Sunday, April 21, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-18 " Hard Hearts and a Broken Prophet"


TEXT:    1 Kings  19:1-18
TITLE:  “Hard Hearts and a Broken Prophet” 
DATE:   21st  April    2013

If the 18th Chapter of 1 Kings  is  a great climax  in the  fight of the godly against  the evil  forces in the  Bible, then the  19th Chapter is for many   a huge  anti-climax, as  Elijah  flees after receiving a death threat from  Ahab’s wife, Jezebel!   We shall  find  the  strong  prophet  of  the Mountain of Carmel  now  broken  at  the Mountain of Moses (Mt. Horeb/ Mt Sinai) -  and between these  two places  a huge physical distance.   We read that   Elijah  initially fled  for his life  from the town of  Jezreel in the northern territory of Israel to  Beersheba, about 160 kilometers south of  Jezreel, in the territory of Judah, and then finally  another approximately  320 kilometers  further south into the Sinai peninsula where  Mt. Horeb (Mt Sinai) is located!  So, what has happened?

A lot of ink has  been spilled over the   “psychology of Elijah”. Many have poured over  the factors  which might have led to this great reversal  in Elijah’s  thinking.  The keyword for many interpreters  of this text  is the word “fear” which is   found in  19:3:   Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life…”. 
It is strange that (all things considered)  such a fearless man  should turn into a  wimp  overnight – all   because  king Ahab’s wife, Jezebel had said to him,  So may the gods do to me and more also , if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (19:2). It was after  this  threat that  Elijah  arose  and ran for his life. (v.3) It just doesn’t make sense, does it? One moment he faces  450 false prophets,  man alone  in the strength of the Lord, and overcomes, and the next moment   he capitulates before  one woman and flees.  As I have said, this text has kept  commentators occupied. 

Much has been made of the  psychological impact  – the emotional  and the physical tiredness  that Elijah must have  experienced  after this great contest. Much has been said about  Elijah’s  lack  of  ‘spiritual guardedness’. He has been accused of  losing it- having a crisis of faith.  There  is something to be said for  such observations, and  I think we all know the feeling  expressed   by Simon Peter in Luke 5:5 when  he   says  to Jesus  after  a disappointing   fishing expedition: “Master we have  toiled all night and took nothing!”    Working hard, and seeing little results can have  a crushing effect upon the  soul  of any  man, and particularly so in the ministry.  But is that the  real issue here? Is this  as simple as saying: “Well here we have an example of a spiritual man who overworked himself, and who did not take care of his own soul, and the result is that  he bombed out emotionally, physically and spiritually ”? Is that  the great lesson  of 1 Kings 19?   I am thankful that I have had  a  few months now reflecting on the life  and times of Elijah, and I am  thankful  that I have had a week of study  and reflection on this particular text behind me in the company of the Holy Spirit  and some good commentaries.  I believe that I have come away with a better understanding of this text.  Let us begin  by  looking at the text again, before we make application.  

The narrative  can be divided into  6  parts:
    1.     Jezebel threatens to kill  Elijah  (vv.1-2)

   2.     Elijah sees what is  happening in Israel. There is no spiritual revival after this  contest with the prophets of Ba’al.  This  and the death threat causes him to flee   to  Beersheba in Judah  (v.3)
    3.     From Beersheba,   Elijah  went a day’s journey into the wilderness. It is here  that we   learn  something of Elijah’s emotional  state. He is depressed. He  tells God that he wants  to die.  He feels  a failure: “I am no better than my fathers”. He then  sleeps (emotional and physical exhaustion) and as He awakens, there is  food and drink brought to him by an angel of the Lord. The angel   informs him that he will need this sustenance for the journey ahead. This provides us with another clue. God is calling him  for a meeting at Mt.   Horeb (Sinai), the mountain where God had previously made a significant covenant  with Israel through  Moses (vv. 4-8). This is an important fact  to be considered.

