The Flight Of Elijah
( Originally Published 1921 )
If you have ever seen a military parade—soldiers marching with flags flying and drums beating—and have listened to the stirring strains of music played by the bands as they passed—the people waving and shouting at them from the house windows, roofs, and street curbs—you will feel the spirit of this story. It is a stirring one, for our hero Elijah was a stirring character.
Who was Elijah? He was a prophet. " Oh, I know what a prophet is," I hear some of you say. "He is a person who tells about things before they happen." In that sense our weather man who tells us on Wednesday what the weather is going to be on Thursday, or next week, is a prophet. Like many other words, "prophet" has been wrongly used and now has come to mean something it did not mean at first. Originally the word meant one who is inspired, or, using it in its present sense, the word "prophet" means one who speaks for another. And this is what Elijah did. He spoke for God. In fact, the name Elijah means " Jehovah is God."
Were you ever startled, when you thought you were alone, by some one suddenly speaking to you or coming quietly behind you and touching you? Do you remember how you gave a start of surprise or perhaps cried out in alarm? So it was with Elijah. He comes so suddenly and vigorously into the Bible story that we have to pause a minute to get used to him. And it is the same all the way through. He is supposed to be far away, when, instantly, he stands before you. No story of a magician mysteriously appearing and disappearing is more fascinating than the story of Elijah. But so many things happened in his life that I can tell you of only one of them.
He was very severe and stern, as most people are who live alone and do not know others well enough to understand them or to have charity for them.. Living in the desert as he did, wandering about without any fixed home, eating or not as it happened, and wearing the coarsest clothing, he could not understand why others were miserable because they did not have everything they wanted. So the people who loved pleasure, and Elijah, who thought God's service meant having little or no pleasure, hated each other as only people can hate who look at each other's faults instead of trying to find out each other's virtues.
Elijah was fearless, honest, and determined, and felt that if the Israelites did not want to serve their God they must be forced to do so. Most of the people of Israel had forgotten about Jehovah and had adopted the gods of the people among whom they lived. These gods were harsh and cruel, often demanding, so the people thought, that they should sacrifice their sons and daughters upon altars dedicated to these brutal gods.
You may wonder why parents who loved their children should do such a dreadful thing as to burn them on the altar of any god, even though the god did demand it. But fear always makes men cruel and merciless, and never lets them stop to reason about anything. The god these people worshiped was the god of fear, as you may see for yourselves if you read all the Bible says about him.
The blighting, withering heat of the sun which frequently killed their' crops, their cattle, and sometimes themselves, the worshipers of Baal thought was the anger of their god. So to coax him into good humor they offered upon his altars the best they had, which was their children. These people had so many images of their gods it was hard to keep track of them. Tree trunks, bulls, serpents, turtles, and many other natural objects they believed to be sacred. In their pockets, strung around their necks, in the temples, and by the roadside were idols in great number. To keep their gods in good humor was a serious task and really made them uneasy all the time wondering if their god was going to send them good or evil.
You know how you feel when you are not sure of anything. Suppose you never knew when you went to school whether you would find it closed or open. How much time would you spend studying lessons that you might never have a chance to recite? So it was with these people of long ago—not knowing what their god was going to do, they ceased to care what he did. But of one thing they were sure—they knew what a good time meant and they were going to have it.
Do you wonder Elijah spoke such harsh words to King Ahab? Both of them were Israelites. Their God was Jehovah, who was very different from the cruel Baal. Elijah's father had taught him that Jehovah was invisible but that he was more powerful than the heathen gods, because real power is always unseen.
You don't believe it? Tell me which gives the more powerful heat, the steam you do not see in your radiator or the few logs or coals which lie in your grate?
Ahab, the Hebrew king, had married a heathen wife, and he and all Israel had gone over to the worship of Baal's many images, although every Israelite had been taught that the worship of idols was hateful to Jehovah. So great was Jehovah it was impossible to make an image big enough to represent Him.
Justice is Thy throne, righteousness is Thy law, truth is Thy word. Elijah had heard this said of Jehovah ever since he had first squatted on his heels or sat cross-legged on the ground with other little lads as they gathered around their teacher, listening as he read or talked to them. They had no books to study from, but had to learn by heart and be able to repeat exactly what the teacher taught them. They had to pay close attention and make good use of their ears, you see. Every child in Israel knew that Jehovah was unchangeable. That is why they could always trust in Him. Moses had told them what Jehovah's laws were. All they had to do was to obey them. Jehovah was very different from Baal, whose will might be one thing one day and something quite different the next.
