But in everything by prayer and supplication with Thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God (Phil. 4:6)
The apostle, having forbidden the Philippians to have extreme care, shows them what they should do instead thereof. He shows them a better way to obtain what they or others are apt to care too much about. Instead of troubling yourselves with cares for anything, apply yourselves to God by prayer in everything.
The people of God should have recourse to Him by prayer, in everything. For explication, let us inquire into the act, the extent, the manner of praying, i.e., what we must do, wherein it must be done, and how we must do it.
1. For the act: It is prayer, expressed here by four words, “prayer” (asking of God); “supplication”; “thanksgiving” (or, praise), and “requests” (or petitions). For the opening of which, you know there are two principal parts of prayer: petition and thanksgiving; the asking of what we would have, and the due acknowledgment of what we have received. When we take notice of what the Lord bestows, and are affected with the riches, and the freeness of His mercy therein; and out of a hearty sense thereof gratefully acknowledge this, this is to give him thanks, which is one chief part of prayer which should not be omitted. When we would pray, as He requires, our requests should be joined with thanksgiving. The sense of our wants, pressures, sufferings, should not drown the sense of His mercy and bounty expressed to us. Eagerness after more should not make us overlook what He has done for us already; but while we beg, we should also be thankful, having as much occasion for this as the other.
Then for petition, the other part of prayer that is here. He uses more words to express the same thing, as the Hebrews were wont to do (whose manner of speech he much uses) to signify frequency or vehemency, to mind us that we should be very much and often in this duty, or that our hearts should be very much in it, when we are about it.
Now concerning “prayer” and “supplication”: We need not inquire how these two words may be distinguished; the apostle intended no more than I have expressed. But if we will be so curious: one of them, “prayer”, may denote the object of our prayers, a request directed towards God. To whom shall we address ourselves, if we would be relieved, or supplied, or delivered? Let your requests be made known to God. Others may be unable or unwilling to help; it may be a wickedness, or it may be to no purpose to seek to them: But God is able and willing to relieve. He has made it your duty to apply yourselves to Him, and to none else without Him.
The other word, rendered “supplication”, may denote the subject of our prayers, is from the word “to want”. That which we are to request of God, is what we want, be it something which we have not, or more of that which we have, if it be needful for us, that which we want indeed. We may seek it of God; it is both our duty and privilege to do it; He both encourages and commands it. It is a principal part of prayer to which there are so many promises, for which there are too many precepts: to spread our wants before God; to make them known to Him. Not that He knows not what we want before we declare it (see Matt. 6), but prayer is the proper way to go about getting what we want: for His honor and our advantage. “He will be fought unto” (Ezekiel 36:37). We must seek Him, and not as a formality, but as those who are sensible of what they want, and who go to Him only who can relieve us.
2. For the extent of prayer: Paul says, “In everything”. So we must both pray and praise Him; both make our requests, and give thanks, in “everything”. But here seems some difficulty as to both, which I will endeavor to remove:
A. How can it be our duty to give thanks in everything? There are many cases where there may be a question whether they require thankfulness. Several seem to call for humiliation, rather than thanksgiving. But this in general may be said: whatever our state, or the circumstances of it be, so far as there is any mercy to be discerned therein, that far we ought to be thankful. And now let us may resolve the particular cases, wherein it is questionable whether it is our duty to be thankful:
(1). When we are under afflictions, are we to give thanks for personal grievances? Yes, there is something in them for which we may and we ought to be thankful. But how? Not for the afflictions considered in themselves: for they are not joyous, but grievous. But if they be for righteousness sake, then are they blessed dispensations. Then they are occasions of joy, and so of praise; then they are gifts, special favors, and so oblige us to thankfulness. See Philippians 1:29, “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Yes, when they are chastisements, and occasioned by our miscarriages, yet then we may, and ought to be thankful, because they are no more than what we had deserved, and had reason to fear. When we lose something, it is a mercy (about which we should be thankful) that we did not lose all. When it is but a rod, it might have been a scorpion. When it lies on us but awhile, it might have oppressed us all our days, and made our whole life, a life of sorrow and afflictions. Moreover, we do not suffer so much as others suffer. What are our sufferings, when greatest, to those of Christ, though He was innocent, and not as we are, covered with guilt? What are our afflictions to the sufferings of others, who are as dear to Him, and have less provoked Him? What to theirs, who, by the Lords testimony, were such of whom the world was not worthy? You are in troubles, but you are not in hell: and why not there, but because His mercy towards you is infinite? The Lord has taken this or that from you. O but hath He taken His lovingkindness from you? Has He divorced you from Christ? Has He cut you off from hopes of glory? Has He extinguished His grace in you, or taken His Holy Spirit from you? Or shut you out from the covenant of grace? Or separated you from His love?
