13. The Prayers of Elijah (1 Kings 18:30-46)
The Confrontation on Mount Carmel (Scene 6)
This study in 1 Kings 18 is extremely relevant. This is evident by the promises and principles of 1 Timothy 2:1-8, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Psalm 33:12, and Proverbs 14:34, and by the national decay we have witnessed in our nation over the past 30 years. We have seen our nation slide into the gutter of secular humanism and its side kick--gross immorality. While there are still thousands of believers in our nation and “in God we trust” is still on our coins, we are no longer a nation whose God is the Lord, not in the biblical sense.
Instead, we worship at the altar of a modern Baal with a strange mixture of idols consisting of materialism, secularism, ecumenicalism, and New Age mysticism. For most people today, even if they believe in God, He is not a real issue in their lives and a large portion of the population does not believe in absolutes. Recent surveys show this is true even with many who profess to be Christians. Though confessing some kind of faith in God, many live as practical atheists. Many are caught up in one of the cults or even in the occult.
What is desperately needed in our society today are more men and women who, like Elijah, can have an Elijah-like impact on this society. Elijah was used to turn the hearts of the people back to the Lord (18:37). But what was so special about this man? James reminds us that he was a man of like passions with us, but then James goes on to show that the thing that made him effective in his day of spiritual and moral decadence was his prayer life.
In the next section of chapter 18, verses 30-46, we get a glimpse of Elijah as a man of prayer. In this section, we see: (a) Elijah’s preparation for prayer in verses 30-35; (b) his public prayer and its results--fire from heaven, hearts returned to the Lord, and the Baal prophets removed in verses 36-40; and (c) his private prayer and its results: rain from heaven and special strength in verses 41-46.
Elijah’s influence was primarily felt in the northern kingdom, not the southern kingdom. His ministry was to the north. Likewise, we all have our own areas of influence and places of impact. This varies with each one of us, but faith, faithfulness, integrity, and effectual prayer can tremendously increase our capacity for influence, wherever that happens to be.
Do you want a pattern for your prayer life? Do you want to effectively change your life and increase the effectiveness of your prayer life and your impact? Then, absorb the details of this passage and claim the promise of James 5. James, the Lord’s half brother, was nicknamed “Camel Knees” because of the calluses that developed on his knees from long hours in prayer. Well, who do you suppose God used to turn James into such a man of prayer? It was probably none other than Elijah.
For the size of the epistle, James says more about prayer than any other New Testament book. Over 14 verses in James are devoted specifically to prayer or principles of prayer. Compare 1:5-8, 3:9-10, 4:2-3 (actually everything in between is related), and 5:13-18. This is equivalent to about 15 percent of the book.
Elijah’s Public Prayer
Preparation For Prayer (vss. 30-35)
The Invitation to the People (vs. 30a)
Why do you suppose Elijah called the people to come near? Because what he was about to do, his preparation and his prayer, was designed to be instructive. It was doctrinally significant and important to faith and effectual prayer. The people had just witnessed the futile praying of the Baal priests, and Elijah wanted them know Yahweh was the true God who answered prayer when people come to Him according to His plan of grace. He wanted them to witness the power of prayer. When we pray in public, we should never pray pretentiously, to be heard and seen of people in order to gain their approval. Still, public prayer is a means not only of exalting the Lord and seeking His grace, but of providing encouragement and a blessing to people (1 Cor. 14:15-17).
The Restoration of the Altar (vs. 30b-32)
What an important act! Elijah teaches us we must come to God on His terms and through His means of access. We will say more about the altar in a moment, but the point is this was the Lord’s altar of sacrifice and represented His prescribed means for access and fellowship. Note two things:
(1) One of the words used for offering a sacrifice in the Old Testament was qarab. It meant “to come near, approach, draw near,” and then, “to offer, bring.” Another word used, alah, meant literally, “to go up, ascend, climb.” The ascent of the smoke of the sacrifice symbolized access to God through a sacrifice that satisfied God’s holiness in anticipation of the substitutionary death of His Son.
(2) Repairing the Lord’s altar depicted coming to the Lord on His terms by repentance or confession, and restoring the areas of access we have neglected as had been the case--not with Elijah--but with Israel. God’s altar (or His prescribed way of access) had been neglected and was in shambles. In its place, they had substituted the idolatrous system of Baal.
