When the wind passed it was shocking. When the earthquake passed it was deflating. But when the fire passed—that’s when it was all together dreadful. God speaks from the fire. If Elijah knew anything, it was that God speaks from the fire!
Flashback: Encouraged by their evil monarch Ahab, and his deplorable wife Jezebel, the people of Israel became ardent worshippers of Baal and Baal’s consort Asherah. Amongst the so called people of God were found prophets of Baal and Asherah, hundreds of them. They were in competition with the prophets of Yahweh. Jezebel supported the prophets of the false gods, so she spent a good deal of her time hunting down the prophets of Yahweh and killing them. Elijah was the grand prize. If she could only find him and watch his life blood drain from his body she would be satisfied. The royal house had pulled out all the stops to find him. The very best of the royal house’s secret service were working round the clock. They had combed every town of the northern kingdom of Israel—no Elijah. They had gone to the nations around them and demanded to know if Elijah was there taking refuge—still no Elijah. When a nation reported that they had not seen Elijah, the royal house of Israel insisted they give an oath that said as much. The prophet of God was the number one enemy of the state.
So how did Elijah manage to elude the feds? Easy enough, he just relied on God’s Spirit which had an uncanny ability to transport the prophet undetected from one spot to another. If the prophet needed food, no big deal, God prompted the ravens to bring him food, or supplied a poor widow with enough meal in her jar to bake cakes for him and her family for weeks. If the prophet needed water God found the only wadi in the drought ravaged land sill running and plopped old Elijah right on its banks. These were the glory days; it was good to be the prophet of God.
It all culminated in one fantastic show down on the top of Mount Carmel. The drought had come as a result of the people’s infidelity to Yahweh and their worship of false Gods. God was about to lift the drought, but it was important for the people to know that it was God, not Baal who brought the drought to the end. So God sent Elijah to his old enemy Ahab in order to make a statement. It was time to climb the mountain.
“Have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” the prophet instructed. One wonders why Ahab didn’t kill him on the spot. Perhaps he liked the idea—Elijah vs. all the prophets of the false gods. A show down—nine hundred and fifty to one—these are the kind of odds God likes when it is time to prove a point. When the people assembled, along with the prophets of the false gods, Elijah wasted no words in addressing the Israelites, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him…[prepare a sacrifice]…then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”
“The god who answers by fire is indeed God.” I wonder if those words were remembered by Elijah, as he sat shivering in a cave waiting for God to pass by. First came the wind—no God. Second came the earthquake—no God. Third came the fire. God will be in the fire. God is always in the fire.
As the story goes the prophets of Baal called upon the name of their god and there was no answer. From morning until noon they cried out. They limped around the altar, they cut themselves with swords and lances until blood gushed out over them. There was nothing. In the words of 1 Kings, “…there was no voice, no answer, no response.”
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He built an altar to the Lord with twelve stones. Twelve stones—one for each tribe. He cut the wood. He slaughtered the bull. He dug a trench around the altar. And then he began pouring barrels of water on top of the offering—soaking the meat, soaking the wood, soaking the stones, filling up the trench. It was all so grand, there was so much showmanship, it was over the top, it was sensational, the crowd murmured and whispered, the prophet of God was having fun.
“O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel…answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And BAM! A fire ball fell from the sky, and the soaked meat was consumed, and the dripping wood was consumed, and the drenched rocks were consumed, and the water in the trench was consumed. And the people hit the ground, and lay prostrate with their faces in the dirt, and the heat singed the hairs on their neck, and they cowered before the Almighty, and they all said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.” Why? Because God spoke from the fire.
God spoke from the fire. These were the glory days; it was good to be the prophet of God. Elijah feeling the excitement from his triumph chased down the prophets of Baal and slaughtered them. Four hundred lay dead in the Wadi Kishon. And the drought ended, and the rain came, and the water rose and washed the false prophets away. All because God spoke from the fire.
God spoke from the fire at the end of Elijah’s career as well. It was the day Elijah successfully passed his mantle onto Elisha his young apprentice. The two were walking and talking and a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Young Elisha couldn’t believe his eyes; he just kept screaming, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”
And yet here Elijah was, after Mount Carmel, and before the chariots of fire, not at the beginning and not at the end, but right in the middle—the big middle—all huddled up and scared. And the fire came, and God was not in the fire. How did Elijah find himself there?
