The Prayer of the Backslider
Francis Bourdillon, 1864
"Though our iniquities testify against us — act, O LORD, for your name's sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you. O you hope of Israel, its Savior in time of trouble — why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night? Why should you be like a man confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot save? Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name — do not leave us."
O Lord, though our iniquities testify against us, do it for Your Name's sake: for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against You. O the hope of Israel, the Savior thereof in time of trouble, why should You be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turns aside to tarry for a night? Why should You be as a man astonished, as a mighty man that cannot save? Yet You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by Your Name; leave us not.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks here in the name of his people. He himself had not gone astray like them. Amid all the wickedness of Israel, he was the faithful servant of God. But he here pleads with God on their behalf, putting himself in their place, and making himself one of them. He begins with confession of sin: "Though our iniquities testify against us."
We must never try to hide our sins when we pray. We must approach God as sinners, with words of humble confession; owning all, seeking to keep nothing back. In drawing near to God, we must take our right place before Him. "Our iniquities testify against us." They do testify or bear witness against us continually. They are written in God's book of remembrance. There they stand against us in the sight of God, as so many witnesses that we are sinners. Whether we remember them or not, whether we are concerned for them or not — there they are. We ourselves cannot blot them out.
When a man is convinced of sin, then his iniquities testify against him also in his own heart. He never used to feel them — but now he feels them deeply. They come back to his mind, one by one. Old sins, long forgotten — he now remembers. Things that he did years ago — seem fresh in his memory. He sees how wrong, how ungrateful, he has been. He wonders that he has been spared. His sins are like a great burden — too heavy for him to bear.
Oh, the comfort of prayer to such a one! While David kept silence and made no confession of his sin — he was miserable. It was only when he acknowledged his sin unto God, that he found comfort (Psalm 32:3-5). How happy for us, that, notwithstanding our sins — we may yet seek mercy! "Though our iniquities testify against us — act, O LORD, for your name's sake." We may go to God in the depth of our distress. With all the weight of our sins upon us, we may seek relief from Him. "Sinner as I am — Lord have mercy upon me! As often as I have transgressed — yet forgive me Lord!" Do all that my case requires. Grant me pardon and peace. Take away my heavy sin burden. Forgive my sins. Comfort me, help me, and strengthen me.
"For Your Name's sake." This is our only plea. We cannot say, "Do it for my sake" — for we deserve nothing. We cannot even say, "Do it because I am miserable — do it because I am in great need of it — do it because I am lost without it." That may be all true — yet it forms no reason in itself why God should hear us.
But when we can say, "Act for Your Name's sake" — then we have a ground of hope; for then we rest our hope not upon ourselves or upon our misery and need — but upon God Himself.
The prayer of Jeremiah was before gospel days. We to whom the gospel has come, are encouraged to draw near to God in the Name of His dear Son Jesus Christ. He is our Mediator and Advocate. In His Name, all our prayers are to be made. It is not as a mere form that we are accustomed to end our prayers with the Name of Jesus, "through Jesus Christ our Lord," or "for Jesus Christ's sake." We are really to pray through Him — to rest our case upon His merits and mediation.
"For His sake" is to be the feeling of our hearts when we pray. We are to feel that in those words is contained the only reason why we may pray at all — and the only plea that gives us a hope of being heard!
Jesus Himself said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life — no man comes unto the Father but by Me." Happy for us that He said also, "If you shall ask anything in My Name — I will do it" (John 14:6, 14).
But the prophet in his prayer mentions backslidings as well as iniquities. Now there is something in backslidings that makes them seem to us even more hard to be forgiven than common sins. A backslider is one who once walked with God, but has now forsaken Him, or at least has grown cold and careless toward Him. A backslider is one who formerly sinned, repented, and was forgiven — but has now sinned again, and that worse perhaps than before.
It may be that this has happened repeatedly. It was so in Israel's case, for the prophet says, "Our backslidings are many." Will God forgive the backslider? Hear His own words: "Return, O backsliding Israel,' says the Lord; 'and I will not cause My anger to fall upon you — for I am merciful,' says the Lord, 'and I will not keep anger forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God" (Jeremiah 3:12-13).
And again: "I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely — for My anger is turned away from him" (Hosea 14:4).
Even the backslider then may draw near to God in the Name of Jesus Christ. His backslidings are a fresh reason for pleading that Name alone. He cannot plead that he will now serve God better and never fall away again — his past backslidings forbid it. He has nothing of his own to plead. He can but place his whole hope in his Savior's merits. "Act for Your Name's sake — for our backslidings are many — we have sinned against You."
How full of comfort are the names by which the prophet calls upon God! "O the hope of Israel, the Savior thereof in time of trouble!" God is our only hope — and Jesus is our only Savior. We may go astray from God and seek happiness from other sources; but if ever we would find true happiness and safety — then we must come back to God.
Trouble often brings the heart back to God and leads us again to cry to Him as our only hope and our only Savior. Often, in the day of adversity — we are led to see how vain are all other hopes — how little the world can do for us — and how poor is the comfort which the thought of our own doings can bring. Thus we are brought to our God and Savior, as our only refuge. He never fails those who trust in Him. He never turns away from those who earnestly seek Him. Even the backslider, taught by sad experience the evil of his backsliding — is not rejected when he again seeks God. Again he is allowed to call upon Him as his only hope. When all other help and comfort has failed — again he may seek help and comfort in Him.
Yet the prophet seems to address God as if He had become estranged from His people: "Why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night? Why should you be like a man confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot save?" Truly our sins and backslidings do make a distance and a strangeness between us and God. One who has left off walking with God feels this. He cannot pray as he used to pray. He no longer feels God near. He has no comforting sense of His grace and help. He knows that God is almighty — yet has no happy belief that God's power is put forth on his behalf. And even when he turns and seeks God again — he does not at once get back those happy feelings toward Him which once he had. Some comfort he finds, some sense of the mercy and love of his Savior — but not yet a settled peace. He has but a visit, a glimpse, a momentary comfort — "like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night"; he has not yet Christ abiding with him by the Spirit.
But we, like the prophet, may seek this abiding presence. We may plead with God that, as unworthy as we are — He will yet give us again the comfort of His help continually. He has promised to dwell with the contrite of heart. We may be sure that when, after all our backslidings, we draw near to Him in the Name of Jesus, with a penitent and contrite heart — He will hear us and bless us with His presence.
The prophet ventures to plead with God, the very name by which Israel was called, as the people of God; and even the tokens of His presence among them, though shown in displeasure. "Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name — do not leave us!"
The worst, the saddest thing that could happen to any would be that God should leave them — that He should cease to call them, leave off rebuking and chastising them, and give them up to follow their own way.
O God, our God, do not leave us! Rather than this, humble us, chastise us, afflict us — yet let us see some token of Your love; let us see that You have not given us up — do not leave us, neither forsake us, O God of our salvation. We have deserved to be left, for we have left You — yet do not leave us! We have not walked in a manner worthy of that holy Name by which we are called; yet it has pleased You in Your great goodness that we should be called Christians — by that sacred Name, and for His sake whose Name it is, because of His precious blood that was shed for us, and for His gracious intercession on our behalf — hear us and forgive us! Blot out our sins from Your book of remembrance — receive us, save us, and bless us. Amen.