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At the close of our last chapter we were occupied with the prayer offered by Elijah on Mount Carmel. This supplication of the prophet requires to be examined attentively, for it was a prevalent one, securing a miraculous answer. There are two chief reasons why so many of the prayers of God’s people are unavailing: first, because they fail to meet the requirements of acceptable prayer; second, because their supplications are unscriptural, not patterned after the prayers recorded in Holy Writ. It would take us too far afield to enter into full detail as to what requirements we must meet and what conditions have to be fulfilled by us in order to obtain the ear of God, so that He will show Himself strong on our behalf; yet we feel this is a suitable place to say something on this highly important and most practical subject, and at least mention some of the principal requirements for success at the throne of grace.
Prayer is one of the outstanding privileges of the Christian life. It is the appointed means for experimental access to God, for the soul to draw nigh unto its Maker, for the Christian to have spiritual communion with his Redeemer. It is the channel through which we are to seek all needed supplies of spiritual grace and temporal mercies. It is the avenue through which we are to make known our need unto the Most High and look for Him to minister to the same. It is the channel through which faith ascends to Heaven and in response thereto miracle descends to earth. But if that channel be choked, those supplies are withheld; if faith be dormant, miracles do not take place. Of old, God had to say of His people, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” ( Isaiah 59:2).
And is it any different today? Again He declared, “Your sins have withholden good things from you” ( Jeremiah 5:25).
And is not this the case with most of us now? Have we not occasion to acknowledge, “We have transgressed and have rebelled: Thou hast not pardoned.
Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through” ( Lamentations 3:42,44).
Sad, sad, indeed when such be the case.
If the professing Christian supposes that, no matter what the character of his walk may be, he has but to plead the name of Christ and his petitions are assured of an answer, he is sadly deluded. God is ineffably holy, and His Word expressly declares, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” ( Psalm 66:18).
It is not sufficient to believe in Christ, or plead His name, in order to ensure answers to prayer: there must be practical subjection to and daily fellowship with Him: “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).
It is not sufficient to be a child of God and call upon our heavenly Father: there must be an ordering of our lives according to His revealed will: “Whatsoever we ask we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” ( 1 John 3:22).
It is not sufficient to come boldly unto the throne of grace: we must “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” ( Hebrews 10:22) —that which defiles being removed by the cleansing precepts of the Word (see <19B909> Psalm 119:9).
He had walked in strict separation from the evil which abounded in Israel, refusing to compromise or have any fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. In a day of spiritual degeneracy and apostasy he had maintained personal communion with the Holy One, as his “The Lord God of Israel… before whom I stand, ( 1 Kings 17:1), clearly attested. He walked in practical subjection to God, as his refusing to move until the “word of the Lord came unto him” ( 17:8), bore definite witness. His life was ordered by the revealed will of his Master, as was manifested by his obedience to the Divine command to dwell with a widow woman in Zarephath. He shrank not from discharging the most unpleasant duties, as was plain from his prompt compliance with the Divine order, “Go, show thyself to Ahab” ( <111801> 18:1). And such a one had the ear of God, had power with God.
Now, if what has just been pointed out serves to explain the prevalency of Elijah’s intercession, does it not (alas) also furnish the reason why so many of us have not the ear of God, have not power with Him in prayer? It is “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man” which “availeth much” with God ( James 5:16), and that signifies something more than a man to whom the righteousness of Christ has been imputed. Let it be duly notes that this statement occurs not in Romans (where the legal benefits of the atonement are chiefly in view), but in James, where the practical and experimental side of the Gospel is unfolded. The “righteous man” in James 5:16 (as also throughout the book of Proverbs, and likewise the “just”) is one who is right with God practically in his daily life, whose ways, “please the Lord.” If we walk not in separation from the world, if we deny not self, strive not against sin, mortify not our lusts, but gratify our carnal nature, is there any wonder that our prayer-life is cold and formal and our petitions unanswered?
In examining the prayer of Elijah on Mount Carmel we have see that,” first, at the time of the evening sacrifice “the prophet came near”: that is, unto the altar on which the slain bullock lay: “came near,” though expecting an answer by fire! There we behold his holy confidence in God, and are shown the foundation on which his confidence rested, namely, an atoning sacrifice. Second, we have heard him addressing Jehovah as the covenant God of His people: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel.” Third, we have pondered his first petition: “Let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel,” that is, that He would vindicate his honour and glorify His own great name. The heart of the prophet was filled with a burning zeal for the living God and he could not endure the sight of the land being filled with idolatry. Fourth, “and that I am Thy servant,” whose will is entirely surrendered to Thee, whose interests are wholly subordinated to Thine.
