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The failure of Elijah had been of a different character from that of Jonah. It does not appear that he had done any moral wrong in quitting Jezreel; rather was his conduct in line with Christ’s direction to His disciples: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” ( Matthew 10:23).
They were not to expose themselves rashly to danger, but if they could do so honorably, avoid it and thus preserve themselves for future service—as numbers of our Reformers and members of their flocks took refuge on the Continent in the days of wicked Queen Mary. God had given Elijah no express order to remain at Jezreel and continue the work of reformation, and “where no law is, there is no transgression” ( Romans 4:15). It was more a case of the Lord’s testing His servant with “circumstances,” leaving him to himself, to show us what was in his heart, allowing him to exercise his own judgment and follow his own inclinations. Had there been something more involved than this, had the prophet been guilty of deliberate disobedience, the Lord’s dealings with him at Horeb would have been quite different from what they were.
What has been said above is not for the purpose of excusing Elijah, but to view his fault in a fair perspective. Some have unfairly magnified his failure, charging him with that which can not justly be laid to his account.
We certainly believe he made a lamentable mistake in deserting the post of duty to which “the hand of the Lord” had brought him ( 1 Kings 18:46), for he received no word from his Master to leave there. Nor can we justify his petulancy under the juniper tree and his request for the Lord to take away his life—that is for Him to decide, and not for us at any time.
Moreover, the question put to him twice at Horeb, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” evidently implied a gentle rebuke: yet it was more an error of judgment which he had committed than a sin of the heart. He had felt at liberty to exercise his own discretion and to act according to the dictates of his own feelings. God permitted this that we might know the strongest characters are as weak as water the moment He withdraws His upholding hand.
We have already seen how tenderly Jehovah dealt with His erring servant in the wilderness, let us now admire the grace He exercised toward him at Horeb. That which is to be before us reminds us much of the Psalmist’s experience: the Lord who was his Shepherd had not only made him to lie down in green pastures, but “He restoreth my soul” ( 23:2, 3), he acknowledged. The One who had refreshed and fed His servant under the juniper tree now recovers him from his useless repinings, reclaims him from his wanderings, and raises him to a position of honour in His service. Elijah was incapable of restoring himself, and there was no human being who could have delivered him from the slough of despond, so when there was none other eye to pity him the Lord had compassion upon him. And is it not thus, at some time or other, in the experience of all God’s servants and people? He who first delivered us from a horrible pit continues to care for us, and when we wander from Him He restores our souls and leads us back into the paths of righteousness. “And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus” ( 1 Kings 19:15). “The prophet was bemoaning the failure of all his efforts to glorify God, and the obstinate determination of his people to continue in their apostasy.
It was thus he spent his time in the cave at Horeb, brooding over his disappointment, and lashing himself, by reflecting upon the conduct of the people. A solitary place, with nothing to do, might be congenial with such a disposition; it might foster it, but would never heal it: and thus Elijah might have succumbed to a settled melancholy or raving madness. The only hope for persons in such circumstances is to come out from their lonely haunts, and to be actively employed in some useful and benevolent occupation. This is the best cure for melancholy: to set about doing something which will require muscular exertion, and which will benefit others. Hence God directed Elijah to quit this present lonely abode, which only increased the sadness and irritation of his spirit; and so He gave him a commission to execute a long way off” (John Simpson). “And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus” (v. 15). This is the course God takes when He restores the soul of one of His erring people, causing him to retrace his steps and return to the place of duty. When Abraham left Egypt - whither he had gone “down” in the time of famine: Genesis 12:10—we read that “he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning” ( Genesis 13:3).
So now Elijah is required to go back the way he had come, through the wilderness of Arabia, which was part of the course he would traverse on his way to Damascus. This is still God’s word to His strayed sheep: “Return , thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; I will not cause Mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful” ( Jeremiah 3:12).
When Peter repented for his great sin, the Lord not only for gave him, but recommissioned His servant: “Feed My sheep” ( John 21:16). So here, the Lord not only restored the prophet’s soul, but appointed him to fresh work in His service. “And when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria” (v. 15). This was a high honour for Jehovah to confer upon Elijah, such as He had bestowed upon Samuel ( 1 Samuel 16:13). How gracious is our God! How patiently He bears with our infirmities! Observe how these passages teach that it is not by the people but by God that kings reign ( Proverbs 8:15). “There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God,” and therefore does He require of us, “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” ( Romans 13:1). In this “democratic” age it is necessary that ministers of the Gospel should press this truth: “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake : whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers” ( 1 Peter 2:13,14).
