The place which Elijah occupied in God's dealings with His people lends a peculiar interest to his character and history. The nature of the services required of him during that remarkable time necessarily developed the quality of the grace that was in him, and at the same time subjected him to the discipline which was to mould and fashion him for those services. God, in His own counsel, appoints the servant who is suited to carry out His will ; but though that servant be endowed by Him with power to do so, yet unless he be controlled and disciplined by the hand of God, he will continually fall into the devisings of his nature, no matter how godly and divine may be his intent. For we greatly err if we think that having the divine thought is all that is necessary as to our service ; we must truly and efficiently be expressive of the thought; and this subjects us, as servants of God, to discipline which we often cannot understand. Discipline for known faults or shortcomings we can easily comprehend; but when it is that peculiar order of training which fits a man to be God's instrument and witness, we can no more understand it than the plants of the earth can understand why they must pass through all the vicissitudes of winter in order to bring forth a more abundant harvest.
The first notice we have of Elijah is in i Kings 17, when he appears as a herald of judgment to Ahab. But though his public career began here, it was by no means the beginning of his private exercises, for we learn from James 5: 17. that the judgment here so confidently announced was granted in direct answer to his prayer. " As the Lord liveth," says Elijah, " before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." And why had he prayed for this? Ahab's wickedness had, in the sight of the Lord, surpassed all who had preceded him. He had married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of the Zidonians, and had reared up an altar to Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. Elijah, " a man of like passions with us," but a righteous man, and one who was dependent on God, could not witness these abominations in the midst of God's people with indifference ; and he earnestly entreats that God would thus speak to the nation in judgment, and vindicate His own name. His trust was in God, and he looked to Him to correct His people, and to lead them into that dependence which he himself had learnt. Suspension of usual mercies was the way of all others to effect this : the loss of dew and rain for three years and a half was fitted to make them remember the source from which their blessings flowed.
The deprivation of natural mercies by superhuman means has always the effect of impressing man with a sense that he must look to the Creator. The course of nature has been suspended by a power unknown to him ; and though, while he enjoyed the usual blessings, he little thought of God, when they are suspended, he is made to feel that he has no remedy but in appealing to Him whom heretofore he had disobeyed and abandoned. Elijah, grieved and oppressed by the apostasy of Israel, finds relief for his heart in prayer, and thus obtains from God the remedy for recalling His people, and Ahab, their king, to a sense of owing every mercy they had to the hand of God. What a striking and interesting light is this in which his history opens to our view!
Having prayed in secret, he comes forth for the first time to declare the result of it, and is thus a blessed and prepared witness for such evil and disastrous times and a witness, too (as the Holy Ghost, ages afterwards, testified), that every soul thus disciplined to wait on God in any emergency will prove that " the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." With what dignity and power does the man taught of God stand forth to testify against the corruptions of his day, as his first meeting with Ahab testifies! (chap. 17 : i). How instructive to see a lone and hitherto obscure man rise up in the power of God and tell the king of Israel, Thus saith the Lord, " There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word! " Elijah takes the place of precedence which Ahab had forfeited; for Israel's king ought to have been God's most distinguished servant ; but he had grievously departed from God's way, and the Lord now sends His own servant, disciplined in secret, to deliver a message and a testimony which asserted His supreme control over everything. The rain, on which the fruits of the earth depended, should not fall but according to His servant's word.
And now, having delivered his message on behalf of God, this same servant is to be dealt with individually. " Get thee hence," says the Lord, " and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith.... And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there." He is not to be outside the afflictions and judgments with which God visits his people; but he is, through dependence on God, to be above them. So is it with every true servant; so was it with Elijah. The period, which is one of unmitigated affliction , to the wilful, becomes a peculiarly profitable season to the man of faith. If his prayer has been signally answered, he must learn that for that very reason he must live more in dependence than ever ; and also, that the afflictions which he had prayed for must fall on him too, unless he adheres strictly to the path of faith.
Very often when our petitions are graciously answered, we are less careful to retain the place of dependence, whereas the very benefit we have received should make us the more dependent. It is faith in God which sets His servant above the afflictions of God's people, and not any set of circumstances especially ordered for him. Elijah must " hide " ; but, like the blessed One whom he foreshadowed, he is to linger in Israel to the very last, though hidden and unknown, for it is within the precincts of the land that God first provides for him. With His own hand, as it were, He feeds and nourishes him ; the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning and in the evening; birds, so voracious that they neglect to feed their offspring, are transformed by God into ministers for His servant's need ; " and he drank of the brook " Cherith.
