3. Elijah and the Still Small Voice (1 Kings 19)

Audio (37:33)

'St. Elias' (10th or 11th century AD), icon in St Elias Monastery (Greek Orthodox), Shwayya, Lebanon.
'St. Elias' (10th or 11th century AD), icon in St Elias Monastery (Greek Orthodox), Shwayya, Lebanon.

Elijah runs 17 miles from Mount Carmel to Jezreel empowered by the Spirit of God. But less than a day later he is running away from Jezreel fleeing for his life. And the spirit that inspires him is not God's Spirit but a spirit of fear.

"1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, 'May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.'

3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." (1 Kings 19:1-3a)

Jezebel's Anger (1 Kings 19:1-2)

You'll recall that Jezebel has fed and housed these 450 prophets of Baal, now lying dead in the Kishon Valley (1 Kings 18:19, 40). Baal worship is her family religion from back in Sidon and she has been aggressively forcing it upon the sometime-Yahweh worshippers in her husband's kingdom.

When she hears that Elijah has publicly discredited Baal in front of a massive crowd of Israelites -- and then slain all of her prophets -- she takes it very personally indeed. She sends a message to Elijah with a powerful oath:

"May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." (1 Kings 19:2)

You see this kind of oath often in the Old Testament.109 It's something like, "May God strike me with lightning if...." It is a strong oath, especially if the oath-giver really means it. Jezebel is angry.

When Elijah gets her message, he believes it. Full of fear, he runs110 for his life.

Elijah under the White Broom Tree (1 Kings 19:3-5a)

Elijah flees to Mount Horeb.
Elijah flees to Mount Horeb. Larger map.

"3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die." (1 Kings 19:3-4a)

Elijah flees south until he is completely out of Ahab's kingdom. Then he continues to travel through Judah until he reaches the ancient settlement at Beersheba, the southerly most city in Judah. And then he goes a day's travel further into the harsh Negev desert.

The "broom tree" is a large and beautiful, white-flowered desert shrub, "White Broom" (Retuma raetam), widely distributed in Palestine, Sinai, Egypt, and beyond. It can grow as high as 12 feet (3.5 m.), though its leaves are sparse and offer little shelter.111 That's about all the shade Elijah can find in this harsh desert.

"He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.

'I have had enough, Lord,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' 5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep." (1 Kings 19:4b-5a)

A psychologist might conclude that Elijah is suffering from severe depression. He has many of the symptoms: exhaustion from years of stress, no remaining energy, no zeal, little appetite, sleeping except to take food, then sleeping again. Elijah is filled with fear. He has isolated himself from people, leaving his servant behind in Beersheba. He has gone into the desert to die.

Elijah has lost hope. He has seen mountaintop victories, yes. But Jezebel is still spreading her false religion and spewing poisonous threats. Some of that poison has sickened Elijah.

I have tried, he says to himself. God knows I have tried. But my lifework as a prophet seems to have amounted to nothing. Yes, there has been a victory. But now it is over. Jezebel's influence still infects Israel and I am here.

He measures his own personal worth by lasting accomplishments and has come up short. "I am no better than my ancestors" (verse 4b), he tells himself. Elijah sees himself as a failure.

You may have felt this way too. You've seen some high points, but your set-backs have destroyed any sense of confidence you once had. You are depressed. You may have had suicidal thoughts. Jezebel is Satan's mouthpiece; Elijah's attention to her words has seized him with fear. Perhaps you've been listening to Satan's words that have had a similar effect on you.

Sometimes we humans blame people who are clinically depressed or suffering mental illness as if it is their fault. They just don't have enough faith! How judgmental and imperceptive! We are human. We suffer blows that set us back. We struggle. But God loves us and hasn't given up on us. Read on to discern how God deals with Elijah's depression.

Praise God. There is hope. God isn't finished with you yet, nor is he finished with his servant Elijah. Not by a long shot! God has plans that Elijah didn't know about.

But first, God sends an angel to get him in shape for the next phase of his journey to renewal and health.