When public judgments are inflicted, that calls for mourning and lamentations; what place then for praise and thanksgiving? Why, so far even then we are to be thankful, as the Lord remembers mercy in the midst of judgment. We then have occasion of thanksgiving, because He inflicts no more judgments, pours out but one vial, when He might pour out all together; because He makes not those inflicted more grievous and intolerable, more spreading and universal, more destructive and ruining; because we are secured and preserved, we escape when others fall; because it does but scorch us, when it might consume us. They could see occasion of thankfulness, in the midst of those calamities, which had burnt their temple, destroyed Jerusalem, laid their country desolate and carried the inhabitants into captivity. They could discern mercy and compassions through all this; and so far as this can be discerned, there is cause of thanksgiving.
(3.) When we are under temptations: an hour of temptation is a time of fear and trembling; yet even then we have cause of thanksgiving. So far as the temptation prevails not; so far as we are strengthened to resist it; so far as it is not too violent to be borne or withstood; so far as we escape the danger; and if we do not quite escape, so far as we take warning by it, and are made more watchful, and stand more upon our guard and are more humbled in the sense of our own weakness, and led to more dependence on the Lord our strength, and fear and hate that more to which we were tempted, and are more resolute against it. See I Cor. 10:13, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” So, for the Lord’s faithfulness, His mindfulness of His covenant, as it appears in any temptation, whether for good, or to evil: so much cause is there of thanksgiving.
(4.) When we fall into sin. That is the hardest case: yet here we ought to be thankful, not because we are left to sin, for that is a cause of sorrow and deep humiliation, but because He leaves us not to sin more, as we would do were it not for His gracious restraints; because the Lord does not leave us, does not cast us off when we sin; because He proceeds not more severely against us for sin; because we do not die in it; because He does not cast us off, and cause us to perish in the very act; because He gives time for repentance, and a heart for it. Here is a matter for thankfulness, since He is so highly provoked by sin, since He might do it with advantage to His glory, the glory of His justice, and might prevent further provocations, and more dishonor. Or because He overrules this desperate evil to occasion good or works a cure of this deadly poison, as He can do. And thus you see how we may give thanks in everything, even in those things wherein it is hard to see any occasion for thanksgiving.
B. As there is some difficulty in respect of thanksgiving, so in respect of petitioning prayer: whether we may apply ourselves to God in everything particularly; whether we may make our questions known to Him for temporal things, the concerns of this world. And these are some of the things that the text directs us to pray for. We are not to have extreme care for the things of this life, but instead thereof, make our requests known in everything, as in other things, so in these. We have both rule and example for this in Scripture. Our Lord Jesus directs us to pray for our daily bread, so Jacob in Gen. 28:20: “And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,…’” etc. And Agur, in Proverbs 30:8: “Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with food convenient for me.” They may be sought, but with limitation:
(1.) Not principally, for they are not the things in which we are principally concerned, see Mark 6:33. The kingdom of God and the righteousness of it, things eternal and spiritual, are to be sought principally: first and most, above all, more than all, as being of far greater value and consequence, and of greater necessity and importance. We may far better fall short of the things of this life, which may trouble us for a time; but to miss the other will be our misery forever. The spiritual and the eternal things are of greater value. The others are but loss and dung in comparison, of no considerable value; and so we should be far from seeking them principally.
(2.) Not for themselves, but in order to lead us to better things; not to serve ourselves of them, but to be more serviceable by them, to do more good with them; not to please our senses, but to help us the better to please the Lord; not because they suit our inclinations, but to enable us to do the will of God, and that work which He has set us to do. As the apostle desired a prosperous journey (see Rom 10:10), not for the journey’s sake, as though He loved or delighted in that, but that He might have thereby an opportunity to do more good. To seek these things for themselves, profit for profits sake or pleasures sake, is to seek them as God only should be sought, and to idolize them.
(3.) With submission. These things are not good for all, in every degree. We know not whether they will be good for us, nor what measure of them may be best. We must not seek them peremptorily, as those that have a mind to have them at a venture; but with a reserve, if they may be good for us; and these must be submitted to the will and wisdom of God, who only knows it. Refer it to Him, either to bestow them, if He see it good, or deny them, if He know they will not be good. The all-wise Physician knows better what is good or hurtful than the distempered patient.
We are not to seek outward things, as we may seek faith, repentance, pardon, holiness, growth in grace, power against sin. These are absolutely necessary to our happiness; it is His will His people shall have them; He has declared it in His Word, and promised them without reserve; and therefore so we may beg them. But outward things are not absolutely necessary to salvation; we may be happy without them, or such a measure of them: we know not but it may hinder instead of promoting our happiness. They are not promised absolutely, and therefore should not be so sought.
Those things which tend but to our well-being in spirituals—as comfort, assurance, and highest degrees of holiness—are not to be sought but with submission; much less these which tend but to our well-being in temporals. “Not my will but yours be done,” said our great Example. And David herein showed himself to be a man after God’s own heart, “And the King said unto Zadok, ‘Carry back the Ark of God into the City: If I shall find favor in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me again, and show me both it and his habitation’” (2 Sam. 15:25). He referred it wholly to the will of God, whether His outward condition should be prosperous or not.