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Introduction and Historical Setting for Elijah

Introduction

The story of Elijah and the nation of Israel is heroic narrative built around the exploits of the main character, Elijah. It is the story of a man raised up by God in a time of conflict in his community, in a time of spiritual and moral degeneracy. He was there to bring the nation back to God, to turn them from their idolatry to a vital faith in the true God, the God of Israel and the Bible.

In heroic narrative, the story focuses on the protagonist, the central figure or hero and his conflicts and encounters as the story moves toward the goal of the narrative. The goal of the narrative and the high point of the story is found for us in 1 Kings 18, the challenge and contest with the prophets of Baal before the people on Mount Carmel.

The purpose of this high mark in the story is spelled out for us in two verses, 18:21 and 18:37. Chapter 17 is the preparation for this event. It is showing us God’s preparation of Elijah and the nation for what will happen on Mount Carmel. Then chapter 19 is the aftermath--the effects of this event on the nation and on Elijah, the hero.

What we must not miss is the fact that the hero or heroine of heroic narrative is a representative person. In other words, the story and its hero capture the universal human situation. The historian tells us what happened, but literary narrative in the Bible tells us more. It shows us what happens in life.1 The hero, then, becomes a model, an example for faith, for spiritual experience and life, and the conflict he is in becomes an illustration of what we face in life.

Values and virtues, failures and weaknesses, strengths and abilities of the hero and the conflicts he and his society faced show us this is the way life is. They reveal what we need to know, to appropriate, and to avoid as we live in our society.

Thinking about the impact the life of Elijah should have on us in the day in which we live, I am reminded of Psalm 11:3 which asks an important question. “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The question was being asked of David by his friends and is another heroic narrative of Scripture. This question forms a fitting introduction for the study of Elijah. The NIV translates this: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Or “what is the righteous one doing?” David’s friends had become fainthearted and depressed over national conditions. They were suggesting that David should flee to the mountain where he fled from Saul (Ps. 11:1). The question relates to a time when law and order were being destroyed. It may have been when Absolom, David’s own son, was seeking to usurp his throne. Or as some suggest, it may have been when Saul was seeking to kill David. Regardless, the foundations refer to the law and order of society based on the Lord’s protective rule through the absolutes of the Word.

This asks a question we are facing in our nation today because our country is under the countdown with its foundations being destroyed by godless humanism. David’s answer is given in Psalm 11:4-7. In short, David’s focus was on the Lord. He contrasted the problems on earth with the sovereign and exalted position of the Lord who sits in heaven, the place of authority and power.2

The sovereign Lord sits on His heavenly throne, not indifferently, but observantly. He is working out His purposes on earth. Though transcendent, God is also intimately and immanently involved with mankind, especially those who trust Him. David then reminds us that while the Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, He never forsakes the righteous who can, by faith, behold His face and thus experience His strength and courage. The righteous can experience His peace now in the midst of any situation and will one day experience His presence and blessings in God’s eternal kingdom.

Second Chronicles 7:13-14 reminds us of another privilege and responsibility:

If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

First Chronicles 12 also tells us of another serious time in David’s history when the foundations of the nation were crumbling. As 1 Samuel 26:20 puts it, David was being chased by Saul like a partridge on a mountain. During this time some of God’s people did something else. “Day by day {men} came to David to help him, until there was a great army like the army of God” (1 Chr. 12:22). These men joined together to form a band of men who would stand against the times they were facing. Included among these were the sons of Issachar of whom was said: “Men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32).

What does this mean to us in our day? The righteous need to know what to do and then do it because they know and believe that God sits in the heavens observantly. Withdrawing, becoming bitter, angry, depressed, diseased in our attitudes, or seeking sinful ways of escape is not what the righteous should do.

I am reminded of what Daniel said about those who truly know God. Daniel 11:32 refers to the godless, humanistic mind-set and activity of the last days, especially in the days of the Tribulation. Satan will promote and use this humanistic and demonic mind-set to advance his end-time system and the Man of Lawlessness (the Antichrist). The objective will be to turn people away from God and His covenant promises in the Savior. But Daniel 11:32b tells us even then, as bad as that will be, God will have His remnant who know Him intimately. Regardless of the pressures, they will display strength and take action. We are getting a taste of this now, as Israel did in the time of Antiochus Epiphanies around 175-164 B.C.

