Effective prayer: James 5:16-17

The last part of James 5:16 has come to my attention recently from two different directions.

It was one of the passages I looked at  for my post at Better Bibles Blog about the meaning of energeo in Galatians 5:6 – this verb, in fact exactly the same form of it, is used in a similar way in both these verses (and I note for Mike Aubrey‘s benefit that both are in split noun phrases, the specifically Greek construction “hyperbaton”). Joel Hoffman also comments on this verse in his post on Galatians 5:6.

And then the same sentence came up again as I read chapter 13 of Adrian Warnock’s book Raised with Christ and prepared part 6 of my review of that book. Adrian quotes this part verse from ESV (p.172 of his book):

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The ESV offers a marginal reading:

The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.

The TNIV rendering is

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

So which of these, if any, is correct? If James’ usage of energeo is similar to that of Paul (and that is something which should not be assumed), then I can apply the conclusion I came to in my BBB post, and which is supported by J. Armitage Robinson, as linked to in a comment at BBB by Tony Pope. That conclusion is that the passive of energeo, as found here, implies a divine or superhuman agent and can be understood as something like “be set into operation”. The implication of this for James 5:16 is that the prayer he has in mind is set into operation by God, that he is the one who makes it effective.

It is hard to be sure, in the absence of any definite articles, whether the participle of energeo here is to be understood as attributive (“effective prayer”) or predicative (“prayer is effective”). But if James had intended a double predicate as in the TNIV rendering it seems odd to me that he would use an indicative verb and a participle in parallel in this way. So it seems more likely to me that the participle is attributive.

Thus I come down to preferring the ESV marginal reading, but with “effective” to be understood as “put into effect by God”. Prayer, even that of a righteous person, is not powerful simply because of the form of words, but only as God works through it and makes it effective. And since energeo in the New Testament is often linked with working of miracles, surely this verse implies that God intervenes supernaturally, miraculously, to put our prayers into effect.

James’ first example of this kind of prayer certainly had a miraculous effect:

Elijah … prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.

James 5:17 (TNIV)

I note that “prayed earnestly” here is literally “prayed with prayer”, probably a Hebraic idiom of emphasis. As Adrian points out, there is no record in the Bible of Elijah saying any normal kind of prayer to this effect. What is recorded is these words of Elijah, addressed to Ahab:

“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

1 Kings 17:1 (TNIV)

Surely this is what James had in mind as Elijah’s prayer, which was emphatic or earnest – and effective. That implies that this kind of declaration in God’s name is a form of prayer.

So perhaps our prayers would be more effective if they were a little less “Please, God, do such and such, if it is your will” and a bit more “As the Lord lives such and such will happen”. First, of course, we need to know from God’s word that “such and such” is in line with his general will, and then hear from God that it is his intention for our situation. But if as we pray, instead of making pious wishes, we listen to God to know what he wants to do and then declare that he will do that, then we too will find that God makes our prayers effective.

7 thoughts on “Effective prayer: James 5:16-17

  1. Pingback: Faith, Love, and What Matters in Galatians 5:6 « God Didn't Say That

  2. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Raised with Christ: Review part 6

  3. Douglas Moo, in his James commentary in the Pillar series, prefer to view the participle as a “middle” instead of a passive, as attractive as it is theologically (p. 247), thus favoring the ESV’s in the text.

  4. TC, there is in fact no distinction in Greek between middle and passive forms. See the explanation in my BBB post, and in my latest comment there linking to Carl Conrad’s work on this. More to the point, and against Moo, there are no clear examples in the NT of energeo in the middle/passive with any kind of active sense. I rather think that I have uncovered a self-perpetuating exegetical myth about this word.

  5. Tony, thank you for the link. It was interesting to see Mayor write that energeo “in the N.T. is always used of some principle or power at work, whether in the soul or elsewhere” (p.172); also Mayor quotes Hort (now referring not just to the NT) calling energoumene “passive as always” (p.171). A longer quote:

    Dr. E.A. Abbott writes to me that, after careful examination of all the Pauline passages, he is convinced that the passive meaning is not only possible but in every case superior to the middle; and Dr. Hort in a private letter takes the same view of our text and of Gal. v. 6 without giving an opinion as to the other examples. (pp.172-173)

    I will link to this comment on the BBB post as Mayor supports what I wrote there as well as here.

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