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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Still, Small Voice



Isolation is a much used word currently. Once again, I want to look at the prophet Elijah, and how his experience of isolation continues in the bible's account.


The Lord Jesus, when on earth, said to his followers, 'If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you' (John 15: 19). Jesus gives the reason for this experience of hatred in verse 18, 'If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.'


Elijah was a follower of the 'living God'. That is the reason for his isolation recorded at the start of 1 Kings 19. Elijah is threatened by the wife of King Ahab of Israel. Jezebel hates him because of his relationship with the Lord. She promises that she is going to find him and kill him. Verse 3 tells us that 'Elijah was afraid and ran for his life'. The previous chapter, with the details of Elijah's day of triumph on Mount Carmel has much to encourage our faith. But 1 Kings 19, has at least as much. The apostle James tells us that Elijah was 'as human as we are' (James 5: 17 NLT). In 1 Kings 19 we see it clearly.


When Elijah stands on Mount Carmel, with no person alongside him, and 850 powerful men on the opposing side, do I see anything of myself there? I would like to think so. But the truth, what I know so, is rather different. But, when Elijah crumbles in 1 Kings 19, do I see myself there? Indeed, I do.


The transformation from the Elijah of chapter 18, to the Elijah of chapter 19 is as fast as it is significant. One factor is that Elijah has got things wrong. His perception of his triumph on Carmel, what it meant, and what it was going to mean, was not accurate. In Elijah's prayer, when he called on the Lord to send fire from heaven to devour the sacrifice, he said, 'Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again' (1 Kings 18: 37). The Lord answered that prayer. He answered it because it was according to his word and his will. We can be sure that the Lord was using that moment to turn hearts back to him. But, I think the Lord's understanding of that 'turning of hearts', was different to Elijah's understanding.


Elijah had prayed for drought, and consequent famine. Israel needed something extreme, something to shake it to its core, to turn the people from the idolatry that had become their way of life. The Lord had done what Elijah had asked for. It didn't rain for three and a half years! Now, Mount Carmel's mighty showdown had taken place. The people had cried out, 'The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!' (1 Kings 18: 39). At the beginning of that day, none of the people were willing to side with Elijah. Now they were willing. They obeyed his command to seize the false prophets and put them to death. Elijah gives instructions to King Ahab, and Ahab obeys Elijah. To all appearances, a mighty change has taken place.


Our perspective of these events is more informed. We have Israel's future already known to us. Elijah didn't. We can read the record of the Kings of Israel in our bibles. We know the sad, sad tale of Assyrian captivity that is to come. Because Israel's heart will not be permanently turned back to the Lord. I suspect that there were a minority of Israelites that, on that day, found a true turning of heart and repentance towards the God of Israel. But it was a minority. As Romans 11 tells us, where the apostle Paul comments on this very chapter of Elijah's life, this minority is always a 'remnant'. The Lord understood the reality of this 'turning of hearts'. The majority of Israel had what Paul describes as 'hardened' hearts. There was no wholesale turning of Israel to the Lord. For the majority, things would quickly return to normal. And so they quickly did for Elijah. Jezebel's threats to Elijah quickly reach him and Elijah is dealt a huge blow. He wonders what on earth is going on.


Elijah is thrown. He is thrown by a lie. Elijah is isolated from the truth, by what he perceives to be the truth, but which is not true. He sees the opposition that is set against him, he hears the threats, and he attributes truth to them. We are easily inclined to do this. We weigh up the numbers in opposition to us, in the various life situations that are ours. We are threatened by the influence that our enemies seem to have, their access to power and control, and we believe what is heard and seen. The bible, through Elijah's example, gives us a wonderful perspective, that should instruct our thinking about our lives. Jezebel says that she is the authority. She is going to triumph ultimately. Elijah is going to be caught. He is going to die. What is the bible's reality though? It's as opposite as it could possibly be. Why? Because Jezebel, despite her apparent power, isn't in control. The Lord is. 1 Kings 21: 23 has the Lord's prophecy regarding Jezebel's end. It is appointed. 2 Kings 9 has the fulfilment, the record of her death. She is thrown from a window and trampled underfoot by horses. Her flesh is eaten by dogs, and she is changed from being a God hating, God's people detesting, powerful influencer of her time, into the excrement of dogs (2 Kings 9: 37). It is a truly messy end!


