Elijah was, perhaps, the greatest of all the prophets. He foreshadowed John the Baptist in the book of Malachi. At the crucifixion of Jesus, he is the prophet that the people expect to appear in the shadowy darkness of divine displeasure. He raised a dead boy. He caused a drought. He brought the rain. He is the good versus the evil of Ahab and Jezebel amidst Israel’s darkest days.
It was his privilege to be the voice and arm of the LORD in all of these miraculous events. He dominates some of the most fantastic portions of Israeli history recorded in the Bible, showing up on page after page as the authoritative figurehead of a doomed empire. It would be difficult to imagine a more accomplished life and ministry than Elijah’s.
Perhaps that’s what is so disturbing about 1 Kings 19. There we find Elijah on the heels of his most famous moment, the lone prophet of God emerging victorious in a sort of public trial of cosmic powers: the Baals vs. YHWH of Israel. The false gods of the people had been found delinquent as their false prophets had danced around a burnt offering that would not burn, an embarrassment of fraudulent divinity that would turn deadly.
But when Elijah cried out to the God of Israel, YHWH answered. Fire rained down from heaven without delay and consumed the drenched sacrifice, the wood, and stones of the altar, and even the dust of the earth in its place.
The assembly of Israel watched in amazement as the God of their fathers once again demonstrated his life and power in stark contrast to the inanimate deities that had replaced him in the hearts of his people.
“Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!'” (1 Kings 18:39)
In the verses that follow, the false prophets of Baal are destroyed, and Elijah has a moment with King Ahab, his longtime nemesis, where the reader could be forgiven for holding out hope that the eroding monarchy of Israel might be course-corrected as the king acknowledges the rain that starts to fall and the merciful end of the drought-judgment of the LORD, who is God.
Then it all falls apart, abruptly, in the very next chapter.
Elijah is pronounced an enemy of the state. The people do not rush to his defense. Somehow the Baals continue to be worshipped. Inexplicably, there is no revival, nor any discernable change in Ahab. Elijah runs for his life, his journey taking him a day into the desert. There, finding a tree to rest beneath, he settles in to die, praying, “It is enough. Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4)
You should read 1 Kings 19. If you’ve read it before, then read it again. It doesn’t disappoint.
Predictably, the Living God does not let his dejected prophet die. Food is provided, and Elijah travels to the mountain of God where the LORD asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
This sets the stage for my favorite Old Testament sermon of all time, Ligon Duncan’s address at the T4G Conference in 2012. You can find the sermon by clicking here. I still go back and listen at least once a year, always crying with a brokenhearted empathy that rarely manifests itself in my own personal study. His preaching is that good, the subject matter so real and relatable.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” the LORD asks.
The prophet replies, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Twice, Elijah says this, unswayed by God’s appeal in the miraculous manifestation of power – a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. The supernatural seems to fall upon him with little impact. One wonders if perhaps, at this point, the prophet is inconsolable beyond even what the Great Comforter might stand to offer.
What is his problem? Surely he tells us: (1) Israel will not repent. (2) The state is at war with him. (3) The people will not be won over. (4) Finally, he is utterly and completely alone.
I think Elijah would have given anything to live in the days of King David, a flourishing Promised Land where the prophets enjoyed a good relationship with the state and a strong support of worship and faithfulness. That was far from a perfect time, but compared to the tyranny and godlessness of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign, it must have seemed like paradise.
I, too, sometimes find myself longing for a different time. I’m only 35, and it already seems that my understanding of concepts like justice and freedom are antiquated. There’s an open hostility to the code I live by and the God I worship. I am so thoroughly confused by much of the prominent thinking of our age that I’m tempted to wonder if there’s any actual thinking behind what’s often proposed and promoted without any genuine discourse encouraged. I’m not overly fond of the time we live in.
In 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah that he isn’t alone. He tells him that there are at least 7,000 in Israel who haven’t bowed their knees to the Baals. Maybe I’m more like one of those guys, the 7,000 we don’t know anything about watching the spokesperson of their God and His righteousness get routinely torched by the state and the media. I bet they felt every bit as alone as Elijah did.
I want to be encouraged by Esther 4:14, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m not.
The story arc of Elijah seems to end in 2 Kings 2 when the Lord famously takes him away to heaven in a chariot of fire. And I suppose a great number of people would be satisfied to have their life culminate in some grand display of miraculous power, but remember what Elijah truly longed for: Israel at peace with God and the fellowship of that kingdom.
I long for something similar if not entirely the same. I want my people to be at peace with God, and I want to know happy, genuine, loving friendship with them. My people are not an ethnicity. They are my neighbors and co-workers and fellow citizens.
Elijah didn’t get what he wanted and neither have I.
As it turns out, though, 2 Kings 2 is not the end of Elijah’s story in the Bible. He shows up hundreds of years later towards the end of Jesus’ ministry alongside another famous prophet of the Old Testament, Moses, who also never saw the peace and fellowship of Israel that he’d longed for. It was Moses, you will remember, who wrestled with Israel through 40 years of God’s judgment, dying on the edge of the Promised Land without so much as a single foot on the right side of the Jordan River.
At the Mount of Transfiguration, staring into the shining face of Jesus, they both get a taste of their longing’s fulfilled in Christ, Israel and God reconciled, the kingdom they never knew coming to fruition in a Messiah even more rejected than were they.
Excepting for the quick return of the Lord Jesus, I will also die without seeing the kingdom I have spent my life hoping and working for. I do see glimpses of it from time to time, just as Moses and Elijah received their glimpses of God’s glory in their days, but these glimpses do not truly satisfy my soul.
Which leaves me with this conclusion: the time I am longing for is not in the past but the future. The 300’s AD would not have satisfied me any more than the 1800’s or the time of David, for that matter. The very best days of the decades I’ve been given to live on this earth will not satisfy my soul.
But when I see the King, without sin, without violence, without death and disease, enmity and bickering…when I see Jesus, face to face, I will be truly satisfied. Only then will all the righteous longings of the Holy Spirit inside this fallen flesh be fulfilled. As Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
All of my dissatisfactions with life in this world agree with the sentiment of that great author who observed for himself, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Truly, this must be so.
The golden age, then, is not in the past, but the future. Let all of God’s people echo the refrain from the last verses of the Book, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”