A Balm for Spiritual Exhaustion

At the falling of the fire, the people had made a great confession, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” Their fervor in that moment led to the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, getting rid of those whose god would not answer. Though they cleansed the house temporarily, they did not fill it with a renewed worship of God and an honoring and protection of God’s prophet. Rain came as he had prophesied and for which he prayed. He must now contend with the ire of Jezebel.

I. Jezebel’s Threat (1, 2)

A. Ahab reported these events to Jezebel and how Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal. Rain also had come in the time appointed by Elijah based on God’s word (17:1; 18:45). He did not indicate any sense of devotion to the Lord or place the events squarely within the power and purpose of God, but rather irritated his wife by relating the event as a machination of Elijah himself. Jezebel’s blindness to this evidence that a true prophet of God was in the land was heightened by her long and fervent devotion to Baal and Ashera and her provocation of Ahab into this same idolatrous devotion (16:31-33).

B. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with the threat of a quick death. She swore by the “gods,” the multiplicity of nature gods contained within Baal worship. Matthew Henry wrote that she was “an imperious woman that managed king and kingdom and did what she would.” It is perhaps worth pondering as to why she sent messengers immediately rather than assassins. Perhaps an immediate execution of the prophet would make things as dangerous for her as for him and she wanted him fearful and out of the way, but could not risk an uprising from a people temporarily impressed with the divine intervention prompted by the prophet.

II. Elijah’s Fearful Flight (3-8)

A. He who had just challenged 450 pagan prophets and had brought to fatality each one, now quivers at the threat of a woman. Fear can obliterate every resolution wrought by truth; it is a devastating emotion that disfigures every resolve for unwavering faithfulness into a crumbling wax candle. Paul was keenly aware of this when he noted that only omnipotent grace can overcome it: “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

B. He went to Beersheba under the dominion of Jehoshaphat, a godly king in Judah. Leaving his servant there, he went a further day’s journey into the wilderness. At his first prediction of drought, Elijah went away when Ahab began to search for him; for three years God provided protection and food. Now, Elijah reasoned, “I need this same kind of protection in isolation.”

C. Whereas Moses was with grumbling Israel in this wilderness, Elijah is with himself alone in a destitute and complaining condition.

      1. As a full generation of grumbling forefathers perished after having seen a mighty deliverance from God, so Elijah now believes his mission is done—“It is enough”—and death is the only thing left. Having fled from Jezebel, he probably feels the incongruity between the day of power and the flight of fear. As Israel had feared to enter the promised land for the power of man seemed too much for them, so Elijah had succumbed to the threat of a brutal woman.
      2. “Take my life,” Elijah requested. Better die at the hands of God than at the hands of Jezebel. And surely, so Elijah reasoned, my flight shows that I am not better than those who perished in the wilderness at the hands of God. “I am no better than my fathers.”
      3. God, however, has plans for us that transcend our immediate perceptions. The weak human needed rest but also needed a revelation of the comprehensive, all-embracing power and glory of God. God would give him both.
      4. God sent an angel to watch over Elijah and to provide sustenance for him. He had a long journey to make, more work to do, and a renewed courage to discover. He slept; an angel awaked him and had prepared a meal for him. He slept again, and again the angel awaked him and fed him (5-8). He had literally eaten the bread of angels and had heavenly strength to pursue the trip that was before him. “Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14). In the wilderness, manna had been given to the people for their bodily provision for forty years. Now Elijah, as he reenacts the wilderness wandering of Israel, receives the bread of heaven.
      5. For forty days, a day for each year of the Israelites’ wandering, now needing no further nourishment, he traveled through the wilderness to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” Moses had been here with a stiff-necked people (Exodus 33:1-6). There he had received a revelation of the glory of God (Exodus 33:19-23; 34:5-9). Elijah would now receive another.

III. Elijah’s New Encounter with God (9-14).

A. “He came there to a cave and lodged there” (9). Moses was in a similar place at the point of his encounter with the glory of God. The text says, “And behold, the word of the Lord came to him”—this was a thing about which to be astonished. “Look with wonder and marvel at this condescension of the Almighty to a weak and self-absorbed prophet!” God begins the revelation with a question, “What are you doing here?” YOU! The one whom I have only recently empowered to defeat Baal and at whose invocation the drought was ended. Has the arm of the Lord shortened that it cannot reach its destination or shriveled that it cannot exert power?

B. Elijah still felt that his efforts were vain and uttered an extended complaint (10).

      1. He recalls his former zeal. This is preface to his final statement. His zeal has been extended with exhausting intensity. He mocked the prophets of Baal; he called upon God for a manifestation of omnipotence; he exerted the right of execution commanded in Scripture with a relentless energy, commanding the people to capture all 450, bringing them to the brook Kishon where he killed them. He went upon a mountain, prayed with intensity (James 5:16-18), and then outran Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel.
      2. Israel has violated the holiness and sole prerogative of God at every vital point.
        • They have forsaken his covenant. Not only do they refuse to go to Jerusalem for mandated periods of worship, but they have placed other gods before him. They have bowed down to graven images, they have borne his name empty of any meaningful content, violated his Sabbath, and run roughshod over his moral law.
        • The altars that had been used in the worship of Jehovah before the building of the temple that might still have served truly pious believers in the 10 tribes had been torn down and replaced with altars to Baal. The remnants of true worship and obedient ceremony were destroyed.
        • God left them with true prophets to call them back to the truth and they had killed them. This is true, but not to the degree that Elijah is feeling. A spiritually forlorn person gravitates toward the darker side of human depravity and rebellion and does not easily see the workings of divine providence and preserving grace. God will show him that after Elijah has had abundant opportunity to give full vent to his distress and disappointment.
        • Because of all this, Elijah believes that he only is left, he himself is not better than his fathers, and the relentless vengeance of that woman Jezebel has dispatched a search party to hunt him down to kill him. It would be better if God himself would take his life. There is no more that he can do. He gave everything and it seems that nothing has changed. The brief revival boiled over and extinguished its own flame.

