Elijah’s Humbling Lesson: Nobody is Indispensable

By Dr. Mark A. Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology

Getting something wrong in the Bible and communicating that to congregations or students is an occupational hazard of pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian educators. I should know. I’ve done it on occasion myself, too many times to count. We can learn from our mistakes, however. This article offers a fresh look at a text that I believe is commonly misunderstood, Elijah’s flight from Jezebel after his victorious, climactic confrontation with the priests of Baal on the slopes of Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18-19).

A common explanation for Elijah’s actions is that after one has experienced a great emotional high, it is normal to experience a great emotional low. Author Victor Hamilton’s assessment is typical: “This chapter [1 Kings 19] is a powerful object lesson on how victory and celebration can give way to discouragement and withdrawal in the life of any of God’s servants.”[1]  Donald Wiseman suggests that Elijah shows symptoms of “manic depression” and “an inability to manage.”[2] A sudden onset of depression thus explains why Elijah begs God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Who in Christian leadership has not experienced this emotional roller-coaster?  Elijah is, after all, a frail human; we readily identify with him.

We should be careful, however, to conclude that this is what is happening to Elijah.

The text points in a different direction, one that becomes apparent when we consider specific details, some of which at first glance are rather odd and disconnected. I believe that Elijah’s flight from Jezebel and his subsequent request that God take his life were not due to him hitting bottom after a great accomplishment, but rather from being forced to accept that God’s plan to eradicate Baal worship from Israel did not match his own plan. Scripture reveals how Yahweh first humbles Elijah, and then redirects him.

How the Story Unfolds 

The post-Carmel narrative begins in 1 Kings 18:46 with an explicit statement of Yahweh’s empowering Elijah immediately following the crushing defeat of the priests of Baal: “Then the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and outran Ahab to Jezreel.” We are not told why Elijah ran ahead of Ahab, just that he ran the 17 miles in shorter time than it took Ahab to cover the same distance by chariot.

Even with the victory at Carmel, a major obstacle to ridding Israel of Baal worship still remained—Jezebel. Elijah was heading straight for her, with the hand of God upon him! What Yahweh did through him on the slopes of Carmel He would do through His faithful prophet in the palace of Jezreel. This was the moment Elijah had been waiting for; the day of decision had finally come. This day would be remembered throughout Israel’s history as the day of Baal’s demise.  We do not know, of course, if Elijah entertained such grandiose and dramatic thoughts as these, but it is not unreasonable to think that he may have expected, rightly or wrongly, that Yahweh would use him to finish what had he had started three-and-a-half years before (17:1)—the eradication of Baal worship from Israel. But as Elijah entered the city, nothing seemed to go as he thought it might.

If Elijah had expected Ahab to repent, that did not happen (19:1). If he had expected some answer or direction from Yahweh like that on Mt. Carmel (18:36-38), God was now silent. The only message he received was Jezebel’s oath against his life (19:2). Where was God in all this?  This is a good question, and the text does not help us explain why things just seem to fizzle out when Elijah enters Jezreel. Was the problem with Elijah, either presuming too much or getting ahead of God and not waiting for specific directions? As the popular explanation goes, did he suddenly panic at the threat from Jezebel, making any voice from God impossible to hear?  Or did Yahweh bring him to Jezreel as a necessary first step in a painful process that would culminate in the revelation at Horeb?  The passage does not say and we are left with questions, not answers. At any rate, Yahweh was silent and suddenly, Elijah found himself in a vulnerable spot. Jezebel had threatened to kill him. What was he to do?

Elijah’s response to Jezebel’s threat, according to the Septuagint and recent translations (NASB, NIV, ESV, NLT), was “he was afraid” (19:3). The Hebrew text and some older translations (KJV, ASV) read “and he saw”.[3]  Translated “he saw,” the idea would be that Elijah assessed that nothing was happening, that Yahweh was silent, and that he was on his own. Even if the reading should be “he was afraid,” which is possible, it is unfortunate that commentators have used this to support the idea that Elijah is suffering from a sudden emotional let-down, or the low point of the manic-depressive cycle. That he “ran for his life” (19:3) was indeed motivated by fear, but nothing suggests a cowardly, irrational fear triggered by a depressed emotional state.  Reading the text either as “he was afraid” or “he saw,” the point is that Elijah realized that his plans were not Yahweh’s plans. Specifically, he realized that if Yahweh still had plans to eradicate Baal from Israel, those plans did not involve him now, at this time and place. Elijah is coming face-to-face with the realization that how he thought Yahweh would use him to return the nation to their God was not how it was going to be. How Yahweh humbles and then redirects his prophet is the subject matter of the rest of the story.

Running Toward God

Without any word of explanation from Yahweh, Elijah immediately headed for the one place where he felt he could hear from Israel’s God—Horeb (Mt. Sinai, v. 3). Beersheba was the last rest stop before the wilderness. He left his servant there, and headed out alone. The journey was a long one. He had already come 100 miles; Mt. Sinai was more than 200 miles further to the south over rough, barren, inhospitable country. Why Mt. Sinai? The answer is important in order to understand what Elijah was thinking and feeling at this moment.

He had the right idea. It was at Horeb that Yahweh had appeared to Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet, who had delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt. It was at Horeb that Yahweh powerfully and dramatically called the nation into covenant relation with himself. Elijah had been hoping for something similar for himself and Israel in its time of great peril. As he made his way over the barren landscape, he was not running away from God; he was running toward him.

