Elijah was the hero of the story that provided the backdrop for a sermon on faith and fear at Ginger Creek Community Church where I attend. The sermon series contrasts faith and fear, but I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me in a different direction. The message about faith and fear was a good one, but the disappointment of Elijah is what caught my attention.
For context, Israel was experiencing a 3-year drought and famine. Ahab, the notoriously corrupt and ungodly leader, was king. The entire nation was enthralled with worshiping foreign gods, and especially Baal, the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.
Baal was maybe a natural choice for them in the midst of a severe drought and famine. The popularity of Baal in Elijah’s culture was at an all-time high, but Elijah remained true to Israel’s covenant God, Yahweh.
Yahweh was Israel’s traditional God. The claim from ancient times was that He was the only true God, but it was no longer popular to worship Him. People still clung to a semblance of traditional, cultural practice, but other, foreign gods were much more popular, so, Elijah challenged them:
“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
The brashness of Elijah’s faith in God is hard for us to appreciate, perhaps. We get a clue from the fact that there were 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah was the only prophet in the bunch who remained loyal to Yahweh. Elijah proposed a challenge that would put his life at stake. He said,
“’Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’” (I Kings 18:23-24)
The loser(s) in this challenge would be put to death, which was the penalty for false prophets at the time. Elijah put everything on the line for God.
If the gambling industry in Las Vegas existed in Israel at that time, the odds were stacked heavily against Elijah, but Elijah wasn’t intimidated in the least. Elijah even let the prophets of Baal choose the bull they wanted first and offered to let them go first. (1 Kings 18:25)
The other prophets set to work. They prepared the bull of their choice, and they called on Baal.
From morning to noon, they called on the god of popular culture, but there was no response. (1 Kings 18:26) When Elijah mocked them, they cried louder and cut themselves until they bled, but nothing happened. (1 Kings 18:27-29)
When it was Elijah’s turn, he invited the people to help him rebuild a small altar to Yahweh that had been torn down (a symbolic gesture no doubt). He prepared the remaining bull and stacked the wood.
Then he did the unthinkable: he upped the ante by having water poured over the offering – not once, but three times – until it was thoroughly soaked. (1 Kings 18:30-35) When Elijah was done, he prayed:
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Elijah’s wanted to demonstrate the power and authority of Yahweh, to vindicate himself, to renew the covenant between his people and God and turn their hearts back to Yahweh. He was so confident God could do these things, that he put his own reputation and his very life on the line.
Of course, we know the story: God showed up. God’s fire didn’t just consume the offering; it consumed the bull, the wood, the stones on the altar and even the dust, and then the fire “licked up” the water left in the trench around the altar. (1 Kings 18:38)
There are few demonstrations of faith in the Old Testament as bold or powerful as this one. Elijah stood against all his contemporaries. He stood against the king, himself. He was the only prophet still faithful to Yahweh (as far as he knew). He put it all on the line, and God showed up in a powerful way!
The people fell on their faces and acknowledged God. (1 Kings 18:39) Elijah was vindicated, and his prayers were answered. His expectations were met. Or so it seemed.
This isn’t the end of story, though. The rest of the story is where I want to pick up.
Imagine the adrenalin Elijah felt when God showed up just as he envisioned, just as he expected. Elijah, no doubt, was exhilarated. Few people, then or now, had such great faith or experienced God in such a powerful way.
If the story was being told today through film or a stage performance, the scene would end with the prophets being rounded up and put to death by the people. The scene would end in expectant silence with Elijah telling Ahab to listen for the rain (1 Kings 18:41).
Cut to the curtain closing and a commercial break.
The scene opens with Elijah climbing to the top of Mt. Carmel with his servant (1 Kings 18:42) in silence, sweating in the scorching heat of the sun. Elijah reaches the summit and gazes out to the horizon. Nothing had changed.
Tired from the climb and the energy spent in the challenge, Elijah drops slowly to ground and puts his head between his knees. Summoning his remaining strength, he begins to pray for God to show up one last time. What would the point of the great demonstration of God’s power be if He didn’t respond to the peoples’ need for which they had turned to Baal for rescue?
The silence is broken by Elijah asking his servant what he sees. Nothing. Time goes by, and he asks again. Nothing. And again. Nothing. (1 Kings 18:43)
Seven times Elijah asks, and finally, on the seventh time, his servant reports a small cloud forming off in the distance. Refreshed by the rest and renewed certainty that God was about to show up again, Elijah rises up and orders his servant to go back down the mountain to tell Ahab to hitch up his chariot and leave before the rain stops him. (1 Kings 18:44)
Completely re-energized, Elijah takes off, running ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. This scene ends with dark clouds and thunder rolling in, the wind whipping up into a gale force and Ahab riding off to Jezreel in the driving rain with Elijah running on ahead of him. (1 Kings 18:45-46)
Cut to commercial break again, and the curtain closes.
