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There were 41 kings in Israel’s history, and so far we’ve covered 11 of them. But what about the prophets? What about guys like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Jonah? Don’t worry—they’re coming. As we move through Period 5, we’re going to be meeting all the kings and prophets in chronological order. This is going to give us a much better understanding of the prophetic books, for when we understand when a prophet lived and what was happening around him, we can make a lot more sense out of his messages.
In our last two lessons, we met several prophets who came onto the scene with a message for a king, only to never be heard from again. We’ll continue to meet more of these one-time messengers as we go along, but in this lesson we’ll meet our first major prophet of this period: the famous Elijah.
Let’s review. In the southern kingdom of Judah, King Asa has come to the end of his long 41 year reign. Although he started off really well—purging the land of idols and sparking a major spiritual revival—he turned away from Yahweh at the end and has become a mean oppressor. But because he did do many things right, the people hold a massive funeral for him when he dies and his son Jehoshaphat [jay-HO-suh-fat] takes the throne. Jehoshaphat will be with us for 35 years.
Meanwhile, in the north, super evil Omri has died and we’re very glad to see him go. His son Ahab takes the throne in his place, and we’re rather nervous to see how much the son will follow after his father.
AHAB, King of Israel
The author of 1 Kings wastes no time in warning us that Ahab is a creep.
Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of Yahweh more than all who came before him. (1 Ki. 16:30)
Not only is Ahab bad, he’s even worse than his father Omri, and Omri was worse than everyone who came before him. The north is definitely in a downward spiral.
By now we’ve learned that wives have a powerful spiritual influence over their husbands. Every time the Israelite men jump in the sack with some idolatrous women, they turn away from Yahweh to worship other gods. We saw this happen during the wilderness journey in Period 2, and we saw King Solomon take himself down by collecting lovers from all over the pagan world. We’re going to see this pattern again with Ahab, but somehow we get the feeling that Ahab knows what he’s doing when he rushes out to marry a sexy Baal worshiper.
And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, Ahab married Jezebel [JEZ-uh-bell], the daughter of King Ethbaal [ETH-bale] of the Sidonians [SIGH-doan-e-ins], and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah [ASH-er-uh] pole. He did more to provoke the anger of Yahweh, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him. (1 Ki. 16:31-33)
Now that major idol worship centers have been strategically spread throughout Israel so that no one has to travel far in order to find some ugly statue to bow down to, who is left that will listen to Yahweh? The new queen is a zealous Baal worshiper and she’s decided to make it her personal mission in life to completely purge the land of any Yahweh worshipers. Today there are certain countries in the world where it is life-threatening to say you’re a Christian. Here in Israel, over 800 years before the birth of Christ, it’s life-threatening to say you worship Yahweh. The religious persecution in the northern kingdom is ramping up fast, and there are disturbing rumors circulating that the prophets of Yahweh are being systematically hunted and slaughtered by the creepy Queen Jezebel.
And then there’s Elijah. He’s a devout worshiper of Yahweh, and a well-known prophet, but he’s really not a fan of being stabbed to death. So it’s more than a little nerve-wracking when Yahweh sends him to get in Ahab’s face and announce that God is going to strike the land with a severe drought. But Elijah obeys, because Elijah walks his talk. And then God tells him to go hide by a brook where He has arranged for ravens to fly food in for His faithful prophet.
When the drought becomes so severe that Elijah’s brook dries up, God sends Elijah far to the north to a city named Zarephath [ZARE-uh-fath] that is beyond the border of Israel. There the prophet finds a widow who has been commanded by Yahweh to provide for him. Well, this is encouraging.
ELIJAH & THE WIDOW
The only problem is that when Elijah finally gets to the widow and asks for food, she explains that she is so dirt poor that she’s only got enough flour and oil to make one last meal for her and her son. Not only is she hungry, she’s also very depressed. She tells Elijah:
But she said, “I swear by Yahweh your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.” (1 Ki. 17:12)
Well. There’s nothing like a suicidal hostess. This woman is in an even worse situation than our prophet. But Elijah is confident of his orders from Yahweh, so he orders her to feed him first and promises that there will be enough left over for her and her son. He even goes so far as to promise that she’ll never run out of food until the severe drought is over.
