There is no more encouraging fact in the life of the Church at the present time than the increase in the number of Christians who observe the morning watch. This tendency is most marked among students in all parts of the world. By the observance of the morning watch is commonly meant the spending of at least the first half-hour of every day alone with God in personal devotional Bible study and prayer.
What are the advantages of keeping the morning watch? Without dwelling at all upon the general helpful results which come from the devotional study of the Bible and from communion with God, it should be emphasized that at the very beginning of the day the soul is in its most receptive state. The mind has been refreshed by the rest of night, and is also much less occupied than it will be at any subsequent hour of the day. Moreover, the outer conditions in the early morning are most favorable. The first hour is preeminently the still hour. The noises of yesterday have receded, and the din of the world of today has not yet broken in upon us. It is easier to say, “My soul, be thou silent unto God” (Psalm 62:5). It is easier to heed the command “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). By having secret prayer and Bible study for spiritual growth the very first thing, we make certain of them. By assigning these important exercises to a later hour in the day we multiply the chances of their being abridged, interrupted, or crowded out entirely. In this connection we should heed the words of McCheyne: “I ought to spend the best hours of every day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most faithful employment, and is not therefore, to be thrust into any corner.” The morning watch prepares us for the day’s conflict with the forces of evil within us and around us. We do not wait until the enemy is upon us before we gird on the armor and grasp the sword. We fortify ourselves before any avenue is opened through which Satan might assail the citadel of the soul; for example, before reading the morning paper, before entering into conversation with others, before turning our thought currents upon the plans and work of the day. It is always wise to gain a march upon the enemy. The keeping of the morning watch is the secret of largest and most enduring achievement in life and in service. Without doubt our failure to prevail with man and against evil in the world during the day is too often due to our more fundamental failure to prevail with God at the beginning of the day. When Miss Havergal was asked to explain why the Church does not accomplish more, she attributed it to the fact that Christians are not spending the first hour of the day alone with God. Let us never forget the vital truth expressed by Faber that “the supernatural value of our actions depends upon the degree of our union with God at the time we do them.” Therefore, if our lives and words and acts throughout the busy day are to possess super natural value, we must take the earliest opportunity in the day to establish a vital and complete union with God. Why delay the forming of this union a single hour? Why be satisfied with having man work a part of the day if the energy of God may be manifested all the hours of the day?
Notwithstanding the great importance of the morning watch, there are Christians who say that they do not have time to devote a full half-hour or more of every day to such a spiritual exercise. It is a striking fact that the busiest Christians, both among laymen and among those who are devoting their lives to direct Christian work, constitute the class who plead this excuse the least and who most generally observe the morning watch. It may be questioned seriously whether there is any Christian who will not, after honestly and persistently following this plan for a month or two, become convinced that it is the best possible use of the time, and that it does not interfere with his regular work. He will find that the morning watch promotes the wisest economy of his time. It makes him more conscientious in the use of time. He learns to redeem it. It helps him to see things in true perspective. He enters the day well poised, under the control of the Spirit, not distracted; and thus he works without friction, strain, uncertainty and waste. This suggests an adequate and satisfying reason for the oft-mentioned custom of Luther, who, if he had a particularly busy or trying day before him, would double or treble the amount of time which he ordinarily spent in prayer. He had learned that by spending sufficient time recollectedly in the presence of God, time enough to have that mighty hand reach down as it never fails to do through His Word to the obedient soul, to grasp firmly the life, that it means a life led that day in prayer. If we followed this plan we might not work so many days, but we would accomplish more; and what is more, our work would not have to be undone when it came to the last of life and it is looked over by the All-Seeing Eye. It will be found not to have been hay and stubble, but gold and precious stones. Let us be master-builders.
To promote the most profitable observance of the morning watch, certain points need to be borne in mind and incorporated into practice. First of all, form an inflexible resolution to keep the morning watch. It will prove most dangerous and disastrous to permit any exceptions. Special caution and foresight should be exercised, therefore, to guard against such possible exceptions. Nothing but the unmistakable will of God should be permitted to prevent us from beginning the day with conscious and unhurried communion with God.
