This sermon is number 11 in a series of 15
Building For God - Part 11
"Putting Prayer Back In Its Place"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2004 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Chapter 9 of Nehemiah, 'Putting Prayer Back In Its Place' - now if the revival recorded in chapter 8 of Nehemiah, and indeed, as we saw, every revival in history, teaches us anything, it teaches us that the preaching of God's word faithfully and powerfully, and indeed joyful obedience to that word are both central to a revival amongst God's people. One: the preaching of God's word faithfully; and two: faithful obedience in a joyful way to that word - both of them are intrinsic to revival.
One sure third ingredient must be added to those first two - preaching God's word and obeying - and that is simply that of prayer. You'll find within all of the Scriptures, and indeed all the revivals of history, that the preaching of God's word, obedience to that word, and faithfulness of God people in prayer are intrinsic to God's moving by His spirit among God's people in revival. Now what we read partly of this morning in Nehemiah chapter 9 is what is the longest recorded prayer in the whole of the Bible. It's very interesting that it's right in the middle of a spiritual awakening, it's there in revival and it's good that it should be such because it testifies to us the great need that there is if we're going to see God's people revived, if we're going to see the outworking of that in the salvation of our friends and loved ones who are lost, that we are on our knees in prayer.
We hear often quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God says: 'If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land'. But there are requirements that God needs us to fulfil where prayer is concerned, until He then pours out the blessing upon us. It has always been, it will always be, there are certain principles of revival - the preaching of God's word fearlessly in the power of the Spirit, God's people being fearless in their obedience to God's word and their surrender to it, but we're going to see this morning that we need to put prayer back in its place if we're really going to see our lives, our church, our district revived for the Lord Jesus Christ.
I've spoken to you before about the Moravian community, and prayer was intrinsic among the Moravians at Hernhut in Saxony, when the Spirit of God came powerfully among them in August 1727. The history records that adults covenanted to cover each 24-hours of the day in prayer. By the end of the month, after covenanting this, the children alone were holding their own prayer meetings - spending many hours, believe it or not, in praying, singing and weeping. The same pattern was found in the life of a Mr James McQuilkin - who many of you may not have heard of - but he was a man used of God here in Ulster in the revival in 1859. He was converted in 1856 in Ballymena by the witness of an English lady who just spoke to him about the Lord Jesus, and later on James McQuilkin went on to lead three of his friends to the Lord Jesus Christ. So the four of them were saved, very early in the faith, but all four of them agreed and covenanted together to meet every Friday evening for prayer and for Bible study. You may know this, that they chose an old school house near Kells in County Antrim, and during the winter of 1857 and 1858 each of them gathered an armful of peat and made their way to the school house every Friday evening. The peat warmed their bodies, and the fire of God coming down from heaven warmed their heart as they sought God's face for revival.
Two other people later joined them, one a very old man named Marshall, but it wasn't long until that prayer meeting grew. By New Year's Day in 1858 they saw their first convert, and by the end of that year the prayer meeting had grown to 50 people. Now let me quote them, they said they prayed: 'For an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon ourselves, and upon the surrounding country. This was the one great object and burden of our prayers. We held right to that one thing, and did not run off to anything else'. The prayer group was ridiculed for praying in this way, 'but we kept right on praying until the power came' - and it did come! You can be sceptical today in our 21st century world, but the fact of the matter is that by this time the following year there was 100,000 souls saved in Ulster in answer to these men's prayers. As the revival of the gospel spread across the land, so spread a revival for prayer meetings - they were everywhere! The Conner district alone had 100 weekly prayer meetings commenced in that year. Prayer meetings were everywhere, from graveyards to gravel pits, everywhere people were on their knees crying unto God in prayer.
Ballymena's Wellington Street Presbyterian Church could be, I quote: 'Crowded in all of its parts by a prayer meeting - and this on a Saturday, this weekly market-day when at normal times a dozen persons could scarcely have been convened for such a purpose'. There was an unusual, and unnatural, yea a supernatural movement of God's Spirit in revival - but what I want you to see today is this: it came intrinsically from a revival of prayer among God's people. I say to you today here in the Iron Hall, that if we're to know true revival we must know personally and corporately a true revival of prayer in our lives and in our church. Nothing else will do! So here's the question: how is prayer in your life? How are you doing with regards to prayer? I've been reading a lot of Charles Swindoll, and his book on Nehemiah, and he quotes a man by the name of J. Oswald Saunders who some of you will know from his book 'Spiritual Leadership'. J. Oswald Saunders quotes a man called Dean C. J. Vaughn, and he does it, he says, to rattle the skeleton that hangs in many of our closets - that is the skeleton of prayerlessness. This is the quotation, listen very carefully and apply it to your own hearts: 'If I wish to humble anyone', he says, 'I should question him about his prayers. I know nothing to compare with this topic for its sorrowful self-confession'.
