We are now suddenly introduced to the man who will dominate the narrative for the next eight chapters until his successor, Elisha, a man very much like himself, succeeds him in 2 Kings 2.
We’ve heard nothing of any prophet of Yahweh addressing the sinful house of Omri. Now one arrives on the scene with a vengeance! [Provan, 132]
It is striking that Elijah appears from nowhere in the narrative. His namesake, John the Baptist, would as well, at least so far as the Jews were concerned. Four hundred years of prophetic silence preceded the sudden and dramatic appearance of the Baptist. Few but his relatives and their friends knew of the remarkable circumstances of his birth. In the same way, the only significant thing about Tishbe in Gilead is that it was a town of so little consequence that no one nowadays can with certainty even identify its location.
As you know, Palestine receives its rain in the winter/spring and is very dry the rest of the year. But the proximity to the Sea and the hilly nature of the terrain meant that there was heavy dew for most of the year which considerably added to the moisture available. Indeed, in some places the dew is heavy enough that agriculture would be possible even without rain. [I once saw a program explaining how certain plants grew in the Atacama Desert of Chile, one of, if not the driest place on earth. There are years on end without any rain. It was once thought a great mystery but it turns out it is the dew that provides the moisture necessary for some plant life.] According to Josephus, the historian Menander, who in the 2nd century B.C. wrote in Greek a history of Tyre and its kings which is now lost, mentions this drought as occurring during the reign of Ethbaal, mentioned just before in 16:31 as the father of Jezebel. Ethbaal, by the way, means “Baal lives”!
Also important in the context is the fact that Baal, the pagan god whose worship Ahab had formally established in Samaria and whose sanctuary and altar he had built with public funds, was the god of rain! He was the storm-god; they called him “The Rider of the Clouds.” [Cf. Dillard, Faith in the Face of Apostasy, 5] In an agrarian society rain was life; no wonder they had a god who was supposed to provide rain. As will be the case on Mount Carmel, where Elijah will do battle with the prophets of Baal, the Lord’s prophet is laying down a challenge to the pretensions of these so-called gods by challenging them on their own turf as it were. If Baal is your god, let him provide rain. It is supposed to be his specialty. On the other hand, among the curses to be called down upon the people of God if they should prove unfaithful to their covenant with Yahweh is drought (Lev. 26:19; Deut. 11-17; 28:23). Let’s see whose God really has control of the weather and let’s see whose word can be trusted to be proved true! Elijah’s first assignment, then, is to tackle the problem of Baal worship in Israel and he does so with a head-on challenge. The point will be that the Lord alone is God, which happens to be very nearly the meaning of Elijah’s name (“the Lord is my God”)!
You will notice Elijah’s authority. He speaks on Yahweh’s behalf, he stands before him, he has a message that has been given to him to deliver to Israel and, therefore, he and he alone can end the drought. The Lord’s prophets, if you remember, are regularly referred to in Kings as the “man of God.” It is God’s word he brings, God’s power he wields, and God’s authority with which he speaks and acts.
The intention of going east of the Jordan was explicitly to hide from Ahab who obviously now is looking for Elijah and wishes to arrest him. We are not told how much time intervened between Elijah’s dramatic announcement at court and the Lord’s instructions for him to flee, but it is not difficult to imagine how this may have gone.
I suspect Elijah’s announcement was a source of some pique, but also some amusement at court, at least at first. “Did you hear about the kook from Gilead who walked into the palace today wearing a very strange outfit and said it wouldn’t rain until he gave the OK? It is hardly safe around here, what with the nuts who walk right into the palace these days. We need to start screening visitors! We need TSA!” And, if Ahab had any concern at all, he would have checked with the prophets of Baal and would have received the sort of answer the sycophants and toadies who served as court prophets in those days could have been expected to give: “Don’t worry, your Majesty; your kingdom is too great to be troubled by some silly rube from the countryside. Besides, Baal will deliver the rain.” But it didn’t rain. At first no one gave it a thought; but then it was the rainy season and still it didn’t rain. And the dew did not form either which was an unprecedented development. Suddenly everyone was worried. The country depended on the rains. By then everyone had remembered Elijah’s prophecy and the King had everyone looking for him, but by that time he was safely hidden far away. Elijah was nowhere to be found and Ahab and his kingdom were on their own, for Elijah had taken the Word of God and the help of God with him when he crossed the Jordan to seek safety in the wilderness.
