How is this? Does the Lord turn Himself unto our prayer only after long delay? Is not He omnipresent? Is not every whispered and stammering prayer known to Him, before there is yet a word in the tongue? How then can the All-knowing One at first indifferently stand apart and only gradually become aware that we are praying to Him, and turn Himself to the prayer which He temporarily ignored?
And yet without doubt this is what is meant. The Psalmist stands before a closed heaven. In sorrow of soul supplication is made, but trouble is not removed, and God contends against the prayer of His people. The arch enemy does not pray, does not understand God, but in this he is encouraged by Jehovah. God’s own covenant people continue to be repulsed. God hides His face. And the Psalmist cries: “O Lord hear my prayer and let my cry come unto Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. In the day when I call, answer me speedily” (Ps. 102, 1, 2).
This relieves his troubled mind. With prophetic daring he forecasts the day when the Lord will hear the prayer of his people again, and inspired by this thought declares: “When the Lord turneth him unto the prayer of the destitute, and despiseth not their desire, then all kings of the earth shall fear him” (Ps. 102, 17, Dutch Ver.).
Thus in fact he was still in a period, when the Lord holds Himself deaf to His people, and the future still holds the moment in which the Lord shall turn Himself unto the supplication of His people.
What do you think? Has not the Psalmist felt and known the objections that rise from the very Being of God against this human representation, and do you stand on a so much higher plane that thoughts arise in you, that were foreign to him?
But pray, who has portrayed in terms of finer imagery than he the omnipresence and omniscience of God? Are not the expressions in which you clothe your prayers borrowed for the most part from his writings? Did not he propound the question: “Shall he who planted the ear, not hear?” and did not he say in the hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm, “There is not a word in my tongue, but, In, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I can not attain unto it?”
In fact, it is the Psalmist who has described the virtues of God in behalf of all Christendom, and the secret things of the Almighty are nowhere placed before us, veiled or unveiled, more clearly than in his language.
And when this eminently saintly poet over and over again speaks to us of God, also in connection with this matter of prayer, in a way that is so purely human, what else then can it mean, save that the terms of intimacy between man and man retain their significance in the secret walk with God; and that therefore there are moments, when God turns Himself away from our prayer, and that, Praise His Name, there are moments when He turns Himself unto our prayer.
You believe in Christ, and in the truth of His saying: “He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father, and how sayest thou then: show us the Father?” You yourself kneel down before Him, saying: “My Lord and my God,” and what is the Incarnation of the Word other than that God became Man? And what profit can this be to you, unless you feel that, in Christ, God has come to you in a human way.
Until the birth in Bethlehem, God spoke to you in human words, but in Christ God appears to you in human nature. He reveals Himself to you as the Son of Man. A human heart here speaks in human language and in human motions. S. John declares: “In Jesus we have seen and heard not only what is God’s, but we have touched and handled, and actually seen before our eyes the eternal-Divine in human stature and in human form.”
The whole Christian faith, the entire Christian confession rests upon the clear conviction, that God has not laid it upon you to lose Him in endless abstractions, but, on the contrary, He would come to you ever more closely in human form and in human language, in order through your human heart to make warm, rich fellowship possible with Himself.
Moreover, you must understand that all this rests upon sober reality. It is not semblance, but actual fact, because God created you after His Image, so that with all the wide difference between God and man, divine reality is expressed in human form. And that, when the Word became Flesh, this Incarnation of the Son of God was immediately connected with your creation after God’s Image.
And you would undo all this when in the place of this warm, rich fellowship with God which can not be practised except in a human way, you would put a whole system of abstract ideas about the immensity of God, and so create a distance between Himself and you which excludes all intercourse and fellowship of soul.
Leave this to philosophers who do not practice prayer; to theologians, dry as dust, who are no children of their Father in heaven. As for you, love God with a love, of which childlike fellowship with Him is the warm expression.
You know yourself that the practice of prayer puts the seal upon the words of the Psalmist. At one time, heaven is open to you, and as you pray angels descend and ascend to present your petitions at the Throne of God. At another time your prayer is formal and your words come back upon yourself, and the circuit of heaven, as Job (xxii: 14) calls it, is closed against you.
Then the turning point is reached in this oppressive isolation, and you perceive that the gate of heaven opens once again, and your prayer obtains free access to the Throne of the Almighty, and you understand from your own experience what the Psalmist here affirms regarding the blessedness of the moment in which the Lord turns Himself again unto the prayer of a soul that is utterly destitute.
But is the solution of this apparent contradiction as impossible as it seems? By no means, provided you have eyes to see the workings of God in your prayer-life.
Yea, when you deem that prayer originates with yourself; when you do not believe that the spirit of prayer goes out from your God within you, and you think that God’s active part in your prayer only begins when He hears and answers it, then indeed you face here an insoluble riddle.
But if you take it in the other, truer way, and make it clear to yourself that your prayer-life too is quickened, directed and carried on in you by God, then light shines in upon you.The farmer sows the seed in the newly ploughed furrows, and leaves it quietly to do its work, in order that when dew and sunshine from heaven have caused the seed to sprout and send the blade upward, and ripen the corn in the ear, he may return to the field and gather in his harvest.And is not this the case in our prayer-life? Here too our Father Who is in heaven takes the initiative by sowing the seed of prayer in our heart. Then follows a slow process. That prayer-life must come to development in us, and prayer in our soul must ripen. And only when this result has been obtained, and prayer has unfolded itself in us into that higher form, the heavenly Husbandman turns Himself again to the prayer-life in us; and then comes the rich hearing and answering of what went up from our soul to Him.
Such is the case with our prayer-life taken as a whole. Through foolish prayers we come to purified prayers. Through earthly prayers we come to those holier ones, which have been watered with dew from above and which radiate sunlight of a higher order.
And such is the case with individual, particular prayers. These, too, are not at once purified and made perfect. These, too, go through a process in the soul. These, too, spring up from a root, and only by degrees develop themselves into prayer such as our Father Who is in heaven expects of His child; prayer which is not merely a sound of the lips, but rises from the depths of the heart; prayer, in which one’s own sense and inclinations agree; prayer in which not merely a spontaneous thought but our whole person expresses itself; prayer, in which in very truth the soul pours itself out before the Holy One.
For this, God allows us time. It is not done all at once. If His response were immediate, no prayer-life would be developed within us, and no single prayer would be sanctified in us. Weeds that spring up between our prayers must first be rooted out. Every sort of infectious germ that creeps in must be removed. And prayer must refine itself, it must sanctify itself, so that in a heavenly sense by faith it may be able to ripen.
Therefore God leaves you to yourself for a time, so that by the trial of His seeming indifference the development may the better be prospered. And when at length your prayer has reached that degree of perfection which renders it meet, as a prayer of a saint of God, to be laid on the altar, then He turns Himself again to your prayer; and you offer thanks to your Father in heaven, that He has trained you in that holy school of prayer.