When you study the lives of individuals, you must also study history This is particularly true when we study the men and women whose accomplishments have stood the test of time and are now recorded in the annals as significant or noteworthy. You cannot separate people from the context of their times, because the steel of inner character is hammered out on the anvil of time and forged in the context of history All great men or women experienced the heat of this refining fire, whether they were soldiers like Robert E. Lee, poets like John Milton, statesmen like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or rulers like Queen Esther.
In few lives are the hammer of history and the heat of the fire more evident than in the subject of this book. For that reason, it is vital that we understand the difficult times during which Elijah came on the biblical scene. Once we see the context of his life, we can begin to appreciate the strength of this unique, leathery figure, so ruggedly shaped by God to meet the rigors of his day.
Most of God’s greats are like that. Elijah is certainly like that, which explains why I want to spend some time looking at the place from which this prophet out of nowhere emerged—this prophet who blossomed amid dangerous ledges and weeds of wickedness.
1. LET S LEARN A LITTLE HISTORY
For well over a hundred years the Israelites had lived under the reign of three kings: Saul, then David, and finally Solomon.
Then, at the end of King Solomon’s life, a civil war broke out in the kingdom that had been united under God’s anointed leadership.
As strife grew in intensity, the nation became divided into a northern kingdom, most often called Israel, and a southern kingdom, usually referred to as Judah. This division remained until both kingdoms fell to foreign invaders, and the Jews were led away into captivity.
From the beginning of that division until Israel’s captivity, a period of over two hundred years, the northern kingdom had nineteen monarchs, and all of them were wicked. Imagine that! Nineteen national leaders in succession, nineteen kings ruling back to back, who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” That environment of evil prevailed in Israel until the Assyrians invaded in 722 B.C.
The southern kingdom, on the other hand, was under the leadership of seventeen rulers for well over three hundred years. Eight of these monarchs “followed the Lord their God,” but nine of them were wicked men who did not serve or walk with God.
The southern kingdom of Judah ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 86 B.C. and the subsequent seventy-year Babylonian captivity. The southern kingdom was later revived when men such as Nehemiah, Ezra, and Zerubbabel returned from exile. They moved back into the land of their forefathers, rebuilt the temple, and restored the worship of the one true God.
If you have never done an in-depth study of this period of history, let me pause here and urge you to do so. I know how much this knowledge of Jewish history has helped me.
I remember trying to read the Bible through when I was young. Things would go well until I came to the Book of First Kings. Invariably, when I reached that point I became confused. The names were tough enough, but with more than one king seemingly ruling at the same time, I would think, This doesn’t make sense.
The main problem was, I didn’t understand the difference between Israel and Judah. But once I pieced together the history and harmonized it within the context of the various monarchs who ruled during a divided-kingdom era, this section of the Old Testament not only began to make sense but also came alive for me.
During this period of the northern and southern kingdoms, because of the wickedness of many of the kings and the apostasy of the Hebrew people, God sent various prophets to call both the rulers and the people to repentance. Being a prophet wasn’t an easy calling. Most of the monarchs wanted nothing to do with God’s anointed messengers, disdaining their warnings and ignoring their rebukes, or worse.
Let’s look, for example, at Jeroboam, the first king over the northern kingdom. He is significant not only for his position as the first monarch of that era but also because he was the king who deliberately planted the seeds of idolatry among the people of Israel.
After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whosoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places. 1 Kings 13:33
The term “high places” generally refers to pagan altars used for the worship of pagan gods and idols. So, right out of the chute, we learn that the first king of the northern kingdom ordained priests for the worship of false gods.
Boldly and unashamedly, King Jeroboam promoted idolatry. Furthermore, he reigned for twenty-two years as a man of deception and murder. The northern kingdom was off to a tragic start with Jeroboam. And then came his son and successor, Nadab, who “reigned in his place.”
