The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
Persevering in Prayer
"And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" (1 Kings 18:42). We closed our last chapter by pointing out that this verse sets forth some important lessons which ministers of the Gospel do well to take to heart, the principal of which is the importance and need of their retiring from the scene of their ministry that they may commune with their Lord. When public work is over they need to betake themselves to private work with God. Ministers must not only preach, but pray; not only before and while preparing their sermons, but afterwards. They must not only attend to the souls of their flock, but look after their own souls also, particularly that they may be purged from pride or resting on their own endeavors. Sin enters into and defiles the best of our performances. The faithful servant, no matter how honored of God with success in his work, is conscious of his defects and sees reason for abasing himself before his Master. Moreover, he knows that God alone can give the increase to the seed he has sown, and for that he needs to supplicate the throne of grace.
In the passage which is now to be before us there is most blessed and important instruction not only for ministers of the Gospel but also for the people of God in general. Once again it has pleased the Spirit here to let us into the secrets of prevailing prayer, for it was in that holy exercise the prophet was now engaged. It may be objected that it is not expressly stated in 1 Kings 18:42-46 that Elijah did any praying on this occasion. True, and here is where we discover afresh the vital importance of comparing Scripture with Scripture. In James 5 we are told "Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain" (vv. 17, 18). The latter verse clearly has reference to the incident we are now considering: as truly as the heavens were closed in response to Elijah’s prayer, so were they now opened in answer to his supplication. Thus we have before us again the conditions which must be met if our intercessions are to be effectual.
Once more we emphasize the fact that what is recorded in these Old Testament passages is written both for our instruction and consolation (Rom. 15:4), affording as they do invaluable illustrations, typifications and exemplifications of what is stated in the New Testament in the form of doctrine or precept. It might be thought that after so recently devoting almost the whole of two chapters in this book on the life of Elijah to showing the secrets of prevailing intercession there was less need for us to take up the same subject again. But it is a different aspect of it which is now in view: in 1 Kings 18:36, 37 we learn how Elijah prayed in public, here we behold how he prevailed in private prayer, and if we are really to profit from what is said in verses 42-46 we must not skim them hurriedly, but study them closely. Are you anxious to conduct your secret devotions in a manner that will be acceptable to God and which will produce answers of peace? Then attend diligently to the details which follow.
First, this man of God withdrew from the crowds and "went up to the top of Carmel." If we would hold audience with the Majesty on high, if we would avail ourselves of that "new and living way" which the Redeemer has consecrated for His people, and "enter into the holiest" (Heb. 10:19, 20), then we must needs retire from the mad and distracting world around us and get alone with God. This was the great lesson laid down in our Lord’s first word on the subject before us: "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:6). Separation from the godless, and the shutting out of all sights and sounds which take the mind off God is absolutely indispensable. But the entering of the closet and the shutting of its door denotes more than physical isolation: it also signifies the calming of our spirit, the quieting of our feverish flesh, the gathering in of all wandering thoughts, that we may be in a fit frame to draw nigh unto and address the Holy One. "Be still, and know that I am God" is His unchanging requirement. How often the failure of this "shut door" renders our praying ineffectual! The atmosphere of the world is fatal to the spirit of devotion and we must get alone if communion with God is to be enjoyed.
Second, observe well the posture in which we now behold this man of God: "And he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" (v. 42). Very, very striking is this! As one has put it: "We scarcely recognize him, he seems so to have lost his identity. A few hours before, he stood erect as an oak of Bashan: now he is bowed as a bulrush." As he confronted the assembled multitude, Ahab, and the hundreds of false prophets, he carried himself with majestic mien and becoming dignity; but now he would draw nigh unto the King of kings, the utmost humility and reverence marks his demeanor. There as God’s ambassador he had pleaded with Israel, here as Israel’s intercessor he is to plead with the Almighty. Facing the forces of Baal he was as bold as a lion; alone with God most high, he hides his face and by his actions owns his nothingness. It has ever been thus with those most favored of Heaven: Abraham declared "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" (Gen. 18:27). When Daniel beheld an anticipation of God incarnate, he declared, "my comeliness was turned in me into corruption" (Dan. 10:8). The seraphim veil their faces in His presence (Isa. 6:2).
That to which we are now directing attention is greatly needed by this most irreverent and blatant generation. Though so highly favored of God and granted such power in prayer, this did not cause Elijah to take liberties with Him or approach Him with indecent familiarity. No, he bowed his knees before the Most High and placed his head between his knees, betokening his most profound veneration for that infinitely glorious Being whose messenger he was. And if our hearts be right, the more we are favored of God the more shall we be humbled by a sense of our unworthiness and insignificance, and we shall deem no posture too lowly to express our respect for the Divine Majesty. We must not forget that though God be our Father He is also our Sovereign, and that while we be His children we are likewise His subjects. If it be an act of infinite condescension on His part for the Almighty even to "behold the things which are in heaven and in earth" (Ps. 113:6), then we cannot sufficiently abase ourselves before Him.
