Studies in the life of Elijah - Part 1
Jeremy Gibson, Derby, England
‘The Lord God of Israel liveth’, 1 Kgs. 16. 29 - 17. 24
The history of Israel’s northern kingdom was one of rapid spiritual deterioration, so that by the time Elijah spoke to King Ahab its sin had become deplorable. Immediately after the division of the nation into north and south, Jeroboam the son of Nebat introduced a counterfeit religious system in which golden calves acted as visible representations of Jehovah, 1 Kgs. 12. 25-33. Jeroboam was so bad that it was said to him, ‘Thou . . . hast done evil above all that were before thee’, 14. 8, 9. And, after Jeroboam, every northern king without exception was godless. Bloody violence broke out as forceful personalities vied for power, so that within fifty years of Jeroboam taking control of the northern kingdom Ahab sat on the throne, a member of its fourth ruling family.
Ahab’s greatest sin was attempting to replace the worship of Jehovah with the worship of Baal, rearing ‘up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria’, 1 Kgs. 16. 32. Baal worship involved temple prostitution, and so, by introducing the worship of this pagan deity, Ahab degraded the nation morally as well as religiously. The record of Hiel rebuilding the cursed city of Jericho at terrible cost – ‘[laying] the foundation thereof in Abiram his firstborn, and [setting] up the gates thereof in his youngest son Segub’, v. 34 – emphasized just how rotten the nation had become.
Several factors contributed to Israel’s downward spiral into idolatry and immorality. Any nation or individual who deliberately abandons the true worship of God opens the flood-gates to every kind of error and apostasy. Jeroboam’s introduction of a new way to worship Jehovah began this corrupting process. Secondly, the northern kings appear to have been captivated by outward beauty. While Jeroboam began to reign at the city of Shechem, he soon moved his capital to Tirzah, 1 Kgs. 14. 17, a city renowned for its beauty, S. of S. 6. 4. Baasah, 1 Kgs. 15. 33, Elah, 16. 8, Zimri, v. 15, and even Omri, in the early years of his reign, all ruled from Tirzah, v. 23. Thirdly, the constant friction between the northern and southern kingdoms, as well as the internal struggle for power, destabilized the spiritual life of the northern kingdom.1 Fourthly, the northern kingdom made alliances with foreign powers, probably to promote trade. The biblical text makes a clear link between the marriage of Ahab to ‘Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and . . . [him serving] Baal, and [worshipping] him’, v. 31. Jezebel was a wicked woman who was addicted to witchcrafts,2 and who stirred up Ahab to ‘sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord’, 21. 25. If Christians are to avoid such spiritual decline in their own lives they must do the very opposite of what the northern Israelite kingdom did. They must cling tenaciously to God’s truth, ‘walk by faith, not by sight’, 2 Cor. 5. 7, maintain unity amongst believers, Eph. 4. 3, and avoid unequal yokes with the ungodly at all costs, 2 Cor. 6. 14.
God often allows men a free hand to pursue the pathway of sin. But He will eventually intervene. The powerful ministry of Elijah the prophet was God’s intervention to call Israel back from its corruption. Elijah, whose name means ‘God is Jehovah’, proved to Israel, through his words and mighty miracles, that ‘the Lord God of Israel liveth’, 1 Kgs. 17. 1. When Elijah called down fire on Mount Carmel, he convinced the people that ‘the Lord, he is the God’, 18. 39. Elijah’s miracles authenticated his message. It was when he had raised the widow’s son to life that she exclaimed, ‘Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth’, 17. 24. His miracles also exposed the folly of worshipping Baal, to whom was attributed the power to create fire, to produce rain and food, and to induce fertility and child bearing.3 The drought and famine, the fire from heaven, and the raising of the widow’s son all showed that Baal was powerless when confronted by Jehovah, Israel’s true God, see Jer. 14. 22. The drought exhibited God’s outrage against Israel’s sins, especially Baal worship,4 and fulfilled prior warnings to Israel for failure to ‘observe to do all his commandments’, Deut. 28. 15. There was also a spiritual significance to Elijah’s miracles. For example, when God removed Elijah from public service for three-and-a-half years of drought, Luke 4. 25, God was essentially taking from Israel the opportunity to hear His words. And so, at the same time as the physical famine, there was a spiritual famine ‘of hearing the words of the Lord’, Amos 8. 11. Furthermore, Elijah’s safe keeping by the brook Cherith, and then in the home of a Gentile widow while hunted by King Ahab, foreshadowed God’s preservation of godly Jews during the tribulation, when they will be banned from trading and intensely persecuted, see Rev. 13. 16, 17. In those days God- fearing Gentiles will, at great personal risk, shelter godly Jews.5 The raising of the widow’s son anticipated God’s future resurrection of the nation to newness of life.6
