The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Heavens Shut Up
"When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him," (Isa. 59:19). What is signified by the enemy coming in "like a flood?" The figure used here is a graphic and expressive one: it is that of an abnormal deluge which results in the submerging of the land, the imperiling of property and life itself, a deluge threatening to carry everything before it. Aptly does such a figure depict the moral experience of the world in general, and of specially-favored sections of it in particular, at different periods in their history. Again and again a flood of evil has broken lose, a flood of such alarming dimensions that it appeared as though Satan would succeed in beating down everything holy before him, when, by an inundation of idolatry, impiety and iniquity, the cause of God upon earth seemed in imminent danger of being completely swept away.
"When the enemy shall come in like a flood." We have but to glance at the context to discover what is meant by such language. "We wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes . . . For our transgressions are multiplied before Thee, and our sins testify against us . . . In transgressing and lying against the Lord, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood. And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil is accounted mad" (Isa. 59:9-15, see margin of v. 15). Nevertheless, when the Devil has brought in a flood of lying errors, and lawlessness has become ascendant, the Spirit of God intervenes and thwarts Satan’s vile purpose.
The solemn verses quoted above accurately describe the awful conditions which obtained in Israel under the reign of Ahab and his heathen consort, Jezebel. Because of their multiplied transgressions God had given up the people to blindness and darkness, and a spirit of falsehood and madness possessed their hearts. In consequence, truth was fallen in the street—ruthlessly trampled underfoot by the masses. Idolatry had become the state religion: the worship of Baal was the order of the day: wickedness was rampant on every side. The enemy had indeed come in like a flood, and it looked as though there was no barrier left which could stem its devastating effects. Then it was that the Spirit of the Lord lifted up a standard against him, displeased with the sins of the people, and would now visit their iniquities upon them. That heavenly standard was raised aloft by the hand of Elijah.
God has never left Himself without witnesses on earth. In the darkest seasons of human history the Lord has raised up and maintained a testimony for Himself. Neither persecution nor corruption could entirely destroy it. In the days of the antediluvians, when the earth was filled with violence and all flesh had corrupted its way, Jehovah had an Enoch and a Noah to act as His mouthpieces. When the Hebrews were reduced to abject slavery in Egypt, the Most High sent forth Moses and Aaron as His ambassadors, and at every subsequent period in their history one prophet after another was sent to them. So also has it been throughout the whole course of Christendom: in the days of Nero, in the time of Charlemagne, and even in the dark ages—despite the incessant opposition of the Papacy—the lamp of truth was never extinguished. And so here in 1 Kings 17 we behold again the unchanging faithfulness of God to His covenant, by bringing upon the scene one who was jealous for His glory and who feared not to denounce His enemies.
Having already dwelt upon the significance of the particular office which Elijah exercised, and taken a look at his mysterious personality, let us now consider the meaning of his name. A most striking and declarative one it was, for Elijah may be rendered "by God is Jehovah" or "Jehovah is my God." The apostate nation had adopted Baal as their deity, but our prophet’s name proclaimed the true God of Israel. Judging from the analogy of Scripture we may safely conclude that this name was given to him by his parents, probably under prophetic impulse or in consequence of a divine communication. Nor will this be deemed a fanciful idea by those acquainted with the Word. Lamech called his son Noah, saying, "This same shall comfort us (or be a rest to us) concerning our work" (Gen. 5:29)—"Noah" signifying "rest" or "comfort." Joseph gave names to his sons expressive of God’s particular providences to him (Gen. 41:51, 52). Hannah’s name for her son (1 Sam. 1:20), and the wife of Phinehas for hers (1 Sam. 4:19-22), are further illustrations.
