The history of Elijah is one of the most gripping and fascinating records of the Old Testament. He was the hero of a great religious crisis, the restorer of the ancient order of faith. Armed only with the Spirit of the Lord, his faith and supreme courage challenged the strongly entrenched forces of evil and wrested the kingdom of Israel from their power. A muddy undercurrent of idolatry had always polluted the pure worship of Jehovah, but in the days of Ahab the undercurrent had become a dark flood which threatened to sweep every vestige of true religion before it. Ahab was personally favorable to the religion of Israel, but his weak will was dominated by that of Jezebel, his wicked wife.
Being a Syrian princess, she was determined to stamp out the true faith and to establish the worship of the Syrian deities, Baal and Ashtoreth. Her fanatic zeal knew no bounds. The prophets of God were slain or driven to the dens of the earth. The altars of Jehovah were desecrated and temples were erected in honor of Baal. Never before had Israel been plunged into such idolatry.
Into this dark picture Elijah leaped with startling suddenness. He struck like a thunderbolt. Garbed in the rough clothing of the desert dweller, he stood fearlessly before the king and delivered Jehovah’s message: “As Jehovah, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ASV). Then he was gone as suddenly as he had appeared, and every effort to trace him proved fruitless.
According to the word of God, Elijah withdrew into the desert and hid himself by the brook Cherith. As he had spoken, neither rain nor dew fell upon the earth for three years and six months. The prophet’s flight from the court of Ahab was as much an act of faith as his sudden appearance there. Only a true spirit of obedience would be willing to leave the field of conflict at the first flash of victory.
By the brook Cherith, Elijah had time for communion with God and for meditation upon the apostasy of the people. He experienced the fatherly care of Jehovah in the visit of the ravens with daily food. When the water had dried up in the brook, God sent him to Zarephath, a city of Sidon, to the home of a poor widow.
At last the time for his return drew near. Elijah’s second meeting with Ahab was as dramatic as the first. Ahab met the prophet with accusations. “Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?” Elijah answered fearlessly, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of Jehovah.” Then the prophet commanded that the king, false priests, and the people meet on Mount Carmel. Ahab became the servant and Elijah the master. Unwilling though he must have been, he obeyed the prophet’s word.
Mount Carmel was a fitting stage for the enactment of the great drama. Northward and westward were Tyre and Sidon, and beyond the Mediterranean dotted with the ships of the Syrian merchantmen—the kingdom of Baal. Eastward and southward lay the hills of Galilee, and beyond the hills of Judea—the kingdom of God.
On the mountain stood the people, hushed and expectant, their faces showing the mixed expressions of hope and despair. The rich-robed priests of Baal defiantly confronted the prophet of God. Elijah broke the silence, addressing the people: “How long go ye limping between the two sides? if Jehovah be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” It was a master stroke and won the victory. The silence of the people spoke louder than words. Their new loyalty to Baal dropped like a garment from their shoulders, and the priests of Baal were forced to accept the challenge to trial by sacrifice.
That which followed was but a follow-up of the advantage already won. The sacrifice lay untouched upon the altar of the frenzied and exhausted priests of Baal, while fire from heaven consumed the offering of Elijah, as well as the wood and stones upon which it was laid—yes, even the dust of the surrounding ground and the water which had drenched the offering. When the people saw it, they fell on their faces and cried, “Jehovah, he is God; Jehovah, he is God.”
Elijah was indeed a man of courage. He possessed many other admirable qualities, but certainly there was no other more conspicuous than this one. It is generally observed that there are two kinds of courage—physical and moral. The first is spectacular and often magnificent, but it depends largely upon brute strength and reckless daring. Moral courage is an uncompromising stand for that which is right regardless of the personal cost which such a position may demand. Elijah had moral courage of the highest order.
His mission was not to reveal new truth, but to restore that which had already been revealed to its rightful place in the hearts of the people. Fully conscious of this mission, he was absolutely unyielding in his defense of the truth. He was fearless of the consequences of doing right. He counted no sacrifice too great. He cared nothing for what men might think of him. He spurned their praise and sought only to do his duty as God revealed it to him. He was not afraid to stand alone. Neither the king nor the host of pagan priests surrounding him were able to daunt him. Standing alone on Carmel with all the kingdom against him, he dared to challenge the false religion of Baal and to champion the cause of Jehovah.
The secret of Elijah’s courage is no mystery. That which produced it is available to every child of God. He was a man of great faith. He entrusted the ordering of his life unto the Lord and doubted not that He would lead him aright. He was a man of prayer who found in communion with God in the desert a strength that never failed him in the courts of wickedness. He was absolutely dead to the world. Nothing it could offer him was sufficient to turn him from the steadfastness of his purpose and his devotion to duty.
Every generation has its task to perform, if it has but the vision to see it. Our generation needs no new revelation of truth. The faith has already been “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3 ASV). The pen of inspiration has given us “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). But many defenders of the faith have grown weak and spineless. The altar of Jehovah is being forsaken for the cheap gods of this world, and false prophets cry their wares within the very doors of the temple of truth. Our generation needs men like Elijah who will smite these false gods and lead people back to the old paths.