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In passing from 1 Kings 18 to 1 Kings 19 we meet with a sudden and strange transition. It is as though the sun was shining brilliantly out of a clear sky and the next moment, without any warning, black clouds drape the heavens and crashes of thunder shake the earth. The contrasts presented by these chapters are sharp and startling. At the close of the one “the hand of the Lord was on Elijah” as he ran before Ahab’s chariot: at the beginning of the other he is occupied with self and “went for his life.”
In the former we behold the prophet at his best: in the latter we see him at his worst. There he was strong in faith and the helper of his people: here he is filled with fear and is the deserter of his nation. In the one he confronts the four hundred prophets of Baal undaunted: in the other he flees panicstricken from the threats of one woman. From the mountain top he betakes himself into the wilderness, and from supplicating Jehovah that He would vindicate and glorify His great name to begging Him to take away his life.
Who would have imagined such a tragic sequel?
In the startling contrasts here presented we have a striking proof of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures. In the Bible human nature is painted in its true colors: the characters of its heroes are faithfully depicted, the sins of its noteworthy persons are frankly recorded. True, it is human to err, but equally true it is human to conceal the blemishes of those we most admire.
Had the Bible been a human production, written by uninspired historians, they had magnified the virtues of the most illustrious men of their nation, and ignored their vices, or if mentioned at all, glossed over them and made attempts to extenuate the same. Had some human admirer chronicled the history of Elijah, his sad failure would have been omitted. The fact that it is recorded, that no effort is made to excuse it, is evidence that the characters of the Bible are painted in the colors of truth and reality, that they were not sketched by human hands, but that the writers were controlled by the Holy Spirit. “And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel” ( 1 Kings 18:46).
This is most blessed. The “hand of the Lord” is often used in Scripture to denote His power and blessing. Thus Ezra said, “the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy” ( 8:31); “The hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord ( Acts 2:21). This word coming in here points an instructive sequel to what was before us in verse 42: there we beheld the prophet cast down on the earth in self-abasement before God, here we see God honoring and miraculously sustaining His servant—if we would have the power and blessing of God rest upon us, we must take a lowly place before Him. In this instance the “hand of the Lord” communicated supernatural strength and fleetness of foot to the prophet, so that he covered the eighteen miles so swiftly as to overtake and pass the chariot: thus did God further honour the one who had honored Him and at the same time supply Ahab with yet another evidence of Elijah’s Divine commission. This was illustrative of the Lord’s way: where there is a man who takes his place in the dust before the Most High, it will soon be made apparent before others that a power beyond his own energizes him. “And he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.” Each detail contains an important lesson for us. The power of God resting upon Elijah did not render him careless and negligent of his own duty: he gathered up his garment so that his movements might be unimpeded. And if we are to run with patience the race that is set before us we need to “lay aside every weight” ( Hebrews 12:1). If we are to “stand against the wiles of the Devil” we must have our “loins girt about with truth” ( Ephesians 6:14). By running “before Ahab” Elijah took the lowly place of a common footman, which should have shown the monarch that his zeal against idolatry was prompted by no disrespect for himself, but actuated only by jealousy for God. The Lord’s people are required to “honour the king” in all civil matters, and here too it is the duty of ministers to set their people an example. Elijah’s conduct on this occasion served as another test of Ahab’s character: if he had had any respect for the Lord’s servant he would have invited him into his chariot, as the eminent Ethiopian did Philip ( Acts 8:31), but it was far otherwise with this son of Belial.
Onward sped the wicked king toward Jezreel where his vile consort awaited him. The day must have been a long and trying one for Jezebel, for many hours had passed since her husband had gone forth to meet Elijah at Carmel. The peremptory command he had received from Jehovah’s servant to gather all Israel together unto that mount, and the prophets of Baal as well, intimated that the crisis had been reached. She would therefore be most anxious to know how things had gone. Doubtless she cherished the hope that her priests had triumphed, and as the rain clouds blotted out the sky would attribute the welcome change to some grand intervention of Baal in response to their supplications. If so, all was well: her heart’s desire would be realized, her scheming crowned with success, the undecided Israelites would be won over to her idolatrous regime and the last vestiges of the worship of Jehovah would be stamped out. For the troublesome famine Elijah was solely to blame; for the ending thereof she and her gods should have the credit. Probably such thoughts as these occupied her mind in the interval of waiting.