For God to hear our prayer, we need to repair or correct those things in our lives that hinder fellowship with Him. Please review the following important passages: Compare Isaiah 59:1f; Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 28:9; Matthew 5:23-24; 1 Peter 3:7; with 1 John 1:9; Psalm 32:1f; 51:1f; and Proverbs 28:13.
Note also how Elijah repaired the altar--he used 12 stones. Why 12? Elijah was addressing the northern kingdom of ten tribes. After Solomon, the kingdom had been divided into the southern kingdom of two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, and the northern kingdom of the remaining ten tribes. This demonstrated God had never accepted this division. One of the things that always hinders the impact of God’s people in the world is disunity. God wants His people united and working together. This is clear in John 17.
The Preparation of the Sacrifice (vss. 33-35)
This was all done for the purpose of authenticity. Not only did he not put any fire under the sacrifice, but he drenched it with water so there could be no mistake about how the sacrifice was consumed. It was a work of the living God. Do our lives give unmistakable evidence of the power of God, or are we building fires under our sacrifices? Is it evident that we are the ones running our lives rather than the Lord? How we need to give evidence that our lives are unexplainable apart from God who lives within us.
The Time and Place of His Prayer (vss. 36a)
“Then it came about . . .” This little clause is again instructive. As we have seen several times already (17:7, 17; 18:1), this did not mean simply, “and it just happened.” It should remind us that what specifically came to pass was a product of the work of God in the life of Elijah. In the preceding verses, this phrase referred to what happened through the providential working of the Lord circumstantially, but what happened here was doctrinally motivated; it was the work of God through the Word. It was a result of what Elijah knew as a result of his personal faith in the Word and as a result of his desire to glorify the Lord. Elijah waited until this specific time of the day to act and to pray before the people. As a testimony to the power of the Word, Elijah wanted the people to see that his life was ordered by God’s Word.
Please note the following important points:
(1) The time of his prayer was the time of the evening sacrifice as prescribed by the Old Testament.
(2) The place where he offered his prayer was near the altar where the bullock lay.
(3) These were both symbolical acts indicating Elijah’s faith in God’s truth.
(4) Elijah was acting according the revelation of the Lord in the Old Testament Scripture. He was standing on the promises!
What can we learn from Elijah’s actions? There is no access to God and thus no prayer heard apart from God’s prescribed sacrifice and access. But remember this Old Testament sacrifice (as with all Old Testament sacrifices) was a shadow or type of Christ and God’s sacrifice for the sin of the world through His Son (Heb. 10:5-10; John 1:29). What does this mean for us today now that Christ, God’s Lamb, has come and borne the sin of mankind?
(1) All must come to God through faith in the person and work of Christ who died in our place to bear our sin (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:13-18; 3:12).
(2) We are to pray to the Father in the Name of the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24; Eph. 6:18).
(3) We must be in fellowship or our first prayer needs to be the prayer of confession by which we honestly deal with the problems of the heart as well as our overt behavior (Ps. 66:18; 28:13; Eph. 4:30 and 6:18).
(4) It also means the believer who publicly prays in the name of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us stands out as a testimony and as a condemnation of the ecumenical spirit of the day where prayer is made merely in God’s name or in the name of the deity.
The Manner of His Address to God (vs. 36b)
He said, “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.” This proclaimed Yahweh as the God of the covenants and promises to the nation. Elijah’s confidence in prayer was based on the revelation of the character and nature of God as Yahweh, and on the specific principles and plan of God as revealed in the covenants of promise as given to the patriarchs of Israel.
First, when he addressed God as Yahweh, he was:
(1) Relying and counting on God as “I Am,” the eternal, immutable, and independent God of the universe with whom all things were possible.
(2) He was relying on God as the One who revealed Himself to the nation through Moses and the Law, and who had redeemed His chosen people for a three-fold purpose: (a) to be the custodians of the Word; (b) to be the channel for Messiah, the Savior of the world; and (c) to be a light to the nations (Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:6-8; Rom. 3:2; 9:4-6).
Second, when he addressed God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, he was specifically thinking and praying in the light of the covenants and promises and the principles that related to Israel such as: (a) God would not forsake His people; (b) they were to be a nation of priests to the nations of God’s salvation in the coming Messiah; (c) they were to avoid idolatry at all costs; (d) for obedience there would be blessing but for disobedience there would be cursing or the cycles of discipline as spelled out in Deuteronomy 28-29 and Leviticus 26; and (e) they were to be a people of the Word of God. This was to be their daily diet that they might remember the mighty works which He had done. In other words, Elijah’s prayer was motivated and directed by the principles and promises of Scripture.
