I Kings 19:1-5, 9b-18
Elijah Flees to Horeb
1Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
The Lord Appears to Elijah
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
It’s pretty rare for us to base a daily Reflection on a story from the First Book of Kings, but this is a story that seems to me to be one of the most interesting and instructive stories in the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, the passage we’re reflecting on today is actually part of the listed reading for Sunday, but I’ve adjusted the schedule so we can think about it together today. It’s a story about events that happened almost 3,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, but it challenges some common assumptions among people of faith about God’s actions in the world.
Let’s start with a little background:
Elijah was a prophet God sent to Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab’s queen was Jezebel, who was a foreigner and a militant worshiper of the false god Baal. Because of her influence, Ahab had allowed the worship of Baal to spread throughout the land. Finally Elijah had challenged the priests of Baal to a public contest in which each side called on their god to send down fire and consume a sacrifice. The priests of Baal failed, of course, because there is no Baal. But God promptly sent down fire when Elijah called on him, so the people rose up and purged the country of the priests of Baal.
In our reading for today, Jezebel is enraged by these events, and swears to have Elijah killed. He flees into the desert, where he displays the classic symptoms of depression – lethargy, hopelessness, sleeping excessively. Just at the moment when he thought the forces of the true God were victorious in the land, the head of evil had raised itself, and Elijah had found himself on the run. So it was probably reasonable for him to be depressed.
But as he lays struggling with this depressive state, God sends angels to provide for him. They bring him bread and water. (And the Hebrew text describes a better-than-usual quality of bread. We might consider it ‘artisanal bread.’) Strengthened by the food and water, Elijah continues through the desert until he comes to the mountain of God.
At the sacred mountain, which is sometimes called Horeb and other times called Sinai, God puts on a demonstration before Elijah’s eyes. First a violent wind powerful enough to shatter rock. Then an earthquake. Then fire from the sky. But after those mind-boggling events, there is silence. Our NIV Bible says, “a gentle whisper.” Older versions of the Bible said, “a still, small voice.” But the Hebrew literally means “a shear, fine silence.” And it is in the silence that Elijah experiences the presence of God in a new and profound way – that’s why he covers his face and walks to the mouth of the cave.
And in the silence after the mighty events, God tells Elijah to go back to work – to anoint a new king for Israel and a new prophet to train as his successor. And God assures Elijah that even when the forces of evil seem to have the upper hand, God will preserve some of the faithful to carry on the true faith.
So here are the things I think this ancient story is meant to tell us:
First of all, that we’re mistaken to think that it is in fire and storm and earthquake that God typically works in the world. Sadly, we’ve adopted the practice of classifying those things as “Acts of God.” (Interestingly, that’s one of only two places God is still acknowledged in our current legal system.) But in this passage, God seems to be saying that his voice is really heard in the silence after the storms.
Did God send a hurricane to lash the Caribbean and Florida last week? Are storms like that expressions of God’s anger at the people who live in their path? I think not. But the people of faith who send help, the churches that reach out to help their neighbors – that, I think, is the sound of God’s quiet voice after the storm, speaking a word of comfort and encouragement to those who have suffered.
The second thing I think this story wants to tell us is that even in those times when it seems that the forces of evil are winning, God has not abandoned the project of establishing his kingdom. God has made a promise to preserve a remnant of the faithful even in the darkest hours.
To me, this seems like one of the greatest stories of comfort and encouragement in all of the Old Testament.
Let’s pray. Lord, help us not to be shaken when spectacular events take place, and guard us against the mistake of believing that you send storms and earthquakes as punishment upon those who suffer. Help us to listen for your word of hope in the silence afterward, and empower us to be messengers of that word of hope as we serve the suffering in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and may you encounter God in worship Sunday!
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 51 and 65; I Kings 18:20-40; Philippians 3:1-16; and Matthew 3:1-12.)