MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.1 Kings
A PROPHET’S STRANGE PROVIDERS
ELIJAH STANDING BEFORE THE LORD
1 Kings 17:1.
This solemn and remarkable adjuration seems to have been habitual upon Elijah’s lips in the great crises of his life. We never find it used by any but himself, and his scholar and successor, Elisha. Both of them employ it under similar circumstances, as if unveiling the very secret of their lives, the reason for their strength, and for their undaunted bearing and bold fronting of all antagonism. We find four instances in their two lives of the use of the phrase. Elijah bursts abruptly on the stage and opens his mouth for the first time to Ahab, to proclaim the coming of that terrible and protracted drought; and he bases his prophecy on that great oath, ‘As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand.’ And again, when he is sent to confront Ahab once more at the close of the period, the same mighty word comes, ‘As the Lord of Hosts liveth, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself unto him this day.’ And then again, Elisha, when he is brought before the three confederate kings, who taunt, and threaten, and flatter, to try to draw smooth things from his lips, and get his sanction to their mad warfare, turns upon the poor creature that called himself the King of Israel with a superb contempt that stayed itself on that same great name and tells him, ‘As the Lord liveth before whom I stand, were it not that I had regard for the King of Judah, I would not look toward you or see you,’ And lastly, when the grateful Naaman seeks to change the whole character of Elisha’s miracle, and to turn it into the coarseness of a thing done for reward, once again the temptation is brushed aside with that solemn word, ‘As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none.’
So at every crisis where these prophets were brought full front with hostile power; where a tremendous message was laid upon their hearts and lips to utter; where natural strength would fail; where they were likely to be daunted or dazzled by temptations, by either the sweetness or the terrors of material things, these two great heroes of the Old Covenant, out of sight the strongest men in the old Jewish history, steady themselves by one thought,-God lives, and I am His servant.
For that phrase, ‘before whom I stand,’ obviously means chiefly ‘whom I serve.’ It is found, for instance, in Deuteronomy, where the priest’s office is thus defined: ‘The sons of Levi shall stand before the Lord to minister unto Him.’ And in the same way, it is used in the Queen of Sheba’s wondering exclamation to Solomon, ‘Blessed are thy servants, and blessed are the men that stand before thy face continually.’
So that the consciousness that they were servants of the living God was the very secret of the power of these men. This expression, which thus started to their lips in moments of strain and trial, lets us see into the very inmost heart of their strength. These two great lives, which fill so large a apace in the records of the past, and will be remembered for ever, were braced and ennobled thus. The same grand thought is available to brace and ennoble our little lives, that will soon be forgotten but by a loving heart or two, and yet may be as full of God and of God’s service as those of any of the great of old. We too may use this secret of power, ‘The Lord liveth, before whom I stand.’
What thoughts then, which may tend to lift and invigorate our days, are included in these words? The first is surely this-Life a constant vision of God’s presence.
How distinct and abiding must the vision of God have been, which burned before the inward eye of the man that struck out that phrase! ‘Wherever I am, whatever I do, I am before Him. To my purged eye, there is the Apocalypse of heaven, and I behold the great throne, and the solemn ranks of ministering spirits, my fellow-servants, hearkening to the voice of His word.’ No excitement of work, no strain of effort, no distraction of circumstances, no glitter of gold, no dazzle of earthly brightness, dimmed that vision for these prophets. In some measure, it was with them as it shall be perfectly with all one day, ‘His servants serve Him, and see His face,’-action not interrupting vision, nor vision weakening action. To preserve thus fresh and unimpaired, amidst strenuous work and many temptations, the clear consciousness of being ‘ever in the great Taskmaster’s eye,’ needs resolute effort and much self-restraint. It is hard to set the Lord always before us; but it is possible, and in the measure in which we do it, we shall not be moved.
How nobly the steadfastness and superiority to all temptations which such a vision gives, are illustrated by the occasions, in these prophets’ lives, in which this expression came to their lips! The servant of the Heavenly King speaks from his present intuition. As he speaks, he sees the throne in the heavens, and the Sovereign Ruler there, and the sight bears him up from quailing before the earthly monarchs whom he had to beard, and in connection with whom three out of the four instances of the use of the phrase occur. How small Ahab and his court must have looked to eyes that were full of the undazzling brightness of the true King of Israel, and the ordered ranks of His attendants! How little the greatness! How tawdry the pomp! How impotent the power, and how toothless the threats! The poor show of the earthly king paled before that awful vision, as a dim candle will show black against the sun. ‘I stand before the living God, and thou, O Ahab! art but a shadow and a noise.’ Just as we may have looked upon some mountain scene, where all the highest summits were wrapt in mist, and the lower hills looked mighty and majestic, until some puff of wind came and rolled up the curtain that had shrined and hidden the icy pinnacles and peaks that were higher up. And as that solemn white apocalypse rose and towered to the heavens, we forgot all about the green hills below, because our eyes beheld the mighty summits that live amongst the stars, and sparkle white through eternity.
