Elijah's Example of Improper Prayer

I Kings 19

Just as it is possible to learn from positive role models, it is also instructive to examine negative examples. Even though the prophet Elijah was singled out as an example of proper prayer by James (James 5:10, 17-18) he does have one episode of improper prayer. The one event that marks a failure of faith in his life is found in I Kings 19. It is important to note that this takes place immediately after his victory over the prophets of Baal and the end of the three and half year drought. Often the greatest potential for depression occurs after a great high. His weakness was enhanced by several factors.

First, he was likely physically and emotionally drained after the contest, the execution of the 400 prophets, the prayer on the mountain and the Spirit-empowered run to Jezreel.
Secondly, he was threatened with death by Jezebel. Add to this that even though there was public demonstration that the LORD was God, no one seemed to step forward to offer protection to the prophet. He felt alone and weary, since none seemed to turn to God.
Thirdly, he let his attention be turned from the living God. Jezebel's threat was guaranteed by a her god's. This was another contest between her gods and the living God. Rather than rising to meet this challenge, he focused on the threat.

As we look at the prophet in his time of weakness, we can identify three facts about improper prayer. We should allow these to show us our own failings in prayer and direct us back to proper prayer.

We first see that Elijah prayed at the wrong time. The scripture text in I Kings 19:1-4 indicates that as soon as Elijah had heard the threat he fled for his life. He traveled from Jezebel to Beer-sheba to the southern most city in the land, then traveled another day into the wilderness. There under a shade tree he finally prayed. He acted then prayed. The time to pray is as soon as a need is known or before rash action is taken. Before we treat Elijah too harshly it is likely that all Christians at some time have done the same thing. We should follow the instruction of I Thess. 5:17 to "Pray without ceasing." Thereby we will call upon God at the proper time not after.

Secondly we learn that Elijah prayed for the wrong thing. "... he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers" (I Kings 19:4). This shows the confusion of his thinking, for if he really wanted to die, he could have stayed in Jezreel and Jezebel would have abliged. He was exhausted, fearful and alone, he felt the only way out was to die. The fact is with God there is always another way out. In our praying seek God's hand of direction to the way out without giving up on life as useless and pointless.
He also claimed to be no better than his fathers; these were dead and he appealed to God to take his life like he had theirs. The crucial difference was that they had finished their work and Elijah still had work to do! God did answer Elijah's prayer but not in the way Elijah wanted. Instead, he allowed the prophet to rest, provided food, andled him to Mt. Horeb. It was here that God revealed Himself to Elijah in a new way and gave him a new job to do. In our seeking the face of God in prayer we should ask for a new revelation of God to us and for direction for the next task rather than yielding to a desire to escape current troubles.

Thirdly we see that Elijah prayed for the wrong person. Traveling in the strength of the Lord about 100 miles south he came to Mt. Horeb. This was the mountain on which Moses met God (Exod. 3:1). It was here that Elijah offered the second improper prayer. In answer to a question from God, he replies: " I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (I Kings 19:10).
This prayer should be contrasted with the prayer offered in I Kings 18:36-37. In the earlier prayer he was most concerned with the people knowing that the LORD was God in Israel. His chief motivation was that God receive the credit and glory due him. The prayer on Horeb was more self-centered, he was praying for himself and not God's benefit. Elijah complained that even though he was a faithful servant, the people continued to rebel, and that the prophets had been killed and he was the only one left. He was seeking personal vindication rather than seeking God's vindication in the sight of Israel.
We, too, often offer prayers that are filled with our personal desires and wishes. While God invites us to ask for ourselves, our overriding concern should be that He would be glorified. We should desire that God would be loved and worship by all. As Jesus instructed us to pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth" (Luke 11:2). Constantly check your praying to see if they are too self-centered.

Fourth, Elijah prayed with wrong outlook. In claiming to be the only prophet left, he implyed that God's work was at an end. God countered by stating that there were 7000 in Israel that were loyal to God (vs. 18). Further He told Elijah to anoint his successor Elisha. In a moment of distress we may cry out to God claiming that all is lost but remember we are on the winning side. Difficult days do come but pray in the confidence that His work will continue both in you (cf. Phil. 1:6) and in this world (cf. Dan. 7:14).

A danger in addressing prayer is that we may spend more time talking about prayer than we do actually praying. May the life and example of Elijah led us to not only talk about prayer but talk to our God in prayer. .

Jesse Waggoner
Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church

©1997 Calvary Baptist Church