The Listening Side of Prayer
A Trained Ear
In prayer the ear is an organ of first importance. It is of equal importance with the tongue, but must be named first. For the ear leads the way to the tongue. The child hears a word before it speaks it. Through the ear comes the use of the tongue. Where the faculties are normal the tongue is trained only through the ear. This is nature’s method. The mind is moulded largely through the ear and eye. It reveals itself, and asserts itself largely through the tongue. What the ear lets in, the mind works over, and the tongue gives out. This is the order in Isaiah’s fiftieth chapter (verse 4) in those words, prophetic of Jesus. “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of them that are taught… He wakeneth my ear to hear as they that are taught.” Here the taught tongue came through the awakened ear. One reason why so many of us do not have taught tongues is because we give God so little chance at our ears. It is a striking fact that the men who have been mightiest in prayer have known God well. They have seemed peculiarly sensitive to Him, and to be overawed with the sense of His love and His greatness. There are three of the Old Testament characters who are particularly mentioned as being mighty in prayer. Jeremiah tells that when God spoke to him about the deep perversity of that nation He exclaimed, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me My heart could not be towards this people” (Jeremiah 15:1). When James wants an illustration of a man of prayer for the scattered Jews, he speaks of Elijah, and of one particular crisis in his life, the praying on Carmel’s tip-top. These three men are Israel’s great men in the great crises of its history. Moses was the maker and moulder of the nation. Samuel was the patient teacher who introduced a new order of things in the national life. Elijah was the rugged leader when the national worship of Jehovah was about to be officially overthrown. These three men, the maker, the teacher, the emergency leader are singled out in the record as peculiarly men of prayer. Now regarding these men it is most interesting to observe what listeners they were to God’s voice. Their ears were trained early and trained long, until great acuteness and sensitiveness to God’s voice was the result. Special pains seem to have been taken with the first man, the nation’s greatest giant, and history’s greatest jurist. There were two distinct stages in the training of his ears. First there were the forty years of solitude in the desert sands, alone with the sheep, and the stars, and-God. His ears were being trained by silence. The bustle and confusion of Egypt’s busy life were being taken out of his ears. How silent are God’s voices. How few men are strong enough to be able to endure silence. For in silence God is speaking to the inner ear. Let us then labour for an inward stillness –
An inward stillness and an inward healing;
That perfect silence where the lips and heart
Are still, and we no longer entertain
Our own imperfect thoughts and vain opinions,
But God alone speaks in us, and we wait
In singleness of heart, that we may know
His will, and in the silence of our spirits,
That we may do His will, and do that only.
A gentleman was asked by an artist friend of some note to come to his home, and see a painting just finished. He went at the time appointed, was shown by the attendant into a room which was quite dark, and left there. He was much surprised, but quietly waited developments. After perhaps fifteen minutes his friend came into the room with a cordial greeting, and took him up to the studio to see the painting, which was greatly admired. Before he left the artist said laughingly, “I suppose you thought it queer to be left in that dark room so long.” “Yes,” the visitor said, “I did.” “Well,” his friend replied, “I knew that if you came into my studio with the glare of the street in your eyes you could not appreciate the fine colouring of the picture. So I left you in the dark room till the glare had worn out of your eyes.” The first stage of Moses’ prayer-training was wearing the noise of Egypt out of his ears so he could hear the quiet fine tones of God’s voice. He who would become skilled in prayer must take a silence course in the University of Arabia. Then came the second stage. Forty years were followed by forty days, twice over, of listening to God’s speaking voice up in the mount. Such an ear-course as that made a skilled famous intercessor. Samuel had an earlier course than Moses. While yet a child before his ears had been dulled by earth sounds they were tuned to the hearing of God’s voice. The child heart and ear naturally open upward. They hear easily and believe readily. The roadway of the ear has not been beaten down hard by much travel. God’s rains and dews have made it soft, and impressionable. This child’s ear was quickly trained to recognize God’s voice. And the tented Hebrew nation soon came to know that there was a man in their midst to whom God was talking. 0, to keep the heart and inner ear of a child as mature years come! Of the third of these famous intercessors little is known except of the few striking events in which he figured. Of these, the scene that finds its climax in the opening on Carmel’s top of the rain-windows, occupies by far the greater space. And it is notable that the beginning of that long eighteenth chapter of first Kings which tells of the Carmel conflict begins with a message to Elijah from God: “The word of the Lord came to Elijah: … I will send rain upon the earth.” That was the foundation of that persistent praying and sevenfold watching on the mountain-top. First the ear heard, then the voice persistently claimed, and the eye expectantly looked. First the voice of God, then the voice of man. That is the true order. Tremendous results always follow that combination.
