Elijah the Tishbite 2.0

I remember going to parades when I was a kid. For a farm kid, it was a great source of entertainment (and candy!). I would sit on the curb on Main Street, taking it all in – the bands, horses, floats, clowns, and, of course, the Shriners on their little go-carts. My dad, standing behind me, could see up the street. He would keep us interested by informing us of what was about to come – what was about to pass by. Oh, the anticipation!

When we left off with Elijah the Tishbite’s story, found in 1 Kings 17-19, he had boldly challenged King Ahab and the 450 prophets of the false god, Baal, to a “duel.” For a prophet, speaking and demonstrating boldly to kings on God’s behalf was part of the job description. And Elijah did it well.

Elijah won the duel and subsequently won the people over. When all the people saw how God demonstrated his power through Elijah, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” The challenge to Baal’s prophets accomplished its intent – it turned the people back to their God, Yahweh. As a final act on God’s behalf, Elijah enticed the people to seize and slaughter the prophets of Baal. Then it rained as God, through Elijah, had promised. Now, the rest of the story…

As the much-needed rain fell, Ahab told his wife, Jezebel, about Elijah’s demonstration, as well as the slaying of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel, who had great influence in Ahab’s kingdom, sent a message to Elijah…

May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them [Baal’s prophets]. (1 Kings 19:2)

In fear, Elijah ran for his life. Deep into the wilderness, he hid under a bush and suggested that God end his life. But God was not through with Elijah. You see, God never asked Elijah to slaughter the 450 prophets. In his zeal for righteousness, Elijah committed an unrighteous (think unjust) act. God needed to readjust Elijah’s thinking and perspective. The zealous Elijah found himself in a state of crisis and weakness and was ripe for reformation. Carlo Caretto speaks to this in The God Who Comes: “It is so difficult to explain things to someone who is always right, who always wins, who is absolutely sure of himself” (p. 35).

Instead of ending Elijah’s life, God sent him on a three-month (minimum) journey that reformed and transformed his worldview. An angel was sent to provide sustenance for a 40-day journey through the wilderness to Mount Horeb, “the mount of God.” Arriving at Horeb, Elijah found lodging in a cave on the mountain. While in the cave, God came to Elijah…

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:9-11)

This is where the story gets really interesting. Elijah’s powerful God was about to pass by! Oh, the anticipation – the one true God was about to pass by! So Elijah waited. Suddenly there was a strong wind, strong enough to shatter rocks! Surely this was Elijah’s God passing by – the God that brought fire down on the alter in his duel with the Baal prophets. But God was not in the wind.

The wind was followed by an earthquake. Surely the God that provided food for a widow and raised her little boy from the dead was passing by in the earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. The earthquake was followed by a fire. But God was not in the fire, either. Then God passed by in the form of a still small voice.

God appeared in a still small voice.

Elijah, wrapping his face in his coat, stood at the mouth of the cave. As before, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah’s response was the same as previous: “I’ve been zealous for you, God. The people have forsaken your covenant, killing the prophets and I’m the only one left!” God then directed Elijah to go back to work, trekking 40 days across the wilderness, back to where he had come from.

This is what I suggest we consider: Imagine that someone had traveled with Elijah on his 40-day journey across the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Imagine the person asking Elijah to talk about his God and his experiences with God. As someone who was always right, who always won, who was sure of himself, I suspect he might have had a plethora of stories about his God. Maybe 40 days’ worth of stories. His was a God of power and victory!

Now imagine if someone traveled with Elijah on the journey back across the wilderness, asking the same question. I can imagine Elijah putting his finger to his lips and responding with, “Shhh…not right now. I just need to walk in silence. I’m not sure I understand God as I did a few days ago.” Reformation.

Sometimes, when we feel like we have a pretty good understanding of who God is and what he’s like, he allows crisis so he can shake things up a bit. And that’s a good thing. Just ask Elijah.

Elijah the Tishbite

I recently re-read Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17-19) – a familiar story that we should read and ponder periodically. Elijah, the Tishbite, was a prophet called by God. As we read the story, we see that he was successful in all he did. He predicted a famine that came true. During the famine, he (God through him) miraculously provided ingredients for a starving widow and her son – enough to feed them and Elijah as well. When her son fell sick and died, Elijah laid on top of the boy and brought him back to life. The God of Elijah demonstrated his favor in the midst of famine and pestilence.

During this time, King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, reigned over Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. Influenced by Jezebel, Ahab abandoned the Lord, setting up a temple to establish the worship of Baal. The Israelites, the people God had rescued from Egypt, followed his lead, abandoning Yahweh to worship the god, Baal. God was not happy. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. Not something one would want on their résumé.

Elijah’s famine prediction was given to Ahab in person – a bold move since Ahab tended to eliminate (kill) prophets that brought bad news. But it was more than a prediction. At Elijah’s word only would rain break the famine. Ahab was not happy. Elijah went into hiding, as did all of God’s prophets. It was while he was steering clear of Ahab that Elijah encountered the widow and her son.

Then God instructed Elijah to go present himself to Ahab with updated information about the famine. God’s instruction to Elijah: Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth. Elijah’s God directed him to go see Ahab, the king that killed prophets, the king that referred to Elijah as “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah quickly pointed out that Ahab was the real troubler. He then proceeded to show Ahab which god was really in charge – Yahweh or Baal. This is where the story got really good.

Elijah instructed Ahab to assemble the people at Mount Carmel and to bring along the 450 prophets of Baal as well as 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah. Interestingly, Ahab obeyed Elijah and gathered up all the people and prophets. Elijah then spoke to the people: How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. The people had no response. Elijah suggested a demonstration, a lab test of sorts, to help the people in their decision-making process…

I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left*, but Baal has 450 prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.

The people’s response? “Well said.” So the demonstration began. The 450 prophets of Baal prepared their bull on an altar and called on their god. And they called and called. No response. From morning until noon they called. Nothing. At noon, Elijah couldn’t contain himself and started to taunt the prophets of Baal…

You’ll have to shout louder than that to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone or is out sitting on the toilet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!

So shout they did – for a few more hours. Nothing! Then Elijah summoned the people. He rebuilt the altar that Ahab had destroyed years earlier. He had the bull prepared, dug a trench around the altar, and had the people soak the bull and the wood. They soaked it so completely that the runoff filled the trench. Then it was Elijah’s turn…

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.

Immediately the fire of the Lord consumed the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. Success! When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”

Elijah then wrapped up the day by instructing the frenzied crowd to seize and slaughter the prophets of Baal. A complete victory! It’s the stuff movies are made of, starring the likes of Charlton Heston or Matt Damon or Liam Neeson. Good versus evil kind of stuff. It’s the kind of stories we love.

But this is only part of the story. It gets better. Next time, the rest of the story!

* This was hyperbole on Elijah’s part. Elijah knew that Obediah, the “Jarvis” of Ahab’s palace, secretly hid 100 prophets in caves before Ahab could have them killed.