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Lesson 5: The Man Who Prayed About the Weather (1 Kings 17-19 and James 5:16b-18)

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Do you ever pray about the weather? A few times I have successfully prayed that a predicted snowstorm would be delayed until after church on Sunday. But on other occasions the Lord has not answered such prayers. Years ago, I prayed that the drought in California would end. The answer to that prayer came on March 1, 1991, when we got 15 inches of rain in 24 hours, resulting in a mudslide against my house. I should have prayed that God would relieve the drought gradually!

We should be praying that God would relieve the current drought in Arizona. But, more importantly, I want to encourage you to pray about the spiritual weather in our land. We are in a spiritual drought. The rivers of living water are dried up to a trickle and people are turning to other things to try to quench their spiritual thirst. Even many of God’s people have turned aside from Him, the only fountain of living water, to broken worldly cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). God wants His people to pray about this spiritual drought, that times of refreshing would come again from the hand of the Lord.

The great prophet Elijah prayed about the weather of his day—both literally and spiritually. James 5:16b-18 tells us, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17-19) teaches that

In ungodly times, godly people should pray for God to make His glory known by turning sinners to Himself.

Elijah was a godly man who lived in times that rivaled our times for ungodliness. But he prayed and his prayers made a significant difference in the history of Israel. I want us to look at the times in which Elijah prayed, at the man who prayed, and at the subject of his prayers. I pray that God would use Elijah’s life to stimulate us to pray and see God manifest His glory by turning sinners to Himself in these ungodly times.

1. The time to pray is when ungodliness is rampant.

Elijah blasted on the scene in the midst of the most corrupt reign in Israel’s history. The weak-willed Ahab had married the Phoenician princess, Jezebel, who introduced and aggressively promoted Baal worship on a wide scale (16:31-33). She had exterminated the prophets of Yahweh, except for 100 who were hidden by Obadiah, Ahab’s chief of staff, who was a secret believer (18:3, 13). Though they survived, those 100 prophets seemed to be silenced for the time being.

Baal was regarded as the god who controlled the rain and fertility in agriculture, animals and people. Accompanying Baal was his consort or mother, Asherah (18:19). Often, the Israelites blended the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal, so that people were blinded as to the extent of their idolatry (Jer. 2:23). Though there were 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed their knees to Baal (19:18), they, like the 100 prophets of Yahweh, seemed to be in hiding. No one was taking a public stand for the Lord, except Elijah. It was the darkest of times spiritually.

Certainly our times rival Elijah’s times for ungodliness. The American church desperately needs revival. Although polls show that at least one-third of Americans claim to be born again, a surface glance at our culture tells you that they understand something quite different than the Bible does by that term. Most Americans believe that there is no absolute standard of morality. Through the internet, pornography floods our nation at unprecedented levels. Church people, including Christian leaders, are falling into sin at alarming rates. I recently read the tragic account of an evangelical pastor who was arrested for soliciting sex with a teenage girl over the internet. Many American Christians are entangled with greed and self-centered living. In 1989, Tom Sine wrote,

I suspect that one of the reasons we are so ineffective in evangelism is that we are so much like the people around us that we have very little to which we can call them. We hang around church buildings a little more. We abstain from a few things. But we simply aren’t that different.…

As a result of this unfortunate accommodation, Christianity is reduced to little more than a spiritual crutch to help us through the minefields of the upwardly mobile life. God is there to help us get our promotions, our house in the suburbs, and our bills paid. Somehow God has become a co-conspirator in our agendas instead of our becoming a co-conspirator in His. Something is seriously amiss (Christianity Today [3/17/89], p. 52).

I don’t mean to be unduly pessimistic. But if we aren’t realistic about the condition of the church in our day, we won’t be moved to pray for the revival we so desperately need. It is at precisely such depressing moments of darkness that God often raises up a godly remnant to begin seeking Him. Through that praying minority, He changes the history of nations. So, rather than growing discouraged at the spiritual drought around us, we ought to be motivated to pray, knowing that with our God, all things are possible. One praying person plus God is a majority.

In his nourishing book, Revival [Crossway], Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasizes how important it is to know church history, so that we know how to pray and what we can expect God to do in our times. During the Reformation, things were as corrupt as they ever have been. Immorality and greed were rampant among the clergy. The common people could not read the Bible in their native tongue. Biblical teaching was almost non-existent. God raised up a few godly men, like Luther and Calvin, who turned the tide. The same thing has happened repeatedly. So the fact that we live in ungodly times ought to move us to pray that God would send revival.

Who are the people who pray at such times?

2. The people who pray are godly people.

Elijah was a man who knew and served the living God. But, also, he was very human, “a man with a nature like ours.” Note four characteristics of Elijah that apply to us:

A. Godly people know the living God and His power.

Elijah’s opening line with Ahab was, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1). God was no figment of the imagination or an abstract theological concept for Elijah. He knew God as the living God, the all-powerful God who made the universe and thus who easily could control the rain. Elijah knew experientially how to trust in this living God.

