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“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).
Elijah was now called upon to witness a most remarkable and aweinspiring display of God’s power. The description which is here given of the scene, though brief, is so graphic that any words of ours would only serve to blunt its forcefulness. What we desire to do is rather to ascertain the meaning and message of this sublime manifestation of God: its message to Elijah, to Israel, and to ourselves. Oh, that our eyes may be anointed to discern, our heart so affected as to appreciate, our thoughts controlled by the Holy Spirit, and our pen directed unto the glory of the Most High and the blessing of His dear people.
In seeking to discover the spiritual significance of what the prophet here witnessed upon the mount, we must ponder the scene in connection with what has preceded it both in the history of Israel and in the experience of Elijah himself. Then we must consider it in relation to what immediately follows, for there is undoubtedly a close connection between the startling scenes depicted in verses 11 and 12 and the solemn message contained in verses 15 to 18, the latter serving to interpret the former. Finally, we need to examine this striking incident in the light of the analogy of faith, the Scriptures as a whole, for one part of them serves to explain another. It is as we become better acquainted with the “ways” of God, as revealed in His Word, that we are able to enter more intelligently into the meaning of His “acts” ( <19A307> Psalm 103:7).
How then are we to consider this manifestation of God upon the mount with regard to Elijah himself? First, as the Lord’s dealing with him in grace . This should be evident from the context. There we have seen the touching response which God made to His servant’s failure. So far from forsaking him in his hour of weakness and need, the Lord had ministered most tenderly to him, exemplifying that precious promise, “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him” ( <19A313> Psalm 103:13).
And Elijah did fear the Lord, and though his faith was for the moment eclipsed, the Lord did not turn His back upon him on that account. Sleep was given to him; an angel supplied him with food and drink; supernatural strength was communicated to his frame, so that he was enabled to do without any further nourishment for forty days and nights. And when he reached the cave, Christ Himself, the eternal “Word” had stood before him in theophanic manifestation. What high favors were those! What proofs that we have to do with One who is “the God of all grace”!
Of what has just been pointed out it may be said, True, but then Elijah slighted that grace: instead of being suitably affected thereby he remained petulant and peevish; instead of confessing his failure he attempted to justify the forsaking of his post of duty. Even so, then what? Why, does not the Lord here teach the refractory prophet a needed lesson? Does He not appear before him in a terrifying manner for the purpose of rebuking him?
Not so do we read this incident. Those who take such a view must have little experimental acquaintance with the wondrous grace of God. He is not fickle and variable as we are: He does not at one time deal with us according to His own compassionate benignity and at another treat with us according to our ill deserts. When God begins to deal in grace with one of His elect, He continues dealing with him in grace, and nothing in the creature can impede the outflow of His lovingkindness.
One cannot examine the wonders which occurred here on Horeb without seeing in them an intended reference to the awful solemnities of Sinai with its “thunders and lightnings,” when the Lord “descended upon it in fire” and the whole mount “quaked greatly” ( Exodus 19:16,18). Yet we miss the force of the allusion unless we heed carefully the words, “the Lord was not in the wind,” “the Lord was not in the earthquake,” “the Lord was not in the fire.” God was not dealing with Elijah on the ground of the legal covenant. That threefold negative is the Spirit saying to us, Elijah had “not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest” ( Hebrews 12:18).
Rather was the prophet addressed by the “still small voice,” which was plain intimation that he had “come unto mount Zion” ( Hebrews 12:22)—the Mount of grace. That Jehovah should reveal Himself thus to Elijah was a mark of Divine favour, conferring upon him the same sign of distinction which He had vouchsafed unto Moses in that very place, when He showed him His glory and made all His goodness pass before him.
Second, the method which the Lord chose to take with His servant on this occasion was designed for his instruction . Elijah was dejected at the failure of his mission. He had been jealous for the Lord God of hosts, but what had come of all his zeal? He had prayed as probably none before him had ever prayed, yet though miracles had been wrought in answer thereto, that which lay nearest to his heart had not been attained. Ahab had been quite unaffected by what he had witnessed. The nation was not reclaimed unto God. Jezebel was as defiant as ever. Elijah appeared to be entirely alone, and his utmost efforts were unavailing. The enemy still triumphed in spite of all. The Lord therefore sets before His servant an object lesson. By solemn exhibitions of His mighty power He impressively reminds Elijah that He is not confined to any one agent in the carrying out of His designs.
The elements are at His disposal when He is pleased to employ them: a gentler method and milder agent if such be His will.
