by Iain H. Murray
We are thankful for our welcome today and thankful to God for the opportunity to worship with you. It’s a great joy and confirmation that the communion of saints is a wonderful reality that we come from different parts of the earth and we belong together to the household of faith through our Lord Jesus Christ. Shall we pray.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts. Try us and know our thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way in us and lead us in the way everlasting. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The words of our text are in the tenth psalm and at verse 4. We read,
“The wicked through the pride of his countenance will not seek after God. God is not in all his thoughts.”
I think the pew version reads, “the wicked through the haughtiness of his countenance” it is the same word, the word pride. In this psalm you may notice, the psalmist is describing two very different groups of people. One group, himself and the people of God, and in the other group, the men of this world, men of the earth. They are very different classes of people. And the Holy Spirit draws a line between them. We are not called to draw that kind of line. There is no one in this congregation this morning who has the ability to do that. And the reason we are not called to do it is that the difference between these two groups, in a very important sense, is a hidden difference, an inward difference. The psalmist speaks about the people of this world in terms of their thought life. “God is not in all his thoughts,” he says. And in verse eleven he says of the same people, “he has said in his heart, God has forgotten.” And then when he speaks of believers he speaks of their desires. “Lord,” verse 17, “Thou hast heard the desire of the humble.” You know our thoughts and our hearts and our desires are not something visible.
It is possible for all of us to confuse the visible and the appearance with the reality. That’s why we ever need to pray that God would search us and know us. That we should not ourselves be confused and imagine that what we appear to be to others is what we actually are.
Now this verse describes one particular feature of the man or woman of this world. And that is their prayerlessness. The wicked do not seek after God. Whereas, the believer in this psalm is someone who prays. The first verse begins with prayer, “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?” It goes on with prayer. The twelfth verse, “Arise, O Lord. O God, lift up Thine hands.” The seventeenth and the eighteenth verses, “Lord, Thou hast heard…” And so on. The child of God is a person who prays. And yet we read that even in times of trouble, as when this psalm was written, there are those who do not pray.
It seems to me that this verse is a suitable starting point for thought on prayer. Whose picture is being described in verse 4? The prayerless. Whose portrait is it? And the truth, as I hope we know, is that it is our own portrait. All of us, the children of Adam fallen, by nature are described in this verse. We are prayerless. I do not say that we don’t say prayers, but by nature we do not know true prayer. So this verse is not describing some extraordinary person, some very unusual person who we may never meet, but, my friends, it describes us as we are by nature.
You recall how Saul of Tarsus was such a religious man. Then he met the Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ arrested him. And when Saul was making his way, blind, to Damascus led by the hand, Jesus sent that message to Ananias to “go to the street called straight.” There in the house of one Judas he would find Saul of Tarsus and “behold, behold he prays.” He has really begun to pray. And there has to be a point in our lives when all of us cease to be what we are by nature and we begin, truly, to pray.
I. Prayer is seeking after God.
Now notice, first of all, how our text describes prayer. It is described as seeking after God. The wicked through the pride of his countenance will not seek after God. There are many ways in Scripture in which prayer is described, but this is one of the most important. Prayer is seeking God. And that tells us immediately, negatively, what prayer is not. Prayer is not something that has to do with our relationships with others – men and women. That is not prayer. Sometimes, you know, people think it is. People, perhaps, think that they pray once a week when they come into a congregation like this and prayers are said. But that’s not the essential meaning of prayer. That is indeed corporate prayer.
But you know the Bible teaches us that prayer begins personally, individually. If we’re only praying when we are assembled like this then the Scripture would have us know we’re not truly praying at all. Jesus said, “When thou prayest enter into thy closet and shut the door. And thy Father who sees in secret will reward thee openly.”
Prayer, in the first instance, is an individual, personal thing between us and God. And as you read the Scriptures I’m sure time and time again this is what you see. Jacob, a man who had power with God, we find him praying, first in the journey from Beersheba to Haran where he lighted upon a certain place, says the Scripture and laid down to sleep and God spoke to him. This is none other than the house of God, he learned. And he rose up early, says the Scripture, and worshipped. Twenty years later Jacob was at the brook Peniel, and Jacob was left alone and they wrestled, a man with him, til the breaking of the day. Prayer is personal, individual, seeking God. We read of our Lord Jesus Christ rising up a great while before day. He went into a solitary place and there prayed.
Prayer does not have to do, in the first instance at all with our relationships with fellow man. I read once a report in a Boston newspaper. And the newspaper was giving an account of a service and the reporter said that the prayer that the ministered offered was the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience. Well, that is how some people think. I read the testimony of a man who said before his conversion he said, “When I prayed with others, I prayed to them. And when I prayed by myself, I prayed to myself. But now I pray to God.” We learn that from this psalm do we not? Prayer has to do with God.
And then further that prayer is not concerned primarily with myself. Seeking God is the way prayer is defined. The Lord Jesus Christ tells us of that man who appeared to be a very religious man and when he stood up to pray, Jesus said, he prayed thus with himself, ” God I thank thee that I am not as other men are…” and although his words were supposedly addressed to God, there was no fellowship with God. There was no real recognition of God. He was praying with himself.
