Dr. John B. MacDonald
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“Elijah, ... yeah right!?”

You’ve probably heard of Elijah but haven’t given him much thought. After all, he was a prophet to Israel over 2,800 years ago. How can that be the least bit relevant to living life here and now? 

Elijah is important to James. 

Elijah's example

As James concludes his book, he places Elijah in the midst of his teaching on the community life of followers of Jesus. He uses the language of sin, prayer, and healing. This is what he writes (James 5:16-20 ESV): 

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Let’s take a few moments to become familiar with some of Elijah’s career. I encourage you to read some incidents from the life of Elijah in 1 Kings 17-19 – what I’ll call the “Elijah narrative.” 

Just before Elijah is introduced, the narrator of 1 Kings tells us about Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and his wife, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:29-34). We’re told that “Ahab, the son of Omri, did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him” and that “Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30, 33). Ahab worshiped a false god called Baal, and the hearts of the people were turned away from the LORD to worship Baal.

Immediately we read “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word’” (1 Kings 17:1). Where did that come from? Why did Elijah pick dew and rain?

Elijah's knowledge

Far from being an arbitrary statement, it seems that Elijah was aware of what the LORD had spoken through Moses centuries before (Deuteronomy 11:1, 16-17 – underlining added):

You shall therefore love the LORD your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. … 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them;  17 then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. 

Ahab and the people had turned aside and were serving other gods (i.e., Baal). Elijah knew what God had said about that. 

Elijah's courage

An amazing confrontation between Elijah and 450 priests of Baal is recorded for us in 1 Kings 18:16-39. After Elijah had made all the preparations, at the moment of truth, Elijah simply and boldly prayed. This is what happened (1 Kings 19:37-39): 

37 “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.”  38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.  39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” 

Elijah then prayed again (1 Kings 18:41-46). This time he prayed for rain because the people had turned back to the LORD. Confession had been made; now, healing took place.

Lessons from Elijah

Here are seven points for reflection drawn from James 5:16-18

1.     “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16a) – confession may be defined as repentance spoken. Confession of sins is the way to forgiveness and healing (See "7 Qualities of Genuine Confession"). 

Reflection: Is there any unconfessed sin in your life? Is there anyone against whom you have sinned, with whom you are not reconciled? Consider Psalm 139:23-24; 1 John 1:9; Matthew 5:21-24

2.     “pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16a). Elijah prayed for others. He prayed for a nation of people who had strayed into worshipping a false god. Elijah prayed for their repentance toward the LORD, and for their healing. 

Reflection: For whom and for what do you usually pray? Do you pray for others? How does the example of Elijah speak into your prayer life? 

3.     “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16b) – one condition of effective prayer is being right before God. The psalm writer states “If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, my Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18 NLT).

Reflection: Consider repeating the reflection suggested for #1 (above). 

4.     “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16b) – a second observation from this text is that praying has great power “when it is exercised.”[1] If you’re like me, I sometimes wonder whether prayer “works.” Here is a clear declaration that it does.

Reflection: Read one of the prayers of the Lord Jesus such as Matthew 5:9-13 or John 17. How does this influence your understanding of the effectiveness of praying? 

5.     “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17a) – I am encouraged greatly by this! Elijah was just like you and me; he was not superhuman. In the Elijah narrative we become aware that he was afraid, discouraged, disillusioned, and stubborn – and yet he was effective in praying. 

Reflection: Choose a psalm written by David (e.g., Psalm 4, 5, 6, or 32), or the sons of Korah (Psalm 42-43) and read it as a prayer of “a person with a nature just like ours.” What weaknesses and flaws do you share with the psalmist? How does this influence your attitude toward praying?

6.     We’ve already touched on the content of Elijah’s prayers regarding rain (5:17b-18). This should persuade us to be immersed in the message of the Bible. It is here that Elijah learned what God wanted – and that’s also where we will learn about our God and his will. You and I need to be immersed in the ancient and holy Scriptures and allow them to inform our prayers.

Reflection: As you read the Bible, be intentional about identifying something you have read that will inform your prayer life. Take time to pray, incorporating what you have learned in your prayer. How does this expand your experience of praying? 

7.     “he prayed fervently” (5:17b) – this means he did not have a “ho-hum” attitude. Elijah poured his whole heart into his praying. He prayed earnestly, intensely, wholeheartedly.  

Reflection: What is your usual attitude in prayer? What does it mean for you to be earnest, intense, and wholehearted in prayer?

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[1] This phrase “when it is exercised” is one possibility suggested by Craig Blomberg, et al., James, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 245.

Photo credit: An icon of the Prophet Elijah in the Wilderness (2nd half of the 16th Century) currently in the Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art, Moscow, Russia.

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