It was quite natural that Elijah should have formed the conclusion that the whole work was to be done by himself, coming as he did with all the vehemence of a mighty wind; that under God all obstacles would be swept away—idolatry abolished and the nation brought back to the worship of Jehovah. The Lord now graciously makes known unto the prophet that He has other arrows in His quiver which He will discharge in due time. The “wind,” the “earthquake,” “the fire,” should each play their appointed part, and thereby make way more distinctly and effectively for the milder ministry of the “still small voice.” Elijah was but one agent among several. “One soweth, and another reapeth” ( John 4:37), Elijah had performed his part and soon would he be grandly rewarded for his faithfulness. Nor had he labored in vain, yet another man and not himself should enter into his labours. How gracious of the Lord thus to take His servants into His confidence ! “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets” ( Amos 3:7).
This is exactly what occurred there on Horeb. By means of what we may term a panoramic parable God revealed the future unto Elijah. Herein we may discover the bearing of this remarkable incident upon Israel . In the immediate sequel we find the Lord bidding Elijah anoint Hazael over Syria, Jehu over Israel, and Elisha prophet in his own room, assuring him that “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” (v. 17). In the work of those men we may perceive the prophetic meaning of the solemn phenomena Elijah beheld—they were symbols of the dire calamities with which God would punish the apostate nation. Thus the strong “wind” was a figure of the work of judgment which Hazael performed on Israel, when he “set their strongholds on fire and slew their young men with the sword” ( 2 Kings 8:12); the “earthquake,” of the revolution under Jehu, when he utterly destroyed the house of Ahab ( 2 Kings 9:7-10); and the “fire,” the work of judgment completed by Elisha.
Terrible indeed were the judgments which would fall upon guilty Israel, yet in wrath Jehovah would remember mercy. The chosen nation would not be utterly exterminated, and therefore did the Lord graciously assure His despondent servant, “Yet will I leave Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (v. 18). As the “strong wind,” the “earthquake,” and the “fire” were emblematic portents of the judgments which God was shortly to send upon His idolatrous people, so the “still small voice” which followed them looked forward to the mercy He had in store after His “strange work” had been accomplished. For we read that, after Hazael had oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz, “the Lord was gracious unto them, and had respect unto them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast He them from His presence as yet” ( 2 Kings 13:23).
Once again we say, how gracious of the Lord to make known unto Elijah “things to come,” and thus acquaint him with what should be the sequel to his labors.
If we consider the remarkable occurrences of Horeb in the light of the Scriptures as a whole, we shall find they were indicative and illustrative of one of the general principles in the Divine government of this world. The order of the Divine manifestations before Elijah was analogous to the general tenor of the Divine proceedings. Whether it be with regard to a people or an individual, it is usual for the bestowment of Divine mercies to be preceded by awe-inspiring displays of God’s power and displeasure against sin. First the plagues upon Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh and his hosts at the Red Sea, and then the deliverance of the Hebrews. The majesty and might of Jehovah exhibited on Sinai and then the blessed proclamation, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” ( Exodus 34:6,7).
Fourth, the method followed by the Lord on this occasion was meant to furnish Elijah for further service . The “still small voice,” speaking quietly and gently, was designed to calm and sooth his ruffled spirit. It evidenced afresh the kindness and tenderness of the Lord, who would assuage Elijah’s disappointment and cheer his heart. Where the soul is reassured of His Master’s love the servant is nerved to face fresh dangers and oppositions for His sake and to tackle any task He may assign him. It was thus also He dealt with Isaiah: first abasing him with a vision of His glory, which made the prophet conscious of his utter sinfulness and insufficiency, and then assuring him of the remission of his sins: and in consequence Isaiah went forward on a most thankless mission ( Isaiah 6:1-12). The sequel here shows the Lord’s measures were equally effective with Elijah; he received a fresh commission and obediently he discharged 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” (v. 13). This is remarkable. So far as we can gather from the inspired record, Elijah stood unmoved at the varied displays of Jehovah’s power, fearful as they were to behold—surely a clear intimation that his conscience was not burdened by guilt! But when the still small voice sounded, he was at once affected. The Lord addressed His servant, not in an angry and austere manner, but with gentleness and tenderness, to show him what a compassionate and gracious God he had to do with, and his heart was touched. The Hebrew word for “still” is the one employed in <19A729> Psalm 107:29, “He maketh the storm a calm .” The wrapping of his face in his mantle betokened two things: his reverence for the Divine majesty and a sense of his own unworthiness—as the seraphim are represented as covering their faces in the Lord’s presence, ( Isaiah 6:2,3). When Abraham found himself in the presence of God, he said, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18). When Moses beheld Him in the burning bush, he “hid his face” (Exodus 3).