My brethren, here is our defence against being led away by the gauds and shows of earth’s vulgar attractions, or being terrified by the poor terrors of its enmity. Go with that talisman in your hand, ‘The Lord liveth, before whom I stand,’ and everything else dwindles down into nothingness, and you are a free man, master and lord of all things, because you are God’s servants, seeing all things aright, because you see them all in God, and God in them all.
Still further, we may say that this phrase is the utterance and expression of a consciousness that life was echoing with the voice of the divine command. Elijah stands before the Lord, not only feeling in his thrilling spirit that God is ever near him, but also that His word is ever coming forth to him, with imperative authority. That is the prophet’s conception of life. Wherever he is, he hears a voice saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it.’ Every place where he stands is as the very holy place of the oracles of the Most High, the spot in the innermost shrine where the voice of God is audible, All circumstances are the voice of God, commanding or restraining. He is evermore pursued, nay, rather upheld and guided, by an all-embracing law. That law is no mere utterance of cold impersonal duty,-a thought which may make men slaves, but never makes them good. But it is the voice of the living God, loving and beloved, whose tender care for His children modulates His tone, while He commands them for their good. He speaks because He loves; His law is life. The heart that hears Him speak is filled with music.
Ahab and Jehoram, and all the kings of the earth, may thunder and lighten, may threaten and flatter, may command and forbid, as they list. They and their words are nought to him whose trembling ears have heard, and whose obedient heart has received, a higher command, and to whom, ‘across the storm,’ comes the deeper voice of the one true Commander, whom alone it is a glory absolutely to obey, even ‘the Lord, before whom I stand.’ People talk about the consciousness of ‘a mission.’ The important point, on the settling of which depends the whole character of our lives, is-Who do you suppose gave you your ‘mission’? Was it any person at all? or have you any consciousness that any will but your own has anything to say about your life? These prophets had found One whom it was worth while to obey, whatever came of it, and whoever stood in the way. May it be so with you and me, my friend! Let us try always to feel that in the commonest things we may hear the command of God; that the trifles of each day-trifles though they be-vibrate and sound with the reverberation of His great voice; that in all the outward circumstances of our lives, as in all the deep recesses of our hearts, we may trace the indications and rudiments of His will concerning us, which He has perfectly given us in that Gospel which is ‘the law of liberty,’ and in Him who is the Gospel and the perfect Law. Then quietly, without bluster or mock-heroics, or making a fuss about our independence, we can put all other commands and commanders in their right place, with the old words, ‘With me it is a very small matter to be judged of you, or of man’s judgment; He that judgeth me,’ and He that commandeth me, ‘is the Lord,’ In answer to all the noise about us we can face round like Elijah, and say, ‘As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand.’ He is my ‘Imperator,’ the Autocrat and Commander of my life; and Him, and Him only, must I serve. What calmness, what dignity that would put into our lives! The never-ceasing boom of the great ocean, as it breaks on the beach, drowns all smaller sounds. Those lives are noble and great in which that deep voice is ever dominant, sounding on through all lesser voices, and day and night filling the soul with command and awe.
Then, still further, we may take another view of these words. They are the utterance of a man to whom his life was not only bright with the radiance of a divine presence, and musical with the voice of a divine command, but was also, on his part, full of conscious obedience. No man could say such a thing of himself who did not feel that he was rendering a real, earnest, though imperfect obedience to God. So, though in one view the words express a very lowly sense of absolute submission before God, in another view they make a lofty claim for the utterer. He professes that he stands before the Lord, girt for His service, watching to be guided by His eye, and ready to run when He bids. It is the same lofty sense of communion and consecration, issuing in authority over others, which Elijah’s true brother in later days, Paul the Apostle, put forth when he made known to his companions in shipwreck the will of ‘the God, whose I am, and whom I serve.’ We may well shrink from making that claim for ourselves, when we think of the poor, perfunctory service and partial consecration which our lives show. But let us rejoice that even we may venture to say, ‘Truly I am Thy servant’; if only we, like the Psalmist, rest the confession on the perfectness of what He has done for us, rather than on the imperfection of what we have done for Him; and lay, as its foundation, ‘Thou hast loosed my bonds.’ Then, though we must ever feel how poor our service, and how unprofitable ourselves, how little we deserve the honour, and how impossible that we should ever earn the least mite of wages; yet we may, in all lowliness, think of ourselves as set free that we may serve, and lift our eyes, as the eyes of a servant turn towards his master, to ‘the living Lord, before whom we stand.
