Solomon was twelve years old when his father appointed him King over Israel. He reigned for forty years and accomplished much, yet, in disobedience, took some 700 foreign wives who built altars to strange gods. Displeased, God warned that He would raise up an enemy against Israel. In deference to Solomon’s father, David, God vowed to delay judgment until after his death. When judgment came during Rehoboam’s tenure, the nation of Israel was divided. The southern kingdom of Judah retained the seat of government. The remaining tribes chose Jeroboam to lead the northern kingdom, making Samaria its capital.
Sixty years pass, and the people of the northern kingdom continue a steady departure from the Mosaic law. Though they thrive economically, their king pursues a path of domestic security by offering his son, Ahab, to the daughter of the king of Phoenicia. Following the marriage of Ahab and Jezebel, she, a priestess of Baal, invites a large entourage of her fellow priests and prophets to live alongside her in the new country. Into the territory of covenant, the land of promise, a temple is raised for the worship of Baal.
It is in this context that we meet the prophet, Elijah. Listen to his first encounter with Ahab: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Baal was worshiped as the god of dew and rain. In a calculated irony, God has chosen Elijah’s challenge to be bold, direct, and all-inclusive.
God directs Elijah to hide in a ravine east of the Jordan. He promises meals catered by ravens, twice daily, and clear, cool water from the brook.
Two years pass. The drought, which began at Elijah’s departure, spreads to his ravine. God directs him to a widow in Sidon. For a year, her ‘handful of flour’ feeds three.
Meanwhile, Jezebel seeks to please Baal and solicit rain when she commands that all of the prophets of God be killed. Ahab’s palace chief, Obadiah, hides 100 of them in a cave where he feeds and protects them. (Yes, Gloria Gaither. God has always had a people.)
Still bereft of rain, God tells Elijah to revisit Ahab. He asks that the priests and prophets of Jezebel along with the people of Israel assemble on Mount Carmel. It is high noon at the OK Corral. Jezebel’s priests and prophets number 850; on the other side of the showdown, Elijah stands alone. For an entire day, to no avail, the priests implore Baal to send fire and ignite their sacrifice. Early evening, Elijah prays to God, two sentences, and the fire falls. Elijah turns to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink. For there is the sound of abundance of rain.”
Elijah gives the command and all of the priests of Baal are killed. Ahab rides home, through the heavy downpour, and tells Jezebel all that happened on Mount Carmel. When she learns that Elijah has killed her prophets, she sends a message to him: ‘May the gods deal severely with me if, by this time tomorrow, I do not do to you what you did to them.’
Elijah was chosen to turn a kingdom around. He boldly declared God’s messages. He called on God in real time, confident that He would answer. Elijah did not look for alternatives; his faith was resolute – until Jezebel’s message came to him.
In clothes still damp from the driving rain, Elijah went to the desert and prayed to die.
Some experts have suggested that Elijah suffered from a bipolar disorder. How else do we reconcile the prolonged miracles with the instantaneous deflation, they argue?
How did God respond? First, he had an angel refresh Elijah. He was restored physically. His next encounter with God chronicles the familiar when he whimpered, ‘I’ve been very zealous. They have killed the other prophets. I, alone am left, and they are trying to kill me, too.’ After three colossal demonstrations of power, God whispers the remedy for his emotional dilemma, “Go back the way you came.” Revisit what you believe. Recall the ravens and the brook. Ponder the flour that would not diminish, the son who was resurrected. Recollect the speedy fire as the people of Israel looked on. Then God added one stinging rebuttal: “I reserve 7,000 in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal…”
God, in His wisdom, created a gamut of personalities, lending to a delicious variety of encounters. He offered poignant examples of both sides of the pursuit of faith. When Jesus told a father that all things were possible if he believed, the father cried in one breath, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Thankfully, God created a remedy for volatile faith and erratic personalities; an escape for desert days, “Go back the way you came.”