Preachers, Prayer and Gospel Progress

It should go without saying that preaching, praying and the progress of God’s kingdom through the gospel are inseparably bound up with each other. Jesus taught his people to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ and made it clear that all believers are all involved in the answer to this request as they obey his great command to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel.

There is, however, a sense in which we can be so familiar with these truths that they weigh more lightly on us than they should. We lose the sense of urgency bound up with them and are too slack when it comes to the disciplines they entail. This was certainly the case with the church of the Old Testament that was entrusted with the very same revelation and responsibility, albeit in an anticipatory way. Despite the very dramatic way in which God freed his people from bondage in Egypt, kept them through the wilderness and established them in the Promised Land, they forgot all too quickly and easily what it meant to learn from him and lean on him in order to enter more fully into what he had promised for them.

So, in the days of the prophets, God’s message repeatedly brought them back to the basics of the faith. And nowhere is this seen more plainly than in Isaiah’s prophecy. But what is so very interesting about his message with regard to the place and importance of preaching and prayer in the life of the church, is that he provides an angle on them that goes deeper than much of what we find elsewhere, even in the New Testament. We see this especially in what he says about God’s ultimate purpose for his people and the means by which he will bring about its ultimate outworking (Isa 62.1-12).

The section begins with a voice speaking in the first person singular: ‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet’ (62.1). The ‘I’ in question is the one who spoke at the beginning of the previous chapter saying, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news’ (61.1). It is the voice of Christ and these are the words he read and explained as being fulfilled in himself the day he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4.16-19).

Here, then, he speaks of his determination to carry his saving work through to completion – not just in the salvation he would accomplish, but also in terms of what it will ultimately achieve. Nothing less than his people’s becoming ‘a crown of splendour in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of [their] God’ (62.3). But by what means would this come about? How would his saving action, with its climax on the cross, secure its worldwide and history-spanning goal?

The pre-incarnate Christ answers, ‘I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night’ (62.6). The ‘watchmen’ he has in mind are not merely the spiritual equivalent of sentries who keep watch against an enemy. He uses a word that is elsewhere associated with God’s prophets who were indeed entrusted with ensuring the spiritual safety of God’s people, but they were to do it in a very unmilitary way.

The obvious sense in which they were to safeguard God’s flock was to protect them from false prophets. By only proclaiming the message God had either already revealed or was now revealing through them, they were ensure the faith of Israel was firmly placed in the God who had revealed his truth to Israel. But this was not the only, or indeed primary function of the prophets. The very first time the word ‘prophet’ appears in the Bible is when God speaks to Abimelech after he had taken Abraham’s wife, Sarah, for himself without realising she was his wife. God said to him, ‘Now return the man’s wife to him [Abraham], for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live’ (Ge 20.7).

Prophets were not only to be men of the pulpit, but men of prayer. And their sacred charge to keep watch over the people of God was as much about their responsibility to pray for them as it was to preach to them.

This carries over into the New Testament. We don’t have to travel very far into the growth and development of the church in the pages of Acts before we see its need to appoint a new class of church officers – Deacons. And this need arose so that the Twelve (and, by inference, the proto-Elders who shared the pastoral responsibility for the church with them) could devote themselves to ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Ac 6.4).

As we look more closely about what is said through Isaiah about these ‘watchmen’ we read that they ‘will never be silent day or night’ (62.6). That is, both in their praying as much as in their preaching they will be speaking – to God on the one hand and for him on the other – but in both for the benefit of his people.

The striking thing about this little detail is that is echoes what the pre-incarnate Christ has already said about himself in the first verse. As one commentator has paraphrased his statement there, he in effect declares, ‘I will not sit still until my work in salvation sees its ultimate fruition’. This tirelessness on Christ’s part is not merely obvious throughout his earthly ministry, but it is equally evident in his ongoing High Priestly ministry in heaven, where ‘…he always lives to make intercession for [his people]’ (He 7.25). He will only rest when he comes again and all his people are brought safely home forever.

It would be easy to be myopic in the way we view the prophet’s words up to this point, but Isaiah takes them one step further when he says – with a change of pronoun – ‘You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth’ (62.6-7). He has the church in its entirety in view.

No congregation should think that it is safe for them to sit back and leave the work of praying, or even the task of proclaiming the gospel, to the paid professionals who are over them. Every Christian is called to share in this task, not least because in Christ we are all prophets, priests and kings in a derivative sense. And as such we are to give ourselves no rest in what Alec Motyer calls ‘the urgency and discipline of prayer’ and, more strikingly, we are to ‘give him [God] no rest until he establishes Jerusalem’. That is, until the heavenly Jerusalem is fully and finally in place.

If the gospel is to make its God-ordained inexorable progress throughout the world as it is proclaimed publicly through preaching and privately through the witness of the saints, then it must go hand in hand with the ‘give-yourselves-and-God-no-rest’ kind of praying of which Christ speaks in these verses.

Mark Johnston