The Lord Crashes Elijah's Pity Party
|Marc Chagall - The Lord appears to Elijah |
at the entrance to the cave in which
he took refuge (I Kings, XIX, 9, 13), 1956
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“And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:9b).
“And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:9b).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Elijah is running for his life—trying to hide from God, like Adam in the garden and Jonah sailing from Joppa. Oh, that’s not what he says he’s doing; it’s probably not even what he thinks he’s doing. He thinks he’s running away from Jezebel, Ahab’s evil wife, who has vowed to have him killed. But, in reality, Elijah’s been running away from the Lord Himself. As our text begins, he’s now about 300 miles away from home, having traveled all the way on foot, most of it through inhospitable desert. The last food he’s eaten is the bread and water the Lord provided him forty days ago. He cowers in a cave at Mount Horeb.
And the Word of the Lord comes to the prophet. If that were not enough to strike terror in the bravest heart, the question the Lord asks is, without a doubt, one of the most unnerving questions we humans ever face, namely, “What are you doing?” For whoever asks us such a question when we are doing what we ought? The addition of the word here—“What are you doing here?”—only exacerbates the already precarious predicament the prophet is in, for obviously he is not in the right place either. Here is Elijah—trying to escape from Jezebel—only to be reminded of the fact that one can never get away from the presence of the Lord Himself.
It’s easy for us, looking from the outside, to see Elijah’s foolishness, but in truth, we are just as shortsighted in much of our own vision—more often than not, we’re terrified by the things of this world, even though we’ve seen firsthand the almighty power of the Lord in daily life. We fail to heed Jesus’ warning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Shouldn’t we know better?
In fact, that’s what makes the opening lines of our Old Testament lesson so intimidating and unnerving. Elijah, of all people, should know better. He has just experienced firsthand, over a reasonable length of time, at least three significant acts that demonstrate the power of the Lord, and yet he’s intimidated by a woman, a wicked woman, to be sure, but still just flesh and blood. Elijah has just been privy to the unending oil and flour of the widow at Zarephath and the resurrection of her son, whereupon she announced, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). And, of course, he witnessed the dynamic revelation of the Lord’s power when the Lord vanquished the prophets and worshipers of Baal atop Mount Carmel with the fire that “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38). And yet, in spite of this firsthand demonstration of the Lord’s power, we see Elijah cowering in a cave. What’s up with that?
Regarding this reversion to cowardice, Martin Luther writes:
The Holy Spirit does not always impel godly people; He lets them do some things in accordance with their own will and wish. When Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, he was impelled by the Spirit of God (1 Kings 18:40); yet later on, when Jezebel’s wrath has been reported to him, he fears for himself, withdraws into the desert, and in this way looks out for his life (1 Kings 19:1–4). This he does of his own free will, for he is not commanded by God to withdraw. His reason kept telling him that he would be safe if he hid in the desert. Thus he who was most resolute when he killed the prophets was trembling here in his danger and thought that he would not be safe anywhere in Israel. These facts were recorded to comfort us, who have no other thought about the saints than that they were blocks and logs without feeling.[i]
The writer to the Hebrews takes note of heroes of the faith “of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (11:38). Elijah is certainly in their number. But like you and me, he is also a man with feet of clay. Fortunately, God does not leave him alone. The word of the Lord comes to him, and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Now one would think, given the setting just described, that Elijah would relish the reminder that the Lord Almighty is talking to him and calling him by his name. One would think that Elijah should be feeling pretty confident about his future given the recent past. But, in truth, Elijah’s response is a sniveling sort of self-indulgence, what my Mom would call a “pity party.” “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10).
Since we’re aware of what Elijah’s just experienced of the Lord’s power, we’re amazed at his lack of confidence in the Lord’s calling. But what is even more astounding is the Lord’s enduring patience. He could have justifiably given up on the prophet, but He doesn’t. In fact, the Lord goes to great lengths to encourage Elijah, letting him know that his calling is on the same level as Moses by granting similar signs. Like Moses, Elijah goes without food for forty days in preparation for meeting the Lord at Mount Horeb. Elijah stands at the entrance of the cave, while Moses is hidden in “a cleft of the rock” when the Lord’s glory passes by. Elijah wraps his face in his cloak; Moses hides his face.
