Elijah in the Pits audio (4MB)
1 Kings 19
It must have been an overwhelming experience for Elijah on Mt Carmel mustn't it? In fact, to see the lightning fall from the sky and consume everything on the altar, after what was the simplest of prayers by Elijah, must have had an incredible impact not only on him but on everyone present. It certainly had an impact on the prophets of Baal who were rounded up by the crowd and executed at the base of the mountain.
Can you see the Light?
But notice that despite the clear sign of God's power and the impotence of Baal, Jezebel isn't moved. You can imagine Ahab running into the palace, breathless, and telling Jezebel everything that happened: “Honey, you should have been there. Elijah prayed to Yahweh and fire came down from heaven and zapped everything - even the water in the pit around the altar went up in a cloud of steam. And then he killed all our prophets.” To which Jezebel replies something like: “Pull yourself together Ahab. Act like a King. So what if Elijah’s pulled off this magic trick? If you think I’m going to give up my religion you’ve got another think coming.” Then she sends a message to Elijah: “I’ll teach you to kill my prophets. You’re a dead man.”
How many times have you heard someone say, “I just want to see some evidence that God is real and then I’ll believe in him.” Or perhaps it was a Christian saying “All we need to do is show people the miracles that God is still doing in our world and they’ll want to follow him.” But of course faith in God isn’t that straightforward is it? There’s a spiritual dimension to it that has nothing to do with the degree of evidence that people have presented to them. John pointed out in his gospel that the light has come into the world but people actually loved darkness rather than light. I think it was C.S. Lewis who once pointed out that no amount of logical argument will overcome prejudice. Only the Spirit of God moving in a person’s heart will allow them to see the truth. And that was certainly true of Jezebel.
But let’s leave Jezebel for now and concentrate on Elijah. How does Elijah respond to Jezebel’s threat? What’s going through his mind as he heads for the hills? Our text tells us Elijah was afraid, but I want to suggest that in fact that may not be the best translation of a difficult passage. The original text actually has two variants. One has the word afraid but the other has the word ‘saw’. A number of textual critics have suggested that the translation ‘Elijah saw’ may be the original and ‘Elijah was afraid’ was a later modification to make it easier to understand in the context. In that case I think what the writer may be saying is that Elijah saw the situation in Israel and decided it was time to get out. He saw how the obvious evidence of Yahweh’s power had been ignored by Jezebel and her followers and so he realised that there was no point in pursuing his role as the prophet of Yahweh. Why wait around to be arrested and killed by Jezebel? If she wasn’t convinced by what happened on Mt Carmel, nothing was going to convince her. And so he flees for his life, disheartened and discouraged.
This is the response of the minister of the gospel who preaches and preaches and sees no-one converted, no-one convinced, no-one even interested in hearing God’s word proclaimed. This is the response of the minister who wonders why they put so much energy and hard work into preparing for Sundays only to find that half the congregation hasn’t bothered to turn up to hear from God’s word.
Why, O God?
But it’s more than just discouragement. He’s expected so much from God and received so much, yet he feels that even that has been to no effect. Now he’s had enough. In fact doesn’t he say just that? V4. He’s travelled far to the south, well out of the domain of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he goes further into the wilderness and finally stops under a solitary broom tree where he cries out to God: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He’s done so much more than his ancestors in terms of providing evidence of God’s presence with him, yet to no effect. So he tenders his resignation. “That’s it. I’m off. I can’t take it any more. I’ve wasted all these years and what do I have to show for it.” Then he lies down and falls asleep.
God’s Care for his Ministers
Clearly he’s exhausted from his journey, not to mention the spiritual and emotional exertion of the previous day and all he wants to do is sleep.
But then we see how God cares for those who serve him. He sends an angel to look after him. The angel touches him and says “Get up and eat.” And there at his head is a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. What does that remind you of? Does it remind you of the episode with the widow of Zarephath? Do you remember how she made him a loaf of bread from her last bit of meal and brought him a drink of water for his thirst. Perhaps God is reminding him that he looked after him then and he can look after him now.
This happens a second time. He again falls asleep and again the angel of the Lord comes and touches him and this time says: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
It isn’t clear from what’s gone before whether Elijah had planned to go further and had just given up out of exhaustion half way to his destination or if this is a message from the Lord to go on to Mt Horeb. My own feeling is that Elijah has left Beersheba in order to travel to Mt Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, in order to speak to God. He’s gone a day’s journey and laid down exhausted, ready to give up, but now God has come to strengthen him to continue his journey. God still has work for Elijah to do and as is so often the case he gives Elijah the strength to do it.
Elijah and Moses
So on he goes. Another 40 days and forty nights until he comes to Mt Horeb, that is, Mt Sinai.
