Previous article in this series: May 15, 2014, p. 378.
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.
The Congregational Prayer
In our worship service the chief time we come through Christ to God in prayer is in what is called the congregational prayer. It is important to note the title of this prayer. It is congregational prayer. The minister is not giving his own private prayer. It is not that the minister is praying and the congregation just happens to be there listening. It is not even that the minister is praying for the congregation as he normally does, but the congregation just happens to be hearing him this time. Rather it is the congregation praying to God through the words the minister is saying.
This is important. As we have emphasized throughout this series, the church comes as one body before the Lord. When the Lord responds to Solomon’s prayer in our text, He says, “if my people, called by my name, pray to me…I will forgive.” God’s reference to His people’s prayers there is specifically a reference to the congregational prayers that the people made as one body when they came for worship during the three great feasts.1 During these feasts all Israel gathered around the temple and together sought the Lord as one body. They were one people united in humble prayer of repentance before God.
This is what happens in the congregational prayer of the worship service today; we come together as one body speaking to the Lord. If we all prayed our own individual prayers during the time of congregational prayer, there would be no sense of the body speaking with one voice.2 In song we all sing the same thing and therefore can come as one and yet still sing individually. In congregational prayer, that is impossible unless we always use form prayers. So we come as one through the words of one.3
These truths about the congregational prayer affect the way the minister prays the congregational prayer. He has great responsibilities with this prayer. He must represent the people to God so that the prayer is their own prayer. He must know the needs of the congregation. He must know the difficulties, the struggles, the joys of the people. He must place himself in their shoes as much as possible so that ideally the congregation is able to say when the prayer is finished, “That is exactly what I needed to say to God here as an individual, and that is what we as a congregation needed to say to God in prayer.”
The minister must work so that the congregational prayer is not made up of vain repetitions. They are sometimes the fruit of an unprepared heart and mind. The minister should work hard to prepare his heart and mind spiritually to pray in the service so that there will not be so many repetitions in his prayer.
The minister should not be preaching in his prayers. This can easily be done, and I think it is a temptation for all ministers at times to make the prayer more about teaching the congregation as they are listening, than bringing us all together before the throne of grace. But the prayer is not a sermon, it is a prayer. And though the minister prays mindful that the congregation is listening, he does not give a lecture in his prayer. Such is no prayer at all. His goal is by grace to bring us into the throne room of God and, as it were, escort the congregation into heaven for a time.
The congregation has great responsibility as well with regard to congregational prayer. First of all, our responsibility is to pay attention and not let the mind wander in the prayer. Truly to be led in prayer is hard sometimes. The congregation is called to take the words that are being said and make them their own in the prayer—to enter into the prayer. The congregational prayer is not a time to sleep, or to daydream. It’s not break time where we check out. This service is meeting with God face to face after all. Prayer must be offered from an attentive and pious heart as we make the prayer our own. Strange it must be to God that people are here to meet with Him and then in prayer this one is thinking about football, and that one about what she has to get done tomorrow. It is a struggle, and all of us know it. It will help if we focus on what we are doing, communing with God Himself.
Besides this, the congregation must help the minister to know her struggles and difficulties and joys and praises. Especially the elders should speak to the minister of things he should pray for on behalf of the congregation. But there is a place, too, for the whole congregation to express needs and joys that the minister should bring before God in congregational prayer.
The Content of the Congregational Prayer
What should the content of these prayers be? We’ve already said that part of it should be the people’s supplications and praises to God. But all the elements of biblical prayer ought to be in the congregational prayers at one time or another: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplications, praise, intercessions. There may be one aspect emphasized above another sometimes. But they should generally all be in the prayer.
There ought to be scriptural content in the prayers. Remember that the power of the worship service is the Word of God. God speaks to us in His Word. So too we speak God’s Word back to Him. That means of course, from a negative point of view, that there ought not be anything that is not in agreement with the Word. But, positively, the whole prayer ought to bear the marks of being influenced by the Word. Allusions to the Scriptures should be used. The biblical prayers of Scripture can be quoted in the congregational prayer at times. Other references can be quoted to fit the occasion. The text that makes up the source of the sermon should be prayed over in this prayer. Not to the point where the minister preaches his sermon in the prayer. But requests and convictions having to do with the subject matter of the text should be prayed about. For example, if the subject is conversion—the mortification of the old man and quickening of the new—the congregation pleads with the Lord in this prayer that God grant the strength to kill the old man and enliven the new. We confess in prayer that we cannot kill the old man in our own strength and therefore depend upon God for help.
In addition, it is generally accepted that there is some content unique to the congregational prayer in the morning service, and some content unique to the congregational prayer of the evening service. In the dialogue of worship in the morning service, we are confronted with the Law of Jehovah God. Recall that in our articles on the reading of the Law in worship I said that in liturgies of the Reformation there was a separate time of confession and forgiveness. The congregation would make a prayer of confession, and then a Scripture text on forgiveness would be pronounced to the congregation. We said that this generally fell away and the reading of the Law took its place, so that we are convicted of sin by the Law, and then in the song that follows and in the first part of the congregational prayer we confess those sins. And finally in the singing and prayer and sermon we recognize God’s forgiveness. Since that is the way the Law functions in many Reformed and Presbyterian services (where the Law is still read), the minister is called then to lead the church into more extensive confession of sin in the morning congregational prayer.
