2. Elijah in 1 Kings 19
As a way of explanation, the following paper followed a specific format for my class. As you will see, I ask a lot of questions of the text. It needs a better summary–answering the “so what” question. Also, I need to think about how I would preach this passage.
A STUDY ON 1 KINGS 19:1-18
I have chosen to study the story of Elijah’s experience with God following his victory on Mt. Carmel, over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 19:1-18. About three years ago, I personally went through a physical and emotional burn-out and continue to struggle today, to some extent, with depression. I am very interested to re-examine this passage in light of my past experiences to discover what principles I can gain for myself and for others in ministry. My wife and I returned to the mission field in September of 2007 to take up a role in member care for our field. Our field has a long history of people leaving the field due to burnout.
During the last five years, I have been reading, studying, experiencing and teaching in the area of spiritual formation. In particular, the disciplines of silence and solitude have been important in my healing from burnout and have deeply enriched my relationship with God. In addition, others have shared with me in this journey into the practices of silence and solitude. I am hoping to discover what lessons (if any) this passage can teach me about listening to God and if any conclusions can be drawn about how God speaks.
As I read and waited over the text, a few words and events stood out to me—never or not in v18 in one version; Elijah took his servant with him but then left him behind; I noticed significant time passed between the dialogues on the mountain; I imagined the sound and feel of the wind blowing, the ground shaking and the fire burning and I also wondered about the gentle whisper. I had to discipline myself to slow down. Because the text was already familiar to me, my tendency was to zoom ahead to the part of the story that I was really interested in or to race ahead to the end of the story. By going slow I was able to appreciate the selection of the material and see the quality of the story. I enjoyed a slower pace in my reading of the passage—it helped the story become more real and alive for me. I think it would have been impossible to savor the words if I had just read them straight thru and silently as opposed to reading them out loud. It should be noted that I had prepared myself for this time by a time of reading and meditation in my normal devotions. That helped a lot and this initial reading flowed out of my time of reading and prayer. There were times when I wanted to get on to thinking, writing and studying the text, as if that was the real work. As I read the text slowly, I wonder if I normally take seriously the words of the text when I read them so much faster. In other words, is my reading a means to an end or an end in itself? This slow, reflective reading made me appreciate the context of the story and the events of the day before—the anger of Jezebel, the fear and fatigue of Elijah.
Towards the end of my slow paced reading, I found my mind more easily distracted and wandering. Thus, my conclusion is that there is a limit on how long this kind of reading can be sustained. It should not be undertaken if I am physically tired and exhausted. I noticed some resistance came in the form of questions that I wanted to ask of the text—lots of why questions, like what is the significance of the use of the different names of God? I am convinced that this step is critical to my regular study of the Word. It places me into the posture of a learner and a listener, rather than someone seeking to master the contents. This exercise makes me want to do more of the same in the future as preparation for the study of the Word.
I am aware that I express a lack of humility when I think I understand the Word better than others. I need to recognize that my understanding of the Word is built upon insights given by the Holy Spirit and flowing out of teachings of the wider Church. It is important for me to acknowledge that my understanding of the text will always remain tentative and incomplete. I tend to not listen to others once I am confident of my understanding of a passage and seek more to dismiss their arguments than to evaluate my own positions in light of their words. I need to re-evaluate how teachable I am to correction from women, those from a more charismatic persuasion and from those with less educational or economic opportunities than myself.
The tools of formational, reflective reading have helped me to intentionally listen to the Spirit and to engage my whole person in the reading of the Word. Unless I do this, I tend to become very academic in my approach to the Word, understanding it intellectually but failing to allow the Word to penetrate to the heart or emotional level. At the same time, I admit that I continue to be uncertain what is meant by asking the Spirit to “inspire me as I read.”
I am not sure that I regularly make a commitment to obey whatever God will tell me from the text of Scripture before I begin reading. It is probably more important to me to understand what the Word is saying than to just “do” it. This could be keeping me from gaining more wisdom and may be a reason why my life is not more in conformity with His will. (James 1:5-8; 22) This also makes it easier for me to be detached and professional in my teaching as opposed to being more authentically spiritual.