It's true, isn't it? If I wanted to humble any of you here this morning, all I would need to do is pinpoint you and say: how long did you pray this morning? How good were your prayers this morning? And let me tell you, all you would have to do is return the question to me and I would be satisfactorily humbled as well! It's something we all like to keep quiet, because it really is the measure of the spiritual man, isn't it, how often we are on our knees? It was Robert Murray McCheyne and he said: 'A man is what he is on his knees, and no more'. The truth of this sentiment, it humbles us - and whether you're a preacher hiding behind a pulpit, or an elder hiding behind an office, or a deacon hiding behind some activities that are external and other people see; whether you're a member coming to the meetings and hiding behind that, or hiding behind the tithe that you give to the Lord every Lord's Day; whether you're an evangelist hiding behind all the missions that you're taking and the Gospel meetings that you're preaching, the Open-Airs that you're convening; whether you're a missionary hiding behind the activity on the mission field that seems to be so spiritual, or a theological professor in the seminaries right across our world, an author of many of the Christian paperbacks that we see a plethora of our Christian bookshops, even on prayer - this question humbles us all! It is the great leveller!
How is your prayer life? Is it given its proper place? J. Oswald Saunders, in that book that I mentioned, says: 'Most of us are plagued with a subtle aversion to praying. We do not naturally delight in drawing near to God. We pay lip-service to the delight and potency and value of prayer. We assert that it is an indispensable, we adjunct that it is part of mature spiritual life. We know that it is constantly enjoined and exemplified in the scriptures, but in spite of all: too often we fail to pray'. Then he quotes an eminent Christian who said these words: 'When I go to pray, I find my heart so loathe to go to God; and when it is with Him, so loathe to stay'. Now let's be honest with one another: do we ever feel like that? Of course we do! I feel like that, there are times in prayer when you almost feel that you're holding your breath beneath the water level, and you're holding it as long as you feel you can before you can burst out to get a breath of normality again.
We can make all the excuses that we like, and they've all been made, but the fact of the matter is: much of the time we fail to admit the real problem that we have, the real problem in the church today of prayerlessness. The question we've been asking is: do you want a revival? Do you want a revival in your own life, in your own home, in your own church? Well, the question then is: are you willing to pay the price? Are you willing to implement the four prayer principles that we'll see this morning in your life, and indeed in this assembly to see a revival of God? I'll tell you, I believe that God is the same today as He's always been. I believe Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever - and I don't believe that there was a different dispensation in 1859 than there is in 2004. No matter what your theology is or mine, God is the same, God is still the God of miracles, God is still the God that answers prayer, and God I believe is just as eager to give the fullness of His blessing today as He has ever been - but mark this: He does it always in answer to prayer.
Now let me leave you with these four principles if you want to put prayer back in its place in your life, and indeed in this church. Here's the first: repentance - they're all from this passage of Scripture. The wall has been rebuilt as we saw last week, and then we also saw that Ezra was called and he opened God's law. He began to read it, and then he gave the sense, he expounded it. Then we saw that there were things that they were disobedient with in the Scriptures, even from the days of Joshua, the building of these booths for the Feast of the Tabernacles - it may have been a little dot and cross of the 't' in some people's eyes, but God felt it was important. It wasn't until this generation that they'd got a revival in the discovery of scriptural truth once again. So here they are, they've gathered together, they've built God's wall, they're expounding God's word, they're starting to obey God's word joyfully - but after a few days of celebration and joy (remember they weren't allowed to weep or mourn, they had to joy in God's feast) - but after that their feasting turned to fasting, and their joy very quickly became humiliation. They humbled themselves before the mighty hand of God, and they wept, they mourned, they fasted in sackcloth and ashes because of their sins and the sins of their forefathers.
Are you surprised at that? It seems a bit strange, doesn't it, that one minute God is telling them 'I don't want you to weep, I don't want you to mourn. I want you to celebrate and be joyous'; and the next minute in God's will, they are weeping, they are mourning, they are being humiliated. Well, you ought not to be surprised because that is what the Christian life is all about, isn't it? The spiritual life, is it not true that it's filled with both feasting and fasting - the two go together! You've the wonderful privilege of fellowship with the Lord, communion with the Lord and with the saints, rejoicing together in worship and in your daily life with Christ - but then the other side of the coin is the denying of self, humiliation of self and mortification of the flesh, the walking in the Spirit that we may not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. The two are being continually and constantly repeated together.
