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Mighty Elijah Hides in a Cave (also, how does God speak?) - a study of 1 Kings 19:9-18

God's plan does not depend on an individual.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Kings 19:9-18

In this favorite story, Elijah comes down from his encounter with the prophets of Baal by immediately fleeing from a threat on his life. Convinced that he's the last follower of God left and that the prophets have failed, he hides in a cave. God disillusions him of his false understanding of how God's plan in unfolding.

Suddenly, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

"Life Is a Roller Coaster" is a phrase we hear regularly. Seeing it as a meme, I've realized just how versatile this phrase actually is:

How true! No matter where you are in life, the roller coaster can be used to illustrate how it goes. This "grad speech" meme is one of my new favorites mainly because this photo is tremendous. All of us have a "life is a roller coaster" experience we would be willing to talk about (and probably many more experiences we'd rather not talk about). In life, high highs are often followed by low lows. If you're willing to share some personal experiences, you can help your group realize that everybody goes through days/weeks/seasons like this.

In fact, this week we're going to learn that Elijah -- a man so amazing that God didn't let him die (!!) -- coming off of one of the most incredible experiences anyone has ever had -- crashed into a low that might be lower than any low you've ever experienced.

If possible, I think it would be valuable to talk through how you handle "the lows". We've all been in a very low place, and sometimes we have handled it better than others. What has helped you the most in coping with lows in life? Maybe it will help someone else.

[Note: let me make sure you make the point -- folks might say "vacation" or "alone time", which is great, but the only "correct" answer is "time with God". He's the only One who can recharge your soul, so to speak. And that kind of recharge is the only one with truly lasting effects. And realize that you can do that on a vacation or during alone time.]

What I hope you can avoid are trite responses like these:

The first minimizes how devastating events in life can be, and the second implies that the Holy Spirit enjoys the things that terrify you.

One critique of the "life is like a roller coaster" rightly noted that in an actual roller coaster, you can see what's coming, so you can mentally and physically prepare for it. (Well, except for Space Mountain (RIP). Here's a bizarre video for you:)

If life is like a roller coaster, it's more like Space Mountain. No, not the flashing lights. No, not the long lines with video games. Well, maybe kinda like that. No, the fact that you can't see what's ahead.

If you don't want to talk about "life", then talk about how "work" or "school" or "commute" is like a roller coaster. You can find a topic that everyone is comfortable with.

Option #2: Your Childhood Hideout

When you were a kid, did you have a place that you thought was your "secret hideout"? Maybe you knew it wasn't secret, but it was "your place"? Maybe it was your room, or a closet, or a treehouse. Here's a bunkbed that was close in to create a hidden room. And that middle picture is of a stairwell that was finished in. Very cool!

Or, hey, your adult hideout! Creating "hidden rooms" in homes has become a big cottage industry. Some of them are extremely cool! Maybe they put a bookcase in front of a room at the end of a hall. If you didn't know the length of the house, you wouldn't know it was there! Or they finished part of the basement and created a hidden stair so that if no one knew the exact size of the basement, they wouldn't know there was a room.

Long and short is this: what's the point of a "hidden room" or a "secret hideout"?

(If you want to focus on the safety aspect, then add "panic room" to the discussion. Btw, I think you can do a safe Google search for "secret rooms in houses" and see some impressive ideas. Just ignore the ones that are obviously creepy.)

We're going to see the lengths to which Elijah went to hide from Jezebel -- a cave on a mountain on the far side of a desert. Pretty severe. Start thinking about the lengths you would go through to hide from someone...


This Week's Big Idea: How God Speaks

This week is perhaps every Christian's favorite passage about God speaking --

After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper.

That might spark some interest in your group: how does God speak in the Bible? There is a single passage that answers the question:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2 In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. (Heb 1)

But I know you're going to say that's cheating, so let's offer some more details. Let's cherry-pick some highlights.

