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9. Elijah

9.3 How God Worked With Elijah

God knew all Elijah’s weakness as He knows ours, and He perceives them far better than we do. And He actively worked with Elijah to bring him to a greater perception of Him. 1 Kings 21:29 has Elijah being told by God that Ahab “humbleth himself before me”. Yet Elijah also lived  a life “before the Lord” (1 Kings 17:1); it’s as if God was trying to get Elijah to see himself in a similar position to Ahab. Living “before the Lord” is not only about faith in prayer and being aware of God. It’s also about being contrite before our Father, aware of our own very personal spiritual desperation. And it was this humility which Elijah lacked. And the Father sought to teach him it by drawing a similarity between Elijah and the man whom he spiritually despised- Ahab. In many Christian lives, we are much more spiritual than others around us. Yet we may be lead to perceive that actually we are in essence no better than those to whom we consider ourselves so spiritually superior. When the Lord passed by, there was a whirlwind which broke “in pieces the rocks before the Lord” (1 Kings 19:11). Yet it was Elijah who described himself as the one who stood before the Lord- and even prided himself on this (1 Kings 17:1). He was the rock being broken in pieces by the display of God’s glory. And insofar as we too meditate upon the glory of His character, the attributes outlined in, e.g., Ex. 34:4-6, we likewise will be broken men and women. The “earthquake” is the same word found in Ez. 3:12,13 about a theophany / passing of the cherubim chariot. That whole display of God’s physical glory was intended to stop Elijah just repeating his prepared statement [he says the same thing 3 times]. Grasping the wonder of who God really and essentially is can and must shake us from the mediocrity of entrenched positions, of forms of expressing and understanding our faith which are mere set formulas... 

The whole incident on Horeb was to make Elijah see the supremacy of the still small voice; that it is in humble, quiet service rather than fiery judgment of others that the essence of God and spirituality is to be found. But God had prepared Elijah for this earlier. Elijah had to hide by the brook Cherith (1 Kings 17:3) for three and a half years (Lk. 4:25,26). Elijah was characterized by wearing a hairy garment like sackcloth (2 Kings 1:8 RV). In Rev. 11:3,6 we meet another Elijah figure- also clothed in sackcloth, with the power to bring fire down from Heaven, who for three and a half years…prophesies / preaches. We would expect Elijah to have been preaching during his time hidden by Cherith- but there is not a word of this in the record. Could it not be that the Father wishes to show us what He was then trying to teach Elijah- that the essential prophetic witness is through us being as we are, the still small voice of witness through example…? It is also significant that the triumph on Horeb involved making an offering on an altar of Yahweh which was in one of the “high places” (1 Kings 18:30)- whereas Israel were repeatedly criticized for offering on these “high places” and not in Jerusalem. Elijah even criticizes Israel for throwing down these “high places” altars of Yahweh (1 Kings 19:10,14). Surely Elijah knew that the use of the high places was not what Yahweh ideally wanted; and yet he was driven to use a high place in this way. And with us, God will work through circumstances to remove from us the crutches of mere religion, to challenge the essence of our faith and relationship with Him. The way Ezekiel had to eat unclean food and defile himself is another such example. 