We may observe that the same principle holds good in connection with many of the places mentioned in the Scriptures: Babel (Gen. 11:9); Beersheba, (Gen. 21:31); Massah and Meribah, (Ex. 17:7); and Cabul (1 Kings 9:13) margin, being cases in point; indeed no one who desires to understand the sacred writings can afford to neglect a careful attention to proper names. The importance of this receives confirmation in the example of our Lord Himself, for when bidding the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam it was at once added: "which is by interpretation, Sent" (John 9:7). Again, when Matthew records the angel’s command to Joseph that the Saviour was to be named Jesus, the Spirit moved him to add, "All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us," (1:21, 23). Compare also the words, "which is, being interpreted" (in Acts 4:36; Hebrews 7:1, 2).
It will thus be seen that the example of the apostles warrants us to educe instruction from proper names (for if not all of them, many embody important truths), yet this must be done with modesty and according to the analogy of Scripture, and not with dogmatism or for the purpose of establishing any new doctrine. How aptly the name Elijah corresponded to the prophet’s mission and message is at once apparent, and what encouragement every consideration of it would afford him! We may also couple with his striking name the fact that the Holy Spirit has designated Elijah "the Tishbite," which significantly enough denotes the stranger here. And we must also take note of the additional detail that he was "of the inhabitants of Gilead," which name means rocky—because of the mountainous nature of that country. It is ever such a one whom God takes up and uses in a critical hour: a man who is out and out for Him, in separation from the religious evil of his day, and who dwells on high; a man who in the midst of fearful declension carries in is heart the testimony of God.
"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). This memorable event occurred some eight hundred and sixty years before the birth of Christ. For the dramatic suddenness, the exceeding boldness, and the amazing character of it, there are few of a like nature in sacred history. Unannounced and unattended, a plain man, dressed in humble garb, appeared before Israel’s apostate king as the messenger of Jehovah and the herald of dire judgment. No one in the court would know much, if anything, about him, for he had just emerged from the obscurity of Gilead, to stand before Ahab with the keys of Heaven in his hand. Such are often the witness to His truth which God has employed. At His bidding they come and go: not from the ranks of the influential and learned do they issue. They are not the products of this world system, nor does the world place any laurels on their brow.
"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." There is much more in this expression, "the Lord God of Israel liveth," than meets the eye at first glance. Observe that it is not simply "the Lord God liveth," but "the Lord God of Israel," which is also to be distinguished from the wider term, "the Lord of hosts." At least three things were signified thereby. First, "the Lord God of Israel" threw particular emphasis upon His special relationship to the favoured nation: Jehovah was their King, their Ruler, the One with whom they had to do, the One with whom they had entered into a solemn covenant. Second, Ahab is thereby informed that He liveth. This grand fact had evidently been called in question. During the reigns of one king after another Israel had openly mocked and defied Jehovah, and no dire consequences had followed; and so the false idea had come to prevail that the Lord had no real existence. Third, this affirmation, "the Lord God of Israel liveth," pointed a striking contrast with the lifeless idols whose impotency should now be made apparent—unable to defend their deluded votaries from the wrath of God.
Though, for wise reasons of His own, God "endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Rom. 9:22), yet He affords clear and sufficient proof throughout the course of human history that He is even now the governor of the wicked and the avenger of sin. Such a proof was then given to Israel. Notwithstanding the peace and prosperity which the kingdom had long enjoyed, the Lord was highly incensed at the gross manner in which He had been publicly insulted, and the time had arrived for Him severely to chasten the wayward people. Accordingly He sent Elijah to Ahab to announce the nature and duration of His scourge. It is to be duly noted that the prophet came with his awe-inspiring message, not to the people, but the king himself—the responsible head, the one who had it in his power to rectify what was wrong by banishing all idols from his dominions.
Elijah was now called upon to deliver a most unpalatable message unto the most powerful man in all Israel, but conscious that God was with him he flinched not from such a task. Suddenly confronting Ahab, Elijah at once made it evident that he was faced by one who had no fear of him, king though he were. His first words informed Israel’s degenerate monarch that he had to do with the living God. "As the Lord God of Israel liveth" was an outspoken confession of the prophet’s faith, as it also directed attention to the One whom Ahab had forsaken. "Before whom I stand": (that is, whose servant I am—cf. Deut. 10:8; Luke 1:19) in whose Name I approach you, in whose veracity and power I unquestioningly rely, in whose ineffable presence I am now conscious of standing, and to whom I have prayed and obtained answer.
