One of my favorite passages of Scripture is 1 Kings 19. In general, I love when the Bible surprises me, especially when it reveals someone I’ve been taught to think of as a hero of faith (in this case, the prophet Elijah) as a self-absorbed crybaby. Even better, 1 Kings 19 reveals that God responds to Elijah’s whining with compassion and kindness. This is exactly the sort of message I so often need to hear.
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Kings 19:1-2)
This story takes place right after the showdown on Mount Carmel. You might remember the Sunday School story where Elijah goes toe to toe with the prophets of Baal to see whose God is stronger. The prophets of Baal shout, dance, and cut themselves in an attempt to get Baal to burn the sacrifice they offer. But Elijah, in an awesome display of confidence, dowses his sacrifice in water, mocks Baal, and watches God send fire from heaven to claim an easy victory. Solid moment for Elijah. You would think he would be riding high on faith after such a display of God’s power.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. (1 Kings 19:3-5a)
Okay. Well. That’s not quite the powerful prophet I remember from Sunday School. And thank goodness. I love this Elijah. He sees God’s undeniable power, and when a queen calls for his head, he does not immediately turn to God for help. Instead, he runs away. Oh, Elijah, I feel you. Sometimes an experience with God feels so draining that instead of being filled, I am utterly empty. It feels like I’ve given everything I have, and I may as well just die. But–how will God respond to this kind of weary distrust? Won’t he be offended that Elijah has given up?
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. (1 Kings 19:5b-9a)
I LOVE THIS. I love it so much. God doesn’t make Elijah stew in his unfaithfulness. “All at once” an angel comes to help Elijah. God doesn’t send a messenger who will berate Elijah, saying, “Um, dude, don’t you remember the God you serve? What kind of idiot are you for giving up now?” Not even close. Instead, the angel serves Elijah with such tender intimacy. The angel touches Elijah, feeds him, gives him water. More than that, it’s bread baked over hot coals and water in a jar. This is not scraps or muddy water. After a meal and some sleep, God does not command the angel to start nagging Elijah. “Okay, you’ve gotten some rest. Now get your act together!” There’s no hurry, just a deep understanding of Elijah’s weariness. The angel leads him slowly on a journey to Horeb, and there is no evidence of a guilt trip along the way.
And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your alters, and put your prophets to the death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:9b-10)
Elijah has forty days to figure out what he wants to say to God. He has been shown tenderness and care. So what comes out of his mouth? Complaints! Elijah, man, I love you so much. Most of my prayers are 1) reminders to God of how awesome I am, 2) how much everyone else sucks, and 3) whining. It’s good to know a man like Elijah does the same.
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13a)
This is another famous Sunday School story, but I never learned the context. Yes, this is a beautiful picture of God appearing to his servant (in intimate contrast to sending an angel). It is also a reminder that God often works quietly. But for Elijah, it seems like God is continuing to drive home the idea that He is gentle. Elijah expects chaos and fear. That is what he is running from. God gives Elijah what he expects, then shows him that this is not God’s character. God is a gentle whisper, so maybe Elijah ought to trust him?
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your alters, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:13b-14)
This is my favorite part! God condescends to appear to Elijah, reminds his bedraggled servant of His gentleness, and Elijah responds…with the exact same arrogant and sullen speech! No change. God has cared for him in incredibly intimate ways, but Elijah is still unhappy. He is tired and lonely. He feels betrayed and scared. Sure, God is taking care of him, but he wants a person! He wants to know he’s not alone. So he talks back to God, and there doesn’t seem to be much humility in him. God has every right to roll His eyes and say, “Alright, Elijah, if you want to be a self-absorbed crybaby, I’ll leave you to it. Eventually you’ll realize what a good thing you missed out on.”
The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king of Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
God doesn’t give up on Elijah. He listens to his repeated complaint, and then He tells him what to do. Elijah’s fear and stubbornness don’t invalidate him from God’s service. God, having given Elijah rest and comfort, now urges him to return to work. But–not just any work. Elijah is going to anoint kings to destroy the people who are seeking his own death. Elijah is going to anoint a prophet to work with him. God is continuing to care for Elijah by assuring his frail little human servant that He still has his back. And that loneliness? Don’t worry, Elijah. You aren’t alone. There are 7,000 people standing with you.
So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” “Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?” So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned his plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant. (1 Kings 19:19-21)
1 Kings 19 is the story of a self-absorbed crybaby who is continuously treated with kindness by an all-powerful God. Elijah’s deepest pain is feeling alone. So instead of making His prophet work alone, God sends Elijah to find Elisha. They work together for six whole years before Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
This story astounds me. Elijah displays every weakness that I hate in myself. He gives up. He complains. He refuses to submit even after God reaches out to him. He is totally ridiculous. But God does not punish him. Instead, God gives him a friend and a coworker. He destroys the people who Elijah fears. And in the end, Elijah doesn’t even have to die–he is one of two people (along with Enoch) who escape the curse of death.
I find it incredibly comforting to know that a person of faith can experience times of intense fear, doubt, and depression. I find it even more comforting to know that God responds to this backsliding with tenderness, care, and kindness. God is such a good God.