And the days which Jeroboam reigned were two and twenty years: and he slept with his fathers, and Nadab his son reigned in his stead. ….And Nadab the son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned over Israel two years.. 1 Kings 14:20; 15:25
Did you catch that? “Nadab—became king over Israel in the second year of Asa king ofJudah.” See how that hint I mentioned helps you? One reigned over Israel, the other over Judah.
Once you understand about the two separate kingdoms, you can see that Asa was ruling in the southern kingdom, Judah, while Nadab was ruling in the northern kingdom, Israel. And what kind of king was Nadab?
And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin.. 1 Kings 15:26
9. But Nadab only lasted two years before he was assassinated by his successor.
And Baasha the son of Ahijah, of the house of Issachar, conspired against him; and Baasha smote him at Gibbethon, which belonged to the Philistines; for Nadab and all Israel laid siege to Gibbethon. 28Even in the third year of Asa king of Judah did Baasha slay him, and reigned in his stead. 1 Kings 15:27—28
10. And what kind of a monarch was Baasha?
And it came to pass, when he reigned, that he smote all the house of Jeroboam; he left not to Jeroboam any that breathed, until he had destroyed him, according unto the saying of the LORD, which he spake by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite: 30Because of the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned, and which he made Israel sin, by his provocation wherewith he provoked the LORD God of Israel to anger. 1 Kings 15:29—30 11. As I said, all of the northern rulers were bad, and some were worse than others. Baasha was not the worst, but he was definitely not the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to bring home! He was a wicked, murderous an, and he ruled Israel for twenty-four years. And then?
And also by the hand of the prophet Jehu the son of Hanani came the word of the LORD against Baasha, and against his house, even for all the evil that he did in the sight of the LORD, in provoking him to anger with the work of his hands, in being like the house of Jeroboam; and because he killed him. 8In the twenty and sixth year of Asa king of Judah began Elah the son of Baasha to reign over Israel in Tirzah, two years. 1 Kings 16:7—8
12. So once again we have a new king, Elah, on the throne of the northern kingdom. And what kind of a man was Elah? (I know this may seem monotonous, but bear with me—because all this sets the stage for Elijah’s ministry.)
And his servant Zimri, captain of half his chariots, conspired against him, as he was in Tirzah, drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza steward of his house in Tirzah. 10And Zimri went in and smote him, and killed him, in the twenty and seventh year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned in his stead. 11And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends. 12Thus did Zimri destroy all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake against Baasha by Jehu the prophet, 13For all the sins of Baasha, and the sins of Elah his son, by which they sinned, and by which they made Israel to sin, in provoking the LORD God of Israel to anger with their vanities1 Kings 16:9—13
13. Now wasn’t that a dynasty? One murderer giving way to another murderer. One assassin killing another assassin. One mass murderer killing off the household of another mass murderer. A line of godless men coming to the throne and incessantly doing evil in the sight of the Lord. Yet, as bad as that sounds, look at what the record says about Omri:
Then were the people of Israel divided into two parts: half of the people followed Tibni the son of Ginath, to make him king; and half followed Omri. 22But the people that followed Omri prevailed against the people that followed Tibni the son of Ginath: so Tibni died, and Omri reigned.. For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin, to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger with their vanities. 27Now the rest of the acts of Omri which he did, and his might that he showed, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel? 28So Omri slept with his fathers, and was buried in Samaria: and Ahab his son reigned in his stead. 1 Kings 16:25—26, 28 (italics added)
14. Despite all the bloodshed and idolatry and wickedness of these previous kings, the writer still says that Omri “acted more wickedly than al/who were before him.” And then came his son Ahab!
15. Bloodshed and assassinations, murder and malice, intrigue and immorality, conspiracy and deception, hatred and idolatry had prevailed for six uninterrupted, dark decades in Israel. This reign of evil began in the heart of the one on the throne, and poured down into the very core of the people of the land. And then, of all things, they turned the throne over to Ahab, who married Jezebel, which is a little bit like going from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde.
