LITURGICAL PRAYERS (Cont.)
In our last article mention was made of the liturgical prayers that have been adopted in Reformed Churches but which are used very little, if at all, in our present time. Historically, these prayers also belong to our churches and may be used in them although they have not been incorporated in the back of the Psalter with the rest of our liturgy.
We cannot devote space to quote all of these prayers here but since Article 32 deals with the matter of prayer in ecclesiastical assemblies, we will quote the two prayers that have been composed for the opening and closing of these assemblies. They are:
OPENING PRAYER FOR ECCLESIASTICAL ASSEMBLIES
“Heavenly Father, eternal and merciful God: It has pleased Thee according to Thy infinite wisdom and loving-kindness to gather a Church unto Thyself out of the peoples of all the earth, and to govern Thy Church through the service of men. Thou hast graciously called us to this office of government, and hast enjoined us to watch over ourselves and to bestow due care upon the flock which Christ purchased with His precious blood.
We are now assembled in this place in Thy holy Name, in order to deal, after the fashion of the apostolic churches, with such matters as shall come before us and concern the edification and welfare of Thy churches, agreeably to our office. We confess that we are unworthy and unable of ourselves to accomplish any good thing. We beseech Thee, therefore, faithful God and Father, that, in accordance with Thy promise, Thou wilt abide in the midst of the present assembly through Thy Holy Spirit, and that He way lead us into all the truth.
“Remove all misunderstandings and guard us against the influence of our sinful hearts. Grant that Thy Word may be our only rule and standard, in order that our deliberations may redound to the glory of Thy Name, the edification of Thy churches, and the peace of our own consciences.
“This we ask in the Name of Christ Jesus, Thy Son, Who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the only and true God, is deserving of eternal praise and glory. Amen.”
CLOSING PRAYER FOR ECCLESIASTICAL ASSEMBLIES
“Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank Thee from our hearts that it pleases Thee to gather a Church in our land and to employ our services to that end. Thou dost graciously so order all things that we can preach the gospel without any hindrance and may engage in public worship. Thou hast also been present with Thy Holy Spirit in our assembly, guiding our deliberations according to Thy will, and binding our hearts together in mutual peace and unity.
“Wilt Thou, O faithful God and Father, graciously bless the efforts that we purpose to put forth, and wilt Thou finish in power the work which Thou hast begun. Continue to gather unto Thyself a true Church, and cause it to preserve the purity of doctrine; guide it in the proper use of the holy sacraments; and inspire it with zeal for the maintenance of church purity.
“Bring to naught all wicked and subtle counsels that are devised against Thy Word and Church. Give strength to all whom Thou hast placed in authority over Thy Church, to the end that they may preach Thy Word in faithfulness and steadfastness.
“Strengthen the civil magistrates of Thy people, in order that they may wield the sword of worldly power in justice and wise restraint. In particular do we pray for civil rulers, both higher and lower officers of government, whom Thou hast been pleased to appoint over us. We commend unto Thee especially the esteemed council of this city. Grant that their rule may be entirely directed toward the supremacy of the King of kings over rulers and ruled alike. May through their labors the shameful and wicked dominion of Satan be increasingly disturbed and broken down. May it be given unto us to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and gravity. “Hear us, O God and Father, through Thy dear Son, Jesus Christ, Who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the only and true God, is worthy of eternal praise und glory. Amen.” Whether any prayer is proper for a given occasion cannot be determined alone from the material content of the prayer. A prayer, beautiful in composition, may be abominable in the sight of God. God looks upon the heart and attends unto that heart that is broken, contrite and humble before Him. However, whether a prayer is materially in harmony with the prayer that our Lord taught us and other prayers of Holy Writ as well as the more general principles set forth in the Word of God with respect to prayer, is another matter. No prayer that is materially in conflict with the instruction God has given us concerning prayer can be acceptable in His Holy sight!
