When does Satan attack us? When does the devil do his best work on us? When does Satan work his hardest to brings us down? Is it when we’re down and discouraged? Or is it when we’re riding high and sitting pretty, as they say? I contend that Satan works hardest on us when we’re most confident in ourselves. When we’re depressed and down in the dumps, the devil already has us. And certainly Satan will cajole us to stay that way, but when we experience great victories bodily and spiritually, the devil does his best to bring us back down again. Our great adversary works most diligently on our souls when everything seems to be going right, when all seems under control. I usually associate this phenomenon with summer camps. Thousands of teens go to summer camps, and in those isolated settings, they’re bombarded with conviction and their spiritual awareness is heightened, making it rather “easy” to repent, to “make a decision for Jesus.” I’m not questioning the gravity or sincerity of those resolutions, but many of these same camp-goers that make life decisions for God and his will don’t fully realize arduous and ominous war that awaits for them when they return to their normal, distraction-filled lives. The pitfalls of temptation always accompany spiritual victory. This is the ebb and flow of Christian life, much like the apostle Paul’s own experience. (Rom 7) In 1 Kings 19, God’s great prophet Elijah wasn’t ready to weather these ebbs and flows — he wasn’t ready for the pitfall that awaited him.
At the opening of 1 Kings 19, Elijah’s running, he’s fleeing for his life. Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, has just been informed of the great defeat that the prophets of Baal just suffered at Mount Carmel at the hands of Elijah. So she sends a message to Elijah: “Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the God’s do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’” (1 Kgs 19:2) Literally, she threatened Elijah’s life with all her power; that is, she terrorized him with the message, “I swear that by this time tomorrow, you will be just as dead as those prophets. If I don’t succeed, may the God’s do the same or worse to me.” But look at Elijah’s response to this threat: “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah.” (1 Kgs 19:3) Elijah is literally running for his life, going as far away from imminent death as possible. He flees to Beersheba, which was the southernmost settlement in Judah, well out of reach (so he determines) of the forces of Ahab and Jezebel in northern Israel. What a surprising response though, as before, in previous chapters, the prophet had no problem standing up to King Ahab or the prophets of Baal.
Back in 1 Kings 18, we find the famous account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal before Mount Carmel. Elijah is bursting with confidence throughout this account, showing no difficulty in standing up for the Lord against King Ahab’s threats. (1 Kgs 19:17) The rest of the account goes on to deal with the infamous contest between the prophets of Baal and Jehovah’s prophet Elijah, in which Elijah tells the servants to pour water on the altar so that it was completely soaked, and yet when he prayed to God it was utterly consumed by fire sent from the Lord. A miraculous victory to be sure — certainly, the prophet is confident of God’s presence with him. (1 Kgs 19:46)
And here we have our conundrum: How do we get from the Elijah of chapter 18, who is confident and resolved, to the Elijah of chapter 19, who wishes that he’d die? “And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” (1 Kgs 19:4) Elijah has become so defeated and discouraged that he bemoans his life, lamenting, “I’ve had enough of this, God! I can’t take it anymore. Just, take my life!” What a jarring change in demeanor and resolve from the Mount Carmel account. What happened to his faith? What happened to his remembrance?
Elijah now finds refuge in Mount Horeb, that is, Mount Sinai, that sacred and holy place where Jehovah spoke to Moses and gave him the law. Elijah escapes into a cave near the mountain, but God finds him and asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kgs 19:9) This question is more like a reproach. In fleeing from imminent danger, Elijah has likewise fled from his mission. It’s easy to sympathize with the prophet. Sure, he was God’s voice, his divinely-appointed messenger, but he’s just received a death threat from one of the most notoriously violent queens in all of history. What would you do if you were in the same situation?
