The God Who Answers by Prayer
February 20th, 1983 @ 10:50 AM
THE GOD WHO ANSWERS BY PRAYER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 5:17
2-20-83 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message entitled The God Who Answers by Prayer. In the long, long series, lasting about three years, on the “Great Doctrines of the Bible,” divided into fifteen sections, we begin today the section on proseuchology. The Greek word for prayer is proseuchomai, and out of that we coin the word “proseuchology,” the doctrine of prayer. And the title of the message today, The God Who Answers By Prayer.
As a background text, the pastor of the mother church in Jerusalem, James, the brother of our Lord, wrote in the last chapter of his book beginning at verse [16b], “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” [James 5:16b]. Then he gives an illustration: Elijah was a man like us, and he prayed earnestly. And God answered that prayer and it did not rain for three-and-a-half years [James 5:17]. Verse 18, “And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit” [James 5:18], the God who answers by prayer. This illustration that the pastor of the church in Jerusalem has used is poignant in the extreme. It was a contest on top of Mt. Carmel and the proposition was: the God who answers by prayer, by fire, let Him be God [1 Kings 18:24]. On one side was arrayed Ahab the king of Israel and the apostate people of the Northern Kingdom and the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:19-20]. On the other side standing by himself was the lone prophet of Jehovah, the God who had spoken to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob [1 Kings 18:18-22, 36]. And the proposition and the test: the God who answers prayer, who answers by fire, let Him be God [1 Kings 18:23-24]. The prophets of Baal, four hundred fifty of them, prayed and begged and interceded from early morning until the time of the evening sacrifice. And the Scriptures say that there was no voice and no answer, nor any that regarded [1 Kings 18:25-29]. And at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah God’s prophet, bowed in the presence of Jehovah God and prayed saying, “O Lord, hear me. Hear me” [1 Kings 18:24, 36-37]. And I suppose, had it not been for the mercy of God, the fire that fell from heaven would have consumed the whole planet. It burned up the sacrifice. It burned up the altar. It burned up the stones. It burned up the water in the trenches round about the stones [Isaiah 36:1]. God answers prayer!
We have another like illustration in the passage that we read today out of the prophet Isaiah. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, was holding the tormented and troubled city of Jerusalem as a man might hold something in a vise. And Rabshakeh, the messenger and representative of the Assyrian monarch, stood before the wall and spoke to the people in Jerusalem [Isaiah 36:11], saying:
Open the city and surrender . . . Do not trust in Jehovah your God
. . . For where are the gods of Hamath . . . and Sepharvaim?—
And Hena, and Ivah, and Arpad?—
Where were their gods when they prayed to be delivered out of the hand of my master, Sennacherib?
Neither will your God Jehovah deliver you out of the hand of my master.
And Sennacherib wrote Hezekiah the king of Judah a letter, and it said, “If you do not surrender and come into captivity, all of the slaughter will be indescribable that will come upon you and your people” [Isaiah 37:8-13]. And Hezekiah took the letter from Sennacherib, and went into the house of the Lord and laid it before Jehovah God, and prayed, “O Lord, hear. O Lord, see. O God, deliver us!” [Isaiah 37:14-20].
And Isaiah the son of Amoz was sent by the Lord Jehovah to Hezekiah saying, “I have heard your prayer, and I have delivered this city, and I will send Sennacherib back by the way that he came with a hook in his nose” [Isaiah 37:21-29]. And that night, in the silence of the midnight, just one angel, not even two, just one angel from Jehovah God passed silently over the hosts of Assyria. And when the trumpet blew the next morning, there was silence. And when the invincible king rose to command his vast troops, there was silence. For in the stillness of the night, one hundred eighty-five thousand of Sennacherib’s soldiers lay corpses [Isaiah 37:36].
I think one of the most moving poems in the English language is this written by the great English poet Lord Byron.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
And through it there rolled not the breath of his pride:
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances uplifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Assyrian, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.
[“The Destruction of Sennacherib,” George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824]
And the eye of the Lord God Jehovah followed the chariot of Sennacherib like a nemesis all the way back to Nineveh [Isaiah 37:37]. And His finger pointed him out. And in the house of his idol god, his own two sons assassinated him [Isaiah 37:38]. God answers prayer.
