Prayer, and its Answer
Preached on Thursday Evening, June 10th, 1841, at Zoar Chapel, London, by J. C. Philpot
"He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him." Psalm 91:15
In the words of the text, we find a promise given in them, or rather a declaration which is sealed with a promise—"He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him."
I. The DECLARATION–"He shall call upon me." But who is "he?" Unless we can settle who "he" is, we shall be all perplexed; we shall not be able to understand what the declaration is, or to whom the promise is made. And therefore, before we can get into the text, we must endeavor to ascertain who the person is to whom the declaration is made, and in whose heart the promise is sealed.
This "he" must be the same person who is spoken of throughout the whole psalm; and therefore the first verse will afford us a clue to the point. Generally speaking, through the Psalms and other parts of Scripture, there are clues, there are keys; and if we can only get the key in our hand, it will fit the lock—it will open up the psalm. And therefore my chief desire in reading a psalm for my own instruction and comfort, or in preaching from it, is to find out the key. If I can discover the clue, it seems to introduce me into the chambers; if I can get hold of the key, it seems to open the recesses, and lay bare the treasures of heavenly truth contained in them.
Then "he" that shall call upon the Lord is the same person that is spoken of in the first verse of this psalm. And this is said of him—"He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." Then every promise that is made in this psalm, and every declaration that is given in this psalm to a certain person, applies to that certain person spoken of in the first verse—the character described by these words, "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High." Then no man has any right to a single part of this psalm, no man has any interest in a single promise given in this psalm, no man has any divine acquaintance with the blessed mysteries couched in this psalm, whose name is not written in the first verse—whose experience is not such as the Holy Spirit has there traced out.
And who is this man, and what is his experience? It is "he who dwells in the secret place of the Most High." What is "the secret place of the Most High?" It is the same spot of which Asaph speaks in the seventy-third psalm—"Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their latter end." It is the spot of which the Lord speaks in Ezekiel—"I will be to them as a little sanctuary in all the countries where they shall come." Then this "secret place" is the secret bosom of God. It is an entrance by faith into Jehovah, who by a spiritual manifestation of Himself leads the soul into a spiritual acquaintance with Him. "The secret place of the Most High" is that solemn spot where Jehovah meets with the sinner in Christ, and where He opens up to him the riches of His mercy, and leads him into His bosom so as to read the secrets of His loving heart. It is called a "secret place," as corresponding with those words, "The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant." It is called a "secret place," as only known to the people to whom it is specially communicated. It is called a "secret place," because none can get into it—no, nor desire to get into it—except the Lord Himself, with His own mysterious hand, opens up to them a way into it, sets them down in it, and sweetly blesses them in it.
Then to be in "the secret place of the Most High" is to be brought into something like fellowship and acquaintance with God—something like communion, spiritual worship, divine communion; so as to know something of Him experimentally, and "run into" Him as "a strong tower," and there feel solemn safety. The "secret place of the Most High," then, is not to be got at by nature and by reason; flesh never entered there. "Flesh and blood" cannot enter the kingdom of God above; and flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God below. "I thank You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth," said Jesus, "that You have hid these things from the wise and prudent, and have revealed them unto babes." Therefore, they are "hid from the wise and prudent." It is that "path which no fowl knows, and which the vulture's eye has not seen." It is a secret hidden from all except those to whom God Himself is pleased by His Spirit specially to reveal it. And when He reveals it, He draws the soul by the powerful attractions of love, "with the cords of love, and the bands of a man," by mysterious attractions into that "secret place;" and then He begins to discover a little of those secrets which are stored up in the Son of God—a few of those secrets which are with those who fear God—a few of those secrets the communication of which makes a man spiritually and eternally wise.
