Cover image: The Prophet, © Robert Booth.
The golden days of David and Solomon are a distant memory. The Kingdom of Israel is now a divided kingdom—ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel and two tribes forming the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms have violated their covenants with the Lord and apostasy is widespread among the people. It is especially acute in the Northern Kingdom where King Ahab officially supports the worship of the god Baal. During this crucial time of Judah and Israel the prophet Elijah suddenly appears. His name means, Yahweh is my God, and even his name conveys the message that he was called to preach to these Baal worshippers.
Like righteous Abraham, Elijah’s faith was strong despite living in a decadent society. Through his ministry, the Lord’s response to such faith is demonstrated in vastly different ways. It is manifest in spectacular ways, like fire coming from heaven, as well as in quiet miracles, meeting the needs of one widow and her son. At times, they are personal, and only known to the one who receives a message from “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12)
Go and Do
As chapter 17 of 1 Kings opens, we see the story of two people who were willing to GO and DO what the Lord commanded.[i] Look quickly for the phrases “went and did” (5, 15), “arose and went” (v. 10), and “go and do” (v. 13). Perhaps you would like to write the cross reference 1 Nephi 3:7 next to these verses. What did these two people not know when they set out to GO and DO what the Lord had commended them? They acted in faith, and were greatly blessed by the Lord. We may not know the great blessings we miss when we are unwilling to act with faith.
We see four miracles described in this chapter. Elijah has the power to seal the heavens. “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1). He was standing before Ahab, but he was referring to the presence of one who was greater than any earthly king. This was a dramatic affront to the pagan god Baal, who was thought to be the sky god, the god of weather. Elijah showed that through his prayers to the God of Israel, Yahweh was more powerful than Baal.
The drought announced by Elijah was a great threat to the reign of Ahab, and his life was in danger. God
told him to go to the brook Cherith to for his own safety, and to be alone with God. There he was trained to depend on God, and trust him to keep the brook flowing. He had to accept being fed by ravens, which were unclean animals. (1 Kings 17:6) He had to put away his ideas of clean and unclean animals or he would starve to death. He learned to put God’s benevolence before the letter of the law. As God provided manna for the children of Israel, he provided for Elijah’s needs. He came to trust more than ever that his God could do miraculous things.
When the brook dries up because there had been no rain in the land, he is told to go to Zarephath, a Gentile city. (1 Kings 17:9-16) Zarephath was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Tyre and Sidon, in what is now Lebanon and was then Phoenicia, outside the boundaries of Israel. This must have been an unusual and challenging move for Elijah to make. He must have been wondering what the Lord’s purpose was in transplanting him from his home to Jezreel to Cherith to Zarephath. This was the territory of wicked queen Jezebel, and he must have had strong faith to obey this commandment from the Lord. The Lord had commanded a widow woman there to sustain him. Widows were notorious for their poverty in the ancient world. I imagine Elijah wondered how this was going to be possible, that she would sustain him.
When he comes to the city gates, he sees a widow woman gathering sticks. He calls to her and asks for a drink of water. She answers, “As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12). She is down to her last food supplies and is preparing a last meal for herself and her son before they resigned themselves to starve to death. Elijah tells her not to fear, but “go and do” as he has said and prepare his meal first, and then her own.
Elijah’s request for the widow to prepare his food was not a selfish request, but rather a test of her faith. This was an extraordinary trial of faith, to give the little pittance that she had, and that was needed to keep her child alive, to a stranger. It was too much to be expected. But because she passed the test, Elijah’s promise that her barrel of flour and cruse of oil would not fail for the duration of the famine was fulfilled. (1 Kings 17:14) This is why Elijah could make such an audacious request of this poor widow. He trusted in what God had told him, that he would provide a never ending supply of food for the widow, her son, and Elijah himself. He asked her to put her trust in this great promise of God.
This widow actually went and did what Elijah had asked at great risk to herself. She and her household ate for many days. She not only provided for her own needs in a time of great distress, but provided an example of great faith for others.
In an attempt to open the eyes of his prejudiced countrymen, Jesus spoke of this Sidonian woman who obeyed God’s command and physically sustained his prophet. (Luke 4:25-26) The paradox of the matter was that Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab was also a Zidonian, and she was the one responsible for the great iniquity in Israel. “She slew all the prophets of the Lord,” (1 Kings 18:13) except for the hundred that Obadiah hid in a cave.
The fourth miracle of the chapter is seen when the widow woman’s son becomes sick and dies. The death of her son was a terrible blow on two accounts. She suffered as any mother would who loses a child, but she also suffered because of her expectation that her son would grow and provide for her in her old age. Not only did she lose a son, but she lost hope for the future. Elijah took her son and carried him up into the loft where he was lodging with her, and put him on his own bed. [This “upper room” refers to a temporary shelter or room on the roof, accessible from outside the house, protecting her privacy and reputation.]