But after a while he is made to feel still more keenly the dearth and parching drought of Israel; " the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land " ; he was sensibly to feel the sufferings of God's people, even though they had not been incurred by wilfulness of his own, but at the same time he was to reckon on God and say, " The Lord is my helper." This was our blessed Lord's experience, only in the perfection which always characterised Him ; and to this very scene He refers, when in Luke 4 He felt His rejection by Israel, and how their hearts were closed towards Himself ; and He makes use of it to illustrate to His audience that He was not without resource. If acceptance failed Him in Israel, the same blessed God who had provided a Gentile widow to be the hostess of Elijah would provide reception for the Lord of the earth in the hearts of the desolate Gentiles outside Israel.
Elijah having been taught to wait on the Lord for daily support in the land of promise, is now to hear the word, " Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee." This was a new fine of discipline, and service is therein opened to him. He, an Israelite, has to leave the land of promise to dwell with a Gentile widow, and be supported by her. The Lord, during His rejection by Israel, dwells, in one sense, with the Gentile ; and blessed it is to see that every true servant is to be led by a path in one way similar to His. Elijah obeys ; and, like Him, he there sets forth the wondrous history of God's grace to man. At the gate he met the widow. When faith simply acts on the word of God we find the . right thing in the right place. He might have passed by the widow who was to support him, because she was poor, and have sought one who was better off ; but his eye was fixed on God, and nothing daunted by the extremity of her poverty, he, without questioning, says to her., " Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink." A soul led of God always, I may say, feels its way ; it does not doubt its way, but at first it only asks for the least, and then is emboldened to proceed.
So here, with Elijah, when he found that she willingly discontinued her own work, forgetting the claims her necessity had on her, he is encouraged to ask more, and becomes assured, too, that this is the widow to whom God has sent him. She was willing to share with him all she could, but when the prophet asks her for what she had not, she is compelled to disclose the full tale of her poverty ; and then it is that Elijah rises up in all the greatness of Him whose servant he was. How bright is that moment to the soul which has been carefully threading its way, following the ray of divine light, clear to itself, but as yet shedding no light beyond, when it enters with fun intelligence into the purpose of God!
Thus it was with Elijah. The word of the Lord had now reached him, and he declares to the widow, Thus saith the Lord, " The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth." Forthwith he takes up his abode in her house ; and for a full year is supported in this remarkable way by the Lord. We often fail to receive the word of God, because we are not where it can reach us; that is, we do not advance to the point where the Lord can use us to set forth His name; but when we do, we are able to declare it in full power; and not only so, but we are sustained in the enjoyment of the blessing into which it has introduced us. Must it not have been enjoyment to Elijah to learn day by day how God could sustain him in that poor, desolate home? Must not the bread and oil, which he ate there day by day, have been sweet, while his soul realised that it came directly from the hand of God? for I do not believe that there was one grain of meal more in the barrel at the end of the " many days " than there was at the beginning.
But he was not to leave that roof without entering on another line of discipline. The widow's son dies, and Elijah, though not without resource, passes through deep exercises of soul before he appropriates the grace that is in God to meet the need (vv. 17-24). But how fully is that need met! What blessed and momentous revelations were vouchsafed to Elijah in that widow's house, comprising in type the full range of God's blessing to man which was hereafter to be fully accomplished by the Son of God. He learned how God could preserve from death, how He could meet distress on the earth and avert evil; in a word, he learned the range of all temporal blessing known or enjoyed on the earth.
But more than this, he is conducted into a deeper mystery, even that of resurrection from the dead ; he had seen death and its terrors arrested ; but now being brought in contact with the depth of sorrow (for a widow losing her only son, her last fink to earth, is the most penetrating illustration of human sorrow and bereavement), he is used of God to display His power and grace in overcoming death, and introducing life anew : and thus in a preeminent way he is educated in the mightiest work of God. The exercises of his soul at this time, because of death charged on himself by the sorrowing widow (v. 18), and the experiences of his soul as to the power of God in giving life from the dead, must have been peculiar and wonderful : and very grateful must have been the testimony of the widow after the resurrection of her son, " Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth." God was honoured and His servant vindicated in the great work of resurrection.
