And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. (1 Kings 17:1)
There is a strangeness about Elijah, and a remoteness. A fierce and lonely figure, he appears in history without introduction and with no mention of his family. We are given the name of Elisha's father, and Isaiah's, Jeremiah's, Ezekiel's, and others, but not Elijah's. It is as if Elijah is totally cut off from his family and separated unto the Lord. We are told only that he is a Tishbite from Gilead, to distinguish his home from the Tishbe or Thisbe in Naphtali. Elijah's home area was sparsely settled, rocky, and wild.
However, it is easy to see a marked resemblance between our time and Elijah's, and between the work of a faithful pastor today and Elijah's calling. Elijah's was a time of judgment; ours is as well. But there is a deeper resemblance. Elijah's day was an age of syncretism, of radical compromise between the worship of the Lord and Baal worship. The two had been blended together to make one religion, so that a refusal to see the necessity for uncompromising religion marked Israel.
This was nothing new. At the very birth of Israel, Jeroboam insisted on the unity of Baal worship and the faith of Jehovah (1 Kings 12:25-33). Israel rarely denied the Lord or professed open apostasy. Rather, it pursued a course of religious syncretism, using the name of the Lord but absorbing with their religion whatever other faith was expedient for them. Thus, they were not open pagans, but pagans who practiced their unbelief under cover of the Lord's name.
Syncretism is again our problem. The Baalim were lords, other forces, powers, and persons who were accorded sovereignty over man. Today, Baal-worship is again prevalent in the name of the Lord. Humanistic statism is easily and readily submitted to by churchmen: children are placed in humanistic state schools, given into the hands of the enemies of God, and people are only indignant if you condemn this practice. The major concern of most church members is not the Lord's battles, nor the urgency to make a stand against compromise, but, "How can I best enjoy life?"
The similarity does not end there. Ahab's day was one of prosperity, a false prosperity that was largely the product of inflation. Ahab had inherited a strong realm from his father Omri, who had pursued syncretism on the one hand, and financially advantageous alliances on the other. Ahab married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians (1 Kings 16:31). This placed him in a favored position with a wealthy merchant state. Our age, too, has been marked by an inflationary prosperity, and the loosening of moral and religious standards is one result. People want things, not qualities or virtues. Some Puritan autobiographies tell us of men's despair over their sins; now, despair is commonplace because people lack things. On all sides, men speak, after President Kennedy, of "the revolution of rising expectations." This revolution demands more material wealth for all men and diminishes the need for moral and educational performance and excellence. It is now a virtue to tolerate evil and to be intolerant of any material lack for man.
Elijah steps into this prosperous scene like John the Baptist in a similar situation centuries later, a desert man proclaiming judgment to an age unwilling to hear anything but promises of more material wealth.
Elijah had apparently confronted Ahab before. James 5:17 tells us that Elijah prayed for the drought, and God heard his prayer:
16. ...The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
17. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.
18. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. (James 5:16-18)
Elijah had prayed in terms of God's revealed word, which very plainly speaks of drought as a judgment on sin:
18. And if ye will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins.
19. And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.
16. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them;
17. And then the LORD'S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.
23. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.
24. The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. (Deut. 28:23-24)
Solomon also refers to this fact of drought as judgment in 1 Kings 8:35.
In this situation, Israel added to her sins by following Jezebel and her priests. It would be a serious error to place the burden of guilt on Jezebel. The Bible clearly blames Ahab: the responsibility was his (1 Kings 16:30-33). Moreover, the people were no less guilty: they loved compromise and refused Elijah's summons to stand with him and the Lord (1 Kings 18:21). The Jezebels of history must bear their own sins; we cannot lay ours upon them also. The essence of true faith is the humble confession of our personal responsibility for sin, to say with David:
3. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. (Ps. 51:3-4)
If the sin of Israel had been only the sin of Ahab and Jezebel, God's judgment would have struck them alone. We know, of course, that judgment did come to Ahab's house (1 Kings 20:20-43), in a fearful way (2 Kings 9:22-37), but eventually judgment and captivity also came to all of Israel. And, for the present, the drought was a judgment on all, from Ahab to the simplest Israelite.
When does judgment come? Our Lord tells us how, in every age from Noah's day to the Second Coming, judgment comes:
37. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
38. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
39. And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
These words primarily apply to our Lord's judgment on Jerusalem and Judea, and the Jewish-Roman War of A.D. 66-70. They also apply to every time of judgment. Why?
Our Lord tells us, first, that such men see nothing in history but natural processes, the daily affairs of life. God is remote and unreal, and history is a process determined by man. History is seen as man's affair, and man feels that he is firmly in charge. Whatever religious profession men may make, they act as natural humanists and see their personal and national lives as determined by nature and man.
Second, whatever their religious profession, men in such an age imply that God is either dead or very far away and indifferent. God's "intervention" in history is in the ancient past; the present is determined by very natural processes. In short, there is no belief in the total and providential government by God the Lord. We have an implicit "God is dead" religion.
Into this situation God sends Elijah with the declaration: a long drought is coming. Elijah's word is to the point: "As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." Three things stand out in this proclamation. First, of course, a total drought is declared, neither dew nor rain. Second, Elijah declares God to be the living God: "As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand." The remote or dead God is suddenly very much alive in judgment! Elijah stands before God as His servant, to be sent out as His messenger at God's command. He stands before the King of Kings as His courier, to go forth on the Lord's orders to proclaim His judgments. Elijah here, and in 1 Kings 18:15, declares himself to be a throne-man, one who comes from before the Great King at His command. Later, Elisha, to make it clear that he indeed wears Elijah's mantle as the throne-man, makes the same statement (2 Kings 3:14). If we believe that God is remote, then we are like Ahab's people, half-humanists and half-hypocritical churchmen. The living God is never remote: He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the living God, before whom all things are naked and open to His sight, "unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13). We are nevermore, face-to-face with anything than the living God.
Third, Elijah declares, on God's command, "there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." Keil's comment on this is to the point:
Elijah thereby describes himself as one into whose power the God of Israel has given up the idolatrous king and his people. In Jas. V. 17-18, this act of Elijah is ascribed to the power of his prayers, since Elijah "was also a man such as we are," inasmuch as the prophets received their power to work solely through faith and intercourse with God in prayer, and faith gives power to remove mountains.1
We meet God face to face in every event, and in the most secret hiding place of our lives. We also meet Him in His Elijahs who, "according to (His) word," set forth His judgments, His law, His grace, and His word to every generation. He is the inescapable God. Elijah is now dead, but the God of Elijah lives, "able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matt. 3:9), or Elijahs to go forth at His command.
We have had a worldwide drought, and we may have more. We have had, even worse, "leanness" of soul as a judgment (Ps. 106:15). Elijah (whose name means Jehovah is my God) tells us that God lives, and His judgments are total ones. The question is, then, God lives, but shall we?
14. But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
15. See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.... (Deut. 30:14-15)
19. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live;
20. That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days.... (Deut. 30:19-20)
1. CF. Keil, "The Book of the Kings" in CF. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1950), 235f.