The humanness of the heroes of the Bible can be tremendously instructive and encouraging to the heart, and there is probably no passage that we can relate to more than 1 Kings 19. While we should know better, we tend to think of the heroes of the Hall of Faith as possessing something special that we do not have access to. We think of them as though they were a different breed, almost god-like, with special attributes we can’t have.
Some look at the Elijah of chapters 17 and 18, the man of faith, and then look at the Elijah of chapter 19, the man of fear with a critical spirit. They wonder, “How could he change like that?” It’s almost like, “If I had seen God’s power displayed like that, I would never run like he did.” In essence, however, in the record of the New Testament we have a much greater display of the power of God in the person, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Furthermore, those who respond this way about Elijah’s actions in chapter 19, are overlooking the many ways they may fail to take a stand or fail to do the things God has called them to do according to the clear principles of the Word. They see themselves as never running away because, like the seven thousand hiding in caves, they never put themselves at risk as Elijah did. Rather than deal with a problem, for instance, they remain at a comfortable distance, but isn’t that really the same thing?
Or perhaps we are plagued with another idea. We look at these heroes of the faith or listen to many Bible teachers today with their promises of deliverance. Then we think about our own struggles and failures and wonder if there is not something terribly wrong with us. We have adopted the idea that we should have somehow reached the point that we do not struggle. The myth is believers who are truly spiritual never get down. If we are truly mature, we will have finally learned to trust the Lord to the degree we can float effortlessly along on cloud nine because we have learned the so-called secret to the higher life.
But that kind of theology does not fit with the Word of God. It is a theology that says too much on the one hand and too little on the other. We can experience God’s victory by faith. We can experience the Christ-exchanged life as we count on His life by faith and trust in the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. But none of us do that perfectly, and none of us will do that without difficulty and discipline. We can grow in Christ and we can become more experienced and consistent in trusting the Lord, but none of us will ever reach perfection at resting in the Lord in this life (Phil. 3:11-17; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:15-25; 1 John 1:8-10).
Elijah, remember, was a man of like passions with us (James 5:17). This teaches us Elijah was not some super-duper saint who had a special access to the power of God through the privilege of prayer that we don’t have. Futhermore, God wants us to remember that Elijah had his own struggles of weakness and discouragement through which he had to contend. He too had to do battle with his mental attitude and his focus. Students of the Word should know this theologically since all who accept the Lord Jesus, though regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit, still possess sinful natures and are in desperate need of God’s grace moment by moment. But just in case there are any doubts, 1 Kings 19 dramatically displays the truth of the statement in James 5:17.
Chapter 19 stands in stark contrast to the preceding two chapters. It deals with the same man, but the difference is like night and day. The contrasts are noteworthy because they show us just how vulnerable we all are and how careful we need to be. For a few moments, let’s take time to examine these contrasts to observe some ideas and thoughts concerning our attitudes and our vulnerability.
Contrast 1: In chapters 17 and 18, we saw Elijah strong in the power of God and his divine operating assets--the Word and prayer. But in chapter 19, we see Elijah weak--weak in himself and operating out of his own tactics or solutions.
Contrast 2: In chapters 17 and 18, we saw Elijah productive. There he was used of God to minister to others, to vindicate the name of the Lord, and to bring his people back to God. But in chapter 19, we see Elijah as a deserter, non-productive, running away and failing to be a helper to God’s people.
Contrast 3: In chapters 17 and 18, we saw Elijah victorious, bold, confident in the face of all kinds of odds, facing 850 prophets of Baal at once. He had a great attitude and focus. But in chapter 19, we find Elijah in failure, depressed, fearful of Jezebel, running scared, and wishing he was dead. He had a poor attitude.
Contrast 4: In chapters 17 and 18, we saw Elijah occupied with the Lord, aware of God’s presence, aware of the enormity of God’s person, and using his assets in the Lord--the promises of the Word and prayer. But in chapter 19, we find Elijah occupied with people and conditions, not God. He was completely problem oriented. He failed to pray and stand on the promises of Scripture. He had a wrong focus.
Not once in this chapter do we see Elijah going to the throne of grace. Not once did he claim the promises of God. Furthermore, he acted as though what Jezebel claimed about the gods of Baal was the truth and what he had claimed and proven about Yahweh was false (cf. 1 Kings 18 with 19:2-3). Thankfully, God graciously came to Elijah.
This involves an age old problem. Again, it is one of focus and attitude. Whenever we become occupied with our problems rather than with the Lord it creates a terrible distortion. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of magnifying the person and power of God, focusing on the problem shrinks the person and power of God in our eyes, and magnifies the problem. Our problems become giants or mountains when in essence, from God’s standpoint, they are not even mole hills. For three classic illustrations of this: (a) We have the Israelites who, seeing the giants in the land rather than the Lord, also saw themselves as grasshoppers and at the mercy of the giants (Num. 13:40-14:4). (b) Then there is David who, after being hounded by Saul for a long period, saw his only solution as one of running away to the land of the Philistines (1 Sam. 27:1f). (c) Finally, there is Peter who walked on the water until he took his eyes off the Lord (Matt. 14:30).