I wonder have you've forgotten this? I think the great deal of the Western church, because perhaps of the affluence and materialism that we enjoy, much of which we need to thank God for, it stifles this aspect of Christianity. We think we should get it good all the time, that the whole life should be filled with joy - we don't realise that there's something called of us, and that is repentance. Some, you see, think that confession and repentance is something that they have done at conversion and it doesn't need to be repeated. You've done it once, or maybe when you rededicated your life, when you came back to the Lord as a backslider, you did it then - but you feel that 'it's not something I need to do everyday'. My friend, that is not the gospel of Christ! He said: 'Follow me, and daily take up your cross and follow me, and daily deny yourself' - that is intrinsically repentance. Do you do it?
Have you repented today? You need to know that it is the humble and contrite heart that God does not despise, and that God speaks to. Now here's the problem, here's where it all comes into vogue with regard to your prayer life: you see, if you don't humble yourself before God, and keep short accounts with God, and continually repent from your sin before God, you will soon become hardhearted. When you become hardhearted you become cold to spiritual matters, you become indifferent to the Bible and of course to prayer, and your prayer life suffers. The fact of the matter is it is a vicious circle, because God will never plant a seed of His life in soil that is hard, unbroken, cold and indifferent! So the more you become disinterested in spiritual things, because you won't repent, the less you want to pray and the less chance there is that you will ever pray.
Do you need to repent? I'll tell you, you do - there's not one person, including this preacher, in this place this morning that doesn't need to repent today of something. If there's someone like that, who doesn't need to repent, I want to speak to you afterwards because you need a come down. If you don't need to repent, you don't know your heart, you don't know that it is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked - and repentance is needed every single day of your life. But it is through this repentance that God's blessing comes - didn't the Psalmist say: 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him'.
I wonder have you relegated brokenness to some immature past in your Christian life that you think you have grown out of? God help you if you have! 'Where is the blessedness I knew, when first I saw the Lord? Where is the soul-refreshing view of Jesus and His word?'. If you want revival you've got to implement this principle of brokenness of heart in your life. I don't often do a lot of work in the garden, in fact I do none! But yesterday I was left one instruction while the ladies were away, and that was to hammer something into the ground in the garden. Because of all the dry weather we've been having, it was like concrete - I had to get the watering can out and wet it all before I hammered it in - but you know the Bible talks about our hearts being like that. It's like the farmers field that is the fallow ground that hasn't been used, seed hasn't been sown and the elements - the weather, the wind, and the snow, and the frost, and then the sun in summer - has hardened it all. But if the farmer is going to see fruit in that field, what has he to do? He has to get the plough out and he has to break up that fallow ground, to churn it over again, and 'repent' that ground, to turn it all around - and that's what God said to Hosea: 'Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy, break up your fallow ground for it is time to seek the Lord till He come and rain righteousness upon you'.
Will you, will I this morning repent of our prayerlessness? Will you? Repentance is needed, the second thing is reflection is needed. What a prayer of confession and praise this is, we haven't even time really to read it all - but constantly repeated in this prayer from verses 6 to 15 is the little word 'and'. I haven't got time to read it, but just look at verse 6: 'Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee', and go right down to verse 15, and this word 'and' is continually repeated as this man who is praying to God reflects on God's faithfulness and God's goodness in his life. He just goes on and on, he's counting his blessings and being surprised at what God has done. He goes on and on: '...and God, you did this, and you did that to me, and you helped me here and there and everywhere!', and he just keeps repeating it.
Now when he reaches verse 16 the word 'but' comes: 'But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments'. It changes in emphasis, what he's saying is this: 'Lord, you've been so good to us, and you've done this and that and the other, but look at what we have done, look at how we have returned in ingratitude all your goodness towards us'. Yet, regardless of their stubbornness before God, how unyeilding they were and how proud. In verse 26 we read these words, it goes on to say what God continued to do to them: 'Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations', and verse 27, 'Therefore thou deliveredst them into the hand of their enemies...', and goes on. But then he talks about how He blessed them, verse 28: 'But after they had rest, they did evil again before thee' - the Lord gave them rest, and there's this continual cycle in the life of the Israelites: God blesses them, they rebel; God continues to bless them after some punishment, they continue to rebel - but what you're seeing here, is it not our lives?