Many and profitable are the lessons for us in this remarkable incident. First, from it we may perceive it is God’s way to do the unexpected . Were we to put it to a vote as to which they thought the more likely, for the Lord to have spoken to Elijah through the mighty wind and earthquake or the still small voice, we suppose the great majority would say the former. And is it not much the same in our own spiritual experience? We earnestly beg Him to grant us a more definite and settled assurance of our acceptance in Christ, and then look for His answer in a sort of electric shock imparted to our souls or in an extraordinary vision; when instead, it is by the still small voice of the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. Again, we beseech the Lord that we may grow in grace, and then expect His answer in the form of more conscious enjoyment of His presence; whereas He quietly gives us to see more of the hidden depravity of our hearts. Yes, God often does the unexpected in His dealings with us.
Second, the pre-eminence of the Word . Reduced to a single word we may say that the varied phenomena witnessed by Elijah upon the mount were a matter of the Lord speaking to him. When it is said, “The Lord was not in” the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, we are to understand it was not through them He addressed Himself to the prophet’s heart; rather was it by the “still small voice.” In regarding this last agent as the emblem of the Word, we find confirmation in the striking fact that the Hebrew word for “small” is the self-same one used in “a small round thing” in Exodus 16:14, and we need hardly add, the manna whereby the Lord fed Israel in the wilderness was a type of the food He has provided for our souls.
Third, in the phenomena of the mount we may perceive a striking illustration of the vivid contrast between the Law and the Gospel. The rock-rending wind, the earthquake and the fire figured the terror-producing Law (as may be seen from their presence at Sinai), but the “still small voice” was a fit emblem of “the Gospel of peace” which soothes the troubled breast. As the plough and the harrow are necessary in order to break up the hard earth and prepare it for the seed, so a sense of the majesty, holiness and wrath of God is the harbinger which prepares us to appreciate truly His grace and love. The careless must be awakened, the soul made sensible of its danger, the conscience convicted of the sinfulness of sin, ere there is any turning unto God and fleeing from the wrath to come. Yet those experiences are not saving ones: they do but prepare the way, as the ministry of John the Baptist fitted men to behold the Lamb of God.
Fourth, thus we may see in this incident a figure of God’s ordinary manner of dealing with souls , for it is customary for Him to use the Law before the Gospel. In spite of much which is now said to the contrary, this writer still believes that it is usual for the Spirit to wound before He heals, to shake the soul over hell before He communicates a hope of heaven, to bring the heart to despair before it is brought to Christ. Self-complacency has to be rudely shattered and the rags of self-righteousness torn off if a sense of deep need is to fill the heart. The Hebrews had to come under the whip of their masters and to be made to groan in the brick kilns before they longed to be delivered from Egypt. A man must know himself to be utterly lost before he will crave salvation. The wind and fire must do their work before we can appreciate the “joyful sound” ( Psalm 89:15). Sentence of death has to be written upon us ere we turn to Christ for life.
Fifth, this is often God’s method of answering prayer . Christians are very apt to look for God to respond unto their petitions with striking signs and spectacular wonders, and because these are not given in a marked and permanent form they conclude He heeds them not. But the presence and power of God are not to be gauged by abnormal manifestations and extraordinary visitations. The wonders of God are rarely wrought with noise and vehemence. Whose ear can detect the falling of the dew?
Vegetation grows silently but none the less surely. In grace as in nature God usually works gently, softly, unperceived, except through the effects produced. The greatest fidelity and devotion to God are not to be found where excitement and sensationalism hold forth. The blessing of the Lord attends the unobtrusive and persevering use of His appointed means which attracts not the attention of the vulgar and carnal.
Sixth, this scene on Horeb, contains a timely message for preachers . How many ministers of the Gospel have become thoroughly discouraged, though with far less provocation than Elijah. They have been untiring in their labours, zealous for the Lord, faithful in preaching His Word, yet nothing comes of it, there is no response, all appears to be in vain. Even so, granted that such be the case, then what? Seek to lay hold afresh on the grand truth that the purpose of the Lord shall not fail, and that purpose includes tomorrow as well as today! The Most High is not confined to any one agent. Elijah thought the whole work was to be accomplished through his instrumentality, but was taught that he was only one factor among several.
Seventh, there is a solemn warning here to the unsaved . God will not be mocked with impunity. Though He be longsuffering, there is a limit to His patience. Those who improved not the day of their visitation and opportunity under the ministry of Elijah were made to feel what a terrible thing it is to flout the Divine warnings. Mercy was followed by judgment, drastic and devastating. The strongholds of Israel were overthrown and their young men slain by the sword. Is this to be the awful fate of the present generation? Is it devoted by God to destruction? It looks more and more like it. The masses are given up to a spirit of madness. The most solemn portents of the approaching storm are blatantly disregarded. The words of God’s servants fall upon deaf ears. O my unsaved readers, flee to Christ without further delay ere the flood of God’s wrath engulfs you.