C. God’s Command to a distressed prophet (11-14)

      1. Perhaps near the place where the Lord hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, the Lord tells Elijah to stand on the mountain “before the Lord.” This means that God was about to make a personal appearance even as he had with Moses. He, however, is not hidden but out in the open.
      2. The Lord was passing by, and the phenomenon of a great wind that picked up rocks from the mountain and broke them in pieces drove Elijah into a cave (13). The power was clearly from the Lord and the manifestation of omnipotence was a message in itself, but no voice came in the wind. At another time, God did speak to Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1). An earthquake and a fire followed, both phenomena arising from the Lord passing by. On Sinai at the giving of the Law, God spoke and the earth quaked (Psalm 68:8). Also, at the giving of the commandments, “The Lord descended upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:18). Nothing is beyond his control; but no message was uttered to Elijah in any of the frightening acts of natural power supernaturally induced.
      3. The Lord then spoke in the context of a gently blowing breeze. Elijah, who had stood before the Lord and then hid himself from the frightening power of the Lord, heard the sound, eerily opposite the prior displays of terrorizing power. He wrapped his face, as God himself had hidden the face of Moses in Exodus 34, and stood at the entrance of the cave. The same question came to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
      4. For a second time Elijah gives the speech of his solitary but earnest zeal, the infidelity of the people, the killing of the prophets, the plot on his life. Elijah has now vented his complaint twice. He has nothing to add to this mixture of fact and perception. Nothing he has said alters the truth that he was called as a prophet for just such a time as this and that they have sought his life from the first. So, again God wants a good reason as to why Elijah has fled the scene. God has answered this trepidation only by showing his unbridled power as well as his presence in the things that are gentle. Nothing is too large for him and nothing is too small for him. He speaks loudly with power and he speaks gently, almost silently, but with no less power. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

IV. God’s Commission (15-18). God responded to Elijah by giving him a new commission. God is not unaware of the injustice involved in every point of Elijah’s terror, but now appoints him for an execution of divine justice.

A. He is to appoint and anoint Hazael as king over Syria. He will bring the judgment of war over the apostate nation Israel (2 Kings 10:32). It does not appear that Elijah anointed Hazael; this was done by Elisha, Elijah’s extension as a prophetic voice and power in Israel.

B. He is to anoint Jehu as king over Israel. He will bring the sword of justice to the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9; for the word of judgment see 2 Kings 10:17, 30). Again, Elijah did not anoint him, but Elisha anointed him through a young servant.

C. He is to anoint Elisha to bring the sword of the Spirit. Through Elisha the anointing of Hazael and Jehu would take place when the time for judgment was ripe. Evidently, Elijah told Elisha that the Lord had set aside Hazael and Jehu for specific tasks and they were to receive prophetic warrant for their God-appointed task. These arms of the Lord for judgment were carrying out his righteous decree though they themselves were brutal and unbelieving sinners (2 Kings 8:11-13; 10:18-31).

D. Elijah is reminded that his lamentation of solitary devotion is a misperception on his part arising from his ignorance of the sovereign and secret working of God. God preserves his own people and is more zealous for his own glory than any human can be. The Lord points to 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal nor done any action of obeisance to him. We are too easily discouraged at the prospects of belief, devotion, godliness, and faithfulness in our own generation. Though we may observe widespread religious cynicism and rampant secularism in the culture, so much so that we can be distressed, God is not inattentive to his covenant of redemption and the pursuit of his people for whom Christ has died. In the midst of the prospects of widespread judgment, he maintains his redemptive presence in this fallen world. Hard times often produce more intense devotion.

V. Another Prophet (19-21)

A. Elijah finds Elisha in heavy labor. Either he himself was managing 24 oxen as his work companions because of the difficulty of the ground or he was one of twelve teams with plows preparing new ground for fruitful production. This is hardly a conspicuously qualified situation for one who will be a dominant figure in the future development of Israel. A display of natural talent will not suffice in the absence of a call and gifting by the Spirit. Elisha was being set aside for production of another kind. Perhaps as eleven others looked on, Elijah threw his mantle on Elisha and began to walk away.

B. Immediately Elisha recognized the significance of this gesture on the part of Elijah and ran after Elijah in voluntary acceptance of this call. He only wanted to say good-by to his parents and then he would set out with Elijah. The older prophet indicated that he was not compelling him to come. He must come on terms that showed his perfect willingness to follow. “Go back to your work if you desire, for I have not given to you any compulsory command.”

C. Elisha does go back, but not to continue his labors. Instead, he completely abandoned both his work and the implements of it sacrificing them all to the Lord as an indicator that he would not turn back from the calling to which he had been set apart. With the yoke and plow he started a fire, boiled water, killed and dressed the oxen, boiled them, and gave them to his fellow-laborers in a joyful acceptance of what would be a prophetic ministry similar to that of Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 2:12-14 w. 13:14). “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple . . . So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, 27, 33).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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