Commentary on 1 Kgs 19:9, 11-16
In today’s reading we have one of the most beautiful images to be found in the Old Testament.
When Jezebel heard of the slaughter of the priests of Baal (end of Wednesday’s reading), she vowed to submit Elijah to the same fate. Elijah then fled into the wilderness. He was ready to lie down and die but God still had work for him to do and gave him the food he needed to carry out his commission.
Our reading today opens with Elijah going to the mountain of Horeb, sheltering and hiding in a cave. Moses had done the same and had been crouching in the “hollow of the rock” when Yahweh appeared to him. It is here that God speaks to Elijah. “What are you doing here?” the Lord asks. Elijah replies that God’s people have deserted him and torn down their altars; Elijah is the only prophet left and his life is in danger.
It is then that he is told to go and stand on the mountain in the presence of his Lord. Traditionally the Lord is especially present on the tops of mountains. We remember Moses on Mount Sinai, the mountain where Jesus delivered his Sermon, and the mountain where Jesus in glory appeared to three of his disciples. We read, too, in the Old Testament how many centres of worship were put in high places.
On the mountain, Elijah is told to await the Lord passing by.
First, there was a mighty wind, strong enough to break rocks. But God was not in the wind.
Then there was an earthquake. But the Lord was not there either.
And, after the earthquake, there came a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire.
In ancient times, much more than in our own, the power of wind, earthquake and fire could fill people with terror and awe and as pale signs of God’s own power. With all our technology today we are still largely helpless when these elements rage out of control. The Asian tsunami a few years ago was a dramatic example but so are the earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, cyclones, floods and droughts, lightning strikes…
On Mount Sinai, too, when Moses and the Israelites encountered Yahweh there were storms, earthquakes and lighting proclaiming the presence of the almighty Yahweh but, with Elijah on that day on the mountain, God was not in any of these. They were only the remote signs of his deeper presence.
There came a gentle breeze. And Elijah immediately recognised the presence of God. The whisper of a light breeze signifies that God is a spirit and that he converses intimately with his prophets. The image reminds us of the gentle breath or wind of the Spirit which, as Jesus told Nicodemus, blows where it will. It speaks most eloquently of God as spirit and of the way he penetrates quietly into the most intimate corners of our life. It is why it is so necessary for us to be sensitive to God’s loving presence at all times.
In the symbolism of the phenomena on the mountain, the Lord appears to be telling Elijah that although his servant’s indictment of Israel was a call for God to judge his people with windstorm, earthquake and fire, it was not God’s will to do so now. Elijah must return to continue God’s mission to his people and Elisha is to carry it on for another generation.
Full of awe and fully aware of the closeness of Yahweh, Elijah hides his face with his cloak (in case he might come face to face with Yahweh) and emerges from the cave. Yahweh asks him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It is the same question asked earlier. Elijah now has an opportunity to give a different answer from the last time but he gives exactly the same one as before. He is full of zeal for God’s glory as he sees his fellow-Israelites breaking down the altars of God and killing the prophets. He himself is the only one left. He intimates he is calling for divine vengeance.
He seems to have missed the point of the symbols he just experienced. The Lord is not to be looked for in violent behaviour but in the quiet inspirations of his presence.
Elijah is now given a mission – his last as a prophet. He is to go first to the wilderness near Damascus. Apparently he is to go back by way of the road east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan. He will go back to the east side of the Jordan, from which he had originally come.
He is also told to anoint two kings, Hazael for Aram and Jehu for Israel (Northern Kingdom), and also Elisha as his own successor.
Jehu was a military commander under King Ahab and Joram, Ahab’s son. He was anointed king over Israel by “a man from the company of the prophets” at the instruction of Elisha, with a mandate to destroy the house of Ahab. In general, anointing was reserved for kings (earlier we saw the anointings of Saul, David and Solomon). However, here it seems to mean no more than “designate as chosen by God” because the actual anointings will be done by Elijah’s successor, Elisha.
Elisha’s name means “God is salvation” or “God saves” and it expresses the essence of his calling. His name evokes memory of Joshua (“The Lord saves”). And Elijah is now being given someone to finish his work just as Moses was given Joshua. Elisha will channel the covenant blessings to Israel just as Joshua brought Israel into the promised land. In the New Testament, John the Baptist (identified as Elijah) was followed by Jesus (the same name as ‘Joshua’) to complete God’s saving work.
Elisha is the “son of Shaphat” which means “he judges” and is also descriptive of his mission. And he is from Abel Meholah, like Elijah, from the east side of the Jordan. And that was where John the Baptist also carried out his mission.
Even though Israel would experience divine judgement through Hazael, Jehu and Elishah, God would continue to preserve a remnant faithful to himself among the people. Hazael subsequently became a serious threat to Israel during the reigns of Joram, Jehu and Jehoahaz
Today’s reading reminds us of those people who, in Jesus’ time, asked him for spectacular signs to prove his identity and authority. There are people today too who look for striking miracles, the spiritual equivalent, one might say, of wind, earthquakes and fire but the Lord comes much more subtly into our lives and does so every single day.
And when he comes he may be giving us things to do, as he did with Elijah. Let us be ready for his gentle voice to whisper into our ear today. Unfortunately, we are bombarded with so much noise, much of it of our own choosing, that God finds it hard to get a word in – not to mention a whisper!