A lot of us think of passages where God simply "speaks":

  • Gen 3:9 So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

  • Gen 6:13 Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

  • Gen 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him, saying, “I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless."

  • Gen 26:2 The Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land that I tell you about."

  • 1 Sam 23:2 So David inquired of the Lord: “Should I launch an attack against these Philistines?” The Lord answered David, “Launch an attack against the Philistines and rescue Keilah.”

BUT those passages don't explain how. Other passages give a few more details.

  • Gen 15:1 the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great.

  • Gen 18:1 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. 2 He looked up, and he saw three men standing near him.

  • Gen 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.”

  • Gen 28:12 And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching the sky, and God’s angels were going up and down on it. 13 The Lord was standing there beside him, saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac."

  • Ex 3:4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

  • Ex 19:3 Moses went up the mountain to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain: “This is what you must say to the house of Jacob and explain to the Israelites:"

  • Ex 28:30 Place the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece for decisions, so that they will also be over Aaron’s heart whenever he comes before the Lord.

But then there's this passage

11 The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend, then Moses would return to the camp. (Ex 33)

which (apart from being mind-blowing) lets us know that this kind of communication is extremely rare.

For a lot of us, I imagine that when we think of God speaking, we think of prophets. But the Bible can be extremely vague about how that worked.

  • 2 Ki 20:4 Isaiah had not yet gone out of the inner courtyard when the word of the Lord came to him: 5 “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the Lord God of your ancestor David says:"

  • Jon 1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because their evil has come up before me.”

  • Hos 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri...2 When the Lord first spoke to Hosea, he said this to him: Go and marry a woman of promiscuity

At least one passage associates that "word" with visions:

  • 1 Sam 3:1 In those days the word of the Lord was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread.

There are a few passages that actually describe God's voice (and I would put this week's passage in that category), but it's impossible to know how literal to take them. Much like the visions in Revelation, are they trying to put words on something that's otherwise indescribable?

  • Ex 19:19 Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder.

  • Eze 43:2 His voice sounded like the roar of a huge torrent, and the earth shone with his glory.

In the New Testament, everything is changed by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Bible can be just as vague about that as in the Old Testament:

  • Acts 13:2 As they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

But the new phrase is "being filled with the Holy Spirit":

  • Acts 4:8 Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders:"

  • Acts 13:9 But Saul—also called Paul—filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at Elymas 10 and said...

Let's Summarize

In the Old Testament, God "spoke" (1) through a disembodied voice (coming from an object), (2) through an angel who had a human appearance, or (3) (and mainly) through visions and dreams. God did give direction through things that we might today call "omens" or "readings", like the Urim and Thummim (which we don't know how worked).

In the New Testament before Pentecost, God spoke as He did in the Old -- through visions and dreams and readings (remember the Apostles casting lots?). After Pentecost, there are now two categories of people: Christians (who have the Holy Spirit) and non-Christians (who do not have the Holy Spirit). God can still today speak to non-Christians as He did to anyone in the Old Testament.

[Aside: don't forget the test! If someone you know not to be a Christians says they heard from God, don't dismiss it outright, but put it to the test (the Bible calls this "discernment") -- does it line up with biblical truth, and does it bring glory to Jesus? If it seems impossible to discern (like "God told me to buy a blue car") then set it aside. God doesn't communicate trivial things. Eventually, that person will escalate their "word" to something measurable.]

But you want to know how God speaks to you today. I will make the dangerous assumption that you are a Christian. That means you have the Holy Spirit. God doesn't have to use methods like voices or omens or thunder or whatnot. God dwells within you, changing the way you view the world, transforming you ("sanctification").

Christians I respect speak of a "calm assurance" or a "peace" that comes on them in making prayerful decisions. They also speak of a "nudge" or a "push" that guides them a certain way.

