A condensed version of this article has also appeared on 1517.
Normally, 1 Kings 19 is read in such a way that Elijah, the Lord’s prophet, appears to be in a manic depressive state. His monumental victory at Carmel isn’t quite so cherished by the wicked queen Jezebel, who promptly threatens his life, forcing him to flee into the Judean wilderness. Once he’s found a cozy spot under a juniper tree, he basically begs God to take away his life (1 Kings 19:3–4), in a scene that’s all too reminiscent of another bedeviled prophet of Yahweh (Jonah 4:1–3). But while Elijah’s behavior and demeanor is, certainly, in line with one deluged by stress and grief and despair, 1 Kings 19 is actually far less about a prophet’s sense of defeatism than it is about the Lord’s unexpected deliverance.
As is the case throughout the Scriptures, God delights to surprise his people in unforeseen manifestations of grace, mercy, and peace. It is his penchant to bring about his sovereign, almighty purposes through the most unexpected means and methods imaginable. And this is, perhaps, nowhere more evident than right here, in Elijah’s seeming disconsolation.
The victory at Mt. Carmel is met with, perhaps, the best possible outcome. The people of Israel corporately confess that Yahweh alone is “the God” (1 Kings 18:39). Judgment is, then, swiftly carried out on the prophets of Baal by Elijah himself (1 Kings 18:40). He proceeds to tell the king that “there is a sound of abundance of rain” on the horizon, and that he should go ahead and “eat and drink,” and celebrate Yahweh’s provision (1 Kings 18:41). Ahab, no doubt, isn’t told twice, and does just that, while Elijah treks even further up mountain to pray (1 Kings 18:42). It is intriguing that Elijah gives Ahab the “green light” to feast before the evidence of rain. But it’s also curious that the prophet petitions his Lord to bring rain after prophesying he would (1 Kings 18:41).
This, perhaps, demonstrates that, although he is Yahweh’s prophet, Elijah is still utterly dependent upon the Lord’s merciful hand. While he might be venerated as the Lord’s “super-prophet,” that designation is only true “if we ignore the whole testimony of the text,” affirms Dale Ralph Davis. He continues:
[Elijah] is always confessing his inability because he resorts to begging Yahweh for what he can in no way bring about. We must hold to the biblical picture: for all his seeming dynamism and charisma, his assertiveness and control, his gumption and boldness, Elijah has no magic, no ace up his sleeve to play in a pinch. He can call upon no sleight of hand by which he slithers out of tight spots and dead-end dilemmas. Elijah can only confess his helplessness; that is he can only pray.1
Elijah cannot just snap his fingers and bring about God’s blessing in a flash. It hearkens back to that scene with the widow’s lifeless son, where we find Elijah’s prostrate form once again pleading with the “Lord of hosts” for mercy (1 Kings 17:20–21). In both instances, the Lord’s prophet is entirely subject to the Lord’s authoritative word. As Elijah is sprawled out on the mountainside, we intuit his perspective. His posture is indicative of his burden (1 Kings 18:42). He is weighed down by Israel’s gross foray into iniquity and idolatry. His quintessential longing was for Israel’s covenantal renewal — for the people of God to witness and remember who their God really was. The vista from Carmel overlooked a troubled people who had turned on their Deliverer, their Lord, their Adonai.
While Elijah communes and supplicates with God, he sends his servant to the summit of the mountain to “look toward the sea” and report back with any sign of rain. But his servant sees nothing (1 Kings 18:43). In fact, he returns six more times with void reports. No rain; the famine still persists. It’s not until the seventh time that the servant comes back with anything close to a positive report. “It came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand” (1 Kings 18:44). Notwithstanding how small that wisp of a cloud started out as, the skies soon turned “black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:45). God’s Word was true after all! Yahweh had kept his word (1 Kings 18:1). He had sent rain back on Israelite soil.
It would appear, then, that Israel was back in God’s good graces. The “abundance of rain” was obviously indicative of divine blessing returning to the land of the people of promise. Elijah certainly thought so. He charges Ahab to get out of the mountains and back to his kingdom (1 Kings 18:44–45), no doubt persuaded that the long-looked-for renewal was here. With the heavens raining down “showers of blessing,” Elijah ends up outrunning Ahab’s chariot to the entrance of the citadel (1 Kings 18:46). This curious detail is, perhaps, another insight into the prophet’s mindset — indicative of national revival he had long anticipated finally becoming a reality, so he thought. But just like the rain didn’t come until the seventh watch, Yahweh doesn’t operate according to our timetable.