Surfacing the Realities of “Momemtum”
To be honest, one of the reasons that I am studying this passage is to refute the critics of the contemplative prayer movement. Some critics would be critical and suspicious of any teaching that says God speaks to us in silence and would tend to limit God’s communication to His written word. I am seeking to find a Scriptural foundation or validation for practices and experiences that I have already adopted for myself! This is part of a more mystical approach to spirituality that I have gradually begun to practice and teach (as opposed to a purely cognitive or intellectual approach, which lacks vitality).
I am not attempting to move away from the foundation that the Word of God gives to my spiritual life. I am trying to discover the Scriptural teaching about how God communicates to His people and how we discern what He is saying to us. When I read that Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” should not be used as a basis for contemplative prayer, I look to other passages like 1 Kings 19 in my study of the role of silence and spirituality. I also react against others who say that the primary way God speaks is in silence or in gentle whispers.
I found an old sermon I did on “Dealing with Burnout” from 1 Kings 19. I recognize the danger of interpreting this passage in light of modern psychological theories and reading in it what is not there. However, if there are general lessons from this passage that can help the modern believer to deal with the pressures of ministry, I want to be teaching them and teaching them within the scope of the entire canon.
I do feel the pressure to conform to the stated and unstated teaching boundaries of my Christian heritage. In my church tradition, there would be a focus on an expositional teaching of the Word and on Bible studies to bring about spiritual growth. Some of the teaching on “spiritual direction” and reading of the ancient “spiritual masters” (St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence etc.) are either unknown or viewed with suspicion because of their source from within the Roman Church. Other modern day writers on spiritual formation, such as Richard Foster have been accused of promoting “new age” or “eastern religious” practices when they talk about meditation and contemplative prayer. It is possible that that my orthodoxy may be questioned by some if I conclude that 1 Kings 19 is teaching (or even permitting or allowing) a more mystical approach to spirituality.
After only preliminary work, it appears that one of the key themes in the book of Kings is the response of the nation of Israel to the word of the LORD. Following the death of David, there has been a gradual erosion of faith, first in Israel and later in Judah. 1 Kings 19 is part of a unit (chapters 17 to 19) which is centered around showing that the LORD is God in the face of the false worship of Baal. These chapters are linked by famine and provision, conflict between the followers of Baal and the followers of the LORD and the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel against Elijah. Both individuals (the widow in 17:12-14, 19-20; Obadiah in 18:16; Elijah in 19:5, 7, 8, 15) and nations (18:21, 39) will need to choose if they will follow the word of the LORD. The story will continue until the defeat of Ahab and the followers of Baal by the ones that Elijah anoints (Elisha, Hazael and Jehu).
There are a number of questions that I have as I read over the text. Was there a genuine threat from Jezebel in verse 2? Jezebel’s initial plot to kill all the LORD’s prophets failed due to the courage of Obadiah (17:4) Obadiah certainly feared for his life, saying three times he would die (17: 9, 12, 14) if King Ahab discovered that he was aiding Elijah (17:9-14). And yet, the question remains, why was Elijah now afraid? Was his fear related to having had enough (19:4)? Since the followers of Ahab, as represented by Jezebel, continue to defy the LORD, Elijah may have thought that he had failed when he says that he is “no better than ancestors.” (19:4) Is he comparing himself with others in the prophetic office who have failed to see a lasting change of heart by God’s people? Why does Elijah flee to Beersheba and the desert and why does the LORD send him to Mt Horeb? Are we to take the Angel of the LORD as the pre-incarnate Christ or just as an angel or messenger from God?
The author appears to choose “selective stories” in order to “facilitate a certain narrative purpose.” (Jasper 28-31) At a number of points, readers are reminded of the prophet, Moses. Both ran away to save their life (19:3; Ex), did not want to be involved in ministry (19:4; Ex ) hid in a cave on Mt. Sinai while the LORD passed by (19:9, 11; Ex ) and went 40 days and 40 nights while serving God (presumably Elijah’s trip was also without eating). Elijah stands before the face of the LORD (19:11) although like Moses, does not see LORD face to face (34:20-23) What theological reason does he have in doing this?
Eating and sleeping seem to be critical events before a fatigued and “burned-out” Elijah could move on. What conclusions are we to derive from this compassionate caring by God? Is it legitimate to analyze Elijah’s condition and recovery in the light of modern-day psychology? Certainly, eating healthy and getting adequate rest have been key components in my own recovery from burnout.
