A beloved family member recently brought to my attention the following passage from Hugh Martin's (1822-85) Commentary on Jonah, Chapter 19, on Jonah 3:6-8, 10, pp. 277-81 (1995 Banner of Truth reprinting, but I think the pagination is unchanged from the first edition). The passage is relevant to the issue of whether or not the government should call for days of prayer and fasting. Martin is presenting this from a British standpoint, but the same reasoning should apply to any nation.
There are many such instances in Scripture history of great national fasts called by royal decree, and observed by general consent. In our own land, and in our own day, there have been not a few instances of a practice so laudable and impressive -- a whole nation at the monarch's call humbling itself before God, confessing provocations, and deprecating His wrath.
Some, indeed, would object to national recognitions of religion, and such royal calls and injunctions to observe its duties. Civil magistracy, they tell us, is a civil, temporal, earthly institution, having under its regulation the affairs of time and the world, and having nothing to do with religion; -- and the civil magistrate, or chief ruler, they would accordingly prevent from in any way intromitting with religious matters -- matters belonging, not to time, but eternity, not to this world, but the world to come.
There are a number of grievous errors wrapt up here in one. It seems to imply that the affairs of this world may and ought to be carried on apart from the affairs and obligations of religious truth and duty; -- thus shutting up religion to a territory of its own, beyond which it must not be suffered to trespass. But apart from this; how can religious obligation lie upon the separate individuals of a nation, and yet the nation as a nation be exempt from it? It is certain that nations as a whole may please or provoke God; just as a family may do; just as an individual may do. God deals with a community as a whole, just as He deals with a household as a whole. And as when God is angry with a family, He deals with them in His wrath for their family provocations, so He deals with communities and kingdoms. If a family, therefore, ought to be religious; -- in the sense that not only are its individuals to be religious, but unitedly, and as in their mutual relations, they are to observe the duties of family religion; -- it ought to be the same in a kingdom. The father of a family is not only to be a pious man himself, but he is to see that in the united worship of his household, and in religious principles being brought to bear on all its movements, there be a household piety -- a family recognition of God. For true religion is not a thing to be kept secret between a man's own conscience and God. No doubt the springs of it are deep seated in the inmost soul; and the Christian life is a hidden life. But for that very reason, -- by reason of the inmost secrecy, and therefore irrepressible power of its principles, -- it will assert and vindicate its influence in all circumstances, and over all the relations in which men stand towards one another. It will, therefore, guide those in whom it dwells, not merely in their own private relation to God, and in their worship and more immediate duty towards Him, but in the whole influence they can exert of their fellow-creatures, -- in all their relations, whether as superiors, inferiors, or equals. But especially as superiors, -- where authority belongs to them, -- where they have it in their power to "command their households after them," -- they will arrange that in all the ongoings of these households God shall be recognised, and His authority and will obeyed. They will say with Joshua, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
It is this element, however, of command, of authority, against the introduction of which in religious observances a few reclaim. I would advise with my household, or any irreligious and wayward member of it; I would advise; I would exhort; I would instruct and entreat: but I can go no farther. I can't make them religious, and I won't command or compel them. But all this sophistry is utterly laughed to scorn by the simple perusal of the fourth commandment: -- "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates;" -- by the which terms thou art held of God guilty of Sabbath desecration all the same, whether it be "thou, or thy son, or thy daughter, or thy manservant, or thy maidservant, or thy stranger that is within thy gates." Thou wilt not be held guitless on the plea that thou didst instruct, didst entreat, didst plead. Didst thou command? Didst thou bring out, for securing obedience to God, all the authority with which thou art endowed as head of thy household, and which thou dost not scruple, if need be, to bring forth for securing obedience to thine own will? To "the stranger that is within thy gates," thou are bound, -- when advice, entreaty, exhortation fail, -- to give forth thy command; backed by the penalty that, if it be not obeyed, he can be "within thy gates" no longer. With "thy manservant, and thy maidservant," thou art to deal, if need be, in like manner also. Yea, "thy son and thy daughter" are not to abide "within thy gates" and despise the commandments of God. Thou art to command them; and, failing obedience, then thou art to disown them, to cast them off, and cast them out. Eli, alas! acted on the principle that a parent may advise in religious things, but may not imperatively command and threaten. And his house and his name were blotted out for ever!
Have you any influence, any power, any authority over children and dependants which you may use in your own service and work, but which you would refrain from bringing forth on the side of God? What were this, but selfishly to surround the accomplishment of your own will with securities, which you refuse to adopt to secure observance in your household to God's will? And can it be that in such a case you really honour God? Nay: it is not whole-hearted, sincere, thorough-going, and true honouring of God where your government of your household does not call into exercise, when needful, on the side of God, every influence which you can rightly use on your own side. If there be a principle of authority -- an element of command -- vested anywhere in a family at all, religion lays it under contribution to the cause of the Most High -- under call to uphold and promote the observance of His will.
And the same principle holds in a nation. So far forth as a monarch's authority goes, it goes all the length of entitling him to enjoin a fast and a solemn assembly -- a public, universal, national recognition of God -- the God who is dealing with the nation as a whole, and summoning the nation as a whole to acknowledge him. Nature itself teaches this truth. It rises up to view in its own native reasonableness in the hour of solemn thoughtfulness, the hour of sad national calamity. All sophistical objections about the impossibility of making men religious by Act of Parliament then disappear. The truth comes obviously to light, and commends itself to reason and conscience. Well was it for Ninevah that its king was not embued with certain modern notions about magistrates and kings having nothing to do with religion. The city's doom had been sealed by them!