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As pointed out in our last chapter, it was not merely to provide Elijah with a safe retreat, to protect His servant from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, that Jehovah so commanded the prophet, but to signify His sore displeasure against His apostate people: the withdrawal of the prophet from the scene of public action was an additional judgment on the nation.
We cannot forbear pointing out that tragic analogy which now obtains more or less in Christendom. During the past two or three decades God has removed some eminent and faithful servants of His by the hand of death, and not only has He not replaced them by raising up others in their stead, but an increasing number of those who still remain are being sent into seclusion by Him.
It was both for God’s glory and the prophet’s own good that the Lord bade him “get thee hence… hide thyself.” It was a call to separation. Ahab was an apostate, and his consort was a heathen. Idolatry abounded on every side. Jehovah was publicly dishonored. The man of God could have no sympathy or communion with such a horrible situation. Isolation from evil is absolutely essential if we are to “keep ourselves unspotted from the world” ( James 1:27): not only separation from secular wickedness but from religious corruption also . “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” ( Ephesians 5:11), has been God’s demand in every dispensation. Elijah stood as the Lord’s faithful witness in a day of national departure from Himself, and having delivered His testimony to the responsible head, the prophet must now retire. To turn our backs on all that dishonors God is an essential duty.
But where was Elijah to go? He had previously dwelt in the presence of the Lord God of Israel. “Before whom I stand” he could say when pronouncing sentence of judgment unto Ahab, and he should still abide in the secret place of the Most High. The prophet was not left to his own devisings or choice, but directed to a place of God’s own appointing— outside the camp, away from the entire religious system. Degenerate Israel was to know him only as a witness against themselves: he was to have no place and take no part in either the social or religious life of the nation. He was to turn “eastward:” the quarter from which the morning light arises, for those who are regulated by the Divine precepts “shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” ( John 8:12). “By the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.” Jordan marked the very limits of the land. Typically it spoke of death, and spiritual death now rested upon Israel.
But what a message of hope and comfort the “Jordan” contained for one who was walking with the Lord! How well calculated was it to speak unto the heart of one whose faith was in a healthy condition! Was it not at this very place that Jehovah had shown Himself strong on behalf of His people in the days of Joshua? Was not the Jordan the very scene which had witnessed the miracle-working power of God at the time when Israel left the wilderness behind them? It was there the Lord had said unto Joshua, “This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee” ( Joshua 3:7).
It was there that “the living God” (v.10), made the waters to “stand upon an heap” (v. 13), so that “all the Israelites passed over on dry ground” (v. 17). Such are the things which should and no doubt did fill the mind of the Tishbite when his Master ordered him to this very place. If his faith was in exercise, his heart would be in perfect peace, knowing that a miracleworking God would not fail him there.
It was also for the prophet’s own personal good that the Lord now bade him “hide thyself.” He was in danger from another quarter than the fury of Ahab. The success of his supplications might prove a snare, tending to fill his heart with pride, and even to harden him against the calamity then desolating the land. Previously he had been engaged in secret prayer, and then for a brief moment he had witnessed a good confession before the king. The future held for him yet more honourable service, for the day was to come when he should witness for God not only in the presence of Ahab, but he should discomfit and utterly rout the assembled hosts of Baal and, in measure at least, turn the wandering nation back again unto the God of their fathers. But the time for that was not ripe; neither was Elijah himself.
The prophet needed further training in secret if he was to be personally fitted to speak again for God in public. Ah, my reader, the man whom the Lord uses has to be kept low: severe discipline has to be experienced by him, if the flesh is to be duly mortified. Three more years must be spent by the prophet in seclusion. How humbling! Alas, how little is man to be trusted: how little is he able to bear being put into the place of honour!
How quickly self rises to the surface, and the instrument is ready to believe he is something more than an instrument! How sadly easy it is to make of the very service God entrusts us with a pedestal on which to display ourselves. But God will not share His glory with another, and therefore does He “hide” those who may be tempted to take some of it unto themselves. It is only by retiring from public view and getting alone with God that we can learn our own nothingness.
We see this important lesson brought out plainly in Christ’s dealings with His beloved apostles. On one occasion they returned to Him flushed with success and full of themselves: they “told Him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught” ( Mark 6:30).
