Ravens and the Prophet

Strategic Retreat or Headlong Flight - Chapter thirteen

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’ Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert.
(1 Kings 19:1-4)

We can easily imagine the scene as the king returned home. Ahab may have been impressed by what he had seen, but he lacked the courage to mention the Lord’s part in the dramatic happenings on Mount Carmel. As far as he was concerned, (at least, when faced by his wife’s commanding presence) it was Elijah alone who had caused all the trouble.

What damage the enemy causes through the seemingly gentle ties of mistaken affection. Ahab, who was clearly as fascinated by Elijah as Herod was by John the Baptist, might well have opened his heart to the Lord had it not already been devoted to Jezebel. Now, as he made his report, he quailed before her anger. ‘What do you mean you let him escape? Why did you organise a contest when you had the man in your power? Things would have turned out differently if I’d been there!’

From this distance in history – and especially because we know the end of the story – it is tempting to view Jezebel’s threats against Elijah much as we would the Red Queen’s blusterings in Alice in Wonderland. Both creatures were wont to shout ‘Off with his head’ at the slightest provocation. But it would be naive to underestimate this formidable opponent, whose cruelty had already taken such a toll on the life of the nation.

Like the forty Jews who vowed they would not eat until Paul had been assassinated, Jezebel vowed that Elijah should pay for the blood of her prophets with his own life. In her craving for revenge, Jezebel becomes the image and forerunner of a thousand latter-day persecutors of the saints. She did not realise that she had sided with the prince of darkness, and so had sealed her own fate.

The Weight of Suffering

Jezebel’s wholesale slaughter of the prophets of the Lord – and Obadiah’s heroic attempts to protect them – have an ominously familiar ring at the end of this blood-soaked twentieth century. More people have died for their faith in these supposedly enlightened days than in all the preceding centuries put together.(1)

Tertullian’s comment, ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,’ reminds us that to be a ‘witness’ for the Lord can also mean, in the original Greek, to be a ‘martyr’. This being so, it is more important than ever for us to know that God’s love is stronger than death. His light will ultimately dispel all darkness. As Kierkegaard wrote, ‘The tyrant dies and his reign ends; the martyr dies and his rule begins.’

Ours too is an age in which it sometimes seems as though evil has been given the power to overcome, even as it appeared to have defeated the cause of Yahweh in Elijah’s day.(2) It must have felt that way when the Muslim Turks overran Asia Minor, and then destroyed the church throughout North Africa during the Dark Ages. Still to this day the reign of the crescent continues to dwarf the cross in these regions. Islam is so rampantly on the offensive as a military-religious-economic force that the very fate of the Church in the Middle East appears to be in the balance.

Because the Lord is at the centre of His Church, however, there is always hope, not only for its continuing survival, but even for a mighty harvest of souls. This is God’s hour to reach many Muslims with the love of Jesus – even as His hour had come to touch Israel through a stirring demonstration of His power.

In Western societies, too, those who are seeking to be true to Christ are facing pressure of many kinds. Our ‘democratic’ system of unthinking consumerism has strayed far from God’s pattern for our lives that we are just as much in need of God’s prophetic challenge as any more obviously anti-Christian form of government.

When we see the corruption that is at the heart of so many of today’s world systems, it is no wonder it causes our spirits great distress. We shall consider later how the Lord can help us to convert these feelings into deep mourning and effective prayer.

Surprise Attack

The Scriptures warn that all who want to live a devoted and godly life in Christ Jesus will meet with persecution – that is, will be made to suffer because of their religious stand.(3) You may not find this verse featured in your ‘Promise Box’, but there are many other New Testament texts which point to the same truth.(4)

The powers of darkness are resilient, and have enormous resources to call on. They are ever on the watch to find fresh occasions to disturb our peace, and to damage the cause for which we are fighting. We are never more vulnerable than in our moments of greatest triumph. In the relief that follows a time of immense strain, we are prone to let our defences down.

