“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.”
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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
Elijah’s experience, having just taken life, was similar to that of Cain who fled after taking the life of his brother Abel:
“Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; …” (Gen 4:14)
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.
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.
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 his successor Elisha). One would hope that over this time he regained his confidence and overcame the tendencies to be subject to his own passions.
Go to part 2 of the Passions of Elijah – Elijah and the Captains of 50