Watch and pray
What is the opposite?
What does it involve?
Firstly we need to consider that watching is more than seeing. It is looking intently at something or someone with carefulness, whether it’s a football match, babysitting a grandchild or an animal in the wild. The first mention of “watching” in the Bible is Gen.31:49, when Laban says to Jacob,” The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.” In context he was calling on God to scrutinise any future incursions by either of the men against the other. Then as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea we read, “ And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians” (Ex.14:24). This is the first mention of the classical use of the term regarding watchmen and the time of their watch. The morning watch was the last part of the night before dawn. Watchmen would be guarding a city from the walls and towers, or shepherding their flocks or at sea steering a ship and watching for rocks and all during the night e.g. In Luke 2:8 “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Watching here entailed staying awake and on guard for dangerous predators who would attack sheep. Watching in Matthew 26:38 and 40 also meant staying awake.
Among the Jews the night was divided into three four-hour “watches” , Gideon chose to attack at around 10pm. “So Gideon, and the hundred men that were with him, came unto the outside of the camp in the beginning of the middle watch; and they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands” (Judges 7:19), and this division continued on till Roman times. The Romans divided the night into four “watches;” this was recognized among the Jews (see Mark 13:35 and “And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea” (Matt.14:25)i.e., sometime between 3 and 6am.
There could be day watches too as in the days of Nehemiah, “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them” (Neh. 4:9). “My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning” (Ps.130:6). This verse captures the idea of longing for time to pass which would be natural for any night-watchman.
Spiritual watchmen however, had a different task. They were leaders or prophets given the responsibility to watch over the souls of God’s people in Israel in the same way as ruling or pastoral elders do in the church today. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-30). “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the LORD, keep not silence “(Is.62:6). The people on hearing their preaching and warnings would either listen and repent, or harden their hearts, “Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken” (Jer.6:17). In both Old and New Testament we read of lazy, careless, negligent and wicked watchmen who neglect their duties, “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber” (Is.56:10). False shepherds, not called by God, are the modern equivalent. They neither know God, nor his gospel, and all they care about is their fleshly lusts and monetary gain (II Pet. 2:1-3). These are meant to bark or sound a trumpet (preach and prophesy) when they see danger approaching e.g. the people falling into idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, enslaving their brethren, or any obvious wickedness, and if they don’t, God holds them accountable; “ Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul” (Ezek.3:17-19). Warning, admonishing, exhorting are part and parcel of the office of Old Testament priest or prophet and the New Testament teaching and ruling elder.
“Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Ps 141:3). This is the first time the verb is used in the context of self-control in speech but it could equally be used of any of our daily activities. We need to watch all our appetites, how we use our time, how we treat others etc. The meaning here is moral alertness, “But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (II Tim.4:5).
However the key instance of watching we need to consider is one Christ oft repeated, “ Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt.26:41). Paul also says, “Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). Paul also contrasts watching with sleeping, “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober” (I Thess. 5:6). These instances Matt. 24:43, 26:41, Acts 20:31, 1 Cor. 16:13, Col. 4:2, 1 Thess. 5:6,10, all mean spiritual alertness, “be watchful” (1 Pet. 5:8) or “be vigilant”, also Rev. 3:2,3; 16:15. Those who sleep are spiritually unconscious or even dead and totally unaware of the danger they face and their being under God’s wrath. The Christian believer is the only class of human being who ought to be spiritually watchful!
Watching and praying are often linked and this is vital because by being in an attitude of constant prayer and communion with the Lord, temptation will be kept at bay, and will help us overcome (Eph. 6:18, I Thess.5:18). “Awake to righteousness, and do not sin” (1 Corinthians 15:34 Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame.)
Being awake is equated with righteousness and not sinning. Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, which shows that even true Christians can be spiritually asleep to varying degrees. Diligence and carefulness in all the means of grace whether it’s daily Bible reading and prayer in our personal devotions (Prov. 8:34), family devotions, personal or church Bible study or Lord’s day attendance, cannot be overemphasised. Christian fellowship is also vital, as is witness when opportunity arises (Rev.12:11). Christ also meant us to watch world events in the light of Biblical teaching as we will see more and more the harbingers of his second coming as recorded in Matthew 24. When he comes will he find us watching? We really should never drop our guard!