“…The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
For the past few weeks during my Bible reading, I’ve been enjoying again the stories of God’s mighty working among His people in the books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. This morning, I was especially enthusiastic about what I was reading, because I had finally reached the stories of Elijah, my favorite Bible character. There are several reasons for my favoritism, not the least of which is the fact that I’ve always felt I could identify with him in some ways. Even though I’ve never seen God work through me quite so dramatically as He did through Elijah, there have been many times in my life when I felt God empowering me to follow the prophet’s example in boldly speaking truth. Unfortunately though, there have probably been many more times when I’ve been so overwhelmed by fear that I more closely resembled Elijah when he ran away, begging God to take his life after hearing of Jezebel’s vow to murder him. The Bible confirms that Elijah wasn’t all that different from you or me when it tells us that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (James 5:17). Although we as Christians often see these Bible characters as being an entirely different breed from ourselves, this verse reminds us that Elijah was just an ordinary human being who was set apart by God to show His extraordinary strength.
After James reminds us that Elijah was much like us, he goes on to say that “[Elijah] prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” Today as I read about this event in 1 Kings 17-18, I was impressed anew with the weight of the thought that God uses the prayers of His people to accomplish His sovereign will.
You remember the story: Elijah goes before Ahab, the godless king of Israel, to deliver the news that it would not rain in Israel until he gave the word that the drought was over. Just like Elijah said, God prevented both dew and rain for the next 3 ½ years, showing rather clearly the utter uselessness of Baal, the supposed god of rain and fertility. Near the end of the drought, Elijah called the people to gather at Mount Carmel where the impotence of Baal was further illustrated by his failure to consume a sacrifice with fire though his prophets called for him from morning until midafternoon. After drenching the altar with water so the superiority of his God would be obvious to all, Elijah asked God to answer his prayer for the specific reason “that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again.” God’s response to Elijah’s prayer stood in stark contrast to the lengthy and fruitless wailing of the false prophets before him as He instantly sent His fire to consume the water-logged sacrifice. Elijah’s prayer was then answered in its entirety as the people fell on their faces proclaiming, “The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God.”
Every time I get to this point in the story, I feel radically inspired, but today I was even more encouraged as I read the end of the story. After commanding the people to put the false prophets of Baal to death, Elijah told King Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of the roar of a heavy shower.” Then Elijah crouched down on the ground there at Mount Carmel and told his servant to go look for the rain cloud—the answer to his prayer. The first time the servant looked, he saw nothing, but Elijah told him to keep looking. Each time the servant looked, he repeatedly saw nothing until the 7th time when he reported back to Elijah, “Behold, a cloud as small as a man’s hand is coming up from the sea.” I can’t imagine that too many people saw that tiny cloud and thought much about it, but Elijah knew what was coming and sent word to Ahab, “Prepare your chariot and go down, so that the heavy shower does not stop you.” The Bible continues, “In a little while the sky grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy shower.” And just like that, the drought was over.
I wonder what that servant was thinking when he gazed out on the cloudless sky for the sixth time in a row. After all, the drought had been going on for 3 ½ years. I suppose that he had been looking at many cloudless skies for the past few years feeling as though the drought would never end. I imagine there were many, many Israelites who loved the Lord and wondered if they would ever again feel the welcome relief of rain upon their faces. Even though they may never have turned away from God to worship idols, they still suffered under the judgment that the Baal worshippers had brought upon their land. After offering countless prayers for rain, there were probably many who wondered if God had abandoned them forever. I can imagine what they might have been feeling, because I’ve felt that way at times in my life. After praying for what seems like far too long, I’ve wondered if God would ever bring an end to the suffering I was experiencing as a result of another’s sin. I, too, have been tempted to give up and stop watching for God’s answer to my prayers.
I’ve always thought it was kind of funny that when Elijah’s servant looked out for the seventh time, that he compared the little rain cloud that he finally saw to the size of a man’s hand. I mean, that was one tiny cloud! There probably weren’t too many people who woke up that morning with any inkling that God would very soon bring their long years of suffering to an end. I wonder if there were any people who gazed out at the sky that day still believing God had not forsaken them and knowing that when He had accomplished His purposes for the drought in their lives God would send the answer to their prayers in the form of a little rain cloud. Maybe Elijah wasn’t the only one that day asking God to answer his prayer and enable the unbelievers around to see His hand at work and cry out, “The LORD, He is God!”
Oh, how I want to be a person like Elijah with an unrelenting faith that God will use my prayers to accomplish His sovereign will. When others are staring at the parched and thirsty ground under their feet, I want to be the person who encourages them for the seventh or the seventieth time to lift their eyes to the Heavens. I want to remind them to listen for the roar of a heavy shower even if they can’t see one cloud in the sky. Because no matter how dry the soil, how empty the well, how hopeless the situation, we must continue to pray, believing that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” Keep watching for that tiny cloud!