Bible study, 5 June 2016 in Chitterne church
Elijah the Prophet
1 & 2 Kings- predictably enough -recount the time of the Kings of Israel and Judah. The kings have become successively less focused upon acting for God, and the land. By the time we get to chapter 16 of 1 Kings you hear things like ‘Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did more evil than all who were before him…’(v.25).
What has happened is that the community has lost its focus upon one God and one inherited land for the 12 tribes. When Elijah pops up, King Ahab is on the throne. And he has married Jezebel. In verses 31-33 of chapter 16 we hear this:
31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole.[a] Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.
For those of you unfamiliar with ancient religion, a little about Baal and sacred poles.
Sacred poles, also known as Asherah poles, were fertility symbols, and Baal was also the name of gods or idols Baal…. Mainly gods of fertility. For a world which relied upon the wellbeing of its land and its children this is not entirely surprising. The later books of the Old Testament, particularly my favourite, Hosea, go on a great deal about Baal. Ba’al means ‘Lord, master, husband’. You will know one Baal – Beelzebub… which means Ba’al Zevuv- Lord of the Flies…
Anyway: the situation we are in as Elijah appears is this: the people are becoming fascinated by the religious practices of the nations around them. Jezebel comes from the Sidonians- Sidon is a city of the Phoenicians, along with Tyre…part of modern day Lebanon.
And Elijah just appears at the beginning of chapter 17.
He is from Tishbe in Gilead which is part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, up in the hills. And he appears as a prophet of the God of Israel.
We haven’t the time tonight to delve into every encounter which Elijah has, but if you wish you can go and read it all- 1 Kings 17- 2 Kings 2. The basic ministry or mission that he undertakes is to challenge Ahab and Jezebel, and subsequent leaders, to dismiss the cult of Ba’al, and to reinstate the rule of YHWH, the one God of Israel. His focus is upon the fact that God, this God, not a mere idol of wood or stone, has given his people the land, and is entirely responsible for its life- much of the passage is about dependence upon God.
So we are going to look at two episodes. The first, in fact is going to be brief:
We are going to look at the passage set for today: At this point all that has happened is Elijah has told Ahab that there will be a drought for 3 years, and that rain or dew will only come from his word. He encounters this woman, who is starving. She is about to eat her last meal with her son and then die. And Elijah promises her that the meal and oil jars will not run dry. Soon afterwards the son becomes ill
17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 She then said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’ 19 But he said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’ 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’ 22 The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’ 24 So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’
Two points of interest here:
She blames Elijah for her son’s death. Clearly, he has not died from starvation, even though it is Elijah who has announced the drought in the land, he has given them a supply of food. But she feels that the presence of a holy man in their home is underlining the idea that she has sinned. And as we know, ill health or death are usually understood as a response to sin on the part of the individual or their parent. Elijah’s presence in the home, rather than being life-giving, is judgemental. Prophets embodied their message in the Old Testament… look at poor Hosea, made to marry a prostitute for example… So although they were regarded with great respect, there was also a huge amount of fear.
The second thing I want to note is that the miracle of the food- which gave both the mother and the child life, is not really remarked upon. What changes this woman and her sense of trust in God is when her child is restored to life. I know that we can all understand this… it isn’t surprising really. And yet the first miracle in fact is just as significant as the second. Without it, both woman and child would have died. I do wonder, sometimes, how often we miss the things that God has done in us, which have prevented disaster or death, and only respond to his actions when they have hit us full in the face!
The second passage I want to look at is at the very end of Elijah’s time on earth: 2 Kings 2.6-14
6 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets[c] also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ 10 He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Earlier on, back in 1 Kings19, Elijah has run away and feels utterly worn out, wrung dry by his obedience to God and his role as prophet. Prophets didn’t have an easy time. They stood against the culture of the day. Eljah has proved to Israel and to the King that the baals are simply idols, but that the God of Israel is true and powerful. He should have been exalting, on cloud nine, surrounded by followers and friends. But instead, he is hiding under a tree in the wilderness complaining to God. And he says
14 He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
I’m not going to go into this passage this evening, but it is one which I think is familiar to you all. If not, just think of the last verse of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind- and you will know that when Elijah meets with God, it is in the smallest voice of a whisper. And God promises him then that there are still in Israel 7000 who have not bowed down to Baal or kissed his statue.
Immediately after that experience on the mountain, Eljiah meets a man ploughing called Elisha. And Elijah throws his mantle over him. Elisha becomes Elijah’s servant and chief follower.
Elisha has effectively become like a son to Elijah. And as they are to be parted he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. A double portion- why? Well, because that is what inheritance the firstborn receives. The firstborn son receives a double portion of inheritance and then the rest is divided between the younger sons. And of his spirit… well isn’t that interesting?
Just as Elijah leaves his chief follower behind he is asked for his spirit… and as he leaves his mantle falls from him and Elisha takes it up-so that’s where taking on someone’s mantle comes from! And as he returns to cross the Jordan, he finds he is able to mirror the actions of Eljiah, in parting the waters. He has indeed received something of Elijah’s relationship with God. His spirit, his mantle?
In the New Testament, we find many times when Elijah is referenced. The people grew up with an expectation that he would return, and that he had great status in their faith and culture:
Luke 1.16-18 (about John the Baptist)
16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18 Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake,[a] they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[b] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’[a] 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’
So then we come to the miracle in the gospel reading today- which is striking in its similarities to the Elijah story only because the two have been placed side by side for us.
11 Soon afterwards[b] he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus[c] gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
And why is it different? Because Jesus simply needs to touch the bier and raise the man. Elijah is God’s prophet. Jesus is God’s word.