This week I received an e-mail response to my sermon on Luke 7:18-35 which a writer found on the Internet. As you can see, he was not pleased with my handling of the doubts of John the Baptist: “Your exposition of Luke 7:18 … about John was so unfair to John the Baptist. See Ron Ritchie’s fairer treatment in same page. Otherwise, very good materials overall.”
Actually, I don’t take offense to the criticisms and corrections that come from readers, and often they can be more profitable than compliments. In this case, I disagree with the gentleman who wrote, but I appreciate his honesty and concern.
The text in Luke to which this gentleman refers is the one which describes that period of time after John the Baptist’s arrest, when he entertained doubts about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. This great prophet, the last of the Old Testament prophets, had “hitched his star” to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah:
29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:29-34).
Things did not go as John had expected from this point on. At first, Jesus became more and more popular while John’s followers decreased, many choosing to follow Jesus, and rightly so (see John 1:35-39; 3:25-36). John was arrested, but as he drew near to the day of his own departure he noted that Jesus was not ushering in His kingdom as John had expected. In fact, John may well have become aware of growing opposition to Jesus on the part of the Jewish religious leaders. As a result, John sent messengers to Jesus to ask this question:
18 John’s disciples informed him about all these things. So John called two of his disciples 19 and sent them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Luke 7:18-20).
John the Baptist had a very successful ministry. People came to him from far and wide. After John introduced Jesus as the Messiah, it did not bother him that Jesus was more successful than he was. He expected it; he rejoiced in it. But when he could see that his life might well end at any moment (and so it did—see Mark 6:12-29), and that Jesus’ ministry was not going as he had expected, he began to entertain doubts. The sermon I wrote on John the Baptist from Luke 7:18-23 emphasized John’s human weakness at this moment, and the reader who responded (not unkindly) did not feel it fair to paint John the Baptist in this light. I understand, and I disagree. That is the way Luke describes John at this moment in his life.
I could not help seeing the relationship between John the Baptist, a Christian’s uneasiness about a description of a very low point in his life, and our text for this lesson. As you well know, there is a very close connection between Elijah and John the Baptist. We will pursue their relationship later in this message, but just as John the Baptist had his moment of doubt, Elijah had his day of despair (actually “days” of despair—at least 40). The account of his fear and despair is found in 1 Kings 19.
This lesson is for every Christian who has ever tasted of success in spiritual ministry. It is also for every Christian who has ever experienced fear, and doubt, and despair—even thoughts of suicide. There are vitally important lessons to be learned from this great text, so let us look to God’s Word and to His Spirit to enlighten us as we seek to learn what He has to say to us.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was deeply imbedded in sin. Its king, Ahab, had the distinction of being the most wicked man who had ever sat on the throne of Israel (1 Kings 16:30, 33; 21:25-26). The capstone on his life of sin was his marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon. Because of Jezebel, the worship of Baal had become the dominant religion of Israel. In keeping with the warnings God had given Israel in the Law of Moses, God brought a drought upon the land. This was announced by Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-2), who was then divinely instructed to hide out by the brook Cherith. For some time, he drank from the waters of this brook and was fed bread and meat brought by the ravens morning and evening. When the brook dried up, God instructed Elijah to relocate to Zarephath, where he stayed with a widow and her son until the drought ended.
After three-and-a-half years, God instructed Elijah to present himself before Ahab so that He might bring the people to repentance and thus send the rains upon this drought-parched land. Elijah first met Obadiah, who was both a believer in God and a faithful servant of Ahab. Obadiah set up a meeting between Ahab and Elijah, at which time Elijah instructed Ahab to summon all Israel to Mount Carmel. There on the mountain, Elijah rebuked the Israelites for vacillating between God and Baal. He proposed a contest which would settle the question of who was the true God. The prophets of Baal would prepare their sacrifice, and Elijah his. If the prophets of Baal could produce fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice, then Baal must be God. But if Elijah could do so, then Yahweh, the God of Israel, must be the true God. Let Israel then follow the God who could produce fire from heaven. In spite of their efforts, the prophets of Baal failed, and Elijah’s simple prayer resulted in fire from heaven. The people proclaimed that the Lord is God, and at Elijah’s command, they put the prophets of Baal to death.