Most instructive is His quiet response: “And He said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while” (v. 31). This is still His gracious remedy for any of His servants who may be puffed up with their own importance, and imagine that His cause upon earth would suffer a severe loss if they were removed from it. God often says to His servants,” Get thee hence… hide thyself”: sometimes it is by the dashing of their ministerial hopes, sometimes by a bed of affliction or by a severe bereavement, the Divine purpose is accomplished. Happy the one who can then say from his heart, “The will of the Lord be done.”
Every servant that God deigns to use must pass through the trying experience of Cherith before he is ready for the triumph of Carmel. This is an unchanging principal in the ways of God. Joseph suffered the indignities of both the pit and the prison before he became governor of all Egypt, second only to the king himself. Moses spent one third of this long life at “the backside of the desert” before Jehovah gave him the honour of leading His people out of the house of bondage. David had to learn the sufficiency of God’s power on the farm before he went forth and slew Goliath in the sight of the assembled armies of Israel and the Philistines. Thus it was, too, with the perfect Servant: thirty years of seclusion and silence before He began His brief public ministry. So too with the chief of His ambassadors: a season in the solitudes of Arabia was his apprenticeship before he became the apostle to the Gentiles.
But is there not yet another angle from which we may contemplate this seemingly strange order, “Get thee hence… hide thyself”? Was it not a very real and severe testing of the prophet’s submissiveness unto the Divine will? “severe” we say, for to a robust man this request was much more exacting than his appearing before Ahab: one with a zealous disposition would find it much harder to spend three years in inactive seclusion than to be engaged in public service. The present writer can testify from long and painful experience that to be removed “into a corner” ( Isaiah 30:20), is a much severer trail than to address large congregations every night month after month. In the case of Elijah this lesson is obvious: he must learn personally to render implicit obedience unto the Lord before he was qualified to command others in His name.
Let us now take a closer look at the particular place selected by God as the one where His servant was next to sojourn: “by the brook Cherith.” Ah, it was a brook and not a river—a brook which might dry up any moment. It is rare that God places His servants, or even His people, in the midst of luxury and abundance: to be surfeited with the things of this world only too often means the drawing away of the affections from the giver Himself. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” It is our hearts God requires, and often this is put to the proof. The way in which temporal losses are borne generally makes manifest the difference between the real Christian and the worldling. The latter is utterly cast down by financial reverses, and frequently commits suicide. Why? Because his all has gone and there is nothing left to live for. In contrast, the genuine believer may be severely shaken and for a time deeply depressed, but he will recover his poise and say, “God is still my portion and I shall not want.”
Instead of a river, God often gives us a brook, which may be running today and dried up tomorrow. Why? To teach us not to rest in our blessings, but in the blesser Himself. Yet is it not at this very point that we so often fail— our hearts being far more occupied with the gifts than with the giver. Is not this just the reason why the Lord will not trust us with a river? —because it would unconsciously take His place in our hearts.” Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation” ( Deuteronomy 32:15). And the same evil tendency exists within us . We sometimes feel that we are being hardly dealt with because God gives us a brook rather than a river, but his is because we are so little acquainted with our own hearts. God loves His own too well to place dangerous knives in the hands of infants.
And how was the prophet to subsist in such a place? Where was his food to come from? Ah, God will see to that: He will provide for his maintenance: “And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook” (v. 4).
Whatever may be the case with Ahab and his idolators, Elijah shall not perish. In the very worst of times God will show Himself strong on the behalf of his own. Whoever starves they shall be fed: “Bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure” ( Isaiah 33:16). Yet how absurd it sounds to common sense to bid a man tarry indefinitely by a brook! Yes, but it was God who had given this order, and the divine commands are not to be argued about but obeyed. Thereby Elijah was bidden to trust God contrary to sight, to reason, to all outward appearances, to rest in the Lord Himself and wait patiently for Him. “I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there ” (v. 4). Observe the word we have placed in italics. The prophet might have preferred many another hiding-place, but to Cherith he must go if he was to receive the Divine supplies: as long as he tarried there, God was pledged to provide for him. How important, then, is the question, Am I in the place which God has (by His Word or providence) assigned me? If so, He will assuredly supply my every need. But if like the younger son I turn my back upon Him and journey into the far country, then like that prodigal I shall certainly suffer want. How many a servant of God has laboured in some lowly or difficult sphere with the dew of the Spirit on his soul and the blessing of Heaven on his ministry, when there came an invitation from some other field which seemed to offer a wider scope (and a larger salary!), and as he yielded to the temptation, the Spirit was grieved and his usefulness in God’s kingdom was at an end.
