The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Minister of Vengeance
"And Elijah departed" (2 Kings 1:4). At his Master’s bidding, the prophet had gone forth to meet the servants of Ahaziah and delivered what the Lord had commissioned him, and had sent them back with this message to their king, and then took his leave of them. His departure was not for the purpose of concealing himself but to return to his communion with God. It was to "the top of a hill" (v. 9), that he retired: typically it spoke of moral separation from, and elevation above, the world. We have to betake ourselves to "the secret place of the Most High"—and this is not to be found near the giddy and bustling crowds—if we are to "abide under the shadow of the Almighty" (Ps. 91:1); it is from the mercy seat His voice is heard speaking (Num. 7:89). On a previous occasion we have seen Elijah making for the mountaintop as soon as his public work was completed (1 Kings 18:42). What an object lesson is there here for all the servants of Christ: when they have delivered their message, to retire from the public eye and get alone with God, as their Saviour before them was wont to do. The "top of the hill" is also the place of observation and vision: O to make spiritual observatories of our private rooms!
There is nothing in the sacred narrative which indicates the nationality of these messengers of Ahaziah. If they were Israelites they could scarcely be ignorant of the prophet’s identity when he so suddenly accosted them and so dramatically announced the doom of their master. If they were foreigners, imported from Tyre by Jezebel, they were probably ignorant of the mighty Tishbite, for some years had elapsed since his last public appearance. Whoever they were, these men were so impressed by that commanding figure and his authoritative tone, so awed by his knowledge of their mission and so terrified by his pronouncement, that they at once abandoned their quest and returned to the king. He who could tell what Ahaziah thought and said could evidently foretell the outcome of his sickness: they dared not proceed on their journey to Ekron. That illustrated an important principle. When a servant of God is energized by an ungrieved Spirit, his message carries conviction and strikes terror into the hearts of his hearers: just as Herod "feared" John the Baptist (Mark 6:20), and Felix "trembled" before Paul (Acts 24:25). But it is not talking to the wicked about the love of God which will produce such effects, nor will such conscience-soothers be owned of Heaven. Rather is it those who declare, as Elijah of Ahaziah, "Thou shalt surely die."
"And when the messengers turned back unto him, he said unto them, Why are ye now turned back?" (v. 5). It must have been both a surprise and a shock to the king when his servants returned unto him so quickly, for he knew that sufficient time had not elapsed for them to have journeyed to Ekron in Philistia and back again. His question expresses annoyance, a reprimand for their being remiss in discharging his commission. Kings in that day were accustomed to receive blind obedience from their subjects, and woe be unto those who crossed their imperial wills. This only serves to emphasize the effect which the appearance and words of Elijah made upon them. From the next verse we learn that the prophet had bidden them, "Go turn again unto the king that sent you" and repeat my message unto him. And though their so doing meant placing their lives in jeopardy, nevertheless they carried out the prophet’s order. How they put to shame thousands of those professing to be the servants of Christ who for many years past have studiously withheld that which their auditors most needed to hear and criminally substituted a message of "Peace, peace" when there was no peace for them, and that in days when a faithful proclamation of the truth had not endangered their persons. Surely these messengers of Ahaziah will yet rise up in judgment against all such faithless time-servers.
"And they said unto him, There came a man up to meet us and said unto us, Go, turn again unto the king that sent you and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Is it not because there is not a God in Israel that thou sendest to inquire of Baal-zebub the god of Ekron? therefore thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die" (v. 6) From their omission of his name and by referring to Elijah simply as "a man it seems clear that these messengers of the king were ignorant of the prophet’s identity. But they had been so overawed by his appearance and the solemnity of his manner, and were so convinced his announcement would be verified, that they deemed themselves warranted in abandoning their journey and returning to their master. Accordingly they delivered a plain straightforward account of what had occurred and faithfully reported Elijah’s pronouncement. They knew full well that such a message must prove most unwelcome to the king, yet they made no attempt to alter its tone or soften it down. They shrank not from telling Ahaziah to his face that sentence of death had gone out against him. Again we say, How these men put to shame the temporizing, cowardly and pew-flattering occupants of the pulpit. Alas, how often is more sincerity and fidelity to be found among open worldlings than in those with the highest spiritual pretensions.
"And he said unto them, What manner of man was he which came up to meet you and told you these words?" (v. 7). No doubt the king was fairly well convinced as to who it was that had dared to cross their path and send him such a message, but to make quite sure he bids his servants describe the mysterious stranger: what was his appearance, how was he clothed, and in what manner did he address you? How that illustrates one of the chief traits of the unregenerate: it was not the message which Ahaziah now inquired about, but the man who uttered it—yet surely his own conscience would warn him that no mere man could be the author of such a message. And is not this the common tendency of the unconverted: that instead of taking to heart what is said, they fix their attention on who says it. Such is poor fallen human nature. When a true servant of God is sent and delivers a searching word, people seek to evade it by occupying themselves with his personality, his style of delivery, his denominational affiliation— anything secondary as long as it serves to crowd out that which is of supreme moment. Yet when the postman hands them an important business letter they are not concerned about his appearance.
