By Connie W. Adams
It was with the suddenness of a flash of lightning and the sternness of a sharp clap of thunder that the prophet Elijah described only as “the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead” appeared before king Ahab of Israel and said: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Then as suddenly as he had come, he was gone and Ahab was left to ponder these unexpected and frightful words. Thus the prophetic work of Elijah began, a beginning which was typical of all his public utterances as the special envoy of Jehovah to his apostate people. His public work was limited to a few scattered appearances, a sparseness of public notice which would fail to distinguish him by the standards of our time. Yet these few occasions punctuated by the compelling words he spoke were sufficient to make him one of the most often mentioned of the prophets by New Testament writers.
New Testament References
Many of the New Testament statements concerning Elijah (or Elias) refer to John the Baptist, the second Elijah. Since the closing article in this series will deal with the second Elijah, such references will be omitted here for the present. When Jesus explained his reason for not performing mighty deeds in Nazareth, he referred to Elijah and pointed out that, while there were many widows in the land at that time, Elijah came only to the one at Zarephath (Luke 4:24-26).
When the Samaritans refused to receive Christ, James and John desired to bring down fire from heaven and consume them “even as Elijah did.” Jesus sharply rebuked them for their reckless and arbitrary impulse (Luke 9:54-55). Paul referred to Elijah’s despondency when he said, “I am left alone, and they seek my life” and God’s answer that he had reserved to himself “seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom. 11:2-5). From this he taught that even though Israel had in wholesale lots rejected Christ, yet “there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”
Perhaps the grandest tribute paid to Elijah was the reference by James as to the availing power of a righteous man’s prayer which he drew from Elijah (Jas. 5:17). These are sufficient to show the importance of this stern, but faithful, prophet of God. Aside from these honorable mentions of him in the New Testament, there was the immediate impact of his efforts upon the time and amid the circumstances in which he lived, without which Israel might have gone so far into idolatry and its attendant evils as to render it unable to longer serve the purpose for which God had set it apart. Such considerations suggest the importance of his work. Surely our knowledge may be enhanced and our lives enriched by a study of this great man.
The Need for Elijah
To say that a crisis existed when Elijah came upon the scene is a great understatement. Over fifty years had passed since the once united kingdom under Solomon had divided with ten tribes going into rebellion and the rest remaining faithful to the line of David. Jereboam had ascended the throne of this scismatic kingdom and had at once plunged it into such sin that its citizens could hardly be recognized as having once served God and expedited his purposes. So wicked was Jereboam that the sacred writers thought it sufficient dishonor to certain kings thereafter to summarize their reigns by saying they “departed not from the sins of Jereboam the son of Nebat, wherewith he made Israel to sin.” This kingdom of apostacy had received some of the fruit of its rebellion during those fifty years, for it was beset with war without and deceit, treachery and bloodshed within. Nadab succeeded Jereboam and was murdered after two years by Baasha, who proceeded to destroy every relation of Jereboam (1 Kings 15:27-34). His reign of twenty-four years was marked by continual strife and he is said to have plunged Israel even deeper into the sins initiated by Jereboam. Elah, the son of Baasha, took his throne and in less than two years was slain by Zimri, while Elah proceeded to get drunk (1 Kings 16:9). Zimri died seven days later in the siege of Gibbethon (1 Kings 16:18) and, after four years of internal strife over who should next be king, Omri finally succeeded. His twelve-year reign is well summarized in the statement that he “did worse than all that were before him” (1 Kings 16:25). Ahab, his son, then came to the throne.
This entire period was well summarized by Milligan in his fine book on Elijah, His Life and Times. “Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, six kings between the date of the division of the tribes and the appearance of Elijah, with a seventh now upon the throne, and three of the six either murdered or brought to a cruel end through the usurpers by whom they were expelled — the record is little better than one of tumult and violence and blood; while at the same time foreign wars, with the Syrians in the North and the Philistines from the South, helped to fill up the cup of national misery.”
These political turmoils were closely related to an ever increasing spiritual poverty. The temple at Jerusalem had been a bond of unity between all the tribes before the kingdom divided. There they congregated three times each year and considered one day in God’s courts of untold value. As David said, they would “rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). Jeroboam saw that this devotion to Jerusalem had to be broken if his kingdom was to have any strength. To accomplish this “he made two calves of gold, and said unto the people, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt’” (1 Kings 12:28). He made Dan and Bethel the centers of this false worship and largely succeeded in alienating the affections of his subjects from Jehovah.
The evil begun in Jeroboam’s day reached a culminating point in Ahab’s, who being filled with a desire to increase the material fortunes of his kingdom and to cement better relations with the Phoenicians to his west, married Jezebel, the daughter of the Zidonian king (1 Kings 16:30-33). Jezebel was completely devoted to the worship of Baal, and being a woman of strong determination and inventive design, set about the unholy business of infiltrating the kingdom with devotion to Baal. She filled the kingdom with prophets of Baal and sustained four hundred at her table (1 Kings 18:19). Under such circumstances, how could Israel’s condition have been more deplorable? A factious kingdom, torn by fifty years of war within and without, severed from the former affection for Jerusalem and the worship of Jehovah centered there, now ruled by a king concerned only with the material aspects of his kingdom and willing to go to any lengths necessary to achieve his aims, and with a queen so bent on idolatry that she would stop at nothing to bring down the knees of Israel before Baal with all the licentious practices to which its worship led. Alas, these were the conditions and this was the time in which our study of Elijah is set.
God had always raised up men of worth, tested and trained through his own providence, to meet every special need of his people. There had been Moses, then Joshua, Samuel, David, and more. Even so, he raised up Elijah, a man of the wilderness, trained and hardened by its loneliness, and privations, a man in close communion with God, a man of rugged appearance, confident faith, stern speech, and unflinching courage, a hard man to meet the needs of a hard time.
This was the man who loomed ominously in front of Ahab and said, “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years but according to my word.”
The next article will deal with the import of these words and will follow the prophet into the wilderness beyond Jordan. Stay tuned.
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