Effectual, Fervent Prayer (Part 1) by Phil Johnson

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16-18)

One clear lesson about prayer that permeates almost every biblical passage on the subject is the promise that God answers the fervent prayer of a righteous man. When we ask in faith, God answers. That’s the same promise Jesus made in Matthew 21:22: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Mark 11:24: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:14-15).

Those, of course are not promises that we can manipulate God with our praying. The promise of answered prayer doesn’t function as some kind of exception clause to the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Notice the qualifying phrase in that text from 1 John: “If we ask any thing according to his will, he hears us.”

True faith is confidence in the power and the promises of God. Authentic faith is not an expression of self-will. Nor is it merely positive thinking—as if we could get God to do what we want simply by convincing ourselves that we’ll get what we want if we think hard enough and positively enough about it. That’s what most of the charlatans on religious television teach, and they sometimes quote Mark 11:24: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” But what they are really peddling is nothing less than blind gullibility and sinful presumption masquerading as religious belief. It is certainly not what Jesus meant when he spoke about the prayer of faith.

Genuine faith is grounded in God’s promises and a true understanding of God’s will. If you think God is going to grant a prayer request that is inconsistent with His character; if you imagine that He is going to do something that contradicts His promises; if you delude yourself into thinking He will give you anything that is contrary to His Word; or if you think He’s going to say yes to a prayer request that is in conflict with His will—it doesn’t matter how much you have managed to convince yourself to believe in what you are praying for, that is not faith; it is sheer effrontery.

Those who pray like that are also guilty of praying selfishly. And in James 4:3, we are told that selfish prayers go unanswered: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

So when Jesus tells us to pray in faith and not to doubt, that’s not a lesson about the power of “positive confession.” Scripture does not encourage us to cultivate blind confidence that we can have whatever we desire. These promises ought to encourage us to understand the will of God and ground our praying (and our faith) not in our own selfish desires, but in the certainty of God’s promises; and in the steadfast faithfulness of His righteous character. Have faith, not presumption, when you pray.

But let’s not obscure James 5:16 in a mist of negative qualifications. There is a very positive and encouraging principle in this text: When a righteous person prays earnestly and fervently, it avails much. That is first and foremost an encouragement to be faithful and fervent in our praying. It’s a promise that we are not wasting time when we pray.

And the person James holds up as a flesh-and-blood example of this is Elijah. If you study the life and ministry of Elijah, one thing that stands out about him is the fact that he prayed at every crisis point in his ministry. And God always answered his prayers.

James says you and I can expect the same thing in our experience, if our praying is fervent and faithful; if we persist in prayer; and if we pray according to the will of God rather than out of selfish motives.

After all, James says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” Elijah wasn’t supernatural. He was a spiritual hero, but not some kind of superhero. He was a fallen human being, just like you and me, subject to the same passions and fears and fits of depression. Scripture records his failures as well as his triumphs.

But he was a righteous man, despite his sin, because he was justified by faith. He trusted God, and therefore righteousness was imputed to him. That’s what James means when he speaks of “a righteous person” in verse 16. He’s talking about believers, those who are clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Verse 17 says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” It’s interesting that there is no record of that prayer in the Old Testament. Elijah first appears on the scene in 1 Kings 17:1, and simply announces to King Ahab, in Ahab’s own court, that there would be neither dew nor rain in Israel until he gave the word.

James, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, informs us that the drought was a response to Elijah’s fervent prayer. Those three and a half years brought the whole nation to its knees, and Elijah became known as the troubler of Israel. Then finally, when it was time to end the drought, James 5:18 says, “He prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

I’m intrigued by the nature of Elijah’s second prayer, the details of which James does not go into. But it’s noteworthy that the drought-ending prayer is recorded for us in the Old Testament. In fact, in 1 Kings 18, there’s a detailed account of how the drought ended. It shows Elijah’s persistence in prayer, his boldness, and his faith. It is well worth examining with care.