God invites Elijah to step out of his cave while He shows him three tremendous displays of natural forces. Will God use that wind, the earthquake, or the fire on His enemies? The Lord had done it before with Moses. He had used the mighty wind to separate the waters of the Red Sea and then drown the Egyptian soldiers when the water came crashing back together (Exodus 14). When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram challenged Moses’ leadership, the Lord had caused the earth to open up and swallow them. Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who had offered the incense without authorization (Numbers 16).
But God is not ready to deal with His faltering prophet according to the Law; instead God comes and speaks to Elijah in a low whisper, repeating His original question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Although Elijah repeats his original answer, there seems to be a whole new tone—one of confession—that suggests Elijah now understands that what he is about to hear from the Lord lifts him above the petty annoyances that had seemed so dire the first time around.
Seven hundred years earlier, God had appeared at Mount Sinai with fire, smoke, and an earthquake. When God gave the Ten Commandments, his voice was like thunder (Exodus 19:18-20). Now God comes to Elijah not with threats and anger but with patience and love, with gentleness and mercy. Through a quiet voice, God gives spiritual strength to Elijah. As a matter of fact, Elijah has not been a failure. The God who sees into our hearts and who “knows those who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19) still has seven thousand faithful followers in Israel.
To encourage Elijah in a renewed battle against idolatry, God also gives him a threefold assignment. He is to head north and anoint the next king over Aram, who will be God’s scourge on Israel. He is to anoint a new king over Israel, who will wipe out the dynasty of Ahab and destroy Baal worship in Israel. Finally, Elijah is to anoint the man who will succeed him as prophet.
The Gospel in this text is uniquely designed for our all too often frequent moments of pessimism and limited vision in our service to God. Elijah feels like he is the only believer left in Israel, and God assures him that there are still seven thousand faithful left in the land. God’s Word does not return empty. It achieves the salvation it sets out to accomplish. What’s more, God provides for the Word’s future success. He arranges for a successor to Elijah’s ministry. God is in charge—and, surprisingly, not just in the spiritual realm but also in the secular (1 Kings 19:15-17). God is Lord in both kingdoms, guaranteeing that all things work together for the accomplishment of His saving will and for the good of those who love Him.
The surprise is the manner in which God exercises His lordship and accomplishes His saving will. Elijah looks for the omnipotent God in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Instead, he finds him in “a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). This is still the methodology of our great God. While He is an awesome God who works wonders and does mighty deeds, He generally comes to us, not in razzle-dazzle, but through such ordinary items as water, bread, wine, and words.
Thank God He comes to us this way when—when indeed He comes. God came not as the all-powerful Creator who could blow us to kingdom come as easily as He could blow apart the rocks. He comes as a gentle, humble man, veiling His glory just as He did from Moses and Elijah, only this time in human flesh. He stands silently, not even whispering, before a judge and jury of His own creatures. Then, in anything but power, in seeming helplessness, He lets those same sinful creatures kill Him.
The Lord appears on a “mount” (1 Kings 19:11), yes, but the “mount” turns out to be Mount Calvary; His throne turns out to be a cross. The truth is, there is only One of God’s children who is ever all alone—Jesus, His only-begotten Son, as He hangs on the cross crying, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” His closest followers desert Him, even His heavenly Father turns His back on Him as Jesus experiences the Father’s righteous wrath for the sins of the world.
Elijah’s complaint: “They seek my life, to take it away,” at most only describes an unsuccessful attempt. But in our Lord’s case, it is successfully carried out. They indeed seek His life and take it away, or rather He lays it down of His own accord, only to take it up again. Had the prophet Elijah been slain, his death would have been merely tragic and of no saving value at all. But the death of Jesus, despite the injustice and tragedy of it all, proves to be the salvation of the world. All to enable us to stand before God’s unveiled glory for all eternity.
