Elijah the Tishbite stands as one of the greatest prophets in the history of Israel. He is not known for any prophetic books, but instead, his fame arises from the great miracles associated with him. He is famous for standing up to the most wicked king and queen in Israel, Ahab and Jezebel; calling for a nationwide drought; and delivering a punishing blow to the worship of Baal. Israelites respected and even feared him because God backed him—seemingly unreservedly.
Even in the New Testament, Elijah's name comes up frequently. He is the model for John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14; 17:12), and Elijah's story was so deeply imprinted in the national psyche that when the Messiah came, some mistook Him—the Son of God—for Elijah (Matthew 16:14)! For many, Elijah was the standard for all comparison when it came to prophets.
The apostle James does his part to return Elijah's reputation to earth, pointing out that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours (James 5:17). Though God worked through him in ways that are almost without comparison, God also left a record of a low point in the prophet's life as a lesson for us as we contend with a similar nature.
In Elijah's well-known showdown on Mount Carmel, he tells the assembled Israelites that they need to choose whether they would follow God or follow Baal (I Kings 18:20-21). His next words hint about where his thoughts are heading at this point: "Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I alone am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men'" (I Kings 18:22).
Sometime before this, Jezebel had slaughtered all the prophets of God she could find (I Kings 18:13). However, a man named Obadiah had hidden a hundred prophets away during the queen's slaughter (I Kings 18:3-4). In verses 12-13, this story is repeated to Elijah. The fact that Obadiah was still alive indicates that he was successful in shielding the prophets from Jezebel's purge because, had she found out, they all would have been killed—including Obadiah. Yet, when Elijah makes his public pronouncement on Mount Carmel, he presents himself as the sole prophet of God.
Certainly, it was far easier—not to mention more dramatic—to frame the standoff in this way. It created a compelling narrative, one the crowd could quickly grasp: one man against 450! However, the odds did not need to come up at all, for if God is supporting or defending someone, who can be against him (Romans 8:31)? The lopsided ratio became part of the dialogue because Elijah's focus was beginning to slip from God down to the realm of mere men.
Perhaps Elijah was overlooking the numerical facts in favor of their essence. That is, he may have been saying that he was the only prophet of consequence that was left. Yes, other prophets existed, but none of his stature. Whatever the case, Elijah overlooked or otherwise lost sight of the fact that he was not the only one involved in the work of God at that time.
After he cleans house at Carmel and the drought ends at his request, he receives notice that Jezebel is planning to kill him (I Kings 19:2), which encourages him to flee for his life. This is a peculiar turn of events because he had a string of victories, as it were, hanging on his leather belt. Yet, at an angry word from Jezebel, his courage melts, and he hightails it across the wilderness. As we understand, one either fears God or one fears mankind. Since Elijah now fears another human being, his fear of God is diminishing. Something has caused him to forget the victories God had given him, and one of the quickest ways to forget God is through focusing on the self.
He is only one day into his journey when he decides he has had enough, and he asks God to take his life (I Kings 19:4). This is reminiscent of Jonah, who twice told God that it was better for him to die than to live (Jonah 4:3, 8) and that it was right to be angry—even to death (Jonah 4:9). All of this was after Jonah had the sailors throw him into the sea, in what may have been an attempt to die rather than to do God's will. Elijah may not have sunk to those depths, but his approach and reasoning are essentially the same, concluding that life is not worth living if it cannot be lived on one's own terms. It is a self-centeredness that says to God, "Let my will, not Your will, be done" (but see Luke 22:42).
God does not say anything to Elijah after his request for death, instead sending an angel to strengthen him so he can survive the rest of his forty-day journey. Taking refuge in a cave, Elijah then converses with God:
And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" So he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life." (I Kings 19:9-10)
Again, Elijah's words provide evidence about his mentality. He reminds God of his own zeal and states a second time that he alone is left. He also reveals his primary concern, and that is his life—the same life he had asked God to take forty days before! He sticks to his story that he is the only one left or perhaps the only one of consequence—the only one through whom God could possibly work. In his mental and spiritual fog, all seems hopeless in the land now that his life is threatened. As it appears to him, if he dies, God's work dies with him.
Next time, we will continue to follow Elijah's encounter with God on the mountain, as He teaches Elijah—and all His servants—a necessary lesson.
- David C. Grabbe
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