Upon returning to the palace, Ahab gives a report to his queen concerning the events at the mountain (1 Kings 19:1). Some commentators make a point to note that Ahab is “answering to” Jezebel, apparently revealing the true power structure that had led to Israel’s national decadence and spiritual decline. It’s unclear if that’s really the case. I’ll steer clear of commenting who really “wore the (proverbial) pants” in Israel’s throne-room during those days. Regardless, the queen is enraged, prompting her to deliver a bone-rattling threat to Elijah.
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 to morrow about this time. (1 Kings 19:2)
“By hell or high water,” she spits, “I’m gonna take you down, oh man of Yahweh.” Upon hearing those words, Elijah’s nerve is broken (1 Kings 19:3). He departs the kingdom and flees “for his life” to “Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah” — that is, he gets as far as he could out of Jezebel’s jurisdiction.2 Leaving behind his servant, Elijah trudges further “into the wilderness,” eventually finding respite “under a juniper tree.” It’s there that his yawning grief and brokenness come flowing forth. “It is enough,” he wails; “now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). “I’ve had my fill. I’ve had all I can take. I’ve done all I could for these people.” God’s prophet is broken.
But, of course, since God delights in meeting broken people in the midst of their brokenness, he does just that with his minister. “An angel” comes to his aid, nourishing him, providing for him (1 Kings 19:5–6). This angel, then, visits him for “the second time,” in order to prepare him for “the journey” that was ahead of him (1 Kings 19:7). After which Elijah travels “in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights,” bringing him to Mt. Horeb, a.k.a., “the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8). And it is here that Elijah was about to be given a tremendous vision of the almighty authority that was really at work.
We are obliged to take note, though, who it was that actually met and ministered to Elijah in his place of desperation. It is none other than “the angel of the Lord” — “Malak Yahweh” — the imaged messenger of Yahweh himself (1 Kings 19:7). That is, the only begotten Son of God. This is one of those striking Old Testament moments where the Son of God appears in visible form prior to his actual incarnation.3 Through a variety of forms and circumstances, God the Son inserts himself into the narrative of history to showcase the mercy and might of God the Father. And each time he does, it attests to the fact that there is no mess so atrocious in all the world that God himself won’t intervene and interrupt to bring about his desired ends — yes, even if that means he has to intrude himself to the degree of taking on the world’s sin as his own.
Indeed, as Chad Bird suggests, the same Word who became flesh and dwelt among us “went through several ‘dress rehearsals’” first.4 This is one of those “dress rehearsals,” giving us an incredible and palpable glimpse of the type God Yahweh is. Namely, he’s a God who has a fondness for meeting broken people right where they are: in their brokenness. Despite Israel’s decades-long rejection of Yahweh, Yahweh had not rejected Israel. In coming to the side of his prophet, he demonstrated that his overriding concern was his people’s renewal. Such has always been — and still is — the prevailing purpose of the manifold ways and works of the “Lord of hosts.”
It is interesting to survey what some commentators focus on in their examination of this chapter. Many take the notion of Elijah’s disillusionment and run with it, coloring the entire narrative in despairing hues. Some even stress the idea that this “journey” (1 Kings 19:7) that the angel mentions wasn’t supposed to lead Elijah to Horeb. Rather, they claim he was supposed to get himself together, get out of his rut, and go back to Israel to confront Jezebel. By traversing to Horeb, these commenters say that the prophet has detached himself even further and continued in his depressive state beyond the wilderness of the southern kingdom. I strongly disagree with those who make this claim. Elijah isn’t out of place — he’s right where God wants him to be. The nourishment provided by the angel is precisely for this journey “unto Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8). Indeed, I think it was God’s plan all along to bring his prophet to this exact place — to Horeb — precisely because God is about do again what he did years ago: reveal himself in the most spectacular and unexpected way imaginable.
Horeb, of course, is a site that ought make all the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand on end. It’s the generic name for Sinai, the mountainous region where God established his covenant with Moses and all of Israel. But not only does God bring his prophet to the same region where the covenant was established, he brings him to the exact same spot. “And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there,” notes the historian (1 Kings 19:9). “A cave” is better translated as “the cave” — that is, the “clift of the rock” where Moses beheld the Lord’s glory passing by (Exod. 33:21–23). Centuries later, “the word of the Lord” comes to Elijah in that same cave.
And, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:9)
Now, those same commentators who say that Elijah isn’t where he’s supposed to be interpret this question as a rebuke. “What in the world are you doing here?” Yahweh supposedly inquires. In their minds, God’s reprimanding his prophet for going AWOL. I, however, don’t read it that way. Not at all. God isn’t rebuking Elijah so as much as he is giving him the opportunity to vent. To be heard. This question is better understood as, “Why do you think I brought you here?” Yahweh is prodding his servant, making room for his burdened soul to unload. “Yahweh’s question is both covenantal and pastoral,” Dale Ralph Davis concurs. “It is an act of kindness, offering Elijah the opportunity to spill his concerns.”5
These burdensome concerns, perhaps over-brewed, finally boil over. “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts,” he carps: “for 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 19:10). He’s broken. He’s burdened for Israel to remember her one true God. Elijah’s disappointment is brought on by the people’s continued abandonment of the “Lord of hosts.” And, in his mind, he has done all he could to bring them back. He’s exhausted himself getting them to remember. He’s spent himself getting them to repent. “What more can I do, God? I’m the only one left who’s concerned about this, and now ‘they seek my life’.” Such is when Elijah is given the vision of a lifetime.
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)
At the mouth of the cave, Elijah witnesses a terrifying display of howling wind, trembling earth, and raging fire. Yet, Yahweh’s presence wasn’t in any of those phenomena. It’s not until after all those things pass that Elijah is met by “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). That’s where “the Lord of hosts” was found. In contrast to the bombastic wind, fire, and earth, Yahweh shows up in a whisper — in a calm, low articulate word. And we know it is Yahweh because of Elijah’s reaction to it: “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).6
The same Voice that visited Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6), the same Voice that walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:8), is the same Voice of Yahweh that greeted Elijah that night at Horeb. “What doest thou here, Elijah?” inquires the Voice again (1 Kings 19:13). To which the prophet repeats the same dispirited cry from before (1 Kings 19:14), perhaps indicating that Elijah’s burden was more heavy than we initially realize. This time, though, the Voice eschews any pageantry and transmits Yahweh’s plans in plain words.
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 Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:15–18)
Yahweh reveals there were kings who needed anointing, another prophet needed ordaining, and a faithful remnant needed tending. There was more ministry to be done. All of which suggests that the Lord’s work in and with Israel wasn’t finished with Elijah. Not by a long shot. He may have had “enough” — he may have been done — but Yahweh wasn’t done accomplishing wonders in, with, and for his people. In fact, he had only just begun his work of reclaiming and redeeming his own. “The ‘quietness’ of Yahweh’s work,” Davis comments, “does not mean he is not at work, but rather that the kingdom of God has gone into its mustard-seed mode.”7 That’s the way Yahweh operates. Sometimes the work of the Lord is very hard to see, like the wisp of a cloud on a horizon. Sometimes the work of the Lord is very hard to hear, like a “still small voice.” But, to be sure, the work of the Lord, through the Word of the Lord, is always working, all around, all the time.
By his sovereign authority, the wisp becomes a thunderhead. A seed grows the kingdom of God. A whisper eventually turns the world upside down. A carpenter’s Son from nowhere becomes the Savior of everyone. Such is God’s way. The “still small voice” was a precursor to the Transfigured Christ (Matt 17:2–6).8 The One who would come “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The One who would be the embodied realization of Yahweh’s patience and gentleness (Matt 11:28–30). The One who would visit the lowly and the broken (Ps. 8:4–6; Heb. 2:7–8). The One who would come “to do in flesh and blood what God had only done in wind and voice” previously.9 The stillness and smallness of Yahweh’s Voice is indicative of the ministry of Yahweh’s Son, who came as the gentle and lowly Incarnate Word.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 244.
In fact, his first stop puts him roughly 100 miles south from Jezebel’s castle — which, if I’m honest, reminds me again of that bedeviled prophet who was commissioned to go to Nineveh but instead hopped aboard a ship at Joppa (Jonah 1:1–3).
This is what we’d call a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of the Christ. These sort of appearances pepper the OT narratives, if you’re keen enough to spot them (e.g., Exod. 3:1–6; Josh. 5:13–15; Isa. 6:1–13; Jer. 1:4–10; Ezek. 1:26–28). I’m so thankful for and indebted to Chad Bird’s exquisite discussion of this very thing in his book, The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament. See especially pages 26–35.
Chad Bird, The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament (Irvine, CA: 1517, 2021), 35.
Davis, 1 Kings, 267–68.
Which, by the way, is the same exact reaction Moses had (Exod. 33:23). Hopefully you’re picking up on the parallels.
Davis, 1 Kings, 269.
I can’t get over this: Moses, in Horeb, sees the Lord pass by and then hears a declaration of grace and truth (Exod. 33:21—34:6). Elijah, in Horeb, sees the Lord pass by and then hears a declaration of grace and truth (1 Kings 19:13–18). And who do you think shows up to witness the embodiment and fulfillment of all this? That’s right: Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:1–8; Mark 9:1–13; Luke 9:27–36).
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 153.