Elijah prays with powerful emotion over this boy, as he knows that God led him to this widow of great faith. “And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21-23). He brings the boy to his mother and she says, “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24).
Elijah reminds me here of Sir Lancelot in the movie Camelot when he tries so desperately to raise the slain knight from death. We see Elijah struggling with all his might and working desperately to raise this boy. Elisha does much the same thing in 2 Kings 4:43. He puts “his mouth on the boy’s mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands.” It takes great effort for the prophets to raise the dead, but it seems easy for Jesus. This should have been a great sign to the Jews.
Who really troubled Israel?
1 Kings 18 tells the famous story of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal. Earlier, the Lord had told Elijah to hide himself, but now it was time to present himself. The drought has been so severe that king Ahab himself and his trusted servant Obadiah are out searching for pastureland when Obadiah unexpectedly meets Elijah. Elijah tells Obadiah to tell Ahab that he is here. Obadiah cannot believe his ears! He tells Elijah that King Ahab has conducted an exhaustive search for him to punish him for the drought that his prayers had brought upon Israel. He has been hunting for him in “every nation in kingdom,” but they all said, “He is not here,” and swore by an oath that they could find him. Obadiah fears that if he announces that he met Elijah, and the prophet disappears again, Ahab would punish Obadiah for letting Elijah get away. Elijah promises not to disappear and meets with Ahab.
“When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kings 18:17-18). What does Ahab’s question in verse 17 reveal about his faith? It would appear that he does indeed have faith that Elijah, the prophet of Jehovah, had power to cause the rain to cease for over three years. In spite of this faith, he insists on worshipping the false god Baal, finding it easier to blame Elijah. These verses have inspired many sermons, for the wicked usually blame someone else for their misfortunes. Elijah had no power by himself to bring on the famine. He was only the agent of the Lord. Who was it that hadREALLY troubled Israel? Ahab and his policies were the true cause of Israel’s distress, but the king refused to accept that responsibility. This attitude is so characteristic of the natural man—blaming others for our own weaknesses.
“If the Lord Be God, Follow Him”
Elijah calls for a contest. At God’s command, he says, “Send and gather all Israel to me on mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). They would see which god could bring rain and end the famine. This should be an easy task for Baal, because he is the powerful god of thunder and rain. Added to the four hundred and fifty priests of Baal were four hundred priests of his female counterpart, Ashtoreth, whom Jezebel worshiped.
When they are all gathered, Elijah asks them a question. “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). The Hebrew is more figurative and says, “How long will ye jump between two branches?” This is a metaphor taken from birds hopping about from bough to bough, unable to decide on which one to settle.
What did Elijah mean when he said the people were halting between two opinions? He was making it very clear that there was a great difference between the worship of Baal and the worship of Jehovah. How many sermons did they need before they would change their behavior? Their actions revealed their belief. The fact that they answered not a word shows that there was no objection and no repentance. They lacked the courage to either defend their position or to change it. It seems they were willing to live “unexamined lives” of low conviction. It was time to make a choice. What are the “two opinions” we must choose betweentoday?Following the gospel is a choice. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t hold on to the rod of iron and go on a detour through the great and spacious building. I love Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s phrase, “let us once and for all establish our residence in Zion and give up our summer cottage in Babylon.” [ii]
“The God that answereth by fire, let him be God.”
In this “contest” between Elijah and the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-40), it is easy to see which side is more numerous. “Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:22). It is Elijah against eight hundred and fifty false prophets. In this proposed test, Elijah is careful to give the prophets of Baal every possible advantage. They could choose which animal they would sacrifice and which Elijah would sacrifice. Elijah said, “You call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God” (1 Kings 18:24). Since Baal was the sky-god, he could easily send a bolt of lightning, thought to be fire from heaven, to burn the sacrifice. The true god was the only one who had power to bring the much-needed rain.
1 Kings 18:36 makes it clear that Elijah did not design this clever strategy, but it was a God-inspired plan that he obeyed. As he offers the sacrifice he prays, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.” It is easy to see why the Lord wanted the idolatrous prophets to participate in the challenge he proposed. As we have said, such a confrontation should have appealed to the prophets of Baal, since their god of thunder and rain could surely send down fire if anyone could. It is easy to see why they hated Elijah. Despite their prayers over the last three years, they had been humiliated because their cries to the weather-god Baal had gone unheeded. The Lord’s plan was a stroke of genius.
Notice how long the prophets of Baal try to get their god to answer them. They “called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked”(1 Kings 18:26-27). I heard somewhere that “pursuing” is a Hebrew euphemism for “he is in the bathroom,” and while interesting, I cannot substantiate it. It does make me smile though.
