“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” JAM 5:16b
In this post, I want to discuss what I firmly believe to be the single most significant and essential step we can take in preparing for a very uncertain future. While it is always true that the future, by its very nature, is uncertain and, according to Solomon, “If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen.” (ECC 8:7), we can at least see the direction history is moving. Furthermore, we have inspired prophecy in the Bible which charts for us the conditions of the end times.
Let me go on record to say that America is in the greatest peril this nation has ever faced. And it is not foreign enemies who imperil us, but an out-of-control government and an apathetic populace. Rome is burning, the barbarians are at the gates, and America is out shopping at the mall! We are a nation asleep, about to die unsuspecting in our beds, unless we wake up. However, the greatest blame goes neither to our politicians, nor to our citizenry. We—who claim the name of Jesus Christ and profess to be His followers—bear the greatest guilt of all. How true it is, that, “As goes the believer, so goes the nation.” We who are called to be the salt and light of this great country have put our lamps under the basket, and watered down the salt until it has lost its savour. Yet, we hold in our hands the only power that can turn the tide of national disintegration. That power is “The Elijah Option”—the power of powerful, effective, prevailing prayer.
Elijah: The Praying Prophet
Elijah was considered by Jewish sages and rabbis as the greatest of the prophets. Yet, amazingly, we have no record of his teachings, or revelations, or writings. These things we generally associate with the office of prophet. What Scripture records for us is the prayer life of the man. In the context of the opening verse from James (cf., 1KI 5:16-18) we are reminded that Elijah was a man of unusual prayer power. And James uses Elijah to stir his readers to engage in the same mighty work. He points out that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” In other words, the effectiveness of his prayers were not found in any uniqueness in him, as distinct from any other believer. But when Elijah “prayed earnestly” mighty things happened. The phrase James uses, in the original language, repeats the word for prayer twice, giving emphasis to the fact that “in the sphere of prayer he prayed.” This reflects back on the opening verse, for when Elijah prayed, he prayed in the manner in which prayers are made effective and mighty. Consider why much of our praying is not so effective:
We pray from insubordinate lives. Elijah was a man totally surrendered to the will of God. We like to keep most of our lives, decisions, and actions off limits to God. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (PSA 66:18).
Most of our prayers violate the most fundamental principle of spiritual power. Paul tells us that “faith works through love” (GAL 5:6), and that whatever is done apart from love “profits me nothing” (1CO 13:3b). Yet, our prayers are mostly for ourselves—an extension of self-centered lives. Have you ever noticed that in the model prayer Jesus gave (MAT 6:9-13), the pronouns are all plural and inclusive? “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures [desires]” (JAM 4:3).
When we pray, we do not pray in the realm of true faith. All too often, our praying is only expressing a wish on our part, not a confident request from the Father. “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (MAT 21:22). “But he must ask in faith without any doubting ... for that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord” (JAM 1:6-7).
Perhaps one of our greatest limitations in prayer is that we speak before we listen to what our heavenly Father has to say to us in His Word and by His Spirit. “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (JAM 1:19). “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (JOH 15:7).
Four Prayers That Changed History
Go to your Bible and look at the story of Elijah contained in 1 Kings 17-18. Here, we find the four prayers that delivered Israel in a very dark hour and restored the nation to a reverence for God. Three of the prayers are recorded, one of them is assumed. Each of these prayers has a lesson to teach us about effective prayer.
1. The prayer for drought, 1KI 17:1-7. Behind this prayer (see JAM 5:17 again), we can discover both a key to powerful praying, and the underlying prayer on which the three recorded prayers stand. First, what motivated Elijah to pray this specific request? The answer is that Elijah had learned to listen to the voice of God. Behind Elijah’s request was God’s command. He was familiar with the warning in DEU 28:15-23, that if Israel forsook God and His Word, they would be under His curse, and “The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze … The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust” (1KI 17:24-25). Elijah simply prayed for the Word of God to be fulfilled.
Secondly, we need to ask what Elijah’s motive was. What did he hope to gain by this request? Here, I think we see the unrecorded prayer on which all his other prayers were based. Elijah was praying for divine discipline on the nation, which would lead to repentance and restoration. Like his fellow prophet of a later time, Elijah knew that only severe hardship could awaken the spiritual eyes of Israel. Under the lash of God’s scourge, at last the nation would cry out to God, “Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (JER 29:12-13). Behind his prayer for drought, Elijah was praying for national revival. Perhaps this is the course that America will have to take to forsake our materialistic idolatry and turn to the God who made us great and prosperous.
