Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying,
‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’
Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die:
‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’
Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him,
‘Get up and eat.’
He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said,
‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Step forward Jezebel, Israel’s legendary villainous queen, who makes an oath in the name of her native gods threatening Elijah’s life. He runs away in fear. Despite the tremendous faith Elijah had demonstrated at Carmel he flees to Beersheba, the most southerly town in Judah and goes into the wilderness, alone. Bizarrely he calls on Yahweh to end his life – what Jezebel was threatening – in words that imply a sense of failure and lies down to sleep.
How often is a sense of euphoria arising from a great ‘success’ followed quickly by a sense of despair? Most of us encounter something of this emotional rollercoaster in the spiritual and mundane aspects of our lives. God’s prophet is only human!
In a scene reminiscent of God’s appearance to Hagar in the same location, as she anticipated death, pointing her to life-renewing water (Gen.21), Elijah is prompted by a divine messenger to wake up and eat and drink. Food and water, the essentials for life, are provided for him. It appears that God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer is ‘No’; there is yet more work for him to do and Yahweh can still be trusted to sustain his life.
Elijah needs to be nudged, and fed, a second time before he is refreshed sufficiently to realise that God is calling him to move on from the wilderness; but note the direction of travel. Elijah doesn’t go straight back into the fray. Instead he goes further south, forty days and nights to Horeb, an alternative name for Sinai. We are reminded of another great biblical narrative, for this is where Moses met Yahweh face to face and the covenant with Israel was established (Exod.24:18; 34:27-35). At the lowest point in his life Elijah is called to follow in the footsteps of Israel’s great saviour.
Gracious God, we recognise that our faith in you ebbs and flows as we go through the journey of life. Forgive us when we forget the constancy of your faithfulness and love; and restore us by your Spirit for the work that lies ahead. Remind us, even as we falter, of your call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the saviour of the world, who leads us into life. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.
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