Elijah has a lot to offer us:
We all can use some inspiration and encouragement, especially when the days have become so very dark – as they are now. Often the way God encouraged and led his people in dark times in the Old Testament was by means of his prophets. Christians today can learn so much from them and their ministries.
One of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets was of course Elijah. We read about this important prophet in the last six chapters of 1 Kings, and the first two of 2 Kings. He is first mentioned in 1 Kings 17. Here I want to look only at that chapter, and do so by drawing upon one commentator.
I have in my hands Peter Leithart’s 2006 commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. As the title of the series suggests, the emphasis of these commentaries is on the theological angle. There is certainly a place for critical commentaries that emphasise exegesis, history, textual issues and the like. But an emphasis on theology is crucial as well.
The series is a bit uneven, but one volume I have especially enjoyed is Leithart’s. So here I want to simply offer a number of quotes from his discussion of 1 Kings 17. Early on he says this about the importance of prophets:
The ministries of Elijah and Elisha mark an epochal shift in focus of Yahweh’s work with Israel his people. From the time of Moses through the period of judges, Yahweh works with the tribes of Israel, with the high priest as the central figure. After Saul and especially after David, Yahweh works with Israel as a whole through the king. When the kings reject Yahweh and serve idols, Yahweh begins to work in Israel through prophets and through the community within Israel led by prophets. Each of the transitions is initiated by a prophet: Moses the great prophet leads the tribes of Israel from Egypt and delivers their constitution, the Torah; a new Moses, Samuel, anoints the first two kings and organizes Israel as a monarchical constitution; and the prophetic era is initiated by the work of two prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Ultimately, Yahweh’s work through prophets comes to its fruition in the ministry of Jesus, who gathers a community within Israel, redefining the true Israel as those who follow him as disciples.
He discusses the notion of what it is to be a “remnant” and shares some thoughts that I at least need to consider:
The ecclesiological implications here are vastly important. American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in particular tend to operate with free-church ecclesiologies in which they regard themselves as the remnant, the true Israel, separated from the false church in the mainline. Thinking that they are following Luther, they withdraw from contact with the mainline churches, largely ignoring them and leaving them to their own devices. To be sure Elijah and Elisha set up their own network of prophetic communities, but they remain in regular, if confrontational, contact with Israel’s mainline. An ecclesiology of total withdrawal cannot be sustained in 1-2 Kings. Elijah and Elisha do not entertain the comforting illusion that they can carry on happily as the true Israel while the Omrides take the nation further and further into the cesspool of idolatry. They recognize that they are inevitably bound with the nation as a whole, and their prophetic labors that gather faithful communities within Israel aim not at forming a permanent alternative to Israel but at renewing Israel.
Hmm, food for thought there at the very least. He also says this – when discussing the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath – about how Elijah models Christ to us:
Through his prophet, Yahweh demonstrates his lordship, his boundary-bursting power. He shows his power over the wilderness, over enemy territory, over the grave. And in this he manifests his relentless persistence, his unwavering commitment to preserve his prophet and to save Israel. Elijah goes to the wilderness, and Yahweh follows him. Elijah goes to Zarephath, and Yahweh follows him. The widow’s son goes to the grave, and Yahweh follows to bring life from death. Yahweh’s commitment is not confined to the prophet, but extends to all Israel, for he preserves the prophet for the sake of his people. In the face of Yahweh’s persistent loyalty, if Israel fails to respond with trust and love, it is because of its own hard-heartedness, for Israel is left without excuse.
This is the God of Jesus Christ, the God who comes to us in Christ Jesus. Will our God enter the wilderness for us? He has done, in Jesus. Will he cross into the territory of the “prince of this world” for us? He has done, in Jesus. Will he cross the boundary between the living and the dead for us? He has done, in Jesus.
And this lengthy quote is also well worth offering. Leithart discusses the power of prayer, and the often quite necessary need for praying for divine judgement:
The Pentateuch is full of wonders and signs, but Moses never raises the dead, and, apart from Elisha, no one else does either until the time of Jesus. Elijah and Elisha are uniquely carriers of the life of Yahweh.
Prayer is the conduit for the power of the Spirit to go from Yahweh to Elijah and then to radiate life to widows, children, and ultimately Israel. Through prayer, Elijah receives life and food in order to give life and food. Though not stated in this passage, the drought is a response to Elijah’s prayer, as seen in James’s interpretation: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months” (Jas. 5:17). Even before he appears in Kings, Elijah is praying, asking Yahweh to withhold the rain and dew. According to Deuteronomy, when Israel turns from Yahweh and pursues idols, Yahweh will bring all manner of curses (28:15), and among the curses is drought: “The heavens that are over your head shall be as bronze, and the earth that is under you shall be iron. Yahweh will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it will come down until you are destroyed” (28:23-24). Elijah knows the covenant and understands God’s curses; he observes the idolatries of Omri and Ahab, and he prays that God will keep covenant by cursing a disobedient and rebellious people and driving them to repentance. Elijah anticipates Yahweh’s plans because he knows Yahweh’s character from Scripture.
Elijah’s first prayer is a prayer for judgment, not a prayer for stability and calm or the maintenance of the status quo. For Elijah, the status quo is intolerable. He cannot overlook the fact that Israel, the people of Yahweh, turns to Baal and other false gods, and he does not want Yahweh to overlook that fact either. Such prayers do not spring easily to the minds and lips of modern Christians, but the Psalms are full of petition for judgments and exhortations to praise when God answers (e.g., Ps. 96:11-13). Prayers for judgment do not come out of delight in destruction and death, nor does such prayer arise from a harsh and vindictive spirit. When God judges, he enters a disordered world, a world where nothing is as it should be, to reorder it and set things right. When we pray for judgment, we are simply praying that God will set things right, and that he not be satisfied with things as they are, that he keeps his promises to establish peace and right in the creation.
And one final quote from the end of the chapter:
Yahweh is the boundary-transgressing, infinite, boundless God. He never retreats, never suffers a setback, is never frustrated. Nothing can hold him or hold him back. Drought cannot limit him; in fact, he sends the drought. Death cannot keep him away. He is the lord of life and of death and demonstrates his power over life and death in the resurrection of Jesus. And he promises to put his infinite resources at the disposal of those who pray in righteousness and faith. He is our helper, ready and waiting to receive ‘instructions’ through the effectual fervent prayers of righteous believers.
These are great truths from a great portion of Scripture. Thank you to Peter Leithart for making them available to us.