Online Bible College
Carelinks Home
FREE Literature
'Bible Lives' Home
Bible Books Home
Buy this Book!
Bible Lives  

9. Elijah

9.2 Elijah In Weakness

Despite Elijah’s absolutely undoubted faith, spiritual perception and prayerfulness, there is a painfully apparent weaker side to him as we analyze the records. His weakness was in despising others, in being spiritually self-centred in terms of considering he alone was in relationship with God, and in justifying his native anger and disagreement with others as all part of a spirituality which God expects of the righteous. And this sense that we get is Biblically supported.  

9.2.1 Fire From Heaven

We become suspicious of Elijah’s motives when we read of him asking God to show all Israel “That I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things” (1 Kings 18:36). “That I…that I…” sounds like there was a large element of self-justification in his spirituality, just as there can be in our, e.g., desiring to prove someone else wrong and ourselves right, to win a debate, to abuse our superior Bible knowledge… The incident in  2 Kings 1:10 of calling fire down from Heaven is specifically rebuked by the Lord Jesus as not being of His Spirit (Lk. 9:54,55). And He rebukes His followers for assuming that their natural prejudice against others can be justified by an appeal to Elijah’s example. When Elijah was asked to “come down” from the hill, he responds by saying that fire would come down (2 Kings 1:9,10); he saw himself as the fire / judgment of God. Yet behind that bold faç ade was a very insecure man; for the Angel had to assure him not to fear, and to go down with the third captain (2 Kings 1:15). Beneath his apparent zeal for Yahweh, Elijah was basically fearful, of himself, of others, even perhaps of God. So often, fear is the basic reason for our failures and misperceptions and harsh judgments. His motives were mixed; he clearly saw the similarity with how he had called fire down to consume the sacrifice on Carmel, in order to convert Israel back to God. But  he clearly failed to see the value of those 100 lives he had now taken by doing the same thing in consuming people. The value and meaning of persons was lost on him. All he could think of was fighting apostasy and judging it. Elijah called the fire down in evident allusion to how fire came down from the Lord to destroy Nadab and Abihu and also Sodom (Lev. 10:2; Gen. 19:24). He did the wrong thing from wrong motives and yet he Biblically justified it- for the prophets themselves saw an apostate Israel as being like Sodom (Is. 1:10). Now this is probably how most Christians sin. We rarely harden ourselves and sin in willful defiance. In the heat of the moment the ‘devil’ of our own self-talk persuades us to find a pseudo-spiritual justification for actions which only later we reflect were wrong. The Lord’s wilderness temptations were all about doing justifiable things for wrong motives, based on a self-justifying recollection of Bible passages. And this in essence is how it is with most of our failures. The Lord’s victory and Elijah’s failure should serve to stop us in our tracks in careful and sustained self-examination.  

The Lord’s comment that He had “not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Lk. 9:56) must surely be connected with what He has just said: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose [s.w. “destroy”] it” and vice versa (Lk. 9:24,25). The three words save, life, lose / destroy are all the same. There is surely a connection of thought here. But what is the Lord saying through it? The disciples like Elijah would have had their prayers heard- the fire of destruction could have come. But the Lord says that they don’t know the type of spirit they are of. His Spirit is one of saving and not destruction. Men destroy themselves by seeking to save themselves without Him. This is why the Lord could say that He Himself judged / condemned no man- each rejected man will have condemned himself. The same point is actually made within the Elijah story too. In 1 Kings 18:28 the prophets of Baal worshipped “after their manner”- a Hebrew word normally translated 296 times “judgment”; they judged / condemned themselves, rather than needing Elijah to do so. And the word translated “cut” essentially means ‘to gather’. They gathered themselves together to condemnation and poured out their own blood. “Knives and lancets” is a phrase normally translated “swords and spears”. They lived out judgment upon themselves rather than Elijah needing to condemn them. 