These are the elements, dear reader, which enter into the prayer which is acceptable to God and which meets with a response from Him. There must be more than going through the motions of devotion: there must be an actual drawing near of the soul unto the living God, and for that, there must be a putting away and forsaking of all that is offensive to Him. It is sin which alienates the heart from Him, which keeps the conscience at a guilty distance from Him; and that sin must needs be repented of and confessed if access is to be ours again. What we are now inculcating is not legalistic; we are insisting upon the claims of Divine holiness. Christ has not died in order to purchase for His people an indulgence for them to live in sin: rather did He shed His precious blood to redeem them from all iniquity and “purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” ( Titus 2:14), and just so far as they neglect those good works will they fail to enter experimentally into the benefits of His redemption.
But in order for an erring and sinful creature to draw near the thrice Holy One with any measure of humble confidence, he must know something of the relation which he sustains unto Him, not by nature but by grace. It is the blessed privilege of the believer—no matter how great a failure he feels himself to be (provided he is sincere in mourning his failures and honest in his endeavors to please his Lord)— to remind himself that he is approaching One in covenant relationship with him, yea, to plead that covenant before Him. David—despite all his falls—acknowledged “He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure” ( 2 Samuel 23:5), and so may the reader if he grieves over sins as David did, confesses them as contritely, and has the same pantings of heart after holiness. It makes a world of difference in our praying when we can “take hold of God’s covenant,” assured of our personal interest in it. When we plead the fulfillment of covenant promises ( Jeremiah 32:40,41; Hebrews 10:16,17), for example, we present a reason God will not reject, for He cannot deny Himself.
Still another thing is essential if our prayers are to meet with the Divine approval: the motive prompting them and the petition itself must alike be right. It is at this point so many fail: as it is written, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” ( James 4:3). Not so was it with Elijah: it was not his own advancement or aggrandizement he sought, but the magnifying of his Master, and vindication of His holiness, which had been so dishonored by His people’s turning aside to Baal worship. We all need to test ourselves here: if the motive behind our praying proceeds from nothing higher than self, we must expect to be denied. Only when we truly as for that which will promote God’s glory, do we ask aright. “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us” ( 1 John 5:14), and we ask “according to His will” when we make request for what will bring honour and praise to the Giver. Alas, how carnal much of our “praying is!
Finally, if our prayers are to be acceptable to God they must issue from those who can truthfully declare, “I am Thy servant”—one submissive to the authority of another, one who takes the place of subordination, one who is under the orders of his master, one who has no will of his own, one whose constant aim is to please his master and promote his interests. And surely the Christian will make no demur against this. Is not this the very place into which his illustrious Redeemer entered? Did not the Lord of glory take upon Him “the form of a servant” ( Philippians 2:7), and conduct Himself as such all the days of His flesh? If we maintain our servant character when we approach the throne of grace we shall be preserved from the blatant irreverence which characterizes not a little socalled “praying” of today. In place of making demands or speaking to God as though we were His equals, we shall humbly present our “requests.”
And what are the main things a “servant” desires? A knowledge of what his master requires, and needed supplies so that his orders may be carried out. “And that I have done all these things at Thy word” ( 1 Kings 18:36). “And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel, and that I have done all these things at Thy word.” This was advanced by the prophet as an additional; plea: that God would send down fire from heaven in answer to his supplications, as an attestation of his fidelity to his Master’s will. It was in response to Divine orders that the prophet had restrained rain from the earth, had now convened Israel and the false prophets together, and had suggested an open trail or contest, that by a visible sign from heaven it might be known who was the true God. All this he had done not of himself, but by direction from above. It adds great force to our petitions when we are able to plead before God our faithfulness to His commands. Said David to the Lord, “Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept Thy testimonies,” and again, “I have stuck unto Thy testimonies: O Lord, put me not to shame” ( <19B922> Psalm 119:22,31).
For a servant to act without orders from his master is self-will and presumption.