Q10. (1 Kings 19:3-5) How might Elijah be "at fault" for being depressed? Is "fault" the right question? Does God chide him for "lack of faith"? How does God minister to him? How do you minister to a friend who has isolated himself or herself in deep depression?

Fed by an Angel (1 Kings 19:5a-9)

Daniele da Volterra, 'The Prophet Elijah' (1543-47), 81x115 cm, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.
Daniele da Volterra, 'The Prophet Elijah' (1543-47), 81x115 cm, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.

Elijah sleeps the sleep of exhaustion, but then an angel nudges him awake.

"5b All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up and eat.' 6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again." (1 Kings 19:5b-6)

Depression and exhaustion have overtaken Elijah. The angel, at least, gets him to eat something.

On a side note -- can you actually bake bread directly on hot coals? Yes, if you don't mind picking a bit of charcoal out of your flatbread. It's still made today in Arabian countries, especially among the Bedouins. Some call it "ash bread" or "ash cake."112 And where did the water jar and the dough come from? Ah, angels! Elijah eats and falls asleep again.

"7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, 'Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.' 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night." (1 Kings 19:7-9)

This time the angel has an imminent journey in mind. It doesn't sound like Mount Horeb (probably synonymous with Mount Sinai) is Elijah's original destination. He has been expecting to die in the desert, a day's walk from Beersheba. But God has other plans.

Like Moses -- first as a shepherd, later as shepherd of the people of God -- Yahweh leads Elijah to the holy mountain to speak with him. The mention of the food that strengthens him for "forty days and forty nights" is an obvious reference to Moses, who not only spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Horeb communing with God (Exodus 24:18; 34:28), but fasted also.113 Elijah is being cast as a second Moses. And that's not the only parallel, as we'll see.

The Lord Speaks to Elijah (1 King 19:9a-14)

It is fascinating and instructive to see how gently God restores his broken servant Elijah. An angel meets him in the desert and feeds him, then feeds him again. There's no scolding, no blaming.

After a forty-day journey on foot, Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb. "There he went into a cave and spent the night" (verse 9a). Only now does Yahweh confront Elijah's insecurities in order to heal him.

First, God asks Elijah a pointed question.

"And the word of the Lord came to him: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" (1 Kings 19:9a)

It's the kind of question one might ask a sex worker: "What is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" If she were to answer, you'd hear a long, sad, tragic story. Elijah justifies himself with his own version of his story.

"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)

It's not my fault, Lord, it's their fault! So often, our excuses form the underpinnings of our shaky life decisions. The Lord asks hard questions to help us place the foundations of our lives and directions on a firm footing.

Then God gives Elijah a physical demonstration to instruct him.

"11 The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.'

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'

14 He replied, "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 19:11-14)

Elijah is still stuck in his self-pity.

Q11. (1 Kings 19:14) In what ways does self-pity prevent us from discerning the Lord's voice? What is the relationship of self-pity to pride? To entitlement? How does a sense of entitlement stand in the way of true discipleship?

Examining God's Appearance to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Let's pause here in understanding Elijah's healing to analyze Yahweh's appearance to him. The technical name for an appearance of God is a "theophany." It is clear from this passage that the author wants his readers to see Elijah's encounter in the light of Moses' experience on Mt. Sinai. Here are the main points of comparison:

Elijah (1 King 19:9-13) Moses (Exodus 33:18-23)
"The cave." (vs. 9)114 "A cleft in the rock." (vs. 22)
"Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD...." (vs. 11a) "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock." (vs. 21)
"The LORD is about to pass by...." (vs. 11b) "When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by." (vs. 22)
"[Elijah] pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave." (vs. 13a) "My face must not be seen." (vs. 23b)

But now we see a difference. When God appears to Moses, he speaks the divine name Yahweh, and recounts his character of mercy and justice (Exodus 33:19; 34:6-7). But when God appears to Elijah it is in a still small voice.

The author lists the things that God is not in by means of a very structured series of statements (verses 11-12).

"A great and strong wind... but the LORD was not in the wind.
An earthquake but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
A fire but the LORD was not in the fire.

