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The lot of God’s people is a varied one and their case is marked by frequent change. We cannot expect that it should be otherwise while they are left in this scene, for there is nothing stable here: mutability and fluctuation characterizes everything under the sun. Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward, and the common experience of saints is no exception to this general rule. “In the world ye shall have tribulation” ( John 16:33), Christ plainly warned His disciples: yet He added, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” and therefore ye shall share in My victory. Yet though victory be sure, they suffer many defeats along the way. They do not enjoy unbroken summer in their souls; nor is it always winter with them. Their voyage across the sea of life is similar to that encountered by mariners on the ocean: “They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble... Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses” ( <19A726> Psalm 107:26,28).
Nor is it any otherwise with God’s public servants. True, they enjoy many privileges which are not shared by the rank and file of the Lord’s people, and for these they must yet render an account. Ministers of the Gospel do not have to spend most of their time and strength amid the ungodly, toiling for their daily bread; instead they are shielded from constant contact with the wicked, and much of their time may be and should be spent in quiet study, meditation and prayer. Moreover, God has bestowed special spiritual gifts on them: a larger measure of His Spirit, a deeper insight into His Word, and therefore they should be better fitted to cope with the trials of life. Nevertheless, “tribulation” is also their portion while left in this wilderness of sin. Indwelling corruptions give them no rest day or night and the Devil makes them the special objects of his malice, ever busy seeking to disturb their peace and impair their usefulness, venting upon them the full fury of his hatred.
More may rightly be expected from the minister of the Gospel than from others. He is required to be “an example of the believers in word, in conversation (behavior), in charity (love), in spirit, in faith, in purity” ( 1 Timothy 4:12); “in all things showing thyself a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity” ( Titus 2:7). But though a “man of God,” he is a “man” and not an angel, compassed with infirmity and prone to evil. God has placed His treasure in “earthen vessels”—not steel or gold—easily cracked and marred, worthless in themselves: “that” adds the apostle, “the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” ( Corinthians 4:7): that is, the glorious Gospel proclaimed by ministers is no invention of their brains, and the blessed effects which it produces are in no wise due to their skill. They are but instruments, weak and valueless in themselves; their message is God-given and its fruits are entirely of the Holy Spirit, so that they have no ground whatever for self-glorification, nor have those who are benefited by their labours any reason to make heroes out of them or look up to them as a superior order of beings, who are to be regarded as little gods.
The Lord is very jealous of His honour and will not share His glory with another. His people profess to believe that as a cardinal truth, yet they are apt to forget it. They, too, are human, and prone to hero-worship, prone to idolatry, prone to render unto the creatures that to which the Lord alone is entitled. Hence it is they so frequently meet with disappointment, and discover their beloved idol is, like themselves, made of clay. For his own people, God has chosen “the foolish things of this world,” the “weak things,” the “base things” and “things which are not” (mere “nobody’s”), “that no flesh should glory in His presence” ( 1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
And he has called sinful though regenerated men, and not holy angels, to be the preachers of His Gospel, that it might fully appear that “the excellency of the power” in calling sinners out of darkness into His marvelous light lies not in them nor proceeds from them, but that He alone gives the increase to the seed sown by them: “so then neither is he that planteth (the evangelist) anything, neither he that watereth (the teacher), but God” ( 1 Corinthians 3:7).
It is for this reason that God suffers it to appear that the best of men are but men at the best. No matter how richly gifted they may be, how eminent in God’s service, how greatly honored and used of Him, let His sustaining power be withdrawn from them for a moment and it will quickly be seen that they are “earthen vessels.” No man stands any longer than he is supported by Divine grace. The most experienced saint, if left to himself, is immediately seen to be as weak as water and as timid as a mouse. “Man at his best estate is altogether vanity” ( Psalm 39:5). Then why should it be thought a thing incredible when we read of the failings and falls of the most favored of God’s saints and servants? Noah’s drunkenness, Lot’s carnality, Abraham’s prevarications, Moses” anger, Aaron’s jealousy, Joshua’s haste, David’s adultery, Jonah’s disobedience, Peter’s denial, Paul’s contention with Barnabas, are so many illustrations of the solemn truth that “there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good, and sinneth not” ( Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Perfection is found in Heaven, but nowhere on earth except in the Perfect Man.
Yet let it be pointed out that the failures of these men are not recorded in Scripture for us to hide behind, as though we may use them to excuse our own infidelities. Far from it: they are set before us as so many danger signals for us to take note of, as solemn warnings for us to heed. The reading thereof should humble us, making us more distrustful of ourselves.
