“We need to get away, often, from the human standpoint, and to come up into communion with Him who sitteth supreme above the water-floods, and who sees times, and laws, and governments change, in the continued repose of His own eternal serenity. It does us good to let our troubled spirits take refreshment and rest in the bosom of God, while we are commending to Him both rulers and people, and asking Him to stay public tumults, and to rebuke violence in high places, and low places; to ride on every whirlwind and direct every storm.”
For today, we would ask you to consider the following sermon from 1856, on the great subject of prayer for those in civil authority. I have edited this somewhat for length. To read the full sermon, click here. Emphasis has been added to selected portions of the text below, particularly with those in mind who may have but a few minutes to look this over.
A SERMON ON PRAYER FOR RULERS,
delivered in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
Sabbath Morning, June 8, 1856,
by Rev. R.W. Patterson, pastor of the church.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.“
The duty of prayer is one which is much insisted upon in the Holy Scriptures. The Apostle, in the words just read, exhorts that, first of all, as a primary duty, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made. And he would not have a part only of our fellow creatures chosen as the objects of our petitions at the throne of the Heavenly grace. He calls upon us as believers in the universal Supremacy and Providence of God, to remember in our intercessions all men, of every class, whether they be friends, enemies or strangers. And he names, as specially entitled to our sympathies and supplications, kings, and all that are in authority, or in stations of preeminence. Then, he assigns reasons for compliance with this precept, which are of the most weighty character. The passage might well be made the foundation of a discourse touching the great duty of prayer and thanksgiving in general; but it calls our attention, in particular, to the importance of prayer for those of our fellow-men, to whose hands civil and political power is entrusted. And this special topic, always appropriate for our serious consideration, appears to press itself upon our thoughts and hearts with peculiar urgency at the present time.
Let me, therefore, invite your attention this morning, to the DUTY of prayer for rulers, and for all who possess political power, and to SOME REASONS for an earnest performance of this duty, especially in the present circumstances of our beloved country.
I. The Word of God habitually recognizes the rule of kings as proper to be regarded with reverence and submission in ages of the world when the monarchical form of government was almost everywhere established, and when the general condition of human society scarcely admitted of any freer and more desirable system of government. It is, of course, not to be inferred from this recognition of royal authority, that the right of kings is affirmed by a Divine sanction, as a right to be maintained in all the more advanced stages of social and civil progress in human history. The Bible does not meddle directly with existing forms of civil government. It authorizes civil rule in some form as an “ordinance of God,” but leaves it to human prudence and to the orderings of Divine Providence, together with the silent working of revealed principles in the minds and hearts of men, to determine, from time to time, what particular form of government shall be established and sustained for the benefit of each Commonwealth or Nation. When, therefore, the Apostles exhort their readers to “be subject to the higher powers,” to “honor the king,” and to “pray for kings and for all that are in authority,” they only point out the fit application, in formerly existing circumstances, of the great principle, that it is the duty of Christian people to respect, and commend to God in their supplications, the men who are providentially entrusted with the political rule and supremacy under which they live. These precepts are in principle and spirit, but not in a literal sense, applicable to us, under the republican form of government which God has providentially secured to us. We may respect and pray for kings, only as rulers remote from us, to whose hands are committed the public and civil interests of other nations. The general principle which has been defined as involved in the Scriptural precepts touching this subject, would require us to reverence, and remember before God, as our own rulers, those whom we ourselves, as a people, have placed in authority, and, with them, all the sovereign citizens, in whose hands the civil power ultimately resides. “The powers that be” and “are ordained of God,” in our country, are the people, and those persons whom the people select to rule over them under the guidance of the Constitution and laws already established. We may, then, regard our text as enjoining upon us the frequent presentation of earnest petitions to the God of Nations in behalf of all those in our land who possess and exercise civil authority in any form, but especially for those who are actually appointed to rule over us. This duty is already recognized, no doubt, with more or less distinctness, by every person among us who believes that God hears prayer. But it may be useful to notice a few points at which difficulty, or positive error, is liable to arise in some minds with respect to what is implied in the offering of prayer for those who possess civil authority. Let me then say,