"He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High," is one who more or less, as the Spirit leads him into it, abides there. "Abide in Me, and I in you; if a man abides not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered." When a man once gets, therefore, by faith into "the secret place of the Most High," he "abides" in it; not as a matter of constant experience, not that he can always feel sweet communion with God; but still it is his home. We all have our home, our fireside, the place where at night we lay our weary bodies down to rest; and it is our dwelling-place. We are not always there; some of us leave our homes in the morning to go about our business, and come back to our homes at night; but our affections are there, our heart is there, our family is there, and we look for evening-time to go home and rest there. It is our dwelling-house, and yet we are not always in it. So with this "secret place of the Most High; "it is the dwelling-place of the Christian—it is the house, the home where his affections are, where his treasure is, and to which his heart turns—but still he is not always there. He goes in and out, he goes abroad, and often leaves this sweet home. Yet it is his dwelling-place; because it is there, and there alone, he can solidly rest; it is there, and there alone, he can lie down, and feed and take pleasure.
Here is a soul, then, that is brought by faith, under the Spirit's operation, to know "the secret place of the Most High," that is, to have some spiritual acquaintance with God in Christ, to enter by faith into the secrets which Jehovah reveals, and to feel that the manifestation of those secrets to his soul makes his heaven here below, and constitutes the real rest and satisfaction of his heart. And to this character all the promises in the Psalms are made; he is savingly interested in every covenant promise that is there uttered by the mouth of God Himself; and every one of those covenant promises shall be fulfilled in him, and shall be fulfilled for him.
1. But the Lord has attached (I will not call it a condition, as it is a word I abhor)—the Lord has attached a declaration, which declaration is linked on with a promise. The Lord has appointed a certain path, wherein the soul is to walk. The walking in that path is a necessary step to obtain the blessing that lies at the end of the path. It is no condition to be performed by the creature; it is nothing that springs out of, or depends upon, human will or human merit; but it hangs upon the Lord's appointment. God has connected certain promises with certain appointments; he has connected certain deliverances with certain trials; he has connected certain blessings with certain states and positions of soul. Therefore, if we are to get at the blessing, we must get at it through God's appointment. If we are to reach the home, we must travel by that road which leads to it. Therefore, "what God has joined together, let no man"—and no man ever can—"put asunder."
Now the Lord has, in the text, declared a certain path; He has made a positive declaration; and to this positive appointment He has graciously annexed a certain promise—"He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him." Then the declaration is as certain as the promise; the one is as much of divine decree as the other; and he who walks not in the path will not have the promise which is connected with that path. In this sense, and in this sense only, can we understand the conditions of Scripture—the ifs, God having linked things together, which are both of His sovereign decree, which are both of His eternal appointment, and which the Spirit graciously brings His people into, and blessedly works in their hearts and consciences. Thus, it is no matter of free-will, it is no matter of man's righteousness or man's wisdom, whether we shall "call upon God." It is appointed he should call upon Him. God has said in positive terms (and His "I will" and His "he shall" never can be broken)—"he shall call upon Me." It therefore does not rest with the creature whether he will call upon Him or not; it is not a matter poised in the balances of the creature, whether he shall pray or not. God has not left it to man, whether he shall take up prayer or lay aside prayer, but He has made it a part of His own sovereign appointments, of His own eternal decrees, which can no more be frustrated than salvation itself. Therefore, this soul that "dwells in the secret place of the Most High"—"he shall call upon God." It is not left to him, whether he will call or not; but it stands in the way of eternal decree, in a way of sovereign good pleasure. And, therefore, he must call upon God, because God has said that He shall.
But though this stands in the way of eternal decree, though this rests upon the basis of divine sovereignty, God does not work it in the soul in that manner. He does not come in a dry doctrinal way into a man's conscience, and say—"I have appointed you to pray, and therefore pray you must." He does not come with an abstract truth, which is written in a man's judgment, like a rule of arithmetic, for the man to set to work upon the abstract truth as a child at school sets to work upon his mathematics. The Lord does not work in that manner; but He works by raising up certain feelings, by communicating certain desires, by kindling certain wants, by bringing the soul into certain states, and by pouring out the Spirit of grace and of supplication upon it—all of which tend to that point, to which He is leading the soul, and all which spring out of God's sovereign and eternal appointment.
