Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 2

In this chapter, Elijah departs to heaven and Elisha succeeds him as prophet.

There is a progression of several events in this chapter, all relating to the transition that happens between Elijah and Elisha.  Most of this chapter is intended to establish Elisha's prophetic authority as he takes up Elijah's mantle both literally and figuratively.

This is not the first transition of power we have observed in the bible.  I think the most significant transition we saw in the past was when Joshua took leadership of Israel after the death of Moses (most clearly marked out in Joshua 1).  In addition, we saw a transition happen between David and his son Solomon (which was marked by a brief political conflict between Solomon and Adonijah in 1 Kings 1).  I am calling these out because for the most part, they were peaceful and intentional transitions, rather than e.g. David taking power from Ish-Bosheth by force (2 Samuel 2-4) or the split that happened between Jeroboam and Rehoboam (1 Kings 12).

I think the closest parallel to what happens in this chapter is the transition between Moses and Joshua.  In that case (as with Elijah and Elisha) there was no family relationship between them: Joshua was a servant and student of Moses, and Moses was a sort of mentor to him.  Similarly, the prophets in this chapter call Elijah the master of Elisha and I think it's fair to say that Elijah was training Elisha to be his replacement since Elijah himself anointed Elisha to be the next prophet.  Even the similarity of their names (which is undoubtedly confusing to first-time bible readers) is possibly intended to evoke the similarity of their callings and ministry, and they certainly perform a lot of the same miracles.

Speaking of names, Elisha and Joshua also have similar names.  Elisha means "God saves", while Joshua means "the LORD saves".  Another similarity between Elisha and Joshua is the symbolic power of crossing the Jordan.  Moses dies outside of the promised land and one of Joshua's first acts as leader is to take the nation across the Jordan, which miraculously splits to permit them to cross.  Here, Elijah leads Elisha out of the promised land, is taken up into heaven, and Elisha's first act as prophet is to split the waters again and cross back into the land of Israel.

That said, the transition of power between Elijah and Elisha is a much more finely crafted story than what happened between Moses and Joshua, so I think it is instructive for us to explore the details a bit.

The first thing that happens is Elijah travels around to three different areas in the northern kingdom, Israel, and every time he tries to dissuade Elisha from following him, and the first two times there is a group of prophets that tell Elisha his master is going to depart that day, and every time Elisha tells them that while they prophesy truthfully, that they should be silent and not say that thing to him.  So, what does this mean?  Why does Elijah try to get away from Elisha, and why does Elisha respond to the prophets the way that he does?

Rashi suggests that Elijah was trying to drive away Elisha out of his humility, so that Elisha would not see him be taken away.  That may be part of it.  Personally I don't have a good answer to this question, but I think it may be that Elijah was in some sense testing Elisha's persistence.  There is a Jewish tradition that when a person seeks to convert to Judaism, the rabbi is supposed to try to dissuade them three times and the person must insist three times that they wish to convert, because (according to the same tradition) becoming a Jew means taking on a very serious obligation, to follow the Law of God and live according to the ways of righteousness.  It is a serious thing and is not supposed to be done lightly.  I suspect that Elijah has a similar idea here, testing Elisha three times and telling him to stay and not follow the path of a prophet; not because Elisha is not anointed or not supposed to become a prophet, but because it is a hard and difficult path and Elisha should not do it if he is not completely committed.

Elijah himself is familiar with these difficulties, and we saw Elijah struggle intensely with depression from the stiff resistance he faced from both the people and the kings of Israel (see 1 Kings 19).  Elisha should become a prophet, but should do so fully knowing how much it will cost him.  Similarly, I think the companies of prophets may be trying to warn Elisha about the major changes that are about to begin in his life, and Elisha both knows and accepts those changes.

In verse 7, we see a group of 50 prophets come to witness Elijah and Elisha crossing the Jordan.  My NIV study bible wisely points out that this group of 50 is likely intended to echo the 50 soldiers in the previous chapter that had come to capture Elijah.  The reason being, while Ahaziah sent 50 men to resist Elijah, in this case God is sending 50 men to support him.

In verse 8, Elijah strikes the water with his mantle to divide it.  In this book, Elijah's mantle is symbolic of his ministry and authority (and the ancient Jewish audience would have understood this reference).  Back in 1 Kings 19:19, Elijah selected Elisha to be the next prophet by throwing his cloak upon Elisha.  Here, Elijah uses his cloak (again a sign of his authority) to divide the water.  Elisha's first act as a prophet is to perform the very same miracle, showing that the power and authority of Elijah was transferred to him.  Moses divide the Red Sea and his disciple Joshua crossed the Jordan.  Here, both Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan to show God's favor upon them.

Crossing the Jordan also has symbolic value, representing the transition between eras.  When Israel crossed the Jordan to enter Israel, they were leaving the time of wandering and entering a time of both conflict and tremendous blessing.  In this chapter, crossing the Jordan is also symbolic of the transition between eras, as Elijah departs and Elisha arises to take his place as the LORD's representative on earth.

In verse 9, Elijah accepts Elisha as his successor; he is no longer seeking to dissuade Elisha, and simply asks what he wants.  Elisha claims that he wants a double portion of Elijah's spirit, which is again a symbolic term.  Asking for a double portion basically means that Elisha wants to be considered Elijah's firstborn with respect to Elijah's inheritance (see e.g. Deuteronomy 21:17).  We saw this with Jacob giving a double portion to Joseph when Jacob claimed that both Ephraim and Manasseh would get a full portion of Jacob's inheritance, in effect giving Joseph twice as much as any other tribe.

Elijah once again warns Elisha that he is asking for a hard thing.  This is a double entendre.  Not only is it a hard thing for Elisha to inherit the full blessing of Elijah's ministry, it will also be a challenging calling that will test Elisha's endurance in many ways.  It is both hard to get an anointing and authority of this kind, and also it is a hard life to live once you get it.  Nevertheless, Elijah permits that Elisha may inherit his power and authority if Elisha remains so close to him and his pattern of living that Elisha would be present and would see him taken up into heaven.  Elijah is demanding that Elisha should walk with him fully and that Elisha should behave in every way that Elijah does; in that case, Elijah's spirit would rest upon Elisha.

In verse 11, Elijah is taken up into heaven and departed the earth without dying.  He is now the second (and last) person to do so, the first being Enoch (Genesis 5:24).  I will talk more about this in a moment, but for now I want to finish the transition narrative since that is the principle theme of this chapter.

Elijah is taken up to heaven by a chariot and horsemen of fire, giving us a brief (and likely symbolic) view of God's heavenly power that had shepherded Elijah's life.  Just as the 50 prophets demonstrate God's supremacy over the 50 soldiers of Ahaziah, the chariots of fire demonstrate God's supremacy over the chariots of human armies that typically dictated the flow of battle (for instance, the chariots of iron mentioned in Joshua 17:16 and Judges 1:19).

In verse 12, Elisha responds with "my father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel!"  This is also a double entendre.  In one sense, Elisha is saying that his "father", Elijah, is the chariots and horsemen of Israel; that is, that Elijah was genuinely the power of Israel to help them defeat their enemies.  Rashi supports this interpretation, by saying that Elijah benefited Israel more by his prayers than their chariots and horsemen did in battle.  In another sense, Elisha is saying the chariots and horsemen of fire are the chariots of Israel, and that it is the power of God that fights on behalf of Israel to defeat their enemies.

