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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Why Pray (5:15-18)
Why Pray (5:15-18)

I remember a sign that read, "A funny thing happens when you don't pray," followed by a large, nearly empty space carrying just one word in small print: "(nothing)." James is certainly convinced that prayer brings results. Therefore his final way to encourage his readers to pray is to describe the effectiveness of prayer.

1. The results. The conviction that prayer will bring results was implicit in 5:13-14. It becomes explicit in 5:15-16 with James's assurance of four results. The prayer will make the sick person well . . . the Lord will raise him up . . . he will be forgiven . . . so that you may be healed. The first result, make well, is the NIV's translation of the verb sosei "will save." It is a proper translation for this context, where "will save" is in the sense of healing rather than spiritual salvation. See Mark 5:23. Similarly, the verb egerei, will raise up, would refer to physical restoration rather than spiritual resurrection in this context. When James declares that the penitent sinner will be forgiven, what he has described as the context is prayer of intercession, not absolution, with emphasis on God as the one answering prayer. It is a final reminder that God is the giver of every good gift. The concept of being healed can have a spiritual sense with the verb iaomai, as in 1 Peter 2:24, which refers to Isaiah 53. Here in 5:16 it seems to refer to physical healing, although James recognizes in 5:15 a possible combination of illness and sin. The vision he is sharing with his readers is for both physical and spiritual healing of their lives.

2. The principle: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. In Greek this is a compact, five-word sentence waiting to be unpacked by the student or expositor to reveal the vigorous expectation that God dynamically answers prayer. James begins with the substantive poly ("much") as the matter he wants his readers to see first and foremost: how very much can be accomplished through prayer.

After the main verb ischyei ("has power" or "is able"), James introduces two terms with apparent deliberateness. For prayer as the subject of the sentence, he shifts from the general term euche to the more specific term deesis ("supplication" or "entreaty"), denoting the sort of prayer his readers would be doing because of their trials and persecutions. Then the person praying is designated as dikaiou ("righteous"), even though righteousness has not been mentioned thus far in the passage. To pray as repentant sinners is what James commanded at the beginning of 5:16. This is the stance Jesus taught his followers to take. But it is not a position of despair; Jesus also awakened in his followers the hope of becoming righteous. Within Matthew 5:3-10 he capsulized that progression from being spiritually poor to hungering for righteousness and finally becoming so righteous that one would be persecuted for it. James now affirms that hope to be righteous and applies it as encouragement for praying.

The term righteous in 5:16 is more than an automatic statement that "holds good for every believing petitioner," as Dibelius characterizes it (1976:256). It is a call for every believer to reach toward righteousness. All along, James has been urging his readers to resist the temptation to compromise righteousness in their trials. Now, with the designation of the one praying as righteous and with the shift in terms from general "prayer" to specific "entreaty," the implication is as follows: In your trials, you don't need the power gained by money or favoritism or selfishness or fighting or swearing; use the power of prayer, for which you need righteousness. Commit yourself to doing what is right without compromise; then you may rely on God in prayer for all your needs.

As has become clear within the letter, James is not denying salvation by grace through faith; he is merely convinced that genuine faith will express itself in righteousness, and the prayer of genuine faith is the prayer that is effective. After all, what causes me to try to protect myself by unrighteous means in trials? It is my unbelief. On the other hand, confident belief in God's grace will make me strong for acting righteously in the midst of trials. It is a message similar to that of 1 Peter 4:19 and 5:6-7.

The last word in the sentence is energoumene ("effective"). This is actually a middle-voice participle of the verb energeo, which means "to work" or "to be effective" with such an energized sense indeed that the NIV renders it as a predicate adjective (in contrast to the direct adjective in the more literal NASB). This participle describes the subject, prayer, and enhances the idea of the verb ischyei, "has power." The result is a highly charged affirmation of prayer as both "powerful and effective."

3. The example: Elijah. This power of prayer is further emphasized by an Old Testament figure known for his miracle-producing prayers. The bulk of 5:17-18 is devoted to the basic facts surrounding one of Elijah's prayers: the long drought and the renewed rain recorded in 1 Kings 17—18. Those chapters do not record what James supplies, that Elijah prayed earnestly that it would not rain. The story in 1 Kings begins directly with Elijah's declaration to King Ahab that it would not rain again except at Elijah's word. The chapters include the miracles done by Elijah when continuous food was provided for the widow at Zarephath during the drought, and when Elijah prayed earnestly for the widow's dead son and he was restored to life. The climax was the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which Elijah prayed earnestly again and God answered dramatically with fire upon the water-drenched altar and then with rain upon the drought-stricken land.

James has chosen as his illustration an episode that is not only prominent and familiar from Old Testament history but also clearly supportive of the point he wishes to make. The miracles in 1 Kings 17—18 were undeniably beyond Elijah's human power. They were divine answers to prayer. With his concern for his readers to have faith instead of doubt, James may also be remembering that when Jesus' power to do miracles was hindered by people's unbelief in Nazareth (Mk 6:4-6), Jesus himself drew attention to Elijah's powerful praying over the rain (Lk 4:25).

But the primary intended effect of this illustration is revealed in the brief introductory sentence in 5:17. Having emphasized righteousness as a condition for effective praying, James is not wanting Christians to postpone praying while they try to attain some level of perfection or superspirituality. His foremost emphasis about Elijah is that he was a man just like us. James is saying: Strive earnestly for the goal of righteousness, but get down immediately to the business of praying.

The NIV conveys the sense that Elijah prayed earnestly, from proseuche proseuxato which is an aorist indicative verb coupled with a dative noun—literally, "he prayed in prayer" or "he prayed with prayer." Such a construction suggests intensity or frequency. Laws renders it "he prayed and prayed" (1980:235). It is important to define the intensifying effect intended by James. His desire in the passage is not to erect a standard of fervency for his readers to attain; he seems more intent on pushing them into the active prayer life that is so readily available. Adamson describes it as emphasis that praying is precisely what Elijah did (1976:201). Motyer comments that "the meaning is not his fervency, nor even his frequency of prayer, but that `he just prayed'—that, and nothing more!" (1985:206-7). James's message in these two verses includes both the great expectations and the common availability of prayer. The mighty power of prayer is for us!

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