The Faithful Few

1 Ben-hadad the king of Syria gathered all his army together. Thirty-two kings were with him, and horses and chariots. And he went up and closed in on Samaria and fought against it. And he sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel and said to him, “Thus says Ben-hadad: ‘Your silver and your gold are mine; your best wives and children also are mine.’” And the king of Israel answered, “As you say, my lord, O king, I am yours, and all that I have.” The messengers came again and said, “Thus says Ben-hadad: ‘I sent to you, saying, “Deliver to me your silver and your gold, your wives and your children.” Nevertheless I will send my servants to you tomorrow about this time, and they shall search your house and the houses of your servants and lay hands on whatever pleases you and take it away.’”

Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land and said, “Mark, now, and see how this man is seeking trouble, for he sent to me for my wives and my children, and for my silver and my gold, and I did not refuse him.” And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen or consent.” So he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad, “Tell my lord the king, ‘All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do.’” And the messengers departed and brought him word again. 10 Ben-hadad sent to him and said, “The gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” 11 And the king of Israel answered, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.’” 12 When Ben-hadad heard this message as he was drinking with the kings in the booths, he said to his men, “Take your positions.” And they took their positions against the city. 

13 And behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel and said, “Thus says the Lord, Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 14 And Ahab said, “By whom?” He said, “Thus says the Lord, By the servants of the governors of the districts.” Then he said, “Who shall begin the battle?” He answered, “You.” 15 Then he mustered the servants of the governors of the districts, and they were 232. And after them he mustered all the people of Israel, seven thousand. 1 Kings 20:1-15 ESV

With the opening of chapter 20, both Elijah and Elisha, his newly commissioned replacement, suddenly disappear from the scene. Elijah will not be mentioned again until verse 17 of chapter 21. It would appear that he and his young protégé were busy fulfilling the command of God.

“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.” – 1 Kings 19:15-16 ESV

After Elijah had cast his cloak on Elisha, the two of them must have spent a significant amount of time searching for Hazael and Jehu. They would have begun their journey in Abel-meholah, Elisha’s hometown, located about 25 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. As they made their way north to Damascus in Syria, the sovereign plan of God continued to unfold in the land of Israel. In his former state of disillusionment and despair, Elijah had thought he was the last prophet alive in Israel, but he was about to be proven wrong. While he and Elisha were busy searching for the new kings of Syria and Israel, God was going to raise up other prophets to act as His spokesmen to King Ahab.

God’s miraculous defeat of Baal on Mount Carmel had left Ahab and Jezebel unphased and unrepentant. The loss of their 450 prophets had not diminished their enthusiasm for their false god. And they had failed to acknowledge the sudden end of the three-and-a-half-year drought as a gracious act of God. This arrogant and prideful couple remained stubbornly opposed to the God of Israel. But just as the prophets of Baal had been no match for Yahweh, so Ahab and Jezebel would soon discover that their power and prominence would provide them no protection against the judgment of God.

With the end of the drought, the famine that had plagued the land slowly abated. But now, Ahab found himself facing a threat of a different sort. Any sense of relief he felt from the drought’s ending and Elijah’s sudden disappearance quickly faded when the Syrians laid siege to the capital city of Samaria. Surrounded and facing a confederation of forces that greatly outnumbered Israel’s army, Ahab found himself in a difficult situation. And the terms of surrender he received from King Ben-hadad made things far worse.

“Your silver and gold are mine, and so are your wives and the best of your children!” – 1 Kings 20:3 NLT

Operating from a position of weakness, Ahab was forced to agree to Ben-hadad’s terms but stubbornly refused to comply. Perhaps he was trying to buy time. But his delay only aggravated the problem, causing Ben-hadad to up the ante.

“I have already demanded that you give me your silver, gold, wives, and children. But about this time tomorrow I will send my officials to search your palace and the homes of your officials. They will take away everything you consider valuable!” – 1 Kings 20:5-6 NLT

Ahab had been able to survive the drought, living in luxury as his people suffered and died. But now, he was facing the loss of everything he held near and dear. Ben-hadad was threatening to steal Ahab’s glory, and for a man whose identity was derived from what he possessed, this message got his attention.

Ahab, desperate to preserve his status and prevent the loss of everything he considered of value, consulted his advisors. They convinced him to refuse any further negotiations with the Syrians. Their advice was that he keep his original commitment to give up his wives and children and pay Ben-hadad a large tribute of silver and gold. But he was not to allow the Syrians access to the capital so they could plunder all his possessions. Eager to protect his personal domain, Ahab took their counsel and sent word to Ben-hadad. But his message was not well-received. Ben-hadad reacted with anger and issued his final word on the matter in the form of a vow.

“The gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” – 1 Kings 20:10 ESV

The words of Ben-hadad are eerily similar to those delivered by Queen Jezebel to Elijah after he had destroyed the 450 prophets of Baal. She, too, had made an oath to her false gods, swearing to kill Elijah or face their judgment.

“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.” – 1 Kings 19:2 ESV

It’s interesting to note that Ben-hadad, a pagan, believed that his gods were real and capable of giving him success in battle. Yet, Ahab, king over the chosen people of Yahweh, makes no mention of any gods whatsoever, including the gods of his wife. He was operating in his own strength and according to the wisdom of men. And he displays his arrogance and over-confidence in his response to Ben-hadad.

“A warrior putting on his sword for battle should not boast like a warrior who has already won.” – 1 Kings 20:11 NLT

As would be expected, Ben-hadad was infuriated by Ahab’s boastful message and ordered an immediate attack on the city. He was done negotiating with this pompous and pride-filled fool. And, as those reading this story, we fully expect and even hope that God will allow Ahab to get what he so justly deserves.

But God’s ways are not our ways. While we see the Syrians’ attack as the hand of God against wicked King Ahab, the author reveals that God has other plans altogether. As Ahab and the citizens of Samaria brace themselves for the coming attack, God sends a prophet with a message of hope.

“This is what the Lord says: Do you see all these enemy forces? Today I will hand them all over to you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” – 1 Kings 20:13 NLT

This statement shocks and surprises us. It seems so unexpected and undeserved. Why in the world would God do such a thing for an arrogant and egotistical man like Ahab? He was idolatrous and had led the entire nation of Israel into apostasy. Among all the kings of Israel, he was the poster boy for wickedness and immorality. And yet, here was God giving him a message of divine deliverance.

Ahab responds with a series of questions rather than drop to his knees in humble repentance and gratitude for God’s gracious intervention. First, he asks, “By whom?” He demanded details. Ahab wanted to know who would get the credit for the victory. And the prophet replied, “By the servants of the governors of the districts” (1 Kings 20:14 ESV). Much to Ahab’s disappointment, God was not going to use him as the means of delivering the decisive blow to the Syrians. That prompted Ahab to ask, “Who shall begin the battle?” (1 Kings 20:14 ESV). He desperately wanted to know if he would have any part to play in this divine deliverance. And, once again, to our surprise and dismay, God informs Ahab that he will have the privilege of putting God’s plan into play.

With God’s plan clearly articulated, Ahab set about putting the pieces together to make it happen.

Then he mustered the servants of the governors of the districts, and they were 232. And after them he mustered all the people of Israel, seven thousand. – 1 Kings 20:15 ESV

This verse should bring to mind the promise God had made just before He sent Elijah on his mission to anoint the future kings of Syria and Israel.