And after the fire the sound of a low whisper." (NIV)

Clearly, the author is contrasting the "low whisper" with the loud and spectacular displays of wind, earthquake, and fire.

What is the point? Probably that God's presence is best conveyed in personal communication with his servants, not in some showy, spectacular display of power. The essence of God's nature is not power -- though God is fully capable of displaying overwhelming power. Rather, the essence of God's communication to us is in relationship, in talking to a person like you and me, even if ever so quietly. In New Testament terms you might say, "God is love" (1 John 4:8) or perhaps, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Love is the essence of personal relationship, and words are its agents.

Yahweh Patiently Restores Elijah

God certainly shows love to Elijah, even though Elijah's confidence has faltered. God restores him gently.

  1. Yahweh asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah" (vss. 9, 13), and then listens patiently to Elijah's self-pity without rebuke.
  2. Yahweh reveals himself in his gentle voice. When God cares enough to talk to us personally, we know he loves us. He could scare us to death with his power, but instead he seeks to engage us with his voice.
  3. Yahweh gently tells Elijah, "go back the way you came...." (vs. 15a). It's sometimes hard to go back after we have done embarrassing things, but it is an important part of our healing and restoration.
  4. Yahweh gives Elijah new directions and assignments (vss. 15-17).
  5. Only after all this does Yahweh speak a gentle rebuke: By the way, you're not the only one left; I have 7,000 who have been faithful to me (vs. 18).

(I've gotten a bit ahead of myself here, but I want you to see the whole process.)

This gentle process of restoration reminds me of Jesus restoring Peter: "Do you love me, Peter? Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-19). Sometimes we're called to restore those who have failed or fallen. Gentleness, rather than harshness, is God's way.

"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)

The Still, Small Voice (1 Kings 19:12b)

We've considered the context of the passage. Now let's examine the phrase that is often quoted in relation to the nature of God's voice -- and rightly so. What do we learn from it? The phrase is variously translated:

"A gentle whisper." (NIV)
"The sound of a low whisper (ESV)
"A still small voice" (KJV)
"A light murmuring sound" (NJB)
"A sound of gentle blowing" (NASB)
"A sound of sheer silence"115 (NRSV)

It can't mean all of these things! What can we make of it? The phrase consists of three Hebrew words:

  1. Qôl, "voice, sound, noise."116
  2. Demāmâ, "whisper," a rarely used word that denotes "calmness, stillness, silence, whisper," from dāmam, "be silent, still; wait."117
  3. Daq, "thin, fine, gaunt."118

While any of the popular translations shown above could be correct in their translation, I think "gentle whisper" (NIV), "sound of a gentle whisper" (ESV), or "still small voice" (KJV) are most likely -- and most helpful -- since qôl is clearly a "voice," rather than an undefined sound in verse 13 that follows. "Murmuring" (NJB) or "blowing" (NASB) are interpretations rather than translations of the Hebrew words.

Learning from Elijah's Still Small Voice

There are several things about God's voice to learn from this passage -- though let's be careful not to assume that all manifestations of God's voice will be identical to what Elijah experienced. For example:

  1. God's voice is not always quiet. Sometimes it booms like the sound of many waters,119 thunder,120 and loud trumpets.121
  2. God's voice is not always gentle. Sometimes it comes to bring a strong rebuke (Acts 26:14).
  3. God's voice is not always even a voice or sound. Sometimes it is an impression, or a nudge, a dream or vision.

So let's not assume that Elijah's still small voice is normative. However, it is common among Christians, and beloved for a number of reasons.

I outline some of the lessons in my study Listening for God's Voice (JesusWalk Publications, 2017).

1. God's voice is often quiet. Sometimes, unless you're trained to recognize God's voice, you might mistake it for a passing thought. I expect that sometimes God would like to talk to us, but too often we aren't listening. Or there is so much noise in our life and so little quiet that God's gentle voice gets lost in the clutter.

Having said that, I know that God is fully capable of getting our attention if he needs to. But he would rather have us listen to him of our own volition.

