In May 2017, I sent the completed manuscript of my recent book, Prayers of the Bible, to my publisher. In June, I was rushed to the hospital, after coming down with an extreme case of altitude sickness at a Christian conference in Colorado.
Relentlessly dizzy and nauseated, I threw up for 21 days in a row, defied all treatment, and showed no improvements. The doctors warned my wife that I might never recover.
Food and fluid were pumped into me intravenously; my death was awaited with baited breath, and my life was prayed for by many of God’s people. One day, early in this ordeal, I tried to pray, but could not think of any words to pray.
I knew who I was, where I was, and that I was in bad shape. My memory was like an empty room. I saw a floor, a ceiling and walls, but they were completely featureless. I could not, try as I did, think of even a single verse of Scripture. Not one!
I scratched around unavailingly for what seemed like ages, when, out of a clear white nothing, some words suddenly appeared, unbidden, in my hollow — and horrifying — tabula rasa of a mind:
‘I shall not die, but live and tell
Jehovah’s power to save;
The Lord has sorely chastened me,
But spared me from the grave.’
This came to me, not as a discovery spied in an overlooked corner of my memory, nor as some revived memory, but as a surprise and an unanticipated gift — an answer to an unspoken prayer for some word appropriate to the pressures of the moment.
Right away, I was amazed to recognize the words of the metrical version of Psalm 118:18, sung many times in church worship from my youth in Scotland to more recent times in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
Promise and prayer
What astounded me was the sense that this was so clearly a word from the Lord. This was no new revelation, but both a promise and a prayer in the revealed Word, from the covenant God who ministers to his people’s hearts by the indwelling Holy Spirit of truth and adoption (John 16:13; Romans 8:15).
I did not take it exactly as a prophecy that I would survive this illness. I certainly accepted my condition as his chastisement, even for specific sins. But, overwhelmingly, I grasped it as an assurance from the life-giving Saviour, who, if he could save David from his military enemies, could save me from the challenges of a health crisis.
And this I could pray for with the warrant of a hitherto forgotten text of Scripture, most fervently believed, and a Saviour whose love was proffered in this Word.
Then, also suddenly and unbidden, the metrical words of Psalm 118:19 flooded into my soul:
‘O set ye open unto me
The gates of righteousness;
Then will I enter into them
And I the Lord will bless.’
Here is Christ, vouchsafing himself as the gate of righteousness — ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6) — of whose person and work, the words of the psalmist about the gates of the temple and the meaning of her sacrifices, are a prophetic prefiguring.
These words said to me, ‘Look to Jesus your Saviour for this promise of life, in the face of death, for “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).’ Since then, I have discovered afresh God’s power to save and every reason to ‘live and tell’ of it.
As I thought later on these things, I could not but wonder at the fact that, days before my illness, I had finished a book on the prayers of the Bible, with a meditation on a prayer for every day of the year, and yet could not remember one of them!
It was my faithful Saviour who chose the Scripture prayer I needed, in a moment when my life-time of memory of that very Scripture had apparently vanished from the scene. And this proved that his love never fails, and his promise ever stands, for he who keeps Israel ‘will neither slumber nor sleep’.
When all you who are in Christ are at your most vulnerable, ‘he will keep your life’. ‘The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore’ (Psalm 121:4, 7-8).
Gordon J. Keddie was, for over 40 years, minister of Reformed Presbyterian churches in State College, Pennsylvania, and Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of many books and commentaries. Prayers of the Bible: 366 devotionals to encourage your prayer life is published by Crown & Covenant Publications; 764 pages, $18.00; ISBN: 978-1943017119.