“I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” – 1 Kings 19:18 NLT

God had promised His reluctant prophet that He would raise up a remnant from among the apostate people of Israel, and He would use these faithful few to accomplish His will. Now God was using Ahab, the apostate king of Israel, to choose the 7,000 faithful whom God would use to defeat the Syrians in battle. Ahab would begin the battle, but he would not secure the victory. That privilege would fall to those who had not bowed down to Baal.

None of this was about Ahab. He was the king, but, in reality, he was nothing more than a bit player in God’s sovereign plan for the redemption and restoration of His people. Ahab may have worn the crown, but God was King over Israel. And while Ben-hadad’s superior numbers appeared to give him the advantage, God had the faithful few. He was going to bring about a great victory, using those few who had refused to bow their knees to Baal.

God was about to reveal His power through weakness. And He would do so through those whose presence was unknown but whose faith had remained unwavering. With God on their side, this faithful remnant would defeat the enemy, and their unexpected victory would bring great glory to God. And in the Song of Moses recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, we’re given an explanation for the kind of victory God is about to bring.

How could one person chase a thousand of them,
    and two people put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
    unless the Lord had given them up?
But the rock of our enemies is not like our Rock… – Deuteronomy 32:30-31 NLT

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

Learning to Trust the Plan of God

15 And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 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.”

19 So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. 1 Kings 19:15-21 ESV

The last three-and-a-half years had taken their toll on Elijah. He had been living in a God-ordained exile in a remote village in the region of Sidon. And while God had miraculously cared for him during that time, he had to live with the knowledge that there was a bounty on his head. King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, had never forgiven him for the drought he had placed on the land of Israel. And Elijah must have woken up every morning wondering if that would be the day God called him to confront Ahab and Jezebel one more time.

When that day finally came, Elijah obeyed God and made his way to Mount Carmel, where he challenged King Ahab to pit his 450 prophets of Baal against Yahweh, the one true God. And that battle ended up being a lopsided affair, with Elijah’s God as the clear victor and the false god of Ahab and Jezebel exposed as a fraud and a failure. And the dead bodies of his 450 prophets, strewn across the Jezreel Valley, were evidence of his decisive defeat.

But Elijah’s hope for revival in the land was soon replaced by fear for his own life. Jezebel had vowed to kill Elijah for his slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal. And he had responded to this news by running away. The prophet of God seemed to have lost all faith in God. And yet, even in his deep state of depression and despondency, Elijah was ministered to by God. Yahweh met Elijah right where he was, in the midst of his doubt and despair, and graciously provided him with a visual demonstration of His power. Yet the wind, earthquake, and fire only frightened Elijah, causing him to take refuge in a cave. But it was the quiet whisper of God that drew him out. And the gentle voice of God asked Elijah to explain his presence there. What was he doing so far from the scene of the recent victory over Baal? Why was he in hiding? And Elijah had repeated his earlier answer:

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 19:14 ESV

Elijah described himself as alone and afraid. He had convinced himself that he was the last man standing, with no one to do battle at his side. In the heat of the moment, he had conveniently forgotten about the 100 prophets that God had used Obadiah to protect and preserve (1 Kings 18:13). Elijah felt alienated and alone, but his feelings were not based on reality. God even informed Elijah that He had preserved a remnant of “7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:18 NLT). Elijah was far from alone, and God was far from finished with Elijah. And rather than rebuke His wavering prophet, God gave him his next assignment.

“Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet.” – 1 Kings 19:15 ESV

Despite his recent display of faithlessness and fear, Elijah would play a significant role in the next phase of God’s plans for Israel. God gave Elijah three assignments: First, he was to anoint a new king over the Syrians or Arameans. Then, he was to anoint a new king over Israel’s northern kingdom. Finally, he was to anoint his own successor. God provides Elijah little in the way of details. Other than the names of the men he was to anoint, Elijah had no way of knowing what any of this meant or how it would all turn out. But God was letting Elijah know that there were plans in the works of which he was unaware. Whether Elijah realized it or not, Ahab’s days were numbered, and the Syrians would end up playing a part in his eventual demise. There would be a new king in Israel one day. God had defeated the false god, Baal, and now He was going to mete out final judgment on the man responsible for Baal’s presence in Israel.

As if to further convince Elijah that he was not alone and that his mission was far from over, God revealed that the three men Elijah was to anoint would carry on the work that he had started at Mount Carmel. Elijah had slaughtered the 450 prophets of Baal, but there were far more who needed to face the judgment of God for their apostasy and rebellion.

“Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha! – 1 Kings 19:17 NLT

Judgment was coming. God was preparing to purge Israel of all those who had bowed the knee to Baal, and He would start at the top with Ahab and Jezebel. But this divine plan to cleanse Israel would not happen overnight. In fact, it would last long after Elijah was gone. That’s why God informed Elijah that he was to anoint his successor.

“…anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. – 1 Kings 19:16 NLT

God already had Elijah’s replacement identified and ready to carry on His divine plan for Ahab’s punishment and Israel’s purification. A big reason for Elijah’s dejection was because the revival that had started at Mount Carmel had stalled. When he had heard the people cry out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39 ESV), he had truly believed that God had turned back the hearts of the people. He had expected to see an amazing renewal take place. He may have even believed that Ahab and Jezebel might repent and accept Yahweh as the one true God. But instead, the ever-defiant queen had threatened him with death.

But while Jezebel remained unwavering in her commitment to Baal, Elijah needed to understand that God was unphased by her actions. As the sovereign, omniscient God of the universe, He had a plan in place to deal with Jezebel, Ahab, and all those who had bent the knee to Baal. And while Elijah might not live to see the final phase of that plan, he would play a decisive role in its preparation.

Revived and encouraged by God’s news, Elijah made his way to Abel-meholah, located in the Jordan Valley. While God had clearly told Elijah to travel to the wilderness of Damascus and anoint Hazael to be king of Aram (1 Kings 19:15), it would appear that this was meant to be his final destination. On his way from Mount Sinai, he had to pass through the Jordan Valley, so it only made sense to stop there first and find the man who would be his replacement. He found Elisha plowing with a pair of oxen in a field. This agrarian scene is significant for several reasons. First, it conveys an image of hope and expectation. After three-and-a-half years of drought, the rain had come, and now Elisha was preparing his formerly sun-baked fields for planting. He was anticipating a fruitful harvest sometime in the future. But Elisha’s presence in the field also reveals that he was a man of the land. He was not an influential figure with great wealth and prominence. He was a nondescript nobody whose only credentials were his calling by God.

What happens next appears strange to our modern sensibilities. Elijah walked up to this man, placed his cloak across his shoulders, and then simply walked away. What kind of bizarre ritual did this represent? How was Elisha to take this unexpected action from this unknown stranger? Amazingly, it seems as if Elisha fully understood the significance of Elijah’s symbolic act. The text tells he “left the oxen standing there, ran after Elijah, and said to him, ‘First let me go and kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will go with you!’” (1 Kings 19:20 NLT). Perhaps God had already prepared Elisha for this moment, having revealed His plan through a dream or vision. He could have sent an angelic messenger to prepare Elisha for the prophet’s arrival. But whatever the case, Elisha seems to have been unphased by what transpired and fully aware of what it meant. He immediately stopped his plowing and followed the man of God. His words and actions reveal that he knew who Elijah was and what he was asking him to do. His only request was that he be allowed to say goodbye to his family.

