Effectual, Fervent Prayer (Part 2) 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)


Here’s a second feature of Elijah’s prayer worth pointing out: Notice how he assumes the most abject posture before the Lord, not merely kneeling, but also putting his face to the ground between his knees.

When Elijah confronted the people of Israel—even when he was in the presence of Ahab—he stood resolutely, unbendingly, strong and erect before them. He was no wimp. He wasn’t a weakling who bowed before any man.

But when he went before God in prayer, he bowed as low as his frame would permit him to bow. He has done this before. In fact, when he prayed for the widow’s dead son 1 Kings 17:21, he stretched himself out prostrate on the boy’s dead body.

Elijah’s bowing posture reflects, first of all, his deep reverence for God. This is a concept that is all too often lost in this worldly and impious generation. The typical Christian today approaches God with far too much familiarity and far too little fear. It’s a sad fact that the very word reverence has an old- fashioned ring to us. The typical Christian today would tell you that he feels more spiritually refreshed and invigorated by the high-fiving enthusiasm of a stadium rally than he does by an hour alone with God in prayer. And that fact alone speaks volumes about the spiritual state of the church.

But I think Elijah’s posture suggests something in addition to his fear of the Lord. He wasn’t merely showing his reverence by taking this posture. It was that; it was a posture of abject humility and meekness. But it also reveals his deep passion. The expression used in the King James Version of verse 42 captures a sense of the verb that may not be conveyed in other translations: “He cast himself down upon the earth.” He physically threw himself on his face before God. There’s an intensity in the expression that tells us this was a prayer of great passion.

Elijah, along with everyone else in Israel, had endured three and a half long years of drought. The whole nation had been strained to the breaking point by the impact of that drought. Everyone thirsted for relief, but no one longed for refreshment more than Elijah.

Elijah saw the spiritual significance of the drought. He knew it was a judgment of God against the nation for their apostasy. The drought was the fulfillment of a warning Moses had given Israel when they left Egypt. The Lord was bringing them into a land of milk and honey. Here is how Deuteronomy 8:7-9 describes the Promised Land:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.

But Deuteronomy 28 prophesied what would happen if the people turned away from the Lord: “The heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. The LORD will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed” (Deut. 28:23-24).

The earth as iron pictures the hardness of the soil after a long period without rain, and the heavens as brass may suggest the constant shining of the sun. But the imagery of heaven as brass also suggests the utter silence and impenetrability of heaven. It was as if a brass shield had been put in place so that prayers for rain would not reach the throne of God.

What Moses prophesied is exactly what had occurred in Elijah’s day. The earth was as iron and the heavens had become as brass. The curse of God was over all the land. The drought signified the spiritual dryness of Israel, and the rains would not come until the people turned to the Lord again.

Now in the wake of Elijah’s victory on Mt. Carmel, the people had to some degree recanted Baal worship. And by killing the priests they had begun to put the evil away from themselves. History suggests this was neither widespread nor complete repentance, but it was a token of the right response, and Elijah knew it was time for the Lord to open the heavens. He longed to see that happen. So he prayed with fervent passion.


Elijah’s private, passionate praying was also persistent. He had a promise from God that it would rain again. This chapter in his story began when “the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth'” (1 Kings 18:1).

Some people might think such a promise would mean Elijah didn’t need to pray. After all, he had an iron-clad promise from God! Why should he have to pray for what the Lord had already promised?

But Elijah did not think that way, and neither should we. It is true that He is faithful who promises, but along with His promises He commands us to pray without ceasing.

That may seem like a paradox to the natural mind, but it is clearly what Scripture teaches. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). He went on (vv. 31-34):

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

That’s a promise to each of us that God knows our daily needs and promises to supply our food and clothing. It is a sin to fret about such things. God has promised we will not lack them.

And yet when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, He instructed them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Just because God has made a promise does not mean we should not pray for what He promised.

God gives His promises to stir our hearts to prayer, not to keep us from having to pray. God’s promises teach us what we are to pray for. In the words of F. B. Meyer, the promises are “the mould into which we may pour our fervid spirits without fear. They are the signed cheque, made payable to order, which we must endorse and present for payment.”1 Arthur Pink commented on the same principle. He points out that “In Ezekiel 36:24-36 will be found a whole string of promises, yet in immediate connection [with those promises] we read [where God says], ‘I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them,’ v. 37.”2
1. Elijah and the Secret of His Power (Ft. Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1972 reprint), 77- 78.
2. Elijah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1956), 184.