Elijah evidently didn’t have too positive a view of anyone apart from himself- and that included faithful Obadiah. Obadiah repeatedly calls Elijah “my Lord” and describes himself as “thy servant”; but Elijah responds to this by calling Obadiah the servant of Ahab- he tells him to go and tell “thy Lord”, i.e. Ahab (1 Kings 18:7-14). Elijah is insisting that he and Obadiah have nothing in common- Obadiah serves Ahab, and he is nothing to do with Elijah. ‘Obadiah’ means ‘servant of Yahweh’- the name surely reflects very faithful parents to have called him that at the time of the Baal cult. But Elijah insists that Obadiah is really a servant of Ahab, not of Yahweh. The fact Elijah was hidden by God meant that he was forced into fellowship with the prophets of Yahweh whom Obadiah hid in a cave (1 Kings 18:4). Elijah was thus intended to see a link between Obadiah and God, and himself and the other prophets of Yahweh. But Elijah’s pride didn’t let himself make the connection, just as ours often doesn’t. For he continued doubtful of Obadiah’s sincerity, and still insisted that he alone remained a faithful prophet of Yahweh- even though Obadiah had hidden one hundred other prophets from Jezebel’s persecution. Those one hundred prophets were presumably part of the 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. And maybe they weren’t that strong- they are set up as representative of those who will only be saved by grace, not their works (Rom. 11:4-6). But, by implication, Elijah, for all his love of Israel, did not look upon them through the eyes of grace. Elijah insisted that he alone was “left”; yet God says that He has “left” Himself the 7,000 (1 Kings 19:18). The preservation of the people of God, or ‘the truth’, can be done, and is done, by God Himself; yet the likes of Elijah consider that it is they  who ‘preserve the truth’. Again, Elijah had to learn that we are all saved by grace. God will leave for and to Himself His people, without requiring the help of man. Elijah struggled with this issue of accepting others and not thinking he was the only one who could do the job right up to the end of his ministry; for he ascends to Heaven clutching his mantle, the sign of his prophetic ministry. It seems to me that he took it with him because he felt that not even Elisha was really fit to do the job and take his place; but perhaps in what were possibly the last seconds of his mortal life, he learnt his lesson and let go of it, allowing it to fall to the earth to let another man take it up. 

Admittedly Elijah was depressive, and I think God took that into account as He did with Job. Lk. 1:17 gives the Spirit's commentary upon Elijah's achievement. The "spirit and power" of Elijah had been to turn "the disobedient to the wisdom of the just" and to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord". And yet Elijah felt his ministry had been a failure; that nobody had responded. And yet his achievement is used as a prototype for the later achievement of both John the Baptist and the latter day Elijah prophet. There's a great encouragement for us here. We may feel our witness, our ministry, even our life's work- be it in formal preaching, in raising children, in seeking to be the salt of the earth- has been without fruit. But actually, according to the pattern of Elijah, we may achieve far more ultimately than we realize, even if the fruits are seen after our death. What's important, as it was in Elijah's life, is the spirit and power we personally develop and set as an example; even if concretely and materially we don't achieve what we aim to in the lives of others. It was in this sense that God used Elijah, and uses us.

Circumstances Repeat

Elijah felt he was the only faithful man left in Israel. Yet 1 Kings 18:4 records how he was reminded that Obadiah had fed Yahweh’s prophets in a cave with bread and water. Elijah also had been hidden in a cave and fed with bread and water. 1 Kings 17:4,9; 18:4,13 all use the same Hebrew word for feed / fed / sustain. The connection was to try to teach him his linkage with the prophets, whom he felt were still apostate. God tries to teach us things but we often fail to grasp the potential understanding made possible; be aware that He is trying! Elijah was fed by both ravens and a widow, as the prophets were fed by Obadiah. The raven and the Gentile widow woman were both ‘commanded’ [s.w.] to feed Elijah by God. Both would have been seen by him as unclean. God repeatedly tried to teach Elijah that true spirituality is about doing what is counter-instinctive in terms of personal self-control- rather than about blasting others for their apostacy, hard words when provoked, etc. Hence God begins by making Elijah's very life depend upon being fed by unclean birds bringing him food. Those ravens had to avoid bringing him dead meat- which is their usual food. They had to surrender their food to him, when there was little food around; and they had to come up to a man and give him their food, all of which was counter-instinctive for ravens. And thus Elijah was shown that life itself, especially spiritual life, depends upon counter-instinctive behaviour.