Elijah’s response to his request comes across as rather flippant.

Go back again, for what have I done to you?” – 1 Kings 19:20 ESV

But, in a sense, Elijah was simply emphasizing that this had all been God’s doing, not his. He was simply the messenger. Elisha was free to do as he pleased. And the young farmer-turned-prophet demonstrated his commitment to accept the call of God. He took the plow, the symbol of his former occupation, and used the wood to build an altar. Then, on that altar, he offered up the two oxen with which he had been plowing. Elisha literally burned any and all bridges to his former life. He bid his parents and his past goodbye and “arose and went after Elijah and assisted him” (1 Kings 19:21 ESV).

As Elijah and Elisha made their way from the Jordan Valley, the first phase of the second half of God’s plan began. The revival Elijah had longed for and given up on was coming. His God was not yet done.

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

A Prophet Pity Party

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “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.” 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “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 19:4-14 ESV

While everything had gone extremely well for Elijah on Mount Carmel, he soon found himself disappointed in how things turned out. His challenge of Baal and his false prophets had proven to be successful and, from the immediate reaction of the people, it had appeared that revival had come to the land. And this spiritual renewal of the people seemed to be symbolized by the torrential rain that had brought an end to the three-and-a-half-years of drought. It all appeared as if the nation was headed in the right direction. And as a prophet of God, Elijah longed to see the repentance and restoration of the people of God.

But upon his triumphant return to Jezreel, he was met with intense opposition from the very woman who had begun all this trouble in Israel. Queen Jezebel had become incensed when she heard what had Elijah had done to the 450 prophets of her god. So, she sent Elijah a life-threatening message.

“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.” – 1 Kings 19:2 ESV

She swore an oath to her gods that she would avenge the deaths of the prophets of Baal by killing Elijah within 24 hours. If she failed to do so, her gods could take her life as payment. Despite the abject failure of her god to defeat Yahweh on Mount Carmel, she was still very much a believer. She exhibited no remorse or repentance but instead, warned Elijah that while he had won the battle on Mount Carmel, the war was far from over. She was willing to fight to the death – either his or her own.  And Elijah did not take this news well.

…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 19:3 ESV

The man who had run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel after his victory over the prophets of Baal was now running for his life. But this time, he was powered by fear, not faith. And Elijah didn’t stop running until he had reached Beersheba, the last town of any size in the southernmost region of Judah. Then, leaving his servant behind in the city, Elijah traveled another day’s journey into the wilderness, where he finally stopped to rest.

In a state of deep depression and disillusionment, Elijah asked God to take his life. Since Ahab and Jezebel remained fully committed to their false gods, Elijah had concluded that his prophetic mission had been an abysmal failure. There would be no revival in Israel as long as those two wielded all the power and influence over the people. They were calling the shots and determining the nation’s religious affiliation.

Elijah had run out of faith and energy. He was physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent. And in his despondent state, he cried out to God, saying, “I have had enough, Lord.…Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:4 NLT). Exhausted, he fell asleep. But he was soon awakened by an angel who commanded him to eat. There beside him was a loaf of bread and a jar of water. Rather than taking Elijah’s life, God had provided his faith-famished prophet with sustenance, miraculously delivered by the hand of an angel. Elijah may have decided that he was done, but God was not done with Elijah. The prophet ate and fell back asleep. 

But his rest was disturbed yet again by another visit from the angel, who had brought more food and a message.

“Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.” – 1 Kings 19:7 NLT

Elijah had not reached his final destination. He had run, but not far enough. And when he had abruptly fled Jezreel, he had done so because he thought his life was over. Either Jezebel was going to take his life or God would. But God had other plans. He sent Elijah on a 40-day journey further south, all the way to Mount Sinai. And the food God provided miraculously sustained Elijah for this long and arduous journey.

…the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. – 1 Kings 19:8 ESV

This trip should have taken no more than 15-20 days by foot, but Elijah found himself wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. This number is significant because it corresponds to the 40 years that the disobedient Israelites had spent wandering in the wilderness because they had failed to obey God and enter the land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14). Having heard the report of the spies that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the people of Israel had refused to trust God and made plans to return to Egypt.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

Now, centuries later, Elijah, the prophet of God, had chosen death in the wilderness rather than face the “giants” in his day. He had determined that Jezebel was too big for God. But God had brought Elijah to the very place where He had revealed Himself to the people of Israel. It had been at Mount Sinai that God had given His law to Moses. And it had been on Mount Sinai that God had displayed His glory and demonstrated His unparalleled power.

And when God had safely sequestered Elijah in the recesses of a cave, He asked His doubting prophet a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9 ESV). He was wanting Elijah to explain the motivation behind his most recent actions, and the prophet responded with a pitiful portrait of his Don-Quixote-like quest to defeat the enemies of God. He deemed himself the last-man-standing, the sole survivor of an ill-fated battle against the forces of evil.

“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” – 1 Kings 19:10 NLT

Elijah was throwing himself a pity party and he had invited God to attend. But God was not interested in celebrating Elijah’s accomplishments or validating his woe-is-me mentality. Instead, God instructed His despondent prophet to step out of the cave and into the shadow of Mount Sinai. And as Elijah stood there, God revealed Himself. At first, He came in the form of a fierce windstorm so powerful that it blew boulders off the face of the mountain. Then He appeared in the form of a massive earthquake that shook the ground under Elijah’s feet. Finally, God disclosed Himself to Elijah in the form of fire. And all of these manifestations of God’s glory and power were exactly what the people of Israel had seen when God had appeared to them centuries earlier at the very same spot.

On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled.… All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:16, 18 NLT

But in Elijah’s case, these dramatic revelations of God, while impressive, were not meant to represent the presence of God. The text clearly states that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Yes, they were manifestations of His greatness, but they were not how God was going to speak to His prophet. After the ear-piercing blast of the wind, the earth-shaking rumble of the earthquake, and the roar of the fire, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” ( 1 Kings 19:12 ESV). Evidently, the three previous displays of God’s power had driven Elijah back into the recesses of the cave. But upon hearing the gentle sound of the whisper, he timidly made his way back outside. And there, in the quiet of that moment, he heard God repeat His previous question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13 NLT). 

And, once again, Elijah gave the same well-rehearsed reply. And don’t miss the focus of Elijah’s response. It was all about him. He alone had zealously served Yahweh. While everyone else in Israel had turned their backs on God, Elijah had remained faithful and fully committed. He was the last line of defense against the forces of evil, and now he was as good as dead.

Where was God? Even after the dramatic displays of divine power on Mount Sinai, Elijah had been unable to get his mind off of himself. For some reason, he believed that the future of Israel had been dependent upon him, and he had failed. He had let God down. Despite his victory over the prophets of Baal, Ahab and Jezebel were firmly entrenched and in charge of the affairs of the nation, or so Elijah thought. From his perspective, all was lost. But God had news for Elijah. And He had plans for Ahab and Jezebel. God was about to whisper His sovereign secret for Israel’s future in the ear of his self-consumed prophet. And Elijah was going to discover God’s answer to the question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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

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

The Lord, He is God

22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23 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. 24 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.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. 35 And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “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. 37 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.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” 40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. 1 Kings 18:23-40 ESV

The battle for the hearts of the people of Israel was about to begin. Having accepted Elijah’s challenge, King Ahab had decreed that the people assemble at nearby Mount Carmel. He also ordered the 450 prophets of Baal to come, ready to prove the power of their god. But as Elijah stood before the gathered assembly, he issued them a stern challenge.

