…The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

JAMES 5:16

It is hardly possible to overstress the importance of unceasing inward prayer on the part of the one who would live the God-conscious life. Prayer at stated times is good and right; we will never outgrow our need of it while we remain on earth. But this kind of prayer must be supported and perfected by the habit of constant, unspoken prayer!

But someone may question whether in a world like this it is possible to think of God constantly. Would it not be too great a burden to try to keep God constantly in the focus of our minds while carrying on our normal activities in this noisy and highly complex civilization? Malaval had the answer to this: “The wings of the dove do not weigh it down,” he said; “they carry and support it. And so the thought of God is never a burden; it is a gentle breeze which bears us up, a hand which supports us and raises us, a light which guides us, and a spirit which vivifies us though we do not feel its working.”

We all know how the presence of someone we deeply love lifts our spirits and suffuses us with a radiant sense of peace and well-being. So the one who loves God supremely is lifted into rapture by His conscious Presence!

“Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.”[1]

Prayer and Power

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. (5:16b–18)

By way of encouraging both elders and Christians to this kind of intercession for those in spiritual weakness, James reminds them that such prayer is effective. Effective translates energeō, from which our English word “energy” derives. The prayer of a righteous man (cf. 4:3; Ps. 66:18; Prov. 15:8; 28:9), James notes, can accomplish much (literally “is very strong”). Weak prayers come from weak people; strong prayers come from strong people. The energetic prayers of a righteous man are a potent force in calling down the power of God for restoring weak, struggling believers to spiritual health.

To further demonstrate the power of righteous prayer and provide an illustration that captures the essence of his discussion, James turns to one of the most popular Old Testament figures. Elijah, he reminds his readers, though a prophet and man of God, was a man with a nature like ours. The Bible records that he was hungry (1 Kings 17:11), afraid (1 Kings 19:3), and depressed (1 Kings 19:3, 9–14). Yet when he prayed earnestly (lit. “he prayed with prayer”), incredible things happened: It did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. Elijah’s prayers both created and ended a devastating three-and-one-half-year drought (cf. Luke 4:25). While 1 Kings 17 records the drought, only James gives its duration and links it to the prayers of Elijah.

The story of Elijah and the drought would certainly be a strange illustration if James had physical illness and healing in view throughout this passage. Certainly there are numerous clear biblical illustrations of healing he could have drawn from. But the picture of rain pouring down on parched ground perfectly illustrates God’s outpouring of spiritual blessings on the dry and parched souls of struggling believers. And He does both in response to the righteous prayers of godly people.

The significance and application of this critical call to intercessory prayer on the part of elders in behalf of struggling believers has been manifested repeatedly through the years in my ministry with great blessing. My fellow elders have made themselves available to our congregation every Sunday morning and evening before and after services, as well as at all other necessary times to meet with the weak and wounded for strengthening prayer.

One of the most memorable experiences of this ministry occurred when a student came to see me. He had been studying for ministry, came from a strong Christian home, was very skilled as a student, and had all the characteristics for leadership and effective service to the Lord. But he had often lost the struggle to some recurring temptations and had suffered some rejection and unjust criticism. He was struggling and losing. He confessed to me that he had lost the will to read the Scripture and had no heart for prayer. Finally, he sought me out to pray with and for him, that through my prayers God might grant him the power and victory he longed for, but had no heart to pursue.

I asked him to kneel with me side by side, using two chairs. I will never forget what he did. As I knelt with my arms and head down on the chair, he laid himself, not on his chair, but across my back, placing all his weight on me. This was a humble gesture of the dependence he was placing on me to be his strength. Tearful prayer and confession were followed by much joy as God heard my prayer, and in the days to follow he testified to strengthening grace. He completed his course nobly and went on to serve the Lord. [2]

16 Clearly building on the thought of the previous verse, with its mention of sins, prayer, and healing, the author transitions to exhort those in the Christian communities to mutual confession of sins and prayer. The use of “Therefore” (oun) followed by two present imperative verbs facilitates the transition. The first exhortation is to “confess your sins to each other.” Ropes, 309, understands the confession to be by the sick persons, who then are prayed for by the well, resulting in physical healing, but James seems to move from the specific situation of a seriously sick person in v. 15 to the general principle concerning the need for mutual confession and prayer in v. 16. On this interpretation, it is difficult to see the confession as preventative (as with Davids, 195), since the healing follows sickness in the verse, but the connection between sin in a community and physical illness seems clear nonetheless. Confession, a public acknowledgment of one’s guilt, may be by an individual or as a community, and in many cases in biblical literature, confession is connected to physical healing or some general form of salvation (Davids, 195–96; Johnson, 334). Johnson especially has shown the connection between physical healing and social restoration. This dynamic is prominent in the ministry of Jesus (e.g., Lk 5:17; 6:18–19) and reiterated in Acts (4:22, 30; 28:27; see Johnson, 335). Thus James, dealing with communities in which there was a good bit of social strife, points to vital Christian remedies for fractured relationships—open confession of sin and mutual prayer, which are actions that promote transparency, support, and unity. Consequently, the exhortations to confession and prayer are followed by “so that” (hopōs), a marker showing the purpose for something, and that purpose in the present case is expressed as “you may be healed.” The healing in mind is physical but points to a deeper spiritual healing of sin and broken relationships.

Whereas the first part of v. 16 consists of exhortations, the second makes a theological assertion concerning the effectiveness of prayer. In this case, the NASB reflects more accurately than the NIV the structure of the Greek text: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” First, the prayer under discussion is that of a righteous person. In 1:5–8 and 4:3–4, James has already noted that a sinful lifestyle hinders prayer, and he now expresses the flip side of that fact. In 5:17–18, he follows by offering Elijah as a prime example of such a person. Second, the prayer is “effective” (energeō, GK 1919), expressed with an adjectival participle meaning “to work,” “to be active,” or “to be operative.” Thus the prayer in mind is prayer put into action, or made operative. Finally, this prayer is able to “accomplish much.” James uses a verb (ischyō, GK 2710) that connotes having the resources or power to bring something about, and what prayer is able to accomplish is “much.”[3]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 280–283). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 271–272). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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