"He shall call upon Me." When shall he call? Why, when the Lord pours out "the Spirit of grace and of supplication," when the Lord lays desires upon his heart, when the Lord brings conviction into his conscience, when the Lord brings trouble into his soul, when the Lord draws forth that "Spirit of grace and of supplication" which He has poured out, when the Lord is graciously pleased to draw forth faith into blessed exercise, and to enable the soul to pour out its desires, and to offer up its fervent breathings at His feet, and to give them out as He gives them in. Then to call upon the Lord is no point of duty which is to be attended to as a duty; it is no point of legal constraint, which must be done because the Word of God speaks of it; but it is a feeling, an experience, an inward work, which springs from the Lord's hand, and which flows in the Lord's own divine channel.
Thus when the Lord is pleased to pour out this "Spirit of grace and supplication," we must pray; but we do not pray because we must; we pray because we have no better occupation, we have no more earnest desire, we have no more powerful feeling, and we have no more invincible and irresistible constraint. The child of God in trouble must groan and sigh; he does not say, "Eight o'clock has come, twelve o'clock has come, six o'clock has come, now I will groan, now I will sigh a little, I will take out my Bible, and begin to groan, and to sigh;" that is nothing but the groan of the hypocrite, it is nothing but the sigh of the self-deceiving professor. The living child of God groans and sighs because it is the expression of his desires, because it is a language which pours forth the feelings of his heart, because groans and sighs are pressed out of him by the heavy weight upon him.
A man lying in the street with a heavy weight upon him will call for help; he does not say, "It is my duty to cry to the passers-by for help," he cries for help because he needs to be delivered. A man with a broken leg does not say, "It is my duty to send for a surgeon;" he needs him to set the limb. And a man in a raging disease does not say, "It is my duty to send for a physician;" he needs him, to heal his disease. So, when God the Holy Spirit works in a child of God, he prays, not out of a sense of duty, but out of a burdened heart. He prays, because he cannot but pray; he groans, because he must groan; he sighs, because he must sigh; having an inward weight, an inward burden, an inward experience, in which, and out of which, he is compelled to call upon the Lord.
And I never think anything of a man's religion which did not begin in this way. If a man's religion (so-called) began in any other way than by the Lord's bringing him to know himself as a sinner before Him, and except those convictions of sin were accompanied by "the Spirit of grace and supplication," whereby he was enabled to pour out his soul into the bosom of God, and to sigh, and cry, and groan, "being burdened," I never can believe that man's religion began by God's internal teaching. I know mine began so; and I have always stood firm upon this foundation, that a religion that does not begin with the sighs, and groans, and pourings out of the soul to God under the pourings in of the Spirit, is a religion that began in the flesh, and never sprang from the mighty operation of God in the soul.
"He shall call upon Me." What shall he call upon God for? "He shall call upon Me" for everything that he wants internally to feel. A child of God can call for nothing else. He cannot direct his prayers according to the rule of another's—he does not pick up a few pretty expressions from a gifted man in the pulpit, and go with these prayers to God. He knows that he has to do with One who searches him through, that he stands before a God that will not be mocked and trifled with; and when he comes before the Lord, he asks Him, with sighs, and cries, and groans, for those blessings, and those blessings only, which his conscience tells him he needs, and which his soul is hungering and thirsting to enjoy, delivered into his heart from the mouth of God Himself. He calls upon God for the pardon of his sins, he calls upon God for the revelation of Himself, he calls upon God for the manifestation of Christ, he calls upon God for the application of atoning blood, he calls upon God for the revelation of His eternal favor to his soul, he calls upon God sweetly to bring him into an experimental knowledge of the Lord of life and glory, he calls upon God for every blessing that is set before his eyes, and for every blessing that is laid upon his heart, after which he longs and groans and sighs and pants heartily with unutterable pantings and groanings.
II. The PROMISE.Now the Lord says, "I will answer." "He shall call upon me, and I will answer him." I will answer just as much as he shall call; and he shall call just as much as I will answer." They are both linked together, and both stand on the same basis of sovereign appointment and eternal decree.