Now that the Israelites had repented and had proclaimed their allegiance to Yahweh, God could once again bring rain to the earth. Elijah encouraged Ahab to eat and drink, because he was soon to return to Jezreel. The rains were about to come in Israel. Elijah’s prayers were heard, and the rains were soon to come, so the prophet told Ahab it was time for him to leave, while he could still travel in his chariot. We take up the story at this point.
18:45 Meanwhile the sky was covered with dark clouds, the wind blew, and there was a heavy rainstorm. Ahab rode toward Jezreel. 46 Now the LORD energized Elijah with power; he tucked his robe into his belt and ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. 19:1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, including a detailed account of how he killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this warning, “May the gods judge me severely if by this time tomorrow I do not take your life as you did theirs.”
This is a very interesting and important text. It is somewhat obscured by the rather unusual translation of the NASB:
45 In a little while the sky grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy shower. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. 46 Then the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and outran Ahab to Jezreel (NASB, emphasis mine).
One certainly gets the impression from this translation that Elijah was attempting to beat Ahab to Jezreel, as though this were some kind of contest. Suffice it to say that “outran” is not the usual way of rendering the Hebrew term, and in addition, it just doesn’t make sense in the context. The normal meaning of the text is that Elijah ran ahead of Ahab’s chariot as a kind of escort. The miracle was that he was physically strengthened to run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel, a minimum of 15 miles, and this at chariot speed.
But why did Elijah wish to accompany Ahab to Jezreel? We know from the following verses that this is where Jezebel was staying. I believe that Ahab’s compliance with all that Elijah had instructed led the prophet to come to the false conclusion that Ahab would now assume the leadership role he should, and that when he returned to Jezreel, he would “put Jezebel in her place” and make things right for the nation. The text does not say this, but it certainly seems to infer something like this.
As I read the text, I see a very enthusiastic Elijah, racing before Ahab’s chariot, eager to get to Jezreel and to complete the “revival” that had commenced on Mount Carmel. He would go with Ahab, just to make sure everything went all right, and perhaps to enjoy the satisfaction of watching this wicked woman be put in her place. As they reached the city and drew near to Ahab’s palace, I can almost hear Ahab saying to Elijah, “Why don’t you wait out here for a moment? I think it would be best if I broke the bad news to her privately.”74
Elijah was still expectant and enthusiastic. He was confident that Ahab would soon come to the door, invite him in, and then together they would confront Jezebel and tell her how things were going to be from now on. Perhaps Elijah was pacing outside their door when he first heard Jezebel shriek in a fit of rage. Did the prophet overhear any of the conversation that took place between Ahab and his wife? We do know that Ahab broke the bad news to Jezebel about how Elijah (Ahab seems to claim no part in this) put to death the 450 prophets of Baal (19:1). Elijah hears footsteps approaching the door and watches intently as it swings open. Neither Ahab nor Jezebel emerge, but one of the servants, who conveys a message from Jezebel to the prophet: He has 24 hours to live. Jezebel is going to kill him, just like he killed the 450 prophets of Baal. Whatever the events on Mount Carmel had done to Ahab, they had only intensified Jezebel’s animosity toward Elijah and his God.
This is the only way I can make sense of the text. If it were otherwise, the messenger who was sent to Elijah should have simply killed him on the spot, after telling him why he was about to be executed. Why would one messenger be sent to find Elijah and give him this message, only for another to have to find him after being warned earlier? But if Elijah was waiting outside the palace door, then one of the servants could have been sent by Jezebel. She certainly knew that she could not send Ahab out to convey this message to Elijah. He would simply comply with Elijah’s demands, once again.
3 Elijah was afraid,75 so he got up and fled for his life to Beersheba in Judah. He left his servant there, 4 while he went a day’s journey into the desert. He went and sat down under a shrub and asked to the LORD to take his life, “I’ve had enough! Now, O LORD, take my life. After all, I’m no better than my ancestors.”76 5 He stretched out and fell asleep under the shrub.
I believe Elijah had “high hopes” as he ran before Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel. His expectations were not only unrealistic; they were unfounded. From his “success” on Mount Carmel, he assumed complete success, and this did not happen. If he went to Jezreel expecting Jezebel’s defeat, he himself fled from Jezreel in defeat. Elijah arose and fled to Beersheba in Judah. This surely seemed to be the safest place, in Judah, rather than in Israel, and thus somewhat out of Jezebel’s reach. In addition, Beersheba was about as far to the south as one could get in Judah. In other words, Elijah was as far away from Jezebel as he could get and still be in the promised land.
