The first 16 verses of chapter 18 take us back to Israel and to conditions there during the drought. They also bring Elijah back to Israel, on to the main stage of the contest between Yahweh and Israel’s apostate royal house. The drought will not end until there has been a direct confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal which, as you know, is the subject of the second half of this chapter.
Remember the Lord Jesus said that the drought lasted three years and six months (Luke 4:25). We don’t actually have that said in the OT narrative so that information had been passed down until the Lord’s day. Elijah must show himself to Ahab because, as we will soon read, it has become perfectly clear that Ahab will never find Elijah, hard as he has looked.
There are more than 2000 caves in the limestone Carmel range near the Mediterranean coast.
The saving of horses is an important historical detail. Ahab would eventually contribute 2,000 chariots to the coalition of forces being amassed to repel the Assyrians. However, it is also a commentary on Ahab’s rule. Here is a man more concerned to feed his horses than his people! [Dillard, 37]
They were looking for any grass that might have remained around remote springs or in hidden valleys away from roads and highways.
Elijah was a hunted man. He was at that time very much like somebody we know today, Osama Bin Laden. The most powerful country in the world, possessing the most sophisticated technology, has been looking for him, offering millions of dollars in reward and nobody has laid eyes on the fellow yet. So it was with Elijah. Elijah had so successfully avoided detection for such a long time that he had come to be regarded as possessing supernatural powers. Matters seem to have reached a point, and probably by this time such things had happened, that any report of Elijah’s presence that led to another fruitless search would be treated by the king as an act of deliberate mockery. [Robinson, 206]
Two weeks ago Florence and I watched once again the superb movie Chariots of Fire. Many of you will remember the stir the film caused when it was released in 1981 and then, against expectations, won the Oscar for best picture. This particular DVD release included a second disc with some very interesting extra material. One piece was a videotaped conversation between the producer, the director, and two of the principal actors. Two remarks in particular stood out to me. The first was the producer’s remark that he felt in some ways that the film had made itself, that he was carried along in a way quite different than anything he had experienced in film making before though he had produced 25 feature length films to that point in his career. He even said that he felt and still feels that someone – he didn’t say who! – someone who loved and admired Eric Liddell was watching over the production of the film. Eric Liddell, as you remember, was one of the principal characters in the story, the principled Scottish Christian and Olympic sprinter who refused to run on Sunday, even in the Olympic games, and won a gold medal instead in the 400 meters.
Another thing David Puttnam said was that when they were doing their background investigation of the story they were hoping to tell in the film everyone they interviewed concerning Eric Liddell had the same thing to say about the man: he was the finest human being they had ever known. You could tell that still, after all these years, these men were in thrall to a man who was in everyone’s estimation so supremely good.
Langdon Gilkey, later professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, a man who would not have shared Liddell’s staunch evangelical theology, upon his graduation from Harvard went to China to teach English. Eventually he was interned by the Japanese in the same camp in China where Eric Liddell and many other missionaries sat out the war in Japanese captivity. Gilkey later wrote a book about his experience and in the book he had some hard things to say about the missionaries interned in his camp, how they handled internment and how they treated one another, but he had nothing but praise and admiration for Eric Liddell. He said that Liddell came as close to a saint as anyone he had ever known and relates that the entire camp was stunned for days by the news of his death from a brain tumor, so great a vacuum did his absence leave.
In our jaundiced age it is important for us to remember that are, always have been, and must be again today Christians who genuinely adorn our holy faith and whose lives are its recommendation to others. Obadiah was such a man. Here was a man, we read, “who feared the Lord greatly” and demonstrated his reverence for Yahweh with deeds of great daring. I want to consider with you tonight the life of Obadiah, a different man than the man whose prophecy became a book of the Bible.
