Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-18
We can find material in this passage to engage almost any identity we find within us. Our inner pastoral counselor can explore Elijah’s feelings and his reaction to the threat on his life. Our inner prophet can recognize the risk of speaking a word from God to those who wrap themselves in power. Our inner theologian can reflect on the theophany to Elijah in the wilderness. Our inner feminist can employ a hermeneutic of suspicion about the portrayal of Jezebel. Any of these approaches can open up the text and reveal preaching possibilities.
Most of us do not have training as clinicians, precluding our diagnosis of Elijah’s “depression.” Psychologizing a text can put us on dangerous ground, but in this case, we have much information about Elijah. The narrator tells us he feels fear. He feels in such a spiritual/emotional funk that he contemplates death. Isolated and cut off from the community, he exaggerates his situation, declaring himself completely alone, even though the narrator tells us that thousands stand in solidarity with him. Using self-effacing comments, he devalues himself as “no better than my ancestors.” Even though these components sound like the symptoms of depression, we stand on safer ground talking about Elijah’s sadness, vulnerability, and humanness.
Starting in chapter 17, the narrator presents Elijah as a complex character. He speaks boldly to King Ahab; he feels connected to God; he ministers confidently to the widow. With all of the talk of joy and rejoicing in the church, the reminder that life can wear down even the strongest servant of God can provide a pastoral word. Elijah eats, sleeps, and practices self-care, but still struggles with his feelings. A pastoral word about the complexity of sadness, and the assurance that sadness hits all people, even the ones who follow the typical advice, can bring a healing word to those who struggle with sadness, and truly have the diagnosis of depression.
Elijah, the “troubler of Israel” (18:19), demonstrates the risk that a prophet takes. He has challenged Ahab, and paid the price. His experience in chapter 19 reminds one of the dangers faced by modern-day prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr. reported his ordeal from a late-night telephone call during the Montgomery bus boycott. The voice on the other end threatened and insulted him, causing him insomnia. He felt the temptation to step away from his leadership role, but feared appearing cowardly. Moving from the bedroom to the kitchen, he drank coffee and prayed. The response to his prayer came in the form of a feeling of the Divine presence. A reassuring inner voice promised God’s support. Even after the bombing of his home shortly after the experience, he felt a sense of peace.1 One can find intriguing parallels between King’s experience and Elijah’s: the threat, the temptation to quit, and God’s affirmation in a quiet voice.
We might also think of the grief Archbishop Romero felt over the death of his friend, Father Grande. Those in power seek to silence the prophet, whether by assassination, intimidation, or discrediting. Prophets do not choose suffering, but choose to stand up against injustice and abuse of power. That decision to stand up leads to attempts to silence them, and to persecution.
Within this passage and 1 Kings generally, Jezebel represents the unyielding power against which Elijah prophesies. She issues the threat. Her name has come to represent a scheming, manipulative, untrustworthy woman, even in an Elvis song. Within the narrative world of 1 Kings, one does not find many redeeming characteristics. Feminist scholars rightly approach this portrayal with suspicion. The preacher should resist the attempt to lay blame for all of Ahab’s problems or the problems of Israel at Jezebel’s feet. Both men and women can play the role of the authority figure who seeks to stop a prophet. Amaziah fills that role in Amos 7.
Before this episode in the wilderness, Elijah showed courage and brought life (17:21). He spoke with authority both to Ahab (17:1) and to the widow of Zarephath (17:13-16). Elijah’s close connection to God (17:2) enabled him to fulfill the prophetic and pastoral role. He demonstrates that servants do not have to choose one role or the other.
The divine reaction to Elijah’s flight to the cave naturally evokes reflection. The narrator describes the wind as a force beyond nature: breaking apart stones and even mountains. An earthquake followed the wind, and finally came fire. The narrator famously declares that the Lord was not in any of these examples of power.
The reader might assume that God caused each event, but was somehow not “in” the events. These events represent typical ways that God became manifest (Psalm 18:12-15, Judges 5:4-5, Exodus 3:2). The narrator does not reveal the purpose of the three events. They each display God’s power, as had the famine and subsequent rain earlier in the cycle. The narrator does not say if the events should have convinced Elijah of God’s power greater than the forces that threatened him.
Typically, readers, especially preachers, assume that God was in the quiet event that happened third. Translators struggle to render these words. Do they convey complete silence, or a soft sound/voice/whisper? The narrator does not say explicitly that God was “in” the quiet. Nevertheless, after all four events, Elijah comes out of the cave, so that God could speak to him. Elijah then responds in action.
This narrative offers encouragement to those who feel any sense of despair about God’s presence in their ministry. The text shows remarkable insight into the experience of dejection. Preachers should use this text carefully to show empathy toward those feeling discouraged at lack of progress in any kind of ministry. God continues to offer power, and communicates in quiet ways as well as dramatic ways. God shows understanding and patience for Elijah’s despair, even though he acts irrationally, by assuming he is alone. God sends him back into action.
- Found in the sermon “Our God is Able,” in Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 113-114.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Although you can make your presence known in a mighty wind, or an earthquake, or a fire, you often speak to us in the sound of sheer silence. Help us to hear. Amen.
Holy is the true light, William Harris
Give us the wings of faith, Ernest Bullock