Have you ever been so confused that you didn’t know up from down, black from white, in from out? Have you ever forgotten someone’s name? I’m sure we’ve all done that. However, I’m not talking about someone we’ve only met once or twice. I’m talking about someone we really know—a person whose name we ought to remember. I’ll admit, that’s been me on more than one occasion!
Now that is being confused. We could think of other examples of confusion, unless we’re too confused to do so.
In 1 Kings 19, we catch someone in his own state of confusion, the prophet Elijah. We’ll get to that later on.
Here’s a bit of the back-story. Ahab is king, and Jezebel is his foreign wife. Her father is a priest of the goddess Astarte. Astarte, also known as Asherah, is the consort, the companion, of Baal. At this time, the land is experiencing a terrible drought. Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, says the rain will come only when he gives the word. The priests of Baal can call on their god all they want. Only the prophet of Yahweh can announce the end of this vicious drought.
In chapter 18, we have a quite bloody scene. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to see which god can burn up the sacrificial offering which has been laid out. When fire from heaven descends and consumes the offering, Elijah is proven right. In a moment that can only be called zealous, he has the other prophets put to death.
But before all the butchery, there is a note of humor! While the prophets of Baal are crying out to their god, Elijah decides to be a comedian. He says, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Some translations, instead of “he has wandered away,” have “he is relieving himself,” or he “is out sitting on the toilet”! (New Living Translation, Living Bible)
So basically, that is what’s been going on as we get to chapter 19.
The king lets the queen know what Elijah has done. To say that Jezebel is displeased with Elijah would be an understatement. She sends a messenger to tell the prophet, “You’re a dead man.”
So, on the heels of his greatest victory, Elijah takes to his heels! He has defeated the prophets of Baal; the rains have returned at his word, but he is scared for his life. He takes off, and not only does he take off; he leaves the country. Elijah flees all the way to Beer-sheba, about one hundred miles away, in the southern kingdom of Judah.
Something to understand about Elijah is he is considered perhaps the foremost of the prophets. For example, in the book of Malachi, his return is expected. “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5-6). Receive his family counseling or else!
On the nights when the Passover seder is observed, a chair is always left empty for Elijah.
In the New Testament, Jesus says Elijah has come in the person of John the Baptist. This is right after he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the Transfiguration occurs, and Moses and Elijah have had a little conversation with Jesus (Mt 17).
So Elijah winds up with some hefty credentials!
Very briefly, he leaves his servant in Beer-sheba, and strikes off alone into the wilderness where he finds “a solitary broom tree,” also known as a juniper tree (v. 4). He lies down, ready to die. An angel visits, giving him food and water, and lets him know he must continue his journey. Elijah travels “forty days and forty nights,” symbolic in the Bible of a very long time (v. 8).
He takes refuge in a cave at Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9). Here’s his response. It’s rather lengthy, and we’ll hear it again. “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” (v. 10).
What are you doing here?
On the face of it, the answer seems obvious. He just woke up; he had been asleep. Of course, that’s not really the question. Aside from the “here,” there’s the desire to know, “why are you here”? Putting a finer point on it, we might see it as, “Why did you run from Jezebel?” Why were you afraid? Why did you fear?
Is it possible that the full weight of hearing a death sentence pronounced shook his resolve? Does it make it more real?
The Lord tells Elijah to take his place on the mountain, as Moses did centuries earlier, because there’s about to be a divine visitation. Where is the Lord? A storm arrives, leaving destruction in its wake. But no, the Lord isn’t there. Then there’s an earthquake, shaking up the place, sending boulders loose. After that, a raging fire breaks out, filling the sky with smoke. Still, neither one is a sign of God’s presence.
After all the drama—after the blowing, shaking, and burning—there is an eerie stillness. Remember if there’s anyone who can appreciate spectacle, it’s Elijah. We are introduced to him just as he’s going to confront the king regarding the drought. And of course, there’s the high drama when he faces the prophets of Baal.
As verse 12 puts it, there was “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” The King James Version has the familiar “after the fire a still small voice.”
“When Elijah heard it…” He heard in the quiet of the hush. He listened to the absence of sound. Elijah… Elijah… Elijah!
“What are you doing here?”
I said earlier Elijah has his own state of confusion. This, I would submit, is evidence of such. I also would submit there’s a bit of speculation on my part!
What is Elijah’s response? “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” (v. 14). Wait, haven’t we heard that before?
Elijah repeats his previous answer verbatim. (Here’s more speculation.) It seems to be rehearsed. Does he have nothing else to say? Is he making excuses? Could he be trying to prove his worth? Is he trying to convince himself of something? Is he trying to convince the Lord?
Thinking of Elijah’s repeated answer as a narrative as to where he is, I wonder if there’s a narrative I hold onto? Do I have a story I repeat to deflect those kinds of questions and concerns? Why am I here? Why do I run, not necessarily from Jezebel, but from whatever? Why do I fear? Are there excuses I make?
However, more importantly, whose am I? To whom do I belong?
In the collected Letters and Papers from Prison, there is a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which he wrote about nine months before being executed by the Nazis. He was killed mere weeks before his prison camp was liberated by the Allies. Here are the final lines of the poem, titled “Who am I?”
“Who am I? This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? / Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling? / Or is something within me like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”
And then, those final words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”
The Lord answers Elijah. The Lord gives him a mission. He is to be a kingmaker: Hazael in Aram and Jehu in Israel. As his protégé, he is to anoint Elisha.
To Elijah, the Lord affirms, you are my prophet. You are my servant. However, you aren’t the only faithful one. Verse 18 says, “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.” That’s both a comfort and a correction.
The Lord uses the language of “kiss,” with all the intimacy and consequences it carries. Every mouth that has not kissed Baal. The faithful ones have not given themselves to this foreign god, this false god. They have not pledged their allegiance. They have not promised their hearts.
We should take note: in Hebrew thought, “heart” is not the seat of emotion. It is not where we feel love, the way we reckon it. It is the source of attention, choice, concern, imagination, understanding. It is where we love God and love our neighbor. Pledging ourselves to a false god, to an idol, interferes with all of that. Indeed, it sends it in the wrong direction.
We have here a tale of rediscovery. Despite his protests to the contrary, Elijah’s actions reveal he has forgotten he is a prophet of God. He flees in disorder from victory already achieved. Elijah is reminded who he is. True to his nature as one with a flair for the dramatic, when he ascends from the earth, he does so in a chariot of fire.
So often, we forget who we are. As the children of God, as the saved of our Lord Jesus Christ, as those sustained by the Holy Spirit—when we remember that and act on it—confusion is set aside. Harmony and order are set in place.
Though we might flee in disorder from victory already achieved, Jesus makes us more than conquerors.
What are you doing here?
Whatever I am doing, whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.
 the word for “wander” is שִֺיג, sig
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 348.