The Passions of Elijah

“Elias [Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are,
and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not
on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”
(James 5:17)

Elijah was a prominent Old Testament prophet who did great things for God. He confronted the apostate king Ahab, brought Israel to acknowledge the true God on Mount Carmel and performed many miracles even raising someone from the dead. However, He also did some things which many would question such as slaying the prophets of Baal and calling down fire on soldiers who had come to escort him back to king Ahab. The question is whether or not those things are representative of the character of God. To what degree was God involved? Even among advocates of a non-violent God, there are those who say that the killing of each of those two captains and their squads of 50 men (2 Kings 1) was a justifiable act of God.

James gives a clue, I believe, in describing Elijah as a man “subject to like passions as we are.” I have heard it said that the measure of a man is not the passions that control him but the passions that he controls. Elijah did not always control his passions; sometimes they controlled him. By carefully examining the Bible account of Elijah I believe we can see how Elijah might have done some of the things he did not by the will of God but according to his own passions.

The account of the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is well-known (1 Kings 18:19-39). With the victory won and the prophets of Baal humbled, Elijah gave the command:

“… Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.” (1 Kings 18:40)

Jealousy

Did God tell Elijah to do that? The Bible does not say. Was there any motive for Elijah to do such a thing? One passion that Elijah admitted he had was that of jealousy:

“And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for 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 19:10)

He said the same thing again in verse 14. This was after the events on Mount Carmel but Elijah was referring back to an event during the three and half year drought:

“For it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.)” (1 Kings 18:4)

While God describes Himself as jealous – even in the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:5) – that could be much like His wrath which works quite differently than man’s wrath:

“For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)

While God is often described as wrathful, His actions – when carefully examined and correctly understood – are of a different nature than those of man. It could be the same with the emotion of jealousy.

Revenge

Elijah admitted to jealousy; could he also have harbored feelings of revenge for the killing of the prophets of the Lord many of whom he likely knew? Remember, he was “a man subject to like passions as we are.”

Elijah (really God) had won a great victory on Carmel, the false prophets were exposed and then eliminated and rain had come in answer to Elijah’s prayers to end the three and a half year drought.

Sometimes, after a great victory a relatively small threat can bring a person down – they are expecting nothing but to go forward without challenge. The threat, in this case, came from an enraged woman:

“And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:1-4)

This was clearly a threat by Jezebel to get revenge. Sometimes we get what we give out. It seems possible that Elijah had feelings of revenge, acted on them and became the subject of revenge from another.

Fear

On receiving the message from Jezebel, Elijah who had fearlessly delivered warnings to king Ahab and had faced down hundreds of the prophets of Baal succumbed to fear; he “went for his life.” How could this have happened? Remember, Elijah was “a man subject to like passions as we are.”

Perhaps, while we do not hear it stated until Jesus said it, Elijah was aware of the principle that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword:

“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52)

Another principle he might have been aware of:

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Rom 12:19)

His first emotion after receiving the message was fear. He could have sent a message back to the queen expressing his confidence in the protection of God Who had thus far wrought mightily on his behalf. Too bad he didn’t recall some of the promises of Divine protection in the Psalms. I have heard of fear being described this way:

False
Expectations
Appearing
Real

That was very likely what was happening in this case. Had He claimed God’s protection and stayed at the post of duty the expectation of Jezebel’s threat would not have happened. Elijah’s reaction to the fear – to run for his life far from Jezebel and Ahab – could have led to all sorts of other feelings:

Failure

Elijah could easily have had this feeling for leaving his post of duty at a critical time. The people had just proclaimed that the Lord was God over Baal. Now, more than ever, they needed the guidance of the prophet to make that a reality in their lives. We will see God asking him “What are you doing here?” and telling him to go back to work. It’s kind of like that saying about getting right back on the horse after a fall.

 Discouragement

Some of the words Elijah said seem to indicate great discouragement:

  • “he requested for himself that he might die”
  • “take away my life”
  • “I am not better than my fathers”

If he really wanted to die, he could have just stayed where he was and Jezebel would have taken care of that for him. But it seems that faith and courage had left him.

