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In previous chapters we have seen Elijah called suddenly out of obscurity to appear before the wicked king of Israel and deliver unto him a fearful sentence of judgment, namely, that “there shall not be dew nor rain these years but according to my word” ( 1 Kings 17:1).
Following the pronouncement of this solemn ultimatum the prophet, in obedience to his Master, retired from the stage of public action and went into seclusion, spending part of the time by the brook Cherith and part in the humble home of the widow at Zarephath, where in each place his needs were miraculously supplied by God, who suffers none to be the loser by complying with His orders. But now the hour had arrived when this intrepid servant of the Lord must issue forth and once more face Israel’s idolatrous monarch: “the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab” ( 1 Kings 18:1).
In our last chapter we contemplated the effect which the protracted drought had upon Ahab and his subjects, an effect which made sadly evident the depravity of the human heart. It is written, “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” ( Romans 2:4); and again, “when Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” ( Isaiah 26:9).
How often do we find these sentences cited as though they are absolute and unqualified statements, and how rarely are the words quoted which immediately follow them: in the one case “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and in the other “Let favour be showed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord.” How are we going to understand these passages, for to the natural man they appear to cancel themselves, the second part of the Isaiah reference seeming flatly to contradict the former.
If Scripture be compared with Scripture it will be found that each of the above declarations receives clear and definite exemplification. For example, was it not a sense of the Lord’s goodness—His “lovingkindness” and “the multitude of His tender mercies”—which led David to repentance and made him to cry, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” ( Psalm 51:1,2)? and again, was it not his realization of the Father’s goodness—the fact that there was “bread enough and to spare” in His house—which led the prodigal son to repentance and confession of his sins? so also when God’s judgments were in the earth, to such an extent that we are told, In those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries. And nation was destroyed of nation, and city of city: for God did vex them with all adversity” ( 2 Chronicles 15:5,6), did Asa and his subjects (in response to the preaching of Azariah) “put away the abominable idols out of all the land, and renewed the altar of the Lord… and they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart” (vv. 8-12). See also Revelation 11:15.
On the other hand, how many instances are recorded in Holy Writ of individuals and of peoples who were the subjects of God’s goodness to a marked degree, who enjoyed both His temporal and spiritual blessings in unstinted measure, yet so far were those privileged persons from being suitably affected thereby and led to repentance, their hearts were hardened and God’s mercies were abused: “Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked” ( Deuteronomy 32:15 and cf. Hosea 13:6). So, too, how often we read in Scripture of God’s judgments being visited upon both individuals and nations, only for them to illustrate the truth of that word, “Lord, when Thy hand is lifted up, they will not see” ( Isaiah 26:11). A conspicuous example is Pharaoh, who after each plague hardened his heart afresh and continued in his defiance of Jehovah. Perhaps even more notable is the case of the Jews, who century after century have been inflicted with the sorest judgments from the Lord, yet have not learned righteousness thereby.
Ah, have we not witnessed striking demonstrations of these truths in our own lifetime, both on the one side and on the other? Divine favors were received as a matter of course, yea, were regarded far more as the fruits of our own industry than of Divine bounty. The more the nations were prospered the more God faded from view.
How, then, are we to understand these Divine declarations: “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance”; “When Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness”? Obviously they are not to be taken absolutely and without modification. They are to be understood with this proviso: if a sovereign God is pleased to sanctify them unto our souls. It is God’s ostensible (we say not, His secret and invincible) design that displays of His goodness should lead men into the paths of righteousness: such is their natural tendency, and such ought to be their effect upon us. Yet the fact remains that neither prosperity nor adversity by themselves will produce these beneficent results, for where the Divine dispensations are not expressly sanctified unto us, neither His mercies nor His chastisements avail to work any improvement in us.
