Of all the chapters on the life and ministry of Elijah, 1 Kings 19 is, in my opinion, the most instructive and, in many ways, the most encouraging because we can all so easily identify with the prophet and his failure. Just when the Lord needed him the most, this divinely trained prophet proved to be a notable failure and ended up running away from his post in a terribly depressed condition.
Elijah had demonstrated courage before Ahab in the king’s palace and on Mount Carmel. He had also witnessed God’s supply by the brook, in the home of the widow, in the years of famine, in the fire from heaven that consumed the sacrifice, in the coming of the rain, and in the ability to outrun Ahab back to Jezreel. However, when faced with the threat of Jezebel and the obvious fact there would be no immediate revival in the land, he suddenly became fearful and discouraged. He then deserted his post and ran for his life. If Jezebel had really wanted him dead, she would have tried to seize him without warning, but, cunning as she was, she wanted rather to discredit him before his new converts and she was successful.
We have asked the question, how could this have happened to such a man of God? We saw that part of the reason undoubtedly lies in the problem of his expectations, in the problem of his lost focus, and in the problem of turning to his own strategies (with the last two problems being the result of the first). It is right to expect the Lord to work, but our expectations must never be the source of our happiness or our confidence in the work of God. We must learn to rest our expectations in God’s sovereignty, trusting Him for the timing and the means.
But the Lord wasn’t through with Elijah and failure doesn’t mean defeat or an end to our ministry. This is also one of the encouraging elements of this chapter. Before God could use Elijah, however, there were some things Elijah had to learn. Elijah’s failure and discouragement (because of his expectations) were due in part to two things. First there was his view of what it would take to change the nation. His God-given successes had made him take his own importance too seriously (19:4, 9, 14). Furthermore, he thought the primary means of reaching the people was the display of God’s power in dramatic and spectacular ways. He thought if they didn’t respond to that, there was no hope. So, when he failed to see the results he expected, he was shattered. Oh, how we often set ourselves up for discouragement by our pride and our expectations which we fail to rest on the foundation of God’s wisdom.
Now as we move into this section, note that five times the word “behold” is used to highlight an important fact or truth of God’s dealings with the prophet (19:5, 6, 9, 11, 13). Against the backdrop of Elijah’s failure, this little demonstrative particle highlights God’s gracious work to restore the prophet back to his ministry regardless of what he had done. Let’s look at how the Lord worked to restore the prophet.
The juniper tree is not the coniferous tree of the genus juniperous. The Hebrew word for this tree or bush is rothem. This was a shrub found in abundance in southern Palestine. It had long slender branches with small leaves and provided very poor shade or protection from the sun. And so it goes with our man-made solutions from which we seek shelter, refuge or solutions to our pain. Out of exhaustion, Elijah fell asleep. God has ordained sleep and rest as necessary for our survival and ability to function, so the Lord allowed a time of sleep before He brought on the next phase of His provision for Elijah. How interesting. God remembers that we are frail. He knows our frame, that we are but dust. He is mindful that we possess material bodies that must be cared for, often, before the spiritual part can function (Ps. 103:14).
Before we expect too much from ourselves or from others, whom we are seeking to encourage with the Word, let’s remember this principle of the need of rest and that sometimes the physical needs to be cared for before the spiritual.
With the word “behold” the Hebrew text has the word zeh, an adverb of place or perhaps time that means, “here” or “now.” Literally, the Heb. text reads, “behold here” or “behold now.” This highlights the place and time when God’s angel, His messenger of mercy, comes on the scene. What’s the Lord pointing out to us in this picture? This special work of God’s grace did not occur on the summit of Mount Carmel, nor when in conflict with the prophets of Baal, nor by the brook where the Lord had sent Elijah, nor when he was in prayer and intimate fellowship. It occurred when he was in the wilderness, when Elijah was out of fellowship. It was when he was depressed and a deserter with the best his own strategies could supply--a scrubby desert bush.
Verse 5 tells us an angel was touching him, awakening him to eat. But in verse 7 this angel is identified as “the angel of the LORD,” a description always used in the Old Testament of a special manifestation of God Himself. This was no ordinary angel. It was a Theophany or better yet, a Christophany--a manifestation of the second person of the Trinity. This was no less than the Savior who came personally to minister to the prophet. God sent not the ravens as before, nor a widow, nor some other natural means, but the preincarnate Christ. Why?
(1) To show the prophet His love and grace and perhaps to remind us that it was when we were sinners and alienated from God that He sent His Son for us. It is also a reminder that the Savior never leaves us no matter how far we drift away. He is personally involved in seeking to restore us. The Lord was not condoning what Elijah had done or overlooking it, but rather (a) He was assuring Elijah he was still the object of His love, and (b) that He still had a plan and purpose for the prophet just as He does for us when we get out of His plan. Compare John 21.
(2) This also affirmed the power of God. Though the means may be completely lacking to us and all may appear lost and without hope, there is never an end to the degree of God’s love and care, nor to the capacity and power at God’s disposal to supply any need at any time.