“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 ESV

His words are reminiscent of those spoken by Joshua hundreds of years earlier, as he addressed the nation of Israel near the end of his life. He too had called the people to choose who they were going serve, the one true God or the false gods of Egypt and Canaan.

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14-15 ESV

The fickle nature of the Israelites had not changed much over the centuries. They remained prone to chasing after any and every god who came along. They were equal-opportunity idolaters who seemed to have no sense of guilt or shame. Their willingness to accept and affirm any and all gods placed before them had been a problem from the beginning. While they never entirely abandoned their worship of Yahweh, they were constantly trying out new gods in a vain attempt to cover all their bases. Their syncretistic approach to religion and worship was driven by self-interest and greed. In a sense, they seemed to operate on the belief that two gods would be better than one. But Elijah was demanding that they make up their minds. He would not allow them to play the field and continue to offend Yahweh with their spiritual adultery.

In an attempt to stress the lopsided nature of the battle that was about to ensue, Elijah claimed that he was the only prophet of Yahweh still standing in Israel. But he was wrong and he knew it. In his earlier encounter with Obadiah, he had learned that there were at least 100 prophets whom God had spared. But Elijah chose to ignore this detail so that he could paint as bleak a picture as possible. At that moment, the odds were 450 to one. He was the sole prophet of God, preparing to face the overwhelming numbers of the prophets of Baal.

But Elijah knew that this day was not about a battle between him and the more numerous adversaries on the other side. It would be a divine display of Yahweh’s power and Baal’s impotence. Just as Baal had been unable to stop the ravages of the drought that had devasted the land for three years, he would prove incapable of hearing and answering the desperate cries of his prophets.

Elijah set the rules of the contest. Each side was to select an appropriate sacrifice, then offer it up on an altar before their respective god. Then they were to cry out to their deity of choice, and whichever god responded by consuming the offering with fire would prove to be the true god.

In describing the ensuing scene, the author clearly attempts to lampoon the efforts of the prophets of Baal. Their energetic and somewhat odd behavior displays their desperate hope that their god will show up.

…they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made. – 1 Kings 18:26 NLT

And the harder they try to garner the attention of their seemingly distant and disinterested god, the more Elijah taunts their efforts.

“You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” – 1 Kings 18:27 NLT

In desperation and growing frustration, they resort to shedding their own blood, vainly hoping that their self-mutilation might appease and awaken their god to action. But the author summarizes their prolonged and ineffective efforts with the simple statement: “there was no sound, no reply, no response” (1 Kings 18:29 NLT). Their god remained silent and unseen.

Broken and bloodied by their hours-long effort to call down fire from their god, they finally gave up. Then it was Elijah’s turn. After rebuilding the altar to Yahweh that Jezebel had ordered destroyed, Elijah had the altar and the sacrifice drenched in water. He purposefully stacked the deck against God, creating what would appear to be impossible odds. Elijah used 12 stones to build the altar and then drenched the altar and the sacrifice with 12 large jars of water. Even though this event was taking place among the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, Elijah wanted them to realize that Yahweh was the God of all Israel. They were a divided nation because of idolatry. But in God’s eyes, they were still His chosen people.

And Elijah’s simple prayer illustrates his belief that God longed to restore His covenant people. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still loved His people and greatly desired that they would repent and return to Him.

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.” – 1 Kings 18:36-37 NLT

No histrionics. No desperate displays of emotional cajoling and pleading. Elijah simply asked God to display His power so that the people might know He was there and that He cared. Elijah was asking God to demonstrate His covenant faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness. And, unlike Baal, God heard and responded.

Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! – 1 Kings 18:38 NLT

The impact of this divine demonstration of power was immediate. Blown away by this supernatural display, the people fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18:39 NLT). The altar to Baal remained untouched, just as the prophets had left it. But the altar to Yahweh had been completely consumed, rocks and all. God had more than accepted the sacrifice that Elijah had offered. And in doing so, He confirmed His power, reconfirmed His covenant commitment, and validated His prophet. He was the one true God, and Elijah was His chosen messenger.

And as a final demonstration of God’s unparalleled greatness and His prophet’s authority to act on His behalf, Elijah ordered the capture of every single prophet of Baal. The people obeyed his command and brought all 450 of these false prophets to the Kishon Valley, where Elijah meted out divine judgment and justice on every single one of them. These men had played a major role in the nation’s spiritual decline. They were the visual representation of their false god, and their lies and deception had caused the people of Israel to abandon Yahweh for a god that was nothing more than a figment of man’s fertile imagination.

Looking on as this unexpected scene unfolded before their eyes, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had to have been reeling from the shock of it all. Not only had their god not shown up, but his prophets had been destroyed. But, as we will see, rather than repent for their sins against God, they will respond in anger and resentment, attempting to take out their wrath on God’s messenger. This arrogant and self-consumed couple will continue to reject Yahweh, stubbornly refusing to admit, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!”

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

A Deadly Spiritual Drought

1 After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.

And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? 10 As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. 11 And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ 12 And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. 13 Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? 14 And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” 15 And Elijah said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.

17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. 1 Kings 18:1-22 ESV

For nearly three years, Elijah has been living in exile among the Sidonians. God had sent him there to protect and preserve him for the next phase of his mission. Three years earlier, Elijah had delivered God’s message of judgment to King Ahab and his pagan queen, Jezebel. Their joint decision to use their royal power to legislate the worship of Baal had brought down the anger of God in the form of a devastating famine. And knowing this godless couple would seek to kill His messenger, God had sent Elijah away so that he could live to fight another day. And that day had finally come.

In his original encounter with Ahab, Elijah had boldly declared that the famine would last until God ordered him to bring it to an end.

“As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!” – 1 Kings 17:1 NLT

Now, three years later, Elijah had received his marching orders from God.

“Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” – 1 Kings 18:1 ESV

God had allowed the drought to take its toll. Three years without rain had resulted in a widespread famine that had even impacted the capital city of Samaria. It was there that Ahab had ordered the construction of a temple to Baal, the Phoenician fertility god.

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. – 1 Kings 16:32-33 ESV

But Baal’s presence had not spared the royal city. Whatever power the people believed him to possess had failed to stem the ravaging effects of the drought and the life-threatening nature of the resulting famine. Things had gotten so bad that Ahab ordered a search for any land where there might be grass to feed his horses and mules. As king, he was more concerned about the fate of his livestock than he was about the well-being of the people under his care. So, he sent his household manager on a desperate, but futile search for green grass in the midst of a famine. But what Obadiah ended up finding was something neither he nor the king ever expected.

As Obadiah was walking along, he suddenly saw Elijah coming toward him. Obadiah recognized him at once and bowed low to the ground before him. “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?” he asked. – 1 Kings 18:7 NLT

Obadiah was shocked to run into Elijah. After three years, he had probably assumed that the prophet had met an untimely end. But out of reverence and honor, he bowed before Elijah. This man, who served as a royal official in the court of King Ahab, was still a faithful follower of Yahweh. And the author provides an important parenthetical description that lets the reader know that Obadiah can be trusted.

