Some of the greatest drama in the Old Testament occurs in 1 Kings 18-19. And when I say drama, I don’t mean the word as it is used today by teenagers, where drama is what you get when two girls like the same guy or someone says something about someone else on Twitter or Facebook. That’s not really drama; that’s melodrama, and while there may be some of that in 1 Kings 18-19 as well, there is truly great drama: exciting narrative with heroes and villains, tension, plot twists, humor and excitement, and heartbreak. I won’t cover both of those chapters in detail here, but I would like to set the scene just a bit.
This is during the time of the Divided Kingdom, and our story’s setting is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The wicked King Ahab sits on the throne and rules alongside his wife Jezebel, who if anything, is even worse than he is. The Kingdom of Israel was already in a bad place, because through the influence of Jeroboam, the first king of the divided Kingdom of Israel, the people had departed from the instructions for worship given to them by God. But under the influence of Ahab (and especially Jezebel), Israel goes even further and begins to worship the false god Baal.
And fighting against this royally-sanctioned wickedness you have Elijah, the prophet of God. Elijah predicts that there will be a drought in the land_no rain nor dew until he says otherwise—presumably because of the wickedness that is going on. This drought goes on for three years and was devastating to the entire country. Elijah becomes a fugitive for opposing the king, and Ahab sends men all over the place looking for him. Ultimately, Elijah sends word to Ahab, and sets up a great contest on Mt. Carmel between Yahweh and the false gods the people and been worshipping.
And the contest goes something like this: Elijah has an altar with a bull on it, and the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah have an altar with a bull on it. Elijah will call on the name of his God, and the other prophets are will call on the name of their god, and whichever god answers by sending fire upon the altar wins the contest and will be proven to be the true God.
So Elijah lets the other guys go first, and for hours they call out to Baal and there’s no answer. And Elijah mocks them, and says “Cry out louder! Maybe he can’t hear you! Maybe he’s taking a nap or going to the bathroom!” [Note: Elijah wouldn’t be very popular today; he wasn’t tolerant of other religious beliefs.] And the false prophets cry out and cut themselves to get the attention of Baal, and nothing happens.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. And to make the event even more spectacular, he has his altar so completely soaked with water that it fills a trench surrounding it. Then he calls out to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and fire from the LORD consumes the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and the water that was in the trench.
Then all the people fall on their faces and say, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And the people seize the prophets of Baal and kill them. Then, through God’s power, Elijah ends the drought.
Elijah has had a great victory and everything is good, right?
Mountains and Valleys
Then we come to 1 Kings 19:
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life…”
You might think that after the victory of God on Mt. Carmel and the death of all the prophets of Baal, Jezebel would consider changing her religious views, but she doesn’t, and instead, she determines to kill Elijah. And perhaps Elijah had expected that after the Mt. Carmel contest everything would be easy, and he’s surprised and frightened by Jezebel’s determination to kill him. And he runs away.
Eventually, he makes his way to a cave at Horeb (Sinai). Verse 9:
“And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.’”
Clearly, Elijah is discouraged here. Spiritually and psychologically, after the mountaintop experience on Carmel, he is now mired in a deep and dark valley. He’s upset about what is going on, and what’s worse, he feels like he’s all alone. He complains to God: I’m the only one left who is trying to serve you!
And Elijah feels the crushing weight of the world’s evil. There’s just too much evil, too much for him to handle. Even defeating the prophets of Baal in such spectacular fashion didn’t seem to make any difference! So Elijah is feeling pretty down about things.
Being Fair to Elijah
When you read this story, what do you think? How do you feel towards Elijah?
I know how I feel: “C’mon Elijah! How can you be so short-sighted? So easily discouraged? Don’t you remember the great things that God has (just) done? You just defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel!”
But to be fair, God is faithful to me as well. I’ve witnessed great blessings from him in my life and in the lives of others, and yet…I still grow discouraged; I still get down about things. And unlike Elijah, no one is even seeking to kill me!
But sometimes I feel down about things, I feel alone. Like I’m the only one who’s trying. Have you ever felt that way? Maybe at school, you feel like everyone around you does whatever they want and you’re the only one who’s concerned with what God wants? Or at work, maybe you have a lot of people around you who call themselves Christians, but you feel like you’re the only one who’s actually trying to live like a faithful Christian?
We can feel alone at times.
Or sometimes, like Elijah, I can get overwhelmed by just how much evil there is in the world. Sometimes it really seems like evil, like Satan, is winning. Just look at the world news, or the things happening in our own communities, the content of our popular movies, or the songs that play on the radio. Too often, these things are drenched with sin.
There’s just too much evil in the world. Too much for me to handle. That’s how I feel. Kinda like Elijah.
What Elijah Needed to Hear
Picking up where we left off in v.11:
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke 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 the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
There’s a lot of interesting elements in this text: there’s the strong wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, but God isn’t any of those; he comes to Elijah in the “sound of a gentle whisper”. And I think that reminds Elijah (and us) that although sometimes God reveals Himself in incredible ways, like He did on Mt. Carmel, other times He does it in the most mundane ways.
And God again asks Elijah the same question: What are you doing here? and Elijah again gives the same answer. And then God tells him two very important things:
First, God tells Elijah that he wasn’t alone. There were still 7,000 others in Israel who had remained faithful to God. Elijah really felt like he was all by himself, but it was just an illusion. There were others, like him, who were doing what they could to be faithful.
Secondly, God tells Elijah that he was in control—it wasn’t up to Elijah. Elijah was burnt out, tired from opposing Ahab and Jezebel. And God basically says, “That’s okay. This battle against evil isn’t up to you. I’m in control. I’ve got other people who will fight for Me.” And he tells Elijah to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria, Jehu to be king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. God will use these men to defeat the evil brought about by Ahab and Jezebel.
What We Need to Hear
When we get down about things. When we feel like the evil in the world is overwhelming, when we feel like we’re all alone, that we’re the only ones who are doing our best to be faithful, God has the same important things to say to us:
1. We are not alone; there are others, just like us, who are doing all they can to be faithful.
2. God is in control. It isn’t up to us to solve all of the world’s problems.
That’s what the gospel is all about! That’s why Jesus came—to show us once and for all that we aren’t alone and that God is in control and that He’s willing to do great things in order to rescue us! In the cosmic battle that is being waged between good and evil, it’s not up to us to win it; it’s up to us to be on God’s side!
To me, that’s a message of great encouragement. In fact, it is the greatest possible encouragement! I am very aware that I am unable to win my own personal battles with sin on my own. I am similarly aware that I am incapable of opposing systemic evil on my own. The good news of the gospel, though, is that Jesus came to do that for us; our task is to simply join Him. If we join God’s side; “our” side will win—not because we’re on it, but because God is!