Sunday, July 25, 2010

And After the Fire a Still Small Voice

Elijah the Tishbite stood on Mount Horeb, where Moses had stood centuries earlier to receive the tablets of the law from the Lord. Looking out on the dry valley, he reflected on the fate of that law, and of the Lord’s people whose ancestors He had brought out of Egypt to worship at that mountain. They hadn’t gotten any closer to the “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” that the Lord had wished for their fathers. Elijah spoke to the Lord about his despair, “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).

Elijah’s ministry was difficult. Faced with growing idolatry among the people of Israel, brought about by the wicked king Ahab and his Phonecian princess Jezebel, the prophet had sealed the heavens for three years. In an already dry land, he had created a drought, and thus pronounced a national death sentence in hopes of turning the hearts of the people back to their God in humility.

His plan had backfired. Ahab and Jezebel, instead of repenting, had sought his life throughout the land. Forced to flee for his safety, he hid by the brook Cherith, and was fed by ravens sent by God. Eventually, the brook dried up, and the Lord sent Elijah to Zarephath, to the home of a widow woman who had reached the end of her rope, and was about to eat the last of her meager provisions, “an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold,” she said, ”I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12). The woman’s faith in feeding the prophet with what little she had was rewarded, and “the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah” (v.16).

At the end of three years of drought, Elijah had summoned Ahab, and all his priests, together with Jezebel’s priests and all the children of Israel, to Mount Carmel for a contest. He was tired of the people’s ambivalence, tired of seeing them turn from Jehovah to dumb idols, tired of a double-minded people who turned to the Lord only in times of trouble, but enjoyed the rites of Ba’al and Ashtaroth on the side. Elijah proposed a contest--and you know the rest. The sacrifice offered to Ba’al failed to ignite, despite the priests’ long hours of pleading and erratic dancing. Elijah’s sharp, sarcastic words found their mark as the priests failed to effect the required miracle. Then fire from heaven descended upon the water-drenched sacrifice offered to Jehovah, “and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38). The assembled Israelites recognized the Lord’s power, and declared that He, truly, was God. Elijah, seizing the moment, commanded that all the idolatrous priests should be slain.

The Lord decided to end the drought, without, it seems, consulting Elijah. Rain fell, and the land revived. Jezebel, incensed by the death of her priests, vowed to kill Elijah, and once more he fled, this time to Beersheba. From there, the Lord had sent him to this mountain. There He spoke to Elijah, who had served Him well, but still had much to learn.

First the Lord asked His servant a question. “What doest thou here, Elijah?” Elijah’s recounted his ministry among stubborn and rebellious people, “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.”

So the Lord taught an object lesson, with a powerful message for Elijah, and for each of us.

“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:9-12).

Did Elijah understand the Lord’s message? It seems that he overlooked the Lord’s meaning, for his answer to the Lord’s question remained unchanged: “when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, 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” (v. 13-14).

Elijah was discouraged. It seems that he didn’t understand the meaning of the still small voice that followed the great natural disasters. But looking back over Elijah’s life and ministry, perhaps we can hear the echoes of that voice. Elijah had shown his fondness, throughout his life, for great and spectacular signs--earthquakes and whirlwinds, droughts, famines, and fire from heaven. But even with these miracles, Elijah had failed to change the heart of the king to whom he was sent. The Lord had passed by Israel, and a great drought dried up the land and killed the crops, the animals, and the poor. But the Lord was not in the drought. And after the drought a famine, but the Lord was not in the famine. And after the famine a contest and fire from heaven. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a cleansing of the idolatrous priests. But the Lord was not in the killing. And after the killing a still, small voice. And there, the Lord was to be found.

The Lord was in the ravens who fed the prophet by a dried-up brook in a barren land as he hid from the searches of the king. The Lord was in the faith of a widow woman who gave charity to the prophet as he wandered in a foreign land. The Lord was in the rain that fell on Mount Carmel to water the land of a still-idolatrous king. The Lord was in the willingness of Elisha the son of Shaphat, who followed Elijah’s call when he found him at the plow (v. 19-21). The Lord was in the still, small voices that stayed faithful even in a wicked society, of which there were “seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal” (v. 18).

What are seven thousand against so many? What is one prophet against such great idolatry? What is one still, small voice in the midst of the whirlwinds and earthquakes that surround us? If we hear it, that still, small voice can be more powerful than the winds that seek to drive us from our moorings. It can be stronger than the earthquakes that seek to throw us off balance. It can be more cleansing than the fires that sweep through the land. For all these great and showy spectacles end in an instant and persuade only for a moment, but the still small voice speaks throughout them, and continues to speak even after their voices have faded. It speaks while they rage about us, and its words continue long after the winds have died down and the fires have been extinguished. It beckons to us as it beckoned to Elijah on that mountain. It pleads with us to hear the voice and recognize the hand of the Lord in the small gestures, in the things we overlook, in the voices of birds and widows and rain, in the Lord’s mercy rather than His condemnation.

We, like Elijah, will experience winds and earthquakes and fires. But the Lord is with us. For after the fire, there will always come His merciful still, small voice.

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  1. I loved this lesson. Thanks for blogging about it.

  2. I just used this scripture on my blog. We have had the fire and a flood this summer but then it came "and after the fire a still small voice".

  3. Amy, we had a different take on this. You might enjoy these thoughts.

    A person asked: “Why is the question that the Lord asks after the experience of the wind, earthquake, fire, and still small voice the same as the question he asked before that experience? (Compare verses 1 Kings 19: 9-10 and 13-14.) Elijah’s answer is the same as it was before, so what has this experience changed?”
    We pondered for a week on this question. I would like to share what we came up with.
    First of all we established that the showdown at mount Carmel was commanded of the Lord (1Kings18:36 I have done all these things at thy word.) The mocking of the prophets of Baal was Elijah’s way of being enthusiastic about the show about to take place. Here, however, Elijah was sadly setting himself up for a fall. He knew that the Lord would perform this great miracle. He was excited for it. He was sure that everything would be different after that. All the people would suddenly realize who the real God was and start worshipping Him. Elijah would be successful in saving Israel, something his “fathers” had failed to do. Afterwards, he went to Jezreel to wait for the converts to pour in. But what happens? His life is threatened and nothing has changed.
    Elijah travels to the mount (temple) to converse with the Lord. The Lord asks him why he has come. He pours out his heart, expresses his total failure. So the Lord teaches him a lesson. After the wind, earthquake, and fire, followed by the still small voice, Elijah suddenly understands. The Lord asks him again, and this time he returns and reports that he has done all that the Lord has asked, and that nothing has changed. But he now understands that he has not failed. His words may be the same, but they are spoken with complete understanding instead of complaining. He performed a grand miracle of bringing fire down from heaven to consume the wet sacrifice, “but the Lord was not in the fire.” He steps forward to accept another assignment and the Lord gives him an administrative assignment and lets him know that his mission will end soon.
    It reminded me of a story from my family history. My 5th great grandfather received a revelation that the church would be restored in his lifetime. Then the angel said to him, “And when thou are converted, strengthen thy brethren.” My grandfather replied, “But they won’t believe me,” to which the angel answered, “What is that to you? Do as you have been commanded.”
    A lesson is to be learned from both Elijah and my grandfather. When we receive a calling or assignment, we should just do it. It may appear to us that we have accomplished nothing–such as when we home/visit teach a person for many years and they never come back to church. However, it is not for us to decide success or failure. We do not always know or see results even after our great efforts. What is that to you? Do as you have been commanded--and you will be blessed. Elijah was greatly honored for his obedience to the word of the Lord.