Elijah and Ahab
1 Kings 19:1-21
We have just left one of the high peaks in the entire OT. Because of Israel's lapse into Baal worship, Elijah has prayed effectively that God send a drought upon the kingdom of Israel. Because of his prayers for 3 and a half years rain did not fall upon Israel. Then after calling down fire from heaven and thereby proving to Israel that Yahweh was God and that Elijah was His prophet, Elijah once more prays down rain upon the earth. In one of the most beautiful pictures of the relationship God had desired His kings to have with His prophets, Elijah runs before Ahab to Jezreel. One could only suspect that Elijah was filled with hope, that the tide had changed and that God's people once more would worship Him and Him only.
ELIJAH FLEES FROM JEZEBEL (19:1-8)
Upon arriving at Jezreel, Ahab most likely informed Jezebel of the events on Mt. Carmel. Jezebel does not react to the events in the same way that the Israelites had reacted on Carmel. From the LXX (Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT written around 250 BC) we read that Jezebel says, "As surely as you are Elijah and I am Jezebel, before the next 24 hours elapse you will suffer the same fate my priests suffered."
This is a major threat coming from Jezebel. Was she serious about it? As much as she would have liked to have killed Elijah, the truth is that she probably was powerless to enforce her threat. If she had thought she could have killed Elijah, she probably would have struck first and then talked later. Her talking first showed that this threat was nothing more than all talk. Since she can't kill Elijah, she does the next best thing--she tries to discredit him by scaring him and running him off. If the threats of a mere woman (even though she be a queen) can run off a man, surely he is not Yahweh's prophet, or if he is Yahweh's prophet, then Yahweh is powerless, not Baal.
Whatever her motive or reasoning, the fact is that her threat had its desired outcome. Elijah flees from Israel. There is absolutely no excuse for this. For the past 3 and a half years with the Lord's help he had controlled the elements in the atmosphere. Because of his prayers rain did not fall for 3 and a half years; because of his prayers the drought was ended. Moreover, because of his prayer fire shot down from heaven, thereby demonstrating not only that Yahweh was God but that he was Yahweh's prophet! There is absolutely no excuse for his behavior.
Too often that is the case with God's people. We stand up and claim that God is great and that we trust Him. Then when things get rough or we don't get our way, we hightail it out of the church. No matter what our words said, our actions proved that one of 2 things was true: (1) we were not relying upon the Lord's strength or (2) the Lord is not as powerful as we claimed Him to be. Although the first statement is the correct analysis of the situation, the sad truth is that most non-Christians interpret the situation in accordance with the second statement.
What is even sadder is that because of Elijah's actions, he short-circuited the revival which hit Israel. Because he had confronted Ahab and the priests of Baal on Carmel, he had brought a revival to the Israelites. When the fire fell from heaven, the people had fallen to the faces and declared: "Yahweh is God! Yahweh is God!" Now that revival has hit, the catalyst for the revival has short-circuited it and left the people to return to their idolatrous ways. Although each of us is responsible for our own actions, the truth is that many Christian leaders (ministers as well as deacons) are going to be held accountable for the leadership or lack of leadership they have provided for their flocks.
There is absolutely no excuse for Elijah's behavior. When James writes that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours (5:17), he surely must have been reflecting upon this sorry episode in Elijah's life. Elijah had prayed a drought upon the land and had prayed down fire and rain. He had even outrun a horse over a distance of 20 miles. Yet he runs at the first sign of trouble from Jezebel. Elijah has failed miserably here. He truly was a man with a nature like ours.
Elijah heads south for the Sinai peninsula. He stops at Beersheba (the dwelling place for Abraham and the southernmost tip of the fertile area of Palestine) and deposits his servant there. Then he heads south for another day's journey where he stops to rest. There Elijah collapses, exhausted from the journey but also from the stress of the past few days. While there the angel of the Lord ministers to his physical needs, strengthening him for the journey which lay ahead. After rest and refreshement Elijah heads south for Horeb, the mount of God, where Moses and the Israelites had encountered God ~600 years earlier.
There has been a legitimate discussion raging among conservative Christians as to the identity of the angel of the Lord. Some claim that this person was none other than Jesus. I do not think so because when Paul discusses the giving of the Law (Gal. 3:19), he claims that it was inferior to the covenant of grace because it had been ordained through angels (the angel of the Lord) and not by God Himself. What is interesting though is that the idea of the angel of the Lord prepares the way for the truth that God did become man in Jesus. Although the angel of the Lord Himself was not God, he spoke for God. He represented God so perfectly that the way you responded to him indicated your response to God Himself. Therefore, there is not much of a leap to see how Jesus takes on this role. He perfectly represents God. The difference though between Jesus and the angel of the Lord is that whereas the angel of the Lord is nothing more than an angel, Jesus is nothing less than God Himself.
Although the distance from Beersheba to Horeb is only ~220 miles (a journey of 10 days minimum and 20 days maximum), it takes Elijah 40 days to travel the distance. During that whole time he is fasting, living off the supernatural sustenance from the angel.
