After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying,
‘Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.’
So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the Lord greatly; when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.) Then Ahab said to Obadiah,
‘Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.’
So they divided the land between them to pass through it; Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
As Obadiah was on the way, Elijah met him; Obadiah recognized him, fell on his face, and said,
‘Is it you, my lord Elijah?’
He answered him,
‘It is I. Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.’
And he said,
‘How have I sinned, that you would hand your servant over to Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom to which my lord has not sent to seek you; and when they would say, “He is not here”, he would require an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. But now you say, “Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.” As soon as I have gone from you, the spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where; so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have revered the Lord from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water? Yet now you say, “Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here”; he will surely kill me.’
‘As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.’
So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him,
‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’
‘I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’
A confrontation between Elijah and Ahab, between Yahweh’s faithful prophets and the prophets of Baal, is being set up, to determine where power ultimately resides. Yahweh has decided to act and will send rain; but only when the false gods have been revealed as powerless.
In this passage we learn that Ahab has been searching high and low for Elijah, while Jezebel has been killing as many faithful prophets as she could lay her hands on. Instead of focusing on the needs of their suffering people in a time of drought, they have been trying to secure their own power base.
Meanwhile God has been keeping Elijah safe – and on the move – and another ‘servant of Yahweh’ (the meaning of Obadiah) has been thwarting Jezebel’s efforts alongside the fulfilment of his responsibilities to Ahab.
Obadiah’s faith has already led him to take many risks but when Elijah suddenly appears and tells him to go and announce his presence to Ahab, Obadiah’s courage fails. He fears that Ahab will kill him as a scapegoat if Elijah again eludes capture; but Elijah reassures him, on oath, that he won’t flee and that he intends to meet with Ahab.
Obadiah does what is asked; and we hear no more about him. He has played his part in God’s purposes. When they meet Ahab accuses Elijah of being the cause of Israel’s suffering (remember it was Elijah who proclaimed the drought). Elijah rebuts the accusation; and instead lays the blame on Ahab and the faithless policies of his royal dynasty.
The presenting problems may be drought, poor harvests and famine; but Elijah proclaims God’s judgment on corrupt leaders and false religion. A failure to discern the underlying cause of a problem renders any human solution inadequate. God’s wisdom and God’s ways lead to lasting resolutions.
Living God, we praise you for people like Obadiah who live and work in hostile environments yet serve you faithfully in courageous ways.
Deepen our faith and grant us wisdom to discern the real issues that challenge your authority in the world today. May we have the courage and grace to speak your truth to those who offer simplistic solutions and false hopes in response to human need. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.