice. Whilst we look upon the Dying One, may the earth reel, and rocks rend, and may veils which separate men be torn down, and may all this great darkness prepare for heaven's morning. Amen.