Not one of the nineteen kings that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. But none devoted himself more fully to do evil in the Lord’s sight than Ahab (1 Kings 16:32; 21:25).
Ahab’s wife Jezebel was the stronger personality in the marriage. A devoted worshiper of the Canaanite deity Baal, she incited her husband to promote idol worship (1 Kings 16:31–33), sought to eliminate worship of the Lord by slaughtering His prophets (1 Kings 18:4), and orchestrated the murder of the righteous man Naboth (1 Kings 21:5–16).
It was during this exceedingly wicked season in Israel’s history that the prophet Elijah appeared.
Famine and Fire
Prompted by the Lord, Elijah showed up at Ahab’s palace to pronounce God’s judgment of a three-year drought upon the land. No rain came. Crops and vineyards cooked in the unrelenting heat. Trees drooped under the withering sun, producing no fruit. Livestock suffered and died. People scraped by with barely enough to feed their families. Though Baal worship continued unabated from the king’s palace, the people themselves longed for relief.
At the end of three years, Elijah again appeared to Ahab, challenging the prophets of Baal to a duel. Situated atop Mount Carmel, overlooking a vast plain that stretched as far as the eye could see, the flashing fire with its accompanying billowing smoke that fell from heaven in response to the prophet’s prayer would have been visible for miles and miles.
Fear and Flight
It has been said that believers are most susceptible to satanic assault just before or just after a spiritual victory. It was no different for Elijah. While the smell of smoke still filled the air, his heart was seized with fear at Queen Jezebel’s threat of immediate death.
Running a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sat under a broom tree, a spreading desert shrub that provided scant shade from the sun. Spiritually and physically exhausted, he bemoaned his fate and expressed his wish to the Lord to die.
An angel appeared to him, provided food and water, instructed him to rest, then sent him on a forty-day journey deeper into the wilderness, all the way to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Rebuke and Reassignment
The Lord is patient and forbearing with his servants. He is also direct and to the point. After allowing Elijah a space of time to wallow in self-pity, the Lord braced him up and sent him out.
As happens so often in Scripture, the Lord opened the conversation with a question: What are you doing here, Elijah?
In a classic statement of self-congratulatory pity, Elijah recounted his personal zeal for the Lord in contrast to the systemic sinfulness of the people he served. I can almost see the Lord shake His head as Elijah whimpered a second time, I alone am left. Was this the man who stared down the prophets of Baal?
The Lord’s response was both verbal and visual. “Go out and stand in My presence,” He commanded. As the Lord passed by, a tearing wind shattered the cliffs, a rumbling earthquake shook the rocks, and a fire—probably reminiscent of the fire He had sent from heaven on Mount Carmel—flashed from the sky. But the Lord was in none of them. Instead, He spoke in a soft whisper.
Elijah again stood at the entrance of the cave and bemoaned his present circumstances. This time the Lord responded with directness—“Get up. Get out. Go up. Go do. . . . And, by the way, Elijah; I have seven thousand faithful ones throughout the land.”
Return and Reengagement
Though Elijah was instrumental in the conversion of thousands on Mount Carmel and was the anointer of kings, his most enduring ministry was the mentoring of his successor Elisha. The mantle of God’s presence rested on Elijah throughout his life. The Lord passed the mantle to Elisha when Elijah was caught up to heaven.
This story, and the three biblical examples below, serve as enduring reminders that no matter how dark the culture may be, God always has a people. He continues to work mightily in people’s lives regardless of the surrounding society’s sinful setting.
Elijah prophesied in the most wicked era of Israel’s history. Ezekiel, a priest with no temple, became a prophet who confronted and comforted God’s people in captivity. Ezra returned with a contingency of people to a city ever so slowly emerging from decades of oppression and hardship. Esther was a faithful woman living in a nation that brooked no tolerance for the people of God.
In each instance, God demonstrated that He was in control, calling people unto Himself through repentance and faith.
The Broader Setting of Mount Carmel
The story of Elijah and the fire of God is a powerful narrative. Almost every preacher has preached this text. Often, the sermon closes with a flourish, recounting the fire of God falling on the altar, prompting the revived people of God to fall on their faces in repentance and worship. What is frequently overlooked is that this historical snapshot is part of a larger context. Explaining this broader setting provides an opportunity to encourage our people to remain faithful despite the swirling political, cultural, and moral decadence that presses against every generation of true believers.
The Twelve-Stone Altar
When Elijah repaired the Lord’s altar that had been torn down, he used twelve stones. This served as a reminder to the people living in the northern kingdom that God’s immutable promises, given to “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel [Jacob],” were for the blessings of those who feared the Lord. Thus, the altar itself was not only an affront to the Baal worship that gripped the nation under Ahab’s reign, but to the systemic idolatry imposed on the people by Jeroboam, first king of the divided nation of Israel, and perpetuated by every king that ruled from its capital city of Samaria.
