Sometimes you read something and you end up with more questions than you had before you read it. What you read was good and helpful, but it leaves you wanting to know more.
The Bible can be like that. It tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know. And sometimes, I think the writers of the Bible wanted us to search out the connected truths, follow what was revealed to new insights, meditate on what wasn't said but nonetheless implied in the text. To find such buried gems, you have to dig around a bit. You have to hang out with a text and ruminate or chew on it. I did just such ruminating with our church's deacon as we looked at 1 Kings 19:1-18.
It's the aftermath of the great prophet Elijah's showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. In that amazing face-off (see 1 Kings 18), Baal is shown to be an impotent deity and his prophets, despite zealous displays and hours of frenzied dancing around his altar, can't get any response out of him. Elijah taunted. The gathered crowd yawned.
Then Elijah called the people to come over to Yahweh's altar. Elijah prayed, and fire fell from the heavens burning up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones of the altar, and every trace of the boatloads of water that Elijah had insisted on dumping all over everything. Elijah commands that Baal's prophets be brought down to the river's bank where Elijah proceeds to hack them to pieces. Wow!
If the crowds were in doubt as to which deity on display was God or which prophets were legit, they had no doubts now. They kept crying out, “Yahweh! He is God!” It looked like Elijah had been used to bring about a turning in the religious life of Israel. It appeared the hearts of the people were returning to the God who had brought them out of Egypt, the only God worthy of being called God.
Any elation Elijah felt was cut short. Once King Ahab told his wife Jezebel about what had happened (and she was the one who called the shots, ruling through her husband; she was the one responsible for importing Baal worship into Israel), she sent Elijah a death threat: “You're a dead man by this time tomorrow.” Now after all that Elijah had stood up to, after all the powerful ways God had worked through him, you would have thought that Jezebel wouldn't be able to intimidate him. Apparently something in Elijah had snapped. He was discouraged, depressed, and afraid. He hightailed it out of town, running for his life until he couldn't run anymore. He asked that God would let him die. He was done. He lay down in exhaustion and fell into deep sleep.
An angel poked him and woke him and told him to eat. God had provided fresh-baked bread and a jug of water for his worn-out prophet. Elijah ate and went back to sleep. Later the angel came again and shook him from his slumbers and told him to eat some more, for the journey was too much for him. So Elijah ate some more and then hoofed it forty days and nights further south to Mt Horeb. (Apparently that angelfood cake was better than elven lembas bread...) Somehow he still managed to ascend the mount and clamber into a cave. A cave haunted by the Spirit of God. And God spoke to Elijah.
“What are you doing here Elijah?”
“Um.... I've been jealous for your glory. But your people have turned from you and torn down your altars and killed your prophets. I'm the only one left.”
“Go out and stand on the mount before Yahweh.”
So God passed by. There was a mighty wind that tore into the mountain. And then an earthquake. And then a fire. But God wasn't in any of those. Then, after all the thunderous and crashing tumult, after the devastating display of elemental power, there came the sound of a low whisper, a still small voice. And Elijah went out and stood before the Lord.
“What are you doing here Elijah?”.....
And so we ruminated after reading the story. Though there were multiple reflections, two things stood out. The first was that God wasn't asking why Elijah was at Mt Horeb. The 'here' in God's question wasn't about a geo-physical location. It was more to the effect of asking what happened to Elijah's faith. How had he swung so quickly from being bold and courageous to burnt-out and afraid? In other words, how did you get here in this depressed and defeated state Elijah? That must be what Elijah understood the question to mean, for he doesn't say anything about the angel and the food that gave him strength, but rather pours out his distress to God.
And God gives Elijah perspective. Elijah wasn't alone. There were 7000 others who were faithful in Israel – just like Elijah. And God would use Syria and Jehu and Elijah's successor to yet try to turn Israel back to Him. Perspective.
The other thing we wondered about was all the drama drummed up for Elijah in the wind, earthquake and fire. We thought that God might be testing Elijah's ear. Can you still hear my voice Elijah? Are you so distracted by the scary stuff going on around you that you can't hear anything else but that? Will you be able to yet commune with me when the storm breaks around you? And thankfully, Elijah could still discern God's voice and hear His word.
Seems like good questions for all of us at times. When we are in a defeated place, how did we get there? What happened to our faith? And when we are in that difficult place, can we still hear God's almost imperceptible voice speaking to us?