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God in the Quietness
Reflections on 1 Kings 19:1-18

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

On May 14, 1988, near Carrolton, Kentucky, a church youth group and their sponsors were heading home from an outing. A drunken driver wandered onto the wrong side of the interstate and struck the bus head-on. In seconds, a ruptured fuel tank turned the church bus into a raging inferno. Twenty-four children and three adults died. A survivor later thanked God for sparing her life. I wondered exactly how God had spared her. And why hadn't he spared the others?

A few years ago a well known religious figure thanked God for turning aside a hurricane and saving his state. I wondered how the people felt who lived farther up the coast where the hurricane eventually struck. Didn't God care for them too?

I grew up in a farming area with diverse crops. Sometimes prayers were interesting. The cotton and corn farmers needed rain to get the crop started. The wheat and alfalfa farmers wanted sunshine to finish harvesting. I wondered how God decided. Does God actually arrange when and where it rains?

These are real life questions. Does God really work in our world? And how does He? The Bible struggled with this issue as well. It lies at the heart of the Elijah stories.

The Text

1. A very human hero (19:1-5)

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow."

3 Then he was afraid, and he arose and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers." 5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree; and behold, an angel touched him, and said to him, "Arise and eat."

As with most narratives in the Old Testament, the Elijah stories were meant to be heard on two levels. We should not focus solely on the surface of this story and hear only the personal inner turmoil of Elijah. If we listen intently, on a deeper level, the story is about God and the working out of His purposes in the history of His people.

We like heroes and heroines. We like people who do impossible things or overcome great odds. The hero ideal views people in terms of fame, influence, and accomplishments and calls us to follow them in success. In one sense, we need heroes to inspire us. Yet, a hero model can lead to superficial perceptions and unrealistic expectations of other people, and of ourselves.

It is easy to view persons in the Bible as heroes and see them as somehow removed from the normal problems of human existence. If we do, we risk missing the message that addresses the real life questions all of us face every day.

Elijah had just experienced a dramatic climax to his ministry in his confrontation with the worshippers of Baal on Mount Carmel (ch.18). That spectacular revelation of God in the fire on Mount Carmel would remain the most sensational triumph of his career. In our view, he walked away from Mount Carmel a hero.

But chapter nineteen is not very heroic. Jezebel would not give up so easily. She vowed to kill this troublesome prophet of God. Elijah feared for his life. So he ran. Here we see Elijah as a very ordinary human being. The hero of Mount Carmel quickly became the despondent loner crying, "I've had enough!" (v. 4). What happened to Elijah?

In many areas of life, great victories are often followed by times of doubt, discouragement, and depression. Emotional stress, physical fatigue, individual personalities, body chemistry, genetic makeup, and other factors can sometimes combine to bring on the "blues" or even deeper depression. Most often, these feelings are totally unrelated to our spiritual commitment. They are simply the result of being human.

People committed to God are not immune to being human. Whether positive or negative, emotions are part of that humanity. Our emotions are plugged into the biological and chemical parts of our bodies and so are often uncontrollable. That is why using our human emotions as a yardstick for our spiritual condition is hazardous. Feeling good and being happy are not always good measures of commitment to God. Likewise, feeling depressed, discouraged, anxious, doubtful, feeling like "I've had enough," are not necessarily signs of spiritual relapse.

2. God meets human need (19:6-8)

6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time, and touched him, and said, "Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you." 8 And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Elijah had given up. He left his country in the north and traveled south. When he got to the border of Israel at Beersheba, he kept going and abandoned God's land for the desert. The dismissal of his servant suggests that he was giving up his prophetic vocation as well (vv.3-4). Finally, Elijah went to sleep, often a symbol for impending death in ancient times. The story tells us that Elijah's emotions have pushed him to the brink of despair.

God does not give up on us nearly as easily as we give up on Him! God came to Elijah in the desert in the midst of his despair. While Elijah may have had enough of God, God had not yet had enough of Elijah!

The word translated "angel" in the Hebrew simply means messenger (v. 5). Often the bible uses messenger as a way to describe the presence of God himself (Judges 2:1; Isaiah 63:9). Sometimes God's messengers were human beings who served God's purposes (2 Chron 36:15).

The messenger here need not be the winged supernatural creature we are used to seeing in medieval paintings. The messenger could just as easily have been a faithful human servant of God whom He led to that forsaken place to minister to Elijah. Miracles are not measured by how fantastic and unexplainable and supernatural they are. Sometimes the miracle is simply God meeting us at a moment of need. We don't know the exact method God used. But clearly, in His own way, God ministered to the needs of His despondent prophet. I have never encountered a winged angel. But more than once, in times of discouragement and need, I have met a messenger of God who fed me!

The two feedings serve to underscore the depth of Elijah's depression. Later God questioned him twice (vv. 9, 13) and Elijah responded with the same negative answer both times (10, 14). In his state of emotional distress, Elijah was not very responsive to God. But God was patient with Elijah. God did what was necessary to bring him to a place where he could respond.