"I will answer him." What will He answer? Why, He will answer those prayers which He Himself has authored. He will answer those wants which He Himself has created. He will answer those hungerings which He Himself has produced. He will answer those thirstings which He Himself has, by His own blessed Spirit, wrought powerfully in the soul.
He does not say when; He does not say how. He does not say it shall be the next hour, next week, next month, next year. He leaves that with Himself, He keeps that in His own hands. He binds Himself by a naked promise; but He does not tell us how He will bring about that promise. That He keeps in His own bosom. And it is a mercy that He does, because, by keeping it in His own bosom, He leaves to Himself a wonderful way in which to work out the accomplishment of that promise. Keeping the manner and the time in His own breast, He reserves to Himself different paths, in which He leads His children, merely tying Himself down with a naked promise, and not revealing in what way the promise shall be accomplished.
It was so with Abraham; He gave him a naked promise, but the way in which it was to be accomplished He kept in His own breast. And so He has given a naked promise to every child of His that "calls upon Him." He says, "He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him;" He has tied Himself there, He has bound Himself by His word, which can never be broken, but He has not said how, nor has He said when.
Now it is this how and when that so try the child of God, who is calling upon the Lord, and not receiving the answer that he desires to receive at His mouth. If he could only but know the time fixed, he could bear with all his trouble patiently; if he could only see the manner in which the blessing would come, he thinks he would find some relief from his trial of soul in calling upon God and finding the answer so long delayed. But the answer that God gives, He gives in His own time. And I believe many of the children of God have had to cry to Him for days, and weeks, and months, and years, and the answer has been delayed; and then, when expectation seemed to languish and die, when there seemed no longer any prospect that God would fulfill His promise, when the hopes of nature (as in the case of Abraham) were become dead, then the Lord fulfilled His promise, and brought His answer into the soul.
But sometimes the Lord is pleased to answer our prayers more immediately; He brings us into those straits and troubles from which we cannot extricate ourselves, and then will answer our prayer, and fulfill the promise. But perhaps it is in such a way as we least expect, and yet in such a way as most glorifies Him.
Now there is sometimes in men's minds a kind of confusion in this matter. They are in a certain path, from which they want to be extricated; they are under a trial, from which they want to be delivered; they call upon the Lord to deliver them, and they ask for some manifestation of Himself, some going forth of His hand, some application of His promise, some divine leading which they are to follow. But the Lord may be working in a very different way from what they think; and they may really be inattentive to the internal voice of God in their consciences, because they are expecting the voice to come in some other way.
It was just so with myself. When I was in the Establishment, burdened with all the things I had to go through, and troubled and distressed in my mind, I was calling upon the Lord to deliver me, to lead me out, to show me what to do, to make the path plain and clear. Now that was my sincere cry; but I expected some miraculous interposition, to hear some voice, to have some wonderful leading; and in waiting for that I was waiting for what the Lord never meant to bestow. And I was brought at last to this internal conviction—suppose I were guilty of drunkenness, suppose I were living in adultery, suppose I were walking in known sin, would I need a voice from God to say to me, "Leave this drunkenness, come out from this adultery, give up this sin?" would I need some divine manifestation to bring me out of a sin, when my conscience bore its solemn witness against it, and I was condemned under the weight and burden of it? No! the very conviction is the answer of God to the prayer; the very burden which the Lord lays on us is meant to press us out of that in which we are walking.
So I reasoned with myself—"If I am living in sin, if it be a sin to be where I am, if by remaining in the Establishment, I must do things which my conscience tells me are sins, and by which my conscience is burdened as sins, the very conviction, the very distress, the very burden, is the answer. It is the voice of God in the conscience, not the voice of God in the air, not the appearance of God in the sky, but the voice of God in the conscience, and the appearance of God in the heart." And on this simple conviction I was enabled to act, and never to this day have I repented it. I have, therefore, been led to see by experience that we are often expecting striking answers, remarkable answers, mysterious answers, and that the Lord does not mean to give those answers.
