James 5:16: Another bad translation bites the dust

James 5:16b “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” This passage might be the most misquoted English Scripture of all time (“money is the root of all evil” comes in a close second). The reason for the confusion is that it is a direct quote from the King James Version, which translated it incorrectly. No one quite understands where “fervent” came from since it is not in the Greek text or even implied in the context. This poor translation has even influenced other versions to poorly translate the following verse, stating “Elijah…prayed earnestly” in verse 17. If “earnestly” is the proper translation, then perhaps “fervent” could be implied in verse 16 so we will deal with verse 17 first.

The Greek text literally says that Elijah “prayed with prayer that it would not rain.” The controversy concerns whether the two words were placed together to reflect the intensity of the action (“earnestly prayed”) or establish the author’s emphasis of the word as if to put it in bold italics to highlight “prayed.” James Adamson, author of NICNT’s The Epistle of James, believes James intended the latter, fluidly translating “when a righteous man prays, it is very powerful in operation. That is precisely what Elijah did, and that, let me tell you, is how it worked.” My translation is along the same lines:

“The prayer of a righteous person results in miracles and healings. Elijah was a human being just like us with the same emotions, passions, and feelings. All he did was pray that it would not rain and it did not rain for three and a half years.”

The incident James cites is from 1 Kings 18. There is no mention of how Elijah prayed to stop the rain, but there seems to be a description of his prayer to bring the rain in 1 Kings 18:41, 42. “And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain. So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.” James Freeman, author of Manners and Customs of the Bible, states that this position “refers to a common Oriental position for meditation and devotion.” (1972, p.161) He goes on to say that it was common in other cultures including Egypt and India. Whether you agree with him or not, this is clearly not a position of fervent prayer. The only fervent prayer in this passage was prayed by the prophets of Baal! “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (1 Kings 18:28) As you know, “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (18:29).

The point I am making is that the emphasis of this passage is on prayer. It doesn’t matter how righteous you think you are or how fervent you pray. James is not saying that your prayers are left unanswered because you have not been fervent enough! I have seen many people misapply this Scripture by praying harder (or “praying through”) only to become even more frustrated and disappointed when God does not answer their prayers the way they want Him to. James is encouraging us to pray just as he does in chapter 4. “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:2b-3) I had a professor once that said, “If you feel led to pray, pray knowing that it is the Holy Spirit leading you to pray. It is not the Devil, he hates prayer; and it isn’t you, your flesh doesn’t like it much either.” I hope this blog leads you to pray, knowing that prayer leads to powerful miracles that only God can do.

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