The Nature of Earnest Prayer
Although few give much thought to it we are all Covenant creatures. The non-christian is under the broken Covenant of Works made with Adam. The believer is in the Covenant of Grace in Christ. All that we are and all that we have is related to the Covenant. Prayer, as Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully pointed out, is a Covenant work.
The dynamic of Elijah’s praying, which is so highly commended by James (James 5:16-18), lies in his understanding of the Covenant. The Covenant God promised to bless the obedience of His people, and to curse their disobedience. ‘And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed’ (Deut. 28:23-24). Elijah ‘prayed earnestly that it might not rain’. In the confident knowledge of a covenant-keeping God he confronted Ahab. The ground of his confidence was the character of God.
Likewise after the turn around that took place in the confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel Elijah ‘prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit’. Once again we see his confidence in a Covenant-keeping God. This is expressed in earnest prayer on the top of Mount Carmel. He waits for the answer and his servant was sent seven times before he saw ‘a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand’. ‘And it came to pass ... that the heaven was black with clouds and wind and there was a great rain’ (1Kings 18:44-45).
The basis for our praying, like that of Elijah, must be that we are true covenant children. The prophet was ‘a man subject to like passions as we are’ but he was a justified sinner. He had the righteousness of God imputed and imparted. He had a covenant righteousness. It is obvious that he did not regard sin in his heart or else he would not have been heard (Psalm 66:16-18). He was a righteous man.
Elijah does not include in his prayer ‘if it be thy will’. He knew the mind and will of God declared in the Covenant. Obedience would result in blessing. Disobedience would bring the curse. God would keep His promises. His people were called to be faithful to the Covenant. He would provide the grace necessary for their obedience. If they disobeyed but turned again in repentance He would forgive and heal. The object of our prayers is what the Lord has covenanted in His Word to perform. Jesus said: ‘If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you’ (John 15:7).
The praying of Elijah was fervent. Once God has made promises to His people He looks for boldness and confidence in their approaches to Him. Jesus gave us the parable of the man whose friend arrived at midnight and he had nothing to give him. He keeps on asking his neighbour to give to him. The neighbour eventually agrees because of his ‘importunity’ or ‘shameless persistence’. We are told that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed ‘more earnestly’ (Luke 22:44). In the days of the early church, believers were earnestly praying to God for Peter (Acts 12:5). God says ‘Put me in remembrance: let us plead together’ (Isaiah 43:26). Jesus declared, ‘Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you’ (Mt. 7:7-11 and Luke 11:9-13). Says C H Spurgeon: ‘When we come to the gate of mercy, forceable are the knocks of the rapper by which the gate is opened’.
This kind of praying we are told ‘avails much’. It has a huge potency. There is power waiting to be released, as Elijah found. There are untapped resources. We see large barren-looking areas of the county of Sutherland but underneath the ground we are told there are rich deposits of minerals. The North Sea was a forbidding place but riches of oil and gas have been found there. God has made us His co-workers and what potential lies in prayer to Him.