Elijah Runs for His Life, 1-21
19:1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, including a detailed account of how he killed all the prophets with the sword. 19:2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this warning, “May the gods judge me severely if by this time tomorrow I do not take your life as you did theirs!”
The narrative has hinted that it is Jezebel, not Ahab, who wears the trousers. She will not be so easily cowed as her husband. Elijah has won the battle, but the outcome of the war is still uncertain.
Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done – ‘It is not said he told her what God had done, but what Elijah had done, as if he, by some spell or charm, had brought fire from heaven, and the hand of the Lord had not been in it.’ (MHC)
A bedraggled Ahab creeps back to Jezebel and tell her all that has happened. Without ado, she takes matters into her own hands.
With Davis, we can imagine the scene. “But Jezebel, honey, when Elijah prayed to Yahweh, fire came down and burned up everything right before our eyes!” The queen glares at him through mascara-laden lashes and with that familiar curl of her lips retorts, “So?” Davis comments, ‘This response surprises us if we have swallowed the education fallacy that pervades our culture and governments, i.e. get people the right information and it will change them. But it doesn’t.’ We Christians can sometimes suppose that if only we press the truth on people with the most winning arguments then they will just have to believe. But Jezebel tells us what the human heart is really like. There was a blaze of light on Mt Carmel, but until God opens your eyes you will remain in darkness. (cf. Jn 3:19) ‘This realisation must temper all our expectations in our evangelism, counseling and preaching.
19:3 Elijah was afraid, so he got up and fled for his life to Beer Sheba in Judah. He left his servant there, 19:4 while he went a day’s journey into the desert. He went and sat down under a shrub and asked the LORD to take his life: “I’ve had enough! Now, O LORD, take my life. After all, I’m no better than my ancestors.” 19:5 He stretched out and fell asleep under the shrub. All of a sudden an angelic messenger touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 19:6 He looked and right there by his head was a cake baking on hot coals and a jug of water. He ate and drank and then slept some more. 19:7 The LORD’s angelic messenger came back again, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, for otherwise you won’t be able to make the journey.” 19:8 So he got up and ate and drank. That meal gave him the strength to travel forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah was afraid – According to Davis, the majority of Heb manuscripts have ‘Elijah saw how things were’ (very similar in the original). A few have ‘Elijah was afraid’, and these are followed by LXX and most modern translations as being a more natural rendering. AV, however, has ‘when he saw that’). If the correct meaning is ‘Elijah saw how things were’, then what he saw was presumably that the spectacular miracle of ch 18 had not persuaded everyone – not Ahab, certainly not Jezebel – to give up Baal and follow the Lord. Nothing was going to change in Israel after all. Jezebel would continue to wear the trousers and call the shots. ‘Elijah was not terrified by Jezebel but broken by her unrepentant paganism and by her continuing power throughout the nation.’
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life – his faith, strong in ch 18, has weakened for the time being. But then, he is not listening to the Lord now, but to Jezebel’s messengers and to his own anxieties. Like Jonah (1:1-3), he has traveled a long way without a divine itinerary.
He came to Beersheba in Judah – In the southern territory of Judah, 130 miles south of Jezreel.
He…prayed that he might die – Which is precisely what Jezebel had planned!
‘God, by an angel, fed him in that wilderness, into the wants and perils of which he had wilfully thrown himself, and in which, if God had not graciously succoured him, he would have perished. How much better does God deal with his froward children than they deserve! Elijah, in a pet, wished to die; God needed him not, yet he designed further to employ and honour him, and therefore sent an angel to keep him alive. Our case would be bad sometimes if God should take us at our word and grant us our foolish passionate requests.’ (MHC)
Now the Lord resumes the initiative, and will lead Elijah back to the path of faithfulness.
‘Elijah is to travel all the way to Mount Horeb (that is, Mount Sinai), the original site of God’s revelation to Moses. Horeb was in the arid Sinai Peninsula between Israel and Egypt, but the exact location is unknown.’ (Ex 3:1 17:6 33:6 Deut 1:2,6,19 4:10,15) (New Geneva)
He traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God – Horeb = Sinai. The journey re-enacts Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Num 14:33f and also Moses’ stay on the mountain, Ex 24:18. Would Elijah, like Moses, meet with the Lord on the mountain?
The view of Davis is that Elijah has come to Horeb, “Covenant Mountain” in order to file a charge against Israel of apostasy from the covenant.
19:9 He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the LORD spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 19:10 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the LORD, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” 19:11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD. Look, the LORD is ready to pass by.”
A cave – Lit. ‘the cave’. This might well be the spot which Moses occupied when the Lord passed by, Ex 33:22.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – ‘What are you running away from? Where are you running to? What do you want me to do for you right here and now?’ Davis sees in this, not a reproof, but an invitation – a tender invitation not only to state his case against Israel but also to unburden his own soul. The question is both covenantal and pastoral.
‘The food in the wilderness was a gentle reminder of the past, for Elijah seems to have forgotten the past – miraculous provision, resurrection, mighty acts of God on mountaintops. When invited by God to speak in v9, he mentions none of these, but talks only of Israelite apostasy and prophetic casualties, v10.’ (Provan)
“The Israelites have rejected your covenant” – but what of the Israelites restored to faith, 18:39?
