Elijah was one of the truly great men of God. No one should try to deny this. At the end of his life “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into Heaven, and Elisha saw it.” Then about 920 years later there he was with Moses meeting with Christ Jesus at the transfiguration. Both James and Paul speak well of him. However – James does point out “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are.” And that is why I’ve chosen him for inclusion in this series.
In the chapter before our text – I Kings 18 – we have one of the great spiritual victories in ancient history. At the command of God Elijah went to Mt. Carmel and confronted 450 prophets of the false god Baal. There ensued a battle between Jehovah and the ambassadors of Satan with Elijah as the Lord’s sole soldier. Before the eyes of a large number of Israelites, Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume an impossibly wet sacrifice. There may have been a battle between God and Baal, but it wasn’t a fair fight. Baal may be called “a god” but he was nothing but empty air, while Jehovah clearly demonstrated His Almighty power. The people were forced by the circumstances of the victory to cry out, “The LORD (Jehovah), he is God, the LORD, he is God.” Elijah then commanded the execution of those false prophets, and the people carried out his order. Wicked King Ahab cowered and was put in his place. But his more wicked wife, Jezebel, who was made of tougher stuff, shot back at the man of God. “So let the gods do to me, and more also, If I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.”
“And when (Elijah) saw that, he arose, and went for his life.” The victorious servant of God ran for his life to the farthest edge of the southern kingdom. He then left his servant, a man who some say was the son of the widow of Zarephath, while he went on further into the desert wilderness. By then, he was alone except for the company of his own gloomy thoughts. He was exhausted from his travail at Carmel, and physically worn out from several days of travel. In the very bleak wilderness, he took shelter under the shadow of a solitary shrub. I am told that the Hebrew calls it “the one juniper.” He was so alone that there was hardly even a living plant of any size nearby except for this one. And the waves of depression swept over him.
Even though it was wrong – very wrong – sinful – Elijah’s complaint is humanly explainable. At the very least it is understandable by others who are engaged in the ministry of the Lord. The calling down of God’s fire took place at the highest point in that part of the land. Elijah was high with excitement and with seeing the hand of God. He was on the crest of a huge wave. But as is so common, that wave was followed by an equally deep trough. Without the blessing of the Lord, no man, no matter how strong, can drop into that trough without losing his lunch – or his fleshly strength – his human courage to go on. Elijha’s experience with Israel convinced him that the people who had shouted “The LORD, he is God, the LORD, he is God” could not be trusted to resist the will or the wrath of Jezebel. His eyes dropped from the face of the Lord to the face of Jezebel and then to the faces of Israel, and his spiritual courage failed him. It happened to Peter and it happened to Elijah, so we must admit, it could happen to any one of us.
The great strong man had been zapped of his strength. This great Samson has been sheared by his own personal Delilah. The superman of God had met his spiritual kryptonite – and her name was “Jezebel.” He forgot some of the rudiments of the Christian life – ie., he forgot to pray about his flight south. He didn’t seek God’s will. He refused to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t apply what God HAD JUST done to what He COULD do next. He didn’t even seek the advice of his servant – he simply threw the man to the curb in Beersheba. Elijah slipped from the man of faith to a man of the flesh, and he started to run.
When he did finally pray it was petulant, impatient and presumptuous – “O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” But by what right had he to decide what was “enough”? And besides, if he really wanted to die he could have surrendered himself to Jezebel in Jezreel. In doing that it might have opened the door to even more miracles from the Lord. Or he could have simply gone about his business as a witness for God, again leaving the key to death on the belt of the Almighty. What great things might have taken place if Elijah had remained at his appointed place. After all this, as we see in II Kings 1, the Lord could and did protect Elijah with deadly fire. But God was not given the opportunity here in chapter 19. Elijah had no need to run an equivalent of four marathons in order to find a nice place to die. He did run, but then when he felt humanly safe he slowly wandered out into the desert – perhaps intending to starve to death or to die of thirst.
He was weary of his work, and disappointed by what he mistakenly concluded was its failure. In a fit of faithless and selfish despondency he forgot God’s omnipotence. He forgot reverence, submission and obedience. Again as James declares “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are.” If Elijah can become weak and his courage can die, then we all need to be aware and cautious.
When depression hits some people, they sleep, and sometimes sleep and sleep, to the point of not wanting to get out of bed. After his poutful prayer, Elijah’s lay down and slept under that juniper tree, until an angel touched him. God’s special messenger didn’t kick him in the ribs – the way some people might say he deserved. The word used in this text can mean a gentle shake of the shoulder. Twice the angel awoke the man, giving him food especially prepared by a heavenly chef. That in itself was an answer to Elijah’s prayer – “Your life is still useful; God wants your service.” But Elijah was too self-absorbed to see the obvious lesson before him.
This was the third time that God had contracted with a special caterer for Elijah. First, there was a flock of ravens during a serious drought and famine. And then there was the widow who shared her perilously small bit of food with the man. And now here is another angel of God. Before this second desert meal, the angel encouraged him to eat – “because the journey is too great for thee.”
