Elijah is an influential prophet, yet never wrote a book. He springs out of the Bible’s pages in 1 Kings 17:1 telling Ahab God will punish sinful Israel by a drought. Elijah is from Tishbeh, a city beyond the Jordan, in the tribe of Gad and the land of Gilead. We don’t know anything about his parents. He departs about 20 years later as mysteriously as he arrives, taken up into the heavens in a whirlwind. Elijah’s story is told in only 6 chapters in the Old Testament but his influence extends into the New Testament. In his message of repentance he is a pattern for John the Baptist (Malachi 4:5, Matt 11:14) and appears on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Jesus (Matt. 17:3). James (Jas 5:17) says he was a man of like passions as we are and therefore not an angel as some think. Elijah alternates from soaring faith to the dregs of despair.
We can learn some lessons from his story. Elijah witnessed amazing miracles. Ahab habitually killed the bad-news messenger so God sends Elijah to a remote place and commands birds to feed him. Afterward, God sends him from Israel to Sidon to a widow who keeps him 3 years and feeds him with a barrel of flour and container of oil that miraculously do not run out. When her son dies, God through Elijah raises him from the dead. Jesus uses this story to show Israel’s rejection of God’s prophets in Luke 4:24-26.
Perhaps the most momentous miracle is the shootout, or contest, on Mount Carmel that ultimately ends the drought. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth to a contest to see whose God will answer whom. He also challenges the people, including Ahab, to choose between God and Baal. The prophets of Baal spend all day, as Elijah taunts them, and get no answer from their idol. In the end, Elijah asks God to send fire down on his water-soaked altar and God does, destroying it completely. The people declare “…The Lord he is the God.” Elijah has the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth killed, and then the rain starts. It is a great victory. The next day Jezebel threatens Elijah’s life and he flees to the wilderness south of Judah in despair, thinking he is a failure and he is alone. God appears to him on Mr. Horeb, the same mountain where God met Moses. After exhibits of earthquake, wind and fire, God speaks in a still, small voice. He tells Elijah he is not alone, there are 7 thousand in Israel who have not bowed to Baal. God gives Elijah some tasks to accomplish and sends him back to Israel to get busy.
Elijah next appears in 2 Kings 1. Ahaziah, Ahab’s successor, had sent messengers to inquire of an idol whether he’d recover from sickness, they’re intercepted by Elijah. He sends word to Ahaziah that he will die from his sickness. Twice the king sends haughty captains with 50 soldiers ordering Elijah to come, and twice Elijah calls down fire from heaven to kill them all. A third captain came very cautiously, and God sends Elijah to the king to deliver his condemnation in person. Finally, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah is taken up by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha is his successor and inherits his mantle.
What can we learn? First: God takes care of his own. God fed and protected Elijah when he needed it. Second: Miracles were to confirm the word of God, and the messengers who bring it. The woman of Zarephath, upon seeing her son revived said, “…by this I know you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” People at Carmel initially believed. Third: In spite of incontrovertible evidence, like the shootout on Carmel, people’s hearts may not change as we expect them to do.
Elijah was disappointed his victory at Carmel did not change Israel. We should not be discouraged by failure, in the end, God wins. Fourth: We are not alone. There are others who believe as we do, and there are spiritual people with hearts ready to hear God’s word. Don’t give up. Fifth: God did not speak in the storm, earthquake or fire, but in a quiet voice. The victory at Carmel did not achieve what Elijah thought it would. God’s message is not spread through great, noisy shows and campaigns, it is spread by individuals. Sixth: We need tasks and goals to keep us focused and give purpose. In Elijah’s despair God gave him a purpose; go anoint two kings and appoint a successor. Jesus told His disciples, “…Go into all the world and preach the gospel….”
God’s purpose is served by the small things we do daily, accomplishing the tasks God gives us as we are able. Our life’s work may be told in only 6 chapters like Elijah, but we can have an impact. We can change the world, not by great campaigns, but by one person at a time, starting with us.