"That made it easy for Israel," you say. " If. they knew what to do to keep out of trouble, of course they never had any."
Wait before you say that. They did just as many people do today—walked right into the trouble they knew how to avoid, and this was why Elijah was angry with them. But he was severe. Evil never tempted him and he could not understand why it should tempt others. If he had loved the people a little more perhaps he would have understood them better. You remember the New Testament says, "He that hateth his brother is in the darkness . . . and knoweth not whither he goeth, because the darkness hath blinded his eyes." So our poor, fearless, upright Elijah, trying earnestly to lead his people back to the worship of Jehovah, used very harsh measures with them, and then as now harsh measures failed.
Elijah said to King Ahab, "As Jehovah, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." And he knew when he said that what suffering it would bring to Israel — it meant famine. How different are the words of Jesus, who says of God, "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust." Elijah thought he was doing right ; he believed that it was no more than these people deserved, to starve and die if they would not serve God. You girls and boys who have been taught that even the wild animals are much more easily tamed when treated kindly, will wonder that Elijah did not know better than to act as he did. "Why," you will say, "couldn't he see he was only making the people more angry and more afraid?"
Stop and think again for a moment. Did you never say, when someone insisted on doing something wrong or foolish, " Let him go ; serves him right ; I don't care if he does get hurt."
Elijah, courageous himself, despised the weakness and timidity of Ahab. He forgot that being honest and doing the best that he knew how to do were what had made him fearless, while Ahab, selfish, cruel, and dishonest, always had something to run away from and of course was always afraid. Elijah never allowed him-self to be influenced by evil things or evil persons. He could not understand how anyone, especially a king, could be like a piece of putty, made into any shape—that is, made to do any evil thing suggested by some one else. Elijah forgot that he trusted in the God of Israel, who was his strength, but that Ahab, following the cruel Baal, could not be strong because he had nothing to lean on. But Elijah did not see this, and so he was harsh.
For three years and a half no rain fell. The people, the crops, and the cattle suffered dreadfully, and Ahab began to fear that even the horses and mules would die. Suddenly Elijah appeared before him, saying that the king and the people had forsaken Jehovah and thrown down His altars. He knew that in times of trouble people usually turned toward God, so he came now and asked the Israelites if they were ready to rebuild Jehovah's altars. I think they must have hesitated, for he said, " How long go ye limping between the two sides? if Jehovah be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." The people did not answer him. How could they? Jehovah and his kindness they had forgotten, and of Baal they were afraid.
I shall give these people a chance, thought Elijah. The four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal may build an altar on Mount Carmel, and I will build one, for "I, even I only, am left " a prophet of Jehovah.
The Israelites and the prophets of Baal were soon building their altars and getting the sacrifice — a bullock—ready. Have you ever seen an Indian war dance? If you have, you can form some idea of how Baal's prophets danced and shrieked and cut themselves with sharp stones and knives as they called upon Baal to answer them. All day long these poor creatures cried to their god and he did not answer. Elijah made some taunting remarks to them about their god's silence. I am sorry he did so, for his words did not help anyone. He seemed to be adding all the time to the hatred he was trying to cure.
Elijah had made a bargain with Israel and the prophets of Baal. His bargain was that the god who answered by fire and consumed the sacrifice was to be acknowledged the true God.
When evening came, and the tall rocks were casting long shadows on the ground, Baal's prophets were worn out with their useless screaming and calling upon him. Elijah then stepped to the altar he had built with twelve stones, each stone meaning one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and ordered that it be drenched with water. Is he crazy, they thought. Is it possible he expects to be answered with fire? Why, that altar as well as every bit of wood on it is dripping wet ! But Elijah was wiser than all of them, and understood invisible forces that these weak and ignorant people never dreamed of.
He called upon Jehovah, and the fire fell and "licked up," as the Bible tells us, the wood, the bullock, the stones, and even the dust around the altar. The people were now thoroughly frightened, for we are told that "when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, " Jehovah, he is God; Jehovah, he is God.' "
But hardly had they gone down the mountain side before they were again worshiping Baal. They had answered in fear, and nothing done in fear lasts. It is love that is the fulfilling of the law, and this Elijah had yet to learn.