Be sure to be thoroughly awake before entering upon the observance of the morning watch. If necessary, first take a brisk walk in the open air. Let us present unto God for this all-important exercise not only the body, but also the mind as a living sacrifice.
Have some general plan to follow in this devotional hour. Many persons begin with a few moments of prayer. Follow this with a season of Bible study, then spend some time in meditation, and close with special prayer. It is possible, however, to be over methodical. Beware of formalism at such a time above all times. It is also wise not to attempt to crowd too much into this hour.
Make sure at the very outset of the devotional hour each morning that you are right with God. If there be any unconfessed sin, wrong motive, or spirit contrary to Christ, it must be made right before we can receive what God has in store for us for the day. Sin is a terrible thing. It completely insulates us from God. It is vain then to expect real spiritual help from Bible study and prayer unless we are willing to give up any known sin. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is a mighty force” (James 5:16). But notice, it is the prayer of the man with the rectified life and heart. Happy is the man who closes each day in fellowship with God, and who is able to say with David, “When I awake I am still with Thee” (Psalm 139:18).
Recollect morning by morning the real object of the morning watch. What is it? It is not simply to enable me to say that I have observed it. It is not to satisfy conscience by observing it because I had formed a resolution to do so. It is not to enable me to prepare Bible studies and spiritual meditations with which to help others. The true object should be (and it is necessary to remind ourselves of this constantly) to meet God, to hear His voice, to receive guidance and strength from Him, which will enable me to please Him today in thought, in word, in activity.
Select and arrange in advance the portions of the Scriptures upon which to meditate at the time of the morning watch. We should keep as much purely mechanical work as possible out of the devotional hour. The portions selected should be taken from the more devotional and practical facts of the Bible. They should be brief. They should so far as possible be complete in themselves, and yet often it will be desirable to have portions which, though each is complete in itself, will be related to some common theme. The following examples are meant to be suggestive: The best thirty or sixty Psalms; thirty or more biographical portions; selected epistles especially some of the shorter ones; thirty of the exceeding great promises of the Bible; thirty portions bearing on each of such topics as prayer, faith, the Holy Spirit, temptation, our conversation; thirty commands of Christ; thirty or sixty portions of the Gospels bearing on the character of Christ as our example. If a person will take a few hours on three or four Sabbaths during the year, he will be able to outline subjects enough for use throughout the entire year. He will then come to his Bible each morning with something definite. It will prevent drifting around and loss of time. It will also promote a more systematical spiritual development. The pamphlet “Bible Study for Spiritual Growth” gives many suggestions as to the manner and spirit in which the Bible should be studied for the greatest devotional profit.
Give prayer a large place in the morning watch. There needs to be prayer not only at the beginning and close of the hour, but the Bible study, meditation and self-examination also should be conducted in the spirit of prayer. As this aspect of the subject is treated so fully in the pamphlet “The Secret Prayer Life,” it is not enlarged upon here. Only by filling the quiet hour with prayer can we keep out formalism and make the morning watch a great reality and force in our lives.
Remember that the hour of the morning watch is the still hour. After praying and during Bible study, it is well to pause and listen to what the Lord shall say. Too often we fill up the devotional hour with our own thoughts and prayers and leave no still place for listening. Our actual attitude and practice might often be characterized better by the words “Hear, Lord, for Thy servant speaketh,” than by the words “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth” (1 Samuel 3:10). It is difficult to obey the command “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). After we shut out the voices of the world s turmoil, after we banish the suggestions of the tempter, after we cease to listen to the thoughts about the morrow, after we silence the sound of our own cares, questions and prayers then we hear that still, small voice which His true followers always know. His voice is not like that of the fire, or strong wind, or earthquake, but is like unto “a sound of gentle stillness” (1 Kings 19:12). Do we wonder that Paul exhorted us to study or be ambitious to be quiet. He knew that it would require study and resolution to learn this great secret.
