Different Standpoint of the Old and the New Testament - Analogy between Elijah and John the Baptist - Jezebel threatens Elijah's life - The Prophet's Flight - His Miraculous Provision - Analogy between Moses and Elijah - Elijah at Mount Horeb - What doest thou here, Elijah? - The Wind, the Earthquake, the Fire, and the Still Small Voice - The Divine Message and Assurance to Elijah - Call of Elisha.
(1 Kings 19)
UNSPEAKABLY grand as had been the scene on Mount Carmel, we instinctively feel that it was the outcome of the Old Testament. We cannot conceive it possible under the New dispensation. In so saying we do not so much refer to the ironical taunts which Elijah had addressed to the priests of Baal, when compassion, gentleness, and meekness might have seemed befitting, since it was necessary effectually to expose the folly as well as the sin of idolatry, and this was best done in such manner (comp. Isaiah 40:18, etc.; 41:7; 44:8-22; 46:5-11; Jeremiah 10:7, etc.). Nor do we allude only or mainly to the destruction of the priests of Baal. This was simply in obedience to the Old Testament Law, and was grounded alike on its economy* and on the circumstances of the time.
* I use the term "economy" here in its original meaning, as denoting the household arrangement, the household legislation and order.
Taking the lowest view, it was an act of necessary self-preservation, since the two religions could not co-exist, as the conduct of Jezebel had recently proved. But there is a higher view than this of the event. For the fundamental object of Israel's calling and existence - the whole typical import and preparatory purpose of the nation - was incompatible with even the existence of idolatry among them. Finally, there is this essential difference between the Old and the New Testament dispensation - that under the latter, religion is of personal choice, heart-willingness being secured by the persuasion of the Holy Ghost; while under the Old Testament (from its nature) religion was of Law. Religious liberty is a principle which necessarily follows from a religion of free choice, where God no longer addresses Himself to man merely, or mainly, with the authority of a general Law, but appeals to the individual conscience with the persuasion of a special invitation. Under the Old Testament, of which the fundamental principle was the sole Divine authority of Jehovah (Exodus 20:2, 3), idolatry was not only a crime, but a revolt against the Majesty of heaven, Israel's King, which involved the most fatal consequences to the nation. Yet even so, we repeat it, the scene on Mount Carmel could not have been enacted in New Testament times.
But while fully admitting this distinctive standpoint of the preparatory dispensation, it were a most serious mistake to forget that the Old Testament itself points to a higher and fuller manifestation of God, and never more distinctly than in this history of Elijah. Attention has already been called to the analogy between Elijah and John the Baptist. At this stage we specially recall three points in the history of the latter. It seems as if the Baptist had expected that his warning denunciations would be immediately followed either by visible reform, or else by visible judgment. But instead of this he was cast, at the instigation of Herod's wife, into a dungeon which he was never to leave; and yet judgment seemed to slumber, and the Christ made no movement either for the deliverance of His forerunner, or the vindication of his message. And, lastly, in consequence of this disappointment, spiritual darkness appears to have gathered around the soul of the Baptist. One almost feels as if it had been needful for such a messenger of judgment to become consciously weak, that so in the depression of the human the Divine element might appear the more clearly. And it was also good that it should be so, since it led to the inquiring embassy to Christ, and thus to a fuller revelation of the Divine character of the kingdom. The same expectation and the same disappointment are apparent in the history of Elijah on the morrow of the victory at Carmel. But they also led up to a fuller manifestation of the meaning and purpose of God. Thus we see how the Old Testament itself, even where its distinctive character most clearly appeared, pointed to that fuller and more glorious manifestation of God, symbolized, not by storm, earthquake, or fire, but by "the still small voice."
If Elijah had lingered in Jezreel in the hope that the reformation proclaimed on Mount Carmel would be followed up by the king, he was soon to experience bitter disappointment. There is, however, good reason for inferring that the impression then made upon the mind of Ahab was never wholly effaced. This appears not only from the subsequent relations between the king and prophets of the LORD (1 Kings 20), but even from his tardy repentance after the commission of his great crime (1 Kings 21:27-29). Indeed, it might almost seem as if, but for the influence of Jezebel upon the weak king, matters might at least temporarily have taken a different turn in Israel. But if such was the effect produced upon Ahab by the scene on Mount Carmel, we can understand that Jezebel's first wish must have been as soon as possible to remove Elijah from all contact with the king. For this purpose she sent a message, threatening the prophet with death within twenty-four hours. It need scarcely be said, that, if she had been so bold as really to purpose his murder, she would not have given him warning of it, and that the reference to twenty-four hours as the limit of his life must rather have been intended to induce Elijah to immediate flight. And she succeeded in her purpose - not, indeed, from fear on the part of the prophet,* but from deep disappointment and depression, for which we may in some measure find even a physical cause in the reaction that must have followed on the day after Carmel.