Obadiah was a devoted follower of the Lord. Once when Jezebel had tried to kill all the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had hidden 100 of them in two caves. He put fifty prophets in each cave and supplied them with food and water. – 1 Kings 18:3-4 NLT

This little detail concerning Obadiah will prove to be important as the narrative unfolds. First, it lets us know that after Elijah had delivered God’s message concerning the drought, Jezebel had launched a campaign to liquidate any and all of God’s prophets from the land of Israel. It seems reasonable to believe that her goal had been to catch and eliminate Elijah, but she was willing to execute any prophet of God who might stand in opposition to her will and the worship of her false god.

But the author’s little aside provides a second detail that will prove important. Jezebel’s death squads had failed to find and kill 100 prophets of Yahweh because they had been protected by Obadiah. At great risk to his own life, this royal official had willfully violated the queen’s command by aiding and abetting those whose executions she had ordered. God had chosen to use ravens to deliver food for Elijah. But in the case of the 100 prophets, He had chosen a member of Ahab’s royal court. Once again, God had used an unlikely and unexpected source to preserve His messengers. And the fact that these 100 prophets exist will become more important as the story unfolds.

Recognizing Obadiah as a member of the royal court, Elijah instructed him to return to the palace with a message for the king.

“Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” – 1 Kings 18:8 ESV

Obadiah, while a faithful follower of Yahweh, was not overly excited at the prospect of sharing this news with King Ahab. He knew that Elijah was a wanted man with a bounty on his head. Ahab had gone to great lengths in his efforts to locate and eliminate Elijah.

“I swear by the Lord your God that the king has searched every nation and kingdom on earth from end to end to find you” – 1 Kings 18:10 NLT

After three years, Ahab’s quest to find Elijah had proven unsuccessful, and his frustration would have been at an all-time high. Obadiah was afraid that if he delivered Elijah’s message and then the prophet disappeared again, the king would take out his anger on him. In an attempt to let Elijah know that he had already risked his life in the cause of Yahweh, Obadiah shared the story of his rescue of the 100 prophets. Hadn’t that been enough? Was God now requiring him to put his life on the line again just so he could deliver Elijah’s message to the king?

But Elijah promised his reluctant friend that he would not put his life in jeopardy. He wasn’t going anywhere because he had a job to do. In fact, he assured Obadiah that he would appear before the king that very day. So, Obadiah did as the prophet commanded and rode to find the king who was also conducting a futile search for green grass.

When Ahab heard the news, he dropped everything and rode to meet Elijah. Upon seeing the man he loathed and despised, the king sarcastically asked, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17 ESV). This arrogant and apostate king tried to blame Elijah for the nation’s woes. He knew that Elijah had spoken the drought into existence and he held him personally responsible for all the pain and suffering it had caused. His stubborn and unrepentant heart would not allow him to admit his own culpability for what had happened. It was the sin of Ahab and his wife that had brought down the judgment of God. Elijah had just been the messenger. And Elijah immediately placed the blame for Israel’s woes right where it belonged.

“I have made no trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “You and your family are the troublemakers, for you have refused to obey the commands of the Lord and have worshiped the images of Baal instead. – 1 Kings 18:18 NLT

Ahab and his father Omri had led the people of Israel into apostasy by promoting the worship of false gods. They had turned their backs on Yahweh, causing God’s chosen people to commit spiritual adultery by giving their allegiance and affections to the gods of the Canaanites. They were to blame for the drought and the famine it caused.

But it’s important to recall that God had told Elijah to deliver to Ahab a message that would have sounded like good news: “Tell him that I will soon send rain!” (1 Kings 18:1 NLT). Yet, while the drought was about to end, the judgment was far from over. God was about to deliver a devastating blow to the royal couple that would reveal the impotency of their false god and the futility of abandoning the one true God.

Elijah throws down the gauntlet, challenging the king to a public showdown that would pit Baal against Yahweh.

“Now summon all Israel to join me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who are supported by Jezebel.” – 1 Kings 18:19 NLT

Driven by pride, the king took the challenge and called for an assembly of all the people of Israel. And he ordered all the prophets of his false gods to gather together to do battle with Elijah and His God. Just consider the arrogance required to do what Ahab did. He was willingly and deliberately going to war with God Almighty, and he legitimately thought he could win. But his ego was in for a rude awakening. His gods were about to exposed for what they were: Figments of man’s fertile and futile imagination that would be proven lifeless and powerless before the God of the universe.

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

The Battle for Belief

17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 19 And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20 And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” 24 And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” 1 Kings 17:17-24 ESV

God had used Elijah to deliver His message of judgment against King Ahab and his foreign queen, Jezebel. In marrying this princess from Sidon, Ahab had also adopted her false god, Baal, and built a temple for its worship. He had also erected a shrine to honor Asherah, the moon-goddess and supposed mother of this pagan deity. And God, angered by these blatant acts of rebellion and apostasy, had sent Elijah to tell the royal couple that their kingdom would suffer under a great drought. Their disrespect and disregard for God had brought His discipline.

But after Elijah had successfully delivered his message, God sent him away. He had ended up at a cave, where God had graciously and miraculously arranged for ravens to deliver all the food he needed to survive. But eventually, Elijah became a victim of the very drought he predicted. Soon, the brook dried up and the daily deliveries of bread and meat no longer appeared. So, God had sent Elijah to the Sidonian town of Zarephath, where he took up residence with a poor widow and her son. She too was suffering from the effects of the drought. But, once again, Yahweh proved Himself to be the one true God by causing her meager supply of flour and oil to miraculously multiply and never run out. In the midst of a drought and severe famine, she had more than enough to sustain herself, her son, and God’s prophet. And through it all, Elijah was learning to trust God for all His needs. But even more importantly, Elijah was discovering that his God was greater than the god of Ahab and Jezebel. While Baal, the so-called fertility god, was powerless to stop the drought or reverse the effects of the famine, Yahweh had turned “a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (1 Kings 17:12 ESV) into a never-ending food supply for Elijah and his gracious hostess.

Then suddenly, the story takes a dramatic turn for the worse. The woman’s young son dies unexpectedly. And, faced with this devastating change in her circumstances, the woman vented all her anger and frustration on the prophet of God.

“O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” – 1 Kings 17:18 NLT

It seems that the woman had falsely assumed that her son’s death was a form of divine retribution for a former sin she had committed. Perhaps by this time, Elijah had shared the details of his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel, explaining that he had been the one to predict the drought as a punishment for their sin. So, when her son suddenly died, she would have naturally reasoned that God was using the prophet to deliver yet another judgment for sin – her own.

But ignoring her despair-driven accusation, Elijah took the lifeless body of her son and placed it on his own bed. Then Elijah turned his attention to God. But notice the tone of His prayer. He seems to echo the words of the widow, passing the blame up the food chain and questioning the goodness and graciousness of God.

“O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” – 1 Kings 17:20 NLT

Elijah’s response reveals his firm belief that God is sovereign over all things. But he is perplexed and confused by the seeming injustice of it all. And, in his frustration, He accuses God of doing something wicked. The Hebrew word is rāʿaʿ, which is most often translated as “evil.” The boy’s death makes no sense to Elijah. It seems unnecessary and completely unproductive. When Elijah had first met the woman, she had been fully expecting her son to die of starvation because of the drought. But God had intervened and provided more than enough food to keep all three of them alive. So, to Elijah, the boy’s death seemed pointless and, if anything, it appeared to be an act of cruelty.