Elijah in his zeal had forgotten the commandment, " Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain," and had made his people and the heathen priests see God as a destroying power-that same God of whom David had sung in his songs as being full of mercy and loving-kindness. Of course God could not be both a God of love and a God of vengeance; this also Elijah learned when he was alone on Mount Horeb. Even the poor, ignorant prophets of Baal, after he had conquered them, he took down to the brook Kishon and slew. Very different, was it not, from the way Elisha treated the Syrian host he made captive?
Jezebel, the wicked queen and wife of Ahab, as soon as she learned of Elijah's victory, sent a messenger telling him that just as he had treated Baal's prophets so should she treat him.
He was greatly discouraged. Why, he thought, when I have shown my people that Jehovah is stronger than Baal, and my prayers have given them the needed rain, do they now seek my life?
In order to escape Jezebel's anger he traveled forty days' journey to "Horeb the mount of God," and lodged there in a cave. He knew there must be something wrong for he was not getting good results. In order to save his people and to serve Jehovah he had endangered his life. Instead of feeling grateful the people evidently were more than ever afraid of him, and thought with Jezebel that he was an enemy instead of a friend of Israel.
What was the reason? Elijah began to think the fault might not all have been Israel's. Perhaps he had not done exactly right himself. He was so sincere in his love for Jehovah that he was ready to acknowledge his own mistakes. Besides, there was something encouraging in the fact that no one, not even Jezebel, could prevent him from correcting his own faults.
Safe from the hatred of the queen, and rested from his journey, he heard God's voice asking him, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" And very bitterly he replied, "I have been very jealous for Jehovah, the 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."
He was told to hide no longer in the cave, but to go out and stand "upon the mount before Jehovah." Then there came a violent wind, crushing the rocks and tearing the mountains ; and after that an earthquake that destroyed even more than the wind, and finally a fire that devoured all in its path. But Elijah did not see God in any of these things—wind, earth-quake, fire—and yet he had expected other people to see God in violence !
Then what do you think he did? He covered his face. Why? Because there came to him "a still small voice," and God was in this quietness.
Do you not recall some time when the fall of a leaf, or the rattle of a shutter, or even your own thoughts made you uneasy, because in the stillness you remembered mistakes you had made or a wrong you had done? It is at such times that the " still small voice" sounds louder than any noisy faultfinding ever does.
Elijah was fast learning, when he sat down to think, that if he could hear God better in quietness, other people also could hear him better. What had he done? He had been harsh and unmerciful. Now he knew this was not the way to serve God. He had made the people fear more instead of less, and had killed the helpless prophets of Baal.
Again the voice came to him, saying, " What doest thou here, Elijah?" And again Elijah made the same reply, that Israel had broken down Jehovah's altars and that he was the only one left who trusted in Jehovah.
Poor Elijah ! Like discouraged people today who think they are the only ones interested in a good work, and if it were not for them the work could not go on, he felt that it was too hard for him alone. Imagine his surprise when the voice told him that there were yet seven thousand in Israel who had not followed Baal and were still worshiping Jehovah. Where had his eyes been that he had not seen these seven thousand still faithful to Jehovah? Perhaps each one of them, as well as Elijah, was thinking that only he was faithful to Jehovah's law and performing God's work as it should be done.
Elijah's eyes were where every discouraged person's eyes are, on himself with a good deal of self-pity. But he was beginning to see how alike all people are, and how even the most earnest and sincere can make serious mistakes. This made him more kindly and able to see why other people acted as they did. Light was coming to him—the light that one of the apostles of Jesus said if men would walk in, they should have "fellowship one with another."
This fellowship Elijah was beginning to feel when the voice told him that not only were there others in Israel beside himself who worshiped Jehovah, but that there was also a prophet ready to take his place. Comforted and strengthened, he came down from the mount and anointed Elisha, whom he had been told to anoint "to be prophet in thy room."
In the succeeding years, while these two worked together, I am sure that Elijah often told the younger prophet what he had learned that night alone on Horeb, for Elisha was seldom stern or harsh, but instead was gentle and kind. Elijah wanted his people to understand that Jehovah punished evil; Elisha was busy showing them that God rewarded good.
Earthquake, fire, whirlwind, fiery chariots, fierce rebukes, and awful vengeance surrounded Elijah. He was righteous, moral, true, and fearless, but he had to learn "the one thing needful"—that the God who is love can be served only by loving.