After traveling “a day’s journey,” at least 20 miles or so, he stopped to rest under a juniper tree (19:4). The narrator gives no indication that Elijah was experiencing a bout of depression following from his great success at Mt. Carmel. Rather, the text says only that Elijah was tired, hungry and thirsty from the long journey (19:5-6). And yet there is his prayer in verse 4, “O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” While his cry may make Elijah sound like he is depressed, it is important to ask why he compares himself to his “fathers.” The death request, and the reason for it, makes better sense in light of the background of Elijah’s frustrated expectation.

Up to the moment he entered Jezreel Elijah had every reason to think Yahweh was going to use him to do what all of his “fathers” (predecessors) had failed to do—exterminate Baal worship from Israel. Now that the head of the snake—Ahab and Jezebel—still lived, Elijah felt he had failed, just as all those before him had failed; he was no better than they. What was the point of his life now if Yahweh had chosen not to use him to deliver Israel from its bondage to idolatry?  Yahweh does not answer Elijah, not yet at least.

Yahweh, through his angel, instructs Elijah to continue on his way to Horeb. Elijah then traveled “forty days and forty nights” without food (v. 8) to Mt. Sinai, an accomplishment hardly consistent with a depressed emotional state. It would have taken only a fourth of that time to reach Mt. Sinai. The “forty days and forty nights” is symbolic of Moses’ appearance before Yahweh on the mountain.[4] At the mountain, Yahweh breaks His silence.

In the events and accompanying dialogue that follows, the reader finally begins to see what is going on with Elijah, and how Yahweh gently confronts and redirects His broken and humbled prophet. To the question, “What are you doing here?” Elijah responds in a way that confirms the proposal being made here. He firmly believed he was the one to rid Israel of Baal. After all, who else was there? “I alone am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (v. 10).

Yahweh does not respond orally, but with a triad of theophanic displays—the strong wind, the earthquake, and fire. “But the Lord was not in” any of these. Instead, He reveals Himself in a “gentle blowing” (v. 12). These manifestations serve to correct Elijah’s thinking about his role in combating Baalism in Israel. Elijah was expecting something as powerful as a mighty wind, an earthquake or fire; something on the order of Carmel, but God was not in these. The dialogue is repeated, Yahweh asking why Elijah is at the mountain, and Elijah claiming he had done great things so far, and that only he was left to finish what he had started (vv. 13-14). The rest of the passage is designed to correct Elijah’s thinking and to transition him to the next part of Yahweh’s plan.

A Different Plan

The first part of Yahweh’s plan is revealed when He instructs Elijah to anoint Hazael as the king of Aram (v.15), Jehu as king over Israel and Elisha to take Elijah’s place (v. 16). Yahweh then explains what He is doing—these three will serve as an (unlikely, from our and Elijah’s perspective) trio in the hands of Yahweh to judge His sinful people (v. 17). Finally, Yahweh corrects Elijah’s thinking that he was the last remaining hope for Israel’s revival: “Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him” (v. 18). Elijah leaves the mountain and does what Yahweh tells him to do, finding and “throwing his mantle” over Elisha (vv. 19-21). We are never told why Yahweh decided to deal with Ahab, Jezebel and the remnant of Baal worship in this manner. Nor do we need to know; it is just the way God planned it.

Thus, the main point of the Ahab-Jezebel-Elijah text has to do with eradicating Baal worship from Israel, but not in the way that Elijah had thought. He had imagined he was indispensable to Yahweh for this task …“And I alone am left.” Yahweh patiently met Elijah in his state of confusion, anger and frustration with the fact that Yahweh’s plans did not depend solely on him.  Yahweh would still use Elijah to complete the task of dealing with Israel’s devotion to Baal, but He made it clear that Elijah was not the only means to accomplish this end. Elijah appears to have accepted the humbling lesson, submitted to Yahweh’s plans, and continued in his role as prophet to Israel.

A Lesson for Leaders

As Christian leaders, we are prone to think as Elijah did. It’s a result of our fallen human nature to do so. God has placed us in leadership roles with His people, and has uniquely gifted and prepared us for effective ministry. He has already done remarkable things through us, things only possible by the “hand of God” resting on us. How quickly we conclude from these facts that we are indispensable to the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom. How readily we see ourselves as more important to God than we are. How easily we believe that nobody else can do the job as effectively as we can. Yet in our saner moments we find encouragement in remembering that God’s work does not depend entirely on us, that He has others who share the same passion for His work as we do.  May we be content to remain faithful, and leave the results to Him.

[1] Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 434.

[2] Wiseman, Donald J. 1 & 2 Kings.  Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Vol. 9. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 171.

[3] Allen, Ronald B. “Elijah the Broken Prophet.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22/3 (September, 1979), 193-202.  See especially pp. 198-99 for his proposal that “and he was afraid” could better be read “and he saw.”

[4] Patterson, R. D. and Austel, Hermann J. 1, 2 Kings. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), 149 n. 8.

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1 Response to Elijah’s Humbling Lesson: Nobody is Indispensable

  1. Jo Sherman says:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and careful study of this subject. I have always been taught that Elijah was afraid and running from God but this makes so much more sense.

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