Elijah & Elisha: prophets for a time like this
by Jack Wald | September 7th, 2003

I Kings 17:1-6

It is sometimes said that truth is stranger than fiction and there is no better place to look in the Bible to see that this is so than in I & II Kings and the story of Elijah and Elisha.

Elijah’s story begins with his declaration to King Ahab that there will be no rain until he gives further notice. Then he takes off and keeps hidden from Ahab and while hiding, does a few other miracles. He keeps a bag of flour and a jar of oil going long after the little bit that was there should have been used up. He raises a widow’s son from death, has a powerful encounter with the prophets of Baal on top of Mt. Carmel where their offering is ignored and his offering to Yahweh is consumed by fire from the sky. Elisha picks up and carries on for old Elijah who disappears in a whirlwind in the sky. Elisha heals water and a leper and then another son is raised from the dead. He floats an axehead in a pool of water, he turns a widow’s jar of oil into an oil factory so she can pay off her debts and he feeds 100 people from just a bit of bread.

There is enough in these stories to strain your belief that the Scriptures speak what is true. It is not impossible that stories of Elijah and Elisha were inflated, exaggerated over time and what we read about them in the Bible is not really what happened. That is a possibility, but I want to take a fresh look at these stories. I want to take a look at these two prophets and see if we can come to a different perspective of them. I think that what we read about them is not quite so strange when we read their stories in the context of how God has acted through history and how God is in fact working in our world today.

Over the next twelve Sundays we will examine the stories of Elijah and Elisha to see why it is they did what is recorded in I & II Kings and then consider how we might also benefit from a ministry like theirs.

To understand Elijah and Elisha, we need to understand what was going on in their world. They did not exist in a vacuum. They did not act independent of their circumstances and God did not work through them independent of the crisis in which Israel found itself. They were prophets for a time that needed them.

There had been 600 years of history since Moses led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. From the beginning God’s purpose was clear. God wanted Israel to know him, know his love for them and to create respect and awe for his holiness. But also from the beginning, Israel grumbled, complained and turned its back on God to follow false idols.

This began at the moment that God was giving the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. At the moment Moses met with God, Aaron and the people of Israel built a golden calf to worship in place of this mysterious God of Moses.

Time after time, despite the acts of God in their midst, Israel proved to be unfaithful.
And so Jeremiah spoke of Israel in this way (Jeremiah 2)
Although you wash yourself with soda
and use an abundance of soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign LORD.
23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.

you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’

This is the unfortunate history of Israel and even the unfortunate history of the church today – but that is another sermon. This unfortunate history of being unfaithful to God and idol worship is clearly demonstrated in the 58 years between the death of King Solomon and the reign of King Ahab. In those 58 years, there had been 6 kings, each of them described as wicked and evil.

The first of these was Jeroboam who set the standard for wickedness. The kings who followed were described as having “walked in the ways of Jeroboam.” Jeroboam was king of the new northern kingdom, cut off from Jerusalem. This meant he was cut off from the religious center for the Jews. He was cut off from the Temple, cut off from the Ark of the Covenant and all the history of the Jews, so he decided to make his own religious center.

I Kings 12
After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.  30 And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there.

What history book was Jeroboam reading? Who brought Israel out of Egypt? The golden calf Aaron and the people made while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God? Was it the golden calf that parted the Reed Sea so Israel could cross to escape the Egyptian army? Was it the golden calf that led them through the wilderness with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? Was it the golden calf that provided them with manna, daily food for their forty years of wandering in the desert?

After this disastrous start, things just got worse. Jeroboam was succeeded by two kings who were murdered with their murderers taking over after them. One king was a drunkard and another a traitor.

King after king is described as doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, sinning and walking in the ways of Jeroboam.

And then we come to Ahab. Fifty-eight years of corrupt leadership. 1945 to 2003, that’s 58 years. From the end of World War II until today. 58 years of idol worship. 58 years of political turmoil, assassinations, drunken, decadent leadership. A spiritual vacuum existed and into this vacuum stepped Ahab, son of Omri.

How bad was Ahab?
I Kings 16
Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.  31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.

The expression “did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him” was used in some form for other kings, but the description of Ahab goes beyond the formula.
He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel

The story of Jezebel is so powerful that her name has crept into the English language and to be a Jezebel is to be an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman. Jezebel, who married Ahab was clearly the dominant partner in their marriage. She came from Sidon (present day Lebanon, just north of Israel) where her father was the king of Tyre and also a priest of Astarte.