Elijah having learned these deep lessons of the grace and power of God in the house of the Gentile-all of them foreshadowing the glorious disclosures of that same grace and power which have been made to the Gentile during the day of Israel's drought, is now directed to go and show himself to Ahab and testify that the Lord " will send rain upon the earth," chap. 18: 1. He had been hidden from Israel and Ahab had sought him in every nation and kingdom in vain; but now, at this juncture, when the king had arranged with Obadiah to divide the land in search of grass, he comes forth to present himself
His first meeting is with Obadiah. The faithful remnant is ever the foremost to recognise the prophet of God ; and though the faith of the remnant may waver, it is finally reassured and able to announce to the ungodly one the approach of him in whose hand was the blessing. Ahab, on encountering Elijah, charges him thus: " Art thou he that troubleth Israel? " on which Elijah denounces the king and his father's house as the guilty cause. The man who has learned grace, and comes before the ungodly as the witness and minister of it, can give a strength and point to his denunciations which the man of law never could give. The one comes to rectify and repair every defect which he may expose, the other exposes with the feeling that he has no remedy for what he deprecates.
The prophets of Baal are now challenged to open competition with the Lord of hosts, and the most glorious moment in any servant's life is Elijah's when he stands forth alone to maintain the truth of God against all the assumption of pretenders. He proposes a test and God answers by fire. Let me say in passing that the highest, evidence of God, and of His truth, is in the acceptance which He accords to the soul, which is received by Him on the ground of atonement. This is figuratively expressed here by the fire of God consuming the sacrifice. The accepted soul has the sense that while God receives, He does so in all the strength and terribleness of His holiness ; so that the reception is not merely in grace but established in the stem holiness of His nature, which assures the soul that while He receives it as a sinner, He has pure and holy ground for doing so; and thus not only is the acceptance known to be divine, but its perpetuity and perfectness is guaranteed. And the soul who knows acceptance has a sense of the holiness of Him who accepts.
What a season of strength and education was this to Elijah when, confounding the pretenders of his day by one simple test, a test well understood by the people of God, he stood forth alone, valiant for God and waiting on Him! How his soul must have been enlarged while he held counsel with God, confronting the king and all the people of Israel! What calmness there is in dependence on God. He can patiently allow the pretenders to make full trial of all their powers, and when they have exhausted themselves and proved their inefficiency, he comes forward to repair the altar of the Lord, after the divine order. He is acting for God and with God. He will not only repair the altar, but he will shew how bountifully God can display His power to His forgetful people. What deep and happy conceptions of God Elijah must have had when he ministered thus for Him! He had so learned God at Cherith and Sarepta that he is prepared for these public demonstrations and can enter on them with calmness and dignity.
And now the people having acknowledged their evil and again turned to the Lord, and Elijah having vindicated the truth by the execution of the pretenders, the judgment will be removed. The people were afflicted with drought in order that they might learn that the God whom they had slighted was alone the source and fountain of all their blessings. Having taught them this in His own gracious way, He removes the affliction, for God always removes chastisement when it has accomplished the purpose for which it was sent ; and the servant, who has been faithful in maintaining the truth in the face of opponents, is proportionately used as a channel of God's mercies to His people. Elijah can now say to Ahab, " Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain." But what does he do himself? He goes to the top of Carmel, casts himself down upon the earth, and puts his face between his knees. The strength and power with which God furnishes His servant for public testimony is never a substitute for the deep exercise which the soul must pass through when made a channel of His grace. After a day's work of mighty power, the Lord spent His night in prayer, and communing with His Father. Active demonstrations of power must never supersede that close communion with God, which the real servant seeks and values all the more from having acted publicly for God, in order to know His mind and to follow out His purpose.
Elijah waits on God ; and very instructive is it for us to note how a man who could call fire down from heaven must with intense earnestness wait on God for the manifestation of His mercies. Seven times does Elijah send his servant to see whether there was any indication of the coming and promised blessing. At length there was the very smallest token, " a little cloud ... like a man's hand." It is enough for faith. The prophet not only announces to Ahab that this insignificant token was the very blessing prayed and waited for, but " the hand of the Lord being upon him, he girded up his loins," and conducts Ahab safely to the gate of the city.
What a height of success had Elijah now reached through his faith and labour 1 Could anything, we might ask, henceforth move him after such signal honour and power being vouchsafed to him by God? One who knows little of the human heart might say it could not ; but, alas! it is no rare page in the history of God's servants when discouragement sets in, from the very point of their greatest success. So was it with David. After a marked deliverance from Saul he exclaims, " I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul," and he retreats to Achish. So was it with Jonah. When his preaching produced such an effect that God's judgment was averted he was so angry that he would do nothing more. So is it with Elijah. After the signal instances and proofs he had had of God's power and present help, when he heard of Jezebel's intentions concerning him, he " went for his life, and came to Beersheba ... and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, 0 Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers," chap. 19: 4.
