Sunday, August 02, 2009

When Prophets Lodge in Caves (1 Kings 19:1-18)


Are you delighted with your job or are you depressed by it? Do you like or loathe your job?

Associated Press, with government data from 2004 through 2006, reported 7 percent of full-time United States workers battled depression in 2006. Women were more likely than men to have had a major bout of depression, and younger workers had higher rates of depression than their older colleagues.

Almost 11 percent (the highest group) of personal care workers — which includes child care and helping the elderly and severely disabled with their daily needs — reported depression lasting two weeks or longer. During such episodes there is loss of interest and pleasure, and at least four other symptoms surface, including problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration and self-image. Workers who prepare and serve food — cooks, bartenders, waiters and waitresses — had the second highest rate of depression among full-time employees at 10.3 percent.

In a tie for third were health care workers and social workers at 9.6 percent.

The lowest rate of depression, 4.3 percent, occurred in the job category that covers engineers, architects and surveyors.

Depression leads to $30 billion to $44 billion in lost productivity annually, said the report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Just working full-time would appear to be beneficial in preventing depression. The overall rate of depression for full-time workers, 7 percent, compares with the 12.7 percent rate registered by those who are unemployed. “Report ranks jobs by rates of depression”

No job is as stressful as that of a prophet. Before his martyrdom, Stephen charged, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?” (Acts 7:52) No wonder Elijah ran for his life, fled for the desert and lodged in a cave.

Why do godly people sometimes resign their post, regret their duty and retreat into oblivion? What can you do when you feel deserted, discouraged and depressed?

God’s Power is Perfected in Peace
19 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. 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. “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. 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. 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.

Martin Luther once spent three days in a black depression over something that had gone wrong. On the third day his wife came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes. “Who’s dead?” he asked her. “God,” she replied. Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure He had!”

Jezebel the queen called Elijah’s bluff and the prophet fell for the threat. His world fell apart and turned upside down. If Jezebel truly meant to kill him, she would have ordered the same messenger (v 2) to do it on the spot instead of to warn him about the danger. For readers to understand the scope and the magnitude of Elijah’s fear, he is the first and only prophet in the Bible known to fear the worst, enough to run for his life. Early translators did not know what to do with Elijah’s fear, so instead of translating it as “feared” (as in Septuagint, Syriac) they translated it as “saw” (as in MT) since the two words share the same consonants. G. H. Jones (NCB 1& 2 Kings Vol II, p 329) charges that KJV’s “he saw” version was “an early attempt to avoid the reference to Elijah being afraid of Jezebel and the apparent discrepancy between this Elijah and the Elijah of chapter 18.” Both views ended the same with Elijah running for cover and begging for death. Interestingly, nothing was as fearful as fear itself, because Jezebel was a shadowy, sinister and spiteful figure Elijah never actually met. The prophet met the king several times (1 Kings 17:1, 18:1, 18:16), but never the queen not even on Mount Carmel. In fact, Jezebel avoided Elijah as much as he feared her. She was missing in the battle at Mount Carmel.

Elijah took flight because he forgot that God’s perfect peace (Isa 26:3) is available to those who trust in Him. Further, he did not think God cares or understands. Of course the Lord cared, despite Elijah thinking otherwise. The angel provided him a cake and a jar of water. What is the significance of the cake (v 6)? The cake, in Elijah’s case, appears in a previous episode when a widow from Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9) fed the prophet his favorite food (1 Kings 17:13), per his request a cake. The jar was also familiar to Elijah because the widow at the same time also served him oil from a jar (1 Kings 17:12). Of course, water is far better than oil for a forty days’ non-stop travel (v 8). All the little details reminded the tired, troubled and tested prophet how much God loved and cherished him.

Of course, God understood. What inspires me most is that while Elijah wanted to die right there and then after a day’s journey, God gave him enough to travel for not only for 40 days alone, but 40 days and nights to his target – Mount Horeb, the destination in Elijah’s mind known only to God. In fact, God knew he never really wanted to die because his destination was not the desert, but Mount Horeb (v 8), so he had ways to go. Also, God knew what direction he was heading (v 8, Horeb), how much food he needed (v 7, second time) and how long was the travel (v 8, 40 days and nights).