But while Elijah was having a difficult time understanding the ways of God, he remained convinced of the power of God. Three times, he lay across the dead body of the boy and cried out, “O Lord my God, please let this child’s life return to him” (1 Kings 17:21 NLT). And the fact that Elijah repeated this process three separate times demonstrates both his persistence and dependence upon God.

It’s important to consider that Elijah had no precedence on which to base his prayer. He was asking Yahweh to do the impossible – to raise a dead body back to life. And there is no indication that Elijah had ever seen or heard of God doing such a thing. Elijah was not basing his request on some past miracle, recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, contains no instance of God raising the dead back to life. So, Elijah was asking God to something that had never been done before. His request was a tremendous act of faith.

And in a classic example of understatement, the author simply records, “The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived!” (1 Kings 17:22 NLT). One can only imagine Elijah’s shock and surprise that Elijah as the lifeless body of the boy was suddenly reanimated. Two times, nothing had happened. But on the third try, God had suddenly chosen to intervene and answer Elijah’s prayer. We’re not told why God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer the first time. Perhaps it was a test of Elijah’s faith, to see if he would continue to ask and believe even when his request went unanswered. But God had heard and He ultimately answered – in a remarkable way. And you can sense Elijah’s unbridled excitement and enthusiasm as he announced the news to the boy’s grieving mother.

“See, your son lives.” – 1 Kings 17:23 ESV

It would be easy to misread this statement and assume that Elijah is saying something like, “See, I told you so!” It almost appears as if he is chastising the woman for her lack of faith. But at no point in the story did Elijah tell the woman that her son would live. He had no way of knowing that God was going to answer his prayer or not. And, at least two times, God had failed to do so. But when God had finally provided the miracle for which Elijah was asking, the prophet couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. The New Living Translation provides a much more accurate rendering of Elijah’s response.

“Look!” he said. “Your son is alive!” – 1 Kings 17:23 NLT

No one was as shocked as Elijah, and his joy overflowed in a display of emotional celebration. He most likely walked into the room, carrying the boy in his arms, and then handed him over to the smothering embrace of his overjoyed mother. And, through tears mixed with laughter, the woman managed to express her gratitude to the prophet by declaring her belief in his God.

“Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the Lord truly speaks through you.” – 1 Kings 17:24 NLT

While Yahweh had been keeping her and her son alive, she must have had her doubts about Elijah and his God. But now, as she clutched her son in her arms, she finally recognized and confessed the sovereignty of God and the authority of His prophet. Her son had been dead but was now alive. Her greatest loss had been restored to her. Her sorrow had been turned to joy.

And don’t miss the fact that this miracle took place in an obscure village in the region of Sidon. While Jezebel had brought her false god to the land of Israel, Elijah had brought the God of Israel to the land of Sidon. The arrival of Baal had been accompanied by drought and famine. But when Yahweh made His appearance in the pagan land of the Sidonians, He had turned a widow’s poverty into plenty and had replaced death with life. And, in doing so, He had proved Himself to be the one and only God of the universe.

And God intended this powerful lesson to prepare His prophet for all that was about to come. Elijah didn’t know it yet, but the greatest test of his faith was in his future. After three years of a debilitating and devastating famine, God was going to send Elijah back to the land of Israel to go face-to-face with the king and queen and toe-to-toe with their false god.

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

The Word of the Lord

1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And the word of the Lord came to him: “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 And she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 13 And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” 15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. 1 Kings 17:1-16 ESV

Almost as if out of nowhere, a new character appears on the scene. His sudden and unexpected arrival seems intended to accentuate the divine nature of his mission. We’re given no background story and little in the way of biographical information, other than his name and the identity of his hometown.

His introduction into the narrative is timed to coincide with the rise to power of King Ahab and his Sidonian queen, Jezebel. With this new power couple ruling over the northern kingdom of Israel, the spiritual state of the ten northern tribes has reached an all-time low. The author ended chapter 16 with an unflattering description of their influence over the nation.

…he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. – 1 Kings 16:31-33 ESV

To say that Ahab had managed to anger God more than any of his predecessors is saying a lot. He was following in the footsteps of some world-class. all-star-quality apostates. But when it came to wickedness and unfaithfulness, Ahab set the new gold standard. He became the proverbial poster boy for all that is wicked and ungodly, while his wife managed to earn herself a permanent spot in the hall of infamy.

In the middle of their sin-fueled and self-absorbed reign, God decides to deliver a message to them, utilizing an obscure and unknown man named Elijah. This will not be the first time God has sent a prophet to deliver a message to a wayward and rebellious king. When Jeroboam had made the fateful decision to replace Yahweh with his own false gods, an unnamed prophet had appeared on the scene with a dire message for the king, and he demonstrated God’s anger by destroying one of the altars Jeroboam had dedicated to his false god. Later on, Jeroboam sent his wife to consult with another prophet of God, in hopes of getting a prognosis regarding his young son’s illness. But what he got was bad news. He was told that his son would die and that every one of his male heirs would die before they could inherit the throne. In other words, any hopes of establishing a dynasty would be destroyed.

As the seventh king to reign over the northern kingdom of Israel, Ahab would not be the first to receive a message from God. But, in his case, the prophet would play a more pronounced and prolonged role in his life. The sins of Ahab and his wife were so egregious that God made his prophet a permanent fixture in their kingdom.

Elijah’s very first encounter with the king and queen was far from favorable. He stood before this powerful couple and boldly proclaimed, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV). That took guts and a fair amount of faith. He was claiming to have the God-given authority to withhold rain from the kingdom of Israel. Any way you look at it, this had to come across as a less-than-veiled threat to Ahab and Jezebel. But before they had time to cut this arrogant upstart down to size, God gave him instructions to get out of town.

“Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. – 1 Kings 17:3 ES

Elijah had done his job, but now it was time for God to prepare him for the next phase of his assignment. Before sending his prophet back into the mouth of the lion’s den, God planned to equip him for what was to come. He was determined to make Elijah a faithful and obedient messenger, strong enough to handle all the vitriol and violence that was about to come his way. Standing up to Ahab and Jezebel was not going to be easy, so God graciously eased Elijah into his new role with a hands-on experience that would teach him to trust and obey.

While in God’s preparatory school for prophets, Elijah was miraculously fed and cared for. He received a twice-daily ration of bread and meat, delivered to his cave by ravens. And outside the cave was a ready source of clean, pure water. But in time, “the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land” (1 Kings 17:7 ESV). In other words, Elijah’s prediction of drought had come true and he was suffering just like everyone else. And without rain, that meant there was no more bread or meat for the ravens to deliver. Elijah’s little oasis in the wilderness had become a death trap. So, God gave him new instructions.

“Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.” – 1 Kings 17:8 NLT

This would have been a long and arduous journey under normal conditions, but the presence of drought made it even more so. Interestingly, God sent Elijah to a city in the region of Sidon, the very kingdom over which Jezebel’s father was king. Elijah was being sent to the very place Ahab had acquired a queen and her false god, Baal. Zarephath lay in between Tyre and Sidon, two of the most prominent Phoenician cities. But as the story makes clear, the drought had made its way all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

God had provided Elijah with few details regarding what to do when he arrived in Zarephath. The prophet had no food and had received no word from God regarding when and how it would come – if it did at all. So, when Elijah encounters a widow gathering sticks, he decides to throw himself on her mercy. He asks for a drink of water and a morsel of bread. But then he finds out that this woman’s state was worse than his own.