Guilt

Elijah must have felt guilt towards God Who he was supposed to be serving. Yet God did or said nothing to intensify that guilt. When Elijah finally got to where he felt safe (“Horeb the mount of God” – 1 Kings 19:8) and could listen, God asked him a simple question:

“And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9)

The implication of the question “What doest thou here” is that Elijah was not where he was supposed to be. This was very similar to the question asked of Adam after his sin:

“And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” (Gen 3:9)

Both questions were perhaps gentle reprimands but nothing like stern condemnation. The question was given to Elijah twice, both times with the same reply as noted earlier.

I would think that Elijah must have some guilt and other emotions as well after the messy process of killing 450 men with a sword.

The Penalty for Idolatry

Another point regarding Elijah’s actions was that the specified penalty for idolatry was death by stoning not execution by the sword.

“If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant, And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.” (Deut 17:2-5)

There was another possible source of guilt for Elijah. (Here is a bit of trivia for you that I just learned – the technical term for stoning is: “lapidation.”)

Elijah Reinstated but Given Notice

Despite his failures, God recommissioned the prophet to return to his duties. His first task was to anoint three people to specific offices. It is interesting that one of those was essentially his own replacement.

“… and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room.” (1 Kings 19:16)

Many versions express it like “to succeed you as prophet” (NIV) “to replace you as my prophet” (NLT) or something similar. One could almost think that Elijah was thus given notice that his term as prophet was to soon end. However, he continued to serve for several more years as prophet of God (while tutoring Elisha). One would hope that over this time he regained his confidence and overcame the tendencies to be subject to his own passions.

The Second Crisis

Near the end of his term, Elijah was called upon to meet another crisis, this one involving the son of Ahab, King Ahaziah, who had succeeded his father on the throne of Israel. Ahaziah was sick and had sought to inquire of Baalzebub regarding his recovery. Elijah’s message to him was:

“… Is it not because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron?  Now therefore thus saith the LORD, Thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die. …” (2 Kings 1:3-4)

The king then sent a squadron of 50 soldiers to bring Elijah to him. It is interesting that there was no threat mentioned. It was not like Jezebel’s:

“… So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.” (1 Kings 19:2)

There is no indication that Elijah’s life was in danger. When Elijah finally appeared before the king he simply delivered his message. We are not even told the king’s reaction.

What is of particular interest is the reaction of Elijah to the summons delivered by the captain of the 50 men who said, it seems almost respectfully:

“… Thou man of God, the king hath said, Come down.” (2 Kings 1:9)

The next verse is one that calls into question the actions and character of God:

“And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.” (2 Kings 1:10)

Fire From Heaven?

Elijah certainly did not bring the fire down. So who did? It is referred to as coming down from heaven. In the incident on Mount Carmel, the fire, undoubtedly from God, is described as “the fire of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:38). In the book of Job, the fire that fell is described:

“While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” (Job 1:16)

We know, from the context of Job’s story, that the “fire of God” was not from God. Satan can also bring fire down from the sky:

“And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,” (Rev 13:13)

So either God or Satan could bring fire down to destroy men’s lives. Which was it in the cases of the groups of soldiers sent to bring Elijah to the king?

I have heard this described as a most difficult case for which those who say God does not kill have no answer. It has been argued something like: “why would Satan instigate the king to send soldiers (We don’t even know that Satan prompted King Ahaziah.) to arrest Elijah (one version said “to kill” Elijah which scripture does not say.) and then destroy those same soldiers? Obviously, God was doing it.” Well hold on, it’s not that obvious! There is an answer and one that does not needlessly charge God with killing people.

 We know about some of the passions that Elijah was subject to. Elijah had felt guilty once before for fleeing from danger and his duty. This time he was going to stay at what he considered his post and, perhaps motivated by fear, look for a way to defend himself. Of course, he remembered vividly the fire of Mount Carmel. So let’s look carefully at the story and see if it is at all plausible that the “fire from heaven” might not have been an act of God.

Pride

If Elijah had been acting as a prophet should he would have called on God for protection. Instead, he commanded fire to destroy. Could pride have prompted him?

I mentioned earlier that the wording of the captain to Elijah – “thou man of God” sounded respectful. It is also possible that it was said in a sarcastic tone (which we wouldn’t hear in the reading) calling into question Elijah’s position as a prophet of God and prompting Elijah’s reaction to prove himself. His response using the word “if” likely reflected the implied “if” in the captain’s message. Elijah may have been saying essentially: “You dare to doubt me! Let me show you. I can prove that I am a man of God.”

