Prayer Changes Things (James 5:16-18)

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We who are committed to a biblical Christianity are often prone to dismiss cliché Christianity. That is, we are quick to dismiss those common little ditties that abound in Christendom without giving much thought as to their validity. In many cases we are right to do so. Yet I fear that all too often we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In our quest for orthodoxy we may find ourselves missing out on some very real blessings as we parse the power of God out of our lives and out of our church. One example of this is the cliché, “Prayer changes things.”

When we hear such a slogan we are quick to point out that only God can change things and then we may find ourselves sitting back smugly ensconced in our theological ivory tower rather than joining with other believers in beseeching God to indeed change things. Of course, it is perfectly true that God changes things, but He often chooses to do so through the prayers of His people.

In this study we return to James 5:16-18 for what will probably be the final time as we consider once again the important issue of prayer in the life of the church. And I want to make the point that, all criticisms to the side, prayer is a means of God given to His people by which we can experience things changing.

When I was growing up, there was a saying commonly heard in my hometown that “April showers bring May flowers.” April was the time of the year when heavy Spring rain began to fall, and normally by May the formerly bleak landscape was beautified with colour. Even as a child I understood that the rain did not contain the seed itself, but that the water was used by God to nourish the potential that was already in the earth, which produced the beauty that was associated with May.

So it is with prayer in the life of the believer. Those things that are lifeless and fruitless in our lives can be changed, by God, in response to the fervent prayers of His righteous people. James, an apostle, tells us this in these closing words of his inspired epistle. Specifically, he does so by pointing to the prayer life of an Old Testament righteous man, the prophet Elijah. “And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (v. 18).

May the result of our study be some currently barren earth becoming a harvest of blessings for God’s glory and for our good.

A Righteous Man’s Exemplary Prayers

To properly grasp the intent of this passage we need to properly understand the historical and contextual backdrop of Elijah’s situation that is here mentioned. After all, if Elijah is our example (to encourage us to pray) then we must understand all that we can concerning the circumstances of his prayer. And we find all the information that we need to know concerning Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18.

As the text of 1 Kings 17 opens, Elijah appears quite unexpectedly on the scene. We have read nothing of him until this point, and thus know nothing of his background. His parents and his upbringing are a complete mystery, but we do know that his name means “My God is Yahweh,” and this is significant in light of the religious climate in which he ministered.

According to 1 Kings 16:29-34 Ahab was on the throne of Israel during the time in which Elijah ministered. Ahab was a godless man and, if anything, his wife Jezebel was even worse. Ahab considered the dreadful sins of his forbears a trivial thing (16:31) and, rather than simply allowing idolatry to flourish or practicing it himself, he instituted Baal worship as the official religion of Israel. Furthermore, he openly rebelled against the revealed Word of God by issuing the decree for the rebuilding of Jericho (16:34; cf. Joshua 6:26). His reign, then, was characterised in every way by blatant rebellion against God’s Word.

It was in the midst of this religious climate that “Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (17:1). Elijah’s word came to pass just as he said: 18:1 informs us that the land was rainless for some three years, while James states that this lasted for three years and six months months (see also Luke 4:25). Presumably, when Elijah said that it would not rain “according to my word,” he was speaking with reference to his position as prophet declaring, “Thus says the Lord.” And, of course, Elijah was praying biblically, for drought was one of the clearly specified judgements of God against His people for forsaking their covenant with Him (Deuteronomy 11:16; 28:23-24).

What follows highlights how serious the situation became. Elijah was sent by God to the brook Cherith near the Jordan River, from which he was able to drink and where God fed him by raven chefs (17:2-7). (This is significant in itself, for ravens were unclean animals!) After many days, the lack of rain had so effected the land that the brook dried up and Elijah was told to go and find shelter at the home of a widow and her son at Zarephath—a Gentile household. Elijah became a source of provision, by the grace of God, to sustain this family through difficult days (17:8-16).