Contrast 5: In chapters 17 and 18, we saw Elijah physically nourished and sustained as he waited on the Lord. But in chapter 19, we find him physically weak, famished because of a lack of nourishment and lack of rest. He had failed to take time to eat or rest and he had failed to take his concerns to God.
This is another one of those chapters that point us to the realism and honesty of the Word of God--a mark of its character as God-breathed. As the late Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “The Bible is not such a book that a man would write if he could, or could write if he would.”
Generally, when people write about their heroes, they tend to paint a beautiful picture while they ignore the failures and weaknesses, especially during this time in history. Remember the TV show called “This Is Your Life”? It was always a glowing portrait of a man’s strengths, but all the weaknesses were removed. Someone has said, “When God gives us a portrait of a man, He paints him warts and all.”
Why such a difference in the prophet’s attitude? How could such a change occur? Why is this portrait of the Prophet in the Word? We dare not ignore this question because in its answer we find one of the reasons for this chapter in the Word of God.
We are given this portrait of the man Elijah:
(1) Because God is perfect veracity, truth, He can do no less than state the facts about man. God is not interested in deifying and exalting mankind as people try to do because that is harmful for us as the following points will show.
(2) Because it is so important for us to know the truth about ourselves that we might have no illusions about who we are. This includes our heroes. Elijah, remember, is a representative person and this portrait helps us to see ourselves. Why? So we will reach out and draw upon God’s grace and mercy. Illusions about self hinder that. We need to have no such illusions so we will turn from our own resources to God’s. We need to stop building broken cisterns that hold no water and come to the Lord as the river of life (Jer. 2:13).
(3) This portrait helps us see the need to glory in God rather than in people.
(4) Finally, perhaps this portrait and reality will help us stop trusting in the lies we tend to believe. These lies are devastating to a healthy spiritual walk with God.
Simply put, lies are beliefs, attitudes, or expectations that don’t fit reality . . . We learn our lies from a variety of sources--parents, our friends, the culture we live in, even the church we attend--and they make life emotionally miserable, even unbearable.26
The following are some illustrations of the lies we tell ourselves:
God gives us this portrait of Elijah to teach us how vulnerable we are, how important our focus and our attitudes are, and how much we constantly need the grace of God for every moment and every breath. God portrays people, especially the great heroes of the faith, as they really are--mere human beings, earthen vessels, clay pots. We are instruments used by God to display His glory, but worthless in ourselves apart from Him (1 Cor. 3:5-7; 2 Cor. 4:7).
Based on these contrasts in the life of Elijah, this great hero in God’s Hall of Faith, I want to share some thoughts that are pertinent before we begin our exposition of the specifics of the passage.
Concept 1: These realistic portraits of the great heroes of the faith teach us to expect perfection out of no human being--including ourselves, and I might add, out of no church. Perfection is found only in heaven and in the person of the perfect God-man, the Lord Jesus.
Concept 2: They are designed to teach us that our strongest point is also our weakest--the very place where we are the most vulnerable and susceptible to defeat. A believer’s greatest strength is focus, dependence and faith in the Lord, but this is also his greatest place of vulnerability. So where does Satan want to attack us? In the area of our need to depend on God. Unless this is remembered, defeat will always follow victory. Misery will follow blessing. This is why the Word warns us, “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). This warning occurs close to the end of a passage that deals with the principle that privilege never guarantees victory or success (1 Cor. 10:1-11).
Concept 3: Chapter 19 also reminds us that every public servant, evangelist, elder, Sunday school teacher, etc., no matter how apparently gifted and used of the Lord, is only an earthen vessel, a man or woman of like passions with feet of clay. They are not saints who have successfully climbed the mountain of sanctification like a super spiritual athlete who now sits enthroned over the world, the flesh, and the devil, while the rest of us poor souls struggle along trying to learn their secret. Unfortunately, many believers look at their pastors, church leaders and famous Bible teachers through rose-colored glasses. Their attitudes and expectations are, to say the least, completely unrealistic. In view of this principle, let’s consider several important concepts about leadership:
(1) Those who are in places of leadership (and this includes parents) are to be examples, models to the flock and to their families. Scripture is clear on this. Being a model for others is one of the great challenges of leadership (1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7-8; 1 Pet. 5:3b; Heb. 13:7). We should expect our leaders to be models of the faith, but we should not expect them to be perfect. Remember, Elijah was a model of praying in faith, but he was not perfect as chapter 19 illustrates.
(2) Scripture teaches that leaders are to be respected and held in honor for their work’s sake (1 Thess. 5:12, 13), and followed as examples within reason as long as their lives comply with the Word.
