Digging in Deeper: James 5:17-18

“Elijah was a human being as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.”‬‬ (CSB – Read the chapter

We’ve been digging pretty deep into prayer the last few days. What James says in these few verses is really powerful stuff. Of all the things he has said that have been hard to get our minds around, this last part here takes the cake. James tells us here just how much power is available to us when we pray. Are you ready for this? 

Elijah was on par with Moses in terms of the place he occupied in Israel’s history. He doesn’t get nearly the same amount of attention Moses does in terms of the amount of narrative material we have about him in the Scriptures, but in ancient Hebrew literature, there is a whole lot more about him. This is in part because Malachi said his return would mark the coming of the Messiah, and in part because what little we do have about him is so amazing. 

Elijah biggest claim to fame was the scene on the top of Mount Carmel in 2 Kings 18. There he confronts the wicked King Ahab of Israel and the pagan priests of Baal and his escort, Asherah. Thanks to Jezebel, Ahab’s evil wife, the worship of Baal had fairly well replaced the worship of Yahweh in Israel. On Mount Carmel, Elijah essentially had a sacrifice-off. Whichever God (or god in Baal’s case) responded with fire to accept an offering from his team was the real God. The other was a false god. 

After a fair bit of tension and humor, Yahweh, the one, true God of Israel puts on a huge pyrotechnical display, blasting down fire from heaven, and Elijah goes on to slaughter 850 of the pagan priests. It’s a wild scene, but for the time was an incredible display of God’s power at Elijah’s direction. 

His introduction to the scene was to declare—at God’s direction—a three and a half year drought on the land. During the drought and resulting famine he miraculously made a widow’s jar of oil and flour stay full for the duration of his stay with her. He also raised her son from the dead. The sum total of all of this is to lead us to put Elijah in a different category than we put ourselves. He was spiritually powerful on a level we’ll never reach. 

Here, though, James says, “Not so fast.” Elijah was a human being as we are. Or perhaps we could put it like this: Elijah wasn’t so special. That sounds a little harsh. How about this: Elijah was just like you and me. 

Do you buy that? He was just like you and me? Right. He was just like you and me, he just called down fire from heaven. He was just like you and me, he just caused a three and a half year drought. He was just like you and me, he just raised somebody from the dead. Just like you and me, except he wasn’t. That’s how we’re tempted to respond, isn’t it? 

James understands. He included his one “he just…” here. He was just like us, he just prayed. Wait, that’s it? That’s what made him different? That’s the thing James identifies as the source of his power? Well, technically, it wasn’t his power. That’s the thing about prophets in the Bible versus wizards or shamans or something like that in other traditions. Our guys didn’t have any power of their own. God did stuff through them. 

Elijah was just like you and me. He was. The weakness he demonstrates in 1 Kings 19 after the fire from heaven episode helps prove that. What Elijah did was to pray. Hard. A lot. 

But wait a second. I’ve prayed hard. I’ll bet you have too. I’ll bet you’ve prayed hard for something and it didn’t happen. What made Elijah’s prayer different? After all, a drought made a lot of people’s lives miserable. People may have even died because of it. Your prayer was probably for something good to happen. Shouldn’t God answer our kind of prayer faster than He did Elijah’s? 

Well, there are perhaps a lot of reasons God didn’t answer your prayer and mine in the way we wanted Him to answer it—He always answers—and this isn’t the place for us to try and figure out every detail of that. What made Elijah’s prayer so potent was a couple of things that ours don’t always have. 

First, they were fervent. He prayed with an intense earnestness that most of us just don’t have. I sure don’t often. He didn’t just pray once and walk away. He prayed like it was hard work. He sought God consistently and regularly until He got His answer. He kept coming back to it again and again. If we treat God casually, we’re not often going to find what we are looking for from Him. If we go after Him hard enough, we will. Jesus Himself told a parable about a woman who kept badgering a godless judge until he finally gave in to her requests and used her as an example of how we should go after His own Father in prayer. This is no guarantee of the answer we want, but it’s okay to be the squeaky wheel with God. 

Second, Elijah prayed for things God already wanted to do. Or, to put that another way, he prayed for the things God told Him to pray for. In the case of the drought, God told him He was going to bring a drought on the land and Elijah started praying for it. Then God told him He was going to bring rain again and so he started praying for that. 

That just raises the important question of how we know what God wants. That’s the other side of this secret. It’s not just that Elijah prayed, it’s that he stayed close enough to God that he knew what God wanted. He pursued God so relentlessly that he knew what His plans were…because God told him. 

The closer our relationship with God is, the better we are going to recognize and understand the things He wants and plans. Then, when we pray for those things, our prayers get answered affirmatively because we’re asking Him for the things He already plans on doing anyway. 

Now, does this mean we can pray for a three year drought or fire from heaven like Elijah did? No, but those were probably one-shot deals anyway. What it does mean is that our prayers can look and feel and actually be a whole lot more powerful than perhaps they do right now. We simply follow Elijah’s path: Stick close to God and pray fervently for the things that are already His will. This isn’t an overnight process by any stretch, but as we pursue this path, we’ll gradually find the power we are seeking. Let’s get to it.

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