That’s the way God made this universe. He made it where we breathe for physical life. He made it that our souls communicate like breath before God in spiritual life. It is pleasing to God that we pray. In Luke 18:1 our Lord Jesus said, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” In Philippians 4:6, the apostle Paul wrote, “Be burdened, anxious, careful, concerned for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Tell God all about it. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, the apostle wrote, “Pray without ceasing.” That doesn’t mean always we’re to be on our knees in the posture of prayer, but it means we’re to make everything a matter of intercession. And in 1 Timothy 2, the apostle wrote again, “I will that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands to God” [1 Timothy 2:8]. We are importuned, adjured, counseled, encouraged to pray. It pleases God that we pray. It pleases God that we pray together. Our Lord said, quoting Isaiah 56 [Isaiah 56:7], “My house shall be called an house of prayer” [Matthew 21:13], of intercession, pleading before God. And our Lord said in Matthew 18:19, “If two of you”—beside three of you, beside a hundred of you, beside thousands of you—“if even two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven.” Then the next verse, verse 20, “For where two or three” even, beside a thousand or two or three thousand, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of you” [Matthew 18:20]. Jesus is here.
I sometimes think of that statue in the courtyard of Trinity Church in Boston. There behind the pulpit in bronze stands the inimitable New England preacher, Phillips Brooks. And just behind Phillips Brooks, the artist has cast in bronze a figure of Jesus our Lord. And as Phillips stands there with a Book in his hand, God’s Book, the Lord stands there with His right hand on the shoulder of Phillips Brooks, God’s preacher. He is here. If we had spiritual eyes as someday we shall possess, we could see “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]. It pleases God that we pray. It pleases God that we ask His help. He is a prayer-answering, God helping, Lord.
The very heart of the Sermon on the Mount, in the seventh chapter in Matthew beginning at the seventh verse:
Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For he that asketh receiveth; and he that knocketh, to him it shall be opened;
he that seeks, finds; he that asks, receives.”
Ask, ask. It pleases God that we ask. Speaking to His apostles and to us in John 14 [John 14:13-14] and John 16 [John 16:23-24], our Lord said, “If ye shall ask anything in My name, for My sake, it shall be done for you of My Father which is in heaven.”
And I do not know of a more meaningful or moving two verses in the whole Word of God than the two verses that close the fourth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, “For we have not an High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tried as we are, though He without sin. Wherefore, wherefore, come boldly unto the throne of grace, that ye may find help, strength in the day of need” [Hebrews 4:15-16]. Come. It pleases God that we ask for His help.
There are many things that are inadvertently, unconsciously declared when we ask God for help. One is, “Lord, I’m not able in myself, I need Your strong arm.” Again, it is a declaration. “I believe in the promises of God. If I come before Him and ask, He will answer me from heaven.” It is a declaration of our dependence upon the Holy Spirit. I cannot help but think, as a preacher, when they had trouble in the church in Jerusalem and the apostle said, “Let us ordain men, deacons, in order to take care of this ministry, concerning the widows and the food distribution and the things of necessity in the church, and we will give ourselves to . . .” [Acts 6:1-3]; do you remember the first word? “And we will give ourselves to prayer,” that’s first, “to prayer and to the ministry of the Word”: first to prayer [Acts 6:4].
A preacher may be learned and brilliant and eloquent, but if he doesn’t pray, he doesn’t have the power of God upon him. It is not by studying, and learning, and achieving academic excellence and degrees that a preacher is filled with unction from heaven. That comes upon him in prayer. And the same can be avowed concerning the church of our Lord. There are many things that make a church pleasant and brilliant: the genius of the people, ingenuity by which we present programs and all kinds of things entertaining and exciting. But if the church is to be filled with the flame of the Holy Spirit of God, He comes in no other way than through the praying intercessors of His people. Prayer declares many things. And it pleases God that we lean on His great strong arm and that we ask of Him, His presence and His help.
May I point out it pleases God to answer prayer. He delights in answering prayer. The sixty-fifth Psalm begins, “O Thou God who answers prayer” [Psalm 65:2]. Sometimes, in answer, God will say, “Yes! Yes”; when we ask Him, He says, “Yes.” Could you imagine a more astonishing thing to be read, much less to ever have happened, than that story in the tenth chapter of the Book of Joshua? When Joshua is leading the people of the Lord in their conquest of the Promised Land, in the midst of the battle as they were winning it for God, Joshua speaks to the sun and says, “Sun, stand thou still over Gibeon.” And He turns to the moon and says, “And Moon, stay thy course over Aijalon” [Joshua 10:12]. And the sun stood still over Gibeon, and the moon stood still over Aijalon [Joshua 10:13]. And the next verse says, “Never in a day before and never in a day thereafter was there such a day when God hearkened to the voice of a man” [Joshua 10:14]. Can you imagine that? Sometimes God says, “Yes.” And in that instance, to the most astonishing of all of the astronomical experiences that any mind could imagine, sometimes God says yes when we pray, when we ask of Him.