The Lord, you see, reserves the way in which He shall give the answer. Are you giving way to some temptation, or under the power of some lust? "Oh!" say you, "I want the Lord to lead me out." Well, is the Lord bearing a solemn witness in your conscience? Is the Lord speaking in that secret court, and manifesting His frown in your soul? That is His answer, and He will not give you any other. It is to that the soul must look, and he who is enabled to hear this reproof in conscience must take it as the answer of God to those prayers which he is putting up for deliverance from the temptation or the sin under which he is laboring.
So, again, the soul sometimes shall call upon the Lord to show it sweet manifestations of Christ, to lead it blessedly into Christ, to settle it down into the liberty of Christ, to make Christ precious, and lead the soul into blessed communion with Him. Well, these sighs, and groans, and cries, and desires, and breathings of the soul come from God; they are His work in the conscience. Now the Lord says—"He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him." But how will He answer him? Why, perhaps by making his shackles heavier, making his fetters more grievous. As it was with the children of Israel in Egypt; they cried to the Lord for deliverance, they groaned and sighed, and their prayers reached the ear of the Lord, and their cries moved His heart; but how did He answer? Their burdens were made heavier; they were to make bricks without straw; they were to be put further from deliverance; and every successive plague only seemed to make the king's heart harder, and deliverance more improbable.
So perhaps with ourselves. We have been crying to the Lord for years to make Christ precious, to lead us into close communion with Him, to open up the secrets of His bosom, and bathe our souls in that love of His which "passes knowledge;" and we have found some access to a throne of grace in pouring out those desires. Now, the Lord answers them; but how does He answer them? By bringing us into those spots and those states of experience to which these views of Christ are alone applicable.
Our desire would be to loll upon our sofa or to rest in our armchair, and have Christ come into our hearts without any burdens, or distresses, or griefs, or trials, or temptations, or powerful exercises; we want some sweet manifestation of Christ, but we want it to come through a channel which is not a channel of pain and suffering. Now the Lord says, "He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him"—he shall see Christ, he shall have a sweet view of Christ, he shall have a blessed manifestation of Christ, he shall be led up into Christ—but how? By being placed by God's hand in those spots in which Christ alone is precious, to which Christ alone is adapted, for which Christ alone is suitable, and from which Christ alone delivers. "He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him."
Sometimes the soul will pray to have power, inward power, to lay hold of God's promises, and to feel the sweetness of these promises within. We read the Scriptures; we see such and such promises made to the elect. "Oh!" we say to ourselves, "what do I know of this promise? Surely I have not felt this promise; surely I have not tasted the sweetness of that promise; oh! that the Lord would teach me the sweetness of this promise! Oh! that the Lord would impart to me the enjoyment of that sweet promise!" And the Lord says, "I will; he shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; you shall have the promise, yes, all the promise; you shall have the sweetness of it, the blessedness of it." But mark! you must be in the path to which that promise is suitable; you must be in the trial to which that promise is adapted; you must be in the exercise out of which that promise delivers; you must be in the difficulty which that promise fits. You must have the mortise for the tenon to go into; you must have the emptiness to be filled out of Christ's fullness; you must have the beggary to be supplied with Christ's riches; you must have the bankruptcy to have a sweet and full discharge.
And the Lord, when He is going to fulfill the promise, does not show His hand and say, "Now I am leading you into the promise, now I am fulfilling to you the answer to your prayer; see how My arm is now bare, and how I am guiding and leading you into the promise after which you have been praying." The Lord does not speak thus in conscience, but hides Himself, and darkens the cloud in our souls; we get farther off from the promise than ever—get as it were miles and leagues away from the point we are trying to approach; like the mariner who is driven away by the winds, we are seeking to get into the promise and are blown aside by gusts and winds further from the point at which we are aiming. But the Lord is all the while leading us into it, because He is bringing us down into the spot to which the promise applies.
We say, "Lord, make me rich." He says, "I will—but you must first be made poor." We say, "Lord, let me have a precious view of Christ." "I will—but you must first have a wretched view of self." "Let me know the riches of Christ's blood." "I will—but you must first know the depth of your guilt." "Let me know what it is to stand complete in Christ's righteousness." "I will—but you must first sink down in self-loathing and self-abhorrence."