Hardened sinners “despise the Lord’s goodness and long-suffering,” prosperity rendering them the less disposed to receive the instructions of righteousness, and where the means of grace (the faithful preaching of God’s Word) are freely afforded among them, they continue profane and close their eyes to all the discoveries of Divine grace and holiness. When God’s hand is lifted up to administer gentle rebukes, it is despised; and when more terrible vengeance is inflicted, they steel their hearts against the same. It has always been thus. Only as God is pleased to work in our hearts, as well as before our eyes, only as He deigns to bless unto our souls His providential dealings, is a teachable disposition wrought in us, and we are brought to acknowledge His justice in punishing us and to reform our evil ways. Whenever Divine judgments are not definitely sanctified to the soul, sinners continue to stifle conviction and rush forward in defiance, until they are finally swallowed up by the wrath of a holy God.
Does someone ask, What has all the above to do with the subject in hand?
The answer is, much every way. It goes to show that the terrible perversity of Ahab was no exceptional thing, while it also serves to explain why he was quite unaffected by the sore visitation of God’s judgment on his dominions. A total drought which had continued for upwards of three years was upon the land, so the “there was a sore famine in Samaria” ( 1 Kings 18:2). This was indeed a Divine judgment: did, then, the king and his subjects learn righteousness thereby? Did their ruler set them an example by humbling himself beneath the mighty hand of God, by acknowledging his vile transgressions, by removing the altars of Baal and restoring the worship of Jehovah? No! So far from it, during the interval he suffered his wicked consort to “cut off the prophets of the Lord” ( 18:4), thus adding iniquity to iniquity and exhibiting the fearful depths of evil into which the sinner will plunge unless deterred by God’s restraining power. “And Ahab said unto Obadiah, Go into the land, unto all foundations of water, and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts” ( 1 Kings 18:5).
As a straw in the air reveals the direction of the wind so these words of Ahab indicate the state of his heart. The living God had no place in his thoughts, nor was he exercised over the sins which had called down His displeasure on the land. Nor does he seem to have been the least concerned about his subjects, whose welfare—next to the glory of God—should have been his chief concern. No, his aspirations do not appear to have risen any higher than fountains and brooks, horses and mules, that the beasts which yet remained might be saved. This is not evolution but devolution, for when the heart is estranged from its Maker its direction is ever lower and lower.
In the hour of his deep need Ahab turned not in humility unto God, for he was a stranger to Him. Grass was now his all-absorbing object - provided that could be found, he cared nothing about anything else. If food and drink were obtainable then he could have enjoyed himself in the palace and been at ease among Jezebel’s idolatrous prophets, but the horrors of famine drove him out. Yet instead of dwelling upon and rectifying the causes thereof, he seeks only a temporary relief. Alas, he had sold himself to work wickedness and had become the slave of a woman who hated Jehovah. And, my reader, Ahab was not a Gentile, a heathen, but a favoured Israelite; but he had married a heathen and become enamoured with her false gods. He had made shipwreck of the faith and was being driven to destruction. What a terrible thing it is to depart from the living God and forsake the Refuge of our fathers! “So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself” (v. 6). The reason for this procedure is obvious: by the king going in one direction and the governor of his household in another, twice as much ground would be covered as if they had remained together. But may we not also perceive a mystical meaning in these words: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” ( Amos 3:3). And what agreement was there between these two men? No more than there is between light and darkness, Christ and Belial, for whereas the one was an apostate, the other feared the Lord from his youth (v. 12). It was meet, then, they should separate and take opposite courses, for they were journeying unto entirely different destinies eternally.
Let not this suggestion be regarded as “far fetched,” but rather let us cultivate the habit of looking for the spiritual meaning and application beneath the literal sense of Scripture. “And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him” (v. 7). This certainly appears to confirm the mystical application made of the previous verse, for there is surely a spiritual meaning in what we have just quoted.
What was “the way” which Obadiah was treading? It was the path of duty, the way of obedience to his master’s orders. True, it was a humble task he was performing: that of seeking grass for horses and mules, yet this was the work Ahab had assigned him, and while complying with the king’s word he was rewarded by meeting Elijah! A parallel case is found in Genesis 24:27, where Eliezer in compliance with Abraham’s instructions encountered the damsel whom the Lord had selected as a wife for Isaac: “I being in the way, the Lord led me to the house of my master’s brethren.” So also it was while she was in the path of duty (when gathering of sticks) that the widow of Zarephath met with the prophet.
