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Lectures on Prayer.

No. II.

Respecting the Scriptural Passages Contained in the Prayers—Their Propriety—Their Influence—The Necessity of Retaining Them.

(Delivered by request of the Hebrew Literary Association.)

Ladies and Gentlemen,—

When last spring I appeared before you by request of the Hebrew Literary Association, the theme chosen was that of Prayer. I have now to thank you for the strict attention you paid me whilst discussing a subject so extremely dry, and divested of all ornament as that was; and it is this kindness which again emboldens me, to speak on this topic somewhat more at length: It is certainly encouraging to a public teacher to find that it is not merely high-seasoned food which pleases the peo­ple’s taste; though there are so many who regard ornament and figurative language as alone fitted to be addressed to the popular ear, and there is, unfortunately, not wanting a class of hearers, to whom nothing else can afford the least pleasure. Plain truths, plainly spoken, are not always agreeable; and the more disguised, wholesome instruction is conveyed, the more gratification do the unthinking display. Still, it must be evident that a lecture, which is, or ought to be, a dissertation on some scientific <<76>> subject, must partake largely of the severity and exactness of an argument, where the reason and not the fancy should naturally preside. When a man rises before an audience to excite their sympathy, to rouse their passions, to awaken their good or bad feelings, he may then deal freely in the flowers of oratory, employ metaphor and allegory, poetry and parable, to rivet their attention. But even then he should be sparing of the glitter of fine words, if he at all desires that his hearers should think him in earnest, and not he led to the conclusion that all his excitement is but mere pretence, all his elevation the product of cold study; since the vehemence of passion and the energy of high-wrought feelings Soon subside, after the first outburst of words to which they spontaneously give birth. My young friends, I trust, will pardon this digression, indulged in before I fairly begin; because many of them may, Probably, at one, time or the other attempt to speak in public; and having some experience, I deem myself a little qualified to advise them to beware of meretricious ornament and false glitter, and to depend more on the solidity of their intelligence, their knowledge of the subject, and the good sense of the audience, than the adventitious display of fine words, which are not rarely sound and fury, signifying nothing. Ornament, however well and skillfully applied, pleases the most refined taste, and it shows the hand of the master when displayed in the proper place, and in proper time. And in this chiefly consists the difference between the true orator and the meaningless violent declaimer, and be­tween the man of genius, and the mere collector and condenser of other men’s ideas. The ranter may inflame the passions of the vile and vulgar, but he leaves the refined mind cold and untouched; whilst, at the same time, the mere collector of thoughts and words of others, cannot produce a permanent impression, because being unacquainted with the springs of thought and actions, he cannot find the words to which the soul responds, like the musical instrument to the skilful touch of the master.

But, to proceed with our subject. To many the idea of prayer embraces only a mode of asking a favour, or, at most, returning thanks for bounties received. Prayer, according to such a view, <<77>> would simply be an outpouring of oar necessities before God, either to demand relief, or to be grateful when it has been obtained. If this were so, the duty of prayer would be confined to periods of necessity or moments of hilarity, when we have enjoyed an expected or unlooked-for good. In this case we should be always on the watch to keep a strict account with God, as the recipients of his favours, anxious to call on Him when in need, and, perhaps, mindful of our dependence when our wishes have been granted. This would bring, as a result, that we should gradually lose sight of the power of the Supreme; since, in our self-confidence, we would often defer praying, because we might think that we had the ability to obtain justice for ourselves by our own strength, wisdom, skill, or dexterity; and that, when success has attended our efforts, it was not Providence, who had the least to do with the agreeable issue. Thus, also, would thanksgiving be omitted, if it were only resorted to on signal occasions; since, for the reason just assigned, we should, to a certainty, not always recognise the hand of our Father above in our prosperity.