Why the 40-day trek? Most likely to prepare him for his encounter with God. In other words, it took 40 days for Elijah to become spiritually ready to meet God. Look at the use of 40 in the rest of Scripture to see how this works. The rains fell for 40 days and nights in order to insure that the earth was completely destroyed. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days of fasting before he was ready to see the vision of God. Jesus, likewise, fasted for 40 days and nights before He was completely prepared to take on Satan's onslaught. In the same way 40 days were needed to prepare Elijah for his encounter with God.
Our church, likewise, has gone through 2 such similar occurrences, and in both situations something significant happened in our church. The first time we focused on 40 days of prayer climaxed in our revival with Dr. Roy Fish (1995); just 2 months later we went through a church split. Four years later we focused on 40 days of prayer climaxing with the revival led by Mel Blackaby. Two months later the church roof collapsed. Each episode changed our church for the good. It doesn't mean that we did not go through times of stress; it just means that we underwent some significant change in our church. It takes that amount of time for God to prepare us for what He wishes to do in our midst.
ELIJAH'S ENCOUNTER WITH GOD (19:9-18)
Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb (or Mt. Sinai) called the Mount of God. Elijah ascends to a place called the cave. The fact that it is called the cave and not simply a cave indicates that this cave was well-known and significant. The only other instance in which we find a spot on Mt. Sinai to be significant is the time when Moses stands in the cleft of the rock on Mt. Sinai and God passes before him. Because of the similarities between the 2 events (God passing before the 2 men and the men's faces being covered), it is most likely that Elijah now stands at the very spot where Moses stood when God passed before him.
While Elijah is standing at the entrance to the cave, God speaks to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" This is one of the most important questions God asks a person in his life. It is so important because it is the time for self-evaluation. The way the person responds to this question and this time will set the tone for years to come in that person's life. Several times I feel like God has stopped me in my tracks and asked me this question. In 1980 I was vacationing with my parents in El Paso when God asked me this question regarding my entering the Ph.D. program at Southwestern. I was informed by my professors that I could get a job teaching easily if I majored in OT studies, while I could forget about teaching if I majored in NT studies (NT majors being considered a dime a dozen). That though was not to drive my decision. I had to decide: "Do I want to spend the rest of my life studying about Moses or about Jesus?" Later in 1986 God stopped me dead in my tracks. I had finished my seminar work at Southwestern and had agreed to help out a church in its youth program. I thought I would help out for just a year (I ended up staying there for 5 years). In '86 though the dentist had to remove 3 wisdom teeth. I was sitting at home for about one week on pain medicine, doing little other than thinking and meditating. I felt that God got a hold of me and asked me what I was doing, or to be more precise, "When are you going do write your dissertation and finish your Ph.D.?" Both incidents changed my future. In the same way God periodically has to get a hold of us, stop us, and make us examine our lives so that we can realign them with God's will for our lives.
What follows next is one of the biggest "whines" in the Bible. (I like what Scott Motycka says whenever he hears somebody whining: "Serve a little cheese with that whine!" Well, God is going to have to get out a huge chunk of cheese to go along with Elijah's whine.) Elijah replies: "I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."
Whereas there is a major element of truth in what Elijah says, the fact is that he has overplayed his hand. Not all the sons of Israel have forsaken the covenant (remember Obadiah) and not all the prophets have been killed with the sword (at least 100 were protected by Obadiah). Moreover, the way he phrases the statement "I have been zealous" leads us to think that he is rebuking God. "I have been zealous for You, God, and look where it's gotten me--persecuted! I've done all this work for You, and You have done--precious little. I alone am left." He claims that not only have the people left him, God has left him. Has God got a response for him.
Elijah is standing at the mouth of the cave when a great tempest passes before him. Most likely this tempest took on the form of a sandstorm. In order to understand the fierceness of these desert sandstorms, you need to remember that glass is made of sand. In other words, the swirling sand in a sandstorm is like little pieces of glass swirling all around you. These sandstorms can strip a tree bare of any of its greenery. The sandstorms can be so thick and fierce that you cannot even see the hand in front of you. As awesome as this display was though, God was not in it.
An earthquake follows upon the heels of the sandstorm. Those who have been in an earthquake claim that it is one of the most unsettling experiences ever. We so much take the ground and its stability for granted. You don't think even once about putting your foot down and wonder if the ground is going to shift beneath you. You run without any thought of the ground. Moreover, earthquakes can be pretty devastating in that part of the world. When you visit the holy sites of Capernaum and Bethsaida, all you see now are ruins. These ruins have not resulted from wars but from earthquakes, especially the violent one which ripped throughout that part of the world in the 2nd century AD. (The ancient Herodian fortress of Masada was destroyed by that same earthquake.) As awesome as that earthquake was, God was not in it.
