Anyone familiar with the Scriptures and church history knows that often a time of national crisis is met with a time of corporate prayer. Dire straits call for a radical response, and nothing is more radical than national prayer and repentance. In the Old Testament we see this occurring often.
For example we find this taking place when Ezra and the people prayed and repented: “While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly” (Ezra 10:1).
Nehemiah 9 also records an act of corporate prayer. Verse one says: “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.” Or consider what we find in Judges 20:26: “Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.”
And in 2 Chronicles 20:3-4 we read this: “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.”
And we find throughout church history periods where a nation was in major crisis, and times of national prayer were called for. I just saw a film today which had to do with one such time. In the actual historical event this prayer did indeed take place, but sadly the Hollywood version of events omitted it.
In my earlier piece I mentioned how King George VI had declared a national day of prayer while attending a special service in Westminster Abbey just before the evacuation of Dunkirk. And a real miracle indeed followed as I explain in my article: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/08/03/dunkirk/
Due to length considerations I could not mention a related prayer event in that article. But a whole new article will now allow me to discuss this at length. I refer to the amazing intercessory ministry of one very remarkable Welsh Christian, Rees Howells.
In 1952 a biography of this great prayer warrior was published by Norman Grubb entitled Rees Howells Intercessor. It is an amazing book full of amazing stories of great faith in a great God, and what can be accomplished by means of dedicated and concentrated prayer and intercession.
A good friend reminded me that in this book there is an entire chapter on Dunkirk and his prayer ministry. The best way to present this to you is to simply quote from the chapter. I refer to chapter 34, “Intercession for Dunkirk”. It begins:
During the four years previous to the outbreak of World War II, as we have already seen, the Lord was changing the burden on Mr. Howells from local concerns, centering on the development of the College, to national and international affairs. As he said, “The world became our parish and we were led to be responsible to intercede for countries and nations.” We have also seen how the Lord was preparing in the company at the College a special instrument of intercession for the coming world crisis.
It was in March, 1936, that Mr. Howells began to see clearly that Hitler was Satan’s agent for preventing the gospel going to every creature. As he said later, “In fighting Hitler we have always said that we were not up against man, but the devil. Mussolini is a man, but Hitler is different. He can tell the day this ‘spirit’ came into him.” For several years Mr. Howells stressed the fact that God must destroy him, if the vision of the Gospel to every creature was to be fulfilled.
A bit further on in the chapter we find this:
Shortly after this, Mr. Howells made a further prediction, which was published by The Western Mail on January 8, 1940, under a headline of “Welsh Bible College Director Urges Prayer to Stop War”. It quoted him as saying: “If all the righteous in the country will send up effectual prayer, we feel sure that we shall prevail and open Penllergaer on Whit-Monday without war or blackout… what a relief to millions of people if God will intervene and bring the war to an end by Whitsuntide.” Little did he imagine when that prediction was made, that the days around that Whit-Sunday, May 12, were to be the blackest in the history of our nation, and the nearest we had come in nearly 400 years to the invasion of our shores; for on May 10 Hitler’s armored columns broke in on Holland and Belgium, and May 29 was that never-to-be-forgotten date in our history, the Dunkirk evacuation, to be followed shortly after by Mr. Churchill’s memorable call to “blood and sweat and toil and tears.”
In spite of this apparent set-back, as we read the diaries of the daily College meetings, three meetings on most days, we find ourselves among certainly not a fearful, not even chiefly a praying company, but rather among those who are already on victory ground, when all around men’s hearts are failing them for fear; and what gave them such clarity and assurance that theirs was the victory, was the outward “death” of the prediction! If we say God was not with them, we may well ask ourselves this question: “Was there anywhere else in the whole of Britain or America or elsewhere among God’s people another such company, maybe a hundred strong, who were on their knees day by day, holding fast the victory by faith, while our soldiers across the water were retreating mile by mile, whole countries surrendering, and the enemy within sight of their goal?” From this time on, through all the years of the war, the whole College was in prayer every evening from seven o’clock to midnight, with only a brief interval for supper. They never missed a day. This was in addition to an hour’s prayer meeting every morning, and very often at midday. There were many special periods when every day was given up wholly to prayer and fasting.