It should be noted that Elijah’s departure here is vastly different from his flight from Ahab recorded earlier:
1 Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As certainly as the LORD God of Israel lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command.” 2 The LORD told him: 3 “Leave here and travel eastward. Hide out in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan. 4 Drink from the stream; I have already told the ravens to bring you food there.” 5 So he did as the LORD told him; he went and lived in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan (I Kings 17:1-5).
His escape from Ahab in chapter 17 is clearly a “Thus saith the Lord.” It is not at all so in our text in chapter 19. Elijah’s decision is questioned (19:9, 13), and in the end, he is ordered to return the way he came (19:15). This escape, as we are told, is not made in faith, but out of fear.
There is an excellent little book entitled, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. I think that another book might be written, entitled, A Psychiatrist Looks at 1 Kings 19. It would make for some interesting reading. If Elijah were to have consulted a psychiatrist, I believe he would have been diagnosed as suicidal. In fact, I believe that in our text Elijah is actively trying to kill himself. He is doing the very things people do when they are trying to kill themselves. He is depressed. He is angry. He is tired of life and wants out. He leaves his servant behind so that he will be alone. This way, no one can stop him. He then goes out into the wilderness, where there is no food or water, and this after he has run 15 or so miles from Mount Carmel to Jezreel, and another 100 miles or so from Jezreel to Beersheba. Now, another day’s journey into the wilderness, he lays down under a scrubby tree to die. It is just as though he has taken a bottle of sleeping pills and never plans to wake up. His final words say it all: “He… asked to the LORD to take his life, ‘I’ve had enough! Now, O LORD, take my life. After all, I’m no better than my ancestors’” (verse 4).
The contemporary expression, “I’ve had my fill of …” is not far from the meaning of “enough.” “Enough of this!” Elijah protests, “I’m out of here!” His words, on the one hand, are filled with defeat and despair. Elijah has had all he can take (or so he thinks); he’s been a failure, and so he asks God to take his life (which Elijah is already in the process of doing himself). The irony is that neither his actions nor his words are rational. He begs God to take his life when he is doing so. He begs for God to take his life, yet he flees from Jezebel, who would gladly have given him a hand at this. He speaks of defeat and failure, yet in his words to God, he expresses his belief that he alone has remained a faithful servant of God while all Israel has failed (19:10, 14). Here, as always, the person who is seeking to kill himself is not thinking clearly. Elijah’s actions are suicidal, but (as always) his thinking and actions are not rational. After all, why flee from one woman, when God had protected him through three-and-a-half years of drought, and from this many years of Ahab and Jezebel seeking his life? Elijah had just stood alone before the nation on Mount Carmel, and now he cannot face Jezebel (alone) in Jezreel. I have concluded that Elijah’s actions do not make any sense, and thus I have not sought to pursue an explanation of his depression any further.
All of a sudden an angelic messenger touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked and right there by his head was a cake baking on hot coals and a jug of water. He ate and drank and then slept some more. 7 The LORD’s angelic messenger came back again, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, for otherwise you won’t be able to make the journey.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. That meal gave him the strength to travel 40 days and 40 nights until he reached the mountain of God in Horeb.
I love this text! Elijah lies down and goes to sleep, hoping never to awaken, other than in heaven.77 He is awakened by a nudge78 from an angel, an angel who is none other than the Angel of the Lord. Was Elijah in heaven? Not really. But he was to receive a lesson from heaven. Elijah is in no condition to be corrected at this moment, and this is why the angel has only one command for Elijah: “Get up and eat.” He did, and then went back to sleep again. Good food and sleep were essential to his physical recovery.
What a lesson there was for Elijah in this meal! Here is a prophet who, according to his own words, is a failure. He is a man who seems to feel that his significance to God is somehow dependent upon his success in ministry as a prophet. The angel’s presence is, in and of itself, instructive and corrective. Did God care for Elijah, at the time of his greatest failure? God provided Elijah with bread and water before, for three-and-a-half years. He was given “day old” bread by unclean ravens, and then a very basic bread by the widow of Zarephath. This provision came when Elijah was obedient and successful. But now, in his greatest moment of defeat, he is fed hot-baked bread and water, served by none other than the Angel of the Lord. Did God care for Elijah, even when he failed? I think we know the answer.
