Trust God in Times of Apparent Defeat

 

Sunday School Lesson for May 18, 2003

 

Background Passage: 1 Kings 19:1-20:43

 

Focal Teaching Passage: 1 Kings 19:1-21

 

Elijah’s Flight to Horeb (19:1-9)

 

Verses 1-2

Following Elijah’s dramatic victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the wrath of queen Jezebel was fully ignited. When she learned of the outcome of the mountain top event, and how Elijah had “killed all the prophets with the sword” (v. 1), she pledged by her gods to have the prophet of the Lord put to death (v. 2).  Thus, with this abrupt twist of the storyline, Elijah would now have to face “the one person as committed to Baal as he is to Yahweh” [House 221]. 

 

Verses 3-9

Having learned of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, Elijah the prophet of God became very “afraid” and “ran for his life” (v. 3).  This fact immediately supplies the reader with an amazing contrast between the fearless Elijah of chapter 18 and the man who is now literally running for his life because of the threats of a pagan queen.  While the exact cause of this dramatic reversal is not revealed in the text, we might assume that a combination of factors led to his sudden loss of confidence. Old Testament interpreters have advanced a number of suggestions including fatigue, prophetic burnout, and spiritual lethargy. Whatever the exact cause, the episode reveals that though Elijah was indeed a powerful prophet of God, he was also still a man with very human weakness and fears.  His actions and words, candidly depicted in these verses, make it clear that his real source of power was not in himself but in the God whom he faithfully served.

 

Having gone far into the desert—“a days journey” (v. 4)—he found rest under a “broom tree” and began to pray that he “might die” there in seclusion—“I have had enough, Lord” (v. 4).  After asking the Lord to take his life, he simply laid down under the tree and fell asleep” (v. 5).  Apparently Elijah, the once unconquerable servant of Yahweh, had completely given up on his ministry and fully resigned himself to the fact that he could no longer maintain his prophetic office.

 

In verse 5, however, the Lord responded to Elijah’s personal crisis by providing aid through an “angel.”  This angel “touched” Elijah and ordered him to “Get up and eat” (v. 6). This would seem to indicate that in his weakened emotional and physical state, the prophet had neglected his need for adequate nourishment. Yet, the Lord proved faithful to Elijah by once again miraculously providing for his essential needs. These included “a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.” (v. 6).  Verses 7-9 describe how the angel returned a second time to prompt Elijah into eating and journeying to “Horeb,” a distance requiring a full forty day walk.  It was at this significant location, the very site of the call and granting of the covenant to Moses, that Elijah spent the night in a cave. While secluded safely in the rock, “the word of the Lord came to him” again, this time in the form of a question—“What are you doing here Elijah?” Wiseman suggests that this question was meant to cause the prophet to reassess his position before God, and also served as a rebuke designed to promote the confession of his fears and doubts [172].

 

 

The Lord’s Appearance to Elijah (19:10-18)

 

Verses 10-14

In answer to the divine inquiry (v. 9), Elijah related to the Lord that the covenant people had fallen hopelessly into idolatry and had not only rejected the commands and precepts of their God, but had even “broken down” Yahweh’s worship places and murdered His prophets “with the sword” (v. 10).  As far as Elijah was concerned he believed that he was the “only one left” in all of Israel who had not bowed down to the worship of Baal.

 

The Lord then commanded Elijah to come out of the cave and to position himself on top of the mountain. This was in order that he might behold the very “presence of the Lord” by means of a dramatic and mysterious appearance.  This divine manifestation, known as a theophany, consisted of multiple components:

 

·        First, the Lord displayed His presence by means of a “great and powerful wind” which literally ripped apart the mountain and reduced it to rubble (v. 11). 

 

·        Secondly, the Lord appeared by means of a great “earthquake” (v. 11).

 

·        Third, the Lord made His presence known by means of a “fire” (v. 12).

 

However, with each of the three theophanic manifestations, which were very similar to the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai, the text tells us that the Lord was not “in” any of them.  Perhaps we are to understand this to mean that, though each event conveyed the divine presence and communicated the Lord’s absolute sovereignty over nature, He did not specifically speak to Elijah through the these means.  Rather, it was in the “gentle whisper” that Yahweh spoke to and comforted His servant (v. 12). Thus, this was apparently the Lord’s way of teaching Elijah that he was “not to expect always the miraculous and wondrous deliverance from problems” as he had experienced earlier [House, 225]. The Lord can and does work in seemingly small and unspectacular ways to accomplish His will. Donald Wiseman observes that 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 of cosmic events at Sinai and Carmel [173].

 

When Elijah returned to the “mouth of the cave,” the Lord again questioned Him as before—“What are you doing here Elijah?” (v. 13). According to verse 14, the prophet’s reply was a verbatim repetition of his pervious answer.

 

Elijah’s Renewed Call (19:15-18)

 

In response to Elijah’s answer to the divine question, the Lord directed him to return to the “Desert of Damascus” where he was to anoint three men to strategic positions of authority.

 

 

 

 

This section of the passage concludes with the Lord’s reminder to Elijah that, though he did feel alone in the service of his God, the Lord has retained a remnant of “seven thousand” faithful people who have kept His covenant and have not “bowed to Baal” (v. 18). This, then, is a comforting pledge of God’s determination to preserve His people, even through the most difficult and tragic of times.

 

 

 

Major Points for Reflection and Application

 

One: Discouragement: its causes and cures—Look carefully again at the sequence of events in this episode and see if you can identify the probable causes of Elijah’s spiritual discouragement and physical weakness. Are there some practical suggestions that arise from this text that might aid us in our similar struggles?

 

 

 

 

Two: The Lord’s timely Word—In what way was God’s Word helpful to Elijah in his time of personal crisis? Should we expect something similar to happen to us when we are discouraged and defeated?  What are some of the mechanisms God employs to deliver His healing and strengthening Word to us today?

 

 

 

 

Three: The beauty and power of silence—Our text strongly implies that it was through the “gentle whisper” that Elijah understood the voice of the Lord.  What lesson(s) is here for us to grasp?  Hint:  Are we more apt to expect God to be in the big things than in the small ones?  Do we assume that if nothing dramatic is happening, He is not at work?

 

 

 

 

 

Four: The preserving power of God—Though Elijah assumed he was alone in his service of God, the Lord assured him that He had preserved thousands of others like him who had retained their commitment to the worship of the true God.  How does this fact relate to the doctrine of the preservation of the saint (a.k.a., the “security of the believer”)?