Not many pastors preach on the story of Elijah. However, when they do, chances are they preach on his fleeing from Jezebel after the victory at Mount Carmel. They’ll say something along the lines of Elijah didn’t trust that God could protect him, and that’s why he ran. And when Elijah got to Mount Horeb, God tried getting him to go back but he complained because he was still afraid, so God got fed up with him and told him to anoint his replacement. Then they’ll imply or say that we shouldn’t run from, well, anything today because God does not like that and was furious with Elijah when he left.
However, what if this line of thinking was wrong?
The story is found in 1 Kings 19. There are a few key points I want to look at. The first is in verses 5b-9. Elijah had just come from a tremendous victory at Mount Carmel, where he saw God rain fire from the sky to consume the burnt offering. Clearly, if God was upset with Elijah, he could have zapped him right then and there. God had just demonstrated that He could. And Elijah had just seen with his own eyes that God could, and will if He chooses.
However, God doesn’t. Rather, God feeds Elijah. Twice. And tells him to rest. That doesn’t sound like a God who is furious with Elijah.
Then, God tells him to travel even further away. Not back.
If God wanted Elijah to go back and was upset with his fleeing, why didn’t he tell him right then and there to get back in there?
The next part I want to look at is when God speaks directly to Elijah on Mount Sinai. This is verses 9b-18.
Here, God asks Elijah what he is doing there. Elijah says that he is at the end of himself, that he has been giving the Israelites God’s messages. But they have been killing all of the other prophets. And now he is the only one left. And they are trying to kill him, too. Then, God shows these great signs – A great wind that split rocks, an earthquake that shook the mountain, and a roaring fire – to Elijah and again asks him why he is there. Elijah gives the same response as before. God then tells Elijah to go back and to anoint people along the way.
I have heard someone say that God was fed up with Elijah, and was essentially saying “I’m done with you. You won’t listen, and you’re not trusting in me, so go anoint your successor because you’re done.” However, let’s look at what God says.
God tells Elijah to appoint 3 people in total, Hazael to be king of Syria, Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat to take his place as God’s prophet. However, right after this, God tells Elijah that the three of them will kill all of the enemies of God (who, because Elijah represented God, were also his enemies, his tormentors). He also tells Elijah that there are still 7000 still do not worship Baal. This seems a little out of place If we’re following the line of thinking that God was annoyed and fed up with Elijah. Why would God tell him that he is to appoint people who would kill the enemies of God (which would entail Baal worshippers, and those who may not have worshipped Baal, but opposed God’s message that Elijah gave)? Wouldn’t this be a comfort to Elijah; because even though he had been prophesying and people hated him because of the message he brought, God remembered what they did to him and would repay them?
What if, instead of God being fed up with Elijah, rather He was telling Elijah that he was not alone and that he would be very important in ridding the land of the people trying to kill him. What if God was saying, “I know these people are trying to kill you. But you will appoint the people who will kill them instead.” Rather than God being annoyed with Elijah for leaving a life-and-death situation, He was rather encouraging Elijah by showing him what He will do, and was telling Elijah he was not alone.
And perhaps, rather than Elijah having to appoint his successor because God was dumping him, what if God had Elisha join Elijah so that he wouldn’t be alone? After all, that was the issue that really devistated Elijah. Being alone.
Let’s think about Elijjah as a person for a moment. He had a calling on his life to give a message to people who didn’t want to hear it. As he is giving this message, the people who need to listen are becoming angrier and angrier. He watches as his friends, those with the same calling as he, are all murdered or gone (since some went to Babylon or stopped prophesying) because of the king and queen. Eventually, as far as he knows, he is the only one left trying to give the people God’s message, and they want him dead. He’s all alone. Powerful people want his head on a plate. All of Israel hates him because he’s the reason they’re going through a drought (God withheld the rain for a total of three-and-a-half years. That’s no crops. No feed for livestock. No water for drinking. For three-and-a-half years. cf. James 5:17, 1 Kings 17). He can’t take any more and cries out to God to end his life because no one is listening, everyone hates his guts, and he probably doesn’t have many, if any, friends.
To say that God was angry with him for feeling this way is ridiculous! That paints a picture of a God who DOES NOT CARE about His people, but only cares that His will is fulfilled. That paints the picture that God is indifferent, harsh, and someone that no one can relate to because He does not care one iota for anyone. That paints a picture that God is sociopathic, heartless, and relentlessly pursuing what He wants at the expense of anyone and anything. This is not God.
Rather, I propose that God cared deeply for Elijah. He knew that he was at the end of himself. God knew Elijah’s limits because He made Elijah. He knew that he was having a hard time and could not take it any more. “[F]or he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust,” (Psalm 103:14). So, rather than being fed up with his weakness, God tells him:
- I am powerful and right beside you
- The people who want you dead, nah, you’ll be instrumental in eliminating them.
- And I am sending you a friend.
Doesn’t that sound like a greater God, a God that actually deeply cares for His people? A God that we can relate with because He knows our limits, knows what we are going through; yet is powerful enough to provide in our darkest times? (cf Isaiah 41:10, Deuteronomy 31:6, Matthew 6:25-34, Psalm 23:4, Psalm 139:7-10).
The final nail in the coffin for the line of thinking that God was fed up and annoyed with Elijah, is in II Kings 2, when God takes Elijah away. If God were angry and fed up with Elijah, why did He send down a chariot to personally take him to heaven without dying? If God were upset with Elijah, why wouldn’t He tell Elijah to appoint Elisha and then taken him right away? Why would an angry God give Elijah such great treatment that no one else got in the Bible (except for Enoch, who also did not die).
Rereading the story, I am convinced that many have gotten this story wrong, to the detriment of many congregations. The way the story is usually told portrays a callous God who doesn’t care if His people are murdered just as long as they trust in Him to protect them (and if they die, then apparently it was their time to go). Congregations are told that God does not want anyone to leave harmful situations because that shows a lack of faith on their part.
Rather, I think God did care deeply for Elijah. He knew Elijah’s limits. He knew what Elijah was going through. He knew that Elijah was exhausted – physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and needed rest. God came to Elijah right were he was. He spoke directly and kindly to him. He provided him physical restoration by giving him food, rest, and His own presence as the Angel of the Lord. He provided him with comfort and the assurance that He was powerful enough to help – as demonstrated with the fire and the storm. He then also spoke to Elijah in the still voice, showing He was not in the storm – not there to terrrify Elijah. He was all-present next to Elijah, still and calm, as His object lesson raged about outside. He then also arranged for Elijah to have continuing human companionship in Elisha. And lastly, He provided Elijah with the confirmation of justice against those who had sought his life.
This is a God that is worthy of worship – a God who truly loves His children.