Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.(1, 2) There is a certain grandeur of fearlessness and ruthlessness in the message of Jezebel, which marks her character throughout, and places it in striking contrast with the vacillating impressibility of Ahab, whom she treats with natural scorn. (See 21:7.) Ahab, as before, remains passive; he has no courage, perhaps no wish, to attack Elijah, before whom he had quailed; but he cares not, or dares not, to restrain Jezebel. She disdains to strike secretly and without warning: in fact, her message seems intended to give the opportunity for a flight, which might degrade Elijah in the eyes of the people. We note that the prophet (see 1Kings 18:46) had not ventured to enter Jezreel till he should know how his deadly foe would receive the news of the great day at Carmel.
And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there.(3) He arose, and went for his life.—The sudden reaction of disappointment and despondency, strange as it seems to superficial observation, is eminently characteristic of an impulsive and vehement nature. His blow had been struck, as he thought, triumphantly. Now the power of cool unrelenting antagonism makes itself felt, unshaken and only embittered by all that had passed. On Ahab and the people he knows that he cannot rely; so once more he flees for his life.
Beer-sheba. (See Genesis 21:14; Genesis 21:33; Genesis 22:19; Genesis 28:10; Genesis 46:1, &c.)—This frontier town of Palestine to the south is little mentioned after the patriarchal time. The note that “it belonged to Judah” is, perhaps, significant. Judah was now in half-dependent alliance with Israel; even under Jehoshaphat, Elijah might not be safe there, though his servant—traditionally the son of the widow of Zarephath—might stay without danger.
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.(4) Juniper tree.—A sort of broom, found abundantly in the desert. It has been noted that its roots were much prized for charcoal, the “coal” of 1Kings 19:6.
I am not better than my fathers.—The exclamation is characteristic. Evidently he had hoped that he himself was “better than his fathers” as a servant of God—singled out beyond all those that went before him, to be the victorious champion of a great crisis, “he, and he alone” (1Kings 18:22; 1Kings 19:10-14). Now he thinks his hope vain, and sees no reason why he should succeed when all who went before have failed. Why, he asks, should he live when the rest of the prophets have died?
And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat.(5)An angel touched him.—The word may signify simply “a messenger,” human or super-human; but the context suggests a miraculous ministration of some unearthly food. It is notable that, except as ministers of God in the physical sphere (as in 2Samuel 24:16-17; 2Kings 19:35), the angels, whose appearances are so often recorded in earlier days, hardly appear during the prophetic period, as though the place of their spiritual ministry, as messengers of God, to the people had been supplied by the prophetic mission. Here, and in 2Kings 6:17, the angel is but auxiliary to the prophet, simply ministering to him in time of danger and distress, as the angel of the Agony to the Prophet of prophets.
And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.(6) And laid him down.—There is a pathetic touch in the description of the prophet, wearied and disheartened, as caring not to eat sufficiently, and glad, after a morsel eaten, to forget himself again in sleep.
And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.(8) Forty days and forty nights.—Unless this time includes, as has been supposed by some, the whole journey to and from Horeb, and the sojourn there, it is far in excess of what would be recorded for a journey of some two hundred miles. It may, therefore, be thought to imply an interval of retirement for rest and solitary meditation, like the sojourn of Moses in Horeb, and the sojourn of our Lord in the wilderness (Exodus 24:18; Matthew 4:2) during which the spirit of the prophet might be calmed from the alternations of triumph and despondency, to receive the spiritual lesson which awaited him. During all that time he went “in the strength” of the Divine food, that he might know that “man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?(9) A cave.—This is properly, “the cave”—perhaps a reference to some cave already well known, as connected with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, or perhaps only an anticipatory reference to the cave which Elijah’s sojourn was to make famous.
The word of the Lord came to him.—The connection suggests that this message came to him in vision or dream at night. The LXX. implies this distinctly by inserting in 1Kings 19:11 the word “to-morrow,” which is also found in the rather vague and prosaic paraphrase of the passage in Josephus. What Elijah replies in imagination in the vision, he repeats next day in actual words.
And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.(10) And he said.—The reply to the implied reproof is one of impatient self-exculpation and even remonstrance. He himself (it says) had been very jealous for the Lord; yet the Lord had not been jealous for Himself, suffering this open rebellion of the people, the slaughter of His prophets, the persecution to death of the one solitary champion left. What use is there in further striving, if he is left unsupported and alone? The complaint is like that of Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1), “O that thou wouldest rend the heavens and come down!” The zeal for God’s glory, as imperilled by His long-suffering, is like that of Jonah (Jonah 4:1-3); the impatience of the mysterious permission of evil, like that rebuked in the celebrated story of Abraham and the Fire-worshipper. In the Elias of the New Testament there is something of the same despondent impatience shown in the message from prison to our Lord: “Art Thou He that should come, or look we for another?”
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:(11) And, behold.—In the LXX., the whole of this verse, couched in the future, is made part of the “word of the Lord.” But our version is probably correct.
