Meet God’s Prophet of Fire
A Simple, Strange Man
The Bible often provides extensive genealogies and background information on its key players. However, little is known about one particular man’s background—the prophet Elijah. His name can be translated “Yahweh is my God” or “Jehovah is my strength.” This may explain why Elijah typically worked alone; he derived strength from his relationship with God rather than people. We know he was a Tishbite from Gilead (1 Kings 17:1), and Gilead was an area east of the Jordan River. Second Kings 1:8 suggests that he was eccentric and wild in appearance. Beyond that, we know little about the origins of God’s prophet of fire.
Perhaps it is significant that we know nothing of his family; Elijah did not rise to prominence because of his family’s status. No, Elijah was noteworthy because of the calling God placed on his life. God used this average man in a dynamic way. Many have summarized 1 Corinthians 1:26-27 by saying that God doesn’t call the qualified—He qualifies the called. Elijah’s humble origins certainly did not qualify him to defy the king of Israel. The difference was not in his family; the difference was in his faith.
James 5:17 says that this simple, strange man had “a nature like ours,” yet the events of his lifetime were unlike any other. He confronted idolatry, performed miracles, spoke God’s judgment, and changed his world. Over and over, the word of the Lord came to him, and he faithfully responded. The apostle Paul indicates we have a similar ministry: we hold the light of Christ’s Gospel in our hearts. Just as God spoke to Elijah for the benefit of many, He allows His Spirit of truth to reside in us, so that we may proclaim the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:1-7, ESV). He can use anything in this world to share His message, but He chooses to use ordinary people like Elijah and like us.
In one of the darkest hours of his nation’s history, Elijah marched into the ministry of renewal without any introduction.
The Fire Within
Elijah is best known for calling down fire on Mount Carmel and exiting earth in a chariot of fire, but there was fire in his belly as well. He passionately sought God’s glory and the peoples’ repentance (1 Kings 18:36-37). His defiance of Ahab was the boldest confrontation by any prophet since Moses challenged the pharaoh of Egypt.
When Elijah prophesied a drought, he was boldly declaring God’s power over the king’s land and the Canaanite god of storms. It was also an invocation of God’s promise recorded in Leviticus 26, “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season” (verses 3-4). Because the people had not kept God’s commandments, God withdrew His blessing. Israel had forgotten the God of the covenant and had given credit to manmade idols for their prosperity. The drought was the first step toward setting the record straight.
Elijah’s fiery devotion to the Lord kindled his confrontation with Canaan’s gods and Israel’s monarchs.
Preparing for the Fire
After Elijah foretold the impending drought, God sent him into hiding for three years. God and Elijah both knew that a rebellious king like Ahab would not take this kind of assault laying down. It was a dangerous time for Elijah, so God ordained the Brook Cherith and the city of Zarephath to be hiding places for His prophet.
Often, there is great value in facing an enemy, and we grow by trusting in God’s power rather than ours. However, the Bible makes it clear that Elijah’s hiding was not sinful (1 Kings 17:2-3). God told him to hide! Hiding with God is obedient; hiding from God is rebellious. On three different occasions, the psalmist refers to God’s protective hiding:
- Hide me under the shadow of Your wings (Psalm 17:8).
- You shall hide [those who fear and trust You] in the secret place of Your presence from the plots of man; You shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues (Psalm 31:20).
- You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance (Psalm 32:7).
Adam and Jonah are two examples of men who attempted the impossible task of hiding from God (Genesis 3:10; Jonah 1:3).
There are times to be courageous, and there are times of preparation. God’s people must be sensitive to His leading so that they can discern the difference (Matthew 10:16). For Elijah, hiding was God’s way of preparing him. Because he was receptive to God’s Holy Spirit, Elijah recognized God’s instruction, followed God’s itinerary, and experienced God’s intervention.