The second time the angel awoke Elijah, he had a bit more to say: “Get up and eat, for otherwise you won’t be able to make the journey” (verse 7). I don’t believe Elijah planned to go anywhere, other than to heaven. His plan seems to have been only to go out into the wilderness and die. If this is true, than I can just see Elijah’s eyes widen. I can hear him reply, “Journey, what journey?” What journey was he going on that would require him to be strengthened by food and drink? We know the answer; Elijah was about to make a 40-day journey south to Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God gave the Law to Moses. Also, it was the same mountain where God manifested Himself in His glory to Moses.
One can hardly miss the parallels we see in this text. Elijah spends 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness before he reaches Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb). Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain when he was receiving the law. Our Lord spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness as a part of His temptation.
There are striking similarities between Elijah, Moses, and our Lord (all of whom, incidentally, were present at our Lord’s transfiguration), but there are also dramatic differences. I am inclined to believe that Elijah was stationed at the same place where Moses stood when our Lord passed by, revealing His glory (Exodus 33:17–34:9). Moses, however, requested to see this manifestation of God’s glory; Elijah did not. Elijah was summoned to appear there, as I read the text. Our Lord and Moses seem to have done without food and water for 40 days, as did Elijah, but in Elijah’s case, the bread and water he was given by the Angel of the Lord seems to have had supernatural qualities, strengthening Elijah for his journey. While our Lord was weakened and (seemingly) more vulnerable to temptation by His 40-day fast, the food Elijah was given strengthened him, so that he not only could make the journey to Sinai, but so that he was now able to think straight, and thus be admonished and instructed. There is one more similarity and contrast. Just as the Israelites of Elijah’s day (and before) had worshipped Yahweh by means of a golden calf (1 Kings 12:28-30; 2 Kings 10:29), so the Israelites worshipped Yahweh by means of a golden calf, thanks to Aaron (Exodus 32). The difference is that when Israel sinned, Moses interceded with God on Israel’s behalf (Exodus 32:11-14). It is amazing, but true, that Elijah did not intercede for Israel, but pled with God against Israel:
1 So I ask, God has not rejected his people, has he? Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew! Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!” 4 But what was the divine response to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:1-4, emphasis by underscoring mine).
Elijah is a most puzzling man at this point in his life. I cannot discern whether he is angry for having failed or whether he is upset with his success. It would seem that at this point in time Elijah had not only given up on his own ministry, he had given up on Israel. He was ready to resign from life by orchestrating his own death. And thinking he was the last prophet in Israel, his death should spell the end of Israel’s hope for revival and restoration. Until now, I have never thought of Elijah and Jonah as having any similarities, but both wish to die to avoid a ministry that would manifest God’s grace to those who are completely undeserving.
9 He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the LORD spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the LORD, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD. Look, the LORD is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the LORD, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the LORD, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.”
Elijah is now on Mount Sinai, the most important mountain of all in Jewish history. Here is the place where God manifested Himself to the Israelites. Here is where Moses ascended and came down with the Ten Commandments. Here is the place where God revealed His glory to Moses, as he had requested. For an Old Testament prophet, the Old Testament Law of Moses was the foundation of their ministry. It was on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant that Elijah prophesied that there would be no rain in Israel till he spoke the word. It was on the basis of the Law (and of God’s specific command to do so) that Elijah prayed for the rains to return to Israel. This was the place of Israel’s beginnings as a nation. And so it is that after Elijah’s collapse, God brings him here to help him sort things out, to see things straight, to think in terms of God’s covenant.
Elijah spent the night in a cave, perhaps the very place from which Moses beheld the glory of God centuries before. There, the Lord spoke to Elijah, asking this simple question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” (verse 9). How much more God could have said! I am reminded of God’s question which He put to Jonah, who was at a similar point in his life and ministry: “Is it good that you are angry?” (Jonah 4:4; see also verse 9). Twice God asked Jonah this question, just as He asked Elijah the same question twice (1 Kings 19:9, 13). Both Jonah and Elijah answered the first question the same way—they wanted to die. And after God asked the first question and the two men answered, God then gave an object lesson to both Jonah and Elijah. Jonah’s lesson was by means of a gourd plant that withered and died. Elijah’s lesson was by means of some very spectacular events.
God first caused a great wind to pass by the cave, hurling rocks and even causing landslides. It must not only have been spectacular, it must have been frightening. Then God sent a great earthquake. I have witnessed an earthquake or two in my life, once in the classroom where I was teaching. I can only imagine how frightening it would be to witness an earthquake while in a cave. After the earthquake, God sent a fire. Elijah had seen God send fire before, and not too many days earlier. But as spectacular as all these things were, God was not present in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Instead, God came in the form of a soft whisper or voice.