You might say, "That's boring! Why can't I have a "word from the Lord" like the prophets did?" Because God doesn't need to do that anymore. The phrase for this is "the Canon is closed". God has given us all of the "data" we need in the Bible -- who we are as humanity, what went wrong, how God fixed it in Jesus Christ, and what we are supposed to do about it. Anything else is just clarification on what all of that means in a particular situation. There aren't going to be "new visions" or "new prophecies" because God has already said what needs to be said.

Can God still communicate in dreams and visions? Sure. God can do whatever He wants. But it seems that the encouraged method of communication is prayer -- not us babbling to God about what we want, but about being still and being aware of God's presence. When we pray, earnestly and persistently, we put ourselves in a place where we are better able to discern God's will for a certain situation.


Where We Are in 1 Kings

The context is critical. If anyone in your group missed last week

you will want to fill them in.

After Elijah slaughtered all of Jezebel's false prophets, he warned King Ahab to return to Jezreel (the royal residence) before the storm made the roads impassable. (And because he could, Elijah outran Ahab's chariot to Jezreel.)

Who was living in Jezreel? Jezebel. When Jezebel heard about the whole "fire from heaven" "Yahweh is the one true God" "turn the people back to God" thing, her first reaction was "I'm going to kill Elijah". And after staring down God's enemies singlehandedly and seeing the mighty power of God in action, Elijah's reaction to Jezebel was "I'm going to run away".

This is why we love Elijah. He had ups and downs like we do.

Anyway, he doesn't just run away, he flees in terror as far as he can go. This is Jonah getting on a ship to Tarshish. He runs all the way to Mount Horeb, close to the end of Sinai. A month and a half of hard travel. You will know this by a different name from different stories:

  • Ex 3:1 Meanwhile, Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush.

  • Deut 5:2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 He did not make this covenant with our ancestors, but with all of us who are alive here today. 4 The Lord spoke to you face to face from the fire on the mountain.

Yes, Mount Horeb is the same as what we call Mount Sinai. This is the mountain where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and the mountain where God called Moses to return with the people and receive the covenant. It's the same mountain where God revealed His glory to Moses while Moses hid in the cleft of the rock (Ex 33:22). (Some people romanticize that Eijah was in the very same cave, but that's unprovable.)

We don't know which modern mountain is Mount Horeb, and I don't have the energy to go into that debate today.

And that's where this week's passage picks up. Elijah hiding from Jezebel in a cave on the mountain where God gave Moses the covenant.


Part 1: Alone? (1 Kings 19:9-10)

9 He entered a cave there and spent the night. Suddenly, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”

I don't have to tell you that caves are a good place to hide. Jezebel could have had the entire Israelite army searching for years and never come close to finding him. Of course, God always knew where he was. There's no hiding from God.

We talked a bit about what "the word of the Lord" means. This is one of those passages where we get a little more detail -- God spoke to Elijah in an audible voice.

I do believe this is my very favorite line from God in the Old Testament. It's so cutting and yet so compassionate. Have you ever had someone confront you like this? They know what you're doing, you know what you're doing, but they want you to say it? What was that like?

Some people read this as a hard challenge to Elijah's faith. And of course it is, but I read this more as a very compassionate jolt. In Elijah's response, it's clear that he was in a self-pity rut. It doesn't necessary mean that he had lost faith, but it absolutely means that he had lost focus. Let's go through his response as a whole.

First, we have to read it in context of what he said on his journey (while God was miraculously providing for him every step of the way):

4 He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my ancestors.”

Those who believe God was primarily challenging Elijah's faith take this to mean that Elijah was comparing himself with other Israelites, saying that his fear of Jezebel revealed the same lack of faith.

But there's another (better) way to read this -- Elijah was comparing himself with the prophets who had come before him. They had failed to turn the people back to God, and so had Elijah (so he thought). After all, why would the Israelites let Jezebel threaten to kill him if they were on God's side? Elijah had done his best, he had failed, and now what was the point?

