Elijah on the run

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I love the stories of the revival that happened in Wales in 1904/5. About 150,000 came to faith in the first six months. There was an amazing spread of the gospel and changing of lives. Eg, the ponies that worked in the mines stopped working: they were so used to being cursed and hit that they simply didn’t respond to the gentle treatment of newly converted miners. Church buildings and chapels were packed and in some places newly converted police organised themselves into evangelistic choirs because crime had fallen to zero. Imagine being caught up in that. Imagine the sense of the gospel being ‘on a roll’. Imagine almost everyone saying ‘Yes’ to invitations to church. Imagine Jesus being talked about everywhere.

But what if we don’t live at such a time? What if we live when few people say ‘Yes’ to our invitations? When the church is a sorry advert for the Lord? When Christian living is generally in a minority of one? Many of those Welsh chapels are now empty. And they symbolise the decline of the church throughout the UK. So how do we live at such a time as ours? On the one hand, should we hope to see anything like that revival in our day? Or is that just riding for the fall of disillusionment? On the other hand, if we have no hopes of anything but more decline, won’t we end up attempting nothing for the Lord?

Well this morning we end (for now) our series in 1 Kings with a Bible passage that speaks exactly to those questions. So would you turn to 1 Kings 19.

Let me remind you of events so far. Israel, God’s Old Testament (OT) people have been led by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel away from trusting in the LORD to trusting in a false god called Baal. Baal was a fertility god: they believed he controlled the rain, and rain was what their lives depended on. So the LORD did two things to show that he was in fact the true God and that Baal was false. One thing was that he sent a drought to show who really controlled the rain. The other thing was that he set up a contest on Mount Carmel to show that Baal didn’t even really exist. The prophet Elijah calls Ahab and the people of Israel together. The prophets of Baal pray to Baal to send fire from heaven – and nothing happens. Then Elijah prays to the LORD to send fire from heaven - and he does. And if you look back to 18.39, the people at least superficially seem to respond. 18.39:

39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The LORD -he is God! The LORD -he is God!"

Then, as we saw two weeks ago, the LORD ends the drought. So let’s pick up in chapter 18, v45:

45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel [which was where his palace was]. 46 The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

Now imagine you are Elijah (if that’s not too exhausting). As you run ahead of Ahab from that triumph on Mount Carmel, what hopes are running through your head? Wouldn’t you dare to hope that things will now change? Dare to hope that Ahab might be converted and repent of what his wife Jezebel had led him into? Dare to hope that there might be a revival led from the top down? Just look ahead to 19.10, where it tells us what was running through Elijah’s head:

10 [Elijah] replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.”

Ie, Elijah is saying, ‘I have hoped and worked for people to come to faith and to honour the LORD as he should be honoured.’ And that zeal is an example to us. He wasn’t the kind of man who said, ‘Well, the church scene is pretty dire, but I’ve got a decent one for me and my family, so I’m happy.’ He was deeply unhappy for the LORD’s honour - the kind of man who said, ‘Of course it’s a blessing to be in a good church, but what can we do to improve the overall state of the churches which is so dishonouring to the LORD right now?’ Which is the mindset we should have. And to maintain that kind of zeal in times like ours, we need the lessons of 1 Kings 19. Which brings us to our first heading:


Look down to 19.1:

1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done [and you can imagine him describing the fire from heaven, and the torrential rain, and the supernatural sprint to Jezreel] and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. [But evidence alone – even supernatural evidence - doesn’t change people. Read on, v2:]
2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." [Verse 3:] Elijah was afraid.

