Appendix 2 Our Public Prayer continued
Another canon is do not use cant phrases. My brethren, have done with those vile things altogether; they have had their day, and let them die. These pieces of spiritual fustian cannot be too much reprobated. Some of them are pure inventions; others are passages taken from the Apocrypha; others are texts fathered upon Scripture, but which have been fearfully mangled since they came from the Author of the Bible.
In the Baptist Magazine for 1861 I made the following remarks upon the common vulgarities of prayer-meetings.
‘Cant phrases are a great evil. Who can justify such expressions as the following? We would not rush into thy presence as the unthinking (!!) horse into the battle. As if horses ever did think, and as if it were not better to exhibit the spirit and energy of the horse than the sluggishness and stupidity of the ass! As the verse from which we imagine this fine sentence to be derived has more to do with sinning than with praying, we are glad that the phrase is on its last legs. Go from heart to heart, as oil from vessel to vessel, is probably a quotation from the nursery romance of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but as destitute of sense, Scripture, and poetry, as ever sentence could be conceived to be. We are not aware that oil runs from one vessel to another in any very mysterious or wonderful manner; it is true it is rather slow in corning out, and is therefore an apt symbol of some people’s earnestness; but surely it would be better to have the grace direct from heaven than to have it out of another vessel — a Popish idea which the metaphor seems to insinuate, if indeed it has any meaning at all. Thy poor unworthy dust, an epithet generally applied to themselves by the proudest men in the congregation, and not seldom by the most moneyed and grovelling, in which case the last two words are not so very inappropriate. We have heard of a good man who, in pleading for his children and grandchildren, was so completely beclouded in the blinding influence of this expression, that he exclaimed, ‘O Lord, save thy dust, and thy dust’s dust, and thy dust’s dust’s dust. ‘When Abraham said, ‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes,’ the utterance was forcible and expressive; but in its misquoted, perverted, and abused form, the sooner it is consigned to its own element the better.
‘A miserable conglomeration of perversions of Scripture, uncouth similes, and ridiculous metaphors, constitute a sort of spiritual slang, the offspring of unholy ignorance, unmanly imitation, or graceless hypocrisy; they are at once a dishonour to those who constantly repeat them, and an intolerable nuisance to those whose ears are jaded with them.’
Dr. Charles Brown, of Edinburgh, in an admirable address at a meeting of the New College Missionary Association, gives instances of current misquotations indigenous to Scotland, which sometimes, however, find their way across the Tweed. By his permission, I shall quote at length:
There is what might be called an unhappy, sometimes, quite grotesque, mingling of Scripture texts. Who is not familiar with the following words addressed to God in prayer, ‘Thou art the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, and the praises thereof!’, which is but a jumble of two glorious texts, each glorious taken by itself — both marred, and one altogether lost indeed, when thus combined and mingled. The one is Isaiah 57:15, ‘Thus saith the high and lofty One, that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy.’ The other is, Psalm 22:3, ‘Thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.‘ The inhabiting of the praises of eternity, to say the least, is meagre; there were no praises in the past eternity to inhabit. But what a glory is there in God’s condescending to inhabit, take up his very abode, in the praises of Israel, of the ransomed church.
Then there is an example nothing less than grotesque under this head, and yet one in such frequent use that I suspect it is very generally regarded as having the sanction of Scripture. Here it is, ‘We would put our hand on our mouth, and our mouth in the dust, and cry out, Unclean, unclean; God be merciful to us sinners. ‘This is no fewer than four texts joined, each beautiful by itself. First, Job 40:4, ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay my hand upon my mouth.’ Second, Lamentations 3:29, ‘He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.’ Third, Leviticus 13:45, where the leper is directed to put a covering upon his upper lip, and to cry, Unclean, unclean. And fourth, the publican’s prayer. But how incongruous a man’s first putting his hand on his mouth, then putting his mouth in the dust, and, last of all, crying out, etc.! The only other example I give is an expression nearly universal among us, and, I suspect, almost universally thought to be in Scripture, ‘In thy favour is life, and thy lovingkindness is better than life. ‘The fact is, that this also is just an unhappy combination of two passages, in which the term life is used in altogether different, and even incompatible senses, namely, Psalm 30:5, ‘In his favour is life’, and Psalm 63:3, ‘Thy lovingkindness is better than life’, where, evidently, life means the present temporal life.
‘A second class may be described as unhappy alterations of Scripture language. Need I say that the 130th Psalm, ‘Out of the depths,’ etc., is one of the most precious in the whole book of the Psalms? Why must we have the words of David and of the Holy Ghost thus given in public prayer, and so constantly that our pious people come all to adopt it into their social and family prayers, ‘There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared, and plenteous redemption that thou mayest be sought after,‘ or ‘unto’? How precious the simple words as they stand in the Psalm (verse 4), ‘There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared’ (verses 7, 8); ‘With the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption; and he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities!’ Again, in this blessed Psalm, the words of the third verse, ‘If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?’, too seldom are left us in their naked simplicity, but must undergo the following change, ‘If thou wert strict to mark iniquity,’ etc.
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