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April 22, 2012

 Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”  1 Kings 17:1

Leaders are people who set out on a journey and take others with them. Today I want to introduce you to two leaders who moved in very different directions.  Ahab took a journey of rebellion against God and thousands of people went with him.

Elijah chose a different path; a journey of obedience to God.  He found himself out on a limb, out of line with the culture.  It felt like an uphill struggle.  He found it lonely.  At times he felt exhausted from constantly swimming against the tide.  If you’re a Christian today, you’re probably experiencing this in some way, shape or form.

Ahab and Elijah were both leaders of vast influence.  They chose different paths.  They led people in different directions, and their lives had extraordinarily different outcomes.

We begin with Ahab: The pattern in the book of Kings is to give a headline summary of each king, followed by a more detailed description of the key decisions or events in his life.

The account of Ahab begins here: “In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years” (1 Kings 16:29).

Twenty two years is a long time—an entire generation—that this man was on the throne.  Previous reigns had been much shorter.  Other kings had been deposed.  But not Ahab; he was around for a long time.  He brought political stability and with it came economic prosperity.

But look at what God says about him, “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30).

More than all who were before him!

Notice, the same thing is said about Ahab’s father Omri: “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:25).

Omri did more evil than anyone before him, but when his son Ahab came to the throne, he went even further.  Evil went from bad to worse under the leadership of Ahab.  The Baptist preacher R. G. Lee memorably described Ahab as, “The vilest toad ever to squat on the throne of Israel.”

Our Lord Jesus spoke about two roads—a narrow road that leads to life and a broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7), and there are many people on it.  Ahab was on the broad road, and the vast majority of those who would have called themselves God’s people were there with him.

What does it look like to progress further and further down the broad road?  Let’s look at the steps on Ahab’s journey…

Ahab’s Journey

  1. He broke the commandment of God

He took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him.  1 Kings 16:31

When God’s people entered the Promised Land, He gave them a clear command that they were not to marry, under any circumstances, people who worshiped idols (see Deuteronomy 7:3).

The issue here is not interracial marriage.  We know that because Ruth, a Moabitess who took refuge under the wings of the Lord, married Boaz, and took her place in the line of Christ.

God smiles on the marriage of a man and a woman of a different race when they marry in the Lord.  But God speaks clearly to His own people about entering marriage with someone who does submit to Him.

Ahab paid no attention to that.  What did he care about old books written hundreds of years before his time?  He would have said he was dealing with political realities.  Assyria was growing in power and Ahab reckoned that the ten tribes of Israel needed a strong ally to bolster their defense.

The Sidonians seemed to be the answer, and what better way to cement an alliance with them than for him to marry the crown princess, the daughter of Ethbaal, whose name was Jezebel.  So that is what Ahab did.

Ahab came to the throne about sixty years after the death of Solomon.  He was the seventh king in line after that terrible schism in which ten of the twelve tribes declared independence from the line of David’s descendants.

Vast changes had taken place in just over half a century, “For Ahab it seemed like a light thing to walk in the sins of Jeroboam” (1 Kings 16:31).

Sins that had seemed shocking to one generation had come to seem light and trivial to the next.

Older people, who could remember the days of Solomon, must have looked back and wondered, “What in the world happened in our nation?

Have you ever wondered that about our nation?

Ahab’s Journey

  1. He subverted the worship of God

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal which he built in Samaria.  1 Kings 16:32

Solomon built a temple for the Lord.  Now, just sixty years after his death,  Ahab builds a house of Baal, and inside, an altar for Baal.

No one who takes the Bible seriously can say that all religions are different ways of saying the same thing, or that that all religions are ways of coming to the same God by a different route.  There is one God, and Baal is not God.

In the first commandment, God says “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  What does that mean?  There is only one God, but because our nature is to rebel against Him, we invent other gods who fit comfortably with our pleasures.

What is the second commandment?  “You shall not make for yourselves an idol” (Exodus 20:4).  It’s interesting how sin progresses in a culture.  When the ten tribes in the north separated from the two tribes in the south, Jeroboam wanted to stop his people from going to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, so he set up his own places of worship in Dan and Bethel.

Jeroboam made a golden calf for each location, and then he said, “These are your gods who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28).  “We are worshipping the same God, but we do it in our own place and we do it in our own way.”

Ahab goes a step further.  He doesn’t even pretend to worship God.  He builds a house for Baal, “We’re going to worship in a contemporary, new way. We’re done with the Bible.”  Not only does he break the second commandment; he breaks the first as well.  Ahab felt he had the freedom to choose his own god as well as his own lifestyle.

