Question: "What is fervent prayer (James 5:16)?"
Answer: The term fervent prayer comes from James 5:16 in the King James Version: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” The English word fervent simply means “impassioned, forceful, passionate, heartfelt, powerful, or wholehearted.” The verse, as translated in the King James Version, seems to indicate that a passionate, wholehearted prayer will accomplish much, implying that a half-hearted prayer will not be as effective.
Most modern versions translate James 5:16 differently, so that the fervency or forcefulness applies to the outcome of the prayer, not the earnestness of the prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV); “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV); “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (NASB). These translations simply say that prayer is powerful, without differentiating between “fervent” prayer and some other kind.
This expanded paraphrase may illustrate the difference: “The forceful, earnest, heartfelt prayer of a righteous man will accomplish much” vs. “The prayer of a righteous man will yield forceful, powerful results.”
The difference in translation seems to center on the proper placement of the term translated “fervent” or “powerful” or “effective.” The KJV and NKJV translate the verse so that the term applies to the kind of prayer—a fervent, forceful, or powerful prayer can accomplish much. The other versions apply the modifier not to the prayer but to the outcome of the prayer—it will have a forceful or powerful result. So the KJV and NKJV encourage one to pray fervently so that the prayer will be answered, and the other versions simply encourage one to pray because the results can be powerful.
The context helps to shed light on the intended meaning. The immediate context speaks of praying for healing and says that the “prayer of faith” (prayer offered in faith) will be answered. The first part of James 5:16 says that we should confess our sins to each other and pray for each other to be healed. The second part of the verse seems to summarize the thought. Then verses 17–18 give an example of the kind of prayer that is encouraged. “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
James refers to 1 Kings 17:1, where Elijah told Ahab that it would not rain “for the next few years.” This drought was punishment for Israel’s worship of Baal. After three and a half years of drought, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal in a showdown on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:16–40), and then Elijah told King Ahab that it was going to rain (verse 41).
“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.
“‘Go and look toward the sea,’ he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“‘There is nothing there,’ he said.
“Seven times Elijah said, ‘Go back.’
“The seventh time the servant reported, ‘A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.’
“So Elijah said, ‘Go and tell Ahab, “Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.”’
“Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel” (1 Kings 18:42–45).
On Mt. Carmel, Elijah made a pronouncement that it would rain and then prayed that it would. He prayed for rain seven times. After each prayer, he sent his servant to see if the sky looked like rain. When it did not, he would pray again. Finally, after the seventh time, a small cloud was visible, which Elijah interpreted to be the answer to his prayer—and it was. He had prayed bent down to the ground with his face between his knees. This could be interpreted as an expression of earnest supplication.
Taking all the evidence into consideration, fervency may not be the most important issue in prayer. Certainly, Elijah prayed earnestly. However, the point of James seems to focus more on the efficacy of prayer and the aspect of righteousness in the one praying. The admonition to prayer is prefaced with the command to confess sins. James also makes a point that the prayer comes from a righteous person. Elijah was a righteous man, and the results of his prayer were beyond incredible.
The point of James 5:13–18 is that prayer is important and God answers prayer, so we must make it a priority. We don’t have to be “super Christians.” We might be tempted to think of Elijah as some sort of super saint, but James says he was an ordinary man and that God answered his prayer. However, sin in the life of the one praying can block prayer’s effectiveness. Certainly, earnest prayer is important, and the prayer of faith is important, but this passage does not seem to indicate that the forcefulness with which one prays determines effectiveness. Rather, the prayer of a righteous person is powerful (forceful) and effective.
We should confess our sins and pray, expecting God to answer. Of course, the prayer should not be half-hearted or nonchalant, and other passages encourage us to pray with persistence (Matthew 7:7–8, Luke 11:5–9; 18:1–8).