With this in mind we may attempt to evaluate these prayers for ecclesiastical assemblies. There are several elements in them that are commendable since they form an essential part of all prayer and are certainly necessary in connection with the prayers of the office bearers of the church of Christ who are confronted with the important labors of the spiritual Kingdom of Heaven as it is manifested in the midst of the present world. Thus the confession and acknowledgment of human inability and unworthiness must be deeply sensed. It is, to our way of thinking, worthy of more emphasis than is given to it in one brief sentence in the prayer. Every delegate in the assembly has need of this consciousness because the lack of it tends only to human pride which Jehovah hates. In close connection with this is the petition asking God to abide in the midst of the assembly by His Spirit. Since we are unable of ourselves to deliberate and decide according to truth, we are wholly dependent upon the strength and guidance of His good Spirit. Let the consciousness of this need be ever expressed in fervent prayer. It is our most fundamental need.
Also commendable in the prayer for the opening of ecclesiastical meetings is the acknowledgment that the Word of God is the sole rule and standard by which all decisions must be taken. Anything that is not harmonious with this is unworthy of the church of Jesus Christ and can never be blessed. What is done according to that standard tends to glorify the Name of God and serves the edification of the church. And peace to the conscience can only be had by abiding by the rule and standard of the Word which is truth. All this is worthy and necessary to mention in prayer and, therefore, our criticism of the opening prayer does not lie in what is said but rather in what is left unsaid and, further, in the general and indefinite form that characterizes this and all liturgical prayers. Thus, to cite but one example, no mention is made here of thanksgiving while the Heidelberg Catechism expresses that “prayer is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us.” Also, therefore, at the opening of the assembly it is fitting to express thanks to God Who has made the gathering possible and Who has committed to it the work to be performed. That work of the Lord may never be regarded as a burden and tedious task but rather must always be approached in the consciousness that it is a privilege indeed and to be engaged in it is an occasion for most joyous thanksgiving. The prayer for the closing of assemblies also has in it several worthy elements. Here proper thanks is given. Noteworthy are also the various petitions asking God’s blessing upon the work accomplished, His continuance and furtherance of that work, His blessing upon His Church and the prayer to destroy the works and kingdom of darkness. A revision of the entire section dealing with the prayer for civil magistrates is recommended. Scripture, in I Timothy 2:2 enjoins us to pray for “kings, and for all that are in authority” and, therefore, the prayer as such has its place but, if it is to be included in the prayer of the assembly of the church at the close of her labors in the interest of Christ’s cause, a more definite and specific expression in the light ofPsalm 2 and other Scripture passages is desirable. There is indeed a grave danger in a general, indefinite prayer of this kind of coming into sharp conflict with the prayer of Jesus in John 17 where He said, “I pray not for the world.”
PRE-SERVICE PRAYER BY THE CONSISTORY
A few words may yet be written concerning the practice of pre-worship service prayers by the Consistory. This custom, obviously originated during the days of the Afscheiding, 1834, in the Netherlands and, hence, was brought about by the press of circumstances. During these days the congregational worship was often disturbed by the interference of the government or antagonistic citizens. The office bearers, in charge of the services, felt the need of asking for Divine protection and blessing, particularly petitioning God to give courage to His people and to strengthen and qualify His servant to bring His Word without fear and hindrance. Later, during the time of the Doleantie, 1886, this practice was readily adopted and has become common practice since. It is only proper that the office bearers, in whose charge are the services for Divine worship, seek the benediction of God upon the minister and the congregation that is about to serve Him.
A few remarks concerning this practice are necessary. First of all, it should not be a merecustom or tradition but must needs be as keenly felt today as in the days of its origin when threatenings and slaughters were breathed out against the church as she gathered for Divine service.
In the second place, the prayer that is offered should be limited and appropriate to the occasion. It is made particularly with a view to the service that is about to take place. In that service the worshippers are actively engaged in song, prayer, communion of the saints, hearing and attending to the Word, etc. To properly engage in these spiritual exercises necessitates the Spirit and grace. Let these be earnestly sought in behalf of the congregation. The officebearers in whose charge is the service have the particular functions of their office to perform. The minister must bring the Word, unfolding the mysteries of the faith for the instruction and comfort of Zion. The elders must prove the preaching of the Word, taking oversight thereof that there be no intrusion of false doctrines. The deacons must gather the alms and see that proper provision is made that the needs of the gospel may be provided and the poor and indigent properly cared for. The needs of each may well be committed in brief to the throne of grace from whence alone a sufficient provision is made so that these functions may be rightly and profitably performed.