We can draw several lessons from the prophet Elijah's experience recorded in I Kings 19, particularly his belief that he was the only one left whom God could use. First, no matter how bleak a situation appears, God always has far more taking place under His guidance than we are aware. Elijah succumbed to the satanic thought that, without him, God's purpose would fail, yet God had servants known only to Himself. Even our most expansive concept of God is still woefully narrow, and it narrows even more when we replace thoughts of God with thoughts of ourselves.
A second lesson is the danger of taking God's silence, or even God's answer, as God's approval. God says in Psalm 50:21, "These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought that I was altogether like you." Neither God's silence nor even His activity is a precise indicator of what He is actually in or for—what He is genuinely pleased with. God performed miracles for Elijah, but I Kings 19:11-12 relates that His approach differs from Elijah's, who had a penchant for the dramatic. God performed mighty demonstrations of His raw power on the mountain where Elijah had taken refuge, but He was not truly in those things. This fact is why continually seeking God's will is so important for His servants, for the way something is done is as important as what is accomplished.
We have a saying today, "It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission," which describes a pragmatic approach that focuses on the end, the goal, with little thought given to the means. It can be quite effective in getting things done on a human level, but when we are serving God, it is unwise. God gave Elijah leeway in doing what needed to be done, and He backed His servant, but He was not in all that took place.
The Bible makes no mention of Elijah seeking God's will in what he did on Mount Carmel. Elijah indeed got things done there, and God's sending fire to consume the sacrifice appeared to show that God supported his actions. However, the fruit of Elijah's work—displayed in the after-effects on his mind—indicates that something was out of kilter. Elijah became depressed, hopeless, afraid, and self-centered, and he longed for death. However, in Psalm 16:11, David declares about God, "In your presence is fullness of joy"—a joy that diminished in Elijah as his thoughts slid from God's presence to himself. God allowed His prophet to do things his way, and He remained silent until Elijah started reaping his unsatisfying crop. Different fruit would have been produced in his mind if God's work had been done God's way because He would have remained the focus, not Elijah.
A third lesson is the danger of words (or thoughts) that begin with "I alone" or "we alone." This mindset inflates human importance and consequently limits how God can use us because it declares our lack of belief in God's sovereignty. Mark 6:5 recounts that Jesus Christ Himself could do no mighty work in an area where unbelief persisted. Elijah's "I alone" statements communicated an incorrect belief, demonstrating how easy it is to live by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). His three-fold declaration resulted in God ordering him to anoint his successor.
We have seen and heard similar statements in the oneupmanship that exists in the church of God. We find Elijah's wrong belief in assertions like, "I [alone] have the right practice." We hear it in declarations like, "We [alone] are doing God's work," or "We [alone] have the right understanding," or "We [alone] are the Philadelphian remnant." When Elijah became stuck in this line of thinking, God stopped using him as He had before.
Intriguingly, in the prophecies of the end time, God foretells seven churches rather than the one we might expect. We understand that the church is one spiritual body, yet Revelation 2-3 contains letters to seven messengers of distinct groups. Why seven? Why does God not foretell a regathering of all true Christians into one group?
One possibility deals with the Elijah syndrome. James 5:17 says that Elijah had a nature like ours, and he believed that he was the only one of significance. However, seven churches at the end suggest that the Son shines on more than just one part of the globe. Even when He walked the earth as a man, He had more than one fold of sheep (John 10:16). Perhaps God ordains multiple groups for our spiritual well-being to keep us from becoming stuck in thoughts of "I alone" or "we alone." Consider how long it has taken some to acknowledge—grudgingly even now—that God is working with more than one group. This posture indicates that a tendency toward the Elijah syndrome exists in the church—one focused on the works of men rather than the sovereignty of God.
The Jewish leadership of Jesus Christ's day suffered from misconceptions of divine favoritism and indispensability, as though God was somehow obligated to support them irrespective of their anti-God attitudes and conduct. After all, they had Abraham as their father. But John the Baptist warned that God could raise up stones to replace them (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8).
Paul warns Timothy—and us—"In the last days perilous times will come," listing nineteen examples of self-centeredness (II Timothy 3:1-5). Our spiritual environment today encourages us to focus on our own interests rather than God's, and this is deadly. Elijah focused on the threat to his physical life but missed the more significant one to his mindset and view of God.
John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls the "Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:14), won the victory over this tendency by saying that his Cousin "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Perhaps his disciples expected John to envy God's grace on Jesus, for envy would have been a typical—though carnal—response. Earlier, he had proclaimed his conviction that "a man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven" (John 3:27), recognizing that God was not limited or constrained in His gifting of whomever He wills. If He gifted John to do a mighty work of preaching, He could likewise gift somebody else with equal or greater grace to carry out His will, as He did with Christ.
Elijah seems not to have fully believed this, instead assuming that God's gifting was limited to himself. Ironically, Elisha, whom he anointed as his successor, asked for "a double portion of [Elijah's] spirit" (II Kings 2:9), and more of his miracles are recorded than Elijah's. God is in no way limited.
Elijah stands as a great prophet, yet he ended up stumbling over himself. The one who came in his spirit, John the Baptist, was the greatest among those born of women (Matthew 11:11). The latter had a powerful and effective ministry precisely because he remained focused on God's will rather than his own position. He performed no mighty miracle, which may have been a blessing, allowing him to focus on divine things rather than displays of power and impressing the crowds. God truly favored him, as He promises in Isaiah 66:2: "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word."
- David C. Grabbe
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