They should impress upon our hearts the fact that our strength is found alone in the Lord, and that without Him we can do nothing. They should be translated into earnest prayer that the workings of pride and selfsufficiency may be subdued within us. They should cause us to cry constantly, “Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe” ( <19B9117> Psalm 119:117).
Not only so, they should wean us from undue confidence in the creatures and deliver us from expecting too much of others, even of the fathers in Israel. They should make us diligent in prayer for our brethren in Christ, especially for our pastors, that it may please God to preserve them from everything which would dishonor His name and cause His enemies to rejoice.
The man at whose prayers the windows of heaven had been fast closed for three and a half years, and at whose supplication they had again been opened, was no exception: he too was made of flesh and blood, and this was permitted to be painfully manifest. Jezebel sent a message to inform him that on the morrow he should suffer the same fate as had overtaken her prophets. “And when he saw that, he arose and went for his life.” In the midst of his glorious triumph over the enemies of the Lord, at the very time the people needed him to lead them in the total overthrow of idolatry and the establishment of true worship, he is terrified by the queen’s threat, and flees. It was “the hand of the Lord” which had brought him to Jezreel ( 1 Kings 18:46), and he received no Divine intimation to move from there. Surely it was both his privilege and duty to look unto his Master to protect him from Jezebel’s rage as He had before done from Ahab’s. Had he committed himself into the hands of God He had not failed him and great good had probably been accomplished if he now remained at the post where the Lord had put him.
But his eyes were no longer fixed upon God, instead they saw only a furious woman. The One who had miraculously fed him at the brook Cherith, who had so wondrously sustained him at the widow’s home in Zarephath, and who so signally strengthened him on Carmel, is forgotten.
Thinking only of himself he flees from the place of testimony. But how is this strange lapse to be accounted for? Obviously his fears were excited by the queen’s threat coming to him so unexpectedly . Was there not good reason for him now to be anticipating with great joy and exultation the cooperation of all Israel in the work of reformation? Would not the whole nation, who had cried, “Jehovah, He is the God,” be deeply thankful for his prayers having procured the much-needed rain? And in a moment his hope seemed to be rudely shattered by this message from the incensed queen.
Had he then lost all faith in God to protect him? Far be it from us so to charge him: rather does it seem that he was momentarily overwhelmed, panic- stricken. He gave himself no time to think: but taken completely by surprise, he acted on the spur of the moment. How that gives point to “he that believeth shall not make haste” ( Isaiah 28:16).
While what has been pointed out above accounts for Elijah’s hurried action, yet it does not explain his strange lapse. It was the absence of faith which caused him to be filled with fear. But let it be stated that the exercise of faith lies not at the disposal of the believer, so that he may call it into action whenever he pleases. Not so: faith is a Divine gift and the exercise of it is solely by Divine power, and both in its bestowment and its operations God acts sovereignly. Yet though God ever acts sovereignly, He never acts capriciously. He afflicts not willingly, but because we give Him occasion to use the rod; He withholds grace because of our pride, withdraws comfort because of our sins. God permits His people to experience falls along the road for various reasons, yet in every instance the outward fall is preceded by some failure or other on their part, and if we are to reap the full benefit from the recorded sins of such as Abraham, David, Elijah and Peter, we need to study attentively what led up to and was the occasion of them. This is generally done with Peter’s case, yet rarely so with the others.
In most instances the preceding contexts give plain intimation of the first signs of declension, as a spirit of self-confidence signally marked the approaching fall of Peter. But in the case before us the previous verses supply no clue to the eclipse of Elijah’s faith, yet the verses which follow indicate the cause of his relapse. When the Lord appeared unto him and asked, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” ( 19:9), the prophet answered, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: 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.” Does not that tell us, first, that he had been entertaining too great a regard of his own importance; second, that he was unduly occupied with his service: “I, even I only am left”—to maintain Thy cause; and third, that he was chagrined at the absence of those results he had expected? The workings of pride—his three fold “I”—choke the exercises of faith. Observe how Elijah repeated those statements (v. 14), and how God’s response seems by His very corrective to specify the disease—Elisha was appointed in his stead!
God then withdrew His strength for the moment that Elijah might be seen in his native weakness. He did so righteously, for grace is promised only to the humble ( James 4:6). Yet in this God acts sovereignly, for it is only by His grace that any man is kept humble. He gives more faith to one than to another, and maintains it more evenly in certain individuals. How great the contrast from Elijah’s flight was Elisha’s faith: when the king of Syria sent a great host to arrest the latter and his servant said, “Alas, my master! how shall we do?” the prophet answered, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” ( 2 Kings 6:15,16).
