Farming is a patient endeavor. Three out of four years in high school, I planted a very good hobby garden. Tomatoes, Corn, Asparagus, and Broccoli were my crops of choice. I worked hard to till the ground, plant everything in rows, keep it all watered, and even took care to cross pollinate a little bit (I saw a youtube video on it). Every year I was met with success except for one. That year I discovered 13-13-13 fertilizer. If corn grew fast on its own…why not help it with 40 lbs of fertilizer. I burnt my corn crop to a crisp. Sometime we try to force growth. When something isn’t going well, we blame ourselves, we try to hard, or we press to make it grow. Has your influence or ministry ever not gone the way you wanted it too? Elijah’s ministry wasn’t and it nearly broke him.
When we last saw Elijah, he was sleeping in a cave, which is never a sign that things are going well. He is fresh off of his 40 day-night journey from the Northern Kingdom to Mt. Horeb (Sinai) in lieu of a threat by Queen Jezebel. (1 Kings 19.1-2) From this lone cave, on an isolated mountain, miles from his home, Elijah and God exchange words.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I am a firm believer that God asks some questions just to hear us answer. It has nothing to do with Him not knowing the information, but with us acknowledging our thoughts and understanding of the situation. (see Gen 3.9) God knows about Elijah’s journey, his mountaintop moment at Carmel and his desert prayer (1 Kings 19.4). God knows why Elijah is here, He just wants to hear him say it.
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19.10)
These are cutting words. Scripture is shady on the tone with which Elijah is speaking his reply. I always assumed it was a whinny tone. “God you just don’t get it…I served you and this is how you are going to repay me.” My interpretation rests solely upon the reason Elijah is on the run in the first place…he was afraid. (1 Kings 19.3) The problem lies in the word that is translated “afraid”.
The hebrew word wayyare’, could be the word for “afraid” or it could be a verbal form of the word ra’ah, meaning “to see”. The NIV has a footnote at the bottom of the page acknowledging the ambiguity in the translation. If the word is read as “saw”, the passage, and the character of Elijah, takes a different direction. A character sketch of Elijah does not produce a man who runs from a challenge. He has already confronted Ahab twice (17.1; 18.16ff.), 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18.19), and a crowd of people who were living unfaithful lives to God (18.21), without cowering. Now he is going to go AWOL because of some harsh words from Jezebel? But if we read it as “saw”, instead of a fearful man, running to save his skin, we see a man who for three and a half years battled to force of Ba’al, and to keep his servant, Jezebel, from claiming a victory in the name of Ba’al by executing the prophet of Yahweh, Elijah ran. He saw that “he was no better than his ancestors” (19.4) because in the same way that they had ultimately failed in their attempt to return the nation’s hearts back to God, he too was unable to sway the leadership of the nation and by proxy its people.
Elijah’s problem was his short sightedness. He thought that the ministry was done with him. He understood God’s work in pursuing His people, continuing His communication with His people through the prophets, and those remaining faithful shrinking. Elijah was broken because he saw the end caused, in his mind, by him.
So his statement: “I have been very zealous for the Lord…” can be understood as a statement of failure and disappointment, instead of a whinny accusation towards God. Elijah, stuck in a cave on a far away mountain, is feeling the sting of a ministry that he views as a failure. Brokenness is overtaking him and he expresses that notion to God.
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord for the Lord is about to pass by.” – God (1 Kings 19.11)
In a story reminiscent of Exodus 33.21-23 where the hand of the Lord covers Moses as He passes by, God gives Elijah the same experience. Moses in a time of questioning the ministry God has put him in (Ex 33.15-20), is allowed to view the presence of God. Elijah, on the same mountain and in similar fashion is shown the presence of God.
A great and powerful wind tore apart the mountain…but God was not in it. An earthquake shook the mountain…but God was not in it either. Fire rained down, in the same way it had at Carmel…but God was not in it either. After the suspense was sufficiently built, the Lord spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19.11-13). Elijah put his cloak over his face and proceeded to have the same conversation with God as earlier. This time God speaks to Elijah’s brokenness.
“Go back the way you came…” In the next few verses, God’s answer is simple: “My redemption of this world, doesn’t end with you, Elijah!” Elijah is given a to do list:
- Anoint Hazael King over Aram. Ben-Hadad current king of Aram has been an agitator for years…God says: “His reign is over…and I’m still God.”
- Anoint Jehu as King of Israel. Jehu will be the only somewhat good King in the Northern Kingdom’s history (2 Kings 10.30-31) and he will bring judgment on the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9-10)…and God will still be working.
- Anoint Elisha as your successor as prophet…he will continue to speak, communicate, and pursue his people. Elisha will do even greater miracles than Elijah by the power of an active God.
- I reserve 7,000 faithful…”you aren’t alone Elijah. I’m still at work. I was at work before you came along and I will be at work long after.”
Have you ever felt like you were failing in ministry? Ever felt the brokenness and isolation of following God? Maybe your influence isn’t have the effect you thought it would and your service to others is not being received like you hoped. It could be that you hit the end of your rope, pouring yourself out for the sake of others and for God, but you just don’t see the return? The shame is suffocating and weariness sets in.
You are in good company. Elijah finds himself miles from home, on a lonely mountain, in order to see that God is in charge and God directs his ministry. Elijah thought he was a failure until God showed him what He was doing behind the scenes.
There is nothing more demoralizing, shameful, and guilt-ridden than feeling like you let God down in ministry….BUT nothing more liberating, healing, and grace-giving than realizing you were never holding Him up!
Elijah was learning what Paul expressed in 1 Corinthians 3.6-7:
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow”
As you influence, pour into, disciple, and love others, avoid the mindset of Elijah that believes that God’s work started with you and ends with you! Avoid the pressure that Elijah put on himself to be the reason for the success of God. Be thankful play the part you do, be a solid link in the chain, be diligent in your leg of the relay, refuse to pass judgment on your work, and let God take care of the results.