The kind of people who pray and see God act in spiritually dark times aren’t just playing church and going through the Christian routine. They know God as the living God. They depend upon Him for practical matters each day. They realize that if God were to withdraw His Holy Spirit from their lives, they would instantly be in trouble. Dr. Howard Hendricks used to ask us as seminary students, “What is there in your life that you cannot explain on any basis other than the supernatural?” It’s a haunting question that we ought to ask ourselves often, both personally and as a church. We need to know God as the living God by depending upon Him daily in prayer. Our lives and ministries should be a demonstration of His Spirit and power, not of the latest slick methods.

B. Godly people know that they are accountable to the living God.

Elijah knew God as the God “before whom I stand.” The NIV translates the idea as, the God “whom I serve.” To stand before God meant to wait upon Him as a servant waits upon a master. Elijah realized that he was under God and would have to give an account to God for his life. So even though he was standing before a powerful, wicked king, who had killed many prophets, Elijah could speak boldly because he knew that God, not Ahab, was the ultimate judge to whom he would answer.

When I preach, there are times when I have to say some hard things. The Bible has a way of running cross-grain to the way we often live. I try always to say it in love, but I realize that no matter how kindly I say some things, there will be people who don’t like it. They may get angry with me and leave the church. But I always try to remember the words of the English martyr, Hugh Latimer, who often preached before the royal court. On such occasions, he would say to himself, “Latimer, Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty king, Henry VIII, who is able, if he think fit, to take thy life away. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, Latimer, remember thou art also about to speak before the King of kings and Lord of lords. Take heed thou dost not displease Him” (source unknown).

If we are going to pray and stand against the tide of ungodliness in our day, we need to know the living God and that we are accountable to Him.

C. Godly people have a zeal for holiness.

Elijah had a zeal for holiness. When he met Ahab after the three and a half years of drought, Ahab said, “Is this you, you troubler of Israel?” (18:17). Elijah shot back, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and you have followed the Baals” (18:18).

Then he put forth his challenge for a show down with the prophets of Baal. Note his words to the people who gathered to watch (18:21): “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” You would think that some who were on the fence would have come over and stood with Elijah, but none did. Elijah, like many who have a zeal for the Lord and His holiness, had to stand alone.

Then (18:22) he points out the odds of the contest: One for the Lord; 450 for Baal. The 100 prophets of the Lord either didn’t know about the contest or they weren’t willing to come out of hiding and take a stand with Elijah. The Phoenicians thought that Mt. Carmel was the dwelling place of Baal. But Elijah figured that 450-1 were good odds, even if Baal had the home court advantage, because the one had the Lord on his side.

We also see Elijah’s zeal for holiness in his command to the people immediately after the contest, to slay all the prophets of Baal (18:40). Like Moses in the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32:26-28), so Elijah here asks those who were repentant to prove it by killing these false prophets, in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deut. 13:1-5).

One of the marks of those who pray for God to bring revival in spiritually dark times is that they have a zeal for holiness, beginning with their own lives. They get a new glimpse of the holiness of God that makes them recognize their own sinfulness in a deeper way. They confess their own sin and then pray that God’s people would experience the same zeal for personal holiness.

By this point, you may be a bit threatened by what I’ve been saying. You may be thinking, “The kind of person you’re describing is so far from where I’m at that I despair of ever getting there!” But even though Elijah knew the living God and His power, even though he was so bold and had such a zeal for holiness, he was not made of anything different than you or I.

D. Godly people struggle against their own propensity to sin.

James 5:17 tells us that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. He had his emotional ups and downs. Matthew Henry points out how God often raises up rough characters like Elijah for ministry in rough times. It took a rough man like Martin Luther to break the ice in the Reformation. It took an Elijah to stand against the likes of Ahab and Jezebel.

Elijah blasts onto the biblical page unlike many of the other prophets. There is no mention of his father or mother or what tribe in Israel he was from. Scholars aren’t sure where his home village of Tishbe was, except that it was on the far side of the Jordan. In other words, Elijah was a nobody from nowhere who came thundering on the scene in obedience to God and delivered God’s message. Then God took him back into seclusion to teach him some more lessons before his next public encounter. After his victory on Mt. Carmel, you would think that Elijah would have laughed at Jezebel’s threats. But instead, he fled in fear and then, paradoxically, asked God to take his life. If he really wanted to die, Jezebel would have obliged him!

The point is, even though Elijah was a godly man whom God greatly used, he wasn’t perfect. He had his weak areas. He was a fallen sinner in process, who depended upon God and sought to follow God, but who struggled against his own sins.

That’s always the case with the men and women God uses. One of the great benefits of reading Christian biographies is that you see the human side of some of the greats of the faith. You discover that God has used some rough instruments to do His work. Martin Luther was often crude and lacking in tact, to say the least. He blasted his critics by calling them names and ridiculing not only their ideas, but also them personally. He used rough language at times. He talked openly about how much he enjoyed sex with his wife—things unbecoming for a minister! Yet God used Luther as He has used few men since Paul.

