The Puritan Exegesis Project: William Fenner on Lam. 3:57

Walter Brueggemann once said, “When we pray we participate in the ultimate act of humanness as we yield to a power greater than ourselves.” There is a faint echo of Brueggemann’s statement in William Fenner’s (1600 – 1640) treatise on prayer: The Sacrifice of the Faithful … shewing the nature property, and efficacy of Zealous Prayer: Together with … some helps against discouragements in Prayer (1657). Fenner has wowed us with poignant homilies and exegetical acumen on difficult passages while paying close attention to textual variants, grammar and syntax and so on.  But here we have an example of what some might criticize as mere proof-texting: a text at the head of a sermon used to support the minister’s agenda. But as Fenner would say, To err is human but to pray in a season of loss, devastation, and humility requires divine assistance.

Perhaps there is no better place to discuss prevailing prayer than from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Fenner’s treatment of Lam. 3:57 does not gloss a ho-hum exhortation to prayer. If anything, Fenner strips the varnish off his message with a brief historical introduction of the text followed by three key points leading to the doctrine. “This book of Lamentations,” writes Fenner, “doeth plainely shew what miseries and distresses sin is the cause of” within the context of the Babylonian captivity. Fenner suggests that years of national prayer were counted as one (in the day that I called) and that God heard all their prayers (Thou drewest neare in the day). Delitzsch notes this verse, found in Ps. 145:18, is uttered as the experience of all believers. Reyburn and Fry confirm the reading as the verb (qariba) demonstrates a movement closing in the space from the speaker’s perspective. All of which lends itself the doctrine Fenner is handling: that an effectual prayer is an insatiable prayer:

“This is the first and prime thing that the soule looks after, it being the very end of prayer to be heard; it is not with prayer as with Oratory; for in Oratory; a man may use all the perswasive arguments that the wit of man can invent, and speak as cuttingly, and as perswasively as may be, and yet the heart may be so intractable as not to be perswaded; it is not so with prayer … The end of prayer is to prevaile with God … A man that never gotten the end of his prayers, till he hath gotten that he prayed for.” (Fenner, 1657, 266)

No sin so devlish, no sin so rooted, no country, writes Fenner, so devastated that the godly soul does not press God for a reply.

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