Year C: Pentecost 4
June 20, 2010
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
In 1 Kings 19 we have the aftermath of Elijah’s supposed resounding victory in the contest with Jezebel and the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18). Just when Elijah should have been triumphant, he receives a message telling him of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, and he is ‘afraid’ (v. 3). He immediately flees south to the city of Beer-sheba. From there he goes alone into the wilderness of the Negev Desert. His mood is one of absolute defeat and desolation. After all he had done for Yahweh, his victory now seems hollow. He has not been given divine protection from the very protagonist he has defeated in the name of Yahweh. He only wants to die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’
Here is the picture of a man who has given his life totally in faithfulness to Yahweh. He has put himself apart from his fellow Israelites in service of God. He has been thoroughly ‘zealous for the Lord’. He has taken the initiative against the worshippers of Baal many times, and placed himself at great risk to do so. His spectacular demonstration of Yahweh’s power on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:20-40) ought to have been enough. He no longer has the strength and the will to go on. His mournful cry, ‘I am no better than my ancestors’ reveals a man who no longer believes in himself. He had believed himself to be a spectacularly exemplary servant of God. No one could outdo him in his zealousness. Now he believes it has all been in vain.
But God is not about to give up on Elijah. Elijah’s intentions are good. It is his modus operandi that needs Yahweh’s attention. The teaching begins when Elijah’s famous resourcefulness runs out. Messengers from God are needed to feed him in his weakness. Then God leads him through a time of reflection in the wilderness. His journeying through the trackless desert lasts for the significant time of forty days and forty nights. As the Hebrews wandered earlier in the wilderness in search of God, this most zealous of holy men is led on a similar journey. In fact, his story says he has already been on one such journey (1 Kgs 17:8-16). Eventually, Elijah comes to the sacred mountain of Horeb, where he spends the night in a dark cave. The dark cave and the dark night are reflective of his ‘dark night of the soul’ experience. But Yahweh has much more to teach him.
God encourages him to express what has happened to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (v. 9). Still Elijah does not understand. He complains that he has done the right thing by God, but he is left alone, and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal want to kill him. Elijah still has not comprehended what God requires of him. He is commanded to go out and stand on the mountain. God will pass by him. Elijah is being given a Moses-like opportunity to witness the presence of God (cf. Exod. 33:21-23) and in fact he stands in the very cave where God hid Moses in the earlier story. Many regard Elijah as a second Moses.
First, three awesome examples of God’s power are demonstrated to Elijah. Being the exemplar of spectacular action for God, Elijah naturally expects to see God in the wind, the earthquake and the fire. But Yahweh was not in any of these things. There follows one of the most memorable verses in scripture: ‘after the fire (came) a sound of sheer silence’. The NRSV renders it ‘sheer silence’, but most people recall the KJV’s ‘a still small voice’. In Hebrew the phrase is qol dammah dakah (possibly something like the ‘sound of soft stillness’). In the Aramaic Targum of 1 Kings the phrase summons up an image of God as Lord of hosts. The Aramaic means ‘the voice of those who were praising softly’. In any case, the meaning is that God is not encountered in the sound and fury of loud and spectacular events. While that was the case in the time of Moses, it is no longer so. God will not be conjured up by the zealous activity of the prophet who now stands quiet and broken on the mountain-top. Elijah discovers that God is encountered when the activity ceases and the words stop. When his mind and heart are finally empty of ambition and self-promotion, God is heard.
This passage reveals something of the way God interacts with humanity. It is not a denial of what went before in the time of Moses when God was found in the wind and fire of Exodus and Mt Sinai. But it is a change of direction for new circumstances. The passage affirms the authority of the prophetic voice and the essential path of prayer and meditation for communicating with God, and for discerning God’s will. As such, the editor of 1 Kings has probably passed on an intensely personal, beautiful and revealing portrait of his own spiritual journey.
The New Testament passage from Luke 8:26-39 concerns Jesus releasing a man from possession by ‘demons’. When the demons leave him, the man is at peace. There is a sense in which this story from 1 Kings describes how Elijah is released from his own ‘demons’. They are the zealousness and self-control that dominated his earlier service of God. Now he learns that the word of the Lord, sometimes only discernible in the ‘sheer silence’, controls his prophetic activity and sustains him in his task.
Psalms 42 and 43
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