1. That we are not required to prayer for the sovereign people, or for our rulers, in any such form or manner as would imply a sanction of their mistakes or wicked doings. God’s requirements are not in conflict with each other. His laws are supreme. No majorities among communities; no action of public legislators; no decisions of judicial courts; no decrees of supreme executives, can make that to be lawful and right which GOD ALMIGHTY has forbidden; or that to be wrong and unlawful which He has required. “We ought,” said the Apostles to the Jewish rulers, “to obey God, rather than man;” (Acts 5:29; see also Acts 4:18-20; Daniel 3:13-18.) thus affirming the principle, that where we must either disobey God or men, we ought always to prefer allegiance to our Infinite Make, and consent, if need be, to suffer the penalties of unrighteous human laws. And we read in the Word of God heavy condemnation against “the throne of iniquity which frameth mischief by a law,” and against those men who “gather themselves together against the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood.” Now we know that God never contradicts Himself. “He cannot deny Himself.” He does not, therefore, require us to pray for the success of either people or rulers in their efforts to carry out and establish false principles. He abhors wrong and injustice, and would spurn from His mercy seat any invocation of help for those who would so legislate, or so administer laws, as to make war upon the truth or upon the rights of men. It may even be our duty to pray that the wicked counsels of those who are in authority should be turned into foolishness, like the counsel of Ahithophel. “We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.” And every petition we offer to the Most High should consist with a supreme concern for the ultimate triumph of our Redeemer’s Kingdom of peace and righteousness, and for the triumph of true Christian liberty throughout the earth. It is our duty to pray that our rulers, and all the people, may be restrained from wrong-doing, and not prospered in any selfish designs or mistaken devices. “The voice of the people is” not “the voice of God.” For all men are fallible, and liable to be selfish and passionate, and wicked. Rulers are not infallible, but are often arbitrary, unjust and oppressive; and they can only be the objects of God’s gracious benediction, so far as they acknowledge, in practice, the great law of impartial love, and the Supremacy of Him who sits on the Throne of Universal Dominion. It may, therefore, be our duty to pray against their policy and measures, while we pray for their persons and for the renovation of their characters. The early Christians prayed for their persecutors who were in power, but never for the success of their malignant designs.
2. Again : It is obvious, that the precept which we are considering, does not imply any obligation to submit passively to wrong and injustice on the part of our rulers, where legitimate modes of relief are available to the suffering subjects. We may not speak evil of rulers, as such. We may not despise their authority, even when it is wielded against the right. We may not, on Christian principles, resist the powers which God has evidently ordained.
3. It is almost needless to remark, after what has been said, that the shaping of our petitions for those who possess civil authority, whether they be citizens or constituted rulers, must be determined by the particular features of the case as it stands before us. It is of course our duty to pray for the personal good of every man, whether he occupy one station or another in life. But besides this, it is our duty to pray for those who possess civil authority, with special reference to their official trusts and responsibilities.
II. We are now brought to notice some reasons why it becomes us to pray for all who possess authority, whether as free citizens or as official rulers, and especially at the present time.
1. And the first consideration which I would suggest is an obvious one, but still one of fundamental importance. God teaches us to expect that He will hear and answer appropriate prayer for public, as well as for private interests. This is implied in the very fact that we are required to offer petitions for those who are in authority. The precept contained in our text in relation to this subject only follows the tenor of many precepts in the Old Testament, having the same general end in view. Thus the Psalmist exhorted all saints to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” And Jehovah counseled His people, by the prophet Jeremiah, to “seek the peace of the city whither they had been carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it.” But why pray for such interests but because God has the hearts of kings, and of all men, in His hands, and turns them as the rivers of water, whithersoever He will? He may not see it wise to do all the particular things which we ask in relation to the public weal; but He is never sought in vain, by those who honor His supremacy and rightly trust in Him.