Through the Book to God
With us the training is of the inner ear. And its first training, after the early childhood stage is passed, must usually be through the eye. What God has spoken to others has been written down for us. We hear through our eyes. The eye opens the way to the inner ear. God spoke in His word. He is still speaking in it and through it. The whole thought here is to get to know God. He reveals Himself in the word that comes from His own lips, and through His messengers’ lips. He reveals Himself in His dealings with men. Every incident and experience of these pages is a mirror held up to God’s face. In them we may come to see Him. This is studying the Bible not for the Bible’s sake but for the purpose of knowing God. The object aimed at is not the Book but the God revealed in the Book. A man may go to college and take lectures on the English Bible, and increase his knowledge, and enrich his vocabulary, and go away with utterly erroneous ideas of God. He may go to a law school and study the codes of the first great jurist, and get a clear understanding and firm grasp of the Mosaic enactments, as he must do to lay the foundation of legal training, yet he may remain ignorant of God. He may even go to a Bible school, and be able to analyze and synthesize, give outlines of books, and contents of chapters and much else of that invaluable and indispensable sort of knowledge and yet fail to understand God and His marvellous love-will. It is not the Book with which we are concerned here but the God through the Book. Not to learn truth but through truth to know Him who is Himself the Truth. There is a fascinating bit of story told of one of David’s mighty men (II Samuel 23:9,10). One day there was a sudden attack upon the camp by the Philistines when the fighting men were all away. This man alone was there. The Philistines were the traditional enemy. The very word “Philistines” was one to strike terror to the Hebrew heart. But this man was reckoned one of the first three of David’s mighty men because of his conduct that day. He quietly, quickly gripped his sword and fought the enemy single-handed. Up and down, left and right, hip and thigh he smote with such terrific earnestness and drive that the enemy turned and fled. And we are told that the muscles of his hand became so rigid around the handle of his sword that he could not tell by the feeling where his hand stopped, and the sword began. Man and sword were one that day in the action of service against the nation’s enemy. When we so absorb this Book, and the Spirit of Him who is its life that people cannot tell the line of division between the man, and the God within the man, then shall we have mightiest power as God’s intercessors in defeating the foe. God and man will be as one in the action of service against the enemy.
A Spirit Illumined Mind
I want to make some simple suggestions for studying this Book so as to get to God through it. There will be the emphasis of doubling back on one’s tracks here. For some of the things that should be said have already been said with a different setting. First there must be the time element. One must get at least a half hour daily when the mind is fresh. A tired mind does not readily absorb. This should be persisted in until there is a habitual spending of at least that much time daily over the Book, with a spirit at leisure from all else, so it can take in. Then the time should be given to the Book itself. If other books are consulted and read as they will be let that be after the reading of this Book. Let God talk to you direct, rather than through somebody else. Give Him first chance at your ears. This Book in the central place of your table, the others grouped about it. First time given to it. A third suggestion brings out the circle of this work. Read prayerfully. We learn how to pray by reading prayerfully. This Book does not reveal its sweets and strength to the keen mind merely, but to the Spirit enlightened mind. All the mental keenness possible, with the bright light of the Spirit’s illumination — that is the open sesame. I have sometimes sought the meaning of some passage from a keen scholar who could explain the orientalisms, the fine philological distinctions, the most accurate translations, and all of that, who yet did not seem to know the simple spiritual meaning of the words being discussed. And I have asked the same question of some old saint of God, who did not know Hebrew from a hen’s tracks, but who seemed to sense at once the deep spiritual truth taught. The more knowledge, the keener the mind, the better if illumined by the Spirit that inspired these writings. There is a fourth word to put in here. We must read thoughtfully. Thoughtfulness is in danger of being a lost art. Newspapers are so numerous, and literature so abundant, that we are becoming a bright, but a not thoughtful people. Often the stream is very wide but has no depth. Fight shallowness. Insist on reading thoughtfully. A very suggestive word in the Bible for this is “meditate.” Run through and pick out this word with its variations. The word underneath that English word means to mutter, as though a man were repeating something over and over again, as he turned it over in his mind. We have another word, with the same meaning, not much used now — ruminate. We call the cow a ruminant because she chews the cud. She will spend hours chewing the cud, and then give us the rich milk and cream and butter which she has extracted from her food. That is the word here — ruminate. Chew the cud, if you would get the richest cream and butter here. And it is remarkable how much chewing this Book of God will stand, in comparison with other books. You chew a while on Tennyson, or Browning, or Longfellow. And I am not belittling these noble writings. I have my own favourite among these men. But they do not yield the richest and yet richer cream found here. This Book of God has stood more of that sort of thing than any other, yet it is the freshest book to be found to-day. You read a passage over the two hundredth time and some new fine bit of meaning comes that you had not suspected to be there. There is a fifth suggestion, that is easier to make than to follow. Read obediently. As the truth appeals to your conscience let it change your habit and life.
