J. Alec Motyer
Reading: 2 Chronicles 20:1-30
THERE may be some (though I doubt it) who would deny that there are resources and dimensions in prayer which remain unexplored, potentialities which are still unused. I feel sure that there is no church whose resources in prayer are not still largely untapped. It is a point on which most of us would admit great inadequacy. Many would be prepared to agree that their ministry would be more vital and their life richer if they prayed more. Unhappily it is true that whenever the question of prayer is raised among believers, hardly any time passes before the objection is made that of course there are other things we must do beside praying, but it is equally true that such people have very rarely prayed themselves to a standstill. Most of us feel that it would be fine to belong to a Church where such an objection only arose because all that could be done through prayer was exhausted.
I would like to suggest that this marvellous story about Jehoshaphat is a real enticement to pray. In the Scriptures there are all sorts of commandments to pray, but sometimes the mind becomes weary and responds no more to commands. Let us leave commandments and even invitations to pray and see if the Word of God will not hang out before us an enticing little morsel which will act as a bait. This is what the story does to me. I am sure that there are many other truths in a passage so rich and full as this, but we will content ourselves with allowing it to draw us by its sheer attractiveness, so that we may be drawn enthusiastically and with anticipation of good into the place where God hears and answers prayer. We pick out certain facts which show us the riches and the enrichment of the Church in the place of prayer.
1. Prayer’s Effectiveness
See how the story begins and how it ends. “There came some that told Jehoshaphat, saying, There cometh a great multitude against thee … and Jehoshaphat feared” (vv.2, 3) was the beginning of the chapter but at the end we are told: “The Lord made them to rejoice over their enemies, and the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of the countries” (vv.27 & 29). This was an amazing transformation. At the commencement the enemies of the people of God were triumphant while that people was in fear, whereas at the end of the story the enemies had been dispersed and the people of God were triumphant, with the surrounding nations alarmed at such evidence of the power of God at work in Israel. And all they did was to pray! The simple but impressive link between the beginning and the end of the story is that the king mobilised the people to the place of prayer.
2. Prayer’s Priority
We notice the absolute priority of prayer in God’s scheme of things. As a matter of fact Jehoshaphat was a considerable soldier who had gathered great military resources into his kingdom. At the time of chapter 20, even though he was afraid, he was by no means without military strength. We know by 17:12-14 that he had built fortifications, amassed armaments and was able to number brave and efficient armies. Now we know from the Scriptures that God does not disdain to allow His people to use the resources which He has let them have, and we know how He made use of the military skill of Joshua and the armies of David, even casting Himself in the role of Commander-in-Chief. Even on this occasion He gave the command: “Go ye down against them” (v.16), giving no indication that He disapproved of Jehoshaphat’s military skill and resources for normal occasions.
This time, however, the Lord allowed Jehoshaphat and the people to see that although they had a force which could be mustered against another military force, He put their army to one side and directed their attention to a different kind of power. He wanted to teach them the priority of the place of prayer and to remind them that He is not dependent on human resources. The power of God on behalf of His people is not commensurate with those powers which He Himself allows His people to have at any given time. The real power, the totally effective power against the armies of the aliens, was not the military power of Israel but their power in the place of prayer.[102/103]
Without such prayer all would be lost. “Hearken unto me all Judah … Thus saith the Lord unto you … the battle is not yours but God’s” (v.15). This is why the power of prayer is the power above all powers, without which nothing can be done — the battle is not yours! If this battle were yours, then by all means you should take your army, face your enemy and go out and fight. But it is not yours! The battle is God’s, and therefore the only way to conduct it is to get Him involved. Get Him on your side. Mobilise the heavenly forces. Oh, how God wants to show His people the priority of prayer in the battles of the Church. Without it all is lost, but with it, with the power of prayer, God acts in sovereign freedom to bring us victory.
3. Prayer’s Liberty
It is wonderful to note the liberty we may have in prayer. Jehoshaphat was really in this trouble by reason of his own sinfulness. Like all believers Jehoshaphat had a besetting sin, and in his case it was the sin of compromise. He loved making alliances and treaties and meddling in other people’s wars. “Jehu the seer went out to meet him, and said to king Jehoshaphat, Shouldest thou help the wicked, and love them that hate the Lord? For this thing wrath is upon thee from before the Lord” (19:2). Even after this great experience of Berachah he returned to his old failing, as can be seen at the end of chapter 20. In spite of the signal victory which God granted him, he went back again to his besetting sin.
