Essay / Misc.

The Scum, and the Dregs

There are some people whose lives incline you to listen seriously to whatever they say. Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952) was such a person and lived such a life. So his little book, Taking Hold of God: Studies on the Nature, Need, and Power of Prayer (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1936), had my attention simply due to Zwemer’s credibility as a missionary. Reading it, I was delighted to find that it contained an account of prayer which would have been moving no matter who penned it.

The title, Taking Hold of God, comes from a phrase in Isaiah 64—a chapter which Zwemer tantalizingly calls “one of the five great chapters on prayer in the Bible” (what are the other four??? ). Isaiah begins this chapter by saying that noone has heard or seen what God has prepared for those who wait on him, and moves through confession that human righteousness is like filthy rags. Then in the seventh verse comes what Zwemer call’s Isaiah’s “definition of prayer:”

There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you

“It is a bold definition,” says Zwemer. “Literally (in the Hebrew text) he says that prayer means to rouse oneself out of sleep and seize hold of Jehovah.” Prayer, calling on the name of the Lord, is waking up and grabbing hold of God. What we have here is “the pathos of a suppliant who is in deadly earnest; the arms, the hands, the very fingers of the soul reaching out to lay hold of God; man’s personal, spiritual appropriation of deity! No wonder Paul calls Isaiah very bold!”

I am intrigued by the part about waking up, but Zwemer instead develops the image of “taking hold,” exploring how we reach out to God and take hold of him with all of our faculties: our mind, affections, will, memory, imagination, and conscience. “Taking hold of God,” in other words, is about the total and all-consuming nature of prayer, and the way it involves all that we are.

Our minds: We should “study to know God with all our mind,” rising above all created things no matter how great and godly, to God himself. “By the exercise of our intellects, illuminated by His Spirit, we must strive to understand His being and attributes, to adore Him for our creation and preservatin and his daily providence.” Zwemer notes rightly that many long passages of the Psalms and the book of Job “consist almost entirely of this intellectual adoration of God.”

Memory: “Thanksgiving is the exercise of our memory in the presence of the source of all blessings.” Amen.

Emotions: In the presence of God, we can express all of our feelings with the confidence that God knows them anyway, so here at last is someone from whom we can hide nothing. “I used to think I could fool God,” said a man I studied the Bible with in college, “but now I see that I can’t even fool my friends.” It is in secret prayer before God that we can exercise all of our emotions safely and properly. “Here they need not be stifled. The only cure for hypocrisy is to lay hold of the source of all sincerity –secret prayer. This is what David meant when he said, ‘Pour out your heart before Him.’ The scum, and the dregs!”

Zwemer could have said, “what is highest and what is lowest,” or “the top and the bottom,” but instead he followed the liquid imagery of “pouring out,” and went for the top layer (scum) and the bottom sediment (dregs).

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