Elijah's end is also transformed from what he here believes it will be. 2 Kings 2: 11 tells us that, during Elijah's last moments on earth, a chariot and horses of fire appeared, 'and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.' What amazing lessons are here for those that follow the Lord!


There are other factors that contribute to Elijah's spiritual difficulties at this time. Elijah, like many in Israel, had gone through a period of real hardship and trauma. Then, on Mount Carmel, Elijah, had gone through a day of extraordinary conflict and intensity. He took twelve large stones and re-built the altar. He dug the trench. It was hard, physical work. When it was all over he climbed to the top of the Mount. Then he runs ahead of King Ahab's chariot all the way to Jezreel. After everything he had done that day, he finishes it off with a marathon!


No-one can be continually overloaded, physically or mentally, and it not have an impact on their health and well-being. I think this is relevant to Elijah here, and relevant to us all. The greatest man who ever lived was Jesus. Yet the bible is clear, in Gethsemane's garden, he struggled to carry on. He really struggled to endure.


The detail of Elijah's ordeal is continued through chapter 19. He travels to Beersheba. He journeys another 100 miles or so. We read (v.3-5), 'When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.


Elijah leaves his servant at Beersheba. He isolates himself from human company and fellowship. At difficult times, this can be our reaction. We might think, 'I cannot be bothered with people'. Sometimes, periods of human isolation, periods of quiet and reflection, can be good for us. They can be helpful to 'recharge our batteries'. As a long term solution, though, this isn't what the bible teaches. The writer to the Hebrews uses the words 'deliberately' and 'sinning', when he talks about those who forsake fellowship. He exhorts us otherwise; to, '… consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching' (Hebrews 10: 26 + 24-25).


Elijah has given up. He wants to die. He hasn't achieved the results that he thought he would achieve. Despite his best efforts, in his estimation, he is a failure. An angel is sent to give him food and Elijah is 'strengthened.' This will be our experience in times of difficulty. Maybe not an a visible angel with food in hand but, nevertheless, the Lord does provide for us. He has promised to provide strength equal to the demands of each day and, though we often want more than that, his promise will always prove true (See Deuteronomy 33: 25).


Just when Elijah thinks he is at his lowest, can take no more, the Lord leads him on a forty day journey to Horeb, or Sinai, the mountain of God. This would have been an arduous, mountainous trek of at least 200 miles. And previous bible history would, perhaps, suggest that the Lord wouldn't have taken him straight there! But the Lord leads him to the place where he wants him to be; physically, yes, but also spiritually, and in terms of his ability to receive the Lord's gracious teaching for him.


For there, in that cave, the Lord has Elijah in the place where he wants him, ready to hear and to understand, ready to learn.


In the subsequent passage, Elijah twice makes the same claim to the Lord. He says in verse 10, and in verse 14, 'I am the only one left.' These two verses are separated by some extraordinary happenings. But, first, what of Elijah's claim? It is good to compare the Lord's perspective with Elijah's. Elijah is convinced that he is correct in his claim. But if we believe that the Lord's perspective is the truth, with everything laid bare before his eyes (as Hebrews 4 13), then once again, Elijah is isolated from reality, by what he feels. We might argue that Elijah's error isn't significant. We might say that he was right about himself; he was isolated. But his error is significant. He believes that he is totally alone; there aren't any other God followers in Israel. His error is significant. He is wrong. He is 7000 times wrong! He thinks there is only one in Israel who believes in the Lord. The Lord says 'No!'. By grace (Romans 11 5), I have 7000 who trust me enough that they refuse to join in the idolatry of their fellows, and will not worship Baal, regardless of the personal cost. Often, our estimation of what is actually going on, is as wide of the mark as Elijah's.


