What does it mean to stand alone? Is it a bold, unapologetic grandstand? Or is it the cold, bitter sting of isolation? Elijah, one of God’s prophets, had to face these exact questions. And the outcome of his story is a bit more complex and interesting than many people realize. Rather than just seeing a victorious, triumphant prophet who stands up against evil with full confidence in God, Elijah seems to slip back and forth between courage and fear, confidence and confusion. In light of that, reading his story honestly may be a window into our own walk of faith.
But first, we have to set the stage to see what Elijah is up against.
King Ahab is a crucial player in this story. He succeeded his father Omri as king of Northern Israel, and he married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. As a result of this marriage, Ahab led Israel into Ba'al worship, and built a temple for Ba'al in Samaria. Not only was he religiously disloyal to Israel’s true God, but he was reckless and dangerous - taking on building and construction projects which he managed so badly that two of his own sons died in the process. (1 Kings 16:29-34) Jezebel is also bad news on her own terms. Not only did she draw Ahab away from the God of Israel, but she herself took the lead in killing off God's prophets (1 Kings 18:4).
In response, God raised up Elijah as a prophet to confront this corruption. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah tells Ahab that there will be a massive drought throughout all Israel - no dew on the ground or rain from the sky "for the next few years" until Elijah gives the word from God (1 Kings 17:1). Understandably, Elijah has to go into hiding for the next three years, until God gives the order for him to go confront Ahab again.
This time, there is some hope for the people: the land of Israel may have rain again based on the result of an epic ritual showdown between Elijah and Ahab’s prophets of the false god Ba’al. Elijah challenged these prophets to ask their god to send down fire from heaven. While they were unable, Elijah successfully reminded his people who their true God was - as he sent down fire to end the contest, and soon after that, rain to end the famine.
There are a number of interesting details we notice when we look closely at this story. First, Elijah seems to think he’s the only one of God’s prophets left (1 Kings 18:22) - which actually turns out to be wrong (see 1 Kings 19:18). But this mistaken belief seems to be driving his sense of the urgency of this situation - he's the only prophet of God left to face down the false prophets of Ba'al, so he has to get this right. He actually uses this "fact" to work the crowd, since so many prophets of Ba'al must surely be able to outdo him on his own, right? But strangely enough, after God shows up Ahab's false prophets on Mount Carmel, the fact that Elijah thinks he's alone backfires on him, suddenly becoming his biggest reason to be afraid when Ahab and Jezebel threaten his life.
When Elijah ran away from Queen Jezebel, afraid for his life, God followed him all the way out to Mount Sinai (also called Horeb), where he was hiding in fear. Strangely enough, a few scenes earlier, Elijah used this exact same fact - that he was the only one left - to taunt his enemies, to goad them into a competition, telling them that it should be easy for a huge group of them to defeat one lonely little prophet. Elijah was even so bold as to use his outnumbered status to set up his enemies for defeat: “You go first, for there are many of you.” (1 Kings 18:25b, NLT) What changed for Elijah? In one moment, his status as the unique prophet of God emboldened him, and in the next, it made him feel lonely and exposed.
But even while he was confronting the prophets of Ba’al, he was not the only true prophet of God left - he just did not know about the others. We can learn an important lesson from this - one that Elijah should have recognized but seemed to forget in a moment: with God, “right” is not determined by numbers. A majority of people could be wrong, or they might be right. A large group might be very powerful, or completely powerless. Numbers, oddly enough, are not what counts. What really counts is choosing to stand on the Lord's side.
Like Elijah, many of us may be tempted to look at ourselves, our own skills, our own team, resources, situation, and feelings. But when we do this, the very same thing we find to be our strength in one instance can suddenly become a weakness. Human beings are weak like that. Elijah did not “win” on the mountaintop because he was the “only one bold enough to take a stand.” Elijah did not win at all. God did. And Elijah was never truly alone as God’s prophet - he only thought he was.
But it’s also worth noting that Elijah felt alone even when he knew that God was speaking to him directly. Many of us may feel envious of the Biblical prophets - that they had the privilege of knowing for sure that God was right there, talking to them. But Elijah still felt alone, even as he spoke to God. Knowing that God is real is one thing. Trusting God with your life is another.
On the other hand, God seems to understand that sometimes human beings need to have support from other human beings. It’s ok to say that you do trust God, but also need the support of having people stand by your side. God isn’t harsh with Elijah. He instead talks with him, tells him to appoint new kings and prophets to rebuild Israel, and tells him something he could have never known - God still had 7000 people who had remained loyal to him. Elijah was not, after all, alone.
Very few of us can take on life while being truly and completely alone. That’s why God meets us in faith communities. And that may be why God decided to let Elijah know that there were others just like him.
While God can see the whole picture, we often cannot. If you find yourself in a situation where all seems lost, take a moment to pause and reconsider. In many cases God is still there, whispering his plan for the future, waiting for us to listen. Sometimes, momentary struggles that we face are part of a bigger plan, a bigger purpose. One thing is for sure: We all will go through ups and downs. Who we might have been in our weakest and most vulnerable moments is not what defines us.
So, what do you do when everything comes crashing down around you? When you’re alone, afraid, and can’t see your next step? Sometimes, you may have to stand alone for God. But nobody standing with God is ever truly alone. After all, in Jesus we meet Emanuel, the God who is with us.
- Read through 1 Kings 18 and 19 and answer the following questions:
- In verses 3-15, we notice that Ahab's employee Obadiah has been secretly rescuing true prophets from Ahab and Jezebel and putting them in hiding. Why do you think Obadiah did not inform Elijah of this? How did this secret affect Elijah later on? How does knowing there are other prophets in hiding affect how you see Elijah's actions later in the story?
- How do you feel about the idea of God's prophets hiding? Is that kind of thing necessary? Can you think of situations where it might be okay to hide your calling from God? Or situations where doing that would be wrong?
- Look at 1 Kings 18:16-21. When Ahab accuses Elijah of causing trouble, how does Elijah respond? What is Elijah's anchor that reminds him what is true in spite of everything going on? What standard does he use to determine that it's Ahab who is in the wrong?
- In verse 21, what is the very simple logic that Elijah uses to challenge the people about who they should follow?
- How would you describe Elijah's attitude and behaviour during the showdown? Are there things about him that you admire in this scenario? Are there things about him that you don't admire? Do you think Elijah is being bold and courageous, or arrogant and showoff-y?
- What do you think of how Elijah handles the prophets of Ba'al in 18:40? Do you think this was reasonable, or too much? Do you think that doing this contributed to Elijah feeling more nervous about Jezebel's revenge later? Why or why not?
- Look at the beginning of chatper 19 and observe how Elijah starts to fall apart in 19:3-9. Is it sometimes good when God says "No" to some of our prayers?
- In light of everything that has happened in the story, what do you think is the meaning of the scene where God sends wind, earthquake, and fire in front of Elijah? In each of the big, showy displays of natural power, God is not present. Then suddenly, God reveals himself in a gentel whisper. What does this say about God, and what do you think God was trying to show Elijah by doing this?
Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash