Elijah part 3 - ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’, 1 Kgs 19. 1-21.
Graeme Hutchinson, Moneyreagh
Elijah’s ministry took him on an emotional roller-coaster. He scaled heights (literally and spiritually) that few achieve, and he was remarkably courageous in his service. But he also knew what it was to be despondent, particularly with little evidence that his work had any lingering impact on the nation. With such ‘ups-and-downs’, Elijah remains an endearing Bible character. He is, after all, ‘a man subject to like passions as we are’, Jas. 5. 17.
Following his exploits on Mount Carmel, Elijah is found in his own ‘slough of despond’. The prophet is given a message from Queen Jezebel that breathed hatred and opposition, 1 Kgs. 19. 2. She was committed to destroying Elijah in the same manner as he had dealt with the false prophets of Baal, 18. 40. In the New Testament, this brazen and idolatrous Queen would become known as a synonym for sin.1 But Ahab was also guilty. He failed to discern the true power on Mount Carmel – notice how his summary centred on Elijah and not Jehovah, 19. 1. The prophet had clearly attributed the miracles to Jehovah,2 but Ahab, as with sinners generally, was blind to the truth.3 These actions are deplorable but, sad to say, understandable. They spring from hearts that were deceitful and wicked, Jer. 17. 9. However, it is the reaction of Elijah that is more difficult to comprehend. In response to the threat from Jezebel, he fled for his life, 1 Kgs. 19. 3. Whereas his earlier movements had been directed by Jehovah,4 we read of no divine command for Elijah to retire to Beersheba.
It has been said that Bible characters often fail in their strongest virtue. Abram’s confidence in God was certainly not as strong as it should have been when, in the face of famine, he departed for Egypt, Gen. 12. 10. David’s love for God was momentarily displaced by Bathsheba, 2 Sam. 11. 2. Here, Elijah, the man of courage, feared for his life when threatened by Jezebel. This is a sobering lesson for believers today. If great men of God fail then no believer is immune to failure. As A W Pink remarks of Elijah, ‘Though a man of God, he is a man and not an angel’.5
Along with his servant, Elijah fled south to Judah, 1 Kgs. 19. 3. Following a day’s journey on his own the Bible narrative depicts a melancholic and depressed servant, v. 4, but one who ultimately received divine comfort, vv. 5-8. There are important lessons. Notice, for example, the timing. The disturbed mind of the prophet follows a particularly busy period of ministry in the preceding chapters. Often the mountain-top experience (when we fellowship with God) is followed by the valley (when we return to earth with a bump!). The disciples of the Lord had a similar experience when the glory they observed on the mount was immediately followed by a painful display of their own inadequacies.6 It was under a tree that Elijah uttered the words – ‘it is enough’, v. 4 – and he prayed for the Lord to take his life. In contrast, it was upon a tree that the Saviour cried ‘it is finished’ and He gave His life to bear away the sin of the world, John 19. 30.
We can safely assume that Elijah was, at this point, marked by tiredness. Having journeyed from Jezreel to Beersheba (approximately 150 miles) and then into the wilderness, the prophet would have been physically exhausted. For us, it is important that the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 6. 19, is given the necessary periods of rest and recuperation.7 Elijah’s physical condition may also, in part, explain his state of mind. He was naturally disappointed at the lack of spiritual revival in Israel; frustrated that Jezebel wielded such influence in the palace, and vulnerable that he was seemingly alone in his service for God, 1 Kgs. 19. 10, 14. No matter what lay within his mind, the desire for spiritual revival had not materialized, and Elijah therefore considered himself as no better than his predecessors, v. 4. But note the therapy. God met the need of His servant by providing sleep and food. On this occasion the food was provided by an angel – perhaps an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ, vv. 5-7, rather than a bird, 17. 4, or a widow woman, 17. 9. The provision was also sufficient, for it enabled Elijah to undertake an extended journey to Horeb, 19. 8. Many believers today face problems that render them dejected and depressed. We can take heart that we serve the God of Elijah; we change but He cannot! The help given to Elijah may be our portion today, for He ‘is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’, Eph. 3. 20.
With his arrival at Horeb, Elijah may have recalled an earlier incident in the Old Testament, Exod. 3. 1, 12. Certainly, his experiences in the cave, 1 Kgs. 19. 9, 13, when God displayed His presence, are similar to that of Moses in Exodus chapter 33 verses 21-23. What, then, are the characteristics of this counselling session? What principles can we apply when we encounter believers in their own slough of despond? Below are some of the more general approaches we may adopt, but the ultimate help for any troubled believer remains the Lord and His word.