After confronting the king of Israel, it must have been disappointing for Elijah to find himself hiding near an isolated brook. However, God had great purpose in this. Hiding allowed Elijah to grow in faith and patience. It prepared him for future service. Whenever God is in the process of preparing someone for a great work, He often secludes them for a time. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). God loves to hide His people alone so that He can have their undivided attention.
Elijah’s protection during hiding was dependent upon him being entirely submissive to God’s leading. He had to be in the right place at the right time. Just think, if Elijah had fled to the wrong place, the ravens would not have brought him food, for God instructed the ravens just as He instructed Elijah. When God sent Elijah to Zarephath later, he wouldn’t have found the widow who would help him if he hadn’t followed God’s guidance. There is a lesson for us in this: when God puts us in a place and we are in His will, He meets our needs.
Traveling from the Brook Cherith to Zarephath was an exercise in submission unto its own. Zarephath was one hundred miles northwest of the Brook Cherith and could only be reached by traveling across land crawling with Jezebel’s assassins. In biblical Hebrew, the word Zarephath means “smelting pot,” and that’s a fitting description of Elijah’s journey there. Smelting is a form of metallurgy that melts down ore to separate a base metal from impurities. God refined Elijah by separating him from Israel and sending him to Zarephath. Even though Elijah was God’s prophet, his faith needed testing, and his perspective needed a renewed experience of God’s power. Survival in the land of Sidon required Elijah’s submission to God’s leading.
The Consequences of Incomplete Obedience
Not only was the road to Zarephath treacherous, but also the city itself was a dangerous place for a man of God. It was part of Sidon, which was given to the tribe of Asher when Joshua was instructed to enter in and subdue the land of Canaan (Joshua 19:28). Asher’s tribe was supposed to drive out all the inhabitants. However, Scripture reveals that Asher did not follow this command, so Canaanites remained in the land and continued their pagan worship (Judges 1:31-32). This is significant because Baal worship started in Zarephath. The same god Elijah sought to drive out of Israel was the reigning deity in Elijah’s new hiding place.
Because some of God’s people failed to complete an assignment long ago, the worship of Baal and Asherah continued in Sidon. It resulted in the incomplete conquest of the Promised Land, the incomplete eradication of Baal worship, and the incomplete obedience of future generations of God’s people. We must never believe that partial obedience is enough. In Matthew 7:26, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. Indeed, Asher’s inheritance and spiritual heritage slipped away like a house built on sand. Incomplete submission to God’s leading has unpredictable and sometimes disastrous results.
In this evil environment, Elijah’s obedience shows us what to do when darkness envelops our own lives. It reminds us to trust God when He leads us down unfamiliar paths. God is never going to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8). When He takes us through a valley, it is merely a passageway to a higher place.
Fire on the Mountain
Mount Carmel was the pinnacle of Elijah’s passageway to a higher place. His three-year period of hiding ended with a spectacular showdown against Jezebel’s prophets on top of the mountain (1 Kings 18). In Elijah’s day, the mountain stood between Israel and Phoenicia—between the land of God and the land of Baal. Whenever it rains in Palestine, it rains first at Mount Carmel. The mountain is high enough into the clouds that the moisture collection causes rain to drop on the mountain first. Mount Carmel was the ideal location for a contest between Israel’s God and Canaan’s gods.
The location made sense, but the miracle did not. After three years of drought, it is strange that Elijah would ask God for fire to fall rather than rain. However, Elijah knew the God of fire was also the God of rain. Fire had to descend in wrath before rain could pour down in mercy. Elijah trusted that fire could accomplish what water could not—radical transformation to the hearts of God’s chosen people. Sometimes the last thing we think we need is precisely what God sends.
The God of the Fire
There was an additional purpose in Elijah’s petition for fire: it reminded Israel of the historic connection between God’s ancient people and fire.
- God spoke to Moses through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2).
- The Lord guided Israel by night in a pillar of fire as they traveled to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21).
- God descended upon Mount Sinai in fire when He called Moses to the mountaintop before giving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:18).
- The fire of God consumed the burnt offering at the Tent of Meeting with fire when His glory appeared (Leviticus 9:23:24).
