GOD WORKS IN WAYS THAT WE CANNOT SEE SO DON’T DESPAIR OVER LACK OF VISIBLE MINISTRY IMPACT
I have grown up all my life with a misunderstanding about this controversial text of Scripture. I just assumed that it was a psychological profile of a broken man who had given in to self-pity and was totally focused on his own sorry lot in life. The commentary of Dale Ralph Davis (summarized in the Notes section of my pdf commentary) has enlightened me to a different approach to this passage.
All of God’s servants have experienced the discouragement of thinking they have ministered in vain. When the desired visible results are not evident; when it seems like you are not making a difference; you can succumb to the temptation to want to call it quits. Especially when you have a heart that is passionate to see God’s kingdom agenda advanced and God’s people repent and mature in the faith.
Iain Provan: Elijah has been involved in a mighty battle. He seems to think it decisive and so he has left the battlefield for Jezreel. Yet there have been several hints in the narrative thus far that it is the queen, and not the king, who is the real general of the opposing forces. She will not be so easily cowed as her husband, and Elijah is now to see that to win a battle is not necessarily to win the war. That realization will send him into retreat, both physical and mental, as victory becomes defeat. Retreat will in turn lead him to another mountain, to confront, not Baal, but the Lord himself—whom Elijah serves, but whose ways he only partly understands and accepts.
Thomas Constable: Elijah was surprised that the revival he had just witnessed was not more effective in eliminating Baal worship. Apparently Jezebel’s threat drove the lessons of God’s power and provision that he had been learning at Cherith, Zarephath, and Carmel out of his memory.
I. (:1-4) RETREATING FROM MINISTRY AS A DEFEATED SERVANT OF GOD
A. (:1) Testimony of Elijah’s Exploits
“Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done,
and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”
It was natural for Elijah to expect that the report of God’s dramatic display of power and sovereignty on Mount Carmel would move the hearts of Israel’s leaders to repent of their idolatry and fix their loyalties to the one true God. But such was not the case. How quickly Satan can turn our victories into defeats.
The Pulpit Commentary: We can readily understand with what a sense of humiliation and shame the weak and excited king, who must have been awed and impressed by the strange portent he had witnessed, would recount the day’s proceedings to his imperious and headstrong consort, and with what intense mortification and rage she must have heard of the triumph of the proscribed religion and of the defeat and death of the priests of Baal. One might almost have expected that the testimony of an eyewitness, and that her husband, to the greatness and completeness of Elijah’s victory; that his unprejudiced, and indeed unwilling, account of the sacrifices, of the descent of the heavenly fire, of the cries it wrung from the people, etc., would have brought conviction to her mind and taught her how useless it was to kick against the pricks. But there are eyes so blinded (… 2 Corinthians 4:4) and hearts so steeled against the truth that no evidence can reach them, and this fierce persecutor of the prophets had long been given over to a reprobate mind. She listens to his story, but her one thought is of revenge.
B. (:2) Threat Against Elijah’s Life
“Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.’”
Peter Pett: she immediately dispatched a messenger in order to disillusion him and inform him that she intended to execute him as he had executed the prophets of Baal. The act was one of someone who was controlled by her emotions, hated the thought that anyone should think that they had got one over on her, and could not wait for the actual event. She wanted Elijah to know immediately what was in store for him. . .
C. (:3-4) Temptation to Call It Quits
1. (:3) Giving in to Fear
“And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.”
MacArthur: A city located 100 mi. S of Jezreel (18:45, 46) in the Negev, it marked the southern boundary of the population of Judah.
Was he afraid because he did not want to die? Not entirely the whole story because he is going to request that the Lord take his life. Allen suggests that he did not want Jezebel to be the one to take his life and gain a perceived victory over God. Elijah was still concerned for God’s reputation.