2. Let me remark further, that prayer for those who possess and exercise civil power, is specially adapted to fit us for our duties in time of trial and public conflict. When we commune only with our own hearts and with the minds of our fellow-creatures, we surely give place to feelings which have their origin in the depravity of our common nature. Left to ourselves, we cease to support even right principles from right motives; our passions gain the mastery over our conscience and our benevolence; and we forget to love the wrong-doer as a creature of God, and to think of him as an instrument of Providence, while we indulge a sinful indignation against his person, and against all who sympathize with him. We need to get away, often, from the human standpoint, and to come up into communion with Him who sitteth supreme above the water-floods, and who sees times, and laws, and governments change, in the continued repose of His own eternal serenity. It does us good to let our troubled spirits take refreshment and rest in the bosom of God, while we are commending to Him both rulers and people, and asking Him to stay public tumults, and to rebuke violence in high places, and low places; to ride on every whirlwind and direct every storm. It helps us to exercise forbearance and possess our souls in patience, and to take our steps with discretion, to feel that we are allying ourselves more and more with the Infinite One, whose counsels run from all eternity past into all eternity to come. It was this that enabled all the ancient worthies to be calm in times that tried men’s souls, and to sustain with holy firmness the unchangeable principles for which they lived and died. Prayer to GOD ALMIGHTY for those who are in authority, reminds us that they are but men, and must die as soon as He shall breathe upon them; and that they, and we, and the whole nation, are in His hands, like clay in the hands of the potter. And this ought to fill us with solemn concern for all who bear responsibilities as God’s instruments and agents, in positions involving official trust. Habitual intercession with God for those who are in authority, prepares us to recognize with hearty thanksgiving, their good acts and wise measures, and to deplore their mistakes and public offenses more in grief than anger. The man who prays much for his rulers cannot be their personal enemy, however he may feel bond to expose their errors, or to withstand their unrighteous measures. And the meek spirit which true prayer begets and cultivates, always tends to turn away wrath, even in those who are accustomed to make passion and caprice their supreme lawgiver in seasons of excitement and conflict.
3. Think, in the next place, of the preciousness of the interests that are at stake in the wise, or unwise, administration of our public affairs.
Never before was there a nation with such an ancestry, and such an early history; with such a social and political life, and such a progressive development, as those which distinguish and make proud the people of this great confederacy. What a treasure of national memories have we, to quicken the pulsations of our hearts on every glance at the past! What an inheritance of constitutional liberty and unfettered religion have our fathers left us, as the fruit of their sacrifices and blood! What a present of actually achieved greatness and power, and of advancing prosperity, and self-development, do we live in! What a future of enlargement and glory seems to have been almost ensured to us!
4. Let it not be said, that our interests as a people are not in special peril. Let it not be said, that the bonds which cement us together are too strong to be sundered; or that God will not forsake us after having done so much for us. We are environed by peculiar perils. The history of the world proves to us that general ignorance and corruption among the people are fearful causes of deterioration and decay in any nation,—that luxury and intemperance beget weakness,—that pride and self-sufficiency presage disaster,—and that expansion of territory and the consequent rapid multiplication of diverse interests, are liable to cause great commonwealths to fall by their own weight. And the Word of God assures us that the nation and people that will not serve Jehovah SHALL PERISH—so that ungodliness may be set down as a sure cause of destruction to any persistently wicked nation.
Now, the question is, who but God can so preside in this conflict of opposing interests and principles, as to save us from the horrors of internecine war, and establish our civil and religious freedom on a basis that can never be shaken? Who but God can give us all the wisdom and forbearance, combined with due moral decision, which we need in this critical process? Who but God can save us from hasty and destructive adventures on either side, in our sectional strifes, and open the eyes of the blind ere it be too late to retrace their downward steps? Who but God can give to the Church the needful moderation, as the great conservator of peace and of true boldness in times of peril?
There is hope in prayer. God can show us how to dispose peacefully of present issues, and how to inaugurate a policy that shall in the end take away from our nation all our chief occasions of fear, and make every bondman civilly and spiritual free. Let us, therefore, seek His face. Let us plead with Him for all our rulers and for all the people. Let us look to Him for those interpositions by which the foundations of our glorious Union may be established on the basis of true and changeless principles, and its arches be made as firm as the vault of heaven. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”—1 Timothy 2:1-4
A sermon on prayer for rulers, delivered in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, on Sabbath morning, June 8, 1856 – Patterson, R. W. (Robert Wilson), 1814-1894.