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The Institution of Prayer in its Historical Development.

Being a Lecture* Delivered Before the Hebrew Literary Association, at their Room, on Thursday Evening, May 22d, 5611.

* The subject being so extensive in its bearing, it is of course impossible to exhaust it, or even to give a brief survey in one lecture; wherefore the present production must be regarded in the lied of an introductory more than anything else. It is published merely to be suggestive of farther thoughts in others.

By Isaac Leeser

Ladies and Gentlemen:

There is perhaps not one duty enjoined by our religion which is more than all others consonant to the human heart like that of prayer. This is not indeed based upon the conviction that we shall obtain that for which we ask, but upon the full assurance of our entire helplessness in all circumstances of life when we have to confess that nothing within our reach can extricate us from our difficulty and embarrassment. If we then look around us and find that all who are near are equally powerless with ourselves, we naturally cast our eye upward and seek the aid from Above which we in vain search for on earth. Reason, cold human reflection, might indeed tell us that it is of no use to <<230>> address the God of all concerning our wants, as He must know them, and that if He were inclined to aid us He would, as He surely can, come to our assistance without our petitioning Him beforehand. Hence there are probably those, who exalt the human intellect as a species of divinity, who never pray. But if we at Israelites or believers in revelation in general have con­fidence in the Scriptures as they have been handed down to us, we cannot so reason nor withhold humbling ourselves and asking divine support; for we are assured from the highest authority which we recognise, that prayer is efficacious, although we are not told in what manner this is or can be. God is not less omniscient, because we are taught to pray to Him, nor is He less good because He awaits our humiliation before He grants us relief; but we must assume in general terms, that the expression of our wants in prayer is one of the duties incumbent on us, and is, in common with all others, test whether we are obedient and thereby deserving the divine favours, or whether we are obdurate, and therefore deserving the continuance of the evil which afflicts us, as a just recompense for our transgressing in not recognising the divine Power, in whose hands alone our enlargement is placed.

Besides this, we must naturally regard God as our parent, through whose “it shall be,” all things came into existence, and among them we, ourselves, the sufferers and petitioners. When a child now sees that his parent has wealth, and therefore gifts to bestow, if he be properly approached; when a son discovers that his father has power to aid him in a great difficulty, so his favour be but propitiated; if the daughter feels conscious that her progenitor is compassionate and willing to forgive any offence, provided only she crave for this favour with due submission and humility: what is so natural as that they should employ those means, that is, petitioning in a proper manner, to obtain what they stand so much in need of? It would be deemed the height of folly and obstinacy in a child to refuse asking of an earthly parent any favour which this one could and would bestow, if it were merely desired in a becoming manner. How much greater, therefore, is this the case when we reflect that <<231>>the Father of all is the One who requires of us to lay open before Him our wants and our sufferings, in order that He may take cognizance of our helplessness; for if man may have accidentally wealth to bestow, if he may have power to relieve in a few instances, if once in a while he may be willing to forgive an injury or trespass without exacting recompense, how immeasurably greater is all this with God, who is emphatically Almighty and Most High; for His wealth is unbounded, and no one will go away empty-handed because a preceding one has been already supplied; no one need to fear that he will remain unaided for want of power in Him to grant our desire; and finally we dare not think even that we would ask too much of His mercy, when we crave forgiveness, because that we might apprehend our conduct as past pardon and atonement, since we are taught that God is the pardoner of iniquity and passes by transgression, and no indication is given that there exists one sin for which atonement and free pardon are absolutely denied. Consequently our religion regards it as a simple duty, which should never be omitted, to resort at all times to prayer, which means in other words that we should daily, ay, momentarily, freely ask in becoming language for whatever the circumstances of our life may require, be this worldly gifts, enlargement from difficulties, or forgiveness for past offences.

It is not my intention at present to treat the subject on purely religious grounds, as you have asked of me a lecture and not a sermon; and perhaps the very choice of the theme “prayer,” may have been unfortunate as altogether too religious; but I fancy that the society of which our young friends are members, and the character I myself possess, will not render it amiss that even a lecture, which means a scientific dissertation, should largely partake of a religious nature, since to Israelites their faith forms the basis of their actions through life, and there is no possible contingency during their whole existence where it does not present itself as either approving or disapproving what they have done, be this in capacity as members of the Synagogue, household, society, or state. In all these various relations our religion is present as the principle to be consulted; hence it and <<232>> its interests are proper themes for discussion on all occasions when we meet for mutual instruction and friendly discussion, that we may literally speak of it when we sit in our douses and walk by the way.

