Do you know, Mr. Elijah, that I consider you a little impertinent?
—Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)
The Shaking of Horeb
Wind, earthquake, and fire had shaken Mt. Horeb. After these came a still, small voice. Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle and stood in awe. God, who had created the violent forces that shook that mountain, revealed Himself simply by His quiet, penetrating word. And that was the truth that Elijah still needed to learn. We see the great prophet trying to make excuses:
I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away (1 Kings 19:14).
Elijah had come to Horeb—that is, to Mt. Sinai—to rescind the covenant. “This whole covenant thing has failed,” he said in effect. “Israel has rejected Your transcendent sovereignty, rejected your appointed means of worship, and rejected your inspired spokesman… me.” Three major violations of God’s covenant with his people. “It’s all over,” Elijah claimed.
God didn’t respond directly. Instead, He gave Elijah three new assignments. First, he was to anoint the next king of Syria. Now the Syrians were Gentiles and didn’t acknowledge the authority or power of Yahweh, at least not openly. There would be no particular reason that the Syrian people or their nobles would let Yahweh’s prophet appoint their next king—no reason outside of God’s sovereign decree and providence, that is. But the God who reigns with transcendent and immanent authority, with absolute sovereignty, can make kings and unmake kings at His pleasure.
Second, Elijah was to anoint the next king of Israel, Jehu the son of Nimshi. Though the house of Ahab had rejected Yahweh, though they claimed to disbelieve in His very existence, though they had devoted all their wealth and energies to erecting a new State religion, God still claimed sovereignty over the nation of Israel. To put matters bluntly, Ahab worked for Yahweh whether he liked it or not, whether he believed it or not. His magical-materialist worldview didn’t exempt Him from God’s covenant law or His covenant sanctions. Elijah’s job was to set those covenant sanctions in motion. By anointing Jehu (a man outside Ahab’s house) to be the next king, he would, sadly, initiate a blood bath. But even that slaughter would, once again, end Baal worship in Israel.
Third, Elijah was to anoint his own successor, Elisha the son of Shaphat. The word of God would not fall silent; His covenant law would stand. There would be more prophets to bring covenant lawsuits against Israel. This is what God meant by the “sword” of Elisha. Looking back at this era, Hosea would describe God’s work through His prophets in these terms: “Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth” (Hos. 6:5). Notice there is no promise of conversion or revival here, only of greater judgment.
Finally, God had one word of encouragement for Elijah: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (19:18). God still had 7000 disciples in Israel, men and women who had not broken their covenant oath to Him—part of his covenant—by any act of idolatry. God had and would preserve a remnant into the future—another part of His covenantal promise.
As Gary North points out in his 1997 article, “Elijah’s Job,” Elijah didn’t know about these 7000. He believed, or had convinced himself, that he was all alone in God’s service. And as North further reminds us, Elijah’s ministry to this believing remnant was therefore indirect. He hadn’t preached to them. He hadn’t written them epistles. He had made them no promises about the future. When he had called for rain, their farms had suffered. When he would finally unleash the swords of Hazael and Jehu, this remnant, God’s people would nevertheless suffer the fall out. North writes:
They had gone though the wringer, both politically and economically. When would this end? God made it plain: not yet. They had lots more to suffer. God had not sent their farms rain during the national drought; neither would He send a revival to deliver them from evil. Instead, He would send a gentile army….Their deliverance would be postponed. Again.
God would preserve His elect, but He didn’t specify the conditions. He didn’t promise those 7000 personal safety or traditional urban amenities. He promised no rapture out of tribulation, no miraculous deliverance when the revolution erupted or the foreign armies descended upon Israel. He only promised them their souls.
This is a hard saying for American Christians. For two hundred years the peddlers of prophetic hype have been creating “End Times Profits” with book after book promising American evangelicals that Christians will not go through “The Tribulation”—or, by implication, any other tribulation.
Such tribulations can still happen to oppressed believers in distant pagan lands, but the imminence of Christ’s return simply leaves no time for such things here. American Christians sincerely believe they will be “carried to the skies in flowery beds of ease.” At least that’s what some eschatologies affirm. Practically, most believe that social and economic conditions will continue on pretty much as they always have. Here’s the reason: the Cold War is rapidly slipping into our collective memory hole. World War II, Hitler, and Auschwitz are already in the hole. We no longer have any concrete notion of how bad things can be or have been and we no longer have a concept of what “tribulation” looks like.
The believing remnant in Israel would go into captivity, but they would endure. God would preserve them. Their spiritual heirs would eventually return to Palestine in the Restoration. Or they would stay in foreign lands, witnessing to their gentile neighbors. God’s plan for this remnant was subtle, complicated, and decidedly long term. But it was providential and sure. And, it paved the way for an empire-wide proclamation of the gospel and the growth of the early Church. God knew what He was doing. He always does. But He didn’t hand Elijah or the remnant His game plan upfront. They had to patiently wait on God.
We don’t know what God’s game plan for our generation or for the American church may be despite what Hal Lindsey and the End Times Profiteers say. God’s wrath has slept a long time and perhaps it will sleep a while longer. Maybe God will send great revival and reformation at the last minute. Then again, maybe He won’t. We have no short-term guarantees. We do know “that we must through much tribulation to enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And we do know that we’re engaged in a spiritual war of cosmic dimensions. It might well be our turn to suffer tribulation and fallout like the remnant of Elijah’s day. Planning in terms of those realities right now might be a wise thing.
For Further Reading:
Gary North, “Elijah’s Job,” Biblical Economics Today Vol. XIX, No. 4 (June/July 1997).
Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
Jerrold H. Lewis, “Wind, Earthquake, and Fire,” Puritan Board (Jan 2003) <http://www.puritanboard.com/f36/wind-earthquake-fire-devotional-article-7364/>.
James B. Jordan, “Elijah’s War with Baal,” Biblical Horizons No. 5 (July 1989).
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