“I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.” – 1 Kings 17:12 NLT

The drought had left this woman with no food with which to feed herself or her young son. The drought had taken its toll. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Baal, the god of the Phonecians, was considered a fertility god. He was the provider of bountiful blessings, whether in the form of crops or children. And yet, this woman was living in a drought and watching her young son starve to death. There was nothing bountiful taking place in Zarephath. Baal was nowhere to be found.

Then, God gave Elijah a message to deliver to the woman.

“Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!” – 1 Kings 17:13-14 NLT

While the god of the Phoenicians had failed to provide, the God of Israel would meet her needs and preserve the lives of both her and her son. Even in a time of drought, God would miraculously provide flour and oil in abundance – until He decided to open up the skies and end the drought.

And the woman faithfully obeyed the word of the prophet and There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah” (1 Kings 17:16 NLT). God graciously provided for this Sidonian widow and her son, and He continued to meet the needs of His prophet. But more than anything, God was teaching Elijah that He could be trusted. He was greater than the god of the Phoenicians. He was more powerful than the god of Ahab and Jezebel. The brook may have dried up, but the resources of God remained unending and plentiful. The ravens may have stopped showing up, but the miracle-working power of God remained undiminished. There was no circumstance too great for God.

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

The Downward Spiritual Spiral

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun. 1 Kings 16:29-34 ESV

Things have not been going well in the northern kingdom of Judah. The downward spiritual spiral that began with the reign of Jeroboam has continued unabated. His decision to re-image the God of Israel as a golden calf had been in direct violation of the command given to Moses by God hundreds of years earlier.

“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” – Exodus 20:1-5 NLT

And yet, in spite of God’s clear instructions, Jeroboam made his own gods and then attempted to claim that they, not Yahweh, had delivered the nation from their captivity in Egypt.

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there. – 1 Kings 12:28-30 NLT

Jeroboam’s decision brought a curse from God upon his dynasty. As a result, his son, Abijah, died in infancy. Another son, Nadab, inherited the throne upon Jeroboam’s death, but in the second year of his reign, he was assassinated by a man named Baasha, who declared himself king. Baasha fulfilled the curse God had placed over the house of Jeroboam by having every one of his descendants put to death. But because Baasha proved to be a wicked king who led the people into further idolatry, God placed a curse on his house as well. Baasha was assassinated by Zimri, the commander of his chariots, who then proceeded to wipe out the entire royal household. But Zimri’s reign would last only seven days. When faced with a coup led by Omri, his former superior officer, Zimri chose to commit suicide. Omri then declared himself to be the legitimate king of Israel. But his reign would prove to be no better than that of his predecessor. In fact, the author flatly states, “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all who were before him. For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in the sins that he made Israel to sin, provoking the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols” (1 Kings 16:25-26 ESV).

There has been no break in Israel’s downward trajectory. Like water in a sink when the plug is pulled, the spiritual state of the nation continues to spiral down the drain. And just when it appears that Israel has reached an all-time low, another character is introduced who manages to establish himself as the official record holder for apostasy and wickedness.

Omri was superseded by his son, Ahab, but in more ways than one. Not only did this young man ascend to his father’s throne, but he managed to eclipse his father’s record of sin and rebellion. The author introduces Ahab’s reign with the stinging indictment: “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30 ESV). And then he follows up that far-from-flattering assessment with tangible proof.

He compares the wickedness of Ahab with that of Jeroboam, the first king of the northern tribes of Israel. Jeroboam had been guilty of making his own false gods and giving them credit for something Yahweh had done. In a sense, Jeroboam had tried to create his own version of the one true God. But Ahab had decided to abandon Yahweh altogether, replacing Him with Baal, the god of the Canaanites. But his choice of this particular god was influenced by his wife, Jezebel. His marriage to Jezebel had been orchestrated by his father as part of a treaty he had made with Ethbaal, the king of Tyre and Sidon. In order to form an alliance with this pagan nation, Omri had arranged a marriage between his son and Ethbaal’s daughter. This unholy alliance was in direct violation of God’s command.

When the LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. – Deuteronomy 7:2-3 NLT

While the marriage had been Omri’s idea, the author refuses to absolve Ahab of any guilt for his role in the affair. He had been fully compliant and complicit.

…he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. – 1 Kings 16:31 ESV

And just as God had warned, Ahab’s pagan wife ended up having a powerful and negative influence over him. This marriage that had been arranged for purely political purposes was going to have dramatic spiritual implications. What Omri had done to secure the state of his kingdom would end up sealing its fate. Jezebel would end up doing more to degrade the spiritual health of the nation than any king, including her own husband.

This pagan princess introduced her new husband to the gods of her people. The Phoenicians and Canaanites considered Baal to be the most powerful of all the gods. According to their mythology, he was the offspring of El, the chief god, and Asherah, the moon goddess. Baal was sometimes referred to as the sun god or the god of thunder. He was considered a fertility god, who rewarded those who worshiped him with fruitfulness, in the form of children and abundant crops.

Ahab seems to have willingly and eagerly adopted the false gods of Jezebel, ordering the construction of a temple dedicated to Baal and the erection of an Asherah pole for the worship of Baals’s mother, the moon goddess. These actions stand in stark contrast to those of Solomon, who had built a temple for Yahweh in the capital city of Jerusalem. Now, here was Ahab, the king of the northern tribes of Judah, building a temple in the capital city of Samaria in which to worship the false god of the Canaanites. The people of Israel had sunk to an all-time low. And it was going to get even worse.

The author provides a foreshadowing of things to come when he states that Ahab “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33 NLT). And then he gives a tangible expression of Ahab’s ill-fated actions. It seems that Ahab had given orders to rebuild the destroyed city of Jericho. This task was assigned to a man named Hiel. But the endeavor would prove costly. While overseeing the construction of the city, Hiel would end up losing two of his own sons. 

This somewhat strange and seemingly out-of-place narrative is meant to illustrate Ahab’s blatant disregard will of God. His determination to rebuild the city of Jericho was in direct violation of God’s command. When the Israelites had first entered the land of Canaan, hundreds of years earlier, Jericho had been the first city they had defeated and destroyed. God had given them a supernatural victory over the city and its inhabitants. And then He commanded its destruction, placing a curse on anyone who tried to rebuild the ruins.

“Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho.

“At the cost of his firstborn shall he
    lay its foundation,
and at the cost of his youngest son
    shall he set up its gates.” – Joshua 6:26 ESV

Hiel, under direct orders from the king, ended up violating the command of God, and, as a result, he inadvertently found himself suffering the curse of God. The author sadly states that this poor man “laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord” (1 Kings 16:34 ESV).

The marriage of Ahab and Jezebel would prove to be one of the worst things that ever happened to the people of God. This unholy alliance would end up bringing great sorrow upon the nation, leading the people into further rebellion against God. And, eventually, Jezebel would become the poster girl for wickedness and evil. Her very name would become a byword for all that stands opposed to God. In fact, her name appears in the very last book of the Bible, as a less-than-flattering description of a woman who would end up leading the church at Thyatira into immorality and the worship of false gods (Revelation 2:20).

