Pondering Elijah

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By Helen Barrett, OCDS

Helen Barrett is a retired teacher and a member of the Carmelite Secular Order, based in Dundee, Scotland.

I recently realized that although I knew the stories of what Elijah did. I'd never read the story of Elijah right through, so I sat me down to remedy the situation, Reading and rereading the Bible narrative helped me to ,see' more clearly this giant among the prophets, this towering man of faith to whom, with Moses, it was given to talk with our Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration - and yet who ran for his life south to Mount Sinai, fearful and despondent.

What a scene it must have been in the palace when Elijah first faced the king; Ahab and Jezebel and all the courtiers splendidly garbed and bejewelled amid all the silk and silver, the gold and ivory; and suddenly this rough-clad countryman, with a `cloak of animal skins and a leather girdle', strides into the hall with the unwelcome prophecy of drought, famine, and hardship to come.

Three years of drought, and then on Mount Carmel the tremendous confrontation with the priests of Baal - which of course the apostate king and his heathen queen also worshiped. Time passed; Jezebel engineered Naboth's murder to let the covetous king have his vineyard, so Elijah went once more to the palace, to prophecy the dire consequences awaiting the whole royal family.

What awesome courage, once and again deliberately to challenge a king who called him `my enemy' and whose wife wanted him dead! But Elijah's only concern was to speak the message that had been laid on him; to obey the Lord he served and whose service was his life.

God watched over him, telling him, after prophesying the drought, to 'go east and hide near the brook Cherith'. First miraculously fed there by ravens, then the guest of the widow at Zarephath, Elijah was safe and, by another miracle, the widow and her son survived the drought. The Lord intervened again after the great triumph over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel. Elijah, zealous to wipe out the false religion, had the Baal priests put to death; then came the great rainstorm. Ahab was able to outrun it, galloping his chariot horses back to Jezreel - where he told the days events to Jezebel; but Elijah was only on foot. Despite that the Lord saved him; by a miracle he even outstripped those horses: The power of the Lord came on Elijah; he fastened his clothes tightly around his waist and ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.' Thirty kilometres, according to the map in my Bible!

I am awestruck by all that; but I warm to the gentleness that I glimpse here and there ...

Elijah reached Jezreel safely, but to escape Jezebel's wrath he had to flee Israel. Furious that her priests and prophets had been killed, she vowed to have all those of Yahweh put to death in revenge; so Elijah had to run for his life. But he didn't go alone; he could not, and would not, leave his loyal servant behind, so the two of them headed south, leaving Israel and eventually reaching Beersheba in the south of Judah. The man was safe there, so Elijah left him there rather than take him over the two hundred miles of desert to Mount Sinai.

Caring, thoughtful - and always going the second mile, as when the son of his hostess at Zarephath died. Elijah could have prayed for his recovery from a hygienic distance; he could have knelt beside the boy; but no: he lay on top of the lad to give the warmth of his body as well as his breath.

Then at Sinai, in this humanness, he broke down - and no wonder, after the extraordinary events, the intense emotions, the outpouring of himself at Carmel and since; all, it now seemed, for nothing. True, God had miraculously fed him over the long miles; he had reached the spiritual rootplace he so badly needed for both safety and solace; against all odds he was alive; but back in Israel paganism reigned supreme and there was still a price on his head. He had failed; where could he go, what could he do, what would become of him? He wailed to the Lord in an agony of doubt and despair, too low to respond even to the still small voice.

His healing came from God's gentle but firm pointing towards the very future Elijah could not face: no soothing words of reassurance but precise directions. Elijah the hunted, the fearful, was to go back the way he had come, trusting God to foil Jezebel's spies and hatchet-men and continuing north, right on to Damascus. There he was to do new work for Iris Lord, appointing rulers ready to take over when the time came and anointing Elisha to be his helper and, in due course, his successor. He was to he part of God's long-term planning for the future: this was what God wanted, so he arose and went.

It was some time later, perhaps much later, that Elijah confronted Ahab over Naboth's vineyard; the king's conscience was finally touched and he repented.

The Bible does not indicate at what point in his reign Elijah first appeared, but Ahab ruled for twenty two years and his successor for two; only after that was Elijah taken up into heaven; so his recorded great moments were actually brief appearances spread over a long period - days, months, years of hidden prayer-life, quietly waiting on God, content just to he available when or even if his Lord might call on him.

I saw more and more clearly that it was this dedicated availability that made the great events possible. as if Elijah were a carpenter's tool, shiny and sharp in its auk and ready for whenever its owner might need it. Thus it wasn't Elijah doing things, it was God doing them through him and being able to do so because Elijah accepted the grace to be available

As I pondered these things the story of Elijah became rather the story of a tremendous partnership, an intermingling, a continuous mutual giving and receiving; and how gloriously the Lord gave to Elijah whatever he needed from one moment to the next! - Elijah responding with grateful and ever-deepening trust and self-offering.

God's final gift was a magnificent accolade. Chariots were not for just anyone, and I think I'm right in believing that whereas officials had one horse to pull theirs, a team of two or more horses was only for the most important people. It was 'a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire’ that the Lord God sent to bring his servant home.


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