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Overcoming Hindrances to Prayer
Or Prayer Incentives
Many of us will experience at some stage of our Christian life a problem with prayer. For some it might not last long but for others of us it can be a problem that just seems to go on and on.
The problem to which I'm referring is not one of theology or conviction but rather of practice. Most of us are convinced that prayer is important – we don't need to be convinced of that because we see it on many pages of the Bible and we know that down through the centuries of the Christian era it has always played a significant part in the life of Christian churches and Christian individuals. But the problem prayer poses many of us is that we find it so difficult to get down to actually praying. Then if and when we overcome that obstacle of actually getting organised enough to pray we find that we don't know how to pray! To make matters worse our minds race from here to there covering every irrelevant detail imaginable. I don't know about you but how I need help to pray.
And it is precisely that sort of help that Isaiah brings us as we continue our studies in the book which bears his name.
Isaiah has been looking forward and has seen the glorious future that God has planned for his people. That future would be safely secured by the successful action of the Mighty Conquering Messiah who has occupied such an important place in Isaiah's writings. As God's people are brought to their final and complete salvation God's enemies are simultaneously brought to nothing and destroyed.
Now it might be tempting to sit back and reason that iof this is what God has pre-
Isaiah himself understood this and acted! In ch.63:15-
The first thing that Isaiah does as he gets ready for intercessory prayer is to remind himself of what the LORD has already done for his people. And he does not do this for his own benefit alone but he determines to make known what the LORD has done – whether this be to other men or just to the LORD in prayer the text does not make clear.
Just take a look at how he develops this for us in v.7:
"I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love." ESV
In fact what in my version is translated as "steadfast love" actually is plural in the original and so is translated that way in the church Bible:
"I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the LORD …According to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses." NKJV
A modern American paraphrase puts it like this:
"I’ll make a list of GOD’s gracious dealings, all the things GOD has done that need praising, All the generous bounties of GOD, his great goodness to the family of Israel—Compassion lavished, love extravagant." THE MESSAGE
To those of you who know your hymns doesn't that make you think of this old chorus?
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
As Isaiah thinks about just what it is that the LORD has done and all those things which he can recount he comes up with quite a list!
There are multiple acts that reveal the steadfast love of God for his people
There are multiple acts of divine generosity whereby God has shown that he really has been (and is) very good to his people
There is in God a heart of compassion out of which flow so much goodness as the LORD pities his people and helps them
How useful and encouraging it can be to our souls to stop for a moment and think about the ways of our God and how he has been good to us in the past. As I was preparing and struggling against tiredness in my study I stopped and reminded myself that God has helped people with some of my sermons in the past. In fact down through the centuries God has helped people through the preaching of very ordinary preachers like myself. There are examples of great preachers but they stand out while the rest of us of ordinary journeymen – competent workers perhaps but not outstanding.
But if God has been pleased to bless the efforts of such journeymen through the centuries then there is every reason to expect him to continue to do so.
But Isaiah has not finished with his reminders: he continues in vv.8+9 to remember things that the LORD has said about his people and the ways in which the LORD has related to them:
What an encouragement it should be for us to remind ourselves that God chooses his people and that he considers them to be members of his family for he calls them "Children"!
What is more he brought them to himself by becoming their Saviour. Our God does not stand aloof or afar off but comes close, so close in fact that he completely identifies with his people feeling keenly their hurts and troubles. There are plenty of examples of this in the OT:
Judg.10:16 "they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel."
And of course the NT develops further this sympathic identication of the Saviour with his people:
He was under no obligation to do this, we had certainly forfeited all legitimate claim we might have upon him but out of his love and pity he decided that he would set us free by paying the price of our liberation and so redeemed us.
This redemption has been brought about too in a very tender manner. Do you notice how as Isaiah remembers the LORD's dealings with his people how he describes them? Here is a gentle and kind parent lifting up the child from the mess he has fallen into and carrying him when he has no strength of his own. I wonder whether there are times when you feel as though you have no strength to go on? Remember then that the LORD lifts up his children and is well able to carry them – as he has done for countless others in the past he is well able to do you for you too!
God's People Not Always what they ought to be
v.10 "But they rebelled and grieved the Holy Spirit…"
God's purpose was to secure a people who would be forever faithful to him but in reality his children were often far from faithful and frequently rebellious. They were rebellious at several times in their history – you can easily see that in a quick reading of the Book of Judges – but they were not wiped out! God could and did "in wrath remember mercy". He sent them judge after judge to deliver them. Now in Isaiah's own day the people were more rebellious and were about to be sent off in the drab and dreary discipline of exile – and in every respect it would seem as though the LORD was an adversary to them. But it would not be the end for Isaiah's contemporaries either – the exile would end – because the LORD would remember his own purposes and he who had done so much for his people in the past would once again act in their favour!
This too should be a great encouragement to us. Don't we happily sing the hymn Amazing Grace? Well that contains this lovely verse:
The Lord has promised good to me;
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Before we move on we must take on board the seriousness of rebellion and its consequences. Yes, the LORD has promised good to his people but he is nevertheless grieved by their sin and will act accordingly. While such action will not lead to the complete destruction of his people it will mean loss and pain will be experienced along the way. How sad it is when the people of God no longer enjoy the smile of the favour of their God but find him rather to be opposing them at every turn as their enemy.
However the LORD does not remain forever the enemy of his people.
It seems extraordinary but it appears that as Isaiah brings to his own mind the LORD's magnificent goodness to his people that the LORD himself is almost jolted into remembering just what his promises and purposes were and causes him to bring to end the hostilty their sin has provoked!
What God Calls to Mind
It seems as though the LORD went back to the beginning of Israel's national life at the time when he rescued them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. At that time:
He delivered his people under the guidance and leadership of Moses.
He brought them safely through the Red Sea
He placed his Holy Spirit in the midst of the people – this was the divine presence associated with the Tabernacle
He accompanied Moses and worked powerful deeds
And all of this was done with a view to promoting his own glory and to secure a Name for himself by doing what no other deity had ever been able to do before him.
He brought his people through many difficulties (or depths) and had triumphantly brought them out into a large/wide space: the picture of a horse no longer being restrained by a difficult terrain but is now brought out into the open countryside where it can gallop freely!
A second picture is used to describe the blessings showered upon his people – they are like livestock that have been restricted to the sparse mountain sides. There life had been tough and foraging had been difficult. But that had now been all changed: the Spirit of the LORD had led them down from the mountains and had given them rest in the lush lowland valleys where they could feed on rich fare.
When the LORD God called to mind his purposes for his people he had changed his stance towards them, having done with painful discipline and ensuring that his original purposes would not be thwarted.
What he had done in the past surely he would do again or else all that he had done previously would be wasted and for nothing!
What an encouragement it should prove to be when we too focus upon the LORD's unchanging purposes especially when we find ourselves in trying and difficult circumstances. Will he give up on us? Can he give up on us? Let the apostle Paul answer that question for us and we shall certainly be in a good place to be encouraged!
2Ti 2:13 "if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself."
Having prepared himself to pray by looking at the faithfulness, the goodness and the remarkable steadfast covenant love of God for his people Isaiah finally turns to prayer.
"This is what you were like in the past, LORD" he says "and you acted for your own glory's sake." He will go on to plead passionately for renewed blessing.
May we too learn what it is to prepare ourselves so that we too may pray with similar urgency.