Jonathan Edwards is an intoxicating, daunting read. He is head-swimmingly wonderful, even while you keep having to remind yourself of how much of a genius he was, how bizarre his home life was, and (say it carefully) he had the time to do so much thinking and writing because he owned slaves.
His observations of revivals, true and fake, are always worth re-reading, and one part of his thinking has stayed with me, as two kinds of prayers that pastors should be praying. What follows is a reflection, not a summary, and certainly not an exact citation.
The first prayer comes from Psalm 90:17
May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
That’s a good prayer for our daily, weekly, monthly, annual plans, activities and dreams. We work, and we ask God’s blessing on it.
Some might say that that is back to front, and that we ask for guidance on our work first; and I have a lot of sympathy for that. 50%, in fact.
Because it is true that prayerless efficiency, prayerless pastoring, prayerless preaching, may well build a very effective kingdom, but it will be my kingdom, rather than his.
But, as pastors, we don’t really have to ask God what our work is, do we? The contours of our ministry are laid out clearly in Scripture, and are well-known for us. Now, we need to keep dependently reading God’s Word, listening hard to other pastors’ teaching, to check that we aren’t becoming idiosyncratic, monotonous, eccentric parodies. But in general, if you took my diary and yours and compared them, I expect we’d find the same general priorities and duties, wouldn’t we? There’s no secret ingredient.
We know the work our hands are called to do, and so part of that work is to ask God’s supernatural blessing on that so it can achieve what we can’t. I am to preach the gospel; God’s work is to raise the dead.
That’s normal. But we should also be praying for the extraordinary.
The second prayer comes from Psalm 126:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev. (Ps 126:1-4).
So, this is a prayer that comes from God’s people, thanking him for their restoration after Exile. It’s full of gratitude, delight and praise.
And then they plead, ‘Lord, do it again!’ Doesn’t that strike you as surprising? Verse 1 says that the Lord has restored them, but verse 4 asks him to repeat the restoration. Was it somehow incomplete?
Of course not. The renewal of the walls, the temple, the houses, was comparatively easy. One-off. Tick, done.
But, as both Ezra and Nehemiah show by their endings, the task of renewing, restoring, reviving the people was, and is, never-ending. However great the work has been in the past, Lord do it again.
And notice the scale of this. The dry river beds of the desert suddenly fill, on an annual cycle, from dry dust to magnificent supply, in minutes. This is no trickling stream, but full spate, from nowhere.
So, Jonathan Edwards suggests, this a prayer for God to do remarkably, abundantly, magnificently more, even more than we normally see as a result of prayer-filled ministry. The first prayer is for God’s promised blessing on our work in an ordinary season; the second prayer is for him to send an extraordinary season, beyond our working capacity.
So, pastors, if your prayer-life is like mine (or, I hope, better), your probably find your default prayer is the first one. ‘Lord help me as I prepare…’, ‘Lord, soften Fred’s heart…’, ‘Lord, help me answer Deidre’s doubts…’. Good, important prayers. Don’t stop praying them.
But let’s add to the mix, that second one. ‘Lord, in your sovereignty, may this be a time where you do something way beyond what we could achieve, even with our best, most Christ-honouring desires. Lord, send rivers. Lord, do it again.’ He filled churches under Simeon and Spurgeon, he filled stadiums under Billy Graham and Luis Palau – ‘Lord, do it again.’
Do I hear an Amen?