The Unchanged Political Situation
When Elijah issued his famous challenge to the prophets of Baal, Ahab was the reigning king over the northern kingdom of Israel and Jezebel was his queen. After the fire fell, Ahab was still the king and Jezebel was still the queen. Jezebel’s wicked manipulations of Ahab continued for many years before he was eventually killed in battle.
Following Ahab’s death, two of his sons ruled an additional fourteen years before Jehu became king, had Jezebel executed, and swept away the worship of Baal. The fire that fell in the midst of the perverse social and religious culture resulted in the conversion of many, but did not usher in a period of national spiritual awakening or restoration of righteousness in the political arena.
Sheltering in Place
After Elijah announced God’s judgment of a three-year drought to King Ahab, the Lord directed Elijah to a secure, out-of-the-way place northeast of the border of Israel. Wadi Cherith was in rugged terrain, a place of waterfalls, pools, and caves surrounded by sheer cliffs. When the brook dried up as a result of the drought, Elijah was directed even farther north and east to Zarephath where he remained in hiding at the widow’s house until the time was right to confront the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
After Mount Carmel, Elijah again retreated to the wilderness. It was at Mount Horeb that the Lord appeared to him. After a display of wind, earthquake, and fire, the Lord spoke in a still small voice reminding Elijah there were seven thousand who had never bowed the knee to Baal and that Elijah still had a ministry to perform.
Steps to Repentance: A Case Study from Mount Carmel
The response of the “people” to Elijah’s Mount Carmel challenge provides an interesting case study of the Lord’s use of “means” to convert the wayward and lost. Key verses are 1 Kings 18.
In every generation, God’s people will face Committed Idolaters (v. 25). But God’s Spirit will be continuously be at work with individuals among the crowd. It is the believer’s responsibility to present a compelling Gospel message that moves these individuals, step-by-step . . .
- from being Carelessly Indifferent (v. 21) to being Casually Interested (v. 24);
- from being Casually Interested to being Cordially Inclined (v. 30);
- from being Cordially Inclined to being Confessionally Inspired—They fell facedown and said, “The Lord, He is God!” (v. 39).
When the child of God presents the challenge of the Gospel, children of this world are changed.
A Watchman on the Wall
Ezekiel was a prophet who ministered to the captives of Judah who were taken to the land of Babylon. A displaced priest with no Temple access, Ezekiel faced the unenviable task of trying to comfort people who had lost everything while simultaneously confronting them over their sin and calling them to maintain faith and trust in the Lord who seemingly had forsaken them.
Ezekiel Was Filled with the Spirit
Ezekiel was able to fulfill this daunting task through the anointing power of the Spirit of God. The work of the Spirit in Ezekiel’s life is referenced four times in his call, recorded in chapters 2 and 3: the Spirit entered him and set him on his feet (2:2 and 3:24); the Spirit lifted him up (3:12); the Spirit lifted him up and bore him away to the exiles living by the Chebar River in Tel-Abib (3:14).
Equipping Ezekiel for spiritual service in a foreign land was a harbinger of a broader ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all of God’s people. In a future messianic age, the Lord would gather His people from among the nations, fill them with His Spirit, and restore them in an idyllic state (chapters 36–37). His promise was profound:
- I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you;
- I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh;
- I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
- I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live. (Ezekiel 37:14)
Ezekiel Ate the Scroll of God
After he was filled with the Spirit, Ezekiel ate the scroll of God (3:1–3). The imagery of eating the scroll, whether a literal or metaphorical act, became the foundation of Ezekiel’s ministry.
Two phrases stand out in Ezekiel’s lengthy book: Thus saith the Lord and the word of the Lord came to me, saying. The first phrase, written here in King James English, occurs 126 times in Ezekiel; the latter phrase appears thirty-seven times. Whether through drama (as seen in chapter 12), life circumstances (chapter 24), parable (chapter 16), blistering sermon (chapter 14), or message of hope (chapter 37), Ezekiel’s only message was “the Word of the Lord.”
Ezekiel Sat Where the People Sat
The third leg in Ezekiel’s prophetic call was to “sit where the people sat” in their captivity. When the Spirit placed him among the exiles in Tel-Abib, he sat there stunned (or astonished) for seven days (3:15).
An often overlooked but essential component of effective ministry is to immerse oneself among the people, allowing their plight to grip one’s own soul. Ezekiel’s call to be a “watchman on the wall” followed his seventh day of stunned silence (3:16–21).