Indeed, I want to suggest to you that these verses we have read from 1 Kings 18 form one of the most encouraging texts in the Bible for you and for me. I remember reading for the first time Alexander Whyte’s statement that Romans 7:14-25 – the Apostle Paul’s cri de coeur regarding his own still great sinfulness, “That which I wouldn’t do I do, that which I would do I don’t do. There is no health left in me. I am a bond slave of sin.” And Paul was writing 20 years or more into his Christian life, into his ministry as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. But he was still sick to death with how much sin there was in his life. I remember Alexander Whyte saying that he thought that passage in Romans 7 was one of the most encouraging texts in the Bible. How could we find encouragement in Paul’s depressing account of his still great sinfulness? The reason was, he said, because if Paul was a great sinner, the fact that you and I are great sinners does not disqualify us, does not nullify our profession of faith in the Lord Jesus, does not make us “almost Christians.” I such a man as Paul could lament his sins, the fact that we lament ours not only does not nullify our profession of faith in Jesus, in a strange way it validates it. Well, in a similar way, and, in part, for similar reasons, 1 Kings 18:1-16 is a very encouraging text. Let me tell you why.
Every one of you, I’m sure, would love to be described as a person, a man or woman, who fears the Lord greatly. What a wonderful thing to say about another Christian believer: he or she fears the Lord greatly. If you have Christian blood in your veins, you want very deeply to be such a person. And what I want you to see is that you can be as Obadiah was; indeed, many of you already are to a great degree. You may not think you are; you probably don’t think you are, but you are. You may think that too much stands in the way of your life being judged in such a wonderful way, but it does not. Obadiah and his example overturn a lot of popular, wide-spread, but false thinking about the Christian life which, far too often, you and I share.
- First, I want you to notice that our godliness does not depend upon circumstances over which we have no control.
We who belong to the kingdom of God by faith in Jesus Christ are never hostages to our circumstances. I think we often think we are. “In another age, at another time, in another set of circumstances I might have been a deep, an important, a fruitful and powerful Christian.” So we think. “But look at the world in which I have to live, in which I have to make my way.”
But think of Obadiah’s circumstances. Think of the society in which he lived; think of his working life and working environment. He was a high official in the court of Ahab, a disreputable ruler who had deliberately chosen to replace the worship of Yahweh in Israel with the worship of Baal, the corrupt, sensual, and in some respects utterly ridiculous worship of Baal, a worship that any Israelite, schooled in higher things, should have immediately recognized for what it was: pure superstition. Like any other ANE court, Ahab’s was corrupt in all manner of ordinarily seamy ways: greedy, debauched, petty, dishonest, and unjust. And Obadiah had to be part of that world every day. Here was a government more concerned for its stud than its people and Obadiah had to execute the will of that government! Second in command to King Ahab as we see in the chapter. And yet it is the judgment of Holy Scripture that immersed in that political and spiritual culture every day Obadiah remained a man who feared the Lord greatly.
And what was true of the court and his working life was even more true of the church in Obadiah’s day. We naturally think that a Christian may find his or her working environment deplorable with respect to spiritual atmosphere or company ethics or simply the conversations of employees with one another, but, at least, when he comes to church he is helped to regain his footing by the hymns the congregation sings and the sermons preached and the Lord’s Supper as it is observed week by week.
But in Obadiah’s case the church was in cahoots with the corrupt court. The Lord’s prophets couldn’t be heard because there was a price on their heads and those that were still alive were in hiding. Indeed, Obadiah had to risk his own life and limb to hide them from the king’s agents and had had no doubt to develop a clandestine network of a few helpers to arrange for those hundred men to be supplied with food and water. It takes a lot of food and water to keep a hundred men alive through a famine of three and one-half years! Think of Obadiah as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel and you get the picture of his life during this time.
So if he heard any encouragement from Yahweh’s prophets it would have been on his brief visits to the caves where they were hiding out. When he went to the sanctuaries – in Samaria or Bethel or Dan – he found not the worship of Yahweh but the worship of Baal. He witnessed radioactively pornographic activity and heard a great deal of poppycock about what was happening to Baal and what Anat was doing about it and so on. What help could a spiritually minded, faithful man find there? What could Obadiah do on the Sabbath? Where could he find food for his soul? Even the number of others of similar spiritual stripe had plummeted to almost nothing. Later we will read the Lord telling Elijah that there were 7,000 out of several million in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal, but most of them would have been unknown to Obadiah and he may well have been afraid to go looking for them for fear of finding instead a turncoat or an informer who would have been entirely willing to hand Obadiah over to the authorities in exchange for some food and water. Imagine your Christian life without faithful Christian friends, without Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, and, to the contrary, being surrounded by the constant conversation of idolaters. Here was a man who was largely bereft of any of the standard instruments of spiritual encouragement and yet, God says in his Word, he was a man who feared the Lord greatly.