Do you remember in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, Hannah is before the old and aged Eli, the high priest of the tabernacle of God at Shiloh? And Eli had rebuked her. He thought she was drunk. And said to her, “You put away your wine and be no longer drunken,” because the Bible says Hannah was praying, only her lips moved. She didn’t verbalize the supplication. She was just praying in her heart, and her lips moved. And old Eli watching her said, “Do not be drunk anymore. Put away your wine” [1 Samuel 1:12-14]. It is Hannah who now stands before old Eli, and she says to him, “My Lord, I am the woman who stood by thee here praying. For this child I prayed,” holding Samuel in her arms, little “Asked-of-God.” “For this child I prayed; and God little hath heard my supplication, and all the days of his life, I have lent him to the Lord” [1 Samuel 1:26-28]. Beautiful; sometimes God says yes.
“Have you ever experienced anything like that, pastor?” If we had the day, sometimes God says, “Yes.” I was seventeen when I went to school, to the university as a young minister. And at seventeen years of age—that seems so very, very young to me now. I see these seventeen-year-old boys around here, and I can hardly believe some of the things in those days when I was seventeen. I knelt down before the Lord God, and I asked, “Dear Lord, I don’t have any money to go to school. I don’t have anyone to support me. Dear Lord, could it be? Could it be that I could live by the gospel, that I could make my way through school preaching the gospel, pastoring little churches?” And God said, “Yes. Yes.” And for four years through the university, and for six years in the seminary, I lived by the gospel.
When I went to Kentucky, I never knew a soul there. I missed one Sunday preaching. All through those years I was the young shepherd of those little country churches, village churches—a teenager. God said, “Yes. Yes!”
When I came here to this wonderful church in Dallas, I was forty-three years younger than Dr. Truett, forty-three years younger than the great, famous pastor. And I knelt down before the Lord, and I asked God, “Lord, if I am faithful to the gospel and if I preach the Word faithfully, truthfully, Lord will You send us souls? Will You?” And I had the distinct answer in my heart. “If you stand in that pulpit and preach My Word faithfully and My gospel faithfully, I will send you souls.”
I cannot tell you how many families have spoken to me saying, “When we came to the city of Dallas, we never intended to join the First Baptist Church.” Some of them would say to me, “We grew up in a little country place, and that church is too big.” Others would say, “We’ve been in the city and been driving long distances. We resolved we’re going to join a neighborhood church. It’s too far.” I cannot tell you the number of families. There is an example there: Charles Bristow and his family moved here from Little Rock. And the family decided before they came, “We’re not going to join the First Baptist Church—be too far to drive, we’re going to join a neighborhood church.” I cannot tell you the number of families who will say to me, “We moved to the city saying we’re not going to belong to the First Baptist Church, but God put it in our hearts and here we are.” All through this great throng, you’ll find families just like that; God did it.
And when they tell me that, I reply to them, “When I came here, now almost forty years ago, I asked God if I were faithful to the Word and preached the gospel, ‘Lord, would you send me souls?’ And you’re an answer to that prayer. God said yes and there you are.” “We want to join the First Baptist Church, and these are our children. We want them brought up in this dear church, and to be saved under the gospel, and to be baptized into this fellowship.” Sometimes God says Yes. “Yes.” It pleases God to answer prayer.
Sometimes God says No. “No. No!” There’s not a more moving story in the Bible or in human experience than what you’ll read in the third chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses, God’s servant, who has led the people out of Egyptian bondage and for forty years through the wilderness, now stands looking over into the Promised Land. And Moses pleads, “O Lord God, Lord, Lord, let me go over this Jordan, into the Promised Land.” And God says, “No,” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. And Moses pleads, “O Lord God, please, let me go over into that land of Canaan. Please, God.” And the Lord says, “Moses, speak to Me no more about the matter” [Deuteronomy 3:23-26]. That’s what the verse says: God said to Moses, “Speak to Me no more about the matter.” God says no.
You have another poignant illustration of that in the [twelfth] chapter of 2 Corinthians, when the apostle Paul comes before the Lord and pleads concerning his thorn in the flesh, “O Lord, that it might be taken away. Remove it, Lord” [2 Corinthians 12:7-8]. The Bible doesn’t say what that thorn in the flesh was. It’s by inspiration that it’s not written, because it could be anything, anything that you and I suffer in human life, a thorn in the flesh. And the apostle Paul pled with God, “O Lord, take it away. Remove this thorn in the flesh.” And God said no. God said, “No, My grace is sufficient for thee. You are to bear it. You are to carry it. You are to suffer it.” God said no [2 Corinthians 12:9]. And the apostle Paul humbly wrote, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, and in weaknesses, and in hurts and sorrows; for when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10].