How grievously have those words been perverted: "Let us therefore come boldly unto the Throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16)! To suppose they give license for us to address the Lord God as though we were His equals is to put darkness for light and evil for good. If we are to obtain the ear of God then we must take our proper place before Him, and that is, in the dust. "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time" comes before "Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you" (1 Pet. 5:6, 7). We must abase ourselves under a sense of our meanness. If Moses was required to remove his shoes ere he approached the burning bush in which the Shekinah glory appeared, we too must conduct ourselves in prayer as befits the majesty and might of the great God. It is true that the Christian is a redeemed man and accepted in the Beloved, yet in himself he is still a sinner. As another has pointed out, "The most tender love which casts out the fear that hath torment, begets a fear that is as delicate and sensitive as that of John’s, who, though he had laid his head on the bosom of Christ, scrupled too hastily to intrude upon the grave where He had slept."
Third, note particularly that this Prayer of Elijah’s was based upon a Divine promise. When commanding his servant to appear again before Ahab, the Lord had expressly declared, "And I will send rain upon the earth" (18:1). Why then, should he now be found earnestly begging Him for rain? To natural reason a Divine assurance of anything seems to render asking for it unnecessary: would not God make good His word and send the rain irrespective of further prayer? Not so did Elijah reason: nor should we. So far from God’s promises being designed to exempt us from making application to the throne of grace for the blessings guaranteed, they are designed to instruct us what things to ask for, and to encourage us to ask for them believingly, that we may have their fulfillment to ourselves. God’s thoughts and ways are ever the opposite of ours—and infinitely superior thereto. In Ezekiel 36:24-36 will be found a whole string of promises, yet in immediate connection therewith we read, "I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them" (v. 37).
By asking for those things which God has promised, we own Him as the Giver, and are taught our dependence upon Him: faith is called into exercise and we appreciate His mercies all the more when they are received. God will do what He undertakes, but He requires us to sue for all which we would have Him do for us. Even to His own beloved Son God says, "Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance" (Ps. 2:8): His reward must be claimed. Even though Elijah heard (by faith) "a sound of abundance of rain," nevertheless he must pray for it (Zech. 10:1). God has appointed that if we would receive, we must ask; that if we would find, we must seek; that if we would have the door of blessing opened, we must knock; and if we fail so to do, we shall prove the truth of those words, "ye have not, because ye ask not" (Jas. 4:2). God’s promises then are given us to incite to prayer, to become the mould in which our petitions should be cast, to intimate the extent to which we may expect an answer.
Fourth, his prayer was definite or to the point. Scripture says, "Ask ye of the Lord rain" (Zech. 10:1), and for that very thing the prophet asked: he did not generalize but particularized. It is just here that so many fail. Their petitions are so vague they would scarcely recognize an answer if it were given: their requests are so lacking in precision that the next day the petitioner himself finds it difficult to remember what he asked for. No wonder such praying is profitless to the soul, and brings little to pass. Letters which require no answer contain little or nothing in them of any value or importance. Let the reader turn to the four Gospels with this thought before him and observe how very definite in his requests and detailed in describing his case was each one who came to Christ and obtained healing, and remember they are recorded for our learning. When His disciples asked the Lord to teach them to pray He said, "Which of you shall have a friend and shall go to him at midnight and say unto him; Friend, lend me three loaves" (Luke 11:5)—not simply "food," but specifically "three loaves!"
Fifth, his prayer was fervent: "he prayed earnestly" (Jas. 5:17). It is not necessary for a man to shout and scream in order to prove he is in earnest, yet on the other hand cold and formal askings must not expect to meet with any response. God grants our requests only for Christ’s sake, nevertheless unless we supplicate Him with warmth and reality, with intensity of spirit and vehemency of entreaty, we shall not obtain the blessing desired. This importunity is constantly inculcated in Scripture, where prayer is likened unto seeking, knocking, crying, striving. Remember how Jacob wrestled with the Lord, and how David panted and poured out his soul. How unlike them is the listless and languid petitioning of most of our modems! Of our blessed Redeemer it is written that He "offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears" (Heb. 5:7). It is not the half-hearted and mechanical asking which secures an answer, but "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man (that) availeth much" (Jas. 5:16).
Sixth, note well Elijah’s watchfulness in prayer: "And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea" (v. 43). While we are instant in prayer and waiting for an answer, we must be on the look-out to see if there be any token for good. Said the Psalmist, "I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His Word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning" (Ps. 130:5, 6). The allusion is to those who were stationed on the watch-tower gazing eastward for the first signs of the break of day, that the tidings might be signaled (trumpeted) to the temple, so that the morning sacrifice might be offered right on time. In like manner the suppliant soul is to be on the alert for any sign of the approach of the blessing for which he is praying. "Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving" (Col. 4:2). Alas, how often we fail at this very point, because hope does not hold up the head of our holy desires. We pray, yet do not look out expectantly for the favors we seek. How different was it with Elijah!