The simple burden of Obadiah’s example is that there is nothing to prevent a man or woman fearing the Lord greatly no matter the outer circumstances of his or her life.
That certainly is encouraging. We are not constrained, we are not limited, we are not consigned to spiritual mediocrity because we happen to live where we live, when we live in this sensual, idolatrous world of ours, or because we work in an environment that is the furthest thing from being conducive to Christian godliness.
- Second, and in my view more remarkable still, it is a point of immense importance and so obvious that we might well miss it, that true godliness not only does not require withdrawal from the world, it can be practiced while achieving some real success in the world as the world itself measures success.
Obadiah was a man who feared the Lord greatly and yet he remained a high official and much valued in Ahab’s court.
Obadiah’s is not the only such example of godliness being practiced while a person remains, what shall we say, a “player” in the midst of a godless environment. Think of Daniel and his three friends in the Babylonian court rising to high offices and great power in a government that even by modern secular standards was deeply wicked. Or think of the Apostle Paul’s remark in Philippians to the effect that he had been supported in his imprisonment in Rome by faithful Christians who belonged to Caesar’s household or who served in the imperial guard.
It was no simple thing to be a Christian in the Roman military. One had to walk carefully. But when soldiers who had been convicted by the preaching of John the Baptist asked him what they ought to do, the one thing he did not tell them was to quit their jobs! And Jesus himself drew attention to the faith of a centurion, a soldier of some consequence and authority. You can be a faithful Christian in the military or in an American company, and do well in your working life, rise to positions of significance and authority, even in places where ethical standard practices leave a great deal to be desired, where the spiritual culture is rotten. And the proof of that is that Obadiah was a high official in the court of Ahab, a typically corrupt, debauched ANE royal house.
Some things are not said here, but are obvious enough. Somebody with the skill of David Puttnam ought to make a movie. Obadiah clearly did not advertise his distaste of Ahab’s program. He knew Ahab would not tolerate disloyalty. It is precisely that knowledge of Ahab that made him fear the possibility of announcing to Ahab Elijah’s return should Elijah then disappear again. Ahab was not the sort of man to forgive an employee simply because the employee had been misled himself. Obadiah knew his master and could predict Ahab’s fury should he discover that Obadiah’s sympathies lay with Elijah and not with him. And so Ahab remained in the dark the entire time. He had on his senior staff an official who, at least in one respect, was working at cross purposes with his plans. You can imagine how complicated that was for Obadiah. But Obadiah fit successfully into his environment, into the palace life of Ahab and Jezebel. No doubt that was because he was honest, faithful, hard working, and capable, virtues that even the world must admire and at least usually does.
Not every Christian is called to be an Elijah or a Jesus Christ, confronting the sinful court of Israel from the outside as it were. Declaring war and doing battle. Some, indeed, most are called to the “tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context,” [Leithart, 134] to serving both the Lord God and a wicked master at one and the same time. But it is not only possible to do it, a great many ordinary Christians have and have done it well.
Obadiah had to be careful not to give his sympathies away, that might have been difficult enough; but Obadiah also acted in direct defiance of his king by hiding the prophets of Yahweh that Ahab and Jezebel would otherwise have put to death. As the apostles of the Lord would later put it, “We must obey God rather than men.” Obadiah was entirely within his rights as a son of God to disobey his king in this respect. Here was a case of a man obeying God rather than men, but doing so in such an effective and surreptitious manner that Ahab was none the wiser.
I think all of us from time to time at least imagine that we will never rise to spiritual greatness because we can’t be faithful, really faithful, to Christ and still keep our jobs or we can’t be faithful, really faithful, to Christ and get that promotion. But it is not so; at least very often it is not so. It may sometimes be difficult, but it can be done.