Elijah was not the last man of God to be threatened with death by his government. Nine hundred years later, Jesus warns His apostles the unbelieving world will continue to hate God’s messengers. The time will come, Jesus says, “when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” All of this will happen, Jesus adds, “because they have not known the Father or Me” (John 16:2, 3). Jesus tells His apostles they will stand before kings and governors for His sake (Matthew 10:18). Herod puts the apostle James to death with the sword (Acts 12:2). Paul appears before Caesar in Rome. According to tradition, Paul and all the apostles except for John die a martyr’s death. 1,400 years later, Martin Luther is excommunicated by the church in Rome and threatened with death by the emperor. Christians all across the Middle East and in much of Africa face constant persecution and often death at the hand of Islamic extremists. Whenever God’s people confess that the Lord is the only God and that Jesus is the only Savior, they can expect similar hostility and hate from the unbelieving world.
Just a few years ago, it seemed highly unlikely that could ever happen in a “Christian nation” like the United States. About the worst thing you had to endure was someone making fun of you for wanting to get home early enough on Saturday night that you could get up for Sunday morning worship. But a lot has happened in a few short years. “Same-sex marriage” went from an issue that even the most liberal politician wouldn’t touch, to a right somehow written into the constitution, so essential that it trumps all other rights including the First Amendment guarantees to practice one’s religion and protecting freedom of political speech. The rights of transgender students have become so compelling that executive correspondence directs schools they must allow access to lockers and bathrooms based upon the nebulous criteria of gender identity rather biological facts.
And those who voice dissent are bullied into compliance by a Big Brother government, crony capitalists, or their willing allies in the media. Just ask Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to sign marriage licenses for same-sex unions; or Sandra Mendoza, who after 18 years as a pediatric nurse was told she must participate in abortions or be fired; or Aaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon bakers who were fined $135,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a “same-sex wedding”; or Judge Ruth Neely, an LCMS member in Wyoming, who came under fire when she indicated that she holds the biblical view of marriage as between one man and one woman, even though her duties do not include solemnizing marriages.
And that’s likely just the first trickle as the dam holding back the torrent of a rapidly changing culture is breached. Pockets of Europe are now under Islamic sharia law. Pastors in Canada face the possibility of arrest for “hate crimes” for preaching homosexual activity as sin. A Christian film maker who does an exposé of Planned Parenthood’s alleged involvement in selling parts of aborted babies is himself indicted on charges of attempting to purchase such parts by a prosecuting attorney who happens to sit on the local Planned Parenthood’s board of directors.
But even if nothing so dramatic should ever happen to you, it’s still easy to feel like you’re the only one trying to follow God, isn’t it? It may be at your place of work, when the HR department puts on a mandatory seminar offering sensitivity training on alternative lifestyles or religious accommodation for everyone but Christians. Perhaps you face this challenge in the classroom, when your instructor starts talking about evolution and the age of the earth being millions, even billions, of years without even allowing discussion on the possibility of a young earth or intelligent design. It could even be in your own home, when your spouse or children bluntly tell you they don’t want to hear you talk any more about Jesus.
Probably at the worst, you’ve been personally shunned or felt ostracized because of your faith, but I’m guessing you’ve not yet feared for your life because of it. The reality is, that at times, believers may feel the need to flee from those who would destroy them because of their Christian faith and their profession of that faith. It’s happened before. Will it come to that in our land? Only God knows. But we do know this: even if it does happen, you can be sure that the Lord will always be with you, patiently blessing you with His love, mercy, and grace.
You are not alone. The Lord has promised that His Church will be in the world until the end of time. St. Paul assures us that, despite the vicious efforts of Satan, God will always have his remnant, chosen by grace (Romans 11:1-5).
God alone will determine when our work on earth is finished. Until that time, He will provide for His people. As God raised up Elisha to follow in Elijah’s footsteps, so now is He raising up faithful servants of the Gospel to minister to this generation and the next. In Baptism, God calls you to be His beloved child. You are not clothed with the prophet’s mantle, but something even more powerful and miraculous—the robe of Christ’s righteousness, His death and resurrection. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ feeds you His true body and blood which strengthens you, body and soul, for the journey—far more than forty days and nights, but unto life everlasting. God continues to speak to you through the voice of His called and ordained servant, encouraging you with forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 3: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 15-20. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 3, p. 320). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.