Presumably, the author wants to emphasize certain elements in the story by using repetition? An angel meets with Elijah twice (5, 7), tells him to eat twice (5, 8), the LORD twice asks the question, Elijah, “why are you here?” (9, 13) Elijah responds to God with the exact same words on both occasions. (10, 14) For some reason, the author seems to think it is important for us to know that the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake and fire. Was this to emphasize the “still small voice?”
Elijah anoints three men (16-17), each of whom will carry out what the other is not able to do. Are we to draw conclusions about the prophetic ministry of Obadiah and Elijah? Both men show great courage on one occasion (Obadiah hiding the prophets in 18:4, 13 and Elijah confronts Ahab on Mt. Carmel) and then later fear the authorities (Obadiah fears Ahab’s wrath in 18:7-14; Elijah fears Jezebel in 19:2).
In chapter 19, Elijah is fed for the third time by the LORD (by ravens in 17:6 and by the widow of Zarephath in 17:8ff) with bread and water. Obadiah, a fellow prophet, one who also feared the LORD, saved 100 prophets, hid them in caves and fed them with bread and water. (18:3)
The word of the LORD is very important to Elijah, telling Elijah where to go (17:2, 3, 8, 9; 18:1; 19:7-8?; 21:17; 2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). The word of the LORD will continue to direct Elijah in later history when Elijah was told by the LORD to go meet Ahab (21:17), told by the angel to meet the King of Samaria’s messengers (2 Kings 1:3), “to not be afraid to go with them” (2 Kings 1:15) and at the end of the life, Elisha follows Elijah as he goes to Bethel (2 Kings 2:1), Jericho (2 Kings 2:4 and the Jordan river (2 Kings 2:6), all at the “command of the LORD.”
Elijah knows what to do because of the Word of the Lord (“he did according to word of the LORD” in 17:5; “I have done all these things at Your word” in 18:36; “Go out, stand before the LORD on the mountain” in 19:11). The Word of the Lord comes to others through Elijah (widow in 17:14, 16; for people in 18:21; Elijah speaks the word of the LORD and the words in his mouth are identified as truth. (17:24)
There is a relationship of intimacy between Elijah and God (“LORD my God” 17:21, 22; “he stands before the LORD of Hosts” 18:15; Elijah calls on the name of the LORD (18:24); “Hear me, oh LORD, hear me” in 18:37 and in 19:11, the LORD passes him by). The LORD (Yahweh) is easily Elijah’s favorite name for God although in his complaint he talks about his faithfulness to the LORD of Hosts. 19:1, 14 The LORD listens to the voice of Elijah (17:22 and 19:13 Elijah hears a voice—the voice of YHWH?). Elisha wants this same intimacy for he asks for a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9) and after Elijah goes up to heaven, Elisha asks, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” 2 K 2:14
Elijah appears to be claiming that the word of the LORD has failed in 1 Kings 19:10 when he says, “for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” Elijah claims that the nation has failed to keep the covenant (see Solomon’s failure in 1 Kings 11:9-14; and God’s promise to Solomon in 6:11-13; 3:14; 3:3-4; 2:2-4). The “altar” that Elijah claims has been torn down is prominent in 1 Kings (dedicated by Solomon in 1 Kings 3:15; 8:22-26 and prophesied about in 13:1-4 (see also Joab at the altar in 2:28). The prophetic ministry of the nation was under attack (Elijah claimed that all of the prophets had been killed and that he alone was left (18:22; 19:10, 14). Certainly Obadiah feared for his life and was able to save one hundred prophets from the wrath of Jezebel (18:4). Kings has numerous references to the prophets of other gods (13:32; 14:22-24 15:12-14 as well as the prophets of Baal in 18:19). Ahab, Jezebel and Baal are seen to be linked intimately in 16:31-33.
The wind, earthquake and fire are clearly symbolic of God’s presence even though the author tells us that God was not in the wind, earthquake or fire. However, God’s presence is clearly there since the LORD passed by and the wind broke the rocks “before the LORD” (19:11). Elijah has prior experience with fire on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18) and at the end of his life, he will be taken away in a chariot of fire with horses of fire, in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2: 11).