The prayer in questions comes immediately after Elijah’s famous victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Elijah had called down fire from heaven, humiliated the Baal-priests publicly, and then ordered them to be slaughtered as a judgment for the evil they had done by corrupting Israel with pagan worship. That was Elijah’s greatest moment of public triumph ever. It is one of the most memorable moments of triumph in the entire Old Testament.

But public accolades were not what Elijah was seeking. His mission was to vindicate Jehovah, not to magnify himself, and Elijah’s greatest work on Carmel was not yet complete. He had come to Mt. Carmel not merely to call down fire from heaven, but more importantly, to call down rain. He had completely triumphed over the false prophets of Baal, but the full public vindication of Jehovah was not yet complete—and would not be complete until God opened the heavens again.

There’s a fascinating contrast between how Elijah called down the fire and how he called down the rain. He had called down fire in the most public way, with a simple, audible petition to the Lord before all the people. The prayer for fire consists of just two verses of Scripture: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:36-37). There was no dramatic pleading. In fact, Elijah did not even mention fire. The heart of the prayer is really a plea for the repentance of Israel. The simplicity and calm quietness of Elijah’s prayer made a stark contrast to all the screaming and writhing and bloody flesh-cutting that the priests of Baal had exhibited, when they were trying in vain to get their god to answer (vv. 26-29).

God answered Elijah’s prayer for fire instantly, apparently without delay, and in the most dramatic fashion, sending a fire so hot that it evaporated several barrels of sea-water that Elijah had drenched his offering with. It was a spectacular demonstration of God’s power, in response to the earnest prayer of a single righteous man.

You might think Elijah would call down the rain in a similar fashion, but that is not what happened. In the scene that follows the slaughter of the prophets, Elijah went up on Carmel alone with one of his servants and pleaded again and again for rain. This time he went away from the crowd to pray. This time the answer didn’t come so immediately or so dramatically. In fact, when the answer did come, it appeared in the most insignificant way—with the advent of a tiny cloud so far away on the horizon that its appearance probably would have been enough to discourage most of us.

But follow the story to the end, and the rain finally does fall in a way that is at least as dramatic as the falling of the fire, proving that God is certainly no less powerful in the bestowing of His blessings than He is in the dispensing of His judgments. And the whole episode reminds us that God’s blessings are reserved for those who pursue His promises with a patient and tenacious faith.

The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man can sometimes seem like hard and discouraging work.

This episode is a great lesson about how to pray rightly. Here is the pertinent section of Scripture—1 Kings 18:41-46. (This is what ensued immediately after Elijah ordered the slaughter of the Baal-priests):

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.'” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.

Three characteristics of Elijah’s prayer are worth paying careful attention to. These features characterize how all of us should pray. They’re the very features Jesus stressed when He taught His disciples to pray. Notice how they all underscore the beautiful sincerity and simplicity of righteous praying.


By the time we get to this point in the biblical account of Elijah’s life, Scripture has already recorded some remarkable instances of Elijah’s praying, with miraculous answers to his prayers. In 1 Kings 17, he prayed that God would restore life to the dead son of the widow of Zarephath, and the Lord raised that little boy up. Then, of course, in the early part of this scene in 1 Kings 18, Elijah had prayed for fire from heaven, and the fire instantly fell and consumed his sacrifice in the sight of all Israel. We also know from James, of course, that Elijah had prayed for the drought in the first place. So we know that the Lord has already answered three of Elijah’s prayers with amazing miracles.

The prayer for fire from heaven was the only one of those prayers that was prayed in public. The others are private prayers. And even now, at the height of his victory on Mt. Carmel, when a lesser man would want to bask in the amazement of the crowd and savor the public aspect of his victory, Elijah retreats to pray to the Lord in private.

I love the way Elijah simply dismisses Ahab (v. 41): “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” Here you see something of the contrasting characters of Elijah and Ahab. Elijah had come alone to Mt. Carmel. Ahab apparently had prepared and brought some kind of feast and a large entourage along with him, no doubt fully expecting that he would be celebrating the demise of his most hated enemy.

