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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Kings 19

 

 

Verses 1-4

ELIJAH’S FLIGHT

1 Kings 19:1-4

"A still small voice comes through the wild, Like a father consoling his fretful child, Which banisheth bitterness, wrath and fear, Saying, ‘Man is distant, but God is near."’

- TEMPLE

THE misgiving which, joined to his ascetic dislike of cities, made Elijah stop his swift race at the entrance of Jezreel was more than justified. Ahab’s narrative of the splendid contest at Carmel produced no effect upon Jezebel whatever, and we can imagine the bitter objurgations which she poured upon her cowering husband for having stood quietly by while her prophets and Baal’s prophets were being massacred by this dark fanatic, aided by a rebellious people. Had she been there all should have been otherwise! In contemptuous defiance of Ahab’s fears or wishes, she then and there-and it must now have been after nightfall-dispatched a messenger to find Elijah, wherever he might be hiding himself, and say to him in her name: "As sure as thou art Elijah, and I am Jezebel, may my gods avenge it upon me if on the morrow by this time I have not made thy life like the life of one of my own murdered priests." In the furious impetuosity of the message we see the determination of the sorceress-queen. In her way she was as much in deadly earnest as Elijah was. Whether Baal had been defeated or not, she was not defeated, and Elijah should not escape her vengeance. The oath shows the intensity of her rage, like that of the forty Jews who hound themselves by the cherem that they would not eat or drink till they had slain Paul; and the fixity of her purpose as when Richard III declared that he would not dine till the head of Buckingham had fallen on the block. We cannot but notice the insignificance to which she reduced her husband, and the contempt with which she treated the voice of her people. She presents the spectacle, so often reproduced in history and reflected in literature, of a strong fierce woman-a Clytemnestra, a Brunhault, a lady Macbeth, an Isabella of France, a Margaret of Anjou, a Joan of Naples, a Catherine de Medicis-completely dominating a feebler consort.

The burst of rage which led her to send the message defeated her own object. The awfulness which invested Elijah, and the supernatural powers on which he relied, when he was engaged in the battles of the Lord, belonged to him only in his public and prophetic capacity. As a man he was but a poor, feeble, lonely subject, whose blood might be shed at any moment. He knew that God works no miracles for the supersession of ordinary human precautions. It was no part of his duty to throw away his life, and give a counter triumph to the Baal-worshippers whom he had so signally humiliated. He fled, and went for his life.

Swift flight was easy to that hardy frame and that trained endurance, even after the fearful day on Carmel and the wild race of fifteen miles from Carmel to Jezreel. It was still night, and cool, and the haunts and byways of the land were known to the solitary and hunted wanderer. "He feared, and he rose, and he went for his life," ninety-five miles to Beersheba, once a town of Simeon, now the southern limit of the kingdom of Judah, thirty-one miles south of Hebron. But in the tumult of his feelings and the peril of his position he could not stay in any town. At Beersheba he left his servant-perhaps, as legend says, the boy of Zarephath, who became the prophet Jonah-but, in any case, not so much a servant as a youth in training for the prophetic office. It was necessary for him to spend his dark hour alone; for, if there are hours in which human sympathy is all but indispensable, there are also hours in which the soul can tolerate no communion save that with God. {Matthew 26:36} So, leaving all civilization behind him, he plunged a day’s journey into that great and terrible wilderness of Paran, where he too was alone with the wild beasts. And, then utterly worn out, he flung himself down under the woody stem of a solitary rhotem plant. The plant is the wild broom with "its cloud of pink blossoms" which often afford the only shadow under the glaring sun in the waste and weary land, and beneath the slight but grateful shade of which the Arab to this day is glad to pitch his tent. And there the pent-up emotions of his spirit, which had gone through so tremendous a strain, broke up as in one terrible sob, when the strong man, like a tired child, "requested for himself that he might die."

Of what use was life any longer? He had fought for Jehovah, and won, and after all been humiliatingly defeated. He had prophesied the drought, and it had withered and scorched up the erring, afflicted land. He had prayed for the rain, and it had come in a rush of blessing on the reviving fields. In the Wady Cherith, in the house of the Phoenician widow, he had been divinely supported and sheltered from hot pursuit. He had snatched her boy from death. He had stood before kings, and not been ashamed. He had stretched forth his hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, and not in vain. He had confounded the rich-vested and royally maintained band of Baal’s priests, and in spite of their orgiastic leapings and self-mutilations had put to shame their Sun-god under his own burning sun. He had kept pace with Ahab’s chariot-steeds as he conducted him as it were in triumph, through the streaming downpour of that sweeping storm, to his summer capital. Of what use was it all? Was it anything but a splendid and deplorable failure? And he said: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life: for I am not better than my fathers" He could have cried with the poet:-

"Let the heavens burst, and drown with deluging rain

The feeble vassals of lust, and anger, and wine,

The little hearts that know not how to forgive;

Arise, O God, and strike, for we count Thee just-

We are not worthy to live."

Who does not know something of this feeling of utter overwhelming despondency, of bitter disillusionment concerning life and our fellow-men? Some great writer has said, with truth, "that there is probably no man with a soul above that of the brutes that perish, to whom a time has not come in his life, when, were you to tell him that he would not wake to see another day, he would receive the message with something like gladness." There are some whose lives have been so saddened by some special calamity that for long years together they have not valued them. F.W. Robertson, troubled by various sorrows, and worried (as the best men are sure to be) by the petty ecclesiastical persecutions of priests and formalists, wrote in a letter on a friend’s death: "How often have I thought of the evening when he left Tours, when, in our boyish friendship, we set our little silver watches exactly together, and made a compact to look at the moon exactly at the same moment that night and think of each other. I do not remember a single hour in life since then which I would have arrested, and said, ‘Let this stay." "Melancholy so deep as this is morbid and unnatural," and he himself wrote in a brighter mood: "Positively I will not walk with any one in these tenebrous avenues of cypress and yew. I like sunny rooms and sunny truth. When I had more of spring and warmth I could afford to be prodigal of happiness: but now I want sunlight and sunshine. I desire to enter into those regions where cheerfulness and truth and health of heart and mind reside." Life has its real happiness for those who have deserved, and taken the right method to attain it; but it can never escape its hours of impenetrable gloom; and they sometimes seem to be darkest for the noblest souls. Petty souls are irritated by little annoyances, and the purely selfish disappointments which avenge the exaggerated claims of our "shivering egotism." But while little mean spirits are tormented by the insect-swarm of little mean worries, great souls are liable to be beaten down by the waves and storms of immense calamities-the calamities which affect nations and churches, the "desperate currents" of whose sins and miseries seem to be sometimes driven through the channels of their single hearts. Only such a man as an Elijah can measure the colossal despondency of an Elijah’s heart. In the apparently absolute failure, the seemingly final frustration of such men as these there is something nobler than in the highest personal exaltations of ignobler souls.