What is this “still small voice” or the “sound of gentle whisper?” What is the best translation? It is interesting that what is NOT said is that the LORD is to be found in silence. Since Elijah had experience with the word of the LORD, how was the word of the LORD that came to him in verses 9 and 11 different from the still small voice in verse 12-13? Does the author not distinguish between the still small voice and a voice that comes in verse 13 and says, “What are you doing here Elijah?” We already know that this same question in verse 9 was asked when the word of the LORD came to Elijah. I remain uncertain what God was trying to prove to Elijah during his appearance in 19:11-13. What is Elijah to learn (that he apparently does not since he repeats his answer in 19:14 after the LORD appears), and what principles are there here for us to learn?
What conclusion are we to draw when we learn that Elijah is sent back out to anoint others that will continue to speak the word of the LORD and to oppose the false god of Baal? Elijah is told to anoint Elisha, Hazael and Jehu and but it is actually Elisha who anoints the latter two (2 Kings 8:13; 9) Since Ahaziah (Ahab’s son continued to serve Baal and make God angry (22:53), Jehu does fulfill the prophecy of 19:17 in 2 Kings 10:10, 19 and Hazael defeats Israel because of the Lord’s anger. 2 Kings 13:3,22
The idea of remnant seems to be a key element in this passage. Elijah proclaims, “I alone am left.” (Heb. yatar in 19:10,14) Yatar is the word used to describe the remnant of the house of Saul (2 Sam 9:1); of Israel (Isaiah 1:9); promise of a remnant by God (Ezek 6:8; 14:22) and a remnant of the warring nations who will worship God. (Zech 14:16) However, God had a plan and in addition to the 100 saved by Obadiah, God promises another 7000 who have not kissed the feet of Baal. Elijah is to anoint others to carry on the ministry. Was not the promise of the remnant supposed to relieve any fear that the word of the LORD had failed or will ever fail?
Structure of the passage
Rice shows how 1 Kings 17-19 contains three “acts” which center around the story of drought. (140) He suggests a parallel structure for these three chapters. First, there is an “Announcement that precipitates conflict” (by Elijah 17:1; by God 18:1; by Jezebel 19:2). Next there is “A journey in two stages” (Cherith 17:2-3, Zarephath 17:8-9; Obadiah 18:7, Ahab 18:17; Beer-sheeba 19:3, Horeb 18:8). There are “Two successive encounters in which feeding is involved” (ravens 17:17-23 and widow 17:8-16; Obadiah 18:7-16 and Ahab 18:17-20; angel in 19:5-6 and 19:7). “A crisis is resolved by the intervention of God in power” (resuscitation 17:24; fire 18:21-38; theophany 18:9-18). Finally, there is “A conversion and confession of faith in the LORD or renewal” (widow 17:24; Israel 18:38; Elijah 19:19-21). (Rice 140)
Nelson helpfully breaks the narrative of chapter 19 into 4 successive journeys: Beersheeba flight 1-3; Wilderness depression 4-7; Horeb recommissioning 9-18 and Elisha’s obedience. 126
Elijah and Moses
Not surprisingly, a number of the commentators see that there is a parallel between Elijah and Moses. Maclaren suggests that since cave has the definite article (“the cave”) that it is referring to “the same cleft in the rock where Moses had stood.” 264 (see also Wiseman 172) Wiseman says, “the historian deliberately selects events which parallel Moses who also left his servants (Ex 24:2ff.: 33:11), as did Abraham (Gen 22:5), so that he could face God alone.” 172
Where did Elijah go wrong?
Most commentators offer some suggestion about where Elijah went wrong, about why he was afraid. Maclaren suggests that Elijah “forgot reverence, submission and obedience.” 263 Provan says Elijah “forgets to think theologically and simply reacts (for the first time) to circumstances.”144 I disagree with Wallace who says that Elijah’s desire to die is “a careless and quite natural expression of what he knows is a temporary mood.” 131
Allen proposes that the first word in verse 3, (wayyar) should be translated “then he saw” (from rā’â) rather than he was afraid. 198 He suggests that after seeing Jezebel (and with her, Baalism), Elijah ran away in disappointment. “Thus, Elijah does not quiver with fear beneath that desert shrub, but he moans in disappointment.”Allen 200 Rice seems to agree somewhat, “Elijah regards his efforts there to have been in vain and the forces of Baal to have been victorious after all.” 158 It seems to me that Elijah was afraid of being killed by Jezebel and in the absence of any word from the LORD, he flees. I don’t think he has just forgotten what has happened at Mt. Carmel (contra Maclaren 266).