One of my very favorite characters ever is Eeyore. He made "woe is me" cool. And yet his friends loved him dearly and he loved them. (A picture of happy Eeyore has the joy energy of a thousand suns.) He had gotten into a permanent rut -- nothing would ever go right for him, so why try anymore?

Surely you've found yourself in that kind of rut! What is that like, the feeling like you may as well give up? What was the context? What brought that feeling about? What did you do about it?

I'm not sure what it says about me that one of my other favorite characters is Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is also a classic "woe is me" (you might say he's the Charlie Browniest of them all). There are so many comics to choose from (plus some great lines from A Charlie Brown Christmas), but I'll settle for this one:

When you are convinced you have failed, it can be hard to believe anything else.

Second, we have to realize that Elijah had been rehearsing this pathetic answer the whole journey (you'll see that he repeats it verbatim in a few verses). It has become his whole reality. Have you ever repeated something so many times that you can't think of anything else?

The first part of what Elijah said is certainly true. He was very zealous. The Israelites had abandoned the covenant and killed the prophets. But he was wrong about "I alone am left".

This is why I don't think God was primarily challenging Elijah's faith. Elijah had been zealous for God and was still zealous. But Elijah's focus had shifted from God to himself -- from God's power to his own circumstances. How else could he say "I'm the only one left"? He had not lost faith in God, he had lost sight of his place in God's plan.

I really don't even think that he was saying that God's plan for the prophets had failed. I think he had decided that God's plan was for the prophets to fail! He had decided that God wanted him to fail. That's what depressed him. Well, I guess that means we could say that Elijah had lost faith in his agreement with what he thought was God's plan.

And again, have you ever been there? Have you ever lost faith that God's plan was for your good? How did that go?

God was about to tell Elijah that everything he had focused on was wrong -- he had not failed, and he was not alone.


Part 2: The Whisper (1 Kings 19:11-14)

11 Then he said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the Lord’s presence.” At that moment, the Lord passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Suddenly, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies,” he replied, “but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they’re looking for me to take my life.”

Those who believe that God was challenging Elijah's faith in Him see this as God reminding Elijah of His power. But did Elijah "need" this reminder? He had called down fire from heaven not two months before. No -- here's what I think is going on:

Elijah had decided that he had failed, and that God's plan was to judge and destroy His wicked people. How do you think Elijah expected that to happen? Probably through destructive storms and earthquakes and fires. God pouring out His wrath on the earth ... like He had in times past! Remember the plagues in Egypt? The fire that killed Aaron's sons (Lev 10)? The earthquake that ended Korah's rebellion (Num 16)?

And so God "rent the earth" with His mighty power, just as Elijah "predicted". And Elijah waited in His cave, thinking that this was the end of the world. (This is such an amazing passage -- it creates its own imagery in our heads, and yet I don't think we could ever do it justice if we tried to describe it.)

But it wasn't. That wasn't God's plan. God's plan was to continue to speak in mercy and compassion to His wayward people, like Elijah had become. Elijah was wrong about what constituted failure.

But to get there, God took Elijah back through His first question. God "whispered" to Elijah. The Hebrew just means "a calm voice". That in and of itself rocked Elijah's world. Maybe he was like the zealots in Jesus' day who wanted God to destroy their enemies. But Jesus came to love and to serve and to give His life. God did not speak in the destruction and calamity, He spoke in a calm, compassionate voice. This got Elijah's attention. I love the detail of him covering his face before going out. But he wasn't ready to admit his error just yet -- he gave the same rote answer he did before. He wasn't giving up on his self-pity just yet.

The repetition is symbolically important. Have you ever repeated a question in this way, even after they had given an answer? Why? In part, this is to break through a facade the other person had built (that scene in Good Will Hunting comes to mind). But in big part, this is to establish the importance of what's about to happen. Think of it as a commissioning. A famous example of this is Jesus and Peter in John 21:

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs,” he told him. 16 A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Shepherd my sheep,” he told him. 17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

In that situation, the three-fold question mirrored Peter's three denials. Peter answered the same way, but Jesus powered through those answers to something much bigger.

