The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Brook Cherith
"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). Elijah is here brought before us as an example of what may be accomplished by the earnest prayers of one "righteous man," (v. 16). Ah, my reader, mark well the descriptive adjective, for it is not every man, nor even every Christian, who obtains definite answers to his prayers. Far from it! A "righteous man" is one who is right with God in a practical way: one whose conduct is pleasing in His sight, one who keeps his garments unspotted from the world, who is in separation from religious evil, for there is no evil on earth half so dishonoring and displeasing to God as religious evil (see Luke 10:12-15; Rev. 11:8). Such a one has the ear of Heaven, for there is no moral barrier between his soul and a sin-hating God. "Whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight," (1 John 3:22).
"He prayed earnestly that it might not rain." What a terrible petition to present before the Majesty on high! What incalculable privation and suffering the granting of such a request would entail! The fair land of Palestine would be turned into a parched and sterile wilderness, and its inhabitants would be wasted by a protracted famine with all its attendant horrors. Then was this prophet a cold and callous stoic, devoid of natural affection? No indeed! the Holy Spirit has taken care to tell us in this very verse that he was "a man subject to like passions as we are," and that is mentioned immediately before the record of his fearful petition. And what does the description signify in such a connection? Why, this: that though Elijah was endowed with tender sensibilities and warm regard for his fellow-creatures, yet in his prayers he rose above all fleshly sentimentality.
Why was it Elijah prayed "that it might not rain?" Not because he was impervious to human suffering, not because he took a fiendish delight in witnessing the misery of his neighbors, but because he put the glory of God before everything else, even before his own natural feelings. Recall what has been pointed out in an earlier chapter concerning the spiritual conditions that then obtained in Israel. Not only was there no longer any public recognition of God, no, not throughout the length and breadth of the land, but on every side He was openly insulted and defied by Baal worshippers. Daily the tide of evil rose higher and higher, until it had now swept practically everything before it. And Elijah was "very jealous for the Lord God of hosts," (1 Kings 19:10), and longed to see His great Name vindicated and His backslidden people restored. Thus it was the glory of God and true love for Israel which actuated his petition. And what does that description signify in such a connection? Why, this: that though Elijah was endowed with tender sensibilities and warm regard for his fellow-creatures, yet in his prayers he rose above all fleshly sentimentality.
Here, then, is the outstanding mark of a "righteous man" whose prayers prevail with God: though one of tender sensibilities, yet he puts the honour of the Lord before every other consideration. And God has promised, "them that honour Me I will honour," (1 Sam. 2:30). Alas, how frequently these words are true of us: "Ye ask, and receive not; because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts," (Jas. 4:3). We "ask amiss" when natural feelings sway us, when carnal motives move us, when selfish considerations actuate us. But how different was it with Elijah! He was deeply stirred by the horrible indignities against his Master and longed to see Him given His rightful place again in Israel. "And it rained not on the earth for the space of three years and six months." The prophet failed not of his object. God never refuses to act when faith addresses Him on the ground of His own glory, and clearly it was on that ground Elijah had supplicated Him.
"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need," (Heb. 4:16). It was there at that blessed throne that Elijah obtained the strength which he so sorely needed at that time. Not only was he required to keep his own skirts clear from the evil all around him, but he was called upon to exercise a holy influence upon others, to act for God in a degenerate age, to make a serious effort to bring back the people to the God of their fathers. How essential it was, then, that he should obtain that grace from Him which alone could fit him for his difficult and dangerous undertaking: only thus could he be delivered from evil himself, and only thus could he hope to be instrumental in delivering others. Thereby equipped for the conflict, he entered upon his path of service endued with Divine power.