God is not the kind of God who beats us into submission. He does not coerce our response to him or force our loyalty. That is our decision. But he will work to bring us to a position where we can respond to him. Sometimes He may work in unusual or unexpected ways. Sometimes He may work through very ordinary people in everyday circumstances. But He will work, calling us to response.

As Elijah journeyed toward Horeb he still had not fully recovered from his emotional valley. But he was moving. Sometimes that is enough. We cannot always expect a "quick fix" to our discouragements. The healing may be slow. Sometimes beginning the process is enough.

3. God's silent voice (19:9-18)

9 And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10 He said, "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

11 And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 14 He said, "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

15 And the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; 16 and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Eli'sha slay. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."

Here is the heart of the story. In these verses, the story moves beyond Elijah and his personal needs to that deeper level that addresses the question of how God works in our world. God was still willing to work with Elijah. God's persistent questions gently pushed Elijah toward a faithful response. Before Elijah responded, though, he learned something crucial about God.

Mount Horeb, where Elijah found himself after his long journey through the desert, was the very mountain where Moses had encountered God in the fire of a burning bush (Exodus 3:1f). It was at that mountain, also called Mount Sinai, that God had given the law to Moses amid fire, smoke, and thunder (Exodus 19:16f).

The very name Horeb or Sinai evoked images of a powerful and awesome God who strode boldly into history overthrowing kingdoms and working fantastic miracles before the people's eyes. Elijah was on that very mountain of God where it all started. We would expect a new overwhelming revelation to Elijah that would convince him of God's power. But he did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah did not even come out of his cave to witness those things. It was an unseen, soft sound that drew Elijah to a point where he could finally respond to God.

We are not told what the gentle sound was. It's not important. The contrast is clear. God is not always in the loud and showy events of history. God had brought fire from the sky on Mount Carmel. Yet, that is not the only way God works in our world. Sometimes He is heard unexpectedly in the soft and subtle sounds of life, as we are gently drawn to listen. We must be willing to listen, intently.

Many today would have us hear God only in the fantastic and sensational actions of God. They ask us to demand miracles from God daily, even hourly. Their measure of God at work in the world is the number and magnitude of fantastic miracles.

God has acted, continues to act, and will act in marvelous ways in our world. Sometimes He works in wonderful miracles of healing or deliverance. But not always. Not even usually. Most of us will never see the fire fall like it did on Mount Carmel. If we only look for God in those things, we may miss Him in the quiet, ordinary, unseen, gentle sounds in our life. Maybe that's why so many missed the birth of a carpenter's son in a cow stall.

God called Elijah back to involvement with the nitty-gritty things of life. He was still God's prophet. He would anoint kings and stir up rebellion against Ahab and Jezebel. God was at work in the world. Much of it was done through the efforts of a restored Elijah and his apprentice Elisha.

God is at work in unseen ways in our world, not just in the spectacular. Where we may see only one prophet who does spectacular feats, God has seven thousand servants who quietly do his work in the world (v. 18). How does God work in our world? This story does not have all the answers. It does have one. God works through ordinary men and women who serve him in the nitty-gritty areas of life. God often speaks silently through people who not long before were ready to give up. There are more miracles wrought where our humanity meets God's grace than this world dreams of!

Conclusion

One summer we moved with two small children to Kansas City to attend seminary. We were excited about a new opportunity to serve God. But it did not go well. Nothing seemed to work right. A whole series of events totally beyond our control wrought havoc with our carefully made plans. What little money we had saved quickly disappeared.

We tried everything we knew, but things got worse. Bills went unpaid and food ran low. We prayed. And we became discouraged. The day finally came when we had absolutely no food in the house, not a single scrap of anything. It was Sunday. How do you come home from church and tell your kids there is nothing to eat?

As Linda and I walked to the car after church, we discussed what we would do when we got home. We didn't have to decide. The entire back seat of the car was filled with groceries. We thanked God for his providential care.

Did God put those groceries in the back seat? No. Caring, loving people from our Church did. Was it a miracle? Oh, yes! Not one of those fireworks kind of miracles. Just God at work through ordinary people who had responded to Him. Does God work in our world? As often as people care for each other!

O Lord, thank you for understanding me, for letting me be human, for not expecting me always to play the hero. Thank you for not letting me wander too far into the desert of despair. I have eaten your food in the desert. And I know that you are God!

Questions for Discussion

1. What is the danger in using a certain level of emotion as the measure of a successful Christian life?  of a successful church service?

2. What is a miracle? How do we recognize a miracle? How would the cultural situation of the ancient world influence how the Bible describes miracles? To what extent does our modern scientific world view influence how we think about miracles?

3. Do true Christians ever become depressed? If they do, is it a sign of unbelief or lack of faith?  If they don't, is it a mark of righteousness or spiritual maturity? Why or why not?

4. Why does God not always bring physical or emotional healing all at once, if at all?

5. Could the skill of a surgeon used to save the life of an accident victim be called a miracle?

6. How can we be messengers of God in our world?

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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