Sometimes God says no, and here again I can stand here for the day—things in which I have asked God, and God says no. I’ll choose one, just one. Fifteen years ago, something like that, there was an era in the life of the churches when crusades were very effective and very popular; go out to a stadium, go out to a ballpark, go out to a big coliseum and hold a citywide crusade. All of my life from the days I was a small child, as far back as I can remember, I felt God’s call for me to be a pastor. But about fifteen years ago, time and again and again and again was I pressured to lead crusades. It bothered me, greatly. So, I said, “I will try.” And I went to areas, to cities where I had friends with whom I’d gone to school, and ministers that I’d known all my life, and where I’d held conferences and been in conventions; gave God the best opportunity that I could. And as distinctly as you can hear me now, did God say to me, “No. No. I have set apart, that you can name, these wonderful evangelists who will hold these crusades and do them gloriously.” But God said to me, “No. I called you to be a pastor. And I called you to be pastor of that church in Dallas.” And I glory in it. I’d rather be pastor of this church than to be the king of England or the prime minister of the British Empire or the president of the United States. I don’t exaggerate it when I say to you if I were to step down from this church to be president of the United States, I would feel that I was lowering my ministry before God. Sometimes God says, “No. No. No!”
Then sometimes God says, “Wait, wait, I am not done. Wait.” In Jeremiah chapter 25 [Jeremiah 25:11-12], and chapter 29 [Jeremiah 29:10], Jeremiah is speaking to the captives in slavery in Babylon. And he says to them, “Seventy years and God will visit you.” Wait. “In seventy years God will visit you and bring you back from your captivity.” Wait. Wait. Sometimes God says, “Wait.” In the twelfth chapter, the last chapter of the Book of Daniel, after having been given a word from heaven and a vision from glory [Daniel 12:5-7], Daniel writes, “I heard, but I understood not; then said I, ‘O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?’” [Daniel 12:8]. How many times are we that way, both in human experience and as we read the infallible Word of God? O God, I see, I hear, I read, but I don’t understand! And God said, “Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” [Daniel 12:9]. Now listen, as it closes. “Blessed is he that waiteth. Go thy way till the end; for thou shalt rest.” And he does. “And someday, stand in thy lot at the end of the days [Daniel 12:12-13]. Wait. Wait, Daniel, wait!”
You have another like instance in the life of Habakkuk, who prophesied in Judah before the Babylonian captivity, before Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed the state, and destroyed the city, and destroyed the temple, and took the people away into slavery [2 Kings 25:1-11]. And God gave him that vision, that prophecy of the coming destruction of the kingdom [Habakkuk 1:6-11]. And Habakkuk stands before God and cries saying, “I do not understand, I do not understand” [Habakkuk 1:12-17]. Now the second chapter: Habakkuk says, “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what He will say unto me” [Habakkuk 2:1]. And the Lord answered, God answers prayer. Sometimes He says this, “The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak. Though it tarries, wait for it. Wait for it. Wait!” [Habakkuk 2:3]. And the next verse is one of the greatest in the Bible. “The just shall live by faith!” [Habakkuk 2:4]. God is not done yet! He is not finished yet! He is not through yet! “Wait,” said God to Habakkuk. And the next verse, “The just shall live by faith.” And when the world turns dark and life seems hopeless, wait. God isn’t done. Wait! [Habakkuk 2:3]. “The just shall live by faith” [Habakkuk 2:4]. And could I add a closing verse from John Milton in the sonnet on his blindness. You could put it in the Bible and say it’s apropos, it belongs there. Do you remember it. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” As the psalmist says, “Wait I say, upon the Lord” [Psalm 27:14]. He is not through, He is not done, He is not finished. Sometimes God says, “Wait.”
May we stand together? Wonderful, wonderful Lord, were it not for Thee, all life would be so dark and dreary and hopeless. Each one of us faces inevitable age and death. The grave with arms never satiated, never satisfied, awaits to pull us down into the maw of corruption and decay. O God, is this the purpose and goal and end of life, to die in darkness and to be forgot? God, having prepared some better thing for us, Daniel, you don’t understand, but wait [Daniel 12:8-9, 12-13]. Wait. Habakkuk, you don’t understand, but wait [Habakkuk 2:3]. God moves, God purposes. God answers prayer. Wait. And the just, God’s people, live by faith [Habakkuk 2:4]. And our Lord, we lean on Thy kind arm. Be to us hope, and life, and light, and salvation, and heaven, O blessed, blessed God, who answers by prayer [Psalm 65:2].
And while our people intercede for you, for you, and while we sing our hymn of appeal, “Pastor we have decided for the Lord, and we are coming,” a family, all of you, mother, father, children, all of you coming this day. A couple, you and a friend, a husband and wife, a wife and husband, “Husband let’s go.” A single, a single parent, a single youth, a single young man or woman, one somebody you, while our people pray just for you, make that decision in your heart, do it now. And when we sing our appeal, that first step will be the greatest step you’ll ever make in your life. “Pastor we’re on the way.” In the balcony round, down a stairway, in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “God has spoken to us pastor, and here we stand.” May God bless you. May the angels attend your way, as you come. And thank You Lord for the sweet harvest, in Thy precious and saving name, prayer answering God, amen. While we sing, come and welcome. Welcome.