Elijah as an Old Testament Hero
We recently visited a few places in the Holy Land that are mentioned in the life of Elijah. When you read about Elijah in the New Testament, you get a picture of a powerful man, placed high on a pedestal. The book of James paints Elijah as a powerful man of prayer:
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. James 5:17-18
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, it was Moses and Elijah who appeared with him and spoke with him. Moses represented the Law and Elijah represented the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. God gave the Law through Moses and he called the people to faithfulness to the Law through Elijah and all of the prophets.
The story of Elijah begins as the connection between the people and God reaches a low point. The Davidic Kingdom has been divided. The northern kingdom, called Israel, has forsaken the worship of God and has been won over to the worship of Baal and Asherah. The kings of Israel are getting further and further away from their spiritual roots. Elijah begins his ministry during the reign of the worst king in Israel’s history.
In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to arouse the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him. 1 Kings 16:29-33
Elijah’s first sermon as a prophet is short and terrible. NO RAIN!
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” 1 Kings 17:1
Not even dew. He’s a herald of the Bad News. Without rain, the country would be without crops.
There is something happening behind the scene here. God is sending a message to his people, not only through punishment. The god Baal, the one they are being led to worship by Ahab and his wife Jezebel, is also known as the Storm God. The people believe Baal holds the keys to the skies and at his command the heavens produce rain. Yahweh, Elijah’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has commanded the rain to stop in order to convince the people that he alone is God.
Elijah doesn’t stick around after he delivers his message of bad news to king Ahab. God instructs him to flee Israel altogether. He stays first at a brook east of the Jordan river, until the brook dries up. After that, he heads north to Sidon.
After 3 ½ years of hiding Elijah comes back to Israel. Ahab has continually searched for him, but has had no luck in finding him. The king wanted to kill him for troubling Israel. When they meet, Elijah requests a contest.
Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 1 Kings 18:19
We stood on Mount Carmel and looked out along the Jezreel Valley. Somewhere on this hill, Elijah’s contest took place.
From Mount Carmel you can see the Jezreel Valley. This is the area the book of Revelation refers to as Armageddon.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East…. Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in
Hebrew is called Armageddon. Revelation 16:12-16
Elijah’s Prayer and God’s Response
1 Kings 18 tells the story leading up to Elijah’s victory on Mount Carmel. You can read about it HERE but we’ll skip down to the heart of Elijah’s prayer and God’s response.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!” 1 Kings 18:36-39
What a demonstration of power! It’s hard to imagine what this must have done to the crowd that had been bored to tears waiting to see if Baal would show up.
There is a small Carmelite monastery on Mount Carmel today. Religious people throughout the centuries, inspired by the story of Elijah, and have sought out this mountain to live simple lives of prayer and worship. We were inspired, but we decided not to stay.
The Drought Ends
Immediately after the contest was won, and God proved himself to the people as powerful, Elijah began to pray again. We do not have the words he spoke, just the image and the results.
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'” Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the LORD came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. (1Ki 18:41-46 NIV)
God was not through working with Elijah yet. While Ahab is hitching up his chariot, Elijah is sprinting ahead to Jezreel. Elijah’s sprint was as much of a miracle as anything else that happened on this day. The prophet outpaces the king’s horses over the stretch of about 20 miles!
From High Highs to Low Lows
I don’t know how long Elijah stayed in Jezreel, but it probably wasn’t a terribly long time. Perhaps it was just long enough to pack a few things and then leave the country again, because as soon as Ahab gets home and tells his wife about what happened, Elijah is put at the top of the Most Wanted list.
It’s here in Elijah’s story that we begin to realize how fragile he is spiritually. This is the point in the story where Elijah should be gloating. He should feel invincible after calling down the fire of God, the rain of heaven, and then outrunning the king’s horses. He should be on top of the world, but he feels crushed by his fear of queen Jezebel. He runs for his life and ends up about 100 miles away.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:3-4
God Calls Elijah to Another Journey: To the Desert.
Elijah must go further. God needs to get him all by himself to build Elijah back up.
Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 1 Kings 19:5-8
The desert is where the people of Israel, fresh out of Egypt, became familiar with God. Horeb was the place God gave them the Law. Horeb was the place they entered into a covenant with God. Horeb was the place they became a nation.
God calls Elijah to go back to that place where God spoke to Moses. God was about to reveal himself again, but this time it wouldn’t be through the thunder, or the fire or the storm or the earthquake.
God Speaks to Elijah in the Solitude of the Mountain
There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1Ki 19:9-14 NIV)
Sometimes we miss the voice of God because we are paying attention to the wrong things. We want the storm or the earthquake or the fire because they are plain and powerful and unmistakable. You don’t have to listen hard to hear them. It’s the whisper of God that causes us to strain. It’s the silence and the stillness of God that we can’t get comfortable with.
Elijah hears from God and he doesn’t appear to be changed. His answer to God’s question, “What are you doing here?” is the same both times God asked. It’s an awkward conversation to say the least. But God accomplished what he wants to accomplish. There is more planned for Elijah. God’s plan for him didn’t terminate in the Carmel victory.
Go Back, I’m not Through with You!
God worked through Elijah on Mount Carmel to win a battle for allegiance. Now, Elijah was being sent back to lay the foundation progress.
The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (1Ki 19:15-18 NIV)
God made Elijah the king maker. Elijah announced who the next king in Israel would be, Jehu (though he did not have the opportunity to anoint him personally). And God displayed his authority over all the nations by announcing who the king of Aram would be, Hazael. And God maintained the prophetic ministry by sending Elijah to Elisha. Elisha would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and prove to be just powerful as his predecessor.
The Cycle of Elijah’s Life:
Powerful – Fearful – Pitiful – Restored – Powerful
We are not always powerful. Very often we locate ourselves somewhere on the spiritual spectrum somewhere between powerful and pitiful.
Elijah was powerful on Mount Carmel. But as soon as Jezebel came after him, he became fearful. After weeks of running, when he had come to the end of himself, there at the Mountain of God, Horeb, we see how pitiful even a prophet can be. “I’m the only one!” he tells God twice.
We feel alone when we are pitiful. We feel abandoned and abused and neglected. Even on the Mountain of God, with the memory of God’s power fresh on our mind, we can become as pitiful as Elijah.
But God doesn’t give up on us. He speaks to us as he did Elijah: “Go Back!” It’s a command. At God’s command, Elijah is restored. He doesn’t whine. He doesn’t complain any more. He leaves the cave and he returns, in spite of the arrest warrants out for him.
The last picture we see of Elijah is a return to the power he experienced on Mount Carmel.
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 2 Kings 2:11
We cannot always be as powerful as we want to be. Nor will we always be as pitiful as we think we sometimes are. We live most of our lives somewhere between these two extremes: either fearful or restored.
When we are fearful, we learn to trust God.
When we are being restored, we learn to thank God.
We are fragile in body, in mind and in soul, just like Elijah was. But God uses us all the same.
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.