We can speculate regarding what would have happened if Elijah had stayed there and held his ground and depended on the Lord to protect him. Certainly we don’t see any word from the Lord directing him to flee. Instead we see the Lord questioning him twice later in the passage: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The Pulpit Commentary: It is evident that for the moment Elijah had lost faith in God, otherwise he would certainly have waited for the ‘word of the Lord,’ which had hitherto invariably guided his movements (1 Kings 17:2, 8; 18:1). No doubt other emotions besides that of fear were struggling in his breast, and prominent among these was the feeling of profound disappointment and mortification. It is clear that he had hoped that the ‘day of Carmel’ would turn the heart of the entire nation back again (1 Kings 18:37), and the great shout of ver. 39, and the subsequent execution, at his command, of the men who had deceived and depraved the people, might well justify the most sanguine expectations. We can readily imagine, consequently, how, especially after the excitement and fatigues of that day, the threatening and defiant message of the queen would seem the death blow of his hopes, and how, utterly dispirited and broken down, he lost all trust, all faith, and, while fleeing for his life, ‘requested for himself that he might die.’
Wiersbe: For three years, Elijah had not made a move without hearing and obeying the Lord’s instructions (17:2-3, 8-9; 18:1), but now he was running ahead of the Lord in order to save his own life.
2. (:4a) Giving in to Failure
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree;”
Isolation from spiritual fellowship can deplete our ability to fight temptation.
MacArthur: A desert bush that grew to a height of 10 ft. It had slender branches featuring small leaves and fragrant blossoms.
3. (:4b) Giving in to Futility
“and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.’”
My prophetic ministry has proven to be no more effective than those who preceded me. What is the point in continuing on in such futile ministry? The very reason for his living was to serve God. If that made no difference, than what was the point?
David Guzik: Thankfully, this was a prayer not answered for Elijah. In fact, Elijah was one of the few men in the Bible to never die! We can imagine that as he was caught up into heaven, he smiled and thought of this prayer – and the blessed no that answered his prayer. To receive a no answer from God can be better than receiving a yes answer.
II. (:5-8) REVIVING THE SERVANT OF GOD – 2 ANGELIC MINISTRATIONS
A. (:5-6) First Angelic Ministration – Physical Needs Refreshed
“And he lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, ‘Arise, eat.’ 6 Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again.”
Peter Pett: God had seen the need of His servant for sustenance, and would not leave him to die. It was both an act of infinite compassion, and a pointed reminder to Elijah that God still had a purpose for him.
B. (:7-8) Second Angelic Ministration – Purpose Renewed
“And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.’ 8 So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Peter Pett: At times of great stress godly people regularly seek out a hallowed place which they associate with God, and what better place than that where YHWH had made His covenant with Israel? Steeped in the Scriptures Elijah would see it as the very birthplace of the nation. And now that the nation had rejected YHWH he may well have decided that he wanted to go and die there, in the place where he knew that God had given a full manifestation of Himself to Moses and Israel (Exodus 3:1; Exodus 19-20). There was nothing left for him to do.
We can compare the forty days and forty nights of the rain at the time of the Flood (Genesis 7:12), and the forty days and forty nights twice spent by Moses in the Mount (Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28). Compare also the forty days (morning and evening) during which Israel were challenged by Goliath (1 Samuel 17:16). It was the indication of a crisis point in divine affairs.
David Guzik: Elijah’s forty-day journey is not without significance. Indeed, a straight trip from Beersheba would require little more than a quarter of that time. Therefore the period is designedly symbolic. As the children of Israel had a notable spiritual failure and so were to wander forty years in the wilderness, so a defeated Elijah was to spend forty days in the desert. (Patterson and Austel)
III. (:9-18) RECOMMISSIONING THE SERVANT OF GOD TO PRESS ON
A. (:9-10) You Need an Attitude Adjustment
1. (:9) God’s Plan’s Can’t Be Defeated
“Then he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
John Schultz: Obviously, the question is not meant for the omniscient God to be informed about something He didn’t know. As God asked Adam after he committed his first sin: “Where are you?” to make Adam realize what he had done. So here the same question is asked of Elijah. God had not sent Elijah on this journey; it had been Elijah’s panicky reaction to Jezebel’s threat. God wanted His prophet to realize that he was outside the will of the Lord. Elijah no longer believed his life to be in God’s hand. That is a very dangerous condition for any believer to be in. What Elijah needed was a new experience of the Lord.