I have a three-year-old granddaughter who has developed a habit of "selective hearing." (We husbands can develop that, too.) Her mom will say something and she'll ignore it. Oh, I know that she heard it, because sometimes I'll ask her what her mother said, and she can usually repeat it. But she's not tuned in to listening and responding. Rather she's more intent on continuing to do whatever she's engaged in -- or whatever she can get away with. We can be like that with God. It is quite possible that you've heard God's voice already but didn't recognize it as such. It doesn't have to be loud or spectacular to be God.

2. God's voice can guide us in what to do. God gives Elijah an assignment to anoint three men -- two kings and his prophetic successor. We'll look at these assignments shortly.

God is able to direct us clearly by his word. I was once the interim pastor of a small church that, after a few months of my term, was appearing more and more dysfunctional. One of the leaders had a gripe about the regional denominational organization and was trying to force the church to move its affiliation to another organization. When she realized that I wouldn't support this action, she began a vicious rumor campaign with the purpose of getting rid of me. It was difficult for me and others. The church was filled with tension. Painful half-truths and innuendos circulated unabated.

Finally, I went to the Lord with a sort of cowardly prayer: "Lord, if you want to remove me from this assignment, it's okay with me." Before I had even finished my prayer, God spoke four words ever-so-clearly to my heart: "I want you here!" It brought great peace to me, as now I was assured I was in God's will. Later in the week, I found that my wife had received the same clear direction. We stayed. It was messy. But God brought health and stability -- and eventually a new pastor -- to that church. Sometimes God's voice comes to clarify direction for us.

3. God's voice can provide comfort when we are anxious. Elijah is fearful and exhausted, depressed and hopeless. God comforts him by giving him new work to do -- a new assignment. Jesus comforts and restores Peter in a similar way -- with a mild rebuke -- by asking him three times to care for his sheep, restoring him to his former ministry (John 21:15-17). God's word regarding Paul's thorn in the flesh is this kind of comforting word (2 Corinthians 12:9).

God also comforts Elijah by pointing him to a spiritual companion: Elisha, someone who will share his sometimes lonely life with him, and eventually succeed him so that his life's work will continue after his passing. What a blessing!

4. God's voice can bring a rebuke, as we'll see in a moment.

Q12. (1 Kings 19:11-13) Why do you think the author contrasts the "still small voice" to the wind, earthquake, and fire? How does God's voice comfort and renew Elijah? Why is it easy to miss God when his voice is gentle and quiet?

Elijah's New Assignments (1 Kings 19:15-18)

Now let's look at Elijah's new assignments in greater detail.

1. Anoint Hazael King over Syria (1 Kings 19:15)

"The Lord said to him, 'Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.'" (1 Kings 19:15)

Yahweh is commissioning Elijah to anoint a man who will become king of a foreign country -- moreover, a country that is Israel's enemy. Strange instruction from the Lord!

As we'll see in Lesson 7.2, the commission to anoint Hazael is fulfilled, not by Elijah, but by Elijah's successor -- Elisha (2 Kings 8:7-15). This replacement of Ben-Hadad II with Hazael is in punishment for Ben-Hadad attacking God's people. Since Ahab won't kill him when he has the chance (Lesson 4.2; 1 Kings 20:34-42), God's prophet will pass the task of executing Ben-Hadad II to Hazael.

2. Anoint Jehu King over Israel (1 Kings 19:16a)

Elijah is given a second commission, to anoint the successor to the House of Ahab.

"Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel." (1 Kings 19:16a)

Again, it isn't Elijah who personally fulfills this direction, but Elisha his successor. The House of Omri is destroyed when Jehu kills the king of Israel and takes the throne, fulfilling the prophecies against Ahab and his family through both Elijah (1 Kings 21:23, Lesson 5). and Micaiah (Lesson 6.1, 1 Kings 22:17-28).

In the southern kingdom of Judah, there has been one dynasty of Davidic kings for nearly five hundred years -- from the time of David until the exile. In the break-off northern kingdom of Israel, however, there have been many dynasties. Some would last a few days or years. Others might last a century. King Ahab is the son of Omri, who had become king after his immediate predecessors were assassinated and committed suicide.

