2. The Man Elijah (1 Kings 17:1)
In our first lesson on Elijah, we looked at the historical setting that formed the spiritual and moral environment into which Elijah was called of God to minister. It was a time when the foundations of law and order were being systematically dismantled. It was a time when the righteous might well ask as in Psalm 11:3, “When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” From this Psalm, we saw our response of faith is not to run and hide. Rather, we need desperately to follow examples like David, Elijah and Elisha. We need to learn from their lives and be encouraged so that, as David answered this question in Psalm 11:4, we can live in light of the fact; “The LORD is in His holy temple; the LORD’S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.” This challenges us to remember the fact that God is not indifferent to people and nations. As the Almighty, He deals with us accordingly. We need to know and rest in the truth of Psalm 33. Note particularly verses 12-22.
We obviously deplore what we are seeing in our nation and in the world. Indeed, conditions are becoming more grotesque every day. It seems that each day brings some tragedy or disaster: murder, serial killings, mass killings, nation-wide corporate fraud--evidence of moral breakdown and rejection of our Christian heritage. But this is the day in which we live. As it was with Elijah, so God has called us to serve Him and minister to others in times like these.
In this lesson we see Elijah’s appearance and dramatic declaration to King Ahab. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning out of the dark clouds of Israel’s spiritual decline, Elijah appears on the scene. Standing before Ahab, probably in the palace itself, he bravely proclaimed God’s message of judgment to the spineless king. And this was undoubtedly done in the presence of the murderous Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.
The Man Elijah
Elijah’s Obscure Beginning
“Now Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead . . .” (vs. 1a). Notice how Elijah just suddenly appears on the scene. We are told little about him. Much like Melchizedek, he simply emerges out of obscurity from the standpoint of the record of Scripture. Nothing is mentioned about his parents, his ancestry, training, or early life. He is simply called “the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead.” In other words, he was not on Israel’s “Who’s Who” list. He was known as a prophet, as the account that follows suggests. However, Scripture places very little emphasis on his background.
This reminds us that, other than being godly people of faith who are available to be used of God, it is never really who and what we are that count. Here was a man who was close to God, a man to whom God was very real and God used Him. In the final analysis, what really matters is who and what God is. Knowing who God is should strengthen our faith in Him so that it affects what we are, what we say, and what we do.
By contrast, it seems people always want to know, “Who are you?” “Who is he or she?” People can look at their accomplishments, as Nebuchadnezzar did (Dan. 4:30), and proudly credit them to their own brilliance. On the other hand, as Moses did at the call of God (Ex. 3:11), we often tend to think despairingly, “Who am I?” In each case, this kind of thinking puts the focus on us, rather than on the sovereign LORD upon whom we are totally dependent and who is always able to do super abundantly above all that we are able to ask or even think.
Remember John the Baptist, Elijah’s New Testament counterpart? He was asked, “Who are you?” His answer was, “I am just a voice!” He was emphasizing he was merely an instrument of the living God who was there to help them recognize and believe in the living and true God. We need to also remember what the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians who were so focused on human personalities (1 Cor. 3:4-9; and 4:1-5).
How we need the attitudes of John the Baptist and Paul. We tend to be so people-oriented and go to one of two extremes. Either we run and hide from ministry and witness because we have our eyes on our limitations and on the problems we are facing. Or we do the opposite and glory in personalities rather than in the power and presence of the Almighty.
Elijah is the Hebrew Eliyahu that means “My God is Yahweh.” Note several things: In Elijah’s name, given to him perhaps by a godly parent, we can see how the sovereign providence of God is often at work in the historical circumstances of our lives. God picked out, raised up, and used a man whose very name was significant to the religious climate of his day and the contest that would follow. The nation was following after Baal who was, of course, no god at all. Elijah boldly appeared and proclaimed the true God of Israel, Yahweh, who was His God. This proclamation was the point of Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 18:36-37. As the months rolled by after Elijah’s declaration of no rain, whenever people saw or thought of Eliyahu, they were faced with the message of his name, “My God is Yahweh.” In other words, my God is Yahweh, not Baal. The prophet’s name, therefore, declared something of who he was. It was a standing declaration of his faith in that it demonstrated his protest against Baalism, his allegiance to God, and the key issue of the day as it is today--who or what is our God?
This challenges me to ask some questions such as:
(1) Who and what is my God? Do we claim faith in the God of the Bible, but live like practical atheists? Is God really our God from the standpoint of our treasures, attitudes, priorities, pursuits and behavior? Or are we guilty of worshipping other gods like the gods of materialism and the details of life? Is there a way we can tell? Of course! What’s really important to me? How committed am I to getting alone with God so I really get to know Him? Do I allow Him to completely rearrange, redirect, channel, and use me in the issues and needs of our day, and in the lives of others around me?
(2) What is my name? In other words, who am I? Like Elijah, God has created each of us for a purpose. We are each unique with unique potential and opportunities limited only by our attitude, our faith, our awareness of God, and our availability to Him. Let us dream big because we have a big God! Let’s ask the Lord to show us the potential of ministry around us, and to cause us to see the opportunities through the potential of His life and power. We need eyes to see the fields that are white unto harvest (cf. John 4:35) while I pray focused on the Lord of the harvest (Luke 10:2).