So far as religious purposes are concerned, therefore, prayer ought to be more universal than the mere petition and thanksgiving; or, in other terms, that one must require prayers which are neither the one nor the other, and that they should be performed even at times when we are neither in any imminent trouble, nor lave received any great favour which expressly demands our gratitude. If this be once conceded, we may go a step farther, and claim that, whereas the object of prayer is to draw man to God habitually, and to remind him of his great power, goodness, and wisdom, any matter which can have such an influence on the heart, may fairly be introduced into the form or liturgy of a particular religious society. If we have arrived at this conclusion, and its propriety could be proved if it were necessary, we may at once assume that prayer should be a continual exercise, daily repeated, and that it should embrace everything which can bring the power of God ever present before our eyes. For since God is all-powerful, and is thus able to grant all that we need, withhold the expected <<78>> favours, or send afflictions even greater than those we already suffer under, and since it is according as we are deemed worthy or otherwise, that we receive reward or punishment: it is evi­dently the best for us to have such influences acting on us and our motives, that the acts which we perform should be of such a kind, as to draw on us the favour and not the displeasure of the One who not alone has created us, but whose vigilance, is ever active to accord to us the recompense which is justly our due.

Those, therefore, who composed our daily service, the seers of Israel, who accompanied Ezra from the Babylonian captivity, and their pious associates, the men of the, so-called, “Great Assembly,” did, in arranging for us a system or series of peti­tions and thanksgivings, incorporate with these numerous Bible passages, literally copying without abbreviation, or change, entire verses or sections, as part and parcel of our devotional exercises, deeming them, without doubt, the best calculated to produce the proper effect of prayer on the individual. For, let us ask, What do we declare when we pray? Simply that we acknowledge ourselves inferior, and under the protection and control of the, Lord in heaven, who, at his pleasure, can dispose of our fate. If now the identical words of Scripture can make this impres­sion and utter this declaration in the best manner, they are evi­dently the best calculated for our use, although, in themselves, they are neither petition nor thanksgiving.

The best example I can give you of this Scripture reading in the midst of our prayers proper, is the celebrated collection passages, commonly called the Shemang, with which you are too familiar to require any extended explanation. The Rabbi justly term itקבלת עול מלכות שמים, “The reception of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven,” as it is viewed in the light of daily renewed acknowledgment of our allegiance to God, who is alone in His power, uncircumscribed in His mercy, unapproached in His wisdom, single and alone in His unity.—Let us pause awhile on the last expression, which has casually escaped me,. since it is pregnant with the highest significancy. The ideas which a man entertains of the being or nature of the <<79>> Supreme, and of his own relative position to Him, have a ma­terial influence on his thoughts, motives, and actions. If we believed that the Deity whom we worship delighted in cruelty and suffering: we would, to a surety, not regard the infliction of pain and sorrow on others in the light of a heinous offence. If we imagined that God took no cognisance of the acts of his creatures: we would, to a certainty, indulge in all the imaginations of our own untamed heart, and live for ourselves alone, regardless of the wishes of others; since the greatest amount of self-indulgence would, in that view, he the highest attainable happiness. If we could be induced to believe that our God were powerless in himself, and required the conjoint aid of another, in order to fulfill the desire of his creatures, even assuming that He in this case, too, were the sole Creator of all things: we would, as in reason bound, propitiate the favour of this adjunct, or associate, if this were in our power, to the neglect of regarding the wishes, commands and injunctions of the being, who, by himself, is powerless to save and to execute his own purposes without ulterior assistance. In the first case we would be cruel, in the second voluptuaries, and in the third idolaters or poly­theists; since the very idea of association in the power of the Godhead is an assumption of a plurality of gods, each more or less invested with the prerogative and powers of divinity.

Now, Judaism is in all Aspects an emphatic denial of these three ideas. It declares God to be benevolent, and delighting in mercy; it represents Him as ever attentive to the deeds of man; and it exhibits Him as alone able to execute his will; in the words of Scripture, “Wherever the word of the King is, there is his government; and who can say to him, What doest thou?” (Eccl. ,iii. 4.) Again, “And he exists in his unity, and who can turn him back? and what his soul desireth he exe­cuteth.” (Job xxiii. 13.) If, therefore, it is our wish to please this watchful, benignant, universal Being, we ought to en­deavour to follow in the rules of life which He may have pre­scribed for us to pursue; and, consequently, the belief in this God should be exhibited in the acts which are to respond to it.