Such a life is necessarily a happy life. The one misery of man is self-will, the one secret of blessedness is the conquest over our own wills. To yield them up to God is rest and peace. If we ‘stand before God,’ then that means that our wills are brought into harmony with His. And that means that the one poison drop is squeezed out of our lives, and that sweetness and joy are infused into them. For what disturbs us in this world is not ‘trouble’ but our opposition to trouble. The true source of all that frets and irritates, and wears away our lives, is not in external things, but in the resistance of our wills to the will of God expressed by external things. I suppose that we shall never here bring these wills of ours into perfect correspondence with His, any more than we shall ever, with our shaking hands and blunt pencils, draw a perfectly straight line. But if will and heart are brought even to a rude approach to parallelism with His, if we accept His voice when He takes away, and obey it when He commands, we shall be quiet and peaceful. We shall be strong and unwearied, freed from corroding cares and exhausting rebellions, which take far more out of a man than any work does. ‘Thy word was found, and I did eat it.’ When we thus take God’s command into our spirits, and feed upon it with will and understanding, it becomes, as the Psalmist found it, the ‘joy and rejoicing of our hearts.’ Elijah-like, we shall ‘go in the strength of that meat many days.’ The secret of power and of calm is-yield your will to the loving Lord, and stand ever before Him with, ‘Here am I, send me!’
We may add one more remark to these various views of the significance of this expression, to which the last instance of its use may help us. Here it is: ‘And Naaman said, I pray thee, take a blessing of thy servant. But he said, As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none.’
The thought, which made all Elisha’s life bright with the light of God’s presence, which filled his ear with the unremitting voice of a Divine Law, which swayed and bowed his will to joyful obedience, chilled and deadened his desires for all earthly rewards. ‘I am not thy servant. I am God’s servant. It is not your business to pay my wages. I cannot dishonour my Master by taking payment from thee for doing His work. I look for everything from Him, for nothing from thee.’
And is there not a broad general truth involved there, namely, that such a life as we have been describing will find its sole reward where it finds its inspiration and its law? The Master’s approval is the servant’s best wages. If we truly feel that ‘the Lord liveth, before whom we stand, ‘we shall want nothing else for our work but His smile, and we shall feel that the light of His face is all that we need. That thought should deaden our love for outward things. How little we need to care about any payment that the world can give for anything we do! If we feel, as we ought, that we are God’s servants, that will lift us clear above the low aims and desires which meet us. How little we shall care for money, for men’s praise, for getting on in the world! How the things that we fever our souls by pursuing, and fret our hearts when we lose, will cease to attract! How small and vulgar the ‘prizes’ of life, as people call them, will appear! ‘The Lord liveth, before whom I stand,’ should be enough for us, and instead of all these motives to action drawn from the rewards of this world, we ought to ‘labour that, whether present or absent, we may be well-pleasing to Him.’
Not the fading leaves of the victor’s wreath, laurel though they be, nor the corruptible things as silver and gold, whereof earth’s diadems and rewards are fashioned, but the incorruptible crown that fadeth not away, which His hand will give, should fire our hope, and shine before our faith. Not Naaman’s gifts but God’s approval is Elisha’s reward. Not the praise from lips that will perish, or the ‘hollow wraith of dying fame,’ but Christ’s ‘Well done! good and faithful servant,’ should be a Christian’s aim.
May we, brethren, possess the ‘spirit and the power of Elias’;-the spirit, in that we know ourselves to be the servants of the living God; and then we shall have some measure of his dauntless power and heroic unworldliness!
Still better, may we have the Spirit of Him who was ‘the Servant of the Lord,’ diviner in His gentle meekness than the fiery prophet in his lonely strength! Make yours the mind that was in Christ, that you too may say, ‘Lo, I come! in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do Thy will, yea, Thy law is within my heart.’