Said the apostle to Titus, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates” ( <560301> 3:1). “And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel” (v. 16). None can reign except those whom God makes kings, and they only so long as He pleases. This “anointing” or unction proclaimed their Divine designation to this office and the qualification with which they should be endowed for their work. The Lord Jesus, who was “anointed with the Holy Spirit” ( Acts 10:38), united in Himself the offices of prophet, priest and king: the only persons ordered to be anointed in the Scriptures. Infidels have raised an objection against our present verse by pointing out that Jehu was anointed, not by Elijah, but by a young prophet under the direction of Elisha ( 2 Kings 9:1-6). This objection may be disposed of in two ways.
First, Jehu may have been anointed twice , as David was ( 1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4); or, as “Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, though Jesus Himself baptized not, but His disciples” ( John 4:1,2), so Jehu is said to be anointed by Elijah because what took place in 2 Kings 9 was according to his orders . “And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room” (v. 16). Here was an additional favour bestowed upon Elijah, that he should have the almost unique honour of ordaining his successor. That which had so quenched the Tishbite’s spirit was the failure which attended his efforts: no impression seemed to be made on the idolatrous nation, he alone appeared to be concerned about the glory of the Lord God, and now his own life was imperiled. How his heart must have been comforted by the Divine assurance that another was appointed to carry on the mission he had prosecuted so zealously! Hitherto there had been none to help him, but in the hour of his despondency God provides him with a suitable companion and successor. It has ever been a great consolation to godly ministers and their flocks to think that God will never lack instruments to conduct His work, that when they are removed others will be brought for ward to carry on. One of the saddest and most solemn features of this degenerate age is that the ranks of the righteous are so depleted and scarcely any are being raised up to fill their places. It is this which makes the outlook doubly dark. “And 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). Elijah had wrought faithfully, but Israel had to be dealt with by other agents too: the three men whom he was bidden to anoint would in their turn bring down judgment upon the land. God was infinitely more jealous of His own honour than His servant could be, and He would by no means desert His cause or suffer His enemies to triumph as the prophet feared. But mark the variety of the instruments which God was pleased to employ: Hazael, king of Syria; Jehu, the rude captain of Israel; and Elisha, a young farmer—great differences here! And yet each one was needed for some special work in connection with that idolatrous people at that time.
Yea, as some of the smaller and frailer members of the body perform the most useful—and essential offices, so it is often by the most unlettered and apparently unqualified men that God accomplishes the chief exploits in His kingdom.
We may also perceive here how God exercises His high sovereignty in the instruments He employs. Neither Hazael nor Jehu was a pious man: the former came to the throne by foully murdering his predecessor ( 2 Kings 8:15), while of the latter we read, “But Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart: for he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam” ( 2 Kings 10:31).
It is often His way to make use of wicked men to thrash those who have enjoyed but spurned particular favors at His hands. It is indeed remarkable how the Most High accomplishes His purpose through men whose only thought is to gratify their own evil lusts. True, their sin is neither diminished nor condoned because they are executing the decrees of Heaven; indeed, they are held fully accountable for the evil, yet they do only that which God’s hand and counsel determined before to be done, serving as His agent to inflict judgment upon His apostate people. “And 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.”
Unspeakably solemn is this. Though God bears “with much longsuffering” the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction, yet there is a limit to His patience; “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” ( Proverbs 29:1).
Long had God endured that horrible insult to His majesty, but the worshippers of Baal should shortly discover that His wrath was as great as His power. They had been faithfully warned: for three and a half years there had been a fearful drought and famine upon their land. A notable miracle had been wrought on Carmel, but only a fleeting impression had been made on the people. And now God announces that the “sword” shall do its fearful work, not mildly but thoroughly, until the land was completely purged of this great evil. And this is placed on record for all succeeding generations to ponder! The Lord has not changed: even as we write, His judgments are upon most of the world. O that the nations may heed His voice ere it be too late! “Yet I will 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). On this verse we take decided exception to the interpretation given by the great majority of the commentators, who see in it a Divine rebu ke unto the prophet’s dark pessimism, supposing it was God’s reply to his despondent “I only am left,” when in reality there was a multitude in Israel who refused to join in the general idolatry. For several reasons we cannot accept any such view. Is it thinkable that there could actually be thousands in Israel who remained loyal to Jehovah and yet the prophet be totally unaware of their existence? It is not surprising to find one writer of note saying, “It has often been a subject of wonder to me how those seven thousand secret disciples could keep so close as to be unknown by their great leader: attar of roses will always betray its presence, hide it as we may” - but he creates his own difficulty. Moreover, such a view is quite out of harmony with the context: why, after bestowing honour upon the prophet, should the Lord suddenly reprove him?