“Broken down your altars” – But what of the altar rebuilt, 18:30-32?
“Put your prophets to the sword” – But what of the prophets of Baal killed?
‘Elijah’s memory is selective indeed. The resistance of one woman has in Elijah’s mind turned massive victory into overwhelming defeat.’ (Provan)
He needs to be reminded of the past, of who God is and what God has done. He needs to be reminded that he is far from only one left.
The view of Davis is that Elijah is not bemoaning a failed ministry, but lodging a formal charge of apostasy against Israel. This raises a question for us: ‘Do we really care that much about the infidelity of the professing church? Do its doctrinal indifference and idolatrous pragmatism ever get us upset for God’s sake?’
A very powerful wind went before the LORD, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 19:12 After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper.
Wind…earthquake – ‘These phenomena were indications of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, (Ex 19:18,19 20:18 24:17 Deut 4:11,12 5:22-25) but God does not reveal himself to Elijah through them.’ (New Geneva)
A gentle whisper – A possible translation is ‘a sound of silence’ (NBC)
The wind, earthquake and fire are very powerful. But they cannot speak. Even outright miracles cannot witness to God’s truth; all they can do it point to, and attest, the word of God, even if that word comes in a whisper.
‘Perhaps the Lord attempts to teach Elijah not to expect always the miraculous and wondrous deliverance from problems. Maybe God wants “to signify to the prophet that He did not work in His earthly kingdom with the destroying zeal of wrath, or with the pitiless severity of judgment” [Keil]. Or the Lord may simply try to explain to Elijah that he works in small ways at this time. God speaks in a quiet voice here to a prophet drained of strength.’ (House, NAC)
‘Wherein it is implied that God was present; which peradventure was to insinuate, that God would do his work in and for Israel in his own time, not by might or power, but by his own Spirit, Zech. 4:6, which moves with a powerful, but yet with a sweet and gentle gale.’ (Matthew Poole)
‘The teaching is a condemnation of that “zeal” which Elijah had gloried in, a zeal exhibiting itself in fierce and terrible vengeances, and an exaltation and recommendation of that mild and gentle temper, which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”’ (Barnes)
For many, the message here is that God is more likely to communicate through a whisper than a shout. Or even, that a quiet, calm, contemplative life is more ‘spiritual’ than an active, busy one. Deut Vries (WBC) speaks for many when he says that this experience is ‘a rebuke not only for the biblical prophet, but for all religionists who rely on shoutings and flurries of action, while neglecting the way of quiet love, simple piety, and persuasive kindness.’ But the text tells us what the Lord did, not what he expected Elijah to do. It may be best to regard this voice, as Davis does, as revelatory rather than didactic. The ‘gentle whisper’ is the voice of Yahweh. ‘You may not find Yahweh in the spectacular explosions of “nature,” but you can be sure he is present in his quiet word given to his prophet(s), a word that directs history, vv15-17 and preserves a people, v18.’
‘Might this suggest that Yahweh will not be giving many dramatic, overt proofs of his reality, as at Carmel, ch 18, now that such revelation has been officially rejected? Instead his presence and reality will primarily be seen in his ongoing work of judgement, vv15-17 and grace, v18, which through his voice and his word he has disclosed to his prophet, cf Amos 3:7f. The “quietness” of Yahweh’s work does not mean he is not at work, but rather that the kingdom of God has gone into its mustard-tree mode.’ (Davis) Christians may crave signs, but God will seldom be present in the wind, earthquake and fire. We may long for high-spirited activity, but it is the prophets of Baal who work up religious frenzy. Biblical faith is content with the word.
‘The design of this remarkable scene was to show Elijah that it was not according to the character of God to destroy or to coerce, but by the rational weapons of argument and preaching the Word, to persuade, the idolaters to abandon a false, and to embrace the true, religion.’ (JFB)
19:13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 19:14 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the LORD, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” 19:15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came and then head for the Desert of Damascus. Go and anoint Hazael king over Syria. 19:16 You must anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to take your place as prophet. 19:17 Jehu will kill anyone who escapes Hazael’s sword, and Elisha will kill anyone who escapes Jehu’s sword. 19:18 I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him.”
v14 Davis (as previously mentioned) thinks that this is not a moan, but a formal accusation of breach of the covenant.
v15 The Lord’s response (again, to follow Davis) is not to rebuke Elijah for his assessment but to concur with it and to choose the instruments of judgement (two kings and one prophet).
I reserve seven thousand in Israel – This, says Davis, is the equivalent of Christ’s “I will build my church,” Mt 16:18. ‘Grace will have a remnant. The God of grace insists on it…and there is nothing any Jezebel can do about it. It is the infectious assurance, the defiant certainty, the holy dogmatism, of this text that keeps some of us on our feet.’
19:19 Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen; he was near the twelfth pair. Elijah passed by him and threw his robe over him. 19:20 He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you.” Elijah said to him, “Go back! Indeed, what have I done to you?” 19:21 Elisha went back and took his pair of oxen and slaughtered them. He cooked the meat over a fire that he made by burning the harness and yoke. He gave the people meat and they ate. Then he got up and followed Elijah and became his assistant.
1 Ki 19:21 So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the 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.