Elijah’s Description and Locality
Elijah is called “the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead.” He is so called because he was likely from a town called Tishbe in upper Galilee known to us from the Apocryphal book of Tobit 1:2. One source says that “Tishbe” means “captivity.” It certainly is a derivative of shabah, meaning “to take captive.” In view of God’s warnings in Deuteronomy 28:15-37, this could have stood as a warning of eventual captivity if Israel refused to repent and turn to the Lord. He is called “Elijah, the Tishbite” six times and was well known by this title (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:1; 21:17, 28; 2 Kgs. 1:3, 8; 9:36).
This suggests the title was significant. Scholars debate the exact location of Tishbe. If Tishbe is a town, then he was born in Tishbe, but became an inhabitant of Gilead, perhaps by choice. We are not told why, but since “the settlers of Gilead” really means “the sojourners of Gilead,” it may declare something about Elijah’s character and relationship to God. The name Gilead means “a rocky region” and refers to a mountainous area east of the Jordan that was comparatively uninhabited. It was an area well adapted for spending time alone with God. The phrase is certainly suggestive of his lifestyle as a sojourner, as one whose focus was on the things of God.
Why is Gilead mentioned? Gilead demonstrates the historical reality of Elijah and throws additional light on Elijah’s background. This gives us more insight into the forces forming the character of the prophet. How should we understand and apply this? It shows us Elijah was not out of the seminary of Samaria. The people of the rocky hill country of Gilead were rough, tough, rugged, and perhaps somewhat solemn and stern. They dwelt close to God’s creation in crude villages as shepherds rather than in the lavish surroundings of the palace. Such surroundings tend to spoil people’s character and make them soft rather than tough and rugged. The people of Gilead were hardened and disciplined by the weather and walking over the mountainous terrain. They possessed great physical strength, and such a life also gave them character. Remember the contrasts between David and Solomon? Elijah was what we could call a mountain man. But he was a mountain man who walked with God.
Just as David’s character was developed as a shepherd, so this tells us something about the character God had developed in Elijah. He had developed the character of a sojourner, one who was separated from the lifestyle of his day. He was a man with a light grip on the details of life; a man willing and able to pick up and go if God said to go. He was not bogged down, chained by his comfort zones or by a desire for the material details of life.
Like John the Baptist, he was a man of the desert. Being a desert man he was free from those things in society that so often dominate our hearts and keep us from being free to follow the Lord. This suggests he had denied himself the right to control his own life and, by faith, had submitted to God’s control. The result was a man totally dedicated to God and His service. He was a man of character and strength both physically and spiritually.
Shouldn’t we ask ourselves some tough questions like: (a) How much have I been softened and negatively affected by the comforts of our society? (b) How available am I to serve the Lord if it’s going to cause some kind of hardship or inconvenience? (c) Do I have the heart of a sojourner? Or do I have the heart of an earth dweller? (d) Am I more committed to my comfort and pleasure than I am to the Lord? (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13-2:12)
Elijah’s Attire and Appearance
Elijah stands in striking contrast to the Baal priests and the populace of the city in every way. His dress and appearance, though not mentioned here, are mentioned in 2 Kings 1:7-8. The way they are mentioned suggests the people were a little awed by the prophet’s distinctive looks and manner. He wore a garment of black camel’s hair girded with a leather belt about his waist to hold in his garment for freer movement. This was to become the official dress of a prophet (Zech. 13:4) and stood in striking contrast to the affluent inhabitants of Samaria, and especially the Baal priests.
His dress was symbolic and stood for: (a) His chosen poverty and priorities--material things were not on his priority list. (b) His separation and denouncement of the world--he was not controlled by the lifestyle of the world. He was separated to the Lord as God’s servant. (c) His official office and purpose in life--he was a proclaimer of the Word of Yahweh. He knew who he was (God’s representative), where he was (in a sinful world that stood opposed to the purposes of God) and why he was there (to give out God’s message of light to people in darkness). What a contrast Elijah must have been to the people in the rich luxurious city of Samaria, especially the effeminate, perverted Baal priests. Edersheim tells us they wore white linen gowns, high pointed bonnets, and lived on the delicacies of the palace.6
This rugged mountain man, dressed in his camel’s hair garment, was the sight that people saw striding down the streets of Samaria, up the steps of the palace right into the throne room and presence of Ahab and Jezebel. Can’t you picture him as a kind of Grizzly Adams or a rugged Abraham Lincoln? I am sure no soldier, priest, citizen, or member of Israel’s secret police dared stand in his way.
Elijah’s dress and lifestyle demonstrated his separation and devotion to the Lord. It teaches us that spiritual priorities and values controlled his life. He was a man who was truly free because he was free to follow the Lord. When, in our attempt to be free or do as we please, we rebel against the Lord’s authority and control of our lives, we experience a sad irony. We become slaves of our own desires and become what Peter describes as “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19).