Elisha tears his clothes in grief, but at this time there is nothing he can do to reverse what had happened.  He is now prophet, and Elijah is taken from him by the will of God.

Elisha takes up Elijah's mantle and attempts to replicate Elijah's miracle: God does it, and thus Elisha is confirmed to be prophet with a company of witnesses.  These witnesses want to go search for Elijah, which is peculiar because they (or their brethren) had earlier prophesied that Elijah would depart; Elisha also knows that Elijah will not be found, but becomes ashamed because the prophets may begin to think that Elisha (having taken Elijah's ministry) does not want Elijah to be found.  So he permits them to go, but gives them a very stern, "I told you so" when they are unsuccessful.  Why would the prophets insist that they should look for Elijah?  Rashi suggests that "the holy spirit departed from the prophets" on the day that Elijah was taken away, though personally I don't think there is a whole lot of textual support for that position.

Having performed one miracle, Elisha almost immediately begins a string of miracles that span the next several chapters.  The first one (after crossing the Jordan) is to heal some "bad water".  The nature of the badness is not specified.  Interestingly, Elisha responds by throwing salt into the water.  Considering salt water is undrinkable, this is a peculiar ritual, but it has an interesting explanation.  It is possible that the salt here is intended to represent the covenant with God, since salt is used symbolically in several places (see Leviticus 2:13 and Numbers 18:19).  We don't know exactly what this term entails or if there is a particular covenantal salt ritual, but the language makes it clear that salt is somehow related to the notion of covenants generally and is used at least once to refer specifically to the covenant between God and Israel.

It is the covenant, or at least a reminder of the covenant, that heals the water and makes the land productive, reversing the curse that befell Israel when they joined themselves with idols and broke the covenant with God.  So Elisha is healing the water at the same time that he is in a sense rebuking the people for turning away from God.  He is reminding them that if they return to the covenant of salt with God then God would heal their land and their divided nation.

Lastly, Elisha goes from the Jordan river up to Bethel, which was one of the two towns with a golden calf and a center of idolatrous worship in the northern kingdom Israel, though it is also a home to one of the companies of prophets (which we saw earlier in this chapter).  On his way up, a group of young men come out to mock him saying "go on up, you bald head!"  Elisha responds by cursing them so that two bears come and kill a bunch of them.  My first reaction (probably everyone's first reaction) is that this seems like a massive overreaction on Elisha's part.  Some young kids come out and call you a bald head (which is a weird insult to begin with) and you think the best thing you can do is have some bears come and kill 42 of them.  That seems way out of proportion with what Elisha was subjected to.

I have several thoughts about this short but strange passage.  First, this is a critical transition period and Elisha needs to establish his authority.  I think this is an important point so I will belabor it.  Every time there is a transition in God's leadership of his kingdom, it is very important early on to establish the authority and authenticity of that new leadership, as well as the tone of that leadership.  For instance, consider the story of Rehoboam when he became king at the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12).  In that case, the people go and ask Rehoboam to lighten their burden, and Rehoboam responds by implying that he would increase their burden.  He was attempting to establish a precedent that he would rule over them harshly, so they rebel.  In this chapter, the youth of Bethel are establishing a precedent that they would not respect and would challenge God's prophet, and if Elisha permitted that to be done at the beginning of his ministry, then nobody would ever respect him.

Elisha is not just some random guy.  He literally just divided a river with his cloak; being the prophet of God is pretty serious.  Remember when the elders of Bethlehem trembled at the arrival of Samuel (1 Samuel 16:4)?  They asked him if he came in peace because they knew that Samuel had the authority of God and the power to destroy them by his pronouncements.  Without that power, Samuel would not have been able to influence the nation and turn them (to what extent he did) towards God.  This is important because neither Samuel nor Elisha have the power of the army; they cannot compel anyone to do anything by force of arms.  Indeed, it was the army that Ahaziah sent to apprehend Elijah contrary to God's will.  Instead, it is the power of the chariots and horses of fire (the power of God) that stands behind Elisha and this must be a power even greater than the power of swords and bows.

Second, the youth are part of the idolatrous system.  Even though they are young, they are harassing Elisha because they are in opposition to everything he stands for.  This is not a random event: they are specifically insulting Elisha because of his prophetic ministry.

Third, calling him a bald head is indeed an insult.  "Bald head" is intended to suggest that Elisha lacked power or physical prowess (for instance, see 2 Samuel 14:26 regarding Absalom's excessive hair).

Fourth, although Elisha may have understood that God would kill some of the youth, he doesn't specifically call for the LORD to do so.  God does it of his own power because of the seriousness of this situation and the need to establish Elisha's authority as a prophet to the whole nation.

Lastly, "go on up" is yet another double entendre.  In one sense, the youth are telling Elisha that he should "go on up" to Bethel, but in another sense they may be telling him to "go on up" to heaven like his master Elijah and depart from their country.  In that sense, they are again mocking him by despising even God's miracle when he took Elijah away to heaven.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 1

In this chapter, Ahaziah king of Israel dies and Elijah kills a bunch of people with fire from heaven.

I have no idea how to write a summary for this chapter.  How does one summarize the life of Elijah anyhow?  This story of Elijah calling fire down from heaven is famous enough to be quoted in the New Testament, but there are a lot of other dynamics happening in this chapter that make it hard for me to say this chapter is about one particular thing.

So, let's begin.  Moab rebels against the northern kingdom, Israel.  Moab had been oppressed by Israel ever since the reign of David, who put two thirds of them to death in 2 Samuel 8:2.  After the kingdom split, it appears that Moab remained subjected to the northern kingdom, but now after multiple defeats and internal strife, Israel is no longer able to control Moab.  This is just another step in their long decline, but it's also just a footnote to this chapter as a whole.

Ahaziah falls through the lattice floor in the upper chamber.  I don't know all of the details, but I think they constructed the floors by having two sets of intersecting wooden beams like a lattice, so there must have been a hole in the floor and Ahaziah fell through it and injured himself.

While Ahab wavered between following the LORD and following Baal, Ahaziah shows that he takes after his mother and sends immediately for Baal-zebub when he is injured to find out if he would recover.  Although the text doesn't say it directly, I think part of the reason why Elijah declares that Ahaziah would die is because of Ahaziah's apparent idolatry in this chapter.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah gets into a conflict with the prophets of Baal; Elijah challenges the people to cease wavering between two opinions and to either follow the LORD or follow Baal.  In this chapter, we see another conflict but this time it is between Elijah and the king himself, Ahaziah.  This is the second piece of evidence we have that Ahaziah represents a hardening of the idolatry against the influence of Elijah and the LORD.  Ahab certainly had a lot of conflict with Elijah, at one time calling him a "troubler of Israel" and another time calling him "my enemy".  But for reasons that I don't fully understand, Elijah maintained contact with Ahab and continued to influence him almost until the end of his life when Ahab finally, at last, repented for some of the evil he did (1 Kings 21:27-29).  In a sense, I think that vindicated Elijah because it showed at the very end that Ahab, who wavered for so long, took at least one small step back towards the LORD, even though Ahab later treated Micaiah (another prophet of the LORD) very poorly.  We do not have evidence that Ahab became a good person even after he repented, but for an least a moment he seemed to accept the dark condition of his own heart.

