1 Kings 18:20–19: Elijah As Catalyst for Regeneration
1st and 2nd Kings contain a wealth of recorded history, offering an important chronicle of the rulers ofancient Israel and Judah over a period of 400 years (c. 960– c. 560 BC). It is an essential piece of Scripture for historians, archaeologists, and students of ancient literature, providing an explanation for the destruction of the Jewish kingdom of Babylon in 586 B.C. More than just historical narrative, the explanation within is theological. As well, a careful reading of the Book of Kings yields a better understanding of God’s nature, especially when considering the message of His prophets; those God used to give voice to His sovereign will. Of particular interest is Elijah, who despite the nation’s moral bleakness, a bloodthirsty opposition, and his own weakness, becomes a powerful catalyst for the start of Israel’s regeneration.
The Book of Kings, originally an undivided work until its appearance in the Septuagint, could not have been written before the sixth century B.C., as it describes the release of King Jehoiachin from a Babylonian prison in 561. Some scholars believe that this version of Kings builds on earlier versions dating from before the exile of the Judaean to Babylon in 587 B.C., or during the period of exile itself. There is evidence that some editing took place between 539–c. 330 B.C., due to references to “kings of the west” and “the governors of the land” (1 Kgs 10:15). These phrases suggest a Persian perspective on the region west of the Euphrates (ESV Study Bible, 2008). Though the author concludes with the deliverance of Jehoiachin, he writes nothing that alludes to the return of the whole people from the Babylonian exile in 536, suggesting that it was composed during the second half this exile, somewhere between 562 and 536 (Lange & Schaff, 2008). The predominant geographical setting of Kings is the whole land of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba.
1 Kings begins with the death of David and end to his reign on the throne of Judah and Israel, described throughout the books of Samuel and Chronicles. It continues with the story of his son and successor, Solomon, who reigns for forty years over the undivided kingdom of the the twelve tribes of Israel. This period in Israel’s history represented the summit of its earthly glory, as the eventual rebellion of King Solomon in the last years of his reign paved the way for the rebellion of the ten tribes (Israel) against the house of David. (Kiel & Delitzsch, 1996). Thus commences a division of one kingdom into two– Israel and Judah. This is designated asecond period described in the book of Kings. For a time, these two kingdoms existed side by side, terminating with the destruction of the ten tribes by the Assyrians (975-722 B.C.). The final and final period describes the remaining years of the continuing kingdom of Judah until its eventual fall brought on by the Chaldeans, whereupon its people are carried away into exile in Babylon (722–560 B.C.).
Though his leadership started out in service to God (1 Kgs. 3:1-9), Solomon eventually facilitated the downfall of the kingdom due to his toleration of idolatry. Solomon’s weakness for women may have constituted the first form of it, as he was said to have seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, many from lands which God had previously instructed the Israelites to avoid intermarrying. The most damaging alliance was his marriage to Jezebel, who worshipped Baal Melqart, the form of Baal revered in her home city of Tyre (La Sor, Hubbard, & Bush, 1996). Through her influence over Solomon, the people of Israel were allowed to incorporate such practices into the culture, breaking the first commandment of the Mosaic Law (Ex. 20:3-4). Solomon, once a man who sought God’s wisdom (1 Kgs. 3:9), was first of the many kings of Israel (and most of Judah) to lose favor with the Lord because of apostasy, leading the people into sin by sanctioning idolatry. This sets the precedent for the succession of kings to come.
On one hand, the Book of Kings is a historical narrative that records the fall of the Israelite and Judaean Monarchies, beginning with Solomon and culminating in the exiles of Israel by Assyria and Judah by Babylon. The writer's chief historical concern was to preserve a record of the kings of both Israel and Judah (Constable, 1985). Compared to the proceeding book of Samuel, Kings is certainly more historiographical in its methods of storytelling: “The inner lives of its characters often recede into the background...while public, state events receive primary attention" (Howard, 2012). The writer's intent, however, was not merely to record events, but to show how God works through history. While the source material was written by participants and eyewitnesses of the events, the authorship is an interpreted history; one which was written to communicate both the lessons of Israel's history and the reasons for God's allowance of their exile (MacArthur, 2005). Although the author or authors of Kings are unknown, their perspective is heavily influenced by the writings of Deuteronomy (Knowles, 2001). Each king is evaluated through through the lens of the Mosaic Law. Besides detailing their fates, the author traces the decline of the northern and southern kingdoms, pointing out the reasons for their failure; all of this stemming from an awareness of God's covenants and the fulfillment of their prophecies.
