I worked ahead of schedule on researching the Bible passage of 1 Kings 19. Humming right along, right on time, and knowing what I wanted the basic message to be, I was wrapping up my prep work when I picked up the last book to consult. But when I finally put it down, my coworkers could hear an audible sigh of frustration emanate from my office. You see, I had just finished reading a minority viewpoint that was contrary to much of what I was planning to write. That’s not so unusual in itself. The problem was that book changed my mind! “Oh God, what am I going to do with this?!” With that whining prayer, I offered up my final resistance and got to work. As all my plans and efficiency went out the window, I had to admit that last bit of study completely changed my perspective on a passage I thought I had understood intuitively. Why oh why hadn’t I seen it earlier? I was so sure of myself!
Many struggle with how to correctly interpret Bible stories, especially in the OT. No matter how many times we are told the Bible is primarily about God not you, our self-centered perspective dies hard. That perspective is an interpretive lens that you must relentlessly subject to critical examination. Because if you don’t, you won’t notice when you’re reading a familiar Bible story with a “me-centered” lens. (One commentator in particular, Dale Ralph Davis, helped me see 1 Kings 19 with a new set of eyes. So I have relied on him for much of what I will say here.)
I concluded that contrary to the traditional view, the prophet Elijah did not lapse into self-centered whining, depression, and despair following the LORD’s victory at Mount Carmel. Elijah’s faithful purpose at Mount Horeb had major covenantal significance, yielding timeless lessons of judgment and grace for the Church.
Before I explain what I believe 1 Kings 19 actually teaches, we need to remember some important background information from the long-running duel between the LORD’s prophet Elijah and Israel’s rulers–King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. There has been no rain in Israel for three years because Elijah prayed for a drought. Then Elijah challenges Israel’s Baal worshipers to a contest of the gods that is stacked in Baal’s favor. Who is God—Baal (the god of the storm and crops) or the LORD? Elijah wins—hands down, and then slaughters all Baal’s prophets. Elijah prays to the LORD for rain and it rains a lot. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel get really angry and refuse to change their religion. Elijah is nearby to witness their defiance.
The Traditional Reading
Armchair psychology (vv. 3-7, 13-14)
Elijah is so afraid he comes undone. Depressed and despairing, he begins to whine. He complains to God that he’s been so faithful and zealous but it was all a total waste of effort. Elijah is an example of someone who needs a vacation, a prescription, or some counseling. Isn’t it wonderful that God gives us an example of a godly man who finally cracked under the pressure of living by faith?
God’s prophet rebuked and retired (vv. 9, 11-12, 15-18)
God asks Elijah why he abandoned his post in Israel to knock uninvited at his secluded mountain lodge. God overwhelms Elijah’s tantrum with a triple display of natural power (just to remind his prophet who he is trifling with), then gently rebukes him as he repeats his question to determine whether Elijah can be scared back into sanity. When Elijah throws the same fit as before, God privately deliberates and determines his overworked prophet finally suffered a nervous breakdown. God assigns him therapy, giving him three easy assignments to wrap up his prophet business and hand off the hard work to three men with more stable mental health. Isn’t it wonderful that when God unknowingly works his servants past their breaking point he puts them out to pasture so he can find better-suited people to do tough Christian ministry?
One respected expositor (Bible teacher and scholar Victor Hamilton) offered a common way to preach this passage. In his Handbook on the Historical Books, he suggests this outline: (1) Where such despondency is found—even in a mighty man of faith; (2) How such despondency is fostered—by feeding a sense failure, loneliness, and weariness; and (3) How such despondency is faced—be practical, don’t run away and hide, and let others take care of you. It’s a well-crafted outline, filled with sound pastoral advice, but the problem is it proceeds from the traditional view of 1 Kings 19 that fosters a “me-centered” perspective. Is this passage really about how you can learn life lessons from Elijah and face your sense of despondency? Or is there something far more significant going on here?