But there is much that is purely scientific connected with the subject, such as the history and development of the idea of prayer, the method in which it is carried out by us and others, the thoughts entertained of it by various classes of individuals, and the manner in which our customary liturgy or book of prayers has gradually assumed its present shape; so that there is ample scope for many lectures, not to mention one, without exhausting the subject scientifically, and without touching once even its religious bearing strictly so called. So let us proceed without farther preface.

Whatever may be alleged by learned and unlearned pretenders to science and to superior knowledge and information, there is no assertion more consonant with truth, than that the Pentateuch, and especially the book of the creation, Genesis, contains the most ancient account accessible with regard to man and his history. Many have endeavoured to throw doubt on the antiquity and authenticity of our law-book; but without going into the inquiry, as foreign to our present topic, I may assert that no one acquainted with the grammatical structure of the Hebrew language, in which, as every one knows, the Scriptures are composed, can for a moment admit, that the book of Genesis is otherwise than the most ancient document of history and religion which is at the present day accessible to us. There may have been more ancient ones in times gone by but if so they have long since passed out of existence, and we have no reliable account of them, consequently they are of no importance to us, nor can they aid us in any inquiry which we may institute, will not say, however, that it is not. possible to bring forward architectural monuments, which, by some chance may antedate the composition of the book of Genesis; for this is actually said to be the case, and I would not hazard to array science against religion, and falsify the one or the other as incongruous systems.

I do not so understand my faith; it can let science exist, and still be <<233>> the sole truth unto salvation, free from doubt and error; and the antiquity of Egyptian monuments and the long alleged dura­tion of the dynasties of Mizraim, may even be traced in some phrases of the book of Exodus, and the only difficulty in the way would be the brief chronology of the eleventh chapter of Genesis, which, though I am not able to reconcile, may still be capable of elucidation by some one better familiar with the recesses of history than I can profess to be. But in candour I must say, that the great age which is claimed for Egypt appears very doubtful to me; for we have nothing, absolutely nothing, to mark the progress of man in science and religion, beyond what the monuments themselves present, for so many centuries of the palmiest days of Egyptian glory; now compare this simple fact with the mighty impulse given to society by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the sudden and still lasting impression made by these teachers in Canaan, Syria, and Egypt itself, and it becomes really incredible that the world could have stood still, nay, retrograded in all the essentials of civilization during the long continuance of so enlightened a set of legislators as the sages and priests of Egypt are alleged to have been.

But we are leaving our subject, and at this rate of progress my address would detain you hours instead of minutes; so let us come back to where we started from. It was intended to convey that the Scriptures are the most ancient historical and religious records, consequently if we wish to trace any religious idea to its first inception we must as a matter of course refer to them, and but little doubt can be entertained of our finding a solution to our inquiry. Many people read the Bible as a religious task, so many chapters a day or week, little heeding that they survey in this perusal the greatest stores of antiquity. So also there are unthinking unbelievers, who look upon the whole word of God as a fabrication of ambitious men, and they fix the dates of the various books composing it at such times, comparatively modern, as to destroy all credibility of its contents. It requires, however, little penetration to exhibit the unsoundness of both, unlearned believers and unwilling learners, such as sceptics are. The Bible is in good earnest much more than a <<234>> merely religious work, and is, as hinted already, the only reliable source of information for the candid antiquarian, and is actually what it professes to be, a collection of various books composed at great intervals of time in various countries, and under the greatest variety of circumstances, and is therefore not a cunningly forged series of unauthentic documents, but a veri­table narrative of events, and a contemporaneous exposition of ideas, philosophical and moral, prevailing at the periods that the events described took place.