Now appears one of the great personalities and most significant figures in biblical history. Next to Abraham and Moses and David, there is no more important figure in the biblical narrative prior to the arrival of John the Baptist and the Lord himself. He becomes, as you know, the quintessential prophet of the Lord, standing as he does at the headwaters of the prophetic movement. There were prophets before him, to be sure; we’ve actually met a few of them already in Kings. But from this point on in the narrative of Israel’s history the Lord’s prophets take on a greater role and, of course, all of the writing prophets who have given us such a large portion of the OT come after Elijah.
He was a man of unusual dress and appearance, as his namesake, John the Baptist, would also be. We read in 2 Kings 1:7-8 that he wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” The elite of the culture in Samaria, in other words, are confronted by a man whose clothing stood out as simple, rude, and unsophisticated.
“He had no fame or notoriety, no particular political clout, no credentials to command a hearing, no alphabet soup of academic degrees following his name.” [Dillard, Faith in the Face of Apostasy, 16]
But, that, of course, is typical of the Lord’s way with his people. Indeed, the principle is fundamental to biblical faith. As Paul will put it much later, “not many wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth” for God chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong so that no one might boast before him (1 Cor. 1:26-27). Israel had forgotten that she was nothing; she was a nation of such insignificance that no one would ever have heard her name except for the fact that God chose her to be his people and so destined her for greatness in human history. This fact was to be a constant reminder to Israel that her hope of prosperity and greatness lay wholly with Yahweh and his grace and power, not with the worldly calculations she now insisted on making as if somehow she could succeed in the world in her own strength. Still more, Israel’s worldliness did not prepare her spirit for a Savior who would have no beauty or majesty that would attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, a man despised and rejected of men. [Isa. 53:2-3] It is fundamental to a biblical worldview on the one hand and to true Christian faith on the other to appreciate the fact that the living God has characteristically revealed himself to mankind and to his people through a Tishbite or a Nazarene! No wonder John the Baptist, coming as he did in the spirit and power of Elijah, should also strike Jewish urbanites as something of a strange man and certainly as a hick, a person of the country, with poor clothes and a strange diet. It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle! Still today in a thousand different ways your friends around you are asking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth? Can we possibly find the meaning of life and our hope of eternal life in some amateur Jewish rabbi who lived and died on a Roman gibbet 2,000 years ago?” And still today one must embrace what the world thinks to be foolish to obtain the wisdom of God.
As we will notice next time, Elijah was also a man entrusted with miraculous powers. In reply to a query from John the Baptist, you remember, the Lord replied that in his own ministry “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” That list reads as virtually a catalog of the miracles of Elijah and his successor, Elisha. [Dillard, 12] We need to appreciate how extraordinary this is in the Bible lest we grow jaded about these things. I think most people somehow assume that miracles occur everywhere in the Bible, but it is not so. Miracles occur virtually only in three concentrated and relatively brief periods of biblical history and in association with only a few biblical figures. Most of God’s people who lived in the times covered by the Bible never saw a miracle. Figures as immensely important as Abraham or Jacob, David, Solomon, and Jeremiah never witnessed a miracle, still less were they given the power to perform one. In the New Testament, John the Baptist never performed a miracle and, so far as we know, he never saw one performed by the Lord Jesus himself. By the time of the later New Testament period, so far as we can tell, the miracle-working associated with the apostles had come to an end. At the end of Paul’s last letter, 2 Timothy 4, he writes – this the man who before brought healing to people who only so much as touched him or touched things that he had touched – “Trophimus I left ill at Miletus.” The days of miraculous healing were over and once again the sick, as the poor, would be always with us. The ordinary days had returned and would remain for these last 2,000 years. But among those three periods of public supernatural activity in the history of the human race is this one which begins in this chapter. It came and went in a relatively few years but while it lasted it was one of the most extraordinary moments in human history for the demonstration of the divine hand in human affairs. It all began with the appearance of the Lord’s prophet Elijah. Miracles always and only occur in connection with one of the Lord’s prophets or apostles.