2. AHAB AND JEZEBEL
A. At this point in 1 Kings, the historical narrative states that there was a marriage, and Jezebel is introduced.
And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him 1 Kings 16:31
Without even knowing what will follow, this offers a clue to this womans significance in the history of Israel, because in the previous chronicles of the history of the northern kingdom we are never told the names of the wives of the kings. Now, suddenly, we are not only given the name of the next king, Ahab, but are also given the name of the woman he married. Jezebel.
Why? Why does God have the writer pause at this point and linger over the marriage of a monarch? Why make a point of telling us the name and lineage of Ahab’s wife? I believe there are two primary reasons.
First, she was the dominant partner in the marriage.Jezebel really ruled the kingdom. She was the power behind the throne. Ahab’s administration was, in every sense of the word, a petticoat government. Jezebel ruled her husband, the monarch, and therefore she ruled the people of Israel.
Second, she was the one who initiated Basil worship..Jezebel’s father, Ethbaal, was from Sidon; he was, in fact, king of the Sidonians. Baal worship, which originated with the Canaanites, had long existed in that area of the world. But the actual worship of Baal did not find its way into the hearts of the Israelites until it was introduced by marriage into Israel by Ahab. We might say, it was part of Jezebel’s dowry. When Ahab married her, she brought her religious heritage with her: the idolatrous worship of Baal.
Baal was worshiped as the god of rain and fertility, who controlled the seasons, the crops, and the land. And when Baal worship entered the kingdom of Israel, bringing its heathen practices and barbaric sacrifices, the wickedness in the land only increased.
3. THE SUDDEN AND NEEDED PRESENCE OF A PROPHET
Oswald Sanders writes in an old work, Robust in Faith, “Elijah appeared at zero hour in Israel’s history.... Like a meteor, he flashed across the inky blackness of Israel’s spiritual night.”2 Nobody could have handled a couple like Ahab and Jezebel better than Elijah. The rugged, gaunt prophet from Tishbeh became God’s instrument of confrontation.
F. B. Meyer calls Jezebel the Lady Macbeth of the Old Testament. She bore all of the markings of demon possession, and according to the record of her deeds, she was, in fact, Satan’s woman of the hour.
In spiritual terms, this was a time of complete despair. The chasm between God and His people had reached its widest breadth. Imagine the thick demonic darkness as
And he reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. 33And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him. 1 Kings 16:32—33
The Asherah represented the chief goddess of Tyre and, in the mythology of idolatry, the mother of Baal.
The Asherim were pillars sculpted in the shape of Asherah, and all were associated with the worship of Baal.
As I read these words, I can almost hear the sigh in the narrative—the deep ache of the heart, written between the lines of the sacred text. And if you miss that, you miss the whole impact of Elijah’s sudden, unannounced arrival.
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. 1Kings 17:1
Plunging full-force into the midst of this era of gross evil and wickedness is Elijah, God’s heaven-sent prophet.
A quick analysis of his introduction reveals three significant factors: his name, his origin, and his style.
The first thing that commands our attention is Elijah’s name.
The Hebrew word for “God” in the Old Testament is Elohim, which is occasionally abbreviated, El.
The word jah is the word for “Jehovah.”
Thus, in Elijah’s name we find the word for “God” and the word for “Jehovah.”
Between them is the small letter I, which in Hebrew has reference to the personal pronoun “my or “mine.”
Putting the three together, then, we find that Elijah’s name means “My God is Jehovah” or “The Lord is my God.”
Ahab and Jezebel were in control of the land, and Baal was the god they worshiped. But when Elijah burst on the scene, his very name proclaimed: “I have one God. His name is Jehovah. He is the One I serve, before whom I stand.”
As we said, the spiritual chasm between God and His people had reached its widest breadth. Elijah stood alone in that gap.