John Whitcomb: Elijah’s answer revealed his keen disappointment and impatience with God’s ways and an exaggerated pessimism concerning the condition of the nation. Why did not God strike Jezebel dead in his presence and then cause a great host of men to follow his spiritual leadership?
2. (:10) Man’s Perspective Can Be Overly Pessimistic
“And he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.’”
Donald Wiseman: The reasons for Elijah’s depression include sadness at Israel’s apostasy (cf. 18:18), desecration of sacred places and martyrdom of the Lord’s prophets (cf. 18:13) despite Elijah being zealous. This word (av ‘jealous’, ‘ardent’, Heb. qānā’ meaning ‘to be enthusiastically and exclusively devoted’) is used both of God (Exod. 20:5) and of man in his disruptive passions (envy, jealousy, 2 Kgs 10:16).
B. (:11-14) You Need a Fresh Vision of How the Lord Works
1. (:11a) Pay Attention
“So He said, ‘Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.’
And behold, the LORD was passing by!”
MacArthur: The 3 phenomena, wind, earthquake, and fire, announced the imminent arrival of the Lord (cf. Ex 19:16-19; Ps 18:7-15; Hab 3:3-6). The Lord’s self-revelation to Elijah came in a faint, whispering voice (v. 12). The lesson for Elijah was that Almighty God was quietly sometimes imperceptibly, doing His work in Israel (v. 18).
Wiersbe: All Elijah needed to get renewed for service was a fresh vision of the power and gory of God.
2. (:11b-12) Perceive How God Works Behind the Scenes
a. (:11b) Not Always in a Strong Wind
“And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind.”
b. (:11c) Not Always in an Earthquake
“And after the wind an earthquake,
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.”
c. (:12a) Not Always in a Fire
“And after the earthquake a fire,
but the LORD was not in the fire;”
d. (:12b) But Usually Behind the Scenes in the Stillness
“and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.”
Donald Wiseman: God does not always speak so clearly through these manifestations as he does through his individual word to his prophet. The ‘still small voice’ (av) was a gentle whisper (cf. Heb. ‘a thin [fine] subdued sound’), rather than ‘a low murmuring sound’ (neb); ‘stillness’ is not incompatible with the words for ‘sound, voice’ (‘a sound of sheer silence’, nrsv) and the word ‘thin’ (dāqqâ). The soft voice of God speaking to the conscience, illuminating the mind and stirring resolve in individual and nation may follow and is often preferable to the loud roaring and thunder of cosmic events at Sinai and Carmel.
Thomas Constable: Elijah was to learn that, whereas God had revealed Himself in dramatic ways in the past, He would now work in quieter ways. Instead of Elijah continuing to stand alone for God, God would now put him into the background while the Lord used other people. Elijah evidently got the message, but he still felt depressed (v. 14). God was dealing with him gently too.
David Guzik: Elijah perhaps thought that the dramatic display of power at Mount Carmel would turn the nation around. Or perhaps he thought that the radical display of God’s judgment against the priests of Baal following the vindication at Mount Carmel would change the hearts of the nation. Neither of these worked. This example is important for Christian ministers today, especially preachers. It shows that displays of power and preaching God’s anger don’t necessarily change hearts. Instead, the still small voice of God speaking to the human heart is actually more powerful than outward displays of power or displays of God’s judgment.
3. (:13-14) Put Aside Your Stubborn Pessimism
a. (:13) Get Back in the Game
“And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Wiersbe: if he was a faithful servant, what was he doing hiding in a cave located hundreds of miles from his appointed place of ministry?
b. (:14) Get Rid of that Pessimistic Attitude
“Then he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.’”
C. (:15-18) You Need to Keep Playing Your Role in the Lord’s Victorious Kingdom Program
1. (:15-16) Defining the Mission
“And the LORD said to him,
‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus,’”
William Barnes: In other words, it was time to get back to work. The servant of God is not to worry about the Jezebels on life’s journey.
John Schultz: God tells him that he is “in the wrong desert.” He is told to “go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus.”