‘Kick-back’ is a ferocious weapon. David Watson and Charles Spurgeon both recorded that they were never more prone to feelings of dejection than after they had finished preaching. Having given themselves so fully to their task, they had little left with which to face the fresh challenges the enemy directed their way.

Mountaineers experience pain not only as they battle through the thin air to reach the summit, but still more as they begin their descent. Incredibly, soldiers may be unaware when they have been shot in the heat of battle. The shock and the pain come later.

Much has been written as to whether or not Elijah did the right thing in running away. The point is that Jezebel’s threat reached Elijah at a time when he was already exhausted.

Since God rarely works miracles on behalf of those who persistently refuse to take ordinary human precautions, it could be argued that this was a necessary flight.

He was, after all facing a real threat to his life. Were Elijah to be killed now, the forces of Baal would register a stunning counterattack and quickly make up for their recent humiliation.

All such reasoning is perfectly plausible, but the tenor of Scripture points elsewhere. We are clearly told that Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. For once, his faith failed him and he fell prey to that fear of man which is such a snare to the soul.(5) From having shown practically no concern for his own self-interests in the past, he found himself now overwhelmed with fears for his own survival.

Perhaps it is easier to hold the prospect of death more lightly when we have little left to lose. It is a much more daunting foe when victory, and better prospects, are within our sights. Nevertheless, as servants of the Lord, we are not free to desert our posts when the going gets tough. Elijah’s physical presence was badly needed to maintain the impetus of the reformation. The writer of Ecclesiastes advises, ‘If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.’ (6)

Driven to the Desert

Jezebel’s threat hit Elijah so hard that he forgot all the times the Lord had rescued him in the past; forgot, too, the golden principle he had hitherto practiced, of consulting the Lord before embarking on any new course of action.

The sad sight of Elijah plunging into the scorching wilderness, and running until he dropped, is a poignant reminder that there are bound to be consequences when leaders lose their confidence. We can only imagine what Elijah’s servant must have felt as his master turned tail and fled. It is, perhaps, a reminder that we dare not put our ultimate trust in any person, no matter how strong they may appear. We do each other no favours when we demand too much of our leaders.

Elijah reached the land of Judah, but he dared not stay there. King Jehoshaphat had allied himself through his daughter’s marriage to Ahab’s son, and the prophet feared a diplomatic extradition. Thoughtfully leaving his servant behind to spare him witnessing his extreme misery, Elijah hurried on until he came to the southern desert. There he lay down under a broom tree, and cried aloud for the Lord to take him home.

Would Elijah have fared better had he stood firm and trusted the Lord to deliver him from Jezebel? We cannot know for certain, because history records that God has a different solution for every dilemma. When Elisha found himself besieged by his attackers, he made no attempt to run away.

He was so confident that the host of heaven was with him that he did not even need to see the angels who were protecting him; he merely prayed for his servant to be able to see them. Elisha’s astonishing faith saved the city.(7)

There have been instances when the Lord’s servants have set out on a course of action, knowing full well the suffering that will follow. We think of Paul, for instance, as he journeyed to Jerusalem, well warned by both the Lord and His people of the sufferings ahead.(8) On the other hand, we can point to other occasions when circumstances necessitated a hasty flight from danger. Saul, for example, was warned to flee from Damascus, just as Mary and Joseph were told to take the baby Jesus to Egypt.(9)

The history of the Church shows the same dichotomy. Demos Shakarian relates how wonderfully blessed were the Armenians who obeyed the Lord’s warnings and fled to America. Those who stayed behind suffered the most appalling persecution.(10)

There can no more be a simple right or wrong course of action to follow at such times, therefore, than there can be a blanket answer to the question, ‘Should I stay in or out of the historical churches when there is so much false teaching in them?’ Each situation requires us to seek God afresh, and to follow whatever advice or example He gives us.