What can a man do when his sin has not only brought him into trouble but into the particular trouble of coming under the wrath of God? He can still pray. Although his folly has alienated the face of God from him, the amazing fact is that he can still pray. That is the liberty which we have in prayer. That is the kind of God He is. I don’t know who said it, but I have written in the margin of my Bible: “The only way to flee from God is to flee to Him”. That is what God is like. So Jehoshaphat can come into the place of prayer, and into the place of effective prayer, as the story reveals. There is an open-swinging door which ever invites us to
Come, and come again to Thee,
With this, the empty sinner’s only plea —
Thou lovest me.
4. Prayer’s Discipline
“Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek unto the Lord; and he proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (v.3). That phrase “set himself” is a very vivid one. It means that he gave his face to seek the Lord. That is to say, he disciplined himself to become detached from all else that might preoccupy him to concentrate his gaze on the Lord, and this devoting of himself to exclusive attention to the Lord took the form of fasting. God expects us to set ourselves to look to Him alone and to take whatever measures we must in order to detach ourselves from the occupations and preoccupations of the day in order to be with Him. This is certainly true in the case of whole-time Christian workers, and it may be so in the world of all Christian believers. We spend our lives sacrificing the best for the sake of the good. We would agree that we sometimes sacrifice the good and the best for what is wrong, but leaving that aside for the moment, we fill our lives with so many good things that we haven’t time for the best. And the best demands the discipline of prayer.
If you study the example of the Lord Jesus you will discover that He knew how to say, “No”. He saw a multitude coming to Him, but He said, “No”, and went into the mountain to pray. The apostles also learned how to say “No”. We read in Acts 6 that when it was brought to their attention the fact that the Church was facing an acute need in the social realm because of needy folk being neglected, the apostles refused to get entangled. They speedily set about organising somebody else to do the work, saying that they must stick to their task of prayer and the ministry of the word. Brethren, we live by demands when we should live by priorities. We must learn to discipline ourselves and never sacrifice the best for the sake of the good, never yield to demands at the expense of God’s priorities.
We see here the element of detachment: “Jehoshaphat set himself to seek unto the Lord; and he proclaimed a fast …” (v.3). We have forgotten how to fast. We are so afraid of the misuse of fasting in a supposed heaping up of merit before God that we have thrown out the use along with the abuse. We are such a unity of spirit mind and body that the detachment of the body from the pace of life brings with it detachment of mind and separation unto the will of God. Hence the value of fasting.
5. Prayer’s Fellowship
Jehoshaphat surrounded himself with a praying fellowship. Some told him, and he speedily told [103/104] others, with the result that “Jehoshaphat stood in the congregation” (v.4) and “All Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives and their children” (v.13). This points on to the blessed institution of the Prayer Meeting. We find that Jehoshaphat did not bear the prayer burden alone, but engaged in that most delightful of all forms of prayer, praying with a praying band. Do you know that delight? I admit that it is sometimes very hard to pray in a large Prayer Meeting, but do you know the delight of praying with a group of praying friends?
Jesus had a special benediction for that kind of praying group. “There am I in the midst,” He affirmed, having already promised that if two agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, “It shall be done for them of my Father …” (Matthew 18:19). Notice His emphasis on My Father. You feel that He is letting you into the family circle. He does not say just your Father, but My Father. “I know what He is like. I am here to tell you about Him. I can assure you that He just loves to honour the united prayer of His people.”
James indicates that we should always have somebody with whom we can pray confidentially, somebody to whom a thing is told not for the purposes of tittle-tattle but for concerted prayer. And James tells us that there is healing in that context (James 5:16). When hearts are opened and confidences given and received in the place of prayer, then God’s healing power is at work.
It is not for me to belabour you, but may I ask if you go to your church Prayer Meeting? Maybe you say that you are past it, too old to get out at that time of night. Well, do you invite an elderly friend to come in and pray with you during the morning? Or do we just allow the passing years to edge us out of the place of prayer? Sometimes young people argue that they cannot join in that Prayer Meeting for everybody is so old. What a feeble excuse! How old is God? What a blessing you are missing. See here the wisdom of Jehoshaphat in associating himself with a praying fellowship. They started in the place of fear and they ended in the place of triumph; and all they did was pray.
