Mount Carmel rises dramatically from its surrounding countryside. This accompanying photo looks out from the mountain, peering down about 1,800 feet to the alluvial plain below. Its panoramic beauty immediately inspires a sense of human smallness in the face of creation’s grandeur. It was this perspective that may have made Mount Carmel and others like it, typical “high places” for pagan worship.
The prophet, Elijah, lived in the northern kingdom of Israel almost 3,000 years ago. Elijah was a man of God and had made longstanding enemies in Ahab, the idolatrous king of Israel and Ahab’s wicked wife, Jezebel. Elijah was commonly regarded as a troubler of Israel, responsible for a painful drought of more than three years. I Kings chapters eighteen and nineteen tell the well-known story of an epic showdown on Mount Carmel between good and evil. Four hundred and fifty of Ahab’s prophets of Baal and four hundred of Jezebel’s prophets of Asherah gather to challenge the power of Elijah’s God. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelites are in attendance.
You likely know the story by heart; suffice it to say that Ahab’s lackeys bring no power to the party, whatsoever. As Elijah stands and calls upon the name of the Lord, God literally answers by fire, consuming the offering and leaving no misunderstanding with regard to the identity of the one true God. Ahab’s team of false prophets is put to death and the people of Israel understand and embrace the Truth if only for a moment. As if that weren’t enough, God answers Elijah’s prayers to end a multi-year drought and Elijah outruns Ahab’s chariot to the city of Jezreel.
As inspiring as I find the story, the postscript is what I find most fascinating. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah that she’ll see that he comes to the same end as her prophets within a day’s time. I Kings 19:3 says, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Obviously, there is an emotional undercurrent to Elijah’s life and work that have set him up for this peculiar turn of events.
- God uses Elijah to call for a multi-year drought.
- Elijah and God absolutely crush King Ahab’s heavily favored, hometown prophets.
- God hears Elijah and releases the rain.
- Elijah outruns a chariot to another city,
Queen Jezebel makes a threat and Elijah runs. Game over?
Elijah is worn out. The adrenaline of the confrontation on Mount Carmel is yesterday’s news. He perceives that he stands all alone against an unrelenting onslaught of evil. He is burned out, tired of carrying the burden of righteousness. In I Kings 19, he leaves his assistant in Beersheba and then travels a day into the wilderness. Elijah collapses under a bush and prays that God would take his life. “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (I Kings 19:4 NIV). There may be many highways that lead to that wilderness, but most of us have found that exact same place at one time or another in our lives.
The key is that when Elijah runs for his life he isn’t fleeing Jezebel, he is racing toward God. Elijah’s forty-day journey to Mount Horeb does little to blunt his fears, disappointments, and bitterness. Twice, God asks him why he is there. Twice, Elijah’s answer closes with, “I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (I Kings 19:10, 14). It’s important to note that our omniscient God never asks a question because He needs an answer; God asks a question to reveal the heart of the answerer.
This is one of the most telling exchanges of the Bible. Elijah stands, bearing his heart in the presence of God. Curiously, God doesn’t challenge or directly answer Elijah’s statements or concerns. Just as Elijah’s answer betrays much more than his factual response, so also God’s answer is much more than a set of instructions. God’s answer is a confirmation that He has been present through Elijah’s troubles. Not only is God present with Elijah in that quiet place, but His response is a reassurance that God will continue to be with Elijah as he leaves the mountain. Just as Elijah’s answers convey his frustration as an undercurrent; God’s answer ministers purpose and peace with every word.
Not many of us have lived such a dramatic scene so as to stand faithfully before thousands of naysayers and successfully call down fire from heaven. Most of us, however, have had the experience of being in the right place at the right time and knowing we have represented God’s kingdom in some small way. Even still, we’ve all suffered the smallness of faith in wondering if God sees and understands and appreciates our labor. Isaiah 30:15 says, “In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength.” In the end, Elijah’s ministry pivoted, not on miraculous and magnificent works of power, but it hinged on a quiet moment turned toward God.
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. (Galatians 6:9 KJV).