God’s Power is Perfected in Patience
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 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.” 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.”

What is the “best way to overcome depression”? Here are some web suggestions from various people:
One: “The best way to overcome depression is through a whole foods diet, herbal supplementation, and moderate exercise.”
Another: “The best way is to do mechanical work (run, exercise, clean your home, walk, whatever you can think of).”
The next: “To help others.”
The fourth: “Start realizing that the world is much bigger than what we are worrying about.”
A short one: “To be happy.”
One more: “Be on your own, or with help from loving friends and family.”

How can one solve a crisis and stabilize a matter as deep as Elijah’s? Actually, the best way is to locate the source. The Chinese say, “解鈴還須繫鈴人” (Whoever tied the bell is the one who can untie the bell” and “心病還需心藥” (The best cure for the ailing heart is medicine for one’s emotion.

In old China a Chinese monk once questioned his hearers, “Who can untie a bell that is tied to a tiger’s neck?” No one could answer it. A bypassing young monk was given the riddle, but he replied famously, “Of course, the person who tied the bell to the tiger’s neck can untie it.”

To solve a crisis, one has to examine its cause or locate its source.

So what actually was Elijah’s problem? Not only did he believe he had no strength, he did not think God can save him. He did not believe God was in charge or in control of the world, so “spending a night” (v 9) in a cave was his solution to the crisis. “Spent the night” has been translated by KJV elsewhere as “lodge” 34 times in KJV, negatively as “murmur” 17 times (Israel’s murmur in the wilderness), and “tarry” nine times in KJV. A minority view, but Strong’s even suggested it implies “to stay permanently; hence (in a bad sense) to be obstinate (especially in words, to complain).” The fact is the text did not mention of how long he was to stay – definitely not for a “night,” which is not in the Hebrew text.

Elijah had passion but lacked patience. “Very jealous” (v 10) is “jealous, jealous” in Hebrew – repetition of the word “jealous,” and Elijah is the only person in the Bible who uses this phrase. If you notice, Elijah did not state the real reason why he was there. He was not there because of what the Israelites did, but what Jezebel said. The prophet was not there because the Israelites rejected God’s covenant and broke down the altars. He was not there because they have put God’s prophets to death with the sword. Not because they were trying to kill Elijah too. Why was he there? He was there because he feared – interestingly there is no direct object to his fear (v 3) – readers do not know who or what he feared. The prophet who, barely two chapters ago, told the widow from Zarephath not to fear for her sustenance and survival (1 Ki 17:13), did not follow his own advice and caved in to fear.

There is no precedent for a “great and powerful wind” (v 11) in the Bible. The closest was a “great wind.” In Job’s case, a mighty or “great” wind struck a house and killed his children (Job 1:19), and in Jonah’s time a great wind threatened to break up Jonah’s ship (Jonah 1:4), but none was comparable to the “great and powerful wind” in this instance. The earthquake, also, is fascinating because the word occurs for the first time in the Bible (1 Kings 19:11). Fire (1 Kings 18:23, 23, 24, 25, 38) reminded Elijah of “fire from the Lord” (v 38) in his victory over Jezebel’s prophets a chapter ago.

God, however, reminded Elijah that His power was not present in powerful elements such as wind, earthquake and fire alone, but also in a “still, small voice” or “gentle whisper” in NIV. Elijah was reminded to be patient because God is present in mighty as well as meek things, both in majestic and modest elements, in meaningful and mild days, in important and the insignificant matters, in the upside and downside of life, in the high and ho-hum moments. Power does not always punish, pulverize or provoke. The reason Elijah ran was he ran out of patience with everything, including God. He had no control as long as he was not calm and clear about his role. The nature of a prophet’s work is to declare God’s word, not necessarily deliver God’s people. He is merely a spokesman and not the solution, a seer and not the savior. His role is to rebuke and reproach and not to relate or rescue. He had to expect rejection and not reception. Speaking for God is not necessarily welcoming but it’s certainly worthwhile.