What was this object lesson all about? What was Elijah supposed to learn from it? I believe he was supposed to learn a very simple but very important lesson: God is not to be sought in the spectacular. The contest on Mount Carmel was spectacular. God proved that He was God; He alone was God. But it would appear that Elijah expected that God would continue to manifest Himself in a spectacular way. And when Jezebel sent the messenger to him with her threats, Elijah was crushed and frightened. He seems to have expected that God would deal with her in a most spectacular way. God occasionally “speaks” dramatically, as He did with the “fire from heaven” on Mount Carmel, but this is not the norm. God speaks through His Word, and in those days, through His prophets. It seems to me that Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of God, but he was not content to be a “small voice.”
Let me say one more thing about this business of the spectacular. This is an issue which causes much trouble in the church today. There are those who believe that God does speak through very spectacular means. The problem is that some actually demand that He do so. If God does not speak in a spectacular way, they are not sure He has spoken at all. And so they, perhaps like Elijah, get all out of sorts when God does not meet their expectations and demands. On the other hand, there are many Christians who do not believe that God may speak in a spectacular way today. They not only doubt that such things can or will occur, they tend to deny that any such thing has occurred. Sometimes they even resort to calling anything spectacular “demonic.” As you can tell, I am referring to the tensions which exist between so-called “charismatic” Christians and “non-charismatic” (or, perhaps more accurately in some cases, anti-charismatic) Christians. When a belief demands that God not only can but must speak in a spectacular way, I say, “Shame on you.” And when another believer refuses to even grant the possibility that God might speak in a spectacular way, I say, “Shame on you.” Let us get this matter clear in our minds. God does not always speak spectacularly, but He can and does do so occasionally. Whether He speaks softly or loudly, let us be sure to listen. And let us never look down upon the still, small voice of God.
Now we come to the saddest portion of our passage. For the second time, God asks Elijah the same question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” And, for the second time, Elijah gives the same answer: “I have been absolutely loyal to the LORD, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life” (verses 9-10). The distressing thing to realize is that Elijah’s answer has not changed by so much as a word. This indicates to us that Elijah has not learned anything from the lessons God has just taught him, both in the wilderness, and from his vantage point in the cave atop Mount Sinai.
When I was teaching high school in the state prison in our home town, a fellow teacher had a problem with a young man who kept falling asleep in class (which was forbidden by the prison rules). As the teacher would pass by this slumbering student, he would raise his voice, then later he would gently nudge the fellow. Finally, as he came to this fellow’s desk and found him deep in sleep, he grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a little shake. The student awoke, jumped to his feet, and said to the teacher, “If you ever do that again, you’re going to get it!” My fellow teacher made his way to the door and summoned Mr. Look, the guard who was stationed in the hall (Mr. Look, incidentally, was formerly a sergeant in the Navy.). Mr. Look escorted the inmate student to solitary confinement (known then as “the hole”). Thirty days later, the student emerged from his confinement and returned to class. After class, the student approached his teacher and said, “I’m really sorry Mr. Smith (actually, I don’t remember his name after all these years), but I think you misunderstood what I was saying. What I meant to say was this: ‘If you ever do that again, you might get it.’” It was only a one word change, but at least there was some change. Not so much as a word was changed by Elijah.
In spite of God’s merciful provisions for Elijah, the bread and water, and His intimate nearness at the lowest point in his life; in spite of his journey to the place where the Law of Moses was given, and the spectacular manifestations of God’s presence and power; in spite of God’s twice-asked question, Elijah has not repented nor has he changed in his response to this situation. (In this way, Elijah is not that different from the Israelites, is he?) Because he has failed to respond to divine correction as he should, God accepts his resignation, with some qualifications, as the following verses indicate.
15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came and then head for the Desert of Damascus. Go and designate Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 You must designate Jehu son of Nimshi to be king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to take your place as prophet. 17 Jehu will kill anyone who escapes Hazael’s sword, and Elisha will kill anyone who escapes Jehu’s sword. 18 I still have left in Israel 7,000 followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal and or kissed the images of him.