God’s commands “are not grievous” (to those whose wills are surrendered to Him), and “in keeping of them there is great reward”! ( Psalm 19:11)—in this life as well as in the next, as every obedient soul discovers for himself. The Lord has declared, “them that honour Me, I will honour” ( 1 Samuel 2:30), and He is faithful in making good His promises. The way to honour Him is to walk in His precepts. This is what Elijah had done, and now he counted upon Jehovah honoring him by granting this petition. When the servant of God has the testimony of a good conscience and the witness of the Spirit that he is acting according to the Divine will, he may rightly feel himself to be invincible—that men, circumstances, and Satanic opposition, are of no more account than the chaff of the summer threshing-floor. God’s Word shall not return unto Him void: His purpose shall be accomplished though heaven and earth pass away. This, too, was what filled Elijah with calm assurance in that crucial hour. God would not mock one who had been true to Him. “Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that Thou art the Lord God” (v. 37). How those words breathed forth the intensity and vehemency of the prophet’s zeal for the Lord of hosts. No mere formal lip service was this, but real supplication, fervent supplication. This repetition intimates how truly and how deeply Elijah’s heart was burdened. He could not endure the dishonor done to his Master on every side: he yearned to see Him vindicate himself. “Hear me, O Lord, hear me,” was the earnest cry of a pent-up soul. How his zeal and intensity puts to shame the coldness of our prayers! It is only the genuine cry of a burdened heart that reaches the ear of God. It is “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man” that “availeth much.” Oh, what need we have to seek the aid of the Holy Spirit, for He alone can inspire real prayer within us. “That this people may know that Thou art the Lord God.” Here was the supreme longing of Elijah’s soul: that it might be openly and incontrovertibly demonstrated that Jehovah, and not Baal or any idol, was the true God. That which dominated the prophet’s heart was a yearning that God would be glorified. And is it not thus with all His genuine servants? They are willing to endure any hardships, glad to spend themselves and be spent, if so be that their Lord is magnified. “For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” ( Acts 21:13): how many since the apostle have actually died in His service and for the praise of His holy name! Such, too, is the deepest and most constant desire of each Christian who is not in a backslidden condition: all his petitions issued from and center in this—that God may be glorified. They have, in their measure, drunk of the spirit of their Redeemer: “Father, glorify thy son, that Thy son also may glorify Thee” ( John 17:1): when such is the motive behind our petition it is certain of an answer. “And that Thou hast turned their heart back again” (v. 37)—back from wandering after forbidden objects unto Thyself, back from Baal to the service and worship of the true and living God. Next to the glory of his Master, the deliverance of Israel from the deceits of Satan was the deepest longing of Elijah’s heart. He was no selfish and self-centered individual who was indifferent to the fate of his fellows: rather was he anxious that they should have for their portion and supreme good that which so fully satisfied his own soul. And again we say, is not the same thing true of all genuine servants and saints of God? Next to the glory of their Lord, that which lies nearest their hearts and forms the constant subject of their prayers is the salvation of sinners that they may be turned from their evil and foolish ways unto God. Note well the two words we place in italics: “that Thou hast turned their hearts back again”—nothing short of the heart being turned unto God will avail anything for eternity, and nothing short of God’s putting forth His mighty power can effect this change.
Having considered in detail and at some length each petition in Elijah’s prevailing prayer, let us call attention to one other feature which marked it, and that is its noticeable brevity. It occupies but two verses in our Bibles and contains only sixty-three words in the English translation: still fewer in the original Hebrew. What a contrast is this from the long-drawn-out and wearisome prayers in many pulpits today! “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” ( Ecclesiastes 5:2).
Such a verse as this appears to have no weight with the majority of ministers. One of the marks of the scribes and Pharisees was, that they “for a pretense (to impress the people with their piety) make long prayers” ( Mark 12:40). We would not overlook the fact that when the Spirit’s unction is enjoyed, the servant of Christ may be granted much liberty to pour out his heart at length, yet his is the exception rather than the rule, as God’s Word clearly proves.
One of the many evils engendered by lengthy prayers in the pulpit is the discouraging of simple souls in the pew: they are apt to conclude that if their private devotions are not sustained at length, then the Lord must be withholding from them the spirit of prayer. If any of our readers be distressed because of this, we would ask them to make a study of the prayers recorded in Holy Writ—in Old and New Testaments alike—and they will find that almost all of them are exceedingly short ones. The prayers which brought such remarkable responses from Heaven were like this one of Elijah’s: brief and to the point, fervent but definite. No soul is heard because of the multitude of his words, but only when his petitions come from the heart, are prompted by a longing for God’s glory, and are presented in childlike faith. The Lord mercifully preserve us from hypocrisy and formality, and make us feel our deep need of crying to Him, “Teach us (not how to, but) to pray.”