"And they answered him, He was a hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins" (v. 8). We do not regard this as a description of his person so much as of his attire. Concerning John the Baptist, who came "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17), it is recorded that he "had his raiment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins" (Matthew 3:4). Thus we understand that the outward garment of Elijah was made of skins (cf. Heb. 11:37), girded about by a strip of undressed leather. That the prophets had some such distinguishing garb is clear from Zechariah 13:4, by the false prophets assuming the same in order to beguile the people: "a garment of hair to deceive." In that era when instruction was given to the eye as well as the ear, by symbols and shadows, that uncouth dress denoted the prophet’s mortification to the world, and expressed his concern and sorrow for the idolatry and iniquity of his people, just as the putting on of "sackcloth" by others signified humility and grief. For other references to the symbolic meaning of the prophet’s dress and actions compare 1 Kings 11:28 -31; 22.11; Acts 21: 10, 11.
"And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite" (v. 8). There could be no mistake: the king knew now who it was that had sent such a solemn message to him. And what effect was produced upon him? Was he awed and humbled? Did he now bewail his sins and cry unto God for mercy? Far from it. He had learned nothing from his father’s awful end. The severe affliction under which he was suffering softened him not. Even the near approach of death made no difference. He was incensed against the prophet and determined to destroy him. Had Elijah sent him a lying and flattering word, that had been acceptable, but the truth he could not bear. How like the degenerate generation in which our lot is cast, who had rather be bombed to death in places of amusement than be found on their faces before God. Ahaziah was young and arrogant, not at all disposed to receive reproof or endure opposition to his will, no matter from what quarter it proceeded, no, not even from Jehovah Himself. The message from Elijah, though in God’s name and by His express command, enraged the monarch beyond measure, and instantly he resolves on the death of the prophet, though he had done nothing more than his duty.
"Then the king sent unto him a captain of fifty with his fifty. And he went up to him: and behold, he sat on the top of a hill. And he spake unto him, Thou man of God, the king hath said, Come down" (v. 9). Ahaziah was at no loss to find wicked men ready to execute the most desperate and impious orders. This company of soldiers went forth promptly to seize the Lord’s servant. They found him sitting composedly upon an eminence. The spirit of the captain evidenced that his heart was thoroughly in his task, for he insolently addressed Elijah as "thou man of God," which was by way of derision and insult. It was as though he had said, Thou claimest Jehovah as thy Master, we come to thee in the name of a greater than he: King Ahaziah says, Come down! Fearful effrontery and blasphemy was that! It was not only an insult to Elijah, but to Elijah’s God, an insult which was not suffered to go unchallenged. How often in the past have the wicked made a mock at sacred things and turned the very terms by which God designates His people into epithets of reproach, sneeringly dubbing them "the elect," "saints," etc. That they do so no longer is because the fine gold has become dim; godliness is no more a reality and a rebuke to the impious. Who would think of designating the average clergyman a "man of God?" Rather does he wish to be known as "a good mixer," a man of the world.
"And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty" (v. 10). There was no personal vindictiveness in the terrible reply of Elijah, but a consuming zeal for the glory of God, which had been so blatantly insulted by this captain. The king’s agent had jibed at his being a "man of God," and now he should be furnished with summary proof whether or no the Maker of heaven and earth owned the prophet as His servant. The insolence and impiety of this man who had insulted Jehovah and His ambassador should meet with swift judgment. "And there came down fire from heaven and consumed him and his fifty" (v. 10). Sure sign was this that Elijah had not been actuated by any spirit of revenge, for in such a case God had not responded to his appeal. On an earlier occasion the "fire of the Lord" had fallen upon and consumed the sacrifice (1 Kings 18:38), but here it falls on sinners who had slighted that sacrifice. So shall it again be when "the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess. 1:7, 8).
Surely so manifest an interposition of God would serve as a deterrent, if not to the abandoned king yet to his servants, so that no further attempt would be made to apprehend Elijah. But no: "Again also he sent unto him another captain of fifty with his fifty. And he answered and said unto him, O man of God, thus hath the king said, Come down quickly" (v. 11). It is hard to say which, on this occasion, was the more remarkable, the madness of the wounded Ahaziah when the report of the awful event reached him, or the presumption of this officer and his soldiers. This second captain took no warning from what had befallen the first and his soldiers. Was the calamity which overtook them attributed to chance, to some lightning or fireball happening to consume them, or was he recklessly determined to brave things out? Like his predecessor he addressed the prophet in the language of insulting derision, though using more peremptory terms than the former: "Come down quickly." See once more how sin hardens the heart and ripens men for judgment. And who maketh thee to differ? To what desperate lengths might the writer and the reader have gone if the mercy of God had not interposed and stopped us in our mad career! 0 what praise is due unto sovereign grace which snatched me as a brand from the burning!