"Now, O Lord, take away my life!" The prayer, however natural, however excusable, is never right. It is a sign of insufficient faith, of human imperfection; but it is breathed by different persons in a spirit so different that in some it almost rises to nobleness, as in others it sinks quite beneath contempt.

Scripture gives us several specimens of both moods. If Jonah was, indeed, the servant-pupil of Elijah, the legendary story of that meanest-minded of all the prophets-the meanest-minded and paltriest, not perhaps as he was in reality-for of him, historically, we know scarcely anything-but as he is represented in the profound and noble allegory which bears his name- might almost seem to have been written in tacit antithesis to the story of Elijah. Elijah flies only when he has done the mighty work of God, and only when the life is in deadly peril which he would fain save for future emergencies of service; Jonah flies that he may escape, out of timid selfishness, the work of God. Elijah wishes himself dead because he thinks that the glorious purpose of his life has been thwarted, and that the effort undertaken for the deliverance of his people has failed; Jonah wishes himself dead, first, because he repines at God’s mercy, and would prefer that his personal credit should be saved and his personal importance secured than that God should spare the mighty city of Nineveh with its one hundred and twenty thousand little children; and then because the poor little castor-oil plant has withered, which gave him shelter from the noon. Considering the traditional connection between them; it seems to me impossible to overlook an allusive contrast between the noble and mighty Elijah under his solitary rhotem plant in the wilderness wishing for death in the anguish of a heart "which nobly loathing strongly broke." and the selfish splenetic Jonah wishing himself dead in pettish vexation under his palma Christi because Nineveh is forgiven and the sun is hot.

There are indeed times when humanity is tried beyond its capacity, when the cry for restful death is wrung from souls crushed under accumulations of quite intolerable anguish and calamity. In the fret of long-continued sleeplessness, in sick and desolate and half-starved age, in attacks of disease incurable, long-continued, and full of torture, God will surely look with pardoning tenderness on those whose faith is unequal to so terrible a strain. It was pardonable surely of Job to curse the day of his birth when-smitten with elephantiasis, a horror, a hissing, an astonishment, bereaved of all his children, and vexed by the obtrusive orthodoxies of his petty Pharisaic friends; unconscious, too, that it was God’s hand which was all the while leading him through the valley of the shadow into the land of righteousness-he cried: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?" In those who have no hope and are without God in the world, this mood-not when expressed in passing passion as by the saintly man of Uz, but when brooded on and indulged-leads to suicide, and in the one instance recorded in each Testament, an Ahithophel and a Judas, the despairing souls of the guilty:-

"Into the presence of their God Rushed in with insult rude."

But Elijah’s mood, little as it was justifiable in this its extreme form, was but the last infirmity of a noble mind. It has often recurred among those grandest of the servants of God who may sink into the deepest dejection from contrast with the spiritual attitudes to which they have soared. It is with them as with the lark which floods the blue air with its passion of almost delirious rapture, yet suddenly, as though exhausted, drops down silent into its lowly nest in the brown furrows. There is but one man in the Old Testament who, as a prophet, stands on the same level as Elijah, -he who stood with Elijah on the snowy heights of Hermon when their Lord was transfigured into celestial brightness, and they spake together of His decease at Jerusalem. And Moses had passed through the same dark hour as that through which Elijah was passing now, when he saw the tears, and heard the murmurs of the greedy, selfish, ungrateful people, who hated their heavenly manna, and lusted for the leeks and fleshpots of their Egyptian bondage. Revolted by this obtrusion upon him of human nature in its lowest meanness, he cried to God under his intolerable burden: "Have I conceived all this people? I am not able to bear all this people alone. And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand; and let me not see my wretchedness." In Moses, as doubtless in Elijah, so far from being the clamor of whining selfishness, his anguish was part of the same mood which made him offer his life for the redemption of the people; which made St. Paul ready to wish himself anathema from Jesus Christ if thereby he could save his brethren after the flesh. Danton rose into heroism when he exclaimed, "Que mon nom soit fletri, pourvu que la France soit libre"; and Whitefield, when he cried, "Perish George Whitefield, so God’s work be done": and the Duke of Wellington when remonstrated with for joining in the last charge at Waterloo, with the shot whistling round his head he said, "Never mind; the victory is won, and now my life is of no consequence." In great souls the thought of others, completely dominating the base man’s concentration in self, may create a despondency which makes them ready to give up their life, not because it is a burden to themselves, but because it seems to them as if their work was over, and it was beyond their power to do more for others.

Tender natures as well as strong natures are liable to this inrush of hopelessness: and if it sometimes kills them by its violence, this is only a part of God’s training of them into perfection.

"So unaffected, so composed a mind,

So firm, yet soft, so strong, yet so refined,

Heaven, as its purest gold, by tortures tried:-

The saint sustained it, but the woman died."

The cherubim of the sanctuary had to be made of the gold of Uphaz, the finest and purest gold. It was only the purest gold which could be tortured by workmanship into forms of exquisite beauty. The mind of Jeremiah was as unlike that of Elijah as can possibly be conceived. He was a man of shrinking and delicate temperament, and his life is the most pathetic tragedy among the biographies of Scripture. The mind of Elijah. like those of Dante or Luther or Milton, was all ardor and battle brunt; the mind of Jeremiah, like that of Melancthon, was timid as that of a gentle boy. A man like Dante or Milton, when he stands alone, hated by princes and priests and people, retorts scorn for scorn, and refuses to change his voice to hoarse or mute. Yet even Dante died of a broken heart, and in Milton’s mighty autobiographical wail of Samson Agonistes, amid all its trumpet-blast of stern defiance, we read the sad notes:-

"Nor am I in the list of them that hope;

Hopeless are all my evils, all remediless;

This one prayer yet remains, might I be heard,

No long petition, speedy death,

The close of all my miseries, and the balm."

When the insolent priest Pashur smote Jeremiah in the face, and put him for a night and a day in the common stocks, the prophet-after telling Pashur that, for this awful insult to God’s messenger, his name, which meant "joy far and wide," should be changed into Magormissabib, "terror on every side"-utterly broke down, and passionately cursed the day of his birth. {Jeremiah 20:1-18} And yet his trials were very far from ended then. Homeless, wifeless, childless, slandered, intrigued against, undermined-protesting apparently in vain against the hollow shams of a self-vaunting reformation-the object of special hatred to all the self-satisfied religionists of his day, the lonely persecuted servant of the Lord ended only in exile and martyrdom the long trouble of his eternally blessed but seemingly unfruitful life.

I dwell on this incident in the life of Elijah because it is full of instructiveness. Scripture is not all on a dead level. There are many pages of it which belong indeed to the connected history, and therefore carry on the general lessons of the history, but which are, in themselves, almost empty of any spiritual profit. Only a fantastic and artificial method of sermonizing can extract from them, taken alone, any Divine lessons. In these Books of Kings many of the records are simply historical, and in themselves, apart from their place in the whole, have no more religious significance than any other historic facts; but because these annals are the annals of a chosen people, and because these books are written for our learning, we find in them again and again, and particularly in their more connected and elevated narratives, facts and incidents which place Scripture incomparably above all secular literature, and are rich in eternal truth for all time, and for a life beyond life.