Sometimes it is a choice not between right and wrong but rather between two evils. Richard Wurmbrand records how he had to tell many lies during his daily interrogations in a Romanian torture chamber in order to protect other members of the underground church. If he had told the literal truth, many innocent lives would have been lost. May the Lord spare us from ever being placed in such a situation – but may He give us the wisdom we will need should such a time ever come upon us!(11)

At the end of the day, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that Elijah would have been wiser never to have gone to Jezreel in the first place. If he had sought out somewhere quiet in order to recharge his body with food, and his spiritual batteries with prayer, then he would have been far better prepared for the next round of the battle. But then I reflect on all the wisdom and encouragement I have gained precisely because Elijah did go through such a dark time, and I smile. God understands us so well. He knows how we will respond, and He uses even our mistakes for His own purposes and glory.

In the meantime, however, Elijah had to come face to face with an almost overwhelming sense of failure. Some of us will recognise this powerful emotion only too well. How we handle it is all important. We can either cry out to the Lord to turn seemingly impossible situations around for His glory, or we can become bogged down in the quagmires of self-pity, bitterness, doubt and self-recrimination.

Most of us agree, in a relatively unthinking head-nodding way, that forgiveness is a right and proper idea – until we have something major to forgive. The problem then is that we may succeed in cloaking our resentment to the point where we all but deceive ourselves.

There is only one letter difference between the words ‘repent’ and ‘resent,’ yet all the difference in the world in their outworking. Resentment is not an automatic response to a disappointment: it too is a choice. Every victory we gain over these foes defeats the enemy’s attempt to induce blockages in our hearts, and represents a notable step forward for the Kingdom.

Reflections

The great revivalist Finney taught that nothing can stop God’s purposes for us – provided only that we are willing to forgive. Who is it we need to forgive most often? Our friends and family of course!

Honesty is essential if we are to respond to difficulties with faith, rather than with resentment or flight. Think of people who, as you perceive it, have hurt or failed you. Pray for the Lord to redeem these bitter situations, as well as to cleanse your own memories of them.

If you feel upset because God has allowed some disappointment to come your way, ‘forgive’ Him for allowing it to happen. It clears the air wonderfully!

Surround the people concerned with the healing love and forgiveness of God. It is impossible to fear or resent someone you have chosen to love. As William Law put it, ‘There is nothing which makes us love a man so much as praying for him!’

Equally, you may need to forgive yourself for the way you are, or the manner in which you reacted to a specific situation. Take an example of an occasion when, as you perceive it, you let yourself (or others) down. Bathe the person you were then in the love-light of Christ, forgiving yourself just as you would forgive anyone else. Then you will be ready for the next test of faith!

Selah

Lord, thank You that You are the God of new beginnings.

Thank You that You do not give up on us. Forgive us when we have been foolish and unforgiving, too ready to blame others, and too slow to humble ourselves.

Help us not to run away from our failures, but to receive Your forgiveness, even as we forgive those who have let us down.

I give you especially the matter of . . . Please turn even this round for Your glory.

Grant me opportunities, Lord, to help restore those who are hurting, and who feel tempted to run away. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Previous chapter – The Importance of Rest
Next Chapter – Shock and Shame

References

1 To see how true this is, we have only to look at the suffering Christians are enduring not only in the remaining communist countries – of which China is by far the chief example – but also among the forty three officially Muslim nations. See John 15:18f
2 Revelation 13:7-18, cf Daniel 7:20-22
3 2 Timothy 3:12 Amplified
4 Eg Matthew 10:22; John 15:20, 16:2, Acts 9:16, 14:22; 1 Corinthians 4:10; Hebrews 10:33; 2 Timothy 1:8, 2:3; Revelation 2:10; Romans 8:17; cf Matthew 16:21, 17:22, 20:17; John 10:17-18
5 Proverbs 29:25; cf Isaiah 51:12-16; John 12:42-43; Galatians 2:11-14
6 Ecclesiastes 10:4
7 2 Kings 6:15-16
8 Acts 21:10-14
9 Acts 9:25, Matthew 2:13
10 See ‘The Happiest People on Earth,’ by Demos Shekarian (Hodder)
11 See the chapter ‘The Absolute Necessity of Truthfulness’ in ‘Alone with God,’ by Richard Wurmbrand. (Hodder)

Chapter Index