Proper 14 • 1 Kings 19:1–8 • August 12, 2012
By David I. Lewis
The Old Testament lesson for Proper 14 contains the introduction to the narrative of Elijah’s flight to Mt. Horeb and his confrontation with Yahweh there (1 Kgs 1:1–18). As only the first eight verses of this narrative are included in the lesson, it appears that this reading was designed not for the sake of presenting the narrative of Elijah’s journey—otherwise the whole story would be read—but rather to provide an OT parallel for the Gospel reading. This Sunday’s Gospel reading (Jn 6:35–51) is the second of three lessons from John 6 that present the “Bread of Life discourse.” The connection appears to be that in 1 Kings 19 God through an angel fed Elijah bread in the wilderness just as Jesus fed the 5000.
There is, however, no direct reference in John 6 to the events of 1 Kings 19. The preacher thus may choose either to focus on the narrative of 1 Kings 19:1–8 without making a necessary connection to John 6 or he could follow the “logic” of the lectionary and use 1 Kings 19 as a means to bring his hearers to the message of John 6. If he chooses the former, then he would want to take into account also what is related in 1 Kings 19:9–18. If he chooses the latter, then he should probably just preach directly on the John 6 rather than risk allegorizing 1 Kings 19.
The events of this lesson follow immediately upon the narrative of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel: Elijah proved victorious over the false prophets, Yahweh revealed to Israel that he is the true God, and then there came an end to the drought that was initiated in 17:1ff. Key for today’s lesson is that following his victory, Elijah executed the false prophets and this act will prompt Jezebel to attempt revenge.
Verses 1–2: What were Ahab’s intentions in reporting what happened to Jezebel? It is not clear from the text. Jezebel, however, quickly shows herself to be a “woman of action” in sending the threat to Elijah. Ahab apparently did nothing before as his queen killed the true prophets of God (18:4). Now, in spite of what he witnessed at Carmel, he would likely do nothing to prevent her from killing Elijah either. Ahab’s passivity in relationship to his wife will play out again in the story of Naboth’s vineyard in chapter 21.
As ‘elohim’ in verse 2 lacks the article, Jezebel could be referring to “God,” that is, the God of Israel, rather than “the gods” (as it is often translated). It could well be that according to the logic of her own syncretic religious system (combining Baalism and Yahwism?) the queen was convinced that somehow she was faithful and Elijah was the heretic who opposed the “state religion” and now became a murderer by killing its prophets. In this then is a case of false faith attacking the true faith.
Verses 3–4: Elijah’s immediate motive for fleeing is fear for his life. He runs and does not stop until he reaches Beersheba, the southern boundary marker. Elijah then proceeds one day out into the wilderness and prays for death before falling asleep. Elijah’s prayer is a complaint, and thus it seems that underlying Elijah’s fear there is despair. A mere coward would run and pray for life, not death. Elijah flees death at the hands of Jezebel and prays for death at the hands of Yahweh. It could be that in spite of the triumph over the false prophets, Elijah at this point sees no hope for a reformation and restoration in Israel—so he laments.
Verses 5–8: Rather than kill Elijah Yahweh sends an angel to feed and sustain the prophet. Elijah then goes forty days and nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. That these two meals are miraculous is evident in that (1) they are provided by God through this angel—Elijah does not provide it for himself—and (2) the food and water are able to sustain Elijah for forty days and nights as he journeys to Horeb. That Elijah goes to Horeb and the journey takes 40 days and nights suggests a parallel between Elijah and Moses. And so a more obvious NT parallel would be Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness: as this angel serves Elijah food in the wilderness, angels would also serve Jesus during (Mk 1:13) and after (Mt 4:11) his temptation. So if there is anything typological in this passage, it is more likely the experiences of the prophet which will be reflected in Jesus’s ministry than the bread he ate.
Observations and Considerations for Preaching
1. A stereotypical move often made with this text is to contrast Elijah’s fear and flight in chapter 19 with the prophet’s boldness in chapter 18 so that the preacher can then point out that Elijah was “just a normal sinner like us.” This move tends to make little of the fact that Jezebel had already killed many of the “orthodox prophets” of Yahweh, and so the threat to Elijah was very real. Yahweh could and did preserve Elijah’s life thus far—but he didn’t do it for all of his prophets as many had been killed. Thus, the preacher should not be too glib about making this comparison, in particular if he and his hearers have not faced such persecution themselves. It would be more constructive to consider instead how you or your hearers should respond if such persecution arose among us.
2. Elijah’s more serious error is found later in the narrative, but is evident in this lesson. The prophet despaired that Yahweh would do anything. In response to the prophet’s despair Yahweh shows his faithfulness: first, rather than taking Elijah’s life he sends an angel to feed Elijah with food that will sustain him for 40 days—the opposite of killing him. What is more, Yahweh will later appear to his prophet—though in a way not expected—and then answer Elijah’s complaints—though, again, not in a way expected. Elijah will later return to Israel and speak the final words of judgment upon Ahab and Jezebel.
3. In applying this to his hearers the preacher might focus on such themes as fear of persecution, compromise with faithless religious beliefs and institutions in our contemporary setting (something Elijah never did), and the potential for despair when it appears as if God has failed to act. The preacher may also then compare Yahweh’s faithfulness to Elijah with his ongoing faithfulness to his people, culminating in the ministry of Jesus. In his Son Jesus, the God of Israel did decisively initiate his reign among men, though, again, not in a way people expected. In the same way the Father of Jesus will be faithful to his people today as they face hostility in a world that rejects the gospel: as the God of Israel sent an angel to feed and sustain Elijah, so he will sustain his people today and unto the resurrection of all flesh on the last day. Then, by analogy, the preacher might point to the Lord’s Supper as one place where God today does literally feed and sustain his people in the midst of a hostile world.