A Covenantal Reading
Clues to examine without traditional assumptions
- The Hebrew text (v. 3). Hebrew is a consonant-only language. In most instances the meaning of a word is obvious, especially when read in its surrounding context. But on occasion a word’s meaning is ambiguous because alternative pronunciations may fit the context. So beginning in the 6th century AD, Jewish textual scholars named Masoretes added marginal notes and invented a vowel-pointing system to aid in preserving the accepted reading of the OT. Our pertinent question: which is the preferred pronunciation of the consonantal text (vyyr’)? The Masoretic Text (MT) reads “and he saw”. Some medieval Hebrew manuscripts and some ancient translations (including the Septuagint) read “and he was afraid”. Following the rules of textual criticism, when you weigh these two options, it seems more likely that “and he saw” was original because this better explains the existence of the other option. In other words, it is easy to imagine, based on the story’s context, an ancient translator or a medieval scribe concluded Elijah was scared of Jezebel and thus “and he was afraid” is the original reading. And so he changed the accepted reading. However, it is much more difficult to explain the existence of the reading “and he saw” if it was not original. Why make the change from “afraid” to “see”? Remember, the MT preserves the received and accepted reading of the entire OT from the Babylonian exile to the beginning of the medieval era. That’s more than 1000 years of testimony for the reading “and he saw”. Some English versions footnote the alternate reading. Other versions such as the KJV and NKJV vote for “and he saw” as the original reading because they more strictly follow the MT. Now, why belabor this one point? Because I think you and I start down the Traditional Reading path right here. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah is absolutely fearless before Ahab, Jezebel, Baal, and all who follow that false god. But if he suddenly becomes terrified when he hears Jezebel has turned into the Queen of Hearts from Alice and Wonderland (“Off with his head!”), then it appears Elijah has become irrationally unstable. However, if Elijah is looking for evidence that the king and queen have repented of their Baal worship, but then he sees, he observes, he gathers evidence that, far from repentance, Jezebel is digging in her heels by putting a price on his head, then he sees that Israel is consciously rejecting the LORD their God, the God who is their Covenant Lord. So if Elijah is not afraid, then why does he flee?
- The geopolitical map (vv. 3, 8; cf. 1 Kgs 18:46). Look at Elijah flight path. If he wanted to get away from Jezebel to merely save his life, why didn’t he stop once he crossed the Israel’s border into Judah? He kept on running to Beersheba, Judah’s southernmost outpost. Then he ventured another day further south into the wilderness where he collapsed. After a rest, he continued into the wilderness 40 days and 40 nights for another 200-250 miles until he arrived at Mount Horeb. Why travel more than 300 miles when 50 miles will make you safe? He’s a prophet! He can talk to God wherever he’s at.
- Moses parallels (at least 15!). For Israel, Moses was the great prophet, and the great mediator, the great judge, the great shepherd. Now Elijah is imitating the work of Moses (not Jonah!). This story’s structure makes these comparisons explicit, if not in the same chronological order as the story of Moses. If there were only a few parallels the link may not be very strong. But the abundance of similarities clearly shows Elijah is doing a Moses-like work in 1 Kings 19.
- Divine direction (vv. 7-8). The angel of the LORD (a divine manifestation of God’s presence) gave Elijah food, water, and rest. Then he sent him on a journey that required supernatural nourishment. It’s important to note the angel provided for and commissioned this 40-day trek through the wilderness. There would be no need for such great provision if God wanted Elijah to take the short walk back to Beersheba. Thus Elijah and God are facing the same direction.
- An invitation (vv. 9, 13). If Elijah is not showing up at Mount Horeb uninvited, then what does God’s question to Elijah mean? When you say, “What are you doing here, son?” you usually mean something like “Hey, you don’t belong here!” I think that is why you jump to the conclusion that God means the same thing. Someone will say, but it’s so obvious what God means! Well, considering our clues so far, it’s not obvious anymore, is it? You need to consider other not-so-obvious options. If it’s not a rebuke (“Go home and get back to work!”), then it sounds like an invitation. Both an invitation for Elijah to unload his frustration and state his business. Considering the Moses parallels and the setting on Covenant Mountain, it is likely Elijah has officially entered the LORD’s courtroom to argue his case.