And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying,1 Kings
A PROPHET’S STRANGE PROVIDERS
1 Kings 17:1 - 1 Kings 17:16.
The worst times need the best men. The reign of Ahab brought a great outburst of Baal worship, imported by his Phoenician wife, which threatened to sweep away every trace of the worship of Jehovah. The feeble king was absolutely ruled by the strongwilled Jezebel, and everything seemed rushing down to ruin. One man arrests the downward movement, and with no weapon but his word, and no support but his own dauntless courage, which was the child of his faith, works a revolution in Israel. ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than’ Elijah the Tishbite. Bugged, stern, solitary, he has no commission to reveal new truth. He is not a ‘prophet,’ like later ones whose words were revelation.
Little is preserved of his sayings. His task was to reform and restore, not to advance; and his endowments of ‘spirit and power’ corresponded to his work. The striking peculiarities of this heroic figure will appear as we go on with his history. For the present, we have to consider the three points of this narrative.
I. The Prophet and the King.-The startling suddenness of Elijah’s leap into the arena, where he appears without preface or explanation, helps the impression of extraordinary force which his whole career makes. He crashes into the midst of Ahab’s court like a thunderbolt. What did Jezebel think of this wild man from the other side of Jordan, with his long hair and his loose mantle, who thus fronted Ahab and her? Nothing is told us of his descent; it is even questionable whether the reading which calls him ‘the Tishbite’ is correct. We only know that he was of Gilead, and therefore used to a ruder, freer, simpler life than that in kings’ palaces.
The natural conclusion from the narrative is that the prophet and the king had never met before; and, if so, the stern brevity of the threat is even more remarkable. In any case, the absence of explanation of reasons for the drought, or of credentials of Elijah, or of offers of mercy on condition of repentance, give a peculiarly grim aspect to the message, and make it a dangerous one to carry to such a hearer as Ahab, stirred up by Jezebel. When God commands us to speak, no thought of peril must make us dumb. If the ‘word of the Lord’ is to sound from our lips with power, it must first have absolute sway over ourselves. One man with God at his back, who fears nothing, can work marvels.
God’s servant is men’s master. The vision of God’s Presence paled the splendour, and blunted the perils, of the court of Samaria. Ahab was but a poor puppet in the sight of eyes that ‘saw the Lord sitting on His throne, high and lifted up.’ So the very first words of Elijah lay bare the secret spring of his fiery energy and courage. ‘Before whom I stand,’-that is the thought to put nerve, daring, and disregard of earth into a man.
James’s comment on this incident assumes that the declaration to Ahab followed earnest prayer that it might not rain, and that the ‘word’ which should end the drought was also prayer. The truest lover of his country or of any men may sometimes have to wish for losses and sorrows. Elijah did not open and shut the heavens, but his prayer had power to move the Hand that ‘openeth and no man shutteth.’
II. The Prophet and the Ravens.-One would like to know how Elijah made his escape from Ahab; but the whole story is marked by sudden appearances and disappearances. He flashes into sight and flames for a moment, and then is swallowed up in the dark again. The exact position of the brook Cherith is doubtful. It would seem most natural to look for it across Jordan, as safer and more familiar ground to Elijah than any of the tributaries on the western side. At all events, somewhere among the savage rocks in some wady with a trickle of water down it, and rank vegetation that would help to hide him, he lurked for an indefinite period, alone with God.
Why did he flee? Not only for safety, but that the period of the drought might be prolonged till it had done its work, and that the prophet might learn more lessons for his calling. Good Obadiah would have made a place for the chief of the prophets in his caves; but the man who is to do work like Elijah’s must live in solitude. Cherith was part of the training for Carmel. The flight thither was as much an act of obedient faith as was the appearance before the king. However the necessity of flight was impressed on the prophet, it was impressed on him as manifestly not his own plan, but God’s command; and though the journey was a weary one, and the appointed place of refuge inhospitable, the command was unhesitatingly obeyed. He was not left to wonder how he was to be fed when he got there, but God gave him, what He seldom gives-a previous assurance of miraculous provision, which obviously met some unspoken thought. We do not usually know how we are to be fed in the solitude till we get there; but if our doubting hearts object, ‘But, Lord, there is nothing at Cherith but a brook and some ravens,’ He sometimes gives us assurance that these will be enough. Whether or no, the duty is the same,-to follow God’s voice, whether it take us face to face with Ahab and Jezebel or into the wild gorge.
