When Faith Turns to Fear

41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. 44 And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” 45 And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. 46 And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. 

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 1 Kings 18:41-19:3 ESV

Chapter 18 opened up with the words God spoke to Elijah: “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth” (1 Kings 18:1 ESV). This statement contains a command as well as a promise from God. After his three-and-a-half-year absence, Elijah was to return to Israel from Sidon and confront King Ahab one more time. But while this command would likely involve great risk to the prophet, his obedience would result in a tremendous blessing on the people. God would end the long drought and restore rain to the land.

It is impossible to know if Elijah was aware of all that would have to happen before the rain returned. There is no indication as to when God divulged the rest of His plan and Elijah’s role in it. But before the physical drought could end, the spiritual drought afflicting the people would have to come to a decisive conclusion that involved a dramatic confrontation between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. But the real battle would be between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Baal, the god of Ahab and Jezebel.

And God had won the day. He displayed His power by sending fire from heaven that “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38 ESV). This demonstrative exhibition of God’s omnipotence brought the people to their knees in fear and worship of God. What they had just witnessed left them thoroughly convinced that Yahweh was the one true God, and that newly revived awareness left them crying out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39 ESV). And as if to put an exclamation point on the whole scene, Elijah had ordered the capture and execution of all 450 of Baal’s so-called prophets. When they had cried out to their god, he had remained silent. Now the prophet of Yahweh silenced them – for good. They would no longer deceive and mislead the people of Israel with fallacious promises concerning their false god.

But there was still one thing missing: The rain that God had promised. Baal had been discredited, his prophets had been eliminated, and the peoples’ reverence for Yahweh had been rejuvenated. But the land remained under the God-ordained drought that had turned Israel into a dust bowl where water and food were scarce and daily survival had become critical. The land that God had once described as “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3 ESV) had become fruitless and lifeless, reflecting the spiritual state of the people who occupied it.

Hundreds of years earlier, long before the people of Israel took possession of the land of Canaan, Moses had warned them what would happen if they proved unfaithful.

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 11:13-17 ESV

And years later, when God’s people continued to display their propensity for unfaithfulness, His prophet, Joel, would offer this promise of divine restoration even in the face of their disobedience.

Surely the Lord has done great things!
    Don’t be afraid, O land.
Be glad now and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things.
Don’t be afraid, you animals of the field,
    for the wilderness pastures will soon be green.
The trees will again be filled with fruit;
    fig trees and grapevines will be loaded down once more.
Rejoice, you people of Jerusalem!
    Rejoice in the Lord your God!
For the rain he sends demonstrates his faithfulness.
    Once more the autumn rains will come,
    as well as the rains of spring.
The threshing floors will again be piled high with grain,
    and the presses will overflow with new wine and olive oil.

The Lord says, “I will give you back what you lost…” – Joel 2:20-25 ESV

That day on Mount Carmel, the people had seen the fire of God fall from heaven, completely consuming the altar, sacrifice, and water. But they had not yet seen or felt His blessing. As Joel stated, “the rain he sends demonstrates his faithfulness.” Their land was in desperate need of restoration and rejuvenation, and so were they. After three-and-a-half-years of spiritual drought, their hearts were parched and hardened. They had lost the capacity for fruitfulness and faithfulness and they needed an outpouring of God’s grace and mercy.

Elijah knew what God had in store. So, he informed the shell-shocked king to “Go get something to eat and drink, for I hear a mighty rainstorm coming!” (1 Kings 18:41 NLT). There was a blessing on the horizon. In spite of Ahab and Jezebel’s wickedness, God was about to pour out His goodness on the land.

The fact that Ahab had food to eat is symbolic of his self-centered approach to leadership. His sins had brought God’s curse upon the nation. But while they suffered severely from the lack of rain, Ahab and Jezebel lived in royal comfort and ease. God would later issue an indictment against the leaders of Israel, warning them of their blatant disregard for the care of His people.

“What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep?” – Ezekiel 34:2 NLT

And as Ahab was busy satisfying his own needs, Elijah interceded on behalf of the people of Israel. He “climbed to the top of Mount Carmel and bowed low to the ground and prayed with his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42 NLT). At one point during his prayer, he stops and sends his servant to look toward the Mediterranean Sea in the east. But the servant sees nothing. This pattern repeats itself five more times with the same disappointing result. But the seventh time, the servant returns with a different report.

“I saw a little cloud about the size of a man’s hand rising from the sea.” – 1 Kings 18:44 NLT

Out on the distant horizon, the servant had seen what appeared to be a small glimmer of hope. It was a small and seemingly insignificant cloud. But Elijah knew what it meant. The blessing of God was about to fall and, when it did, it would come in torrents. So, he instructed his servant to warn Ahab to leave immediately or he may not make it back to his winter palace in Jezreel. When Elijah’s servant had looked to the east, he only saw a faint possibility. But through his eyes of faith,  Elijah saw something altogether different. He perceived the imminent arrival of the outpouring of God’s blessing. And before long that small cloud had developed into a massive storm that brought strong winds and torrential rains. And as Ahab tried to outrun the storm in his chariot, “the Lord gave special strength to Elijah. He tucked his cloak into his belt and ran ahead of Ahab’s chariot all the way to the entrance of Jezreel” (1 Kings 18:46 NLT).

Because Jezreel was anywhere from 10-20 miles east of Mount Carmel, some commentators attempt to explain this last verse by saying that Ahab’s chariot got caught in the mud and delayed his arrival. Others speculate that Elijah simply took a shortcut over the ridge of Mount Carmel. But everything about this story has been focused on the matchless power of God. And it should not seem out of the question that God might endow his prophet with a supernatural capacity to outrun the chariot of his arch-nemesis. God had defeated Baal. Now, the prophet of God had defeated the benefactor of Baal.

But while Elijah had won the victory at Mount Carmel and the race to Jezreel, he would have little time to celebrate. Upon hearing the unexpected news of all that had transpired on Mount Carmel, Jezebel was outraged and directed all her anger at Elijah.

“May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” – 1 Kings 19:2 NLT

Despite all that Ahab told her about the day’s events, she remained unconvinced of Yahweh’s power. She even called on Baal and his queen mother, Asherah, to come to her aid so that she might avenge the deaths of the prophets by killing Elijah. She was still putting her hope and trust in her false gods. Even the sudden arrival of long-awaited rain did nothing to diminish her misplaced trust in her lifeless and powerless gods.

But even more surprising than Jezebel’s stubborn resistance to God was Elijah’s sudden display of fear and doubt. This man who had called down fire from heaven and had singlehandedly executed 450 prophets of Baal found himself intimidated by the idle threats of this self-absorbed, idol-worshiping queen. Her vow to avenge her false god should have made Elijah laugh with scorn. Her god had proven himself to be speechless, powerless, and utterly helpless in the face of Yahweh. Yet, the formerly faithful Elijah was suddenly fearful, and this time, rather than running to the problem in the strength of God, he ran away from it. He fled for his life, covering the 25 miles from Jezreel to Beersheba motivated by fear and in the strength of his own flesh. Faced with the threats of Jezebel, Elijah took his eyes off of God and took his fate into his own hands.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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