The prophets of Baal work harder at their prayer. “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded”(1 Kings 18:26-29). The practice of self-inflicted wounds to arouse the pity of a deity was part of pagan religion. If the blood of the bullock did not move him, then perhaps their own blood might. However, there was no answer. This is the sad result of worshiping an imaginary god or a god of our own making. There is no one there to answer.
Elijah Prepares His Altar
Now it is Elijah’s turn. He calls the people to him, and they come. He repairs the altar of the Lord that was broken down, and takes twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel and with these stones he builds an altar to the Lord, makes a trench around it. “And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, “ Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water” (1 Kings 18:33-35).
Elijah puts water on his altar for a good reason. The priests of Baal were so unscrupulous that they often rigged their altars with fires beneath them to make the sacrifices appear to ignite spontaneously. Elijah undoubtedly drenches the altar and sacrifice with water as much for benefit of the heathen priests as for the people. He wants to convince them that there is no trickery involved. He wants to show them that it is the power of the Lord that is being manifest. It is a bold and dramatic move that demonstrates his absolute confidence in the power of the true God. In other words, the God of Israel is working with a handicap. The Lord must like drama on occasion, for what happens next is a spectacle indeed.
“And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God (1 Kings 18:36-39).
Why do you think the Lord answered Elijah with such an impressive display of his power? When the fire of God fell, its result was beyond expectation. It would’ve been enough if merely the cut up pieces of bull on the altar were ignited, but God wanted more than a simple show of power, and the fire consumed the wood and also the water that was in the trench. At that moment the people were completely persuaded to choose the Lord over Baal. Sadly, this was only a momentary persuasion, and they soon return to their former ways, another characteristic of the natural man, even today.
Elijah kills all the false prophets, all 850 of them. (1 Kings 18:40) There was a Mosaic law that pronounced death on all false prophets. Only then does the rain come. (1 Kings 18:44-46) Elijah warns Ahab to get down from the area before the rain comes. Ahab doubts, tarries, and gets in his chariot and rides to Jezreel in the rain. I’m sure he got his chariot stuck in the mud a few times. He tells his wife Jezebel about all that Elijah has done. She is angry and threatens the prophet. “Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time” (1 Kings 19:2). Unwittingly she prophesies her own death.
Elijah flees and becomes discouraged. If someone were seeking your life, it would be easy to get discouraged. We sometimes feel we deserve our depression. Everyone has these times. “He came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). He wants to die. As he lays and sleeps under the juniper tree, an angel of the Lord touches him and says to him, “arise and eat.” He sees a cake that has been baked on the coals and a container of water. He eats and drinks, but then he lays down again. (1 Kings 19:5-6) The angel of the Lord comes again a second time and tells him again to arise and eat, for he has a long journey ahead of him. He goes in the strength of that meal for forty days and nights, probably fasting, until he gets to Horeb, the mount of God, where the Lord appeared unto Moses. (1 Kings 19:7-8)
The Lord allows Elijah to vent his frustrations.
When he arrives, he lodges in a cave. God asks him, “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9) The Lord knows the answer to this question, but he allows Elijah to speak freely and unburden his heart. God knows the best ways of teaching his children, especially those he has designated to fulfill special callings.
Elijah tells God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts.” In other words, he is saying, “Lord, I have faithfully served thee, and now look at the danger I am in.” It doesn’t seem fair to him that after serving God faithfully that he should find himself in this situation. “I alone am left.” This is not accurate, but it reflects the way Elijah feels. Discouraging times tend to make prophets feel more isolated and alone than they are.[iii] Ironically, the reasons Elijah gives are actually important reasons for him to stay alive. If he really were the last believer, shouldn’t he try to try to defeat Jezebel’s wicked hold on the people? This just shows how fear can strip a person of his or her former confidence.
Elijah tells the Lord that despite what happened on Mount Carmel, “The children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword” (1 Kings 19:10). Elijah perhaps thought that the dramatic display of power on the mountain would turn the children of Israel around. Or perhaps he thought even that the display of God’s judgment against the priests of Baal following the confrontation would change their hearts. Yet neither of these has worked. Displays of power don’t necessarily change hearts. Rather, it is the “still, small voice” of God speaking to individuals that is the most powerful force in changing hearts. Miracles strengthen faith, but they do not create faith.
God Reveals Himself to Elijah.
God wants to teach Elijah a lesson about Himself. “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
God knew what this depressed and discouraged Elijah needed—a personal encounter with God. He says, in essence, “I have had to do this dramatic thing with fire for the priests of Baal because of Jezebel’s idolatry. Usually I am not so dramatic. I usually communicate with my children using ‘a still, small voice.’”
What are some of the distractions that cause us not to hear or focus on the Spirit? Sometimes the “white noise” that fills our livesmakes it almost impossible to hearthe gentle whisper of the Holy Ghost. When we do receive a prompting, we need to act upon it. We need to GO and DO what the still, small voice tells us to do. If we do so, the Lord will know that we are receptive to the sensitive wavelength of the Spirit, and he will give us more impressions.
