Sermon preached on 1 Kings 18:41-19:8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/02/2020 in Novato, CA.
I’ve always been struck by how James in the New Testament points to Elijah’s example of prayer as a way to encourage our prayer life. In James 5:17 it says that Elijah was a man with a nature like our own. It says he prayed fervently that it might not rain and it didn’t rain – for three and a half years! And then James says he prayed again and it rained! Well, here in today’s passage we have the record in 1 Kings of Elijah’s fervent prayer for the rain to come back. And so, I think it will be appropriate for us to consider today’s passage in light of the theme of prayer. I must admit that I’m running the risk in doing so of betraying good hermeneutical practices. Normally you don’t use another passage to impose a structure or theme on the passage you are preaching. Rather, you want to start with the passage and let its message speak for itself. Yet, as I reflect on James’ point about Elijah’s prayer here, I’ve come to appreciate that there is a point about prayer here that we don’t want to miss.
Let us then begin in our first point by considering Elijah’s prayer for rain. Notice how this starts out. Before Elijah prays for the rain, he tells Ahab to eat and drink for rain is coming. We should see all this in light of the rest of chapter 18. Remember, the chapter began with God commanding Elijah to go show himself to King Ahab because he was going to send rain again. But then Elijah has this dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Ahab and many Israelites witnessed on Mount Carmel that decisive faceoff. There it was shown that Baal was no god and the LORD was the real, one true God. That was part one in God’s confrontation with Baal. The prophets of Baal had touted Baal as the God of the storm, but it was the prophet of the LORD who declared no rain for three and a half years. The showdown on Mount Carmel only further highlighted that Baal was indeed powerless. But now the final act remained – to show that the LORD God could turn the rain back on because he, and not Baal, was the real God of the storm.
So then, while Ahab goes up to eat and drink, Elijah goes up to the top of Mount Carmel with his servant and he begins to pray. He prays in humility and he prays fervently. Notice his posture. He bows himself down; he puts his face between his knees. There is no one posture required for prayer in Scripture, but posture in prayer can communicate something about one’s demeanor in the prayer. This is a prayer where Elijah is crying out to the LORD for mercy. He’s interceding on behalf of a people who were guilty of much sin against the LORD. But now he prays on their behalf after their apparent return to the LORD when they saw the fire from heaven consume the sacrifice. The people had been living in the uncleanness of the worship of false gods; but now they had returned to say that the LORD, he is God! Elijah now then prays for the LORD’s mercy to them to return the rain upon them. That’s how these things were to work. The people were to turn back from their sin and call to God that he might lift the covenant curses and return the people to a state of blessedness.
Well, Elijah prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. Seven times he prays and seven times he sends his servant to check the horizon for rain. Finally, on that seventh time the servant reports that a rain cloud is on the horizon. It’s in the shape of a man’s hand – clearly a sign of God’s work in answer to Elijah’s prayer. Elijah then sends a message to Ahab to get in his chariot and head out quickly before the rain hits.
Think about what we learn here about prayer. When James tells us to learn something about prayer here, we might be tempted at first to balk. James says he was a man like us, but then we probably remember all the mighty miracles that Elijah performed. We might remember all the amazing things Elijah did and think maybe James’ example isn’t a very good one. We might think, “Tell us about Hannah’s prayer life”, or maybe even Peter’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where he kept falling asleep. Those are examples of prayer we can relate to. Yet, it is interesting that this is the prayer that James points to. He doesn’t mention Elijah’s prayer to raise that widow’s boy from the dead – wouldn’t that have been a prayer to mention! James also doesn’t mention the prayer from last week’s passage. You know, the prayer Elijah had just prayed four verses before. The prayer for God to consume the sacrifice by fire. You know, that prayer that was contrasted with the prayers of the Baal prophets who prayed all day long and got no answer. In contrast, Elijah prayed just one time. Just one simple prayer and the fire immediately fell. Wouldn’t that have been a prayer for James to point to? Yet, James tells us about this prayer.
So, what are we to learn here about prayer? Well, I think we should notice that this time it took Elijah seven prayers before God responds. Four verses before he had an even more amazing answer to prayer with just one short and sweet prayer. Now, Elijah had to pray these seven times. And in fact, he had to pray these seven times for something that God already told Elijah that he’d be doing – sending back the rain (18:1). If I was Elijah, I might be getting a little worried after a few rounds of no answer. We aren’t told why God did it that way. We can see a similarity to how Elijah’s successor Elisha would have Naaman cleaned of his leprosy by dipping not one time but seven into the Jordan river. For Naaman those seven dippings was both an act of humility and faith. Likely that’s what’s going on here too as Elijah humbly prays on behalf of Israel.
But it gives us a great lesson in prayer. Actually, two lessons. Lesson one is to be persistent and fervent in prayer. Jesus himself taught us that we should not give up praying for something just because we don’t get the answer at first. Jesus rightly distinguishes persistent prayer from the many-worded prayers of Gentiles who think they are heard because of their many words. Jesus says there is a difference, and this chapter shows there is a difference when you compare Elijah’s seven prayers here versus the all day long raving prayers of the Baal prophets.