Again, does this remind you of something? He’s in the desert 40 days and forty nights. God has provided him with bread and water and finally he ends up at Mt Sinai, the place where God made his covenant with Moses. Does this have something to do with the exodus? Has God brought him here to reassure him of the covenant he made with Moses? Or has he come, perhaps, because of the failure of Israel to carry out their side of that covenant.
I Feel Alone
Elijah comes to Mt Horeb and shelters for the night in a cave. But then the word of the Lord comes to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Some people read this as a rebuke. “What’s the big idea, running away from Jezebel when you should be back there confronting her?” Or, “Why are you feeling so sorry for yourself?” But perhaps it’s more an invitation to reflect on what it is that’s brought him to this particular place. “Why here?” “What did you have in mind when you chose this place to hide away?”
Or is it in fact an invitation to bring the accusation against Israel that’s burning in his mind and heart? IS this the judge inviting the prosecution to present their case? To bring charges before the judge of Israel that Israel has failed in its covenant duty to love and obey the Lord. Listen to what Elijah says: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Is this Elijah feeling sorry for himself? Or Elijah calling on the Lord to pronounce judgement?
What is it that Elijah is so concerned about? Is it the fact that no-one likes him? That no-one listens to him? That he’s been wasting his time, putting himself in danger for nothing? Well, no. That’s not what he complains about is it? No, he’s worried about the way the Israelites have forsaken God’s covenant with them, the way they’ve destroyed his altars, killed his prophets. Elijah’s concern is with his people’s response to God.
Do you get upset when you see God’s people ignoring him; or denying the truth of his word? Are you outraged when you hear some church leader questioning the truth of the resurrection, or the miracles of Jesus, perhaps even the deity of Christ? Does it bother you that the Church too often compromises in the interest of public popularity? That’s the sort of passion that drives Elijah in this story. He’s outraged at Israel and so he comes to ask God what he's going to do about it.
God responds by telling him to go outside, to stand before the Lord who is about to pass by.
Now I don’t know about you but I think I’d be a bit worried if I knew that God was about to pass by in front of my eyes. But I’d also be expecting the sort of display that Elijah observes. First a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, then an earthquake, and then a fire. Spectacular events of nature, demonstrating the power of God. These are the sorts of signs that men and women search for when they’re looking for God. We want to see something spectacular. We want to feel the grandeur of God and our own insignificance. We want to see a dramatic proof of his reality like they saw at Mt Carmel.
But here’s the surprise. God isn’t in the wind, or in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God doesn’t always give us the dramatic proof we want. Sometimes he tells us to pay attention to what we’ve already been told. Jesus made this point when the Jews came and asked him for a sign and he told them they’d already received all the signs they were going to get. They just needed to pay attention. Jesus also pointed out that God’s work in the world is sometimes like the tiny mustard seed that begins its work hidden away, insignificantly, yet grows to be a great tree that can house all the birds of the air.
So do you see where it is that God appears. “After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence”, or it might be 'there was a voice, a low whisper’. The only sign Elijah is given is the word of God, spoken quietly but with just as much authority as if it were echoed around the mountain side. Where do we expect to find God? Elijah found him in a quiet voice speaking to him, answering his questions. Again God asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah says the same thing as before. And then God declares his judgement on the people of Israel. Elijah is to go and anoint Hazael as king over Aram (that’s Syria). He’s to anoint Jehu as king over Israel; and he’s to anoint Elisha as his successor as prophet. These three are to execute judgement on those who have turned away from the covenant and worshipped Baal.
God’s Grace and Covenant Kindness
But then there’s another surprise. Elijah had it wrong. He wasn’t on his own at all. There were still 7000 in Israel who hadn’t knelt to Baal. God always preserves a remnant who will remain faithful to him even if everyone around them has abandoned God. Even if it comes down to Jesus and his 12 disciples he continues to say “on this rock I will build my church.” You see the covenant with his people is God’s doing from start to finish so he makes sure that at least some of his people to remain faithful to him.
Well, we’re not going to look at the anointing of Elisha, You can read that for yourself. Next week we’ll see what happens to Ahab and Jezebel. But for now here’s what we discover from this account today. It may not be unusual for ministers of the gospel to be worn down and discouraged, there are still tired and broken ministers around, but God is a God who can empower and enable us to keep going in the face of disappointment and opposition. He’s a covenant God who never forsakes or forgets his people. And he continues to strengthen us to go the next stage in our journey for him. If you're feeling worn out don't forget to look back at what God has done, at the new covenant he's made with us through Jesus Christ. Don't forget that he promises to be with you to the end of the age, to strengthen you and guide you, to show his great power through your weakness.