Thursday, 28 February 2013

Elijah’s Prayer for Rain (1 Kings 18:41-46)


How do we pray when we already have been told what God will do? That may seem like a bizarre question, yet it is one that Elijah could have answered. It is obvious that his experience as he prays for rain provides an example for us because he had been told by God that he would soon send rain. No doubt, some will dismiss the question by saying that it could only be asked of someone like Elijah who had been given a special promise by God. Yet God has given us many promises in connection to prayer. Are they as real as the one he made to Elijah? We will consider this aspect later. 

This incident is important for us as New Testament believers. When the apostle James wanted to encourage his first-century readers about the topic of prayer he chose this event. They too were living in difficult circumstances. What hope could James offer them? He told them about Elijah and how his prayers influenced the events in the natural world. This story from another time is always an encouragement to God’s people because it reminds them of what was achieved through prayer.

Only a short time before, Elijah had prayed publicly for God to accept the sacrifice offered to him on Mount Carmel. Now he prays again, except this prayer is a private one in the sense that the onlookers have gone. It is obvious that his prayer method in private differed from how he prayed in public. I suspect that both incidents have been recorded in the Bible so that we will think about both our public and our private prayers.

Promises and prayer
In verse 41, Elijah tells Ahab to go and eat and drink because there is a sound of the rushing of rain. This statement raises a question as to the sense in which Elijah could hear it because it does not look as if Ahab could. It is possible that the Lord let Elijah hear something that was yet a long distance away because at that moment there was nothing visible in the sky that would indicate that rain was about to come. Indeed the sky remained unchanged from what it had looked like on previous days. Yet I think it more likely that what Elijah was hearing was the promise of God to send rain.

Here we see a very important aspect of prayer which is that it is based mainly on the promises of God. Of course, we can pray for matters and people about which God has not given particular promises. Yet we cannot express confidence that these prayers will be answered by a yes from God. In distinction from that type of petition there are requests that we can make expecting a yes because the Lord has given specific promises about them. 

No doubt, Elijah was thinking about God’s promise as he urged Ahab to go and eat. And it would be a useful practice for us to think about some of God’s promises before we begin to pray, and then in our prayer we can ask God to do what he has promised. 

But it looks as if Elijah did more than accept that God would send some rain. Instead he expected that the Lord would send a great deal of rain – there would be a rushing of rain, as if it would come down in torrents. Remember that there was no sign of rain in the sky, yet here is the Lord’s servant anticipating something great from God. The prophet knew that the Lord’s answer would be based on his grace, his abounding grace. We have often sung Amazing Grace, but when we do, do we think of it as abounding towards the undeserving.

There is another detail that would have helped Elijah have a sense of confidence in God’s Word, and we may find this detail a bit surprising. Is there a reason why we are told in the previous verses that he slew the prophets of Baal? We know why he did it – it was done out of obedience to God’s Word. Yet Elijah could not have found such an action as easy to perform. And is it not the case that often we fail to have the confidence we should have because we are not willing to do the difficult things that God sometimes puts in our path. Thankfully we don’t have to perform the type of action that Elijah did here. But that does not mean we will not have difficult situations in which to develop our spiritual muscles. Faith is a spiritual muscle that is strengthened in different ways, and obedience is a way of strengthening our confidence in God. 

Place of prayer
Elijah ascended Mount Carmel in order to pray, probably near to the altar that he had erected a short time previously. Perhaps he had gone there because he knew it was a place where God had been present. More likely he went there to get away from the crowds and find a place where he could engage in personal prayer. Common sense tells us that if we try and pray in a noisy location we will be distracted.

Finding a secret place to pray is a matter of obedience to the instructions of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount he told his disciples that ‘when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (Matt. 6:6). The immediate context of that requirement is to avoid showing off in prayer, of imitating the practice of the Pharisees.

A secret place is essential for bringing to God the personal burdens of our hearts. We can easily gauge the sense we have of these matters by assessing our use of a secret place. Public prayer is not the time when an individual should be going into detail about his or her heart sins. Yet private prayer is such a time. Similarly, public prayer is not an occasion for describing personal disappointments with other believers. They should be spoken about to God.

