13th Sunday Ordinary Time – Prophets, Pairs and Yokes

Elijah throwing his mantle on Elisha by Charles Foster, 1873, from Wikimedia

June 30, 2019
1 Kings 19:16b – 19-21

The relationship between the prophets Elijah and Elisha speaks to us as disciples and apostles almost 3,000 years later. To understand it however, we must take a step back from this scene and see how the Lord worked among his people in their day.

By the opening of this chapter (1Kings 19) Elijah has defeated and killed the prophets of the pagan god Baal. This has infuriated Ahaz, the king of Judah, but more intensely his wife Jezebel. Ahaz had repudiated the Lord, worshiped other gods and lived a dissolute life. The royal couple determine to kill Elijah, and he flees to a land outside of Ahaz’s control.

When Elijah feels that the immediate danger has passed, he falls down exhausted and begs God to kill him: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” ( 1 Kings 19:4)

An angel awakes and feeds him, and after he falls asleep again, he feeds him a second time. After he was strengthened, the angel told him to prepare himself for a journey.

8 He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.  1 Kings 19:8

Mt. Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai where the Lord first spoke to the shepherd Moses in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3) and where later he gave him the Ten Commandments. It was a place of revelation of the Lord and commitment to Him: 2 The LORD, our God, made a covenant with us at Horeb (Deuteronomy 5:2 (NAB)) The reference 40 is of course, among other instances, the number of years the people wandered in the desert to get to the Promised Land.

When Elijah reaches Horeb he finds a cave and the Lord speaks to him:, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 10 He answered: “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” 1 Kings 19:9–10

The Lord does not answer him directly but tells him:

11 Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake there was fire—but the LORD was not in the fire. 1 Kings 19:11–13

“Passing by” is a technical expression for a king revealing himself to his people as leader. There are still royal processions in monarchies today. They are usually a time for great pageantry and splendor and so it was in the Old Testament and no more so than on Mt. Horeb/Sinai. The Lord spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush and we know of the lightning, thunder and clouds at the time of the giving of the Law. Something spectacular was expected. Yet, the Lord was not in any of these:

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.

13 When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?” 1 Kings 19:13–14

The Lord does not have to meet our expectations, nor does he have to repeat his actions. He has an infinite repertoire. He will use only Elijah and Elishia against a king and his army.

Elijah immediately starts to complain:

14 He replied, “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. But the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” 1 Kings 19:15–16

At the very least the Lord is abrupt with Elijah. He has proven himself a very faithful and courageous servant and the Lord does not even listen to his complaints. He immediately tells him:

15 “Go, take the road back to the desert near Damascus,” the LORD said to him. “When you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king of Aram.

16 Then you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as prophet to succeed you. 1 Kings 19:15–16

This is important on several levels: It is to be expected that Elijah would anoint the king of Israel and his successor as prophet. That he is to anoint the king of Aram is significant. This is a foreign land. The Lord is showing that he has power everywhere over everyone. He is not just a local god.

The Lord intends to purify his people of those who have done evil and he expects the pruning to be significant:

17 If anyone escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill him. If he escapes the sword if Jehu, Elisha will kill him. 1 Kings 19:17 (NAB)

He will leave a remnant of 7,000 because He never forgets His promise to David.

Yet there is also a more personal dimension.

We have seen that the Lord’s response to Elisha’s plight was to send him on a mission; indeed, a very dangerous one that required him to go back into land controlled by Ahaz and Jezebel. Where was his concern for Elijah as a person?

We see the same pattern with Elisha. He was obviously well to do with 12 yoke (pair) of oxen, and yet he tells him to give up everything to accept the hard life of the prophet. He accepts and asks only to kiss his parents goodbye. But look at his action. He slaughtered the oxen and used his plow for fuel to provide a feast for his people. He literally burned his bridges behind him, and then this well-off man “followed Elijah to serve him”.

Not a word of thanks or even recognition from the Lord.

Perhaps not in words, but for life to be meaningful and to have weight and substance, it is necessary to think and act beyond oneself. For us this must begin with worship, placing ultimate trust and loyalty in the God who acts in history. This is the way to happiness: it is not God who should thank us, but we who should thank Him.