May 7: The National Day of Prayer

We welcome today our good friend Rev. Larry Roff as guest author for This Day. Larry is a recently retired PCA pastor and an accomplished organist. For many years he played the organ at the worship services held during the PCA’s General Assemblies. Now, finding new avenues for ministry, he has begun writing a series of articles on various hymn writers. Today’s post is a timely one, offered on the occasion of the National Day of Prayer. And while John Newton, the subject of today’s post, was himself an ordained Anglican, it should be noted that he had previously applied for ordination by the Presbyterians!
If you would like to see more of Rev. Roff’s blog posts, please click here to contact him, if you would like to be added to his mailing list.

9.  ­Prayer and “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare”
by Rev. Larry Roff.

I am writing this today for the annual National day of Prayer.  And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is certainly one in which prayer for our nation … and our world! … is very much needed.  Many Scripture passages come to mind on the subject of prayer, but none more inviting than Hebrews 4:16, Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.    

How wonderful that as we approach our God, we need not wear a mask or practice social distancing from Him.  Burdened as we are, He longs for us to come near to find relief.  That should be one of the main purposes in prayer, not to get what we want (God is not our Genie in a bottle that we need to rub to get our wishes granted!) but to draw near and find blessed intimacy with the one who loves us with infinite love.  As we do so, then what we find is mercy to strengthen us to trust Him in whatever He has ordained for us, even when painful.  We will discover, as a friend of mine recently wrote, If we view God as the great means to give us what we want, we’ll never have a secure hope: because He is not the means, He is the end. He is not the instrument to get us to another hope which is not Him, He IS the hope; He’s the object; He is the focus; He is the goal. Christ is our satisfaction.

The hymn that, in my mind, best conveys this is John Newton’s 1779 prayer-hymn: Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare.  We will survey Newton’s life in another study when we come to his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace.   Here we just remember that this former slave ship captain was rescued by God’s powerful love and transformed into a marvelous trophy of grace.  While serving as pastor of the village church in Olney, England, his Tuesday night Bible study and prayer meeting attracted many.  The need for more songs led Newton and William Cowper to collaborate on a collection.  It included this hymn about prayer.

In our study here, we will take each stanza briefly, one at a time. We could put at least one Scripture reference with each phrase, though we won’t have space to look at every passage to which he alluded.  In this, Newton’s hymn writing, like Charles Wesley’s, was saturated with biblical references, if not quotations.  I am among those who believe this is the richest hymn about prayer that we can find. It belongs in every hymnal.  Charles Spurgeon, pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, the greatest preacher of the nineteenth century, had his congregation sing this hymn to get their hearts focused before the “long prayer.”

This hymn is not a “model” prayer.  It does not include key elements that belong, if not in every prayer, at least in other prayers in the worship service or in our prayer closet.  These stanzas are all of petition, but presented in a way that conveys the majesty, sovereignty, goodness, and mercy of the Lord along with our absolute dependence on and trust in Him.  Let’s examine the text in hopes that our prayers will more closely reflect these themes.

Stanza 1: Come, my soul, thy suit prepare; Jesus loves to answer prayer.

   He Himself has bid thee pray, Therefore, will not say thee nay.

The opening words are one of the finest lines in all hymnody.  We come into God’s courtroom with our case well-prepared, having studied His Word to see what He has promised.  It is on that basis that we plead our case.  And we come to a Savior who loves to answer prayer.  Isn’t that a thrilling truth?  Our sins do not drive Him from us.  It is exactly the opposite (as one of the 17th century Puritans wrote), as a parent rushes to the aid of a sick child, so the Lord rushes to our aid when our sins or the corruptions of the world have brought us misery.  He is not reluctant, but filled with joy when we ask.  While He will not always give us exactly what we ask for, He will not say “nay” in the sense (as Tim Keller has written) that He will always give us what we would have asked for if we knew what He knows about our true needs and the Father’s plans.

Stanza 2: Thou art coming to a King; Large petitions with thee bring,

    For His grace and power are such, None can ever ask too much.

We have barely begin to appreciate the character and resources of the one to whom we pray.  This is a King far greater than any earthly monarch.  And it is His Son who intercedes for us, the King of kings (Revelation 19:16).  Nothing is too great, or too small, for Him.  Since He is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we could ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21), we should bring large petitions both for ourselves and for His will to be accomplished in the world, for His kingdom to come.  As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:19, He is able to supply all our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus.

Stanza 3: With my burden I begin; “Lord, remove this load of sin.

  Let Thy blood, for sinners spilt, Set my conscience free from guilt.

The “burden” is that of sin, as Bunyan described in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the load that weighs us down (Hebrews 12:1).  We begin here, because this is always our greatest need. Though Jesus has paid in full for our sins, we still struggle with this burden (Romans 7 and 1 John 1:8).  But there is now no condemnation for those who are “in” Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  And the knowledge that Jesus has spilled His blood to cover our guilt should set our conscience free, and give us the tool we need to resist Satan’s temptations to keep us in despair and embarrassment.   

Stanza 4: “Lord, I come to Thee for rest; Take possession of my breast.

There Thy blood-bought right maintain, And without a rival reign.

Jesus invites us to come to Him for rest in Matthew 11:28-30.  When we do, He does indeed take possession of our breast, which is a biblical way of referring to our heart.  We have been purchased by His blood, we are the apple of His eye, we are the bride He cherishes.  What a wonderful image Newton has given us.  We base our petition on the fact that we belong to Jesus (affection and compassion) and that He rules over us and stands for us against whatever rival would threaten or tempt us to transfer our loyalty.

Stanza 5: “While I am a pilgrim here, Let Thy love my spirit cheer;

 As my Guide, my Guard, my Friend, Lead me to my journey’s end.

As pilgrims (1 Peter 2:11), this world is not our home.  On this journey, we find great help in Jesus’ companionship to cheer us (John 16:13), and on the way for Him to be our Guide (leading us in the paths of righteousness), our Guard (assuring us that we share in the victory He has won for us), and our Friend (the one who calls us His friend!).  This hymn gives us words to cry out as sheep who need their shepherd to lead them (Psalm 23).

Stanza 6: “Show me what I have to do; Every hour my strength renew.

     Let me live a life of faith; Let me die Thy people’s death.”

In this final stanza, we look to the future and ask the Lord to show us His will  (what we should do), and to give us His strength to persevere (to renew our strength every day: 2 Corinthians 4:16), and to live by faith (1 Corinthians 5:7), trusting Him every day, as we promised in Proverbs 3:5-6.  And what a powerful image in that last phrase, that He would so sustain us that when death comes, we might be found dying in a way that shows how secure His people are as they (we) cross over into eternity (Numbers 23:10).

As we turn to the Lord on this annual National Day of Prayer, we can’t do better than singing this hymn as we enter into our time of prayer for our land.

P.S. Here is the generally omitted stanza, actually #5:

“As the image in the glass Answers the beholder’s face,
Thus unto my heart appear; Print Thine own resemblance there.”

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