Now, by the word ‘afraid’ (in the New International Version) is a little letter ‘a’ and if you look down to the footnote at the bottom of the page, it says, ‘Or Elijah saw’ (which is how, eg, the King James Version translates it). Some of the original copies of 1 Kings say ‘afraid’, some say ‘saw’, and for reasons I won’t go into I think ‘saw’ is the original. After all, we’ve seen no evidence at all that Elijah was a coward. He comes out to confront Ahab in chapter 18 knowing full well that Ahab could kill him. So I take it that in v3 he ‘saw’ that nothing was going to change in Israel. He saw that Ahab had not been changed, that Jezebel the Baal-worshipper still wore the trousers in their marriage, and that far from a top-down revival there would probably now be even more persecution and killing of those who believed in the LORD. So why should he become the next victim? So, v3:

3 Elijah saw and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." 5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.

Ie, ‘I give up. Because I’ve done everything I could but the result is that I’ve been no better than my ancestors at turning people back to you, LORD.’ It’s how you feel when you’ve prayed for and witnessed to a family member or friend for years - even decades - and they haven’t come to faith yet and you want to give up. It’s how you feel when you’ve done everything you can for some part of the Lord’s cause – from running a Christian Union to trying to share the gospel through Mothers & Toddlers, whatever it is – with apparently little or no result. And you want to give up.

So, Elijah prays, ‘Take my life.’ Isn’t it good that the Lord doesn’t answer all our prayers? Last time we saw Elijah praying for the right thing and being given it. Here we see Elijah praying for the wrong thing and not being given it. And what we learn is that the Lord is wiser than we are and that he won’t give us anything that isn’t really good for us. Which is such a relief. Because we can latch onto something we really want, that we think is best – when the Lord knows better. And he won’t give us what isn’t best for us. So, when he does give us what we ask for in prayer, he’s being good. But can I call on us to believe also that when he doesn’t give us what we ask for, he’s also being good – although how he’s being good may be hard if not impossible to see at the time.

But the other thing to learn is that we can simply pour out our hearts to the Lord in prayer. Elijah is allowed to say to the LORD exactly how he’s feeling - and he’s not judged for that in this Bible passage. So can I also call on us to do the same - as one of the Psalms puts it: ‘pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge’ (Psalm 62.8) There is a time for carefully thinking out prayer-requests in line with what the Bible says about God’s will, as we saw two weeks ago. But there are also times for just telling the LORD how you feel. And that’s allowed. (And it’s often the starting-point of rediscovering that the LORD is near, and that he is good and that he is in control.)

So the LORD doesn’t answer Elijah’s prayer as Elijah wants by taking him to heaven. Because that’s not what the LORD wants or what Elijah really needs. What the LORD wants is for Elijah to keep ministering for him in such a time of church history as his and ours - for which he needs a fresh understanding of how God works. So the LORD does ‘take’ his life – but he takes it off to Mount Horeb (or Sinai). Which brings us to:

Secondly, A REVELATION OF GOD’S WAYS (vv5b-13)

Up until the first half of v5, Elijah has taken the initiative in running away from Jezebel. Look down to the second half of v5 and you’ll see the LORD now takes the initiative over where Elijah journeys to:

All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, "Get up and eat." 6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
So notice for a start the LORD’s love and care for Elijah – and by implication for us whenever we’re in this kind of state. Here he is reeling from broken hopes, wanting to give up - and there’s not a hint of rebuke or criticism from the LORD, just love and care.

Read on, v7:

7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you." 8So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb [also known as Mount Sinai], the mountain of God.

So the LORD takes him to Mount Sinai - the place where the covenant relationship between the LORD and Israel began (Exodus 19-24). And the place where Moses had a revelation of the LORD to sustain him in his ministry (Exodus 32-34) - which is what Elijah is about to get. So v9:

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

Now, quite a few writers say the LORD is rebuking Elijah at this point. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah, when you’re supposed to be back in Israel standing up to Ahab and Jezebel?’ But that can’t be right. After all, it’s the LORD who’s taken him there in the first place. So I don’t think it can be a rebuke. I think it must be an invitation to pour out his heart some more. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" means, ‘What’s on your mind, Elijah? What do you need to say?’

