Summary: Whatever we may think of Elijah, “he was a man just like us.” So says the Apostle James (5:16-17). Yes, he was a mighty prophet, but he was also a flawed person with doubts, fears, and needs--a real person, not a superhero.
Whatever we may think of Elijah, “he was a man just like us.” So says the Apostle James (5:16-17). Yes, he was a mighty prophet, but he was also a flawed person with doubts, fears, and needs--a real person, not a superhero. He experienced success and despair. “He put on his sandals one foot at a time, which means his life of faith, obedience, and prayer is not out of reach for us” (Ryken). We find in Elijah an example to follow.
Elijah appeared during one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history (855 BC). He set the standard for other prophets--in speaking truth to power, with power. The official “court prophets” were yes-men, telling the king whatever he wanted to hear. The true gift of prophecy is to receive and communicate a chastening message from God to His people through a divinely-anointed utterance. This may involve either foretelling or forth-telling. Not all prophecy is about the future. Being prophetic means confronting those in authority with their shortcomings. The “word of the Lord came to Elijah” (17:2) and he heeded the call.
The prophet Elijah came as the bearer of God’s word. He embodied all that we imagine in being “prophetic”. The “power” Elijah confronted was King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a wicked pair. Sin was nothing to them; they gave their lives to evil without remorse. 16:30 reports that “Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” Yet God has never left us without courageous messengers to proclaim Truth. Proverbs 28 states that “the righteous are as bold as a lion”, which aptly describes Elijah. He was not deterred by public opinion or by powerful leaders. His name means “Jehovah is my God,” a significant name in a time when few were believing in God; a name that provoked those who followed after idols. And it was a name that declared his mission. Elijah was a witness against falsehood. Tim Keller notes, “We base our lives on some ultimate concern or allegiance--either to God or to some God-substitute.”
While nominally Jewish, Ahab chose a politically expedient marriage to a foreign, pagan princess from Tyre. As a consequence of this unholy alliance, Ahab allowed Jezebel to openly worship Baal in Israel and built a temple to Baal for her, complete with pagan fertility rites. Some might view this as “accommodation” but in Israel’s theocracy there was no room for religious pluralism. Once idolatry was established, Jezebel took action to replace the God of Israel with the apostasy of Baal-worship. Ahab’s “tolerance” of idolatry dishonored God and threatened the spiritual integrity of Israel. Ahab made unholy the Holy Land.
This was also a clash of cultures; the pagan world was fear-based; people were driven by a need to appease the unseen spirit-powers. These powers could be angered by disobedience and placated (controlled) through rituals. They could hurt you, or empower you, so people thought. The pagan priests yielded great power over the people with superstition driven by fear. Elijah abruptly came on the scene to challenge these powers of darkness.
Elijah also came to restore Israel to devotion to the living God. Even today, this is the preacher’s task. People are enamored by various idols that threaten to shut God out. Are we making room for God in our lives, or are we too engaged with other things? Distractions may be crowding out God’s priorities. We may be worshipping at the altar of Baal without realizing it.
Baal was a Phoenician “storm-god” called on to bring rain, essential for a farm-based society. The image of Baal was a bull with a club of thunder in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. Elijah prays for drought to demonstrate Jehovah’s supremacy. This was a contest, a “dual of deities” (Peterson). Elijah exposed Baal-worship for what it was--an offensive, ineffective substitute for the true, living God. Jehovah, not Baal, is in charge of crop-enriching rains.
In 17:1 with an oath, Elijah throws down the gauntlet before the compromised king. If Baal is so powerful, call on him for rain! We will see where true power lies. The prophet attacks Baal-worship at its center. The drought was a reflection of the spiritual drought in Israel; devotion to God had dried up. Elijah’s oath is delivered in sharp contrast to Baal: “the Lord the God of Israel lives.” The king’s priorities and actions were in denial of this truth. How about our lives? Do we demonstrate that God lives and reigns? Do people even know that we’re Christians?
Elijah delivers his message, and then just as abruptly, he departs, likely to escape the wrath of Ahab. His absence is also symbolic of the absence of devotion for God in the life of Israel. God’s silence during the drought is a judgment on the nation. After saying “good riddance,” Ahab realized that only Elijah could bring back the rain!