Prayer: Answered And Unanswered
God does not always answer our prayers by granting the thing that we request. Frequently, by not granting our requests, He indicates that His answer is, No.
In the history of one Old Testament character--Elijah--we have examples of prayer, both answered and unanswered, of a most striking and instructive sort.
The first thing that we know of Elijah is that "he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months." (James 5: 17) As the fruit of this fervent, effectual prayer he boldly announced to Ahab, "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." (1 Kings 17: 1). Here in truth was a most genuine prayer of faith--a faith which expressed itself, just as James the Apostle demands, in works, in the form of a prophetic utterance. His faith in the completeness of God´s answer was so clear and implicit that he announced not only no rain, but also no dew! He was sure that God would answer his request in the spirit and not only in the letter. God acted just as he requested.
How came it that he was able to pray with such clear-cut assurance? Do the Scriptures throw any light upon this? We believe that they do. The Lord had said through Moses,
"Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and then the Lord´s wrath be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit." (Deut. 11: 16, 17)
Now they had turned aside under Ahab, and they were serving and worshipping other gods, and so Elijah expected God to do what He said He would do under those circumstances. He asked Him to do it; he expected Him to do it; he boldly announced that He would do it. That was faith.
Elijah was not praying for something which would entail pleasant consequences for himself. He shared in the miseries of the prolonged drought, and suffered along with the people, though God made special provision for him which preserved him from starvation. It was evidently true that, as he said: "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts." He hated the terrible apostasy of Israel towards Baal, his heart burned for the glory of Jehovah´s name, and he felt the time had come for God to act in the judgment He had specified. Anything was better than that Israel should pursue their downward way unchecked. The rod of government was to be preferred to utter ruin; so he prayed for the stroke of chastisement, though it was to fall on his own back amongst the rest. That prayer was answered.
James also informs us that, "He prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit." We might have deduced that he was praying from the account in 1 Kings 18, of how on the top of Carmel "he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees." But James sets the point at rest by telling us that it was so. He prayed, and sent his servant to look, even seven times, for the answer. The answer came in no stinted measure. There was a great rain.
Again we ask, how come it that he could pray with such assurance? 1 Kings 8: 35, 36, coupled with verse 3 of the following chapter, supplies the answer. Solomon had requested that if when heaven was shut up there was prayer and confession of Jehovah´s name and a turning from their sin, that rain should be given; and the Lord had told Solomon that he had heard his his prayer. The people had confessed Jehovah´s name and had publiclyrepudiated Baal by slaying his prophets, so Elijah prayed with full confidence that God would make good His word in mercy, just as previously He had in judgment. Again it was a question of asking God to fulfil His own word.
Earlier on that same day Elijah prayed that God would answer by fire, consuming the sacrifice that he had prepared. This request of his met with an answer so remarkable that not only was the sacrifice consumed, but the stones of the altar, together with dust and water. Though in this case there does not appear to have been any specific word on which his faith could rest, there was precedent. God had answered Solomon by the falling of fire from heaven, as also David when a period of chastisement was over and sacrifice was offered--see, 2 Chronicles 7: 1, and 1 Chronicles 21: 26. So Elijah proposed an answer by fire as the test, and his confidence was not misplaced. His prayer was answered.
Now these instances very plainly show us with what confidence we may pray when our requests are based upon the Word of God. We may be sure that He will do what He has said He will do. We may also expect Him to manifest His power and vindicate His Name as He has in days gone by, for He is an unchanging God. Another thing which stands out very clearly is that if we pray, not for things that suit our own personal convenience, but rather for things that concern His interests and glory, we may have great assurance that we shall be heard and our requests granted.
When, however, we pursue Elijah´s story into 1 Kings 19, we very soon meet with another prayer of his that evoked no response whatever. It was completely unanswered. Threatened by Jezebel, he ran away. His courage having failed, in deep depression he flung himself under the juniper tree, and then, "He requested for himself that he might die, and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life." Jezebel and those acting under her had been seeking his life to take it away, as he afterwards complained to the Lord at Horeb, he would rather that the Lord took it away than that she should do so. But the Lord did nothing of the sort.
Not a few may be found who complain that God does not answer their prayers, when the trouble really is that they do not perceive the answers that He has given. He has answered, but not just as they thought He would, and so His reply passes unrecognised. But in Elijah´s case this prayer of his was unanswered, in the sense that the reply was an emphatic NO. In fact a more complete and thorough-going case of unanswered prayer could hardly be imagined, for not only did he not die when he requested that he might, but he never died at all! He proved to be the second of the two men in the whole history of the world that have been translated to heaven without tasting death.
This request of Elijah´s was a prayer of depression and not a prayer of faith. It was also a purely personal prayer. He requested "for himself" that he might die. For a brief moment Jezebel and not God filled his mind´s eye, and he felt he would like to be out of the conflict. This is just the type of prayer that goes unanswered. It is also just the type of prayer that many of us frequently offer. We want to be out of trouble; we are swayed by personal preferences; we utter our cry, but we are not heard.
What a pity it would have been, had God answered this request of Elijah´s! God had far better things in store for him, chariots of fire were to accompany him to heaven, and he was to appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. It was a good thing for him that God said No.
And for us also unanswered prayers are no tragedy. A day is surely coming when we shall see that those unanswered were as much a blessing as those answered--perhaps, as in Elijah´s case, even more so!
F B Hole