3. Anoint Elisha as Successor (1 Kings 19:16b)

Elijah has a third commission:

"Anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet." (1 Kings 19:16b)

We'll talk about the call of Elisha in a moment.

Yahweh's new assignment to Elijah concludes with a grim clue to Yahweh's plans to punish the House of Ahab and Jezebel for their persecution. Yahweh explains:

"Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu." (1 Kings 19:17)

Yahweh is saying to fearful Elijah: Don't be afraid of Ahab and Jezebel. I will punish them for their sins and remove their family from the throne of Israel.

Yahweh's Loving Rebuke (1 Kings 19:18)

By the way, Elijah, you aren't the "only one left," as you claim. I have many more!

"Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel -- all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him." (1 Kings 19:18)

Sometimes, we need God to set us straight, to correct us and our errors of thinking. Elijah has been complaining, "I, only I, am left." God informs him that fully 7,000 people have not compromised their faith in Yahweh. And 7,000 may imply even more than the literal number. Seven is the number of completeness for the Hebrews, while 1,000 is their "big number," like "a million" is for Americans. So 7,000 may mean "a great many" people are still faithful to Yahweh.

We shouldn't be afraid of God's rebukes; rather, we should welcome them. The author of Proverbs reminds us:

"My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in."
(Proverbs 3:11-12; quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6)

God blesses us by leading us onto the right path when we've strayed -- not something we should avoid.

In the formative years, parents constantly rebuke their children, seeking to mold their behavior (and with the behavior, values) in productive ways. There is a sting when your father rebukes you, but also a blessing for those who take heed.

When I was a new pastor, I found myself complaining that most of the men in the church didn't take their responsibility to maintain the church buildings, so I, the pastor, had to do it. Self-pity! Yet, there was a faithful member, Les Beyea, who did show up to help. One day, while I was complaining, God rebuked me with the seven words, "Shut up and let me bless you." I didn't understand it at the time, but I stopped complaining. Later, I realized that Les Beyea was God's tutor to teach me home maintenance and give me the confidence to add an addition to my home, and later build my own new house and supervise building classrooms and worship centers. God indeed was blessing me when I was complaining. God is amazing -- and gracious!

Sometimes a word from God can combine comfort and rebuke. Once I was praying earnestly for one of my sons who had been wandering. I was praying based on my authority as his father, etc. On that occasion, God spoke six words to me: "He's my son too, you know." It was both a comfort that God had my son in his hands, as well as a gentle reminder that I didn't have to convince God of something that was clearly his desire too.

Q13. (1 Kings 19:18) Why is a parent's rebuke difficult for a child to listen to? Why is God's rebuke difficult for us to listen to? How does a loving but sharp rebuke help our children? How does God's rebuke help us? What would it take for you to embrace God's rebuke like Solomon's "wise man" (Proverbs 9:8).

The Call of Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21)

We conclude the chapter with Elijah's call of Elisha to succeed him, in obedience to God's new agenda for Elijah.

"Anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet." (1 Kings 19:16b)

Elijah leaves the cave on Mount Horeb and makes the long trek back to civilization to find his successor Elisha. Abel Meholah seems to be a town in the Jordan Valley about 10 miles south of Beth-shean.122 Of course, going here puts Elijah within reach of Jezebel, but nevertheless, he goes.

Location of Elisha's hometown, Abel Meholah, just west of the Jordan, south of the Jezreel River.
Location of Elisha's hometown, Abel Meholah, just west of the Jordan, south of the Jezreel River. (Larger map)

"So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing123 with twelve yoke124 of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair." (1 Kings 19:19a)

Elisha appears to be from a wealthy family. A family of moderate means might have a pair or yoke of oxen that have the strength to pull a plow deeply through the rocky soil. But to have twelve pairs of oxen -- that is the sign of a wealthy family, not only for the number of oxen and slaves to drive them, but also for the acres of farmland that would need such a herd.

"Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him." (1 Kings 19:19b)

Elijah's mantle or cloak is not an ordinary garment. Rather the noun comes from the word "to be majestic." The word can be used of a costly robe (Joshua 7:21) or a robe of state (Jonah 3:6).125 Perhaps it is a distinctive hairy skin or cloak,126 a "wide garment,"127 described elsewhere as, "a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist" (2 Kings 1:8; also Genesis 25:25; Zechariah 13:4). Elijah passes by128 Elisha while he is plowing and throws129 the mantle upon him, then continues walking. Elisha doesn't hesitate.

"Elisha then left his oxen and ran130 after Elijah. 'Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,' he said, 'and then I will come with131 you.'

'Go back,' Elijah replied. 'What have I done to you?'" (1 Kings 19:20)

It sounds like Elisha runs up to Elijah and asks permission to show proper respect to his parents first before following. It is difficult to interpret Elijah's response.

"'Go back,'132 Elijah replied. 'What have I done133 to you?' (1 Kings 19:20b, NIV)

Most translations render verse 20b literally, as the NIV, ESV, NRSV, and KJV, without trying to explain what it actually means. Others try to interpret the sense of it, but the Hebrew doesn't help us much, so these are educated guesses:

"Go on back; for what have I done to [stop] you?" (Amplified Bible)134

"Go on back, but think about what I have done to you." (New Living Translation)135

"Go on back! Why all the excitement?" (Living Bible, TLB)

"Go back. It does not matter to me." (New Century Version)

"Go thou, and return, for I have done to thee what was mine to do." (Wycliffe Bible)

I catch a kind of annoyance or indifference on Elijah's part. When Elijah is to be taken up into heaven, he seems to be discouraging Elisha from staying with him (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 10; Lesson 7.1). Elijah didn't make it easy. You'll recall that when Jesus called a disciple, he didn't accept any excuses not to follow immediately (Luke 9:57-62). Fortunately, Elijah is tolerant and Elisha is persistent.

However you interpret Elijah's tone in verse 20, it is clear that Elisha's commitment to follow is decisive and immutable.

"So Elisha left him and went back.136 He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow137 Elijah and became his attendant." (1 Kings 19:21)

He presumably kisses his parents good-bye and then holds a feast for his family and all the workers. To prepare and eat such a feast would take the better part of a day. Killing the two oxen he has been hitherto plowing with, and burning them with a fire made with the yoke and ox goads138 celebrates and symbolizes his complete break with the past and his family's wealth to take up the dangerous life of a prophet of Yahweh.

Elijah is long gone by now. There's no sign that he waits for Elisha. Presumably he has taken back his accustomed cloak against the chill of evening. It's still his.139

But after the feast, I can see Elisha rushing off in search of Elijah. When he finds him he takes on the role of servant or assistant to the prophet, 140 a kind of apprenticeship towards the time when he will assume the role of prophet in his own right.

He is running, searching. Then he sees the prophet up ahead. He calls. "Elijah, Elijah. Wait for me. I'm coming. I will be your servant from now on!"

Lessons for Disciples

This chapter is rich in lessons for today's disciples. I'll mention the most obvious.

  1. We humans sometimes experience great battles and depression -- especially following great mountaintop experiences. It is part of the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged. Rather than criticize Elijah's lapse of faith, we ought to try to learn from it. God certainly doesn't reject Elijah for his weakness (1 Kings 19).
  2. Even servants of God can sometimes be motivated by fear rather than faith. It leads us to bad decisions. It is wise to discern our motives in order to get back on track as God enables us (1 Kings 19:3).
  3. God tenderly feeds Elijah and restores him during this long sojourn in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:5-9). We are to restore our wounded brothers and sisters with this same gentleness (Galatians 6:1-2).
  4. Elijah's self-pitying response to God's question, "What are you doing here," is so obviously pathetic to us. However, we, too, can get caught up in self-pity. No one appreciates me! God is calling us to grow up, and, using the modern expression, "Suck it up!" (1 Kings 19:10, 14).
  5. God's quiet voice doesn't have to be spectacular to be real. God's voice, his personal communication, reveals his love for us.
  6. God restores Elijah by showing confidence in him, by giving him a new purpose for his life (1 Kings 19:15-17)
  7. We learn that God's voice (a) is often quiet, (b) can guide us in what to do, (c) can provide comfort when we are anxious, and (d) can bring a rebuke (1 Kings 19:11-13).
  8. Some of God's assignments for us aren't completed in our own lifetimes, but by our successors, such as Elisha completed Elijah's mission (1 Kings 19:15-17).
  9. Loving rebuke is an important tool God has to shape us as disciples. We should welcome it (1 Kings 19:18).
  10. We should celebrate God's call to ministry like Elisha did, though it will bring many difficulties. Ministry is a great privilege! (1 Kings 19:21)

Elijah: Rebuilding Yahweh's Altar, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.