Out of total obscurity Elijah appeared suddenly on the scene, his words striking ‘the ungodly like lightning and flames of fire to avenge the honour of the Lord of Sabaoth’.7 But God had been preparing him for many years. Living in the rugged terrain of Gilead in Transjordan would have developed in Elijah a hardy disposition, equipping him to confront King Ahab. We too serve in a hostile scene, which God can use to develop within us spiritual fortitude, 2 Tim. 2. 3. Having had his prayer life shaped by the law of God, which warned Israel that one of the consequences of disobedience would be drought,8 Elijah prayed earnestly.9 It is by engaging in private prayer that we can have true power in public. Elijah also spoke about the Lord God of Israel ‘before whom I stand’, 1 Kgs. 17. 1. This sense that God watched his every move would have been a great impetus to live a holy life, which would in turn have given Elijah lion-like courage.10
After this amazing display of boldness in confronting King Ahab, Elijah was immediately commanded to go to the brook Cherith, vv. 2-7. The seclusion of the brook served a number of vital functions. It separated Elijah from the surrounding moral depravity while protecting him from harm, see 18. 10. It allowed him to be alone with the Lord, as he prepared for his next important task, and it seriously tested Elijah’s faith. Far from the limelight, Elijah now found himself dependent upon God for all his needs. Although ravens are highly intelligent birds, they feed on carrion and were deemed ceremonially unclean.11 Nevertheless, in a wonderful display of His power over creation, God used ravens to provide food for His prophet every morning and evening. And God did this without any chance of detection, because no one would suspect or follow wild birds in their search for Elijah. Even the brook tested Elijah’s faith, as each day it grew smaller. How often God guides His people one step at a time, providing sufficient without surplus, so engendering greater dependence on Him. It was only after the brook dried up that Elijah received fresh guidance from the Lord, vv. 7, 8. Elijah’s safe keeping also ensured that the drought was long, because if found sooner he could have been pressurized into praying for rain.
The name Zarephath comes from a root Hebrew word meaning ‘refinement’ (J. Strong). It was at Zarephath, a city in the region of Zidon, that God tested Elijah’s faith still further, as well as that of the widow, because ‘whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’, Heb. 12. 6. It was a test for Elijah even to go to Zarephath, for although it was situated in territory allotted to the tribe of Asher,12 a tribe to which Moses promised oil,13 it was also from this area that Jezebel came and Baal worship had sprung up. Many widows were in Israel at that time but God directed Elijah to this Gentile widow who, despite living in extreme poverty, believed in the God of Israel, vv. 9, 10, 12.14 God tested the widow. Would she give ‘up the certain for the uncertain, because she trusted the word of the Lord’?15 Before the provision kicked in she had to first give to God’s servant, thus honouring God. But God showed His faithfulness again with little, but sufficient provision. He never filled the barrel or cruise, but there was always enough for Elijah, the widow, and her son. But God had not finished with this godly widow, and before long her son died, v. 17. Just as many of God’s people have been reminded of past failures in times of adversity, this widow questioned Elijah, ‘Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son v. 18?’ Elijah prayed secretly and earnestly, and God answered his prayers by raising the widow’s son to life, vv. 19-22; Heb. 11. 35. The miracle enhanced her faith which had been tried so severely, v. 24.
- 1 Kgs. 14. 30; 15. 16, 32.
- 2 Kgs. 9. 22.
- Harris R. L., Archer G. L., Waltke B. K., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1980, pg. 120.
- 1 Kgs. 16. 33; 22. 53.
- Matt. 25. 34-40.
- Ezek. 37. 1-14.
- Keil C. F., Delitzsch F., Commentary on the Old Testament, Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 1996, 3 pg.162.
- Lev. 26. 19; Deut. 11. 16, 17; 28. 23, 24.
- Jas. 5. 17.
- Prov. 28. 1.
- Lev. 11. 15.
- Josh. 19. 28.
- Deut. 33. 24.
- Luke 4. 25, 26.
- Keil C. F., Delitzsch F., Commentary on the Old Testament, Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 1996, 3, pg.167.