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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Eli´jah (Jehovah is God). This wonderworking prophet is introduced to our notice like another Melchizedek (; ), without any mention of his father or mother, or of the beginning of his days. From this silence of Scripture as to his parentage and birth, much vain speculation has arisen. Some suppose that Elijah is called a Tishbite from Tishbeh, a city beyond the Jordan. The very first sentence that the prophet utters is a direful denunciation against Ahab; and this he supports by a solemn oath: 'As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years (i.e. three and a half years,; ), but according to my word' (). Before, however, he spoke thus, it would seem that he had been warning this most wicked king as to the fatal consequences which must result both to himself and his people, from the iniquitous course he was then pursuing: and this may account for the apparent abruptness with which he opens his commission.
We can imagine Ahab and Jezebel being greatly incensed against Elijah for having foretold and prayed that such calamities might befall them. For some time they might attribute the drought under which the nation suffered to natural causes, and not to the interposition of the prophet. When, however, they saw the denunciation of Elijah taking effect far more extensively than had been anticipated, they would naturally seek to wreak their vengeance upon him as the cause of their sufferings. But we do not find him taking one step for his own preservation, till the God whom he served said, 'Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan: and it shall be that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there' (). Other and better means of protection from the impending danger might seem open to him; but, regardless of these, he hastened to obey the divine mandate, and 'went and dwelt by the brook Cherith that is before Jordan' ().
A fresh trial now awaits this servant of God (B.C. 909), and in the manner in which he bears it, we see the strength of his faith. For one year, as some suppose, God had miraculously provided for his bodily wants at Cherith; but the brook which, heretofore, had afforded him the needful refreshment there, became dried up. Encouraged by past experience of his heavenly Father's care of him, the prophet still waited patiently till He said, 'Arise (), get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.' He then, at once, set out on the journey, and now arrived at Zarephath, he, in the arrangement of God's providence, met, as he entered its gate, the very woman who was deputed to give him immediate support. But his faith is again put to a sore test, for he found her engaged in a way which was well calculated to discourage all his hopes; she was gathering sticks for the purpose, as she assured him, of cooking her last meal, and now that the famine prevailed there, as it did in Israel, she saw nothing before her and her only son but starvation and death. How then could the prophet ask for, and how could she think of giving, a part of her last morsel? The same Divine Spirit inspired him to assure her that she and her child should be even miraculously provided for during the continuance of the famine: and also influenced her heart to receive, without doubting, the assurance! The kindness of this widow in baking the first cake for Elijah was well requited with a prophet's reward (); she afforded one meal to him, and God afforded many to her (see ). While residing here God accordingly saw fit to visit the family with a temporary calamity. 'And it came to pass that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick: and his sickness was so sore that there was no life left in him' (). contains the expostulation with the prophet of this bereaved widow; she rashly imputes the death to his presence. Elijah retaliates not, but calmly takes the dead child out of the mother's bosom, and lays it on his own bed (), that there he may, in private, pray the more fervently for its restoration. His prayer was heard, and answered by the restoration of life to the child, and of gladness to the widow's heart.
Since now, however, the long-protracted famine, with all its attendant horrors, failed to detach Ahab and his guilty people from their abominable idolatries, God mercifully gave them another opportunity of repenting and turning to Himself. For three years and six months () the destructive famine had spread its deadly influence over the whole nation of Israel. The prophet was then called by the word of the Lord to return to Israel. Wishing not to tempt God by going unnecessarily into danger, he first presented himself to good Obadiah (). This principal servant of Ahab was also a true servant of God; and on recognizing the prophet he treated him with honor and respect. Elijah requested him to announce to Ahab that he had returned. Obadiah, apparently stung by the unkindness of this request, replied, 'What have I sinned, that thou shouldest thus expose me to Ahab's rage, who will certainly slay me for not apprehending thee, for whom he has so long and so anxiously sought in all lands and in confederate countries, that they should not harbor a traitor whom he looks upon as the author of the famine,' etc. Moreover, he would delicately intimate to Elijah how he had actually jeoparded his own life in securing that of one hundred of the Lord's prophets, and whom he had fed at his own expense. Satisfied with Elijah's reply to this touching appeal, wherein he removed all his fears about the Spirit's carrying himself away (as;; ), he resolves to be the prophet's messenger to Ahab. Intending to be revenged on him, or to inquire when