When public prayer becomes sinful
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
2 Nov, 2023

Prayer is central to the life of the church. Although typically only one person will pray aloud at a time, everyone present should be able to hear their own desires expressed, and be able to add their own ‘amen’ to what is said. Yet even the holy ordinance of public prayer is liable to be spoiled, perhaps because we neglect some aspects of the duty, and/or we go about it in a wrong manner. In the following updated extract from his commentary on the ten commandments, James Durham goes into great detail on the many specific ways in which the second commandment can be broken in public prayer. This makes for uncomfortable reading as it confronts us with the many ways we are sinfully careless about this ordinance. We can turn every accusation of breaking the commandment into an exhortation to take the opposite way in order to keep the commandment. Later in the commentary, Durham will remind his readers of the need for humility, always, before God. Meanwhile, he ends this list of sins with the implicit recognition that the blood of sprinkling is sufficient to pardon these sinful defects in public prayer.

The second commandment can be broken in public prayer. Public prayer is a part of worship, and it very directly concerns the glory of God. Certainly, when the glory of God is wronged through the unsuitable discharging of this duty, the second commandment is in a special way broken.

I shall not look at everything to do with prayer, but especially to what concerns public prayer. Indeed, we also fail in personal prayer, and in giving thanks, both alone and in our families. Slighting personal and family prayer is a clear breach of the second commandment, as well as neglecting public prayer. So is sneering at prayer to others, reproaching it, calling it hypocrisy, and referring to those who pray as hypocrites. So too is mocking the Spirit’s work in prayer.

Failures before praying

Before we come to prayer, we can sin in several ways.

  • By not watching to keep our heart in a frame for praying always.
  • By not watching over every opportunity that we may have for prayer, hence letting many occasions slip.
  • By not longing for opportunities for prayer.
  • By not stirring ourselves up to seriousness when we are about to pray.
  • By letting the heart run loose when we are busy with other things, in a way which indisposes us for prayer.
  • By having a self-centred goal in view in our prayers.
  • By how little we appeal to God for strength and fitness, and how little we look to Him for His Spirit to help us in prayer, or those who are to speak before us.
  • By how little we examine ourselves so that we would know what to pray for, and what distinctly to confess.
  • By not meditating on what we are to say, so that we may as to the matter of our prayers speak in Faith.
  • By aiming more to find and exercise our gifts, then to have grace acting in us.
  • By rushing rashly into such a weighty and spiritual duty.

Failure on the speaker’s part

On the speaker’s part there are diverse ways by which the second commandment is broken.


  • Rashness and senselessness, not exercising the spirit but the mouth, reciting our prayers as a tale without life.
  • Praying in our own strength, without looking after the influence of the Spirit.
  • Not drawing near to God by faith in Christ, but leaning too much on our prayers, from a secret false opinion that we will prevailing more with many words well put together, than by exercising faith on Christ, and resting on Him, as if God were persuaded with words.
  • Uttering ill-advised petitions and expressions without understanding.
  • Not praying humbly and with soul-abasement.


  • Not praying solely to please God, but having others in view, seeking expressions that are pleasant rather than heartfelt.
  • Saying many things we don’t really think, not being touched with the weight of sin when we confess it, nor with the desire of holiness when we mention it. Sometimes we counterfeit liberty and boldness in prayer, sometimes restraints and complaints, more than the reality.
  • Limiting God in particular requests.
  • Coldness in what is of greatest concernment.
  • Lack of reverence and holy fear.
  • Lack of a right impression of a present God.
  • Not praying for others, and having little thought for the condition of those we pray with. Or if we do pray for others, either we do it coldly, and so as to keep up appearances, or else, if we show more apparent zeal and seriousness for others, we are not careful to ensure that we are not aiming to flatter and please them rather than to obtain spiritual blessings for them.
  • Desiring things for satisfying ourselves more than for God’s honour.