Solomon represented the pinnacle of the blessings promised to the descendants of David: "Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; and your throne shall be established forever" (2 Sam. 7:12–16). However, his subsequent sin of idolatry resulted in God's anger, causing him to say, "Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant" (1 Kgs. 11:11). The historical realization of this prophecy is shown in the division of the two kingdoms. The purpose of the book, then, is to show how the Lord fulfilled his word in the history of the kings, chastising the line of David for its transgressions and then casting it off, though not forever. Because of the kings’ failure, the Lord sent his prophets to confront the leaders and the people of Israel with their sin, offering a chance to return to Him. Because this message was rejected, the prophets foretold that the people would be exiled (2 Kgs. 17:13–23; 21:10–15) (MacArthur, 2005). In this sense, the Book of Kings is prophetic history. This means that, as spoken prophecy conveys the mind, will, and word of the Lord, so also these historical writings convey the same. Somewhat in contrast to Howard's statement, Keil & Delitzsch observe that, "...for a historical narrative, the ministry of the prophets assumes a prominent position, while the history of kings appears sometimes to fall into the background by comparison" (Keil & Delitzsch, 1996). This is why the Book of Kings was traditionally included in the categorization of the Former Prophets. (Elwell, 1995). The intent of the inspired writer of Kings is to show that Yahweh, the God of Israel and of heaven and earth, is working out his divine plan. As Matthew Henry says, this “Scripture is the history of the kingdom of God among men, under several administrations of it; but there the King is one and his name one…for the honour that comes from God is durable, while the honour of the world is like a mushroom, which comes up in a night and perishes in a night” (Henry, 1994).
While Kings is filled with the shortcomings of men, there are several hopeful themes. First, it is filled with prophecies and fulfillment notices, reminding readers that the word of Yahweh always comes true. He intervened in human life with messages the prophets delivered, and even speaks directly to the recipient at times, proving how involved he cares to be in the course of history (1 Kgs. 3:11–14; 2 Kgs. 10:30). The word of God’s prophets came to pass (1 Kgs. 13:2-3, 22:15-28, 2 Kgs. 23:16), confirming that He keeps his Word, even in regard to warnings of judgement. However, God makes himself known and often waits patiently before meting out these judgements. He is ready to forgive those who are repentant.
There is also a theme regarding thrones. While these books describe the fleeting tenures of kings to their earthly thrones, we are reminded throughout of the throne of heaven and its one King. As Rehoboam and Jeroboam had their successors, Yahweh, in a sense, had his: The prophets who replaced one another as His messengers. While the kings remind us of the thrones on earth, it is the prophets who remind us of the throne in heaven. Every form of human government results in failure without acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. People cannot govern themselves efficiently, while God’s government never fails. This is not only true on the national scale, but individually as well. If a person excludes God from their life, no matter how it is governed, he or she will fail, from God’s perspective (Constable, 1985).
While the main character in the first part of the book is Solomon, the main characters in the second part are the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is particularly interesting in that he is used to perform the initial unfolding of God’s plan for Israel. In 1 Kings 18, we read about his infamous showdown at Mt. Carmel before King Ahab and the prophets of Baal. God demonstrates his power through Elijah, who, in an almost theatrical display of confidence, prays for fire from heaven. Showing up the apparently absent god of Baal, whose prophets prayed for signs to no avail, God sends a fire so powerful that it consumes the altar itself ( v. 38). Israel at this time found Baal worship attractive. The idols of this Canaanite god offered them something tangible to worship, and the festivities of Baal fed Israelite passions for wine and immortality. Because Baal was the god of agriculture (including the vineyards) and of fertility, heavy drinking and sexual behavior were regarded as religious duty (La Sor, 1996). God’s hatred of idolatry is further clarified by this understanding, and reminds us that his commandments are often for our own benefit alongside His. Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal was intended to affirm Yahweh as the one true God, without exception.