* The LXX. (and some Codd.) by a slight change after the word "saw" (1 Kings 19:3) into one which means "feared:" it need scarcely be said, erroneously.
Strange as it may seem, these felt weaknesses of men like Elijah come upon us with almost a sense of relief. It is not only that we realize that these giants of faith are men of like passions with ourselves, but that the Divine in their work is thereby the more prominently brought out. It deserves special notice that Elijah proceeded on his hasty journey without any Divine direction to that effect. Attended only by his faithful servant, he passed without pausing to the farthest boundary of the neighboring kingdom of Judah. But even that was not his final destination, nor could he in his then mood brook any companionship. Leaving his servant behind, he went into the wilderness of Paran. In its awful solitude he felt himself for the first time free to rest. Utterly broken down in body and in spirit, he cast himself under one of those wide-spreading brooms,* which seemed as if they indicated that even in the vast, howling wilderness, the hand of the Great Creator had provided shelter for His poor, hardly bestead wanderers.
* The Rothem is not a juniper-tree (as in the Authorized Version), but a species of large, wide-spreading broom, which generally grows near watercourses, and serves as protection alike from the sun and the wind.
There is something almost awful in the life-and-death conflicts of great souls. We witness them with a feeling akin to reverence. The deep despondency of Elijah's soul found utterance in the entreaty to be released from work and suffering. He was not better than his fathers; like them he had vainly toiled; like them he had failed; why should his painful mission be prolonged? But not so must he pass away. Like Moses of old, he must at least gain distant view of the sweet land of beauty and rest. As so often, God in His tender mercy gave His beloved the precious relief of sleep. And more than that - he was to have evidence that even there he was not forsaken. An angel awakened him to minister to his wants. God careth for the body; and precious in His sight is not only the death, but also the felt need of His people. The same great Jehovah, Whose manifestation on Carmel had been so awful in its grandeur, condescended to His servant in the hour of his utmost need, and with unspeakable tenderness, like a mother, tended His weary child. Once more a season of sleep, and again the former heaven-given provision for the journey which he was to make - now in the guidance of God.*
* Kimchi marks that the second meal was not newly brought, but must have been the remainder of the old. He also points out how Elijah was led in the wilderness by a higher direction than his own.
The analogy between Moses, as he through whom the Covenant was given, and Elijah, as he through whom the Covenant was restored, has already been indicated. There is, however, one great difference between the two. When Israel broke the Covenant which Moses was about to make, he pleaded for them with the most intense agony of soul (Exodus 33-34:9). When once more Israel broke the Covenant on the morrow of Carmel, Elijah fled in utter despondency of spirit. In both cases God granted light to His servants by such manifestation of Himself as gave deepest insight into His purposes of grace and anticipation of the manner in which they would be ultimately realized in all their fullness through Jesus Christ. And hence it was in this respect also fitting that Moses and Elijah should be with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. But Elijah had not been like Moses; rather had he been like the children of Israel. And therefore, like them, must he wander for symbolic forty days in the wilderness, before liberty and light were granted,* to learn the same lesson which God would have had Israel learn during their forty years of wandering. And so he came ultimately unto "the mount of God," to "the cave"** - perhaps the very "clift of the rock" where Moses had first been permitted to hear the glorious revelation of what Jehovah was and of what He purposed.
* The journey straight to Mount Horeb would have taken scarcely more than a fourth of that time.
** The Hebrew has the definite article, to mark a special, well-known cave.
It was a wondrous place in which to spend the night,* and to hear amidst its silence the voice of Jehovah.** The one question - afterwards repeated in different circumstances - "What doest thou here, Elijah?"*** was intended to bring his state of mind clearly to the consciousness of the prophet.
* This is the meaning of the word "lodge" in verse 9.
** Some commentators regard the first part of what is related as having been a vision. But there seems no indication of this in the text.
*** The question bears manifold application. By recalling it, the children of God have not unfrequently been preserved from sin, from improper association, and from worldly conformity.
In tender mercy, no reproach was uttered, not even reproof of the rash request for release from seemingly hopeless, burdensome toil. But was it really hopeless? Did Elijah rightly apprehend God's final purpose in it; did he even know what in God's Providence would follow that seeming defeat of the prophet on the day after his great victory: how God would vindicate His cause, punish the rebellious, and take care of His own? What then had brought Elijah thither; what was his purpose in coming? Although the same question was twice asked and the same answer twice returned, it seems in each case to bear a somewhat different meaning. For the words of Elijah (vv. 10, 14) imply two things: an accusation against the children of Israel and a vindication of his own conduct in fleeing into the wilderness. The first of these seems to have been the meaning of his reply before the special manifestation of God (Romans 11:2, 3); the second, that after that revelation of God which the vision conveyed. This manifestation, so deeply symbolical, appears to us to have also wrought an entire change in the prophet.
