We hope that this unusual title will startle some of our readers and shake them out of their complacency. The fact that it is unusual, is a sad commentary upon the religious conditions of this age. Much has been written during our lifetime on the privileges and potency of prayer—considerably less on prayer as a duty and the conditions which must be met in order to be ensured of an answer—but scarcely anything on the sacredness and solemnity of prayer, particularly along the line of warning God's children against the sins they commit when asking "amiss" (James 4:3). And yet, a little reflection should convince the young Christian that here, too, the flesh needs to be mortified, the heart quickened, and the understanding enlightened, if he is to pray acceptably unto God.
The very fact that it is the Holy One he is to approach, calls for the exercise of the utmost circumspection, lest he insult and offend Him. In Psalm 141:3, we find David praying, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips." We wonder how many of our readers could—without looking it up—describe the context. Probably many of them suppose it is a petition asking God to curb our unruly tongues when in the presence of our fellows: that we may be restrained from the angry retort when provoked, kept from the evil of idle gossip, and tale-bearing, etc. Instead, the preceding verses are in no way treating of our converse with men and women. Something far more weighty and solemn is there in view, namely, the use of our tongues when engaged in prayer—see verses 1 and 2, and then connect verse 3. It is indeed permissible to make a wider application and use of verse 3—but its first and immediate reference is to our praying. Who had thought it necessary to make this request in such a connection: that after asking, "Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense," David should at once add, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth" (Psalm 141:2-3)?
Ah, dear reader, if the setting of that request comes as a surprise to us, does it not indicate what urgent need there is for us to test OUR ideas of "prayer" by the Scriptures? to re-examine the subject and have our thoughts thereon formed by the Word? If our tongues are so unruly when in the presence of our equals, is there no danger of them trespassing when we open our lips before the Most High God? If our hearts need to be warmed, our faith strengthened, our minds informed, in order to pray aright—does not our speech also need to be directed and curbed? Let us now point out some of the more common sins. "Keep the door of my lips" from the
1. "Keep the door of my lips" from the surgings of pride. The case of the Pharisee in Luke 18 is a lasting warning against self commendation in prayer. But there are other forms of phariseeism besides prating of our good works. One is, "for a show make long prayers" (Luke 20:47). That, of course, has reference to praying in public; and it is there we most need to be on our guard against the workings of pride. To be called upon to pray in the assembly presents a very real test of character and a powerful temptation to sin. Unless such a one is exceedingly careful—he will find himself praying to the congregation, rather than to the Lord! It is natural he should wish to make a good impression and convince his fellows of his piety—but nature must be bridled when we are engaged in holy exercises. It is a horrible mocking of God when under the guise of pouring out our hearts before Him—we are really seeking to further our reputation before men; as it is also to weary the brethren when he makes "long prayers." It takes grace and courage to pray briefly—when called upon to pray in public.
2. "Keep the door of my lips" from the making of ill-considered pledges unto God. How many a one upon a bed of sickness or in severe straits, has promised God certain things if He would deliver him—but only to fail in the actual performance. Even in our dealings with men, we should think well before we speak, and be very slow in engaging ourselves for the future; much more should we be cautious in making commitments with God! "Better is it that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay" (Ec 5:5). "Holy resolutions to do the will and work of God should be taken up in the strength of divine grace; but to vow this or that or the other thing, had best be left alone" (John Gill, 1697-1771). Scripture supplies a number of warnings—especially so the New Testament, against making rash promises and vows to God: Jephthah (Judges 11:30-31), Herod (Matthew 14:7-8), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), the band of Jews (Acts 23:12). Make no hasty promises or pledges unto God.
3. "Keep the door of my lips" from the language of insincerity. Not only should we think before we speak—but make sure that our words express the real desires of our souls. The great Searcher of hearts cannot be imposed upon by pretences of piety. Of old, He complained, "These people honour Me with their lips—but their hearts are far from Me" (Matthew 15:8). To ask God for something we do not feel the lack of, to simulate fervour by raising our voices, to multiply words in order to fill in the time—is to mock Him. To mechanically repeat some form of prayer, or to coldly utter stated petitions—is a species of hypocrisy and a grave affront unto the Omniscient One! Against such sins, we need to earnestly beg God to "keep the door of our lips."
4. "Keep the door of my lips" from the spirit of irreverence. There is indeed a very real difference between holy intimacy with God and freedom of utterance before Him—and unholy familiarity. Nevertheless, it is sadly easy for the former to quickly degenerate into the latter. God is clothed with infinite majesty and is ineffably holy, and it ill becomes a worm of the earth to approach and address Him as though it was His equal. "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:11) is the injunction He has laid upon us. It is not only indecorous, but impious, to rush unto the Throne of Grace without due realization of the Majestic One occupying it, and there, gabble off the first things which enter our minds. If the seraphim veil their faces when standing before the Lord Almighty, then what reason have we fallen creatures to exercise humility, godly fear, and spiritual propriety when supplicating Him!
5. "Keep the door of my lips" from the offering of carnal requests. Some affirm that the promise of Christ in John 14:13-14 is a "blank cheque" which He has placed in the hands of believers, that "they may fill it in for what they please, and that God stands pledged to honour the same." But that is a horrible perversion of a sacred ordinance. God has not appointed prayer as a means by which we may satisfy our corrupt affections: "You ask, and receive not—because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts!" (James 4:3).
To pray for long life that we may enjoy the world; for prosperity in business that we may improve our social status; for wealth that we may gratify our vanity—is to "ask amiss." We may pray for spiritual things from carnal motives and with fleshly ends: as to request more light from the Word that our personal reputation may be advanced; or for more grace that we may cut a better figure before fellow Christians. Unless we have the glory of God in view—our motives and designs are carnal.
6. "Keep the door of my lips" from the exercise of self-will. The chief design of prayer is to bring our hearts into conformity to God: "If we ask anything according to his will—he hears us" (1 John 5:14). The bending of the knee before God imports the attitude of soul which He requires from us, namely, that of humble dependence and acknowledged subserviency. The Throne of Grace is available to suppliants, and not dictators. To ask God for something which His Word nowhere warrants, or to insist that He regulate His providences according to my behests—is rank self-will. Much of the so-called praying of this degenerate age—is nothing but blatant impudence and presumption. It is not only impious—but dangerous, to insist that God should grant our selfish requests. Remember the case of Israel: "And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul" (Psalm 106:15).
7. "Keep the door of my lips" from the utterances of unbelief. There is a little need for us to say much upon this point: "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:6-7). To "ask in faith" is to exercise confidence in God, to be assured of the lawfulness of the thing requested, to plead and rely upon the merits of Christ, to believe that God will assuredly give that which will be most for His glory and our real good. To "waver" is to give way to doubting, to question God's goodness and faithfulness; and certainly He will not place a premium on that.
What need has both writer and reader to beg God "keep the door of my lips" that I commit not any of the prayer-sins mentioned above!