D. His Land
The second point of significance is Elijah’s place of origin. Elijah was from Tishbeh; therefore, he’s called “Elijah the Tishbite.”
Remember that we know very little about Tishbeh, not even its exact location. However, the text does indicate that it was in Gilead, which was in the northern Transjordan area—that is, on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Given this clue, historians have pieced a few details together with the help of the archaeologists’ spade.
Gilead was a place of solitude and outdoor life, a place where people would likely have been rugged, tanned from the sun, muscular and leathery. It was never a place of polish, sophistication, and diplomacy It was an austere land, and one senses that Elijah’s appearance was in keeping with that.
His manner might have bordered on coarse and crude, rough and rugged—not unlike many of the great fiery characters God has introduced at certain times to an unsuspecting world.
In his masterful work Great Voices of the Reformation, Harry Emerson Fosdick gives us just such a portrait of the great fiery prophet of Scotland, John Knox:
Knox was a stern man in a stern age in a rough and violent country. Says Dr. Thomas McCrie: “The corruptions by which Christianity was universally disfigured before the Reformation had grown to a greater height in Scotland than in any other nation within the pale of the Western church. Superstition and religious imposture in their grossest forms, gained an easy admission among a rude and ignorant people.” From the first, Knox’s road was rough, and it rook a rough man to travel it.... Others snipped at the branches of the Papistry; but he strikes at the root, to destroy the whole?
But Knox also had a gentle and tender side. It was said that sometimes when he opened the Word of God, “he could not speak a word for his tears.”
It was also said that the queen “feared the pen of John Knox more than the armies of Scotland.” He was a man of letters—a man of moving tenderness—and a prophet unafraid and unintimidated. It took that kind of man to meet that grim hour in Scotland.
And it took a man like Elijah to meet this hour in Israel’s history. An austere, solitary man from the rugged village of Tishbeh.
E. His Style
Elijah’s name was significant, as were his roots. But what comes most immediately to mind when I think of Elijah is his style.
Right from the get-go, he’s in the king’s face. Without a moment’s hesitation, with no apparent fear or reluctance, Elijah stands before Ahab the king and comes right to the point.
Now remember, the kingdom of Israel has known sixty or more years of unbelief, assassinations, idolatry, ungodliness, and cutthroat rulers. Furthermore, the present king and his dominating partner are the worst of the lot. Onto this stage steps a prophet from nowhere. He follows no protocol, makes no introductions, offers no deference to the royal presence. He is without sophistication, polish, training, or courtly manners.
He simply announces, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
Elijah is a man on a mission, declaring himself a servant of “the Lord, the God of Israel,” when all around him are evidences of blatant Baal worship. Without preparing his audience for the warning, he makes the ominous pronouncement: “No rain—not even dew—for years, unless I say so.”
His words sound so matter of fact, but keep in mind, he’s shaking his fist in the devil’s face. He’s setting the record straight. As we say in Texas, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” Baal or no Baal, folks, Elijah says, you’re not getting any rain. And without rain, you don’t have crops. Your cattle will die. People will die. It’s curtains.
Elijah delivers the goods. He’s a stand-in-the-gap messenger, uniquely anointed and used by God. He travels solo, sounding the alarm, trying to awaken an indifferent and even hostile populace.
4. WHEN YOU STAND ALONE
Today there are still those who stand alone in the gap, those who still strive to shake us awake. A handful of brave students at Columbine High School come immediately to mind. Loaded guns and the threat of death couldn’t silence them.
A. I think of them as modern-day Elijahs, whom God uses to deliver a life-changing message. Men and women of
courage, ready to stand and deliver. Authentic heroes. Elijah, David, Esther, Moses, and Joseph, along with Knox, Lee, and others—not a mediocre bone in their bodies.
These were men and women who were willing to stand alone against the strongest forces of their day and, without reluctance or embarrassment, proclaim the name of the Lord.
Do you remember what God led another of His great prophets to write about this?
And I searched for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.
