For my weekly quiet time, I studied I Kings 19.
Queen Jezebel of Northern Israel has threatened to kill Elijah, for he has just led Israel to the LORD and has slaughtered the prophets of Baal. Elijah then flees all the way from Northern Israel to Beersheba, which is in the southern-most part of Israel—in the kingdom of Judah. The Hebrew Bible often uses the expression “from Dan to Beer-sheba” to refer to all of Israel, for Dan is the northernmost part of Israel, while Beersheba is the southern-most (Judges 20:1; I Samuel 3:20; II Samuel 3:10; 17:11; 24:2, 15; I Kings 4:25; I Chronicles 21:2; II Chronicles 30:5). So Elijah made a long trip! And, in a wilderness close to Beersheba, Elijah got to rest, and an angel gave him food.
Elijah then travelled further south, to Horeb, the mountain where God revealed the law to Israel in the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 1:6; 4:10, etc.). God asks Elijah what he is doing there, and Elijah proceeds to complain. Elijah says that he’s been zealous for the LORD, for the Israelites have forsaken their covenant with God, torn down God’s altars, and killed God’s prophets, and now they want to kill him. God then tells Elijah to stand on the mountain, for the LORD is about to pass by.
There is a great wind splitting rocks and mountains, an earthquake, and a fire, but God is not in these phenomena. Then, God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice. He instructs Elijah to go all the way north to Damascus (in Syria) to appoint Hazael the king of Syria. He’s also to anoint Jehu the king of Israel, and Elisha as his (Elijah’s) successor. Elisha lives in Abel-Meholah, which is in the Northern Israelite tribe of Manasseh. As far as the narrative of I-II Kings is concerned, Elijah only did one of these tasks—he anointed Elisha as his prophetic successor—while Elisha interacted with Hazael and anointed Jehu king of Northern Israel. Many try to explain this by saying that Elijah appointed Hazael and Jehu through Elisha. Elijah anointed Elisha as his successor, and Elisha went on to appoint Hazael as king of Syria, and Jehu as king of Northern Israel.
Many preachers use I Kings 19 as a text on how to deal with depression. They see in the chapter the lesson that we should get some rest, for that is what Elijah did in the wilderness near Beersheba. They say that the chapter teaches God’s love for us, for God ministered to Elijah through an angel, who brought Elijah food. One pastor I heard in Boston said that God gave Elijah an assignment to get him out of his funk.
All of these are important lessons. But there’s something larger in I Kings 19. God is showing Elijah that (in the words of Rick Warren’s opening chapter in The Purpose-Driven Life) “it’s not all about you.” Elijah thought that the future of Yahwism in Northern Israel depended on him, the last remaining prophet. But God informs Elijah that God has been at work in what seems to be a dismal situation. God has reserved (or will reserve, depending on how you translate v 18) seven thousand people who have not worshipped Baal. So Elijah is not alone. But God has also told Elijah to do the things that will bring about God’s wrath on Northern Israel along with the end of Baalism in that region. Elijah is to appoint Hazael as king of Syria, and Hazael will afflict Northern Israel and kill many Israelites (II Kings 8:2; 10:32). Elijah is also to anoint Jehu the King of Israel, and Jehu will slaughter the house of Ahab and Jezebel, as well as eliminate Baalism in the Northern Kingdom (II Kings 9-10). And Elisha will kill people, too. Some have related this to the bears who killed the kids mocking Elisha (II Kings 2:23-25).
But, to cut Elijah down to size, one commentator remarked that God was trying to show Elijah that he’s not indispensable, whatever he may think. Even when Elijah is gone from the scene, God’s activity in history will go on.
I wondered about the significance of God not being in the great wind, the earthquake, and the fire, as well as of God speaking in a still, small voice. I found a variety of explanations—from commentators ancient and modern, scholarly and homiletical. Some of them overlap. One said that God was trying to soften Elijah’s wrathful heart by showing him that God’s not all about the things that God usually uses for his wrath—winds, earthquakes, and fire; rather, God prefers to reveal himself gently, with mercy, in a still, small voice. Another explanation is that the wind, earthquake, and the fire were caused by angels, who were preparing Elijah for God’s arrival by instilling in him a proper humility and reverence; but, after all this, God speaks to Elijah with love, in a still, small voice. (But, as Jimmy Swaggart notes, so many Christians prefer a lot of fanfare to listening to God’s still, small voice, which is what actually conveys God’s character and will for us). Another view is that God was teaching Elijah that God doesn’t always work with a lot of fanfare, for God sometimes prefers to work behind the scenes—as God was doing when he reserved seven thousand Yahwists unto himself. And The IVP Bible Background Commentary stated that people in the ancient Near East believed that theophanies (e.g., thunderstorms) were the gods engaging in battle, and that the gods arbitrarily appointed and deposed king; I Kings 19, however, states that God does things for a purpose, presumably, to bring himself glory by eradicating Baalism.
I think that all of these explanations are edifying and perhaps point to the truth, but I’m not entirely satisfied with them. Sure, God is loving and gentle, but God was telling Elijah in his still, small voice to anoint people who would bring bloodshed on Israel, as a part of God’s wrath. Yes, God doesn’t always work with a lot of fanfare. And God was about to work in a pretty low-key manner—reserving faithful Yahwists unto himself, and having Elijah appoint the people who would eliminate Baalism in Northern Israel. But what’s the point of that in I Kings 19?
I think that the answer is related to God’s work in Elijah’s ministry before the events of I Kings 19. God cut off the rain at Elijah’s word. He sent fire from heaven, influencing the Israelite spectators to exclaim that the LORD (not Baal) is God. But, for some reason, all of that fanfare was not enough. Jezebel was still intent on killing Elijah. And the fact that God needed to inflict further wrath on Israel may indicate that the contest on Mount Carmel had limited effectiveness. Sure, the Israelites replied that the LORD is God in response to fanfare, but Baalism remained in the country—what do you think Jehu was eliminating in II Kings 9-10? The Israelites may have responded temporarily to fanfare, but they weren’t accustomed to listening to the still, small voice.
What was God’s goal in all of this—in his wrath upon Israel and his preservation of a remnant? Biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld believed that the Deuteronomistic School travelled from Northern Israel to Judah after the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. In the view of Weinfeld and many scholars, much of the Hebrew Bible came from this school—the Book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-II Kings, at least in their final forms). Could the Deuteronomistic School have descended from the Yahwistic remnant that God preserved? Perhaps. I’d like to think that God had a big goal in mind, rather than just aiming to slaughter Northern Israel and leave things at that.
This chapter has important themes. Some of them appear contradictory, but balance is important. These themes include our importance to God and God’s mission, balanced with our realization that we are small in the grand scheme of things.