- Sensitive. The Lord allowed Elijah to recuperate physically, 1 Kgs. 19. 4-8, before He called him to a more focused and intense session of spiritual education, vv. 9-18. We too need to be sensitive to the needs of other believers and not chide them with misguided accusations of weakness.
- One-to-One. It was not without significance that Elijah was physically fed and spiritually nurtured when he was alone. There was certainly very little chance of disturbance on Mount Horeb! If we are to help others, then it is important that we give that which is often the most costly to us – our time and undivided attention.
- Conversational. Twice over Elijah was asked a leading question, ‘what doest thou here,’ vv. 9, 13. It would appear that the query served a two-fold purpose. Firstly, to enquire why Elijah was found away from his field of service. Secondly, it enabled the prophet to open up and talk freely about his concerns. Often a listening ear is the best we can offer the believer who is downcast, Jas. 1. 19.
- Patient. Elijah spoke of being alone in his service for God, 1 Kgs. 19. 10, 14, but this was a distorted view of life. What about Obadiah, 18. 3, the prophets in the cave, v. 4, or the repentant Israelites on Carmel, 18. 39? Elijah’s viewpoint certainly required correction. Notice that it was corrected, but only at the very end of the recorded dialogue, and, even then, the words were gentle, 19. 18. If God is marked by patience (Rom. 15. 5, where the term means continuance or endurance) then so too should His children.
- Enlightening. The session allowed Elijah to deepen his understanding of God. Previously, divine power had been displayed via the miraculous (like a strong wind, earthquake and fire, 1 Kgs. 18. 38), but Elijah was to learn that equally God can work through a ‘still small voice’, 19. 11-12. That was how the house of Ahab was eventually destroyed – through the divine word spoken to Elijah, his successor (Elisha), and an anointed King.8 In helping other believers, we should endeavour to help them deepen their grasp of God and His word.
- Helpful. Often the best antidote to melancholy is work. Hence, Elijah was instructed to leave Horeb and return north to continue his service, vv. 15-18. In helping others (to help themselves), we can point to the various and numerous tasks associated with the assembly.
Elijah obeyed the word of God, and travelled north to encounter his protégé, Elisha, as the latter worked in a field, vv. 19-21. The prophet had earlier expressed feelings of isolation, vv. 10, 14, but God tenderly provided a companion in a timely and gracious manner. Again, as A. W. Pink remarks, ‘What comfort for the Tishbite now to have for his companion one so dutiful and affectionate disposition; and what a privilege for this young man to be under so eminent a tutor’.9 One of the many blessings of assembly fellowship is that we have a continual reminder that we are not alone in our service for God. That is one reason why we should be present when the assembly gatherings take place, Heb. 10. 25-26. Regarding Elisha, the passage reveals a commendable attitude, for he was found working in the field to reap the benefits of the God-given rain (that fell in 1 Kings chapter 18 following the lengthy period of drought). The disciples that the Lord would call prior to His earthly ministry were also active in their field of secular work, Mark 1. 16, 19. There can be no excuse for slothfulness or inaction by the believer. Indeed, regarding Elisha, his affluence (possessing twelve yoke of oxen) was not used as an excuse for inactivity, for he was found working ‘with the twelfth’, 1 Kgs. 19. 19. However, the secular responsibilities of Elisha were superseded by an additional assignment, for Elijah passed his mantle to him – he was now called to the prophetic office of which the mantle was an outward sign, v. 19.10 Before leaving, Elisha displayed affection for his parents and, with his embrace, he showed an altogether different character than the idolaters in Israel who had happily kissed the idol Baal.11 The chapter concludes with two important actions. Initially, Elisha provided a meal for the people (using his ploughing instruments as material for the fire, to show that he was wholly committed to his new responsibilities) and then he commenced his ministry to Elijah, v. 21. The dates in the Newberry Bible suggest that this phase of Elisha’s life was to last 10 years and, no doubt, he received vital lessons that proved essential when he became the principal prophet in Israel.
- Compare Rev. 2. 20.
- 1 Kgs. 18. 36-37.
- Compare 2 Cor. 4. 4.
- 1 Kgs. 17. 3, 8; 18. 1, 36.
- Pink A. W., The Life of Elijah, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1997, pg. 200.
- Mark 9. 1-24
- Compare Ps. 127. 2; Mark 6. 31.
- Jehu, 2 Kgs. 9. 1-10; 10. 1-17.
- Pink A. W., The Life of Elijah, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1997, pg. 251.
- Compare Zech. 13. 4.
- Compare verse 18 with verse 20.