The quest continues. Our Lord is still searching for people who will make a difference. Christians dare not be mediocre. We dare not dissolve into the background or blend into the neutral scenery of this world.
Sometimes you have to look awfully close and talk awfully long before an individual will declare his allegiance to God. Sometimes you have to look long and hard to find someone with the courage to stand alone for God. Is that what we have created today in this age of tolerance and compromise?
Elijah’s life teaches us what the Lord requires.
5. LESSONS LEARNED FROM A GAP-STANDING PROPHET
Several lasting lessons emerge from Elijah’s example.
First: God looks for special people at difficult times. God needed a special man to shine the light in the blackness of those days. But God didn’t find him in the palace or the court. He didn’t find him walking around with his head down in the school of the prophets. He didn’t even find him in the homes of the ordinary people. God found him in Tishbeh, of all places. A man who would stand in the gap couldn’t be suave or slick; he had to be tough.
God looked for somebody who had the backbone to stand alone. Someone who had the courage to say, “That’s wrong!” Someone who could stand toe to toe with an idolater and proclaim, “God is God.
In our culture—our schools, our offices and factories, our lunchrooms and boardrooms, our halls of ivy and our halls of justice—we need men and women of God, young people of God. We need respected professionals, athletes, homemakers, teachers, public figures, and private citizens who will promote the things of God, who will stand alone—stand tall, stand firm, stand strong!
How’s your stature and your integrity? Have you corrupted your principles just to stay in business? To get a good grade? To make the team? To be with the in crowd? To earn the next rank or promotion? Have you winked at language or behavior that a few years ago would have horrified you? Are you, right now, compromising morally because you don’t want to be considered a prude?
Those who find comfort in the court of Ahab can never bring themselves to stand in the gap with Elijah
.Second: God’s methods are often surprising. God did not raise up an army to destroy Ahab and Jezebel. Neither did He send some scintillating prince to argue His case or try to impress their royal majesties. Instead God did the unimaginable—He chose somebody like.., well, like Elijah.
Are you thinking right now that somebody else is better qualified for that short-term mission assignment? For that leadership training group? For that community service?
Are you a wife and homemaker who feels that your contribution to God’s service is not noteworthy? Do you see other people as special or called or talented?
You may be missing a ministry opportunity that is right there in front of you. You may be in the very midst of a ministry and not even realize it. (What greater ministry can there be, for example, than that of a faithful and loving wife and mother?)
Your ministry may be to just two or three people and that’s all. Don’t discount that. God’s methods are often surprising. In fact, at times I have found them even illogical. They don’t really make good sense to our finite minds. David’s brothers laughed at the thought of his standing against Goliath. And what about Joshua walking around the walls of Jericho and blowing those trumpets? We’re talking strange, folks.
Third: We stand before God.When we’re standing alone in the gap, ultimately, we’re standing before God. When the call comes, will God find us ready and willing to stand for Him? Will He find in us hearts that are completely His? Will He be able to say, “Ah, yes, that one’s heart is completely Mine. Yes, there’s sufficient commitment there for Me to use that life with an Ahab. That’s the kind of devotion I’m looking for.”
If your Christianity hasn’t put that kind of steel in your spine, that quality of marrow in your bones, there’s something terribly wrong, either with the message you’re hearing or with your heart. God is looking for men and women whose hearts are completely His, men and women who won’t blend into the scenery.
No matter what role you fill in life, you’re not unimportant when it comes to standing alone for truth.
What spot has God given you? Whatever it is, God says, “You’re standing before Me, and I want to use you. I want to use you as My unique spokesperson in your day and age, at this moment and time.”
Elijah, this gaunt, rugged figure striding out of nowhere, suddenly stepping into the pages of history, is a clear witness of the value of one life completely committed to God. An unknown man from a backwater place, he was called to stand against evil in the most turbulent and violent and decadent of times.
Look around. The need is still great, and God is still searching.