God does not allow Elijah to resign on the spot. He is allowed to “give his notice,” so to speak, but he cannot step aside immediately. In the first place, Elijah certainly cannot resign by means of suicide. Second, Elijah must return by the way he came. He must retrace his steps, backward, as it were. God does not let him get away with his temper tantrum. If he had thrown the dishes on the floor, then I think God would have had him clean up the mess.
A simple reading of the text raises some questions. It would appear that Elijah is given his first task—he is to go back the way he came, and then “head for the Desert of Damascus” (verse 15). There, he was to designate Hazael to be the next king over Syria. He was also to designate Jehu son of Nimshi to be the king over Israel. Neither of these instructions was carried out by Elijah in his lifetime. Both were carried out at a later time by Elisha (see 2 Kings 8:8-15; 9:1-10). I’m having a little trouble understanding this, although it serves to underscore the fact that Elijah’s ministry was largely finished. The one thing he will do is to anoint Elisha as a prophet and as his replacement.
It is possible that God is emphasizing a point here, not only for Elijah, but for the reader. Elijah had the misconception that he alone was left as a prophet and as one who faithfully followed God. It would seem he reasoned that since he was the only pious man, and the only prophet in Israel, then his resignation (by suicide) would leave the nation without a word from God. How typically suicidal is his thinking: “If they don’t have me around any longer, they’ll be sorry. I’ll show them by taking my own life.” God is not impressed. He will not allow Elijah to “check out” by suicide, but He will put this prophet on the shelf. And now, in the time that remains for him, he can see how God is able to achieve His purposes and promises without this one prophet’s help. And so God informs Elijah that he is not the last surviving saint in Israel. Indeed, there are 7,000 in Israel who remain faithful to God. It is no wonder that in the next chapter God will save Ahab and the nation Israel from Syria’s attacks, and by means of an unnamed prophet, one of a number who make up the “school of the prophets.” Does Elijah wish to see Israel judged by the sword (e.g., Romans 11:1-4)? It will happen, but not by the word or the hand of Elijah. It will come about when Elisha anoints Hazael and Jehu, and when these relative pagans achieve God’s purposes.
19 Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with 12 pairs of oxen; he was near the twelfth pair. Elijah passed by him and threw his robe over him. 20 He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you.” Elijah said to him, “Go back! Indeed, what have I done to you?” 21 Elisha went back and took his pair of oxen and slaughtered them. He cooked the meat over a fire that he made by burning the harness and yoke. He gave the people meat and they ate. Then he got up and followed Elijah and became his assistant.
Here is the one thing Elijah seems to have gotten right. He sought out Elisha and designated him as his replacement, as God had instructed. I am still puzzled by the order of events, however. It would appear that Elijah did first what he was commanded last. Regardless, it must have been a rather humbling thing for Elijah to go about his duties with Elisha tagging along. It does not appear that Elisha belonged to the “school of the prophets” (see 1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:7; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), but he does appear to be the son of wealthy parents. (How many people have 12 pair of oxen, all plowing the same field at the same time? In today’s terms, Elisha would be behind the wheel of the twelfth massive four-wheel-drive tractor.) From the description we are given of Elisha, he is a man of real character. When singled out by Elijah, he goes to his home and announces his calling and departure. He then returns to offer a sacrifice, using the oxen he had been plowing with—an expensive meal, indeed. And he burns the yoke and the harness to cook as fuel for the sacrificial fire. It is as though he had said, “I’ve made this decision to follow God, and Elijah, as a prophet, and I have no intention of turning back.” Today we would say, Elisha burned his bridges. What a humble thing for the son of wealthy parents to do—he left his family and took up the life of a prophet, becoming Elijah’s servant.
There are many lessons to be learned from our text. Let me underscore a few of them.
First, let it be noted that Christians—even godly Christians—can be depressed, and even suicidal. In our text, we see Elijah, a man mightily used of God on Mount Carmel (and before), suddenly fearful, depressed, and suicidal. I have heard of a number of highly respected preachers (past and present) who suffered from depression. In the case of Elijah and other saints, depression is certainly not commendable, but it is at least understandable. Notice how quickly and unexpectedly it comes. This man of great faith and courage (on Mount Carmel) suddenly becomes fearful and runs for his life. How quickly, and how easily, we fall. As Paul put it so well, we ought to let the failures of the saints of old be a warning to us:
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall. 13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful, who will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:11-13).