On the other hand, Ahaziah seems to be committed to serving Baal and sends for Baal immediately after getting injured.  When Elijah interdicts his messenger and challenges Ahaziah, Ahaziah responds with the forcefulness that Ahab never had and tries to take him captive by force.  In that sense, Ahaziah is acting more like a king than Ahab did, but unfortunately for Ahaziah, he is directing that force against the LORD who is not his subject.  Unless Ahaziah repents, the conclusion to this conflict will be disastrous for him.

Another parallel between this chapter and 1 Kings 18 is the "fire from heaven".  In 1 Kings 18, the fire was directed against the sacrifice and it was a sign of God's acceptance of Elijah and Elijah's authority.  In this chapter, the fire falls upon Ahaziah's men, killing them.  Once again this shows the major escalation in the conflict between the the kings of Israel and their God, since the fire of God is now falling on the kings' men to kill them.

Ahaziah sends three groups of soldiers.  Even after the first two groups of soldiers were killed by fire from heaven, Ahaziah's response is unflinching: he would send another group.  It is not Ahaziah, but the captain himself, who demonstrates humility towards Elijah and hence defuses the situation.  I can only imagine how long Ahaziah would have kept sending groups of soldiers to their deaths.  Even though Ahaziah is himself dying from his injury, he seeks to overpower Elijah rather than submit to God.

On the other hand, if Elijah had gone with the first group of soldiers, what would Ahaziah have done with him?  Perhaps Elijah would have been thrown in prison or executed.  You do not send a group of 50 soldiers to bring your friend over for a party at your house, this was clearly meant to intimidate Elijah and force him to come and perhaps reverse what he had declared over Ahaziah.  Instead, it is the soldiers who are intimidated and that may be why Elijah was permitted to leave.

In the end, Ahaziah does not repent and he dies.  His heart was hardened towards God and he refused to bow.

I began this chapter by noting the long and gradual decline of Israel as Moab rebelled against them.  This chapter ends with the long and gradual moral decline of Israel as we can observe the wavering of Ahab turn into the hardened rebellion and hostility of Ahaziah.  Ahab was certainly hostile to Elijah on several occasions, but Elijah continued reaching out to Ahab who eventually repented (in part) for what he had done wrong.  Ahaziah does not repent and Elijah doesn't play any games with him.  This increasing tension between the prophets of God and the kings of Israel is a bad omen, perhaps even worse than Israel's political setbacks, because power and authority flow from the LORD and it was David's relationship with God that strengthened him to conquer Moab in the first place.

Things are going to get worse in Israel before they get better.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings Introduction

And thus we begin the second half of the book of Kings.

So what do I want to say about the 2nd book of Kings?  In so many ways, it shares a lot of the same themes and patterns as 1st Kings, so perhaps I should recommend my introduction to 1st Kings to my readers as a starting point.

This book has three, or perhaps four, major sections, depending upon how you count them.  It begins with Elisha's succession to Elijah and Elisha confirms himself as God's prophet through many miracles.  Then there is a long progression of kings as the northern kingdom Israel slips deeper and deeper into idolatry, which is followed by a renewed series of military conflicts between Israel, Aram, Judah, an emerging Assyria and later, Babylon.  Lastly, there are several brief revivals in the southern kingdom Judah under the leadership of Hezekiah, Josiah and a few other kings, but ultimately it is not enough to turn the tide as idolatry seeps into the southern kingdom.  In the end, both Israel and Judah are conquered and deported to foreign lands as a punishment from God for forsaking the covenant.

Comparing these themes to 1st Kings, there are a lot of similarities.  Elisha performs great miracles the same way (and sometimes even the same miracles) as Elijah.  The long moral decay that began immediately after David's kingship continues in both the 1st and 2nd books of Kings.  In 1st Kings, Jezebel is an evil queen of Israel who commits idolatry and murders a bunch of people.  In 2nd Kings, Athaliah is an evil queen of Judah who commits idolatry and murders a bunch of people.  The frequent aggression against foreign powers is also the same.

The biggest differences are that the foreign powers are getting stronger and stronger.  Where Aram oppressed Israel, Assyria burns their capital and massacres them.  When Judah defeats Assyria, Babylon crushes Judah multiple times.  I also do not think we had any major revivals in 1st Kings.

On the whole though, I think 1st and 2nd Kings have very similar themes.  I think the main distinction is that 1st Kings shows the beginning of Israel's slide into idolatry and 2nd Kings shows the conclusion, i.e. destruction.  This is the destruction that Moses promised in Deuteronomy 28:64 and elsewhere.  2nd Kings ends on a despairing note, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the people exiled to Babylon.  But if we remember the things Moses said, we should remember that destruction was not the last word.  Moses said that if, in the land of exile, the people of Israel would remember the LORD and cry out to them, he would hear and gather them back to the land of the promise (Deut 30:1-10).

I think it is important for my readers to feel both of these emotions.  I think the book of Kings is written to give us that sense of doom, that depression that sinks in as things keep getting worse and worse.  The revivals awaken our hearts to hope, but it is a hope that fades all too quickly and into a greater darkness than what we found before the revival began.  One of the biggest themes of this commentary has been to interpret books the way the author intended us to read them, and I think one of the strongest themes of Kings is the despair and humiliation that comes upon Israel and Judah as they fall away from the LORD.  It begins with spiritual decay, but it concludes with their destruction as a sovereign entity.  I want my readers to feel that despair because I think that is one of the most important purposes of this book.

But we should not despair so greatly that we forget what Moses said about the exile.  Even after the destruction of everything they loved, all their national treasures stolen and taken out of the land of the promise, Moses promised that if the people of Israel turned back to God, then God would not forsake them.  He would bring them back to their home and would plant them again in their own land and inheritance and would not forsake the covenant.  God's faithfulness exceeds the greatness of his wrath in the face of Israel's transgressions.  Even as we go through the darkness of the exile, we should always remember that God's faithfulness and mercy to Israel has not yet been expended and the book of Kings is not the end of the bible.  The exile out of the promised land is not the end of the story.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 22

In this chapter, Ahab and Jehoshaphat go up to fight against Aram, they are defeated and Ahab dies.

This chapter begins on an interesting note, with the king of the southern kingdom Judah going up to visit Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom Israel.  In previous parts of this book, we saw Judah and Israel fighting each other, and this is the first sign of rapprochement between the divided tribes of Israel.  This in itself is a fairly significant political development.

In spite of Ahab defeating Aram several times in the previous chapter, he appears to still hold a grievance against Aram, which seems a little odd to me because not only did Ben-hadad promise to give Israel their towns back, but Ahab could have easily demanded more at the time because he had Ben-hadad completely within his power.

Nonetheless, it did not happen and now Ahab wants to re-open the conflict with the Arameans.  Jehoshaphat and Ahab both agree to attack Aram, but that appears to be the last thing they agree on.  I think one of the most interesting things in this chapter is the contrast between Jehoshaphat and Ahab, because I think this contrast highlights the differences in the religious development of Israel and Judah.  The last few chapters have been all about Israel as they devolved both politically (with numerous coups) and spiritually (as Baal worship filled the country).  Meanwhile, Judah has remained relatively stable and with the temple of God in Jerusalem, they have also mostly stayed true to the covenant.