It is with such an experience that we are dealing here, and therefore it is worthwhile, if we can, to see something of its meaning. We may, therefore, be permitted to linger for a brief space over the causes of Ehijah's despair, and the method in which God dealt with it.


Verses 4-8

ELIJAH’S DESPAIR

1 Kings 19:4-8

"So much I feel my genial spirits droop,

My hopes all flat, nature within me seems

In all her functions weary of herself,

My race of glory run, and race of shame,

And I shall shortly be with them that rest."

- Samson Agonistes.

WHAT are the causes which may drive even a saint of God into a mood of momentary despair as he is forced to face the semblance of final failure?

1. Even the lowest element of such despair has its instructiveness. It was due in part, doubtless, to mere physical exhaustion. Elijah had just gone through the most tremendous conflict of his life. During all that long and most exhausting day at Carmel he had had little or no food, and at the close of it he had run across all the plain with the king’s chariot. In the dead of that night, with his life in his band, he had fled towards Beersheba, and now he had wandered for a whole day in the glare of the famishing wilderness. It does not do to despise the body. If we are spirits, yet we have bodies; and the body wreaks a stern and humiliating vengeance on those who neglect or despise it. The body reacts upon the mind. "If you rumple the jerkin, you rumple the jerkin’s lining." If we weaken the body too much, we do not make it the slave of the spirit, but rather make the spirit its slave. Even moderate fasting, as a simple physiological fact-if it be fasting at all, as distinguished from healthful moderation and wise temperance-tends to increase, and not by any means to decrease, the temptations which come to us from the appetites of the body. Extreme self-maceration-as all ascetics have found from the days of St. Jerome to those of Cardinal Newman-only adds new fury to the lusts of the flesh. Many a hermit and stylite and fasting monk, many half-dazed hysterical, high-wrought men have found, sometimes without knowing the reason of it, that by willful and artificial devices of self-chosen saintliness, they have made the path of purity and holiness not easier, but more hard. The body is a temple, not a tomb. It is not permitted us to think ourselves wiser than God who made it, nor to fancy that we can mend His purposes by torturing and crushing it. By violating the laws of physical righteousness we only make moral and spiritual righteousness more difficult to attain.

2. Elijah’s dejection was also due to forced inactivity. "What doest thou here, Elijah?" said the voice of God to him in the heart of man. Alas! he was doing nothing: there was nothing left for him to do! It was different when he hid by the brook Cherith or in Zarephath, or in the glades of Carmel. Then a glorious endeavor lay before him, and there was hope. But

"Life without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And hope without an object cannot live."

The mighty vindication of Jehovah in which all the struggle of his life culminated, had been crowned with triumph, and had failed. It had blazed up like fire, and had sunk back into ashes. To such a spirit as his nothing is so fatal as to have nothing to do and nothing to hope for. "What did the Marechal die of?" asked a distinguished Frenchman of one of his comrades. "He died of having nothing to do." "Ah!" was the reply; "that is enough to kill the best General of us all."

3. Again, Elijah was suffering from mental reaction. The bow had been bent too long, and was somewhat strained; the tense string needed to have been relaxed before. It is a common experience that some great duty or mastering emotion uplifts us for a time above ourselves, makes us even forget the body and its needs. We remember Jeremy Taylor’s description of what he had noticed in the Civil Wars, -that a wounded soldier, amid the heat and fury of the fight, was wholly unconscious of his wounds, and only began to feel the smart of them when the battle had ended and its fierce passion was entirely spent.

Men, even strong men, after hours of terrible excitement, have been known to break down and weep like children. Macaulay, in describing the emotions which succeeded the announcement that the Reform Bill had passed, says that not a few, after the first outburst of wild enthusiasm, were bathed in tears.

And any one who has seen some great orator after a supreme effort of eloquence, when his strength seems drained away, and the passion is exhausted, and the flame has sunk down into its embers, is aware how painful a reaction often follows, and how differently the man looks and feels if you see him when he has passed into his retirement, pale and weak, and often very sad. After a time the mind can do no more.

4. Further, Elijah felt his loneliness. At that moment indeed he could not bear the presence of any one, but none the less his sense that none sympathized with him, that all hated him, that no voice was raised to cheer him, that no finger was uplifted, to help him, weighed like lead upon his spirit. ‘I only am left.’ There was awful desolation in that thought. He was alone among an apostatizing people. It is the same kind of cry which we hear so often in the life of God’s saints. It is the Psalmist crying: "I am become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl that is in the desert. Mine enemies reproach me all the day long, and they that are mad upon me are sworn together against me"; {Psalms 102:6-8} or, "My lovers and my neighbors did stand looking upon my trouble, and my kinsmen stood afar off. They also that sought after my life laid snares for me Psalms 38:11-12." It is Job so smitten and afflicted that he is half tempted for the moment to curse God and die. It is Isaiah saying of the hopeless wickedness of his people, "The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." It is Jeremiah complaining, "The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?" {Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 29:9} It is St. Paul wailing so sadly, "All they of Asia have turned from me. Only Luke is with me." It is the pathos of desolation which breathes through the sad sentence of the Gospels, "Then all the disciples forsook Him, and fled." The anticipation of desertion had wrung from the Lord Jesus the sad prophecy, "Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, when ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me." {John 16:32} And this heart-anguish of loneliness is, to this day, a common experience of the best men. Any man whose duty has ever called him to strike out against the stream of popular opinion, to rebuke the pleasant vices of the world, to plead for causes too righteous to be popular, to deny the existence of vested interests in the causes of human ruin, to tell a corrupt society that it is corrupt, and a lying Church that it lies; -any man who has had to defy mere plausible conventions of veiled wrong-doing, to give bold utterance to forgotten truths, to awake sodden and slumbering consciences, to annul agreements with death and covenants with hell; every man who rises above the trimmers and the facing-both-ways, and those who try to serve two masters-they who swept away the rotting superstitions of a tyrannous ecclesiasticism, they who purified prisons, they who struck the fetters off the slave-every saint, reformer, philanthropist, and faithful preacher in the past, and those now living saints, who, walking in the shining steps of these, endeavor to rescue the miserable out of the gutter, and to preach the gospel to the poor, know the anguish of isolation, when, because they have been benefactors, they are cursed as though they were felons, and when, for the efforts of their noble self-sacrifice, the contempt of the world, and its pedantry, and its malice can find for them no words too contemptuous or too bitterly false.

5. But there was even a deeper sorrow than these which made Elijah long for death. It was the sense of utter and seemingly irretrievable failure. It happens often to the worldling as well as to the saint. Many a man, weary of life’s inexorable emptiness, has exclaimed in different ways:-

"Know that whatever thou hast been,

‘Tis something better not to be."

