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.

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