The story of ELijah is perhaps one of the most compelling tales of courage of conviction in the Bible. Elijah was a man set apart in many ways. He lived among people who had no regard for the true God of Israel. He lived under the rule of a greedy, weak willed monarch and his calculating idolatrous consort who would resort to any means in order to secure her hold over the kingdom her husband ruled over.
Though Ahab sat on the throne of Israel, Jezebel, in many ways, played him like a fiddle. Jezebel’s influence permeated every corner of the kingdom which had led the people into terrible and deep rooted apostasy.
Jezebel was a pious woman. She was a devoted worshipper of Baal and too great pains to not only establish Baal worship in Israel but also worked hard to make sure it thrived. She had almost a thousand prophets and priests all dedicated to the service of Baal and she had managed to all but wipe out the name of Jehovah from Israel.
Elijah was a man who was unwilling to accept her rule. When he looked out over the kingdom that God had established, for the express purpose of being a light to the nations around them, he knew that he could not remain silent. Israel’s purpose was to reveal the true God to the idolatrous nations around them and instead they had been poured into the same mould that God had specifically raised them up to break.
Marching into Ahab’s presence chamber Elijah declared that there would be no rain for three years on account of Israel’s terrible apostasy. Elijah then hightailed it out of there and spent some time camped out by the brook cherith. God sent ravens to bring him food and he drank water from the brook but eventually, the drought was so severe that the brook dried up and Elijah needed to find a different place to live.
He made his way down to Zarephath where he found a widow, gathering up sticks for a fire. The woman dolefully informed him that she was going to make herself and her son what amounted to their last meal and then they would wait to starve to death.
Elijah told her that if she made him a little loaf of bread first and then made some for her and her son God would make sure that they would not starve. It was an opportunity for the woman to take a leap of faith. A hand, held out offering the promise of so much more than she had or could procure for herself but at the cost of stepping out into the unknown. As it turned out the widow of Zarepheth took the leap and God provided for her, Elijah and her son through a barrel of meal that never ran out and a cruse of oil that was always full.
At the end of three and a half years God directed Elijah to go back to Ahab. It was time for Israel to make their decision. It was time for them to see the truth.
When Elijah went to meet Ahab the first words out of Ahab’s mouth were “is it you, you troubler of Israel?” In Ahab’s eyes, the drought was Elijah’s fault, after all he was the one who had called it down on the land. But Elijah refused to be cowed. Instead he turned the tables on Ahab, telling him with acerbic frankness “it is not I but you who have troubled Israel”
In truth it was Ahab’s unwillingness to preserve the worship of the true God and his easy submission to the whims of his wife that had brought Israel to the crossroads they faced. At an impasse about who was really to blame for the drought, Elijah laid the argument aside and told Ahab his plans. It was time to put an end to the apostasy. It was time to find out who really was the true God.
Elijah called for the people to appear before him on Mt. Carmel. He also called for the prophets and priests of Baal to join. The test would be simple. Each party, the prophets and priests of Baal representing their god and Elijah representing Jehovah, were to build an altar on top of Mt. Carmel and present a sacrifice. The god who answered their prayers by sending fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be recognised by the people as the true God.
The prophets and priests of Baal mounted an impressive performance before the gawking people. They cried and screamed, leaped and gyrated, sliced their flesh and flailed their arms. But after an entire day of wailing and leaping they had nothing more to show for it than bloodied flesh and exhaustion.
Elijah on the other hand calmly built an altar of twelve stones, poured barrels of water over it, drenching the wood and stone so that it ran like a river and collected in a trench at the base of the altar.
He then offered a simple prayer to God. Before the word had fully left his mouth fire flashed down in a jagged streak from heaven and consumed the sacrifice in a burst of flames, licking up the stones, the wood and even the water in the trench.
It was a decisive blow to the worship of Baal within the kingdom and Elijah made sure it sank deeper still by executing all the priests and prophets of Baal.
He then directed Ahab to go back to Samaria while he, Elijah, went up on the mountain once more to pray for rain. God answered his prayers and the rain came. Great grey sheets of it pouring out of the sky as though it would down the earth and every idol and grove dedicated to Baal would be swept away in a swirling current.
The people had been convinced that Jehovah was the true God. Now it was time to build on that foundation, to fortify their faith, to make it strong. The sheeting rain was proof that Israel had reached a turning point. And yet there was still work to be done. Exhausted by the days events and his long spring to Samaria from Carmel, Elijah wrapped himself in his cloak and bedded down in the streets, soaked to the bone but content to be close to the newly refreshed earth.
Jezebel however was far from content to indeed defeat. When she heard from Ahab what had happened she flew into a fit of fury. Immediately she dispatched a messenger who found Elijah, huddled in his blanket, sleeping through the rain in the dead of night. Soaked to the bone the messenger told Elijah that Jezebel was going to kill him, before the next day ended.
Terrified, disoriented and deeply discouraged that the events of Mt Carmel had not humbled Jezebel at all, Elijah jumped up and ran for his life. As the miles passed beneath his feet, his depression deepened. Finally, with the help of angels from God he made the forty day journey on foot to Mt. Hoerb where God met his face to face and lifted him from the pit of his depression by giving him a few assurances. First God told him that he was not alone. He wasn’t the only one faithful to Jehovah. He wasn’t the only one who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Though it seemed as though he was the only one target by the searing venom of an enraged woman, he was not alone.
Secondly God assured him that his presence was not found in the raging tempests that pummelled him. God was not in the earthquake or the fire or the wind but God was in the still small voice that whispered his name. God was in the stillness. God was in the silence. God was still to be found in the quiet when the elation of the mountain top was wearing thin and the gloom of the valley rushed up to meet him.
Third God gave him a new mission. After encouraging him, assuring him of his presence God put Elijah to work. He gave Elijah a new focus.
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed with doubt and discouragement. Sometimes it can seem that we are all alone. That all the odds are stacked against us. That even our best work is still not enough. It is as those times that God comes to us, in the stillness and speaks to us. He encourages us with the assurance that we are not alone and that he still has work for us to do.