Are we not the same? Have God's people ever really changed? When you just look at the story of God's grace in your life, how God has given you so many opportunities and chances, maybe even to be saved, maybe even to get right with Him - and every time you turn your back on God, God gives you His goodness over and over again and again! Rebellion, indifference, coldness of heart towards God, yet God is so faithful as we were singing at the beginning of our meeting. To think about this, that God was outside of these people in the Old Testament, but God lives in us now by His Holy Spirit - look at the blessings that we are blessed with in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, all the wonderful things that are ours, yet we still let God down! We still sin against Him!
Now here's the question: do you ever take time to reflect upon the goodness of God in your life? I tell you, when you're down there's one good exercise, and it's to take a time away - and could I encourage you even to do this - to take some time out. Just start to count the blessings of God in your life, the hymn says: 'Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord; Abide in Him always, and feed on His word'. In verse 3 you see that one fourth of the day, that is three hours, were spent in God's word. Then another three hours were spent in prayer and worship, that means three hours before God's word searching their hearts, and then three hours before the Lord worshipping the God of heaven! Imagine this: they were taking time out, do you know why? Because it takes time to get to know God, and it takes time to get to know prayer.
Nehemiah, if you remember, if I can take you back a wee bit, when he came to build the walls did he build them right away? No, what did he do? He spent four months reflecting on the exercise in uninterrupted thought. When the opposition came, what did he do? Did he take up the weapons to fight right away? No, he thought about it first, and prayed about it and reflected. What this book is telling us above anything is that Nehemiah was a man of prayer, and the revival of God's people, the walls and the city, and God's faith, was intrinsically linked to the people getting on their knees and praying! Can I challenge all of us here today: in the next month would some of you at least consider taking one day, one day off, and set aside all the normal daily tasks, and show the Lord for at least one day that there is nothing more important than fellowship with Him. That's what fasting is - you're saying: 'It's more important, Lord, that I pray to you today than eat, so I'm going to communicate that to You through fasting'. Take time to reflect on God's goodness - when was the last time you did that? Have you went back over the story of your life, the spiritual milestones of how faithful God has been to you all down through the years?
Here's a principle for revival: not just repenting, but reflecting upon God's goodness. The hymnwriter said: 'O, the pure delight of a single hour that before Thy throne I spend. I kneel in prayer, and with Thee my God, I commune as friend with friend'. Can I ask a very very pointed question: have you, as a Christian, in your lifetime ever spent one single hour in prayer? Imagine going to heaven never having spent an hour reflecting on the goodness of God when it is so manifold!
Repentance, reflection, thirdly: recognition. Very simple, in verses 33 and 38, they looked into the face of God, and they're saying: 'Lord, we are guilty, we have done it. Your word is correct, our consciences have pricked us and we know it is us'. They're looking into the face of God and saying: 'Yes Lord, you're right, I'm wrong' - and they've stopped arguing with God! The controversy with their God has stopped. I wonder are you arguing with God over something in your life? That's usually why there's no blessing in our lives, because we're arguing - it might even be about prayer: 'Lord, I just don't feel like it this morning', or I've a hundred and one excuses, 'I've to go to work, or I don't feel well, this, that and the other'. Are we arguing with God? Or have we got to that place in our lives when we can look Him - if I can say it reverently - eyeball to eyeball with nothing between, and say: 'Lord, you're right, I'm wrong, You have all my life and I surrender it all to You'.
Alan Redpath, in his book on Nehemiah, says that people in his pastoral ministry constantly ask him the question: 'What is the unforgivable sin?' - that's the thing everybody seems to want to know. His answer was simply: 'One, the sin that you won't confess'. What is the unforgivable sin? The sin that you won't confess! Now we are cleansed as Christians, of course, there's no doubt - and there's no sin, in a sense, that is unforgivable, but what he is saying is that the sin that will hinder you in your life is the one that you won't uncover to God. Perhaps you've gone through an unthinkable 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years of life covering up a sin, refusing to recognise it, refusing to repent of it - and the price has been paid in your life, because there is prayerlessness, there's barrenness.