A secret place for prayer is an important contribution to the process of getting to know God, whether it be the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. We know that it is impossible to build healthy relationships with other people unless we spend time with them. This is also the case with increasing in our knowledge of the Lord. Personal prayer is not the only means of obtaining such knowledge – we also receive it from other means of grace such as listening to preaching, participating in the Lord’s Supper and listening to other Christians. Yet none or all of them can be a substitute for having a secret place.

A secret place and its timing must be organised by us. I don’t mean that we become fixed to praying for a certain period every day. Instead, we should mark out time in which to meet with God and that meeting can include meditation on the Bible, recording reflections in a journal or diary, utilising a book of devotions, and other helpful tools. But it must involve prayer and we can see its different aspects in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to say when each of them went into his secret place: adoration (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name); intercession for his kingdom (your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven); prayer for personal needs (give us this day our daily bread); confession of sin (forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors); and prayer for protection from evil (and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil). Jesus also points out the attitude we must have in the secret place: ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matt. 6:14-15).

Posture in prayer
Elijah ‘bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees’ (v. 42). Does posture in private prayer matter? We are all familiar with the concept of body language and I think it is the case that certain postures help us when praying for particular answers. They also reveal what we think about God, and after all only he sees what we do in private prayer.

Elijah’s posture revealed two aspects of his outlook towards God. First, bowing down indicated that he recognised that God was his sovereign. Out there on the top of Mount Carmel, the prophet was aware that he was in the presence of God, the real King of Israel. The only appropriate response was to bow before him in adoration at his greatness. There are three attitudes that lie behind bowing down to a superior: there is the sense of reluctant compulsion (we dislike him but cannot escape from him), there is the sense of deceptive manipulation (we pretend that we want to serve him), and there is the sense of reverent acknowledgement (we love who he is and want to elevate him higher in our own estimation). 

Should we bow in personal prayer? It depends on where we are. Paul says in Ephesians 3:14: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father...’ He says elsewhere that we should follow his example. So it is appropriate to bow physically in his presence as an expression of what is felt within us as we draw near to him in prayer.

Elijah also put his face between his knees and I would suggest, secondly, that this posture indicates his sense of shame and unworthiness. Remember he is praying near to where he has had a major triumph and the evidence of his success would still have been visible on top of the mountain. I suppose he could have looked at it and said to himself, ‘God used me there and it is good to focus on such memories.’ No doubt there is a place for such reflection, but not when we are engaged in prayer for more divine actions. The fact is, even our best efforts are not really worth focussing on and sometimes they can take our eyes of God and away from the business at hand. 

It is one of the intriguing facts of Christian experience that those who have done most for God think very little about the worth of their contributions. George Muller, as an old man and after being a Christian for over fifty years, observed about himself and his prayer life: ‘He has given me, unworthy as I am, immeasurably above all I had asked or thought! I am only a poor, frail, sinful man, but he has heard my prayers tens of thousands of times...’ Many more such examples could be cited. What they tell us is that the man who stands tall before men bows low before God. Fear of man disappears when there is fear of God.

Petitioning in prayer
One thing that is clear is that Elijah did not presume anything about God’s promise. The prophet did not say to the people, ‘God has promised rain. All we have to do is sit down and wait for it to come.’ That would have been presumption. Instead he went and prayed about the matter.

Two features stand out regarding his prayer. One is the precise request that he made, which was for God to fulfil his promise to send rain. The other is that he persisted in prayer until God answered his petition. Sometimes we imagine that we should only have to persevere in praying about matters concerning which God has not given specific promises. Yet the fact is that often we have to persevere over matters which have great promises connected to them. This is one of the great challenges in our prayer lives. Because he had a promise from God, Elijah kept praying until the answer came.

Possessing God’s power
After telling Ahab to proceed back to Jezreel, Elijah ran ahead of the king’s chariot for a distance of about eighteen miles. No doubt he was physically fit, but he was also given extra strength by the Holy Spirit to run the distance. It was common for kings to have forerunners who ran ahead. When the people would have seen Elijah ahead of the king they would have assumed that the king had turned to God after the events on Mount Carmel.

The decision of Elijah would have told Ahab that the prophet was willing to serve the king. Elijah recognised that it was his duty to help Ahab govern God’s people. All Ahab had to do was ask Elijah to be his advisor. Time will tell what the king will do and who it is that will have most influence in his life. The point for us to notice is that times of prayer should be followed by dedicated service wherever the Lord has placed us.

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