Ahab’s Journey

  1. He provoked the anger of God
    Ahab did more to provoke the Lord… to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 1 Kings 16:33

The word “provoke” is important.  Anger is not God’s natural state.  The pagans believed in gods who were angry by nature.  The Bible tells us that God is love.  That is His nature.  He doesn’t have to be provoked to love; He is love.  The Bible never says that God is anger, but God hates evil, and when men pursue evil He is provoked to anger.

But even then, the Bible tells us that God is slow to anger.  In spite of this, Ahab set out on a sustained pursuit of evil, and “He did more to provoke the Lord to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  

Ahab’s Journey

  1. He ignored the warning of God

In his days, Hiel of Bethel built Jericho.  1 Kings 16:34

What is the significance of this?  Back in the book of Joshua, we read about the mighty act of God in which he caused the walls of Jericho to fall down.  After that great victory, Joshua gave an instruction from God that no one was to rebuild the city…

Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city,   

     Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at

     the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates.”  Joshua 6:26

Nothing could be clearer than this.  There is a commandment of God not to rebuild this city: “Any man who rebuilds this city will be cursed before the Lord.”  God says, “On no account is anyone to rebuild this city.”

But what does a man like Ahab care about that? “Old documents, written hundreds of years ago, about a city whose walls fell down at the blowing of trumpets. Who believes that anymore?”  Ahab had turned from giving any weight to the Word of God.  There was money to be made in a place like Jericho, so Ahab commissioned this man Hiel to rebuild the city.

So Hiel turns up with the construction crew.  They pour the foundation, and Hiel’s first son dies.  You would think that might have made him stop, but on he goes.  They build the walls and set up the gates.  Then his second son dies.  What a tragedy.

You can read later how God redeemed this rebuilt city from the curse it was under.  The story is here to tell us how far God’s people had come, from fearing the Lord and taking His Word seriously.

In the time of Ahab, the people saw the books of Moses as just words, God talk.  They felt that God was passive—they could do what they wanted and nothing would happen.  Do you see this in our world today?  People think God is only in people’s minds, not a living reality.

This is a story of the progress of evil in a person’s life, and in a society.  It begins with disobeying the command of God.  It continues by subverting the worship of God—if this god does not suit us, we will reshape god in our own image.  It intensifies in provoking the anger as God and it ends up with men and women ignoring the warnings of God.

As I’ve meditated on this, it’s clear to me that our beloved nation is on the same path.  We define our own morality and choose our own gods.  God says “I Am who I Am,” but instead of bowing before Him and believing God is who He says He is, we redefine God, and we act as if God is who we say He is.

What does God do when a culture is charging down the broad road?

He raises up men and women who walk on the narrow path.  And that is what God did in Elijah.

 

Elijah’s Journey

 

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”  1 Kings 17:1

Elijah just appears on the scene.  We’re not told anything about his father, his mother or his background.  We know very little about Tishbe, the place he’s from, but Elijah is God’s man.  God brings out His brightest light in the hardest place at the darkest time.  If you find yourself in a hard place at a dark time, do not be surprised at this.  This is the way God works.

One writer says…

“To see Elijah appear like this, unexpected and unheralded, reminds us that we need not despair when we see great movements of evil achieving spectacular success on this earth.

 

We can be sure that God, in unexpected places, has already secretly prepared his counter movement…

 

Therefore the situation is never hopeless where God is concerned.  At the height of the triumph of evil, God is there, ready with His man and His movement and His plans to ensure that His own cause will never fail.” [1]

Try to imagine the scene.  We are not told that Elijah spoke to the king in his palace, but that seems like the most natural place.  How did he pull this off?  There must have been all kinds of security there.  I don’t suppose the king was sitting there waiting to welcome visitors.

Can you imagine Elijah waking up one day and saying, “Today is the day I’m going to tell the truth to the king?”  Somehow Elijah arrives in Samaria, gets into the presence of the king and says, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

One man who is going in a different direction in a darkening culture—where did he find that kind of courage?

Elijah’s Journey

  1. He stood in the presence of God

As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand… 1 Kings 17:1

What does it mean to stand before the Lord?  Picture the palace as Elijah walks up to Ahab.  Around the room there are servants, and they are waiting to do whatever the king commands.

The driver of Ahab’s chariot stands before him ready to move at his word.

The waiter stands before Ahab, ready to serve food or drink at the movement of his finger.  All round the room the king’s servants stand before him ready at any moment to respond to his direction.

Elijah looks round the room at the men and women who stand before Ahab, and he says “I stand before the Lord.”  To stand before the Lord means to come to the place where you are ready, available, and responsive to whatever He commands you to do.  In the darkness, we need men and women who are standing before the Lord.  Is that you?

Elijah’s Journey

  1. He believed the Word of God

What could Elijah do?  Here is one man, surrounded by a tide of evil, more flagrant than in any previous generation.  What can he do?