- Fire had been God’s instrument of judgment multiple times: Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction (Genesis 19:24), Egypt’s seventh plague (Exodus 9:24), Israel’s golden-calf idolatry (Exodus 39:20), Nadab and Abihu’s strange fire (Leviticus 10:1), Israel’s complaints at Taberah (Numbers 11:1), Korah’s insubordination (Numbers 16:35), and Jericho’s destruction (Joshua 6:24).
Witnessing God’s power through something as unwanted as fire gave the people an opportunity to respond to God’s holiness before responding to His blessing. Had He immediately supplied rain, which they desperately needed, their response might have been self-serving. By responding to the fire, Israel responded to God apart from blessing.
Strength Made Perfect in Weakness
When we stand tall for the Lord, our enemy is quick to attack from every side, and so it was for Elijah. After one of the most spectacular displays of God’s power in human history, the prophet displayed his human weakness. Unlike his flight to the Brook Cherith, there is no indication in Scripture that Elijah consulted God before fleeing from one angry woman. Elijah was ensnared by his fear of Jezebel and his fear of dying (Proverbs 29:25, NIV). Before the rains came, Ahab saw him as a necessary tool to get the rain back. Once it returned, Elijah knew he was no longer necessary. When Elijah took his eyes off the Lord and started looking at his circumstances, fear replaced his faith.
The Object of Elijah’s Faith
Elijah’s story reminds us of the apostle Peter. Peter courageously stepped out of a perfectly good boat to walk on a stormy sea at Jesus’ command, but he quickly lost focus. The Bible says, “When he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:30) Elijah’s fiery display on Mount Carmel and Peter’s walk on water showcase God’s strength that is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Elijah and Peter did not possess supernatural faith; they placed their weak faith in a supernatural God.
Elijah lost faith when his people were on the threshold of revival. Feelings of failure replaced his victory. Had he truly failed? Not exactly. John Maxwell, a leadership expert, has said, “To accept failure as final is to finally be a failure.” Failure is a state of mind. If the devil can get you to think that you have failed when you’re in the process of long-term success, he has neutralized you and accomplished his purpose in your life. The good news is God did not give up on Elijah, and God will not give up on us.
With his frustration tank full and his emotional gauge on empty, Elijah fled to Beersheba and then the wilderness (1 King 19:1-4). Fatigue makes cowards of us all, and Elijah’s fatigue overwhelmed him. He had outrun a chariot over the course of seventeen miles from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel. Then he ran more than 75 additional miles to Beersheba. He was exhausted and disappointed. Elijah was about to learn that a victory in one battle is simply a prelude to the next battle.
Elijah’s Unanswered Prayer
When he finally finished running, Elijah sat under a broom tree and prayed his fourth prayer recorded in Scripture—he asked to die. Why? “I am no better than my fathers,” he moaned (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah had spent three years preparing for Mount Carmel. He was not prepared for what came after, and he had set personal standards that God Himself does not require. God granted Elijah’s first three prayers. . . but not this one.
Elijah did not die that day. In fact, he never died! He was taken to heaven in a whirlwind. God knew Elijah’s emotions were out of touch with reality. He knew Elijah needed rest. Aren’t you glad God sifts our prayers and interprets them with His perfect wisdom? And through the process of filtering, sometimes God just ignores us because He knows we don’t know what we’re talking about.
God heard Elijah’s prayer, but He knew better than to answer it. In his cave of self-pity, Elijah focused on facts that made his situation seem worse than it was. Those facts revealed his heart. Elijah’s pity party reminds us that allowing the enemy to sow seeds of doubt and discouragement and failure in our lives opens our minds to a counterfeit reality. Discouragement selects its own facts. Anything other than the total truth is untruth.
The Root of Elijah’s Discouragement
In 1 Kings 19:14, there are four half-truths Elijah chose to believe.
- He was zealous for the Lord . . . until he panicked under the persecution of Queen Jezebel.