Jehoshaphat first asks that they should consult with the LORD before going out to battle.  Ahab responds by bringing in his 400 prophets, who reply, "the Lord will give it to you".  Depending on what translation you use, you might not realize the distinction, but LORD (uppercase) is the word Yahweh, which refers to the God of Israel.  Lord (lower case) is the Hebrew word "baal" which means master or lord, but is also the name of a Canaanite deity that is worshiped by Jezebel, Ahab and many others.  Jehoshaphat asked that they consult with the LORD and Ahab responds by bringing together all the prophets of Baal, who declare that they would be successful.

Jehoshaphat, probably feeling a little awkward, says "no really, these prophets of Baal are great and all that, but can we please consult with a prophet of the LORD?" (v. 7).  Ahab agrees to bring in the solitary remaining prophet of the LORD (presumably Elijah is in hiding somewhere), but shows his hostility towards the LORD when he says this prophet only declares evil towards him, which, I guess, should be to the surprise of no one?  Ahab keeps doing evil, God keeps condemning him to judgment, and the prophets of the LORD keep declaring that judgment, and Ahab's response is that he is really tired of these prophets declaring judgment against him.  This is what a hardened, unrepentant heart looks like, when multiple prophets of God declare judgment against you and you respond by getting different prophets to tell you good things.  They are lies, but they are entertaining lies, and in the end, isn't that the real truth?  The answer... is no.

Jehoshaphat insists that Ahab should not speak evil about Micaiah or the LORD and that Micaiah should be brought in, so Ahab does so.  The servant of Ahab implores Micaiah to give a favorable word in agreement with all the other prophets, which is pretty remarkable because it shows that even Ahab's servants have no regard for the truth.  They don't actually care what the LORD's will is, or whether they will be successful, they want affirmation in their folly.

Verses 15-16 are pretty funny.  Ahab asks Micaiah whether they should attack Ramoth-Gilead, Micaiah says yes, and then Ahab insists that he should tell the truth because Micaiah was obviously being sarcastic.  We can tell that Ahab and Micaiah must have had a long and fairly antagonistic relationship before this, explaining both Ahab's reticence in summoning Micaiah and Micaiah's obvious disdain for Ahab.

The story in verses 19-23 is very interesting, and in my opinion this is the second most interesting part of this chapter.  As far as I can remember, this is the first time we actually have a vision or description of God in heaven, and there is a lot we can mine out of the details here.

First, God is seated upon a throne.  We already knew that God was described as being Israel's lord and is described as being like a king, but now we see kingship is one of the primary expressions for how God represents himself in heaven.  He is an authority.

Second, God is surrounded by the gathered army of heaven, and they are consulting together to decide how to get Ahab to go to his death at Ramoth-gilead.  We learn, then, that God is surrounded by many powers over whom he exercises authority.  There are armies in heaven that serve God, and it is interesting that he should ask them how to accomplish his will.  This always surprised me a little because I just assumed that God would know exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.  I assumed he would just tell angels where to go and what to do, and it was their (and our) responsibility to simply obey.  This is not the portrait painted by these verses.

Instead, while we see God is clearly in control and he is the master of all, seated upon the throne, and is the driving force behind the activity, he invites the spirits to come and work with him to fulfill his will.  In the past, I pointed out many examples of how God seeks to partner with humans and angels to fulfill his will on earth.  In this instance, we can see that not only does God give us agency to fulfill his will, he also asks us for our opinions on how to do that.  It means that we get to partner with God in both actions and decisionmaking.

Third, we learn that God intends to send Ahab to his death.  This is an act of judgment but also an act of mercy; Ahab must die as punishment for the evil he committed, but God also said in the previous chapter that Ahab would die before God brings "the evil upon his house" (1 Kings 21:29), sparing him from having to see calamity befall his family.

The fourth, and perhaps most controversial part of this story (to me at least) is the notion that God would send a "deceiving spirit" upon someone, which is similar to the "evil spirit" that God sent to torment Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).  In what sense may God send an evil spirit or lying spirit to someone, since God is himself good and truthful?  I don't really have an easy one-liner for this.  I think it's a pretty challenging question.  Rashi suggests that the deceiving spirit in this chapter is the spirit of Naboth, whom Ahab killed in the previous chapter, in which case it would be an act of retribution by Naboth.  Other commentaries suggest that the evil spirit could be a demonic presence that was either sent by God, or in the alternative, an evil spirit permitted by God to go deceive Ahab.  Certainly we know that living outside of a covenant with God leaves us vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits, so one could say that God permits evil spirits to torment or deceive those who do not follow God.  But that does not appear to be what's happening here, in this case God is clearly directing a spirit to go and deceive Ahab.  It is unthinkable that God would invite evil spirits into his council, a position of authority.  I think it's possible this story is a metaphor or allegory, and the deceiving spirit is a representation of how Ahab has opened himself to deception by seeking evil.

Regardless of the answer, we know that people who are not in the covenant, who do not follow God, are open to deception when they do evil.  Whether that deception comes from the powers of evil or whether God himself sends deceiving spirits to lead them down the path they have chosen is not a question that can be easily addressed.

Verse 24 is also kind of funny, Zedekiah is asking Micaiah if he saw how the lying spirit passed from him into Micaiah, in essence calling Micaiah a liar.  Micaiah says, "you will know the answer to that question when you are hiding in a room trying to escape from people who are coming to imprison or kill you" (v. 25).

Ahab is not amused, and orders Micaiah put into prison.  This is actually the last time we ever see Micaiah, so it's not clear if he was released from prison after Ahab died or if Ahab's servants put Micaiah to death after their master was killed.  Either way, we know that this is the last time Micaiah ever sees Ahab.

In the battle itself, Ahab disguises himself because he knows the king of Aram (who may still be Ben-hadad, but his name is not given in this chapter) would seek to kill him, but Aram and Judah are not at war so Jehoshaphat is somewhat safer.  In v. 32, it says that Jehoshaphat "cried out", which means he cried out to God, and in calling out to God, the captains of Aram recognized that he was not Ahab.  They knew from Jehoshaphat's prayer that he was not Ahab.

In the end, Jehoshaphat suffers loss from fighting alongside Ahab, but Jehoshaphat's life is spared, while Ahab dies in battle.

At the end of the chapter, we learn a few minor things.  Jehoshaphat mostly follows in the good patterns of Asa, which is expected and the biggest difference between Judah and Israel.  Jehoshaphat tries to send merchant vessels to get gold from Ophir, but they are destroyed in large part because of his alliance with Ahab.  Ahab's life is rather disastrous for Israel, and Jehoshaphat suffered great loss by aligning himself with Ahab.  That is perhaps why Jehoshaphat refused to deal with Ahaziah, because of what happened to him after fighting with Ahab.

This is, perhaps unexpectedly, the end of 1 Kings.  The book ends without much in the way of ceremony because it was originally composed as a single book.  Next we will enter into 2 Kings, which picks up where the story leaves off here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 21

In this chapter, Jezebel has Naboth killed so that Ahab can take his vineyard.

This chapter is like the confluence of several rivers of evil flowing together into a big pile of mess.  There are at least 4 different evil parties conspiring together to kill Naboth.