Who keep the morning watch? At once we think of some of the men of the Bible times Moses, who knew God face to face, and to whom in the early morning hours God revealed the Law; Isaiah, whom God wakened morning by morning to hear as a true disciple; Jeremiah, to whom God s mercies and compassions were new every morning; and David, who declared, “In the morning will I order my prayer unto Thee and will keep watch” (Psalm 5:3), who reiterated “I myself will awake right early” (Psalm 57:8) and “will give thanks,” and who learned from experience that “It is a good thing to show forth thy loving kindness in the morning” (Psalm 92:2). The example of Jesus Christ is most impressive. We are told that “in the morning a great while before day, He rose up and went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35). Tradition teaches that the observance of the morning watch was widely prevalent among the early Christians. Rev. Webb-Peploe has said that “all the great saints have been early risers,” and he might have added that they rose early primarily to begin the day with unhurried communion with God. There come to mind such men as Rutherford, McCheyne and Andrew Bonar, Wesley and Whitefield, David Brainerd and Henry Martyn, George Muller and Hudson Taylor. It is said of Joseph Alleine, that wonderful preacher of the seventeenth century, that he devoted the time between four and eight o’clock every morning to prayer and Bible study, and that if he heard a blacksmith at his work before he himself began his morning watch, he would exclaim: “How this noise shames me. Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?”
On our recent journey around the world we were deeply impressed by the large numbers of young men and women who entered into covenant to keep the morning watch. All the men and women who have gone out from the universities of America and Britain to lead the Christian Movements among the students of India faithfully observe this watch. In Ceylon we were impressed not so much by the beautiful and luxuriant tropical vegetation, nor by the heathen shrines and temples, as by the sight which greeted our eyes very early one morning of Tamil students walking under the palms with open Bibles in their hands and their lips moving in silent prayer. We visited one college in the Levant where, according to the last report, over two hundred boys and young men keep the morning watch. We know of no college in Christian lands of which this could be said. There are ten great Student Movements in the World Student Christian Federation, but that of China is the only one of them of which we could say last year that practically all its active members began the day with Bible study and prayer. It was while visiting a college not in America, or England, or Scandinavia, but in Japan, that we were wakened over an hour before daybreak and taken through the city, across the valley and to the crest of the famous Flowery Hill to meet with the members of the Christian Association of that institution for special prayer, as was their custom. Let then these nations teach us the deeper meaning of the practice of the early Christians.
The practical question for each one of us is, Why should not I keep the morning watch? Next to receiving Christ as Savior, and claiming the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we know of no act attended with larger good to ourselves or to others than the formation of an undiscourageable resolution to keep the morning watch. Is there anything which can stand before the bar of my own reason or conscience that should be allowed to keep me from forming this expanding resolution? Is there any excuse or reason acceptable God which I can plead why I should not devote at least the first half-hour of every day to secret prayer and devotional Bible study? What would keep me from it? God? Certainly not. Is it not far more likely self with its love of ease and its shrinking from the formation of a difficult habit; or Satan, who, if he cannot keep us from studying the Bible and from prayer altogether, is anxious to have us place them as late in the day as possible, because the only things which have ever defeated him have been prayer and the Word of God? Am I willing to pay what it costs to form this important habit? What will it cost? Readjusting of habits of sleep, which means earlier rising and it may be, earlier retiring; economizing of time; more than one failure possibly; repeated and persistent efforts; increasing vigilance and real watching unto prayer. Am I willing to pay the price in order to form this habit which has so much to do with triumphant life and fruitful service? If so, when shall I form the resolution. And how shall a resolution be formed which will stand? “It is God that energizeth you both to will and then to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
When we were in Palestine, as we went repeatedly to that hill at the back of Nazareth, we wished that it might reveal its secret. If it could, and that coast of Galilee and those desert places around about Jerusalem, they would tell us this morning a story of the prayer-life of our Lord, of its constancy, of its sincerity, of its in tensity, of the liberal allotment of time that accompanied it, of the Godly fear that made it irresistible. And as it comes before us by faith, may there not be formed in us the prayer passion and the deliberate, unselfish determination that with that help that He will supply, henceforth we will greet the dawning of the morning with thoughts of Him?