(3) As mentioned above, we should never expect them to be perfect. We should never regard them as anything more than ordinary men of like nature, as brethren, as mere earthen vessels. Like us they have feet of clay and are just as prone to sin and a fall as the next person (Acts 14:11-15; 2 Cor. 4:7; Matt. 23:8-11; 1 Cor. 10:13). Every servant of the gospel is but an earthen vessel of clay in which God has placed His treasure, the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth of the Word, and the person of the Holy Spirit. In other words, he or she is not a vessel of steel or silver or gold, but an earthen vessel of clay. This means we are easily marred and cracked. But there is a special reason for this. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says, “that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not of ourselves.” The reason is that we might not glory in people, but in God (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7 and 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
(4) We are all but instruments of God (1 Cor. 3:5). Note these points: a) The message which is alive and powerful, is God given. It is not the invention of our wisdom or brilliance. b) The effects of the message are likewise God given regardless of what people may think about our method, skill in teaching, or oratorical ability. Both the gift and the effects, if bonafide, are God given (1 Cor. 3:5-7; 12:4f). c) Thus, like a lamp without oil, the instruments are entirely without value and weak in themselves apart from the Spirit of the Lord. There is never any cause for self-glorification, nor should we boast in others (1 Cor. 4:5-7).
(5) God is jealous for His honor and glory and will not give His glory unto another. He has chosen the foolish, the weak, the despised, the base things of life, and the things which are not (mere nobodies) to accomplish His purposes. Why? That no person should glory in His presence (Isa. 48:11; 1 Cor. 1:27-31). Consequently, as God’s servants, we should all desire to be a clear vessel though which people may see Christ; not a stained glass window that draws attention to itself through flashiness or sensationalism. By the same token may we not become a dirty window, but one that is clean allowing people to see beyond us to Christ and the truth of the Word (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
(6) People at their best, apart from the sustaining grace of God are mere air, altogether emptiness, a mere breath (Ps. 39:5).
Concept 4: Not only do public servants, like Elijah, pastors, and evangelists, have feet of clay, but they often come under special demonic attack because of the work they do as proclaimers of the Word (1 Thess. 2:17-18; 2 Thess. 3:1, 2; 1 Cor. 16:9). This means they need the diligent prayer support of the body rather than criticism.
It is comforting to know that saints of God (such as Elijah) were of like nature with us. It illustrates the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13, “there is no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.” Our temptations, our trials, our frustrations and failures are common to all men. You and I are not alone no matter what we are facing. God is faithful to enable us to handle the temptation, and God is gracious to pick us up when we fall.
The failures and weaknesses of the great heroes of the faith should never be taken as boulders for us to hide behind so we can excuse our failures in continued irresponsibility. God holds us all responsible for what He has given us.
Examples like Elijah in 1 Kings 19 stand as warnings or danger signals, not as excuses for failure. In the lessons that follow, we will look at the failures of Elijah and how the Lord lifted him up, put him back on his feet, and back into ministry.
The all important ingredient is focus and an attitude of trust in the Lord. The following is one of the best illustrations I know of the importance of keeping a focused and right attitude:
The colorful, nineteenth-century showman and gifted violinist Nicolo Paganini was standing before a packed house, playing through a difficult piece of music. A full orchestra surrounded him with magnificent support. Suddenly one string on his violin snapped and hung gloriously down from his instrument. Beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead. He frowned but continued to play, improvising beautifully.
To the conductor’s surprise, a second string broke. And shortly thereafter, a third. Now there were three limp strings dangling from Paganini’s violin as the master performer completed the difficult composition on the one remaining string. The audience jumped to its feet and in good Italian fashion, filled the hall with shouts and screams, “Bravo! Bravo!” As the applause died down, the violinist asked the people to sit back down. Even though they knew there was no way they could expect an encore, they quietly sank back into their seats.
He held the violin high for everyone to see. He nodded at the conductor to begin the encore and then he turned back to the crowd, and with a twinkle in his eye, he smiled and shouted, “Paganini . . . and one string!” After that he placed the single-stringed Stradivarius beneath his chin and played the final piece on one string as the audience (and the conductor) shook their heads in silent amazement. “Paganini . . . and one string!”27 (And, I might add, an attitude of fortitude.)
Swindoll goes on to say:
This may shock you, but I believe the single most significant decision I can make on a day-do-day basis is my choice of attitude . . . Attitude is that “single string” that keeps me going or cripples my progress . . . When my attitudes are right, there’s no barrier too high, no valley too deep, no dream too extreme, no challenge too great for me.
Yet, we must admit that we spend more of our time concentrating and fretting over the strings that snap, dangle, and pop--the things that can’t be changed--than we do giving attention to the one that remains, our choice of attitude.28
For the Christian, however, we are not talking about just a positive attitude. We are talking about an attitude that comes from a heart focused on God and that trusts in Him.