At the headwaters of the movement of biblical prophecy we have a great outpouring of divine power and, thus, the demonstration of the credentials of the Lord’s prophets. There was such a great demonstration of divine power at the time of the giving of the law – the first part of the Bible – and, again, at the beginning of that period that was to produce the New Testament, the last part of the Bible. And so there were such demonstrations of the divine majesty at the beginning of that movement that would produce the middle part of the Bible. No wonder that Elijah should come to have the role of the prophet and that it should be Elijah, who would be said to appear as the forerunner of the Messiah, at the great dawning of the day of salvation, and then Elijah, along with Moses, who then appears to the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Galilee a year before his crucifixion, death and resurrection: the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, together speaking with the one who fulfills both.
The biblical narrative of the ministry of Elijah, we will see, however, functions on various levels. We will have in the career of this great man and prophet the demonstration of the truth and authority of the Word of God and the kingdom of God against any and all pretenders to truth and authority and kingdom. We have as well the great historical conflict between Yahweh and the gods of Canaan and the demonstration of the futility of idolatry. Biblical monotheism is the great cause of Elijah and Elisha and the prophets who followed them. For folk like us who live in the day of a newly ascendant paganism, this narrative is immensely important. But we also see in Elijah and his history a man like ourselves, as James makes a point of describing him. And in his life we will also find the lessons of the life of faith. He is a man of strengths and weaknesses. In that he is like us. Elijah will prove himself at times a man of great faith and at other times a man of weak faith. In that too he is like us. He was a man of prayer and his life of prayer is held up to us in James 5 as an example that we should follow. And the Lord provides for him and protects him as he promises to do for all his people. So there are levels of meaning and application in this history and we find them all, all these various perspectives, all these different applications of the biblical text already in these opening verses of chapter 17.
We have Elijah’s thunderous opening salvo in the war he was declaring with Israelite Baalism, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives…” The practitioners of the worship of Baal had to explain why their god couldn’t provide rain all year round. The explanation they contrived was that Baal had every year to submit to the god Mot (death), only to be revived at a later date and once again water the earth. In other words, the crop cycle was tied to the life cycle of Baal. He died each year and that is why the rains stopped and only the crops that were already in the ground and well watered could survive to harvest. Seed time and harvest, fields planted and fallow were then the result of an annual battle among the gods. But each year Mot, the god of death, would be defeated by Anat, Baal’s female consort, and Baal would be brought to life again and, as a result, the rains would fall and life once again could come from the ground. The Canaanites associated fertility with a live and vibrant Baal. This explains the radioactively sensual nature of Baal worship, cultic prostitution, and the like. Sexual activity at the temple was thought to re-animate and vivify the divinity, to stimulate and so aid in Baal’s reanimation, and so activate fertility on earth. It was a way of stimulating the life cycle of the gods and so the fertility of the earth. But in the face of this mythology Elijah throws down the gauntlet. He will expose Baal as a nonentity. Yahweh never dies; he is the God who lives! What is more, his power is such that he can deny to men both dew and rain. Still more, his acts are governed not by sexual stimulation or rivalry among the gods of heaven, but by his holiness, his moral perfection, his justice. He gives and takes away according to his purposes in salvation and in the judgment of the wicked.
Elijah’s statement in v. 1 is very like the third line of this verse from a document dug up at Ugarit, a place not far from Tyre where Jezebel was born and grew up.
The heavens rain oil,
The wadies run with honey,
So I know that the mighty one, Baal, lives,
Lo, the Prince, the Lord of the Earth, exists.