Ahab starts off this chapter just fine; he wants Naboth's vineyard because it is next to his palace and he offers to give him money or better land in exchange for it.  That is perfectly reasonable.  Naboth refuses, however, because he wants to keep his family's ancestral inheritance.  In simple terms, we could say it has sentimental value to him, but given everything we have read about the importance of inheritances and how the land is symbolic of Israel's covenant with God, I'm not at all surprised that Naboth refuses to sell his land.

After this, we see Ahab "vexed and sullen" again, refusing to eat and upset that he has been refused.  Like so many other times, he is not acting like a king here.  Jezebel also seems embarrassed by Ahab's behavior, and promises to deliver the vineyard to him.  This is where Ahab begins to sin, because he knows what Jezebel is like.  He knows that she is a murderous woman and by putting the matter in her hands, he effectively signed Naboth's death warrant.  Ahab is the first river of evil, weak and indecisive but happy to see innocent men die if it satisfies his desires.

The second river is Jezebel herself, who uses her authority as Ahab's wife to act on his behalf, writing a letter in his name, ordering the leaders of Jezreel to kill Naboth.  We know from previous chapters that Jezebel would kill the prophets of the LORD because she desires Baal worship to predominate over Israel.  More broadly, Jezebel has no respect for human life, just like her husband.  Ahab sins through his passivity, but Jezebel sins actively.  It is particularly foul that Jezebel intends to kill Naboth by proclaiming a fast, because fasting is supposed to be a sign of contrition and humility, bowing before God and declaring one's dependence on him.  Jezebel intends to use this religious festival as an opportunity to commit murder which shows her basic lack of morality.

Jezebel's incitement flows into the third river, which is the elders and nobles of Jezreel.  When ordered by Jezebel to kill Naboth, they obey her without objection.  I think this is a very clear example of how evil at the highest levels of power (with the royalty, Ahab and Jezebel) flows down and corrupts the authorities under them.  Why do all the elders obey Jezebel's clearly evil order?  Because all of the elders who would have resisted her must have been replaced or killed earlier in Ahab's reign.  There is a cultivation and grooming that happens over time when leaders use their authority to build patterns in the organizations under them by rewarding the people who share their values and punishing or demoting the people who resist them.  This has many practical implications, but in the immediate case, what it means is that Jezebel has elevated authorities in every town that are just as violent as she is.

The fourth, and final river, are the two false witnesses, whom the text calls "worthless men".  At every other layer (Ahab, Jezebel, the elders and nobles), the people sinned through conspiracy to commit murder, but did not lay their hands on Naboth.  These two men commit the fatal act by bearing false testimony against Naboth and sealing his death.  These men would not have acted if they were not commanded by the authorities, who themselves were under Jezebel's authority, who herself was acting because Ahab permitted her to do so through his passivity.

When Ahab finds out that Naboth was dead, he once again shows the evil in his heart by going down to take possession of Naboth's vineyard (v. 16).  In this act, he shows that Jezebel acted in accordance with his will, even though superficially Ahab could claim that he was innocent in Naboth's death.  Nevertheless, the LORD holds him responsible for murder (v. 19).

In the place where Elijah finds Ahab, the first thing Ahab says is that Elijah is "my enemy".  This is a remarkable statement, and it shows just how skewed Ahab's perspective was.  Ahab says that Elijah is his enemy, but the truth is that it is the LORD who is Ahab's enemy, because Ahab is persisting in doing evil.  Ahab made the LORD into his enemy by acting in rebellion against the LORD.  Elijah resists Ahab because Elijah lives under the authority of the LORD, but Ahab is deceived if he thinks that Elijah is his problem.

Lastly, and in quite a remarkable turn, Ahab actually repents of the evil he did and he fasts, not the deceitful fast that was used to kill Naboth, but a sincere, repentant fast.  And just as remarkably, the LORD changes his mind (to an extent) against punishing Ahab.  Ahab has sinned in so many ways and for so long, it is almost unthinkable that he would repent, and yet here we are.  And I think it is stunning that the LORD would respond to that and show kindness, but that is exactly what God does because that is who he is.  In Exodus 34:6, God declared his nature: "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and truth."  When God says that he abounds in compassion and grace, that is for all men and women on the earth, from the righteous Elijah to the evil Ahab.  God showed kindness to Elijah by preserving him in the wilderness, and he shows kindness to Ahab by accepting his repentance, and even by sending Elijah to confront and threaten him.  Without the threatened judgment from Elijah, Ahab would not have repented.  In my opinion, even Elijah's ministry itself is an act of kindness to Ahab because it is through Elijah that Ahab came to repentance, extending his life.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 20

In this chapter, Ahab defeats the Arameans twice, but permits Ben-hadad to live.

In the beginning of this chapter, Ben-hadad comes with a massive army to besiege Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel.  The situation is obviously dire for Ahab, because Ben-hadad sends to request his gold, silver, wives and children and he agrees to give them.  We can also see the power relationship in the language used between them, particularly when Ahab calls Ben-hadad his "lord" in v. 4 and v. 9.

When Ben-hadad requests even more, Ahab figures that Ben-hadad would just continue asking for more and more and take everything.  That is why Ahab decides to fight, rather than just give up everything.  Ahab probably expects to be defeated, but he knows that he needs to try.

In verse 11, Ahab uses this peculiar expression, that "one who puts on armor should not boast like one who takes it off".  This confused me when I first read it, but eventually I figured it out.  What this means is that when you are putting on armor, you are preparing to enter a battle which you may or may not win.  When you take it off, it's because you just won the battle and are taking your armor off in victory.  When I first read it, I assuming that a person taking off their armor was running away from a battle, but it actually means that you already won the battle and are taking it off afterwards.  In essence, what Ahab is saying is that Ben-hadad should not boast about destroying Samaria before he even fights the battle.

Ben-hadad, in turn, is busy drinking with his captains, is naturally enraged when he hears Ahab's response, and orders his men to prepare for battle.

Afterwards, an unnamed prophet tells Ahab that he will be victorious and directs him how to fight the battle.  I think what stands out to me the most is, once again, Ahab's indecisiveness.  On the one hand, he permits his wife Jezebel to worship Baal and kill prophets of the LORD, but on the other hand, when this unnamed prophet comes up to him with a message from the LORD, he obeys.  He goes out to fight Ben-hadad (who is drinking again; this man is clearly unqualified to be leading an army) and is victorious.  Ben-hadad also shows his pride once again, because he says that his men should take the Israelites captive rather than fight to kill them.  It is much harder to take a soldier alive than to take him dead, so I think this statement is prideful in that Ben-hadad is making the assumption that his forces are so much stronger that they will handily defeat the Israelites.

Ahab shows that he is still divided between following the LORD or Baal, whenever it is convenient to him.  He shows no conviction, other than his most basic desire to remain in power.  Later on, in this same chapter, when the prophet tells Ahab that he will die because he permitted Ben-hadad to live, he returned to his palace sulking and angry.  His attitude reminds me of Cain, who was similarly angry and downcast (Gen 4:5) when the LORD did not accept his offering.

This chapter also reminds me of Saul, because in 1 Sam 15 Saul permitted Agag to live and that was one of his sins which caused Samuel to pronounce him stripped of the kingship.  In this chapter Ahab allows Ben-hadad to live, and he loses the kingship (and his life) for it.  Neither Saul nor Ahab repent, and that is what makes their attitudes sinful and similar to Cain.