And now the suspense is over: the king has arrived and hastens to make report to her. “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword” (19:1). The first thing which strikes us about these words is their noticeable omission: the Lord Himself was left out entirely. Nothing is said of the wonders He had wrought that day, how that He had not only caused fire to come down from heaven, and consume the sacrifice, but even the very stones of the altar, and how it had licked up great quantities of water in the trench around it; and how in response to the prayer of His servant, rain was sent in abundance. No, God has no place in the thoughts of the wicked, rather do they put forth their utmost efforts to banish Him from their minds. And even those who, from some form of self-interest, take up with religion, and make a profession and attend the public services, yet to talk of God and His wondrous works with their wives in their homes , is one of the last things we should find them doing. With the vast majority of professors, religion is like their Sunday clothes—worn that day and laid by for the rest of the week. “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” As God is not in the thoughts of the wicked so it is the way of unbelief to fix upon secondary causes or attribute unto the human instrument what the Lord is the doer of.
It matters not whether He act in judgment or in blessing, God himself is lost sight of and only the means He employs or the instruments He uses are seen. If a man of insatiable ambition be the Divine instrument for chastising nations laden with iniquity, that instrument becomes the object of universal hatred, but there is no humbling of the nations before the One who wields that rod. If a Whitefield or a Spurgeon be raised up to preach the Word with exceptional power and blessing, he is worshipped by the religious masses and men talk of his abilities and his converts. Thus it was with Ahab: first he ascribed the drought and famine to the prophet—“art thou he that troubleth Israel!” ( 18:17), instead of perceiving that it was the Lord who had a controversy with the guilty nation and that he was the one mainly responsible for its condition; and now he is still occupied with what “Elijah had done.” “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” He would relate how Elijah had mocked her priests, lashed them with his biting irony, and held them up to the scorn of the people. He would describe how he had put them to confusion by his challenge, and how he, as if by some spell or charm, had brought down fire from heaven. He would enlarge upon the victory gained by the Tishbite, of the ecstasy of the people thereon, how they had fallen on their faces, saying, “Jehovah, He is the God; Jehovah, He is the God.” That he recounted these things unto Jezebel, not to convince her of her error, but rather to incense her against God’s servant, is clear from his designed climax: “and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.” How this revealed once more what an awful character Ahab was! As the protracted drought with the resultant famine had not turned him unto the Lord, so this Divine mercy of sending the rain to refresh his dominions led him not to repentance. Neither Divine judgments nor Divine blessings will of themselves reclaim the unregenerate nothing but a miracle of sovereign grace can turn souls from the power of sin and Satan unto the living God.
It is not difficult to imagine the effect which would be produced upon the haughty, domineering and ferocious Jezebel when she heard Ahab’s report: it would so hurt her pride and fire her furious temper that nothing but the speedy dispatch of the object of her resentment could pacify it. “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 tomorrow about this time” (v. 2). If Ahab’s heart was unaffected by what had transpired on Carmel, remaining steeled against God, still less was his heathen consort softened thereby. He was sensual and materialistic, caring little about religious matters: so long as he had plenty to eat and drink, and his horses and mules were cared for, he was content. But Jezebel was of a different type, as resolute as he was weak. Crafty, unscrupulous, merciless, Ahab was but a tool in her hands, fulfilling her pleasure, and therein, as Revelation 2:20 intimates, she was a fore-shadowing of the woman riding the scarlet-colored beast ( Revelation 17:3). The crisis was one of gravest moment, and policy as well as indignation prompted her to act at once. If this national reformation were permitted to develop it would overthrow what she had worked for years to establish. “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them (her slain prophets) by tomorrow.” Behold the implacable and horrible enmity against God of a soul that has been abandoned by Him.
Utterly incorrigible, her heart was quite insensible of the Divine presence and power. Behold how that awful hatred expressed itself: unable to hurt Jehovah directly, her malice vents itself on His servant. It has ever been thus with those whom God has given up to a reprobate mind. Plague after plague was sent upon Egypt, yet so far from Pharaoh throwing down his weapons of rebellion, after the Lord brought His people out with a high hand, that wretch declared. “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them” ( Exodus 15:9).
When the Jewish council beheld Stephen and “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel,” irradiated with heavenly glory, instead of receiving his message when they heard his words “they were cut to the heart and they gnashed on him with their teeth,” and like so many raging maniacs “cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him” ( Acts 7:54-58).