Elijah like the disciples thought that he was the judge on God’s behalf, and that he was justified in calling down fire, evocative as that was of the way God Himself judges sinners. But Jesus puts it all another way- our focus, if we have His spirit, should be on saving people by getting them to destroy / lose their own fleshly lives through following Him. Jn. 12:25,26 makes the same point- he who loves his life loses / destroys it, but he who picks up the cross and follows Jesus will save it. Our absolute focus must be on the salvation of others through helping them condemn / destroy / lose themselves for the Lord’s sake; and we achieve this by following Jesus in the life of the cross, not by destroying others ourselves. The Lord came to save not destroy; to save the lost / destroyed (Lk. 6:9; 19:10- the same words are used; note how this theme is developed specifically by Luke). But He did this through getting people to destroy their lives. And He begged- and begs- His followers to have His spirit / attitude in all this. And His point was that Elijah didn’t have His Spirit. Note that God worked with Elijah- He heard his prayers. Elijah like the disciples had the “Spirit”, the power that God was willing to let them have; and yet the Spirit of Jesus is more than raw power. And so it could be said of us, that we so often know not what manner of spirit we are of. We may be correctly reflecting the judgment of God, we may have Biblical justification for the hard line we adopt; but this doesn’t mean that we fully have the spirit of Christ. Yet as with Elijah, the fact our prayers are heard, that Scripture appears to back us, can make us blind to such  major insufficiencies in our spirituality. We have a choice in how we respond to others’ weakness; there are different levels of response. “If thy brother sin against thee”, the Lord said- we can ultimately take others with us and then treat him as a Gentile or tax collector. But He continues- if our brother sin against us, we should forgive to an unlimited extent. This is the higher level of response to your brother’s weakness. Elijah and the disciples took the first of those options, as many of us do; but in doing so we so easily forget what manner of spirit we are of; for we are to be of the spirit of Christ, not Elijah. And His attitude / spirit was most definitely to save rather than to destroy, to share table fellowship rather than disassociate... The Lord Jesus purposefully inverted the common assumption that the duty of a righteous man was to condemn the sinners. When He said that there is much joy in Heaven over one sinner that repents (Lk. 15:10), the Lord was purposefully inverting the common contemporary Jewish saying that there was much joy in Heaven whenever one sinner is destroyed in judgment (1). His desire is to seek to save rather than to destroy. And Elijah had not attained to this spirit of Christ when he called fire down from Heaven. 

The repeated " What doest thou here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:13) implies that it was wrong for Elijah to have been living in the cave on Horeb / Sinai. It seems from 1 Kings 19:8 that he himself chose to go there; dwelling in a clift / cave of the rock is reminiscent of Moses in Sinai in Ex. 34. But Moses was praying for Israel, whereas Elijah was interceding against them, Paul tells us. Could it even be that Elijah went down there to Sinai with the idea of somehow asking that a new Israel be formed out of him, as God had offered Moses? Whether this be so or not, the clear implication is that  God was not pleased with what Elijah was doing there. When asked what he was doing, he just repeats verbatim his prayer of intercession against Israel. So on one hand, he shouldn't have been praying that prayer. On the other, he was heard- for God's response is to tell him to annoint Jehu, Hazael and Elisha to destroy apostate Israel, even though He would preserve the 7,000 remnant. So again we see the same theme with Elijah- his undoubted faith in prayer is recognized; he prays for judgment on Israel in a way that is not altogether wrong, and yet sadly differs from the higher spirit of grace which there is in Christ. It is interesting to compare Elijah's attitude with how Elisha weeps tears over Hazael, knowing how much damage he is going to do to Israel in response to Elijah's prayer (2 Kings 8:12). Yet significantly, Elijah doesn't actually do what he is told; he doesn't annoint Jehu nor Hazael to destroy Israel (2 Kings 9:3). It's hard to decide whether this was disobedience or rather an awkward realization that he had been praying with too harsh a spirit for something that would have been best left to God. It's such a warning. 

The idea of fire from Heaven is of course found in the Lord’s teaching in Lk. 12:49-54, where He associates it with division in the brotherhood. And the Lord went on to say that the Pharisees could interpret a cloud arising in the West as a sign that rain was coming, but they could not forgive their brethren, which was what was essential (Lk. 12:54). This just has to be a reference to Elijah, who saw a cloud arising from the West as a sign of rain. The Lord is, it seems, sadly associating Elijah with the Pharisees. And yet... despite all this,  Jesus likens Himself to Elijah. Jesus sent fire on earth as Elijah did (Lk. 12:49). And the context of the Lk. 9:54 reference to Elijah is that the Lord’s time had come that he should be “received up”, and “he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51). This is all very much the language of Elijah (2 Kings 2:1). And elsewhere Jesus quotes Elijah’s words “Thy son liveth” (1 Kings 17:23 = Jn. 4:50-53). What this shows is that the Lord saw what was good in Elijah, and He didn’t separate Himself from someone who didn’t have His Spirit. He simply wanted His followers to learn better from him.

Elijah prayed to God against Israel when he told Him that he alone was left faithful- i.e. he was asking God to destroy the nation now (Rom. 11:2,3). Note in passing that our essential feelings are read by the Father as prayers. Elijah’s description of himself in this prayer as being very jealous / zealous for God (1 Kings 19:10,14) is an allusion of his to Phinehas, whose zeal in destroying the apostate in Israel saved the nation (Num. 25:11,13). But Elijah is praying against Israel, for their total destruction, and making only a surface level allusion back to Phinehas. And likewise, much of the unbrotherly behaviour that has divided our own community has been justified by half-baked allusions to Biblical examples of ‘defending the faith’. God had sought to gently teach Elijah his need for others when He told Elijah to go to the widow woman in Zarephath who would “sustain thee” (1 Kings 17:9); it worked out that Elijah sustained her. And he must have reflected upon this. But perhaps, therefore, God’s intention was that spiritually, his experience with that woman would sustain him