- The Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant . . . until the victory on Mount Carmel.
- He was the only prophet left . . . except for Obadiah and his one hundred hideaways.
- It was him against the world . . . or, rather, Jezebel. He suggested the whole nation was trying to kill him when, in fact, it was only the queen. “By turning a queen into an entire kingdom, the prophet was magnifying his troubles, nursing his sense of self-pity.”4
Trial often follows triumph: to know tough times are coming is to be armed and ready. The opposite is also true: the depth of the valley is often a promise of the height of blessing to come. We can anticipate the path through a dark valley will rise toward an elevated scene, a place where God will bless us. Valleys are always defined by the high places that surround them. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the greatest preachers in history, yet he acknowledged valleys of depression in his life and ministry. “Depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing.”5 Spurgeon could not avoid the doldrums, but He trusted God for better times ahead.
When we get discouraged and depressed, sometimes we need to be physically reinvigorated, or we need a good counselor. Other times, we need to find our own Mount Horeb, our own cave, and be alone with our Bibles and with our God. We need to shut out our distractions while we invite Him into our mess. Discouragement is an opportunity to draw near to God, lean into His counsel, and search our hearts.
The Still, Small Voice
Elijah faltered. He ran out of hope, yet God never failed him. When Elijah felt defeated and alone, God did not thunder into his life with booming condemnation. Instead, God sent angels to minister to him. Then, He whispered a new assignment that involved anointing three men who would help complete the job God had given to Elijah. This has been interpreted different ways, but it is as if God said, “It’s all right, Elijah. I know you’re tired. I’ll get somebody else to finish up.” For as long as we are on this earth, God will have work for us to do. However, God’s new plan for Elijah demonstrates that we are not indispensable to His plans. He will raise up someone else if we do not complete our assignments—but why would we want to miss out on the blessing of being involved? Elijah continued to serve the Lord by prophesying and training Elisha (1 Kings 19:21), but the other three men completed the work of removing Baal worship from Israel.
In a world filled with noise, we must choose to hear the still, small voice of God. This means we are probably going to have to get some of the noise out of our lives. We must turn off some things and turn down others. When someone whispers, if we really want to hear, we must lean in to it. When was the last time you leaned in to hear God’s whisper?
God’s prophet of fire accomplished amazing things through the quiet, behind-the-scenes working of God in his life. He prayed earnestly (James 5:16-18), and it was God who prepared him to stand on the mountain with his hands held up high in victory. Elijah’s ministry is an example of how the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Long before he was in public, Elijah was privately before God.
Elijah’s commitment to prayer is a lesson for us today. After fire descended on the mountain, Elijah heard the sound of rain before it was seen . . . before there was a cloud in the sky.
Elijah may have succumbed to fear at times, but he had many courageous moments throughout his public ministry. He wasn’t even deterred when God delayed sending rain after his victory on Mount Carmel; he persistently prayed seven times. After the seventh prayer, there was only a small cloud in the distance when he instructed Ahab to prepare his chariot and leave before the rain stopped him. He trusted God would not only send rain, but also He would send overwhelming rain (1 Kings 18:44).
It would have been easy for Elijah to become puffed up with pride and glorify himself rather than God, but he knew better. His famous feats were born out of private time with God. His most public miracle, calling down heaven’s fire on that mountain, resulted in people praising God, rather than him (1 Kings 18:39). We must realize that God’s reputation is far more important than any recognition we may receive. Throughout his ministry, Elijah always honored God first. If we follow that example, we can live in the spirit and power of this prophet.
1Quoted in J. Oswald Sanders, Bible Men of the Faith (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1970), 127.
2Neil T. Anderson and Rich Miller, Freedom From Fear (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), 25.
3Adapted from William J. Petersen, Meet Me on the Mountain (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1979), 103.
4Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Kings (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2011), Kindle edition.
5C.H. Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” from Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), 155-156. 6R.T. Kendall, These Are the Days of Elijah (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 105.