And you know, we can do that in many ways. And, in deed, sometimes there even books that would almost encourage us to do it. Books that encourage us to think of prayer as a wonderful way of relief and benefit and help. Now that is true. But you know it’s not true that if petition and asking are the main points of our praying it’s not true that we are praying. Some people say, “Well, sit down and be quiet, have leisurely moments and pray and ask for peace and strength and help. And be quiet and you’ll find strength,” and so on. Well, I say if that is all we do in terms of praying that isn’t prayer. Because, my friends, the benefactor, the one who gives the blessings, is far greater than the benefits themselves. We are to desire God. Not for what He may give us, or for what we suppose we need, but we are to desire God supremely because of who He is and what He is. That’s why the Scripture describes prayer as seeking God. A thirst for God, a desire for God, a concern to know Him, and to come into His presence.
How much we have of that in the psalms. The psalmist says, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so my soul thirsteth for Thee, O God.” David, in these psalms, many things for which he could ask, when he was often in danger, need and discomfort, and knowing the absence of material things and not yet possessing a kingdom. But what David asks for above all else is the light of God’s countenance. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.” That, my friends, is prayer. Prayer is seeking God. That’s what our text says. The fellowship, the friendship, the favor, the blessing of almighty God.
Some years ago in Scotland there was a good Christian woman named the Duchess of Gordon. On one occasion she had a dinner party and the man sitting next to her was a man called Brownlow North, church going man, but a worldly man, a pleasure-seeking man, as everybody knew. And Brownlow North, to make conversation with the duchess, at one point in the dinner he said to her, “What,” he said, “What should a man do who has often prayed to God and has not had his prayers answered?” And she replied in the words of James, “Ye ask and ye receive not because ye ask amiss that it might be consumed upon your own desires.” In other words, he had never truly sought God. All his praying, so called, was to do with himself as though God existed simply for his own benefits and his needs. No, prayer is fellowship with God.
At the time of the Reformation there was an Italian nobleman by the name of Carriciolus, and because of persecution he was forced to flee from his estate in Italy and he took himself as a refugee to Geneva. What joy he had there. But his loss was a very considerable loss to the Roman Church, and arrangements were made to offer him a safe return and the possession of his estates on certain conditions. An appealing offer was made that he should return and he would be safe. And to that offer this good man replied, “Let their money perish with them who esteem all the gold in this world worthy to be compared with Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit. See, what do I have here in Geneva with the people of God? I have,” he said, “society with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.” That’s prayer. That’s what we find here.
And here’s the division I’m talking about. You know there are some who come to worship on the Lord’s Day but they don’t truly come seeking God. And if God doesn’t speak to them, if they’re not conscious of God’s presence, they’re not disappointed. They go away as they came. But, you know, there are others who came this morning and their first desire was to know something of God’s presence and love and fellowship. And if you do not receive any touch of that presence, then you do go away disappointed. It’s a difference, you see, between those who seek God and those who do not. Now, let me hurry on.
II. A cause of prayerlessness.
Our text gives us a cause of prayerlessness. Well, you know, we’re tempted to think there are many causes of prayerlessness. But the text says there’s only one. And when you think about it, I believe it’s true. Here’s a man who hasn’t, perhaps, had very much education, who hasn’t had the opportunities that others have had. He doesn’t pray. And if you ask him why he doesn’t pray, he says, perhaps, that he’s never been taught, doesn’t have the gift, and doesn’t have the ability to pray. But you know the Bible says the real explanation is pride. Or, look at another man who’s got plenty of ability and got on well in the world and lacks no education. He doesn’t pray either. Why not? Well, he says he doesn’t have time. He doesn’t have opportunity. Life is so busy.
You know, the Bible says it’s pride that leads to prayerlessness. And why is that? Well simply because the spirit of prayer and the spirit of pride are contradictory. They’re totally opposite. The spirit of pride is the spirit that makes me concerned about myself. Self-esteem. Self-sufficiency. Self-admiration. That is pride.
But you know prayer is something very different. Prayer is the acknowledgement of God. God who reigns. God who governs all things. God who is the author of all that I am. God who rules over my life and my health and my family. Pride and prayer are contradictory. The proud do not pray. The humble, the humble are learning to pray. Notice again, verse 16, “The Lord,” says the psalmist, “is king forever. The Lord has heard the desire of the humble. God is king. I come to Him in all my need.”