When the Empress Eudoxia sent a threatening message to Chrysostom, he bade her officer, “Go tell her I fear nothing but sin.” When the friends of Luther earnestly begged him not to proceed to the Diet of Worms to which he had been summoned by the Emperor, he replied, “Though every tile on the houses of that city were a devil I will not be deterred,” and he went, and God delivered him out of his enemies” hands. Yet the infirmities of Chrysostom and Luther were manifested on other occasions.
It was his being occupied with circumstances which brought about Elijah’s sad fall. It is a dictum of the world’s philosophy that “man is the creature of his circumstances.” No doubt this is largely the case with the natural man, but it should not be true of the Christian, nor is it so while his graces remain in a healthy condition. Faith views the One who orders our circumstances, hope looks beyond the present scene, patience gives strength to endure trials, and love delights in Him whom no circumstances affect. While Elijah set the Lord before him he feared not though a host encamped against him. But when he looked upon the creature and contemplated his peril he thought more of his own safety than of God’s cause. To be occupied with circumstances is to walk by sight, and that is fatal both to our peace and spiritual prosperity. However unpleasant or desperate be our circumstances, God is able to preserve us in them, as He did Daniel in the lion’s den and his companions in the fiery furnace; yea, He is able to make the heart triumph over them, as witness the singing of the apostles in the Philippian dungeon.
Oh, what need have we to cry, “Lord, increase our faith,” for we are only strong and safe while exercising faith in God. If He be forgotten and His presence with us be not realized at the time when great dangers menace us, then we are certain to act in a manner unworthy of our Christian profession. It is by faith we stand ( 2 Corinthians 1:24), as it is through faith we are kept by the power of God unto salvation ( 1 Peter 1:5). If we truly set the Lord before us and contemplate Him as being at our right hand, nothing will move us, none can make us afraid; we may bid defiance to the most powerful and malignant. Yet as another has said, “But where is the faith that never staggers through unbelief? the hand that never hangs down, the knee that never trembles, the heart that never faints?”
Nevertheless, the fault is ours , the blame is ours. Though it lies not in our power to strengthen faith or call it into exercise, we may weaken it and can hinder its operations. After saying, “Thou standest by faith,” the apostle at once added, “Be not high- minded, but fear” ( Romans 11:20)—be distrustful of self, for it is pride and self-sufficiency which stifle the breathings of faith.
Many have thought it strange when they read of the most note worthy of Biblical saints failing in the very graces which were their strongest.
Abraham is outstanding for his faith, being called “the father of all them that believe”; yet his faith broke down in Egypt when he lied to Pharaoh about his wife. We are told that “Moses was very meek, above all the men who were upon the face of the earth” ( Numbers 12:3), yet he was debarred from entering Canaan because he lost his temper and spoke unadvisedly with his lips. John was the apostle of love, yet in a fit of intolerance he and his brother James wanted to call down fire from heaven so that the Samaritans be destroyed, for which the Saviour rebuked them ( Luke 9:54,55). Elijah was renowned for his boldness, yet it was his courage which now failed him. What proofs are these that none can exercise those graces which most distinguish their characters without the immediate and constant assistance of God, and that, when in danger of being exalted above measure, they are often left to struggle with temptation without their accustomed support. Only by conscious and acknowledged weakness are we made strong.
A few words only must suffice in making application of this sad incident.
Its outstanding lesson is obviously a solemn warning unto those occupying public positions in the Lord’s vineyard. When He is pleased to work through and by them there is sure to be bitter and powerful opposition stirred up against them. Said the apostle, “A great and effectual door is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” ( 1 Corinthians 16:9)— the two ever go together; yet if the Lord be our confidence and strength, there is nothing to fear. A heavy and well nigh fatal blow had been given to Satan’s kingdom that day on Carmel, and had Elijah stood his ground, would not the seven thousand secret worshippers of Jehovah have been emboldened to come forth on his side, the language of Micah 4:6 and 7, been accomplished, and the captivity and dispersion of his people spared?
Alas, one false step and such a bright prospect was dashed to the ground, and never returned. Seek grace, O servant of God, to “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” ( Ephesians 6:13).
But does not this sad incident also point a salutary lesson which all believers need take to heart? This solemn fall of the prophet comes also immediately after the marvels which had been accomplished in response to his supplications. How strange! Rather, how searching! In the preceding chapters we emphasized that the glorious transactions wrought upon Mount Carmel supply the Lord’s people with a most blessed illustration and demonstration of the efficacy of prayer, and surely this pathetic sequel shows what need they have to be on their guard when they have received some notable mercy from the Throne of Grace. If it was needful that the apostle should be given a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him, lest he should be “exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations” vouchsafed him ( 2 Corinthians 12:7), then what need have we to “rejoice with trembling ” ( Psalm 2:11), when we are elated over receiving answers to our petitions.