If we therefore wish to trace the idea of prayer, we ought, as is consonant with a common-sense view of the question, refer to the Bible to see what it was in its first inception among men, and trace it in its gradual progress till it reaches the development which it has attained at the present time. The antediluvian history, short as it is, presents us with the first specimen of prayer in the reply of Cain to God when he was doomed to exile for the crime of slaying his brother. The words, however, which he uses are more of a remonstrance than a petition, and exhibit only a reliance on God’s justice as tempered with mercy, more than a humiliation of the petitioner himself. These are the words: “Behold thou hast banished me this day from the face of the ground, and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and vagabond on the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me will slay me.” (Gen. iv. 14). We are told that rude as this prayer seems to us, it was accepted, inasmuch as the first murderer received the assurance that he should be protected against the violence which he dreaded.—It is not to be supposed that the voice of prayer was silent during all the centuries that elapsed from Cain to Noah, although we have no recorded evidence to the contrary.

The next trace we have is in the second progenitor of our species, who awaking from the sleep produced by his having drunk the product of the first vineyard mentioned in history, pronounced a malediction on the disobedient child, and a blessing on those who had pitied their father and shielded him in his unconscious exposure. The lan­guage employed is somewhat poetical: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and Canaan shall be a servant to them; may <<235>> God enlarge the boundaries of Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be a servant unto them.” (Gen. ix. 26, 27.) There is even here but little elevation of idea; there appears much of impulse and little of deliberation; still taking it as a prophecy and an indication of future events, it is not the less important than though it had been couched in the magnificent language of Moses, or the sweet poetry of David.

But the next instance of prayer is quite of a different order. It is indeed a remonstrance against a presumed injustice; nevertheless the language is exceedingly deferential to the Divine Majesty, and exhibits that the petitioner felt his extreme lowness in thus interceding for others. I allude, as you probably know already, to the prayer of Abraham for the sinful inhabitants of Sodom. He sets out, after being told that Almighty Justice would take cognizance of the doings of the doomed city, with saying: “Wilt thou then destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou then also destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous that are therein? Far be it from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be this from thee; shall the Judge of all the earth not exercise justice?”

It is not necessary to recite the whole of this passage, which is contained in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, to which you are referred; but on inspection it will appear that it contains the main elements of a proper petition, as we have sketched it in our introduction, acknowledgment of divine power and of human inferiority, or what is the same thing, placing the deliverance or exemption from the evil entirely in the hands of God, and only requesting of his attribute of mercy or justice a release from the threatened or passing evil. With Abraham, therefore, we have the first prayer, in the proper sense of the word, on record, and by it we may freely frame any petition for ourselves of which we may feel that we stand in need.

Subsequent to this we have no example of prayer prior to Jacob, unless we may so construe the blessings of Isaac to his children, which are in effect invocations of the divine aid to do <<236>> an act of mercy to those whom he wished especially placed under his protection. The words are again put in a poetical garb, and assume a higher elevation than mere naked prose, such as Abraham used, although they bear in this respect no comparison with the productions of his own immediate son and remoter descendants. But if we the history of Jacob, we shall find the idea of prayer already farther developed than it was in his ancestors, as in everything else relating to religion he exhibits the confirmed character of one to whom faith and virtue were inherited traits of character, and not merely the acquisitions of a strong, though untutored mind.

The prayer to which reference is made is found in the thirty-second chapter of Genesis. Jacob was on his return from. his long residence with Laban, and dreaded to meet his brother, whom he had offended by obtaining, upwards of twenty years before, the blessing of their father originally intended for him, the first-born. The last of the patriarchs had numerous followers to oppose Esau’s violence with the sword likewise; but he revolted from such a thought, and he justly conceived that one like him, who bad been shown the wonders of the Creator when be watched at night under the brilliant light of the constellations, which glow and shine with peculiar splendour in the beautiful and clear sky of Mesopotamia, the flock of his father-in-law, would best show that the lesson thus acquired had not been lost on him, by resorting to the Giver of all good for support in his trouble, and aid under his apprehension.

He therefore spoke: “O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy birthplace, and I will deal well with thee. I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth which thou hut shown unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become two bands,” meaning that he had been compelled to divide his property on account of its great extent, consisting as it did of cattle, camels, and flocks, the usual wealth of those days, in two divisions. And he then continues: “Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, the mother with the children. And thou <<237>> saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”

You will see that Jacob does not rely on his own merit, but first on the imputed righteousness of his progenitors, who emphatically were the worshippers of the true God, amidst an overwhelming number of idolaters, so that he was authorised by the Lord himself to call Him peculiar God of Abraham and Isaac. This we are sure was not done to remind the Supreme of this well-known fact, but to awaken himself to a feeling of confidence in the eternal Source, seeing that through so many difficulties, whatever they were, his fathers passed unharmed.