That sentiment is not in the least peculiar to Byron. We find it again and again in the Greek tragedians. We find it alike in the legendary revelation of the god Pan, and in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and in Schopenhauer and Von Hartmann. No true Christian, no believer in the mercy and justice of God, can share that sentiment, but will to the last thank God for His creation and preservation and all the blessings of this life, as well as for the inestimable gift of His redemption, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. Nevertheless, it is part of God’s discipline that He often requires His saints as well as His sinners to face what looks like hopeless discomfiture, and to perish, as it were,

"In the lost battle

Borne down by the flying,

Where mingles war’s rattle

With the groans of the dying."

Such was the fate of all the Prophets. They were tortured; they had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment; they were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, they hid in caves and dens of the earth, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, though of them the world was not worthy. Such, too was the fate of all the Apostles set forth last of all as men doomed to death; made a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. They were hungry, thirsty, naked, buffeted; they had no certain dwelling-place; they were treated as fools and weak, were dishonored, defamed, treated as the filth of the world and the off-scouring of all things. Such was conspicuously the case of St. Paul in that death, so lonely and forsaken, that the French skeptic thinks he must have awakened with infinite regret from the disillusionment of a futile life. Nay, it was the earthly lot of Him who was the prototype, and consolation, known or unknown, of all these:-it was the lot of Him who, from that which seemed the infinite collapse and immeasurable abandonment of His cross of shame, cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" He warned His true followers that they, too, would have to face the same finality of earthly catastrophes, to die without the knowledge, without even the probable hope, that they have accomplished anything, in utter forsakenment, in a monotony of execration, often in dejection and apparent hiding of God’s countenance. The olden saints who prepared the way for Christ, and those who since His coming have followed His footsteps, have had to learn that true life involves a bearing of the cross.

Take but one or two out of countless instances. Look at that humble brown figure, kneeling drowned with tears to think of the disorders which had already begun to creep into the holy order which he had designed. It is sweet St. Francis of Assisi, to whom God said in visions: "Poor little man: thinkest thou that I, who rule the universe, cannot direct in My own way thy little order?" Look at that monk in his friars’ dress, racked, tortured, gibbeted in fetters over the flaming pyre in the great square at Florence, stripped by guilty priests of his priestly robe, degraded from a guilty Church by its guilty representatives, pelted by wanton boys, dying amid a roar of execration from the brutal and fickle multitude whose hearts he once had moved. It is Savonarola, the prophet of Florence. Look at that poor preacher dragged from his dungeon to the stake at Basle, wearing the yellow cap and sanbenito painted with flames and devils. It is John Huss, the preacher of Bohemia. Look at the lion-hearted reformer feeling how much he had striven, not knowing as yet how much he had achieved, appealing to God to govern His world, saying that he was but a powerless man, and would be "the veriest are alive" if he thought that he could meddle with the intricacies of Divine Providence. It is Luther. Look at the youth, starving in an ink-stained garret, hunted through the streets by an infuriated mob, thrust into the city prison as the only way to save his life from those who hated his exposure of their iniquities. It is William Lloyd Garrison. Look at that missionary, deserted, starving, fever-stricken, in the midst of savages, dying on his knees, in daily sufferings, amid frustrated hopes. It is David Livingstone, the pioneer of Africa. They, and thousands like them, have borne squalors and shames and tragedies, while they looked not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. Might not they all have said with the disappointed Apostles, "Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing"? Might not their lives and deaths-the lives which fools thought madness, and their end to be without honor-be described as one poet has described that of his disenchanted king:-

"He Walked with dreams and darkness, and he found

A doom that ever poised itself to fall,

An ever-moaning battle in the mist,

Death in all life, and lying in all love,

The meanest having power upon the highest,

And the high purpose broken by the worm."

"Yes; the smelter of Israel had now to go down himself into the crucible."


Verses 5-8

HOW GOD DEALS WITH DESPONDENCY

1 Kings 19:5-8

"Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God; for I will yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance, and my God."

- Psalms 42:11

"It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers."

The despondency was deeper than personal. It was despair of the world; despair of the fate of the true worship; despair about the future of faith and righteousness; despair of everything. Elijah, in his condition of pitiable weariness, felt himself reduced to entire uncertainty about all God’s dealings with him and with mankind. "I am not better than my fathers"; they failed one by one, and died, and entered the darkness; and I have failed likewise. To what end did Moses lead this people through the wilderness? Why did the Judges fight and deliver them? Of what use was the wise guidance of Samuel? What has come of David’s harp, and Solomon’s temple and magnificence, and Jeroboam’s heaven-directed rebellion? It ends, and my work ends, in the despotism of Jezebel, and a nation of apostates!

God pitied His poor suffering servant, and gently led him back to hope and happiness, and restored him to his true self, and to the natural elasticity of his free spirit.

1. First, he gave His beloved sleep. Elijah lay down and slept. Perhaps this was what he needed most of all. When we lose that dear oblivion of "nature’s soft nurse, and sweet restorer, balmy sleep," then nerve and brain give way. So God sent him

"The innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,

Balm of hurt minds great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast."

And doubtless, while he slept, "his sleeping mind," as the Greek tragedian says, "was bright with eyes," and He, who had thus "steeped his senses in forgetfulness," spoke peace to his troubled heart, or breathed into it the rest over which hope might brood with her halcyon wings.

2. Next, God provided him with food. When he awoke he saw that at his head, under the rhotem plant, God had spread him a table in the wilderness. It was a provision, simple indeed, but for his moderate wants more than sufficient-a cake baked on the coals and a cruse of water. A Maleakha "messenger"-"someone," as the Septuagint and as Josephus both render it, someone who was, to him at any rate, an angel of God-touched him, and said, "Arise and eat." He ate and drank, and thus refreshed lay down again to make up, perhaps, for long arrears of unrest. And again God’s messenger, human or angelic, touched him, and bade him rise and eat once more, or his strength would fail in the journey which lay before him. For he meant to plunge yet farther into the wilderness. In the language of the narrator, "He arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights."

3. Next God sent him on a hallowed pilgrimage to bathe his weary spirit in the memories of a brighter past.

It does not require forty days and forty nights, nor anything like so long a period, to get from one day’s journey in the wilderness to Horeb, the Mount of God, which was Elijah’s destination. The distance does not exceed one hundred and eighty miles even from Beersheba. But, as in the case of Moses and of our Lord, "forty days"-a number connected by many associations with the idea of penance and temptation-symbolizes the period of Elijah’s retirement and wanderings. No doubt, too, the number has an allusive significance, pointing back to the forty years’ wanderings of Israel in the wilderness. The Septuagint omits the words "of God," but there can be little doubt, that Sinai was selected for the goal of Elijah s pilgrimage with reference to the awful scenes connected with the promulgation of the law. It is well known that the Mount of the Commandments is as a rule called Sinai in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, though the name Horeb occurs in Exodus 3:1; Exodus 33:6. To account for the double usage there have been, since the Middle Ages, two theories:

(1) that Horeb is the name of the range, and Sinai of the mountain;

(2) that Horeb properly means the northern part of the range, and Sinai the southern, especially Jebel Mousa. Horeb is the prevalent name for the mountain in Deuteronomy; Sinai is the ordinary name, and occurs thirty-one times in the Old Testament.