Note that the same words are employed about the ravens and the widow: ‘I have commanded the. . . to feed thee.’ God has ways of reaching the mysterious animal instinct and the mysterious human will, and each, in its own way, obeys. It is needless to try to pare down the miracle by saying that, of course, ravens would haunt the water-courses in drought, and that the food which they brought might be for their young, and so on. The daily regularity of the supply takes it out of the natural category, to say nothing of the remarkable breed which the ravens must have been of, if they brought their young ones’ food within reach and let the prophet take it.
People take offence at the abundance of miracles in the lives of Elijah and Elisha, and assert that some of them, this among the rest, are for unworthily trivial occasions. But the grave crisis in Israel is to be taken into account, which involved the necessity for unusual manifestations of divine power, and very evident credentials for the prophets; and the preparation of Elijah for his tremendous struggle was, even to our eyes, surely an adequate end for miracle. How could he doubt that God had sent him and would care for him, with such memories as those of his winged purveyors? How could he doubt future words which should come to him, when he recalled how marvellously this one had been fulfilled? The silence of the ravine, the long days and nights of solitude, the punctual arrival of his food, would all tend to weld his faith into yet more close-knit strength. If we may so say, it was worth God’s while to work miracles, to make Elijah. The highest end of creation is the production of God-fearing men. All things serve the soul that serves God.
III. The Prophet and the Widow.-The little stream that came down the wady dried up ‘after a while’; and Elijah, no doubt, would wonder what was to be done next, as he saw it daily sending a thinner thread to Jordan. But he was not told till the channel was dry, and the pebbles in its bed bleaching in the sun. God makes us sometimes wait on beside a diminishing rivulet, and keeps us ignorant of the next step, till it is dry. Patience is an element in strength. It was a far cry from Cherith to Zarephath, right across the kingdom of Ahab; and to run for refuge to a dependency of Zidon, Jezebel’s country, looked like putting his head in the lion’s mouth. But the same ‘command’ which the ravens had obeyed had smoothed his way.
So he girded up his loins, and left, no doubt reluctantly, the brook for a city. How his heart would bow in adoring thankfulness, when the first person he saw outside the little ‘city’ was ‘the widow’! He knew her; did she know him? The natural interpretation of 1 Kings 17:9 is that, at the time when God spoke to Elijah, he had already ‘commanded’ the woman. But the despondent tone of her answer seems against that idea; and perhaps we are to suppose that, just as the ravens were commanded and knew not by whom, so this woman received the command, when she saw the travel-stained and gaunt stranger, through her womanly impulses of compassion, not knowing who moved them nor what she did when she sheltered the man whose life was, at that moment, the most important in the world. The motions of pity and charity are of God, and He commands us to help when He sets before us those who need help.
The whole incident was a lesson to the prophet. He might well have thought that God had sent him to a strange helper in this poor widow with her empty cupboard; and it must have taken some faith on his part to reassure her with his cheery ‘Fear not!’ The prediction of the undiminishing stores demanded as much faith from its speaker as from its hearer.
It was a lesson in faith for the woman too. Her use of the phrase ‘the Lord thy God’ may imply some inclination to the worship of Jehovah, and so there may have been a little glimmer of faith in her; but she was full of sorrow and despair, and yet willing to help the stranger with the ‘little water in a vessel,’ though the ‘morsel of bread in thine hand’ was beyond her power. Elijah’s apparently selfish demand that his wants should be looked after first was a test of her faith. Sometimes self-denying duty is made clearly imperative on us, before we hear the promise which, believed, will make it easy. They who have ears to hear the command, and hearts to obey, even if it seem to strip them of all, will soon hear the assurance that secures abundance. The barrel would have been empty by nightfall, if the meal in it had been used for the woman and her son. The continuance of supply depended on her obedience, which, in its turn, depended on faith in the prophet as a messenger of God. ‘There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth.’ The use of earthly goods for God’s service may not be rewarded with the increase of them; but, if the barrel is not kept full of meal, the heart will be kept full of peace, which is better. No sacrifice for God is ever thrown away. He remains in no man’s debt.
The incident has a further bearing, as an instance of a divine benediction resting on heathendom. The synagogue at Nazareth pointed that lesson for us. Elijah and the widow both learned that the God of Israel is the God of all the earth, and that His prophets have a mission to every race. The woman rebuked, by her pity and self-denying benevolence, the prejudices of Israel; the prophet foreshadowed, by his familiar abode with one won from idolatry to the worship of God, the universal aspect of the Jewish religion, and its destiny to overleap the narrow bounds of the nation. Charity and pity have no geographical limits. Much less can the love of God and the light of His revelation be bounded by any narrower circle than the circumference of the world.