Well, what does she have to lose? Life is already lousy and if this pushy prophet wants to steal the last bite of food out of her hand, let him. The widow does what Elijah says and then suddenly something good happens for a change. The flour doesn’t run out, and neither does the oil. No matter how much bread she makes, there’s still enough to make more. So maybe she wasn’t dreaming after all when Yahweh told her to provide for His prophet only to let her run out of food herself. Turns out the whole thing was one big faith test. Should’ve known. It is Yahweh, after all.
It’s nice to have a man around the house again—especially a miracle man. But our widow is smart enough to know that Yahweh isn’t just a dispenser of blessings. He doles out discipline, too, and that’s what she fears has happened when her only son suddenly falls sick and dies.
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (1 Ki. 17:18)
Elijah is just as upset as the widow is by the boy’s death. Taking the body up to his room in her house, he pleads with Yahweh to bring the boy back to life…and Yahweh does.
Whew! It’s been an emotional roller coaster ride with this widow, but now everyone’s happy again and the widow’s confidence in Elijah as a true prophet of Yahweh has been secured.
Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of Yahweh from your mouth is the truth.” (1 Ki. 17:24)
ELIJAH RETURNS TO ISRAEL
Every vacation must come to an end and one day Yahweh tells Elijah that it’s time to leave his safe haven at the widow’s house and return to evil Ahab. Now that the drought has turned Israel into a dust bowl and all the crops are withered, the king will no doubt be more volatile than ever. Adding to the fear factor is the knowledge that hundreds of God’s prophets have been brutally butchered to death by the creepy Jezebel, and she’d love nothing better than to kill Elijah next.
But when Yahweh wants something, Yahweh deserves to have it, so Elijah packs up and heads back down into Israel. As he gets closer to Samaria, he runs into one of Ahab’s trusted officials—a man named Obadiah [O-buh-DIE-uh] who has been managing to keep his deep love for Yahweh a secret from his wicked boss. Obadiah and Ahab are out surveying the dry countryside for any source of water that they might have missed. The two men are traveling in opposite directions to cover the most ground. When Obadiah sees Elijah walking towards him, he immediately recognizes him but he is not happy. What is this prophet doing roaming about in open territory? What if one of Jezebel’s men spots him?
We learn that Obadiah has put his life on the line to try and save some of God’s prophets from being slaughtered. He found two secret caves, hid fifty prophets in each, and has been sneaking them food and water to try and keep them alive. What a hero. We really like Obadiah.
Obadiah greets Elijah with great respect, but is very disturbed when the prophet tells him to go announce his arrival to the king. Nothing doing! Obadiah knows that Elijah is a very special prophet. There’s no way Yahweh will let Elijah be handed over to Ahab to be killed. God will no doubt hide Elijah, just as He did before, and then when Elijah can’t be found, it will be Obadiah’s neck on the chopping block.
“But as soon as I leave you, the Spirit of Yahweh will carry you away to who knows where. When Ahab comes and cannot find you, he will kill me. Yet I have been a true servant of Yahweh all my life. Has no one told you, my lord, about the time when Jezebel was trying to kill Yahweh’s prophets? I hid 100 of them in two caves and supplied them with food and water. And now you say, ‘Go and tell your master, “Elijah is here.”’ Sir, if I do that, Ahab will certainly kill me!” (1 Ki. 18:12-14)
It’s nerve-wracking to be around career prophets—individuals whose entire life revolves around their calling. They’re always expecting others to take huge risks and huge leaps of faith. And of course, they don’t listen to reason. Elijah insists that he will meet with Ahab that very day, so Obadiah reluctantly leaves to tell his scary master.
When King Ahab sees the infamous prophet coming towards him, he sees the jerk who brought a drought on Israel and he is none too pleased.