After the ordeal at Carmel “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.” Wouldn’t she be impressed! Not really. She was horrified. And she sent messengers to Elijah with these words, “So may the gods do to me [what you did to the prophets of Baal], and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
Elijah was threatened before—his whole prophetic career up to this point was spent on the run. But this time something was different. Perhaps he thought Carmel was it, that the battle was over. And now he realized that the battle had just begun. Perhaps he thought Carmel would convince them all. Hadn’t he put on a great show? Didn’t the water seal the deal? Wasn’t the fire ball spectacular? God spoke from the fire! Surely even Jezebel would have heard God speak from the fire. But she hadn’t. And all of the sudden the glory days were over; it was no longer good to be the prophet of God.
A great fear seized Elijah. He trembled. He ran away, and left his servants behind. He found a lonely place in the wilderness, and he became suicidal, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He sat there, refusing to care for himself. An angel was sent to force feed him and keep him alive. And finally that same angel brought Elijah to the mountain of the LORD’s presence, and Elijah took up residence in the cave.
God comes to Elijah in the cave and asks him a question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah is so quick, and so exact in his response, you surmise he was anticipating the question. “You want to know what I am doing here? I’ll tell you what I am doing here!” And then Elijah spelled it out, “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 complaint is heard by God, and God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” What did Elijah think? Were the glory days about to come back? In a moment would it be good to be God’s prophet again? And the wind came, and God was not in the wind. And the earthquake came, and God was not in the earthquake. And the fire came…
Why was God not in the fire? God was in the fire in the beginning and in the end, but why was God not in the fire in the middle—the big middle? People get lost in the big middle. People lose heart. People separate themselves, and crawl into the wilderness, and hope to die. People stop taking care of themselves. The big middle is no joke. This work is long suffering. Elijah’s in a cave God!
And the fire came…but God was not in the fire.
The fire was followed by silence. For years we believed a poor translation. Elijah never heard a ‘still small voice.’ What came was sheer silence, the complete absence of sound. And when God was not in the wind, and not in the quake, and not in the fire, and when the silence came, Elijah walked out of the cave, and was met with the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And a tragic thing happens. Elijah responds with the same complaint, “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 great and powerful champion of Carmel gave the same complaint. The wind came. The quake came. The fire came. It made no difference. Elijah was lost. The big middle gobbled him up.
And it’s then that God says “I need someone else.” And he tells Elijah to find a young man named Elisha and to anoint him a prophet in Elijah’s place.
I’m not sure God wasn’t in the fire. I’m not sure he wasn’t in the quake, or the wind. God said he would pass by. I don’t think Elijah could hear God in the fire, the quake, or the wind—not anymore. The big middle had got him. He was all washed up. Maybe he had too much blood on his hands from the prophets of Baal. Maybe he spent too much time as the number one enemy of the state. Maybe he was too lonely.
Whatever it was, he was bitter because of it. Prophetic work can a make a person bitter. It starts great, and we’re promised an end that is worth it. But the middle—the big middle—well, that’s where things get real hard.
Elijah meets Elisha in a field as Elisha is plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. Twelve oxen—one ox for every tribe. Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha. Elisha responds, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” The old prophet, lost in the big middle, says, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” Later, on the day Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind with chariots of fire, Elijah asks Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken away from you.” Elisha responds, “Please, let me inherit a double measure of your spirit.” Elijah ominously replies, “You have asked a hard thing.”
Here’s the truth. You will not always see God in the fire. When you need him most, at a time of great uncertainty, God will be missing. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Life, especially prophetic life, has a big middle. I don’t know how to save you from it. I can’t. And I, myself, am not immune. God will come to you then, and will ask you, “Why are you here?” And you will have nothing but complaint. It is okay. God knows. I think he knows. The wind, the quake, and the fire are there. And so is the silence. And there is always the one that comes after you, in case you get lost. So where is the comfort? It is here: the middle is the middle. It is not the beginning, and it is not the end. Here is what you should know about the middle, and do not forget it, on either side is God speaking from the fire, and there was a before, and there will be an after. The chariots of fire await—the horsemen of Israel were legendary creatures that traveled to the far corners of the earth. And they can find you, and in the end, they can bring you home.