While there, the Lord performed another miracle, restoring life to the son who was suddenly stricken dead (17:17-24). Elijah prayed and the boy revived. This man, who in nature was like us, was used by God to bring life and joy into a home.

After some three years Elijah was commanded by God to go once again before Ahab to tell him that God would send rain (18:1-2a).

During the drought which preceded this, things had gone from bad to desperately worse in Samaria, the home of Ahab and Jezebel. Things were in fact so bad that a royal search was made throughout the surrounding regions to see if there was any area where they might find grass to feed their ever diminishing supply of livestock (18:2b-6). The famine had made it impossible for the harvesting of any produce. The land was not producing because the rains were not falling. To be sure, the land still had plenty of potential, but without the rain the mere potential could feed no one.

After a brief encounter with a fellow God-fearer (18:7-16) Elijah stood once again before King Ahab. As the prophet confronted Ahab he was blamed by this king for being the source of trouble for the nation. Elijah wisely and boldly rejected this accusation and pointed his prophetic finger in the face of the ungodly king, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim” (18:17-18). He pointed out that it was because of the nation’s worship of idols that they were now experiencing this covenantal curse placed upon them by God. He then issued a challenge to the king to call for all the prophets of Baal and Asherah—950 in total—to Mount Carmel for a showdown of the gods (18:19). They were to sacrifice livestock and call on their god to accept their offering; Elijah will do the same, calling upon Yahweh. The god who answered by fire from heaven would prove to be the true God.

The scene that follows is delightful, at least for those who love God, for the idols were magnificently mocked and proven to be fallacious (18:20-40). As the prophets of Baal and Asherah danced around and pray in a frenzied state, Elijah stood by mocking them. He suggested that they cry louder, for perhaps their god was busy (and couldn’t do two things at once); or perhaps he was sleeping and must be roused; or perhaps he was away on a journey (he is not omnipresent). In fact, some language scholars suggest that, at one point, Elijah even added the taunt that perhaps their god was busy relieving himself! The false prophets were in a frenzy, and began to lance themselves in an attempt to get the attention of their god. But it was all to no avail. After more than twelve hours of such nonsense nothing had happened by way of divine intervention. The text tells us that “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (18:29).

The significance of this cannot be underestimated. In Canaanite superstition, “Baal was the storm and fertility god who bestowed upon man and soil the blessings of fruitfulness. He sent forth lightning, fire and rain. He gave grain and oil and wine. He could revive the dead, heal the sick, and grant blessings f progeny” (Dale Ralph Davis). Asherah was likewise linked to fertility, but neither the fertility god Baal nor his female counterpart were able to grant rain.

Eventually, Elijah called for silence and stepped forth himself. He rebuilt the destroyed altar of Yahweh. He then commanded that his sacrifice be doused with twelve barrels of water. In fact, this was so much liquid that the trench around the altar, which could hold some 14 litres of water, was filled! We can imagine how well this must have gone down in a time of severe drought! Elijah then prayed to the true and only God, “the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (18:36). He called upon the Lord to vindicate His claim that all of this (including the drought) had been done in His name; that is, according to His Word. Further, Elijah asked the Lord to so respond that the people would repent and return to Him. The Lord heard and answered, and fire fell from heaven, consuming the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the water! When the people saw this they repented and cried out, “The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God” (18:39). Having heard this confession of faith, Elijah immediately commanded that the false prophets be executed.

Elijah then stood before Ahab to tell him that rain was coming (18:41-46). This is significant because, as we have seen, in terms of God’s covenant with Israel, rain was given when they obeyed and withdrawn when they disobeyed. Thus, this promised rain indicates that there had been repentance.

Interestingly, Elijah said to Ahab, “There is a sound of abundance of rain” (18:41). And yet, apparently there was no sound of rain at all. Elijah went down on his knees and begged God to send the rain; but the skies above were as blue as they had been for the past 42 months. As he prayed, he kept sending his servant to check the horizon for clouds, and only on the seventh reconnaissance was a cloud finally spotted. Thus it is clear that Elijah was speaking words of faith, even though his prayer would only follow those words.