The same principle applies with equal force to the rank and file of God’s people: they must be “in the way” ( Genesis 24:27), of God’s appointing if they are to receive Divine supplies. “Thy will be done” precedes “Give us this day our daily bread.” But how many professing Christians have we personally known who resided in a town whither God sent one of His own qualified servants, who fed them with “the finest of the wheat,” and their souls prospered. Then came a tempting business offer from some distant place, which would improve their position in the world. The offer was accepted, their tent was removed, only to enter a spiritual wilderness where there was no edifying ministry available. In consequence their souls were starved, their testimony for Christ ruined, and a period of fruitless backsliding ensued. As Israel had to follow the cloud of old in order to obtain supplies of manna, so must we be in the place of God’s ordering if our souls are to be watered and our spiritual lives prospered.
Various lines of thought are hereby suggested. First, see here both the high sovereignty and the absolute supremacy of God; His sovereignty in the choice made, His supremacy in His power to made it good. He is a law unto Himself: “Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep place” ( <19D506> Psalm 135:6).
He prohibited His people from eating ravens, classifying them among the unclean, yea, to be “an abomination” to them ( Leviticus 11:15; Deuteronomy 14:14). Yet He Himself made use of them to carry food unto His servant. How different are God’s ways from ours! He employed Pharaoh’s own daughter to succour the infant Moses, and a Balaam to utter one of His most remarkable prophecies. He used the jawbone of an ass in the hand of Samson to slay the Philistines, and a sling and stone to vanquish their champion. “I have commanded the ravens to feed thee.” O what a God is ours!
The fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea, the wild beasts of the field, yea, the very winds and waves obey Him. Yes, “Thus saith the Lord, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters; which bringeth forth the chariot and horse, the army and the power… Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls—yes, and the ravens too! — because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people” ( Isaiah 43:16-20).
Thus the Lord caused birds of prey, which lived on carrion, to feed the prophet.
Elijah’s fare was provided for partly in a natural and partly in a supernatural way. There was water in the brook, so he could easily go and fetch it. God will work no miracles to spare a man trouble, or that he should be listless and lazy, making no effort to procure his own sustenance.
Had human beings been used to take him food, they might have divulged his hiding-place. Had a dog or some domestic animal gone each morning and evening, people might have seen this regular journeying to and fro, carrying food, and so been curious, and investigated the same. But birds flying with flesh into the desert would arouse no suspicion: it would be concluded they were taking it to their young. See then how careful God is of His people, how judicious in the arrangements He makes for them. He knows what would endanger their safety and provides accordingly. “Hide thyself by the brook Cherith… I have commanded the ravens to fee thee there.” Go immediately, without entertaining any doubts, without any hesitation. However contrary to their natural instincts, these birds of prey shall obey the Divine behest. Nor need this appear in the least unlikely.
God Himself created them, gave them their peculiar instinct, and He knows how to direct and control the same. He has power to suspend or check it, according to His good pleasure. Nature is exactly what God made it, and entirely dependent upon Him for its continuance. He upholds all things by the word of His power. In Him and by Him the birds and beasts, as well as man, love, move and have their being; and therefore He can, whenever He thinks fit, either suspend or alter the law which He has imposed upon any of His creatures. “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?”( Acts 26:8).
There in his lowly retreat the prophet was called upon to sojourn many days, yet not without a precious promise guaranteeing his sustenance: the supply of needed provision was Divinely assured him. The Lord would take care of His servant while hid from public view, and would daily feed him by His miracle-working power. Nevertheless, it was real testing of Elijah’s faith . Whoever heard of such instruments being employed—birds of prey bringing food in a time of famine! Could the ravens be depended upon? Was it not far likely that they would devour the food themselves than bring it to the prophet? Ah, his trust was not to be in the birds, but in the sure word of Him that cannot lie: “I have commanded the ravens.” It was the Creator and not the creature, the Lord Himself and not the instruments, Elijah’s heart was to be fixed upon. How blessed to be lifted above “circumstances” and in the inerrant promise of God have a sure proof of His care.