We can see immediately what Elijah means by what he says: ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” He is laying down the terms of the contest between Yahweh and Baal. We will find out which God actually lives and do so in terms perfectly suited to unmask the irreality of Baalism. If Baal is the storm god, the god who provides the rain, let’s see if he can make it rain when Yahweh has ordered a drought!
On this larger scale there is another, smaller point, but for Christians like us, not an insignificant one. We conservative Christians, living and working in churches that were created by separation from now liberal and, sadly, often nearly pagan Christian denominations, tend to operate with an ecclesiology, a doctrine of the church, according to which we regard ourselves as the remnant, the true Israel, separated from the old mainline. We often tend to think in ways that leave the old bad churches out of account altogether. We are the church, not they. What happens in them has nothing to do with the church because we don’t count them as the church any longer. They may used to have been the church, but they are no longer. They have abandoned their right to the name. We consider the fortunes of the church as they wax and wane to be the fortunes of our spiritual community and those others that agree with us: evangelical, Bible believing parts of Christendom. We largely ignore these other largely liberal denominations, having given them up as a bad job, and leave them to their own devices. That is not, however, what we see happening here. Elijah will remain in regular contact and confrontation with what I suppose we could call Israel’s mainline. It is not enough for him to gather the few faithful who remain into a new and separate existence.
“Elijah and Elisha do not entertain the comforting illusion that they can carry on happily as the true Israel while the Omrides take the nation further and further into the cesspool of idolatry.” [Leithart, 125]
We have something to learn from this for ourselves. It cannot be a matter of indifference to us that Episcopalians or other Presbyterians are eager to ordain practicing homosexuals to the Christian ministry or that most mainline churches approve of abortion or have little or no interest any longer in bringing the news of salvation in Jesus Christ to the practitioners of others faiths. This tottering, embarrassing, dying community remains nevertheless the church of God even in its apostasy and its baleful influence on the world is as much a problem for us who are in churches loyal to the Bible as it is for those dying churches themselves. What is more, there always are, as there were in Elijah’s day, serious, devout believers in those churches, perhaps considerably more of them than exist in our much smaller churches. They are the people of God too and their fortunes remain bound up with the idolatry and paganism of their churches. There is no ecclesiology of isolation or indifference to the larger community of Israel to be found in the narrative of Elijah and Elisha as we begin it.
Such subjects as these will continue to be major themes in the narrative as it proceeds. But there is more. There is the personal perspective here as well, the life of Elijah as a believing man, the part of the story that James, the half brother of the Lord, for example, draws our attention to in the New Testament.
We see Elijah here as a man under orders who does precisely what the Lord tells him to do; a man, in other words, whose life is the reverse of the life of Ahab or Israel, both of whom have repudiated the word of the Lord and the Law of God. What is more, he does what he is told to do even when the instructions must have seemed surprising if not almost outrageous to him. Remember, miracles were part of no one’s life until Elijah arrived on the scene; they weren’t part of his either. And yet he was told to rely on birds, ravens, to feed him in the wilderness as he hid from Ahab.
We naturally wonder what Elijah had expected would come to pass. Had he hoped that Ahab would have repented before him in dust and ashes? Did he expect that the court would tremble at his words? He obviously had been imbued with a sense of divine authority. You can hear it in his words to Ahab. But the king was unimpressed; no one else apparently took any notice, and now comes the order to hide himself away from all other people to escape Ahab’s thirst for vengeance. What had he done but deliver the Lord’s message? Far from a rousing success he had now to run for his life. And there he sat, by the Cherith brook, a marked man, uncertain of his future; whatever he had expected, it wasn’t this. He arrived at his hiding place along the brook, perhaps with nothing more than he could gather in a few moments as he beat his hasty retreat from the population centers of Israel. Here he sat on some rock, far from human companionship, an exile in his own country, the hot near eastern sun scorching the river course where he sat, wondering what was to become of him, and waiting for some bird that was supposed to appear with his meal. Did he wonder what in the world he had got himself into?