And then we start to read about events just prior to the evacuation:
May 21, 9 a.m. Fear of Invasion. “Yesterday was the darkest day in the history of this country, especially after the Prime Minister’s speech. Everyone in town is expecting the enemy to invade this country. We have told the Lord, ‘Our lives for victory’. We ought to pray now for the Lord to stop them coming over to this country. 2.80 p.m. We must pray for the Lord to keep the enemy in check. He is like a roaring lion. 7 p.m. The French Premier says tonight, ‘It is only a miracle that will save us.’ The test is, whether the Bible is true. I am willing to risk my life to prove it, and I want to tell you tonight that it is quite true. See that your believing is right, and if it is, you don’t need to have any fear.”
May 22, 9 a.m. “The world is in a panic today, and certainly we would be too, unless we were quite sure the Lord had spoken to us. The destiny of England will be at stake today and to-morrow. 2.80 p.m. In a battle such as we are in today, you cannot trust in a meeting or in feelings. We must go back to what God has told us. There is an enemy that we must keep in check, until God does the big thing.”
From the night of May 22 to 25 Mr. Howells no longer came to the meetings; other members of the staff took them. He went away alone with God to battle through, and, as others have testified, the crushing burden of those days broke his body. He literally laid down his life.
May 26 was the day of public prayer in Britain. As Mr. Churchill said of the May 26 Service of Intercession in Westminster Abbey: “The English are loath to expose their feelings, but in my stall in the choir I could feel the pent-up passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or national loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.” Mr. Howells returned to the College meetings and said:
9.30 a.m. “All you can do today when a cry will go up from the country is to be in a position to take the answer from God. The question this morning is, Can we take the answer? If you ever cried, you ought to cry today.
And at the end of the chapter we read this:
On May 28 Mr. Howells again was alone with God. In the meetings the prayer was for God to intervene at Dunkirk and save our men; and as the Spirit came upon them in prayer and supplication, what one prayed at the end expressed the assurance given to all: “I feel sure something has happened.”
May 29 was the day of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Mr. Howells said, “Let us be clear in our prayer that the intercession is gained. The battle is the Holy Spirit’s. See Him outside of yourselves tonight. He is there on the battlefield with His drawn sword.”
May 30, 7.80 p.m. “From a worldly standpoint there is no hope of victory; but God has said it. I could not come tonight and ask Him to intervene, because we have already said that He is going to intervene. Instead of bad news about our soldiers, if He is on the field of battle, He can change that and make it very good news. Oh, for God to lift us up tonight! We are not to run into any panic thinking the Nazis are going to win: Germany must be delivered as well as England and France. We may have to go through far greater sufferings yet, but I am not going to doubt the final issue. We state in plainest terms: The enemy will not invade Christian England.”
When we look back now after these years, many of us in Britain recall the terror of those days. Remembering the miracle of Dunkirk, acknowledged by our leaders to be an intervention from God, the calm sea allowing the smallest boats to cross, the almost complete evacuation of our troops, and then the lead Mr. Churchill gave to the nation, how thankful we are that God had this company of hidden intercessors, whose lives were on the altar day after day as they stood in the gap for the deliverance of Britain.
Wow, what stirring stuff. As stirring as the film version of events was, it pales in significance to the greater picture. The word “miracle” is mentioned briefly at the beginning and the end of the film, but the emphasis is on the wonderful heroic, self-sacrificing actions of ordinary civilians. But as great as that was, it only told a small part of the actual historical event.
Much more significant than the work of armies and civilians alike was the even greater and more powerful combined efforts of praying, crying Christians and Almighty God. This was the secret to the success of Dunkirk. This is what turned the tide. This is what explained the amazing weather conditions, the curious decisions made by Hitler, and so on.
Behind the actions of men are the moves of God, and when God’s people seek him in sincere prayer, faith and repentance, mountains can indeed be moved, as can the course of history. So these times of corporate prayer and national repentance actually mean something. The heavens are moved and God’s power is unleashed.
The prayers uttered during this miraculous evacuation of 400,000 stranded soldiers by 700 civilian craft was a miracle indeed. And it is yet another clear indication of a much earlier word given to Solomon by Yahweh: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).