The Purpose and Content of His Prayer (vss. 36c-37)
He said, “Let it be known.” Elijah had four concerns and each of them concerned the glory of God and the well being of His people. Here are four great things people need to see and know.
(1) “That Thou art God in Israel” (18:36), and “that Thou, O Lord, art God.” (18:37). O how people need to see there is a true God, know who the true God is, and know He is alive and well and involved with their lives and nation.
(2) “That I am Thy servant.” This statement shows us Elijah wanted the people to see that not only was Yahweh real, but he (Elijah) was real also. Though he served people, he was not a servant of people or a people-pleaser (1 Thess. 2). The world is full of religious phonies who worship and serve their own appetites (Phil. 3:18-19). It also shows he wanted them to see the truth of God which he held and believed and which had transformed his life. This truth had brought the power of God into his life.
(3) “That I have done all these things at Thy Word.” This is an advancement on the above. As God’s servants, our lives are to be ordered and directed by the Word of God, and not by the whims and caprice of people, whether from our own desires or those of others. People must come to see that the issues of life revolve around adherence to the divine Word. They also need to see that this as a word from God is not just a group of arbitrary restrictions designed to make people miserable. Rather its design is protective and soteriological. God wants to bring blessing and meaning into people’s lives.
(4) “That Thou hast turned their heart back again.” Elijah sought no credit for the results of this miracle. It was all the work of the grace and power of God (1 Cor. 3:5-7; 15:10). Grace! Grace! Grace! Elijah wanted the people to have their confidence not in him, a mere man, but in the Lord and His Word which Elijah followed (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Also, Elijah wanted people to realize something of God’s love and mercy: that without God’s grace that had pursued them like the hound of heaven, they would have proceeded deeper and deeper into sin and the judgment they so richly deserved.
The Brevity of His Prayer
His public prayer occupies only two verses and 63 words in the English Bible, and even fewer in the Hebrew. Here we find a principle seen throughout the Bible. Public prayers should usually be brief, clear, and to the point. The Lord does not hear us for our many words. Too often public prayers are long, monotone, humdrum, or flowery oratories that sound as though the person is auditioning for a part in a Shakespearean play. Very often, long prayers are pretentious (Mark 12:40).
The Results of His Prayer (vss. 38-40)
In these verses we see the power of God manifested from heaven to do two things. First, we see men and women turning back to the Lord. We see revival, restoration, and repentance. Second, we see people become bold enough to defy Jezebel and execute the Baal prophets. Remember, this was their covenant duty and a protective measure under the law of Israel (Deut. 13:4-5; 18:20).
How, then, does this apply to us today? The fervent prayers of the righteous move the Holy Spirit of God to accomplish His work in the hearts of people. The objective is to turn them to the Lord and then, as God’s people, to give them courage to take a stand against the apostasy of the day. We need a bold witness. We need to refuse to be like the world, or to go along with its ideas, patterns, and schemes that are so clearly contrary to Scripture. God wants us to get involved in the issues of the day that face our society.
This means earnest prayer for our nation and leaders. It means taking a stand on the job or at the office. It means being informed, witnessing and giving answers, praying, writing our elected representatives, voting, and other avenues open to us in a free society.
Elijah’s Private Prayer
A Contrast of Persons (vs. 41)
It appears Ahab goes up to eat and drink totally unappreciative of the grace of God. He is a picture of hardened insensitivity from years of rejecting the Lord. For three-and-a-half years his kingdom had faced a severe drought and famine covered the land. The prophets of Baal had now been slain before his eyes and God had performed a miracle through Elijah, a prophet of the Lord. Still, God was simply not in Ahab’s thoughts. He had but one thought. “Rain is coming, the famine will pass, so now I can enjoy myself without hindrance.” On the other hand, Elijah knew his work was not done. God works through prayer and he went up to the top of the mountain to pray.
This obvious contrast is a warning to all of us. It shows what can happen to the human heart. One man is occupied with himself and his own plans. One is occupied with the Lord and His promises. May this be a warning to all of us. Our prayer life and our hunger for the Word are clear barometers of the condition of our heart. When we continue to ignore God’s revelation and pursue our own desires and plans, it has a hardening effect on the heart (Heb. 3:7-13; Mark 6:51-52).