The first question came to Elijah while still in the cave. As already stated, it elicited from him an accusation of His people, as if to appeal for vengeance to the LORD (Romans 11:2, 3) - "It is time for Thee to work, O LORD, for men have made void Thy Law" (Psalms 119:126)! Upon this Elijah was bidden to go forth out of the dark, narrow cave, and behold, as Jehovah passed by.*
* The LXX. seem to have read more correctly the first clauses of verse 11. We translate: "And he said, Go forth and stand on the mount before Jehovah - and behold, Jehovah passing by (passeth by)." The narrative portion only begins after this: "And wind, great and strong," etc. It deserves notice that the expression "pass by" is only used here and in Exodus 33 and 34:6 of Jehovah. Generally the opposite - that of dwelling (whence Shechinah) - is connected with Him. Of these glorious manifestations only passing glimpses could be caught under the Old Testament.
Not a word was spoken. But first burst "wind great and strong, rending mountains, shivering rocks before the face of Jehovah - not in storm Jehovah! And after the wind earthquake - not in earthquake Jehovah! And after the earthquake fire - not in fire Jehovah! And after the fire sound of soft silencing (audible gentle stilling)!"*
* So literally.
Elijah could not but have understood the meaning of this. He knew it when, at the "sound of soft stilling," he wrapped his face in the mantle and came forth in most reverent attitude to stand before Jehovah (comp. Exodus 3:6; 33:20, 22; Isaiah 6:2). The storm which rends, the earthquake which shakes all to its foundations, the fire which consumes - these are but His messengers which at most precede His coming. But Jehovah Himself is not in them. When He cometh it is not in these, but in the gentle stilling of them. To learn this was a real, though not an expressed, answer to Elijah's despondency and to his accusing appeal against Israel, the more touchingly conveyed that, being indirect, like the answer of Jesus to the inquiry of the Baptist, it carried instruction but not rebuke. The mood of both was the same, their doubts, and the reply given to them. It was in effect, See what the LORD really is, purposes, and doeth; and learn reverently to bow and to adore. God is greater, higher, better than appears only in judgment: do thy work, and leave the result to Him - He will make it plain. And so, we suppose that, when after this manifestation the same question again came to Elijah, his answer was no longer in the spirit of accusation, but rather a statement of fact in vindication or explanation of his own presence on Mount Horeb.
With reverence be it said that, in the mood in which Elijah had come, no more fitting answer could have been made to him than this awful and glorious self-manifestation of Jehovah. If the LORD Himself had not been in the desolating messengers of terror, why should Elijah have expected it in the judgments which he was commissioned to execute? Nay, if Elijah himself had come forth to worship not in the storm, the earthquake, nor the fire, but had waited for the Presence of the LORD in the soft, gentle, stilling sound, why should he wonder if the revival of Israel's worship awaited a similar manifestation? But God would in the meantime take care of His own cause. The storm must burst from without on an unrepentant people: Hazael was to be anointed king of Syria, and foreign wars, more desolating than any that had preceded, would sweep over Israel. The earthquake would shake the house of Ahab to its foundations: and Jehu was to be appointed the minister of vengeance. That fire which Elijah had kindled would burn more brightly and fiercely: the mission of Elijah was to be continued in Elisha. To prepare all* this was now the only work left for the aged and weary prophet. And in each case he did prepare it.**
* The expressions in 1 Kings 19:15-17 must, of course, not be pressed in a literal sense. As a matter of fact, only Jehu was anointed, and that neither by Elijah nor by Elisha. Similarly the expression about Elisha slaying those who had escaped the sword of Jehu must be taken in its obvious figurative meaning. But in the sight of God these three were from that moment "anointed to their work" (comp. 2 Kings 8:13, leaving out the words in italics, and 2 Kings 9:3).
** It is strange that commentators should so generally have failed to see this.
Elisha was called by the prophet himself. The destruction of the house of Ahab, which involved the elevation of Jehu, through whom it was accomplished, was distinctly announced to Ahab by Elijah in the field of Naboth (1 Kings 21:19, 21, 22); while the future power of Syria over Israel, which involved the elevation of Hazael, was similarly prophetically intimated (1 Kings 20:42) - as we conjecture from the expression "a certain man of the sons of the prophets" (1 Kings 20:35) - by direction of Elijah.
Yet one precious assurance, or rather visible token that Jehovah was still in Israel, in the voice of soft stilling, was granted to the prophet. All unknown to him God had even in corrupt Israel His own, a "remnant according to the election of grace" (Romans 11:2-5), a sacred covenant-number which could be counted by thousands* - "still ones" in the land, who had never bent the knee to Baal nor kissed in worship the abominable image.**
* The term 7000 must not be pressed literally, as if it were the exact number of the faithful. Seven is the well-known sacred and covenant-number.