The prophet’s response to the Lord’s inquiry suggests the deep discouragement which we’ve been discussing: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kgs 19:10) Discouragement is a blindness that only leads to irrational thinking; it’s a “madness, disqualifying the mind for sober judgment.”1 Elijah thinks he’s alone, that he’s friendless in this mission for God. But Elijah forgot one of the most precious promises of Scripture, that we are never truly alone.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31) “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Heb 13:5–6) “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” (Dt 20:3–4) Oftentimes, we forget that the battle raging for control of our hearts is a real war, a constant struggle between what God wants and what Satan wants, what the new man desires and what the old man desires. As much as we may feel alone, we mustn’t forget that we’re never alone, God is with us and he’ll never leave nor forsake us. This is why the reminder to reflect upon the gospel, its immutable truth, its incomprehensible freeness, and all the glories of God’s good tidings of great joy, is so vital to the health and vitality of the believer. Every day must be one of remembrance of what Jesus has done.
But, I believe we come to the crux of the chapter, beginning with verse 11. God’s inquiry was a good one, what exactly was Elijah doing there? Of all places to flee, he chose Mount Horeb, a place of stupendous theological and historical significance for the people of Israel. Why did he choose this place? I think that Elijah was waiting for another Mount Carmel experience. Elijah wanted another miracle, another astounding spiritual sign from on high to let him know that he wasn’t alone. But God doesn’t always work that way; God doesn’t always work in signs and miracles and “spiritual highs.” (Mt 12:38–40) Such is the case here. God doesn’t give Elijah what he wants. Instead, God reveals his presence in a very different way. The prophet is commanded to stand near the entrance of the cave:
“Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke 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 the sound of a low whisper [a still small voice]. (1 Kgs 19:11–12)
After all these things, God speaks to Elijah in a quiet, gentle voice. To us it may seem more logical for God to reveal himself in those other things, in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. It would seem very reasonable and, indeed, have been very excited for the Lord to do that. But God rarely does what is most logical to us. Seldom does God employ means which are simple for us to understand. This isn’t because he enjoys confounding and confusing his children. No, it’s because he’s God, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent; knowing the ends before the beginnings. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8–9) It would’ve been fairly easy for Elijah to see God manifested in those other things. But when things are too simple, too easy, too logical, we tend to not learn anything; when things are right before us to understand, it usually doesn’t stick. And when we don’t learn anything, we don’t grow.
Let me ask you, Do you always understand why God allows the things he does? When you get laid off from work and yet those bills keep piling up, do you always understand God’s plan? When a loved one is suddenly taken from this earth, do you always understand why? When my mom’s mom died suddenly, I didn’t understand it at all. I was young at the time and was confused then, but even now I look back and I still don’t fully understand why God chose to bring her home. She had so much life left; she was such a testimony for Jesus. Throughout her entire life, she affected and, literally, infected countless people and stirred them to live for Christ. And who knows how many more lives she could have affected if God had allowed her to live.
But God knows all, and even in that difficult circumstance he had a plan. Seeing my mom go through that and grow in her faith and dependence on the Lord and the gospel, and seeing how many people were changed because of that incident, God surely had a design for it all. He sovereignly chose my mom to go through that ordeal so that she could then better help and guide — better reflect Jesus — to others through similar circumstances. Don’t sit back and question God for allowing the hardships in your life; don’t question God because you don’t understand.
This is what Elijah was doing — he wanted a repeat experience of Mount Carmel; he wanted a miraculous event where God would make himself stunningly evident. This is why he recoiled to that sacred mount of Israelite lore. But God doesn’t always work in miracles; God doesn’t always take away hardships. Sometimes God allows our lives to become a bit cloudier, a bit more chaotic, so that we might look for him a bit more carefully, a bit more closely. It’s through those frenetic and difficult times that we can truly see how close and faithful God really is to us. The mayhem of life but reveals the grace of our Savior all the more.
God is there. He’s always there.
Charles Spurgeon, The Saint and His Saviour: The Progress of the Soul in the Knowledge of Jesus (Houston: Christian Focus, 1989), 16.