So, we finish, briefly, with the Lord's appearance. In verse 11, we read, 'The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ ' Firstly, there is a mighty wind, so powerful that rocks are shattered and the mountainside is torn apart. Then there follows an earthquake. The third tremendous event is a great fire. Surely, surely, surely the Lord is in these things. But, no, the bible says, after each of these happenings, 'the Lord was not in' them. He allowed them to come to pass, but he was not inthem. And then, we read of something so opposite, in its nature, to what had gone before. We read that Elijah hears 'a gentle whisper', what the AV calls 'a still small voice'. And the Lord is in that voice. The Lord asks him, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' This is not so much about the place where he is physically, but the place where he has got to in his estimation of things, and where he is at spiritually.


As Christians, followers of the Lord today, I think we sometimes hear these words. In our troubles and difficulties, we often come to conclusions about how things are, and about how they are going to end up. We convince ourselves that we are right. But often we are wide of the mark. Our perspective is adrift from God's perspective and, when we actually stop and listen, does not the Lord speak to us those very same words, 'What are you doing here?'


And Elijah is taught something here that is relevant to his past, something that relates to Carmel's great display of heavenly power. Those events did not result in wholesale change among the Israelites, as Elijah thought they would. Those massive, miraculous events of that day, did not soften those many hearts that remained hardened. But the Lord did have a people, who were his true people, a 'chosen' remnant, set aside by him, who trusted him. How had this come about? As Paul says (Romans 11 5), it was 'by grace'. It was true with the Israelites then. It is no less so today.


Regardless of what noise the church makes, when it marches, and protests, and shouts out loud; regardless of what articulate words are sounded at mass rallies, which are attended by thousands, regardless of the numbers that come forward and 'commit to Christ' in a time of great fervour and religious excitement, none will ever truly come to Jesus and see him as their personal saviour, unless they truly hear. Unless they truly hear the still small voice of God's own Spirit speaking to them personally.


Much of the great noise that people have made, supposedly in the name of Jesus Christ, has been just that – noise. Noise and nothing else. 'The Lord was not in' it.


Elijah's complaint to the Lord (v.14) was that Elijah had been 'very zealous for the Lord God Almighty'. He felt he was called to have this zeal, and he was not wrong in this belief. But Elijah's complaint seems to be about the lack of results that this had achieved. It seemed pointless. It's as if Elijah was overtaken by the world's mentality, in believing that it's results that count. In football, an often used phrase is, 'it's a results business'. Actually, this applies to many human industries. A football manager can bring a whole new philosophy to a club, buy in exiting new players, encourage a style of football that is pleasant on the eye, breath positivity into the various strata of that place. They can work tirelessly, with the utmost dedication to the cause. But then the team loses 4 consecutive matches, and that manager is sacked. Because it isn't about diligence and faithfulness. It's about results.


The Lord's business is the opposite. He doesn't judge his people according to their 'results'. He judges according to their faithfulness. The bible doesn't say, 'without faith, and good, numerical, successful evangelical results, it is impossible to please God'. What it says is this, 'without faith it is impossible to please God... he rewards those who earnestly seek him' (Hebrews 11: 6).


The business of our Lord Jesus is not a 'results business'. Yes, it gets results. One way to measure those results is in the lives of men and women, boys and girls, who come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. But those results belong to the Lord and his gracious working. Yes, in his wisdom, he has chosen to use his people to be 'fellow workers in God’s service' (1 Corinthians 3: 9). But he has called us to serve in faith. Without it, we don't please him. With it, we do. Because the business of the bible, the business of Jesus Christ, is a 'faith business'.


So, let us learn the lessons that Elijah had to learn. Why do we need to? Because we are like him, all too human. Let us walk less by sight, not coming to quick conclusions about what the end will be to the difficult situations of our lives. Let us walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5: 7). Believing, not what we see, but what, through the word of the living God, we know.


He knows the end from the beginning in every situation in life. Why? Because Jesus Christ is Lord over all. Do the circumstances of our lives make us hungry and thirsty for him. Then cleave to this promise, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life' (Revelation 21: 6).

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