What a contrast between a man of faith and a man of unbelief! Who would have thought that Elijah under the juniper tree was the Elijah of Carmel but a day or two before? How feeble and weak is the most notable of God's servants without faith! But such reverses and hours of darkness, however humbling, are as much a part of God's discipline for His servant as are his brightest moments, for then it is that he learns for himself the power of the Invisible. This was the secret of Moses' strength. He endured as seeing Him who is invisible. And when a soul has been much engaged with the external ways of God it needs all the more that peculiar, private and individual education which faith pre-eminently seeks and rests on.
Elijah leaves the land and wanders alone into the wilderness, seeking isolation apart from his fellow men. What a journey! trusting in none, attended by none. What living death, when a man feels only safe when entirely separated from his kind! Our blessed Lord could not " commit himself to man," because He knew what was in man ; but Elijah shunned the company of men in fear and bitterness of soul, and sought his death at the hand of God. Blessed God! Thy compassions fail not ; Thou wilt save the afflicted soul. " He remembereth our frame." The first relief which his weary spirit has is in unconsciousness : " he lay and slept under a juniper-tree." And there the angel touched him and said, " Arise and eat." " And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again." This was a deeper and a closer token of God's interest and care for him than the supply of the ravens or of the widow. The cake baken on the coals and the cruse of water at his head intimate to him how God provides for him; but the presence of the angel to point out and urge him to partake of them displays the Lord's own personal -interest in him. Solitary as he was, he was not left alone or unattended. An angel is sent as his companion and servant ; and a second time he touches him, after watching him doubtless as he slept, and, with increasing solicitude for him, says, " Arise and eat ; because the journey is too great for thee." Whither was that journey to lead? To Horeb, the Mount of God.
I have no doubt that this double supply of food has a deeply mystical meaning, and illustrates to us the special ways in which the Lord sustains our souls preparatory to a season of deep exercise. Such a time, forty days in the wilderness typify, when the conscious link with things of human interest and support is suspended. Moses and our Lord went through this experience without the preparation accorded to Elijah ; but the latter represents to us the way common to man. Supplied and strengthened at the outset, he went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights.
These forty days in the wilderness without food or human sustenance is the path that must be traversed by the soul that would learn God in His great reality, whether with regard to ourselves or His purposes on earth. At Horeb, the Mount of God, all things are naked and open; and Elijah has to do with God, and with God alone. These individual communications are opened on the part of the Lord by the searching question, " What doest thou here, Elijah? " He is then instructed to " Go forth " from the cave where he had retreated, and " stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by." Elijah's own true state is now brought out. The Lord is not in the whirlwind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. These were the demonstrations of God; but for Elijah there was something deeper, holier, more personal; he learns that the still small voice of God is greater than all the outward demonstrations ; a lesson which he needed much, for doubtless the wondrous scene at Carmel had unduly filled his vision at the expense of that personal link with God, which would have sustained him under subsequent disappointment.
To re-establish this link was the object of the interesting scene of the ministry of the angel under the juniper tree ; and to lay bare his soul was the forty days' journey to Horeb, apart from the region of humanity, terminating in this blessed instruction, which brought God Himself so very nigh to him. Well might he wrap his face in his mantle and listen. And though he could not satisfactorily reply to the question, again repeated, " What doest thou here? " he is instructed to " Go, return," and execute the Lord's counsels. Wilful as he had been, now, brought to Horeb, the still small voice of God will unfold to him His mind and purposes: the wicked king was to be displaced, and the sword was to be drawn in Israel; but seven thousand souls, a faithful remnant, were still left to testify for God. This was to silence all Elijah's self-consequence: he had said, " I, only 1, am left." But the Lord now shows him that He had seven thousand more witnesses, and, still further, that another prophet was to be anointed in his room. Great as had been his services, God's truth and power did not depend on him ; but though his earthly testimony was to close, God was purposing a higher and more blessed portion for His servant, which, however, is not disclosed to him here, as far as we see. What wonderful education was all this! With what different ideas of God towards himself and towards man must he have departed from that sacred mount! Truly humbled he was, truly interested for God, truly linked to Him in his secret soul, and esteeming others better than himself.