Next comes a fire storm. Most likely this was an electrical discharge, lightning dancing around the mountain. Many times dry storms hit the deserts. The lightning in these storms are truly frightening. It would be even more frightening being high up in the mountain itself where the lightning would consistently lick the face of the mountain. As awesome as this lightning display was though, God was not in it.
The Hebrew text of the OT informs us that what follows next was a deep stillness and silence, a stillness so deep that you could have heard your own breathing or your own heart beating. It was at that moment that God spoke to Elijah, not in the ways we traditionally think of God speaking--through sandstorms, earthquakes, and firestorms, but in the silence of the quiet voice. Once more God asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?"
During much of Elijah's ministry he had experienced God through the earthquake of a drought, the firestorm of lightning upon Mt. Carmel, and the sandstorm of the downpour which ended the drought. To be sure, God was in these occurrences; however, that is not the normal and typical way God meets us. It is through the silence and stillness of our hearts. We have to face 2 questions: (1) are we willing to calm down long enough so that God can speak to us and (2) are we willing to obey Him once He does speak to us?
I am learning more and more about how to quiet down and hear God speak. Most mornings I am up a little after 5 getting ready for the men's groups which meet at 6:00. Following the groups, I take Molly to school and then rush off to the office. Lately, I've been returning home to my back porch which overlooks the wooded creek. There I open my Bible without any interruptions from the phones, secretaries, fellow ministers, and spend time in my Bible, either doing some personal study or else Bible study for the church. It is really a shock to the system but a needed one. There I feel like God deals with me in a more dramatic way than if I were doing the exact same thing in my office. God has been addressing me on the need to let go and not stress out over certain things. It is so liberating when God reminds me that ultimately I am responsible only for Carey Ford, not for anybody else or for areas which fall under other peoples' jurisdiction.
We do everything we can to keep the earthquakes rocking and the firestorms hitting by keeping our radios up loud, our TV's blasting throughout the household, or our video games keeping us occupied. Anything to keep from hearing God's still voice.
Finally, we have to commit ourselves to obeying whatever God says to us. Sunday morning Jeff Berry approached me about going to Promise Keepers this September. I told him that I went last year, really enjoyed it, but probably would not do it again this year. (Little did I realize I was putting a damper on his enthusiasm to motivate men to take advantage of this opportunity.) Later that evening during the service, Gunter Rodriquez was sharing about his experience at PK's. Out of the blue he said, "Carey is leading a group this September to the conference in Dallas; I encourage you all to go with him." I started chuckling: "OK, Lord. I'll go." There is no room for negotiation in our relationship with God. All that is allowed is obedience. Any other response results in keeping God from speaking to us.
When God asks Elijah once more: "What are you doing here?" Elijah once more replies with his whine. God does 2 things here: (1) He gives Elijah a new mission, and (2) He informs him about the true state of affairs. First, whenever a person is facing burnout, the best thing to do is to sit back and get a new vision. In fact that may be the reason God allows His children to suffer burnout so that they will be willing to go in a totally new direction in their lives and ministries. No longer is Elijah going to try to convert the house of Ahab; it is so depraved, it is beyond help. Instead he is to anoint a new king over Syria, Ben-Hadad, anoint a new king over Israel, Jehu who will completely annihilate the house of Ahab, and anoint a new prophet over Israel, Elisha his successor.
Second, Elijah gets God's perspective regarding the spiritual condition of Israel. Elijah had elevated himself to the status of being the only true worshiper of God in Israel. That simply was not true. There were at least 7000 men who had not bowed before Baal and kissed the foot of his image. In fact as Elijah will soon discover, there is an Elisha who will not only succeed Elijah but will conduct a ministry which will rival Elijah's in drama and importance.
Elijah had been accustomed to fire shooting down from heaven and to droughts. God though had all along been working quietly, cultivating men to carry on His work. We are so much determined by what goes on around us. We think because we can see the different stages of plant growth (sowing, to seed sprouting, to plant developing, to fruit producing) that we can see this happening in the lives of people. Most of the times we can't see what's going on in the spiritual lives of people for the simple reason that the growth is spiritual (which we cannot see) and not physical (which we can see). You've reduced a person to being such and such a type of person, then all of a sudden one day that person surprises you. You discover a spiritual depth you had not seen before. God is not asking us to look for fruit; He is asking us to sow and to cultivate, and to leave the growth to Him (1 Cor. 3:6). Elijah leaves Horeb to embark upon this new mission for his life.
ELIJAH SUMMONS ELISHA (19:19-21)
Upon leaving Horeb, Elijah heads for the Jordan valley where he lights upon Elisha who is ploughing with the 12th pair of oxen he possesses. (In other words, although he had 12 pairs of oxen, he was only ploughing with the 12th pair. This indicates that Elisha was a wealthy man.) Elijah throws his mantle on Elisha, thereby summoning him to follow him. When Elisha requests permission to bid farewell to his family, Elijah permits it. In order to say good bye not only to his family but also to his former way of life, Elisha destroys the oxen and prepares a feast for his family. There is no turning back. He will now take on the role of God's prophet for Israel.