James 5:17 tells us that Elijah “prayed earnestly.” Literally, this reads, “In praying Elijah prayed.” That is, he began to pray (for that which he had just promised to Ahab!) and as time went on and the ground remained dry, he really prayed! The fervency of his prayer increased the longer the rain was withheld. Verse 18 says that “he prayed again.” In fact, he prayed again and again and again—seven times again! This righteous man will not let go of God; too much is at stake! The glory of God and the good of His people were on the heart of this man. And so it must be for you and me!

When Elijah sent his assistant the seventh time (I wonder what he was thinking!) he returned with the news that the blue sky had a spot in it: “a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.” A cloud the size of a man’s hand. It didn’t seem too likely that “an abundance of rain” was contained in that cloud, but it was better than nothing. And for Elijah, it was enough. He told the servant to go to Ahab and inform him that the promised rain was near and thus he had better get going on his trip back to Jezreel before the flooding made the journey impossible. Again, these were words of faith, and this faith was soon to be honoured as the sky began to darken. Soon the winds brought a driving rain and the drought was broken.

The Lessons for Us

What is interesting to me is that James brings an additional perspective to this scene. In v. 18 the text mentions that “the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” That is, the Lord answered Elijah’s prayers and the result was seen, not only in a wet landscape, but in a fruitfully changed one as well. That is, the answer to the prayer—the presence of water—was a means to an end; an end that would glorify God and benefit others. And so it must be with the motivation for our prayers.

We can now begin to make some practical connections. It is important that we do this, for James tells us that Elijah was just like us, and thus the answers to prayer that he realised can be our experience as well. Elijah prayed in a time when the ground was barren, and as we survey the evangelical world around us we often conclude the same. We do not see the conversions that we would like to see. We would love to see the waters of baptism move more frequently than they do. But let us be encouraged from the example of Elijah that the barren ground can indeed bring forth fruit in answer to our prayer. April showers can indeed bring forth Mayflowers!

The principle, of course, extends far beyond just conversions. Do you battle with a sinful habit? Does the ground seem bare? Does the likelihood of overcoming this sin seem hopeless? Be encouraged that prayer can change things! If you are a believer, you are indwelt by the Spirit and have the promise of God that, through Jesus Christ, He will save you from your sins!

Are you battling with a physical ailment? Then pray to God for healing! I cannot guarantee that He will heal you, but I can tell you that prayer can change things! If it is God’s will for you to be healed, then He will answer your prayer and you will be raised up.

Let’s take the time to consider some practical lessons from this account.

First, let us learn that there are conditions to effective prayers. James tells us that Elijah was a man “subject to like passions as we are” (v. 17). That is, he was of the same nature as us. But the apostle has also defined the type of person that Elijah was: “a righteous man” (v. 16). Thus, in order for our prayers to be effective, we must be righteous.

Of course, all who have been justified by faith in Christ are counted as righteous in God’s eyes, but the context of James’ letter makes it quite clear that he is speaking of more than only positional righteousness. He is speaking, instead, of practical righteousness. That is, for our prayers to be effective, we must live according to God’s standard. And if we are living according to His righteous standard, then our prayers will be for His glory, not for our own comfort.

This brings us to our second point of application, which is that our prayers must be motivated by the glory of God. Elijah’s nature was like ours. He was sinful (just like us), and had clear moments of weakness (just as we do), but he was nevertheless singular. That is, his eye was fixed firmly on the glory of God. “My God is Yahweh” is what his name declared, and he lived up to that name, even when the world around him seemed to be crying, “Our god is Baal!”

Our prayers must have as their goal the glory of God. When we are sick, we should pray that God would heal us, not primarily so that we can be more comfortable, but so that we can be more effective in the kingdom of God for His glory. We need to see more of this passionate sort of praying. The church needs to return to the example of Elijah. We need to pray for the landscape to change, for the false Baals of our day—Islam, Hinduism, etc.—to be overthrown for the glory of God.