The Basis for Elijah’s Prayer
The basis for Elijah’s actions was, of course, the promise God made to him in 18:1. But why pray? God had said, “rain is coming.” In Matthew 6:32, warning the disciples against wrong priorities and being anxious over the details of life, the Lord said, “for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” If He knows and He cares and He has promised to meet all our need according to His riches in glory, then why pray? I believe the answer lies in two very simple principles of the Word.
(1) Prayer is the human tool of faith that God has sovereignly chosen to translate His promises into performance. God not only ordains the end, i.e., the rain, but He also ordains the means of making the promise a reality, prayer. The second principle flows out of the first.
(2) Prayer is also one of the means God uses to draw us to Himself and to conform us to His will. Prayer reveals our dependence on the Lord and keeps us dependent and occupied with Him. This not only glorifies the Lord, but it promotes spiritual growth in us as it builds our faith and keeps us focused on Him.
Right after the Lord said, “for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” he also said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Then, in the next chapter He said, “Keep on asking . . .” (Matt. 7:7). The Christian life is a life of faith and occupation with the Lord, a life of trusting and developing a relationship and commitment to God. Prayer is the hand of faith that reaches out and grasps the promises of God. It is one of the instruments God uses to mold us into His image and purposes.
The Meaning and Significance of Carmel
Perhaps there is analogy here that comes out of the meaning of the name of this mountain where the contest occurred and where Elijah prayed for the rain that would bring fruitfulness to the land. As seen earlier, “Carmel” is a Hebrew word that means “a garden land, a place of fruitfulness or fertility.” It comes from karam, “to tend vines” or kerem, “a vineyard.” Elijah went to the place of fruitfulness. The place of fruitfulness is our prayer life, if we are praying biblically.
Elijah’s Position in Prayer (vs. 42b)
This simply shows us Elijah prayed earnestly or fervently (James 5:17). He was genuine. He was not merely being religious nor was he trying to impress God by falling on his knees. Kneeling merely expressed the genuineness of his heart and was undoubtedly a position in which he could concentrate, but it gained no merit with the Lord nor was it the means of getting God to answer. A number of postures are seen used in Scripture for prayer--standing, kneeling, prostrate, the hands raised, etc. It’s not the posture that counts. It’s the heart, the attitude, the motives, the faith, and the nature of the prayer according to the will of God.
Believers are not commanded to assume any special position. We should assume a position that will allow us to think and focus on the Lord--this is what counts. If some people assumed Elijah’s position for any length of time, they might not be able to get back on their feet. They would need a tow truck.
The Conversation with Elijah’s Servant (vss. 43-44)
This scene provides a second contrast of persons. It shows that Elijah prayed in faith, expectantly. He prayed believing God’s specific promises and with perseverance he continued in prayer, never fainting, wavering or doubting. “Seven times” he told the servant to return. Seven is the number of completion or perfection in Scripture. It is not a magical number. It simply teaches us what perseverance and unwavering faith accomplishes. It is designed to teach the principle of Luke 18:1, “that at all times they (men) ought to pray and not to lose heart.” The need is to keep going until we see evidence of an answer. Elijah wasn’t saying he’d quit after seven.
Another contrast of persons is seen in the servant who kept running back and forth, up and down the mountain to Elijah while Elijah remained steadfast in prayer. The servant is like many believers who pray a few minutes, look out the window and think, “just like I thought, nothing.” Then they try something else and when that doesn’t work, they try a little more prayer. But to pray like that is to be like the double-minded man of James 1:5 who asks, doubts, wavers, asks, then doubts and so on. Elijah did not doubt even after six negative reports. He continued to pray. Why? Because he was standing confidently on what God had promised! Elijah knew God’s will from God’s direct promise.
Have you ever been like this servant? Have you found yourself running back and forth, almost frantic because God didn’t seem to be listening? Well, I certainly have faced that in my own life and I suspect you have too. Let me make four suggestions that can help.
(1) Be sure your prayer is grounded in the Word. This gives confidence.
(2) Be sure your prayer is not from carnal or wrong motives, but directed by biblical principles. Rest in the intercessory ministry of the Holy Spirit who always prays according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26-27).
(3) Keep on asking, looking, and knocking in a faith that rests in God’s fatherly care, love, and timing (Matt. 7:7-8).
(4) Above all, ask the Lord to teach you what He wants to do in you and through you during this period of waiting.