Elijah needed some special instruction from the Lord, but again, he first needed physical strength through nourishment. He was in no condition to listen or take in the Word of God. Twice he is told to eat and drink, and twice he is allowed to sleep. Again we are reminded that as human beings, we were designed to function in all aspects of our being--body, soul, and spirit. Though the spiritual is the foundation and vital for our overall well being and effectiveness as the Lord’s servants, still, all aspects of our makeup need care and each part is affected by the other parts (cf. Matt. 6:33; 1 Tim. 4:8; Pro. 14:30; 17:22).
Let’s note Elijah’s response in verse 6: “So he ate and drank and lay down again.” What does this tell us? When we are depressed and out of fellowship with the Lord, we tend to be as insensitive and ungrateful as the unbelieving world. Elijah seemed to be neither surprised nor overwhelmed by this supply of grace. There is no record of any response, not even a “thank you.” It appears he simply took God for granted.
What would you have done if you had been the Lord? Probably made it rain on him all night or send a swarm of mosquitoes or fire ants. But God is merciful, loving, and gracious. Further, He knew Elijah was not yet able to respond and God didn’t even expect it. His capacity for response and appreciation would come later. For now, God was patient and seeking to physically restore and strengthen.
Verse 8 tells us “he arose and ate and drank, and went . . . to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Because of the history of this mountain and the last statement of verse 7, we might be tempted to think he went there to find the Lord or he went there at God’s orders. I do not believe the text supports that idea. Notice twice Elijah is asked what he is doing there on the mountain (vss. 9 and 13). This was God as the Great Counselor working to get Elijah to evaluate where he was, why he was there, and what he was doing. He was there because he was still running away.
Furthermore, the text tells us “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb.” From where Elijah began, a day’s journey south of Beersheba, he was no forty days and nights from Horeb. A straight trip from the broom tree would have required little more than seven, maybe eight days. It seems clear that he was simply wandering about much like the children of Israel had done for forty years
Furthermore, the forty days and forty nights is not without symbolical significance. (a) As the children of Israel had a significant spiritual failure (at Kadesh Barnea) and wandered forty years in the wilderness, so a defeated Elijah was to spend forty days in the desert (cf. Num. 14:26-35). (b) As Moses had spent forty days on the mountain without bread and water, sustained only by God while he awaited a new phase of service (Ex. 34:28), so Elijah was to spend forty days thrown upon God’s divine enablement as he was being prepared for a recommissioning by God (cf. Matt. 4:1-2). (c) As Moses was to see the presence of God (Ex. 33:12-23), so Elijah was to find God, though in a different way than he could ever imagine.33
By God’s divine grace and providence, he was sustained as Israel was through the forty years, and he was drawn to Horeb, to Sinai, the special place of God’s divine revelation of Himself.
By way of application, isn’t this really another indication of the grace of God that even when we are out of fellowship, with our hearts devising our own way, the Lord still works on behalf of His children’s needs to lead them back to Himself? Isn’t this also an illustration of how we are so prone to prolong our trek in the wilderness in the pursuit of our own solutions to our pain and misery rather than quickly turn to the Lord. Why? Because we tend to believe so strongly in our solutions. Because of our pride or our sensitive egos. We just do not like to admit we are wrong and pursuing a wrong course.
His physical circumstances had now improved. This cave was a much better source of refuge than a broom tree, but his spiritual condition was still in shambles. In other words, the cave represents just another human strategy for refuge which, of course, was a substitute for God as his refuge. He may have felt better, but he was not where the Lord wanted him spiritually speaking. Now, because of his improved physical condition, he is in a better place to learn and listen. In fact, some believe that since this cave was somewhere on Mount Horeb, it could very well have been “the cleft of the rock” where the Lord had placed Moses when God’s glory passed by (Ex. 33:21-33).
Again we have a section highlighted by the word “behold.” This calls our attention to what the Lord has been doing with Elijah--preparing him to hear the Word. Like all of us, he desperately needed to hear the Word. He needed further instruction and insight that he might see himself and God, and in the process learn a very important truth that is also very, very crucial for our day as well.
Please note God’s question: “Why are you here Elijah?” This was designed, I believe, to be a soul searching question. Did he understand why he was there from his standpoint and from God’s standpoint? Did he grasp what was happening? In this question, we have an illustration of the concept of the Word reproving and exposing us to our failures, our false belief systems, and to God’s grace. Did he understand he was there because of his faulty thinking and his wrong focus? Did he understand that though he had been running from the Lord, it was God who had led him to this very special place to instruct and restore him?
His answer shows us he had not grasped the issues. He was still smarting over his failure as expressed in verse 4. He was filled with his own importance, and angry over the lack of response and help from others including the Lord. He was somewhat bitter because he had served the Lord so earnestly and spectacularly and still, he had experienced only rejection and exile. Jeremiah had a similar experience (cf. Jer. 20:7-9).
