It seems that God doesn’t respond to exaggerated claims of self-importance. Rather Elijah is instructed to go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh. Placing yourself before God sometimes has a way of putting things in perspective.
Elijah’s Mountain Top Experience
1st Kings 19
On Mt. Carmel, in front of a multitude of the citizens of the Kingdom of Israel, Elijah, the lone surviving prophet of the Hebrew God Yahweh in the northern kingdom, successfully challenged the priests and royal patrons of the rival god Ba’al. He not only authenticated his identity as a true prophet and established the power and existence of Yahweh, Elijah also demonstrated for all to see that Ba’al was no god at all. Jezebel, the foreign wife of King Ahab who was personally responsible for the importation and phenomenal growth of this foreign religion, was less than pleased to have the religion of Ba’al exposed as a fraud. She sent a messenger to Elijah to let him know that she had put out a contract on his life.
God dispatches Elijah to Mount Sinai to stand in the same place where Moses, centuries earlier, had received the great revelation from God: “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces 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; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice” (I Kings 19:11-12).
The message that God reveals to us through the experiences of Elijah is that big productions don’t restore people to loyalty to the Covenant. Moses had also orchestrated a great event on Mount Sinai that impressed the crowds with its thunder and lightning, its earthquakes and fire. But shortly thereafter the people were worshipping the golden calf. Out of disappointment, frustration and anger, the tablets that symbolized the revelation of God were broken. It was only after Moses went back up the mountain without the public display and communed with God in a quiet and intimate way that the second set of tablets representing the renewal of the covenant emerged. The first lesson: the effects of a big show are, at best, short-lived.
Elijah had yet to learn the lesson of Moses. He had to understand that being zealous is insufficient. Patience and a commitment to bring people along over time would be necessary if the prophet were to successfully inculcate covenantal values and restore a community to faith. In addition, it would not happen through miraculous events. Rather, a more profound and personal relationship with God must be developed. The people would have to learn to listen to the still, small voice of God. It was true with Moses, with Elijah and with us today.
Because of his faithfulness and for demanding the faithfulness of the people of Israel to the One God Elijah becomes a wanted man. But I still find Elijah’s reaction to this opposition surprising. Even after successfully facing down the religious and political elite that had undermined and threaten Yahwehism with extinction; after seeing the awesome power of the God he served, for some unexplained reason Elijah fled to the wilderness where, overcome with depression he prayed to Yahweh to end his life. To Elijah’s mind, he had failed; his life was not worth living. He had done all he thought he could do to communicate the truth of God’s covenant. He had been zealous for the Lord and all it got him was a death sentence. His sense of invulnerability on one day gave way to a great sense of vulnerability the next. He stood up to King Ahab and the prophets of Ba’al why now does he, in fear, flee to the most southern part of the Kingdom of Judah, a place where he supposed he would be well out of the reach of Jezebel and her operatives. Leaving his servant behind Elijah goes a day further into the wilderness of Beer-sheba. This was a suicide attempt because no one can survive long in the harsh south Beer-sheba wilderness. Evidently he is lamenting his lack of success in restoring the Israelites to faithfulness. The prophet despairs and resigns – not only from life but from his calling as Prophet. He lies down under a bush and asks God to take his life. Have you seen situations where the seeds of depression, loss and confusion are sometimes sown in some tremendous victory?
Now the bush isn’t any ordinary bush – it is not the kind of bush that you find in clumps or groves – it stands alone in the harsh wilderness like a testimony that one can survive under extremely difficult situations. There, he falls asleep. Like the messenger of Jezebel who delivered a message of death, a messenger of Yahweh brings a message of life. He brings Elijah food and water – two essentials for life in the harsh wilderness. He eats and drinks and then falls back asleep. A second time God’s messenger rouses him from sleep and urges him to eat and drink with the message that he must do it “for the journey will be too much for you.” Just when Elijah thought his journey had come to its end he is told that, in fact, it has just begun. Elijah is tired and discouraged, so why make a lengthy trek through barren wilderness? On the strength of the nourishment provided by God’s messenger Elijah rises, eats, drinks, and goes. He travels to Mount Horeb in the Sinai, the mountain forever associated in Israelite tradition with covenant-making, God’s revelation of the Torah. This story calls out to those among God’s people who are worn-out, fearful, or in need of renewal. The story suggests a way forward—eat and drink of God’s life-giving sustenance, return to the bedrock of faith, listen for God’s still small voice. That may be the way to find new energy, new vision, and a new sense of purpose.
Once at Horeb Elijah spends the night in a cave. Reproachfully, God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and the prophet responds by whining about the sad state of affairs in Israel and how the entire burden of Israel’s spiritual welfare rested on his shoulders. You see, Yahweh’s Prophets don’t belong on an isolated mountaintop of divine apparitions and spiritual ecstasy, they belong in the world carrying out the work of God. Once at Horeb, God’s appearance and the giving of a new commission reenergize Elijah and restores him to his ministry. Maybe God’s servants are called to make periodic pilgrimages to the source of their faith, for spiritual renewal and to be reenergized for service in God’s reign. But even so, God’s servants are not called to stay on a mountaintop of spiritual ecstasy, close to God but far from the world. They belong in the world, doing the work of God. Elijah’s renewal is not complete until he has obeyed God’s commission and leaves Horeb and returns to work.
Elijah complains again, indulges in self-pity, and touts his own actions: “I have been exceedingly zealous for Yahweh God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” . He seems to be living with the delusion that everything depends on him. He is the only remaining prophet of Yahweh, and now his life is in jeopardy as well. Elijah’s selective memory leads him to exaggerate the negative and to overlook his previous successes.
We might expect a response from God to Elijah’s self-indulgent complaining, but that doesn’t happen. It seems that God doesn’t respond to exaggerated claims of self-importance. Rather Elijah is instructed to go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh. Placing yourself before God sometimes has a way of putting things in perspective. Yahweh passes by accompanied by earthquake, wind and fire, all allusions to Moses and the Exodus events. But we are told that Yahweh was not in any of these dramatic natural events. Elijah is left with only a still quiet voice through which Yahweh speaks and to which he must strain to hear. God’s presence in the stillness can be just as real and powerful as in the cosmic forces of nature.
For a second time God asks Elijah what he is doing at Horeb. Elijah’s whining reply illustrates that he is not yet ready to resume his prophetic ministry, and that self-pity and a grandiose view of his own importance are still a problem. And again God does not respond directly to Elijah’s self serving answer but instead renews his commission. He tells Elijah that he is to leave Horeb and travel to Damascus to anoint Hazael as King of Syria and then anoint Jehu King of Israel and Elisha as his own successor. A sturdy faith capable of weathering opposition and failure requires both a strong sense of call to mission, and a recognition that God’s cause in the world transcends your own abilities and efforts on behalf of that mission. Elijah need not be so discouraged or take himself so seriously because he is far from being the only person committed to the divine cause. The Prophet returns to his work in the social arena where God needs agents to complete the work. It seems that when God puts his people to work doubts end and misgivings vanish.