- A true statement (vv. 10, 14). If Elijah is being compared to faithful Moses and not disobedient Jonah, then might it be he’s actually telling the truth? Is it likely he is exaggerating in God’s courtroom where the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is paramount? It’s tempting to hear Elijah’s words as a self-righteous rant, something like a child throwing a tantrum and doubling down when given the chance to calm down. But is that likely considering the previous clues. Is it likely in light of what follows?
- A guilty verdict (vv. 15-18). If Elijah were out of line, you would expect God to perhaps treat him like Job. “Who are you to question the Almighty? My ways are higher than yours! Trust me, I know what I’m doing!” If Elijah’s statement was not a faithful explanation of Israel’s current state of religious and political affairs, then God might dismiss his case. But that’s not what God does. According to the terms of his covenant with Israel, the LORD declares a guilty verdict and issues a just judgment. In doing so God the Judge agrees with Elijah’s accusations. Just as God revealed his power in three spectacular ways (wind, earthquake, and fire) and revealed himself in one soft way (a gentle whisper), so he reveals his power through three agents of judgment (King Hazael of Syria, King Jehu of Israel, and Elisha the prophet) and reveals himself through on example of his grace (7000 faithful preserved from worshiping Baal).
God’s prophet brings a covenant lawsuit against unrepentant Israel (vv. 9-10, 13-14)
What do all these clues add up to? A very different reading than the traditional view. Elijah is a broken man, even to the point of wanting to die, not in Jezebel’s hand, but in God’s. He’s not broken because he’s come undone and is ready for Pleasant Valley Mental Hospital. He’s broken because he’s very jealous for God’s glory, and his own people have rejected their covenant LORD. Prophets don’t pray for such a career! So having reached a terrible turning point in his ministry to Israel, God’s prophet must bring a covenant lawsuit against his unrepentant nation. There will be more history to follow, but Elijah has fulfilled his calling to the royal house of Israel. God’s judgment won’t fall immediately, but the current regime of Israel is doomed.
The Difference It Makes
Are you unhinged by or undeterred by unrepentant leadership/government? (vv. 1-3)
Evidence, even divine revelation, is insufficient to change hard hearts. Don’t be surprised when God is mocked or when God’s people are targeted by those in power who don’t follow Jesus. Watch, discern, and respond appropriately without losing your head, sinking into despair, or forgetting God’s sovereignty.
Since the nation of Israel was a theocracy (a mix of church and state) this lesson touches on church leaders and your national government. Some of you have fled from toxic churches where you tried to make a difference but your leaders didn’t repent. They rejected your sound arguments and clear evidence from God’s Word and made you out to be the bad guy. It’s not your fault, and it shouldn’t surprise you. Presenting good apologetic and theological arguments is not sufficient to change hearts. My college Bible study leader used to point out to me that if education was the answer then college campuses would be the most moral places on earth! Furthermore, I know some of you are totally frustrated with our presidential primaries. According to polls, we’ve never had candidates who were more despised by the electorate and other nations. I’ve heard so many say, “Is this the best America can do?” Quite a few Christian leaders believe God is judging America by giving us the candidates we deserve. That sounds about right to me! But don’t forget that God’s judgment is ultimately a good thing. God is still on his throne, so we are secure in him even if not in our nation. This empowers you to stand when the foundations of social order, civility, decency, morality, and godliness are crumbling.
Does judgment begin with the downcast believer or the wayward house of God? (vv. 9-10)
The LORD does not shoot his own wounded, but lovingly listens and provides for them. However, his judgment will come on those who forsake his covenant. The nature of such judgments may be historical and will be eternal.