The size of the crowd Ahab brought with him is a reflection of his gargantuan ego. To start with, he had brought 450 of Jezebel’s prophets. He had apparently also brought a number of people from the royal court, royal servants, tents, a movable feast—everything he needed to have a royal celebration on one of the plateaus of Mt. Carmel as soon as the showdown was over. The only person who seems to have been missing from the retinue was Ahab’s evil wife, Jezebel. For reasons that Scripture does not explain, she was not there on Mt. Carmel, and that is why (according to 1 Kings 19:1) Ahab had to report to her what had happened when he got back to Jezreel.

Ahab was apparently not quite the sort of fanatical Baal-worshiper his wife was. He doesn’t seem to have been a religious man at all. He tolerated and to some degree participated in Jezebel’s evil religious practices, but it was Jezebel, not Ahab, whose commitment to Baal set the spiritual standard for Ahab’s regime. She was the wicked force behind the paganism in Israel during the years of Ahab’s reign. First Kings 21:25 says, “There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited [urged on; stirred up].” Notice that according to 1 Kings 19:2, it was Jezebel who went into a rage when she heard about the slaughter of the prophets. Ahab was there on Mt. Carmel when it occurred, and he couldn’t stop it. In fact, he comes across like someone who was afraid of Elijah.

Everything Scripture tells us about him suggests that Ahab was a weak man, utterly lacking in character and convictions. He was undoubtedly intimidated when the crowd’s mood turned against him and people suddenly fell on their faces, shouting “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God” (v. 39). So Ahab would naturally have been reluctant to try to intervene when the mob started rounding up the Baal-prophets to behead them.

But even if craven fear was the main thing that kept him silent on Mt. Carmel, he still does not seem to have regarded the killing of the Baal-priests as a personal loss the way Jezebel did. It didn’t enflame his passions the way it enflamed hers. They weren’t Ahab’s Baal-priests; it wasn’t his religion— all of that was a reflection of Jezebel’s obsession.
In fact, after it was all over, he seems to have been eager to get on with his banquet anyway, and Elijah sensed that. So there’s probably a tone of utter contempt and indignation in Elijah’s voice when he says to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink.” There’s also an amazing attitude of authority in Elijah’s words. He was dismissing Ahab from his presence. He wanted to be alone with God, and at this moment Ahab was an unwanted distraction. Elijah clearly wanted to be rid of his presence.

Ahab may have been relieved just to get away with his life. He also now had a promise from Elijah that the three-and-a-half-year drought would soon end, and rain would be abundant once more. Beyond that, there was not a lot for Ahab to celebrate, because he had to go home and tell his wife that all her priests had been defeated and killed because of one solitary man. But Ahab was not going to miss the opportunity for a feast. So he went to the plateau where his tents were pitched and his was banquet ready. Verse 42 says, “So Ahab went up to eat and to drink.”

And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.” Going up to the very pinnacle of Carmel, where he could be alone with God, Elijah began to pray for rain. Verse 42 says, “He bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.” He prayed silently, or perhaps in a hushed tone that was between him and God alone. Both Elijah’s posture and the fact that Scripture doesn’t record the actual words of his prayer underscore the quiet intimacy of his communion with God.

Elijah had already won his public victory. Jehovah had been vindicated before all Israel, and the Baal-priests had paid for their false prophecies with their lives. That was perfectly in accord with the penalty spelled out in Moses’ law. Elijah could have indulged himself with the congratulations of the crowd. He might well have felt the temptation to revel in a popularity that he had never known before. Had he been like some religious celebrities in our time, he would have milked this moment of triumph for its public relations value; seized the opportunity to gain a popular following; and set himself up with political power and public recognition so that he would never again have to live in hiding and suffer the lack of material blessings he had endured for the previous three and a half years.

But Elijah shunned all of that, and at the first opportunity, he got alone with God again so he could pray in quiet. This is in perfect harmony with what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:5-6).

If we’re going to commune meaningfully with God, it is ultimately necessary to shut ourselves off from the commotion and ungodliness of this world, and get alone to seek Him in private prayer. Elijah sensed that need even in the midst of his most public victory.

Next month we will look at the other two noteworthy features of Elijah’s prayer…

Pulpit Magazine – September 2013

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