Seventh, Elijah’s perseverance in his supplication. This is the most noticeable feature about the whole transaction and it is one which we need particularly to heed, for it is at this very point most of us fail the worst. "And he said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing." "Nothing": nothing in the sky, nothing arising out of the sea to intimate the approach of rain. Does not both writer and reader know the meaning of this from personal experience? We have sought the Lord, and then hopefully looked for His intervention, but instead of any token from Him that He has heard us, there is "nothing"! And what has been our response? Have we petulantly and unbelievingly said, "Just as I thought," and ceased praying about it? If so, that was a wrong attitude to take. First make sure your petition is grounded upon a Divine promise, and then believingly wait God’s time to fulfil it. If you have no definite promise, commit your case into God’s hands and seek to be reconciled to His will as to the outcome.
"And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing." Even Elijah was not always answered immediately, and who are we to demand a prompt answer to our first asking? The prophet did not consider that because he had prayed once and there was no response, therefore he need not continue to pray; rather did he persevere in pressing his suit until he received. Such was the persistency of the patriarch Jacob, "I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me" (Gen. 32:26). Such was the Psalmist’s mode of praying: "I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me, and heard my cry" (40:1)."And he said, Go again seven times" (v. 43), was the prophet’s command to his servant. He was convinced that sooner or later God would grant his request, yet he was persuaded he should "give Him no rest" (Isa. 62:7). Six times the servant returned with his report that there was no portent of rain, yet the prophet relaxed not his supplication. And let us not be faint-hearted when no immediate success attends our praying, but be importunate, exercising faith and patience until the blessing comes.
To ask once, twice, thrice, nay six times, and then be denied, was no slight test of Elijah’s endurance, but grace was granted him to bear the trial. "Therefore will the Lord wait, that He may be gracious unto you" (Isa. 30:18). Why? To teach us that we are not heard for our fervour or urgency, or because of the justness of our cause: we can claim nothing from God—all is of grace, and we must wait His time. The Lord waits, not because He is tyrannical, but "that He may be gracious." It is for our good that He waits: that our graces may be developed, that submission to His holy will may be wrought in us; then He lovingly turns to us and says, "Great is thy faith, be it unto thee as thou wilt" (Matthew 15:28). "This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us: and if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him" (John 5:14, 15). God cannot break His own Word, but we must abide His time and, refusing to be discouraged, continue supplicating Him until He appears on our behalf.
"And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand" (v. 44). The prophet’s perseverance in prayer had not been in vain, for here was a token from God that he was heard. God does not often give a full answer to prayer all at once, but a little at first and then gradually more and more as He sees that to be good for us. What the believer has now is nothing to what he shall yet have if he continues instant in prayer, believing and earnest prayer. Though God was pleased to keep the prophet waiting for a time, He did not disappoint his expectation, nor will He fail us if we continue in prayer and watch in the same with thanksgiving. Then let us be ready to receive with cheerfulness and gratitude the least indication of an answer to our petitions, accepting it as a token for good and an encouragement to persevere in our requests till there be full accomplishment of those desires which are grounded upon the Word. Small beginnings often produce wonderful effects, as the parable of the grain of mustard seed clearly teaches (Matthew 13:31, 32). The feeble efforts of the apostles met with remarkable success as God owned and blessed them. We regard the words, "like a man’s hand," as possessing a symbolic meaning: a man’s hand had been raised in supplication and had, as it were, left its shadow on the heavens!
"And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not" (v. 44). Elijah did not disdain the significant omen, little though it was, but promptly took encouragement from the same. So convinced was he that the windows of heaven were about to be opened and plentiful showers given that he sent his servant with an urgent message to Ahab, that he should get away at once ere the storm burst and the brook Kishon be so swollen that the king would be prevented from making his journey homeward. What holy confidence in a prayer-hearing God did that display! Faith recognized the Almighty behind that "little cloud." A "handful of meal" had been sufficient under God to sustain a household for many months, and a cloud "like a man’s hand" could be counted upon to multiply and furnish an abundant downpour. "And it came to pass in the meanwhile, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain" (v. 45). Should not this speak loudly to us? O sorely-tried believer, take heart from what is here recorded: the answer to your prayers may be much nearer than you think.
"And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel" (v. 45). The king had responded promptly to the prophet’s message. How much sooner are the ministers of the Lord attended to when giving temporal advice than they are when offering spiritual counsel. Ahab had no doubt now that the rain was about to fall. He was satisfied that He who answered Elijah with fire was on the point of answering him with water; nevertheless, his heart remained as steeled against God as ever. O how solemn is the picture here presented: Ahab was convinced but not converted. How many like him there are in the churches today, who have religion in the head but not in the heart: convinced that the Gospel is true, yet rejecting it; assured that Christ is mighty to save, yet not surrendering to Him.