   4.     At Mt. Horeb  the word of the Lord came to  him  (vv. 9-18).  God asks the question (twice) :  What  are you doing here Elijah?” (vv. 9 , 13). Elijah responds (see vv.  10, 14). He  reveals  his  zeal for God’s work on the one hand. On the other hand he reveals his  very real disappointment at the gross failure of Israel,  God’s covenant people,   to return to their covenant God at this significant time  at which the false gods of Ba’al were so evidently  defeated . It seems  that the glorious victory at  Carmel  and the profession of the people  The Lord , he is God” ( 18:39)   had  no real effect on Ahab and  certainly none on Jezebel. The nation of Israel seemed to  continue  in their  spiritually  apathetic state.

   5.     God hears Elijah and now in  vv. 15 &16  God  gives  Elijah a new commission. He tells him three things (i)  Go to Damascus (capital city of Syria) and anoint the Hazael in place of  Ben Hadad [1] (ii)   Anoint  Jehu  as king over Israel in the place of the house of  Ahab[2]  and (iii) find yourself a replacement. Anoint Elishah, the son of Shaphat  to be prophet in your place. This  shall happen in  2 Kings 2.
   6.     This new commission really amounts  to a very severe judgment upon Israel. The  wrath of God  upon all the evil shall be exercised  through  these  “servants” of God, beginning with Elijah. God’s instruments  include (surprisingly)  a pagan king like Hazael  and  a murderous and rebellious Israelite king  called  Jehu, and it includes also  the true servant of the Lord, who will be  Elisha.  There will be a systematic purging of Israel  under Hazael , Jehu an Elisha (see v. 17). It will be a bleak, dark time in Israel. It will seem as if the lamp of Israel   will  be extinguished,  and yet at this  time   God assures Elijah  that there are 7000 in Israel, who have  been kept by the grace of God,  and   whose hearts had been undefiled  by   the present evil  idol worship  (v.18).

This is the story line. Now what shall we make of it? What is the Holy Spirit  teaching us  here?  What about Elijah? Has he become a sell out?
Having  taken careful note of the  text and context  (I trust), let us make some observations and conclusions : 

1.     Elijah’s running  away from Jezreel  to  Beersheba  was  not necessarily motivated by  carnal or self -centered  fear, but by a  sense of failure and futility. The  slant will colour our interpretation of  Elijah’s psychological state .  We are helped in this  if we consider   an alternative translation of the text.  I know that  the  ESV  (our preferred translation)  along with most other translations  (e.g. NASB, RSV, NIV, Amplified )  reads in v.3…   then he was afraid.”  The  alternate translation  (e.g. KJV & ASV) reads:   And then he saw…”. Now why  this discrepancy?   Here is the explanation. The oldest Hebrew text  has no vowels.  The original Hebrew text only consist of consonants.  So if I wrote,  Mary is a blonde  in old Hebrew, then   I would write “Mry s blnd    (The vowels are  understood).  So too, the  Hebrew word  used here   yar’ah, (without the vowels)  can mean  to be afraid “ or  it can mean “saw” (in the imperfect tense[3]), depending on which vowels  you insert. The Masoretes[4]  are to blame for this. They  added  vowels  to  the Hebrew text  between the  7th  and 11th centuries AD.  By this they  chose  and he was afraid” over  and he saw”. Why do we make  all this fuss over language?  Because  the emphasis  would make a difference in Elijah’s motives for fleeing. The one says he ran out of fear; the other says that he ran  because he saw the  writing on the wall, and he was bitterly disappointed  and disillusioned.  I personally cannot see  that Elijah had a personality change, becoming a wimp. I cannot see that he  became  a spiritual drop out. Let’s see whether the rest of the text stands up to this reasoning. 

