Text: 1 Kings 19
Recently, I caught a snippet of a phone-in on local radio, and I’m sure I heard the caller say that he was willing to swap what was left of his Norwich City season ticket for a can of baked beans. He seemed to be at the end of his tether with his local football team, and people can say and do some unexpected things when they reach the end of their tether. But have you ever felt at the end of your tether as a Christian? You feel let down by a Christian leader who you thought were supposed to set a good example. You feel disappointed because can’t see any reward from all your efforts. You feel defeated because you just can’t get on top of some nagging doubt or a persistent temptation. Or, just when everything seemed to be going swimmingly, you feel ambushed by a sudden and unexpected crisis of faith.
In our Bible passage today, we meet someone who has dedicated his life to serving the living God. But suddenly, almost without warning, he finds himself at the end of his tether. He’s had enough. His name is Elijah, and we are following his story as recorded in 1 Kings.
Elijah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel some 400 years after the time of Moses and the Exodus. The nation was ruled by Ahab, a very wicked king, and he was aided and abetted by Queen Jezebel. In fact, it was Jezebel who wore the trousers, called the shots, and pulled the strings. Anyway, the Lord had announced through Elijah that there would be a severe drought. The aim, no doubt, was to bring the nation and its rulers to their senses. Then the time came for the drought to end. But first there was to be a ‘god contest’. Elijah confronted the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and, in the presence of King Ahab and witnesses from all over Israel, he won. He demonstrated to all Israel that it is Yahweh, not Baal, who is the true and living God.
At the end of ch 18, it’s raining cats and dogs. We find a soaking wet King Ahab riding back to his palace at Jezreel, with a triumphant Elijah running along in front of the chariot.
What a resounding victory for Elijah and for the kingdom of God! Let all Israel know that Jehovah is the true and living God. Let the worship of false gods – Baal and Asherah and all the other worthless idols – be done away with. Let Ahab and Jezebel now humble themselves before the Lord, and lead the nation in the paths of truth and justice. From now on, everything will be different. Or will it?
A bedraggled Ahab, 19:1, creeps back to Jezebel and tells her all that has happened. “Honey,” he tells her, “I saw it with my own eyes. Elijah prayed to the Lord and the fire fell and burned up everything. Oh, and all the prophets of Baal are dead.” Jezebel glares at her husband through mascara-laden eyelashes and she snarls, “So, my little puppet/poppet. You’re impressed by Elijah’s little conjuring trick, are you? Well, I’m not.” Here’s a message for Elijah the Tishbite. “Dear Elijah. By this time tomorrow, you’re dead meat.” What does Ahab do to stop her? Nothing. Elijah receives Jezebel’s message, and in a flash, his heart sinks down to his sandals, v3. What appeared to be a resounding victory for the kingdom of God has had no effect whatsoever on the two most powerful people in the land. In fact, it has made Jezebel even more determined to complete the job of obliterating the prophets of the true and living God.
How does Elijah respond? Well, from v3 he’s clearly in a state of great alarm. He flees for his life, and finds himself at Beersheba, 130 miles away in the far south of the country. He’s exhausted, famished, utterly despondent. He wishes he was dead, v4. But an angel ministers to him, v5-7, and he finds strength to continue his journey. But where’s he off to now? He travels still further south, and after 40 days and 40 nights he finally reaches Mt Horeb, v8. Now Horeb is the alternative name for Sinai, the place where all those years ago the Lord had appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and then in fire and smoke and thunder had revealed the law, the Ten Commandments. I don’t think that Elijah has stumbled upon this place by accident. I think he’s come here deliberately. I think he’s making a pilgrimage right back to his nation’s roots, to the place where the Lord revealed himself to his people, moulded them into a nation, and established his covenant with them.
We read in v9 that Elijah spends the night in a cave. In the original it’s called ‘the cave’ and this may well be the very spot that Moses had occupied when, according to Ex 33, the Lord had appeared to him in a spectacular and dramatic way. The Lord speaks to Elijah: “What are you doing here Elijah? What are you running away from? Where are you running to? What, exactly, do you want me to do for you now you are here?” Elijah unburdens himself, v10. “I’ve tried my best. But this nation has broken your covenant and turned away from you to serve worthless idols. Jezebel has killed off all your prophets, and I’m the only one left. And now she’s out to get me. I’m finished. I’m at the end of my tether.”
So, we have a prophet in utter despair who has made his way back to the place where, in a sense, it all started. This is the place where, centuries before, God had thundered forth in earthquake, wind and fire. This is the place where Moses witnessed the glory of the Lord. The Lord passed by, and Moses was almost overwhelmed by the experience.
I think we may suppose the Elijah was hoping to recapture the experience of Moses. “OK, then,” says the Lord, v11, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.”
The tempest howls, the earth convulses, the fire erupts. But the Lord is not in any of these. When all the noise and shaking and heat subsides, he makes himself known to Elijah, v12, in a gentle whisper, in a still small voice. The Lord reveals himself not as overwhelming power, but as intimate presence.
Elijah expected God to be present in dramatic manifestations and astounding miracles. And so he is, sometimes. But to a prophet at the end of his tether, drained of strength and wishing he were dead, it is not supernatural displays of power, but God’s whispered word that will speak to him at his time of crisis.
A voice comes to him again, v13: “What are you doing here Elijah?” And Elijah repeats his complaint. But now, having encountered the Lord in that ‘gentle whisper’ he is ready to listen to what God has to say to him and to pick up the pieces and move on.
A big part of the Lord’s dealings with Elijah was to correct his warped perceptions of how things were. And this is where we can learn so much that will reassure and encourage us, especially when we feel at the end of our tether.
Sometimes we long for God to reveal himself to us in powerful and dramatic ways. So did Elijah. But he learned that God makes himself known to us not only with dramatic shouts but also by means of gentle whispers.
Sometimes we are tempted to run away from a persistent problem. So did Elijah. But the Lord sent him back. “Go back the way you came,” says the Lord, v15. There’s nothing I can do for you here that I can’t do for you there.
Sometimes we feel that we’ve run out of steam in the Christian life, that we just can’t carry on any more. So did Elijah. But the Lord’s work continues, and God’s servant still has a role to play. “Anoint Hazael king over Aram and Jehu king over Israel, and anoint Elisha as your successor,” v15f. God has a plan and purpose for his creation. You have a part to play in it, but he doesn’t expect you to do it all.
Sometimes we feel isolated and vulnerable as followers of the Lord. So did Elijah. But he was not the only one left, as he had supposed. He had forgotten about faithful Obadiah and the 100 prophets of the Lord whom he had sheltered from Jezebel. In fact, as the Lord now reveals, v17, there are 7,000 ‘whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’
So remember, that with the Lord, quietness does not mean inactivity. He has not gone to sleep. He has not forgotten you. You are not on your own. When we reach the end of our resources we have only come to the beginning of his. Put your trust in him, and know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Or, as Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”