Expectations are soaring. God has shown up again, against all odds. Elijah is vindicated before the king and all the people who witnessed these amazing demonstrations of God’s power and faithfulness. Certainly, the king and all the people of Israel would align behind Elijah, the true prophet of God. The nation would be saved from its idolatry and waywardness.
The crowd is mesmerized by what just happened, flying high on grand display of God showing up against all hope, just as Elijah dared to believe. Astute movie buffs and theater goers would know, however, that there is too much time left in the show. Something isn’t right….
The curtain opens on the next scene with Ahab talking to the queen, Jezebel. He sheepishly explains when happened. (1 Kings 19:1) Jezebel stars at him in a disdainful mixture of disbelief and impatience. Not being one to ignore a clue, Ahab tails off with a nervous laugh/cough.
Are you done yet?” Jezebel demands. “Uh… and then Elijah and all the people killed the prophets. Every one of them.” Ahab demurs. Jezebel is contained, if nothing else, barely. Without so much as a word, she writes a message, taking the time to make it clear, and calls her messenger over. In his hand, she places the order to have Elijah put to death. (1 Kings 19:2)
The scene shifts to Elijah learning about the bounty on his head. Confusion and fear suddenly overtake Elijah. He runs for his life. (1 Kings 19:3) He runs all the way from Israel to Judah. (1 Kings 19:4) He would be safe there for the moment, as Judah split off from Israel years ago, and its coexistence with Israel was tense, at best.
Elijah leaves his servant in Beersheba and keeps going. We follow Elijah in silence trudging with numbing disbelief, confusion, and weariness crushing him to his core. He travels a full day’s journey into the wilderness where he finally settles under a broom tree.
Elijah is completely spent and has had enough. He wants to die. (1 Kings 19:5)
Elijah fled with fear from Israel, but it wasn’t fear that accompanied Elijah into the wilderness. It was bitter disappointment.
Most of us can’t relate to the boldness of Elijah’s faith, but I think we can all relate to the devastation of Elijah’s disappointment.
What more could he possibly have done?! What more could God have done?
God showed up in the most powerful way, just as Elijah anticipated, but it wasn’t enough. The events unfolded just as Elijah expected, but the hearts of the king and queen were not turned, the covenant was not re-established between the people and God, and he was not vindicated.
Disappointment, disillusionment, and depression overwhelm him. He sleeps.
He wakes long enough to eat and drink water left for him by an angel, and he sleeps again.
Cut commercial break, and the curtain closes. The mood settles like a pall over the crowd.
As the curtain rises for the second to last scene, Elijah wakes to eat and drink again. He rises resolutely and begins walking south, away from Israel, and he keeps going. Day after day, Elijah keeps on going for weeks. The crushing weight of disappointment evaporates in the long days under the desert heat, leaving only a dry, numb emptiness.
Elijah keeps on going, all the way to Mt. Horeb, the Mount of God. (1 Kings 19:5-8) Elijah finally arrives, finds a cave, and sleeps through the night.
Cut to commercial break before the last scene, and the curtain closes.
The curtain opens on the last scene to Elijah waking in the morning. Then, “the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:9)
Elijah finally breaks his silence and unloads on God:
“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10)
God doesn’t answer but to prompt Elijah to approach the mouth of the cave where he feels the full brunt of a “great and strong wind” tearing at the mountain, breaking rocks in pieces before him. An earthquake follows. Then, a fire breaks out before him. (1 Kings 19:11-12a)
Through it all, Elijah realizes God is not in the great wind. God is not in the earthquake. God is not in the fire.
The lights dim. The wind, the earthquake and the fire are now gone. The set is silent again. Momentarily, Elijah hears a “low whisper” and turns his head to listen.
“And behold, there came a voice to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:13)
Elijah repeats the protest, but his mind is wandering, his heart is buoyed by the slow realization washing over him: that God is not in the great displays of power. The serenity of the scene settles into Elijah’s demeanor. His voice trails off. He drinks in the peaceful refreshing of God’s presence.
Finally, the silence is broken by God’s voice giving Elijah instructions to return to Israel.
The curtain falls with Elijah listening intently. The show is over.
Notes from the Great Director:
God is still God. Elijah is still God’s servant. God is faithful, keeping His promises, working out His plans, and providing hope for the future.
Elijah would follow God’s directions, again. The mantle would soon pass from Elijah to Elisha, and God would continue working out His plans for Israel and the benefit of all mankind.
God is the Alpha and the Omega. He is the beginning and the end. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His word does not go out and come back void. His plans were formed before the foundation of the world, and He will see them to the end.
We play our small parts in the drama that God is unfolding in our time, just as He has been doing throughout the history of the world and the universe He created for His purposes. God’s plans will be accomplished. Our role is simply to maintain relationship with our Creator, to listen for His voice and to respond to Him. He will do the rest.
 Baal was the name given to a god by the Phoenicians and other Canaanites that was associated with other names in other areas of the Ancient Near East. “Ugaritic records show him as a weather god, with particular power over lightning, wind, rain, and fertility.” (See Wikipedia)