Prayer for Those In Authority

J.W. McGarvey

I think the times demand of us a very careful consideration of the apostolic exhortation here addressed to Timothy. You notice that he enjoins four religious exercises, states the parties in behalf of whom they are to be presented before the Lord, and declares the final object for which they are intended. The exercises are supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks. We may not be able to trace the distinction between these terms with entire accuracy, yet I think we can make an approach to accuracy sufficient for practical purposes.

Supplication is a call for God's mercy when his arm is about to fall on the objects of his wrath. It is offered in behalf of those who have grievously sinned, and who seem to be approaching destruction. Prayers, as distinguished from the other three exercises here named, are petitions for particular blessings needed. Intercession supposes the sinner to be himself calling on God, and that we unite with him to obtain God's favor. Giving of thanks is clearly distinguished from all the others, and needs no definition.

The parties for whom we are to offer these supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving, are, first, "all men"; but, secondly, and especially, "kings and all that are in authority"; and the final object for which they are intended is not the personal good of these kings and rulers, but that "we (the disciples of Christ) may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty."

There is nothing on earth so important as the peace and quiet, and the consequent prosperity, of the church of God. Though all things else that men can desire were granted, in the absence of this the world would perish; and though all things else were denied, with this the world's greatest interest is secure. This, then is an end worthy of the prayers of all God's people in behalf of rulers and of all other man.

There are two ways in which the peace and quiet of the church may be disturbed by those who are in authority. The first, and the way especially in the mind of the apostles, is by the hand of persecution. When Herod stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the church, killed James with the sword, and put Peter in prison, intending also to murder him, the church was alarmed, its progress was suspended, and its enemies rejoiced. Throughout the entire age of the apostles the powers of government were in the hands of heathen, and the church was constantly exposed to this danger. But in our own country the danger is altogether of a different kind. Here the strife which springs up among those in authority and those aspiring to authority often spreads among the people, and divides the church, as well as the ungodly masses, into contending factions. When political strife becomes so fierce as to enlist passion and evil speech in its support, and this among the children of God, the peace and quiet for which the apostle would have us pray are gone, and the banners of the church are trailed in the dust before her enemies. This is now our danger; and if the present political crisis should result in civil war, we shall see once more the shameful spectacle of men, who confess the name of Christ, engaged in spilling each other's blood. It is the power of God to overrule and prevent these appalling results, and he will do so, if his people shall prove themselves worthy of his protection.

This good end must be kept constantly in view, while we offer our supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving. As we see our rulers, whether in high places or low, leading the country into the depths of sin and exposing it to the wrath of God, we are to offer up supplications in their behalf. As we see that they need to be restrained in certain particulars, to be stimulated in others, and to have certain providences occur to guide them in the right way, we are to offer our petitions accordingly. When we find any of them seeming to turn their thoughts toward God and honestly striving to gain his favor, we are to intercede for them. And for all they do that is in the interest of peace and righteousness, we are to be devoutly thankful.

Remember, it is not because we are the admirers of certain rulers, or because we support their policy, that we pray for them. So far as what they do is manifestly pleasing to God, we are to return thanks in their behalf; but the apostle contemplates chiefly their defects and their sins as the subjects of our solicitude. No generation of Christians ever had less reason to approve either the private life or the public policy of their rulers than did the generation to which Paul belonged. With Nero on the throne of the empire, his hands red with the blood of Christians whom he had but recently slaughtered at Rome, and with such others in authority as Festus, Felix, and the city rulers of Philippi, there was nothing to awaken partisan feeling toward the powers that were, but much to provoke the bitterest resentment. Instead of this resentment, he insists on supplications, prayers, and intercession. These alone could tranquilize the hearts of the persecuted, and give promise, through God's favor, of peace in the future.

