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Summary: James encourages us to pray, pointing to the example of Elijah, a man with all the frailties that characterises each of us.

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JAMES 5:17, 18

YOU CAN PRAY LIKE ELIJAH

“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

Flashing like a lightning bolt across dark pagan skies, Elijah burst on the scene suddenly. And just as suddenly, he disappeared. Raised up by God to rebuke a wayward nation, Elijah did all that God commanded. Kings were reduced to searching for water, queens ranted and blustered, false prophets were exposed as fraudulent—all at the word of this singular man. When we read the account of Elijah the Tishbite, we often become so focused on the powerful demonstration of God’s power that we are prone to ignore the fact that he struggled, and not always successfully, with the same frailties that plague each of us. James compels us to think soberly about who we are and who God is.

A HUMAN BEING LIKE US — “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” Whenever I read the translation of James’ words, I realise that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to convey accurately the sense of what James said. The emphasis is on his frailties, and not on his strengths. “Elijah was a man,” an ánthropos. James is directing our thought to the fact that Elijah was not a demigod or a superhero. He was a human being just like us!

Moreover, James emphatically states that he had “a nature like ours.” The Greek term is that he was homoiopathēs. The only other occurrence of this word in the New Testament is found in ACTS 14:15. On the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas healed a man in Lystra which in term resulted in a crowd gathering who attempted to honour them as gods. The missionaries tore their outer garments, ran into the crowd and only barely dissuaded them from offering sacrifice to them by shouting, “We also are men, of like nature with you!”

The term homoiopathēs sounds like our English word homeopathy, which is the method of treating disease by drugs, given in minute doses, that would produce in a healthy person symptoms similar to those of the disease. That definition gives us a clue to what James is saying in our text. Elijah faced the same circumstances and had the same feelings and experiences in life that we encounter.

One scholar provides insight into the meaning of James’ statement by cautioning that “readers are not to attribute the great effect of Elijah’s prayers to any exceptional qualities that were inherent in the person of this prophet himself. He was … a human being, just as we are. This fact is intensified by [homoiopathēs hemîn], which does not mean “of like passions or of like nature with us.” The gods were considered [apathies], unlike human beings. The verb [] that is found in these adjectives refers to suffering and vicissitudes that are incident to human existence. Elijah had to endure vicissitudes of all kinds just as we do. Although he was a great prophet he was a plagued human being and felt pain just as much as we do.” Elijah was a fellow sufferer.

James has stated that Elijah experienced the same fears and the same frailties and the same pains each of us experiences; he was just as fearful in the face of opposition as we are, and just as prone to failure as we are. The emphasis is that Elijah was a man of “similar suffering.” This is such an important point that I believe it will prove beneficial to take some time to review this matter in greater detail.

Let’s review the life of Elijah, to see what sort of man he was. In order to do this, let’s focus on the events recorded in 1 Kings 17 through 19. As we review the life of Elijah during this period, note that he was at times bold beyond belief. For instance, he boldly confronted the king to announce God’s sentence against the land, and then quickly departed to the secret place assigned by the LORD God where he leans upon God’s goodness to provide for his own needs. Later, God sent him to yet another location, where he boldly confronted the Lord, pleading for the life of a young man who had died.

When the time was right, Elijah boldly confronted the King of Israel, demanding a contest between himself and the entire company of the prophets of Baal. During that contest, he first challenged them to demonstrate that Baal was a god that could hear and answer prayer. Then, he mocked them publicly, ridiculing their pathetic efforts to coerce their god to show them favour. There is precedence for the man of God ridiculing false religion and for exposing evil. Though the sensitive nature of some of the saints of God will rebel at such forthrightness, the example provided in the Word gives no comfort to those who would mollycoddle wickedness.

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