For whatever reason Elijah flees, most agree that God’s question, “What are you doing here?”, indicates that Elijah has made a wrong decision. “The journey south was certainly not on God’s agenda.” (Provan 144) DeVries says the contrast between “there” and “here” indicate that “the Negeb was no proper place for this mighty man of God. . .” (DeVries 237)
Still small voice
Although Nelson says that a focus on the still small voice in this passage is a “focus on wrong element in this story” (122) and a “serious misreading of the narrative” (123), most commentators spend a lot of words discussing this very topic. Rice suggests that the way God manifests himself is “an integral part of the revelation he wishes to communicate.”(160) But, he fails to clarify exactly what God speaking in this still small voice is supposed to communicate about God. “Since Elijah hears . . .the reference must be to a filled, gripping, perceptible silence or stillness.” (Rice 160)
What seems to be an error is the attempt by many to make the still small voice the general principle by which we are to hear God. This is a rebuke to those who neglect “the way of quiet love, simple piety, and persuasive kindness.” (De Vries 237) Allen says that here we have “a new insight into Yahweh’s way” (200)
Is Douglas correct when he says that the still small voice, is “more expressive of the divine presence and power than earthquake, wind and fire?” I don’t think so. God communicates in both ways as 1 Kings 18 has shown us. Wiseman says, “The soft voice of God speaking to the conscience, illuminating the mind and stirring resolve in individual and nation may follow and is often preferable to the loud roaring and thunder . . .” (173) If we are talking about the normal way that God speaks to us, then I might agree. Rice says the divine presence “does not require outward, tangible, expressions. It may be manifested imperceptibly and perceived inwardly and spiritually. This is the significance of the still, small voice . . .” (162) Again, I think Rice has overstated the case here.
But, this must preach well. For Green suggests that because the world loves noise, “it is unable to hear God speak to men in a ‘still, small voice.” He says we need to remove “those distractions, those areas of sin that deafen our ears to the voice of the Lord.” Pinto says that we need to close our doors when we pray because, “If there are distractions, we will end up focusing on those loud sounds and will be unable to hear the still small voice of the Lord.” (Pinto 187) Stanton says, “Some church members possibly wonder why they never hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12), when they must not be walking in close enough fellowship with Him to hear Him speak.” (366)
No one really answered the questions I had about the difference between Elijah hearing the word of the LORD in 19:9, the still small voice of 19:12 and a voice asking him a question in 19:13. Grudem, in talking about the words of God’s personal address in Scripture, says “they are also ‘human’ words in that they are spoken in ordinary human language that is immediately understandable.”
What happens to Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is variously described. I think it is safe to say that in our therapy-focused culture, this passage is interpreted differently today than in the past. This demonstrates a statement by David Jasper, “. . . how we read and understand the nature of a text is changing all the time . . .” (8) Elijah is said to exhibit “symptoms of manic depression” (Wiseman 171) and to have a melancholy loneliness.” (Wilson 282) Many see Elijah as burned out (Rice 163, Nelson 126) and depressed (a “generalized depression” brought on by stress says Nelson. (126) Thus, it is not surprising that they see God’s new commission to Elijah giving him a sense of purpose that will bring him out of his depression. “God’s therapy for prophetic burnout includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a future . . .” Nelson 127 “Doubts will cease and misgivings vanish when God puts him to work.” DeVries 237 Elijah is “restored when given a new and demanding task to fulfill.” Wiseman 171
Point of this story
There are a variety of suggestions as to the point of this story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah is to “learn the limitations of his work and the superiority of another type, represented by the sound of gentle stillness. . . The lesson is about the gentleness of God.” (Maclaren 266) The significant part of this revelation is a “gentle whisper” where “he must learn to live out his life and to serve God on a much lower and more sober level.” (Wallace 130) These commentators appear to be reading something into this story that is not there, especially in light of a much debated phrase in verse 12.
