Low Moments: Elijah

Low Moments: Elijah

Low Moments: Elijah. 

The Hebrew Bible is the most realistic book ever written. Christians might call it the Old Testament, but the stories contained within it are anything but old in the sense of outdated, hobbled by age or past their prime. These old stories remain relevant because of their inclination to show everything there was to see about its characters. The Jewish Scriptures are totally transparent, revealing the people at their high points, low points, and everything in between. Its writers had nothing to hide, evidently, and was all about real life in all its glory and all its failures. There were five biblical heroes who were revealed as all too human, all of them at low points during their life with God. These five all asked to die, they requested that the Lord take their lives. But God refused to take the lives of Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah and Jonah. God had more for them to do, and anyway it was unthinkable. Of course God wouldn’t take their lives when they were at such low moments. Anyone who has ever reached their limit, who has had enough, can learn from these five real life episodes of faithful people at their lowest.

“Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4).

We read about the astounding ministry of Elijah in 1 Kings 17-21 and 2 Kings 1-2. We don’t know the family background of Elijah, though we do know he was from the other side of the tracks in Gilead. He was a unique personality in Scripture… Sometimes fearful, other times fearless; sometimes weak, other times strong; sometimes discouraged, other times full of confidence; sometimes he ran from trouble, and other times he ran right into the middle of it. Because he was a loner, he often felt isolated and abandoned. We also know he enjoyed an unusual personal relationship with God. He was consistently a man of deep faith and fervent prayer. Elijah was noted for his distinctive wardrobe: a famous cloak made of fur and animal hair stitched together; and a leather loincloth, a homemade piece of underwear that no doubt raised the eyebrows of many. Elijah was a religious reformer and a miracle worker. He was a thorn in King Ahab’s side, who even called Elijah “the troublemaker of Israel.” (1 Kings 18:17). He had a flair for the dramatic and the supernatural. Elijah prayed successfully for a drought, then prayed for a rainfall three years later. He multiplied food and oil for a poverty-stricken widow, and then raised her son from the dead, the first resurrection in the Scripture. He held a divine duel between himself and 850 pagan prophets on Mt. Carmel, and he won. With God on his side, it was no contest. He was fed by ravens in the wilderness, and then by a personal visit by the Angel of the Lord. He listened to God whisper to him on Mt. Sinai, and was ushered into heaven by a chariot and horses of fire. To top it all off, we find Elijah in the Gospel 900 years later, talking with Moses and Jesus at the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Matt. 17). Elijah was complicated and unpolished, and James said he was “human just like us.” (James 5:16-18). Just like us? Yes, he had his human frailties like all other humans, but nonetheless he was used powerfully by God in a unique time and setting.

In 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah on the run from the evil Queen Jezebel. She was furious with the stunt Elijah pulled on Mr. Carmel. That public spectacle caused a huge revival in the worship of Yahweh, rejecting her emphasis on Baal and Asherath. And it resulted in the slaughter of 850 hand-picked pagan prophets. So Jezebel put out a bounty on Elijah’s head, dead or alive, and he ran for his life. He escaped to a wilderness, more like a barren desert. He was alone, discouraged and exhausted. He found some shade underneath a small juniper tree, or what was then called a broom tree, and lamented before the Lord about his apparent failure to turn Jezebel, and her bounty on his head. After he requested to die, he somehow went fast asleep. As James says in the New Testament (5:17-18), “Elijah was human, just like us.”

After his depressing nap, the Angel of Yahweh woke him up to the smell of baking bread on hot stones, accompanied by a big jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and immediately went back to sleep. After some more time, the Angel of Yahweh once again woke him up and had him eat some more food. The Messenger knew Elijah was about to go on a long hike to Mt. Sinai (Horeb). So Elijah again complied with this unique Angel of the Lord, and ate the meager food provided by the Angel, which turned out to be good enough to last him till he arrived at Mt. Sinai 40 days later.

“And Yahweh said to Elijah, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountain, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of gentle stillness and a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12, AMP)

Elijah is on the run, fleeing from evil Queen Jezebel, and he finds himself on the holy mountain, Mt. Sinai, also known as Horeb. After his 40-day fast and journey to the mountain, he is convinced he is alone in his battles against the pagan rulers of Israel. So he decided to retreat to the mountain of God, and he obeys God’s instructions and goes to Sinai. He came to a cave there, and he begins to engage in a conversation with Yahweh. The Lord tells him to go out of the cave and stand at its entrance. The Lord passed by the cave with a devastating hurricane, then an earthquake, then a consuming fire. Those were all natural manifestations of Yahweh’s presence with Moses on the very same mountain a long time ago, but this time was different and unexpected. The Lord did not speak through any of those manifestations. After the fire, Yahweh spoke to Elijah intimately, quietly, with a hush. There are many descriptions of the Lord’s presence and voice in that delicate moment, depending on the translation… a still, small voice; a gentle whisper; a light murmuring sound; the sound of a gentle breeze; a gentle blowing; the sound of gentle stillness. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks translates the Hebrew as meaning, “The sound of slender silence,” in which one can only hear it if one is truly listening for it. It seems that God is breathing on Elijah, exhaling His breath of life and encouragement into Elijah’s desperate condition. This is God’s exhale that gave Adam life, that brought life to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. This is the breath of the Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed onto His disciples after His resurrection (John 20:22). This was the nonverbal breath of love, a breeze from heaven blowing into Elijah’s life at a critical time. God’s whisper coming out of that exhale did indeed encourage this mighty prophet and give him new life and purpose. The Lord told him to return to Israel and anoint three people: an enemy king who will punish Israel, a new king of Israel, and his replacement prophet Elisha. And you are not alone, Elijah, Yahweh tells him. There are 7,000 faithful believers who will never bow down to Baal. So Elijah did as the Lord instructed. And it all started with a divine exhale, a wordless message on the mountain of God.

At the end of his life some time later, Elijah, true to his life and ministry, went out with a bang. Instead of dying, the Lord sent down from heaven a fiery chariot and fiery horses, and took him home to heaven that way. But that’s still not the end of Elijah. That’s not the last we see of him in Scripture. He is mentioned again in the last lines of the Hebrew Bible (Malachi 4:5). It was prophesied that Elijah would come and prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus explained that one had indeed come in the spirit and power of Elijah, and that was the prophet John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14). Unbelievably, Elijah still makes another appearance in a dramatic scene during the life of Jesus. During the Transfiguration, Elijah and Moses were seen discussing the coming passion of Jesus, and were engaged in deep conversation with Him. Moses represents the Torah and all that was written down for the benefit of the believers and the Hebrew community. And Elijah represented the prophets, God’s messengers who helped keep the Faith alive. I don’t know how God could have found better representatives to have a talk with Jesus.

Elijah, sometimes fearful, sometimes fearless, sometimes strong, sometimes weak. But always a man of prayer and faith, and willing to trust in His God in trying circumstances. Elijah was a unique personality and a dramatic holy fool who risked everything many times over to speak God’s message and prove that Yahweh is truly the one God.