And that's what's about to happen here.


Part 3: Reality Defined (1 Kings 19:15-18)

15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go and return by the way you came to the Wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive, you are to anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 You are to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Then Jehu will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Jehu. 18 But I will leave seven thousand in Israel—every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

God's response seems to me the equivalent of "you have no idea what you're talking about".

  1. Are you afraid that the Israelites want to put you to death? Well, I want you to walk all the way through Israel to the enemy capital of Aram.

  2. Are you wondering if I won't hold My enemies to account? Well, the two men you anoint as king will bludgeon My enemies.

  3. Are you so sure you're all alone? Not only will you anoint your successor (who is nearby), but I have thousands more ready to serve.

By focusing on himself, Elijah had forgotten that God's plan was much bigger than him. I'm already out of space, so let's just hit the highlights:

Hazael of Aram

Damascus was the capital of Aram, and Ben-Hadad was king at the time. The next chapter describes Ben-Hadad's fight against King Ahab. Anyway, Hazael was an officer in the army. In 2 Kings 8, he went to Elisha to ask about Ben-Hadad's failing health, and Elisha reported this prophecy and wept.

12 and Hazael asked, “Why is my lord weeping?” He replied, “Because I know the evil you will do to the people of Israel. You will set their fortresses on fire. You will kill their young men with the sword. You will dash their children to pieces. You will rip open their pregnant women.”

What's the point? God is God of the entire earth. And will use the ruthless people of the world as instruments of His judgment on sin. The Israelites were not going to "get away" with their apostasy.

Jehu of Israel

Jehu was a commander in Israel's army. In 2 Kings 9, Elisha sent a prophet to Jehu to tell him of this prophecy and issue this command:

7 You are to strike down the house of your master Ahab so that I may avenge the blood shed by the hand of Jezebel—the blood of my servants the prophets and of all the servants of the Lord.

Jehu killed Joram, who was king in Israel at the time, Ahaziah king of Judah, Jezebel, all of Ahab's surviving family members, and every remaining prophet of Baal. The point? Elijah was not God's only instrument of justice.

Elisha the Prophet

We're going to talk about Elisha a lot more in the coming weeks, so I'll go light here. We don't know where Elisha lived, but Elijah found him straightaway. His family was wealthy enough to have a lot of oxen. Reading 2 Kings 8/9, it seems that Elisha was the one to anoint those two men king. Did this mean Elijah failed to obey God? Certainly not. The easiest way to explain this is that God took Elijah to heaven on a chariot of fire before he could, and Elisha (his successor) completed the task on his behalf.

The Remnant

Let me end with this topic. The idea of a "remnant" goes all the way back to Noah -- God will never let the entire human race abandon Him. He will make sure there are always those who know the truth and fear Him.

[Aside: this is why we have to be careful with the call "Christianity is just one generation away from extinction". I understand the point -- Christians must be vigilant about sharing the gospel. If we tell no one the good news about Jesus, who can be saved? But that statement forgets one very important truth -- God is also at work preserving His people. He won't let an entire generation fail to share the gospel! At the top, we talked about how God speaks to people. The Holy Spirit won't go silent on our call to evangelism.]

Not only was Elijah wrong -- that he was not the only one left -- but God had thousands of followers in Israel. Where were they? What were they doing? Why didn't they make a big fuss about Elijah and the prophets of Baal? Because that's not what God wanted them to do. Quiet faithfulness means something to God. Not silent, but quiet. In the small towns. In the rural places. In the tiny churches. Living for Jesus, ready to serve Him when called upon.

Such a great lesson for us! Are we in a low place? God will compassionately bring us out of it. Do we feel ineffective? God will remind us that He work spans the globe, and our part of it will bear fruit.

Thank God for the story of Elijah. Pray that it will be an encouragement to everyone in your group.

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