The whole of the vision, which is left to speak for itself, without any explanation or even allusion in the subsequent message to Elijah, is best understood by comparison with two former manifestations at Horeb, to the people and to Moses (Exodus 19:16-18; Exodus 34:5-8). To the people the Lord had then, been manifested in the signs of visible power, the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire—first, because these were the natural clothing of the terrors of the Law, which is the will of God visibly enforced; next, because for such visible manifestations of God, and perhaps for these alone, the hearts of Israel were then prepared. To Moses, in answer to his craving for the impossible vision of the glory of the Lord face to face, the manifestation granted was not of the Divine majesty, but of the “Name of the Lord,” “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth;” for this higher conception of the majesty of God, as shown in righteousness and mercy, Moses, as being the greatest of prophets, could well understand. The vision of Elijah stands out in contrast with the one and in harmony with the other. It disclaims the visible manifestation in power and vengeance, for which he had by implication craved; it implies in “the still small voice”—“the voice (as the LXX. has it) of a light breath”—a manifestation like that expressed plainly to Moses, of the higher power of the Spirit, penetrating to the inmost soul, which the terrors of external power cannot reach. The lesson is simply, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The prophet so far reads it that he acknowledges, by veiled face of reverence, the presence of the Lord in “the still small voice,” yet, with singular truth to nature, he is recorded as repeating, perhaps mechanically, his old complaint.
And the LORD said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria:(15) Go, return.—The charge conveys indirectly a double rebuke. His cry of disappointment, “Lord . . . I am not better than my fathers,” implying that he stood out beyond all others, to meet the stern requirements of the time, is met by the charge to delegate the task of vengeance for God to others; the complaint, “I, even I alone, am left,” by the revelation of the faithful remnant—the seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal—unknown to him, perhaps to one another, but known and loved by God.
And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room.(16) And Jehu.—Of this charge Elijah fulfilled in person but one part, in the call of Elisha: for the fulfilment of the other two parts, see 2Kings 8:8-13; 2Kings 9:1-6. This apparently imperfect correspondence of the event to the charge, is a strong indication of the historical character of the narrative.
The history, indeed, records no actual anointing of Elisha; and it is remarkable that in no other place is any such anointing of a prophet referred to, unless Psalm 105:15 be an exception. The anointing, signifying the gift of grace, was first instituted for the priests (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 3:3); next it was extended to the royal office, and became, in common parlance, especially attached to it. The prophetic office, as the third great representative of the power of Jehovah, might well be hallowed by the same ordinance, especially as the prophets dispensed it to the kings; but, whether the prophets were always consecrated with the sacred oil, or whether, as in the Prophet of prophets, the “anointing with the Holy Ghost and with power” sometimes superseded the outward sign, we do not know. Abelmeholah (“the meadow of the dance,” see 1Kings 4:12) lay in the rich country near the Jordan valley and the plain of Esdraelon; it was therefore on Elijah’s way.
And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay.(17) Him that escapeth the sword of Hazael.—The vengeance wrought by Hazael and Jehu on the faithlessness of Israel speaks for itself; it is marked in bloody letters on the history (2 Kings 10). But Elisha’s mission was obviously not one of such vengeance. He had to destroy enmity, but not to slay the enemies of God. The difficulty, such as it is, is one of the many marks of historic accuracy in the whole passage. Probably Elisha’s mission is here described in the terms in which Elijah would best understand it. His spirit was for war; he could hardly have conceived how the completion of his mission was to be wrought out by the weapons of peace in the hand of his successor. (Comp. 2Corinthians 10:3-6.)
Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.(18) I have left.—It should be “I leave, or “will leave,” through all this vengeance, the seven thousand faithful; like the faithful remnant sealed in the visions of Ezekiel and St. John in the day of God’s judgment (Ezekiel 9:4-6; Revelation 7:3-8).
Kissed him.—(See Job 31:26-27; Hosea 13:2.) The passage is vividly descriptive of the worshipper on the first approach bowing the knee, on nearer access kissing the image, or the altar, or the threshold of the temple.
So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth: and Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle upon him.(19) Twelve yoke of oxen, or (as Ewald renders it) of land, indicate some wealth in Elisha’s family, which he has to leave to follow the wandering life of Elijah. The character and mission of Elisha will appear hereafter: but the contrast between the prophets is marked in the difference of their home and origin; even the quiet simplicity of Elisha’s call stands contrasted with the sudden, mysterious appearance of Elijah.
Cast his mantle—i.e., the rough hair-mantle characteristic of the ascetic recluse. The act is said to have been a part of the form of adoption of a child; hence its spiritual significance here, which, after a moment’s bewilderment, Elisha seems to read.
And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee. And he said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee?(20) Let me, I pray thee.—It is impossible not to compare this with the similar request made to our Lord (Luke 9:61-62) by one who declared readiness to follow Him. The comparison suggests that the answer of Elijah is one of half-ironical rebuke of what seemed hesitation—“Go back, if thou wilt; what have I done to constrain thee?” In both cases we have the stern but necessary rejection of half-hearted service, even if the heart be distracted by the most natural and sacred love. But Elijah sees that Elisha means simply farewell, and he apparently waits till it is over.
And he returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat. Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him.(21) And he returned.—Like Matthew in Luke 9:27-29, Elisha, probably after sacrifice, makes a feast of farewell to his home, and of homage to his new master. The hasty preparation is made by the use of the wooden implements for fuel, as in the sacrifice at the threshing-floor of Araunah (2Samuel 24:22). Henceforth from a master he became a servant, ministering to Elijah, and willing to be known, even when he became himself the prophet of God, as “he that poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2Kings 3:11).