God’s response was that He had “left” 7,000 others in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. The Hebrew for “left” can imply that God had preserved potentially the 7,000- or, that there simply were 7,000 faithful right then in Israel. Yet Elijah clearly discounted them. The more God sought to teach Elijah that he really was not alone, that his view of others was far too dismissive, the more Elijah became almost bitter with God. The conversion of Israel on Carmel turned out, I suggest, a surprise for Elijah. He wasn’t expecting them to start chanting “El is Yah”, “The Lord, He is the God”. They were chanting his name- Elijah. But he turns and runs to Jezreel, and then goes out into the desert and becomes suicidal. Effectively he preferred the life of the lonely spiritual hero, with the people in apostasy; and there are many such examples of brethren who prefer a life of self-imposed exile because of the supposed errors of God’s people- no matter what good there is amongst their brethren. And actually, deny it as we may, we all have an element of this deep within us. He announces that “it is enough...take away my life” (1 Kings 19:4). “Enough” is the same Hebrew word picked up and used by the Angel- “the way is too great [‘enough’] for thee” (1 Kings 19:7), and he does eventually eat and not die, living life now only thanks to the provision of food by Angels, going on a 40 day wilderness journey towards Sinai. All this of course is replete with reference to Israel’s wilderness journey, during which they only survived by eating “Angel’s food”, the food provided by Angels (Ps. 78:25). And as Elijah well knew, that generation were sinful and worshipped the idols they had smuggled out of Egypt with  them. To stay alive, he had to eat that food and go in that miraculously provided strength. And so he was forced to see the similarity between himself and rebellious Israel in the wilderness. Likewise earlier God had fed him through the medium of the unclean raven, and the unclean Gentile woman. But Elijah had had enough of these pointed digs, and he asks God to take his life away- alluding to how Jezebel wanted to do this, as if trying to pressurize God into taking away his life rather than Jezebel (1 Kings 19:4, 10).  

But God wanted to teach Elijah still. He showed him that it wasn’t the big noise of the earthquake, wind and fire that was how He worked. In 1 Kings 19:20 God Almighty spoke to the man Elijah in a still [Heb. whispering] small [s.w. thin Lev. 13:30; beaten small Lev. 16:12; dwarf Lev. 21:20] voice. The awesome God of Sinai spoke in the whispering voice of a dwarf, which compared to Elijah’s loud voice. This is not only an essay in the humility of God. It is an essay in how God so earnestly seeks to persuade His children that He works in the small, humble way. And this is contrasted with the loud, booming voice and personality of Elijah. And it isn’t what God wants. Here there is a lesson for any loud mouthed, self-confident, razzamatazz way of presenting the Gospel; it just isn’t to be done. For this is not how God works. And thus in 1 Kings 19:13 the question comes: “What does thou here Elijah”- literally the text reads: “Elijah, Elijah, Elijah”. The three repeats of his name in the Hebrew text connect with the earthquake, wind and fire, and Elijah’s triple repeating of the same prepared statement. In his bitterness, Elijah sought to cut himself off from all consideration of his possibility of being wrong, or sensibly dialoguing with the Father. He just repeats the same words three times, as meaninglessly as the earthquake, wind and fire. Elijah hid his face in his mantle rather than face up to the true glory of God, the true fire from Heaven. The only other time Elijah sees the glory of God he threw away his mantle- as if he finally recognized he had been shielding himself from the real reality of it so that he could seek his own glory? The glory of God is His Name and character. To face up to this, believing it rather than merely knowing it, will bring us to repentance and a real facing up to the reality that we are truly not better than anyone else, in the light of the surpassing excellence of His glory. And Elijah just didn’t want to face up to it, just as we can not want to face up to the realities of what we know.  

And Elijah continues his miserable self-justification. He laments in 1 Kings 19:14 that Israel had “thrown down” Yahweh’s altars, perhaps pointing the contrast with the way he threw himself down in prayer to Yahweh. The same word is used in Ex. 23:24 about throwing down pagan altars. Elijah was saying that they treated Yahweh’s altars as if they were pagan. But is there any evidence they ever rejected Yahweh like this? Is not Elijah imputing motives to them? Derelict altars of Yahweh- the “high places” which they were repeatedly criticized for- Elijah interpreted as thrown down. To throw them down was a good thing if done from the right motives. But Elijah was in a mindset of seeing and imagining the very worst of his brethren. 1 Kings 19:19 then goes straight on to explain Elijah’s rejection as a prophet in the long term. Perhaps this comes where it does in the record to show that reason for God’s rejection of Elijah as prophet was that he didn’t recognize his brethren. And straight after this 1 Kings 19:20 records how Elijah responded to one who wanted to follow him but had to return home: “go back”. Jesus makes an allusion here when He says that if anyone wants to follow Him but firstly must go home, then such a person is unworthy of Him. He shows by this that He expects more of us than Elijah did; He is a more demanding Lord than Elijah, precisely because He is the more gracious.


(1) Cited in William Barclay, God’s Young Church (Edinburgh: St. Andrew’s Press, 1990 ed.), p. 41.