Elijah’s Interview With the King
Elijah’s appearance was dramatic and sudden. His message was short, direct, and somewhat curt. Elijah did not follow the political protocol of the day. He did not come bowing and scraping. He was not full of pious platitudes in order to get the king in the mood for what he had to say. He leveled with Ahab. He laid it on the line and then left just as suddenly as he had come. He said there would be neither dew nor rain for years except by his word. Surely this was added to stress the impotence of the Baal prophets against the Lord whom Elijah represented. An appearance and message like this fit the circumstance that demanded judgment on an apostate king and his people. It was really the proclamation of God’s judgment as warned in the Old Testament (Lev. 26:19; Deut. 11:16-17; 28:23-24; Amos 4:7).
Elijah was not a man of many words; but he was a man of much faith. He was a man of action because he was also a man of prayer and the Word. His words were few and always to the point, but with them there was always implicit faith in the Lord his God. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise.”
What effect did Elijah’s pronouncement have upon the King? What was King Ahab’s answer? I believe it is significant that Scripture is silent here. Why? Perhaps because it demonstrates how the promises and warnings of God’s Word always take precedence over man’s response or opinions. God’s Word is true regardless of how people respond or react. Mankind or our self-made gods are absolutely powerless to negate God’s purposes.
Elijah’s Spiritual Aptitude or Bent
In Elijah we see a man of courage and faith, a man available to the Lord and one willing to count for God when the foundations were crumbling all around him. Where did his faith, courage, and commitment come from? Was it because of his particular aptitude for spiritual things? Did he have a corner on spirituality? In other words, was he innately different from you and me?
When we read about someone like Elijah, we want so very much to believe such people are inherently different because it soothes our consciences and gives us an excuse for being mediocre or run-of-the-mill. We think it excuses us from tackling tough things for God. However, James 5:16b-17 blows that theory wide open. First, James calls our attention to the fact that the faithful prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much and be used dramatically for God (vs. 16b). Then he reminds us that Elijah was a man with a nature just like ours!
Elijah’s dynamic living, his courageous ministry and effectiveness against all odds was not the result of certain innate super-duper qualities, nor was it in the absence of personal weaknesses, temptation, failure, nor even fear. While Elijah was spiritually head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, he was at the same time normal and average from the standpoint of innate or natural qualities and abilities. Elijah possessed a sinful nature just like ours with weaknesses, fears and doubts. He faced the “I can’ts,” the “I don’t feel like it” syndrome just like everyone else. In fact, his humanness will clearly emerge later in the record of his life and ministry (chapter 19). But, by the strength of God through faith, Elijah rose above his weaknesses through the divine resources at his disposal. The same resources are available to us in the Lord in even more abundant ways in New Testament times through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
It’s never seeing the difficulties that prevent faithful action, but failing to see our resources in the Lord. It’s the failure to live by faith and to stay focused on the Lord.
Application and Conclusion
We are living in a time when the foundations are being systematically destroyed. We see the decadent results of a nation that has turned away from the moral absolutes of the Word and our Christian heritage. In its place we have turned to the relativism of secular humanism with its evolutionary foundation. Many have opted for a New Age philosophy. As a result, we live in a time that is growing in hostility to the true God and to those who want to follow the God of the Bible.
The results are everywhere evident in the decline we see in government, education, the work place, the state of our economy, in the home, in entertainment, and in the church. We find that many churches are apathetic to the Word and the ministry to which God has called us. I recently heard of a church that specializes in making people laugh. They actually have a comedian for a pastor. Their attitude is “why bore people to death with the Bible?”
The divorce rate, drugs, crime in the streets, in corporate America and in our government, the violence we see in our society even among small children, the rise of a militant gay movement, and the rise of the occult and the cults give us a frightful and grisly picture. It’s scary and depressing.
How do we react or respond to these conditions in our society? We hear and say things like, “Isn’t it just awful. I think it’s just terrible. What are things coming to? But what can I do about it? I am just one voice. I am nobody important. I can’t preach or teach. I am just a little old lady, a carpenter, plumber, accountant, school teacher, or a … (you fill in the blank).
Sometimes we think if we only had so and so’s brains, money, IQ, memory, personality, or if we had his position or were as articulate as he is, then maybe we could do something. Excuses like these stem partly from the hero mentality we too often use as an escape from responsibility. This mentality says we must have money, reputation or position, etc. to really count for God. But Elijah had none of that, did he?
Like the 7,000 of Elijah’s day who were hiding in caves to escape persecution, we tend to crawl off into the cave of our “business as usual” routine, or into our particular strategy by which we seek to become narcotized to the problems. Then, out of our minds and mouths flow a river of typical human excuses--enough excuses to lose our nation.
Elijah is God’s commentary against the excuses and fears that so often paralyze us. As we have seen, He had none of the so-called advantages of the world. So, what made him tick? What made him such a powerful tool for the Lord? What gave him his courage, and how can we tap in on what he had so God can use us in the way and to the degree He desires?
Our next lesson will not only show us what Elijah proclaimed, but it will give us insight into what made him the kind of man God could use.
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