The Lord simply ignored Elijah’s self-justification and reason for being on the mountain. Instead, He offers him instruction that would result in special revelation about the Lord and God’s method of operation. Elijah is told to come out of the cave and stand before the Lord. Remember, this cave represented Elijah’s human strategy for refuge--the product of his wrong focus and thinking. I believe the Lord was rejecting Elijah’s solution and was showing him that He alone is to be Elijah’s refuge.
It was to be as David said in Psalm 11:1, “In the Lord I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, ‘Flee as a bird to your mountain.’” Or as David counseled himself in Ps. 62:5-6, “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be shaken.”
In verse 11, we have another “behold” section designed to highlight another important event--the Lord passing by the cave on the mountain. Why was the Lord passing by? To reveal Himself and an important truth in the spiritual maturity of the prophet. But suddenly, before Elijah comes out of the cave, four events occur, three of them spectacular.
(1) A rock-shattering wind smote the mountain around Elijah with rocks breaking in pieces. Surely such a spectacular event such as this would announce the presence of the Lord and illustrate how He would work in the future. But no, the Lord was not in the wind.
(2) A dreadful earthquake occurred shaking even the foundations under his feet, but again, the Lord was not in the earthquake.
(3) A sudden fire followed, but this too did not announce the presence nor the activity of the Lord. Still, the Lord was not there. “All of these physical phenomena were known to be precursors of God’s coming or presence” (Ex. 19:16, 18; Jud. 4:4-5; 2 Sam. 22:8-16; Ps. 18:7-15; 68:8; Heb. 12:18).34 But the fact God was not in any of them was tremendously significant.
(4) After the fire, Elijah heard a gentle blowing, a faint whisper, a quiet voice, hushed and low. “Elijah knew it instantly (vs. 13a). It was God! What a lesson for Elijah! Even God did not always operate in the realm of the spectacular!”35
In fact, the miraculous and the spectacular are the exception, even in the Bible. I believe the still small voice portrays the work and power of God in His inspired Word, the Scripture which is itself alive and powerful, a spectacular and miraculous book in that it is God breathed and infallible. And would you note that it is this that aroused Elijah and brought him out of the cave where he could have fellowship with the Lord, hear His voice, and be restored. Out of reverence for God’s presence, Elijah pulled his mantel over his face and went out of the cave.
What was Elijah to learn from this? What’s the lesson of God’s absence in the spectacular, but His presence in the small, low voice? God’s primary vehicle for changing people and bringing reformation and revival is not the miraculous, the sensational, and spectacular like Israel experienced on Mount Carmel. It is God’s voice speaking to people as He did in olden days through the prophets and the Old Testament and now to us in the complete inspired Word through the ministry of the Spirit of God (cf. Luke 16:27-31; 2 Pet. 1:1-21; Heb. 1:1-3). The Bible is called the Word of God because it is His voice, not in audible sounds, but in the words of the pages of Scripture. And when we hear it preached and taught (so far as what is preached and taught is true to the text of the Bible) we are hearing the voice of God that effectually works in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13).
If people will not respond to the Word that is alive and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, they are not going to respond even if someone comes back from the grave and tells them about hell (Luke 16:31). Certainly, many people are impressed by the miraculous and seek the sensational and the spectacular, but generally, that’s not what changes lives.
This four-fold manifestation of God was given with these four-fold phenomena to show God honors and works through the message of His Word, that He cares for his people who share His Word, and that it will not return to Him void. Either, it will bring judgment on those who spurn it, or it will result in positive spiritual fruit for those who believe and respond to it. The following sequel of events clearly demonstrate this fact of Scripture.
Again in verse 13, Elijah is faced with the divine question, a voice comes to him asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” But again in verse 14 his reply was the same. How slow we are to learn and how deep seated our feelings of rejection and hurt become established. We keep clinging to them as our way of escape and defense. Remember, depression that is not caused by physical problems, is one of our methods of escape. It is a human strategy for dealing with pain and disappointment. The irony is we seem to be more willing to depend on it as a solution than we are to trust the Lord.
Here the Lord, in the low, still, small voice of divine revelation to the prophet, explains and reveals the truth of the power of the Word that brings judgment on those who reject it, and blessing to those who believe it. Elijah is told to anoint three people and each one acts as an agent of divine judgment or blessing.
(1) The strong wind may be a figure of the work of judgment which Hazael of Syria would perform in Israel (2 Kgs. 8:12 and 10:32-36).
(2) The earthquake may be a figure of judgment and revolution under Jehu that would destroy the house of Ahab (2 Kgs. 9:1-10).
(3) The fire may be a picture of the work of judgment completed by Elisha, Elijah’s successor (1 Kgs. 19:17).
The call of Elisha, a young man available and positive to the Word and the Lord, and the 7,000 who had not bowed to Baal illustrate the other side of the coin. It showed Elijah that his ministry had not been in vain and that God’s Word does not return void no matter how things may look to us. The nation would not be totally exterminated and there were those who would carry on the work of the Lord.