6. Prayer’s Access
There are here a lovely set of expressions: He set himself, he gave his face “to seek unto the Lord” (v.3). They gathered themselves together “to seek help from the Lord” (v.4) and “they came to seek the Lord” (v.4). There are three distinct expressions: “To seek unto the Lord”, “To seek from the Lord” and “To seek the Lord“. They all speak of access, but indicate different motives in the access. Although the word “seek” is the ordinary verb of looking for something you have lost, it is not so used in this first expression; nevertheless it conveys the idea of earnest deliberation. It is not that you have lost the Lord. You know very well where He is; but you seek unto Him with that same determination that you would use if you were searching for a precious thing which you had lost. It reminds us of the determination with which the Church should come into His presence.
The second expression does not have the word “help” in the Hebrew, but simply speaks of seeking from the Lord. Seeking in fact whatever He would like to give — because it is all in Him. The praying Church should keep in view the glorious truth that all the resources are in God and that He will dispose of them out of His infinite bounty according to the requirements of His sovereign purpose at the given time. The third expression tells of access just for the sake of being near to Him. They seek the Lord. They are in great trouble and just want to be where He is. He is their Friend. They may not even want to say anything to Him in this moment of need, they may be unable to speak, but they just want to be near their Friend, in the sure confidence that He both understands and sympathises. The people of God are bruised with anticipation of trouble, so they seek the Lord. They just want to be where He is. That is the access which prayer gives us.
So we have the story of a people who began with fear and ended with praise, the explanation being this six-fold blessedness of the place of prayer. We see that this place is:
i. A Place of Revelation. “Then upon Jahaziel … came the Spirit of the Lord in the midst of the congregation; and he said …” (vv.14-15). Do you ever complain to yourself that you are getting nothing out of your Bible reading? Actually that cannot be true. To prove it may I ask you what you had for your dinner last Wednesday week? You can’t remember? Does that mean that it did you no good? Of course not. Don’t misunderstand and confuse blessing [104/105] with consciousness of blessing. Feeding on the Word is not like retaining in your memory what was yesterday’s menu. It is richer than that. To change the metaphor, the Word is not only like a street lamp or a car lamp — it is also like a sun-ray lamp. It has healing in its rays. Every time we come before God’s Word it ministers deep-ray therapy to us. We cannot come before this potent Book and depart unblest. So may I suggest that if you are not finding the Word of God giving you living revelation, that you first bring it into the place of prayer. While it is true that we sometimes need the Word in order to lead us into prayer, it may also be necessary to reverse the order, reminding ourselves that although this Word is so marvellous, it will remain dark to us unless we seek God about it.
ii. A Place of Transformation. The people were utterly transformed by coming into the place of prayer. “They stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with an exceedingly loud voice” (v.19). They went in fearful and they came out praiseful. Just watch that praise! It begins in the place of prayer but it is carried over into the place of battle (v.21) and it continues through into the place of victory (v.26). There is always this blessed “bonus” of transformation for those who work at prayer. We go into the place of prayer to give worship to God and to effect things in the world, seeking His activity on behalf of our friends and family and church, to find that God not only acts for us but gives us His royal bounty of transforming grace in our own lives. Jesus went up into the mountain to pray “and as he was praying, the fashion of his countenance was altered …” (Luke 9:29).
iii. A Place of Accomplishment. “When they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set liers in wait against the children of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir … and they were smitten” (v.22). All they did was to pray! Yet the enemy was completely overthrown. We do not know whether the “liers in wait” were another army which unexpectedly came on the scene. The Lord has every potentiality at His disposal and it may be that there was an unknown enemy waiting there by divine providence. Or He may have brought angelic forces into play. It does not matter. God works providential miracles and He works miracles! “When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked upon the multitude; and behold they were dead bodies fallen to the earth, and there were none that escaped” (v.24). What is more, the people were enriched (v.25), the Lord was glorified (v.26) and the world was impressed (v.29). Here is a four-fold harvest to be reaped by answered prayer. Are these four things happening in your church? Is the enemy being defeated? Are the people being enriched? Is God glorified? Is the world impressed? We work hard to achieve these four ends, using all manner of efforts to bring them to pass, and over and over again we find that our methods do not work. Perhaps our disappointing failure or our only partial success will be God’s means to bring us more into the place of prayer. That is still God’s priority for His Church.