John Calvin wasn’t crude, as Luther was, but critics have accused him of being stern and unloving. His enemies in Geneva coined a saying, “Better to be with Beza [Calvin’s understudy and successor] in hell than with Calvin in heaven!” Psychologist Erich Fromm said that Calvin “belonged to the ranks of the greatest haters in history.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls him the cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva. But Calvin stands even above Luther in the godly influence that he has had on the church. I agree with the Scottish theologian, William Cunningham, who said, “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done most good to mankind.” (The above quotes from Christian History [Vol. V, No. 4], pp. 2-3.) As you read Calvin, you see a man who was painfully aware of and struggling against his own sinful tendencies.

You find the same thing about any great man or woman of God—they had their weaknesses that caused some to oppose them. This doesn’t mean that we should excuse our faults or refuse to work on them. But it does mean that there is hope for us all! Being godly does not mean being perfect. If God could use a rough nobody from nowhere like Elijah, then He can use you and me!

Thus, the time to pray is when ungodliness is rampant. The people who pray are godly people. What do we pray for?

3. The subject of prayer is for God to make His glory known by turning sinners to Himself.

The reason we pray for revival during ungodly times is not so that we can have a thrilling experience or so that our nation will prosper or so that we will have successful ministries or happier lives. We should be concerned for God’s glory to be revealed so that sinners will turn to Him. We should want God’s name to be honored on earth as it is in heaven.

Note Elijah’s prayer (18:36): “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel, ...” And, (18:37): “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God and that You have turned their heart back again.” Elijah is praying that God would make His glory known by turning sinners back to Himself. God honored that prayer by sending fire from heaven and then by sending rain in response to Elijah’s next prayer. In the same way, we desperately need God to send His fire to cleanse our sins and His showers of blessing to refresh us, that everyone would know that He alone is God, so that many sinners would turn to Him.

Conclusion

Many years ago the Chinese evangelist, Watchman Nee, was preaching with a small team of men on an island off the coast of South China. The people politely received them, but there was little response. Finally, a young brother with the team suddenly asked the crowd, “Why will none of you believe?” Someone in the crowd explained that they had a god, Ta-Wang (“Great King”), who had never failed them. They had held a festival procession in his name for 286 years, and without fail that day had been clear and sunny. They determined the exact day by divination. It so happened that the day was only two days away. When he heard that, the young Christian impetuously blurted, “Then I promise you that it will rain that day.” The crowd cried, “If it rains that day, we will believe that your God is God!”

Nee was elsewhere in the village when the incident occurred. When he heard the news, which was spreading like wildfire, he panicked. At once they stopped preaching and gave themselves to prayer. They didn’t know whether they had made a terrible mistake or whether God would honor their prayer and send rain. As they were waiting on God in prayer, the word came to Nee, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14). It came with such clarity and power that he knew God had answered. He told the other men, “The Lord will send rain on that day.”

So they went out and announced everywhere that the true God would send rain on Ta-Wang’s festival day. They went out the next day and used the clear weather to preach. Three families turned to Christ and publicly burned their idols. They came back tired and rejoicing and went to bed.

The day of the festival, Nee was awakened by the direct rays of the sun through the window. He got up, knelt down, and anxiously prayed, “Lord, please send the rain.” He was rebuked, “Where is the God of Elijah?” So he went downstairs to breakfast. Everyone sat down in silence. As they bowed to thank God for the food, they again asked God to send rain. Even before their Amen, they heard a few drops on the tiles. As they ate their rice, there was a steady shower. They gave thanks and asked for heavier rain, which then began to fall in buckets-full. By the time breakfast was over, the streets were deep in water.

Meanwhile, in the village, some were shouting that there was no more Ta-Wang. But others carried the idol out on a sedan chair. Because of the rain, they stumbled and fell and the idol fractured his jaw and arm. Finally, they carried him back into the house. The village elders met and did some more divination. They determined that it was the wrong day. The correct day was three days later!

When Nee and his co-workers heard this news, they had an immediate assurance that God would send rain on the new day and they announced it. Meanwhile, the sky cleared and they enjoyed seeing over 30 people genuinely converted during the next three days of preaching. On the third day, at the hour appointed for the procession, they met again for prayer. Not a minute late, the Lord answered with more torrential rain. Satan’s power was broken. God had shown His power and many sinners turned to Him. (In Sit, Walk, Stand [Christian Literature Crusade], pp. 57-62.)

It may not happen that dramatically every time. But God wants us to join Elijah and Watchman Nee in praying about the weather—the spiritual weather—in our land. Though it is an ungodly time, through the prayers of the godly, God can make His glory known by turning many sinners to Himself.

Discussion Questions

  1. While we cannot orchestrate true revival, we can hinder it. What human factors hinder true revival?
  2. How can we know whether to pray for revival or to “flee Sodom”?
  3. How can we break out of “routine Christianity” and know the living God and His power?
  4. Where’s the balance between being holy and yet accepting our human imperfections?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Glory, Hamartiology (Sin), Prayer