A committee of a certain Classis in the Netherlands, whose task it was to trace the origin and define the meaning of the pre-service prayer, wrote to Dr. Rutgers, complaining that it could find no material on that subject. Dr. Rutgers answered that this was nothing strange since he doubted whether, before the nineteenth century, such a prayer had even been in common usage. (Dr. Rutgers, KerkeMjke Adviezen I. p. 255). He himself could find nothing on it in the earlier centuries.
I am not more successful than Dr. Rutgers.
It is peculiar to notice that neither Voetius in his “De Kerkelijke Gebeden” nor Heyns in his “Lithurgiek” nor even Dr. Kuyper in that monumental, “Onze Eeredienst” make any explanatory mention of this particular prayer. In his “Kybernetiek” Heyns touches on it (p. 252) but about its origin and meaning he too is peculiarly silent.
Before the nineteenth century there seems to be no trace of this prayer. The churches evidently did not use it.
As accurately as we can trace, its origin (thanks to Dr. Rutgers, I. p. 255) lies in the days of the “Afscheiding”, when molestations of church worship were very frequent, persecution severe and the consistory frequently in doubt whether the service would go on without interruption. Police might come to see how many souls were at the meeting, a recorder might enter to take notes of what the minister was preaching or some mischievous rogue might hurl a stone through the window. Our fathers were quite often in difficult ways when it came to holding the church service.
Under the press of this suspense, it seems, our godly forbears decided to call upon the Name of the Lord before the service began, bring Him their trouble and reverently beseech Him to grant them an hour of quiet and unmolested worship.
Perhaps, therefore, we had better assume that the prayer came to us from the days of the persecution. Then you feel at once that this prayer had meaning and pathos in it. The church, in spite of severe persecution, conceived of the service as a divine command. It was dangerous to gather together for service, but dangerous as it was, they were no cowards. Danger would not deter them, it would not move them to shirk their calling. In childlike trust and reverence they begged the Lord to make this service possible and to give them that necessary courage to take this service upon themselves.
The prayer then is a reminder of the fact that “in the world ye shall have tribulation”, Perhaps if we had been consistory members in Pastor Niemoller’s church during the days of his trial, this prayer would perhaps have taken on the full and rich meaning it one time bad.
Times have changed greatly, in that sense.
The prayer, in its original setting, has somewhat lost its significance for we have “religious freedom’’ and physical persecution is unheard of in our day and locality.
By which I do not mean that it has no meaning for us today and that therefore we could perhaps just as well discontinue it. By no means.
But then this particular prayer ought to take its designated place among the various prayers which are organized around the service. There are first of all prayers by the various and individual worshippers when they take their places in the church building. Then there are the prayers of the minister before he ascends the platform! and of the elders and deacons, before they take their places. Then the prayer of the minister during the service, the pastoral or congregational prayer.
The pre-service prayer, to be orderly and effective, should not therefore be a repetition or overlapping of these other prayers, (but it should take a proper place among these, and in unity with them.
That all things be done orderly.
With that in view I believe we might suggest several things concerning this prayer.
First of all that we bear in mind that it; is a prayer by the consistory, (within the consistory and therefore that it be a prayer with a view to the consistory more particularly. The entire service is conducted by and under the supervision of the consistory, she is responsible for the service and the consistory must realize its responsible position. In too many churches the official character of the service has disappeared, the service becomes a meeting with the minister for chief speaker. We realize that the ministry is official work and the consistory the chief official. In view of that, let the prayer be to the effect that we may function in unison, in harmony, each observing his office in order that the service may proceed from Christ through His earthly representatives, in such a way that His church may be edified and His Name glorified. The deacons must gather the alms, the elders prove the preaching and the minister must bring the Gospel. Let the prayer beseech grace and power to be faithful officers, each one in his own place. To confine this prayer therefore to the minister is to forget that we are all officers of Christ and all charged with the calling: Preach the Gospel.
Secondly, since the preaching of the Gospel is, by the very nature of the case, the center of the service, let the prayer be in behalf of the pastor. The fervent prayer of the righteous is often a great support to him who stands ready to deliver the Word. Men pray for him in secret, that is well, but now, let there be public prayer made on his behalf. That is perhaps the only time he hears anyone praying for him. The minister is responsible for what he will proclaim, but the consistory is no less responsible. Let them pray that the minister may, with all sobriety and reverence, sincerity and zeal be an ambassador of Christ, to preach the truth and nothing but the truth. Let him foe an ambassador of no one than alone of Christ. If he carries the word from the High Command, let him; bring it in its purity, without alteration or corruption, besides, since the minister is only human and only an earthen vessel, he has need of the soothing, calming, energizing power of prayer. Perhaps the burden of his message makes him restless or nervous, perhaps he is spiritually unready for the service, perhaps he feels that he isn’t “in it” as he would like to be. Perhaps he has to say things he does not like to say. In all these and like circumstances the pre-service prayer can foe a decided support to the minister and a means to attain to a consecrated ministry.
Finally this prayer requests that the entire service, as it is now to begin, and as it stands in the charge of the officers, may proceed without interruption to the ‘welfare of the church and the glory of His Name. The congregation waits for the service to begin, “They come to learn the will of God.” “How beautiful upon the mountains the feet of those that preach peace”. The organ is playing, the children of God are waiting for the refreshing streams of living water. The service is to begin. Who does not feel a great responsibility? Let us pray. Let us go up to Zion and let us say to her, “comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Before we do that, let us pray.
In conclusion, it need scarcely be said that this prayer ought to be short. It ought not to cover the entire field inasmuch as it loses its effect if it becomes a pastoral or congregational prayer, in that sense. Undue length defeats its very beauty and purpose. This is true psychologically also as far as the minister is concerned. The consistory should allot time for this prayer so that the service may begin on time. Let the brethren consistory members take turns in offering this prayer.
Then I feel sure this prayer may have a rich influence for good.
And so be it.