"There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." Frightful prospect was that! From the expression "the early and the latter rain" (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24), we gather that, normally, Palestine experienced a dry season of several months’ duration: but though no rain fell then, heavy dews descended at night which greatly refreshed vegetation. But for neither dew nor rain to fall, and that for a period of years, was a terrible judgment indeed. That land so rich and fertile as to be designated one which "flowed with milk and honey," would quickly be turned into one of drought and barrenness, entailing famine, pestilence and death. And when God withholds rain, none can create it. "Are there any among the vanities (false gods) of the Gentiles that can cause rain?" (Jer. 14:22)—how that reveals the utter impotency of idols, and the madness of those who render them homage!
The exacting ordeal facing Elijah in confronting Ahab and delivering such a message called for no ordinary moral strength. This will be the more evident if we direct attention to a detail which seems to have quite escaped the commentators, one which is only apparent by a careful comparison of Scripture with Scripture. Elijah told the king, "there shall be no dew nor rain these years," while in 1 Kings 18:1 the sequel says, "And it come to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth" (1 Kings 18:1). On the other hand, Christ declared "many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias (Elijah), when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land" (Luke 4:25). How, then, are we to explain those extra six months? In this way: there had already been a six months’ drought when Elijah visited Ahab: we can well imagine how furious the king would be when told that the terrible drought was to last another three years!
Yes, the unpleasant task before Elijah called for no ordinary resolution and boldness, and well may we inquire, What was the secret of his remarkable courage, how are we to account for his strength? Some of the Jewish rabbis have contended that he was an angel, but that cannot be, for the New Testament expressly informs us that he was "a man subject to like passions as we are" (Jas. 5:17). Yes, he was but "a man," nevertheless he trembled not in the presence of a monarch. Though a man, yet he had power to close heaven’s windows and dry up earth’s streams. But the question returns upon us, How are we to account for the full assurance with which he foretold the protracted drought, his confidence that all would be according to his word? How was it that one so weak in himself became mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds?
We suggest a threefold reason as to the secret of Elijah’s strength. First, his praying. "Elijah 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" (Jas. 5:17). Let is be duly noted that the prophet did not begin his fervent supplications after his appearance before Ahab, but six months before! Here, then, lies the explanation of his assurance and boldness before the king. Prayer in private was the source of his power in public: he could stand unabashed in the presence of the wicked monarch because he had knelt in humility before God. But let it also be carefully observed that the prophet had "prayed earnestly": no formal and spiritless devotion that accomplished nothing was his, but whole-hearted, fervent and effectual.
Second, his knowledge of God. This is clearly intimated in his words to Ahab, "As the Lord God of Israel liveth." Jehovah was to him a living reality. On all sides the open recognition of God had ceased: so far as outward appearances went there was not a soul in Israel who believed in His existence. But Elijah was not swayed by public opinion and practice. Why should he be, when he had within his own breast an experience which enabled him to say with Job, "I know that my Redeemer liveth!" The infidelity and atheism of others cannot shake the faith of one who has apprehended God for himself. It is this which explains Elijah’s courage, as it did on a later occasion the uncompromising faithfulness of Daniel and his three fellow Hebrews. He who really knows God is strong (Dan. 11:32), and fears not man.
Third, his consciousness of the Divine presence: "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand." Elijah was not only assured of the reality of Jehovah’s existence, but he was conscious of being in His presence. Though appearing before the person of Ahab, the prophet knew the was in the presence of One infinitely greater than any earthly monarch, even Him before whom the highest angels bow in adoring worship. Gabriel himself could not make a grander avowal (Luke 1:19). Ah, my reader, such a blessed assurance as this lifts us above all fear. If the Almighty was with him, why should the prophet tremble before a worm of the earth! The Lord God of Israel liveth: "before whom I stand" clearly reveals the foundation on which his soul rested as he executed his unpleasant task.