Father, thank you for revealing to us that in spite of our weaknesses, you still love us. You don't forsake us, but heal and retool us. Help us to renew our trust in you, O Lord. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The word of the Lord came to him: "'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" (1 Kings 19:9, NIV)

"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." (1 Kings 19:11-12)


References and Abbreviations

[109] 1 Samuel 3:17; 14:44; 25:22; 2 Samuel 3:9. 35; 19:13; 1 Kings 2:23; 20:10; Ruth 1:17; 2 Kings 6:31.

[110] "Fled" (NRSV), "ran" (ESV, NIV), "went" (KJV) is Qal imperfect of hālak, "go, walk" (TWOT #498).

[111] R. K. Harrison, "Broom Tree," ISBE 1:550. Hebrew rōtem. Also mentioned in Psalm 120:4; Job 30:4.

[112] See Wikipedia article on "Ash cake." You fashion your dough into several relatively flat, round pieces. "Fan the embers to dislodge any loose ash. Lay one or two dough circles directly on the embers. Grill until browned and blistered on the bottom and puffed on the top, 20 to 30 seconds. Turn the breads and grill the same way to brown on both sides, 20 to 30 seconds more."

[113] Jesus also fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:2).

[114] Rice suggests that the translation might be better, "the cave," since a definite article is used in Hebrew, suggesting that this was a famous or well-known cave. Perhaps it was the "cleft in the rock" on Mt. Sinai where Moses had seen God hundreds of years before (Exodus 33:22) (Rice, 1 Kings, pp. 158-161).

[115] Wiseman (1&2 Kings, p. 173) says, "'Stillness' is not incompatible with words for 'sound, voice' and the word 'thin' (dāqqâ)." So Rice (1 Kings, p. 160): "a filled, gripping perceptible, silence or stillness."

[116] Qôl primarily signifies a sound produced by the vocal cords (actual or figurative). In poetical passages (for the most part) the denotation embraces sounds of many varieties.... qôl should be distinguished from and compared to hegeh, higgāyôn (a low noise or utterance), hāmôn (a tumultuous, agitated noise or uttering), rēʿa, terû'âa (a shout of alarm, or joy)" (TWOT #1998a). Qôl is used broadly: (1) 'sound, voice, call' of a man, sheep, flute; (2) 'noise, sound' of battle, ram's horn, words; (3) 'voice' of God (Holladay, p. 315).

[117] Demāmâ, TWOT #439a. Rice, 1 Kings, p. 160. "'Calm' (of wind), cessation of any strong air movement, 'humming stillness' (1 Kings 19:12) (Holladay, p. 72). Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word is used only at Job 4:15-16 and Psalm 107:29.

[118] Herbert Wolf, TWOT #448b. Rice (1 Kings, p. 160) says, "Daqqah refers to that which has been reduced and made 'thin, fine, small,' but also may have the sense of 'soft, gentle.'" Holladay (p. 73) defines it as "'thin' -- (1) scanty (hair, grain), (2) 'fine' of hoarfrost, dust, (3) 'lean' of cows, dwarfed, (4) 'soft' (quiet, 1 Kings 19:12)." The noun is derived from dāqaq, "to crush, grind, break in pieces."

[119] Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15; 14:2; 19:6.

[120] John 12:28-29; Revelation 14:2.

[121] Hebrews 12:19; Revelation 1:10; 4:1

[122] J. H. Stek, "Elisha," ISBE 2:-70-72, citing Nelson Glueck, River Jordan (1946), pp. 168-172; and Eusebius, Onomasticon; W. J. Beecher, "Abel-Meholah," ISBE 1:5.