Ahab married Jezebel for political reasons but he got more than he bargained for. When Jezebel came, she not only brought with her the worship of Baal and his consort Asherah, she determined to rid Israel of the worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and replace it with the worship of Baal.

Israel had not been a faithful lover of God but never in its history had Israel been so boldly attacked as it was in the time of Elijah and Elisha.

Yes it is true that in opposition to God’s instructions, the men of Israel had married foreign wives who brought with them their foreign gods and idol worship crept again and again into Israel, but now with King Ahab’s new wife came the greatest threat thus far to the worship of Yahweh in Israel.

32 [Ahab] set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.  33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.

How bad was Ahab? He was not just bad like Jeroboam. He did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him. And Jezebel was the power behind Ahab.

Jezebel began her attack by having her husband build temples to Baal and Asherah in the capital city of Samaria where Ahab ruled. And then she set out to kill all the prophets of Yahweh. Her soldiers went from town to town, door to door seeking out the prophets of God and killing them when they found them.

This was an attack on God’s chosen people that demanded a response and so God raised up prophets to combat this Jezebel, the attacker of God and his people.

God raised up Elijah and Elisha to combat this menace to his purpose of preparing a people for the Messiah who was to come. Elijah means in Hebrew “my God is Yahweh” and Elisha means “my God saves”. Jezebel set out to destroy the worship of Yahweh and God raised up My God is Yahweh and My God saves to combat her evil purposes. And Elijah and Elisha came with power. More miracles are recorded in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha than any of the other prophets. In fact it is the Exodus when Moses led Israel out of captivity and to the Promise Land, the ministry of Jesus and his disciples and the ministry of these two prophets that contain most of the miracles recorded in the Bible.

When you read the stories of Elijah and Elisha, remember that you are reading about a critical time in the history of God’s people when dramatic measures were demanded. It is not that God is absent and indifferent except in exceptional times. God is always active, always seeking to draw people to worship and have a relationship with him. Miracles, what the Bible calls “signs and wonders”, are never absent from the church. But there are critical times when God seems to use signs and wonders more prominently to help the church at a critical turning point or in a particularly grave crisis.

Miracles were used to get the early church started. The ministry of Jesus and his disciples was full of miracles. The Reformation came with miracles. The major revivals and awakenings in history came with miracles.

I believe that we are at another major turning point in the church. The fact that the charismatic and pentecostal church has risen so quickly in the past 100 years is an indication to me that God has something in mind that he is doing. He is awakening his church for a purpose.

We live in a day when the church is again under attack. The secularization of Europe is almost complete. Canada is quickly moving toward the same secular society. The church in the United States is under attack from many directions. The church in many other parts of the world is under attack from radical Islam and Hinduism.

Where the church is present, it is very often a weak church, weakened by materialism and greed. To look around the world at the church in the world can be a very discouraging experience.

Is it possible that God in this time of crisis is preparing his church for a major world-wide awakening?

Over the next twelve weeks, we will look at the stories of Elijah and Elisha and examine them to see what we can learn about ministry in a world where the church is under attack. We will look to see what we can learn about how we can be prepared for the work of God in our midst.

This morning, in the time remaining, we will look at this first section of the story of Elijah.

As you read along in the book of I Kings, Elijah just pops up in chapter 17. This is quite amazing, given who he is. The prophet Malachi prophesied about the return of Elijah
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

And so when people began to speculate about who Jesus was, they speculated that he might be Elijah who had returned. Of all the great men and women in the Old Testament, it is Elijah along with Moses who met with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Jesus hung on the cross, those watching speculated that Elijah would come to save him.

We learn about the call of Jeremiah, Isaiah and others, but we know nothing about Elijah. We can guess that he was middle aged when his encounter with Ahab came but we know nothing more about his life before this encounter. He just appears, without any warning.

When James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about prayer he said this about Elijah (James 5)
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

What was Elijah thinking in the perhaps forty years of his life before he confronted Ahab? At some point in his life he became aware of Yahweh and God’s call on his life to draw near to him. At some point in his life he decided he would choose to worship Yahweh.

But what did he do when he looked around him and saw the indifference of people to God? What did he do when he saw the increasing interest in worship of Baal and other idols? What did he do when Ahab married Jezebel? What did he do when he learned that she was a devotee of Baal and his consort, Asherah? What did he do when he first learned of her attacks on the prophets of God? What did he do when he became aware that his own life was in danger? If she or her soldiers found him, he would be executed.

