I spend the majority of my time in Bible study re-learning things I thought I knew, and this is especially the case in the Old Testament. I’ve written before of the story of King David and how I learned that he wasn’t the paragon of virtue I was taught that he was. In the same way, the prophet Elijah isn’t without his flaws. The real point is, if we don’t see these men as flawed, we miss the real point of their stories.
As a kid I was taught the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel, and they said I should be bold like Elijah, to face my enemy like he did Queen Jezebel, to not run in fear, and to draw near to God and pray to Him in order to be blessed. This flannel-graph version isn’t wrong but it is shallow and meant for young Adam. Older Adam is supposed to see that Elijah’s life isn’t about me and my boldness: it’s about God, His judgment and redemption, His purposes for Israel, His strange Providence.
Context of the Elijah Narrative
Elijah’s story builds on previous relation like this: In Joseph we see a God who turns evil to good and remains faithful to His covenant, even in the darkest hour. In the Exodus we see God redeem His people from slavery by bringing the greatest nation to its knees. In Joshua’s conquest of Canaan we see God’s strength in the army of Israel to defeat its enemies and secure the land of promise. But in Elijah we see something different. We see the deeper story of God’s plan for redemption: Elijah teaches us that God isn’t going to redeem creation in one fell swoop as He did in the Exodus, and nor is He going to build a kingdom here on earth; instead, He is going to let His people go into exile in order to bring a Savior Israel could never have created themselves, to redeem them in the midst of their failures. God’s salvation would come through judgement, not mountain-top experiences.
Elijah is first introduced in 1 Kings 17, in a narrative of miraculous glory. We learn about King Solomon in 1 Kings 1-11 and then the divided kingdom in 1 Kings 12-16, at each turn the focus of the narrative being on whether or not each king was right in the eyes of God. Few were. As each king falls away from God, leading the nation of Israel further into sin, the curses in the Deuteronomic covenant begin plaguing the people—one of which was drought and famine.
Elijah the Rockstar—Disillusioned
Elijah comes on stage a rockstar. He prophecies of the drought (17:1); God talks to Him (17:2); birds bring him food while he hides from God’s enemies (17:5-6); a woman helps him, and for her reward she gets unlimited flour and oil (17:16). Then when her son dies, he raises her from the dead (17:22). Elijah is confident God will restore Israel to its former glory, and he’s starting to think He will do it through him (18:22, etc). But God has other plans for Elijah.
Pan to Mt. Carmel: There is a problem: the people of Israel (God’s chosen people through whom He was going to make a name for Himself) are “limping” between two gods, torn in their worship between Yahweh God and Baal, a Canaanite god of fire and fertility, so Elijah sets up a fire-duel with this intent: “If Yahweh is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (18:21). The prophets of Baal are embarrassed half to death by the awkward, sad silence of their god—meanwhile Yahweh God devours the altar (stones included) in supernatural fire. The people heartily respond by crying out, “YHWH, He is God; YHWH, He is God” (18:39). God’s people take their renewed faith in Him and slaughter the enemy (the pagan prophets of Baal), and God allows rain to fall on Israel, blessing them with fertility—the very thing they had looked to Baal to do. So far so good.
Elijah is elated: he takes off. He runs straight at the enemy—Queen Jezebel—and outruns Ahab’s chariot he’s so eager to get there. He’s ready to seal the deal. Elijah thought that because he won the battle, the war was over, but it had only just begun. Jezebel, the most powerful woman in the country, vows to kill him. So he runs—this time in fear.
Once safely away, he descends into the wilderness, the same place Jesus was tempted, the very place where Israel wandered for 40 years. There he falls down in depression and asks God to kill him—the same way Job asked for death when he was disillusioned of God’s Providence; the same way that Jonah asked for death when he saw that God redeemed people he didn’t think worthy. Elijah was depressed because, like those two, he had false expectations about God.