[123] "Plowing" is the Qal participle of ḥāraš, "plow" with an animal (TWOT #760; Holladay 118, 1).

[124] "Yoke" is the plural of the noun ṣemed, "couple, pair" from ṣāmad, "bind, join" (TWOT #1927); "yoke, team" (= 2 animals) (Holladay 307, 1).

[125] "Mantle" (KJV, NRSV), "cloak" (ESV, NIV) at 1 Kings 19:19; 2 Kings 2:8, 13, 14, is the noun ʾadderet, "mantle, cloak, majesty" from ʾādar, "to be majestic." Coppes notes, "The noun "mantle" is at first surprising, but it refers to a costly robe (Joshua 7:21) or prophets' mantle, etc. (2 Kings 2:8)" (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #28c). Jonah 3:6 could be translated "robe of state" (Holladay 5, 2a).

[126] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 174.

[127] ʾAddere, BDB 12.

[128] "Passed by" (ESV, KJV, NRSV), "went up to" (NIV) is the Qal imperfect of is ʿābar, "pass by" (someone or something) (Holladay 263, 3), with the preposition ʾel, "to, beside," motion toward someone or something (TWOT #91). "The main idea of this verb is that of movement; as a rule it is the movement of one thing in relation to some other object which is stationary, moving, or motivating" (TWOT #1556).

[129] "Threw" (NIV, NRSV), "cast" (ESV, KJV) is the Hiphil imperfect of šālak, "throw, cast, hurl" (TWOT #2398).

[130] "Ran after" is Qal imperfect of rûṣ, "run, make haste by running" (TWOT #2137).

[131] "Follow" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "come with" (NIV) is the Qal imperfect of the verb hālak, "go, walk" and the preposition ʾaḥar, "after, behind" (TWOT #68b). According to Holladay (p. 10, II, 2d) this combination means "walk (together) with (image: one behind another)."

[132] "Go back (again)" is two verbs of command, both in the Qal imperative: hālak, "go, walk" and šûb, "turn, return, turn back."

[133] "Done" is Qal perfect of ʿāśâ, "do, fashion, accomplish," here with the preposition le, "do" (Holladay 284, 15).

[134] "Go back, I'm not stopping you" (God's Word Translation, cf. Good News Translation). "Go! I'm not holding you back!" (Common English Bible). "You can do that. I will not stop you" (Easy-to-Read Version).

[135] "Go; but return, because of what I did to you" (Complete Jewish Bible). "You can go, but remember what I've done for you" (Contemporary English Version). "Go ahead, but, mind you, don't forget what I've just done to you" (The Message).

[136] "Returned from following" (ESV, NRSV), "left and went back" (NIV), "returned back" (KJV) is two words: the Qal imperfect of šûb, "return, turn" and ʾaḥar, "after, behind."

[137] "Arose and went after" (ESV, KJV), "set out to follow" (NIV), "set out and followed" (NRSV) is two Qal imperfect verbs: qûm, "rise, arise, stand"; and hālak, "walk, go" with the preposition ʾaḥar, "after, behind."

[138] "Yokes" (ESV), "plowing equipment" (NIV), " equipment from the oxen" (NRSV), "instruments of the oxen" (KJV) has the word for oxen (bāqār), and kĕlî, useful object in the widest sense, "equipment, gear" of all sorts, here "implements for the oxen = yokes and goads" (2 Samuel 24:22) (Holladay 158, 2).

[139] When Elijah is to be taken up into heaven he still has his cloak. It finally falls from him as he is being taken up into heaven.

[140] "Assisted him" (ESV), "became his attendant" (NIV), "became his servant" (NRSV), "ministered unto him" (KJV) is the Piel imperfect of šārat, "minister, serve." Austel notes, "The use of šārat falls into two natural categories: 1) of the personal service rendered to an important personage, usually a ruler, and 2) of the ministry of worship on the part of those who stand in a special relationship to God, such as the priests" (Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2472).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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