Contrary to the traditional reading, God is not a taskmaster who works you till you drop. But that’s not the point. This passage warns the unrepentant church. Jesus reserves the option to remove her lampstand (Rev 2:5). Yes, Christ has given the Church a better covenant than OT Israel. Therefore Jesus will never reject his Church because he suffered the covenant curses for her. But he will prune us for our own good (Jn 15:1-2). God’s judgment is concerned first with his people and secondly with the people of the world (1 Pet 4:17-19).
May you approach God with a self-righteous rant or righteous indignation? (vv. 4, 10, 14)
God wants you to be angry, but not for your own sake. If Elijah is a ranting prophet, then the Bible gives you permission (if not God’s blessing) to whine and complain. But if Elijah is a righteous prophet, then the Bible seems to encourage righteous anger.
Elijah’s anger puts yours under the microscope. What do you get angry about? Do you get angry for God’s sake? Do you know Jesus got angry (Mk 3:1-6; cf. Mt 18:34; 22:7; Lk 14:21)? Have you ever been zealous for God’s glory, so much you could say you were broken by God’s glory trampled upon? Who you get angry for makes all the difference.
Will you listen for God in a “still small voice” or in the word of the LORD? (vv. 11-13)
Divine verbal messages are relayed not in the sound of God’s “gentle whisper” but in his spoken/written word. God is revealed in but does not speak in his storm or his calm.
Lots of Christians believe God communicates private personal messages to them. They claim you can only hear these when you calm your spirit so your heart is attuned to God’s normal way of speaking, which is supposedly a “still small voice” (KJV). Verse 12 is the main Bible text used to support this belief. But notice that God relays no verbal message in his “gentle whisper,” which is variously translated “low or soft whisper,” “gentle blowing” and “sheer silence.” When the ear-splitting sounds of wind, earthquake, and fire finally die down into a quiet sound, Elijah exits the cave where God speaks to him with words. The emphasis in the passage is on hearing God’s words, not the sounds of silence. If you want to hear God, don’t try to decipher the “gentle whisper” of verse 12 in your own inner promptings. There’s no message there. The sound of God’s voice is in verse 13 where God speaks clearly to his servant. So listen for God in the Bible, the place where God clearly speaks to you.
Does God encourage the depressed Christian or the persecuted Church? (vv. 4-8, 15-18)
God will stubbornly preserve a faithful, suffering remnant. Your calling is not to retire from the service of God when you feel “done,” but to weather the storm of God when you are widely opposed.
Jesus is not out to break the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick (Mt 12:20). Jesus offers grace to the downcast, depressed, despondent, despairing believer. He cares deeply for your mental health. He wants you to have the joy of the Lord which is deeper and stronger than merely feeling happy. This is a precious truth, but that’s a lesson from another passage. Without a covenantal reading, you will miss God’s encouragement for the fearful, suffering, persecuted church. There is a lot of talk about religious liberties being squeezed, not just in our country, but around the world. There is more and more evidence for this available to anyone willing to do a little research. In America, the persecution is presently taking the form of economic persecution. Christians who fail to believe and act on politically correct views are being forced out of business, prevented from pursuing their career of choice, and kept from enrolling in certain colleges. This is economic discrimination that leads to fewer opportunities. And in a society in which the elites who hold power in the state, the media, education, and business are increasingly intolerant of Christians living out their faith in public, more severe forms of persecution are not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, they become more likely if history is instructive.
Here’s the point. Don’t despair, because God has promised to preserve his persecuted people. Kingdoms will rise and fall, political regimes will change, battles will be won and lost, but the faithful, suffering Church will persevere by God’s grace. Why? Because Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules the nations of the earth from heaven. To translate that to our context, the Lord of the Church is Lord of every branch of every level of our government. So when you suffer as a Christian, you can look to the Lord Jesus who also suffered and triumphed through his suffering. He endured to the end until God exalted and vindicated him. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are where God’s covenant judgment and grace kiss each other. Because he has already won the greatest victory over sin and evil, you can withstand anything the world throws at you, in the strength of God’s powerful sustaining grace.
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