The bed of the cherith was dry. The impartial course of nature had rendered the prophet a victim of his own prophecy. Though his ministry to God’s people was one of faithful rebuke, he was not thereby absolved from the penalty of their guilt. Rather, with such a message, must he be identified with his hearers and share their sorrow for departure.
Continual war was exacting a heavy toll of fighting men in Israel, so that on his trek to his lodging at Zarephath, the Lord commented that he was obliged to by-pass many a widow’s cottage in his own land. But why make for Zarephath? Surely the name of Zidon was blackened by the very idolatry for which the prophet chastized Israel. There queen Jezebel herself had her upbringing. Yet unmistakably, as an early hint of the place in His heart for ‘sinners of the Gentiles’, God had told His servant both the town and home where he should dwell.
Here was the school to prepare the prophet for the most spectacular event of his ministry. The evil which had invaded Israel he could observe on its native soil. Under the influence of a woman’s daily care, he would develop a kind regard for a devotee of the false cult, while loathing its essential wickedness. He would learn, in spite of his good intentions being misjudged, to restore an idolater, crushed beneath calamity, to a trust in the Lord.
Thus taught, the man with the key to a closed heaven, of whom every neighbouring kingdom had sworn ignorance, returned to king Ahab. Three years and more of drought had but embittered the king towards the prophet who pronounced it, and had left his heart unchanged towards God. Yet in revenge he dare not, for his kingdom’s sake, use more than restrained words against the only man who could bring the clouds across that merciless sun. But first the nation – representatively at least – must be brought to its knees, and the king was obliged to obey orders from the one who had evaded his most intensive searches. We may notice at this point that the group of dramatic events which comprise the recorded ministry of this man, is found, not in any prophetic book under his name, but in the Book of Kings, being scattered over the closing chapters of the first and the opening chapters of the second, so forming a tie between the two.
Indeed, with the appearance of Elijah, the habitual standpoint of Kings moves from the throne to the prophet, who dominates the scene. Thus, despite the fact that Israel entrusted ungodly men with regal power, or aspiring rebels even grasped it for themselves, God demonstrated His sovereignty by raising up a prophet in the power of His Spirit.
At Elijah’s word, then, Ahab gathered Israel to mount Carmel. The proceedings were in three phases, each introduced by the expression of ‘coming near’.
The prophet ‘came near’ to Israel with the challenge: ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions?’ (r.s.v.); and he proposed a test to verify the deity of either Jehovah or Baal. In blind confidence the people concurred, still, it seems, owning but one ‘God’, so recognizing the decisive nature of the test. While complying with the terms of the test, however, the priests were unashamed to behave with all manner of indignities to gain audience with Baal. Yet for all their frenzy, they were greeted only with silence.
There follows one of Scripture’s most impressive moments. Elijah bids the people to ‘come near’. Desperate after three-and-a-half years of drought, wearied by hours of frantic crying to an indifferent god, Israel watches a man, who, because sure of his God, can proceed with calm and dignity. The lone prophet repairs the broken altar of the Lord, significantly placing all twelve stones in position. We may be sure that he did not overlook the split in the nation, ten tribes against two; but, noble and wise man that he was, he did not allow the division and departure of the Lord’s people to obscure his vision of the ideal. Like every good realist, he was an idealist at heart.
At the time of the evening sacrifice Elijah ‘came near’ – to God, and prayed: ‘Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel’.
Answer by fire was no arbitrary suggestion by Elijah. The scene recalls that great day in the reign of Solomon, a century or so before, when, at the close of his prayer of dedication of the temple, the fire of God consumed the offering upon the altar. And it was in that prayer that the request was made, ‘When there is no rain because they have sinned, if they confess thy name, and turn from their sin, then forgive the sin, and give rain upon thy land’.
Elijah’s very name, ‘My God is the Lord’, seems to be prophetic of the response of the people as the fire fell. Fallen upon their faces, ‘The Lord, he is God’, they cried, ‘the Lord, he is God’. Upon this confession the course of nature could turn again.
Thinking, no doubt, of the prophet’s exercise of heart in Gilead, ere he first visited Ahab’s court, James wrote: ‘he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it rained not’. His mind turning to that figure bowed to the earth on the summit of Carmel, he then adds: ‘and he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit’.
The increasing pressure of recent events, sparked off by an idle threat from the queen, caused the prophet now to miss his way.
His steps eastward to the Cherith, his way northward to Zarephath, and his return westward to Carmel, were all at ‘the word of the Lord’. But now at Horcb, forty days’ journey from Beer-sheba, proverbially the most southerly point of the land, ‘the word of the Lord came to him, What doest thou here, Elijah?’. Although so far from where he should have been, his condition was well understood by God, who provided him a threefold remedy.
By wind and earthquake and fire, the Lord first granted him a renewed experience of his power. He then commissioned him with a specific task. Finally He assured him of his breth-ren’s ample fellowship.
Perhaps the revelation at Horeb was also intended, by way of parable, as a gentle reproof. Should not the wind and fire and earthquake of the other mount, where the nation was humbled in confession, have been followed by the ‘still small voice’ of the prophet taking prompt advantage of the acknowledgement of the one true God? Should he not have sought to carry the national repentance to its proper conclusion, and after slaying the prophets of Baal, to clear the land of idolatry and re-establish the worship of Jehovah? Shattering happenings may arrest attention, but God is not in these, but rather in the message itself.
So far, the recorded scenes of Elijah’s ministry have centred about the vindication of Jehovah at Carmel. Before the occasion of his whirlwind ascent to heaven, the Scripture relates two further incidents, being personal denunciations, first of Ahab, then of Ahaziah.
To overcome a neighbour’s inherited right to a vineyard, Ahab condoned his wife’s plot to compass the death of Naboth, the owner, and of his sons, the heirs. Like a spoilt schoolboy having his own way after a fit of pouting, Ahab sauntered from his palace to survey his newly acquired property. Never was there a more timely encounter of offender and judge, as Ahab’s path in the vineyard was crossed by Elijah. The prophet had truly recovered from his lapse, and, within sight of Jezebel’s residence, fearlessly pronounced sentence upon the royal pair.
Years later, Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, received sentence through the same prophet. In disregard of the Lord, the king had attempted to ascertain from a false god whether he would survive an indisposition incurred through a fall, only to have his messengers intercepted by Elijah with the stinging rebuke, that the means of his inquiry had determined the terms of his reply. Two companies of armed soldiers lost their lives attempting to arrest the prophet, and a third brought to bended knee. Eventually, of his own will and in person, Elijah delivered to the king the same fateful reply.
As instructed at Horeb, Elijah had anointed and trained Elisha to succeed him; and, although many of the sons of the prophets must have caught something of his spirit, it was upon his successor that the chief portion of the veteran’s spirit fell.
Elijah was a man familiar with isolation, yet fearless before a multitude. At God’s command he would dispense blessing to a widow or denounce the idolatry of kings. His history captured the wonder of angel and apostle. He was conscious of widespread departure from the ways of the Lord, but his spiritual power was equal to the need. His deep insight, his intense prayer, and his courageous action, combined to make his ministry a success. Above all, he knew his God; and his God was great.
Even so, as the record stands, we are obliged to ask: ‘Did he miss his great opportunity?’ and, in turn, amidst world-shattering events, when the voice of God is not known, ‘Are we missing ours?’.