Third, let us learn that we must pray in accordance with a biblical knowledge of God. Elijah prayed for some great things—drought, rain, restoration of life, fire from heaven, etc.—but throughout you see a man who clearly understood his own helplessness. The power that he had as a prophet was in direct proportion to his own human weakness, and so too the power of a church is in direct proportion to that church’s understanding of its own weakness. We must realise that if God doesn’t work His name will surely be dishonoured, and thus we must pray for Him to work mightily so that His name is not dishonoured.

Fourth, we must learn to look beyond the obvious, for things can indeed change! Elijah prayed again and again until the rain came. And when it eventually came, the landscape that formerly looked so dry and barren came to life. Things changed! And we too must pray for things to change so that God can be glorified.

It is not wrong, of course, to pray in terms of “Your will be done.” This must be the attitude of our hearts. But that does not mean that we cannot pray boldly for some specific things. We know that God is sovereign and that He will always work things the way that He wants them to be. Nevertheless, when we don’t have a specific “word” concerning a matter then let us pray boldly until either God answers or changes our request. Pray for your lost husband to be saved. Pray for your wandering children to be restored to fellowship with Christ. And give God no rest until you see your prayers answered! If you can give Him rest there is very little reason to believe that He will answer.

Of course, it is often difficult for us to know for sure whether our prayers will be answered affirmatively, but if we have a burden to pray for something let us pray for it. Parents often ask me how they know whether their children are elect. My answer is standard: If you are burdened about their salvation then pray for them! You see, I believe that God initiates prayer, and when He initiates it He answers it!

Perhaps we can state it this way: Don’t be happy to merely accept the status quo. “Haven’t you read the newspapers?” “Don’t you understand what is going on in our world?” We cannot allow our lives to be controlled by the status quo. Through prayer, there is so much more potential than we often realise. Elijah certainly refused to accept the status quo and, once again, we must follow his example.

A fruitful church is required to pray. If we do not, then we will not receive God-initiated produce. There is no substitute for the growth that God gives through His water! Is it not amazing how we can water our gardens with tap water, and it will have some effect, but as soon as the skies open up and the rain falls things really begin to change! So, too, when God sends His showers of blessing in response to our prayers, things really begin to change! The type of changes for which we pray can, after all, only come by the power of God!

Fifth, we must pray with the motivation that looks beyond the immediate result to ourselves. That is, we should desire produce as provision for others. We should view God’s answer as a means to a fruitful, productive, providential end. When God sent the rain in response to Elijah’s prayer, it was not only Elijah who benefited. The entire covenant community benefited from the answered prayers of one man. And ultimately God was glorified as people repented of their idolatry and turned to Him.

When we pray our motivation must look beyond the immediate. Yes, we want to see our spouse and children saved, but our ultimate motivation must be greater than that: It must ultimately be the glory of God and the extension of His kingdom. We pray for church growth because we want to have a larger church that will have more of an impact as a church for the extension of God’s kingdom in the world. And so our prayers must always look beyond our own immediate needs to the needs of others and to the glory of God in the extension of His kingdom.

Finally, as local churches, we must pray as devoted, repentant people who can corporately say, “The LORD, he is the God; the LORD he is the God!” (1 Kings 18:37-40). James urges us in the local to confess our faults to one another and to pray for one another’s restoration (v. 16). In vv. 19-20, as we shall see in our next study, he exhorts us to restore those who are heading down the road to apostasy. Elijah begged God to answer his prayer, not so that he could save face, but so that people would see that He was God. He wanted others to see that God is faithful to His Word.

As local churches we must have this same desire. We must be passionate about magnifying Yahweh as God, and passionate about bringing others to magnify Him in the same way.

James speaks about the “fervent” prayers of a righteous man. “Fervent” does not mean frantic; instead, it speaks of prayer that is resolutely fixed on the glory and the character of God. Let us then pray fervently that God would be glorified and others would come to worship Him; for after all, “Yahweh, He is the God,” and He most certainly changes things!