But the devastating exploits of this power couple were just beginning. And, as we will see, their evil actions would not go unnoticed or unpunished by God.

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

Another New King But the Same Old Story

15 In the twenty-seventh year of Asa king of Judah, Zimri reigned seven days in Tirzah. Now the troops were encamped against Gibbethon, which belonged to the Philistines, 16 and the troops who were encamped heard it said, “Zimri has conspired, and he has killed the king.” Therefore all Israel made Omri, the commander of the army, king over Israel that day in the camp. 17 So Omri went up from Gibbethon, and all Israel with him, and they besieged Tirzah. 18 And when Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king’s house and burned the king’s house over him with fire and died, 19 because of his sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and for his sin which he committed, making Israel to sin. 20 Now the rest of the acts of Zimri, and the conspiracy that he made, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel?

21 Then the people of Israel were divided into two parts. Half of the people followed Tibni the son of Ginath, to make him king, and half followed Omri. 22 But the people who followed Omri overcame the people who followed Tibni the son of Ginath. So Tibni died, and Omri became king. 23 In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri began to reign over Israel, and he reigned for twelve years; six years he reigned in Tirzah. 24 He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver, and he fortified the hill and called the name of the city that he built Samaria, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill.

25 Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all who were before him. 26 For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in the sins that he made Israel to sin, provoking the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols. 27 Now the rest of the acts of Omri that he did, and the might that he showed, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 28 And Omri slept with his fathers and was buried in Samaria, and Ahab his son reigned in his place. 1 Kings 16:15-28 ESV

Zimri’s time in the spotlight was short-lived. This former chariot commander in Israel’s army had murdered King Elah and declared himself the new sovereign over the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. But his reign would last only seven days. Word of his seemingly successful coup attempt reached his fellow soldiers, who were encamped against the Philistines at a place called Gibbethon. Upon hearing of King Elah’s death, the troops threw their support behind Omri, who was the commander of all Israel’s armies. They rejected Zimri’s claim to be king and, instead, nominated his superior officer as the obvious choice to replace Elah. Zimri may have caused the vacancy on the throne, but Omri would be the one to fill it.

Within days of seizing the throne from Elah, and having secured his victory by liquidating every member of the king’s household, Zimri was safely ensconced in Tirzah, the former king’s capital. But one day he woke up to find that the city was being besieged, not by Philistines or some other foreign power, but by Omri and the rest of the Israelite army. Just seven days into his reign, Zimri had managed to instigate a civil war for which he was completely outmanned and unprepared for the situation. Stealing the throne had been easy, but retaining it was going to be far harder than he could have imagined.

Recognizing the futility of the situation, Zimri chose to take his own life rather than surrender. He knew that Omri would order his execution for the murder of Elah, and it’s likely that he knew Omri had his own kingly aspirations. So, Zimri locked himself in the citadel of the king’s palace and burned the entire structure to the ground. In doing so, he controlled his own fate and managed to rob Omri of a palace from which to rule. If he couldn’t sit on the throne in Tirzah, neither would Omri.

But the author makes it clear that while Zimri had taken his own life, it had still been a case of divine judgment for his sins against God.

…he, too, had done what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He followed the example of Jeroboam in all the sins he had committed and led Israel to commit. – 1 Kings 16:19 NLT

When Zimri had entered Tirzah just days earlier, any thought of suicide would have been the last thing to enter his mind. He was focused on the future and dreaming of his newfound power and prestige. After all, he was the self-made king, the supreme ruler over all of Israel. And as he sat on his throne in Tirzah, his mind would have been filled with thoughts of success and not suicide. But had he read the proverbs collected by Israel’s former king, Solomon, he would have understood that his plans were irrelevant if they stood in opposition to the will of God.

You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail. – Proverbs 19:21 NLT

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

Zimri had plans for greatness, but he died in the smoldering rubble of the palace he had stolen through deceit and treachery. God had used this ambitious and self-consumed man to punish Elah for his wickedness, but He would not allow Zimri to benefit from his actions. His reign lasted exactly one week, then ended as quickly as it had begun.

But the sad state of affairs in Israel was far from over. While Omri had managed to seize the capital and secure the crown for himself, the nation was about to enter a time of division and disunity. Just as God had split Solomon’s kingdom in half, Omri would find himself ruling over a divided nation.

But now the people of Israel were split into two factions. Half the people tried to make Tibni son of Ginath their king, while the other half supported Omri. – 1 Kings 16:21 NLT

When Omri had received the news that Zimri had killed King Elah, he had been leading his troops against the Philistines, the dreaded enemies of Israel. But now, as the King of Israel, he found himself going to war against his own people. A civil war had broken out and Omni was forced to lead his troops in battle against the supporters of his rival, Tibni. The nation had become divided. And rather than throwing their collective allegiance behind God Almighty, they were choosing sides and putting their hopes in two extremely flawed and fallible men.

Omri eventually defeated Tibni and his forces, securing his place as the king of Israel. Half of the dozen years he ruled over Israel were spent in Tirzah, the former capital of King Elah. But Omri dreamed of establishing his own royal city from which to rule over the ten tribes of Israel. So, he found a favorable spot just west of Tirzah and purchased the land from a man named Shemer. In time, he built a fortified palace on the elevated portion of the land and named his new capital, Samaria.

While the author doesn’t seem to treat this change in the location of the capital city with much importance, his mention of it is meant to be a foreshadowing of things to come. Omri would end up establishing a dynasty that would rule over Israel for an extended period of time. And his newly established capital would become the focal point for Israel’s continuing spiritual decline and the epicenter of the nation’s eventual destruction.

The author chooses to summarize Omri’s 12-year reign in less-than-flattering terms.

Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all who were before him. – 1 Kings 16:25 ESV

Israel had a new king and a brand new capital, but they continued to suffer from the same old problem. Omri, like Jeroboam and Nadab before him, failed to use his divinely ordained power as king to lead the people back to God. Instead, he fostered the spirit of spiritual adultery and apostasy. Under his leadership, “The people provoked the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, with their worthless idols” (1 Kings 16:21 NLT). 

On paper, Omri proved to be a highly accomplished and effective king. His 12 years on the throne of Israel were marked by military victories and peace negotiations with the enemies of Israel. He defeated the Moabites and brokered a treaty with Ethbaal, king of Tyre and Sidon. And this last act would prove to have long-lasting implications. As part of the treaty negotiations, Omri approved a marriage alliance between his son, Ahab, and Ethbaal’s daughter, Jezebel. And those two names will come up again.

While Omri appeared to be having success, he was actually operating outside the revealed will of God. His decisions were made without divine input and in direct violation of God’s commands. Hundreds of years earlier, Moses had warned the people of Israel about their interactions with the nations living in the land of Canaan.

When the LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the LORD will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you. – Deuteronomy 7:2-4 NLT

Like his predecessors, Omri was doing things according to his own plan. But as the proverbs warned, “You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21 NLT). Omri’s ambitions to expand his kingdom at any cost would actually lead to the eventual fall of the nation. In his hopes of building Israel into a formidable force in the region, he was actually contributing to its downfall. His refusal to shepherd the people of God back to the fold of God would eventually result in their destruction at the hands of God.

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