Thursday, July 27, 2006

On Elijah's time of trial

Elijah and Jeremiah are easily my two favorite biblical characters. Both of them seem so easy to relate with, how so very human they were in their service of Jehovah. Like me, they had times when they were on top of their game and were remarkably strong in the Lord. But then there were times when they both bottomed out, questioning God in fits of depression as they seemed to loose sight of His plan for them. This, too, is like me as I so often take my eyes off the path that has been set for me and I deeply feel the abandonment and lack of my Savior’s presence (all my doing, of course). Yes, it is very easy to relate to these two pillars of faith because they were human and fallible, much as I am today.

We who have grown up in the church know much of Elijah’s story very well: the drought and famine that introduced him in 1 Kings, the widow whose oil and flour never ran out, the boy he raised from the dead, the epic contest on Mount Carmel, and the remarkable ascension into heaven on a chariot of fire. We love these stories because they tell us the triumphs of a man filled with God’s Spirit and devoted to Him. But we must also remember that even this great man struggled and sinned. When we remember victory over sin through God in the life of such a respected man of God, then we, too, can be encouraged to conquer sin in Jesus power.

1 Kings 19, we find Elijah returning from the fantastic demonstration of God’s power and authority on Mount Carmel leading Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, to the town of Jezreel. At the pinnacle of such a feat, Elijah flees from Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, as she threatens his life. He flees from northern Israel to the southern-most point in Judah, along the desert. There he leaves his servant and goes a days travel into the desert. There he prays:

"It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers."
1 Kings 19:4b (NASB)
By going into the desert alone, Elijah seems to be seeking death and, in fact, this is exactly what he prays for. In the act of going into the desert to die, though, he pauses to talk again to the God he loves and serves. He confesses that he wants death, but more than that he confesses that he is no better than his fathers. This is the really puzzling statement coming from Elijah, as he compares himself to the wicked, sinful, and faithless acts with which the people of Israel always struggled. Yet, I believe that I can understand Elijah’s frustration and his sentiment that he is but a simple, sinful man.

Despite the great victory over Baal at Mount Carmel, and despite the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, Israel remained firmly entrenched in idolatry and the Baal-worship championed by Jezebel. And Jezebel still held enough personal power to make (and likely follow through) a threat to kill Elijah. I am sure that Elijah was feeling that all the work he had done had all been for naught. Nothing seemed to have changed! Even more so at this point than in the past, Elijah felt like the lone God-fearing person in Israel. So, his response was to flee. He knew that God had not told him to leave Israel. He went, anyway. Elijah knew that Jehovah was not yet done with him, but still he runs away. He knew that these actions were contrary to God’s will and His plan, but Elijah still fled Israel in disobedience. Now, on top of an apparently fruitless work, Elijah had turned his back on God; his prayer recognizes that he knows himself to be human, to be sinful.

Elijah’s experience of fleeing to the desert is like the awakening and humbling of an arrogant man. His prayer seems to say that he now knows that he is no different from the people to whom he has been sent to prophesy. It is like Elijah had, in some way, felt himself better than those idolaters in Israel who desperately needed Jehovah. God’s message to him was that he, too, needs the same forgiveness and mercy for sin that the Israelites need. This is what Elijah learned from his flight from Jezebel, that he, too, was a sinful man.

Elijah also learned something else from this flight, something that he had refused to hear or believe before now. He was not alone! Elijah’s complaint to God is that he is alone; yet, just before going to Mount Carmel he had spoken to Obadiah, who confessed his devotion to Jehovah and that he had saved 100 prophets of God from Jezebel’s sword and continued to feed them all (no small feat in the midst of drought and famine). If there were these 100 prophets and this one remarkable man who remained faithful, how many more must there be throughout Israel who remained true to God? But Elijah did not seem to hear this, so God puts it plainly. When God speaks to Elijah after he fled to Beersheba and then followed God to Horeb (Sinai), Jehovah tells him plainly that there are 7,000 in Israel that have never bowed to Baal and that will be spared the calamity to come. Elijah learned in this trial not only his own need for Jehovah, but also that he was not alone.

When we read in
James 5 that a righteous man may pray with confidence that his prayer is heard and answered by God, we may question our own worth. But remember the example of a righteous man’s pray that James gives:

17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
James 5:17-18 (NIV)
Now you, too, may know that God did not send a perfect, sinless people to reach the lost but He sends us, as faulty and susceptible to the flesh as was Elijah and as is the world to whom we minister. Just as Elijah, we are imperfect but made righteous in Christ. Just as Elijah, we may pray and act in boldness and confidence. Just as Elijah, we can know that we are not alone!

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