In the text in James covered in last week’s sermon, he presented the example of Elijah for consideration when it comes to prayer. He makes the point that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours—he was just like us, in other words—and look at all the great things he accomplished through prayer! That might come as a bit of a shock: Elijah? Like us? But he’s one of the greatest heroes of the OT! What in the world could we possibly have in common with him? Probably a lot more than we usually realize—perhaps not in mighty deeds, but in attitude.
It must have been a sobering experience for Elijah, hidden away in a cave, to have God ask, What are you doing here Elijah? How Elijah found himself in that cave and where he went from there make an interesting story, a story from which we can learn a great deal. It is recorded in 1 Kings 19:9-18.
Elijah bursts upon the scene in 1 Kings 17 during the reign of the wicked Ahab, King of Israel, with the prayer that the rain and the dew would cease until he gave the word. Through the ensuing drought of more than three years, Elijah was sustained by God and fed by ravens.
Then Elijah goes to the home of the widow in Zarephath, a woman so destitute that she had only a bit of oil and a handful of flour. She intended to use that to make a single cake for herself and her son and then die. But Elijah told her to give him something to eat first. In response, God blessed them, and the jar of meal was not spent nor did the jug of oil fail during the drought and famine. In the following days, her son became ill and died – there was no breath left in him, the text says. But Elijah stretched himself over him and prayed to the Lord, and he was raised from the dead.
In 1 Kings 18, Elijah engages in a climactic contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He gathered the Israelites and challenged them to choose between Yahweh and Baal. Then he set a challenge: both he and the prophets of Baal took a bull to offer; the one who responded with fire was the true god. Baal’s followers called upon him all morning long, even cutting themselves to get attention. But there was no answer. Then Elijah had a trench dug around his altar, and barrel after barrel of water poured over his bull until animal and altar were drenched and the trench was full. Then he prayed, O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. (1 Kings 18:36). God answered Elijah’s prayer with fire that consumed everything—sacrifice, altar, even the water in the trench. The people seized the prophets of Baal and killed all 450 of them by the brook Kishon.
This is the immediate prelude to Elijah’s encounter with God in the cave. At the beginning of 1 Kings 19, Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, vows to kill Elijah just as he had done to her prophets of Baal. Elijah, fearing for his life, fled. He took refuge in this cave far to the south of Israel.
What was Elijah doing in this cave? Outwardly he was hiding from Jezebel; inwardly, he was feeling sorry for himself. He was having a pity party. He had proclaimed drought and then rain, hoping to bring Israel to her senses. This had failed. He had raised someone from the dead. This had not changed Israel. He had demonstrated God’s power over Baal at Mount Carmel. But the people’s turn was only temporary, and the nation’s leaders were still following Baal. He felt that he alone even tried to serve God; it was only a matter of time before they found and killed him.
But God had an answer for Elijah. God displayed his awesome power in wind, earthquake and fire. But He was not present in any of those things. Instead, he showed He did not have to work through such spectacular ways by visiting Elijah in the form of a still, small voice. God gave him more work to do. He told Elijah to go to Damascus, anoint Hazael to be king of Syria; go to Israel, anoint Jehu to be king; then go and anoint Elisha to be prophet in your own place.
The story of Elijah is meaningful for us today. It reminds us of the tremendous power of God, power that is demonstrated in the drought, the rain, the sacrifice at Carmel, the wind, earthquake and fire. That same God is with us now, just as he was with Elijah.
But we must open our eyes and look around us. Elijah temporarily forgot about that awesome power that was behind him because of his own despair. Just like in his case, our despair usually results from narrowing our vision and becoming more and more self-centered. Not everything is difficulty and heartache. God is present. God will help.
And in the end, God’s cause will triumph! Elijah himself may fail and suffer the consequences. But even if he does, there will come others. The same God who blessed Elijah has work and blessings for us today.