We considered in our last chapter the conversation which took place between Obadiah and Elijah, but would just mention here that mixed feelings must have filled the heart of the former as his gaze encountered such an unexpected but welcome sight. Awe and delight would predominate as he beheld the one by whose word the fearful drought and famine had almost completely desolated the land: here was the prophet of Gilead, alive and well, calmly making his way, alone, back into Samaria. It seemed too good to be true and Obadiah could scarcely believe his eyes.
Greeting him with becoming deference, he asks, “Art thou that my lord Elijah?” Assuring him of his identity, Elijah bids him go and inform Ahab of his presence. This was an unwelcome commission, yet it was obediently discharged: “so Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him” (v. 16).
And what of Elijah while he awaited the approach of the apostate king: was his mind uneasy, picturing the angry monarch gathering around him his officers ere he accepted the prophet’s challenge, and then advancing with bitter hatred and murder in his heart? No, my reader, we cannot suppose so for a moment. The prophet knew full well that the One who had watched over him so faithfully, and supplied his needs so graciously during the long drought, would not fail him now. Had he not good reason to recall how Jehovah had appeared to Laban when he was hotly pursuing Jacob: “And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob from good to bad” ( Genesis 31:24 [margin]).
It was a simple matter for the Lord to over-awe the heart of Ahab and keep him from murdering Elijah, no matter how much he desired to do so. Let the servants of God fortify themselves with the reflection that He has their enemies completely under His control, He has His bridle in their mouths and turns them about just as He pleases, so that they cannot touch a hair of their heads without His knowledge and permission.
Elijah then waited with dauntless spirit and calmness of heart for the approach of Ahab, as one who was conscious of his own integrity and of his security in the Divine protection. Well might he appropriate to himself those words: “In God have I put my trust: I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.” Different far must have been the state of the king’s mind as “Ahab went to meet Elijah” (v. 16). Though incensed against the man whose fearful announcement had been so accurately fulfilled, yet he must have been half afraid to meet him. Ahab had already witnessed his uncompromising firmness and amazing courage, and knowing that Elijah would not now be intimidated by his displeasure, had good reason to fear that his meeting would not be honourable unto himself.
The very fact that the prophet was seeking him out, yea had sent Obadiah before him to say, “Behold, Elijah is here,” must have rendered the king uneasy. Wicked men are generally great cowards: their own consciences are their accusers, and often cause them many misgivings when in the presence of God’s faithful servants, even though these occupy an inferior position in life to themselves. Thus it was with King Herod in connection with Christ’s forerunner, for we are told, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy” ( Mark 6:20).
In like manner, Felix, the Roman governor, trembled before Paul (though he was his prisoner) when the apostle “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” ( Acts 24:25). Let not the ministers of Christ hesitate boldly to deliver their message, nor be afraid of the displeasure of the most influential in their congregations. “And Ahab went to meet Elijah.” We might have hoped that, after proving from painful experience that the Tishbite was no deceiver, but a true servant of Jehovah whose word had accurately come to pass, Ahab had now relented, been convinced of his sin and folly, and become ready to turn to the Lord in humble repentance. But not so: instead of advancing toward the prophet with a desire to receive spiritual instruction from him or to request his prayers for him, he fondly hoped that he might now avenge himself for all that he and his subjects had suffered. His opening salutation at once revealed the state of his heart: “Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (v. 17)—what a contrast from the greeting given Elijah by the pious Obadiah! No word of contrition fell from Ahab’s lips. Hardened by sin, his conscience “seared as with a hot iron,” he gave vent to his obduracy and fury. “Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” This is not to be regarded as an unmeasured outburst, the petulant expression of a sudden surprisal, but rather as indicating the wretched state of his soul, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” It was the avowed antagonism between evil and good: it was the hissing of the Serpent’s seed against one of the members of Christ: it was the vented spite of one who felt condemned by the very presence of the righteous. Years later, speaking of another devoted servant of God, whose counsel was demanded by Jehoshaphat, this same Ahab said, “I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil,” ( 22:8).
So far, then, from this charge of Ahab’s making against the character and mission of Elijah, it was a tribute to his integrity, for there is no higher testimony to the fidelity of God’s servants than their evoking of the hearty hatred of the Ahabs around them.