If revival is to come a price must be paid, open sin against the people of God and the church of God must be openly confessed. Sin against a brother or a sister must be confessed openly. Sin against God must be confessed to them and to God. It would be in all our interests to do regularly, not just on special occasions, but in a regular time in our lives a spiritual M.O.T. Charles Grandison Finney, that great revivalist whose theology was a bit dodgy in places, but yet he was a man of God who was used of God in a mighty way, he exhorted his people to take pen and paper and right down in one column the sins of omission - the things that you ought to do that you have not done - and in the other column the sins of commission - the things that you have done that you shouldn't, and go through every facet of your life and write them all down and realise your guilt before God, and confess them, and as you have committed them individually, repent of them individually.
That is the price of revival, some people would think it's being morbidly introspective about things that God has already forgiven us, but do you know what it is? It is being obedient to God, it is repenting. Look at chapter 10 - I'm almost finished - verses 29 and 30, they put these spiritual sentiments into action. Chapter 10:29 and 30: 'They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes; And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, not take their daughters for our sons'. There was repentance, there was reflection, there was recognition of their sin, but finally there was restoration - obedience touched every part of their lives: their home life, their social life, their church life, because revival is not simply an emotional upheaval, it has to lead to action!
It was found in their home life, they restored the family altar - how many family altars are broken down, where the word of God is not read between a husband and a wife, between parents and their children? Revival starts in the home, where you bring discipline back into your own heart, your own ways, and the ways of your family. It affected their social life, in verse 2 of chapter 9 it says they separated themselves; and in chapter 10 and these two verses that we read, 29 and 30, they say they would not give their daughters unto the foreign men - there was no unequal yoke, there was no flirting with the devil, and with the world and the flesh and everything that's in it. They restored God's order in their home, in their social life, and even in their church life - look at verse 39 of chapter 10: 'For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the offering of the corn, of the new wine, and the oil, unto the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the priests that minister, and the porters, and the singers: and we will not forsake the house of our God'. There was a revival in their responsibility to the spiritual life of the people of God, and you know it was twofold: one was faithfulness in giving, the firstfruits of the crops were to be gathered and given to God, but not only was there to be faithfulness in giving, there was to be faithfulness in worship.
Now we know from the word of God that our worship can never enrich God, it can't make God better by worshipping Him - but one thing is sure in the Scriptures: if we fail to join God's people in worship, God says that we rob Him. Can a man rob God? 'Ye have robbed me in your tithes and your offerings, in your reasonable worship' - and I hear a false piety going about today that goes like this: 'Going to meetings doesn't make you spiritual', and that is true, it doesn't make you spiritual. But neither does staying away from them make you spiritual! It doesn't help you, and you will suffer leanness if you're not with the people of God. They recognised their sin, they'd neglected God's house, God's people - and they started to put their family life right, their social life right, and their church life right.
Friends, this prayer reaches in those four directions - I don't have time to show you - but in verses 5 to 6 the people looked up and worshipped God, and adored and praise the Lord, and because of His greatness they repented of their sin. In verses 7 to 31 they looked back with thanksgiving on reflection of their past to what God had done. In verses 32 to 37 they looked into themselves at their present condition and situation, and then they asked a request from God to help them because they were helpless themselves. Then in verse 38 they looked ahead in great hope at what God would do, because they were going to break out in revival!
The pattern for revival of our lives, and chiefly our prayer lives, is repentance, reflection, recognition of our sin, and restoration of those things that are lacking. Here's my question to you: how is it with you?
'How long has it been since you talked with the Lord
and told Him your heart's hidden secrets.
How long since you prayed? How long since you stayed
on your knees till the light shone through?
How long has it been since your mind felt at ease?
How long since your heart knew no burdens?
Have you called Him your friend? How long has it been
since you knew that He cared for you?
How long has it been since you knelt by your bed
and prayed to the Lord up in Heaven?
How long since you knew that He would answer you
and would keep you the long night through?
How long has it been since you woke with the dawn
and felt that the day's worth the living?
Have you called Him your friend? How long has it been
since you knew that He cared for you?'
Put prayer back in its rightful place.
Lord, we repent of our prayerlessness, I repent of my prayerlessness. Lord, we recognise Thy goodness to us all throughout our past, and the many blessings that we have bestowed upon us. We also recognise as we reflect, how sinful we have been - but Lord, we pray that we will restore to Thee today those walls in our lives that have been broken down. We would answer that cry of the Spirit: 'I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, the goodness of God that He has shown toward you, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice'. Lord, may we offer up our lives today to be prayer warriors for our God, to bring God's blessing down upon our lives and our homes, our friends and our church. To the glory of the Lord Jesus we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the eleventh tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "Putting Prayer Back In Its Place" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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