1 KINGS 17, 18 and 19
Today’s the day of the big showdown: Elijah’s God versus Ahab’s god! The arrival of Elijah on the scene is a bit mysterious – in 1 Kings 17 he just appears and starts speaking. His name means ‘The Lord is my God’ and the essence of his message was the same. It was a very brave decision by his parents – during a time of intense persecution by the Baal-worshiping religious establishment – to give their son that name; the bullying would have started during his childhood and just continued as he became a man. He obviously had a lot to thank his godly parents for – and their lack of a mention in scripture is no reflection on God’s opinion of them!
“It won’t rain until I say so” – declared Elijah, speaking on behalf of the Lord whom he served wholeheartedly. This act of judgment from God was sent in an effort to turn the Northern nation back to him; droughts were always seen as a signal of divine disapproval and in this case – with Baal being the Canaanite deity of fertility, rain clouds and thunder – it was a declaration of the Lord’s supremacy too.
Elijah, having made his declaration to Ahab, then made himself scarce! Ahab’s mood would have changed from patronising mockery of Elijah and his God, to anxious realisation, to anger and then to panic as the truth dawned that this prophecy was for real. The prophet was himself severely affected by the drought he’d foretold, more so than the cosseted Ahab, in fact. But he placed his faith in the guidance of the Lord and was lavishly and supernaturally fed and watered by the Lord’s provision.
Later, he moved from the south-east (Judah) to the north-west of the country, to the centre of the territory ruled by Jezebel’s father, and therefore the centre of Baal worship. God was positioning him to begin the ‘showdown’ between the true and false faiths. He submitted to being dependent for food on a pagan woman and was able to reciprocate the kindness by performing two vital and spectacular miracles in order to meet her needs. As she gave all the bread she had to the Lord’s prophet, she received abundance of food in return from the prophet’s Lord! This is a feature of our covenant with the Lord; we give all the little we have – our time, our efforts, our allegiance – and we receive in return all that that has.
After the three years’ drought were up, God sent Elijah to present himself to Ahab again. Not only had the famine become severe, but so had the persecution of the true prophets and believers in the Lord – possibly partly as revenge for the drought. Jezebel’s motive for hunting them down and killing them was probably also to please Baal and persuade him to send rain. Elijah met Ahab, rebuked him for abandoning the Lord and worshiping Baal, and challenged Ahab’s prophets of Baal to a final test of strength against Elijah and his God. “How long will you waver (or ‘dance’) between two opinions?” is the rebuke he later shouted at all the people. The action that follows is well-known. After letting the opposition expend all their energies in a fruitless exercise of shouting, it was evident that – as the bible says – “no-one answered, no on paid attention”. Idols are ‘nothings’ and so ‘nothing’ is what you get for bowing down to them.
Symbolically, Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord with 12 stones – one for each tribe – and then he made sure that there was no chance of a fire happening by natural means. When the time of the Lord’s sacrifice arrived, he prayed a very simple prayer of faith and in response the fire fell from heaven and accepted his sacrifice, along with the wood, the stones, the soil, and the water! It convinced the crowd, who were suddenly galvanised to choose the winning side and return to the Lord – obeying Elijah’s command to deal with the prophets of Baal. Repentance having been made, Elijah prayed to God to lift the covenant curse and soon the rain clouds were appearing; as it started to fall, Elijah ran ahead of Ahab, overtaking him in his chariot by the power of the Lord.
All great revivals take their toll on those who serve God. Elijah was tired, hungry, had just run at least 16 miles at full sprint, and was spiritually exhausted after the day’s showdown. Then Jezebel – angry that her god had lost the battle – threatened him with certain death. Elijah was a man just like us – as the Book of James tell us – and he had the same weaknesses and fears that we have; so he was afraid of this threat and ran for his life to asylum the southernmost city in Judah. He sat down, depressed, and physically ‘finished’, and soon fell asleep. God sent an angel twice to feed and strengthen him, and guided him to Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, where the covenant had first been given through Moses.
Here, the Lord reminded his servant of the greatness of the covenant and twice asked Elijah the question: “What are you doing here?”. It almost seemed like a counselling session! God continued: “Go back the way you came…”, which phrase, for some of us today, is a necessary repentance! If the direction you are heading in is not producing fruit for the Lord, then perhaps you are travelling the wrong way! Back to Elijah: as part of God’s ‘therapy’ he gave his servant some specific jobs to do and encouraged him that he was not alone but had great support. Actually, it was his new companion, servant and disciple, Elisha, who did the two anointings of the kings.
What Elijah did do was to seek out Elisha and to appoint him as his successor. The first step that Elisha had to learn in this new discipleship programme was how to serve; you hear very little from Elisha until Elijah’s ministry had ended – but then you realise how well Elijah had discipled him!