After his wanderings Elijah reached Mount Sinai, and came to "the cave," and took shelter there. The use of the article shows that a particular cave is meant, and there can be little reason to discredit the almost immemorial tradition that it is the hollow still pointed out to hundreds of pilgrims as the scene of the theophany which was here granted to Elijah. Perhaps in the same cave the vision had been granted to Moses, in the scene to which this narrative looks back. It is not so much a cave as, what it is called in Exodus, a "cleft of the rock." {Exodus 33:22} From the foot of the mountain, the level space on which now stands the monastery of Saint Katherine, a steep and narrow pathway through the rocks leads up to Jebel Mousa, the southernmost peak of Sinai, which is seven thousand feet high. Half-way up this mountain is a little secluded plain in the inmost heart of the granite precipice, in which is an enclosed garden, and a solitary cypress, and a spring and pool of water, and a little chapel. Inside the chapel is shown a hole, barely large enough to contain the body of a man. "It is," says Dr. Allon, "a temple not made with hands, into which, through a stupendous granite screen, which shuts out even the Bedouin world, God’s priests may enter to commune with Him."

If, indeed, Elijah had heard by tradition the vision of Moses of which this was the scene, he must have been filled with awful thoughts as he rested in the same narrow fissure, and recalled what had been handed down respecting the manifestation of Jehovah to his mighty predecessor.

4. And as God had pointed out to him the way to restore his bodily strength by sleep and food, so now He opened before the Prophet the remedy of renewed activity. The question of the Lord came to him-it was re-echoed by the voice of his own conscience-"What doest thou here, Elijah?"

"What doest thou?" He was doing nothing! He had, indeed, fled for his life; but was all the rest of his life to be so different from its beginning? Was there, indeed, no more work to be done in Israel or in Judah, and was he tamely to allow Jezebel to be the final mistress of the situation? Was one alien and idolatrous woman to overawe God’s people Israel, and to snatch from God’s prophet all the fruits of his righteous labors?" What doest thou here, Elijah?" Is not the very significance of thy name "Jehovah, He is my God"? Is He to be the God but of one fugitive? "What doest thou here?" This is the wilderness. There are no idolaters or murderers, or breakers of God’s commandments here; but are there not multitudes in the crowded cities where Baal’s temple towers over Samaria, and his sun-pillars cast their offensive shadows? Are there not multitudes in Jezreel, where the queen’s Asherah-shrine amid its guilt-shrouding trees flings its dark protection over unhallowed orgies committed in the name of religion? Should there not have been inspiration as well as reproof in the mere question? Should it not mean to him, "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted within me? Put thy trust in God, for I will yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God."

5. The question stirred the heart of Elijah, but did not yet dispel his sense of hopelessness and frustration, nor did it restore his confidence that God would govern the world aright. As yet it only called forth the heavy murmur of his grief. "I have been very jealous for Jehovah the God of Hosts": I, alone among my people; "for the children of Israel"-not the wicked queen only, with her abominations and witchcrafts, but the renegade people with her-"have forsaken Thy covenant," which forbids them to have any God but Thee, and have "thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." It was as it were an appeal to Jehovah before whom he stood, if not almost a reproach to Him. It was as though he said, "I have done my utmost; I have failed: wilt not Thou put forth Thy power and reign? I am but one poor hunted prophet alone against the world. There is no prophet more: not one is there among them that understandeth any more. I can do no more. Of what use is my life? Carest Thou not that Thy people have revolted from Thee? Behold they perish; they perish, they all perish! Of what use is my life? My work has failed: let me die!"

6. God dealt with this mood as He has done in all ages, as He had done before to Jacob, as He did afterwards to David and to Hezekiah, and to Isaiah and Jeremiah; and as the Son of God did to the antitype of Elijah-the great forerunner-when his faith failed him. He let the conviction steal into his mind that the ways of God are wider than men’s, and His thoughts greater than men’s. He unteaches His prophet the delusion that everything depends on him. He shows him that though He works for men by men, and though

"God cannot make best man’s best

Without best men to help him,"

still no living man is necessary, nor can any man, however great, either hasten or understand the purposes of God.

Elijah had need to be taught that man is nothing-that God is all in all. Instead of answering his complaint, the voice said to him: "Go forth tomorrow, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. Behold, the Lord is passing by."


Verses 9-15

THE THEOPHANY AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE

1 Kings 19:9-15

"Who heardest the rebuke of the Lord in Sinai, and in Horeb the judgment of vengeance."

- Sirach 48:7.

THROUGHOUT the Scriptures infinite care is taken to preclude every notion that the Most High God can be represented in visible form. He manifested Himself at Sinai to the children of Israel, but though the mount burned with fire, and there were clouds and thick darkness, and the voice of a. trumpet speaking long and loud, the people were reminded with the utmost solemnity that "they saw no manner of similitude." Indeed, in later times, when there was a keener jealousy of every anthropomorphic expression, the giving of the law is rather represented as a part of the ministry of angels.

The word Makom, or Place, is substituted for Jehovah, so that Moses and the elders and the Israelites do not see God but only His Makom, the space which He fills; the delivery of the law is ascribed to angelic ministers. At times the angels are almost identified with the careering flames and rushing winds which a modern theologian describes to us as being "the skirts of their garments, the waving of their robes" for is it not written, "He that maketh the winds His angels and the flaming fires His ministers"?

And in the daring description of Jehovah s visible manifestation of Himself to Moses, when He hid him in that fissure of the rock with the hollow of His hand, Moses only observes as it were the fringe and evanishment of His glory, "dark with excessive light."

It was natural that Jehovah should reveal Himself to Elijah under the aspect of those awful elemental forces with which his solitary life had made him familiar. No spot in the world is more suitable for those powers in all their fire and magnificence than the knot of mountains which crowd the Sinaitic peninsula with their entangled cliffs. Travelers have borne witness to the overwhelming violence and majesty of the storms which rush and reverberate through the granite gorges of those everlasting hills. It was in such surroundings that Jehovah spoke to the heart of his servant.