Light obeyed, increased light:
Light resisted, bringeth night.
Who shall give us power to choose
If the love of light we lose?
– Joseph Cook
Jesus gives the law of knowledge in His famous words, “If any man willeth to do His will he shall know of the teaching” (John 7:17). If we do what we know to do, we will know more. If we know to do, and hesitate and hold back, and do not obey, the inner eye will surely go blind, and the sense of right be dulled and lost. Obedience to truth is the eye of the mind.
Then one needs to have a plan of reading. A consecutive plan gathers up the fragments of time into a strong whole. Get a good plan, and stick to it. Better a fairly good plan faithfully followed, than the best plan if used brokenly or only occasionally. Probably all the numerous methods of study may be grouped under three general heads, wide reading, topical study, and textual. We all do some textual study in a more or less small way. Digging into a sentence or verse to get at its true and deep meaning. We all do some topical study probably. Gathering up statements on some one subject, studying a character. The more pretentious name is Biblical Theology, finding and arranging all that is taught in the whole range of the Bible on any one theme. But I want especially to urge wide reading, as being the basis of all study. It is the simple, the natural, the scientific method. It is adapted to all classes of persons. I used to suppose it was suited best to college students, and such; but I was mistaken. It is the method of all for all. It underlies all methods of getting a grasp of this wonderful Book, and so coming to as full and rounded an understanding of God as is possible to men down here. By wide reading is meant a rapid reading through regardless of verse, chapter, or book divisions. Reading it as a narrative, a story. As you would read any book, “The Siege of Pekin,” “The Story of an Untold Love,” to find out the story told, and be able to tell to another. There will be a reverence of spirit with this book that no other inspires, but with the same intellectual method of running through to see what is here. No book is so fascinating as the Bible when read this way. The revised version is greatly to be preferred here simply because it is a paragraph version. It is printed more like other books. Some day its printed form will be yet more modernized, and so made easier to read. To illustrate, begin at the first of Genesis, and read rapidly through by the page. Do not try to understand all. You will not. Never mind that now. Just push on. Do not try to remember all. Do not think about that. Let stick to you what will. You will be surprised to find how much will. You may read ten or twelve pages in your first half hour. Next time start in where you left off. You may get through Genesis in three or four times, or less or more, depending on your mood, and how fast your habit of reading may be. You will find a whole Bible in Genesis. A wonderfully fascinating book this Genesis. For love stories, plotting, swift action, beautiful language it more than matches the popular novel. But do not stop at the close of Genesis. Push on into Exodus. The connection is immediate. It is the same book. And so on into Leviticus. Now do not try to understand Leviticus the first time. You will not the hundredth time perhaps. But you can easily group its contents: these chapters tell of the offerings: these of the law of offerings: here is an incident put in: here sanitary regulations: get the drift of the book. And in it all be getting the picture of God — that is the one point. And so on through. A second stage of this wide reading is fitting together the parts. You know the arrangement of our Bible is not chronological wholly, but topical. The Western mind is almost a slave to chronological order. But the Oriental was not so disturbed. For example, open your Bible to the close of Esther, and again at the close of Malachi. This from Genesis to Esther we all know is the historical section: and this second section the poetical and prophetical section. There is some history in the prophecy, and some prophecy and poetry in the historical part But in the main this first is historical, and this second poetry and prophecy. These two parts belong together. This first section was not written, and then this second. The second belongs in between the leaves of the first. It was taken out and put by itself because the arrangement of the whole Book is topical rather than chronological. Now the second stage of wide reading is this: fit these parts together. Fit the poetry and the prophecy into the history. Do it on your own account, as though it had never been done. It has been done much better than you will do it. And you will make some mistakes. You can check those up afterwards by some of the scholarly books. And you cannot tell where some parts belong. But meanwhile the thing to note is this: you are absorbing the Book. It is becoming a part of you, bone of your bone, and flesh of your flesh, mentally, and spiritually. You are drinking in its spirit in huge draughts. There is coming a new vision of God, which will transform radically the reverent student. In it all seek to acquire the historical sense. That is, put yourself back and see what this thing, or this, meant to these men, as it was first spoken, under these immediate circumstances. And, so push on into the New Testament. Do not try so much to fit the four gospels into one connected story, dovetailing all the parts; but try rather to get a clear grasp of Jesus’ movements those few years as told by these four men. Fit Paul’s letters into the book of Acts, the best you can. The best book to help in checking up here is Conybeare and Howson’s “Life and Letters of St. Paul.” That may well be one of the books in your collection. You see at once that this is a method not for a month, nor for a year, but for years. The topical and textual study grow naturally out of it. And meanwhile you are getting an intelligent grasp of this wondrous classic, you are absorbing the finest literature in the English tongue, and infinitely better yet, you are breathing into your very being a new, deep, broad, tender conception of God.