Conscious of the Lord’s approbation, assured of the answer to his petition, sensible that the Almighty was with him, Elijah boldly confronted the wicked Ahab and announced the Divine judgment on his kingdom. But let us pause for a moment so that this weighty fact may sink into our minds, for it explains to us the more-than-human courage displayed by the servants of God in every age. What was it made Moses so bold before Pharaoh? What was it that enabled the young David to go forth and meet the mighty Goliah? What was it that gave Paul such strength to testify as he did before Agrippa? From whence did Luther obtain such resolution that "though every tile on the roofs were a devil" he would continue his mission? In each case the answer is the same: supernatural strength was obtained from a supernatural source: only thus can we be energized to wrestle with the principalities and powers of evil.
"He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint," (Isa. 40:29-31). But where had Elijah learned this all-important lesson? Not in any seminary or bible-training college, for it there were such in that day they were like some in our own degenerate time—in the hands of the Lord’s enemies. Nor can the schools of orthodoxy impart such secrets: even godly men cannot teach themselves this lesson, much less can they impart it to others. Ah, my reader, as it was at "the backside of the desert," (Ex. 3:1), that the Lord appeared to and commissioned Moses, so it was in the solitudes of Gilead that Elijah had communed with Jehovah and had been trained by Him for his arduous duties: there he had "waited" upon the Lord, and there had he obtained "strength" for his task.
None but the living God can effectually say unto His servant, "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness," (Isa. 41:10) Thus granted the consciousness of the Lord’s presence, His servant goes forth "as bold as a lion," fearing no man, kept in perfect calm amid the most trying circumstances. It was in such a spirit that the Tishbite confronted Ahab: "as the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand." But how little that apostate monarch knew of the secret exercises of the prophet’s soul ere he thus came forth to address his conscience! "There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." Very striking and blessed is that. The prophet spoke with the utmost assurance and authority, for he was delivering God’s message—the servant identifying himself with his Master. Such should ever be the demeanor of the minister of Christ: "we speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen."
"And the word of the Lord came unto him," (v. 2). How blessed! yet this is not likely to be perceived unless we ponder the same in the light of the foregoing. From the preceding verse we learn that Elijah had faithfully discharged his commission, and here we find the Lord speaking anew to His servant: thus we regard the latter as a gracious reward of the former. This is ever the Lord’s way, delighting to commune with those who delight to do His will. It is a profitable line of study to trace this expression throughout the scriptures. God does not grant fresh revelations until there has been a compliance with those already received: we may see a case of this in the early life of Abraham. "The Lord had said unto Abraham, Get thee . . . unto the land that I will show thee," (Gen. 12:1); but instead, he went only half way and settled in Haran, (11:31), and it was not until he left there and fully obeyed that the Lord again appeared to him, (12:4-7).
"And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith," (vv. 2, 3). An important practical truth is hereby exemplified. God leads His servants step by step. Necessarily so, for the path which they are called to tread is that of faith, and faith is opposed to both sight and independency. It is not the Lord’s way to reveal to us the whole course which is to be traversed: rather does He restrict his light to one step at a time, that we may be kept in continual dependence upon Him. This is a most salutary lesson, yet it is one that the flesh is far from relishing, especially in those who are naturally energetic and zealous. Before he left Gilead for Samaria to deliver his solemn message, the prophet would no doubt wonder what he should do as soon as it was delivered. But that was no concern of his, then: he was to obey the Divine order and leave God to make known what he should do next.
"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths," (Prov. 3:5, 6). Ah, my reader, had Elijah then leaned unto his own understanding, we may depend upon it that hiding himself by the brook Cherith is the last course he would have selected. Had he followed his instincts, yea had he done that which he considered most glorifying to God, would he not have embarked upon a preaching tour throughout the towns and villages of Samaria? Would he not have felt it was his bounden duty to do everything in his power calculated to awaken the slumbering conscience of the public, so that his subjects—horrified at the prevailing idolatry—would bring pressure to bear upon Ahab to put a stop to it? Yet that was the very thing God would not have him to do: what then are reasoning and natural inclinations worth in connection with Divine things? Nothing.