III. The danger of prayerlessness.
Now, thirdly, the text underlines the danger of prayerlessness. The danger, the seriousness of being without true prayer. The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God. We tend to identify the word “wicked” with people whose actions and deeds are outstandingly unpleasant. But you know, the Bible often defines things rather differently. And when it says those who don’t pray are wicked, it is speaking of what is left undone. Sins of omission. And you know sins of omission can be very wicked sins. And that is how the Bible describes prayerlessness. The truth is that in prayerlessness there are many sins combined. For example, the sin of unbelief. The Scripture says, “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him. If you seek Him, He will be found of you,” the Scripture says. “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found. Draw night to God and He will draw nigh to you.” The words of our Savior Himself, “Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth. And he that seeketh findeth. And to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”
My friends, can we listen to these wonderful invitations and not recognize that prayerlessness is unbelief and unbelief is wickedness in the sight of God? The Scripture says, “He that believeth not God hath made Him a liar.” The wicked will not seek after God.
And then there’s another sin involved here. You know, someone is likely to say when they are asked about their lack of prayer, “I’m not worthy to pray. I’m not really fit to pray.” My friend, that is no excuse in the sight of God. And it’s no excuse because there is not a single person here today who is fit to pray or worthy to pray. The Scripture says God has set forth His Son as a mediator as an intercessor who is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him. And when we don’t pray, we are turning our back upon a mediator, a sin-bearer, one through whom the most undeserving can come to God.
Have you noticed in the Scripture, Old Testament Scriptures, that prayer and sacrifice go together. Do we mean to go to God? We need an altar. We need a sacrifice. Do we mean to go to God today? We must go through a great high priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. And in His name we can come and we must come. And, you know, the New Testament gives us such a wonderful disclosure of our Lord’s willingness to hear everyone who calls upon Him. Did you ever read in the gospels a single instance where some poor, needy soul cried to Jesus and He didn’t instantly hear? Not one. Blind Bartimaeus sitting in the dust of Jericho. Helpless. Jesus of Nazareth passes by. The poor man raises his cry and our Lord immediately stood still and summoned him.
We read that tremendous passage in Mark 15. The cross of Christ. The heavens darkened. The Son of God bearing shame and scoffing rude. And in the midst of that darkness a voice cries out. “Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” And immediately the Lord turned to that dying thief and said, “Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”
You know the story of John Newton. Godly parents. He wandered far from God. And then, God brought him home. And he discovered this wonderful truth that there’s a Mediator in whose name we can pray. And he wrote down those words “What wondrous love to bleed and die, to bear the cross and shame, that guilty sinners such as I might plead His precious name.” He understood it, you see. And we’re all to understand it. God has placed all authority in the hands of His Son. We’re to honor Christ. How? By going through Him. By pleading His name.
That is why I say that prayerlessness is sin. Because it is turning our back upon Jesus Christ. And that convicts Christians, too, because we do not pray as we ought. And one old Christian woman at the end of her days said, “I have many regrets as I look back, but one swallows up all others, and that is that I have had such a Savior and I have made such little use of Him.” That will be our theme more this evening than this morning. But my point is that now a mediator, my friends, is at hand for all us. And one last point.
IV. Prayerless is wickedness.
Prayerlessness is wickedness, because it shows that we are alienated from the company of God. You see, the people we’re interested in, the people we love, the people we know, these are the people whose company we seek after. If we neglect someone, if we’re not interested in them, if we’ve no concern to be with them, we’re telling everyone that we have no real love for them. Can you imagine that President Bush were to give one of us some kind of certificate that would give us access to The White House at any time, and right into the oval room whenever we wished to go. Imagine it. And then, supposing having got such an authorization, we not only never went, but we’d no interest in going. We never even thought of going. What does that tell you. It tells you something about a person’s relation with the President.
Or think of what the Bible shows us about the world to come, and when the veil is sometimes in Scripture taken away between earth and heaven, and we see the multitude that no man can number before the throne of God and the Lamb. And what are they doing? They’re near to God. Are they prayerless? No, they are saying, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto Him that sits upon the throne.” Those that are near to God, those that have love for God, are praying people.
And I say, if we do not pray in our hearts, if we never secretly seek God, we are demonstrating that we’ve no affection and love for Him. The wicked, through the pride of their countenance, do not seek after God.
What is our portrait this morning. Are we still being described in the words of this verse? Or has God changed our portrait? We who once didn’t know what it was to pray. Has something happened to us that has brought us to bend our knee and to seek God? And the wonder is this, my friends, that God is able to change our portrait and to do it in just in a moment. He can make the proudest person a humble saint.
And what are we to do to see that change? We have but to come to Him, and to confess our need. Repentance, faith in Jesus Christ. You know the old chorus, I’m sure, with the hymn “Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord,” and the chorus, “Ask the Savior to help you, He will comfort and keep you, He is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.” What great words. “He is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.”
So, we could all pray as we make our way home, and as we are alone the prayer that we find there in Psalm 139 at verse 23. “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And lead me in the way everlasting.” Shall we pray.
O mighty God, our heavenly father, we lift up our hearts in praise and thanksgiving to Thee that this day we can come through Jesus Christ and be found in Thy presence. A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand. We thank Thee, Lord, and we bless Thy name for the privileges so abundantly given to us. Help us each to pray and to seek Thee. T word. We thank Thee for the continuing witness of this church, for Thy help given to Thy people here. Be with every home, with every life that we may together live for Thy glory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen