We said last time that Ahab left the battle at Mt. Carmel apparently under the impression that the issue of loyalty to Yahweh had been settled once for all in Israel. That is why he went to Jezreel where the king himself was headed. But soon he was devastated to discover that even smashing victory in one battle does not necessarily decide the outcome of a war.
Jezebel is a tougher, more determined personality than Ahab. Ahab was cowed by Elijah; Jezebel was not. Remember, in 18:4 we read that it had been Jezebel who was determined to execute the Lord’s prophets, not Ahab. And in 18:19 we hear Elijah referring to her as the power behind the prophets of Baal and Asherah. By the way, her reference to “gods” is correct. There are as many as eight different Baals listed in the Ugaritic texts from that period.
You may be interested to know that in a recent number of Biblical Archaeology Review an English professor from the University of New Mexico, Janet Howe Gaines, published an article attempting to rehabilitate Jezebel’s reputation. In Ms. Gaines’ reading Jezebel is a modern type of woman, a sort-of feminist icon; a fiery, determined person, faithful to her native religion and customs, boldly exercising power, and living life on her own terms. It all depends, it seems, on what you think of idolatry and whether you think Yahweh is the living and true God!
We do not know how much time has elapsed since Elijah’s triumph on Mt. Carmel and the message received from Jezebel. Perhaps not very long. But Elijah’s fear is demonstrated by the fact that he not only fled Israel, he went all the way through Judah to its southern boundary at Beersheba and then still further by himself leaving his servant behind. He ran from Jezebel, in other words, as far as he could go. No word of the Lord sends Elijah southward; this is a journey of his own making. It appears that he has laid down his calling and has quit as the prophet of the Lord.
Elijah had been reacting to Jezebel’s messenger, so Yahweh sent one of his own. The word for messenger in v. 2 and angel in v. 5 (and again in v. 7) is the same Hebrew word. Sometimes it is not all together clear whether it means messenger or a supernatural figure, an angel.
Once again the Lord supplied his prophet with food in a miraculous manner. That should have reminded Elijah of the way the Lord had fed him previously first at the brook Cherith and then with the widow of Zarephath. He had no need to fear Jezebel.
We assume that the angel made it clear to Elijah that he was to travel further south to Mt. Sinai or Horeb, the one is the same as the other. But clearly now and in other ways as we proceed Elijah is going to be a second Moses. The 40 days and the 40 nights are one indication of that. His destination, Mt. Sinai, is another.
The Lord’s question, repeated in v. 13, is a reminder that this was still a journey that, at least in some respects, Elijah made on his own, out of fear not out of faith or obedience.
Elijah is suffering from a very selective memory, typical of people who are discouraged.
In Exodus too the appearance of the Lord was accompanied by storm and earthquake and fire. Elijah is in some respects repeating the experience of Moses. The Lord passed by Moses and Moses saw something of his glory just as Elijah does here. It is also interesting and very important that both of these men who met the Lord in his glory on Mt. Sinai or Horeb would meet the Lord Jesus and see his glory on another mountain in Galilee, the Mt. of Transfiguration. Of all the prophets, only two physically stood in the presence of the glory of the Lord and both of them first in their own lifetimes and then again centuries later: Moses and Elijah. [Dillard, 55]
The assignment would not require Elijah’s immediate return to Israel, but it was definitely a return to his prophetic work. The Lord had more for Elijah to do and, though we are not told in so many words that the appearance of the Lord and his message to Elijah had heartened the prophet, we safely gather that from the fact that Elijah did as he was told and resumed his work as the Lord’s man.
Elijah’s seeming triumph was snatched from him and the kingdom of God, poised to enjoy a new day of prosperity, found itself once more slogging through the mud. This isn’t the only time this happens in biblical history.
“Just when it appears that a true prophet has arisen in Israel, just when many suspect that Jesus is the prophet, the Jewish leaders conspire with the Romans to crucify him. [His disciples speak just as Elijah does here: “…and we thought this one would bring redemption to Israel (Luke 24:21).”’Just when the gospel is making headway among Gentiles, the Judaizing heresy arises to drive Paul to distraction. Why do the church’s enemies have to pick a fight just when things get rolling?” [Leithart, 138-139]
It is a natural question and the answer to it is that the gospel is itself the condemnation of the world, the flesh and the devil. As Jesus put it, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The living church must, in the nature of the case, provoke the world’s hostility at every turn because our message and our very life is the world’s condemnation. You will have noticed, as many have, that it is the ethics of the Christian church and the message of the Christian church toward which our elitist culture is most hostile, not even the ethics of Islam though they are an affront to everything that elitist culture stands for. It is our ethics and our message that must mean that their ethics and their message are evil, godless, and must doom the people who embrace them. If we are right, they are very wrong! No wonder the world will not take this lying down. The world won’t in our day any more than Jezebel would in hers.
The church’s intention is to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, or, at least that is how Paul puts it (2 Cor. 10:5). The world of the Evil One will never take that lying down. The more the church begins to roll, the more vicious will be the world’s response.
In other words, we often face the same situation Elijah did and need to learn from this deeply interesting account of his all too common response to disappointment and the Lord’s response to that response. This history, of course, as we have already noted about so much of the history of kings, functions on two levels: the level of redemptive history itself (Elijah as a prophet and Israel as an apostate people, and the progress of divine revelation leading inexorably, certainly, finally to the revelation of the Son of God centuries later), on the one hand, and on the other the level of the spiritual experience of God’s people, your experience and my experience, your life and my life, in a trying and tempting world.
As we will see, we needn’t forget the first in order to attend to the second. But, remember, this is one of the Bible’s classic accounts of a discouraged believer and the Lord’s antidote for that discouragement.
Look at Elijah in this narrative. He disappoints us to be sure, but, as James reminds us in another context, he was a man like us. We don’t see anything in Elijah that we don’t find in ourselves all the time. Take, for example, Elijah’s selective memory. The Lord asks him, first in v. 9 and again in v. 13, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It is the sort of question the Lord often puts to people in the Scripture, a question designed to uncover the attitudes and thoughts of the heart. The first time the Lord asked such a question was in Eden when the Lord called to Adam, “Where are you?” Certainly, given the Lord’s omniscience, that was a question designed to elicit more than information. And Adam’s reply confirms this: “I was naked and ashamed so I hid.”
And consider Elijah’s reply, the same in both instances. So deep was Elijah’s discouragement that 1) though an angel had met him and fed him twice; 2) though he was now on the mountain that figured so prominently in Israel’s spiritual history, the very mountain were Moses himself met Yahweh and spoke with him face to face; 3) though Yahweh himself is asking the question and Elijah is finding himself, just as Moses had, in conversation with the living God; 4) and though he should by this time have been reminded of the ravens by the brook Cherith and the widow in Zarephath whom the Lord miraculously fed and the stupendous demonstration of divine power on Mt. Carmel and Elijah’s smashing victory over the prophets of Baal, all Elijah can think to say is that “though I have been faithful to you, your people are not and all I have to show for my faithfulness to you is a contract on my life and complete isolation and loneliness.
And, then, typical of those who are discouraged, not only does he remember and consider only the bad news, he exaggerates that. He says, “I alone am left.” Really? What of Obadiah? What of the hundred prophets in the caves near Mt. Carmel who had probably come out by this time? As it happened, the Lord told him that there were others, 7,000 others who had not bowed the knee to Baal. 7,000 is almost certainly a figurative number, suggesting that there were a good many more Israelites than a literal 7,000 who had remained loyal to Yahweh.
Another exaggeration is his statement in both v. 10 and v. 14 that “they seek my life to take it away.” Believe me, I hear this all the time and I’m sure you do as well. People who want to strengthen their argument and especially their complaint, in my experience, never ever say, “I’m the only one who feels this way, but…” They always claim that lots of people think this way or everybody is saying this or I’ve talked to so many people who feel as I do. But the fact is only Jezebel was seeking Elijah’s life. The prophets of Baal weren’t because they were lying dead in the Wadi Kishon. Ahab wasn’t because he was by this time largely a cipher, a man so weak in reference to his wife that he had to a significant degree ceded power to her. Jezebel and Jezebel only was after Elijah and he had just, by the power of God, sent her prophets to hell. But when people are discouraged or angry or fed up they almost always exaggerate the situation. When someone says to me “Everybody is saying this or thinking this…” I always think to myself, well, I know you are; I’ll wait to see if anyone else is. I’ve found out too many times over the years that “everybody” evaporates to “me, myself, and I” as soon as the counting begins!
In other words, Elijah’s spiritual memory has failed him and he has ceased to think theologically about his life and situation. He was afraid and he had had enough. He responded to Jezebel’s message as if there were no God in heaven who had just revealed himself in terrible power and majesty on Mt. Carmel. He forgot all that God had done for him and showed to him. He forgot the great privilege it was to be a prophet of the Lord at such a time as this. One woman’s resistance had turned in his mind a smashing victory into abject defeat. The Lord was not in his mind’s eye.
And how many times does this happen in your life and mine? How many times do we find ourselves thinking and feeling and acting as if there were no God in heaven and as if he had not proved himself a thousand times to us as our heavenly Father, our Savior, our Provider, the lover of our lives? In our discouragement we forget what we have seen and heard and learned and felt again and again and again throughout our lives. The Lord disappears from our mind’s eye; at least his majesty and wisdom and power and goodness no longer grip us. We have fallen prey to our circumstances. It is easy to read this narrative and think of Elijah: what a chump! How dull does a man have to be to go so quickly from the summit of Carmel to the broom tree south of Beersheba? But, then, of course, we do the same thing all the time. How many hours of our lives – yours and mine – are spent in discouragement, dismay, anger at our circumstances, feeling fed up, wanting out as if God were not our God and had not loved and cared for us in the most wonderful ways through the course of our lives?
So, pay attention to what the Lord does for and shows to his prophet because the lessons he taught Elijah are as relevant to our lives today as they were to Elijah’s in the 9th century B.C.
The first thing the Lord does is to demonstrate to his prophet that the kingdom of God proceeds in this world usually, almost always, in and through the ordinary round of life and faithfulness. The first thing Elijah sees when the Lord calls to him and tells him to stand on the mountain is the sort of manifestations that are common to a theophany – the appearance of God – in the Bible. A great wind that actually moved rocks on the mountain side. Then an earthquake that shook the great mountain beneath Elijah’s feet. Finally a fire, the sort of fire and lightning that Moses must have seen on the same mountain centuries before. These were precisely the sort of demonstrations of the divine majesty that Elijah had witnessed on Mt. Carmel and that had devastated the prophets of Baal. But the Lord was not in any of these. That statement is obviously the signal of a lesson being given. All these great demonstrations of divine power and the Lord is not in any one of them.
Instead it was in a low whisper that the Lord came to Elijah; a striking reversal of expectation. He no doubt had thought – and naturally enough – that after Carmel there would be more of the same. The Lord would reach down from heaven in some way and smash Jezebel and her remaining prophets to strike fear in the hearts of all Israel and they would give up on their idolatry. After Carmel, his thinking was, “why stop now?” [Dillard, 56] But, fact is, the Lord is not usually to be found in the dramatic phenomena we all hope for and so many Christians are convinced it is the Lord’s will to provide virtually on cue. Many Christians, alas, spend their lives hoping for and expecting the miraculous and supernatural and sink into discouragement when it doesn’t appear or when they realize that what they took to be miraculous was nothing of the kind. How many faith healers and so-called prophets have we seen come and go just in our own lifetime? For a time they generated great enthusiasm among the credulous, but sooner or later somebody blows the whistle. The guy is making up the miracles, taking people’s money and living high on the hog with it, and so on. It’s happened hundreds of times.
No, the Lord is found here in I Kings 19 and almost everywhere in history in the still small voice, in the Word of God as it is read and preached, in the witness of believing men and women, in good books that Christians have written, in the life of prayer, in the example of a godly, faithful life lived before others, in the life of a Christian home, and so on. It is very interesting and important to remember that the Lord’s disciples in the Gospels also had Elijah’s mind about things. The Lord’s early miracles created a tremendous stir. People were gathering in numbers to be healed. A movement was being created before their very eyes. It never occurred to them that the Lord wouldn’t continue to exploit his miracle-working power to bring in the kingdom of God. Why would you not use this power if you had it at your disposal? But early on, already in Mark 1 the Lord told them that, the crowds notwithstanding, the enthusiasm of the people notwithstanding, they were going to leave that place to preach elsewhere. Miracles don’t take anyone to heaven and they don’t keep anyone out of hell. It is the truth, the Word that matters. Healing the sick may make an important point at a certain moment in the history of redemption but it didn’t save anyone or give anyone eternal life. It is believing the gospel that does that and only believing the gospel. So, in the final analysis, we learn in Mark 1, preaching the Word is much more important than miraculous healing of the sick.
As one wise commentator puts it:
“If the spectacular has not produced final victory, that is no reason for despair. For the overall strategy was always more long term and more subtly conceived than Elijah imagined. From the beginning it has involved the gentle but devastating whisper as well as the all-consuming fire, the quiet ways of God’s normal providence as well as the noisier ways of God’s miraculous intervention. Elijah must be content with being part of the plan and not the plan itself.” [Provan, 147]
Or take the evidence of church history itself. Think of the great revivals that are the closest thing to Mt. Carmel in the history of the church since Pentecost. Think of the Great Awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts in the days of Jonathan Edwards. In a matter of weeks scores of people had professed new faith in Christ and the church was bulging with crowds of seekers and new believers. But a few years later Edwards admitted that many of them had returned to the world as a dog returns to his vomit and only relatively few of those who had been so excited before seemed ready for the long road of Christian discipleship stretching ahead of every convert as it does. The largest number of Christians has never come from the spectacular, however important that may be at some points in the history of the church to jump start the progress of the kingdom of God in a time and a place.
Consider this: that many, many more Christians are brought to sturdy Christian faith and fruitful Christian living by the slow steady influence of a godly home than are brought by sudden conversion. Sudden conversion is wonderful; let there be no doubt about that. We’d absolutely love to see much more of it. But ordinarily such sudden, dramatic entrance into eternal life occurs only from time to time. It is the low whisper that is the ordinary way forward in the kingdom of God, not the terrific storm that shakes the ground. Not only the slow steady influence of the Christian family, but even in conversion, even in the case of people coming to faith in Jesus Christ in their adulthood, it is very often the long process of friendship, conversation, example, and the hand-picking of fruit.
The question posed by this history is precisely this: after Carmel how will the Lord prove himself to be God? [House, 222] If it is not with lightning from heaven as it was on Mt. Carmel, how will the Lord prove his reign and rule and the authority of his Word in the life of his people? And the answer is: in the whisper, not the storm, as is almost always the case. In the regular routines of Christian godliness, in the Word of God as it has been revealed to us, in the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit working his will in human hearts invisibly, often undetectably.
That is the first thing.
The second thing the Lord shows Elijah is that the solution to his spiritual funk is faithful activity. It is striking, is it not, that the Lord does not give Elijah a lecture, a bawling out as we might have expected. He does not enumerate the things that Elijah has unaccountably forgotten. Nor does he pat his prophet on the back and say “there, there.” He gives him some orders and tells him to get going. Elijah is hiding in a cave, not a good place for a discouraged man to be; a dark place is no help to a man in a dark mood. A lonely place is not likely to recover a man from his loneliness. [Provan, 148-149]
What Elijah needs is useful work, activity. Working believers, active believers are far less likely to suffer the effects of discouragement than inactive Christians. The mind is put to other uses than the survey of one’s disappointments. The attention of the soul is captured by the challenge that must be met and the work that must be completed. When the Devil tempts you to turn inward and grovel, you should reply like Nehemiah did to Sanballat, “I am carrying on a great project and cannot come down to you.” There is no medicine more effective in dealing with spiritual doldrums or fears or discouragements than simply useful Christian activity and faithful Christian service.
A few weeks ago I watched a video online of a conversation between three Reformed preachers and scholars of impeccable credentials. They were talking about dealing with the temptation of pornography and two of them began by stressing the fact that the important thing was to get a gospel mind about the matter. To get the gospel clear in your head. To understand the grace of God toward you so that whatever you do in dealing with this problem in your life you do that thing in a gospel frame of mind and not make the mistake of thinking that you can achieve anything by your own power. The key thing in all such situations is to trust the Lord. I was thinking as I listened, “Well, I agree with that, but the fellow who is struggling with a desire to look at pornography on his computer may very well not find that altogether helpful advice. There is something ivory tower and detached about it, as if getting the theory right is going to solve his practical problem or as if his problem has been primarily a failure to understand the gospel. Well, perhaps so, but then, thankfully, another of these Reformed men piped up and said just what I was thinking. He said that all of that was true, of course, but the man needed to do something about his behavior and that while he thought about the gospel he needed to begin behaving differently immediately. Otherwise he could continue to view pornography while thinking good thoughts about the gospel, as far too many Christian men have done. This man then recommended Covenant Eyes, an internet monitoring and accountability service that pretty much puts a stop to the use of any computer to view pornography even when, especially when the fellow has lost his resolve and would otherwise click on URLs he should not. Action is often the most effective riposte to inappropriate states of mind and heart.
And such was the Lord’s approach here. He didn’t insist that Elijah get his thinking straight about everything first. He didn’t say that he couldn’t use him until he had a better mental attitude about his life and his service of the Lord. He didn’t say that once Elijah had figured out what he had done wrong and repented of it and had gained again a living confidence in the power and glory of the Lord he could use the man again. He gave him some orders and sent him off to do some important work.
The assignment happened to be the anointing of a new king of Syria – another demonstration of the Lord’s sovereignty over the entire world, that an Israelite prophet should anoint the next Syrian king – and then a new king for Israel, a king who was to represent the end of Ahab’s house and dynasty, and, finally, a successor for himself. In other words, the conquest of Israel’s unbelief was not going to happen quickly, it was going to be secured by others beside Elijah, and would come to pass in the ordinary push and pull of politics and international strife and intrigue. No more Mt. Carmels, in other words, but the destruction of Ahab’s house and eventually the destruction of Israel as a nation. That is what the Lord will do to Israelite idolatry!
When you are discouraged, as Elijah was, listen to the Lord’s question: what are you doing here? Then take care to remember and not to forget what the Lord has done for you, shown to you and provided you and how faithfully and constantly he has cared for you through the years of your life; and then make a point of refusing to exaggerate when you tell the Lord your woes. And, then, do what Elijah did. We wonder in what state of mind the prophet left Horeb. We are not told that he had recovered his spiritual equilibrium. Perhaps he had, perhaps he was still somewhat aggrieved and despondent and not entirely convinced of what the Lord had shown him. But he got up and set off to complete the assignments he had been given and we hear no more of debilitating fear or discouragement on Elijah’s part. The remainder of his story is of a man in as full possession of his faith and spiritual powers as he was leading up to Mt. Carmel. He recovered by accepting that the Lord’s way was, by and large, the slow and steady way, the way of faith and faithfulness, and by taking up his duties again and discharging them one by one.
It is remarkable how much Christian men or women can accomplish – no matter the discouragements he or she must face – if they simply keep their head down and attend to the Lord’s business. And how often that is all it takes to lift the spirits and gladden the heart. As you work you will remember how much the Lord has done for you and you will remember what an astonishing privilege it is to know and serve the living God!