Ahab said, “Is that you, you troublemaker of Israel?”
“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned Yahweh’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (1 Ki. 18:17-19)
If all this rigmarole has to do with getting some rain, Ahab is willing to oblige. He’s a fan of Baal, but he’s not as obsessed as his wife is. So he arranges to collect all of her prophets together and thus begins the famous contest on Mt. Carmel.
BAAL VS. YAHWEH
Surrounded by a huge crowd of 450 Baal prophets plus four hundred prophets of the goddess Asherah plus Ahab and a bunch of curious onlookers, Elijah boldly stands up as the lone representative for Yahweh and calls out to the fickle people:
“How long will you waver between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” (1 Ki. 18:21)
We really have to admire Elijah’s pluck. This mob could easily attack and kill him any second. And after he shouts out his challenge, no one says a word.
Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of Yahweh’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the Name of Yahweh. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” (1 Ki. 18:22-24)
Everyone agrees that this sounds like a good idea. After all, Baal is supposed to control the weather (although he hasn’t been wowing anyone with his skills during the drought season). Coming up with some fire should be easy enough for him. Maybe he’ll throw down a few lightning bolts and the wood will spark into flames. The people have really been wondering where Baal has gone during these dry years. Maybe this challenge from Yahweh will prick his pride and he’ll show up again.
Elijah tells the Baal prophets to go first. They set up their sacrifice—a typical bull offering—and then they start with the ritual praying and dancing as they call on Baal to do his stuff. But Baal seems to be hard of hearing because half a day goes by and he hasn’t answered. How long can a guy dance and wail without any rest breaks? Good thing there are 450 prophets of Baal so they can rotate to keep the wailing fresh. And as the prophets start looking a bit glazed, Elijah can’t resist mocking their idiocy.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Either he is busy or he’s gone aside to relieve himself. Or perhaps he is away on a journey. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Ki. 18:28)
Because too many of our Bible publishers are culture schmoozing weenies, they print edited versions which intentionally tone down or totally remove some of the harsh language being used here. But notice how Elijah says Baal might not be responding because he’s too busy relieving himself. Some versions use the phrase “he has turned aside” and the picture here is a man going off the beaten track to urinate in the dirt somewhere. Elijah is being very derogatory on purpose, and we don’t want to miss this. Yahweh makes no effort to be polite towards those who are spitting in His face. We’ll be coming across many more nasty cracks and graphic descriptions as we continue on through our prophets. Very few Christians are willing to take an honest look at how nasty both Yahweh and Jesus speak in the Bible, which is why we circulate these idiotic rumors that Jesus was all sweetness and love when He spoke in the Gospel books (Period 7). Not hardly. Jesus was vicious and cutting, and by the time we get to Him, His sharp zingers will sound extremely familiar to us, for we’ll have heard Yahweh talking the same way throughout Periods 5 and 6. When Jesus says “I and the Father are one,” He’s not exaggerating. He and His Father are very much alike in the way that They talk and in the way that They respond to spiritual rebellion.
So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response. (1 Ki. 18:28-29)
This is a classic picture of how stupid it is to follow demons. They always get us to sacrifice something very valuable only to receive nothing in return. Here these prophets are covering themselves with wounds and pouring their blood all over the ground just to try and get a non-existent deity to speak to them. What a waste.
Well, they’ve screamed, pleaded, danced, and bled. There are 450 prophets in serious need of a blood transfusion and Baal hasn’t done bumpkus to prove that he is real. Now it’s Yahweh’s turn.
Oh, but let’s not forget that our God has a massive ego. Setting a bull on fire? That’s much too easy. Yahweh inspires Elijah to drench the sacrifice in water just to make things more interesting. It’s only when the bull and the wood are thoroughly soaked and there’s a trench filled with water all around the pile of stones that’s serving as a barbecue that Yahweh makes His move. But first He waits for Elijah to call out to Him in front of everyone.
“Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and have done all these things at Your command. Answer me, Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that You, Yahweh, are God, and that You are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Ki. 18:36-37)
That last line is very important, for it tells us what Yahweh’s motive is for holding this circus in the first place. He isn’t just showing off (although He does like to show off), He is also trying to turn people’s hearts back towards Him. God always has a spiritual purpose behind the things that He does. He’s always going for some higher, greater goal. This contest on Mt. Carmel isn’t just about proving that Yahweh is Master over the elements—it’s also a revelation of truth to all the people gathered here. After witnessing this spectacular event, they’ll have no excuse for continuing in their blatant defiance.
And suddenly, there is no more bull. There’s no more wood or water either—there’s just a heap of stones that are bone dry. Even some of the dirt has been consumed. Is anyone still wondering if Yahweh is real? Nope. They’re all on their faces crying out that Yahweh is God. Elijah tells them to get back up again and seize the false prophets. The people do, and what follows is a major bloodbath as Elijah troops them over to a convenient valley and hacks them all down. Then he tells the stunned Ahab to go have dinner because a major rainstorm is coming.
Climbing back up Mt. Carmel, Elijah sits down with his head between his knees and waits. After a while, he sends his servant to go and look towards the sea to see if any clouds are forming. Nope, there’s nothing. But the seventh time the servant goes to look, he does see something—just one tiny cloud rising up out of the sea. Elijah flies into action. He sends the servant off to tell Ahab that he’d better hoof it on home if he wants to avoid getting caught in the storm. Ahab flies off in his horse drawn chariot, leaving Elijah to fend for himself. But that’s alright because Elijah has God.
When Yahweh wants a man to run fast, age and physical fitness become irrelevant. Elijah girds up his loins and starts running. We’ll find people girding up their loins a lot in the Bible. Remember that in these days, everyone wore tunics, which is a manly term for a dress. For underwear, they tied a long piece of cloth around their “loins” which is the biblical term for your groin area. When you want to move in a hurry, you need to get long draping material out of your way. Picture a woman twisting the length of a long skirt up between her legs and then tucking the end of it into a belt around her waist. Elijah runs so fast that he outruns Ahab in his horse drawn chariot. The man had to be a blur. And the fact that he doesn’t collapse of a heart attack along the way is an absolute miracle. But hey, God loves showing off.
Once Ahab goes home and tells his demon worshiping wife about how Elijah chopped down her Baal prophets and made Baal look like an impotent waste, Jezebel is furious. She sends a messenger to Elijah with these frightening words:
“May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” (1 Ki. 19:2)
Now we just finished proving that Jezebel’s gods are a bunch of phonies on Mt. Carmel, but Elijah is still freaked out. Jezebel is a determined woman and Elijah is convinced that she will make good on her threat. And as for Yahweh—well, it’s hard to count on His protection when He’s already let a bunch of His other prophets get murdered in cold blood. It’s all fine when Yahweh’s coming through with the miraculous provisions. But as any dedicated follower of Yahweh learns, God is unpredictable and He’s famous for suddenly changing course without any warning. What guarantee does Elijah have that Yahweh won’t hand him over to Jezebel like so much dog meat? None. So he runs.
Ever feel like all your sacrificial efforts to stay loyal to God have amounted to nothing? Ever feel like there’s no point in fighting any longer because evil will always win in the end? This is how Elijah feels as he flees into a lonely desert and plops down beneath a lonely tree. Then he does what many of us have done when life becomes too miserable: he asks God to kill him.
“It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” (1 Ki. 19:4)
Elijah is seriously down in the dumps and when you’re this depressed, it’s no fun being awake. So he falls asleep, and when he wakes up, there’s an angel touching him and telling him to get up and eat. Then he looks up and sees that someone has cooked some bread for him on some hot coals plus there’s a jar of water. Well, where did this come from? Turns out Yahweh knows how to cook as well as run.
