If, for you, politics and religion should never mix then this is a health warning that comes with an instruction: please, when you get home, remove from your bibles just about every other page…but especially rip out both of the books of Kings – the clue is in the name. Here goes.
It had been some showdown. Elijah, the prophet of the Lord challenging King Ahab’s allegiance to the fertility god, Baal, and calling him back to obedience to the covenant the people had made with the Lord. The country was suffering a three year drought. People were desperate…many will have died, unable to feed themselves. The prophets of Baal (450 of them) and a further 450 prophets of Ashera had been summoned by the King to Mount Carmel in Northern Israel to prove themselves and their gods. Just Elijah stood against them – and he, or rather, his God, the Lord, had triumphed. The prayers and sacrifices of the false prophets achieved nothing – they could bring no rain. Whereas Elijah’s intercession had been heard by the Lord, his sacrifice accepted and rain clouds were already gathering to bring the drought to an end. The story is one of fierce and violent religious conflict. Religion and politics were bound together in all ancient cultures. The false prophets had been seized by the crowd who, under Elijah’s instructions took out their anger against those who had led the nation astray and brought so much pain upon the people. It’s not so long since we did the same (the English Civil war was just 370 years ago) but we now do this with a General Election (and they can still be brutal) but at least no one dies (though this week sees the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox and it is not long ago since David Ames was killed) But back then? The false prophets were treated as traitors and summarily executed.
And then? Well then you might think that Ahab and his Queen (Jezebel) would heed Elijah’s message and change their ways: the nation would begin to live by the Law of the Lord? But no. They want to live by their own rules not by any law that would restrict their absolute power. Nothing but an act of God will force this pair out of their powerbase. Elijah may have won this battle, but the levers of power still lay in Ahab’s hands. This becomes quite a modern story doesn’t it…as we wonder how many ethics advisers we might get through, how many parties during lockdown it takes, how much bullying the Home Secretary can get away with…or how many international treaties we will sign and then tear up because we didn’t really mean to observe the treaty in the first place. Ahab doesn’t want to listen to Elijah, indeed, anyone who opposes him he will remove.…Ahab wants to live by his own laws because he knows best and will not be governed by any other law than his own. This is not a godly approach and whatever our politics we cannot pretend that it is: the message comes to Elijah via a messenger sent from the Palace – you are now on the hit list!
It’s wearing. The threats made and the politics of division returned – everywhere our public life is being corrupted and its not as if there aren’t issues that need attention. I couldn’t help but think of the Bishops in the House of Lords who unanimously opposed the policy of removing the rights of refugees as a means of tackling people traffickers: surely a supposedly Christian nation might pay them heed, are they purposely trying to be unhelpful – of course not! But what was the response? ‘You’ll go’ was the immediate message from some less than Special advisor in number 10.…a threat to remove the Bishops from the Lords with no thought for the consequences followed by an attack on the European Court of Human Rights …and so the greatest democracy in the world no longer wants to listen to dissenting voices…and if we don’t like a law, we’ll ignore it or find an advisor who will tell us what we want to hear.
It’s not good and it won’t end well. The nation under Ahab will stagger on for quite some time but it will then be comprehensively humiliated. And in the meantime those with the least get hurt.
Elijah had had enough and he ran for his life. He was totally exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually. He had been firing on all cylinders for far too long: he needs some R&R. so it’s easy to see why this passage has sometimes been used as a discussion starter about depression and mental health difficulties. Elijah was burnt out…an all too real example of the fact that we can push ourselves so far but eventually our minds and bodies tell us we need to stop. Elijah needs (and gets) some sleep. He needs a good diet (an angel cares for him) – nothing fancy, just food and water. And he needed to step back from everything and get some perspective on what was happening in the nation and what was happening for him in particular– what was God’s call on his life now.
It’s significant that Elijah was led to Horeb, the Mountain of the Lord. Horeb is another name for Sinai – it is the place where the people of Israel voluntarily entered into a covenant with the Lord. Horeb was the place where the Law of the Lord was received and welcomed. It’s a place freighted with significance. Elijah grounds himself here. He is reminded of the grace of God in calling Israel to be His people. He understands the call the nation has received to live as God’s people. He is taken back to basics – reminded of the values that undergird the nation’s life and that have shaped his own life. For all that the prophets of Baal are no more it was Elijah who had to leave the field of battle: Ahab and Jezebel are still in power – emotionally he may well have come down from the mountain thinking that nothing had changed, he had failed. So what does God do?
The story gives us this well-known description of the Lord ‘passing by’ Elijah. There’s an echo here of Moses, on the same mountain, being shown the glory of the Lord’s presence: Moses must hide himself in the cleft of a rock because he cannot look on God directly, he can only see his passing. Elijah has a similar experience but his experience is less direct – he can see what the power of God can do (the earthquake, the wind, the fire) but he cannot see God. But he does hear him. The still small voice of calm comes to him and recommissions him.
At one level nothing has changed. For emphasis we hear Elijah’s complaint twice and it is the same both times ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord…for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets. I alone am left and they are seeking my life to take it away’. God’s answer seems to be ‘Yes, that may or may not be true…but I still have work for you.’ Our passage ends with the Lord instructing Elijah to anoint a new King of Aram (one of Israel’s ancient neighbours). In the succeeding verse Elijah is told to anoint a new king of Israel – albeit that Ahab, the current king has not moved aside (so he is to commit treason) He is also told to anoint Elisha as a prophet to succeed him.
The actions Elijah is called upon to take seem to show a change of direction as God seeks to bring down the corrupt King and his household. Ahab’s regime has taken a beating – it lost any religious legitimacy when the prophets of Baal were shown to be a busted flush. The kingdom is sustained only by his corruption and power and it will fall in due course. Elijah does what needs to be done to prepare Ahab’s successors – Aram will be a thorn in Ahab’s flesh, a neighbouring power that will keep him on his toes. Jehu won’t immediately become king but will eventually succeed a series of short-lived reigns by Ahab’s sons and then wipe out his dynasty entirely.
None of this is at all easy but there are perhaps a few take-aways from the passage.
Firstly: all power is given by God and all leaders answerable to Him for its use, our Queen knows this and we honour her for it…we should expect more of Her Ministers. Ahab had lost sight of this reality and chose to reign without regard to the Law of the Lord. The scriptures regard this as arrogance in the extreme and a recipe for disaster.
Secondly, God’s people have a duty to a higher calling. Just because something is legal does not make it right. When push comes to shove we cannot be silent: integrity, honesty, transparency, trust and compassion are all values worth defending. Elijah spoke out again…and again…and again. He was not popular for doing so but he could not keep silent, nor should the church of God. Whichever team we vote for we must hold our elected leaders to the highest of standards or we all lose.
Self-care is important. For all that God had revealed his power on Mount Carmel Elijah gives the impression that he thought the fulfilment of God’s purposes rested solely upon his shoulders. He was wrong. He needed time out to let go and let God. The epiphany at Mount Horeb should have been enough to remind him that God is capable of anything but that his creative word can operate in the hidden and unseen things of life, not just in extreme displays of power. From here on Elijah’s ministry will become more low key but it won’t cease altogether – having got his head back in the game Elijah will carry on serving God, just in different ways.
…and lastly, as the hymn says, ‘Thy kingdom stands and grows for ever’. If the news depresses you and you feel you’ve had enough (like Elijah), Christian people can still hope and pray for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. One day…one day, the Good News will win through and his throne will draw all people together to serve and worship Him in a kingdom of peace and justice for all. Elijah didn’t see it but we can always live in hope.