First "a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks, before the Lord." The winds of God, which blow where they list, and we know not whence they come nor whither they go, have in them so awful and irresistible a strength, that man and the works of man, are reduced to impotence before them. And when they rush and roar through the gullies of innumerable hills in tropic lands where the intense heat has rarefied the air, the sound of them is beyond all comparison weird and terrific. We cannot wonder that this roar of the hurricane was regarded as the trump of the archangel and the voice of God at Sinai; or that the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind; {Job 38:1; Job 40:6} and appeared to Ezekiel in a great cloud and a whirlwind out of the north; {Ezekiel 1:4} or that Jeremiah compared His anger to a whirling and sweeping storm; {Jeremiah 23:10-20; Jeremiah 25:32, Jeremiah 30:23} or that the Psalmist describes Him as bowing the heavens and coming down and casting darkness under His feet, and flying upon a cherub, and walking upon the wings of the wind; {Psalms 18:10, Psalms 104:3; Psalms 18:5} or that Nahum says, "The Lord hath His way in the whirlwind and the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet, and the mountains quake at Him." {Nahum 1:3; Nahum 1:5}

And Elijah felt the terror of the scene, as the storm dislodged huge masses of the mountain granite, and sent them rolling and crashing down the hills. But it did not speak to his inmost heart for

"The Lord was not in the wind."

And after the wind an earthquake shook the solid bases of the Sinaitic range. The mountain saw God and trembled. ‘The Lord,’ in the language of the Psalmist, shook the wilderness of Kadesh, the mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep. {Psalms 18:7, Psalms 77:18, Psalms 97:4, 5:4, 2 Samuel 22:8} And man never feels so abjectly helpless, he is never reduced to such absolute insignificance, as when the solid earth beneath him, the very emblem of stability, trembles as with a palsy, and cleaves beneath his feet; and shakes his towers to the earth, and swallows up his cities. Once more the soul of Elijah shuddered at the terrific impression of this sign of Jehovah’s power. But it had no message for his inmost heart: for

"The Lord was not in the earthquake."

And after the earthquake a fire. Jehovah overwhelmed the Prophet’s senses with the dread magnificence of one of those lurid thunderstorms of which the terrors are never so tremendous as in such mountain scenes, where travelers tell us that the burning air seems transfused into sheets of flame.

In that awful muttering and roar of the lurid clouds, that million fold reverberation of what the Psalmist calls "the voice of the Lord," when the lightnings "light the world, and run along the ground," and, in the language of Habakkuk, "God sends abroad His arrows, and the light of His glittering spear, and burning coals go forth under His feet, the lips of man quiver at the voice, and his heart sinks, and he trembles where he stands." And this, too, Elijah must have felt as "the hiding-place of God’s power" {Habakkuk 3:3-16} and yet it did not speak to his inmost heart; for

"The Lord was not in the fire."

"And after the fire a still small voice." However the rendering may be altered into "a gentle murmuring sound," or, as in the Revised Version, "a sound of gentle stillness," no expression is more full of the awe and mystery of the original than the phrase "a still small voice." It was the shock of awful stillness which succeeded the sudden cessation of the earthquake and hurricane and thunderstorm, and instantly, in its appalling hush and gentleness, Elijah felt that God was there; and he no sooner heard that voiceful silence speaking within him than he was filled with fear and self-abasement. He wrapped his face in his mantle, even as Moses "was afraid to look upon God." He came from the hollow of the rock which had sheltered him amidst that turbulence of material forces, and stood in the entering in of the cave.

At once the silence became articulate to his conscience, and repeated to him the reproachful question, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

Amazed and overwhelmed as he is, he has not yet grasped the meaning of the vision. Something of it perhaps he saw and felt. It breathed something of peace into the despair and tumult of his heart, but he still can only answer as before:-

"I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

Whatever that theophany had taught him, it had not yet fully removed his perplexity. But now God, in tender forbearance, unfolds at any rate the practical issue of the vision. Elijah is to be inactive no longer. He is to find in faithfulness and work the removal of all doubts, and is to learn that man may not abandon his duties, even when they are irksome, even when they seem hopeless, even when they have become intolerable and full of peril.

He has to learn that it is only when men have finished their day’s work that God sends them sleep, and that his own day’s work was as yet unfinished. He is no longer to linger in the wilderness apart from the ways of guilty and suffering men. He is one with them: he may not separate his destiny from theirs; he has to feel that God has no favorites and is no respecter of persons, but that all men are His children, and that each child of His must work for all. "Go," the Lord said unto him, "return on thy way by the wilderness to Damascus." Did the return involve unknown dangers? Still he must commit his way unto the Lord, and simply be doing good, regardless of all consequences. The saints of the Old Dispensation no less than of the New had to go forth bearing their cross, and on their way to Golgotha.

Three missions still awaited him.

First, he is to supersede the old dynasty of Benhadad, King of Syria, founded by Solomon’s enemy, and to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.

Next, he is to abolish the dynasty of Omri, and to anoint Jehu, the son of Nimshi, to be king over Israel.

Thirdly-and there was deep significance in this behest, and one which must have humiliated to the dust the risings of pride and the half-reproach, so to speak, for inadequate support which had underlain his appeal to Jehovah-he is to anoint Elisha, the son of Shaphat, of Abel-meholah, to be prophet in his room.

Elijah had thought himself necessary-an indispensable agent for the task of delivering Israel from the guilty and demoralizing apostasy of Baal-worship. God teaches him that there is no such thing as a necessary man; that man at his best estate is altogether vanity; that God is all in all; that "God buries His workmen, but continues His work."

And something of the meaning of these tasks is explained to him. The people of Israel are not yet converted. They still needed the hand of chastisement. The three years’ drought had been ineffectual to wean them from their backslidings, and turn their hearts again to the Lord. On the royal house and on the worshippers of Baal should fall the remorseless sword of Jehu. On the whole nation the ruthless invasions of Hazael should press with terrible penalty. And him that escaped from their avenging missions should Elisha slay. The last clause is enigmatical. Elisha can hardly be said directly to have slain any. He lived, on the whole, in friendship with the kings both of Israel and of Aram, and in peace and honor in the cities. But the general idea seems to be that he would carry on the mission of Elijah alike for the guidance and the heaven-directed punishments of kings and nations, and that the famines, raids, and humiliations which rendered his nation miserable under the sons of Ahab should be elements of his sacred mission. {Isaiah 11:4; Isaiah 49:2; comp. Jeremiah 1:10; Jeremiah 18:7}

One more revelation remained to lift the Prophet above his lower self. His cry had been, again and again: "I, I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." He must not indulge the mistaken fancy that the worship of the true God would die with him or that God needed his advice, or that God was slack concerning His promise as some men count slackness. He was not the only faithful person left, nor would truth perish when he was called away. Nor is he to judge only by outward appearances, nor to suppose that the arm of God can be measured by the finger of man. A new prophet is soon to take his place, but God has not been so neglectful as he supposes, -"Yet," in spite of all thy murmurings of failure and a frustrated purpose-"yet will I leave Me"-not thee, thee only- "but seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which has not kissed him."

It has been regarded as a difficulty that Elijah fulfilled but one of the three behests. But Scripture does not narrate events with the finical and pragmatic accuracy of modern annals. Elisha, directly or indirectly, caused both Jehu to be anointed and Hazael to ascend the throne of Syria, and we are left to infer that in these deeds he carried out the instructions of his Master.

It is a more serious question, What was the exact meaning of the theophany granted to Elijah on the Mount of God?