2. The prayer for the widow’s son, 1KI 17:8-24. As the story moves on, Elijah is instructed to go to Zarephath, to reside with a widow there. God demonstrates His power to provide plenty in the midst of poverty by multiplying the flour and oil that the widow had. He can do the same for you and me today! Then, apparent calamity strikes, and the widow’s only son dies. The widow reacts in her grief by saying, “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?” (1KI 17:18b). Elijah does not respond to this strange outburst, but takes the boy to his room, and prays for his life to be restored. God hears his prayer, and the boy is brought to his mother, who responds, “Now by this I know that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth” (1KI 17:24).
Consider a question. What does this short vignette have to do with the rest of the story? I believe it is quite significant. The woman’s story is a miniature of Israel’s story. When Elijah came, she was preparing to die (1KI 17:12). But the presence of the prophet and the miracle of God’s sustaining grace, gave her hope. The death of her son, however, put her spiritual condition and relationship to God in a personal light. It brought her to conviction regarding her own sin. She previously referred to the Lord as “the Lord your God” (1KI 17:12), indicating a lack of personal faith. Her words, “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (1KI 17:18) are a plea for help, based on a close relationship, and so Jesus understood them in Mary’s request at His first miracle (JOH 2:4). After the boy is restored to life, she responds in faith, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.” (1KI 17:24) In time, the nation would respond in much the same way (1KI 18:39), and revival would break out in the nation.
3. The prayer for rain, 1KI 18:1-46. The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is one of the classic stories of the Bible. The record illustrates the vast difference between living faith and dead religion. Whereas the false prophets rely on their own efforts, fervency, and fanaticism, Elijah is a perfect portrait of simple faith. When he mocks them (1KI 18:27), they cut themselves, as many in false religions do today around the world. But still there is no answer. Look at the poise of the prophet! No loud crying, no frantic raving (as we see in so many churches today). His prayer is marked by quiet faith.
His rebuilding of the altar (1KI 18:31) with twelve stones (representing the tribes of Israel), at a time when the nation was divided, shows his refusal to acknowledge division among God’s people. His dowsing of the altar and sacrifice with water demonstrates a desire to show that what is impossible for man is possible for God Almighty (MAR 10:27). He times it at the hour of the evening sacrifice when the daily sacrifice looked to the cross of Jesus Christ. According to the Law of Moses, every day a lamb was to be sacrificed in the morning, and again every evening (EXO 29:38-46). Jesus was put on the cross at 9 a.m. (the third hour from 6 a.m., MAR 15:25) and died at 3 p.m. (the ninth hour, MAT 27:46-50). After the fire of God fell, the people shouted, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” (1KI 18:39). This was the beginning of national revival. Elijah then slew the false prophets, followed by his prayer for rain (1KI 18:41-46). Again, God demonstrates that He works through small instruments (ZEC 4:6, ZEC 4:10), in the form of a small cloud. Yet, Elijah sees with the eye of faith (2CO 5:7) and proclaims the coming storm. His ultimate prayer has been answered (national revival); therefore, his assurance that the disciplinary drought is over, and God’s blessings will fall again on the nation.
4. The underlying prayer for revival. As I indicated at the beginning of point one above, the implied prayer of Elijah was for the revival of his people. He prayed for the rain to stop that discipline might restore Israel to humility (see DEU 8:2). His prayer for the widow's son to be restored was a foretaste of what God would do for His people (see EPH 5:14). And the prayer for rain to be restored demonstrated God's sure blessings on those who return to Him in faith and surrender (see HEB 6:9-12).
Here is the challenge for believers living in today's apostate time! What could one believer do who is unconditionally surrendered to God, if they were to take the promise of 2CH 7:14 seriously? We are all beginning to learn that our elected representatives refuse to hear our voices. Why do we continue to waste time on them? Let us begin to lift up our voices to Almighty God, who has promised both to hear and answer our prayers—if we rightly approach Him (PSA 66:18; 1PE 3:8-12). As James has reminded us (JAM 5:16b-17a) "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly ..."
The Elijah Option for America
“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and
seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, thenI will hear from heaven,
and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2CH 7:14)
This promise applies as much to modern America as it did in the past to Israel. God places the responsibility for national decline on His people, who have failed as His ambassadors (2CO 5:18-21). If we who are believers will take responsibility for our country and come into the sphere where effective, powerful prayer is offered and heard, then America has a chance of recovery. So, Jeremiah told the people of his day. What was their response? “Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.’ And they said, ‘That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart’” (JER 18:11-12).
What will be the response of this nation? Will we follow all the other nations to the trash-heap of history? No other nation in history has been so blessed as this nation. No other nation has had more preaching of the Gospel and teaching of the Word of God than America. But, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.” (LUK 12:48). Elijah laid hold of the power of effective pray and saved his nation. What will we choose to do in our time?