Often overshadowed by the dramatic events at Mt. Carmel, 1 Kings 19 contains a different, but equally powerful message. After having killed off the prophets of Baal, Elijah receives a threat to his life from Jezebel and flees into the desert, Elijah prays for the Lord to end his life in a surprising moment of weakness (19:1-4). God answers his prophet by instead taking care of him, sending an angel with bread and water. Elijah is said to have walked a further 40 days to Mt. Horeb, where the Lord would manifest in another revelation. This is significant in that 40 days is the same length of time for many important waiting periods in the Bible, signifying a state of waiting and preparation. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan (Mark 1:12). Noah and his family endured the rains for 40 days and night in the ark (Gen. 7:17). And Moses spends 40 days and nights atop the very same Mt. Horeb Elijah was headed for, also called Mt. Sinai. Here, God proceeds to reproduce demonstrations of His power that He had given Israel both at Mt. Carmel and Mt. Sinai. This time, however, God including something new: “And behold, the Lord was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking 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. After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing” (1 Kgs. 19:11–12, ESV). Here, God shows Elijah that, though his power is limitless and sovereignty complete, sometimes he works in quiet ways. In its context, this passage is key to understanding God’s preference for ruling his Kingdom through the hearts of men, and is central to the Book of Kings.
Elijah reproves Ahab and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. 18:20–38
The congregation is convinced that Yahweh is God, and the prophets of Baal are slain. 18:39–40
Elijah prays for rain and runs before Ahab to Jezreel. 18:41–46
Elijah flees to Beersheba after being threatened by Jezebel. 19:1–3
He is comforted by an angel, and walks forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb. 19:4–8
At Mount Horeb, he receives a special revelation from God. 19:9–14
He is sent to Damascus to anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. 19:15–18
Elisha follows Elijah. 19:19–21
Yahweh is the one who controls both nature and history, but He chooses to do so with patience and mercy inside of his total sovereignty.
The history of the monarchs in Kings is told with an eye for providing a theological explanation for the causes of exile. The kings who had a greater religious impact receive more attention, for example. Omri was one of the most significant kings in the history of the ancient East, but his reign is accounted in just a few verses (1 Kgs. 16:23–28). 1st and 2nd Kings explain how history is governed by God’s moral law, using the same theological perspective as Deuteronomy. The kings are evaluated based on their fidelity to the Lord (Matthews, 1998).
God’s expectation for Israel was for it to demonstrate how glorious it can be to live under the government of God. He chose Abraham to be the father of a nation that would be a blessing to the whole world (Gen. 12:1–3). God’s covenant with Abraham guaranteed land, descendants, and blessing (Gen. 15:12–21). The Book of Kings shows how God faithfully kept his word regarding Israel, and how he accomplishes His purposes in spite of the failures of His people, displaying His ultimate sovereignty (Constable, 1985). God demonstrates perfect justice by allowing Israel to suffer punishment for their sins in exile, while still keeping His promises to David of an enduring dynasty by keeping alive the remnant of 7,000 (1 Kgs. 1:18). God is faithful to His Word, but is willing to forgive.
The Book of Kings also reveals that all people, even God’s elect, are disobedient and unbelieving. It is only by His willingness to forgive that anyone is able to participate in the Kingdom of God. The Lord is righteous and just, carrying out his will revealed through Moses. He raises up prophets to make known his will to kings, kingdoms, and people of all walks of life. In this way, God does his part to confront those who turn from Him. His sovereign plan moves forward, regardless. However, the Lord remembers his covenants, keeping some consciousness of Himself and His government alive in the hearts and minds of a remnant (the 7,000 that did not bow the knee to Baal) and thereby preserving the line of David.
God does not rule by force and violence, but by the secret voice within each heart. This is what differentiates His Kingdom from the kingdoms of men. Without adherence to God’s Law, mankind is left to the consequences created by living from its own poor judgements. The only perfect form of government is that of God’s administration, which he chooses out of his love for us to make known in our midst. We are never without excuse, but our King is a merciful one, ready to forgive those who have sinned and will repent. As Matthew Henry states so well, “In all this history it appears that kings, though gods to us, are men to God, mortal and accountable” (Henry, 1994).
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