He could believe the Word of God.  Elijah did not have the Bible as we have it today.  What he would have had is the first five books of Moses, and the history of Joshua, Judges and the books of Samuel.  That’s about the first 300 pages of my Bible.

Elijah was a man of the Word, and as he searched the Scriptures, he would have found this promise…

Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you…  Deuteronomy 11:16-17

This is the Word of God—the part of Scripture to which Elijah would have had access.  If His people turned aside and served other gods and worshipped them, God said there would be no rain.

Under Ahab it had actually happened.  Not just a few altars to Baal here and there, but a house of Baal constructed and dedicated by the king himself.  God’s own people were worshipping idols.

So Elijah began to pray, “O, God, what you warned about is everywhere.  Nobody cares about your Word.  They think your Word is only words.  They think it is only sociology, only psychology.  Do what you said.”  We know this from the New Testament where we read that…

Elijah’s Journey

  1. He prayed for the will of God

Elijah… prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  James 5:17

Elijah not only said it wouldn’t rain, he prayed it wouldn’t rain.  If there’s no rain for three years cattle die and people die.  Three years of famine would ruin the economy.  He prayed fervently that God would wreck the economy of his own beloved nation!  What kind of prayer is that?

Even though Elijah himself would personally share in the suffering, he prayed that it would happen—why?  There can only be one answer: Here’s a man who cares more about God’s glory than his own comfort.  He cares more about peoples’ eternal destiny than their physical well-being.

In one of his books,[2] Mark Dever draws out a contrast between two very different men: Albert Schweitzer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  These men had remarkable gifts, and moved in opposite directions in their careers.

Schweitzer began as a preacher, but he had profound questions about whether we could know who Jesus is or what He said.  These questions led him to write a book called “The Quest For the Historical Jesus.”   Later, Schweitzer became a doctor, because he wanted to give people the help he felt they really needed.

Lloyd-Jones went in the opposite direction.  He trained as a doctor in London, but he left medicine to become a preacher in Wales.  He once said, “I have become tired of stitching people up, just so they could go back out and continue to sin.”  He wanted to give people the help he felt they really needed.

There was no doubt about the greatest need of the people in Elijah’s mind.  “God, people need to know you live!. Whatever it takes in this world for them to know that you are God, do it, so they don’t perish without you in the next.”

It is better to endure any suffering in this world, and turn to God, than

to enjoy any comfort in this world, and to live without Him.

Elijah’s Journey

  1. He spoke in the name of God

“As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”  1 Kings 17:1

 

Standing before the Lord gave Elijah courage to stand before the king.  His engagement with the Word and his submission to God’s will would enable Elijah to speak the truth to the king.

“The Lord the God of Israel lives!”  Ahab had never thought about that.  He had thought of religion as a branch of sociology to be manipulated for the benefit of politics, an expression of human spirituality, a force in the community that could be used for good social purposes.  He had never seriously considered that there was a God who really is.

1 Kings 18:1 tells us that God sent Elijah back to Ahab in the third year—and then the rain returned.  But James 5 tells us there was no rain for three and a half years.  Put these together and it seems that when Elijah said to Ahab “As the Lord lives…there shall be neither dew nor rain these years,” there had already been a drought for at least six months.

Suddenly, perhaps for the first time, the thought enters Ahab’s mind: What if there really is a God?  What if the Lord, the God of Israel lives?

 

We Have a Better Word than Elijah

Reading about Elijah standing before the Lord, interceding for the people of God and speaking the Word of God makes me think about Jesus.  Listen to what our Lord says, “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”

Then Jesus goes on to invite us to join the company of Elijah:For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. So enter by the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13-14).

To all who are ready to walk the narrow way of faith and obedience to God, there’s good news today: Jesus stands before the Father for us.  He is the Word of God to us.  He opens the seals to enact the will of God for us.

He speaks a better word than Elijah did.  Elijah spoke a word of judgment so that people would seek mercy, but listen to this: Jesus speaks a word of mercy to people who deserve judgment.  That’s the Gospel!

Thank God we are not called to go out and somehow pray for judgment on the world, but in Christ’s name we are to call people to repentance and we are to offer grace to people in this world.

Where are you today?

We live and work with thousands who are on the broad road with Ahab, choosing their own morality, shaping their own god, provoking the Lord to anger and ignoring His warnings.  I invite you today to step out from the crowd and take your stand with Elijah.

Offer yourself to God today; place yourself under His authority; tell Him you’re ready to do whatever He asks of you.  Ask him to make you a person who really believes His Word, and to help you seek His will, even when it’s going to be costly for you.  Ask Him to give you courage—to speak in His name and be light in this dark world where you’ve been placed.

 

[1] Ronald Wallace, “Elijah and Elisha,” p. 11, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

[2] Mark Dever, “Preach: Theology Meets Practice,” p. 209ff, B&H, 2012

 

© Colin S. Smith

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