Woe Is Me -- Elijah's Lament -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2C (1 Kngs 19)
19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 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. 9 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?” 10 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.”
11 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 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?” 14 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.” 15 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.
We have moved through the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and now we begin the long journey that takes us to Advent. This season, which is nearly six months in duration (and marked by the color green) is called, by some, ordinary time. I don’t care for this designation, so I tend to count the Sundays after Pentecost. I don’t know that any moment in time is ordinary, though there are moments, like Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost that stand out, but each Sunday has its own value. During this season there usually two choices for the first reading, all coming from the Hebrew Bible. I will normally be commenting on the semi-continuous texts, rather than the paired texts. The first of these texts is taken from 1 Kings 19, which picks up immediately following Elijah’s encounter with and triumph over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. That encounter is both exciting and off-putting. It’s always good to hear that God triumphs, but the killing of the prophets of Baal—that’s not so enticing. Such violence doesn’t fit well with our sensibilities. In fact, it serves as a reminder of the tendency of religions in general and Christianity in particularity to enforce doctrinal and moral compliance with the threat of violence. At the same time, it represents the reality of the cycle of violence that is so present in our world. However, this is the background to the reading from 1 Kings 19. In fact, the prophet Elijah seems to take pride in his act of violence, which he believes cleansed the land of religious pollution (the prophets of Baal). Now it should be noted that Jezebel, Queen of Israel, had been attempting a purge of the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:4). This appears to be the way religious differences were handled back then. But despite his victory, it appears that Elijah is feeling depressed. He did his job, but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.
When we come to chapter 19 of 1 Kings, having already watched as God answered Elijah’s prayer and had sent fire from heaven to consume the offering, something Baal could not do, the wrath of Jezebel is unleashed against him. When King Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done at Mount Carmel, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah threatening to do to him, what he had done to her prophets. Thus, the cycle of violence would continue, and truth be told, it continues into the present. When Elijah received this message he fled for his life, traveling to Beer-Sheba, in the neighboring country of Judah. He was safe, for now, unless Jezebel could get an extradition order for his arrest. Though he was safe, he felt depressed. He felt as if, despite his efforts, nothing had changed, and so he left his assistant in the town and headed out into the Wilderness (desert). He was ready to give up and even die. Why go on? He had no purpose.
He lay down in the desert and went to sleep (perhaps hoping not to wake up), but as he slept he was visited by an angel (I’m not sure why verses 5-7 are considered optional, as they detail the angelic vision). The angel had laid out food and water and commanded him to get up and eat. He did so, then went back to sleep. The angel woke him up and told him once more to eat, so he would have strength for forty days and nights (presumably a time of fasting as well as journeying). This time instructions were given. He needed to eat so he could make the journey to Mount Horeb, the holy mountain in the Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush. He traveled to Mount Horeb, where he entered a cave and spent the night. You can see here parallels to the story of Moses. Moses had to flee, and it was in the desert of Sinai, on this mountain, that God appeared to Moses and spoke to him (Exodus 3:1-6). It was here that Moses received his commission. It would be here that Elijah would hear from God.
The Lord spoke to Elijah, asking him why he was there. Elijah responded by reminding God of what he had done. He was zealous for the Lord. He’d torn down the altars to foreign gods and put to death the prophets of these gods. Now, he alone was left, and his enemies are after him, seeking to put him to death. Elijah is not in a good place. He feels abandoned. He’d done what he thought God wanted, but to what end. Sometimes we feel that way. We may not have torn down altars, or thankfully killed prophets, but we’ve given our all, and don’t have much to show for it. It’s one of the reasons so many clergy hang it up before they reach five years of service. Where is the fruit of one’s efforts? Where is the appreciation?
Burnout is a common concern among clergy. It’s one reason why pastorates tend to be short. Clergy give their all and then within a few years, feel as if they have nothing left to give to the congregation. So, it’s time to move—either to a new congregation where one can start over or to another vocation. Elijah is feeling it. He’s been battling in Israel for Yahweh for countless years. While he might have a token success here or there, the status quo remains in place, and the people simply don’t seem to care.
God responds to Elijah’s laments (and those of contemporary clergy, perhaps), but sending him out of the cave so he can experience the presence of God. The Lord promises to pass by, but what will be the form of that presence? First Elijah experiences a mighty wind, so mighty it splits mountains and breaks apart rocks. I’ve experienced some big winds, but nothing like that. Even hurricanes and tornados don’t split mountains. Nevertheless, despite the power of the wind, God is not present in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake either. Both the wind and the quake suggest power and might. Though different in its makeup, God wasn’t present in the fire either. This is fascinating because the Pentecost story suggests that the Spirit came as a mighty wind and baptized with fire. But at least here, wind, quakes, and fire, are not markers of God’s presence, even though that likely was what Elijah expected (or something like it). It’s what we tend to expect as well. Our God is an awesome God, is that not true?
So how is God is present? The reading suggests that the fire was followed by “sheer silence” or as the Tanakh puts it, as “a soft murmuring sound.” This is the opposite of power, and yet this is how God chose to be revealed. Of course, the Gospels recount the story of Jesus, the revelation of God, who reveals God’s presence in and through the cross—not something one would expect of God.
I don’t know if Elijah isn’t all that impressed with this show of God’s presence. He does cover himself with his mantle (cloak), so maybe he got a bit of a scare, from the wind, quake, and fire, but then there’s the quietness. So, maybe he’s a bit underwhelmed because he goes back to his complaints in response to God’s question: “why are you here?” Elijah’s answer is simple: I was zealous for the cause. I did everything I was supposed to do, but here I am, alone with a death warrant set out for me. That’s why Elijah has gone out to the desert—not to meet God but to flee God’s call, which doesn’t seem to have made a difference.
How does God respond? God kicks Elijah in the backside and tells him to get back in the game. Go back to where you came from and along the way stop in Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Damascus, and from there go and anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Set up a rival regime in the nations. While you’re at it, anoint Elisha as your successor. It’s time for change—politically and spiritually. The kings of Damascus and Israel had their chance, but they failed, and so it’s time for another. As for Elijah, he still has work to do, but it’s also time to prepare another to take up the mantle. In the end, all who bow to Baal will fall to the sword. That is the task set before Elijah. Oh, and by the way, you’re not alone Elijah. There are seven thousand in Israel who haven’t bowed to Baal.
The word to us as the people of God is the same. Even when things look bleak, we’re not alone. There are others who are steadfast in the faith. So, get back out there. Don’t lose faith. Trust in the Lord who is present not only in the quakes and fire but in silence as well. Now, none of this is meant to downplay the realities of burnout, stress, and a sense of aloneness that many clergy feel. I know I’ve felt it. I’ve had my moments of depression over the years. So, I understand. There are times to walk away. On the other hand, there are times to persevere—in the Spirit, of course. It is good to know, we’re not alone.
Picture Attribution: Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46988 [retrieved June 17, 2019]. Original source: http://yorckproject.de.