R. D. Patterson: God again dealt graciously with his prophet. He was to go back to the northern kingdom (v. 15), the place where he had veered off the track with God in his spiritual life (cf. Abram, Gen. 13:3-4; John Mark, Acts 15:39). Elijah still had work to accomplish for God.
a. (:15b) Anoint Hazael
“and when you have arrived,
you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram;”
b. (:16a) Anoint Jehu
“and Jehu the son of Nimshi
you shall anoint king over Israel;”
c. (:16b) Anoint Elisha
“and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah
you shall anoint as prophet in your place.’”
Wiersbe: God was calling Elijah to stop weeping over the past and running away from the present. It was time for him to start preparing others for the future. When God is in command, there is always hope.
August Konkel: The commission of Elijah is the pledge that conflict with Baal will end in victory over the house of Ahab (19:15–18). Anointing the kings of Aram and Israel is the harbinger of judgment on the nation for its political compromise and a purge of the Baal cult within Israel. The Arameans will eventually control all the territory on the east side of the Jordan, from the Arnon at the Dead Sea northward, all of Gilead and Bashan (2 Kings 10:32–33). Jehu, the successor to the Omride dynasty, carries out a total purge of the Baal cult and is rewarded with a dynasty of four generations, even though he does not institute pure Yahweh worship (10:30–31). The anointing of Elisha assures Elijah that the prophetic challenge will not end with him.
Iain Provan: A new order is to succeed the old, and it is this order that will bring about the final victory over Baal-worship. Victory will come, in other words, as a result of political process—not through obviously spectacular demonstrations of divine power. It will arrive, not as a result of Elijah’s efforts, but through the efforts of others. Elijah’s role in the overall strategy is now clear. It is partly to fight, and he has done that well. But it is also partly (and now more importantly) to prepare the way for others. The Carmel event is only one event in a series that will stretch beyond his lifetime (cf. 2 Kgs. 8:7–15; 9–10). God has other ways of working—some of which make Elijah’s God seem almost as nonexistent as Baal (a still small “voice” being only marginally noisier than no “voice” at all, cf. Hb. qôl in 18:26, 29). The Lord also has servants other than Elijah (not least the seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal or kissed him in veneration, v. 18; cf. Rom. 11:1–6). If the spectacular has not produced final victory, that is no reason for despair. For the overall strategy was always more long term and more subtly conceived than Elijah imagined. From the beginning it had involved the gentle but devastating whisper as well as the all-consuming fire, the quiet ways of God’s normal providence as well as the noisier ways of miraculous intervention. Elijah must be content with being part of the plan and not the plan itself.
2. (:17) Destroying the Baal-Worshipers
“And it shall come about, the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall put to death.”
Ellison: I have never been impressed by the view that the command to anoint Hazael, Jehu and Elisha was the expression of God’s disapproval of Elijah’s flight from Jezebel, and that thereby his prophetic work was as good as terminated. He had a considerable period of activity still before him, and there is absolutely nothing in the story of his departure to justify such a conclusion. For Elijah to anoint those who were to carry on his work, whether he did it personally or by proxy, is rather to stress with what authority they would act, when they brought judgment and destruction on Israel.
Peter Pett: He named the names of the three agents through whom He intends finally to rid Israel of Baalism, and called on Elijah to anoint them, and secondly He emphasised that there were still a good number who had also heard, and would hear, the still, small voice. The point was not that the three would arise in the order indicated, but that YHWH would tackle the problem from three angles which would make sure that no one was missed. They would be dealt with either by external warfare at the hands of Aram, bringing judgment on the unbelieving in Israel, or by political cleansing by a Yahwist king, who would purge Israel of Baalism, or at the hands of His future prophet who would eventually take Elijah’s place.
3. (:18) Delivering the Faithful Remnant
“Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Thomas Constable: God also had 7,000 other faithful followers in Israel through whom He could work (v. 18). The writer mentioned some of these loyal people in the chapters that follow. This word from the Lord marks a great crisis in Israel. God now turned from the northern tribes as a whole to deal with a faithful remnant within that nation. Evidence of this is the fact that the stories of Elisha that follow deal mainly with the remnant rather than with the whole nation, in contrast to the record of Elijah’s ministry.
John Whitcomb: in spite of outward appearances, God is doing a wok in the hearts of men – So has it ever been from Adam to the present: “A remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5).