I sometimes hear Christians complain that God does not seem to fulfill His promises for them. They can’t find peace, or they seem to have needs that are going unmet, or they are frustrated spiritually, continually falling into the same sins, and even though God promises a way of escape from temptation, they can’t seem to find the way of escape. If that is where you find yourself spiritually, let me remind you of James 4:2: “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Just because God has promised something does not mean you don’t need to pray for it.

Elijah had the promise of rain. But that did not stop him from praying fervently for the fulfillment of the promise. With his heart emboldened by that promise, he began to beseech the Lord to send the rain. From the top of Mount Carmel, where he had a good view of all sides, he went down on his knees, and placing his head between those knees, he earnestly prayed for rain.

We cannot explain why the rain did not fall instantly, in the same manner the fire had fallen earlier. All we can do is take note that God sometimes answers us quickly, and sometimes He makes us wait. Even a prophet like Elijah was not always answered immediately. Who are we to think God should always answer our prayers without delay?

But we can be certain that God’s delays always have good reasons. We may never see what those reasons are, but we know the character of God, and we know that He is good, and merciful, and all his ways are right. His time is the best time. He makes all things “beautiful in His time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He does not delay just to toy with us. He’s not playing tyrannical games when He withholds the fulfillment of His promises for a time. But Scripture assures us that even His delays are always tokens of His grace and mercy to us.

Often when the Lord waits, it is so that he can pour out the answer in a superabundant way. Elijah prayed for rain, and when the answer did not come immediately, he persisted. What he ultimately received was a torrential downpour—exceedingly abundantly above what he could ask or think.

It is also true that often when the Lord waits, it is so that we can mature and learn about Him in the waiting process. We must wait for His time, because His time is always right.

Whatever the reasons, it is always for our good that He waits, so that our faith can be strengthened, so that we can benefit from the greater abundance of His blessings, and so that when the answer finally does come, we will receive it with more gratitude and see His hand more clearly in the answer.

Notice what happened in Elijah’s case: He had a servant, possibly a youth or a young boy. The servant might have even been the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah had recently raised from the dead. And as Elijah prayed for rain, he sent the servant to a place high on the mountain summit where he had a view of the Mediterranean ocean. And he told the servant (v. 43), “Go up now, look toward the sea.”

The servant went and looked, but the sky was as dry and clear as it had been for almost 4 years. So he came back to where Elijah was praying, and said, “There is nothing” (v. 43). And Elijah said, “Go again.” And after a little while longer the servant came back and said, “There is nothing.” And Elijah said, “Go again.” And he came back a third time and said, “There is nothing.” And Elijah said, “Go again.”

Meanwhile, Elijah kept praying. We don’t know how long all this took, but it must have been a considerable time—hours, not minutes. And no doubt each time the servant went, he would stay a little longer, but then he would finally get discouraged, and again come back to Elijah, saying, “There is nothing.” And Elijah would say, “Go again.” And that happened seven times!

I don’t think Elijah was discouraged. He had experience with this kind of delayed reply. When he raised the young boy from the dead, the answer to that prayer did not come immediately. He had to pray three times. But here the delay is more than doubled. Yet there’s no peep of protest or sigh of discouragement from Elijah. He simply kept praying. He had a promise from God, and he knew the answer would come in time.

In fact, notice Elijah’s words to Ahab when he sent him away (v. 41): “Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.'” What do you think Elijah meant by that? It is clear that there was no visible rain storm yet on the horizon, so there could not have been any actual sound of rain. The top of Mt. Carmel is 1742 feet above sea level and barely 13 miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. From there on a clear day you can see more than a hundred miles over the horizon, and Elijah’s servant saw nothing, as far as he could see in every direction. That means when Elijah said these words to Ahab, there was not a storm cell within a hundred miles of them. There is no way Elijah could literally hear with his physical ears the actual sound of rain.

But so certain was he of the promise of God that Elijah could hear with the ears of faith what he was certain was about to occur. The heavens were about to let loose with a torrent the likes of which Ahab could scarcely imagine. Elijah didn’t literally hear the sound of an approaching storm, but by faith he knew one was coming.