"And the word of the Lord came to him." Note that it is not said, "the will of the Lord was revealed to him" or "the mind of God was made known"; we would particularly emphasize this detail, for it is a point on which there is no little confusion today. There are numbers who mystify themselves and others by a lot of pious talk about "obtaining the Lord’s mind" or "discovering God’s will" for them, which when carefully analyzed amounts to nothing better than a vague uncertainty or a personal impulse. God’s "mind" or "will," my reader, is made known in His Word, and He never "wills" anything for us which to the slightest degree clashes with that heavenly Rule. Changing the emphasis, note, "the Word of the Lord came to him:" there was no need for him to go and search for it! (See Deut. 30:11-14).
And what a "word" it was that came to Elijah! "Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan," (v. 3). Verily God’s thoughts and ways are indeed entirely different from ours: yes, and He alone can "make known," (Ps. 103:7), the same unto us. It is almost amusing to see how commentators have quite wandered from the track here, for almost all of them explain the Lord’s command as being given for the purpose of providing protection for His servant. As the death-dealing drought continued, the perturbation of Ahab would increase more and more, and as he remembered the prophet’s language that there should be neither dew nor rain but according to his word, his rage against him would know no bounds: Elijah, then, must be provided with a refuge if his life was to be spared. Yet Ahab made no attempt to slay him when next they met, (1 Kings 18:17-20)! Should it be answered, "That was because God’s restraining hand was upon the king," we answer, granted, but was not God able to restrain him all through the interval?
No, the reason for the Lord’s order to His servant must be sought elsewhere, and surely that is not far to ascertain. Once it be recognized that next to the bestowment of His Word and the Holy Spirit to apply the same, the most valuable gift He grants any people is the sending of His own qualified servants among them, and that the greatest possible calamity which can befall any land is God’s withdrawal of those whom He appoints to minister unto the soul, then no uncertainty should remain. The drought on Ahab’s kingdom was a Divine scourge and in keeping therewith the Lord bade his prophet "get thee hence." The removal of the ministers of His truth is a sure sign of God’s displeasure, a token that He is dealing in judgment with a people who have provoked Him to anger.
It should be pointed out that the Hebrew word for "hide," (1 Kings 17:3), is an entirely different one from that which is found in Joshua 6:17, 25 (Rahab’s hiding of the spies) and in 1 Kings 18:4, 13. The word used in connection with Elijah might well be rendered "turn thee eastward and absent thyself," as it is in Genesis 31:49. Of old the Psalmist had asked, "O God, why hast Thou cast us off for ever? why doth Thine anger smoke against the sheep of Thy pasture?" (74:1). And what was it that caused him to make this plaintive inquiry? what had happened to make him realize that the anger of God was burning against Israel? This: "They have cast fire into Thy sanctuary . . . they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet;" (vv. 7-9). It was the doing away with the public means of grace which was the sure sign of the Divine displeasure.
Ah, my reader, little as it may be realized in our day, there is no surer and more solemn proof that God is hiding His face from a people or nation than for Him to deprive them of the inestimable blessings of those who faithfully minister His Holy Word to them, for as far as heavenly mercies excel earthly so much more dreadful are spiritual calamities than material ones. Through Moses the Lord had declared, "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass," (Deut. 32:2). And now all dew and rain was to be withheld from Ahab’s land, not only literally so, but spiritually so as well. Those who ministered His Word were removed from the scene of public action, (cf. 1 Kings 18:4).
If further proof of the Scripturalness of our interpretation of 1 Kings 17:3 be required, we refer the reader to: "And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers," (Isa. 30:20). What could be plainer than that? For the Lord to remove His teachers into a corner was the sorest loss His people could suffer, for here He tells them that His wrath shall be tempered with mercy, that though He gave them the bread of adversity and the water of affliction yet He would not again deprive them of those who ministered unto their souls. Finally, we would remind the reader of Christ’s statement that there was "great famine" in the land in Elijah’s time, Luke 4:25, and link up with the same: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it," Amos 8:11, 12.