“And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave” 1 Kings 19:13). Elijah sensed that God was present in the “still, small voice” in a way that he was not in that previous more dramatic demonstration of power. This was personal. Because he knew he was in the presence of God, he immediately humbled himself and wrapped his face in his mantle as a sign of reverence, knowing he was neither worthy nor able to endure the sight of God.
The Lord asks Elijah the same questions and receives the same answers as in verses 9 and 10. “And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, 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, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:13-14.) He again repeats the fact that there are people seeking his life.
Again, “What are you doing Elijah?” His reply – “I’m sulking.” It is easy to understand why Elijah feels like his mission has been a failure. He truly believes that he has brought no one to a lasting reverence for Jehovah. And yet, he does not see the big picture. But the Lord does. He knows that there are seven thousand souls scattered up and down the country who worship the true God. It is Elijah’s daily conduct rather than the miracles that has led these seven thousand to hold fast to their integrity. His quiet ministry over the years actually bore more fruit than the spectacular demonstration at Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 19:18) The Lord knows Elijah needs something to focus on so he will stop focusing on himself and his difficult circumstances. He is God’s prophet, after all.
God’s Answer to Discouragement
The Lord does what is perhaps best of all for Elijah, he gives him some more work to do. I am sure that when Elijah set off to anoint the people the Lord had specified, he had a different attitude. He might have walked back over the same road which brought him to Beersheba, but he no doubt walked with a different step.
As a young missionary, President Gordon B. Hinckley was serving in Preston, England. Sheri Dew writes:
Sentiment against the Church, initiated to some degree by the clergy and fostered by the English press, had infected the whole of Britain. To make matters worse, Elder Hinckley was not well. The lush hillsides and meadows of Lancashire were a more vibrant shade of green than he had ever seen in Utah. Allergic to the grass pollen abundant in the area, Gordon was miserable from the moment he stepped off the train. “In England the grass pollinates and turns to seed in late June and early July, which is exactly when I arrived in Preston,” he later remembered. “The day I arrived there I started crying”—tears of hay fever, not homesickness, though his stamina, energy, and frame of mind were at an all-time low.
After he had taken as much as he felt he could, Elder Hinckley wrote his father that he wasn’t getting anywhere with missionary work, and that he couldn’t see the point in wasting his time and his father’s money. Responding as both father and stake president, Bryant Hinckley sent a reply that was brief and to the point: “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.”
(Latter-day Saint Life, Sheri L. Dew , “The 2 Sentences That Changed President Gordon B. Hinckley’s Life Forever,” May 16, 2017)
This is God’s answer to discouragement — get back to work! It will restore your spirits. “And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room” (1 Kings 19:15-16).
Jehu will be anointed to replace wicked Ahab and his wife Jezebel. And even more significant, God gives Elijah a command to anoint his successor, Elisha. Elijah’s core complaint to the Lord has been that he is alone. He needs a friend. God lets him know that there is a man ready to learn his prophetic role from him and become his disciple and companion. Elijah now knows that his work will continue even after he is gone.
So Elijah casts his mantle on Elisha, symbolic of his prophetic call. (1 Kings 19:19-21) Elisha is a rich man if he is plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. And yet, he gives them all up and makes following Elijah his first priority. He slaughters his oxen, the tools of his trade, and holds a “going away party” for his family and friends to demonstrate his complete commitment to following Elijah.
What would you think about a man who has the power to raise the dead, call down fire from heaven, cause the heavens to withhold rain, and render a barrel of flour inexhaustible? Small wonder that in Jewish households a place is set for him at every Passover feast in anticipation of his return as predicted by the prophet Malachi (see Malachi 4:5-6). What would they say if they knew that Elijah did indeed return on Passover on April 3, 1836. He appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey in the Kirtland Temple to restore the sealing keys which he held, and to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers.” (See Doctrine and Covenants 110:13-16) Today, President Russell M. Nelson holds the same sealing powers and the Lord will uphold what he says—even if the world’s majority goes against him.
Elijah, like Abraham, persisted in his faith despite living in a corrupt society. Throughout his ministry, we have seen the Lord respond to such strong faith in very different ways. We saw him respond in a spectacular way on Mount Carmel with fire coming from heaven. We saw a quiet miracle when the Lord provided for the needs of a destitute widow and her son. And yet, the way that the Lord chooses to communicate with his children personally is in a way that is only known to the one who receives it. A message from the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) can change hearts.
[i] I heard Michael Wilcox use this in a class years ago and I loved it! I want to give him credit.
[ii] See The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, ed. Cory H. Maxwell (1997), 25.
[iii] Many of the insights into God’s relationship with Elijah I gleaned from Enduring Word Bible Study on these chapters.