James wrote that Elijah prayed. I would imagine, since Elijah was a man just like us, that he went from dismay to despair as he saw conditions worsen. The prophets of God were being murdered one by one and the people were leaving behind the worship of God and becoming worshipers of Baal and Asherah. I would imagine that he was depressed upon occasion as he gave in to the hopelessness of the situation.

And then one day God spoke to Elijah. “Pray that it will not rain and go tell Ahab it will not rain again until you give him your word that it will rain. And so Scripture says:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

That takes a bit of nerve doesn’t it? Jezebel is seeking out the prophets of God to destroy them and Elijah seeks out an audience with the king. Elijah’s life is in danger and he goes to where the danger is greatest. The king was not sitting alone in a hut by the side of a forest where Elijah could slip in and slip out. Ahab was sitting in a palace protected by soldiers, inhabited by those who were seeking him out to kill him.

That is bad enough but even worse, his message was not a message Ahab wanted to hear. Elijah did not come to Ahab to apologize, to tell him he was wrong and wanted to help him in the worship of Baal and Asherah. He did not come to bring him good news. Elijah came to bring a direct, full-force, frontal challenge to the worship of Baal.

Baal was hailed as “Rider of the Clouds” and “Lightening” and “Dew” were his daughters. Because Baal brought rain, he was viewed as the God of fertility. It was within the power of Baal to bring rain and so when Elijah announced to Ahab that it would not rain, it was a direct attack on Baal as well as on Ahab and Jezebel who supported worship of him.

This was not just a confrontation between Ahab and Elijah. This was a war between what Paul called in his letter to the Ephesians, principalities and powers. There was a spiritual war taking place and God chose Elijah to be his messenger in this attack.

Elijah prayed and prayed and one day God spoke to him and told him what to do and Elijah obeyed.

You will probably not be asked by God to go speak to the king. But I want you to know this morning that God will speak to you one day and tell you what he wants you to do. He may have spoken to you in the past but he will do so again in the future. He may have spoken to you this week, this morning. God will speak to you not just once but many times and when God speaks to you, do not delay, do not hesitate. Go out and in obedience to God, do what he has told you to do.

There are a lot of reasons for not obeying God when he speaks to you. Don’t you think Elijah went to see Ahab with fear in his heart? What was Elijah thinking when he set out to go see Ahab? Maybe this was not a message from God? Maybe he would announce to Ahab there would be no more rain and then he would get soaked in a downpour as he left the palace. Maybe it would rain for the next ten days and Ahab would go around telling jokes about this nut who had showed up announcing it would not rain and he would be the best joke Israel had seen in a long time.

Maybe Elijah was afraid Ahab or even worse, Jezebel, would have him seized and carried off to be executed for his audacity and presumptuousness in bringing such a message.

There are a lot of reasons why Elijah might have hesitated, delayed or ignored what God told him to do, but he did it anyway. Elijah obeyed.

When God speaks to you, do not be afraid of what will happen to you. Do not be afraid of embarrassment, abuse or danger. Take courage from what happened to Elijah.

Let me give you a relatively trivial example. This past Thursday night we had a prayer meeting in our house. There were eight of us there and while we were praying, it came to my mind that I was praying in a very relaxed manner. I was leaning back in my chair with my legs comfortably stretched out in front of me. The thought came to my mind asking if I would be willing to get down on my knees and pray. I said to myself that was silly and then I asked myself if I would be willing to lay down on the floor, prostrating myself in prayer.

I discovered that this thought brought to me questions of whether or not I was willing to embarrass myself in front of others and when I found myself resisting because of pride, I got out of my chair and laid prostrate on the floor.

As it turned out, I believe that God used that action to help another person who was there deal with her feelings of being afraid to do things in worship that she was afraid would be embarrassing.

The point of my sharing this is to tell you it does not have to be a big thing. It can be a small thing, but when God speaks to you, take action. Obey. Do not delay. Obey and take heart because of hat happened next to Elijah.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah:  3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.  4 You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”
5 So he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.  6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

God spoke to Elijah and told him to go to Ahab with an unpleasant message but then he spoke again to Elijah to tell him, “I love you and will take care of you. Trust me.” God took Elijah to safety and provided him with food and water.

When you step out in obedience to what God calls you to do, you can trust that he will take care of you. Do not be afraid to obey. God will protect you. As God protected Elijah when he entered the palace of King Ahab, God will protect you when you obey what he has told you to do.

How has God been speaking to you? What is it God has put on your heart? With whom has God been encouraging you to share your faith? What steps of faith has God been encouraging you to take? Learn from Elijah. Step out in obedience and know that God who has called you to action will support you as you obey.