rain might be expected, Ahab now came forth to meet Elijah. He at once charged him with being the main cause of all the calamities which he and the nation had suffered. But Elijah flung back the charge upon himself, assigning the real cause to be his own sin of idolatry. Regarding, however, his magisterial position, while he reproved his sin, he requests him to exercise his authority in summoning an assembly to Mount Carmel, that the controversy between them might be decided, whether the king or the prophet was the troubler of Israel. Whatever were the secret motives which induced Ahab to comply with this proposal, God directed the result. Elijah offered to decide this controversy between God and Baal by a miracle from Heaven. As fire was the element over which Baal was supposed to preside, the prophet proposes (wishing to give them every advantage) that, two bullocks being slain, and laid each upon a distinct altar, the one for Baal, the other for Jehovah, whichever should be consumed by fire must proclaim whose the people of Israel were, and whom it was their duty to serve. The people consent to this proposal. Elijah will have summoned not only all the elders of Israel, but also the four hundred priests of Baal belonging to Jezebel's court, and the four hundred and fifty who were dispersed over the kingdom. Confident of success, because doubtless God had revealed the whole matter to him, he enters the lists of contest with the four hundred and fifty priests of Baal. Having reconstructed an altar which had once belonged to God, with twelve stones—as if to declare that the twelve tribes of Israel should again be united in the service of Jehovah—and having laid thereon his bullock, and filled the trench by which it was surrounded with large quantities of water, lest any suspicion of deceit might occur to any mind I the prophet gives place to the Baalites—allows them to make trial first. In vain did these deceived and deceiving men call, from morning till evening, upon Baal—in vain did they now mingle their own blood with that of the sacrifice: no answer was given—no fire descended.
Elijah having rebuked their folly and wickedness with the sharpest irony, and it being at last evident to all that their efforts to obtain the wished-for fire were vain, now, at the time of the evening sacrifice, offered up his prayer. The prayer of the Baalites was long, that of the prophet was short—charging God with the care of His covenant, of His truth, and of His glory—when, behold, 'the fire came down, licked up the water, and consumed not only the bullock, but the very stones of the altar also.' The effect of this on the mind of the people was what the prophet desired: acknowledging the awful presence of the Godhead, they exclaim, as with one voice, 'Jehovah He is the God! Jehovah He is the God!' Seizing the opportunity while the people's hearts were warm with the fresh conviction of this miracle, he bade them take those juggling priests and destroy them; and this he might lawfully do at God's direction, and under the sanction of His law (; ). Ahab having now publicly vindicated God's violated law by giving his royal sanction to the execution of Baal's priests. Elijah informed him that he may go up to his tent on Carmel to take refreshment, for God will send the desired rain. In the meantime he prayed earnestly () for this blessing: God heard and answered: a little cloud arose out of the Mediterranean sea, in sight of which the prophet now was, diffused itself gradually over the entire face of the heavens, and then emptied its refreshing waters upon the whole land of Israel. Here was another proof of the Divine mission of the prophet, from which, we should imagine, the whole nation must have profited; but subsequent events would seem to prove that the impression produced by these dealings of God was of a very partial and temporary character. Impressed with the hope that the report of God's miraculous action at Carmel might not only reach the ear, but also penetrate and soften the hard heart of Jezebel; and anxious that the reformation of his country should spread in and about Jezreel also, Elijah, strengthened, as we are told, from on high, now accompanies Ahab thither on foot. How ill-founded the prophet's expectation was, subsequent events too painfully proved. Jezebel, instead of receiving Elijah obviously as the messenger of God for good to her nation, now secretly conceived and openly declared her fixed purpose to put him to death. Dreading the vile woman's design, and probably thinking that there was no hope of producing any reformation among the people, he fled into the wilderness, and there longed for death. But God is still gracious to him, and at once touches his heart and corrects his petulancy by the ministration of His angel, and by an awful exhibition of His Divine power. And having done this, revealing Himself in the gentle accents of a still voice, He announces to him thathe must go and anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king over Israel, and Elisha prophet in his own place, ere death can put a period to his labors. When God had comforted His prophet by telling him of these three instruments he had in store to vindicate his own insulted honor, then he convinced him of his mistake in saying 'I only am left alone,' etc. by the assurance that there were seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal.
Leaving the cave of Horeb (B.C. 906), Elijah now proceeded to the field where he found Elisha in the act of plowing, and he cast his prophet's mantle over him, as a symbol of his being clothed with God's spirit. The Divine impression produced upon the mind of Elisha by this act of Elijah made him willing to leave all things and follow him.
