Proper 8 • 1 Kings 19:9b–21 • June 27, 2010
By Dr. Joel P. Okamoto
Notes on the pericope
This pericope presents Elijah’s encounter with Yahweh on Mount Horeb and his call of Elisha. Recently Elijah had been on another mountain, Carmel, where he challenged the prophets of Baal and demonstrated the truth about Yahweh (1 Kg 18). This infuriates Jezebel, so he runs for his life. Once he makes it to the desert, however, Elijah crawls under a tree and prays not for deliverance but for death. But just as God had sustained him once with ravens and again through the widow of Zarephath, now he sends an angel to feed him and send him on his way to Horeb, the mountain of God (19:1–8).
Once he arrives, the greeting is pointed. The Word of Yahweh comes to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The first half of verse 9 reads: “And he entered there a cave and lodged there.” But God wants to know, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The situation and these adverbs suggest that we also could infer this: “and not where you are supposed to be.” (Later developments reinforce this suggestion.) Elijah explains that he has been very zealous for Yahweh; that of the prophets he alone remains alive; and that the people of Israel seek to kill him. But the response is simply the instruction to go and stand before Yahweh himself. As Yahweh approaches, the wind breaks rocks, the earth shakes, and a fire rages. But God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. We might say that these come “before Yahweh,” that is, they signal his advent. But when Yahweh himself arrives, he arrives in quietness (v. 12). Elijah recognizes this and covers his face before God.
Readers have not agreed about this quietness (qol dammah daqah), as a look at English translations show. The KJV and RSV render this as “a still small voice,” while the NIV says “a gentle whisper,” the ESV “the sound of a low whisper,” and the NASB “a sound of a gentle blowing.” The NRSV, however, suggests a more dramatic or awesome encounter: “a sound of sheer silence.” I prefer this rendering, but the exact English words chosen are less important than the mood conveyed. However you render this phrase, the words must fit the context. Walter Brueggemann helpfully explains why and how: “In the end, it is evident that the phrase is beyond us. Care must be taken that one does not take the phrase out of context; for, in context, it is prelude to a demanding confrontation. It is not the offer of intimate solace, for such an offer would seem incongruous to both parties in the narrative” (from 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary [Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2000], 236).
“Demanding confrontation” summarizes well what happens on the mountain. In person, Yahweh says: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” As I suggested earlier, we can well imagine what is left unsaid: “and not where you are supposed to be.” The prophet repeats himself to God. Yahweh, however, offers neither comfort nor support. He orders Elijah to return and get to work: “Go back whence you came and go to the Desert of Damascus,” Yahweh tells him. “And when you get there, do this: anoint Hazael king over Aram; anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel; and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat as your successor. Jehu will kill anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael, and Elisha any who escapes Jehu.” Then Yahweh adds: “I have kept seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal or kissed him.” God has called Elijah, and God expects Elijah to heed his call. It doesn’t matter to God that prophets throughout the country have been killed and that his life is in danger, and so it shouldn’t matter to Elijah. “Get back and get going,” is the Word of the Lord. “Here are a few things to take care of when you get there…”
The story continues with Elijah calling Elisha. He throws his cloak on Elisha as he is plowing. Elisha leaves the oxen behind, runs after Elijah, and tells him says that he will follow right after he says farewell to his parents. Elijah makes him reconsider. “Go back; what did I just do to you?” Elisha gets the point: he goes back to the oxen, sacrifices them, cooks a nice meal for the people, and goes along with Elijah. As for the other instructions to Elijah, it is Elisha who declares to Hazael that he would be king over Syria (2 Kgs 8 ) and who sends a prophet to anoint Jehu king over Israel (2 Kgs 9).
Notes for preaching
This passage probably was selected because its final verses (19–21) parallel the appointed Gospel for the day (Lk 9:51–62, especially vv. 57–62). The lectionary identifies Elijah as a type of Christ in his calling of Elisha and in his response to Elisha’s wish to bid farewell to his parents before departing.
In this way the lectionary suggests a “topical” sermon about the nature and some implications of discipleship. Both lessons point to the discipleship as utter devotion and complete confidence, and to the call to discipleship as a matter of urgency. Such a sermon might begin by asserting that the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel appointed for today both have something definite to teach about what it means to be a disciple. Then the sermon might make the call of Elisha the point of departure and make the calling of disciples and in the teachings about discipleship in the Gospels as its fulfillment. The Gospel lesson gives one instance; Luke’s Gospel also reflects these features in the calling of the disciples, who left everything and followed Jesus (4:11; 4:28); in his teachings about the “cost of discipleship” (see especially 8:23–26 and 14:25–33); in the episode with the rich ruler (18:18–30); and in the parable of the wedding banquet (14:15–24). Assuming a sermon before a Christian congregation, the call to follow Jesus will have happened already. It would make sense, however, to repeat the promises for disciples; to recall God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises; and to urge ongoing faithfulness, especially, as our lessons suggest, in view of such temptations as the affections of family and friends and the security that money, possessions, and income provide.
Clearly, a sermon that deals with entire pericope would have to move along different lines. Such a sermon would recognize Yahweh as the central figure and his character and plan as basic motifs.
To make it clear why you would stress some things and not others, and also to avoid the impression that you are treating the Scriptures merely as a source of illustrations for doctrinal and ethical instruction, the sermon first might show how this pericope fits into the Scriptures’ account of God and his dealings with his chosen people, before it tries to show how it bears on today’s hearers and their lives. Yahweh’s instructions to Elijah make it clear he is in control of the future of Israel. He shows that the unfaithfulness and disobedience of Ahab, Jezebel, and [most of the nation] matter greatly to him. He lets Elijah know that he has the situation well in hand and tells him how he plans to address it. He shows Elijah his own part in the plan. Moreover, his abrupt dealings with Elijah, who has fled Israel and feared for his life, suggest that Elijah has been a man “of little faith,” as Jesus might have said. He should have known better than to run, and he now should know that God expects him to get back to his responsibilities right away.
Hearers in the United States are in a significantly different situation that Elijah’s. He was a prophet, called to speak to the Northern Kingdom and threatened by the queen. In his distress he gets an audience with God. The office, the situation, the persecution, and the recourse of Elijah make him different than any of us today.
But it still matters whether God is in control, what he plans to do, and how God’s people should face their situation. Why? Because God has yet to fulfill his promise to establish his reign. As God’s people wait, we find all kinds of unfaithfulness and disobedience, even among those who identify with Jesus Christ and his Church. Should we give up? Should we think our lives don’t matter? Should we wonder what God is up to? No. Just as God appointed Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha to take care of things, so he has appointed Jesus as Lord to deal with all things. God has matters well in hand. His plan is unfolding in a way that may seem excruciatingly slow, but Christians should trust in God. From God’s dealings with Elijah, we find that this means believing in his promises, especially in the face of threats and troubles, and living according to the offices to which called each of us.