Think of it. Obadiah was an active official of Ahab’s court, responsible for executing certain programs and projects of the royal government, and yet he was a man who feared the Lord greatly. It is striking, is it not, that in one case – that of securing fodder for the chariot army – it was Obadiah that Ahab trusted with half the assignment. It was such an important matter that Ahab himself shared the work with his senior advisor. Ahab trusted Obadiah so much that he chose him instead of any other official for this very important assignment, an assignment he shared with the king alone. And yet Obadiah was a man who feared the Lord greatly. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Obadiah to manage to maintain his faithfulness to the Lord day after day. I suspect he stumbled on more than one occasion, as we will see. But all in all he did what needed to be done to remain in Ahab’s good graces without compromising his loyalty to Yahweh. And the result was this remarkable encomium, or compliment, or commendation from the Lord himself: he was a man who feared the Lord greatly.
Godliness is never unworkable. It is never impossible. It is never unrealistic. If Obadiah could be a godly man as a consequential, influential and authoritative official in Ahab’s court, you and I can be both godly and successful in our world, in our jobs, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our churches.
There is encouragement certainly in these first two observations: 1) that Obadiah was not a hostage to his circumstances and 2) that he could prosper and enjoy success in a wicked environment while remaining godly. F.W. Krummacher, the German-Reformed pastor of the 19th century, whose book on Elijah makes for interesting and inspiring reading, writes of those, like Obadiah, who are eminent for godliness in a time of great spiritual darkness – such a time as our time, brothers and sisters:
“Happy are such persons: they are numbered among those to whom the man clothed in linen, with an inkhorn at his side, was directed, in the prophecy of Ezekiel, to ‘go through the city of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sighed and cried for all the abominations that were done in the midst thereof.” 
In other words the Lord pays special attention, wants others to know of such men and women. You can be godly in large part by refusing to partake of the ungodliness around you and you can do that while you live and work successfully in the midst of that ungodliness! The Lord will enable you to do so as you trust in him and Obadiah is the proof.
But these are not the greatest encouragements for us in this account of this interesting man. There is something more much more encouraging; at least I think it is.
- Third, take note of Obadiah’s perfectly ordinary character as a servant of the Lord.
Obadiah was no superhero of the Christian life. He was a man very much like you and me. So often, I think, we discourage ourselves by imagining that the eminent saints of the past had none of our weaknesses, none of our feet of clay; they were extraordinary men and women. But they were not; in most ways they were very ordinary people. It was their nearness to God and to Christ that made the difference in their lives. We expect that Obadiah must have had traits that we do not have to be such a man of whom the Scriptures would say he feared the Lord greatly. But it was not the case. There is something very ordinary about Obadiah.
Here is a man who suddenly encounters the prophet Elijah, as it were come back from the dead. The one man everyone had been looking for over the past three years and suddenly he’s standing in front of Obadiah. Elijah tells him to announce his return to King Ahab. And what was Obadiah’s response? He was afraid. He was afraid that Elijah might disappear again and Obadiah be left holding the bag. Shame on him; he had managed to endure for three years in Ahab’s court. Surely he knew that the Lord had protected him. He had managed to keep a hundred of Yahweh’s prophets alive who would otherwise have been executed. Surely we expect more of a man of action like that. But Obadiah was no superman of the heart. He was probably somewhat worn out and worn down by the ordeal of these years of hiding his convictions and acting against the interests of the king. In any case, all he saw standing in front of him when Elijah appeared was danger for himself. He wasn’t even past telling Elijah of his fears when we might have supposed he would be too embarrassed to admit them.
In other words, Obadiah wasn’t some rare person to whom godliness and spiritual courage came naturally. He was a man like us. He did some good things and then dropped the ball in some of the very ways he had carried it before. He was an imperfect man, sometimes weak, sometimes strong; sometimes heroic and sometimes pretty much a coward. And yet, the Scripture says of this man, this all too ordinary man, that he feared the Lord greatly!