Either the servant was filled with surprise when he said, “Behold,” or it was sarcasm like, “behold, there is a cloud out there all right, but it’s only about the size of a man’s hand.” If surprise, it may have been like the early church when they prayed for Peter. If sarcasm, it was like the typical doubting Thomas, the “I told you so” pessimist or exponent of Murphy’s law.
For Elijah, as one with the eyes of faith who was resting on the promise of God, the little cloud was just the start of something big. In Elijah’s reaction we see the expectation of the faith and of a man grounded in and believing the Word of God. He didn’t hesitate. Immediately he sent his servant with a message to Ahab. In essence, his message said, “Get back to the palace or you are going to get caught in the rain and it is going to be such a rain that you will not be able to travel.” Evidently Elijah expected the ravines would be filled with water and there would be flash floods.
The Products of Elijah’s Prayer (vss. 45-46)
Rain on the Land (vs. 45)
The drought was broken through the prayer of faith according the will of God, but the ultimate goal was the removal of the spiritual drought in Israel. It was designed to turn sinners from seeking life apart from God. This is the context for the way James uses Elijah as an illustration of the effectual working of a righteous man. The Lord often waits to answer our prayers for physical needs in order to deal with our spiritual needs. It becomes the means of ending the spiritual drought in our own souls and then in our community.
Strength for Elijah (vs. 46)
Elijah received supernatural strength to outrun Ahab. This undoubtedly portrays the dynamic effects of living in the Word and prayer. The disciplines of Bible study and prayer (when done in faith rather than in a spirit of legalism) bring energy to a sagging spirit that often wants to give up or throw in the towel. They bring vitality into the life of the believer as we are taught in Isaiah 40:31.
The Lesson for Elijah’s Servant
There is another effect to the praying of Elijah in this passage. It’s not mentioned in the text, but can you imagine the effect this must have had on the servant? What must this have done for his spiritual growth?
A neat illustration is found in the book, Elijah, by Howard Hendricks:
We have a lovely family in our community. The father felt God was compelling him into vocational Christian work. So he sold his business at a loss and entered the work to which the Lord had called him. And things got rather rough financially.
One night at family devotions, Timmy, the youngest of four boys, asked, “Daddy, do you think Jesus would mind if I asked Him for a shirt?” “Of course not,” answered his dad. So they wrote in their little prayer-request book, “Shirt for Timmy.” Mom added, “Size seven.” You can be sure that every night Timmy saw to it that they prayed for the shirt. For weeks they prayed for it--every night.
One day the mother received a telephone call from a Christian businessman, a clothier in downtown Dallas. He said, “I just completed our July clearance sale. Knowing that you have four boys it occurred to me that I have something you might use. Could you use some boys’ shirts?” She said, “What size?” “Size seven.” “How many do you have?” He said, “I have twelve of them.”
What would you do? Some parents would take the shirts and stuff them in the bureau drawer and make some casual comment to the child. Not this enlightened family. That night, as expected--“Don’t forget, Mommy, let’s pray for the shirt.” “We don’t have to pray for the shirt, Timmy. The Lord answered your prayer.” “He has?” “Right.” As previously arranged, brother Tommy goes out, gets the shirt, brings it in, and puts it on the table. Timmy’s eyes are like saucers. Tommy goes out, gets another shirt and brings it in. Out, back, out, back, until he has piled twelve shirts on the table, and Timmy thinks God has gone into the shirt business. There is a boy today by the name of Timmy who still believes that there is a God in heaven who is interested enough in a boy’s needs to provide a shirt. Do your kids know that? Do you know that in an affluent society?
Sometimes we have to write “No” in the answer column . . . this is just as much an answer as a yes.25
While we should not look back to our experiences as the primary basis of our faith for the future, certainly such memorable experiences have a dynamic impact on our faith as they remind us of God’s faithfulness.
If prayer is so important, why is it so many believers are continually halted in their prayer life? Well, it’s no accident. It is the result of satanic scheming plus our own natural tendencies. Satan doesn’t mind if we witness near as much as he minds if we pray because he knows it is far more important to talk to God about people, than to talk to people about God. It’s when we start talking to God about people that our witnessing becomes most effective.
The same applies to studying the Word, teaching it to others, or Christian activity. If Satan can keep believers off their knees, and keep us running up and down the various mountains of our lives, very little of the Word will really take hold. Instead spiritual pride will develop and the activity will become just busy activity, but ineffective. Prayer is a very important dimension in the life of every believer. May the Lord enable us to keep the dimension of the power of prayer in focus.