For about six years from this calling of Elisha we find no notice in the sacred history of Elijah, till God sent him once again to pronounce sore judgments upon Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of unoffending Naboth (, etc.). How he and his associate in the prophetic office employed themselves during this time we are no told. We need not dwell upon the complicated character of Ahab's wickedness (1 Kings 21), in winking at the murderous means whereby Jezebel procured for him the inalienable property of Naboth [AHAB; NABOTH]. When he seemed to be triumphing in the possession of his ill-obtained gain, Elijah stood before him, and threatened him, in the name of the Lord (. inclusive), that God would retaliate blood for blood, and that not on himself only—'his seventy sons shall die, and () Jezebel shall become meat for dogs.' Fearing that these predictions would prove true, as those about the rain and fire had done, Ahab now assumed the manner of a penitent; and, though subsequent acts proved that his repentance was not permanent, yet God rewards his temporary abasement by a temporary arrest of judgment. We see, however, in after parts of this sacred history, how the judgments denounced against him, his abandoned consort, and children, took effect to the very letter.
Elijah again retired from the history till an act of blasphemy on the part of Ahaziah, the son and successor of Ahab, causes God to call him forth. Ahaziah met with an injury, and, fearing that it might be unto death, he, as if to prove himself worthy of being the son of idolatrous Ahab and Jezebel, sent to consult Baalzebub, the idol-god of Ekron; but the angel of the Lord told Elijah to go forth and meet the messengers of the king (), and assure them that he should not recover. Suddenly reappearing before their master, he said unto them, 'Why are ye now turned back?' when they answered, 'There came a man up to meet us, and said unto us, Go, turn again unto the king that sent you, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord: Is it not because there is no God in Israel that thou sendest to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron? Wherefore thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die.' Conscience seems to have at once whispered to him that the man who dared to arrest his messengers with such a communication must be Elijah, the bold but unsuccessful reprover of his parents. Determined to chastise him for such an insult, he sent a captain and fifty armed men to bring him into his presence; but at Elijah's word fire descended from Heaven and consumed the whole band. Attributing this destruction of his men to some natural cause, he sent forth another company, on whom though the same judgment fell, this impious king is not satisfied till another and a similar effort is made to capture the prophet. The captain of the third band implored and found mercy at the hands of the prophet, who at once descended from Carmel and accompanied him to Ahaziah. Fearless of his wrath, Elijah now repeats to the king himself what he had before said to his messengers, and agreeably thereto, the sacred narrative informs us that Ahaziah died.
The above was the last more public effort which the prophet made to reform Israel. His warfare being now accomplished on earth, God, whom he had so long and so faithfully served, will translate him in a chariot of fire to Heaven. Conscious of this, he determines to spend his last moments in imparting divine instruction to, and pronouncing his last benediction upon, the students in the colleges of Bethel and Jericho; accordingly, he made a circuit from Gilgal, near the Jordan, to Bethel, and from thence to Jericho. Wishing either to be alone at the moment of being caught up to Heaven; or, what is more probable, anxious to test the affection of Elisha (as Christ did that of Peter), he delicately intimates to him not to accompany him in this tour. But the faithful Elisha, to whom, as also to the schools of the prophets, God had revealed His purpose to remove Elijah, declares his fixed determination not to forsake his master now at the close of his earthly pilgrimage. Ere yet, however, the chariot of God descended for him, he asks what he should do for Elisha. The latter, conscious of the complicated and difficult duties which now awaited him, asks for a double portion of Elijah's spirit. Elijah, acknowledging the magnitude of the request, yet promises to grant it on the contingency of Elisha seeing him at the moment of his rapture. Possibly this contingency was placed before him in order to make him more on the watch, that the glorious departure of Elijah should not take place without his actually seeing it. While standing on the other side of the Jordan, whose waters were miraculously parted for them to pass over on dry ground, angels descended, as in a fiery chariot, and, in the sight of fifty of the sons of the prophets and Elisha, carried Elijah into Heaven. Elisha, at this wonderful sight, cried out, like a bereaved child, 'My Father, my Father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof;' as if he had said, Alas! the strength and savior of Israel is now departed! But it was not so; for God designed that the mantle which fell from Elijah as he ascended should now remain with Elisha as a pledge that the office and spirit of the former had now fallen upon himself.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Elijah'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/e/elijah.html.