Elijah eats, drinks, and goes back to sleep because he really isn’t feeling any better about his life. But then the angel wakes him up again and tells him to eat again, for he’ll need strength for some journey he’s about to go on. Fine. Whatever. Elijah eats and then he starts walking. He walks, and walks, and walks some more. Forty days and nights later, he’s still burning energy that he got out of that one simple meal. Yahweh is a good cook.
We’re told that Mt. Horeb is the mountain of God, and this is the mountain that Elijah climbs up until he finds a cave. Caves are handy—they provide shade and shelter. So Elijah goes in the cave. And then, suddenly, he hears Yahweh speaking to him.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:9)
We have to love it when God asks people what they’re doing—like He doesn’t already know. This is His way of starting some dialogue, and Elijah doesn’t waste any time in telling God just how he feels.
“I have been very zealous for Yahweh, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your Covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Ki. 19:10)
It’s not like God doesn’t already know all this, but venting is very therapeutic for us humans. Yahweh then tells Elijah to go out of his cave shelter and stand on the mountain. Elijah does. Suddenly, a hurricane force wind comes tearing across the land, tossing rocks into the air and smashing them down into many pieces. This is obviously Yahweh’s doing, but we’re told that “Yahweh was not in the wind.” This means that Elijah doesn’t sense God’s Presence in this wind, so he keeps waiting—perhaps a bit closer to his protective cave.
Next there is a tremendous earthquake, and after the earthquake stops, fire erupts all over the place. But still Elijah does not sense the Lord drawing near to him. And then, after all of these terrifying displays of power, there is a soft, gentle breeze. Now Elijah knows it is Yahweh. He hurries back out of the cave that he has run back into and once again God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah repeats his answer. Now God says to him:
“Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus [duh-MASS-cuss]. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael [huh-ZAY-el] to be king of Aram. Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat [shuh-FAT] from the town of Abel-Meholah [A-bell-meh-HO-la] to replace you as My prophet. Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha! Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Ki. 19:15-18)
This is a really awesome moment, but it takes some thinking to unpack it. Why did Yahweh do all that scary stuff before He brought the gentle breeze? Well, let’s remember the context. Elijah is despaired, frustrated, and burned out. He’s bitter and suicidal. He’s OVER IT. Now to hear some Christians talk today, “the God of the Old Testament” is a short-tempered meanie who just can’t wait to strike people down the minute they complain. But this isn’t who Yahweh really is and He is emphasizing this by showing Elijah three frightening forms that He could have come in. Yes, Yahweh could have stormed around the prophet and shouted out, “How dare you complain, you little pipsqueak!” But instead, He shows Elijah and us that He has many options before Him, yet He intentionally chooses to come in a soft and gentle form. What a wonderful God.
Elijah has three main concerns here. He is afraid of being murdered, he’s burned out as a prophet, and he’s very depressed by the assumption that he’s the only one left who is faithful to Yahweh. In His answer, Yahweh addresses all three of these concerns in very surprising ways. First, He makes it clear that Elijah isn’t going to be chopped down by nasty Jezebel because he still has more work to do. Then God announces that He’s going to change the rulers of both Israel and Aram. Aram is always attacking Israel, and the current king is a creep. So to Elijah, the thought of two new and hopefully better rulers is very encouraging. It shouldn’t be too hard to improve on Ahab and Jezebel. Next, Yahweh assures Elijah that he’s not the only one left who is faithful to Yahweh. There are 7,000 more in the nation of Israel who are refusing to worship Baal. Well, that’s encouraging. And then here’s the really good part: God has chosen a man to succeed Elijah as one of the main prophets of Israel. When you’re as burned out as Elijah is, it is sweet music to your ears to be told that someone has been chosen to replace you. Plus, it would be natural to assume that Elijah will be mentoring this Elisha guy at least for a little while, and that means our lonely prophet will finally have some steady companionship. Excellent! Elijah is now ready to head back on down the mountain and get started on these new assignments.
So what kind of a man is Elijah’s replacement going to be? And how soon will the new leaders take over in Israel and Aram? We’ll find out in our next lesson…
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 15: Ahab, Aram & One Good King
To see all the lessons in this series, click here.