And what was the destination of this journey? Horeb. It is hard to determine if it was God’s orders which sent Elijah to Horeb, or if he just wandered there. But I am absolutely sure that the Lord led him to Horeb. Horeb is the name of a small mountain range of which Sinai is one of the summits. Moses, the son-in-law of Jethro, had tended cattle near this place before his return to Egypt. It was on one of the great rocks of Horeb that Moses first brought forth water to feed the nation. And it was here that Israel melted down the Egyptian jewelry and made their golden idol. I have no proof, but I personally believe that Elijah ended up on Mt. Sinai – it makes sense to me.
These forty days of Elijah were unlike any other forty days of his life.
For example, he didn’t eat during that time. This was something he’d never done before. After his second angelic meal, Elijah didn’t dine again for forty days. If he intended to starve to death, forty days should have been plenty of time, but God would not allow it. What do you suppose was the physical condition of this man by the end of six weeks? Was he agonizingly hungry – starving, or did the Lord remove any desire for food during that time? Did he grow progressively weak, or did God miraculously sustain his strength? I can see how either condition might have been used of the Lord to teach the man some lessons. But if I was forced to guess, I’d say that God was slowly wearing Elijah down to nothing. He may have been denying it, but Elijah was filled with pride, and this needed to be exorcized.
Here is something interesting for you to consider. Elijah found a cave somewhere in Horeb. Again, I have been told that the Hebrew calls it “the cave” by using a definite article. What is the likelihood that this is the same clift of the rock, where Moses hid while God passed by? The word “clift” could be translated “fissure.” How deep was this fissure where Elijah found himself? It is not important that it be the same place, but it is an idea to consider.
“What doest thou here, Elijah” can hardly be read without hearing a tone of rebuke. But no matter what the tone, when it is God asking a question, you can be sure He is listening. He asked the question, and in the process He opened the flood gates and a river poured out of the man. Sadly, Elijah’s forty days of solitude hadn’t improved his outlook one bit. For example it didn’t make him any more honest. Honesty would have answered, “I am afraid of Jezebel.” But instead, he spoke about himself – somewhat inappropriately. He claimed credit for his great zeal for the Lord’s name. He seemed to insinuate that he had been more interested in God’s glory than the Lord Himself. He had forgotten the national acknowledgment of God there on Mt. Carmel. He had forgotten the rain which ended the long drought. He forgot about Jezebel’s need to replace over 400 of her false prophets. And he had forgotten that Obadiah had protected a hundred of God’s own prophets. The Lord doesn’t actually say it, but He could have thundered, “Who are you to talk this way to me? Elijah, you are not my only servant.” But after all, the Lord did ask the question, so He replied with just a bit of grace.
The Lord then gave His prophet a terrifying revelation. “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by.” Isn’t this what the Lord did to Moses – or perhaps we should say – FOR Moses? “The Lord passed by.” “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: “And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” It is a fearful thing to provoke the Lord, even for the man of God.
Jehovah, or this time perhaps we should say “Elohim” commanded the man to step out from the cave and expose himself before clift of the rock. And then the Almighty Elohim rained down upon the man a terrifying array of God-controlled natural phenomena. What sort of wind does it take to dislodge rocks and to send them down around the man? Killer boulders flew past Elijah. And while not one of them touched his body, they probably shook his soul. Then came an earthquake – something which shakes common men to our foundations, because usually the ground under our feet is the most stable thing we know. Did Elijah run back into the cave, or was he strong enough to stay put before the Lord? Then came some sort of fire? What was that? Was it lightning? Or was it unique? Did it make the hairs on his head stand upright? Was there noise enough to deafen him? I wonder how much time passed between these three events? Were they simultaneous? Almost so? Apparently God conveyed to the prophet that these were nothing compared to His REAL power. The Lord was not in any of these. They were just tiny extensions of divine omnipotence.
But then with his ears still ringing and his head spinning, Elijah heard a still, small voice. There – in that voice – was the Lord. And what was it the Lord said? On another occasion – far off into the future – “Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” What did Christ write that day in the presence of the adulterous woman and her accusers? We have only our guesses, and we might never know for sure. What did God, in that still small voice, say to the erring prophet? Again, we have not been told. But “when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave.
And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” This is just like the earlier question – the one before God showed His strength and mighty arm. But is it asked with the same tone? Is it accusatory? Or is it asked with a slight hint of grace? “Elijah, has your answer changed?”
While Elijah’s tone might have been different, his words were the same. “And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” As far as I can tell there is only one unimportant word change between the two answers – “because” and “for” – “the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant.” Despite the forty days of God’s grace and blessing, Elijah’s speech reveals that his heart has not substantially changed. Despite his rhetoric suggesting a concern for the Lord, it was still mostly about Elijah. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…” “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Your words will eventually reveal your heart.
I believe that Elijah lost the Lord’s great blessing and power after he stubbornly reused his old reply. Yes, he will make three important contacts on behalf of the Lord – Hazael, Jehu and Elisha. But one of those contacts will be his own replacement. And yes, he will call down fire from heaven once again in the next book of the Bible. But he is essentially at the end of his ministry. It was his choice, and the Lord granted him his desire. Elijah’s forty days should have weakened his flesh while strengthening his faith. And I suppose to a small degree those two things occurred. But they were not to the degree that was necessary.
May we see the fall of this man, and may we learn from his mistakes. May we look at the forty days of Elijah and grow from what we see. May it never be necessary for the Lord to do the same to us.