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Monday, March 03, 2014

A Nature Like Ours

“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”, James says of one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, a man who had conversations with God, a man who appeared and talked with the Lord Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, a man who ascended to heaven in a chariot rather than dying like the rest of us.

Elijah was a man who stood for God at a time when the nation of Israel had given up the worship of Jehovah for the worship of Baal and was in a state of moral decrepitude, ruled over by a king who was just about as wicked as they come.

Those of us who complain about our current leadership should try living under Ahab. Or maybe not.

In this atmosphere of corruption, decline, apostasy and injustice, Elijah spoke out faithfully for God. But James says, far from being some kind of untouchable pillar of emotional rectitude, Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.

And he was. Elijah experienced loneliness, doubt, fear, guilt, depression and exhaustion.

But when Elijah prayed, well … things happened. And that’s the point James is making:
“He prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain.” (James 5:17,18)
It may be worthwhile to examine Elijah’s prayers a little more carefully.

He prayed in the will of God

When Elijah prayed for rain, he had no doubt that he was asking for something the Lord was willing to provide, since the Lord had first said to him, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the face of the earth”. So when Elijah prayed, he had no need to add, as we often do, “… if it be your will, O Lord”. He knew what the Lord’s will was, because he had the Lord’s word to tell him.

He prayed for the glory of God’s name

When Elijah prayed, his primary concern was the honour and glory of God, not anything the he himself might get out of the deal: “Let it be known that you are God in Israel … answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God”.

He prayed to the benefit of others

Elijah’s concern was for his fellow Israelites in their unfaithfulness to God, and his desire was that they would know the truth. He prays not only that Israel would know that Jehovah is God, but also that Israel would know that Jehovah desires a relationship with them, for he adds “that this people may know … that you have turned their hearts back again”.

He prayed with intensity

It says, “Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he crouched down on the earth, and put his face between his knees”. That is not the posture of a man casual about prayer. It’s not some mere ritual. That’s a man in a state of desperation; a man who is so emotionally committed to what he is doing that it comes out in his body language.

He prayed until he got an answer

Elijah prayed the way the Lord would later teach his disciples to pray. He simply wouldn’t quit. He knew the will of God, and he wasn’t going to stop until he got an answer. He sent his servant back seven times to check for the promised rain. But I suspect if the servant had come back after seven and reported no sign of clouds, that Elijah would’ve gone another seven rounds. And another.

And what about me?

In the midst of this selfless, intense request for the intervention of God, there is one note that initially sounds slightly off. We might wonder if Elijah is just a little bit out of line, or maybe just the tiniest bit too self-occupied when he prays “let it be known … that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word”.

It’s obviously important that God’s people return to him. It’s crucially and self-evidently important that God’s name be honoured and his will be done.

But is it really that important that people know Elijah is God’s servant?

Actually, it is. If Elijah is out of line here, then many of God’s other servants are out of line too: “Vindicate me, O God,” the psalmist prays, and again “Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness” and still again, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity” 

For that matter, why is it important that “they may know that God rules over Jacob”? Sure, it’s very important that the world know that God rules. Of that we have no doubt. But why does Jacob come into it?

Why is it important that people know who God’s servants are? Because it’s not enough to know that God is, or even that God rules. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”. God’s servants must be known, and God’s servants must be vindicated, because when God does so, it tells us something very important about the nature of God: that he is a rewarder.

There is a payoff for knowing and serving God. It is not an empty pursuit. Knowing that there is a reward and seeking it is not mercenary or selfish; it’s simple common sense. That God does not disappoint, cheat or shortchange his servants is something the word of God says we must believe. The servant who believes his master is a “severe man” who takes what he “did not deposit” and reaps what he “did not sow” is a servant who not only misunderstands his master’s character, he is a servant who loses his reward.

Elijah knew it was in the nature of God to reward him, and the will of God that his stamp of approval be placed on his servant in front of the entire nation, so he could confidently ask for it. There is nothing selfish about it.

Elijah was a man with a nature like mine.

If Elijah could pray in assurance of receiving an answer from the Lord, then so can I.

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