Here, too, we are left to large and liberal applications. The greatest utterances of men, the loftiest works of human genius, often admit of manifold interpretations, and lend themselves to "springing and germinal developments." Far more is this the case in the revelations of God to the spirit of man. We can see the main truths which were involved in that mighty scene, even if the narrator of it leaves unexplained its central significance.

It is usually interpreted as a reproof to the spirit which led Elijah to regard the tempestuous manifestations of wrath and vengeance as the normal methods of the interposition of God. He was fresh from the stern challenge of Carmel; his hands were yet red with the blood of those four hundred and fifty priests. It was perhaps needful for him to learn that God’s gentler agencies are more effectual and more expressive of His inmost nature, and that God is Love even though He can by no means clear the guilty. Something of this lesson has been at all times learnt from the narrative.

"The raging fire, the roaring wind,

Thy boundless, power display;

But in the gentler breeze we find

Thy Spirit’s viewless way."

"The dew of heaven is like Thy grace,

It steals in silence down; But where it lights, the favored place

By richest fruits is known."

Quite naturally men have always seen in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the presence of God as manifested in His wrath. "Then the earth shook and trembled," says the Psalmist; "the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because He was wroth. There went up a smoke in His nostrils, and fire out of His mouth devoured: coals burnt forth from it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub, and swooped down: yea, He did fly upon the wings of the wind." {Psalms 18:7-9; comp. 2 Samuel 22:8-11} "I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, at the wrath of the Lord." {Isaiah 13:13} "Thou shalt be visited," says Isaiah, "of the Lord of Hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire." On the other hand, in His mercy God maketh the storm a calm. When He reveals Himself in a vision of the night to Eliphaz the Temanite "a wind passed before my face, so that the hair of my head stood up, and there was silence, and I heard a voice saying, Shall mortal man be great before God? shall a man be pure before his Maker?" These passages in no small measure explain the symbolism of Elijah’s vision, and point to its essential significance. Who can measure (asks Mr. Ruskin) the total effect produced upon the minds of men by the phenomenon of a single thunderstorm?-"the questioning of the forest leaves together in their terrified stillness which way the wind shall come-the murmuring together of the Angels of Destruction as they draw in the distance their swords of flame-the rattling of the dome of heaven under the chariot wheels of death?" Yet it is not the thunderstorms nor the hurricanes that have been most powerful in altering the face or molding the structure of the world, but rather the long continuance of Nature’s most gentle influences.

Viewing the vision thus, we may say that it pointed forward to that transcendently greater than Elijah who did not strive, nor cry, nor was His voice heard in the streets. "There is already a gospel of Elijah. He, the farthest removed of all the Prophets from the evangelical spirit and character, had yet enshrined in the heart of his story the most forcible of all protests against the hardness of Judaism, the noblest anticipation of the breadth and depth of Christianity." This view of the passage is taken, with slight modifications, by many, from Irenaeus down to Grotius and Calvin, and modern commentators.

Similarly it is a universal law of history that while some mighty and tumultuous energy may be needed to initiate the first movement or upheaval, the greatest work is done by gentler agencies. As in the old fable, the quiet shining of the sun effects more than the bluster of the storm. Love is stronger than force, and persuasion than compulsion. Mr. J. S. Mill treats it not only as a platitude but as a falsity to assert that truth cannot be suppressed by violence. He says that (for instance) the truths brought into prominence by the Reformation had been again and again suppressed by the brutal tyrannies of the Papacy. But in all these instances has not the truth ultimately prevailed? Is it not a fact of experience that

"Truth, pressed to earth, shall rise again,

The eternal years of God are hers;

But error, wounded, writhes in pain

And dies among her worshippers"?

The truth prevails and the error dies under the slow light of knowledge and by the long results of time.

Nor is it any answer to this view of the revelation to Elijah on the Mount of God that there is not the slightest proof of his having learnt any such lesson, or of such a lesson having been deduced from it by the narrator himself. Neither Elijah, it has been said, nor the writer of the Book of Kings, felt the smallest regret for the avenging deed of Carmel. Their consciences approved of it. They looked on it with pride, not with compunction. This is shown by the subsequently recorded story of Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven on the unfortunate captains and soldiers of Ahaziah, in whatever light we regard that story which was evidently current in the Schools of tile Prophets. If the massacre of the priests cannot be regarded as morally excusable, the destruction of these royal emissaries by consuming fire was certainly much less so. The vision may have had a deeper significance than Elijah or the Schools of the Prophets understood, just as the words of Jesus often had a deeper significance than was dreamt of even by the Apostles when they heard them. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. Neither Elijah nor the sacred historian may have grasped all that was meant by the wind, and earthquake, and fire, and still small voice.

"As little children sleep and dream of heaven,

So thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given."

It is scarcely more than another aspect of the many-sided truth that love is more potent and more Divine than violence, if we also see in this incident a foreshadowing of the truth, so necessary for the impatient souls of men, that God neither hasteth nor resteth; that He is patient because Eternal; that a thousand years in His sight are but as yesterday, seeing that it is past as a dream in the night. Something of this we learn from the study of nature. It used to be thought that the upheaval of the continents and the rearing of the great mountains was due to cataclysms and conflagrations and vast explosions of volcanic force. It has long been known that they are due, on the contrary, to the inconceivably slow modifications produced by the most insignificant causes. It is the age-long accumulation of mica-flakes which has built up the mighty bastions of the Alps. It is the toil of the ephemeral coral insect which has reared whole leagues of the American Continent and filled the Pacific Ocean with those unnumbered isles

"Which, like to rich and various gems, inlay

The unadorned bosom of the deep."

It is the slow silting up of the rivers which has created vast deltas for the home of man. It has required the calcareous deposit of millions of animalculae to produce even one inch of the height of the white cliffs along the shores. Even so the thoughts of man have been made more merciful m the slow course of ages, and quiet, incommensurable influences have caused all those advances in civilization and humanity which elevate our race. The "bright invisible air" has produced effects incomparably more stupendous than the wild tornadoes. "That air, so gentle, so imperceptible, is more powerful, not only than all the creatures that breathe and live by it, not only than all the oaks of the forest which it rears in an age and shatters in a moment, not only than the monsters of the sea, but than the sea itself, which it tosses up with foam and breaks upon every rock in its vast circumference; for it carries its bosom all perfect calm, and compresses the incontrollable ocean and the peopled earth, like an atom of a feather."

"Thus regarded," says Professor Van Oort, "the picture of Elijah at Mount Horeb is full of consolation to all lovers of the, truth. Sometimes they cry, All is lost! and are ready to despair. But God answers, Never lose heart. Storms in which God is not, in which the power of darkness seems to sweep unbridled and unconquered o’er the earth, come before the whispering of the cooling breeze, but the kingdom of peace and blessedness is ever drawing nigh. Let all who love God truly, work for its ‘approach.’"