God’s Power is Perfected in Partnership
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. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 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. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

About 10 months after arriving in Hong Kong we decided to move out of Ching Lai Court (清麗苑) by Mei Foo station when our lease is over. Although quiet, it is a retirees’ haven. During the long hot summer months I get a strong reminder on the reality of retirement. To find a cool spot and to save electricity on air-conditioning, the elderly men, dressed in their singlet and short, spent their late afternoons sitting on a bench, sometimes on the chair they brought, with one of their legs propped on the bench, usually the left one, and a fan in their right hand to do the balancing act.

Retirement means plenty of time to do nothing.

A youth asked a sad and lonely man this question: “What is life’s heaviest burden?” He answered, “To have nothing to carry.”

Elijah’s greatest enemy was not Jezebel but himself. He fell into the trap of thinking “I am nobody, I have nobody and I need nobody” or “I have no power, God has no power, and others have no power.” Of course, loneliness did not help. He was the quintessential Lone Ranger, Lonesome Cowboy, the friendless male. So far in his ministry, Elijah had nobody as his partner, peer or pal. In fact the company of prophets finds it easier to talk to the Elisha than to the reclusive Elijah (2 Kings 2:3, 2:5). God, however, intended for Elijah to be the channel but not the champion, the herald but not the hero, the messenger and not the miracle.

Elijah’s mindset was exemplified by his three statements:
“I am no better than my ancestors” (v 4)
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (v 10)
“I am the only one left” (v 10)

The third claim (v 10) stands out most because he said it three times, not twice (vv 10, 14), which he did a chapter ago (1 Kings 18:22) when he faced 400 prophets of Baal. At least four translations (ESV, KJV, RSV, ASV) preferred the literal version for verse 10, which is “I, even I only” for “I am the only one left.” The Hebrew text is even more blatant: “I am left, I, alone.” Previously he used the pronoun “I” twice in his address to the people (1 Kings 18:22), this time in Chapter 19, he added “alone” (vv 10, 14).

Just when Elijah thought all was helpless, God reminded him to correct his attitude, change his perspective, and cancel his holiday. In every time and place God has placed faithful witnesses – people who are unbowed, unblinking and unbending, people such as Elisha.

The truth is Elijah only thought he was alone, but he was never alone, because before his battle on Mount Carmel with false prophets a devout believer in the Lord in charge of Ahab’s palace by the name of Obadiah (1 Kings 18:13) revealed to him he had hid a hundred of the Lord's prophets and supplied them with food and water. In fact, Elijah had to change his thinking before it got worse. While he was afraid, he was never alone. Though outnumbered before, he was never outfought previously. Elijah’s return to ministry, ironically, will acquaint him with the martyr Naboth, who refused to bow to Ahab (1 Kings 21:3), making the prophet think twice in the future before asserting himself as more faithful than others.

God would use Jehu to end Ahab’s dynasty and the worship of Baal in Israel (2 Kings 10:28). Hazael oppressed Israel so much (2 Ki 9:15) that they have no time for idols. The word "idol" and "altars" did not show up again in Israel except for its being smashed (2 Kings 11:18) even though “high places” and groves” still exist. Ironically the attraction to altars (1 Kings 16:10) and high places (2 Kings 21:3) assumed in the south. Beginning in the next chapter, Elijah would share the spotlight with three other prophets, including Elisha. More shocking is the discovery in the next book is that Elijah did not anoint Hazael and Jehu, which was left to Elijah to do (2 Kings 8:13). Scholars even questioned whether Elijah’s symbolic action upon Elisha (v 19) was really meant as an ordination. The point is that the will of God will be done no matter what Elijah had left undone.

Conclusion: There is no running away for God’s servants from God’s will and work. Do you face your enemies or do you flee or fear them? Are you doing your part to contain, counter and confront evil? Do you choosing the easy way out - dying in the desert and or lodging in a cave? Remember, God is not powerless, others are not powerless you are not powerless either.


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