A mistake in regard to the nature of our prayers for rulers has led to a practical result which has always been shocking to the thoughtful mind, and has presented the church of God in a most undesirable attitude. It has led men to approach God as partisans. I have never felt otherwise than shocked when two nations are at war with each other, and I see all the churches in each constantly sending up prayers to God against the other. What a spectacle does the church in such a case present! Turning prayers into weapons of carnal warfare, and fighting a battle of prayers more continuous, if not more fierce, than the battles of bayonets and cannon! And so, when we approach God in regard to those political contests which threaten us with war, we often approach him to have our own will done rather than his. In regard to our present political complications, each thoughtful man has his own opinion; but if I go to God with mine, and pray him that the controversy may be settled in this way, and you at the same time appeal to him to do the very opposite, we are contending against each other in the very act of calling on our God. Is there not a better way than this? I think there is, and there are some very plain indications of it in the word of God.

When Joab was about to make battle on one occasion against the Ammonites, he found them drawn up before the gate of their city, and an immense army of Syrians, whom they had hired to help them, drawn up on the other side of the plain. Joab's army was but a small one, and here he found a superior force ready to attack him on both sides. He divided his army, giving one-half to his brother, Abishai, whom he commanded to attack the Ammonites, while he, with the other half, should attack the Syrians. As he parted from his brother, he said: "Be of good courage, and let us play the men for our people, and for the cities of our God: and the Lord do that which seemeth him good" (2 Sam. 10:12). Here were wisdom and piety in the words of a man who was religious only at intervals. He knew well that it was not best in the sight of God to always give the victory to his own people, and he knew that his own judgment was incompetent to the task of perceiving when victory and when defeat would be the more beneficial. But he knew that his own duty as a soldier was to play the man; so he says to his brother: Let us do this, and let God do what seems good to him. What seems good to God is always good, and we can forever afford to leave in his hands the things that are too hard for our judgment.

We have another example more authoritative than that of Joab. When Peter and John were arrested, threatened with death if they cease not to teach and preach in the name of Jesus, and then let go to their own company, they repeated to the other apostles all that had been said, and the whole company united in prayer. After reciting before God what had been done by Herod and Pontius Pilate and the elders of the Jews, they say: "And now, Lord, behold their threatenings, and grant to thy servants that with all boldness they may speak thy word." Observe that even in this extreme case they do not venture to suggest to God what he shall do with those threatenings, or with the men who made them; they simply call his attention to these and pray him to help them to do fearlessly the duty to which he had called them. It was the sentiment of Joab over again: "Let us play the men: . . . and the Lord do that which seemeth him good."

In this way, I think, we should approach our God in regard to our present troubles. I have an opinion as to the proper solution of the questions agitating the country, but I can see so little of the future, and I know so little of the present, that I cannot be sure of the entire correctness of my opinion. God alone, who sees all the future consequences of all possible alternatives, can determine what is absolutely best; so I am willing to trust him and to be modest in his presence in regard to my own political opinion and preferences. If we will approach him in this way, we can all pray devoutly for the same thing; we can avoid all confict in our prayers; we can keep our partisan feelings in abeyance; and we can show by our unlimited trust in God's providence that we are worthy of his blessing, because willing to accept the result which is really best for the church and for the world. Let us, then, offer supplication, where supplication is needed; prayers, where blessings are unquestionably desirable; intercessions, where intercessions are in place; and thanksgiving for everything that promises peace, and for every man who works in the interest of peace. Let us in the meantime be careful to restrain our passions, to guard our speech from harsh expressions, and to lead, as far as in us lies, a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.

(Note: J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911) preached for the Broadway church in Lexington, KY during the years 1871-82. His sermon on "Prayer for Those in Authority" was preached at Broadway on Sunday, 10 December 1876. It made such a deep impression that many who heard it asked that it be published. It appeared in The Apostolic Times of 4 January 1877, a gospel paper published in Lexington. This fine article was reprinted in the Gospel Advocate in two parts [30 Nov. and 7 Dec. 1933, pp. 1139 and 1163]. Ron Halbrook, 654 Gray Street, West Columbia, Texas 77486).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 19, pp. 596-597
October 1, 1992