Was not Abraham put in conflict with numerous hordes of invaders, and yet he overcame them with his household servants alone? Was not Lot saved from the destruction of Sodom through the merit of the same beloved servant of God? Was Isaac not summoned to become a sacrifice on the altar, and was not his willingness accepted, and a ram received in four in his stead? And now though danger threatened from his enraged brother, he could not imagine that God would be untrue to his promise, and allow mother and children to fall a prey to the sword, when they had been announced as the progenitors of the great nation that was to spring of Abraham. Jacob thus in his prayer rouses himself to cast off all apprehension; he feels that the Lord would be untrue should extermination befall his family; for himself, the decaying stem, he asked nothing; he cared little that he should fall, provided only those who were to perpetuate his lineage should survive; and therefore, although we do not find that any token of his petition having been granted was vouchsafed to him, he weft forward cheerfully, relying on the truth of the One who never deceives those who put their trust in Him.

I have not referred to the prayer which Jacob made when he was comforted by the vision of angels ascending on a ladder, and descending thereby, u it is more in the nature of a conditional row, nor is it necessary for our discussion that we should adduce every verse which has the shape of entreaty into our discussion. It is enough for our purpose that we can prove that from the earliest period of the history of our race, which properly <<238>> commences with the Mesopotamian shepherd Abraham, and will stretch yet farther onward till mankind shall be no more on earth, if this catastrophe be actually impending, or whilst any other family of men live in this world, prayer in its fullest sense was prevalent among us, and that we are furnished from the earliest periods with models not alone fit for imitation, but which cannot be improved upon either in simplicity of language or the sublimity of ideas which they convey. It must be evident that when we address the Deity two things must be avoided, familiarity and vulgarity on the one side, and high sounding phrases and pompous expressions on the other. Language here, as in every other case, ought to be in consonance with the object in view; hence the propriety of having our ideas clothed in chaste and dignified words, in a style not too ornate, as though we wish to display our learning, when approaching the Throne of Grace.

If we proceed onward in our investigation, and contemplate the productions of Moses, the father of all the sages and prophets of Israel, we shall find him eminently successful in all the essentials we have just laid down. Examine the sublime prayer which he offered up to God when Israel had fallen into idolatry, and you will see that it is almost identical in its elements with that of Jacob just discussed. Like him Moses does not claim any merit for himself or people; he only refers to the merits of the patriarchs and to the divine promise of the Lord, of perpetuating their descendants, maintaining them on earth as his people and witnesses. He had indeed been told that entreaty would be useless, so great was their transgression; but he considered justly that the divine mercy far outweighs human guilt, and forgives where justice demands the extermination of the transgressor. If we take in view this two-fold quality, if it be permitted to use such a term, of our God, as He is the Judge and the Merciful at the same time, we perhaps be able to explain away the difficulty which presents itself in reading the thirty-second chapter of Exodus, where the Lord on seeing that the Israelites bad made the golden calf, said to Moses that he should not pray, but leave his anger to be kindled against them, that they might be consumed.

Moses, however, disregarded the injunction, and <<239>> asked and obtained a remission of the guilt. We may in this connexion freely assume, that we are presented here merely with the contest between justice and mercy. Justice demanded the severest punishment, which was that the erring and rebellious race should cease to exist; but mercy, through the prophet, pleaded for a mitigation of the evil, inasmuch as this would best carry out the promise to the patriarchs, which we have already considered. Time prevents me to-night from enlarging on this point, which would require a long dissertation by itself; so work out for yourselves the hint given you, and no doubt but the sub­ject will be as clear to you as any other which refers to the thoughts of the. One above, whom we can only approach, but never reach in our mortal state. We know that Moses’s prayer was accepted, and the doom was averted from the mass, though many suffered; since no guilt, as we are told, can be passed over without some punishment being inflicted on the sinners.

(To be continued.)