"And Elijah answered and said unto them, If I be a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume thee and thy fifty" (v. 12). Proof had already been given that Jehovah was omniscient (v. 4), now they should know He is omnipotent. What is man in the hands of his Maker? One flash of lightning and fifty-one of His enemies become burnt stubble. And if all the hosts of Israel, yea the entire human race, had been assembled there, it had needed no other force. Then what folly it is for him whose breath is in his nostrils to contend with the Almighty: "Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker" (Isa. 45:9). Some have blamed Elijah for destroying those men, overlooking the fact that he could no more bring down fire from heaven than they can. Elijah simply announced on these occasions what God had Himself determined to do. Nor was it to please the prophet that the Lord acted, or to gratify any vindictive passion in Himself, but to show forth His power and justice. It cannot be said the soldiers were innocent, for they were performing no military duty, but openly fighting against Heaven as the language of the third captain indicates. This has been recorded as a lasting warning for all ages, that those who mock at and persecute God’s faithful ministers will not escape His punishment. On the other hand, those who have befriended them shall by no means lose their reward.
"And he sent again a captain of the third fifty with his fifty" (v. 53). What fearful obstinacy is there here. Deliberately hardening his heart, Ahaziah strengthened himself against the Almighty and makes one more attempt to do the prophet harm. Though on his death-bed, and knowing the Divine judgment which had befallen two companies of his soldiers (as v. 54 intimates), yet he persists in stretching forth his hand against Jehovah’s anointed, and exposes to destruction another of his captains with his body of men. So true are those words of Holy Writ, "Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him" (Prov. 27:22). And why is this? Because "the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live" (Eccl. 9:3). In view of such unerring declarations, and with such examples as Pharaoh, Ahab and Ahaziah before us, we ought not to be in the least surprised or startled by what we see and read of what is taking place in the world today. Saddened and solemnized we should be, but not staggered and nonplussed.
"And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and besought him and said unto him, O man of God, I pray thee, let my life and the life of these fifty thy servants be precious in thy sight. Behold, there came fire down from heaven and burnt up the two captains of the former fifties with their fifties: therefore let my life now be precious in thy sight" (vv. 53, 54). This man was of a different disposition from the two who had preceded him: even in the military forces God has a remnant according to the election of grace. Daring not to attempt anything against Elijah, he employed humble submission and fervent entreaties, with every expression of respect. It was an affecting appeal, a real prayer. He attributed the death of the previous companies to its true cause and appears to have had an awful sense of the justice of God. He owns that their lives lay at the prophet’s mercy and begs they may be spared. Thus did Jehovah provide not only for the security but also the honour of Elijah, as He did for Moses when Pharaoh had threatened to put him to death (Ex. 11:8). The appeal of this captain was not in vain. Our God is ever ready to forgive the humble suppliant, how ever rebellious he may have been, and the way to prevail with Him is to bow before Him.
"And the angel of the Lord said unto Elijah, Go down with him: be not afraid of him" (v. 15). This clearly demonstrates that Elijah waited for the Divine impulse and was entirely guided by it in the former instances of severity. Neither God nor His servant could have any pleasure in taking away the lives of those who approached them in a becoming manner. It was to punish them for their scorn and impiety that the others had been slain. But this captain came with fear and trembling, not with ill-will to the prophet nor contempt for his Master. Accordingly he found mercy and favour: not only were their lives preserved, but the captain succeeds in his errand—Elijah shall go with him to the king. Those who humble themselves shall be exalted, whereas those who exalt themselves shall be abased. Let us learn from Elijah’s example to deal kindly toward those who may have been employed against us, when they evidence their repentance and entreat our clemency. Mark it was "the angel of the Lord" who again addressed the prophet: but what a test of his obedience and courage! The Tishbite had greatly exasperated Jezebel and her party, and now her reigning son must have been furious at him. Nevertheless he might safely venture into the presence of his raging foes seeing that the Lord had bidden him do so, with the assurance, "Be not afraid." They could not move a finger against him without God’s permission. God’s people are quite safe in His hands, and faith may ever appropriate the triumphant language of Psalm 27:1-3.
"And he arose and went down with him unto the king" (v. 15), readily and boldly, not fearing his wrath. He made no objection and indicated no fear for his safety: though the king was enraged and would be surrounded by numerous attendants, he committed himself to the Lord and felt safe under His promise and protection. What a striking instance of the prophet’s faith and obedience to God. But Elijah did not go to confront the king until bidden by the Lord to do so, teaching His servants not to act presumptuously by recklessly and needlessly exposing themselves unto danger: but as soon as He required it he went promptly, encouraging us to follow the leadings of Providence, trusting God in the way of duty and saying, "The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man shall do unto me" (Heb. 13:6).
"And he said unto him, Thus saith the Lord," etc. (v. 16). Elijah now repeats to the king, without any alteration, what he had said to his servants. Without fear or mincing the matter, the prophet spoke God’s word plainly and faithfully to Ahaziah; in the name of Him in whose hands are both life and death, he reproved the monarch for his sin and then pronounced sentence on him. What an awful message for him to receive: that he should go from his bed to hell. Having discharged his commission, the Tishbite departed without molestation. Enraged as were Jezebel and her party, the king and his attendants, they were as meek as lambs and as silent as statues. The prophet went in and out among them with perfect safety, receiving no more harm than Daniel when cast into the lions" den, because he trusted in God. Let this cause us to go forth firmly but humbly in the discharge of our duty. "So he died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken" (v. 57).