You might ask, what does all this have to do with a study of Elijah? He too lived in dismal times. They were times of spiritual apostasy and moral decay. But we find in this colorful and powerful prophet a wonderful illustration of what the righteous should do when the foundations are destroyed. Elijah is one of the prominent figures in the Word of God. His significance is evidenced by over 20 direct references to him in the New Testament, and by his appearance in the transfiguration of the Lord with Moses, the great Law giver. However, to gain greater insight from the example of his life, we need to understand the historical setting in which this great man of God abruptly and suddenly appeared on the scene.

The Historical Setting

In the day in which Elijah lived and ministered, the foundations had crumbled far beyond what King David experienced in his day. As we study the Word, we must always remember that the Bible was written to and about living people in real life situations. It does not represent just a group of ethereal, religious, and proverbial sayings thought up by a group of religious hermits who were isolated from people and from life.

Rather, through the Bible as the Word of God, God has revealed Himself historically, setting forth His eternal truth to real people in real-life situations. Practically speaking, what does this mean? It means we dare not divorce our study from understanding the historical setting of every passage of Scripture if we are going to come to grips with the truth and message of the Bible. Much of its relevance and application to us personally in our need is derived from our understanding of the historical setting in which a passage is written. This is undoubtedly why many of the Psalms begin with a reference to some historical situation.

A Nation in Decay

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel record the establishment, consolidation, and extension of the Theocratic kingdom of God in the reigns of David and his son, Solomon. It was a glorious time--a time of great prosperity in the nation. This was the result of God’s blessing for obedience to the holy absolutes of His Word, or His covenant with Israel according to God’s purpose for the nation among the nations (cf. Ex. 19:4-6 with Deut. 4:6-11 and Deut. 28-30).

Though Solomon began well, about the middle of his reign he began to act foolishly. As is so often the case, in his spiritual decline, his country was gravely influenced as well. He brought upon himself the disfavor of God by permitting the thinking and customs of other nations to influence his decisions and manner of life. This situation developed as a result of the following:

(1) He allowed idolatry to invade his kingdom through foreign marriages, a practice forbidden by the Word (Deut. 17:14-20; Neh. 13:23-27). Marriages were commonly seals of foreign alliances. He had Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Zidonian, and Egyptian wives and this suggests alliances with all these nations.3

(2) Furthermore, he levied excessive taxes and labor constrictions on the people, without pay, because of his own selfish extravagances. These included some of the very things Deuteronomy 17 warns against. In other words, rather than remaining distinct and separate from the nations, Solomon became like the nations.

Leon Wood calls our attention to a marked contrast between the kingships of Solomon and his father David, a contrast created by the diverse backgrounds of the two rulers. It speaks volumes to us in our day of prosperity, softness, and moral breakdown.4

DAVID

SOLOMON

David had been raised in the open, watching sheep, and later experienced the testings of a fugitive life.

Solomon, however, had known only the ease of the palace, with its attendant luxuries.

David became a king of action, aggressive and efficient, who could personally lead armies to victory.

Solomon became a king of peace, happy to stay home and content merely to retain the land his father had gained.

David’s court never grew larger than the requirements of his government.

Solomon became lavish to suit his tastes and expensive appetites. As a result, he needed more revenue and raised taxes.

David was more a man of the people.

Solomon was a man of the court.

More significant, David maintained a vibrant faith in God as a “man after God’s own heart.”

Solomon, began well in spiritual devotion, but failed to maintain this basic relationship before God. He fell into sinful ways and finally came under God’s censure.

When Rehoboam, Solomon’s son took over the throne of his father, the ten tribes of Israel (all but Judah and Benjamin), sought a solution to this heavy taxation through the leadership of Jeroboam.

Rehoboam was a young man accustomed to extreme prosperity and luxury. Rather than cut back on the heavy taxation and labor constriction imposed by Solomon, he acted selfishly and foolishly. He refused the counsel of the older men to cut back, and threatened to increase taxes because he wanted to continue enjoying a lavish court. As a result, the ten tribes seceded immediately and there was a division of the kingdom.

Jeroboam then became king of the northern ten tribes of Israel. Rather than seeking the glory of God and the benefit of his people, he followed his own selfish agenda and committed gross sin in the sight of God. He established a substitute worship for his people, two new worship centers, one at Dan and another at Bethel. As symbols for the new places of worship, he made golden images of calves. His proposed aim was to worship Yahweh, but his real motive was political and selfish. He wanted to keep the people from going back to Jerusalem because of his fear they would eventually want to reunite into one kingdom. He put his own desires ahead of God’s will and the good of the people. Of course, this was in direct violation of the Law of Moses. It set the people up for religious syncretism of the true worship of God with the fertility cult of Baal. Without doubt, this new worship of Jeroboam paved the way for the introduction of Baal worship under Ahab and Jezebel in the time of Elijah.