Now what Elijah says next is quoted in that New Testament (NT) reading we had from Romans 11, where Paul writes:
Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah - how he appealed to God against Israel: 3"Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"? (Romans 11.2-3)
So Paul says that what Elijah is doing here is appealing to God against Israel. Which is the language of the courtroom. So the picture is that God is the Judge, Israel is in the dock - accused and guilty of rejecting the LORD - and Elijah is the plaintiff, appealing for the LORD to act against Israel. So v10 is like the preliminary hearing in a court case, where the charges are read. Verse 10:

10 [Elijah] replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty [ie, working hard for your honour]. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."

Now quite a few writers say that’s a mixture of Elijah blowing his own trumpet, self-pity and depressed exaggeration. I disagree. I’m sure he was discouraged. But I think here that he’s simply stating the facts of the case before the Judge. He had done everything he could for the LORD’s honour. Israel had rejected the LORD en masse exactly as he said. He was the only faithful prophet actually still operating publicly (the others were in hiding – and he might have feared they were dead by now). And people were trying to kill him.

So those are the charges he brings. And like Romans 11 says there’s an unspoken appeal there. It’s as if Elijah is saying (silently), ‘So LORD, will you not act - to vindicate yourself; to show yourself to be the one, true and living God; to restore your honour?’ And it seems that he had in mind some powerful, supernatural act. Eg, he’d just seen the LORD send fire on Mount Carmel. So how about the LORD sending fire on Ahab and Jezebel’s palace? Wouldn’t that get people’s attention? Wouldn’t that spark revival? ‘LORD, will you not act for your honour?’ To which the LORD says, ‘Yes – but not in the way you’re thinking.’ Read on, v11:

11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Now the big question is: what exactly is God revealing about himself here? I won’t run through the possible interpretations. I’ll just explain the one I think makes sense. What do the wind, earthquake and fire show? They show that God can use those kind of forces to act in undeniable, overwhelming power – as he did on Mount Carmel. But three times we’re told that the LORD was ‘not in’ those things. By contrast, I take it the passage is implying that the LORD is ‘in’ this gentle whisper. And I take it that the gentle whisper stands for God’s Word. So I think the lesson for Elijah and for us is that the LORD generally works not through supernatural acts of power, but through his Word - which may seem far less powerful (like a gentle whisper compared to a hurricane), but is in fact the most powerful thing at work in the world.

And that interpretation makes sense of the end of the passage. Read on from the end of v13:

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
[V14: Elijah repeats the charges just like in the preliminary hearing, skip to v15:]
15 The LORD said to [Elijah], "Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

What’s that all about? It’s God’s Word (God’s promise) that Ahab and Jezebel will be judged. Jehu and Hazael appear later in 2 Kings 8-9 after Elijah’s lifetime. And they both have a hand in destroying Ahab’s whole family – including putting Jezebel to death. So the lesson is that - with some exceptions, like Mount Carmel - God generally works not through supernatural acts of power, but through his Word. So, eg, he didn’t judge Ahab and Jezebel through fire on the palace. But he did ultimately judge them through political events, as he promised. Similarly in the new covenant, the Lord rarely judges unfaithful ministers in an immediate, supernatural way (eg, sending fire on their vicarages). But he does promise (for example) that they will ‘not get very far because... their folly will be clear to everyone’ (2 Timothy 3.9). It may not be immediate, but judgement will come on such unfaithful ministers – partly when their churches are empty and closed in 50 years’ time; but ultimately when they stand before Jesus as Judge.

That’s taken a lot of explaining. The application for us is still: that God generally works not through supernatural acts of power, but through his Word.

So let me assume that in our best moments, we share Elijah’s zeal for the Lord. Well that must include above all wanting to see people come to faith in Christ. And it’s then tempting to think that we’d see more of that if the Lord did do some supernatural acts of power - eg, imagine people were being regularly and dramatically healed in our church. But remember v1 of this chapter: Ahab saw some pretty dramatic things but, as I said, evidence alone – even supernatural evidence - doesn’t change people. Only God’s Word, brought home to the heart by his Spirit, does that. Our problem is we struggle to believe that God’s Word is powerful enough to turn people to Christ in the first place and then to change our lives. So, eg, as we run our Christianity Explored courses and share the gospel from Mark’s Gospel, it doesn’t look very powerful. It looks more like a gentle whisper than a hurricane. Or, as Jesus put it in his parable, like a mustardseed. But can I call on us again this morning to trust that it is powerful. Look around this building and every believer in Christ you see is evidence of that.