The Scriptures, therefore, and if not these; the chief then of <<80>> our nation at the partial restoration of our government, have made it our duty to repeat those parts of the Bible, as a daily exercise, wherein the truths just stated are found in a condensed and simple form, and which once admitted, shut the door against the entrance of all erroneous ideas which might by any possibility injure the growth of this confident belief in our hearts. Let us now trace the meaning of the words of the first verse; “Hear, O Israel! the Lord who is our God, is the Lord alone.” In the correct acceptation of these words they present themselves as the beginning of an address, which the great teacher Moses delivered to the people a few days prior to his death. For near forty years he had been their guide in religion; their judge to settle their many disputes; their political chief in government, and military leader in their battles. They had grown from a rude mass of liberated slaves, into a well-organised state, ruled by equitable laws and a uniform legislation,—although as yet their capital was a camp of tents, and their chief temple a movable structure of gold-covered boards. Yet much had been gained in that period of wandering in the desert; the name of the national God of the Hebrews had alone usurped the places formerly occupied in the minds of the people by the multitudes of the divinities of the Egyptians; the power of a grasping priesthood, who kept the people in darkness by means of the superior knowledge which they alone possessed, had been anni­hilated forever by imparting that knowledge, and more yet which  they had never dreamed of, to an entire race of intelligent beings; and profligacy and cruelty had been restrained by a severe system of laws, terrible only to the transgressors, but mild and merciful to those who would consent to bridle their passions in obedience to their dictates; and all this was on the sole idea that but one God does exist, that but one God can be thought possible.

Moses now in addressing his people, after repeating to them the Ten Commandments and the history of their revelation, calls on his hearers not to forget by whom these laws were made known; that they did not emanate from a multitude, not from one of weak power, not from a cruel God who delights in the <<81>> sufferings of mortals, or who is an indifferent spectator of what is done in this world; but he rose up in his enthusiasm, pointed to the heavens resplendent with the glorious orb of light, showed them the earth teeming with the fertility which then distinguished our own lovely Palestine, where they were at that moment en­camped, and then said that all that had been witnessed by themselves, and whatever had been done since the creation, was the work of but one sole pervading Power—eternal, almighty, One. It is, a constant re-echoing of the same words in our ears, an  everlasting “Hear, O Israel!” which the prophet meant to institute, and with his last energy he breathed forth the words which so strongly combine the greatest truths in the fewest pos­sible words.—Moses thus declares first that the Being of whom he was the messenger, was “the Eternal,” who was, who is, and who alone can say that He will be; combining in Himself “the existence of times past, present, and future, consequently enjoy­ing a continuance of power without abridgment or. interference, from those more limited in their duration of life. Secondly, he defines Him farther as “our God,” the one who choosing for him­self a people who should be in possession of his religion, and the truths connected therewith, selected the nation which had sprung from Jacob, who was called Israel; consequently, they had a more powerful incentive than any other family of men, to obey the laws then made known to them, from a feeling of gratitude for the distinction thus conferred, though they often had proved themselves a stiff-necked and rebellious people. Thirdly, he meant to impress on their conviction, that this Eternal Lord our God was alone in his eternity not associated nor accompanied by any coexisting eternity, unaided by any they divine power, unchecked by any substantial being; since He alone is, all others are created; consequently it would be rebellion in them, at any time after his death, to permit themselves to believe in an association in the Godhead, or to invoke any other being in their prayers, to aid them in the affairs of life, or to stone for them in any  imaginable way, with the Creator and universal Father, to insure their salvation and redemption from the power of sin. Do you wonder that the enthusiasm which burst forth from the mouth of <<82>> the most favoured of mortals, found a responsive thrill in the heart of all his hearers? Had they not been witnesses of the same Power which he had seen? Had they not listened to the same fearful Voice which had instructed him? Had they not like him beheld the downfall of the idols of their oppressors, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s hosts in the billows of the Arabian Sea? What did he tell which they did not know? What did he narrate to them which they had not seen? Nothing, save the details of revelation for which they had appointed him their messenger, and which they felt sure were communicated to them exactly as he had received them. Therefore did his inspired words enkindle the lamp which was already prepared in their souls; he struck a cord which was already attuned to beat in harmony with his own heart’s throbbing; and now behold! the lamp yet burns with inextinguishable brilliance in your, in my own heart, worthy hearers, and the sound yet vibrates, undying, imperishable in our bosom. Where is the son of Israel who does not feel the full force of the faith and hope which these fiery words inspire? yes, he feels them in[ward]ly, deeply; and they dwell with him in his manhood; they abide with him in his declining years; and when as he sinks into decrepit age he loses the stores of learning he may have acquired in the days of his youth, he still cherishes in his fading memory the words he learned from a sainted mother, from a father long gone home to his heavenly Parent, and he murmurs with his last failing breath, “The Lord is One!” and falls asleep in the vision of a glorious immortality. In this is nothing of idle declamation, no fancy picture evoked to win your applause or to excite your admiration; but something substantial; of which you all have heard many examples related to you by those who have watched the life of their brothers in faith; and it exemplifies beautifully how undying is truth, how potent the spell which sincere conviction throws over the soul of man. Let passions howl their fiercest storms; let interest appeal ever so loudly for awhile to the captive spirit, to pursue the path of selfishness; let pleasure allure the mind to pluck the flowers while they bloom, to quaff the wine whilst it foams and sparkles in the ruby cup; there is still seated within us that <<83>> conviction of the power and greatness and unity of the God above, which will speak when all other voices become silent, which will cheer when all other pleasures are one by one failing and escaping from our grasp, and stand as a faithful guardian by our sinking head, when earth and sky, and sun and, moon, fade into darkness before our quenched eye.