Others consider that the point of this story is to emphasize that the ministry of the word of the LORD must continue through the prophetic office. “Elijah and his mission are the focus, not God’s presence or absence.” (Nelson 123) Elijah is reminded that the Word of the LORD cannot and will not be silenced, even if there is incomplete obedience by God’s people. Speaking about the word of the LORD, House says, “It remains the force that produces the remnant, protects the remnant, and empowers the remnant. As a part of this remnant, Elijah can expect God’s protection and empowerment.” (224) Contrary to his words, Elijah is not alone and so he must “prepare the way for others” (Provan 147); there are 7000 “others who are loyal and who share the responsibility for God’s cause . . .” (Rice 163), and Elijah will find waiting “a small but important cadre of faithful men, untarnished by the prostitutions of Baal worship in Israel.” (Allen 200)
When Elijah is threatened by Jezebel, despite the powerful display of the word of the LORD in 1 Kings 18, he falls into disappointment and despair and decides to end his ministry of proclaiming the word of the LORD. God compassionately cares for an exhausted Elijah by providing him with needed food and water and sleep. God chooses to meet with Elijah on Mt. Horeb, in a cave, on the mountain that would remind Elijah of the key prophetic tradition to which he has been called, following in the line of Moses.
While at Mt. Horeb, once again the word of the LORD comes to Elijah (19:9), not to command but to question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah cannot understand what has happened. He has faithfully and zealously proclaimed the word of the LORD but it seems to have been rejected by the Israelites (forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, killed Your prophets. (19:10:14) Through his experience on the mountain, Elijah is drawn back to the presence of the LORD and His word and has been shown that he must listen closely and carefully to God so that the ministry of the word may continue. In reading the Scriptures, we need a “focused attentiveness” a commitment to listen and to wait upon God as we read the Word. (Webster 90)
Elijah is commanded to return to his ministry of the word of the LORD but at the same time is promised that he is not alone (there will be a remnant of 7000) and that his ministry will not be in vain. Elijah will discover that it is out of the Word of God that God’s people are formed, that they are a “creature of the divine word.” (Webster 42) The ministry of the word will continue on in the person of righteous Elisha, and the unrighteous Kings Hazael and Jehu will make sure that the LORD’s judgment will fall upon all who disobey the LORD and follow Baal.
Are there lessons here in handling burnout in the ministry? It seems that there is a temptation to read modern day psychology back into the text. However, we should not be surprised when we see “our story” today as we observe how the people of God lived “back then.”(Davis 30)
Apart from Abraham, Moses and David, few Old Testament figure seems to be as important as Elijah in the Biblical record (especially if we include those he anoints to be an extension of his ministry). The question to be asked is why? Elijah appears to be the key figure that links the prophetic ministry back to Moses and forward onto the Messiah. “In a sense, Elijah represented the whole prophetic tradition.” (Wilson 282) Elijah is prophesied to return in Malachi 4:4-6 in order to bring about a turning of the people back to the Law of Moses and there was much speculation as to whether John was this promised Elijah and thus a forerunner to the Messiah (Elijah is mentioned in every single gospel account (Matt 11:14, 6:14, 17:10 ff.; Mark 6:15, 8:28, 9:11 ff.; Luke 9:8, 19; John 1:21). In case we missed Elijah’s importance, he appears at the transfiguration, together with Jesus and Moses. (Mtt. 17:1 ff) What is about Elijah that commands our attention? Is this another instance where the New Testament helps us to understand the significance of the Old? (Davis 3)
Why does James tell us that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours? (James 5:17-18) Allen suggests that 1 Kings 19 may give us a clue. “It is in his disappointment, not in his terror, that we see Elijah as “a man with a nature like ours.” 200 Elijah is not the only prophet to get discouraged and want to quit the ministry. Jonah is angry about God bringing Ninevah to repentance and prefers to die rather than go on in ministry. (4:5-11) Moses in Numbers 11:14-15 wanted to die (and presumably quit the ministry) because the burden of a disobedient people became too heavy for him. Is Elijah like the New Testament apostles who kept preaching the word of God despite great opposition (Paul and Barnabus in Acts 13: 42-46; Peter and John in Acts 4; Paul and Silas in Acts 16:19-25; Paul’s defense to the Jews in Acts 22; before Felix in Acts 24 and before Agrippa in Acts 26)?