When God rebuked Cain, he didn't get humble, he got angry.  When Samuel rebuked Saul, he didn't get humble, he got desperate to maintain his reputation before the people.  When the unnamed prophet rebuked Ahab, he didn't get humble, he got angry and frustrated.  When David sinned with Bathsheba and Uriah, he was rebuked and he repented.  He got humble.  In order to be a king before God, you need to be humble, which is the opposite of how the world teaches people to be.  The world teaches that you need to be strong, proud and self-confident to be a king.  God exalts humility.  I find that humility is defined most clearly in how I react to my own mistakes.  This is not the only way humility appears, but I think it is the clearest.  Do I try to hide or deny my mistakes, or do I accept them and try to fix them (to whatever extent possible)?  Pride cannot accept mistakes and that is why it reacts with anger whenever it is rebuked.

At an even more basic level, I am surprised that God decided to intervene on behalf of Ahab.  Given everything we know about Ahab, there is no evidence he has repented for anything.  Yet, God ended the drought a few chapters ago, and now he is leading Israel to victory in battle over their enemies.  I think we see part of the answer in v. 28: God is doing it not (only) as an act of deliverance for Israel, but as a warning to the other nations.  As with the previous chapter, we don't really get an explanation for why God chose this moment to liberate Israel from their foreign oppressors, so it's not a question I can definitely answer.  We do know that in the long run, as long as Israel persists in idolatry, things will get worse before they get better.

I also want to discuss is the rather unusual passage in verses 35-42.  Could you imagine someone coming up and asking you to strike him with a sword, and when you refuse to do it he says the LORD is going to have a lion kill you because you disobeyed?  I know if one of my friends came up and asked me to cut him or her with a knife, I would almost definitely refuse.  I think one could probably draw broader lessons from this passage, but for the time being I will just say that obedience to the LORD must be the most important thing to us, even if God is asking us to do something that is contrary to our natural inclination.

Besides that, we do not have any record of Ahab actually being ordered to kill Ben-hadad.  We can either suppose that 1) Ahab was told to kill Ben-hadad but we just don't have it recorded, 2) the unnamed prophet implied that Ahab should kill Ben-hadad in his earlier statements or 3) it was just so normal for defeated kings to be killed or imprisoned that the author assumes Ahab should have done it.  Out of these three, I think the third is most plausible because it aligns with the parable that the unnamed prophet told.  Ahab captured Ben-hadad in battle, took him prisoner, and then let him go without any real punishment at all.  In fact, Ahab appears to honor Ben-hadad by calling him brother and bringing Ben-hadad into his own chariot (v. 33).  Considering how Ben-hadad was treating Ahab earlier in this same chapter (totally humiliating him and demanding everything he owned), this is a little perplexing and certainly unusual.

Why is Ahab punished for showing mercy?  I think we get the answer to that in the parable.  Ben-hadad was not Ahab's prisoner; Ahab was merely his custodian.  Ben-hadad was a prisoner who belonged to the LORD, and it was the LORD's decision to set him free or put him to death.  By letting him go, Ahab was erring in his duty to the LORD.  It was not Ahab's right to make that choice.

Lastly, I want to take some time to dig into the notion of the LORD being the god of mountains and valleys.  After the first battle, in verse 23 the advisers to Ben-hadad claim that the LORD is a god of mountains, but not a god of the valleys, and therefore if they fight in the valleys (rather than the mountains), then the Arameans would be able to defeat Israel.  In verse 28, the unnamed prophet asserts that because the Arameans think the LORD is not a god of valleys, he will defeat the Arameans a second time to prove his supremacy in both mountains and valleys.  I think this is a really fascinating part of the story and I would like to take a moment to expand on it.

There are at least three different ways of looking at this story, which I will explain in turn.

First is the physical, or military, explanation: chariots are more effective in valleys than in mountains.  To elaborate, I have mentioned on several occasions that chariots are an incredibly effective force multiplier in the ancient world, and battles would often revolve around which army had more chariots or utilized their chariots more effectively.  One of several examples I could give is Exodus 14-15 where the chariots of Pharaoh are used as a personification of Egypt's military strength.  A second example is Joshua 17:16 where Ephraim and Manasseh insist that they cannot take the valleys of Canaan because the inhabitants of those lands have chariots of iron.  I do not think it is a coincidence that the chariots of iron are mentioned in the same breath as the valleys of the Canaanites, because (as I already said) chariots are far more intimidating of a weapon in wide open, smooth spaces, where they can move very fast and tactically reposition around the enemy.  In mountainous terrain, the chariots are less effective because there is less space for repositioning and it is easier for an army to set up a defensive front in some culvert or narrow pass, while in a valley chariots could attack from many different angles.

So when the Arameans say that they want to fight against Israel in the plains, the military explanation is that their chariots would be more effective in that environment, giving them a tactical advantage.

The second way to look at this story is through the conflict between the polytheistic philosophy of the Arameans and the monotheism of the bible.  Let me explain what I mean.

One of the hallmarks of ancient religion is polytheism (the idea that there are many gods in the world) where each god is associated with one or more aspects of the world.  Although the Greek religion came into preeminence several hundred years after this story was written, I think it is likely very similar to how the Arameans viewed the world.  In the Greek religion, each god is associated with certain attributes: Ares is the god of war, Demeter is the goddess of harvest, grain and fertility, Zeus is the god of thunder and storms, and so on.  The Greek religion also had demi-gods and goddesses associated with geographic features who were called nymphs or oreads, and in Greek society people would pray and offer sacrifices to the god associated with whatever kind of divine favor they wanted.  Sailors would often pray to Poseidon for calm oceans and safety on their voyages, farmers would offer sacrifices to Demeter and Persephone, and so on.

How does this relate to the present story?  It is possible that the Arameans think the LORD is a particular deity who has supremacy over mountains, but that their own gods are the gods of valleys and would therefore prove superior to the LORD when fighting in their own domain.  It is basically ascribing to the LORD a particular domain because they are trying to fit the God of Israel into their polytheistic philosophy that viewed all of the gods as being gods of a particular thing.  The LORD insists that he must defeat the Arameans in order to prove them wrong because they are viewing the world in a fundamentally flawed way.  God is the god of mountains as well as valleys, because he has dominion over the whole earth and every aspect of it, which is contrary to the assumptions of every polytheistic philosophy of the time.  If there were a god that had power over everything in the world, that would (in some ways) defeat the whole purpose of polytheism, and indeed that is exactly the point.  The LORD is not an equal among many gods, he is the mighty and only God who has power over anything and everything.

The third way to look at this story is through the lens of metaphor.  The mountains are a metaphor in the bible for encounters with God.  Think of Mount Sinai where Moses ascending to meet with the LORD and returned with the tablets of the ten commandments and the covenant.  Valleys are the gaps that exist between mountains, when we descend from the heights of spiritual experience and return to ordinary life.  Some people think of God as being accessible during mountaintop experiences but struggle to find God during the mundane or difficult circumstances that come between those encounters.  What we can learn from this chapter is that God is present and has power over every circumstance we face in life, whether mountains of valleys.

I think if there is one principle that stands out to me, it's the notion that God has full dominion over the whole earth and every circumstance.  This is contrary to the religious philosophies of the Arameans, but to us who serve God, it is an encouragement because we know that in every situation God is with us and is in control; that he can bring us victory both in the mountains and in the valleys.  In verse 28, God says that after Israel is victorious in the valleys, "you shall know that I am the LORD".  He very identity and name are known to us because of his authority and power in every situation.