  • Finishing our prayer before we come to liveliness and liberty, having begun lazily and without life.
  • Not insisting on wrestling with God when we are under difficulties.
  • Allowing our words to tumble out before our heart ponders them, or our affections are warmed.
  • Rushing through it, as duty, only for the fashion, without respect to God, or love for the exercise, or driving at any spiritual profit by it.
  • Wearying in prayer and not delighting in it.
  • Not aiming at God’s presence, or conscious manifestations in it, or at getting a hearing from God in what we pray for.
  • Being more desirous of liberty in public than in private.
  • Fretting when we are put or kept under restraints.
  • Growing vain and light when it goes well with us, and turning carnal and unwatchful when we get liberty.


  • Making use of Scripture words impertinently, either ignorantly or vainly.
  • Secretly expecting something for the sake of our prayer, and so resting on doing the work, as if there were merit in it.
  • Using expressions not easily understood.
  • Using extravagant gestures, and scurrilous expressions.
  • Not observing God’s dispensation to us, nor His dealing with our souls in the time of prayer, so that we may conform our petitions accordingly (as we find many of the saints have done, when they end in songs after they had begun sadly).
  • Not praying with fervency for Christ’s kingdom, and for Jews and Gentiles.
  • Exercising gifts rather than grace, when we pray.

Failure on the hearer’s part

Next, consider the sins of those who join [who do not pray out loud but concur with what is being said by the person praying out loud]. Beside what is general and common in the duty of praying, we fail often in the specific responsibility of joining.


  • When we think that when someone else prays we need not pray, but let the speaker be doing it all alone.
  • When we pay no attention to what is spoken, so that we may go along with what is being prayed for, and fail to be on our watch so that we may join in with the prayer in judgment.
  • When our mind wavers, and we hear, but don’t pray.
  • When we censure the words or gestures of the speaker.


  • When we fix our eyes or minds on some other thing, and give way to other thoughts that are likely to divert us from joining.
  • When we sleep in the time of prayer.
  • When we are confused, and do not distinctly join with what refers to ourselves and our own case, nor with what refers to others so as to join with it for them.
  • When we are more cold and indifferent in what concerns others, than in what concerns ourselves.
  • When we are more careless of the prayer being heard and answered when we are not speaking, as if we were less concerned in that case, thinking it enough to be present without participating in heart. Then, being unaffected with the prayer of others, nor acting faith in it, we soon grow weary when others pray.
  • When we are not edified by the praying of another, neither taking up our sins in his confessions, nor our duty in his petitions.


  • When we have much hypocrisy, seeming to be joining, but doing nothing.
  • When we do not endeavour to have affections suitable to what is spoken stirred up in us.
  • When we do not pray that the speaker would be suitably guided and helped in bringing forth petitions that would correspond to our needs.
  • When we are indifferent that the one who is speaking as mouthpiece for the rest lacks liberty, compared to when we are put to speak ourselves, even though it is God’s ordinance.


  • When we are not rightly touched with any expression we cannot join with, but rather stumble at it.
  • When we remain ignorant of the meaning of many expressions through our own fault, so that we cannot join in with them.
  • When we mutter words of our own, not joining in with what is said.
  • When we are indistinct in consenting or saying “Amen” at the close.
  • Failures after praying

After prayer, both speaker and hearers fail.

  • They do not watch over their hearts, but soon return to other things, as if now that the prayer is ended they might take liberty.
  • They do not wait for an answer, nor observe whether prayers are answered or not.
  • They are not thankful for answers when they come.
  • They do not plead and press for an answer if it be delayed.
  • They do not reflect on their failings, whether in speaking or joining.

Need for prayerfulness

  • We do not remember what we have uttered in prayer, but straight away return to behaviour that is very unlike those things we have been saying before the Lord.
  • We do not keep up a frame for new opportunities of prayer.
  • We do not press after a constant walk with God in between times of prayer.
  • We rest on our prayers after we have finished, thinking something of it if we seem to have been helped to pray.
  • We are carnally heartless and displeased, if we didn’t seem to have had help from the Lord to pray.

Need for a gospel spirit

  • We are not humbled for the sinfulness and defects of our prayers.
  • We do not have recourse by faith to the blood of sprinkling for pardon of these sinful defects.



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