There is a bright Elijah thread that weaves through the Bible. The book of Sirach names him as one of God’s greatest proclaimers and prophets.
Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
and his word burned like a torch.
He brought a famine upon them,
and by his zeal he made them few in number.
By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
and also three times brought down fire.
How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours? (48:1-4)
It is the Old Testament book of Kings that continues Israel’s story of the lineage of David and Solomon. By Elijah’s time, the story has become a sad history of rebellion and civil war and David’s united kingdom was broken into two separate nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.
In 1 Kings 16, the storyteller says: “Now Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. And Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him.” Ahab was breaking bad and his queen Jezebel may have been even worse. Elijah was the prophet God sent to stand against them and challenge their wickedness. It was a thankless job and Ahab disdained Elijah as the “troubler of Israel.”
Usually Elijah’s courage was remarkable.
For example there was the time when Elijah confronted King Ahab with the news of a coming famine, a drought pronounced as punishment for the evil doings of the faithless king (1 Kings 17).
(It was during this drought that Elijah lived with a widow from Zarephath and shared a relationship where they ended up saving each other. Prophets very often find themselves comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.)
And there was the time when Jezebel had their neighbor Naboth murdered so that she could take over is vineyard and present it to Ahab as a gift. Elijah railed against such injustice (1 Kings 21).
And there was the time when Elijah orchestrated a battle of the gods on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). “Let’s see whose god will send fire from heaven and accept our sacrifices,” he challenged the perverse priests of Ba-al. Of course, the stone god didn’t answer. (“Maybe he’s asleep; maybe he’s away on a trip,” Elijah chided.) So when the Lord God sent fire consume the offering, to lick the water and burn the stones to cinder, the false prophets were humiliated and killed. This is where Jezebel went over the top in her rage and she swore to have Elijah murdered.
And this is where we find this fascinating little Elijah story from 1 Kings 19:
The angel of the LORD came to Elijah 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 forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Although Elijah’s remarkable courage earned him a place of honor among God’s prophets, even the greatest of God’s leaders often find themselves discouraged, disillusioned and disheartened. How many of us modern day ministers and “prophets” have whined to God: “I’m the only one…” Sometimes it can feel like that! Many of God’s people have taken great comfort in this little story across the ages.
When Elijah escaped to the cave on the top of Mt Horeb, he stood in the tradition of Moses. Tradition has it that Sinai and Horeb were the same mysterious mountain – a numinous place of intersection between heaven and earth; a thin place.
When Moses was on the mountain, he heard the voice of God in fire and cloud, in rumblings and thunderings and quakings. But when Elijah met God on the mountain, this time God was in the silence.
Again Sirach‘s testimony to the amazing ministry of Elijah sees his work continuing far into the future of God’s people:
At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
The New Testament theologians read and re-read their holy Scriptures and interpreted the meaning of characters like Elijah based on their encounter with the Risen Christ.
The bright Elijah thread continues to weave through all four gospels.
In the three synoptic gospels, John the Baptist was the one who continued the ministry and stood in the tradition of Elijah. Luke tells of the angel Gabriel announcing John’s birth to his father Zechariah.
Luke 1: “With the spirit and power of Elijah [John] will go before [Messiah] … Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The three synoptics also place Elijah and John within the decisive conversation of the meaning of Jesus:
Matthew 16: Jesus…asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah… and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In Luke’s famous scene of Jesus preaching in Nazareth, his commissioning sermon as he began his ministry, he observed that prophets are rarely welcome in their hometowns, and he really riled some folks by reminding them that, when Elijah needed retreat and safety, he couldn’t find it in Israel; rather it was with a foreigner, it was with this widow from Zarephath in Sidon that Elijah found welcome.
Luke 4: Jesus said, “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was a severe famine over the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon…” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage…
All three synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration – a pivotal event. The Old Testament way of telling the story of Moses and then Elijah on the mountaintop gives us insight about the mysterious mountain in the New Testament where Moses and Elijah met Jesus in his transfiguration. The mount of transfiguration is not so much geographical as it is theological. If Elijah stood in the tradition of Moses, Jesus the Christ not only stood in the tradition of both great prophets, he surpassed both of them.
Six days later, Jesus… led them up a high mountain; he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white … And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9; see also Matthew 17 and Luke 9).
After the Transfiguration, both Mark and Matthew make this reference to the Elijah/John connection:
Mark 9: The disciples asked Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”
The gospel of John re-reads the Elijah story a bit differently in light of the Christ event:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1)
While Christian theology from the New Testament on has interpreted the ministry of John the Baptizer as the “Elijah” who prepared the way for Jesus the Messiah, our Jewish cousins still wait for Sirach’s promise. During every Seder meal, they set a place at the table for Elijah and leave the door open so that, at the appointed time that Elijah will, once again, “calm the wrath of God and … turn the hearts of parents to their children and restore the tribes of Jacob.”
Transfiguration icon by Theophanes the Greek, 15th century