So that the Lord takes His own path, and chooses His own way, to bring about His own purposes in such a mysterious manner that reason is staggered, nature gives up the spirit, and all the powers of flesh and blood fail, and get to their wits' end; and the Lord brings about the fulfillment of that promise which we have been desiring to get into, and the enjoyment of which we have been longing richly to feel.
So then, "He shall call upon Me, and I will answer Him." The Lord encourages His people to call upon Him for whatever they desire. Not to go with lip-service; not to go with made-up tales; but the Lord encourages all His blood-bought family whom He has quickened by His Spirit to call upon Him for everything their souls long after—be it deliverance from trouble, be it sweet manifestations of mercy, be it a blessed enjoyment of Christ, be it for a heart enlarged, be it for the liberty of the gospel, be it to stand firm in Jesus, be it to be brought out of any temptation under which they are laboring. "Open your mouth wide," says the Lord, "and I will fill it." "Whatever you ask, believing, you shall receive." The Lord encourages His people to open their mouth and tell Him what they have need of. "Pour out your heart before Me," says the Lord.
Well, the soul is sometimes enabled to do so. Have not you and I, friends, been enabled to pour out our hearts at the throne of grace, and tell the Lord what we really wanted, what we really longed for, and tell Him that nothing but that which He alone could give would satisfy and comfort our souls? There have been such times of access to the throne of grace. And afterwards, perhaps, we have forgotten the things we told Him of; we have been heedless of the prayers we laid at His feet; and though very earnest at the time in seeking after certain blessings, we left them, as it were, at the Lord's feet, and forgot them all.
But the Lord does not forget them—they are treasured up in His heart and memory; and in His own time He brings them to light, and gives the fulfillment of them. But before He does it He will bring us into the spot where we desire them again, and then we have to tell Him again, and supplicate Him again, and ask Him again, ashamed of ourselves, perhaps, that we should have asked the Lord for these blessings and been as heedless of them as though we did not care to receive them at His hand; but still, under pressure, under trouble, under soul necessity, under grief—we go and tell Him again. And then the Lord in His own way and time brings about the very thing we desired of Him.
Perhaps it is some temptation under which we have been laboring for months; some grievous sin, which is continually put by Satan before our eyes, and into which we are afraid we shall tumble headlong; some cursed trap, which that arch-deceiver knows how to dress up in such pleasing colors that our wretched nature wants to grasp it—only it knows there is a hook concealed—or some internal weight of guilt, under which the soul "groans, being burdened." Here is a painful exercise; and the soul cries to the Lord to be delivered from it. "He shall call upon Me, and I will answer Him." There is no use going with it to a man; there is no use keeping it buried in our breasts.
Sometimes we get a sullen fit, and we no longer tell the Lord what we feel—He has delayed the answer so long—and we are like a sullen child that will not ask his parent for the very bread that he wants to eat. But we must be brought out of this sulky fit. Whatever the Lord means to give, He from time to time enlarges our heart to ask—and keeps us waiting, pleading, sighing, suing, groaning, and begging at His blessed feet, for those things without which we must perish eternally, without which we cannot comfortably live, and without which we cannot happily die.
And so it is no matter of choice, it is no matter left to the free-will of man, whether he will pray or not; but it is so laid upon his heart, so brought into his soul, it is so pressed out of him by the heavy loads put upon him, that he is compelled, whether he will or not, to cry to the Lord for those things. He must have them or die. And then, from time to time, in His own time and in His own way, He brings everything to pass which the soul wants to have brought to pass; opens up ways, brings deliverances, lifts out of trials, removes burdens, makes a way in the deep, which no eye but His could see, and no hand but His could open, leads the soul into it, brings the soul through it, and then hides all glory from the creature by making us fall down before His feet and ascribe glory, and honor, and power, and thanksgiving, and salvation unto God and the Lamb!