The careful reader will observe that the marginal reading opposite “Yet I have left Me seven thousand” is, “Yet I will leave me seven thousand.” The Hebrew allows of either, but we much prefer the latter, for it not only removed the difficulty of Elijah’s ignorance (which the former necessarily involves), but it accords much better with the context. The Lord was graciously comforting His despondent servant. First, the Lord informed the prophet that another should take his place and carry on his mission. Next He declared He was by no means indifferent to the horrible situation, but would shortly make quick work of it in judgment. And now He assures him that, though summary judgment should be visited upon Israel, yet He would not make a full end of them, but would preserve a remnant for Himself. Nor does Romans 11:4 in anywise conflict with this, providing we change the word “answer” to “oracle” (as the Greek requires!), for God was not replying to an objection, but making known to Elijah things to come.
It will thus be seen that we take an entirely different view from the popular interpretation not only of verse 18, but of the whole passage. Every writer we have consulted regards these verses as expressing the Lord’s displeasure against a refractory servant, that He dealt with him in judgment, setting him aside from the honored position he had occupied by appointing Elisha in his stead. But apart from the gentle rebuke implied in His question, “What doest thou here, Elijah?”, there is nothing to signify the Lord’s displeasure, but much to the contrary. Rather do we regard these verses as a record of God’s comforting answer to the prophet’s despondency. Elijah felt that the forces of evil had triumphed: the Lord announces that the worship of Baal should be utterly destroyed (v. 17 and cf. 2 Kings 10:25-28). Elijah grieved because he “only was left”: the Lord declares “I will leave Me seven thousand in Israel.” So desperate was the situation, they sought to take the life of Elijah: The Lord promises that Elisha shall complete his mission. Thus did Jehovah most tenderly silence his fears and reassure his heart.
With the verses which have been before us, we like to link those words of Christ to His apostles, “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you” ( John 15:15) —indicative of the intimate fellowship they enjoyed with Him. Thus it was with Elijah. The Lord of hosts had condescended to make known unto him things to come, which certainly had not been the case if he were estranged from Him. It was like what we read of in Genesis 18:17, “And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?” No, He did not, for Abraham was “the friend of God” ( James 2:23). Blessed indeed is it to see how the Lord had restored Elijah’s soul to the most intimate communion with Himself: recovering him from his gloom and reinstating him in His service. “So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth: and Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle upon him” (v. 19). Here is good evidence that the Lord had restored the soul of His servant. Elijah raised no objection, made no delay, but responded promptly. Obedience must ever be the test of our relations with God: “If ye love Me, keep My commandments” ( John 14:15). In this instance it involved a difficult journey of some one hundred and sixty miles—the distance between Horeb and Abel-meholah (v. 16 and cf. 4:12)—most of it across the desert; but when God commissions it is for us to comply. There was no jealous resentment that another should fill his place: as soon as Elisha was encountered Elijah cast his mantle upon him—indicative of his investiture with the prophetic office and a sign of friendship that he would take him under his care and tuition. So indeed the young farmer understood it, as is evident from his response. And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee” (v. 20). The Spirit of God moved him to accept the call, so that he at once relinquished all his worldly expectations. See how easily the Lord can stir men up to undertake His work in the face of great discouragements. “Had he consulted with flesh and blood, he would have been very unwilling to be in Elijah’s situation, when thus hunted in those dangerous times, and when there was nothing but persecution to be expected. Yet Elisha chose to be a servant to a prophet rather than master of a large farm, and cheerfully resigned all for God. The prayer of Divine grace can remove every objection and conquer every prejudice” (Robert Simpson). “And he said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee?” (v. 20). Very beautiful is this: there was no self-importance, but rather total self-renunciation. Like John the Baptist (who came in his spirit : Luke 1:17) he was sent to usher in another, and his language here was tantamount to “he must increase, I must decrease.” Blessed humility ! “And he returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat. Then he arose, and went after Elijah and ministered unto him” (v. 21). What a lovely finishing touch to the picture!
Certainly Elisha did not look upon Elijah as one who had been set aside by the Lord! What comfort for the Tishbite now to have for his companion one of so dutiful and affectionate disposition; and what a privilege for this young man to be under so eminent a tutor! And what is the next reference to him in Scripture? This, “And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel” ( 1 Kings 21:17,18): how completely that disposes of the popular idea that God had discarded him from His service. Plainly he had been thoroughly reinstated and was back again on the same old terms with his Master. That is why we have entitled this chapter “Elijah’s Recovery.”