God, in His lovingkindness, calls Elijah deeper into the wilderness to teach him a lesson. First, he sends an angel to minister to Him, as with Jesus. Then he calls Elijah to a journey of 40 days and 40 nights—a journey similar to Noah’s time on the ark when God flooded the earth and pushed the reset button; a journey similar to Israel’s wanderings when God judged them for their unbelief and taught them to follow Him. God leads Elijah to his holy mountain, Mt. Sinai, because Jerusalem was no longer His mountain. It was defiled. And so he goes back to square one, communicating a new beginning not just for Elijah but for Israel itself. But what God teaches Elijah in the moment is a lesson He began teaching humanity thousands of years before, especially what He taught Israel over four-hundred years before. He taught Elijah who He was.
I Am Who I Am, Or, I Will Be Who I Will Be
Who God is is not a new revelation: it’s the very thing God has been communicating to us humans from the start of creation. But God reveals Himself in stages, through different means and circumstances. For example, one of the most significant texts of God’s self-revelation is the book of Exodus.1 At the beginning, God gives His name to Moses as a short little fragment “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” (Ex 3:14). And it’s only after the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Calf Incident that God gives His full name—and it’s a paragraph.
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex 34:6-7)
But His name is a paradox. God says He is both gracious and just; forgiving and vengeful. How can He be both? The question of who God is and how He works in the world is complex and left unanswered until Christ enters history and fulfills the paradox, allowing mercy and justice to kiss. In the narrative of Kings, the question is: How can He turn them around and get them back on track? How can he be faithful to his covenant and judge them and faithful to His promise of redemption and save them?
The answer is what he teaches Elijah at Mt. Sinai. He shows Elijah that He doesn’t always work in overt, miraculous ways that we can understand. He is not a god made by human hands and minds; He is so sovereign that he magically works in and through the causes and effects of our world—and that is enough to bring about His final and unalterable plans. The message to Israel through Elijah is that Yahweh is God and He hasn’t forgotten them, and even when it seems like He is silent, He’s working behind the scenes to redeem, to save, to renew. God’s salvation won’t come to Israel in a flash of miracles like in Egypt but will come through an overlooked family, into the exile, into fractured nation of Israel when they were at their lowest point in history.
Lessons from Elijah
Before Elijah goes back to work as a prophet, God gives him a new mission: three commands. He has to anoint two kings, and Elisha to be his successor. The odd thing is Elijah never does it; all he does is find Elisha and throw his garment on him, enlisting him as a servant. The text introduces Elisha as a dumb working man, plowing the field with the oxen—literally yoked up with them as the twelfth animal. Elijah’s pride is wounded, no doubt, and he doesn’t seem too happy to have learned his lesson.
Elijah has had his day. His name means “The Lord, He is God” and that was shown (18:39). Now onto the next act in God's play: Elisha. His name means “God saves”. The next thing that happens, in 1 Kings 20, is that God uses a nameless prophet, the wicked king Ahab, and the 7,000 prophets of Yahweh to defeat an army that threatened Israel. The proof of the lesson that God taught Elijah is here: God can (and does) use anyone (even a nameless prophet and pagan king) to bring about his purposes. He doesn’t work through heroes much, and He certainly doesn’t do anything the way we would expect it.
God is a still, small voice, and that is a lesson Israel will need to hang onto once their kingdom crumbles and they are taken into the Babylonian exile. For over seventy years they would languish in a foreign land, and once they returned, they wouldn’t even be truly returned. The nation would still be fractured, over-run and ruled by other nations. For four-hundred years they would hear nothing from God. Until one day, in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem, a few shepherds and some sheep would hear a baby cry. And in that tiny little human’s life would rest the paradox of God’s nature, the hope of the entire world. While the King sat in his royal palace in Jerusalem, this baby would grow out of the mire of the exilic life to live a short life and die a brutal death. And somehow, in God’s strange and mysterious providence, that man’s death would have the power to give the entire world life.
- All throughout the OT and Jewish literature, God is referred to as the “one who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The Exodus was the singular event (outside of Christ’s incarnation) where God revealed himself the most. ↩︎