The woman “gathering sticks” (1 Kings 17:10) would likely have stimulated his Bible-steeped mind to think of the illegal gathering of sticks in Num. 15:32,33. Later, the Angel gave Elijah cake and water (1 Kings 19:6) just as the unclean ravens and Gentile widow woman had done- to teach Elijah that God works through those people. There were two occasions in which God fed Elijah with a cake when he was hungry. Once when the widow woman baked him one (1 Kings 17:13), and once when the Angel did (1 Kings 19:6). Surely God was trying to show Elijah that He was manifested through that desperately poor, weak, sick, starving widow woman who was at the point of death from starvation. It was the same message- that God wasn’t in the earthquake and fire, but in the still small voice. And the way the woman talks about “Yahweh thy God”, to which Elijah responds by speaking of “Yahweh, the God of Israel”, implies that she did not even believe in Israel’s God (1 Kings 17:12,14). She didn’t even believe at that time that Elijah was a man of God (1 Kings 17:24); and so, we can conclude, the daily miracle of the meal and oil not drying up did not deeply touch her, just as the daily provision of manna did not seem to register with most of Israel in the wilderness. She even seems to have been cynical in calling him a “man of God”, because only later did she say that she really believe he was this (1 Kings 17:18, 24).  

But this was all to teach him that God works not only with the clean, and not only with those in covenant with Him. And he was being paralleled with an apostate Israel, who were also sustained by food ‘commanded’ by God (s.w. Neh. 9:21); the brook is described as “dried up”, using the same word about the Red Sea drying up. Yet Elijah felt himself to be so superior to Israel generally. But God was trying to teach him that in essence, he wasn’t. We have shown earlier that God sought to again show Elijah the same lesson when he went into the Sinai wilderness and was fed by an Angel. Perhaps he did learn the lesson when he says that he felt that he was not better than the Jewish fathers? For they walked 40 years as he walked 40 days in the very same place, also fed by Angels. God told Elijah that He had commanded unclean ravens to feed him (1 Kings 18:4); and thus He reminded Elijah of a basic fact, that God speaks to even unclean animals (Gen. 1:22; Job). Elijah likely considered that the fact God spoke to him meant that he must therefore have some automatic superiority over others. But not so. It’s the same with us. We can consider that because we have heard God’s true voice, we thereby are justified before Him. But He speaks to and uses all, clean and unclean.  

Another example of circumstances repeating is found in 1 Kings 19:8, where he goes in the strength of a little food just as the widow’s flour didn’t run out. He is being paralleled with the Gentile widow woman- either to reinforce the lesson taught, or because he had failed to learn the lesson that he truly was no better in essence than a Gentile woman. One wonders whether he not only despised Gentiles but women too...hence the way God sought to teach him the parallel between himself and that woman.

Taking this line of thought further, it's apparent that God 'set up' Elijah's experience at Horeb / Sinai to compare and contrast with that of Moses. There are so many intended similarities between Elijah's meeting God at Horeb and Moses' meetings with God at Sinai- the same place, it seems. In both records it is called "the mount of God" (Ex. 3:1; 18:5; 24:13); there was a journey through the desert both before and after the meeting; the use of the number forty (Ex. 34:28; Num. 14:34 cp. 1 Kings 19:8); miraculous provision of food by God; an accompanying Angel; a cave, standing on a rock, Yahweh passing by, covering the face (Ex. 33:21-23; 34:5,6), earthquake, wind and fire (Ex. 19). Moses met with God there, and received the words of God. Elijah was all set up for the same. But it doesn't happen. Yahweh Himself doesn't appear; and instead of words of command, there is a deafening silence- for I understand the "still small voice" to actually be silence, and that silence was in itself a voice / word to Elijah. And then when God finally does say something, it is simply: "What are you doing here, Elijah?". Surely Elijah saw himself as Moses, and was looking forward to being given a covenant, and seeing a special manifestation of Yahweh. But instead, silence. No appearance of God, and finally, the great anticlimax of being asked what exactly he's doing there. The similarities with the Moses history were arranged by God, but surely they played along with Elijah's assumption that he was the next Moses. Perhaps he idolized Moses, as men today idolize heroes, e.g. from earlier days of their denomination. Elijah was being taught that actually, he was not Moses; God had no such message or covenant or special revelation to give him. And there is a type of believer who needs this same lesson; that God speaks through silence and insignificance to us. We are to be ourselves, and not to ever seek to replicate the experiences or spiritual path of faithful men who have gone before us. Such desires are really a running away from our personal responsibilities.