In the southern kingdom of Judah, there were occasionally kings who did good in the sight of the Lord, like Uzziah and Hezekiah. In the northern kingdom, there were no good kings of whom it could be said in the record of Scripture, “they did that which was right in the sight of the Lord.” In fact, all eighteen of Jeroboam’s successors continued his substitute form of worship which God held against each as a serious sin. The descriptive sentence, “And he did evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of his father and in his sin which he made Israel sin,” is repeated with variations of most of Jeroboam’s descendants (1 Kgs. 15:26). Not only were these kings evil, but there was a continuous decline. Scripture indicates that the next king was worse than his father. There was continual spiritual and moral erosion, much as we have seen in our nation.

With the rise of Ahab in the time of Elijah, things had reached an all time low. Fifty-eight years had passed since the division of the kingdom. Seven kings had reigned and all were evil. All were idolatrous, but with Ahab idolatry reached an all-time high even to the point of seeking to stamp out the worship of Yahweh altogether. How? Why? Ahab married Jezebel, the famed princess from Tyre, daughter of Ethbaal, King of Tyre. Again, following the poor examples that preceded him, his aim was to seal a pact with Phoenicia for profitable political reasons. His trust was in his own schemes rather than in the Lord. The weak Ahab allowed Jezebel to introduce the worship of the satanic and idolatrous cult of Baal-Melqart into Israel. The worship of Baal, a Canaanite deity, had been observed by Israelites in the days of the Judges and before the establishment of the kingdom. David rid the land of this dirge, but now it was resurrected on a new scale, larger than ever, and this was done by the government, the king.

Likewise today, we have seen every conceivable cult introduced into our society along with the New Age movement. In many ways this too is being promoted by our government, while at the same time Christianity is hindered under the ploy of separation of church and state.

Not only was Jezebel persistent, but she was highly dominant and held a great amount of influence over Ahab. Jezebel did not want Baalism to coexist with the worship of Yahweh. She wanted to completely stamp out the worship of God. This is precisely the way Satan and his world system works. People are often broad-minded with the varying religions and philosophical ideas of the world, but never with the truth. Thus Jezebel slaughtered every prophet she could get her hands on (1 Kgs. 18:4). Today, humanism and the New Age movement would like nothing better than to stamp out Christianity because it stands in the way of Satan’s world wide purposes.

New Agers are not naive enough to believe that everyone will accept the dawn of this new day. Some will oppose the emerging New Order. For these, there is another solution: intimidation, starvation, and liquidation.

Make no mistake: if and when the New Order comes, it will not be because everyone will voluntarily fall in line. Those religions that will not accept the lie that man is God will be systematically eliminated by whatever means is necessary. In the New Age, disarmament will be the guise used to get the nations of the world to surrender their sovereignty to an authoritative global political machine, which will in turn use those weapons (if necessary) to force everyone, especially the religious objectors, to get on board with the new agenda.

Understand Satan’s methodology: there is a vast difference between his advertising and the product that the purchaser receives. George Orwell called it newsspeak. Talk about disarmament but plan to use weapons on those who refuse to accept your agenda. Campaign for individual freedom but plan to eliminate the freedom of those who don’t toe the line. Affirm the value of humanity while at the time you favor the systematic killing of the unborn and eventual death of millions.5

An Explanation of Baalism

Baal, a Semitic word that means “lord, master, or owner,” was the chief god worshipped by the Canaanites at the time of Israel’s entrance into the land. The head of the Canaanite pantheon of gods was called El, who was regarded as the father of 70 elim or gods. The most popular of these gods was called Baal.

Baal was the most popular because he was considered the god of fertility in all aspects of life--human, animal, and vegetable. Production and prosperity were dependent on Baal. The Ras Shamrah text, an important archaeological find, praises Baal as the god who has power over rain, wind, clouds, and therefore over fertility. Baal was also worshipped as the weather god, the god of storm, of rain and good crops. As you can see, this is very important to the background of 1 Kings 17-19 with the story of the drought and the contest on Mount Carmel.

