God’s response to the problem of Baal worship in Israel introduced by Ahab and Jezebel came in the person of Elijah.
And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants or Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1).
It looks like Elijah was a well-known and prominent prophet because his pronouncement is made directly to the king, which implies he had access to the palace. He identifies himself as one who stands before the LORD God, a formula which identifies him as a prophet; and apparently God had given him authority stop the rain. We are told the stoppage would be at his pronouncement and would last for years.
When we compare 1 Kings 17:1 with James 5:17-18 we see that the cessation of rain was in response to the prayer of the prophet:
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
The main focus of the Old Testament prophets was not predicting the future but rather directing God’s people back to His word and covenant with them. Foretelling was ancillary to forthtelling.The Lord had promised them prosperity in the land if they worshipped Him exclusively and obeyed His commands. He also warned them that he would judge their disobedience with, among other things, the withholding of rain:
Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside to serve other gods and worship them, lest the Lord’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:16-17).
We are told that Elijah prayed earnestly that it would not rain. I imagine that, like Paul in Athens, his heart was troubled at the sight of all the idols in the land. Being a prophet he was acquainted with the Mosaic Covenant and those passages in the Pentateuch where the blessings and curses were stipulated. It probably seemed like things had reached an all-time low spiritually with Omri, which they had; but just when the prophet thought it could get no worse, along came Ahab and Jezebel. It might be that he wondered why God had not answered such apostasy with judgment and prayed accordingly for the withholding of rain.
In the James passage we are told that Elijah was a man of like passions as ours, and he is cited as an illustration of the principle that the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. My own opinion of this, based on the whole counsel of God, is that Elijah did not bend the will of God or persuade him to do something He had not already planned to do. As we saw in our study of 1 John, God answers prayer in accord with His sovereign will; and in the case of Elijah, the prayer was in harmony with the revealed moral will of God as well. At the end of the day we must conclude that God moved upon the heart of the prophet to pray for the rain stoppage, in accordance with the covenantal warnings. God not only decrees the final outcome but also the entire chain of secondary means leading up to it. And it only makes sense, for what good would it do for the Lord to stop the rain without a representative to declare judgment and urge repentance?
But here is the amazing thing about it all, and we are prone to miss it because the example of Elijah is mentioned in the context or prayer for healing. The prophet is praying for a very disastrous thing to happen. Israel was a pre-technological agrarian culture whose survival depended on rainfall. Modern methods of irrigation did not exist at that time, so that the watering of crops was accomplished solely by rainfall. The only major river in the region was fed by small creeks and streams carrying runoff. The springs and wells depended on a replenishing of groundwater supplied by rain. Stop the rain and you halt everything else. The crops do not grow and people eventually starve or die of thirst. Livestock likewise perish, and their rotting carcasses become the breeding ground for vermin and disease. The rich are able to survive, but common people become desperate. There is anger, looting, murder, cannibalism, insanity, and suicide. Everyone is affected, from newborn infants to the elderly. God is an equal-opportuity judge.
What a terrible thing for anyone to pray for, much less God to bring on His people. But stop and think about this situation for a minute. God’s people had been given the land of Canaan by the Lord. The land and everything it it, including the people, were God’s. Now they are worshipping fertility Gods and giving these false idols the glory for the fruit of the land, herd, and womb. They were engaging in the most lewd and perverted sexual acts imaginable. They were in effect slapping God in the face and walking in open rebellion to Him. In withholding the rain via the prophet’s pronouncement the Lord was sending a statement to His wayward people: Baal is really impotent to help you. The God of heaven is really the source of your life and prosperity. Rebel and be cursed; repent and be restored. It is a sad day when God must resort to such extreme measures to get the attention of sinners, but such is His prerogative–with any wicked nation, not just Israel:
And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.”
“If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.”
“Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.”
“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness” (Ezekiel 14:12-20).
Let me apply this in a way that might make sense in terms of our own situation here in America. We are in the middle of an election cycle, and in a few months we will have an opportunity to select between two pagan presidential candidates. Our economy is on the decline, the spiritual and moral climate is frightening, and the churches are too busy aping the culture to influence it for good. False prophets abound, urging us to experience our best life now or make God over in the image of an overweight black woman who wouldn’t harm a fly. No one is telling us to repent, except for nut jobs like Fred Phelps and Harold Camping.
But what if some prominent Christian figure publicly rebuked the president and said he had prayed for our oil supply to be totally and immediately cut off? What if he said that God was judging this nation for her departure from her Christian roots and toleration of all manner of blasphemous and idolatous religious practices? That He was bringing her to her knees with chaos and destruction for allowing the moral and spiritual decline we see so evident all around us?
No one would get to work or school. The streets and highways would be littered with abandoned vehicles. The airline and trucking industries would cease operations. Service industries like hospitals would close. Food and other necessary supplies would not be transported to communities. As in ancient Israel people would die–children and the elderly included. Chaos and anarchy would result, and there would be looting, rape, murder, suicide, insanity. Martial law would be declared.
But no one would repent, or at least not very many. Instead, as in the case of Elijah, godly preachers and anyone in league with them would be targeted as the scapegoats. And there would be false prophets outnumbering God’s prophets by a ratio of roughly 450 to 1. They would assure everyone that God is too loving to send such judgment, and that they should persist in rejecting God’s word in favor of the heresy du jour. And, as always, the phonies would be on the king’s payroll and eating well, as the peons starved.
You think this is pretty far-fetched? Maybe so, maybe not. At least it is not without biblical support and precedent. But let me flip the coin and leave you with one final question. What if somehow the federal deficit could be eliminated, oil and gas prices reduced to under a dollar a gallon, the inflation eliminated, outsourced manufacturing jobs all brought back stateside, and everyone enjoyed the chicken in every pot (or whatever it was FDR promised)? What if our material prosperity exceeded that of the post-war baby boom? What would the result be in terms of our spiritual and moral condition? Would we repent? Would there be mass revival? Don’t think too long about it, for the answer ought to be as plain as the nose on your face.