The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Cave in Mount Horeb
Two things are made prominent in the opening verses of 1 Kings 19, the one serving to enhance the other: the bitter fruits of the prophet’s panic and the superabounding grace of the Lord unto his erring servant. The threatening message sent by the furious Jezebel had filled Elijah with consternation, and in his subsequent actions we are given to behold the effects which follow when the heart is filled with unbelief and fear. Instead of spreading the queen’s message before his Master, Elijah took matters into his own hands; instead of waiting patiently for Him, he acted on hasty impulse. First, he deserted his post of duty and fled from Jezreel, whither "the hand of the Lord" had brought him. Second, occupied solely with self, he "went for his life," being no longer actuated by the glory of God nor the good of His people. Third, folly now possessed him, for in rushing to Beersheba he entered the territory of Jehoshaphat, whose son had married "the daughter of Ahab"—not even does "common sense" regulate those who are out of fellowship with God.
Elijah dare not remain at Beersheba, so he goes "a day’s journey into the wilderness," illustrative of the fact that when unbelief and fear take possession, a spirit of restlessness fills the soul so that it is no longer capable of being still before God. Finally, when his feverish energy had spent itself, the prophet flung himself beneath a juniper tree and prayed for death. He was now in the slough of despond, feeling that life was no longer worth living. And it is on that dark background we behold the glories of Divine grace which now shone forth so blessedly. In the hour of his despair and need, the Lord did not forsake His poor servant. No, first He gave His beloved sleep, to rest his jaded nerves. Second, He sent an angel to minister unto him. Third, He provided refreshments for his body. This was grace indeed; not only undeserved but entirely unsought by the Tishbite. Wondrous indeed are the ways of Him with whom we have to do, who is "longsuffering to us-ward."
And what was Elijah’s response to these amazing overtures of God’s mercy? Was he overwhelmed by the Divine favour? melted by such lovingkindness? Cannot the reader, yea the Christian reader, supply the answer from his own sad experience? When you have wandered from the Lord and forsaken the paths of righteousness, and He has borne with your waywardness, and instead of visiting your transgressions with the rod has continued to shower His temporal blessings upon you, has a sense of His goodness led you to repentance, or while still in a backslidden state have you not rather accepted God’s benefits as a matter of course, unmoved by the most tender mercies? Such is fallen human nature the world over, in every age: "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19). And Elijah was no exception, for we are told "he did eat and drink, and laid him down again" (v. 6), —no sign of repentance for the past, no hint of gratitude for present mercies, no exercise of soul about future duty.
Ah, in this line of the picture we are shown yet another effect which follows upon the heart’s giving way to unbelief and fear, and that is insensibility of soul. When the heart is estranged from God, when self becomes the center and circumference of our interests, a hardness and deadness steals over us so that we are impervious unto the Lord’s goodness. Our vision is dimmed, so that we no longer appreciate the benefits bestowed upon us. We become indifferent, callous, unresponsive. We descend to the level of the beasts, consuming what is given us with no thought of the Creator’s faithfulness. Does not this short sentence sum up the life of the unregenerate: "They eat and drink and lie down again"—without any regard for God, care for their souls, or concern for eternity? And my reader, that is the case with a backsliding believer: he comes down to the level of the ungodly, for God no longer has the chief place in his heart and thoughts.
And what was the Lord’s response to such gross ingratitude on the part of His servant? Did He now turn from him in disgust, as deserving no further consideration from Him? Well He might, for despising grace is no ordinary sin. Yet while grace does not make light of sin—as the sequel here will make evident—yet if sin were able to thwart grace it would cease to be grace. As grace can never be attracted by "well-desert" so it is never repelled by "ill-desert." And God was dealing in grace, sovereign grace, with the prophet. Wherefore we read, "And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee" (1 Kings 19:7). Truly we must exclaim with the Psalmist, "He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, neither hath He hid his face from him" (22:24). And why? Because God is love, and love "suffereth long and is kind . . . is not easily provoked . . . beareth all things" (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
"And the angel of the Lord came again the second time," How wondrous is the Lord’s patience! "God hath spoken once" and that should be sufficient for us, yet it rarely is so, and therefore is it added "twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God" (Ps. 62:11). The first time the cock crew Peter paid no heed to it, but "the second time it crew" he "called to mind the word which Jesus said unto him . . . and when he thought thereon, he wept" (Mark 14:72). Alas, how slow we are to respond to the Divine advances: "And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" (Acts 10:15). "Rejoice in the Lord always:" surely the Christian needs not to have such a word repeated! The apostle knew better: "Again I say, Rejoice!" is added (Phil. 4:4). What dull scholars we are: "When for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again" (Heb. 5:12), and thus it has to be "line upon line, precept upon precept."