That statement about Obadiah is not much different than the statement frequently made about David and about David’s having been a righteous man, a man after God’s own heart. And the Bible says that about David after we have read the dismal account of his adultery, the murder by which he sought to cover up his liaison with Bathsheba, and the rather pathetic management of his home and his kingdom in the years that followed. This is a righteous man? This is a man after God’s own heart? This is a man who feared the Lord greatly? Yes, as a matter of fact! Well so Obadiah; an ordinary Christian who did some extraordinary things but wasn’t above cowardice and selfishness and unconcern for the greater issues of the kingdom of God.
Evangelicals generally miss this message in the Bible. We tend to counter David’s or Obadiah’s shortcomings with the message of justification. These men were righteous, we think, because God forgave their sins and made them righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. That is true of course; wonderfully true. But that is not what the Bible says about these men and if we fail to see this we miss some of the greatest encouragement from Holy Scripture for us in the midst of our lives. We don’t read here that Obadiah was a forgiven man – that may surely be assumed, but that is not what we read – and we don’t read that David’s righteousness consists in his being forgiven. What we read is that these men feared the Lord greatly and served the Lord faithfully no matter their weakness, their failures, their lapses, and the grubbier parts of their story.
The encouragement of this text is that you can be a person who fears the Lord greatly despite your weaknesses and your failures and your embarrassing lapses. This too is the grace of God. Do you remember James’ remark: “You have heard of the patience of Job.” He commends Job’s example of perseverance to us to emulate. The Puritan pastor, Christopher Love, shrewdly comments on that remark: “He might also have said, ‘Ye have heard of the impatience of Job.’” After all there is a great deal more of Job’s impatience in the chapters that make up the book of Job than there is about his patience.
Love goes on:
“But God reckons his people not by what is bad in them, but by what is good in them.” [Sermons, vol. 3 “On Growing in Grace”]
In other words, what was well done is mentioned to their praise and what was poorly done does not count so much in the evaluation of their life and character. God will not quench the smoking flax or break the bruised reed. He will reward the good in us and largely overlook the bad. Think of the Lord’s remark in his high-priestly prayer about his disciples: that they were given to the Lord by his Father and “they have obeyed your word.” Really? Did those men really obey the Word of the Lord? Yes; they did, despite all their stumbles of which there were plenty as we read in the Gospels. Or think of Peter’s remark that Lot was a righteous man, who was distressed by the wicked lives of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah living among them day after day. We tend to think, “Well, if he was so distressed, why didn’t he get out of there?” Or, “if he was so righteous he should have been contented with the hill country like his Uncle Abraham and never gone to Sodom and Gomorrah.” But, like Obadiah, Lot was a righteous man in the midst of wickedness, no matter that there were some very obvious lapses in Lot’s life of righteousness. Or, above all, think of Samson among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. “What in the world is he doing there, that dolt;” at least so we think. But he was a man of faith and of faithfulness no matter his obvious and far too frequent spiritual failures.
That is the only way in which it is possible for us to regard Obadiah as the man the Bible says he was: a man who feared the Lord greatly or to regard David as a man outstanding in righteousness. The Lord is evaluating us according to our aspirations and our righteous acts and not counting our lapses against us.
You tend to measure your virtues against your vices, everybody does, and accordingly you think that your virtues must not amount to much, cancelled as they are by your regrets and by the moral and spiritual failure that remains too much a part of your Christian life. But take encouragement from this wonderful history. Obadiah was a man who could, at a critical point in the story of the kingdom of God, prove himself an out and out coward, and yet was a man, by the Lord’s own testimony, who feared the Lord greatly.
That means that you and I can fear the Lord greatly because we are sometimes out and out cowards too. That is exactly what it means. Even people like us: who know very well how much sin remains in our attitudes, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. Obadiah and the verdict pronounced on his life in Holy Scripture itself liberate us to think less of our failures and more of the opportunities that exist for us to hide the Lord’s prophets and remain steadfast to him even as we go about our workaday lives. If a coward like Obadiah can do that, we can too! Surely you want to be, as I do, a man, a woman, a boy, a girl who fears the Lord greatly.