InSolomon prays to God that God would forgive His people when they inevitably fall into sin and then pray for forgiveness as they are gathered in His house. II Chronicles 7:14 is God’s answer to Solomon’s prayer there. “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.” This is what is happening in the dialogue of the morning service specifically. The people of God come humbled by the Law that has exposed their sin. They enter into prayer as one body humbled before God and yet seeking His face. In that prayer they repent. In that prayer they turn from their wicked ways. And they do that with the confidence that God gives them here in this text: “When they do this, I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive them.”
Don’t be drifting off, then, in the prayer of the service. It is here that we lay our sins as a body before the throne of God’s grace and God assures us that we are forgiven. We lay our sins down and are forgiven as a body. That phrase at the end of II Chronicles 7:14, “I will heal their land,” has been misinterpreted so often. Some American ministers will say to an American audience that the land there for us Americans in the New Testament means the United States. And while of course we are called to pray for the country we live in, that is a misinterpretation of the verse. The land there is the nation of Israel, which is the Old Testament church. To apply this in the New Testament, then, one does not apply it to the United States, one applies it to the church. The church is God’s land in the New Testament. The church is where “my people called by my name” are found. I will heal my church as one body. I will forgive their iniquities, heal even some of the consequences of their sins, when they come to me as one in repentant prayer.
The morning prayer must be a prayer for the forgiveness of general sins. It must be a prayer for forgiveness for specific sins, especially ones that are exposed by the text of the sermon. Specific sins, weaknesses, and failures, even those that the congregation has as a congregation, must be brought before the Lord. With sin confessed and forgiven, the door is open for sweet communion in the rest of the prayer; in the rest of the morning service; and in the whole evening service to come. That confession sets the tone for the whole rest of the day. We celebrate the forgiveness of sins, then, in the rest of the day. We sing about it the whole rest of the day in the songs that we sing. We take all the Psalms that talk about God defeating our enemies and we sing about how He has defeated the spiritual enemies of the soul, how He holds on to us, draws us back to Himself, and forgives us.
Generally in Reformed and Presbyterian churches it is the case that in the congregational prayer of the evening service, the prayer takes on a broader dimension. The congregation looks beyond the borders of her own local body. She addresses the needs of the denomination, and the needs of all true Christendom. Having been assured that we are personally right with our God in the way of confession and repentance, we now ask God to grant that forgiveness and help to others in His body.
The evening congregational prayer broadens to obey the command of the apostle in: “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.” The church follows the admonition of the apostle Paul in when he says, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” She prays for the church that is enduring persecution for the sake of the Lord. She remembers those in lands where there is not freedom to worship as we currently have it. She prays for truth in the church universal. She prays for conviction, and boldness for the cause of Christ. She prays for missionaries and saints in other lands. She prays that God save His own through the spread of the gospel, and that the Lord be pleased to use her in that great commission.
In addition to the main congregational prayers, the short prayer after the sermon is also a congregational prayer. It is a prayer to the Lord that He apply what was proclaimed to our hearts. It is a part of the dialogue, responding to God who has proclaimed His Word. In that prayer, together we are saying to Him, “We receive Thy Word, O Lord, let not its truth simply rattle around in our heads, but drive it into our hearts, that we might leave this place in a different state spiritually than when we arrived, and carry on in Thy service in the week ahead.”
The Goal of All Prayer
The goal in our prayers in the assembly is the glory of Jehovah God. Calvin, when he taught on prayer, started this way, “What then is the first rule of right prayer? Leave behind all thought of our own glory, cast aside all notion of our own worth, put away all self-assurance, humbly giving glory to God.”4
O God, be glorified then, as we humble ourselves before Thee and seek Thy forgiving grace. For where else can we go, Thou alone art Savior. O God, be glorified in our praise and adoration, as we exalt Thy name and declare Thy matchless worth. Be glorified in our thanksgivings, for Thou alone art the giver of all good and perfect gifts. Be glorified in our supplications, for Thou art the source of all help and sustenance.
And may Thy Son ever live to make intercession for us, that our prayers might bring Thee all glory. And may Thy Spirit help our infirmities and make intercession with groaning that cannot be uttered, that Thou mightest receive all praise.
1 See Robert Lowth, in Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 4., translator’s footnote 1.
2 A time of silent prayer very early in the service is different. This is individually preparing our hearts to be unified in spirit by each one setting himself in the proper spiritual frame of mind before God.
3 Form prayers said in unison are certainly legitimate and useful in some instances.
4 From the 1526 edition of the Institutes. Quoted in Calvin, John, and Ford L. Battles ed. The Piety of John Calvin. 1978. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009. 120.