Second, we should be reminded that success is not the norm for a prophet or for a New Testament saint. All too often today, people seem to have a sense of entitlement. Some folks think they have a right to a good job, with a great salary and benefits, whether or not they work hard. The younger generation simply assumes that they should enjoy “the good life,” without realizing where it comes from. All too many Christians have even greater expectations, assuming that God has promised them the blessings of heaven here and now. They feel entitled to health, wealth, and happiness. No wonder the preachers who make such promises have such a large following. I would remind you, however, that any prophet who expected to be successful would have had to forget or to forsake a lot of biblical history.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (Matthew 5:10-12).
51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become!” (Acts 7:51-52).
Our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount indicate that just as the Old Testament prophets were persecuted, so will those be who follow our Lord—not just prophets, or apostles, or leaders. This is confirmed by many New Testament texts:
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 18-21).
21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions” (Acts 14:21-22).
10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, my faith, my patience, my love, my endurance, 11 as well as the persecutions and sufferings that happened to me in Antioch, in Iconium, and in Lystra. I endured these persecutions and the Lord delivered me from them all. 12 Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
Elijah’s problem in our passage seems to be related to his fixation on “success” and its near relative, “spectacular.” I think this is the same problem that Job’s friends reveal by their response to Job’s suffering. They assumed that if Job was suffering, he must have done something wrong. The solution was to find out what his sin was and confess it. As the Bible makes clear, we may expect to suffer for doing right, and not just for doing wrong:
18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).
1 So, since Christ suffered in the flesh, you also arm yourselves with the same attitude, because the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin, 2 in that he spends the rest of his time on earth concerned about the will of God and not human desires. 3 For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire. You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, boozing, and wanton idolatries. 4 So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you.… 12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name (1 Peter 4:1-4, 12-16).
Third, when we disobey God, we are often ingenious at making up excuses for our actions which sound pious. Some years ago, the elders of a certain church made a decision which they communicated to the church as a whole. One of the elders made the announcement, “What is the biblical principle on which this decision was based?” The elder was honest enough to say, “We have based our decision on the principle of, ‘O ye of little faith.’ How seldom I have heard someone say something like, “I bought this car, which is way above my means, because I decided to indulge my flesh.” We try to sanctify our sin by giving it a pious label. We say, “When I saw this new red convertible, the Lord just told me this was the car I should buy.” Or, even more piously, we can say, “I bought this new boat for my family. I thought we weren’t spending enough quality time together.” I’m not against buying a new car or a boat, but I am opposed to our efforts to make something seem pious which isn’t necessarily so.
It has finally occurred to me that twice God asked Elijah the same question, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” We know the answer, because it is right there in our text. All Elijah had to say was, “Because I was afraid of Jezebel.” That was the truth of it, but Elijah had to make it sound more pious. And so he tells God how spiritual he has been and how wicked the Israelites have been. He’s giving up because the people are just too pagan for him. Watch out for pious excuses for sin.
Fourth, God’s work will never fail, even when His servants do. Thank God that His work does not depend upon our faithfulness, but upon His. In our worship time this Sunday, we focused on the unfailing love of God. What a wonderful truth that is. God’s love never fails, but we often do. God’s love never fails, even when we fail. What a marvelous example of the grace of God this whole matter has been. God has been gracious to the nation Israel, first in bringing them to repentance, and then in giving rain. God has been (and will continue to be) gracious to Ahab, even though he is “chief of sinners,” so far as Israel’s kings are concerned. And God has been incredibly gracious to Elijah, when we may have been inclined to simply write him off and go on. Elijah wanted to go out in sorrow and shame—by suicide. How much better was God’s exit for Elijah—in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12)! The man who was caught up in the “spectacular” was “caught up” in a most spectacular way.
Fifth, Elijah is all too much like the people he wants God to give up on. Paul has informed us in Romans 11:1-4 that Elijah was not petitioning God on behalf of Israel, but against them. He seems fed up with the nation, because they have not fully repented. He seems almost angry with God for being so gracious to undeserving sinners. And yet Elijah is not repentant himself. He, like Jonah, reluctantly accepts God’s refusal to put him to death, and he does as he is commanded (at least in part), but he does not do so wholeheartedly. Elijah seems hard-hearted and stiff-necked, not unlike the Israelites.
I have observed a principle in our text which I have also seen in effect today. It goes something like this: WE WILL OFTEN BE TEMPTED WITH THOSE SINS THAT WE MOST LOUDLY PROTEST AND DETEST.
