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A Fallen Hero, A Hardened Sinner – and Grace


For those drawn to the gentle figure of Jesus, violent Elijah is a jarring contrast. Though he had help corralling the 450 prophets of Baal after Yahweh’s victory on Mt. Carmel, Scripture gives Elijah himself full credit for the slaughter.

But however squeamish we may feel about Elijah’s violent deeds, both in Christianity and in Judaism he was to be a key figure in ushering in the kingdom of God. In short, he is one of the good guys.

And that is why the aftermath of Mt. Carmel is so startling – and so encouraging.  It is the story of a fallen and depressed prophet who was nurtured back to life by a gentle and gracious God.

Typically we want our heroes to be free from taint. There are exceptions, to be sure. In any contest over favorite Bible characters, I have found that David wins hands down in the Old Testament, and Peter in the new. Both were seriously flawed, yet God used them, blessed them, and claimed them as his own. That’s good news for the likes of us.

What is so striking about Elijah’s fall, however, is the fact that he lost hope. Not only did Jezebel’s threats send him on the run, but when he was way out in the desert, far from the reach of his enemy, he simply curled up under a broom tree and asked God to turn out the lights. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”1

Finished. No hope.

But then the LORD’s messenger came calling. Touching Elijah, he said, “Get up and eat.” There it was: a plate of hot food and a jug of water. He ate, drank, and went back to sleep, a classic case of deep depression.

The messenger came again: “Get up and eat,” he said. “Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Elijah ate and drank again, but this time he started on his journey once more.  His goal was Mt. Horeb – another name for Sinai – where God had rattled the stones with thunder and fire. Scripture doesn’t say so, but we can guess that Elijah was looking for a mountain big enough and hot enough to handle the likes of Jezebel.

After many days in the desert, he crept into a cave at Horeb and spent the night.

The next day? An audio conference with God.

“What are you doing here?” was the question.

“I’ve worked hard for you,” said Elijah. “But it’s no good. They’ve abandoned the covenant, destroyed your altars, killed your prophets. I’m the only one left and they’re trying to kill me.”

“Go out and stand on the mountain,” said the voice. “The LORD is about to pass by.”

A rock-splitting wind, an earthquake, a blazing fire – but Elijah sensed no presence of the LORD.

The NRSV description of what followed is tantalizing: “After the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah knew the time had come. He wrapped himself in his mantle and went out to stand on the mountain.

He heard a voice with the same question as before, “What are you doing here?”  Elijah’s answer was the same whimper as before. 

The LORD didn’t argue. He simply said he had work for Elijah – three anointings: Jehu as king of Israel, Hazael as king of Aram, Elisha as Elijah’s successor. But then a comment: “You’re not alone. I still have 7000 who haven’t fallen for Baal.”

So Elijah went back to work.

Ellen White offers encouraging words here: “If, under trying circumstances, men of spiritual power, pressed beyond measure, become discouraged and desponding; if at times they see nothing desirable in life,” she writes, “this is nothing strange or new…. One of the mightiest of the prophets fled for his life before the rage of an infuriated woman…. But it was when hope was gone… that he learned one of the most precious lessons of his life. In the hour of his greatest weakness he learned the need and the possibility of trusting God under circumstances the most forbidding. – Prophets and Kings, 173

An experience of quite a different kind is also embedded in the Elijah narrative, the story of a great villain who also received a measure of grace. If Elijah was one of the greatest of prophets, Ahab was one of the most wicked of Israel’s kings. Indeed, the author of 1 Kings declared:  “There was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”

Not surprisingly, that assessment immediately follows the report of Jezebel’s plot to kill innocent Naboth for his ancestral vineyard.

But when Ahab went down to inspect his new land, Elijah was there to meet him: “Have you killed, and also taken possession?” He queried.

“Have you found me, O my enemy?” retorted Ahab.

The verdict on Ahab and his house was a horrific one.

But then a surprise: Instead of striking out at Elijah, Ahab melted: “He tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly.”

The LORD seemed as astonished as anyone. “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me?” he exclaimed to Elijah. “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days.”

If his son had repented as thoroughly as Ahab, we have good reason to believe that there could have been another postponement. And another.  And another. One of the most remarkable features of the Old Testament is that God “repents” more often that anyone else. Modern versions, like the NRSV are inclined to say that God “changed his mind” (e.g. Jonah 3:10). But the point is: when humans repent – even bad guys like Ahab – God changes his mind and grants grace.

In short, whether a good guy like Elijah wraps his mantel about him in chagrin, or a bad guy like Ahab clothes himself in sackcloth, God grants grace. For us, that has to be good news.

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