As Elijah flees from Jezebel, he enters a landscape where God was a familiar presence. God’s preferred hangouts were mountains and deserts. So Elijah flees to the desert again.
This time instead of ravens it’s an angel of the Lord who brings him food and drink. But this was not enough for Elijah; he needed something more to set him right after the momentous showdown with the prophets of Baal. So he goes further into desolate spaces; he travels forty days and forty nights and reaches Mount Horeb. What happens next is best quoted directly from the First Book of Kings 19:8-18.
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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 sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Mount Horeb was the mountain on which Moses received the laws from God. Some parts of the Hebrew scriptures call it Mount Sinai; elsewhere it’s called Mount Horeb. Some scholars think it was in what today is called Sinai Peninsula; others think it was across the Gulf of Aqaba in what today is the Arabian Peninsula – its exact location is uncertain.
So Elijah flees to the mountain where God had appeared to Moses. Was he hoping that God would appear to him also? He was not disappointed. God speaks to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I love it when God asks questions like this, as when he asked Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) And just as Adam immediately began making excuses and casting blame elsewhere (in his case, Eve), so here Elijah does what most men of God seem to do: he starts complaining. Look at what I’ve done for you, God, while everyone else has forsaken you and broken the covenant. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me!
God will answer Elijah’s lament that he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But first God is going to “pass by.” What follows is a powerful echo of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23. And just as Elijah has experienced the trauma of facing Israel’s defection to Baal, so Moses had just experienced the people’s worship of the Golden Calf. Similar psychological situations; similar responses by God. Moses requested a favor from God; he wanted to see the glory of God. It was not possible. All God could do was to shield Moses in a cave and allow him only to experience the tail-end of God’s passing by; anything more would have destroyed Moses. So here with Elijah:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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 sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God was not in the wind; God was not in the earthquake; not in the fire. But God was in the sound of a whisper, in the silence.
And again, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” God prefers the quiet presence rather than the loud, spectacular fireworks. Moses wanted to experience the full show, but he got only the tail-end. Perhaps Elijah hoped for the same thing; he got only the whisper.
Many Christians look for miracles; many look for clear proofs that God exists. But God is not in the business of proving himself or catering to human vanity – even when the human is someone as important to God as Moses or Elijah! No, God is subtle; God prefers the quiet way, the long-enduring way. Elijah is too full of himself; he is still not satisfied. God asks him again, “What are you doing here?” Elijah repeats his lament how he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But God corrects him. No Elijah, you’re not the only one, there are seven thousand others! Here are your instructions….
Let’s jump about 900 years to the future, when Jesus took three of his disciples up to a mountain in Judea. There he was transfigured and there appeared with him Moses and Elijah! The two men who wished to see God’s glory, God’s presence, finally got their wish, 900 years later in Elijah’s case, 1300 years later in Moses’ case! God does not act on our schedule. But Moses and Elijah finally did get their wish; they got to see the glory of God on earth. Because the glory of God was present in the face and body of Jesus Christ. The feast of Transfiguration is coming on August 6th, and it is one of the most glorious and most beautiful celebrations of the Orthodox Church.
The end of Elijah’s life was unique and beyond anything in the Hebrew scriptures, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha has become Elijah’s trusted disciple. Elisha knows that his master is about to be taken away, so he refuses to leave Elijah’s side. An amazing conversation follows:
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”
Elijah’s question is innocent enough. But Elisha’s answer is anything but typical. A double share of Elijah’s spirit? That would be a very arrogant request if it came from anyone other than the man appointed by God to be Elijah’s disciple and successor. But prophets can speak like this, because they know their lives are not their own and it is God who is at work in everything they do. The “spirit” is the ruah of God, the breath of God that animates and inspires everything the prophets do and say.
Elijah answers Elisha. It is not in his power to grant Elisha’s request. God is in control. If God wants Elisha to succeed Elijah and receive double portion of the spirit. Elisha will witness the ascent of Elijah:
“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
And so it happens. Elisha sees Elijah’s ascent in a fiery chariot. The deed is done; Elisha will receive the double portion and will succeed Elijah as “troubler of Israel.” If Elisha had a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Jesus, of course, had the fulness of the Spirit resting on him. Jesus, too, was a “troubler of Israel.” But he is also the “troubler” of every nation that puts its trust in idols and false prophets; he is troubler of every power and principality that aims to dominate the human spirit.