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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

As Human as We Are

This week I want to look at Elijah. This follows on from my previous two messages on Romans 15 and James 5.

In chapter 5 of James' letter, he names two Old Testament men, Job and Elijah. Last time we considered Job. Hopefully we were reminded that, 'the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.' I hope that Elijah's life can also teach us something today. I'm not going to get very far into this story today. But if the Lord is willing, and grants opportunity, I will continue with Elijah in future weeks.

I particularly want to focus on Elijah's isolation. Due to COVID-19 the use of the word 'isolation' has increased dramatically. Isolation is in our thoughts, and it is in all of our lives to varying degrees. The circumstances of our lives may mean that we have escaped the worst effects of this personally. But we cannot escape the reality of the isolation that surrounds life at the moment, either for us or for those we love. Some of you will be experiencing significant isolation, perhaps like never before.

The bible's account of Job's life starts just as as he is hit by a life changing set of circumstances, just before his isolation begins in earnest. This is exactly the same in the account of Elijah. The first thing we are told is that Elijah is going to Ahab, King of Israel, to inform him of a great period of drought that is about to commence. At this point, Elijah's great isolation is about to begin also.

Actually, this isn't the only similarity in the way that the bible records the features of these two men's lives. Last time we looked at how, in the words of Job which are recorded later in the sequence of events that unfold, we are given details of what Job's life had looked like before catastrophe struck him. The bible doesn't always unfold accounts in a linear timeline. What I mean is that it doesn't always start with the earliest events and finish with the final events. If we want to more fully appreciate the bible's teaching we are often required to work at it.

God's word contains an abundance of treasures. It is beyond any comparison with any other book in existence. In the past people have likened it to a mine. Why is this? Well, as an example, I think of the coal mining industry. In the UK, this industry has declined dramatically over my lifetime. For a number of generations, up to and including that of my parents, people who left school and “went down t'pit”, believed that they had a job for life. Then things changed. The richest seams with the greatest abundance of coal were expended. It became more costly to extract the precious material from the surrounding rock. It became cheaper to import coal from abroad than to mine it in this country. There wasn't the wealth creation that there had previously been. The consequences were huge. While doing my paper-round as a teenager, I well remember reading each day's developments during the “Miners' Strike”, of 1984-1985. In the following years, many coal mines would shut. Many men would become redundant, losing their 'jobs for life'.

As a result, I have been privileged to work with several ex-miners. I still work with one now. He often tells me something about mining and I don't think anyone would disagree. 'It was proper donkey work!', he says. You didn't just go down the mine in the morning, sit on the ground and wait for the coal to fall into your bucket. To extract the coal required sweat; hard physical labour, in difficult conditions.

God's word is like that. If we are prepared to put the work in, we will get treasure out.

So, what are the details that God's word gives us if we study everything recorded about Elijah? Well, some additional information is given in our reading from James' letter. 1 Kings 17 tells us that Elijah went to Ahab with a message from the Lord about the coming drought. James tells us that Elijah had actually prayed for this to come about. The Lord was answering the prayer of his servant.

This is really important. This drought was to cause extreme isolation for Elijah. Elijah must have known this beforehand. He knew the manner of man that he was dealing with in King Ahab. He had told Ahab of his, and Israel's, rebellion against God. He knew that Ahab considered Elijah to be his 'enemy' (1 Kings 21:20) and 'the troubler of Israel' (1 Kings 18:17), simply because Elijah spoke the truth. Elijah was also isolated because of this fact. He spoke faithfully, with a desire to bring about change for good, but was judged to be someone who desired to bring harm.

Elijah knew that this drought would affect him personally, yet he prayed for it. Only something extreme could shake Israel from its slumber. Too long they had wavered 'between two opinions' (1 Kings 18:21). It required something dramatic from heaven itself, to make these people seriously begin to consider spiritual matters.

Here is a lesson for us. Surely the Church of Christ has been praying for the Lord to wake people from their slumber, to give them opportunity to duly consider the matters of life, death and eternity. COVID-19 has left many unmoved, I am sure. But there will be those whose opinions have been challenged. There will be those that during this time will leave behind the darkness of sleep, of not knowing God, who will awake, who will seek, who will find, and who will see the wonderful light of the gospel, and begin to declare God's praises (as 1 Peter 2:9). But what a cost? Our lives have been subject to upheaval. Is it worth it in our estimation? Would we have prayed for the Lord to shake the foundations of the earth if we had known the impact on our lives? This is a really hard question for us, I know. It's one where we surely know what the right answer is, but aren't quite as certain of what answer we might honestly give.

But Elijah's example is wonderful. We can be left in no doubt. If we want the Kingdom of our Lord to advance, then we should be praying for hard things. And we should be believing that the Lord can bring them about and will bring them about.

The Lord did so here. Elijah believed he would. This man, who was as human as you and me, was a righteous, believing person. His prayer was powerful and effective, and it was earnest. The Lord acted. Elijah's message that he carried to Ahab was this, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.' This statement has something to teach us. 'Except at my word.' This drought, and consequent famine, would begin because the Lord commanded it. It would last as the Lord decided it. It would end as the Lord decreed it. All of it, from start to finish, would be 'at my word', spoken by Elijah.

Do we have the same view of our present circumstances? It can be easy to marvel at the wonderful way in which the Lord provides for his servant Elijah through this period. It is miraculous. But, like we noticed in Job's life, the Lord didn't just react to the circumstances that prevailed. All this, from beginning to end, was ordered by the Lord and controlled by him. His many and varied purposes in people's lives were being fulfilled. Later in this account, the Lord tells Elijah that there were 7000 in Israel that engaged in true and proper worship. Did the Lord only provide for Elijah at this time because Elijah was special. Surely not. The Lord's providence, his ordering of events would have had all his people at the very front of his mind. So it is now. Some of us may be struggling more than others. Some will be acutely conscious of the 'famine', the fact that we cannot physically meet together for fellowship, and speak face to face, and touch and hold and embrace. We cannot meet in one place and hear God's word read and opened up as before. We have had to substitute these spiritual meals for what we may feel are, in comparison, just breadcrumbs falling from the Master's table. Our experiences will vary. Does this mean that some believers are in the mind of the Lord more? No. He has something to teach all of his people. What I need to learn may be different to what you need. But the Lord is the most willing teacher. Oh, that we were better students!

So, Elijah is told to go and 'hide'. His greatest danger was from Ahab who felt this was all Elijah's doing. Some of us are having to 'hide' at the moment, to shield ourselves because of health conditions and the risk of disease. In this account, the connection with the present day is extraordinary. '… hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.' The Hebrew word 'Kerith' means 'cut', or 'cutting'. It derives from a word which means 'cut-off'. This place name evidently tells us something about its geography. But also, this place name is so apt for Elijah's circumstance, and has a present relevance too. Elijah was to be cut off from everyone. Elijah was socially isolated and he was away from his usual source of food. But, as Abraham acknowledged, when he was stopped from slaying his son Isaac in sacrifice, and given a ram as a substitute, 'The Lord will provide' (Genesis 22 14). The Lord provided for Abraham, back in his day. He promises to provide for all, 'who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had' (Romans 4:12). He did in Elijah's case. He will in ours.

At the end of the Job account, the Lord speaks. He says that he 'provides food for the raven' (Job 38:41). Here he makes the ravens to bring food to his servant, in a way that was contrary to the natural order of things. Because he can. The only limit to his ability to supply is the one that is often present in our minds.

When the brook dries up, Elijah is given further instruction. He is told to go to Zarephath (or Sarepta), near Tyre and Sidon, in what is modern day Lebanon. Elijah is isolated from the nation of Israel, God's covenant people. We already know that Elijah's heart was very much in the right place concerning Israel. Now he was to be separated from what was the promised land, the place that the Lord had blessed, and the people that he had made covenant with. Yes, there are differences with us, and our separation from God's New Covenant people. The vast majority of the Israelites did not seek a genuine relationship with Israel's God. But, nevertheless, this separation would have been significant, and painful, to a man like Elijah. Likewise, our separation is significant to us and should rightly be so.

We may think that it was rather easy for Elijah. After all, when he was at Kerith the Lord's provision for Elijah was so miraculous, how could he doubt? We may argue that, if the Lord had been providing for my life in such a miraculous way up until this point then I wouldn't doubt him now either. The question is has he, or hasn't he? Has he been providing for your life up until now or hasn't he. Have you received strength equal to the demands of each day or haven't you? The problem can be that we can be ill prepared for times of adversity because of our false notion of independence. In times of relative ease, it is easy to slip into bad habits. When our employment seems secure, when we have enough to provide for our needs and for those of our loved ones, we can quickly think that some of this provision is because of us. We can say things like, 'well I am good at my job', 'I did make a very clever investment choice and look how well it has turned out'. This state of mind can be made worse by our tendency to neglect God's word in times of ease. This book which is so 'useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness' (2 Timothy 3:16), isn't able to challenge our thinking due to the fact that we aren't listening to its voice.

The reality is that God provides everything for our lives. It is true for all, but especially so for the Lord's people, that 'in him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). He orders the details of our lives in ways that should seem miraculous, if only we opened our eyes a little bit wider at times.

If we were better at attributing all good things in our lives to the Lord, in times of ease, then we would also be much better at trusting him to continue his provision, when times seem harder.

Well, we got to verse 9! I think there is a reason for our slow progress. Going back to the mining analogy, the account of Elijah is a rich seam. Even if we miss large chunks of material, we still have an abundance. Hopefully, we can come back to this 'coal face' in a couple of weeks. Let us pray that we will be minded to put the work in. I said earlier that ifwe are prepared to put the work in, to the study of God's word, then we will get treasure out.

And the truth is that we won't be like those poor coal miners of 35 years ago. This mine will not close down. Our church community will not be left with nothing. We will never exhaust the bible's treasures. The rich seams will not decline. We will never become redundant, if we make this our employment. This is a job for life, and it's guaranteed. Guaranteed by the 'government' of the Kingdom of God's Son (Isaiah 9:6-7). Isaiah 33:6 speaks of the Lord as being 'a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge'. It can be no surprise that his word is the same. Isaiah tells us that 'the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure'. If we don't reverence the Lord, if we want to find our way to him, according to what we think is right and good, then we won't get very far. But if we are true seekers, prepared to heed God's way, then treasure we will find.

Our Lord Jesus said 'No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). The truth is that even the treasures in the Old Testament can only be truly, fully uncovered by the “miner's lamp” of Jesus Christ. Without the light that Jesus shines on the word, we will see only shadows at best.

The Lord's provision for Elijah, his provision for Job, his provision for his people now, is wrapped up in Jesus. He didn't provide for them because they were 'good' men. He provided for them because they trusted in him. They were as human as we are. They were like all men and, as Romans 3:10 tells us, 'there is no one righteous, not even one'. Of ourselves we can rightly expect him to provide nothing except a 'fearful expectation' (Hebrews 10:27) of the judgment due to our sins. But if we come to the Father, through his Son, then we can expect better things, much better things. Like Elijah we can pray the prayer of faith and expect him to answer. Like Elijah, we can expect him to provide, not what we may want, but what we need, through the good times and the not so good. He will provide in these times of refraining from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5), and he will provide in those longed for days in future, where we will embrace again.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).


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