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I am curious why James selects Elijah’s prayers starting and ending a drought in Israel as an example of how powerfully a righteous man’s prayer can give healing (James 5:17-18). How does this support the author's point?

If James were just talking about healing, wouldn't it be more appropriate to use Elijah’s prayer to resurrect the widow’s son from 1Ki 17:21-22? Or is James suggesting that the elders pray that the person become sick and then after confession pray for healing?

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    James has left the subject of physical healing in verse 15 and has moved to the matter of personal faults in verse 16. He is writing of the healing of personal faults in verse 16. Thus his example of Elias refers to all of the prayer he has already discussed - prayer of affliction, verse 13, prayers of illness, verses 14-15, and prayers of fault, verse 16. Not, exclusively, the matter of illness and healing.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 6 '18 at 10:13
  • @NigelJ: I see where you're going, but your progression leaves a number of open questions. Why in the middle of a progression of prayers of affliction, illness, and fault does James introduce praise for cheerfulness in verse 13b? Why does he change from the suffering individual praying in verse 13a to elders praying in verse 14? If this passage is all about the effectiveness of prayer, how does the significance of confession (verse 16a) fit in with that picture?
    – Tim
    Jun 8 '18 at 16:51
  • When Elijah resurrected the widow's son, he gave life to just one man, but when he prayed for the heavens to be opened, he gave life to countless many.
    – Lucian
    Jun 11 '18 at 14:19
  • @Lucian, you make a great point as to the magnitude of healing provided by Elijah's prayer. However, your argument focuses on verse 18, and it side-steps verse 17, where Elijah's prayer caused death and suffering to countless many. Why would James want to talk about prayers causing death and suffering in the context of an admonition to call the elders to pray for reducing the suffering and ailments of a sick individual?
    – Tim
    Jun 11 '18 at 14:29
  • @Tim: I didn't skip anything, I was merely interacting with your point. James' argument is about the power of prayer in general, not merely prayers for healing in particular (albeit that's his starting point), and closing or opening up the sky seem more impressive than Elijah's other great deeds in this respect.
    – Lucian
    Jun 11 '18 at 16:22
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James 5:17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

James here is emphasizing the repeatability of the power of prayer. This is not a one-time lucky thing. Elijah prays that rain stops and it stops and he prays that it starts and it starts. He could turn it on and off according to the word of God. That's the power of prayer and power of God using an ordinary human being. In fact, just writing this answer increases my faith in prayer. It works on me. James' purpose of writing these two verses produces its intended effect on me.

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  • Tony, thank you for your thoughts. I am also glad that you find encouragement from them. Can you explain why the author would want to emphasize the repeatability aspects in James 5? I don’t see that in the context. Thanks.
    – Tim
    Oct 15 '20 at 0:31
  • Scientifically, you are right. I generalized or over-generalized due to my zeal to believe. Even now, however, the verse still produces that encouraging effect on me subjectively.
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 15 '20 at 15:00
  • “What two or three agrees to pray about will happen”. Elijah was alone. But he had 7000 Israelites, who had not given in to worship Baal, secretly backing him up in prayer. Sep 25 at 9:41
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Using the story of Elijah praying for rain to stop and then to rain again is probably more effective because it was in these situations that Elijah declared "I am the only remaining prophet of the LORD, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets." (1 Kings 18:22)

In other stories, one could argue that the faith or righteousness of the person being healed or other people in the situation could have an impact on the result. But with land and rain, it is a collective issue. In Leviticus 18:25,28; 20:22 it tells the Israelites that if they defile the land like the nations before them, the land will 'vomit them out'. Drought is a very common reason for people who rely on agriculture to be unable to live in the land.

James, using the Elijah story, is stating that one righteous man, even in the face of an unrighteous nation, can bring change and healing. Just as Elijah's prayer for rain brought healing to a land that was parched with drought, our prayer, even if we are the only one left, can bring healing.

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  • Moria, thanks for your insights. I'm not understanding, given the context in James, why the apostle would wish to emphasize the solitary station of Elijah. The sick individual and the elders are all Christians, and there's nothing from the context suggesting the presence of a host of unbelieving witnesses. You suggest that James is trying to rule out the faith of the individual, but that counteracts Jesus' words in Matt 9:22, Mark 10:52, etc. So, can you elaborate why you believe James wants to emphasize the elders' solitary station or righteousness apart from the sick person's?
    – Tim
    Jun 8 '18 at 17:03
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Excellent question. I'm trying to imagine Elijah going around saying, "This drought we're having - I prayed for that!" I really don't think the drought was Elijah's bright idea, but that he was seeking what God wanted to do and prayed into that.