“And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.” (2 Kings 1:10)

The way Elijah’s response was worded could indicate that he was meaning to defend his position. This is reminiscent of Satan’s temptation of Christ to doubt His position as the Son of God:

“And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6)

Unlike Elijah, Jesus’ response was not to prove or defend Himself. He merely quoted scripture: “It is written…”

Giving Satan License

It can happen that through our words or actions we give Satan opportunity to tempt and test us. Peter gave Satan license to severely tempt him due to his bold and prideful claim that though all others should deny Christ he would not.

“Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.” (John 13:37)

Jesus said to Peter:

“And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Satan sought to tempt Peter as a result of the apostle’s claim. Peter set himself up for a test. In Elijah’s case, he may have been expressing pride in his position as prophet – “watch what God will do for me.” He was proposing to give undeniable evidence of his position. He proposed the test of the captain’s assertion and Satan would certainly claim that, due to Elijah’s presumption, he should have a role in the test or that God should step back and allow him to act.

Fear

Again, there may have been some fear on Elijah’s part as indicated by the message given to Elijah regarding the words of the third captain:

“And the angel of the LORD said unto Elijah, Go down with him: be not afraid of him. And he arose, and went down with him unto the king.” (2 Kings 1:15)

This indicates that God was okay with Elijah going to the king to personally deliver his message and why wouldn’t He be? And if He was, why would He kill 102 people in the meantime? That makes no sense. God kills people just for insulting a prophet? That seems rather harsh!

Satan’s Strategy

As mentioned earlier, it has been argued that why would Satan instigate the king to send soldiers to arrest Elijah and then destroy those same soldiers?

 Satan would have known that God would physically protect His prophet. This was really a spiritual attack to tempt Elijah to act in self-defense and once again lose his hold on God. Certainly, killing off 102 men as collateral damage was no loss to Satan.

We tend to think prophets and “men of God” could do no wrong but they (all of them, not just Elijah) were subject to like passions as we are. This is well demonstrated in this compilation of the sins of the prophets. Satan can gain a great victory if he can destroy a prophet of God whether physically or by breaking the prophet’s connection with God.

A Most Important Principle

At one point, when Jesus was not welcomed at a Samaritan village, his disciples reacted by saying:

“… Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” (Luke 9:54)

The disciples were referring to the event under discussion. In their understanding, the fire was sent by God. Jesus’ response was revealing:

“But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” (Luke 9:54-56)

They expected that Jesus would approve of their wanting to act like Elijah. However, Jesus reprimanded the spirit behind their response. It was one of revenge not of forgiveness. And it was the same spirit demonstrated by Elijah towards the captains and soldiers.

Jesus would do nothing against people who had rejected Him, the Savior of the world. If God would not act to destroy the lives of the Samaritans for rejecting His Son, the Messiah for doing their duty to escort someone to the king? Why would He act to destroy those soldiers – to cut off any further opportunity for them to learn of and accept truth? It was the king who was more at fault.

Jesus’ reaction was simply to go to another village; to walk away from where He was not welcome. This is actually (although not stated as such) an example of Divine “wrath.” There are many cases (I have found over 70 so far) where, in reaction to sin, God in “wrath” leaves, gives up, hands over etc and trouble then comes in His absence from another source. God’s wrath is well defined in Romans chapter 1.

And there is this verse:

“But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:39)

The words and actions of Jesus need to be the ultimate test in many more of our scriptural understandings. When someone insults you or your position – turn the other cheek, resist not or simply walk away as Jesus did but certainly don’t wish to burn them to a crisp.

Application

What if you, in serving God in the last days, perhaps despite great victories in witnessing for Him, should succumb to human weakness and fail or lose faith? Remember, you are a man or woman “subject to like passions as” was Moses, as were many who have failed and been rescued by a loving and merciful God and even as was the great prophet Elijah. God will forgive. He will call you back to the path of duty. He is ever merciful and forgiving.

Conclusion

This story is similar to that of Ananias and Sapphira who many people would charge God with killing when there is no scriptural evidence that He did and a perfectly plausible explanation of how it could have happened otherwise. In the account of Elijah and the captains of 50 there is no scriptural reason to conclude that God was responsible for killing 102 men who were just carrying out the orders of their king. There is not even any indication that the king was wrong in sending for Elijah. The life and character of Jesus should instruct us in such situations. We should be more careful what we charge God with.