There is one more thing I want to say about this passage.  When the Arameans attempt to spiritualize the battle, God says that he must defeat them a second time to prove them wrong.  Something I noticed is how much more devastating the second defeat is than the first one.  In the first defeat, the Arameans lost an army.  In the second defeat, Ben-hadad is left cowering in a dark room waiting for the Israelites to come and perhaps kill him.  I think this is certainly a general principle.  Anyone who persists in sin will not remain in that condition; they will either find freedom or they will fall into a deeper and deeper darkness.  In this case, the sin of the Arameans is to think that they can resist God or that their gods are equal in strength to the God of Israel.  The universe is not an equal opportunity employer: not all gods are created equal.  One God really is stronger and more powerful than every other being, and only one God is the creator of everything else.  In counting their own gods as (philosophically) equal to the LORD, they sinned, and by persisting to fight against Israel, they were instead fighting against God.  It was inevitable that as they persisted in this battle, that the LORD would punish them more and more harshly unless they repent.

In the same way, if we pursue some sin in our own lives, unless we repent of it we are bound to harsher and harsher torment until we are destroyed.  Sin destroys lives.  Those who are redeemed do not face punishment from God because his judgment does not fall upon his children, but the sins that we accept into our lives can still punish us because sin itself brings death.  This is usually a progression that grows from a small thing into greater and greater darkness, just as the Arameans faced more and more severe defeats.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 19

In this chapter, Elijah flees into the wilderness, encounters God, and anoints his successor.

This is such a powerful chapter.

The first thing I'd like to discuss is the role of Ahab.  In this chapter, Ahab shows his weakness and indecision.  In the previous chapter, Elijah confronts the people of the northern kingdom, accusing them of hesitating between serving Baal and serving the LORD.  In this chapter, we can see that Ahab is not really a devoted servant of either.  I don't really think Ahab is hesitating between two opinions as much as he simply not choosing anything and he's letting other people choose for him.

Basically, Ahab permits Elijah to kill all the prophets of Baal and his response, upon getting home, is to tell Jezebel about it.  Jezebel is clearly devoted to Baal because she is furious and threatens to kill Elijah.  Ahab does nothing, either to encourage or restrain Jezebel.

Who is the king here?  Why is Ahab not trying to take control of the situation and exert his authority?  His weakness is perplexing and contrary to what a king is expected to do.

The second thing I found peculiar about this chapter is that Jezebel sends a messenger to threaten Elijah rather than sending a group of soldiers to go kill him.  Did Jezebel lack the authority to kill Elijah, or was there some other reason she preferred to threaten him rather than take action?

Regardless of Jezebel's motivations or political authority, the effect in Elijah's life is obvious: he goes into a depression.  This part is so powerful to me, because a lot of the bible tends to lack emotional color in the descriptions, but in this chapter it really shows how Elijah is emotionally responding to the events of the previous chapter as well as Jezebel's words, and we can see what kind of toll it is taking on him.  Elijah feels a constant wave of resistance everywhere he goes with everything he does.

Not only does Elijah feel alone, but we can see he feels a burden from the earlier generations of sin when he says that he is "not better than my fathers".  We can see Elijah's loneliness when he says "And I alone am left, and they seek to take my life also."  The reason why I say Elijah is depressed is that he is exaggerating.  First of all, Elijah is definitely better than his fathers who walked in darkness and sin.  Secondly, many of Elijah's ancestors were godly men and women.  Third, Elijah is not alone.  As we know from the previous chapter, Elijah was aware that Obadiah saved 100 prophets of the LORD by keeping them in caves.

Elijah is saying things that are factually incorrect, because he is speaking out of his emotions, and that is what I love about this chapter.  It shows the real, human side of Elijah when so many other chapters in this book show him as a harsh and unwavering prophet, either threatening judgment or performing great miracles as if they were no big deal.  Now we can see that Elijah has been affected by his experiences, like when Moses had an outburst of anger in Numbers 20.  In the case of Moses, he responds with anger but in the case of Elijah, he responds by withdrawing from society and going out into the Negev desert in southern Judah (more explicitly, he fled from the territory of the northern kingdom where the previous chapter occurred, which meant that he was out of Jezebel's reach because the southern kingdom Judah and the northern kingdom Israel were at war).

To Elijah, there was a physical act of going out into the desert, but I also think it is an apt metaphor for depression, which can also be terribly isolating and like Elijah who pleads for death, drains people of the will to live.

Elijah is acting out of his emotions, which is completely understandable and relatable, but I hope my readers can also see how it is skewing his perspective and driving him out of God's assignment for him and intentions for him.  God did not tell him to go to Judah or the Negev.

After observing Elijah's behavior, I find the LORD's response to be so powerful.  God first sends an angel to give him food and water, which is reminiscent of when he sent an angel to provide water to Hagar (Gen 21), but the context here is totally different.  Hagar was cast out by the decision of another and sent into the wilderness to die; in this case, Elijah went of his own will.  But God sees Elijah in his depression and exhaustion, sees him in the desert and dry place in his life and God provides.  God sustains him not once, but twice, which in the bible indicates confirmation.  God sends an angel twice, who touches Elijah twice, giving him bread and water twice, in order to show that God would always be with him, always provide for him and always watch over his life.

It is critical to note that in spite of God's intervention, Elijah is still both depressed and in the desert.  God's provision did not change either his outward circumstances or his inward emotional distress, but it sustained him.  If that were all God did, then Elijah probably would have remained in the desert and his life would have been over.  God's first act was to sustain him, but that was not his only act.

Elijah's reaction is to travel to Mount Horeb in Sinai.  This is the place name for many things in the Pentateuch; it is listed as the place where God first encountered Moses and assigned him to free the Israelites (Ex 3:1) and it is also given as the place where God established the covenant with Israel (Deut 4:15, 5:2).  It is also the place where God commanded Moses to strike the rock and make water come out for the people (Ex 17:6).

God did not command Elijah to go to Horeb, though the angel does refer to "the journey" which may refer to Elijah's journey to Horeb.  While God did not command him to do this, I feel like Elijah's journey to Horeb is highly symbolic in this context.  At first, Elijah went out into the desert in order to die.  But after receiving the ministry of an angel and the provision of God, Elijah travels further to Mount Horeb, where the covenant was first established, because in the midst of his grief and sorrow, Elijah is seeking to encounter God in a meaningful way.  My first reaction on reading this was, "seeing an angel and getting divine bread and water isn't good enough?"  I was slightly amazed that these miracles did not break him out of his bad mood.  My second reaction is that Elijah is a prophet of God.  He has performed powerful miracles; he has seen fire literally come down from heaven and consume an offering that he prepared.  Elijah knows God is real and he knows what God is capable of doing.  Elijah did not come out here to see another miracle; he came out here because he is deeply upset and needs to encounter the presence of God.  In the same way that food and water sustains his body in the wilderness of Judah, it is the presence of God that sustains his soul in the wilderness of the hopelessness that confronts him.