** To kiss the idol - its feet, beard, etc. - was the common practice in heathen worship.
And yet further consolation was to be granted to the weary servant of the LORD. In each case the actual judgment was to be only intimated, not executed, through Elijah himself, or in his lifetime. But this comfort would he have, that, even in his lifetime, and while engaged in his mission, a yoke-fellow true in sympathy, ministry, and likeness of spirit, should attend him to make the burden seem easier to bear.
It was as had been told him. With a sense that his mission was well-nigh completed, and that what remained was chiefly to prepare Elisha for his work, the prophet turned again towards the land of Israel. As he proceeded on his way, nature itself must have seemed to reflect the gladsome revelation of stillness and peace which had been vouchsafed on Horeb. The abundant rain which had descended must have softened the long-parched fields. The country was putting on the garb of a new spring. Everywhere the work of the husbandman was resumed; herds and flocks were browsing in the meadows; busy hands were rapidly putting in the seed. Upwards he traveled along the rich Jordan valley, till, past the borders of Judah, he reached the ancient possession of Issachar. No more happy scene than on the fields of Abed Meholah, the "meadow of the dance," of which the very name seems to suggest the joyous time of rich harvest and the merry dances of the reapers. These fields, far as the eye could reach, were the possession of one Shaphat, and he was of those seven thousand who had not bent to Baal, as we infer even from the name which he had given to his son: Elisha, "the God of salvation," or better, "my God salvation." And now twelve yoke of oxen were ploughing up the land - eleven guided by the hands of servants, the twelfth, in good old Hebrew simple fashion, by the son of the owner of those lands.
With characteristic sparingness of detail the sacred text does not inform us whether Elijah had before known his successor, nor how he came now to recognize him. Suffice it, that he knew and called him, not in words, indeed, but by the unmistakable symbolic action of casting over him his prophet's mantle, as he passed. This was Elisha's first test. There was no absolute need for responding, nor yet for showing that he had understood an unspoken call, which could have offered so little to attract even one whose lot had been cast in circumstances much less happy than those of Elisha. But Elisha showed his inward and spiritual preparedness by at once responding to Elijah's call, with only this one request: to be allowed to take leave of his father and mother.*
* Matthew Henry quaintly remarks, "to take leave, not to ask leave of them."
It was not stern rebuke nor reproof which prompted the reply of Elijah:" Go back, for what have I done to thee?" Precisely because he understood the greatness of the sacrifice which immediate obedience implied, would he leave Elisha entirely unswayed and free, and his service the outcome of his own heart's conviction and choice.* Thus only could he be fitted for a calling which required such entire self-denial and self-sacrifice.
* However reasonable and evident these details, we could scarcely conceive them possible in a narrative that was not based upon historical facts. Their invention would be almost inconceivable. Hence all these details furnish evidence of the reality of these events and of the truth of the Scriptural narrative.
This further test also, which reminds us how our LORD set before intending followers the difficulties of their choice (Matthew 8:20) and before His disciples the absolute necessity of willing self-denial (Luke 14:26), did Elisha endure, as must every one who is to do service for God. It seems almost symbolic that the oxen with which he had been working, the yoke which bound them, and the wooden ploughshare which they had drawn, were now used to prepare the farewell-feast of Elisha. To forsake and give up all for the service of the LORD is only one lesson, which must be complemented, not so much by abandoning all of the past, as by consecrating to our new life-work all that we formerly had or did. Nor let us forget two other considerations, suggested by the history of Elisha's call. All personal decision for God, and all work undertaken for Him, implies a leave-taking and a forsaking of the old, which must "pass away" when "all things become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). But this forsaking, though necessarily involving pain and loss, should not be sad - rather joyous, as leading through pain to real joy, and through seeming loss to real gain:* a "feast," such as was the parting of Elisha from his home, and that of St. Matthew from his calling and friends.
* It is probably in this that the difference lies between the case of Elisha and that in which our LORD returned so different an answer to a request, which to a superficial reader might seem substantially the same as that of the son of Shaphat (comp. Luke 9:59-62).
Thus the end of the old will at the same time be the beginning of the new; the giving up of the former calling the first act of the new ministry. And however humble that ministry, or however indirectly it may seem to bear upon the LORD, it is really ministry of Him. Then, and for many years afterwards, Elisha did but "pour water on the hands of Elijah" (2 Kings 3:11) - yet from the moment that "he arose and went after Elijah" he was really, and in the judgment of God, "anointed to be prophet;" nor had he, nor needed he, other earthly consecration.