It is difficult indeed to check myself from continuing in this strain, and to exalt the beauty and force of our religion, to lapse into a sermon instead of a lecture on prayer; but I must return to where I digressed from, the object and uses of introducing Scripture passages as quotations or portions of devotional exercise, into our various liturgies. All I meant to exhibit to you, was that the daily acknowledgment of the unity of God was calculated to impress on the mind deeply, undyingly, the lesson /which it conveys, to be true and steadfast to the last, not to turn aside to the right or the left, after the inventions of sinful men, who have set up for themselves objects of worship, nonentities, fictions, which have no power, no reason, no knowledge,—idols which have no breath in their nostrils, and cannot save those who call on them for aid. Were it now that we could frame a prayer more emphatic in our own words, more expressive of our thoughts than that which springs directly from revelation: we might be permitted to use it, substitute it, if you will, for the Shemang itself; but here is that man, who would dare to measure his intellect with that which spoke out of the son of Amram? yes! Where is he who would venture on the contest to step into the arena and dispute the superiority of him who has never been and cannot ever be excelled? “For there never rose up a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,” that is, who so completely had cognizance of the things high and holy, which are concealed from other mortals. And shall we disdain to continue using the words which he set up as a standard of faith? No! never; for it is fit that the child of earth should learn from his heavenly Father how to pray, to employ those words which he knows beforehand that they will be received in favour.

But perhaps you may after all say, the Shemang is no prayer <<84>> at all; it contains no petition, is no thanksgiving, and is as a confession of faith quite inappropriately placed in the midst of our petitions and praises. In so judging, however, my hearers, you would misconceive the very object of prayer. Understand well that prayer is not so much to remind God of your wants; for He who knows all the ways of man, cannot be ignorant nor unmindful of what we actually need. Still, as you have been told before, it is our duty to lay our wants open before Him, in order to obtain relief, just as we are commanded to exercise other acts of religion in order to receive the divine approbation of our deeds. It is not our province to look into the reason of this requirement of our religion; we cannot understand the thoughts of God; would He even reveal to us in words his mode of ruling the world, we could not, unless we were endowed with an increase of wisdom, penetrate the depths of his designs. Is it not now the case, that though we are told in the Bible that God pardons sins and passes by transgressions to those who sincerely repent, there are millions of men who profess to believe that the justice of God cannot be satisfied without a sacrifice, without the absolute destruction of the sinner? And yet in this belief they contradict the teaching of the Scriptures. But so is the insufficiency of our reason; we cannot reconcile to our notions the unlimited power of God with our conceptions of them; and we venture constantly upon theories which we shall have to discard upon a close investigation. The same now is the case with the duty of praying to God for relief from difficulties, troubles, and dangers; we are told in revelation that the Lord will listen to us whenever we call on Him; but we are not informed that by our words we convey to Him a knowledge of our state which He has not without them. If, however, the effect of prayer on the Supreme is not what it is on a fellow-man, who is by our petition perhaps, first made cognizant that we are in distress, and that he can aid us: it has a great influence on ourselves, as it reminds us that we can obtain enlargement only from the Author of our spirit, that human aid must fail, unless seconded by His blessing; hence in framing words of entreaty to the throne of the Most High, we must necessarily judge our own conduct, to see whether <<85>> we have any right to approach Him, whether even in human reason we have not done that which must act as a bar to the acceptance of our entreaty.

(To be continued.)