I have observed marriages in which one spouse is unfaithful to the other. The “faithful” spouse is hurt and often angry. I usually warn the offended party to be careful about becoming too self-righteous. I tell them that it is very likely they will be tempted in the same area in their life. Elijah seems to detest Israel’s lack of repentance and the vacillation of the Israelites and their king. And yet look at how inconsistent Elijah is in his life and ministry.
Sixth, if we fail to learn the lessons God is teaching us by rejecting His reproofs and refusing to repent, He may very well set us aside so far as our ministry is concerned. When Elijah failed by fear and flight, God graciously met him in his darkest hour. He met his physical needs and addressed his spiritual needs as well. But when confronted with his sin, Elijah did not repent. Finally, God set Elijah aside. He did not allow him to die as he had requested, but he did instruct him to appoint his own replacements. What a sad thing it is to see a child of God set aside because of an unrepentant heart. God does not need us, although we desperately need Him. He can easily set us aside and can quickly replace us, and sometimes by those we would consider totally inadequate for the task (folks like Hazael and Jehu).
Seventh, we are often in need of going back to our beginnings. Elijah was not doing well at all, physically or spiritually. God ministered to Elijah’s physical needs with bread and water. But He ministered to Elijah’s spiritual need by taking him to Mount Sinai. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was based upon the Old Testament law. Elijah was ministering to Israel, and so God takes him back to Israel’s beginnings at Mount Sinai, when He gave His people the law. Elijah did not respond as he should have, but let us not allow that to obscure the fact that God sought to minister to him by taking him back to his “roots.”
The same is true for the Christian today. Our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper (or Communion) as a weekly event (at least that was the way it was done in the New Testament), so that week after week we would be taken back to our roots. The cross of Jesus Christ is the basis for our salvation and eternal life. Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins, so that we might be forgiven for our sins and spend eternity with Him. This is not just a truth which we acknowledge at the time of our conversion—though we must acknowledge it to be saved. This is a truth which should govern our lives. We should cease sinning and seek to live righteously, because we died to sin in Christ and were raised to new life in Him (Romans 6). If we suffer unjustly, we should do so innocently and silently, because this is how our Savior suffered for us, so that we might be saved (1 Peter 2). It all goes back to the cross, and so week after week, we need to go back to our beginnings, our roots, by remembering the sacrificial death of our Lord.
I have been speaking of going back to the cross, for I have been assuming that I am speaking to Christians. But I know that it is entirely possible that one of my readers is not a Christian. It is possible that you have never yet gone to the cross, for the forgiveness of your sins. Elijah has made some very serious mistakes in our text, but Elijah knew God. And because of this, God graciously worked in his life to bring him back to repentance and intimacy with Himself. Every unbeliever is not necessarily a Jezebel, who boldly and loudly blasphemes God. You may be like the Israelites of old who simply failed to declare their allegiance, who wavered between trusting in God and serving a false god. If you have never declared your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, there is no better time than now.
74 I would warn the reader that this is conjecture on my part, but we must have some sense of what took place in Jezreel if we are to grasp the rest of the story. Let the reader beware. My comments here are suggestive.
75 It is interesting that the KJV and the NKJV render this word “saw,” rather than “was afraid.” Other translations seem consistent in rendering the word “was afraid.” It is particularly of interest that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) renders it “was afraid.” The Hebrew word is almost identical for both “was afraid” and “saw.” In the context, however, it seems compellingly clear that Elijah is temporarily overcome with fear. He did not “run for his life” for no reason. Even if one grants the rendering “Elijah saw… ”, it would be necessary to conclude that he was terrified by what he saw.
76 The term “fathers” most often refers to one’s ancestors. It can also be used in reference to a prophet (2 Kings 2:12), and I am inclined to think that is the sense in which Elijah uses it here. He is saying, I believe, that his prophetic ministry has been no more successful than that of the prophets (the “fathers”) who preceded him.
77 Suicide is particularly tempting for the Christian in a time of great despair, because they are assured of going to heaven when they die. I assisted in a funeral where a young man shot himself in the head as he knelt by his bed, reading Revelation 21-22. Why not leave this troubled life behind and advance to heaven? It seems reasonable at the time, but it is not, because we must not take our life by our own hand.
78 The Hebrew word is here rendered “touched” but sometimes this “touch” is more than a gentle one, as when the Angel of the Lord “touched” Jacob as they wrestled, dislocating his hip (Genesis 32:25).