And we can see that after God provides for him, Elijah is revived in a powerful way, because he continues on his journey.  He travels the entire way to Horeb for 40 days (another highly symbolic number, mirroring the 40 years that Israel wandered in this same desert), because Elijah is seeking the birthplace of the covenant.  He feels lost and disconnected from God and he is trying to find his way back to God by going to the place where he is certain that God encountered his people.  In one sense, Horeb is a metaphor for God's relationship with mankind, but in another sense Horeb is itself a place where mankind may go to seek God.  It's like if someone had a miracle occur at some particular place and years later, they go back to that place because it was the place where they encountered God.  By going there, they are saying to God, "I am here!  Touch me again like you did before."  It almost feels like a prayer to me.

After all this, after the divine provision and the long journey, having reached the place of encounter, the word of God comes to Elijah: why are you here?  I did not tell you to come here.  I am amazed by God's gentleness in how he deals with Elijah.  That's because Elijah is not in rebellion against God; certainly Elijah has gotten off track from where he is supposed to be, but it is not an act of disobedience, it is because Elijah got overwhelmed by the circumstances that he faced.  God responds to disobedience and rebellion with punishment and wrath, but in this kind of situation Elijah has some other kind of failing.  It is a failing, but it is not a moral failing.  He failed in the very specific sense that he found himself simply incapable of completing his mission, and this is something God responds to with gentleness and grace.  God is not seeking to rebuke Elijah, he is seeking to restore Elijah, to get him back on track.

Elijah responds with his complaint: I have served you, but the sons of Israel broke the covenant and they fight against me at every turn, they do not love you or serve you.  I alone am left, and they would kill me too if they could.

Strictly speaking, Elijah did not exactly answer the question.  Even if all Israel turned against him and sought his life, why did he go to Horeb?  I think Elijah recognized that God alone had the power to answer his questions and heal the pain in his heart and he was seeking to encounter God.  I also think it's notable that Elijah was no longer asking for God to kill him, now he is simply stating his complaint, bearing his soul before the LORD, and seeking an answer.  In this whole chapter, Elijah never once asks God a question, but at the same time, I certainly think Elijah was looking for answers.  It's almost funny because God already knows everything and he asks Elijah questions, while Elijah is the one looking for answers and he is not asking any questions.

God asked Elijah questions to get Elijah to open up his heart.  It is only after Elijah is able to bear his pain before God that God was capable of healing it.  I think that is a second dimension of Elijah's journey.  As he draws closer and closer to the place of the covenant, he also opens up his heart before God.  This is incredibly important because when we keep pain and wounds concealed from God, it hinders God's ability to heal us because we are not giving him permission to do so.  To receive healing from God, we must places ourselves in a position of vulnerability towards him.  Only then is he able to speak words of life into our inner being.

Verses 11-13 are relatively well known and often repeated (amongst the kinds of people I listen to, anyway).  Many times I have heard people say, "God speaks in a still, small voice" (based on the KJV translation of v. 12), not even bothering to give the context on the assumption that people will know what you are talking about.  It's basically a Christian aphorism at this point to assert that in most situations God will usually do things in a very quiet and subdued way, and that raging fire and earthquakes and stuff like that do not carry the deeper power of indicating God's presence.

I think there is some truth to these aphorisms, but I think it is even more powerful when you consider the larger context.  When this passage talks about great winds and fire and earthquakes, those are the same manifestations that shattered this same mountain in Exodus 19 when God came down and established a covenant with Israel.  I think it is a natural question to ask, then, whether God was in the fire and earthquake and trumpet blast of Exodus 19?  Unfortunately, I don't think this is not a question that we can really answer because Exodus does not tell us.  I do think that God is sometimes "in the fire" and sometimes "in the wind" and sometimes "in the earthquake"; if it were not so, then the author might not have bothered to tell us that God was not in these things when he encountered Elijah.

In this particular instance, God was not in the outward shaking and burning, but sometimes he may be found there.  Sometimes this shaking may be the shaking of kingdoms, sometimes this burning may be the burning of offerings and other times it may be the burning of hearts.  Sometimes it is from God and sometimes it is not.  We should not assume that such things are from God, nor should we assume that they are not.  We cannot look to manifestations or great signs as carriers of God's presence: we must look for God's presence wherever he may be found, and having found him, abide in that place.

I think to understand what is happening here, we must understand God's purpose in these verses.  When God comes in an earthquake, it is to shake and break things down, whether that means judgment (upon those who do evil) or to break down and reshape situations and ideas in the lives of even righteous people.  But when we consider Elijah, he is already broken down.  He fled into the wilderness out of the distress in his heart, so God does not come in fire and wind and shaking because Elijah is already broken and hurting.  God moves in those ways to break down hardened hearts.  Elijah is already opening his heart to God.  Therefore God comes in the gentle, quiet wind to restore him.  God does not have emotional insecurities, he has no need to prove anything to anyone.  God moves in Elijah's life to build Elijah up, not to show off, because God seeks to be glorified in Elijah, not to glorify himself to Elijah.  God wants to be exalted through Elijah, not to Elijah, because God is seeking human partners on the earth to share in his redemption mission.  In this case, the gentle wind exalts God more than anything else because it is exactly what Elijah needs to be restored, and having been restored, Elijah's life exalts the LORD.

Elijah found the holiness of God in the gentle wind, and covered his face because he was overwhelmed.  And yet, even in the midst of God's presence he still had the same anguish and pain that carried him out to this remote, deserted place.  And it was here, in the midst of that presence and in the midst of the depression and grief that God finally spoke to Elijah's heart.  First, God gives him a new assignment to anoint successor kings and his own successor as prophet, Elisha, and the secondly, God reaffirms his heart that Elijah is not alone: there are 7,000 other people who have not loved Baal and have stayed true to the LORD and the covenant.

How does this answer Elijah's questions?  Elijah first says, "the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant" and second says, "and I am alone".  God tells him first, you will anoint two kings and a prophet who will rise to power like swords putting my enemies to death.  Second, you are not alone.  The first part doesn't really seem like an answer, but I think what God is trying to do is reassure Elijah that he has a plan for Israel.  God never says, "you are wrong, Israel did not forsake me", because Elijah was right about that part, Israel did forsake God.  God is reassuring him by saying, "while Israel did forsake me, I have a vision for how their hearts can be drawn back.  You still have a role to play, and you can continue to serve me and serve my plans by anointing these men."

God shows Elijah that while Israel has forsaken God, God did not forsake Israel and God was sending Elijah to continue his ministry in furtherance of God's plans.  From this place of encounter, God brings a deep healing to Elijah, so Elijah returns to the northern kingdom Israel and anoints his own successor Elisha.

Elisha, in turn, immediately shows what kind of man he is.  After Elijah throws his cloak upon him (a symbolic act that Elisha would have understood to indicate he was chosen by Elijah), Elisha sacrifices his oxen, burns his plowshare to cook the meat, and follows Elijah.  Elisha destroys his own livelihood as an act of total consecration.  He was going to leave nothing behind of his previous life, nothing to fall back on if "being a prophet" doesn't work out for him.  This story makes me immediately like Elisha, because he shows that he is a man of great faith.  We will get to read about Elisha quite a bit more in the rest of this book.

While the words that God spoke to Elijah are specific to him, I think the pattern applies to us.  In the midst of our pain or depression, God sustains us and provides for us and he brings us to a place where we can be totally open to him, and in that place he brings deep healing.