Let us then cling to the lesson that mercy is better than sacrifice, and is transcendently to be preferred to holocausts of human sacrifice, even when the victims are polluted and cruel idolaters. Scripture never hides from us the imperfections of its heroes, and St. James tells us that Elijah was but a man of like passions with ourselves. The progress of the generations, the slow shining of the light of God, has not been in vain, and we can see truths and read the meaning of theophanies by the experience of three subsequent millenniums, of which two have followed the incarnation of the Son of God.


Verses 19-21

THE CALL OF ELISHA

1 Kings 19:19-21

"The one remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light alone remains, earth’s shadows flee."

- SHELLEY

WHETHER Elijah saw or saw not all that God had meant by the revelation at Horeb, much at any rate was abundantly clear to him, and the path of new duties lay straight before him. The first of those duties-the only one immediately possible-was to anoint Elisha as prophet in his room, and so prepare for the continuation of the task which he had been chosen to inaugurate. He had been bidden to return across the wilderness in the direction of Damascus. Whether he traversed the eastern side of Jordan among his own familiar hills of Gilead, and then crossed over at Bethshean, where there was a ford, or whether, braving all danger from Jezebel and her emissaries, he passed through the territories of the western tribes, it is certain that we find him next at Abel-meholah, "the meadow of the dance," which was not far from Bethshean. This, as he knew, was the home of Elisha, his future successor.

The position of Elisha was wholly unlike his own. He himself was a homeless Bedawy, bound to earth by no ties of family, coming like the wind and vanishing like the lightning. Elisha, on the other hand, whose history was to be so different and so far less stormy-Elisha, whose work and whose residence was mainly to be in cities-was a child of civilization. But the civilization was still that of a society in which anarchic forces were by no means tamed. Dean Stanley, in his sketch of Elisha, seems to dwell too much on his gentleness of spirit. He, too, had to carry out the anointing of Hazael and Jehu. "He was still less capable than Elijah, says Ewald, of inaugurating a purely benign and constructive mode of action, since at that time the whole spirit of the ancient religion was still unprepared for it."

Elijah found him in the heritage of his fathers, plowing the rich level land with twelve yoke of oxen. Eleven were with his servants, and he himself guided the twelfth. {1 Kings 19:19} Elijah must have felt that the youth would have to make a great earthly sacrifice, if he left all this-father and mother and home and lands-to become the disciple and attendant of a wild, wandering, and persecuted prophet. He would say nothing to him. He merely left the high road, and "passed over unto him," as, he plowed his fields. Reaching him he took off his shaggy garment of skin, which, in imitation of him, became in after years the normal garb of prophets, and flung it over Elisha’s shoulders. This apparently was all the "anointing" requisite, save such as came from the Spirit of God. The act had a twofold symbolism: it meant the adoption of Elisha by Elijah to be his "mantelkind" his spiritual son; and it meant a distinct call to the prophetic office.

At first Elisha seems to have stood still-amazed, almost stupefied, by the sudden necessity for so tremendous a decision. The thought of resigning all the hopes and comforts of ordinary life and of severing so many dear and lifelong ties, could not be unmixed with anguish. Again and again we see in the call of the prophets this natural shrinking, the human reluctance born of humility, frailty, and misgiving. It was so that Moses at the burning bush had at first fought to the utmost against the conviction of his destiny. It was so that Gideon had pleaded that he was but the least of the children of Abiezer. It was thus that, in later days, Jonah fled from the face of the Lord to Tarshish; and Isaiah cried, "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips"; and Jeremiah wailed, "Ah Lord God! behold I cannot speak, for I am a child!" And if we may allude to modern instances we know the shrinking hesitations of Luther; and how Cromwell affirmed that he had prayed to God not to put him to his terrible work; shrank from his great temperance efforts, till one day, rising from long prayer, and at last convinced of his destined task, he uttered, the homely resolve, "In the name of God here goes!"

Elisha did not hesitate long. The mysterious Prophet of Carmel-he whose voice was believed to have shut up the heavens, he who had confounded king and priest and people at Carmel-had spoken no word. He had only flung over Elisha the garment of hair, and then stridden back to the road, and gone on his way without once looking back. Soon he would have vanished beyond recall. Elisha decided that he would obey the call of God; that he would not make, "the great refusal." He ran after Elijah and overtook him, and, accepting the position to which he had been elevated, made but the one human natural request that he might be suffered first to kiss-that is, to bid final farewell to-his father and mother, and then he would follow Elijah The request has often been compared to that of the young scribe who said to Jesus, "Lord, suffer me first to bury my father"; to whom Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their dead: follow thou Me." But the two petitions are not really analogous. The scribe practically asked that he might stay at home till his father died; and as that was an uncertain term, and the ministry of Christ was very brief, the delay was incompatible with such discipleship as Christ then required. There was no such indefinite postponement in Elisha’s petition. It showed in him a tender heart, not a reluctant purpose or a wavering will.

"Go back again," answered Elijah; "for what have I done to thee?"

The words are often explained as a veiled yet severe rebuke, as though Elijah had meant to say with scorn, "Go back; perhaps you are not fit for the high call; you do not understand the significance of what I have done"; or, at any rate, "Go back; yet beware of being softly led away from the path of duty; for consider how deep is the meaning of what I have done to thee."

The words involve no such disapprobation, nor does the context agree with that view of them. I can detect no accent of reproof in the words. Elijah, as is shown by several incidents in his career, had room for tenderness and human affection in his rugged lonely heart. I understand his reply to mean, "Go back; it is right, it is natural that thou shouldst thus bid a last farewell before leaving thy home. Thy coming to me must be purely voluntary; I have but cast my mantle over thee, nothing more. Thine own conscience alone can interpret the full meaning of the act, and God will make thy way clear before thy face."

Such, I believe, was Elijah’s free permission. He was no hard Stoic, unnaturally trampling on the sweet affections of the soul. He was no despotic spiritual guide full of gloomy superstition, like the grim Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola, who seemed to hold that God liked even our needless anguish, and our voluntary self-tortures as an acceptable sacrifice to Himself. When St. Francis Xavier, on the journey of the first Jesuits to Rome, passed quite near the castle of his parents and ancestors, the teachings of Loyola would not suffer the young noble to turn aside to print one last kiss upon his mother’s cheek. Such hard exactions belong to that sphere of will-worship and voluntary humility which St. Paul condemns. Excessive violence needlessly inflicted on our innocent affections finds no sanction either in ancient Judaism or genuine Christianity.

And it was thus that Elisha understood the Prophet. He went back, and kissed his father and mother, and, like Matthew when he left his toil-booth to follow Christ, he made a great feast to his dependents, kinsfolk, and friends. To mark his complete severance from the happy past he unyoked his pair of oxen, slew them, used the plough and goad and wooden yokes as fuel, boiled the flesh of the oxen, and invited the people to his farewell feast. Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him. He was thenceforth recognized as a son of the prophetic schools, and as their future head. For the present he became known as "Elisha who poured water on the hands of Elijah." His subsequent career belongs entirely to the Second Book of Kings.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Kings 19:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-kings-19.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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