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The Fourth Watch: A Call to Prayer

Gloria Avent

At left: Gloria Avent canting at the ordination of her husband, the Rev. Hank Avent.

This morning as I went out the front door briefly on an errand and came back in, my eyes were drawn to our piano. So, I sat down on the bench. There was music there, but just to my left, on the candle stand, there was a service leaflet ... not sure how it got there. I picked it up and saw the familiar words of Psalm 134. In my college days I knew a praise chorus set to this text:

Oh bless the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, who stand by night, in the the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands, in the holy place, and bless the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord.

This struck me as a providential encounter for this reason. Several days ago, I was reading in Matthew 14 beginning at verse 15:

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place and it’s already getting late”…Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After he dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them.

I began to wonder what time frame the fourth watch represented and as I researched it, I learned that the Romans had added a fourth watch to the already established three watches of the night identified by the Hebrews, the Roman watches being 6-9 p.m., 9 p.m.-12 a.m., 12-3 a.m., and 3-6 a.m. Quite a few passages in scripture indicate strategic miraculous events that took place during the night watches: Jacob wrestled with God (Genesis 32:22-31), Moses led Israel through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:25, 26), Gideon defeated the Midianites (Judges 7:19-24), Jesus walked on the water (Matthew 14:25, 26), angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of the Christ (Luke 2:8-14), and Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1). The Bridegroom wooed his bride in the night, and Jesus exhorted his disciples on the importance of being watchful through the long night of waiting for the master’s return (Luke 12:35-40).

Watchfulness in prayer is the model that is set for us in the passage in Matthew 14 and it is almost easily overlooked. Jesus’s attempt to be alone is aborted (14:13, 14), but he makes it a priority later after the long interruption of ministry (healing the multitudes and feeding them). When he sends the crowds and the disciples away evening has come and so it is somewhere between 6 and 9 p.m., it seems. He prays through until presumably somewhere between 3 and 6 a.m. … 12 hours! What follows this prayer session is walking on the water, healings that take place simply by touching “the edge of his cloak,” more encounters with the Pharisees, and on and on …

All this is to say that should we wake in the night for no apparent reason, consider that it could be a call to prayer. And, remember that this is a time of day with few distractions when we can hear the word of the Lord so clearly to pray according to the leading of His Holy Spirit.