Read: 1 Kings 17, 18:41-46
One of the most surprising things we learn from scripture about Elijah is that, for all his heroic deeds, he was a person just like us. The secret of his power was found in prayer.
In the ancient world, every people had a special class of religious leaders. They were called by different names—shamans, witch doctors, soothsayers—but they performed the same function. They conducted the various ceremonies and rituals that gave people access to their gods. They read signs and interpreted omens. They were asked to help protect against evil spirits or to heal the sick. And they tried to foretell the future. But these spiritual types weren’t deeply concerned with morality. They didn’t deal with the issue of right and wrong, with good or bad behavior. They dealt in spiritual power.
It was different in ancient Israel. The God of Israel, the true and living God of whom we learn in the Bible, was not just powerful. He was also good. Because God is a person whose very nature is moral, he cares a very great deal about morality in us. To the biblical God, right living is more important than correct religious ceremonies. How people treat one another is more important than how they carry out sacrifices. In fact, the only kind of worship acceptable to the real God is one that includes a personal commitment on the part of the worshiper to living a life of humility, truthfulness, mercy, and justice.
So God created a different kind of religious leader. He called certain individuals from ancient Israel to a new kind of ministry: to be prophets. The biblical prophets were not so concerned with rituals or sacrifices. They didn’t really care about what people did when they came into the temple as much as they cared about how people lived outside the temple. Prophets told the people clearly what was right and what was wrong. They pointed to sin. They called for repentance, for turning away from sin, asking forgiveness of God, and living in a new and better way. And when they talked about the future, it was to warn people what would happen if they refused to listen to God. Prophets were men who spoke for God then, and who still speak to us today. And the first, and greatest, of them in all the Old Testament is Elijah.
What made Elijah great was his heroic stature – his faithfulness in standing almost alone for the Lord against all opposition. But great men are in part formed by critical times. Heroes are those who deliver in a crisis, but it also requires a crisis for a hero to emerge. Abraham Lincoln was a gifted man, but it took a crisis to make him a great one; no one would ever have heard of him if there had not been a Civil War in America. And in Elijah’s time there was an equally profound crisis. It was in the northern kingdom of Israel, and it was a crisis of faith. The real question in Elijah’s day was whether the worship of the Lord would survive at all.
Crisis in Israel
The crisis Elijah faced was both spiritual and political. The chapters in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings that tell Elijah’s story are set in the bigger and stronger part of the divided land. Most of the biblical narrative focuses on Elijah’s confrontation with Israel’s evil king, Ahab. Ahab was the seventh king to rule in the north since the division of the Hebrew people. He was also one of the most prosperous and able, at least from a purely political standpoint. But spiritually it was a different story.
Jeroboam, the first ruler of the ten breakaway northern tribes, had made two golden calves and set them up with altars and priests, so that the people would stay home in Israel to worship rather than going down to Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah. These golden calves were idols, of course, and they were strongly condemned by God’s prophets, but they were at least intended to represent the true God. They were not pagan gods; they were meant to be visible symbols of the Lord, the God of Israel.
In Ahab’s reign, however, things took an ominous turn for the worse. His wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess from nearby Sidon, was a fanatical devotee of Baal, the god of her native city. Under Jezebel’s influence a powerful attempt was made to exterminate the worship of the Lord in Israel and replace it with the Canaanite religion of Baal.
And it was beginning to look like this effort would succeed. Hundreds of God’s prophets had been killed or driven into hiding; they were replaced by the priests and soothsayers of Baal. There were still many pockets of Canaanites living throughout Israel who doubtless rejoiced at this encouragement of their old religion; and now many Israelites were joining them. God’s people were giving themselves over to the very behavior for which he had commanded them to destroy the old inhabitants of the land! There was a clear danger that the people of Israel would cease to exist as the people of God, losing their identity and distinctiveness as they slid into the paganism of their neighbors. What would then happen to God’s covenant of grace, his plan to save humankind, if there was no people of God to carry it out? At this crisis moment, Elijah appeared on the scene.
Judgment upon the Land
1 Kings 17 opens with an announcement of God’s impending judgment upon the land of Israel, its ruler and its people.
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kings 17:1)
A prophet appears abruptly before King Ahab—he is Elijah the Tishbite, from the area of Gilead east of the Jordan River. This is all we know about him. He is as mysterious as can be. Elijah announces that from that moment no rain or even dew would fall upon the land; there would be total drought for years to come until he said otherwise.
Canaanite religion, like paganism in general, was a fertility religion. That is to say it was practiced in order to help its devotees prosper: to have more children, bigger flocks and herds, greater harvests. Baal’s specialty—so it was believed—was control over the forces of nature. He was seen as a sky-god who ruled the thunder, the lightning and the rain. He was depicted as a bull, who gave the power of reproduction to crops, animals and people.
“Very well,” says God, in effect. “My people Israel are turning to Baal with their worship. They think appeasing him is a ticket to the good life. Let’s see who really controls the world. Let them know who the real God is.” And so the terrible judgment is announced through Elijah: the sustaining, life-giving rains will be withheld. For three long, awful years there is no harvest, and death stalks the land of Israel.
Meanwhile the Lord is caring for his servant Elijah. First he directs Elijah to go out into the wilderness, back across the Jordan to his home territory. There he will be sustained by brook water and raven-borne food. This arrangement for the prophet’s maintenance continues until the brook dries up. Now what? For obvious reasons Elijah was persona non grata in the land of Israel. The growing drought incensed King Ahab and sharpened his appetite for revenge on the man he held responsible. So Ahab has been searching high and low for the prophet (see 1 Kings 18:10.) Where could Elijah go?
Once more the Lord provides. A widow in Zarephath near Sidon, in the territory of Phoenicia to the north, opens her home and her almost bare cupboard to this servant of the Lord. Not only is Elijah’s life preserved, but the widow’s life and that of her family is saved through the miraculous provision of God. And all this in the very homeland of Baal, as if to say, “In your face, Baal!”
Finally there is a great showdown between Elijah and the servants of Baal on Mt. Carmel, as we will see in our next message, and the Lord vindicates his name and has mercy on his people, sending the life-giving rains once more, in response to Elijah’s prayer. But here’s an interesting point. Listen to the lesson the New Testament draws from this whole experience. In the book of James we read this:
The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16-18)
So according to James, part of the purpose of Elijah’s story is to remind us of the power of prayer. He was a towering, larger than life figure, who attempted and accomplished great things for God. Who among us could ever stand alone against a king, or pray and have an entire nation be affected, even changing the weather?
But the amazing thing is that the Bible doesn’t emphasize how different Elijah was from us, but how similar he was to us! He was a man, says James, with a nature like ours. The power isn’t in the individual; the power is in the God of the individual. When we pray fervently for God’s will to be done, for his name to be acknowledged, for his glory to be revealed, for his honor to be vindicated, then we are just like Elijah. And just like Elijah, we may be sure we will see it happen!