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 ESV)
This is a text that you might know very well that is the basis for many sermons about the power of prayer. But we want to go back to where this scene occurs to make sure that we are understanding correctly what James is writing to Christians about prayer. This event occurs in 1 Kings 18. In 1 Kings 18 we saw Elijah bringing Israel to Mount Carmel to show them that the Lord is God alone. God has answered Elijah by fire and the prophets of Baal have been executed, according to the word of the Lord. While we ended our study in the last lesson at this point, there is more that happens. Look at 1 Kings 18:41-46.
Getting Ready For Rain (18:41-42)
Now it is important to remember how we got to Mount Carmel in the first place. Back in 1 Kings 18:1 the Lord told Elijah to go meet Ahab because he is going to send rain on the land. That is how all of this started. God said it is going to rain. Now Elijah tells Ahab that he better eat now because he hears the sound of a mighty rainstorm (18:41). It is helpful to note that it is 17 miles from Carmel to Jezreel. So it is going to take quite a bit of time to return to Israel from Sidon. So Elijah warns Ahab that you should eat now because a great rain is coming and it will take some time to get back to Israel. So Ahab goes off to eat but Elijah climbs to the top of the mount and bows his face to the Lord.
Now I hope you are asking in your mind, “Why is Elijah praying when God already told him it is going to rain?” We can sometimes get stuck on this idea. Why pray for something when I know it is going to happen? But that is exactly what God wants us to do. This is what it means to pray according to God’s will. You know God’s will and you are praying for its arrival and fulfillment. The scriptures show this idea in many places. Let’s start with an Old Testament passage and then we will look at a New Testament passage.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 36:37–38 ESV)
Notice that God says he is going to have the people ask for Israel to be increased like a flock. But then God goes on to say that the waste cities will certainly be filled with flocks of people. What is happening? God is saying what he is going to do and is asking his people to pray for it to come. Look at the model prayer that Jesus gives.
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9–10 ESV)
Think about this prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Was God’s kingdom going to come no matter what? Yes! Was God’s will going to be done no matter what? Yes! God had promised in places like Isaiah 11:9 that the kingdom was going to arrive. But God wants his people to pray for its arrival. God accomplishes his will through his praying people. We are to be the ones praying for, looking for, and proclaiming the arrival of God’s plans and promises. So Elijah is getting ready for the rain by praying for the rain. God declares his will and expects his people to pray for it to come.
Pressing For The Rain (18:43-44)
So Elijah is praying for the rain. Then he sends his servant to look toward the sea to see if he sees rain coming. But the servant looks and does not see rain. So what does Elijah do? Does Elijah give up? Does Elijah quit praying? Does Elijah leave the mountain? No. Look at verse 43. Elijah prays again and sends his servant to look again. But again the servant does not see anything. So Elijah does this a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, and a sixth time. Yet each time the servant sees nothing. But Elijah does not stop. Elijah prays a seventh time and sends his servant to look. But this seventh time the servant sees a little cloud rising from the sea (18:44). Elijah is not only praying God’s will, but he is repeatedly praying God’s will. But God’s answer was not immediate. God does not always answer prayers immediately, even if it is God’s will. God allows time to go by as Elijah continues in repeated prayer to the Lord. Elijah is pressing into God, calling on him to send the rain.
Just because something is according to God’s will and is not immediately answered does not mean that we are supposed to stop praying. This is why Jesus tells a parable so that his disciples will continue to pray and not lose heart in Luke 18:1. Why would you need to be encouraged to not lose heart in prayer except that God’s answers are not always immediate, even if we are praying the will of the Lord! The apostle Paul said to rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12). He also taught us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He also said to continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2). Is this not what Elijah is doing? Elijah is continuing steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. He prays and then he looks. Then he prays again and then he looks. He keeps doing this continual until he sees the cloud coming. We need to press more in our prayers. God wants us to be persistent and keep pressing him.
Look For the Rain (18:45-46)
Finally, we see the grace of God who then brings the rainstorm through the intercessory prayer of Elijah. Verse 45 tells us that it just poured with rain. God loves to answer prayers with an overflowing answer. God does not trickle a little out of the sky. No, God brought the rain as a major storm crosses the land. Israel was in dire need of this rain. It has been over three years since it had rained in the land. We saw that Ahab is roaming the country trying to find any bits of grass for his animals to eat (18:5). But God is showing us that the blessings of God come through prayer. This is what Solomon taught at the temple dedication.
When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35–36 ESV)
What were the people supposed to do in their difficulty? Acknowledge the Lord, turn from their sin, and pray to the Lord! God blesses through prayer.
There are two important messages that we are to learn from this text. First, let us bring our application from James 5:16-18 where we started our lesson. What we are being told about Elijah is that he did not have a special track because he was a prophet. No, he is person like us. It is not about trying to match the status of Elijah. Elijah prayed for the rain to stop and then he prayed for the rain to come. But he was praying according to the will of the Lord. He did not get some wild idea to pray audacious prayers that were outside of God’s will. He did not pray for a new camel. He prayed for what God wanted to do. This is how you see Jesus praying. This is how you see Jesus teaching us to pray. Pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Elijah was not praying his whims nor for his selfish desires. He is praying for God’s glory.
We saw this also in 1 Kings 18. Do you remember the prayer he gave at the altar when he asks for God to answer him by fire? Look at 1 Kings 18:36-37. Elijah prays for God to answer so that it will be known that the Lord is God in Israel and had come to turn back the hearts of the people. He prayed for God’s glory and he prayed for God’s will to be accomplished. Jesus showed us this when he said, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39,42; Luke 22:42). Seek God’s will and pray for that will to be accomplished. Our cries do not fall on deaf ears. God uses our prayers to accomplish his will. Then persistent in your praying and look for God’s blessings to come. Do not give up. Keep asking and keep looking.
But there is another picture in this text that we must see. I want us to see that it is Elijah who is praying to the Lord on behalf of Israel. Elijah is the one who is on the mountain pleading with the Lord to bring about his will. Elijah does what the people need. We need a righteous one to plead on our behalf. We need a great prophet to come and plead to the Lord to bring his mercies back to us. We need to see that this was foreshadowing our Savior, Jesus. Jesus is pleading with the Lord on our behalf, interceding for us so that we can enjoy the overflow of God’s blessings.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:31–34 ESV)
He did not spare his own son. This is how we know that he will graciously give us all things. How can we enjoy these blessings from the Lord? Because Jesus died and was raised and is at the right hand of God, continuing to intercede for us. You have Jesus who is pleading in your behalf so that you can enjoy the blessings of God.