And that is why Elijah did not grow discouraged or weary while praying and seeing no tangible sign of an answer. He endured as seeing that which is invisible. He remained steadfast, hearing that which is inaudible. By faith he persisted, because he knew the faithfulness of God; he had seen God answer before, and he knew that the answer would come in God’s time.

This kind of thing was a recurring a theme in the life of Elijah. God always seemed to take the prophet to the very brink, before he finally answered his prayers. First He placed Elijah beside a drying brook, and didn’t even tell him what the next step of the journey would be until the brook was completely dry.

Then he sent him to hide in the home of a starving widow, and supplied just enough oil and flour on a daily basis to meet their daily needs, without a speck of provisions beyond what they need.

Then the widow’s son inexplicably fell sick and suddenly died, and Elijah had to pray repeatedly before the Lord revived the boy. Always the Lord’s intervention in Elijah’s life was at the last possible moment, and Elijah seemed to live the first half of his life constantly on the very brink of total ruin. But all of that only strengthened his faith, and made him so much more effective as a prophet. Rather than resenting it as many of us would, Elijah seemed to be enlivened and emboldened and excited by it. He drew power from the knowledge that God would work in his time and in his way—because by now Elijah could see that God’s timing was always just right and his ways were always absolutely perfect.

So he calmly kept sending the impatient servant back to the edge of Mt. Carmel’s summit, until on the seventh time, the servant returned and said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”

I gather he meant it was shaped like a man’s hand, although it may have also been a reference to the small size of the cloud. The servant seems to have been utterly discouraged at that point, and that may have been his way of conveying his discouragement to Elijah. Finally, he spotted something on the horizon, but it was small—infinitesimally small for a cloud—and certainly no reason to rejoice.

But Elijah, man of faith that he was, saw it differently and knew that it was the answer to his prayer. So he sent the servant immediately with a message for Ahab (v. 44): “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.” And as the breathless servant reached Ahab with the message, Ahab knew by now that Elijah’s prophecies were not to be trifled with. So he harnessed his horses to the chariot, mounted the chariot, and set out for Jezreel.

Meanwhile, that little cloud was gathering moisture. Verse 45 says, “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.” Soon the heavens were literally black with roiling clouds, and those clouds unleashed a torrent of rain and wind like Israel had not seen in years.

Indeed “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” That is certainly a strong argument for persistent prayer. We should not grow weary in praying because prayer is powerful from the moment we start praying—even when it seems like God is delaying His answer. And often an answer to prayer that follows one of God’s delays is almost always a more abundant answer than those answers that come quickly.

That was certainly the case here. The heavens unleashed a flood.

It’s at least 20 miles from the summit of Mt. Carmel to Jezreel, so what occurred next is nothing short of miraculous. Verse 46: “And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”

In a desert climate like that when after a long period without rain, when the heavens suddenly open, the terrain very quickly turns into a cascade of swiftly-flowing mud. So it’s no wonder it took Ahab and his chariot a long time to get home. But for Elijah to pass him on foot is nothing short of miraculous.

Imagine the impression that made on Ahab! In his utterly pagan mind he must have been thinking that Elijah was some kind of god himself. In fact, after this episode, whenever Ahab encountered Elijah, Scripture portrays him as trembling and fainthearted.

So this episode gives us a terrifying insight into the heart of Ahab in this account. Notice that he had no doubt whatsoever about whether Elijah’s words were true. When Elijah told him it was going to rain, He knew he had better saddle up immediately and get home! He also had no doubt about Elijah’s credentials. He had repeatedly seen the prophet do supernatural things. He knew these signs and wonders verified the claims of Elijah and were enabled by the infinite wisdom and almighty power of Jehovah. Yet Ahab remained as stubborn and hard-hearted as ever in his hatred of Elijah and the God he represented. He was convinced but not converted. He was actually now in a worse state than if he had never witnessed Elijah’s miracles.

Still, “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Here’s what James is saying: your prayer life ought to be the most exciting and exhilarating aspect of your spiritual life. If you’re not seeing answers to your prayers, it’s not because there’s something wrong with God. The problem is with your own prayer life. “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

Learn to pray passionately, persistently, according to the will of God, and the Word of God guarantees that your prayers will avail much.

Pulpit Magazine – October 2013

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