In his prayer on Mt Carmel at the end of the drought, his prayer in 1 Kings 18:36 begins:

LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.

"All these things" suggests that the drought's beginning and end, the 'fire-from-heaven' competition, the slaughtering of the prophets of Baal - all these were the Lord's plan to turn his people back to him, and Elijah was just doing his part as God's servant.

Coming back to James, I think he's saying that rather than just praying for what suits ourselves, first ask God what he wants in the situation.

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Changing the weather - the natural course of nature - seems on its face something absolutely impossible. Yet the fact that in God's inspired word it is related that a faithful prophet prayed for a change in even long term weather and it occurred gives hope for those who fully trust in God's ability to accomplish what is prayed for that in prayer they can accomplish things just as great.

1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence which we have in him: that whatsoever we shall ask according to his will, he will hear us.

For:

James 5:16 ...the peristent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

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Ok, so I haven't forgotten this question. It's been in the back of my head for the past 3 years. I think I'm starting to get a clue of the answer. There certainly is a lot going on in this passage that I don't understand, but I think that the reason James chooses this prayer of Elijah is that he wants us to know he's talking about more than physical healing.

Physical healing is a wonderful gift, but it is not an end in itself. Note that the story of Elijah raising the widow's son ends with her confession that she believes in the messenger (1Ki 16:24). Note that earlier in v18, she is aware of her sins. However, in the end, she does not speak about repenting from those sins (neither does she refuse to repent -- she is just silent on that issue). It seems that, in this story, the bodily healing of the widow's son is to confirm that God's word is indeed in the mouth of his prophet -- nothing more and nothing less.

Contrast that with the 1Ki 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 hearts back." Sure enough, once the fire fell, "[all the people] fell on their faces and said 'The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.'" And so we see spiritual healing for the nation of Israel in accordance with God's promise to Solomon in 2Ch 7:13-14.

Of course, we have to test this reading with the word for "healing" in verse 16. Here we have a problem: 19 of the 26 times this Greek word is used are in the synoptic Gospels, and always here it is clearly in the context of physical healing. The word is also used in Acts 9:34 and Acts 28:8. I think a "spiritual healing" argument might be applied in the context of Acts 10:38, Acts 28:27, and Hebrews 12:13, but I think that the context still supports interpreting "healing" in its physical sense (possibly as a contextual metaphor, but still maintaining that the word is to be understood first as being physical). The final use of this word is 1Pe 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." Here, at last, we see another instance where God is speaking primarily of something other than physical healing. In the context of this epistle, Peter speaks of healing from sin. But the apostle is also quoting Isa 53:4, where the healing is from the punishment (griefs, sorrows, piercing, crushing, chastisement) and malady (transgressions, iniquities) of sin that Christ bore. So, I believe that while this word for "healing" is most commonly used in the New Testament in a physical sense, there is sufficient evidence that it can be used with a broader intended meaning.

Finally, my response here accords well with the comment of @Nigel-J. I had responded to his comment with a number of questions, which I believe I should address here:

  1. Why in the middle of a progression of prayers of affliction, illness, and faults does James introduce praise for cheerfulness in verse 13b? Answer: I am not fully on board with @Nigel-J's progression. In particular, I think the paragraph break at v16 appropriately moves away from a progression of affliction, cheerfulness, and sickness/weakness, and begins the conclusion that prayer is broadly effective in many contexts -- most importantly for providing healing and salvation for wayward souls (cf. v19-20).
  2. Why does he change from the suffering individual praying in verse 13a to elders praying in verse 14? Answer: I think that the "suffering" in verse 13a is qualitatively different from the "sickness" in verse 14. Specifically, the term "sick" is technically the word for "weak," and is used in the synoptic gospels to describe people who were invalid, bed-ridden, or dying. Later in the Epistles, the same term is used to describe weak faith. So I think James is pointing to individuals who are weak (physically or spiritually) and they cannot pray for themselves.
  3. If this passage is all about the effectiveness of prayer, how does the significance of confession (verse 16a) fit in with that picture? Answer: It fits perfectly because confession is the means by which God forgives our sins, cleanses us from unrighteousness, and heals our souls (1Jo 1:8-10).

Ok, so that's a long answer, but it's taken a few years to put it together. I welcome any and all comments, questions, criticisms. Please hold me accountable, and let me know if I'm missing something here.

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