"And the angel of the Lord came again the second time." It seems most probable that it was evening when the angel came to Elijah the first time and bade him arise and eat, for we are told he had gone "a day’s journey into the wilderness" before he sat down under the juniper bush. After he had partaken of the refreshment provided by such august hands, Elijah had lain him down again and night had spread her temporary veil over the scorched sands. When the angel came and touched him the second time, day had dawned: through the intervening hours of darkness the celestial messenger had kept watch and ward while the weary prophet slept. Ah, the love of God knows no change—it fainteth not, neither is object from it. Unfailing love watches over the believer during the hours when he is insensible to its presence. "Having loved His own which were in the world He loved them unto the end"—unto the end of all their wanderings and unworthiness.
"And said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee," May we not perceive here a gentle rebuke for the prophet? "The journey is too great for thee." What journey? He had not been directed to take any! It was a journey undertaken of his own accord, a devising of his own self-will. It was a journey away from the post of duty, which he ought, at that hour, to have been occupying. It was as though this heavenly messenger said to the prophet: See what comes of your self-will; it has reduced you to weakness and starvation. Nevertheless God has taken pity on you and furnished refreshment: He will not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. The Lord is full of kindness: He foresees the further demands which are going to be made upon your frame, so "Arise and eat." Elijah had fixed his mind on the distant Horeb, and so God anticipates his needs, even though they were the needs of a truant servant and rebellious child. O what a God is ours!
But there is a practical lesson here for each of us, even for those whom grace hath preserved from backsliding. "The journey is too great for thee." Not only life’s journey as a whole, but each daily segment of it will make demands above and beyond our own unaided powers. The faith required, the courage demanded, the patience needed, the trials to be borne, the enemies to be overcome, are "too great" for mere flesh and blood. What then? Why, begin the day as Elijah began this one: "Arise and eat." You do not propose to go forth to a day’s work without first supplying your body with food and drink, and is the soul more able to do without nourishment? God does not ask you to provide the spiritual food, but has graciously placed it by your side. All He asks is, "Arise and eat:" feed on the heavenly manna that your strength may be renewed; begin the day by partaking of the Bread of Life, that you may be thoroughly furnished for the many demands that will be made upon your graces.
"And he arose, and did eat and drink" (v. 8). Ah, though his case was such a sad one, yet "the root of the matter" was in him. He did not scorn the provision supplied him nor despise the use of means. Though there is yet no sign of gratitude, no returning of thanks to the gracious Giver, yet when bidden to eat, Elijah obediently complied. Though he had taken matters into his own hands, he did not now defy the angel to his face. As he had refused to lay violent hands upon himself, asking the Lord to take his life from him, so now he did not deliberately starve himself but ate the food set before him. The righteous may fall, yet he will not be "utterly cast down." The flax may not burn brightly, yet smoke will evidence that it has not quite gone out. Life in the believer may wane to a low ebb, yet sooner or later it will give proof that it is still there.
"And went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God" (v. 8). In His grace the Lord passes over the infirmities of those whose hearts are upright with Him and who sincerely love Him, though there still be that in them which ever seeks to oppose His love. Very blessed is the particular detail now before us: God not only reviewed the flagging energy of His servant but He caused the food which he had eaten to supply him with strength for a long time to come. Should the skeptic ask, How could that single meal nourish the prophet for almost six weeks? It would be sufficient answer to bid him explain how our food supplies us with energy for a single day! The greatest philosopher cannot explain the mystery, but the simplest believer knows that it is by the power and blessing of God upon it. No matter how much food we eat, or how choice it be, unless the Divine blessing attend it, it nourishes us not a single whit. The same God who can make a meal energize us for forty minutes can make it do so for forty days when He so pleases.
"Horeb the mount of God" was certainly a remarkable place for Elijah to make for, for there is no spot on earth where the presence of God was so signally manifested as there, at least in Old Testament times. It was there that Jehovah had appeared unto Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-4). It was there the Law had been given to Israel, (Deut. 4:15), under such awe-inspiring phenomena. It was there that Moses had communed with Him for forty days and nights. Yet, though Israel’s prophets and poets were wont to draw their sublimest imagery from the splendors and terrors of that scene, strange to say there is no record in Scripture of any Israelite visiting that holy mount from the time the Law was given until Elijah fled there from Jezebel. Whether it was his actual intention to proceed thither when he left Jezreel we know not. Why he went there we cannot be sure. Perhaps, as Matthew Henry suggested, it was to indulge his melancholy, saying with Jeremiah, "O that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them!" (9:2).