Worship was localized so that each area worshipped its own Baal. A name from the city or place where Baal was being worshipped was frequently added. This resulted in a variety of names like Baal-Meon, Baal-Hermon, Baal-Hazor, Baal-Zebub, Baal-Marduk, and Baal-Peor. In Elijah’s time, Israel worshipped Baal-Melqart because this was the form of Baalism worshipped at Tyre. Jezebel, a Tyrian princess, introduced the worship of Baal-Melqart into Israel.

Baal worship included the following: (a) The offering of incense and burnt sacrifices (Jer. 7:9); (b) Sometimes the offering of human sacrifices (Jer. 19:5); (c) It especially included licentious sexual activity--including sodomy (cf. 1 Kgs. 14:23-24; 15:12; with 22:46).

The slaughter of innocent children and sodomy are sure indications that the foundations of a society have crumbled. We can obviously see the clear parallel to our country today with the very political gay movement and the slaughter of millions of unborn children (called fetuses by those who call themselves pro-choice). These are two terms designed to hide the fact they are killing babies in the womb and are really anti-life. Remember, in the Old Testament Pentateuch (which was the Bible of Elijah), God had a special purpose for Israel. God had promised blessing for obedience, but cursing for disobedience. The curses included shutting up the heavens and no rain meant no production (Deut. 11:8-17; 28:1f, 23-24).

An interesting historical reference is found in 1 Kings.16:32-34. First there is the statement of how Ahab provoked the LORD with his idolatry more than all the kings of Israel, This is followed with a seemingly out-of-place reference to the death of the two sons of Hiel who fortified Jericho. All this forms a fitting introduction to 1 Kings 17 and the appearance of Elijah. It was a reminder that God’s promises and warnings are true. They do come to pass. As Hiel had disregarded God’s sure curse on anyone who fortified Jericho (Josh. 6:26), so Israel had disregarded the promised discipline of God for disobedience (Deut. 11:8-17). Here God gave Israel a reminder to demonstrate emphatically that not only is God’s Word true, but God is involved in the life of the nations (including Israel), and Israel was ripe for judgment.

That’s not all. With Elijah’s sudden, dramatic, brave, bold entrance and declaration to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word,” we have a direct confrontation between Yahweh, the living and true God of Scripture, and Baal-Melqart, one of the heathen deities of ancient Babylon. This confrontation comes about through God’s prophet, Elijah, an obscure prophet who suddenly, like lightening out of the blue, confronted a godless Ahab.

God was dramatically challenging Baalism, or the belief of the people in Baal, on the very thing they worshipped Baal for--RAIN! On the one side there was Ahab the King, the ruthless and notorious Jezebel, the impotent and false god Baal, and the Baal priests and priestesses. On the other side was Yahweh and a single servant, the prophet Elijah, a man of faith, deeply committed to God. It was a question of authenticity and power.

Conclusion

As we dig into this story, please note that Elijah’s prayer for the cessation of rain in the land was according to the warnings of the Word. Elijah was not going out on a limb. He was acting on the promises, or in this case, the warnings and principles of the eternal Word of God. He knew God’s Word was true and he was standing firmly on the propositions of Scripture. Furthermore, this prayer for the cessation of rain was designed to bring Israel to repentance, to bring the nation back to Yahweh, the true God. Elijah burned with concern for God’s glory and for his nation. He was also available to the Lord to be used as part of God’s solution. Certainly, as Elijah faced the rigors and crumbling foundations of his day, he had his ups and downs as you and I do. It is through God’s work in Elijah, a man of like passions with us, that we can learn how to handle our ups and downs, fears, and times of discouragement in our day of fallen foundations. We can grasp something of what God is calling us to do.

Questions:

(1) Do we really know God in such a way that, as Daniel declared, we will display strength and take action?

(2) Are we willing to pray like Elijah and follow God’s direction? Or are we more concerned for our pleasure and business as usual than we are for God’s glory and revival in our nation?

(3) Are we willing to take a stand against the forces stacked against us because we are standing on the promises of God and resting in the assurance of His presence and provision regardless of how overwhelming the situation looks from our viewpoint?

(4) Are we like the men of Issachar, who joined with David to form an army of God in a time of national need to serve the Lord and their nation, because we understand the time and know what we should do?


1 For more on heroic narrative and the Bible as literature, see How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1984.

2 The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament Edition, John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, editors, Victor Books, electronic media.

3 Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1970, p. 293.

4 Ibid., p. 287.

5 Erwin W. Lutzer and John F. DeVries, Satan’s Evangelistic Strategy for this New Age, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1989, p. 151.

Related Topics: Character Study