A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 20, 2010.
1 Kings 19: 1-19
When I studied Old Testament survey my seminary professor told our class that the Old [First] Testament gives us a vivid description of humanity—mainly by using the Hebrew people the example—and shows how God deals with us. That statement caused me to understand the entire Bible in a new way. So when we read about Elijah in 1 Kings 19, what is God showing us about humanity? What is God showing about how God deals with us?
Elijah and Moses are the most prominent prophetic forces in the First Testament. Moses challenged the Egyptian moral, religious, political, and social system that was characterized by the slavery it imposed on the Hebrew people. But Elijah challenged moral, religious, political, and social oppression imposed by a Hebrew king named Ahab and his Phoenician wife named Jezebel.
Jezebel had such a powerful impact on her husband that she established the Phoenician fertility notion of worship for the nation of Israel. 1 Kings records that she sponsored at least 450 priests to Baal and 400 more of Astarte, the Baal’s consort. And as we saw last week, Jezebel was ruthless. Ahab was weak. However, they led a moral, religious, political, and social system.
Elijah appears to be courageously standing alone. In that epic contest on Mount Carmel that we read about in 1 Kings 18, Elijah declared to the spectators, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD …” He is alone in repairing the altar that had been damaged. Alone, he prayed for God to show up so that the Hebrew people would turn from idolatry. After fire fell from the sky and consumed the altar, it was Elijah that led the people in slaughtering the 450 priests of Baal. And when Jezebel learned about their deaths, she swore and sent word to Elijah that she would have him killed.
After receiving that news, Elijah left his assistant in Israel and ran for his life. He went south into Judah (the kingdom immediately south of Israel), traveled away from populated areas into a wilderness, and decided that he was better off dead. At 1 Kings 19:4, we read, “… He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life …” He fell asleep in that mood but was awakened by an angel and given food and water.
Still, the prophet was so depressed that he lay down again, only to be re-awakened and given more food which strengthened him so much that he traveled for a long time (“forty days and forty nights”) to Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. There Elijah found refuge in a cave.
Twice God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9,13). Both times the prophet answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10, 14).
This passage shows us a great deal about humanity and how God deals with us.
Living for God is stressful. Let’s be clear. Life is stressful, period. There are ups and downs, joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies in every person’s experience.
This passage, however, shows us that living for God often exposes us to unique challenges and crises. Elijah opposed the wicked system led by Ahab and Jezebel because of his devotion to God. As he responded to God in his cave hideout, “I have been very zealous for the LORD …” Devotion to God was both the reason for Elijah’s great victory at Mount Carmel and the terrifying assassination order issued by Jezebel.
Elijah had the stress of being both savior and outlaw. He had stood up for God. He stood against evil people. He did what was right. It was emotionally demanding. But he won! God had sent fire. The people had slaughtered Jezebel’s priests. This was a great development until Jezebel sent word to Elijah that she would have him killed. Elijah didn’t want Jezebel to kill him, so he left the country. Then Elijah prayed to die! He didn’t pray for strength, new courage, or more help. Frustrated, tired, and afraid for his life, Elijah prayed to die. He had reached the end of his rope and was losing his grip on life and faith.
Been there? Done that? Do you have an Elijah t-shirt that says, “I have been very zealous for the LORD. I’m tired, worn out, frustrated, and at the end of my rope?” You are not the first person to reach that point, and probably won’t be the last. Devotion to what is true, fair, and loving does not guarantee popularity. In fact, this passage tells us that it can make a person very unpopular. When we sacrifice to do our best and become targets for hatefulness, it is very frustrating and painful.
And Elijah shows us just how far we can sink because of that frustration stress, and pain. Yes, we can become so afraid that we want to leave the country. Yes, we can become so tired and depressed that we can’t stay awake. Yes, we can become so overwhelmed by all that we do, try to do, and think we must do that we just want to quit, throw up our hands, find a hole in the ground and die. And yes, that sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair can leave us with a sense that we are alone against overwhelming numbers, alone against hateful forces, alone and defenseless against people like Jezebel, people who are stronger than we are and ruthless.
God can be very annoying. Elijah was tired, frustrated, afraid, and ready to die. So what does God do? God’s angel awakens and provides food for him. When Elijah tries to return to sleep, the angel does it again. Then after Elijah has been revived enough to travel overland to Mt. Sinai where he found a cave for hiding, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
If you have ever tried your best, taken lumps for it, and retreated somewhere to lick your wounds, those are not pleasant words from anyone, not even from God. We all have our breaking point. Why doesn’t God just leave us alone? If God knows what we are going through, why does God allow us to get so low and then ask us, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And when we reply, we may sound reverent, but what we are often like Elijah, whose response can be paraphrased in this way: “What do you mean, ‘What are you doing here’? I’ve been out there standing up for you. I’ve been getting my head whipped. I’m tired, alone, scared, and trying to find some peace. I’m tired of being standing alone, fighting alone, being chased and scared alone, and want out of this, so I’m here.”
And where is “here”—that “cave” hideout to which we retreat? It might be that room in the house where no one else can enter. The “cave” may be a place, a person, or even a substance. Whatever and wherever it may be, God can find us with that annoying question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God can also be unsettling. One might think Elijah would get some slack from God for all he had gone through. So it is surprising to read the 1 Kings 19:15-18: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah as prophet in your place. … Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” In other words, get back to work! Here are new orders. Where is the “good news” for people like Elijah?
God does not count us out even when we are ready to be down for the count! Elijah was ready to quit. He thought God would accommodate him. Perhaps Elijah retreated to Mt. Sinai thinking that was the perfect place to end his life and prophetic career. He learned differently. God had no intention of giving up on him despite his despondency. God didn’t give up on Elijah because God doesn’t give up on us!
God’s “Go, return on your way …” statement to Elijah is good news because it reminds us that God sees the whole situation, while we see only our scene. It reminds us that God has more options than we know, more resources available to us than we think, and more in store than our enemies can realize. God had two kings Elijah had not considered. God had Elisha for Elijah to mentor as a prophet, plus 7,000 more souls who were loyal. And God had a plan for Elijah in all this.
Every player on a team wants in the game. So the word to Elijah—and to us—is that God will put us back in the game even when we may be ready to throw in the towel. God has more plays to run. God wants us in the game. God has victories to win. He wants us in the game. God has comebacks for us. He wants us in the game. Even if we have been down in the dumps, God wants us in the game because God doesn’t give up on us!
So let’s get up. Let’s get moving. God has victories for us despite the Jezebel situations we may face. If God believes in us, let’s get back into the game and trust God’s game plan.
 A Divine Sense of Justice, based on 1 Kings 21:1-21 (June 13, 2010), focused on the moral issues surrounding how we are affected by and respond to unloving—therefore unjust—people.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.