2.     Elijah needed  distance  between the problem in  Israel  because he was intensely  disappointed  with Israel. He  desperately needed  to meet with God at a place of origins, because he needed further  perspective.  Having arrived  in Beersheba, he leaves his servant  there and walks a day’s journey further into the desert. By now  his emotions and  his body are beginning to catch up. He is deeply  depressed  and he tells God that  he wants to die. Instead of death  he experiences  what some of called ‘ the small death’ – sleep  which  is God’s blessed  gift  to  revive us, and to make us forget the stresses and strains of life for a while. In   this  the wilderness,   God in love for his exhausted servant  sent an angel to sustain him  with  freshly baked   cake and water (19:6). And still he was tired. He lay down again,and the angel  nudged him and encouraged him  to get up and continue the journey to Horeb , the mountain  where Moses had previously  met with God  for 40 days and nights . Significantly it took Elijah 40  days and  40 nights  to get there (19:8). And God spoke to him there: “ And the word of the LORD came to him“. The LORD asks him: “ What are you doing here Elijah?” 
   Now many people take that as a rebuke from God, as if to say  you should not be here! You are in the wrong place!“ It really is not necessary  to come to such a conclusion. This  could equally mean: “What have you come to tell me?” If this is true, God was looking at his servant in a softer , loving light.   I think that the response indicates this , because Elijah  then tells  God why he is here. Elijah  says that he is upset for God’s sake. Note the emphasis in  v.10:  The people of Israel  have  thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword …”. Here’s the point! Elijah is not whining . He has come to talk to  God as this most historically significant place of Israel’s beginnings! He has come to formally  charge Israel with apostasy  before God.  He is  righteously angry and disappointed before God, and he is at the right place to do so!  Nowhere  in this text do we  that God is angry with Elijah  for being  disbelieving and in the wrong place . If anything,  we observe God’s tender kindness towards his faithful prophet.

To  recapitulate:  Elijah was not so much afraid of Jezebel,as he was broken by the continued stubbornness and  unrepentant paganism   of   the nation. Elijah was here because God had essentially driven him there. Elijah  had come to bring a charge of apostasy against Israel!

3.     This teaches us afresh  the  depth of human depravity  and stubborn willfulness. No matter  how much proof there is of God’s power  over  evil, people will not believe. Sometimes we  are tempted  to think that if  only we can get  people to hear the truth. If only  we can convert them through our well rehearsed arguments. If we think that, we have not yet comprehended the deadness of the human heart (Eph. 2:1). The  testimony of Jesus is  true : “And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather  than light.” (Jn 3:19).

4.     We would do well to desire  Elijah’s heart and passion  for the glory of God, and  for his hatred for sin  and  depression over sin.  Do we really care about the unfaithfulness of the present  professing church?  Can we be happy with this doctrinal indifference and  idolatrous pragmatism of our day -  so much that  we get upset for God’s sake? Can  God’s servants get depressed and despondent, and is that OK ? Yes! If it is over God’s  glory,  and honour and interests it is always OK. We are after all meant to be God’s holy people. We must feel to some degree what He feels  about  sin Do you ever get depressed  over   the  way things are in our  society, for God’s sake?

5.     The wrath of God is revealed  against  all the ungodliness of men who suppress the truth by their ungodliness. (Rom 1:18). In the closing verses of  our text today we shall see this. God is beginning to act against wicked Israel . And Elijah is there to anoint  the following people, believers and non believers alike  to do God’s work to  bring punishment upon Israel. And, in the process, God will take his tired servant out of the world and replace him with another man, Elishah  who will  faithfully run with the baton. 

Elijah has not been  God’s last broken- hearted  servant. Plenty of cases   have  abounded in our own days, but you need not fear being a broken hearted servant when you are in the hands of a good God! Amen.

[1]  Hazael murders Ben Hadad in 2 Kings  8:7  and becomes king of Syria
[2] This happens in 2 Kings 9 when  under the direction  of Elisha a young prophet was called to  anoint Jehu as king over Israel. Jehu killed  Joram ( Ahab’s son – now on the throne )   and  he also killed Jezebel (9:30ff)  in accordance with the word of the LORD
[3] The Hebrew imperfect does not have tense apart from context and syntax just like the Hebrew perfect. The Hebrew imperfect denotes incomplete action, whether in the past, present, or future.

[4] The Masoretes were groups of scribes and scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries AD, based primarily in present-day Israel in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq (Babylonia) .The Masoretes devised the vowel notation system for Hebrew that is still widely used.

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