Does 1 Kings 19 teach us about how we are to hear the word of the LORD or does it teach us the importance of maintaining a focus on the ministry of the word without concern for the results of our ministry? After reading 1 Kings, should we be reminded of the apostles who made it a priority to give themselves “continually to prayer and the ministry of the word?” (Acts 6:4) Is Elijah teaching us to trust in the power of the word? (Heb 4:14-16; 2 Tim 4:2; Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:17-21)? Does 1 Kings 19 not remind us and warn us that we are not to “refuse Him who speaks?” (Heb 12:25)
Are we to understand the “still small voice” of 1 Kings 19:12 to be the primary way God communicates with us today, as many have suggested above? In order to hear God are we required to say like Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening?” (1 Sam 3:10) But, are not the sheep expected to hear and follow the shepherd’s voice? (John 10:1-10) Is it possible that we miss something of God’s character when we fail to meet with Him in stillness and quiet (Is 30:15; Psalm 46:10) Do not the withdrawals of Jesus, to lonely places, in order to pray, provide us a model for these kind of practices? Following are a few occasions when Jesus withdrew: (Lk 5:16 following busy ministry—“often”; Mk 1:35 at night; Lk 6:12 before choosing the 12; Mtt 4:1-11 in wilderness before beginning ministry; Mtt 26:36 before the cross).
When we talk about listening to the still small voice of God, is this independent from the Word of God? I don’t think so. It is the written word upon which we are to meditate and dwell upon day and night. (Psalm 1). It is the written word that is God-breathed and powerful. (2 Tim 3:16-17) We are to not to neglect even one word from God’s revelation (Mtt 5:18). God communicates to us through the sometimes loud preaching of the Word just as He does through our quiet reflection upon His words. Is it not a danger to emphasize a special way that God communicates to us apart from the written word? “Each way God communicates to us has its own special uses, but all the ways are not equally significant for our life with him. In terms of overall importance, the written Word and Jesus, the Living Word, are not even to be compared to a voice or a vision used by God to speak to an individual.” (Willard 87)
Working with the “sanctified” Quadrilateral
Theologically, there may be resistance to any interpretation that affirms the value of listening to the “still small voice” of God. For those who value an objective, rational, absolute view of truth, this may sound too subjective, emotional and relative. For this concern, it is important to define what we mean by a still small voice and place limits on this form of communication from God. It is legitimate to question whether we have enough evidence from the text of 1 Kings 19 to understand what the still small voice of 1 Kings 19:12 means. Others argue that God no longer speaks to His people apart from His written Word. Has God stopped speaking in this way or have God’s people stopped listening?
For most people from my conservative Church tradition, it is hard to define an experience in which we know God spoke to us. We emphasize and rely upon the written Word of God and believe God speaks to us but we are not really clear how this communication takes place (and generally prefer to avoid talking about it). My brothers and sisters from the more charismatic traditions would likely have more experiences like this and they have the advantage that their church tradition encourages and expects to hear from God.
A scientific worldview would likely question God’s activity in 1 Kings 19 and definitely would try to explain the events of chapter 18 with natural causes. They would see no reason to believe that God is behind the fire, wind and earthquake on the mountain and likely would imagine that Elijah is hallucinating when he hears voices!
Some would resist the continued preaching of the word where there is a lack of responsiveness. According to this missiological theory, we are to take the Word to areas and people groups that are responsive and in which the Word is bearing fruit. Some support for this view is found in Matthew 10:14 and Acts 13:51. However, since there is a promise that representatives from every people group will be worshipping before the throne of God (Rev 7; 11), God sends some to areas in which the gospel has not been preached. (Rom 15:20)
Others would say that it is wrong to try to understand the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 with our current psychological theories about depression and burnout. Too many Christians today still believe that if a person is depressed there must be sin in their life that must be confessed. This may be behind the attempt on the part of many commentators to explain what Elijah has done wrong in this passage.