Strangely enough there are some who think that the prophet wended his way across the wilderness to Horeb because he had received instructions from the angel to do so. But surely this view is negatived by the sequel: the Lord had not twice uttered that searching and rebuking, "What doest thou here, Elijah?", had he come thither in obedience to the celestial messenger. That his steps were Divinely guided thither we doubt not, for there was a striking propriety that he who was peculiarly the legal reformer should meet with Jehovah in the place where the Law had been promulgated—compare Moses and Elijah appearing with Christ on the mount of transfiguration. Though Elijah came not to Horeb by the command of God, he was directed there by the secret providence of God: "A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps" (Prov. 16:9). And how? By a secret impulse from within which destroys not his freedom of action. "The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov. 21:1),—the waters of a river flow freely, yet is their course determined by Heaven!
"And he came thither into a cave, and lodged there" (v. 9). At last the prophet was contented with the distance he had put between himself and the one who had sworn to avenge the death of her prophets: there in that remote mountain, concealed in some dark cave amid its precipices, he felt secure. How he now employed himself we are not told. If he tried to engage in prayer we may be sure he had no liberty and still less delight therein. More probably he sat and mused upon his troubles. If His conscience accused him that he had acted too hastily in fleeing from Jezreel, that he ought not to have yielded to his fears, but rather put his trust in God and proceeded to instruct the nation, yet the sequel indicates he would have stifled such humiliating convictions instead of confessing to God his failure. "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways" (Prov. 14:15): in the light of such a scripture who can doubt that Elijah was now engaged in pitying and vindicating himself, reflecting on the ingratitude of his fellow-countrymen and aggrieved at the harsh treatment of Jezebel?
"And, behold, the word of the Lord came to him" (v. 9). God had spoken to him personally on previous occasions. The word of the Lord had ordered him to hide by the brook Cherith (17:2, 3). It had come to him again, bidding him betake himself to Zarephath (17:8, 9). And yet again it had commanded him to show himself unto Ahab (18:1). But it seems to the writer that here we have something different from the other instances. As the fugitive lurked in the cave, we are told, "and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him." That expressive term does not occur in any of the previous passages and its employment here is the Spirit’s intimation that something extraordinary is before us. On this occasion it was something more than a Divine message which was communicated to the prophet’s ear, being nothing less than a visit from a Divine person which the prophet now received. It was none other than the second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal "Word" (John 1:1), who now interrogated the erring Tishbite. This is unmistakably clear from the next clause: "and He said unto him." Very remarkable, very solemn is this.
"And He said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?" (v. 9). Elijah had turned aside from the path of duty, and his Master knew it. The living God knows where His servants are, what they are doing and not doing. None can escape His omniscient gaze, for His eyes are in every place (Prov. 15:3). The Lord’s question was a rebuke, a searching word addressed to his conscience. As we do not know which particular word the Lord accentuated, we will emphasize each one separately. "What doest thou?": is it good or evil, for totally inactive, in either mind or body, man cannot be. "What doest thou?": art thou employing thy time for the glory of God and the good of His people, or is it being wasted in peevish repinings? "What doest thou?": thou who art the servant of the Most High who hast been so highly honored, who hast received such clear tokens of His aid and depended upon the Almighty for protection! "What doest thou here?": away from the land of Israel, away from the work of reformation.
"And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (v. 10). As we ponder these words we find ourselves out of accord with the commentators, most of whom severely criticize the prophet for seeking to excuse himself and throw the blame on others. That which impresses the writer first is the ingenuousness of Elijah: there were no evasions and equivocations, but a frank and candid explanation of his conduct. True, what he here advanced furnished no sufficient reason for his flight, yet it was the truthful declaration of an honest heart. Well for both writer and reader if he can always give as good an account of himself when challenged by the Holy One. If we were as open and frank with the Lord as Elijah was, we could expect to be dealt with as graciously as he was; for note it well, the prophet received no rebuke from God in answer to his outspokenness.
"I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts" was a statement of fact: he had not shrunk from the most difficult and dangerous service for his Master and his people. It was not because his zeal had cooled that he had fled from Jezreel. "For the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword." Elijah had been deeply distressed to behold how grievously the Lord was dishonored by the nation which was called by His name. God’s glory lay very near his heart, and it affected him deeply to see His laws broken, His authority flouted, His worship despised, the homage of the people given to senseless idols and their tacit consent to the murder of His servants. "And I, even I only, am left." He had, at imminent peril of his life, laboured hard to put a stop to Israel’s idolatry and to reclaim the nation; but to no purpose. So far as he could perceive, he had laboured in vain and spent his strength for nought. "And they seek my life, to take it away:" what then is the use of my wasting any more time on such a stiffnecked and unresponsive people!