Lesson two is that we can and should pray for things God has promised. There are various examples of this in Scripture. David prayed that God would establish his lineage and kingdom right after God promised he would do so – see 2 Samuel 7. Here, Elijah prays for rain when God had told him that he’d be sending rain. Likewise, the book of Revelation shows us that we should pray for Jesus to come, even though he has told us that he will come. We should be praying God’s promises back to him. Sometimes people have suggested that to pray what God has promised is a lack of faith in his promise – they ask why pray for something that he has already said you will have. But Scripture shows that we are to pray for something he has promised as an act of faith. We are so bold to pray for such things for the very fact that he has promised it. We learn that here too with Elijah.
Let’s turn now in our second point and consider further the fruit of Elijah’s prayer. In other words, what came of his prayer here? Well, the obvious thing is that a huge rainstorm came! In that sense, despite him having to ask seven times, the Lord did give him that specific answer to his prayer request. But standing back, think a little more broadly about the hope that’s behind his prayer. And not just this prayer for rain, but also what was behind the prayer to God to for fire from heaven to consume the bull sacrifice. Those are the two immediate prayers in context when I ask now what was the fruit that came of those prayer requests. Again, with the prayer for fire from heaven, God immediately send that. But what was the larger fruit from these prayers? Well, there was the fruit of hope.
I’m talking of the hope of national spiritual revival. These prayers for fire and rain are in the context combatting paganism in the life of Israel. When the fire came down and the people declare the LORD as God, there is renewed hope that Israel would stop their Baal worship and be faithful again to the LORD. When the Baal prophets were seized and then killed, that hope was further strengthened. Those things were a direct fruit of Elijah’s prayers. Ahab himself is mysteriously silent throughout all that. Yet, what we do see of Ahab is hopeful. After the fire from heaven, Ahab continues to remain silent in the text, but obeys Elijah’s several instructions through the end of the chapter. Ahab’s eating and drinking in the context of what could be considered as a covenant renewal ceremony for Israel could be seen as a fellowship meal with God typical of such ceremonies. Likewise, with the chapter ending with Elijah powerfully running ahead of the King back to the royal city of Jezreel, it looks like a messenger running ahead of the king with the news of a mighty victory over the enemy. So, there’s a way that chapter 18 ends that looks like the start of a tremendous period of revival and reformation.
Then in chapter 19, Ahab finally speaks about the events of the day. He arrives back to Jezreel and gives a report to his Baal-mastermind of a queen, Jezebel. His words seem carefully crafted to be almost neutral in tone. They could make you wonder of his opinion on the matter. Is this a good report or a bad report concerning Elijah? Maybe Ahab himself was wanting to see how Jezebel would respond so he could decide how he should respond. But nonetheless, Ahab’s words report the matter in terms of what Elijah had done, not in terms of what the LORD has done. Therefore, Ahab’s words are not words of faith. They are certainly not words that would denounce his wife’s evil ways in promoting Baal over the LORD. And they are definitely not words of a King coming to announce that the nation was to be returning to the LORD. In return, Jezebel responds to Ahab’s report. She is furious at Elijah and vows to put him to death in 24 hours.
Suddenly, the hope of revival that had seen so likely at the end of last chapter now seems to have vanished. After all that Ahab had seen, he comes back and allows his wife to continue raging against the LORD and against his prophet. Think about this. What’s the fruit of Elijah’s recent prayers? He had surely hoped for great national revival. When God answered his two prayers – prayers for fire and then for rain – surely that’s what he thought the fruit could have been. But God did answer those two prayers – gave him exactly what he asked for – but no revival comes of us. There is another lesson for prayer here. Sometimes God does give us what we ask for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will work out the way we want or expect. God’s ways and plans are higher than ours. So, yes, we can and should pray for the good things that we think we should be praying for. But then we should have patience to see how God will work things out after that. We need to be ready to guard our emotions if we think God will work one way when he actually works in another way.
Well, verse 3 records Elijah recognizing that there won’t be national revival that day – as long as Jezebel and Ahab run the country. Notice that our pew Bible translates verse 3 that then Elijah “was afraid”. In fact, many translations translate it that way, including some ancient ones like even the Greek LXX. But those translations rely on how you decide to point the vowels there in this Hebrew word. An alternative way to point the vowels in this case would render the translation “and when he saw that” instead of “and he was afraid.” The KJV has that translation and I think it is the better one in context. The context doesn’t so much seem to present a man afraid to die. Rather, he’s becomes a man in despair when he sees Jezebel’s response. When he sees that the fruit of his prayers and ministry doesn’t bring the revival he hoped for, he is heartbroken and decides that he needs to leave town. In fact, his despair will leave him wanting to die – just apparently not at the hand of the enemy; not at the hand of evil Queen Jezebel.