My current ministry is to our missionary team here in the Philippines who are word-bearers or are involved in a support ministry to word-bearers. When our people fail to see lasting change in their communities as a result of the ministry of the word, people get discouraged and sometimes want to give up. The needs of the people seem endless and many of our teams exhaust themselves trying to care for the communities to which they have been called. We have had a high rate of burnout, with missionaries leaving the field because of the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges involved in ministering to urban poor communities or resistant Muslim people groups. For those in support ministry, many feel neglected and under-valued.
The teaching of 1 Kings 19 can give permission to our missionary team to be honest about where they are in their ministry longings. For some, an admission of their own struggles will be the first step towards a healthy and balanced ministry life. Others will need to follow Elijah’s example and give themselves permission to rest in order to restore perspective, balance and wholeness. Both individual and group silent retreats need to be encouraged and facilitated. Not all of the cultures within our mission will be comfortable with these suggestions since some cultures are uncomfortable when personal attention is focused upon their needs. In addition, our own role in member care needs to be better defined so people can be honest about their condition without fear of a negative evaluation. 1 Kings can show us that even though there is a personal cost to ministry we need not give up. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 tells us that we do not lose heart even when our “outward man is perishing.” Galatians 6:9 encourages us to not grow weary in doing good since we will reap what we sow. Elijah brings us back to the priority of the word and an intimate relationship with God. We must stay focused on the word of the LORD—for it will not return void. (Is 55:11)
Elijah’s complained that he was the only prophet left (1 Kings 18:22; 19:10). God reminds Elijah that he is not alone by having him anoint others that will continue the ministry. Some members of our field that struggle with isolation and loneliness and we must intentionally gather them together with others who can encourage them. Placement of our missionaries within teams is to be preferred. We are now much more intentional about be training leadership for the next generation and our strategic plans include an exit strategy from the beginning so that we may be aware when it is time to let go of the ministry and move on.
I personally need to incorporate into my disciplines a monthly retreat day and make sure that the pressures of ministry do not crowd out my daily time of listening to God (and His “still, small voice”). I need to meet with a spiritual director to see if he can offer suggestions for my own spiritual growth. I need to be honest about what has discouraged me in the ministry and begin to process those areas before God and with the help of others.
It may sound strange but this course has renewed my confidence in the trustworthiness of the Word of God. This comes through very clear in my study of 1 Kings 19 and Elijah. I am motivated to stay engaged with the text of Scripture—from the particularities of the text to the broader scope of any one text within the canon of Scripture. I want to immerse myself in the text of the Scripture and do the hard work of study and reflection. I recognize that I need both a rigorous informational study of the Word along with a reflective formational reading of the Word.
Allen, Ronald Barclay. The Evangelical Theological Society, Elijah, “The Broken Prophet.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:3 (September 1979) 193-202.
Davis, Ellen F. & Richard B. Hayes. The Art of Reading Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
DeVries, Simon J. Word Biblical Commentary : 1 Kings, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998.
Douglas, J.D. “Storm.” New Bible Dictionary, Second edition. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982.
Green, Michael P. Illustrations for Bilical Preaching : Over 1500 Sermon Illustrations Arranged by Topic and Indexed Exhaustively, Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Chapter 2 :The Word of God B.2.
House, Paul R. 1-2 Kings. NIV New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995.
Jasper, David A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. Louisville, Kentucky: Atlanta: John Knox Press, 2004.
Maclaren, Alexander. Expositions of Holy Scripture: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and first book of Samuel, second Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings 1-7. New York: George H. Doran Company, No date.
Nelson, Richard D. First and Second Kings. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987.
Pinto, Dan. “Prayer and the Sovereignty of God.” Conservative Theological Journal 2:187 (June 1998) 176-190.
Provan, Iain W. New International Biblical Commentary 1 and 2 Kings. Hendrickson Publishers 1995
Rice, Gene. Nations Under God: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Kings. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1990.
Stanton, Gerald B. “The Prophet Jonah and His Message: Part 2.” Bibliotheca Sacra 108:366 (Jul 51) 363-76.
Wallace, Ronald S. Readings in 1 Kings: An Interpretation for Personal and Group Bible Study With Questions and Notes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Webster, John. Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Wilson, Charles R. Wesleyan Bible Commentary Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1978
Willard, Dallas. Hearing God. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.
Wiseman, Donald J. Tyndale OT Commentary on 1 and 2 Kings. Leicester, England: IVP, 1997.