Beware of resisting God and rejecting His Word, lest you be abandoned by Him and He suffers your madness to hasten your destruction. The more it was manifest that God was with Elijah, the more was Jezebel exasperated against him. Now that she learned he had slain her priests, she was like a lioness robbed of her cubs. Her rage knew no bounds; Elijah must be slain at once. Boastful of the morrow, swearing by her gods, she pronounced a fearful imprecation upon herself if Elijah does not meet the same end. The resolution of Jezebel shows the extreme hardness of her heart. It solemnly illustrates how wickedness grows on people. Sinners do not reach such fearful heights of defiance in a moment, but as conscience resists convictions, as light is again and again rejected, the very things which should soften and humble come to harden and make more insolent, and the more plainly God’s will be set before us, the more will it work resentment in the mind and hostility in the heart; then it is but a short time until that soul is consigned to the everlasting burnings.
But see here the overruling hand of God . Instead of ordering her officers to slay the prophet forthwith, Jezebel sent a servant to announce her sentence upon him. How often mad passions defeat their own ends, fury blinding the judgment so that prudence and caution are not exercised.
Possibly she felt so sure of her prey that she feared not to announce her purpose. But future events lie not at the disposal of the sons of men, no matter what positions of worldly power be occupied by them. Probably she thought that Elijah was so courageous, there was no likelihood of his attempting an escape: but in this she erred. How often God takes “the wise in their own craftiness” ( Job 5:13), and defeats the counsels of the wicked Ahithophels ( 2 Samuel 15:31)! Herod had murderous designs on the infant Saviour, but “being warned of God in a dream,” His parents carried Him down to Egypt ( Matthew 2:12). The Jews “took counsel” to kill the apostle Paul, but “their laying wait was known to him” and the disciples delivered him out of their hands ( Acts 9:23). So here: Elijah is given warning before Jezebel wreaks her vengeance on him.
This brings us to the saddest part of the narrative. The Tishbite is notified of the queen’s determination to slay him: what was his response thereto?
He was the Lord’s servant, does he then look unto his Master for instructions? Again and again we have seen in the past how “the Word of the Lord came” to him ( 17:2, 8; 18:1), telling him what to do: will he now wait upon the Lord for the necessary guidance? Alas, instead of spreading his case before God, he takes matters into his own hands; instead of waiting patiently for Him, he acts on hasty impulse, deserts the post of duty, and flees from the one who sought his destruction. “And when he saw that, he arose and went for his life, and came to Beersheba which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there” (v. 3). Notice carefully the “when he saw , he arose and went for his life.” His eyes were fixed on the wicked and furious queen: his mind was occupied with her power and fury, and therefore his heart was filled with terror. Faith in God is the only deliverer from carnal fear: “Behold, God is my salvation: I will trust, and not be afraid”; “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee: because he trusteth in Thee,” ( Isaiah 12:2; 26:3).
Elijah’s mind was no longer stayed upon Jehovah, and therefore fear took possession of him.
Hitherto Elijah had been sustained by faith’s vision of the living God, but now he lost sight of the Lord and saw only a furious woman. How many solemn warnings are recorded in Scripture of the disastrous consequences of walking by sight. “Lot lifted up his eyes and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere” ( Genesis 13:10), and made choice thereof: but very shortly after it is recorded of him that he “pitched his tent toward Sodom !” The majority-report of the twelve men sent by Moses to spy out the land of Canaan was, “we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight ( Numbers 13:33). In consequence of which “all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.” Walking by sight magnifies difficulties and paralyses spiritual activity. It was when Peter “saw the wind boisterous” that “he was afraid and began to sink ( Matthew 14:30). How striking the contrast between Elijah here and Moses, who “By faith forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing Him who is invisible” ( Hebrews 11:27), and nothing but the eye of faith fixed steadily upon God will enable anyone to “endure.” “And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life ”—not for God, nor for the good of His people; but because he thought only of self. The man who had faced the four hundred and fifty false prophets, now fled from one woman; the man who hitherto had been so faithful in the Lord’s service now deserted his post of duty, and that at a time when his presence was most needed by the people, if their convictions were to be strengthened and the work of reformation carried forward and firmly established. Alas, what is man! As Peter’s courage failed him in the presence of the maid, so Elijah’s strength wilted before the threatenings of Jezebel. Shall we exclaim, “How are the mighty fallen!”? No, indeed, for that would be a carnal and erroneous conception. The truth is that “It is only as God vouchsafes His grace and Holy Spirit that any man can walk uprightly. Elijah’s conduct on this occasion shows that the spirit and courage he had previously manifested were of the Lord, and not of himself: and that those who have the greatest zeal and courage for God and His truth, if left to themselves, become weak and timorous” (John Gill).