Only when God’s servant is filled with the Spirit, saturates himself with the Word of God, and becomes thoroughly acquainted with the needs of the people, is he qualified to be their watchman on the wall.
The Good Hand of Our God
Despite being born and raised in captivity, Ezra was a man wholly devoted to the Lord his God. His biography, recounted in the opening verses of Ezra 7, is brief but powerful:
- He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, v. 6a.
- The good hand of the Lord his God was upon him, v. 6b.
- The gracious hand of his God was upon him, because Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, to obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel, verses 9b–10.
Trust in the Lord
Finding favor with Persian king Artaxerxes, Ezra was granted permission to lead a contingent of people back to Jerusalem to, among other things, glorify the house [Temple] in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:27).
Before embarking on the journey, Ezra proclaimed a fast by the Ahava River to ask God to provide safe travel along the dangerous trade route that led to Jerusalem. He was ashamed to ask the king for a cavalry escort since, as he had told the king, The hand of our God is gracious to all who seek Him (Ezra 8:22).
Not surprisingly, Ezra’s reasoning is reminiscent of one of David’s Psalms: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7). The people humbled themselves before God, asking Him for safe passage. Ezra’s praise report has been preserved across the millennia: . . . we fasted and pleaded with our God about this, and He granted our request (Ezra 8:23).
The Word of the Lord
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found the city bustling with activity—people building homes and farming their land—but little spiritual hunger for the Lord. The Temple had been rebuilt years earlier; but little had been done to build an infrastructure of corporate worship and personal holiness into the lives of the people.
Word spread that a scribe of the Law had arrived. Assembling at the square before the Water Gate, the people asked Ezra to read from God’s Law. Ezra read from the Scriptures from daybreak until noon. Some of the leading Levites mingled among the people, explaining the righteous expectations of their holy God. Hearing these truths, the people were overcome with deep remorse for their disobedience and turned to the Lord in public displays of weeping.
The Joy of the Lord
As the people wept in repentance, Ezra and the others encouraged them to turn their tears into celebration at God’s gracious forgiveness. There is a time for sorrow and tears; but there is also time for joy at redemption and deliverance, they said (Nehemiah 8:9–11).
Among other lessons, Ezra’s story demonstrates that the Lord moves in the hearts of those who do not know Him, even pagan kings, to effect physical deliverance for His people. It also serves as a reminder that, in every generation, He raises servant leaders to proclaim spiritual redemption for, and to, His people.
For Such a Time as This
Named Hadassah (myrtle) at her birth, Esther (star), as she is more commonly known, became an orphan while still a child. Her cousin Mordecai, who held a position in the palace in Susa, a province of Persia, adopted her as his own daughter.
Through a series of events outlined in Esther 1 and 2, Esther was selected as the Persian monarch’s queen. King Ahasuerus was known to be both vicious and capricious, given to fits of rage. When he chose Esther as his queen, he did not know she was Jewish; he only knew that she was beautiful and pleased him well.
God Is in Charge
As the story of Esther unfolds, undercurrents of systemic hostility against followers of the Lord become apparent. A key feature of the book is that God is not mentioned by name or by title in any of its ten chapters. Though His Name is not used, the providence of God is woven into the fabric of every verse in this brief account.
The narrative paints the virtues of courage and integrity against a backdrop of debauchery, human cruelty, and conspiracy to exterminate the Jews. Esther’s story shines a laser-beam of light on God’s faithfulness to work His will and pleasure on behalf of His people.
No One Is Immune
Esther’s story takes place in the palace of the province of Susa. But, the consequences of the king’s chief advisor Haman’s plot against the Jews would have rippled across the empire. Jews in every province, including Judah, where the returned exiles had rebuilt the Temple and established an active center of worship, would have been targeted for Haman’s pogrom.
Esther was hesitant to approach the king to appeal for the lives of her fellow Jews. Mordecai reminded her that she, too, would be targeted for death if she failed to act. He reminded her that courage is facing the fear of uncertainty, counting the cost, and choosing to do the right thing regardless of the consequences.
Here for a Purpose
The two most well-known sentences in the book of Esther come from an exchange between Mordecai and Esther as she considered whether to ask the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves from annihilation.
Mordecai sent word to Esther, Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this (4:14). Contemplating his counsel and counting the cost, Esther sent word back for all the Jews in Susa to gather, fast, and pray for three days and nights. The closing words of her secret message to Mordecai are most poignant: After that, I will go to the king even if it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.
In every situation, God has a people. While some may cower in fear, others hear His call, recognize His voice, and respond with courage, humility, obedience, and trust.