A Mirror Held up to God’s Face
It is simply fascinating too, to find what light floods these pages as they are read back in their historical setting, so far as that is possible. For example turn to the third Psalm, fifth verse,
“I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustaineth me.”
I was brought up in an old-fashioned church where that was sung. I knew it by heart. As a boy I supposed it meant that night-time had come, and David was sleepy; he had his devotions, and went to bed, and had a good night’s sleep. That was all it had suggested to me. But on my first swing through of the wide reading, my eye was caught, as doubtless yours has often been, by the inscription at the beginning of the psalm: “A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Quickly I turned back to Second Samuel to find that story. And I got this picture. David, an old white-haired man, hurrying one day, barefooted, out of his palace, and his capital city, with a few faithful friends, fleeing for his life, because Absalom his favourite son was coming with the strength of the national army to take the kingdom, and his own father’s life. And that night as the king lay down to try to catch some sleep, it was upon the bare earth, with only heaven’s blue dome for a roof. And as he lay he could almost hear the steady tramp, tramp of the army, over the hills, seeking his throne and his life. Let me ask you, honestly now ; do you think you would have slept much that night? I fear I would have been tempted sorely to lie awake thinking: “here I am, an old man, driven from my kingdom, and my home, by my own boy, that I have loved better than my own life.” Do you think you would have slept much? Tell me. But David speaking of that night afterwards wrote this down: “I laid me down, and slept, I awaked; (the thought is, I awaked refreshed) for the Lord sustaineth me.” And I thought, as first that came to me, “I never will have insomnia again: I’ll trust.” And so you see a lesson of trust in God came, in my wide reading, out of the historical setting, that greatly refreshed and strengthened, and that I have never forgotten. What a God, to give sleep under such circumstances! A fine illustration of this same thing is found in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. At one end of that epistle is this scene: Paul, lying in the inner damp cell of a prison, its small creeping denizens familiarly examining this newcomer, in the darkness of midnight, his back bleeding from the stripes, his bones aching, and his feet fast in the stocks. That is one half of the historical setting of this book. And here is the other half: Paul, a prisoner in Rome. If he tries to ease his body by changing his position, swinging one limb over, the other, a chain dangling at his ankle reminds him of the soldier by his side. As he picks up a quill to put a last loving word out of his tender heart for these old friends, a chain pulls at his wrist. That is Philippians, the prison epistle, resounding with clanking chain. What is the keyword of the book, occurring oftener than any other? Patience? Surely that would be appropriate. Long-suffering? Still more fitting would that seem. But, no, the keyword stands in sharpest contrast to these surroundings. Paul used clouds to make the sun’s shining more beautiful. Joy, rejoice, rejoicing, is the music singing all the way through these four chapters. What a wondrous Master, this Jesus, so to inspire His friend doing His will! Every incident and occurrence of these pages becomes a mirror held up to God’s face that we may see how wondrous He is.
Upon Thy Word I rest
Each pilgrim day.
This golden staff is best
For all the way.
What Jesus Christ hath spoken,
Cannot be broken!
Upon Thy Word I rest;
So strong, so sure,
So full of comfort blest,
So sweet, so pure:
The charter of salvation
Faith’s broad foundation.
Upon Thy Word I stand: That cannot lie.
Christ seals it in my hand. He cannot lie.
Thy Word that faileth never:
– Frances Ridley Havergal