That leads us then to our third and final point for today – to consider Elijah’s prayer of despair. Elijah not only leaves town, but he leaves the country. He goes south to Judah, surely trying to escape the scope of Jezebel’s grip. That’s when he finds a tree to sit under and again offers a prayer to God. The prayer is in verse 4. He laments that he is no better than his fathers. What does he mean by that? While this possibly could be him identifying himself as a sinner with the rest of wayward Israel, there is another way to understand his comment. Likely, he is saying that he is like all the previous prophets before him, namely, unsuccessful. Next time, we’ll see Elijah tell the Lord on Mount Sinai how he is the only one left faithful to the LORD in the whole country. He’ll say that all the other prophets were killed by the sword. That speech seems to help explain what Elijah means here. He basically is saying that he’s failed. He’s basically telling God that you sent me to bring the people back to you, but I’ve failed. That’s the context then for his specific prayer request here. He prays that God would take his life. That’s stated twice in verse 4. The narrator tells us that this is what Elijah asked for, and the quote of Elijah contains the request. Elijah prays and asks God to take his life.
In case it’s not clear to you, God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer here is “no”. Elijah does not get what he asks for in prayer. In a passage today where we are thinking of prayer, we shouldn’t overlook this. When talking today about James’ point that we should have a prayer life like Elijah’s we need to recognize this. If we thought James was saying that we can have a prayer life like Elijah where we can get whatever we want from God, then you’ve misunderstood James and you’ve missed this fact in Elijah’s life. Here, righteous Elijah doesn’t get what he fervently prays for. In fact, amazingly, he never ever gets what he prays for here. Normally, everyone eventually is taken in death. But not Elijah. He not only doesn’t get that prayer answered here; he never gets that prayer answered – ever. Elijah is one of two people in the whole Bible who don’t taste death, but God instead takes them directly to glory. So, when thinking today about God answering Elijah’s prayers, we should not be so simpleminded as to think Elijah just got anything he ever asked of God. That’s not how prayer worked for Elijah, and we shouldn’t expect prayer to work like that for us either.
Yet, we shouldn’t think that God’s answer to Elijah was only “no”. God knew the despair of his beloved child Elijah. And so, he sent an angel to minister to him.
The angel finds him sleeping in his despair. The angel awakens Elijah and tells him to arise and eat. Elijah complies. He arises, he eats… and then he lays back down. So, then the angel does this a second time, but this time clarifies. “Arise, and eat, because you have a great journey ahead of you.” So then, Elijah arises, eats, and stays risen, and goes on a journey to the historic site of Mount Sinai. That’s where God had entered into the Mosaic covenant with the people – the covenant they were now breaking. There God would continue to minister to his despairing prophet and give him new ministry instructions and a little more insight into God’s plans for his wayward people. But we see the beginnings of such encouragement to Elijah here in today’s passage, when God sends the angel to minister to Elijah. Here, God ministers to Elijah by the angel to begin to raise him up out of the despair of death. And we shouldn’t miss that this angelic ministry came in response to Elijah’s prayer. While Elijah didn’t get here what he asked for in prayer, God did give him what he needed.
As we think of Elijah in this situation, I think I would be remiss to not point again to Jesus Christ. Jesus as a prophet of the LORD himself had a similar experience. In Luke 13, Jesus was warned that Herod was out to kill him. In response, Jesus lamented over all the persecution of prophets in the past – persecution given by those who were supposed to be God’s people! Jesus’ lament identified with the prophets who were before him. But Jesus’ words also hinted at how he came to redeem those persecuted prophets and all who would truly receive the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Unlike Elijah, Jesus was not despairing and seeking death in this. But Jesus was willing and did give up his life in order to redeem those whom he came to save. We too know this salvation as we receive Jesus in faith as the one who came in the name of the LORD.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I end our passage by pointing us back to the application James gave us about prayer and Elijah. James said that Elijah was a man like us. His despair in the face of disappointment reminds us of how true that was. But Elijah was a godly man of prayer, and we should also not forsake the grace of prayer. While prayer can sometimes be a bit of a mystery to us, let me remind us of the lessons we learned today. We learned that sometimes God answers our prayers right away, and sometimes only after a period of fervent, earnest, persistent prayer. Such can test our faith and grow us in humility. We also learned that we should especially look to pray for the things God has promised to give us. That’s not a lack of faith, rather we are so bold to pray for them out of faith in his promises. We also learned that sometimes even when God gives us what we ask for, things might not necessarily work out as we expected them too. But we must still have faith that God knows what he is doing and that his plans are best. Lastly, we learned that God doesn’t always give us what we want, but might instead give us what we need. So, let us not lose heart but keep on asking, for if you have not, it may be because you have asked not.
Most specifically, let me point out that when James made his point about Elijah, it was in the context of praying for wayward brothers and sisters in the church. James was speaking of the importance of praying for one another in their struggles with sin, and to seek in prayer to bring back wayward brothers to the truth. If you think about it, that was basically what Elijah was doing in all this. Let us too see a ministry of intercessory prayer to see our fellow churchmen stay the course in Christ, and where needed to repent and return to Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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