So the application for us is that God generally works not through supernatural acts of power, but through his Word. Now if we share Elijah’s zeal, we’re bound to be unhappy for the Lord Jesus’s sake about the state of his church and the level of rejection of him. But from a New Testament (NT) point of view, we need have no concern about him ultimately being vindicated, which will happen when he comes again to wrap up history and judge the living and the dead. Now that’ll be a good day for those of us who’ve been forgiven through Jesus’ death back onto his side. But it would be a dreadful day if you hadn’t yet turned to Jesus and been forgiven by him. And that’s precisely why he’s delaying that day. You see, if you’re not yet a believer in these things, you may sometimes think to yourself, ‘Why doesn’t God show me he’s there? Why can’t he just turn up now?’ Well, he could. But that would be the second coming of Jesus and the moment that happens your opportunity to be forgiven back onto his side is past. It’s got to be taken before that day. And if you’re not sure how to take that opportunity of being forgiven back onto Christ’s side, then please take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk and read it urgently.

Thirdly, A RE-CALL TO GOD’S WORK (vv15-18)

So Elijah has been given this fresh revelation of how the LORD works to protect him from false hopes in ministry. He needs to know that – with exceptions like Mount Carmel - the LORD won’t work through supernatural acts of power. And even if he did, that alone wouldn’t change people.

But the last thing the LORD does here is to send Elijah back into ministry with solid hopes that there will be faithful people, however dire the situation has got. Look again at v15:

15 The LORD said to him, "Go back the way you came...’

[Ie, go back into ministry. As we saw in vv16 and 17, he’s to set in motion the events that will ultimately bring judgement on Ahab and Jezebel. But v18 is the climax:]

18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him."

[And I think that 7,000 is probably a symbolic number: in the Bible, ‘seven’ often stands for the complete number of something - in this case, the complete number of true believers.]"
So, v15, go back into ministry because, v18, I guarantee that there will be faith in Israel. And in that NT reading, in Romans 11, Paul quotes that and says, ‘So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.’

So v18 is an assurance for Elijah that however dire the situation looks, the LORD does have faithful people whom he will keep faithful, despite the pressures they’re under. In Romans 11, Paul then applies v18 to his day and says it’s still true – it’s a timeless statement. So in a sense, v18 is not just a statement of fact (‘there are faithful people besides you’). It also amounts to a promise that in every generation, however dire things look, God will bring the people he has chosen to faith, and keep them faithful, despite the pressures they’re under. Ie, the church will never die out. So in dire times, we shouldn’t fear that it has done, or will do. And we should trust that our work of sharing the gospel will always bear some fruit. There’s no promise that every individual you and I pray for and share the gospel with will come to faith. It’s not that individual and specific. But we do have the promise to us corporately that as we pray and work to share the gospel, some will come to faith. So in a time of church decline, is it really wise to spend £1.3 million on the Gateshead church plant? Yes. Because of the truth of v18. Despite church attendance falling around us, does it make sense to hope and plan and work for the growth of this church? Yes. Because of the truth of v18. Whatever discouragements we’ve had in sharing the gospel, does it make sense to keep praying for God to work in the hearts of those we care about and to keep trying to share with them a message they currently don’t’ want to hear? Yes. Because of the truth of v18.

If the number 7,000 is symbolic, we don’t know what actual number of believers it may stand for in our day in our country. It may be revival. It may be something else. What we do know is that there will be faithful people and that, as the Lord Jesus said, he will build his church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. (Matthew 16.18)

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