The firstfruits of this instruction at Horeb are seen in his first act, namely, the call of Elisha ; and to him, it appears, he committed the anointing of both Hazael and Jehu. (See 2 Kings 8, 9.) That he had profited by the discipline, his whole subsequent course evidences. In chapter 21 : 17, etc., he encounters Ahab at Naboth's vineyard, and fearlessly denounces him, declaring the judgment of God against him and against Jezebel also. He is used by the blessed God to pronounce how grievous it is in His sight for any one, much more the eminent, to deprive one of His people of their divinely-appointed portion and inheritance, and how such an act will draw down the severest judgment: a fine service for one who had been learning through discipline what is the heart of God towards His people.
Elijah now fears not to be the exponent of this Magna Charta, namely, that God will not suffer any one to divert His gift from His own, without terrible and summary judgment. " He that defiles the temple of God, him will God defile." I would that they were cut off who trouble you." Woe unto him by whom the offence cometh." All these scriptures breathe the same principle. Ahab humbles himself, and God in His never-failing grace intimates to His servant a respite of the sentence he had pronounced on the king. Unlike Jonah, whose education being less complete, had rebelled, because the goodness of God thwarted his own predictions, Elijah is content, and fully accords with God's mind. He who has learned grace for himself can understand the ways of grace for others.
We now come to Elijah's last act of public testimony (2 Kings i), when he comes forth to rebuke the king of Israel for sending to Baal-zebub to inquire about his sickness, as if there were no God in Israel. The apostasy had become so fearful and complete that the existence of Jehovah is ignored, and, in the very centre of it, Elijah is to stand up to declare that death must vindicate the truth and existence of God when unbelief disowns and disallows all other evidence. " Thou shalt not come down off that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die." If we do not believe that God is, what awaits us but death?
The mission of an Elijah is to announce this deeply solemn truth, and then to depart from the guilty scene. Thus did this honoured servant ; he retired and sat on the top of a hill, unassailable and in the conscious power of moral separation and elevation. Is this the same man who had fled for his life into the wilderness? Captains and their hosts are as nothing to him now. The fire of God (though, as he learned at Horeb, it was not the voice to himself individually) is now at his disposal for the destruction of his enemies. Twice God thus miraculously certifies the authority of His servant, and then tells him to go down and complete his mission.
Apparently his life would be at their mercy, but in the power of God he was as unassailable in the king's court as on the top of the hill. Elijah obeys, and in the presence of the king reiterates God's solemn judgment, fearlessly vindicating the name of God in the very centre of the apostasy, where its power and evil were more dominant: a fit finale this to his blessed and honourable career of public service. When we transport ourselves into such a scene, while we may be filled with admiration of the man and of his work, we are the rather compelled to lay our hands on our hearts and say to our God, " How dost Thou fashion Thy servants for Thine own glory and purposes! "
But though Elijah's public career is now over, his personal history as to earth has yet to close, and that in a flood of glory, far beyond anything that had been vouchsafed to him in his earthly service. " The Lord would now take him into heaven "-to Himself, and in a way above and beyond the common lot of man. Like Enoch, he was to be " translated that he should not see death." Doubtless he knew what was about to happen; for the way in which he spends his last hours on earth is deeply significant and blessedly instructive, when we think what a prospect was before him in his exit from earth, and the nature of that exit. In these his last hours he connects himself personally, and by personal toil, with all those places in Israel most commemorative of God's ways with His people. Gilgal was where the reproach of Egypt was rolled off; Bethel where Jacob saw the ladder of God reaching from earth to heaven ; Jericho where God would make His grace rise above all man's rebellion and evil ; and lastly, Jordan, which was his point of exit, the crossing of which, while it recalled Israel's glorious entry into the land, told of death, the end of man in the flesh.
In prospect of being borne in a chariot of glory far away from those scenes of slighted mercy and apostasy, Elijah's heart, like that of his great prototype, is still true to God's interests on earth, and he must visit them once more, though at personal cost (for he must have travelled many miles to do so). The fact of his own portion being so glorious does not detach his heart from the interests and glory as to earthly testimony of that Lord for whom he had been so faithful a witness. As to -himself, it was at the spot where in type the waters of death had closed over the old man in his corrupt and fallen nature, that the chariot of fire awaited him to bear him away to the glory; in that glory he has since appeared in close converse with his Lord upon the Holy Mount, and in it he win again appear when He comes for the deliverance of the faithful remnant who are morally identified with that seven thousand of whom Elijah was told in the days of his discouragement-He who, after purging the land of its defilement, will share with all His redeemed ones the joy of His kingdom.
What a course was thine, Elijah!-fraught with trials and death-struggles, but still more fraught with instruction in the heart of Him whom to serve was thy joy and glory; a course entered on in secret prayer and waiting on God, and ended in a chariot of fire to bear thee to Himself!