But then the ravens appeared for the first time carrying bread and meat to him. Meat, you know, was not a regular feature of the typical Israelite diet. Meat was expensive. Except for the wealthy, Israelites rarely ate meat. This is one of the reasons why Passover was such a tremendous holiday and why people looked forward to it so much. But Elijah was eating as if he had been asked to dine at the king’s table and eating that way twice a day; bread and meat together. [I take it, by the way, as a matter of personal vindication that when Yahweh himself sought to provide a diet for an outstanding servant of his kingdom, he provided the makings of a hamburger! The Ravens didn’t bring Elijah a salad, mixed greens with a raspberry vinaigrette. Nor did they bring him a plate of vegetables or a casserole. They brought the man bread and meat! Do with that information what you will according to the measure of your faith!] As the sumptuous tables of Samarian society began to grow bare as the famine bit into available stocks of food, Elijah received the very best food every day. He had probably never eaten so well in his life as he did at the brook Cherith. Rebels against God grew hungry while the Lord’s prophet had to begin a regimen of pushups, sit-ups, and jogging to keep from putting on too much weight.
And the food was the more remarkable for the way in which it was delivered; by birds and not by birds only, but ravens. Have you ever seen a raven, a fully-grown and well-fed raven? They are huge, menacing birds; birds that eat carrion, scavengers, meat-eaters. I once saw some at the Tower of London. In fact, the guards at the Tower, as those of you who have visited know, are called “Beefeaters” because it was their job long ago to feed the palace ravens and they would do so by carrying in large slabs of beef for the birds to consume.
I think this is one of those instances in Holy Scripture where we tend to sentimentalize the narrative and so create a picture quite different from what is actually painted by the words. I think, for example, of all the pictures in Sunday School material I saw as a boy that depict Daniel as a boy or a young man being thrown into the lion’s den, when, in fact, Daniel was an old man when that occurred. Well here our picture is of some sweet birds carrying food to Elijah and perhaps perching on his shoulder while he ate. Ravens are not sweet, cute, cuddly birds. If a raven were sticking around to watch me eat, I might very well think that he thought I was being fattened up for his dinner.
That ravens should have brought Elijah bread and meat morning and evening was a wonderful and powerful demonstration of the fact that the Lord God not only controlled the rain but the entire natural order. That the most menacing of creatures can be brought into the service of his people is proof of the Lord’s absolute sovereignty. The Lord was as much as saying to his prophet, “If you think Ahab and Jezebel are scary, they are as completely under my control as these menacing birds.”
This too is the lesson of this history. The Lord is able to provide for those who are faithful to him and do his will. And his provision is not barebones, but generous, full, and complete.
Felix Mendelssohn’s wonderful oratorio based on this history, Elijah, has a magnificent chorus, the words for which Mendelssohn’s librettist, a German pastor who compiled the Biblical texts to which Mendelssohn set his magnificent music, drew from several different psalms. Taken together they beautifully convey the personal application of these verses for you and me.
Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.
He never will suffer the righteous to fall; he is at thy right hand.
Thy mercy Lord is great; and far above the heavens.
Let none be made ashamed that wait upon thee.
What a magnificent commendation of this text of Holy Scripture, the text we have begun this evening. It will prove this text in its entirety and at one and the same time 1) a grand declaration of the majesty of the one living and true God, 2) the Bible’s most dramatic demonstration of the futility of idolatry and paganism – the non-existence of all other so-called gods – and a narrative of the Lord’s blessing and keeping through trial and affliction a single faithful man who serves him, a man who has characteristic faults and weaknesses as we do, but a man who prevailed through prayer and the patience and faithfulness of God.
Elijah, James reminds us, was man just like us. That is what James says, “just like us.” And he lived, as we do, in a world that was no friend to God’s grace or law or our Christian faith. And, in the providence of God and according to his calling to serve the Lord, Elijah had to pass through a number of difficult and challenging experiences, the reasons for which were by no means obvious to him at the time. That too sounds like our life. We have begun a dramatic and wonderfully encouraging story of our Christian faith, on the one hand, and the practice of our faith on the other.